Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Faithful Endurance – 175 Years of CECBG

As far as I can tell, there is nothing still in existence that tells us exactly when Christ Episcopal Church was organized.  What we do know, is that in the Diocesan Journal of 1843, there is no mention whatsoever of a church in Warren County.  In May of 1844, the Reverend George Beckett reported that he had served as a missionary at Bowling Green for six months.  This would set his arrival here around November of 1843, but no formal congregation had been organized.  In the Journal of 1845, the Reverend C. C. Townsend informed the convention that a building had been built, an organ was ordered, and Sunday School had 40 students and 6 teachers.  There was also an ongoing ministry to the enslaved population that was producing “encouraging results.”[1]  Still, there are no dates.  So, it was up to those of us planning the festivities for our 175th anniversary to pick a weekend to celebrate.

As we looked at the calendar, trying to decide what weekend worked best for us to commemorate the 175th anniversary of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, the one thing we obviously didn’t pay attention to was the Lectionary.  There’s no way we would have purposefully picked a weekend where the Gospel begins, “When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”  Leave it to Jesus to be a bit of a buzzkill on this weekend set aside for joy and thanksgiving.  Of course, it is ultimately my fault for not remembering that late Pentecost is where the Lectionary dives deep into Holy Week.  This lesson takes place on Monday or Tuesday of the last week of Jesus’ life.  He has flipped the tables of the money changers, had his authority questioned, and taught lessons that were purposefully at odds with the religious powers-that-be.  By this point, there was no chance that things were going to end well for Jesus.  This teachable moment was an opportunity for Jesus to remind his disciples that no matter what might be happening in the world around them, the work of building up the Kingdom of God should go on.

After almost a decade of struggle to get the fledgling mission church in Warren County off the ground, the Bishop of Kentucky didn’t assign Christ Church a clergyperson for nearly all of the 1850s.  Vacant beginning in 1852, it wasn’t until 1861 that a missionary was assigned to Bowling Green.  Ordained a Deacon on March 30, 1861, the Reverend Samuel Ringgold must have received the old English blessing, “May you live in interesting times,” as he was in residence here for less than six months when on September 18, 1861, Confederate General Simon Boliver Buckner arrived in Bowling Green with 1,300 soldiers.  As the Civil War began, Kentucky’s Governor officially declared the Commonwealth to be neutral in the conflict.  Bishop Benjamin Smith did his level best to keep the eyes of his clergy and congregants on the work of the Gospel rather than the conflict raging all around.  However, the Episcopal Church’s history as the Established Church in England and in several of the American Colonies meant that church and state were never fully separated.

In the Morning Prayer service of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, there was a prayer that was to be said for those in authority.  It read,

O Lord our heavenly Father, the high and mighty Ruler of the universe, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favor to behold and bless thy servant, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and all others in authority; and so replenish them with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that they may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue them plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant them in health and prosperity long to live; and finally, after this life, to attain everlasting joy and felicity, through Jesus Christ our Lord.[2]

The recently formed Episcopal Church of the Confederate States authorized the amendment of the Prayer Book to replace “United States” with “Confederate States” wherever it appeared, but given the way in which cities like Bowling Green were handed back and forth between the two sides, this prayer proved to be quite problematic for clergy like Samuel Ringgold.  The Union General stationed in New Orleans declared that, in his jurisdiction, not saying the Prayer for the President would be regarded as treason, and at least one priest was arrested in the chancel of his church for not saying the prayer at the request of a Union Officer.[3]

For Samuel Ringgold, the situation was dire.  Bowling Green was under martial law; at times a Confederate Capital, at times a Union stronghold, at times Kentucky neutral.  Totally cutoff from his bishop in Louisville, he wrote to the Bishop of Tennessee, James Otey, for advice.  “For more than two months after the Southern Army had taken possession of this place, I continued to use the prayer [for the President of the United States], never omitting it, until the provisional government was established.  Since then I have not used it.  The question is, whether I should now use the prayer substituting the word Confederate for United.”[4]  Bishop Otey replied a week later, on Epiphany Day, 1862.  He reminded the young deacon that he was not his bishop and what he was offering was not an official position, but his thoughts were, essentially, that you should pray for the president who had troops in town that Sunday.  Whichever side it was, to Bishop Otey, they represented “The powers that were ordained by God.”[5]

A month later, the Confederate Army retreated from Bowling Green, and on March 1, 1862, Ringgold wrote to Bishop Smith in Louisville that Bowling Green was devastated and Christ Church had been commandeered for a hospital.  Over the next several months the pews were burned, the windows broken, and the walls covered with graffiti.  Even as the world fell apart around them, however, Ringgold and the handful of members left at Christ Church chose not to be hopeless but rather, “to go to work…”[6] By the late summer of 1862, Ringgold shared good news of their progress with the Rector of Grace Church, Louisville, “We have now, not only a comfortable, but a pretty and clean churchlike room to worship in.  We have a most interesting Sunday School, fine choir, and much larger congregation than ever before… Notwithstanding the disorders of our times, the number of our communicants has doubled during the past year.”[7]  By January of 1863, Ringgold was, reportedly, the only clergyperson still holding services in Bowling Green, and even when the original church was torn town by soldiers to build chimneys for their tents and the Rector’s stove was stolen from his house with dinner still cooking on it, Ringgold and the people of Christ Church Bowling Green kept the faith, proclaimed the Gospel, and served the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Our Gospel lesson this morning ends with Jesus telling his disciples that “by your endurance, you will gain your souls.”  Whether the year is 33AD, 1862, or 2019, enduring the ongoing catastrophes that sin creates takes faith in a God who has a plan to bring all things into their perfection.  Endurance doesn’t mean sitting around, waiting for God to take a magic wand and fix it all.  Instead, by exhorting his disciples, and us, to endure the challenges of the present, Jesus calls us to get to work – relieving the suffering that sin creates in the world.  Salvation, it turns out, won’t come from the glorious edifices of religion, be they Herod’s Temple or a small brick church on Upper East Main Street.  The redemption of the world comes one day at a time, by way of the hard work of the people of God who seek to make this world more like the Kingdom of Heaven.  For 175 years, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green have been faithful to the work of building up the Kingdom of God in Warren County.  Our prayer this day is that for the next 175 years, we might continue to be blessed with faithful disciples who endure whatever the changes and chance of the world might bring, giving generously of their resources of time, talent, and treasure to the honor and glory of Almighty God.  Amen.

 

[1] Journal of the 17th Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, accessed on 11/14/19 at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89072985872&view=1up&seq=30

[2] Book of Common Prayer 1789, page 31.

[3] Paul G. Ashdown, “Samuel Ringgold: An Episcopal Clergyman in Kentucky and Tennessee During the Civil War.” published in The Filson Club History Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3, July 1979., p. 234.

[4] Ibid., 234-5.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Ibid., 236.

[7] Ibid., 236.

The Potential Energy of the Spirit

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Amidon, suffered from narcolepsy.  As a result, he would fall asleep at random times throughout the day.  Most often, he’d zonk out at his desk, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while writing notes on the board or even while showing us an experiment.  As high school students are wont to do, we took advantage of Mr. Amidon’s ailment and were very careful to not wake him up.  As a result, I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was supposed to learn in high school physics, which is probably why college physics was so difficult for me, which is probably part of why I’m a priest today and not an engineer like high school Steve had planned.  Anyway, one of the few memories I have of high school physics is the experiments we ran highlighting the differences and relationships between potential and kinetic energy.  The most obvious of these experiments were aided by gravity.  This higher we held a ball above the ground, the more potential energy is possessed.  As it dropped, that potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, and then it bounced upward, returning kinetic energy back into potential while losing some of its overall energy to friction and ball deformation.  This process repeats until all the potential energy gets transferred through friction and deformation and you are left with the ball at rest on the ground.

cooperativeliquidanemonecrab-size_restricted

While Mr. Amidon’s class sticks with me because of the narcolepsy, the power of potential energy has stuck with me over years.  It came back to me this week as I prayed for Mila Veletanlic and Thomas Stiles, whom we will baptize this morning.  As I thought about Mr. Amidon, I came to realize that, the baptismal service, especially on All Saints’ Sunday, and especially when we’re baptizing little ones, is where the potential energy of the Holy Spirit is the most obviously apparent.  This day is set aside to remember all the saints, not just those who are considered hall of famers, who carry a capital S Saint in front of their names like Saint Paul or Saint Mary Magdalene.  On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember everyone who has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for the work that the Holy Spirit has done through them – the way in which the potential energy of their baptism was lived out in the kinetic energy of the faith.

Toward the tail end of the baptismal liturgy, Mother Becca will say a prayer for Mila and Thomas that, while new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restores to the baptismal liturgy a part of our ancient past, asking God to bestow upon these two children, both just infants, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
It will be quite a while before these two will be called upon to utilize their gifts, but today we celebrate their saintly potential to live lives of faithfulness to the honor and glory of God.

In Christ Church 101, we spend one of our class sessions talking about the Gift of the Spirit.  According to Saint Paul, the charisms given in baptism are particular gifts that each of us are given for the upbuilding of the Church.  Some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, some intercessors, and on and on.  In baptism, the Holy Spirit bestows upon each of us unique and special gifts, but to all of us, these seven are given.

The restoration of the prayer for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit brings back to our awareness the potential energy that God imparts upon each us in baptism.  This potential energy is most apparent on All Saints’ Sunday, as the sevenfold gifts are easily tied directly to each of the Beatitudes that we hear in Matthew’.  It was Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century theologian, who first found in the Beatitudes each of the seven gifts.[1]  To Augustine, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” brings to mind the gift of wonder.  It is our poverty in spirit that allows us to find amazement in the richness of God’s grace and mercy.  For Augustine, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” was a call to knowledge.  In this case, mourning wasn’t about the death of a loved one, but the result of our coming to know our own sinfulness.  We rightly grieve the role that we have played in our broken relationships with God and with our neighbors.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” corresponds to the gift of reverence as we can only show deep respect and honor toward Almighty God when we are not puffing ourselves up or putting ourselves in the place of God by judging our neighbors.  Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed with the gift of endurance as they work tirelessly to bring about that which they desire.  By enduring in good works, they will one day find satisfaction for their hunger and thirst.  Good judgment is the gift of those who are merciful as, in deep awareness of God’s forgiveness, they choose to forgive; in knowing fully God’s love for them, they show love for their neighbors.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” infers those who have been gifted with understanding.  Even though no human eye can see God, those who have experienced God in their hearts can truly understand what it means to follow the way of God’s love.  Finally, those called to be peacemakers are living into the gift of wisdom; setting aside passion and rebellion, they seek only the peace that passes all understanding.

None of us knows how these two young children will live out their giftedness.  Even as mature adults, many of us who have been baptized into the faith might not be quite sure how we live out this kind of giftedness, but we can all rest in the knowledge that it is only with God’s help that we are able to claim the blessing that is the exercising of our baptismal gifts of wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.  It is only with God’s help that any of us is able to turn the potential energy of the Holy Spirit into the kinetic energy of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  As you pray for Mila and Thomas today, pray also for your neighbor in the pew, for your clergy, and for yourselves, that none of us might fall asleep, but rather, that the potential energy of the Holy Spirit in each of us might be put to good work in order to bless the whole world.  Amen.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm (Chapter 4, Section 11).  Accessed 11/2/19

The Pharisee

As I’ve disclosed on this blog before, I’ve never been much of a reader.  There have been periods in my life when I’ve done a lot of reading, but it was all required to graduate.  The books I have read for fun, and enjoyed, are usually so obscure, it has been hard to find another one like it.  So, I plod my way through books, sometimes enjoying them, sometimes, setting them aside.  One of the many detriments of not being a reader is that my imagination is often lacking.  Television and movies do that work for me.  Every once in a while, however, I can get there.  I’ve been reading Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, and when I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation, I shouted (ask our Christian Ed Director, I actually shouted), “That’s who I pictured for that character,” when the scene cut to Tim Blake Nelson playing Ralph Myers.

justmercy_blakenelson

My peculiar imagination went into overdrive this afternoon as I read through the well known parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector appointed for Sunday.  Perhaps because it came on the heels of reading “Paul’s” words at the tail end of 2nd Timothy, but as I read this parable today, I began to picture Paul as the antagonistic Pharisee.  In his letters (and the several ascribed to him), Paul shows an amazing ability to brag on himself while suggesting that he isn’t bragging.  Maybe it is a quality that Jesus’ audience associated with the Pharisees, but as I heard, in my mind, the man say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” I couldn’t help but hear Paul rehearsing his pedigree as an Apostle who “fought the good fight,… finished the race,…. kept the faith.”

It was then that I was reminded of a challenge that faces every preacher – don’t make it about you.  It can be so tempting to make yourself the hero in every story, the faithful example in a world of heathens, the example for your flock to follow, but it would seem that’s not really how this leadership thing in supposed to work.  As is clear in the parable (though clear parable is an oxymoron (sorry for the excessive use of parenthetical notations)) the proper approach to leadership in the Kingdom of God is humble leadership, even servant leadership.  It is about leading by actions and not by words.  It is about loving those to whom you have been called to lead.  So, I’m sure Jesus didn’t have Paul in mind when to told that parable, but sometimes, it is fun to imagine.


In case you wanted to watch the trailer for Just Mercy, here it is.

God’s Steadfast Faith

Most of you are probably not aware of it, but during the interminable Season After Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary, from which our Sunday readings are prescribed, actually gives us some options.  There are two distinct tracks for the lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures during the long, green season.  Track One offers a semi-continuous reading that follows major stories in the Old Testament week to week.  In Year A, it begins in Genesis, in Year B we would hear the stories of the Kings, and in Year C, our current Year, the lessons come from the Prophets.  Track Two follows the old Roman Catholic tradition of tying the Old Testament to the Gospel lesson thematically.[1]  The RCL’s intention is that a congregation will pick a Track and stick with it throughout the season.  Here at Christ Church, we’ve used Track Two for as long as I’ve been here because, quite honestly, sometimes the Track One stories are so challenging and so disconnected that I fear having them read out loud and then not preached about could do more harm than good.

Now, when Track Two says that the Old Testament lessons are related to the Gospel thematically, that tends to be more or less true.  However, I’m not sure it has even been quite so obvious or heavy handed as all four lessons are for today: from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Psalm, Epistle, and straight through to the Gospel.  Even the Collect of the Day gets in on the action, making sure that we are well aware that faithful perseverance in the face of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin is our theme for today.

In the lesson from Genesis, we find ourselves dropped down into the story of Jacob who had been on the run for quite some time.  After stealing his older brother’s birthright, Jacob was forced to flee from his homeland and his brother, Esau, who planned to kill him.  Having settled with his uncle Laban for several years, it was Jacob who got tricked into taking both Leah and Rachel as his wives.  When it became clear that God’s favor was upon the outsider, Jacob, Laban and his sons turned on him, and he once again had to run away, this time with his wives, children, and an abundance of livestock in tow.  After years of deceitfulness and running away from trouble, one night, Jacob found himself alone by the River Jabbok where he spent all night wrestling with God and with himself.  Jacob fought with human nature, with his own sinfulness, and with his greed until, when morning came, God blessed him and changed his name from Jacob, which meant “trickster” to Israel, which means “struggles with God.”  Immediately, the newly renamed Israel was reunited with is older brother Esau, and the restoration of their relationship began to take place.  By God’s grace, Jacob persevered in faith, and healing followed.

Psalm 121 is a traveler’s psalm.[2]  Known as “The Song of the Ascents,” it is the prayer of someone on a long and dangerous journey and in need of God’s care.  Anyone who has ever travelled toward the Gulf Coast on I-65 over Fall Break knows what it means to need God’s help to persevere on a long journey.  In this ancient song, the Psalmist is sure that help and protection will come from God whose faithfulness is perfect.  “The Lord neither slumbers nor sleeps.”  “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil.”  “The Lord shall watch over you… from this time forth for evermore.”

Next, our lesson from the Second Letter to Timothy includes some of the final words of encouragement sent from an older, wiser, mentor to Timothy, a young, still somewhat green, up and coming disciple.  These words are meant to help the next generation of Christian leaders navigate the challenging complexities of this world.  Persecution by the Romans and the Jews was still quite common.  Even among those who were following the Way of Jesus, there was still very little consensus about what that looked like, or about who was in, and who was out.  Timothy was inheriting a faith that was very much in turmoil and his mentor knew that God’s grace and a healthy dose of faithful perseverance would be needed for the faith to endure.

Finally, we have a really strange parable in our lesson from Luke’s Gospel that the author tells us is meant to encourage us to pray and not lose heart.  This makes sense, of course, given that the audience to whom Luke’s Gospel was written would have expected Jesus to have returned already.  Nearly a generation removed from the life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, followers of the Way were getting pretty antsy, wondering if they had hitched their wagon to the wrong savior.  They had seen people for whom they had been praying that they would live to see the return of Jesus die for their faith.  They had been faithful in prayer, in worship, in addressing the needs of the poor in their community, and were no doubt beginning to wonder why they were still waiting.  Luke uses this parable from Jesus to encourage them to keep the faith, to persevere, and to trust that God who is just and compassionate and full of mercy, wasn’t just being a capricious, unjust judge, but that God’s faithfulness would endure and so should theirs.

I find this somewhat heavy-handed presentation of God’s faithful perseverance in spite of humanity’s ongoing ability to fall into sin to be helpful this week. As we baptize young Henry into the life of faith this morning, many out the world would likely wonder “why?”  Why, when the church is so full of hypocrites, would anyone want to join, let alone baptize their child into that?  The lessons this week remind us that God has been at work in the lives of hypocrites and sinners all along.  That is true whether your name is Jacob, or Timothy, or Steve.  No one is perfect, but with God’s steadfast faithfulness and through the encouragement of community of folks who are trying their best to live into the Way of Love, a church full of hypocrites can still make a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God.

And so, we pray to God for the forgiveness of our sins and for the strength to do what is right.  We pray that God’s works of mercy might endure so that even when we fail, the goodness of God might always persevere.  Sometimes we wrestle, sometimes we look to the hills and wonder from whence God’s help might come, sometimes we are called upon to encourage one another to keep the faith, and sometimes we are the ones being encouraged.  Always, we can be certain that the God we follow is just, compassionate, and full of mercy.  Always, we can be sure that God’s steadfast faithfulness will endure, even when we might fall short.  That’s good news for everyone.  No matter how often or how spectacularly we might fall into sin, God’s mercy endures forever, and with God’s help, we too can keep the faith. Amen.

[1] http://lectionarypage.net/#Track

[2] https://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/default.aspx?devo_date=10/15/2019

The Inspiration Problem

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ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! HAPAX and HOT TAKES ahead!

It is a well-worn verse in the modernist fascination with a literal Biblical interpretation.  Written by someone claiming the name of Paul to a young leader in the Jesus Movement named Timothy, the author encourages the young man to keep true to what he has been taught since he was a child.  In the midst of that exhortation, the author affirms the role of Holy Scripture, what was likely only the Hebrew Bible and maybe, MAYBE, an early version of the Synoptic Gospels, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

This idea that all scripture is “inspired by God” has been used for about a century and a half to prop up the Bible to carry a weight that it was never intended to to bear.  This verse has created Ark Encounters and Creation Museums in Kentucky as well as several generations of folks who would be willingly ignorant to God’s ongoing revelation through scientific discovery.  All because of one word, and a hapax legomonon at that.  The word translated as “inspired” occurs only once in the New Testament.  Theopneustost is a compound word that combines the Greek word for God, theos, with the verb to breathe, pneo.  Often translated as “inspired,” according to several sources I consulted, this phrase’s more basic rendering as “God-breathed” or inspired’s more spiritual reading of “in the Spirit (pneuma or breath)” was an idea common to Jews, Greeks, and Romans. What the author seems to be saying isn’t that every jot and tittle of what will become Holy Writ is handed over by God, but that the fullness of the text carries within it the very Spirit of God that continues to breathe in and through it.

Another “Paul” wrote in the letter to the Hebrews that “the word of God is living and active,” which is how I would read these words from “Paul” to Timothy.  My translation would be something like, “All Scripture is alive with the breath of God, making it useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness across many generations so that no matter how the world changes around us, those who belong to God’s Way will be equipped for every good work.”

See, Seek, Love

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” That’s the penultimate question in the Baptismal Covenant, and the one that I think tends to get short shrift.  We like the Acts 2 feel of the first question.  We’re grateful to have an ongoing chance for repentance in the second.  For the third, we’ll happily proclaim by example, if maybe not by word, the Good News of God in Christ.  And don’t get me started on how many platitude-filled sermons I’ve heard (and occasionally preached) on respecting the dignity of every human being.  Tucked in there, next to last, is this question that really gets to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in everyday life.  “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  It is, most obviously, the second of Christ’s Great Commandments, but more than that, it requires us to actively seek out Christ in the other.  In order to seek Christ in my neighbor, I first have to see my neighbor, and if we’re honest with ourselves, there are probably lots of neighbors we wish we didn’t have to see.  Worse yet, there are lots of neighbors that we might actively choose to forget, but in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells the Pharisees the perfect story to illustrate that fully living into the Dream of God means choosing to see what we would prefer to ignore.

It all starts with a rich man.  A super rich man.  A one percent of the one percent rich man.  Jesus says that this rich man was dressed in purple linen every day.  That might not mean much to us today, since we can buy purple linen at Fabrics by the Pound, but in Jesus’ day, dressing in purple linen was an extravagant ordeal.  Prior to industrialization, linen was extremely difficult to produce.  To dye it purple, the right snail had to be found and harvested for its goop.  Purple dye cost about as much as pure silver to procure.  Just by his clothes, we know that this dude was rich beyond our wildest imaginations, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  Not only did he dress in the finest fabrics dyed the most expensive color, but Jesus tells us that he “feasted sumptuously” every day as well.  The Greek here suggests that he “made merry brilliantly.”  Every time that word is used in the New Testament, it is in reference to a massive celebration.  This guy made KISS’s “rock and roll all night and party every day” his actual lifestyle.

As he went back and forth from his palatial mansion, the rich man passed through a large gateway that protected his lavishness from the general unpleasantness of the outside world.  Plopped down at the mouth of that large gate was a man who was as exceedingly poor and the rich man was ridiculously rich.  While we don’t know the name of the rich man, Jesus tells us that this poor man’s name was Lazarus.  Lazarus is the only person to get a name in any of Jesus’ parables.  It means, ironically, “God has helped,” but it’s obvious that God hadn’t helped Lazarus much at all.  While the rich man wore purple linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores.  While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  While the rich man’s life was full of relationships with friends, business partners, servants, and dinner party guests, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores.  It wasn’t that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there, but that he actively chose to ignore him.  Back and forth the rich man would go.  At the very least, he would have noticed the stench of Lazarus.  Occasionally, he’d have to shoo the dogs away.  On particularly frustrating days, the rich man might even have to lift up his topcoat to make sure it didn’t brush against Lazarus’ unclean wounds as he stepped right over the poor man.

The rich man spent his whole life building as large a chasm as possible between himself and the wretched Lazarus, until one day they both died, and the chasm was suddenly fixed.  The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven to rest at the bosom of Abraham.  Immediately, with flames licking his heels, the rich man calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus with a drop of cool water to soothe his suffering.  I wonder how Lazarus heard that request.  Could it have been the first time that the rich man ever uttered his name?  The first time that Lazarus ever felt seen.  The first time that the rich man had ever treated Lazarus as anything other than smelly, disgusting, nuisance?  Note that the only reason the man utters Lazarus’ name now is because Lazarus could do something for him.  Even in death, the rich man didn’t see Lazarus as neighbor worthy of love, but rather as a less than, at most, a servant who should do the bidding of upstanding men like himself and Abraham.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  Jesus challenges the Pharisees, his disciples, and us to really see the world around us.  He invites us to see our neighbors, to know their names, to understand their needs, not in order that we might fix them, or to exploit them to help us feel better about ourselves, but to enter into relationship with them so that together we all might take part in the renewing of the world.  That’s what the law of Moses and the call of the Prophets has all been about, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It’s a theme we just can’t escape from these days.  Whether it is our Neighborhood Prayer Walks or Reimagine Charity or Racial Reconciliation or our Cloister Community, God seems to be calling Christ Episcopal Church to see the world around us in fresh ways; embracing what it means to be a downtown church in order to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors – all of them – as ourselves.

Over the next six weeks, we will celebrate three baptisms.  Bennett Moore, Henry Gilbert, and Mila Velentanlic are three young children to whom we will promise to do all in our power to support in their lives in Christ.  In making that promise, we commit to living our lives following the example of Jesus who saw people, who knew them deeply, and who cared about their needs.  He didn’t do it to make himself feel good, he didn’t take their agency away, he didn’t swoop in and try to fix problems.  Jesus was a savior without a savior complex. Rather, Jesus invited others into relationship and through that relationship both he and they were made whole.  As we live our lives as examples for these three young people, for one another, and for the wider community, we too are called to see our neighbors, to hear their stories, to love them, and to work alongside them toward the restoration of the whole world.  It isn’t easy work.  It won’t bring swift results.  It’ll be probably be painful, refilling chasms built over generations always is, but that’s the gift and the power and the risk of building relationships.  It means admitting faults, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, and fostering cooperation toward a hope-filled future.  And, as I am often swift to remind us during sermons like these, it isn’t all up to us.  As with every one of the baptismal promises we make, this one, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” gets answered with five, very important and powerful words, “I will, with God’s help.”  With God’s help, alongside our neighbors, and serving as an example for Bennett, Henry, and Mila, we have the chance to build the Kingdom of God here in Bowling Green, Kentucky by seeing, loving, and seeking Christ in our neighbors, especially the ones we would rather ignore.  Amen.

Unrighteous Mammon

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly [prudently, wisely]…”  I mean, what other choice did the rich man really have?  The manager, who is about to be fired because of accusations that he was wasting his boss’ money, quickly runs through the options before him.  “I could dig,” he thinks to himself, “except after years of very comfortable living, I’m in no shape to dig, I’ll never get hired over guys who do this every day with strength and endurance.”  “I suppose I could beg,” he imagines next, “except I’m too well known in the community.  People will laugh at me.  Surely, they won’t help me, God knows I haven’t helped them any over the years.  I’ll be dead of malnutrition or disease in six months.  No, I have to do something else.”  And then, like a brilliant strike of lightening, a plan comes into his mind.  “I haven’t helped anyone in this job, yet, but there is still time.  Maybe, just maybe, if I help these poor slobs out now, they’ll help me tomorrow in return.”

Quickly, he calls in all of his master’s debtors, people who owe upwards of ten years’ worth of oil and grain, and he begins slashing their debt by twenty, thirty, even fifty percent!  Some of them might question what’s going on, but the manager brushes it off with a wink and a nod. “My master is feeling generous these days.”  As the land owner comes to town for the day of reckoning, word has spread throughout the village and countryside of what has happened, and people begin to shout to him from the fields and out of windows, “Thank you, O gracious master, for your generosity and care!”  Theologian Shane Claiborne imagines the scene at the center of town as the crowd breaks into song, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at the top of their lungs.[1]

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…”  I mean, what other choice did he really have?  I suppose he could’ve gotten angry, destroyed the manager and forced everyone to pay their original debts.  Of course that would have ended up in a riot where it is most likely he would have been killed in a fit of mob rage.  So, the rich man takes the only other option available to him, he puts his arm around the shoulder of his manager and says to him, “You got me good, way to use your brain and act shrewdly, but you are really, really fired.”  This story has played itself out a million times throughout the course of history.  A shrewd upper-level employee, knowing things are about to go down in flames, does everything they can to make sure that when the fire goes out, there is something left to hold on to.  I remember a similar story from a few years ago down in Alabama.  A family grocery store chain was bought by a big conglomerate that almost immediately filed for bankruptcy.  Just a few days before the judge would rule on what creditors got paid and how much, the company held an auction of the company’s cars and office electronics that was open only to executive employees.  The CEO walked away with two grand worth of electronics for three hundred dollars.[2]  He got what he could before it all went away.  We hear stories like it all the time.

What we don’t expect, is to hear about it from Jesus.  It seems even Luke wasn’t real sure how to handle this story, giving us no less than three and probably four possible interpretations.  The most challenging interpretation is the admonition to “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

To be honest, I spent most of this week scratching my head on this one.  It just seems so foreign, so outside of what I expect Jesus to say.  I want Jesus to tell this story and then look at his disciples and say, “In my Kingdom, people who cheat in business deals to line their own pockets will be cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I don’t want him trying to convince me that there is some lesson to be learned in this story of deception and fraud.  What are we supposed to learn from this dishonest manager who in the end gets commended by his former boss for his wisdom and shrewdness?

The key, it seems, lies deep within that most difficult lesson from Jesus, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  In Luke’s Gospel, more so than the other three, wealth is always a bad thing; a power and principality, not unlike Rome, that clamors for people’s attention over and against their devotion to Almighty God.  Money, whether we have a lot of it, or very little, has the ability to turn our attention away from God’s Kingdom faster than probably anything else.  This is true, in part, because money is a faith based system.  A dollar is worth a dollar, only because we believe it to be so.  Our faith in the economy allows a piece of linen and cotton that has been dyed green to be traded for a delicious Snickers Bar.  Because wealth is a faith-based system, it is in direct competition to God, which, for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, makes it dishonest wealth, or perhaps better translated, the mammon of unrighteousness, stuff that takes our attention away from the Kingdom.

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When faced with a bleak future, the dishonest manager used the material resources at his disposal to create a better outcome.  Jesus has a vision for the future as well.  The Kingdom of God is that place where lion and lamb lay down together, where the banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines is available for everyone and it never ends, where the lame walk, the blind see, the poor are rich, the sorrowful find joy, and the oppressed go free.  Jesus wants that future to be our motivation for everything we do; most especially, it should be the motivation behind how we spend our money.  “Take your money and use it to build the Kingdom of God by building relationships.  Throw a dinner party, but don’t just invite your friends.  Also invite that one co-worker or neighbor or classmate who is always left out.  When you buy gifts, make sure you include those who have never received a hug, let alone a nice sweater for Christmas.  When you go shopping, look the sales clerk in the eye and affirm them as a human being, not merely a means to an end or a cog in the machine.  If you hear that your neighbor has been ill, drop by with a thermos of soup or get in the car and visit them in the hospital.  Be extravagant in caring for the people around you.  And because nothing can happen in this world without money, use it to the mission and glory of God.”  That’s really what Jesus is saying here.

“You can’t serve both God and the Almighty Dollar, but you most certainly can serve God by using your dollars to reach out in care and love.”[3]  The Church rarely, if ever, talks about money without asking for some.  So, I’m not going to do that today.  I mean, we’ll pass the plate, of course, but don’t let this sermon guilt you in to giving.  Instead, take your wallets out of this place and use them, in one way or another, big or small, to build up the Kingdom this week.  Take your mammon of unrighteousness, and use it to build relationships, so that when it’s all said and done, the cheering section at your arrival to the great heavenly banquet will be filled with friends and strangers, family members and tax collectors, and even Jesus himself.  Act shrewdly by using the Almighty Dollar to bring about the Kingdom of Almighty God.  Amen.

[1] Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (71-72) Kindle Edition.

[2] http://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2013/09/belle_foods_leaders_buy_compan.html

[3] Paraphrase of a line from http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php