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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Just the Beginning

       I still find it nearly impossible to believe.  If I hadn’t lived it, I wouldn’t think it real, but we went from March 8th, 2020 until April 18th, 2021 with our church building closed.  That’s fifty-seven consecutive Sundays!  That’s a dozen funerals.  A handful of weddings.  Several baptisms.  Two Easters.  One Christmas.  All gone.  As we returned to in-person worship, slowly, strategically, carefully, one theme that I heard above all others was just how good it was to be back in this space.  The people, no doubt, played a big role in that, but so did this sacred building.  Its beauty.  Its grandeur.  Its memories.  Sure, we learned over more than a year that we can be the Church without the use of our building, but we sure as heck prefer having it available.  Having this experience still lingering in our rearview mirror makes this morning’s gospel lesson feel like a “way too soon” kind of moment.

The Second Temple had only recently been doubled in size and totally refurbished under the direction of Herod the Great.  Stones in the foundation were as big as 40 feet long, 12 feet high, and 18 feet wide.  37.5-foot-tall Corinthian pillars, each cut from a single piece of marble adorned the massive front porch, and the exterior walls were lined with gold.  By any human measure, this sacred building was a site to behold.  When the unnamed disciple, upon seeing the sheer immensity of the Temple, responds with awe, I don’t necessarily want Jesus to predict its utter collapse.  Buzz-kill Jesus isn’t my favorite experience of Jesus if I’m being honest.  I would prefer Jesus join in the wonder.  Maybe he puts his arm around his friend’s shoulder and says, “I know, isn’t it amazing what human beings can do when they join God in building up the Kingdom of Heaven!?!”  But, that’s not what happens here, and context helps us understand the reasons.

       In Mark’s Gospel, chapter eleven marks the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life.  After healing Blind Bartimaeus, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a colt as the crowd laid palm branches on the ground and shouted, “Hosanna in the highest.”  The next few days were marked by growing tensions between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, which culminated in the lesson we would have heard last week if it weren’t for All Saints’ Sunday.  There, at the tail end of Mark 12, Jesus warned his disciples “Beware of the scribes.”  Then, as they watched the comings and goings of the Temple and its treasury, Jesus pointed out a widow who put her last two coins into the offering.  This woman, Jesus said, gave all that she had to keep this system afloat, when there were many, many others who give without sacrifice and take without a second thought.

       Jesus was clearly over the Temple system and those who benefited from it.  His care is for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, and all those who truly rely on God for their daily bread.  His frustration lay squarely upon those who use that trust to line their own pockets.  His anger is palpable as he and his disciples leave the Temple for the last time.  “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings,” one of his disciples remarked.  “You see them?” Jesus spit back at him, “Not one of stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  In fifty or so years, this prophecy would come true.  Rome utterly destroyed Jerusalem in response to a Jewish revolt in 72 CE, but I don’t think Jesus only had a literal destruction of the building on his mind in that moment.  I think Jesus was predicting a larger shift in which those in power would be upended, and those on whose backs the Temple and its system had been built, would inherit the Kingdom of God.

       What follows is what is often called “Mark’s Little Apocalypse.”  Literally translated, an apocalypse is an uncovering or revelation.  We catch a glimpse of Jesus’ revelation of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God this morning when Peter, James, John, and Andrew try to pin him down on when exactly this destruction is going to take place.  Rather than focusing on their question, Jesus responds by turning their attention away from the building and toward the signs that will precede the unveiling of God’s reign on earth as it is heaven.  “Beware,” Jesus says, echoing what he’d just told them inside the Temple, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come and say, ‘I am he.’”  “I am he” is very intentional language on Jesus’ part.  In Greek, he says “Ego eimi,” the Greek equivalent of the name that God gave to Moses back in Exodus.  In Hebrew, it is a name so sacred that faithful Jews won’t say it out loud, and when Jesus uses it, he does so very intentionally.  He is warning his disciples that some will come and claim to be God or God’s Messiah or the Second Coming of Christ.  They will use language that sounds legit.  They will quote scripture.  They will, like the Temple system already at work, prey on the religious devotion and trust of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  They will use so-called signs like wars, earthquakes, famines, or pandemics to try to convince the world that they are the only ones who can save.  They will line their pockets with the copper coins of those they claim to care about but seek only the enrichment of themselves and their cronies.  Beware, beware, beware.

       Between the destruction of the Temple and the promise that a series of lying, cheating, no-good, would-be Messiahs are coming, things feel pretty dire at this point in our Gospel lesson.  I found myself asking Mother Becca’s go-to preaching question quite often this week, “Where is the good news?”  Where, amid all these words of warning, is the tear in the curtain that will allow the full unveiling of the Kingdom of God to take place?  The answer came to me by way of a three-year-old commentary in the archives at WorkingPreacher.org, written by the Reverend Doctor Samuel Cruz.  His commentary boldly claims that “in the midst of this apparent chaos and destruction, Jesus brings a word of hope: ‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’”[1]  I wrote a note in the margins that said, “Just the beginning? How is that a word of hope?”  Then, I realized something.  Jesus doesn’t say the coming chaos and destruction are the beginning of the death throes.  No, he says they are the beginning of the birth pangs.

       I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but birth is painful, chaotic, and messy.  In the end, however, is new life.  New life brings with it love like one has never known before and joy beyond all measure.  New life brings with it the promise of hope.  For the people of first century Israel, the hope of new life – out from under the oppressive thumb of Rome and the repressive expectations of the Temple system – sounded like good news indeed.  After twenty months of pandemic birth pangs, I know that I’m ready for some new life.  I’m ready to cast my lot with Jesus who maybe isn’t the buzzkill I initially thought he was.  I’m ready for new ways to use our building for expanding the Kingdom of Heaven.  I’m ready for new ways to use our financial resources for reaching out into our community.  I’m ready for new ways to engage our baptismal covenant, to love our neighbors, and to change the world.  Unveilings, birth pangs, resurrection – none of this comes easy, but hope, joy, and love are absolutely worth the effort.  Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-4

Called to Serve

       Several weeks ago, I preached a sermon about how the disciples, and we, routinely miss the point of what Jesus came to do.  You might not remember the sermon, that’s ok, but you might recall the concept of Face Palm Jesus that I introduced during it.  It’s the idea that Jesus often looks upon how people who carry the title Christian profoundly and, often, proudly, completely miss the whole point of it all.  In the case of the disciples in Mark chapters 8, 9, and 10, the recurring theme that elicits Face Palm Jesus is his three Passion Predictions.

Once in each chapter, Jesus clearly tells his disciples what is to come.  “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity in what this trip to Jerusalem would bring, and yet, each time he tells this to his disciples, they fail to hear it.  The first time, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, “God forbid it, Jesus, we won’t let this happen.”  The second time, Mark tells us that the twelve didn’t understand what he was talking about, were too afraid to ask him, and so instead, they began to argue with one another about which one of them was the greatest.  The third time leads us to our lesson for this morning.

       Jesus has just finished once again telling the twelve that he would be betrayed, mocked, beaten, killed, and rise again when James and John run up beside him and say, “Teacher, would you mind giving us whatever we want?”  What strikes me here is that Jesus doesn’t go straight to the face palm, which would certainly be in order, but rather he engages them where they are.  “What is it you want me to do for you?” he replies.  “Oh, you know, just to sit at your right hand and at your left in glory.  No big deal.”  *Face Palm* Quickly, the other ten got fired up as well, and the whole group was right back to arguing over which one of them was the greatest.  *Double Face Palm*

       “Look,” Jesus says, exasperated, “the leaders of this world lord over their followers and the greatest among them are nothing more than tyrants, but that isn’t the way it is in God’s Kingdom.  Those who want to be great,” he goes on to say, “must be your servant.  The one who wishes to be first should be a slave to all.”  For Jesus, this isn’t purely theoretical teaching; every part of his life, death, and resurrection are the example of what true greatness looks like.  It is the Messianic Mission Statement in Mark’s Gospel.  The crux of who Jesus is and what he came to do.  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

       It is so easy to fall into the same trap as James and John.  The world in which we live rewards those who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  As I think I remember hearing in another sermon recently, the self-help section of Barnes and Noble carries hundreds of books on leadership, but not a single one on being a follower. Certainly no one is making any money publishing books on servitude.  The fights on social media and in the news throughout this pandemic have been about these very same questions.  Misinformation aside, the struggle, even among Christians, has been about where do “my rights” end and the good of the whole begin?  We have seen, firsthand, what kind of damage is wrought when we seek after only our own self interests.  Instead of assuming that our Jesus card gives us permission to do whatever we want, today’s Gospel lesson, and in fact the entirety of Mark’s Gospel, invites us to consider how we can follow the example of Jesus in seeking not to be served but to serve.

       For Jesus, this life of service took him all the way to the cross and an excruciating death.  Of the twelve to which he spoke these words, one bailed out and became the one who betrayed him, ten were killed for their faith, and one, John’s, end is pretty uncertain.  Two thousand years later, it is highly, highly unlikely that the life of Christian service to which we are called will put us in harm’s way, but it isn’t impossible.  Our calendar of saints, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, is filled with names of people who lived as recently as the Civil Rights Movement whose faith in Jesus and love of neighbor put them at odds with the powers that be such that they were killed for their faith: Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Janani Luwum, just to name a few.  Others, like Francis Perkins, Anne Braden, and William Wilberforce put their livelihoods at risk for the sake of the Gospel.  And, lest we forget, the Martyrs of Memphis lost their lives serving their neighbors during a Yellow Fever epidemic.  Through the course of the last two thousand years, Christians of all races, genders, and backgrounds have chosen to follow the example of sacrificial service that our Lord named as his mission in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and as the next generation of Jesus’ disciples, we are invited to follow him in the same way.

       Since the start of the pandemic, however, ministries of service have been hard to navigate.  Prior to the vaccine, many of us weren’t comfortable in face-to-face interactions with strangers.  In those early days, it was the generosity of so many of you that allowed Christ Church to continue to radiate God’s love by investing funds in organizations that were able to do the work.  Since last summer, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry and MEALS INC have been up and running, and I am so very grateful to the volunteers who have been able to serve.  More recently, the Wednesday Community Lunch restarted, and more than a dozen disciples show up each week to meet our neighbors, feed the hungry, and care for the marginalized.  I cannot express how proud I am of this community of faith for its willingness to step out in faith to follow in Christ’s mission of loving service.

       As we look to the future, and God-willing, a return to less dire COVID numbers, two more opportunities for service are close at hand.  This morning, our faithful Godly Play Teachers are back in their classrooms, masked, vacc’ed, and ready to engage the children of Christ Church in the story of God’s never-failing love for the created world.  As we commission them, along with Miliska and Ken who are leading the Conversations with Scripture class, we will pray God’s blessing upon them and their work, that they might be protected and strengthened, as well as grow in their faith.  New this year, as you might have read in my Window article, is the Stephen Ministry.  These lay ministers will serve members of our community by providing pastoral care to those who have experienced some sort of difficulty such as illness, job loss, or a death in the family.  If you are watching this sermon at home, you can learn more about Stephen Ministry in a video that will play after the service.  Here in the pews, check it out in Surface Hall.

       Every ministry of service requires sacrifice.  Some are huge and life changing.  Others are small and just a slight inconvenience.  All are important.  I pray that as things continue to slowly creep back, each of you will find a way to follow in the example of Jesus in loving service.  As I said a few weeks ago, each day, we have the opportunity to focus anew on following Christ, listening for the calling of Jesus in our lives, and seeking the Kingdom of God so that one day, the whole world might be at peace.  That, dear friends, is the point of it all, and very good news indeed.  Amen.

Adventures in Missing the Point

       On one of my bookshelves is a book written by two of my theological heroes, Tony Campolo and Brian McLaren, entitled, “Adventures in Missing the Point.”  It is a point/counter-point book about all the ways that the church has missed out on what Jesus is actually inviting us to experience.  Whether it is arguments over sexuality, the worship wars, or guerilla evangelism, McLaren and Campolo are sure that all of us, in one way or another, have totally missed the point.

       We aren’t alone in that.  In fact, we’re in some really good company.  You may have noticed that over the past few weeks, our Gospel lessons have been hitting on the theme of disciples who missed the point again and again and again.   The entire ninth chapter of Mark is one story of apostolic tomfoolery after another.  It opens with Jesus taking Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray.  Right before their eyes, Jesus was transfigured and joined by Moses and Elijah.  Peter, terrified and unsure what to do or say, totally missed the point, and blurts out, “Rabbi, let’s build some houses for you guys.”

       As the four of them rejoin the other eight, they find a commotion brewing.  The scribes and the eight disciples were engaged in argument.  It seems a man had a son who had an evil spirit that had tormented him relentlessly, and he brought him to the disciples to cast out the demon, but they were unable to help.  The Scribes noticed their failure and had seized the opportunity to question their authority.  Embarrassed, the disciples lost their religion and fought back.  Eventually, Jesus was able cast out the demon, and when the disciples asked why they couldn’t do it, he replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting.”  That had to have stung.

       From there, they travelled through Galilee to Capernaum.  In last week’s Gospel, we heard the story that took place along the way.  For a second time, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection.  The disciples were confused, but afraid to ask him what he meant.  Rather than try to learn from their rabbi, they began to argue amongst themselves over which one of them was the greatest, and when Jesus asked them about it, they were ashamed and kept silent.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he told them, and then he invited a young child to join him.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

       Our lesson this morning begins immediately after those words.  Poor impetuous Peter gets a break on this one, as it is John who gets to miss the point and say the dumb thing.  “Ok Jesus, but how far does that hospitality go?  The other day, we saw this guy casting out demons in your name!  He doesn’t follow us.  Dude hadn’t paid his dues, so we tried to tell him to stop.  That was Kosher, right?”

At the entrance to the Oklahoma City National Memorial stands a statue of Jesus.  It was given by the members of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, whose fellowship hall was destroyed in the blast that took out the Murrah Federal Building. The statue is called “And Jesus Wept” and it features a larger-than-life Jesus, standing with his left hand beating his breast and his right hand up to his face.  It is a beautiful testimony to the presence of Christ in the midst of deep darkness, but the internet has made it famous for another reason. 

Face Palm Jesus is a popular meme used whenever Christians very publicly miss the point.  When Pat Robertson says Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for same sex marriage – Face Palm Jesus.   When Roman Catholic Bishops start threatening to remove communion from politicians – Face Palm Jesus.  When Episcopalians make the “wherever two or three are gathered there’s a fifth” joke – Face Palm Jesus.

When John says, “He wasn’t following us, so we tried to stop him.”  Face Palm Jesus.  Jesus responds by turning John’s whole premise on its ear, “Whoever is not against us,” and it should be noted that by this point in Jesus’ ministry there were A LOT of people who were against him, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  He turns their attention back to the child, whom he is still holding in his arms, and tries, yet again, to help the disciples understand.  Stumbling blocks are bad.  If you put a stumbling block in front of someone else who is trying to have faith, it’d be better to have a three-thousand-pound rock tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea.  Judging the faith or intentions of others is a serious offense in Jesus’ eyes.  It isn’t for us to develop a series of tests to determine who is in and who is out, but rather, Jesus says, we should take stock of ourselves.

If your hand is pointed in judgment at your neighbor, cut it off.  If your foot has you tripping up other believers, cut is off.  If your eye is only good for seeing the faults of another, pluck it out.   It is better to enter the Kingdom of God maimed, lame, and looking like a pirate than to end up in hell under the false pretense of being perfect.  The point of being a disciple of Jesus isn’t to show others where they are wrong, but to find the things in our own lives that keep us from entering fully in the life of joy that God dreams for each of us and all of God’s creation.

       Cut off your hand?  Pluck out your eye?  By now, you’re probably asking yourselves, “Where’s the Good News?”  As always, Jesus has some for us, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  Doesn’t sound that good, does it?  But I assure you, it is.  The promise of Jesus, for all of those who follow him, is that when we focus on our own sin, repent, and seek forgiveness, the fire of the Holy Spirit will burn off all our impurities and bring us closer to Christ.  What is keeping you from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and grace?  What needs to be thrown into the unquenchable fire?  For John, it was envy.  For Peter, it was pride. For me, it’s a whole lot of things.  What is it for you?  The grace of Christ is sufficient for us all, and each day, we have the opportunity to focus anew on following Christ, listening for the calling of Jesus in our lives and to seeking the Kingdom of God so that one day, the whole world might be at peace.  That, dear friends, is the point of it all, and very good news indeed.  Amen.

Ashamed?

       Cassie and I have joked over the years that we might have two of the most guilt-inducing careers in the world.  When people find out that Cass is a dental hygienist, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to the dentist as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain they should probably floss more often, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how she could possibly look inside people’s disgusting mouths all day, every day.  When they find out that I’m an Episcopal priest, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to church as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain how they find God in the woods and are spiritual but not religious, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how I could possibly listen to people’s problems all day, every day or how I could possibly think of something to preach about.  On occasion, we’ve dreamed of other answers we might give to avoid the awkwardness of it all.  In Alabama, we lived very close to a large outlet mall, and we determined that the career least likely to produce any follow up questions was assistant manager at the Corningware store.

       It isn’t that I am ashamed of what I do.  I love being a priest.  I love walking with people through moments of joy.  I even find that walking with folks through sorrow to be peaceful.  I might be ashamed of the guilt my vocation produces in so many people.  I am certainly ashamed of what others have done to make being a Christian be associated with hate or being a priest be associated with abuse, but I’m certainly not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus who is called to ordained ministry.  Still, this morning’s Gospel lesson brings me to pause.  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.”  These words make the collar feel tighter than the COVID-19 quarantine pounds ever could.

       How often does my desire to be liked belie my faith in Jesus Christ?  How often do I act as if I’m ashamed of the teachings of Jesus in the way I treat my neighbor?  How often do I lament the cross of Christ, preferring instead to put myself first?  When Jesus first spoke these words to Peter and the other disciples, it was in relation to what was to come.  There had been plenty of revolutionary faith leaders, so-called Messiahs, who had come and gone before him.  Their trajectory looked a whole like Jesus’s. They appeared in the wilderness with a new kind of teaching.  They amassed a crowd of followers.  Their popularity threatened the powers-that-be, and in some cases, their violent actions incited riots, and so they were killed, often left to die hanging on a cross for their transgressions.  Peter and the rest couldn’t stand the thought of Jesus ending up in the same predicament.  He had to be different.  They had staked their own lives on that.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that he too will die at the hands of the powers-that-be.  It is, quite simply, what the system of power and privilege does to those who challenge it.  Jesus goes beyond that, however, to let them know that unlike all those so-called Messiahs who had come before him, his story wouldn’t end there, and that after three days, he will rise again.  The cross that he will bear is the cross of the powerful, but it is in Christ’s willingness to become weak, that he will bring about the redemption of the world.  That, Jesus tells his disciples, is nothing to be ashamed of.

       Two thousand years later, the scandal of a crucified Messiah is long gone.  We don’t have the memory of a dozen other messianic figures hung on crosses, never to be heard from again.  Yet, as 21st century American Christians, our shame still rests in the apparent weakness of it all.  For nearly all of Christian history, the Rabbi who died on a cross because he took on the cause of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed has been used by those in power to subjugate the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  The shame of the Church has been the shame of Peter, that God might deign to become weak in order to save the weak.  The Church has long preferred a strong Messiah who will align us with power, affirm our wealth, and cast down those who would challenge the status quo.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that if the Church is ashamed of his teaching, then he will be ashamed us.  The cross of Christ that we are asked to carry is to put God first and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is to care for the marginalized, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek fullness of life for all of God’s creation.  Whether you are a dental hygienist, the assistant manager at a Corningware outlet, or an Episcopal Priest, the call to discipleship is all the same, deny yourself, take up the cross of love, and follow in the Way of Jesus.  It may never lead to power and privilege, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to the Kingdom of God, a better existence here on earth, and, ultimately, thanks to the Cross of Christ, the joy of eternal life.  Amen.

More True Religion

       A new Vicar began her ministry in a small, rural parish on bright Sunday morning.  The hymns were glorious, and she preached a wonderful sermon.  During communion, there were so many people that they almost ran out of bread and wine, but the Lord provides, and all were fed from the bounties of Christ’s grace.  She went home exhausted, but excited for what the future held.  The next morning, she headed to the office where she was met by an older parishioner who was clearly troubled.  “What’s the matter?” the Vicar asked.  “Well, I’m afraid you didn’t do communion right yesterday,” the parishioner responded, “It just didn’t feel like church.”  “Oh?” she replied, “It wasn’t right?  How so?”  “Well, before each pass down the altar rail, our old Vicar would always stop and pray for every person kneeling at the rail to receive.  It was so good to know our priest cared for us and prayed for us each by name.  It just felt like you rushed through it, like you didn’t care.”  An accusation like this would shake any good priest to their core, and the young Vicar took it quite seriously.  She decided to call her predecessor to see what she could learn about his habit of prayer for the congregation.  He was an older gentleman, whose mobility issues had finally caused him to retire.  She explained the situation to him, and he laughed as he replied, “I wasn’t praying.  I stopped each time to touch the radiator.  I had to discharge static electricity, so I didn’t shock the daylights out of the first person at the rail.”

       This anecdote, or one like it, has been shared in seminary liturgy classes for decades.  It is an important reminder that human beings, especially those of us who take our faith seriously, make meaning out of all kinds of things, even things that maybe weren’t intended to have meaning.  This story comes to mind every summer when Proper 17 rolls around.  In the Collect of the Day we pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  I’m reminded that religion is a powerful word, filled with all kinds of meaning, and that even though all of us might call ourselves Episcopalians, each of us has our own understanding of what our religion truly is.  Every one of us has developed our own system of religious actions, those things that are important to our life of faith.  For some, church isn’t church without music.  For others, they can’t imagine church without communion.  There are even a few of you who wish we used incense every Sunday.  I know you’re out there.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our religious habits and to adapt them based on what we think is and isn’t safe.  Beyond the intensity of the last 17 months, the reality is that all of us are constantly updating our understanding of our own religion based on the circumstances of our lives, whether it is raising children, a job that requires work on Sunday, or our taste in music.  Heck, even the word religion itself has changed meaning considerably over the years.

       Its use in this week’s Collect is emblematic of that shift.  The first written edition of this prayer is found the Gelasian Sacramentary, a prayer book compiled around the year 750.  Some form of this prayer has been in use for almost thirteen hundred years!  When it was first written, the prayer simply asked that God might increase religion in us, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clearer about what kind of religion we were praying for.  Rather than the bad religious practices of the Roman Church, Cranmer thought we ought to pray for the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  This change can be seen as an early step in a long evolution for the word religion away from what it had meant in 750, which religious scholar William Cantwell Smith defines as “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; … or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  Since the Reformation and the rise of modernity, religion has become a more cerebral exercise.  At its most extreme, religious practice has the danger of becoming nothing more than seeking some kind of pure theological ideology.  Today, when we pray for an increase in true religion, it can feel more like we’re praying for our particular set of ideas to be better than those of the Baptists or Presbyterians, when, in truth, when this prayer was written, it was a prayer asking God to increase in each of us an awe for creation, wonderous and joyful worship, and trust in the God who calls us to see and feel the world in a particular way.

       That particular way of seeing and feeling the world is summed up nicely in all three of our lessons this morning.  In Deuteronomy, the whole premise of the book is that wandering Hebrews were nearing the Promised Land as Moses was nearing the end of his life.  Before they entered the land, Moses had one last chance to impart all the wisdom he had received from God.  He’ll spend the next twenty-six chapters reminding them of how God hoped they’d live their lives, but before he started, his advice was simple.  Remember.  Remember that the Lord calls you to a particular way of living in this world.  Remember that you didn’t get here all on your own, but that the Lord has brought you to this place.  Remember to teach this to your children, lest they forget.  As disciples of Jesus, we may not be called to live by the full law of Deuteronomy, but in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that no matter how we live out our religion, we’re called to do it not so that our actions might be seen by others, not to puff ourselves up, and not to burden those around us, but rather, everything we do should be a response to the love that God has shown us.

       It can be hard to know how we should live out our faith; hard to know exactly how it is that God would like us to see and feel the world around us, but thankfully, we have James.  The Letter of James never minces words.  It is a series of admonitions to disciples and church leaders alike on how the life of faith might be lived out day to day.  The Bible is rarely as clear as it is in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our primary call as disciples of Jesus is to care for the needs of the world and to keep ourselves away from sin.  In the long run, it doesn’t really matter if you genuflect or not, if you like Bach or not, if you watch church in your pajamas or dress in your finest and get here by 8.  No, the true religion to which we are all called is, once again, summed up in this way – show your love of God by putting God’s will first, and show your love of neighbor by caring for their needs.  That’s a true religion I think we can all get behind, and one that I will gladly pray for more and more of.  Increase in us true religion, o Lord, for the honor of your name.  Amen.


[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

Leadership, ABD

I’ve heard it said that anyone who led well in 2020 earned a PhD in leadership. Recently, however, I’ve come to understand that we’re all actually sitting ABD – all but dissertation. The Delta variant, then, is when your second reader writes to say that the argument in page 88 could be bolstered if you read some obscure 500 page book. Delta Plus is when you realize that your footnotes are correct by the Chicago Manual of Style volume 8, but they published volume 9 while you weren’t looking.  Leadership is hard. Leadership in a pandemic is hard and requires constant vigilance and updating. It seems many are content with ABD and are letting the suggestions of their readers go unanswered while enjoying drinks with those who would say, “don’t worry about that crap.”

John 6 provides an interesting study in long term leadership. The chapter opens with the crowd following Jesus numbering in the thousands. They’d seen him perform healings. They’d heard him challenge the religious powers-that-be. They were intrigued and wanted to know more, so they followed him out of town and into the wilderness. Suddenly, it was dinner time and the crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children) were hungry.  With five small loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd because sometimes, leadership is meeting the immediate needs of people to keep them safe. The next day, however, when the crowd tracks Jesus down again hoping for more signs (and more fish sandwiches), Jesus begins to teach them some of the more difficult lessons of discipleship – I am the bread of life, my flesh is food indeed, you cannot come to the Father unless you are called – you get the idea. The chapter that began with swollen crowds ends with so many turning back that Jesus begins to wonder if even the 12 will leave him.

True leadership is not about being popular.  It doesn’t kowtow to the loudest voices. Nor does it hope to soothe the feels of the misinformed. Most of the time, leadership requires political savvy to bring as many people alongside as possible, but sometimes leaders have to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead toward what is right, no matter the consequences to their ego, re-election campaign, or pocketbook. To be quite honest, being a leader means risking being unpopular and, as is evidenced by Jesus, occasionally losing some folks along the way.

Now, I’m not suggesting that I’ve done everything right as a leader since March of 2020. There have been plenty of times I’ve moved too slowly, waited too long, or been indecisive.  But, as I watch school and government leaders, abdicate their leadership roles, content to stay ABD, while major corporations, whose goal is only profit, somehow stumble onto what is right by mandating vaccinations, I can’t help but throw up my hands and ask, “what the actual f*ck is happening?” None of us signed up for leading in a pandemic, but all of us who are leaders signed up to make hard choices, whether we knew it or not. Hard choices might be unpopular with a loud-mouthed minority who can be a pain in the neck, but when they are scientifically proven to save lives, well then, mask up and require the jab because if you think you’re tired of leading now, just wait until epsilon, zeta, eta, and theta come calling.

Let’s not settle for ABD. Pick up that book your second reader suggested. Fix those footnotes. Do the hard thing because only when we all lead for the good of all of humanity will we see this thing end and finally get that PhD in leadership we’ve all been promised.

Where there are tents, there is cake

       Ever since she was a teenager, my sister has had a working theory that where there are tents, there is cake.  One weekday afternoon when we were in college, she put that theory to the test.  Lisa and her friend, Courtney, were driving past the local NBC affiliate, WGAL.  The building is on the edge of Lancaster city and sits up on top of a grassy hill.  Atop the hill, at the end of a long driveway, they noticed a large white tent, the kind you might rent for a wedding reception.  Instantly, they both knew, there was cake up there.  So, they turned around, headed up the hill, and lo and behold, there was cake.  They each grabbed a piece and went on their way.  To this day, I have no idea why there was cake in that tent.  Was it a private retirement party or a community outreach event?  I don’t know.  All I know is that 20 years later, Lisa still firmly believes that where there are tents, there is cake.

       Cake is an interesting food.  It is most often used to mark happy occasions like weddings, baptisms, and birthdays.  Sometimes, like here at Christ Church today, cake can also be used to mark sad occasions, like at a going away party.  Whether you believe Marie Antoinette once flippantly said “Let them eat cake” and caused the French revolution or not, cake has a long history that could possibly date all the way back to paleolithic caves nearly 32,000 years ago.  Like most things with a long history, what we call cake today looks nothing like the first cakes created way back when.  Ancient cakes were designed with two goals in mind, first to last a long time without spoiling and second to provide as many calories and nutrients as possible.  Flour, honey, water, nuts, and fruit were combined to provide long-lasting energy for the difficulties of ancient life.  Though, I suspect any paleolithic cave dweller would have given good money to eat a cake that gave them energy for forty days and forty nights, but that’s exactly what our lesson from First Kings says happened to Elijah.

       Elijah’s cake was definitely a sad cake.  Our story begins with Elijah so tired and so depressed that he sat down underneath a scrubby broom tree in the desert and asked that God might take his life.  If you think this is a strange way to start a story, you’d be correct.  We’ve missed some pretty important details.  It all begins more than three years earlier, at another cake serving event, a wedding.  Ahab, the King of Israel, married Jezebel, the daughter of the King of Sidon and immediately began to worship her god, Baal, instead the Lord, the God of Israel.  First Kings says that Ahab did more to provoke the anger of God than all the kings before him.  Because Baal was the god of storms and fertility, the Lord appointed Elijah to prophecy to Ahab that a drought would ravage Israel for three years.

       After delivering this word to Ahab, Elijah high-tailed it to the other side of the Jordan River where he lived on bread and meat brought to him by ravens until the water dried up.  From there, he travelled to the city of Zarephath in Sidon, where he met a widow who fed herself, her son, and Elijah from cakes – there it is again – made from the last drop of oil and handful of flour that she had left for months and maybe even years on end.  After three years of drought, during which Ahab and Jezebel angrily and systemically killed almost all the prophets of God, the Lord sent Elijah back to Ahab where he again prophesied against the sin of Ahab and challenged the prophets to Baal and the prophets of Asherah, the consort, or wife, of Baal to a battle of the gods.

       Here’s where things get interesting.  450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah met Elijah on Mount Carmel.  The terms of the battle were simple: the god who brought fire to the sacrifice would be considered the true god.  So, the prophets of Baal and Asherah picked their bull and Elijah picked his.  The prophets prepared their altar and from morning until noon danced around it, calling on Baal to hear their prayer.  There was no answer.  Elijah mocked them saying, “Cry louder, maybe your god is meditating or sleeping.”  They yelled all the louder as they cut themselves with swords and danced from noon until sunset, with still no answer.  So, Elijah took his turn.  He prepared the altar, just as the prophets of Ball had, but he also dug a trench around the altar.  Elijah added twelve jars of water to the bull and to the wood.  There was so much water, that the bull and wood were soaked, and the trench was filled.  Elijah called out to the Lord his God and immediately fire rained down from heaven.  It consumed the bull, the wood, the altar, the dust, and even the water in the trench was gone.  It was clear whose God was real, and the prophets of Baal were put to death, as was the punishment for false prophets.

       Upon hearing of the humiliation of their prophets, Jezebel and Ahab vowed to kill Elijah, and so he fled a day’s journey into the wilderness where he sat down under a broom tree, exhausted, afraid, and hopeless; asked God to take his life, for it would be easier than what was to come; and fell asleep.  Having been fed bread by the ravens and cakes by a widow, not much could surprise old Elijah, but what happens next must have made him wonder.  As he slept, and angel came and prepared, you guessed it, a cake, baked on hot stones.  “Get up and eat,” the angel said.  So, Elijah ate and drank, and then fell back asleep.  Again, the angel said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  So, he ate and drank again, and the cake sustained him for a forty-day journey from Mount Carmel to Mount Sinai where Elijah became one of only a handful of people who got to experience the very presence of God and live.

       Every Sunday, and hopefully more often than that, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God might give us our daily bread.  Last Sunday, we heard the story from Exodus where God provided manna, a flaky substance that was full of nutrients and gave the Israelites energy for the journey.  Sometimes, daily bread looks like that.  In the story of Elijah, even amidst a great drought and famine, God sustains the prophet with cake.  It might not have been a Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake with Creamy Chocolate Buttercream icing, but it was substantial enough for the journey ahead.  Sometimes, daily bread is a cake that carries you for 40 days.  Later this morning, as a community of disciples, we will share cake with Laura Goodwin as we wish her well on the next phase in her life’s journey.  Over the last 12 years, this community has shared a lot of cake, cookies, and crawfish with Laura, but through the grace of God, these last pieces will sustain our relationship with her, despite the distance that is to come.  And sometimes, daily bread is like that, the reminder of our fellowship in Christ.

       Since the start of the pandemic and the months’ long suspension of Holy Eucharist, I’ve learned not to take God’s daily bread for granted.  In fact, as things seems to be ramping up again, I’m more committed than ever to not just simply seek out daily bread, but to be on the lookout for those places where God is looking to give me the gift of cake to sustain me for the work ahead and to remind me of the love we share in Christ.  I hope you will join me in looking for God’s daily bread in all its forms, for the journey is long and only seems to be getting longer, and I firmly believe that God’s sustenance and community in Christ are the keys to survival and success.  As we journey together, don’t forget to keep your head on a swivel and your eyes wide open, for where there are tents, there is cake.  Amen.

Make the Reason Love

       Can I admit something to you?  Just between us?  I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good.  In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real.  This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.

       You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles.  When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly.  The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms.  All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.

       Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom.  Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE.  After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II.  Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great.  Confused yet?  I know I am.

       Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”[1]  As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly.  Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested.  Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words.  Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday.  The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.”  Salome ran to her mother with excitement.  “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.”  Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter.  Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.

       I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.”  There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story.  John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence.  This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021.  Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John.[2]  No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace.  Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.

       As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day.  It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?”  Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”[3]

       I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God.  Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real.  As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them.  The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate.  We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer.  If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.


[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed

[3] ibid.

God’s Heart

       Author, Elizabeth Stone, tech pioneer, Steve Jobs, and my mother are all quoted as saying, “Having a child is like choosing to let your heart walk outside your body for the rest of your life.”  It seems Blessed Mary knew this reality all too well.  It began on the night of Jesus’ birth as shepherds came rushing into the cattle stall where the holy family was attempting to rest, bursting with the good news they had received from angels who appeared in their fields with trumpet and song.  Forty days later, Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple for her ritual purification and to dedicate her first born son to the Lord God, when a man whom she had never met, took the child into his arms and declared him to be “the salvation of all people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,” even as he promised to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well.  Less than two years after that, three wise men – magicians and priests from the East – came to visit Jesus armed with gifts of gold, suitable for a king, and frankincense and myrrh, symbols of death.  Meanwhile, her husband, Joseph, had a dream in which he was told to flee his homeland and take his family to Egypt to protect them. After a while bouncing around the Egyptian countryside, and almost as quickly as they were told to leave, Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus were once again told to pack up everything and return to Israel.  Instead of settling back in their old home in Judea, they made their way to Nazareth in order to protect their son from the powers-that-be who feared him and wanted him out of their lives.  Later, at age twelve, Jesus scared Mary to death, having stayed behind in the Temple while the family caravanned back to Nazareth.

       By the time we get to today’s Gospel lesson, Mary has already experienced a lifetime of worry over her son, whom she knew would be different since before he was even conceived.  This morning, we encounter a now thirty-year-old Jesus who has been quite busy collecting disciples, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Our lesson tells the story of Jesus’ first trip back home.  Between the crowd that was following him around the Galilean countryside and the crowd of interested locals, so many people came out to see Jesus that he couldn’t even move his arms to stuff some hummus in his face.  They were pressing in upon him so intensely that Mary began to fear for his life.  Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version says that his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” which is actually a pretty bad translation.  What the Greek actually connotes is that his family came to grab him, and they told the crowds, “He has lost his mind.”  One could write a whole book on Mark 3:21. There is double entendre aplenty in here.  The word that the NRSV translates as “restrain” also means “to keep careful hold of.”  The word often translated as “lost his mind” also means “amazed.”  His family said that he was crazy, but did they really believe it?  I can’t help but wonder if Mary saw all that was happening to her son and ran out to do whatever she could to save him.

       There is no question in the text, on the other hand, about what the Scribes were up to.  They had no intention of trying to protect Jesus from the masses.  Instead, it seems they were dead set on stirring the crowd up into a frenzy.  When you have the truth on your side, pound the facts.  When you don’t, you pound the table and call people names.  The Scribes didn’t ease their way into name calling either, but when straight for the jugular by calling him Satan.  “He’s Beezebul! He’s able to cast out demons because he is the chief among them!”  These are not the words of someone who came to engage in peaceful discussion.  It is clear that what the Scribes were hoping would happen was that someone or some mob would rid them of this meddling rabbi, but Jesus knew his time had not yet come and was having none of this.

       At its core, Jesus rejects the premise of the Scribes.  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, how can Satan cast out Satan?  It just doesn’t work.  By way of a parable, Jesus does show that he believes that the powers of evil are strong, and that he sees his calling as the one who was sent to defeat Satan once and for all.  The Father sent his only begotten son to tie up the powerful forces of Satan and to plunder the houses of evil – in empire, in business, in religion, and in families.  Jesus is clear that the fight that had already begun between him and the forces of evil, a fight that started when he was only a child, will continue, but he already knows that he will win, and in so doing, he will redeem almost all people back into right relationship with God.

Almost all, and here’s where things get particularly tricky, because of this unforgivable sin business.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear this warning from Jesus, I find myself checking my receipts.  Have I ever blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  There was that one time in seminary, when we were all sharing at a class retreat, and I said, “sometimes I hate the Holy Spirit because I get called to do things that aren’t easy.”  Is that unforgivable?  I really hope not.  Is Jesus talking to his family and the Scribes alike in this cryptic message?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think the eternal sin that Jesus warns the crowd about is the sin of assuming you are right; the sin of an intractable spirit; the sin of arrogance.  The Scribes, like so many who have come from positions of power and privilege over the centuries, simply assume that they are right, and Jesus is wrong.  There is no willingness to listen, learn, or grow.  Having been invited to receive the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide to God, they have said, “no thank you, we don’t need it.”  There is no saving those who don’t think they need to be saved.  Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich (powerful, privileged) person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who approach the Kingdom of God with humility, who embrace the invitation to follow Jesus, no matter what sins or blasphemies they might stumble into, can find forgiveness because they seek it.  Jesus’ family might not fully understand what he is up to, and they might let their worry overcome them from time to time, but they aren’t beyond redemption, and neither are you or me.  All who are willing to lay down their pride and be challenged by following Jesus can have access to the Kingdom of God, and can even help, from time to time, plunder the houses of evil.  Which is why we pray this morning that the God from whom all good proceeds, might grant us an open spirit to think what is right, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do so.  It isn’t always easy to know what is right, but with a spirit of humility and a willingness to follow the leading of the Spirit, we can avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that there is no longer room for God in our own little kingdoms.  When we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us think and do those things that are right, we are able to more fully follow the will of God, and, as promised by Jesus himself, have entrance into the family of Christ.  In Creation, God chose to let God’s heart walk the earth for all of eternity.  As children of God and members of the family of Christ, we are God’s heart in the world.  We must be careful not to allow our hearts to become hard, but rather, to be open to the ways in which God’s love for the whole world will be poured out through each of us.  Amen.

ACTS, with a focus on the T

       Nearly a quarter century after my Young Life days came to an end, there is plenty that I would quibble with their leadership about these days.  My understanding of God’s grace, of atonement, human sexuality, and gender have all changed in the last 25 years. Yet, I still find myself recalling fondly many of the memories from those halcyon days.  One of the best lessons I learned from my Young Life leader, Fletch, is the ACTS form of prayer.  Not as in the book of Acts, from which the Pentecost Day story comes, but the acrostic, ACTS.  When my prayer life gets dry, I’m grateful that the foundation of ACTS is always there to catch me.

       I have probably told you this before, but in case you don’t recall, ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.   A prayer that follows that pattern can never go wrong.  Adoration, as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, “is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[1]  This comes first as a means to enter into the presence of God in prayer.  Rather than flinging our requests up to some far away God, we seek first to come into God’s presence, so that we can enter into a conversation with the God of all creation.  Confession, an action we do corporately every Sunday, is the act of acknowledging our sins in the hope of repentance and forgiveness.  It comes second so as to wipe the slate clean before diving into deeper conversation.  Thanksgiving is also defined in the Prayer Book as the act of thanking God “for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.”  I often wonder if human beings put this third, not because it makes ACTS easier to remember than ACST, but because we feel the need to butter God up before we move onto the fourth step.  Supplication is asking God to do or provide something.  Supplication can be split into two foci: intercession, wherein we bring to God the needs of others, and petition, where we ask God’s will be done upon our own needs.

       ACTS is a simple way to begin, or restart for the 4,000th time, a routine of regular prayer and conversation with God.  If I’m honest, however, I’ve found the Thanksgiving piece to be increasingly difficult over the last 15 months.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  As I said on Wednesday evening, COVID-19 has taken so much from us, there have been times when it felt nearly impossible to come up with things to be thankful for.  When you are working, schooling, cooking, cleaning, and everything else from home, it can be hard to even be thankful for that dang roof over your head.  I guess that’s why I’ve found myself drawn not to the typical Pentecost lesson from Acts, or even Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John, but to Paul’s short little lesson on the Holy Spirit from Romans.

       “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  Tell me about it.  Whether it isn’t knowing how to give thanks for the little things when COVID was raging, or not knowing how to pray through such weighty issues as police violence against our black and brown siblings, assaults on the democratic process in this country, white supremacist Christian nationalism, or the return of mass shootings in the post-COVID world, I have found myself stuck, not knowing how to pray as I ought, again and again.  Thankfully, the redemption of the world is not dependent on my ability to pray, and even if it was, my ability to pray isn’t even dependent on my ability to pray.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…” Paul asserts, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

       Off the top of my head, I can think of three famous prayer scenes in movies from the last three decades.  There is the grace prayed over Christmas dinner by Aunt Bethany that is nothing more than the Pledge of Allegiance in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  There is the grace prayed to tiny infant Jesus in his golden fleece diaper by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.  And finally, there is the dinner prayer of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act.  “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”[2]  None of them know how to pray as they ought, and even though each prayer is ridiculous in its own right, I still firmly believe that the Spirit can translate even those prayers into words of thanks and praise.  Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do with whatever prayers you or I might come up with.

       To further assuage my worry that my prayers aren’t up to snuff, Paul goes on to remind us that the reason the Spirit can take our deepest prayers to God using language that beyond words is that the mind of the Spirit is fully known to God the Father.  As we’ll hear again on Trinity Sunday next week, there is no brokenness in the relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mind of the Spirit, which knows what is on the hearts of each of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, is the same mind that is in God the Father.  The Spirit knows that even in my inability to be thankful during this difficult season, my desire to be thankful is enough. 

       Sometimes, I worry that the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much love in the denominations of the former Mainline Christianity is that we think we’re too proper for such things.  The Spirit is so often associated with ecstatic outbursts like praying in tongues or Benny Hinn type healing miracles, and we prefer a more polite version of God, thank you very much.  On this Day of Pentecost, however, in the midst of a long, difficult journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue racial reckoning, and a highly polarized and often violent political climate, I wonder if we might be well served to remember that for all the wind and flames and foreign languages, what the Spirit is really about in our lives is carrying the mind of humans to heart of God, and mind of God to the heart of humans.

This morning, as we gather to celebrate Holy Eucharist together for the first time since March of 2020, I’m reminded that Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  We begin this morning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a long-overdue season of Thanksgiving, for all that is past, for what is, for what is to come, but especially for the gift of God’s grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come and intercede to God on our behalf.  Come and show us the will of the Father.  Come and teach us to be thankful.  Come and refresh us, that we might help renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


[1] BCP, p. 857

[2] Thanks to Pastor Charlie Woodward at Epiphany Lutheran Church for transcribing this one. https://www.epiphanydayton.org/sighs-too-deep-for-words/