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

Advertisements

The Pharisee

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

justmercy_blakenelson

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

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


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

God’s Steadfast Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inspiration Problem

maxresdefault

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

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

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

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

See, Seek, Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unrighteous Mammon

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

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

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

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

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

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

giphy

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

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

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

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

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

Deja vu

I try not to complain about preaching for couple of reasons.  One, because I love it.  The process of prayer, study, writing, editing, and delivering a sermon is one of the best parts of my vocation.  Two, because I’m spoiled.  With the exception of a couple of 2 to 3 month stints due to sabbaticals or health issues, in twelve years of ordained ministry, I’ve never worked as a solo priest.  There has always been someone (or sometwo) with whom I share the preaching load.  That being said, this morning as I opened the lessons for Sunday knowing that I’m not the one preaching, I had one of those, “are we here again already” moments.  It seems like I just preached on Luke 15:1-10.

The reality of the Lectionary cycle is that this lesson hasn’t been read on a Sunday in three years, so if I have dealt with this lesson recently, it was probably at a Wednesday service, but there is something about the Lost Parables that is so familiar, it really can cause deja vu.  It doesn’t take but a few words past the grumbling Pharisees to realize where we are and to elicit a quick and somewhat emotional response.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them…”  I know where this is going… “does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?”  None Jesus.  Not a single person in their right mind would do this.  The one dumb lost sheep is not worth the potential cost of losing 99 others that you have to leave alone in the wilderness, subjected to the elements, to wolves, and to thieves, to find it.  Same goes for the old lady who spends more on the party she throws on finding one coin than the value of that coin.

slide14-1024x576

It just isn’t something that people do.  That’s why these stories have such stickiness.  And it’s exactly Jesus’ intent.  Nobody does such extravagant things over finding that which has been lost, but God does.  All of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents, even more than the joy that is experienced when 99 righteous do their righteous things because Jesus came to seek and save the lost.  Here’s the rub.  All of us are lost.  There is no herd of 99 good sheep hanging around dutifully waiting on their shepherd.  All of us are, as the old hymn goes, “prone to wander.”  So it is that we should all rejoice at how foolish God is to leave the safety of heaven, come to earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, seeking to find every last dumbass, self-serving, wandering sheep.  Even you and even me.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

Last weekend, the Episcopal Church published its annual compilation of Parochial Report statistics. I used to pour over these numbers with great interest, but time doesn’t allow for that any more.  Thankfully God still makes seminarians like Ben Crosby from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale who has both time and energy to dig into such things.[1]  As expected, the decline continues.  The median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in an Episcopal congregation is 53 people, which is lower than the median ASA of our 8 am service.  There are now more congregations with an ASA under 10 than there are parishes with an ASA over 300.  My friend Tom Ferguson also noted that given that the Episcopal Church is 87% Anglo in a nation that is only 62% white and that our average age is 57, compared to an average age of about 37 in the US, the Episcopal Church is becoming less and less able to make the necessary changes to turn the tide around.[2]  As you might imagine, there is not a little bit of hand-wringing and anxiety among leaders in the Episcopal Church over numbers like this.  We might find some solace in the reality that almost every Christian denomination from the Southern Baptists to the Roman Catholics is experiencing statistically significant decline, but if our mission is, as our Prayer Book says, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” then we are clearly failing.[3]

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins by telling us that large crowds of people were travelling with Jesus.  Given the current rate of decline in the Episcopal Church, it would make sense to look to Jesus to see what he can teach us about church growth.  “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  OK, well, let’s look some more.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  Surely, there’s something we can use. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Huh.  Well.  I’m not quite sure Jesus is the church growth guru for us.  It’s no wonder that by the time he arrives at the cross no one but his mom, his closest friend, and a few faithful women were left hanging around.

How do we reconcile these two conflicting forces?  If we learn from Jesus that it is about depth of commitment and not necessarily bigger numbers, but are also pretty certain that our mission calls us to reach out to all people, what are we supposed to do?  Where is the sweet spot between the church with a rock band and fog machine that is designed to appeal to everyone and the old Celtic tradition of wading neck deep into the freezing cold waters of the North Sea and reciting all 150 Psalms from memory?  I think the key to unlocking this puzzle comes in the example Jesus gives about building a tower.  “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether there is enough to complete it? Otherwise, when the foundation has been laid and there isn’t enough to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule the builder.”

Following Jesus comes at a cost.  The Church is not called to be everything for everyone.  We are not here to make following Jesus easy, comfortable, or entertaining, but rather to offer an honest assessment of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.  As a Church, we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to make sacrifices of our time to attend worship; to offer our gifts and talents to the ongoing mission and ministry of God in the world; and to give of our financial resources for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  As a congregation of disciples, the Episcopal arm of the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, we are called to love our neighbors and our enemies; to visit the sick and the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to welcome the stranger.  None of this is easy.  All of it is risky.  Being the Church in the example of Jesus Christ comes at a real cost to us both personally and corporately.

Jesus wants us to know the costs before we start the journey so that we might not lose heart when the going gets tough.  All those who are willing to walk this path, the way of the cross, are invited to come along.  Thankfully, we know that this is not a journey we walk alone.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, we walk with a community of disciples, arm-in-arm with the communion of saints who have gone before, eking ever closer to the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The cost may be high, the model may not be a popular one, but the rewards for us and for the world God created are well worth it.  May God bless us with the resources and the stamina to walk with Jesus on the path to eternal life.  Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/benjamindcrosby/status/1168317805894279173 accessed 9/5/2019.

[2] http://crustyoldean.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-collapse-is-here.html accessed 9/5/2019.

[3] BCP, p. 855.