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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

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Blessings and Woes

As promised on Monday, today I feel compelled to write something coherent about Luke’s version of the beatitudes from Matthew.  As one compares the two sets of teachings, two things come immediately into focus.  First, as I noted on Monday, Luke is much more focused on the nitty gritty, real life stuff.  Second, while Matthew is focused solely on the the “Blessed are you…”s, Luke deals with both the blessing and its opposite woe.

Blessed are you who are poor | Woe to you who are rich
Blessed are you who are hungry | Woe to you who are full
Blessed are you who weep | Woe to you who are laughing
Blessed are you when people hate you | Woe to you when all speak well of you

This parallel structure indicates that Jesus was a really good rhetorical preacher, but it also helps to highlight what Jesus is doing in this scene.  The disciples, to whom Jesus is explicitly speaking, as well as the crowd, which we have to assume is still lingering in the background, would hear these words for Jesus and immediately have their minds taken to the blessings and curses found in Deuteronomy.  On the heels of some pretty pointed teaching about the sabbath in Luke 6:1ff, Jesus seems to be reordering the Law by highlighting its root intention.

In Deuteronomy 28, Moses sets down a list of blessings for those who “fully obey the LORD and follow all the commandments of God.”  Similarly, Moses lays out a list of curses that will fall upon all those who “do not obey the LORD and carefully follow God’s commandments.”  Over time, these blessings and curses had come to be associated with the letter of the law – be eat working on the sabbath or the very particular way in pots must be washed – but here Jesus is harkening the crowd back to their roots.

It isn’t about the letter of the law, but rather the spirit of the law.  The letter of the law has created a world in which there are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep.  The letter of the law, in its current abusive incarnation, has made a class of those who are so rich that they don’t know what to do with themselves, who are so satiated and yet still want more, who look down on those who are less fortunate than themselves and laugh with scorn.  Here, Jesus calls “Horse Hockey” on those who have interpreted the law to their own economic advantage.

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“You may be blessed now,” Jesus intimates, “but if your whole worldview is aimed at filling your barns today, that’s all you’ll ever achieve.  Instead, in the great reversal of the Kingdom, it will be those whose lives were dedicated to others, who found themselves poor and neglected, who were committed to deep relationships who will find themselves blessed.  Oh, and if you think that you can use this teaching to hold other down by some kind of promise of future redemption, you too will find yourself in amongst the woes.”

Vestiges of Rite I

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of my GOE scores and comments arriving by USPS.  I can still remember the power that silly day held over so many of us.  In the two years I studied at VTS before I took the General Ordination Exams, we were all but told to walk on egg shells around the seniors on GOE score day.  These Exams held our futures, and whether we passed or not could mean huge delays in the ordination process.  Of course, by the time January 2007 rolled around, several dioceses had started ordaining folks to the transitional diaconate in the fall semester of their senior year, thereby neutering the power of the GOEs for many.  As I am wont to do, I engaged in some of the anxiety around it all, after all, I wouldn’t be ordained a deacon until after I had successfully graduated from seminary, but I was also keenly away that the GOEs were wearing no clothes.

Rather than ramp up the anxiety machine by making the next generation of GOE takers scared to death to talk to me, I immediately blogged my scores, comments and all, because honestly, like any comprehensive professional certification exam, the whole thing is process of market manipulation and hazing, and ain’t nobody got time for that in the church.  Back in those days, scores were 1-5, with anything less than a 3 was considered a failing grade.  The Liturgy and Church Music question my year asked us to compare Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching our Worship to Eucharistic Prayer I from Rite I in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  I got a 3 and this was part of the comments, “The limited use of theological terminology inhibits the paper’s capacity to compare and contrast the two prayers.”  So, I guess I answered the question barely, which was enough to pass.

Anyway, my focus in that essay was the basic posture from which the prayer is made.  In EOW, the anthropology is quite high.  We come before God almost in our post-resurrection state.  In contrast, Rite I’s basic anthropology is our sinful wretchedness.  I used to think that EOW missed the boat and Rite I was way more accurate a read of humanity, but over time, I’ve started to realize that depending on they day, sometimes, we might need to be bolstered up in our belovedness rather than weighed down in our brokenness.  That being said, it is helpful to occasionally be reminded that God is God and we are not; that God is good, and by and large, we are not.  Which is why I’m grateful for the collect for Epiphany 6/Proper 1.  This prayer, which dates from the mid-eighth century, is quite clear in where humanity falls on the goodness meter.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,  “The collect reminds us that without the grace of God we can neither will nor do any good thing nor be pleasing to God.”  This certainly doesn’t jive with modern “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology, but let’s face it, that’s got to be ok.  If all we do is good, then there is no need for God.  It doesn’t take too long in the world today to recognize that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, and that, as Dr. Cox would remind us:

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I’m grateful for the vestiges of Rite I, and for the occasional reminder that no matter how good I might think I am, I, like everyone else, am in need of a savior who can lead me into the goodness that God has planned for me.

Paul’s Logic

If you thought yesterday’s Proper Math was challenging, then you must not have read the New Testament lesson appointed for Epiphany 6C.  Anyone who has done any reading of Paul’s letters can attest to the fact that he could really spin a yarn.  A former Pharisee and a Greek citizen trained in rhetoric, Paul loved to dive into the weeds of logic, and only occasionally came out the other side with something that made any sense.  I even saw recently that someone on Facebook had nominated him at the Patron Saint of dependent clauses.

Paul’s penchant for circular arguments is made all the more difficult when the situation which he is addressing is a complicated one, and boy howdy was the church in Corinth a complicated situation.  Having dealt with arguments over class and privilege, over apostleship and gift, now Paul finds himself face-to-face with a group of Jesus followers who came from a tradition that didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead.  It is likely that among them were some former Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

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What makes Paul’s argument so convoluted is the problem that occurs in most religious arguments – they always begin at a point of presumed certainty, which then requires some kind of mental acrobatics to fit within the logic structure of the other.  The gospel that Paul proclaims is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The basic premise of his interlocutors is that there is no resurrection of the dead.  In the world of Venn Diagrams, these are mutually exclusive sets.  How then can Paul prove that Jesus’ resurrection is a real thing to someone who doesn’t believe that resurrection is possible?  Well, you can read Paul’s attempt and see that it ain’t easy.

What I learn from Paul’s mind experiment is that religious discussion must always begin from a place of vulnerability and humility.  Logic is not the way to win a conversation with someone who believes differently than you do.  Winning shouldn’t even be the goal.  Rather, the goal of any encounter with an “other” is to learn and grow yourself.  Conversion is not our main end, that’s God’s work.  Ours is only to tell the story of the Gospel as we have experienced it.

Paul may never convince these former Sadducees that the resurrection is real, but he can certainly share with them the power of his own experience of the resurrected Jesus, from the road to Damascus all the way to imprisonment in Rome.  That’s the crux of evangelism.  Not well crafted apologetics, but a true accounting of the hope in which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, live our lives.

Proper Math

If I’m honest, and who would care enough to lie about such things, I much prefer Luke’s Blessings and Woes to Matthew’s Beatitudes.  I think it has to do with the visceral nature of Luke’s version of some of Jesus’ most famous teaching.  Rather than the poor in spirit being blessed, we hear from Jesus that it is, in fact, the poor who are blessed, the hungry who will be fed, and those who mourn will find themselves overcome with laughter.  If the Kingdom of God is about some kind of grand reversal, then these moves from one fully relatable state of being to its opposite helps me visualize something that is otherwise way beyond my ability to comprehend.  What’s frustrating to me is that we so rarely get to hear Luke’s version of the Blessings and Woes.

I like to consider myself something of a rubrical snob.  I think clergy should learn to read italics, if only to know what rules they are violating as the illusion of common prayer slowly fades into the mist alongside apostolic succession and Dom Gregory Dix.  I have to admit, however, that my understanding of the liturgical calendar and its partner in crime, the Lectionary, is less than adequate.

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Epiphany 6, Year C, the only time when Luke 6:17-26 is appointed for the Sunday readings, is something of a lectionary anomaly.  Let’s look at the proper math.  Epiphany 6 is also known as Proper 1, but according to the rubrics on 158, Proper 1 is never actually read on a Sunday, but rather, it informs the lessons used for a celebration of the Eucharist that occur during the week following the Day of Pentecost, and even then, only if Pentecost falls on or before May 14th.  If Pentecost occurs between May 15 and May 26, there is no chance that Epiphany 6 or Proper 1 are read at all.  Only if Easter falls on or April 10 will we have the chance to read Epiphany 6, and to get Luke 6, it also has to be Year C which begins on Advent 1 of the year before a year that is divisible by 3.  Got that?

I’ve lost most you by now, I’m sure.  Please check back later this week for some real content for preaching.  Suffice it to say for now, that I’m going to savor Luke’s Blessings and Woes because by my math, I have no idea when we’ll get to hear them again.

Spontaneous Volunteerism

The sermon begins at about the 15 minute mark.


My older half-brother, Ed, served in the United States Air Force for more than thirty-two years.  He was active in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded several medals and commendations.  Ed is quite a bit older than I am, so we really only see each other at major family events like weddings, funerals, and graduations.  I remember one time listening to Ed talk about his time in the military, I think from when he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  He was talking about the lessons life in the Air Force had taught him, one of which was “when they ask for volunteers, always raise your hand.”  “At worst,” he said, “you’ll have to wash a truck, but you might get to go home.  No matter what, it is better than sitting around.”

I can’t help but wonder if Simon Peter subscribed to a similar life philosophy.  I like to joke about Peter’s impetuous nature.  He certainly was of the “ready, shoot, aim” school of ministry.  He was always ready to say or do something, whether it made any sense or not.  In reading our Gospel lesson for this morning, however, I’m beginning to think that this style was cultivated in him by Jesus from the beginning?  What if Jesus chose Peter precisely because he was always ready to raise his hand and volunteer?  In fact, between the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke and the calling of the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, it seems as though God rather enjoys working with those who are ready to jump into service without quite knowing what that service will actually look like.

In the lesson from Isaiah, we hear God’s initial call to the prophet.  It is a majestic scene, in which Isaiah actually comes face-to-face with the Lord God Almighty, an event thought to be so holy that it would cause any human being to die instantly.  There, standing before the throne of God, hearing a voice so powerful that the very foundations of the earth shook beneath him, Isaiah was so keenly aware of his unworthiness that he cried out to God, “Woe to me!”  Even after an angel touched a live coal taken from the altar of God directly to Isaiah’s lips, he was eager to answer God’s call with, “Here am I; send me!”  Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Isaiah’s work, but lessons from his book have been the Daily Office readings of late, and let me tell you, he had no idea what he was signing up for.  His stinging words of rebuke to the leaders of Israel brought him significant hardship, and yet, Isaiah stood firm, answering again and again God’s call to proclaim judgement.

You are likely more familiar with the trials and tribulations of Peter, who in our story for today makes his first appearance in Luke’s Gospel.  We find Simon Peter tired after a long and frustrating night of not catching fish on the Sea of Galilee.  He and his companions were doing the work that you have to do at the end of a day of fishing – work that is a lot more fun when there is the promise of fresh fish when it is over.  The only thing on Simon Peter’s mind at that moment was going home and going to bed.  Tomorrow night was already coming quickly, and rest was the order of the day.  That is, until a commotion rose up around them.  Jesus had been preaching further down the shore, when suddenly, the crowd was upon them.  As Peter looked up from his net, he was just in time to see Jesus stepping over the gunwale of his boat.

“Can you put out a bit so that the crowd can hear me?” Jesus asked.

“Get your own dang boat,” might have been my reply, but that’s not what Simon Peter did.  Impulsive Peter hopped in and pushed off.  As he sat there at the feet of Jesus, something seems to have clicked in Simon’s mind.  The message of the Kingdom of God coming near spoke to a deep longing that Simon Peter might not have even known he had.  Who knows how long he sat there as Jesus taught the crowds, but when he was done, Peter once again looked up at Jesus just in time to be put to work.

“Head out to the deep water and throw out your nets for a catch,” Jesus suggests.

This time, Peter pushes back just a bit, “Master, we fished all night long and didn’t catch thing.”  His retort didn’t stick however, as he quickly changes course, “but if you say so, I’ll give it a try.”  Peter threw his net over the side of the boat, not knowing what was going to happen next.  This Jesus character promised him a catch, but he didn’t say what kind.  Was he hoping just for enough to feed himself?  Did he want to feed the crowd that had gathered or the entire Village of Capernaum.  Peter didn’t know, and thanks to his spontaneous streak, Peter didn’t seem to care either.  Out went the nets and the haul of fish was so enormous that it threatened to sink both his boat and the one James and John had brought out to help.[1]

Peter’s response to this miraculous scene is not unlike Isaiah’s response to seeing the throne of God.  Immediately, he fell to his knees and worshipped Jesus in fear and trembling.  “Go away from me, O Lord, for a I am a sinful man.”  Again, just like it was for Isaiah, God won’t let Peter off quite so easily.  From Isaiah’s “whom shall I send,” to Peter’s “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people,” in both cases the response was the same – they dropped everything and followed God’s call, with no idea what was going to happen next.

I am not like Isaiah, nor like Peter.  I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body.  I hate surprises, and I almost always have a plan.  Following God, however, often means throwing the plan out the window, raising your hand, and saying, “here I am God, what do you need?”  In October of last year, in the midst of all the amazing things we have going on here at Christ Church, a crowd arrived on our doorstep.  We have named them the Cloister Community, but that just a fancy church euphemism for people who are experiencing homelessness and find themselves sleeping in our Cloister.  At first, I didn’t really know what to do.  I mean, we all knew that folks have been sleeping out there for years, but all of a sudden, they were visible.  It is as if I looked up from cleaning my nets one day and suddenly saw a whole group of people that I had never seen before.  It was a rocky start.  People, personal belongings, blankets, pallets, bikes, and even shopping carts seemed to multiply by the day. I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to push back against this change, to fear for our beautiful campus, and to want to shoo them away.  Something kept that from happening; probably the influence of Deacon Kellie, Mother Becca, and other lay leaders who would soon develop into a group called Sacred Conversations that is devoted to praying for our Cloister Community and seeking ways to help them move on to long-term, sustainable housing solutions.

After a painfully slow six weeks or so, in December, we published a set of community expectations, and for the past eight weeks, we’ve been working daily to help ensure those expectations are being met, building relationships, and generally following the Peter model of ministry – ready, fire, aim.  It hasn’t always been pretty.  There have been unintended consequences both good and bad, but we are making progress toward our goal of providing a safe, temporary place for those experiencing homelessness to sleep.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  I wish we had a grand plan.  I wish there was a flow-chart I could post in my office, but it seems that God’s ways are not my ways.  All God asks is for you to raise your hand and volunteer.  Slowly but surely, the rest will be revealed.

If you want to raise your hand and say “here am I; send me,” come pray with us on the porch, Mondays at 4pm or join our Sacred Conversations meetings on Wednesdays at 4 in the Conference Room.  Jesus loves to make use of Peters and Isaiahs who are flexible and spontaneous, just as he loves to make use of me, a planner and organizer.  I don’t know what will come of this latest invitation to walk with our neighbors; but as my brother would say following Jesus brings a whole lot more blessing than sitting around.  Amen.

[1] I am grateful to Lauren Dow Wegner for her imagery. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-10-epiphany-5c-luke-51-11-isaiah-61-8-9-13 (accessed 1/5/19)

 

Unexpected Work

The work day was just about over for Simon, James, and John.  It hadn’t been a particularly fruitful night on the water, but in the fishing-game, that happens sometimes.  You can’t get too frustrated with fish – they are wild animals after all.  Catch or no catch, each day ended the same way, with cleaning and resetting the nets for tomorrow.  My job isn’t particularly strenuous, at least physically, but I still know what it feels like to be tired at the end of the day, ready to go home, when something or someone unexpected comes to call.  Given that swearing at people and casting them into outer darkness is frowned upon in my line of work, I’ve given my fair share of “Well, we were wrapping up for the day, but we’ll see what we can do” answers, just like Simon Peter tried with Jesus.

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The thing about this story from Luke is how no matter how different our circumstance might be from that encounter between Jesus and those who would be his first disciples, it doesn’t take too long to realize that following Jesus can mean all kinds of unexpected work.  Whether it is weekly meetings to pray about the rising presence of those experiencing homelessness in your community or sitting in on a stewardship meeting or stepping up to Usher when you thought you might just sit in the pew this Sunday, following Jesus means an ongoing invitation to loving service to God, God’s people, and the Church.

This was made clear to me on Monday afternoon as I sat in the gallery of one of the rooms where Warren County Circuit Court takes place.  I was there to offer pastoral support to a member of our community who has made a lot bad decisions over the years.  It was a hearing without much hope for my friend, but one which I knew I needed to attend.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the three hours of prayerful people watching that would follow.  Circuit Court is an interesting place, and for most of the first hour, the din of conversation in the gallery made it next to impossible to understand what was going on in the various hearings, but I was able to discern several things, most of which weren’t really new, but did reinforce old lessons.  First, most of the folks who were entering into plea deals with the Commonwealth hadn’t graduated from high school.  Second, methamphetamines destroy peoples lives.  Third, public defenders have a really difficult job to do.  Fourth, judges can be fair, reasoned, and despite the difficult work and too high a standard to which they are called, human.

I didn’t expect to sit in a courtroom for more than three hours on Monday.  I had hoped to go to the doctor for a sinus infection and get home early, but the work of following Jesus is often unexpected, and as was the case for Simon, James, and John, sometimes, it comes just as you think your day is ending.  Still, to do the holy work to which we are all called – not just us professional minister types – is a gift.  Unexpected work often brings with it unexpected joy.  Maybe part of this discipleship journey is being able to see the joy amidst the work.

From Master to Lord

Luke’s version of Jesus calling his first disciples feels like something of a non sequitur.  After a chapter full of stories of teaching and healing in and around Galilee, it feels like Jesus has a bit of crew hanging around him.  Yet, by the time we get to chapter 5, Luke feels compelled to let us in on how the band first got together.  As if by way of a flashback, Luke begins the story of Jesus calling Peter, James, and John with, “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God…”

So, once upon a time, Jesus was hanging out by a lake with a crowd so large he couldn’t hear himself think.  Quick on his feet, as the Son of God should be, Jesus decided to use the natural amphitheater of the lakeshore to his advantage and he asked Simon (Peter) to put his boat out into the water a bit so that he could teach the crowd.  When he was finished with his sermon, presumably on the nearness of the Kingdom of God, Jesus asked Simon to head out into the deep water in order to catch some lunch.

Simon (Peter), exhausted from a long night of fishing but not catching, reluctantly follows the Rabbi’s instructions, but not without a good, passive aggressive, gibe.  “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  But, if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.”  Master caught my attention this morning because it clearly isn’t Lord, which is what people usually call Jesus in the Gospels.  In the Greek, the word translated as master is the generic word for someone who is appointed over someone else – a superintendent or an overseer.  In the culture of his day, Simon no doubt recognizes that this itinerant Rabbi is of a higher class than him, but he is also pretty sure that lifetime of fishing on that lake made him an expert.  In the parlance of the South, it might be as if Simon (Peter) says to Jesus, “OK, hoss, we’ll do it your way.”

What follows is a most miraculous event.  The catch of fish is so large that it almost sinks two boats.

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What is the most ridiculous part of this stock image of the scene?  My vote is on Lazy Jesus.

Luke tells us that everyone who witnessed this event were amazed at what they say.  No doubt the crowd gathered on the lakeshore knew as well as Simon did that fish don’t bite that late into the morning.  Yet, there before their very eyes, was a catch such that they had never seen before.  Simon Peter is moved from skeptic to believer in that experience.  Jesus is no longer simply master, but now he has become Lord.  Peter fell to his knees and worshiped Jesus saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  He wasn’t exactly sure what this Jesus guy was, but he knew that God was with him.

Many followers of Jesus since then have had deeply profound encounters with Jesus that helped them come to faith.  Many others, myself included, have simply been a part of the Way their whole lives.  Being called as a disciple doesn’t require the miraculous catch, but rather, a willingness to see Jesus as something more than simply a special teacher, a master, but rather as Lord.