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

Coming into the light

My least favorite part about waking up in the morning is that moment of first light.  Usually, it is my iPhone, ready to offer me the Morning Office from Forward Movement, but sometimes it is the light in the kitchen to feed the dogs or the bathroom to… well that’s somewhat self-explanatory.  That first moment of light can be excruciating as my eyes adjust from full dilation during what has been the darkness of night and to the constriction of what will be the brightness of the day.  I can only imagine what that experience must have been like for the man born blind.  After decades of darkness, how intense was that first experience of light?

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As the story unfolds, John uses this ongoing metaphor of darkness and light to show us how the man’s spiritual pupils had to slowly adjust after his encounter with Jesus.  The adjustment doesn’t seem to happen quite as quickly as that first moment of actual light, but it seems the experience was just as painful as the man searches for meaning.

Immediately, the questions begin.  “Weren’t you the beggar we knew?  Who did this to you?”  The man responds, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  The crowd near his home doesn’t buy it, and so they drag him off to the Pharisees for what amounts to a heresy trial.  He once again tells the story of the mud and the Pool of Siloam, and when pressed by the Pharisees, “What do you say about him?” the man’s understanding deepens.  He is no longer able to say that Jesus is just “the man called Jesus,” but now he sees him as “a prophet.”

The saga continues as now the man’s parents are brought before the council to give account of this miracle.  Unwilling to comment on who  Jesus might be, they turn the ball back over to their son saying, “ask him, he’s the one who was healed.”  So again, the Pharisees question the man.  He wonders aloud if they want to maybe be his disciples, affirms that he’s not sure how it all happened, but that the man who healed him had to be “from God.”  As he considers the truth that never before had anyone ever heard of someone blind from birth being healed, his spiritual vision continues to come into focus.

Finally, after the man is removed from the Synagogue, he is once again encountered by Jesus.  Here, with physical eyes wide open and spiritual eyes ready to see, he comes to see fully that Jesus is the Son of Man, one of John’s favorite names for the Messiah, and he becomes the only person in John’s Gospel to worship Jesus.  It was difficult work, coming to see Jesus fully, but the man is blessed in the experience.  His eyes are opened, but more than that, his heart is open to God and he becomes a disciple.  Would that our hearts might be made open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.

On being blind

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Blindness is everywhere I look today (bad pun #1).  On Wednesday mornings, SBC’s preschool has an 8:30 chapel service.  The lesson for this morning was an excerpt of Sunday’s Gospel lesson about the man born blind.  To illustrate that story, the School Director told the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific poet and hymn writer who became blind at a very young age.  at age 8, Fanny wrote her first poems, which often focused on her condition.  She wrote,

Oh, what a happy soul I am,
although I cannot see!
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

How many blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t,
To weep and sigh because I’m blind
I cannot, and I won’t! (1)

As I settled in to the office this morning after chapel, I opened today’s Lent Madness match up, which has, of all people, Fanny Crosby! going up against  George Frideric Handel, who was himself blind by the time of his death at age 74.  I’m still debating whether to file a complaint against SBC’s school for creating a bias in today’s Lent Madness voting.

After all of that, I’ve gone back and reread Sunday’s Gospel lesson with fresh eyes (pardon the pun in poor taste) and am noticing the obvious that blindness isn’t about the physical condition of the man who has his sight restored by Jesus, but rather is the ongoing condition of most everyone else in this story.  The blindness of the disciples opens the story.  Seemingly right in front of this man who is blind, and not deaf, they ask Jesus, “What’s with this guy?  Did he sin or his parents?”  It continues with his neighbors, who after his healing, though nothing about his physical appearance has changed, can’t seem to recognize this man who for years they had seen and known as “the man born blind.”  The Pharisees get in on the act, unable to see God’s hand at work in this healing because is happened on the Sabbath and didn’t follow their closely defined idea of how things were supposed to work.  Finally, the man’s own parents seem blind to the fact that in protecting their own hides, they have thrown their own son under the bus.

As the story ends, Jesus confronts the blindness of the Pharisees.  He calls them out for their unwillingness to see and their stubborn rejection of anything that falls outside of the tunnel vision religion they have carefully crafted for their own well being.  This ongoing blindness is the most dangerous, and one that can easily creep into our own faith communities.  It is so easy to see only what we want to.  We can pat ourselves on the back for being such a friendly congregation and never notice how radically unwelcoming that makes us.  We can fret the ongoing decline of membership numbers and not see how God is still using your congregation to deepen relationships, care for the downtrodden, and reach out to those in need.  Blindness goes both ways, we can miss the good and the ill in our midst, but the way of God is the way of sight.  God’s Son came as a light shining in the darkness.  Will we choose to see everything the light has to offer?  Or are we content with the perceived safety of the lingering darkness?

God has a plan

Let me preface what is to follow by saying that I wholeheartedly believe that God has a plan for creation.  Well, maybe more like a dream.  God’s dream for humanity and the earth we were created to care for is a wholeness.  We were designed to be in relationship, perfect relationship with God, with one another, and with the world in which we live.  Every part of God’s plan, which is declared good and perfect in Romans 12, is about fixing those relationships that we have screwed up, repeatedly and ad nauseam.

With that caveat in place, let me now suggest that what we will hear from Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a very dangerous statement.  The story unfolds with Jesus and his disciples happening upon a blind man.  We aren’t sure how they know that he has been blind since birth, but it helps the drama of the story that he was.  Anyway, the disciples, being good students of Judaism, are eager to engage their Rabbi in a theological discussion about his man.  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  It may seem uncouth, but this line of questioning is perfectly valid in the context of 1st century Judaism.  In fact, those who would stick their head in the sand and say conversations like this don’t happen among 21st century Christians are just fooling themselves.  Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that God’s plan included the blindness of this man, and it is an answer with which I am exceedingly uncomfortable.

The NRSV renders it thusly: “Neither than man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’ works might be reveled in him.”  To my mind, this is the other side of the same coin as Pat Robertson saying Hurricane Katrina happened because of the gay agenda or the Haiti earthquake was the result of the Voodoo religion.  To suggest that God’s plan, that I would remind you is both good and perfect, includes such hardships as hurricanes, earthquakes and a child born blind is to forget the purpose behind God’s plan: the restoration of all relationships.  As is often the case, bad theology stems from bad translation.

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In this week’s WorkingPreacher Commentary, Osvaldo Vena, Profesor de Nuevo Testamento at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, suggests a more straightforward translations of verse three.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ”  The man’s blindness isn’t the result of God’s plan, but rather, it is God’s plan to heal him in this moment.  It wasn’t God’s plan to make this man blind so that God could later swoop in and look heroic, but rather Jesus says, it is God’s plan to overcome the broken relationships of this man’s life.  Of course, as the story plays out, it’ll take a lot more healing to fix all of his relationships.  After regaining his sight, he is ostracized by his neighbors, by the religious authorities, and even by his own parents, but with his newfound sight, the man is able to see a way to right relationship with God, which is the first step in right relationship with the rest of God’s creation.

This Sunday, let’s not perpetuate bad theology.  Let’s not suggest that God allows us to suffer, or worse yet, that God makes us suffer, so that God can fix things later.  Instead, let’s share the story of God’s saving grace, God’s perfect love for all of creation, and God’s plan to restore all things to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.

The Power of Water

According to unicef, everyday, nearly 1,000 children die from the lack of clean drinking water.  One thousand children. Every. Single. Day.  That’s a child dying every minute and half.  That’s roughly the population of Tampa, Florida dying every year, due to something as correctable as the lack of clean drinking water.  The human body is 60% water.  The surface of the earth 71% covered by water.  We’ve all seen the videos of why one should never attempt to drive through standing water.

We are well aware of the need for access to clean water in our lives, but I’m guessing that many of us take that access for granted.  I know that I often do.  I’ve never lived in a drought plagued place like California, north Alabama, or Sub-Saharan Africa.  When I turn on the tap, cold, clean water comes out.  It wasn’t until the Student Body President at VTS in 2004-05 mentioned it that I had ever even considered that on a daily basis I have the privilege of using clean drinking water to take a shower.

Two of our lessons for Lent 3 would remind us to not take water for granted.  They are both stories of the power of water, not to sweep away a car in a flood, but to culturally and, more importantly, as a source of life, a gift from God.  At Christ Church this week, we will hear these lessons in the context of a homily from Steve Young, not that one, the Executive Director of Living Waters for the World, Steve Young.  He will share with us the work that his team, of which Christ Church will soon be included, is doing to bring access to clean water to the remotest of places.

Their foundational text is the story of Jesus meeting the woman at Jacob’s Well.  In that story we hear not only that even Jesus needed water, but the power of the well socially, as this woman who had been married several times and was now living with a man who was not her husband, was forced to wait until the heat of midday to draw water.  Jesus turns that hurt right-side up, meeting here there, at noon, and engaging her in conversation.  He turns the concrete reality of water into a spiritual thirst for living water, and shows her and her whole town that thirst is not merely a physical desire, but it is at the core of who we are as created beings.

I’m struck by the power of water today, and I give thanks that I so rarely have to think about my own access to it even as I grieve that so many don’t have access to clean water to drink, let alone to spend 10-15 minutes showing in.

Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

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Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.

Called to Go, but where?

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below.


My former Bishop once shared with me that every call story has two parts: the call to leave and the call to where.  At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about.  It was the fall of 2015, I had just finished a sabbatical, and the Pankey family was quite happy in Foley, Alabama, thank you very much.  Soon after those words, Keith and I had one of our quartly-ish planning days wherein we would leave the office behind, take our Bibles and our Prayer Books, and spend several hours listening for the Spirit.  As the day unfolded, we began to realize that God was calling us to try something new.  It was time for me to stretch my leadership wings a bit.  Just a few days earlier, I had heard that the Vicar of a small mission church up the road was going to give up driving an hour each way on Sunday morning as a gift to himself for his ninetieth birthday.  We prepared a plan to present to the bishop in which I would continue to serve Saint Paul’s three-quarter time and be named Vicar at Saint John’s for the other quarter.  Bishop Kendrick was excited about the possibility, but by the time he could check out the details, St. John’s had already invited another retired priest to fill their Sunday void.

As spring rolled around, Keith and I went back to the drawing board.  We were still praying for what God had in store for us next, and for the first time in nine years, there was nothing.  We decided to keep listening.  In mid-April, while attending a Gathering of Leaders conference, I received my answer.  It was time to go.  I had no idea where I would end up, but I knew that the time had come.  I also knew that I wanted to have complete control over the where question.  I began to scour the Office of Transition Ministry website for neat places to live.  The South Carolina coast sounded nice.  The Mississippi Gulf Coast wouldn’t be bad.  I might have even settled for the mountains of Colorado, when in June while at Sewanee for my last set of summer classes, fellow DMin student and friend, Paul Canady, the Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, where our own Cortney Dale serves as the Associate, sent me a Facebook message with a link to your parish profile that read, “I’m just going to put this right here for you… it’s got some good things going for it. Downside, of course, is that’s it’s not near the ocean.”  I clicked the link, read for a minute and decided that moving from the Gulf Coast to Bowling Green was not in my plans.  Less than 24 hours later, Elise Johnstone, Canon to the Ordinary across the border in Lexington approached me in the hall of the School of Theology and said, “It isn’t in my diocese, but there is a great church in Bowling Green, Kentucky that you should take a look at.  Solid budget, University town, and Amy speaks highly of the people.”

The Holy Spirit has her ways, and getting the point across that I am not in charge of either the when or the where was made abundantly clear to me during 2016.  I am not the first person to learn this lesson.  In fact, the call to go without having an answer to the where question has been a part of God’s plan for salvation since Adam and Even first ate of the forbidden tree.  In our Old Testament lesson for this morning we heard one of the many call stories in scripture that involve God inviting someone to go without a final destination.  As my friend Nurya Love Parish paraphrased the story, “God says to Abram, ‘Leave behind everything familiar, and go to the land I will show you.’ Not the land God has shown Abram.  Abram has to leave before he knows where he is headed.”[1]  All of salvation history hinges on Abram’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind and begin a journey to some unknown land that God has promised.

Abraham was faithful and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Abraham’s faithfulness to the call of God to go without an answer to the where is, to Paul’s mind, the premier example of the life of faith.  Moreover, the promise of God that is fulfilled in Abraham’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind is a promise to bless not just Abraham and his family, but the whole world.  Indeed, all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham.  Again and again, disciples are called to go.  Sometimes, like in my case, it is the call of God to a professional minister to pick up and move, but more often, the call to go without knowing where it will lead comes to the average Christian sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning.  These are the calls of regular disciples to go out and be a blessing to the world.  Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple.  God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.  If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, each of us can experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.

This is easier said than done, to be sure, which is why the story of Nicodemus is paired up with Abraham.  Nicodemus wants to be faithful to the call of God to follow Jesus.  He feels a pull to this Rabbi who is “from God,” but he just can’t commit.  He can’t give up all the comforts that come with his position of power as a Pharisee and leader of the Jews to follow the call to go without having some idea as to where it is all headed.  And so, he finds Jesus under the safety of darkness.  In the shadows of doubt and fear, Nicodemus knows he can meet Jesus on his own terms.  In the safety of the night, he can get his questions answered without his fellow Pharisees finding out.  Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but he wants total control over how it’ll take place.

Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus’ questions seem like a series of non sequiturs, but in reality, they are a continuation of the call of Abraham.  God is calling Nicodemus to give up all control, to leave everything he knows behind and follow Jesus to an unknown destination.  “You must be born again,” Jesus says, “the birth you have is one of power, prestige, and privilege, but you have to give all that up to follow me.  You have to get out of the darkness and into the light.  You have to be willing to risk everything to be my disciple.  You have to be comfortable riding the wind of the Spirit that goes wherever she chooses.”  Nicodemus couldn’t do it, at least not yet.  Later on in John’s Gospel, we’ll hear stories of his growing faith.  He stands up for Jesus, albeit somewhat tepidly, when the Pharisees begin to plot for his arrest.  After Jesus’ death, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body; bringing with him nearly one-hundred pounds of spices.

While it never does seem like Nicodemus can fully commit to following God’s call to go, we can take some solace in his struggle.  None of us is the perfect disciple.  None of us is always able to drop everything and go.  Each of us, from time to time, will want to have our say in how the when and where questions gets answered.  We all go astray from the will of God occasionally, but God’s grace is strong enough to overcome our doubts.  God didn’t give up on Nicodemus when he disappeared back into the night.  God continued to call him, continued to challenge him to give up control, continued to try to pour out blessings through him, and God does the same for each of us.  Every time we go astray, God beckons us to return.  Every time we cling to safety, God calls us to go.  Every time our faith fails, God forgives, and invites us to try again.  And when we do answer the call to go, God makes us to be his blessing in the world.  Every call has two parts: the call to go and the call to where: righteousness is found in our willingness to leave the safety of what we know to go to what we don’t know in order to be God’s blessing to a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/march-12-second-sunday-lent

The Call to Go

Tomorrow night, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky will gather with our Bishop and other clergy from the Diocese of Kentucky at a service called The Celebration of New Ministry.  Our preacher will be none other than my former Rector, TKT, who will bring a word that the service itself really struggles to convey.  As glad as I am that the service has changed from the Institution of a Rector in 1928 to the Celebration of New Ministry in the 1979 Prayer Book, the service itself really lacks that reality.  It is, by and large, still all about me, the 25th Rector of Christ Episcopal Church  (Yes, I know there is a service in EOW, but like most everything else EOW attempts, the SCLM tried to fix too many things and as a result, created far too many problems).

I’ve not read TKT’s sermon, mostly because it probably won’t actually be written on a piece of paper, but I can still be sure that it will not be about Steve Pankey, the guy who’s work it is to be in the tent of meeting.  Instead, he will tell the story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11.  Depending on how you read the story, Eldad and Medad were either two of the 70 who didn’t go to the tent, or two in addition to the 70 who were gifted with the Spirit by God to do the work of ministry.  No matter how they ended up back in the village, the reality is that God chose to pour out the Spirit upon them and not just those who made their way to the tent of meeting.  It is a story about how God does the work of the Kingdom through all God’s servants, not just those who wear fancy collars, have calligraphic certificates on their walls, and draw stipends from the gifts of the faithful.

While the sermon will be important, what is more important to me is the effort TKT and his wife are going through to be here.  Not that I thought it would be any other way, but the process of leaving one church and taking a call at another is always a difficult one.  After 9.5 years of working together, there came an end, and rather than being bitter or frustrated, TKT has been affirming and supportive every step of the way.  That’s because we both took seriously the reality that God doesn’t just call people to a place, but there comes a time that God also calls people to Go.  As we both listened for the Spirit last year, it became clear to both of us that our work together was coming to an end, that I was being called to Go, and that both of our ministries would be fruitful if we were faithful to that call.

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In our Old Testament lesson for Sunday, we will hear Abraham’s call to go.  While the promise of God to Abraham is more than I could ever hope for, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” the hard truth is that God often calls his servant’s to go in order to bless others.  Sometimes, like in my case, it was the call of a professional minister to serve a new congregation, but more often, it is the call of a regular disciple to go out into the world in service.  Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple.  God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.  If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, we can all experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.