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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

A Brood of Vipers

I say this often, but I’m constantly amazed at how Biblical texts that are so familiar can be seen in new and different ways.  I mean, we hear the story of JBap at least three Sundays out of the year – that’s nearly 6% of all Sundays – and yet, this morning, as I read, once again, Matthew’s telling of the John the Baptist story, I realized something new.

Because it is so familiar, it is easy to read this story quickly and to let your mind fill in the blanks.  In my head, this is the story of all of Judea and Jerusalem coming to hear John preach and to be baptized by him for the forgiveness of their sins.  Maybe I’m conflating the story from Matthew 11, when Jesus asks the disciples of JBap what they were looking for when they decided to follow John, but I’ve always heard John’s strong rebuke, “You brood of vipers” as being directed at everyone who came out to the Jordan to see him.  I’ve read this to be John’s call to repentance for all who came, but especially toward those who came for the circus; to see John’s wild clothes and to do what everybody else was doing.

In reality, the rebuke isn’t directed at the crowd generally, but specifically at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came from Jerusalem.  Now, this can get dicey if one reads this text with the lens of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, but even there, we miss the point.  It isn’t John decrying the Jewish establishment, as if the Christian version of institutional religion is somehow more pure, but rather, John’s words are directed at real people, specific people, who have corollaries in contemporary society.  John pointedly and directly called the religious leaders of his day “a brood of vipers.”  He accused them of making following God’s commandments comfortable for themselves, but rigorous for their adherents.  He dared to suggest that their way of leading God’s people wasn’t producing real fruit.

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As a minister of the Gospel, it’d be easy for me to brush this harsh critique of religious leadership as directed toward folks like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, but when Matthew says that many Pharisees and Sadducees came to see JBap, he undermines my ability to make this a niche market rebuke.  Rather, it seems that John’s words were directed at all who would dare take on the mantel of religious leadership in a community.  Dare I say, these words are directed toward me; toward you, dear reader; and toward anyone, lay or ordained, or steps out in faith to lead the people of God toward a deeper relationship with God.

Our titles and degrees will not save us and our ministries.  Rather, those who dare to lead will be judged based on the kind of fruit their leadership produces.  Rather than seducing people in with easy, cultural, moral therapeutic Christianity, John’s rebuke invites Christian leaders to do the hard work of naming sin for what it is, calling people to repentance and amendment of life, and motivating them to be about the good works of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

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Telling people what they want to hear is a whole lot easier (and more lucrative), but it’s not the work to which ministers of the Gospel are truly called.  No, we are called to help folks do the hard work of sorting the wheat from the chaff in their own lives so that when the Lord Jesus returns, he might be met with joy rather than fear and sorrow.

Don’t Call Me a Prophet

One of the silly idioms that I’ve learned from my dad over the years is one that gets a lot more use that I would have expected.  I’m not sure where it came from, but when someone would ask my dad, “What should I call you?” he would respond, “Just don’t call me late for supper.”  Being a priest, ordained at 27, and serving in a denomination with an average age of about 8,000, I get this question a lot.  It comes from folks who don’t feel comfortable calling someone their grandson’s age “Father.”  It comes from people who didn’t grow up in a tradition that used any honorific other than “Reverend.”  It comes from inside and outside the church.  Over the years, I’ve borrowed and adapted a response from the late Right Reverend Mark Dyer who would say, “When I die and get to heaven, Jesus won’t call me Bishop (I say Father, which is even more true) and you don’t have to either,” but recently, I’ve found myself living deeply into my dadness and replying that I don’t really care what folks call me as long as they don’t call me late for supper.

There is one other title that I don’t really wish to carry, but it was bestowed upon me way back in my seminary days.  Advent 2 being all about the Prophets, I’ve been reminded of the deep cut my spiritual director, Kathleen Staudt, gave me after one session in which I expressed some of my deep concerns about how the Episcopal Church seemed to be headed into a deep quagmire of Moral Therapeutic Deism and self-preservation naval gazing.  She told me, with a straight face and no wiggle room, “Steve, I think you are called to be a prophet to the church.”  Allow me to revise my earlier dad joke.  Don’t call me late for supper or a prophet.  The life of those who are called to speak God’s truth to the systems of power are never easy.  These systems create intentional barriers to protect themselves from those who are willing to call them out.  People who say difficult things often find themselves on the outside looking in, if they’re not on the inside of some kind of prison cell longing to get out.

In the years since Dr. Staudt bestowed that moniker upon me, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside a lot of great people who carry out the prophetic task with grace and dignity.  I’ve learned that while early John the Baptist might have liked the “You brood of vipers” imagery, the key to the prophetic word is creating space for it to be heard, and coming in hot isn’t always (or ever) the best way to make that happen.  The heavy handed approach often leads to one’s metaphorical and/or literal head on a platter.

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JBap’s message wasn’t well received

Rather, as the Collect for Advent 2 intimates, the call to repentance must always come with an idea about what salvation looks like.  Being a prophet isn’t just about carrying a big stick, but about casting a vision of the future that is built on hope, restoration, and renewal.  One can’t tell the full story of God’s redemption without a call to repentance, but if it ends at shame, guilt, and grief, the take of the prophet is only half done.  Like Isaiah, modern day prophets are called to share the good news of God’s ongoing work of planting and re-planting the root of Jesse so that one day, the Church that follows Jesus Christ might live fully into the vision of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony for the welfare and peace of the world.

Unity, Constancy, and Peace

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I’d imagine that any priest you asked could tell you their favorite parts of the Eucharistic Canon.  Some might have a favorite Eucharistic Prayer.  For others, it might be a paragraph, a sentence, or even a few words.  I have two favorites – one in Rite I and one in Rite II.  I think it is important to pay attention to these parts, the pieces of the liturgy that hit deep in your soul, because, quite frankly, when you are standing up in front of a crowd of people saying the same words over and over again, it can quickly become a rote recitation rather than a prayerful activity.  For me, I find it helpful to feel the prayers in my body, to experience where my heart flutters a bit, where my breath quickens, or where my soul aches.  Favorites change.  Sometimes, it’s about the hurt that Jesus came to assuage.  Sometimes, it’s about the joy that salvation brings.  Most often, for me, it is about the mission to which we are called.  Which is why, more often than not, if you asked me what my favorite part of the Eucharist is, I’d have to say this phrase from Rite II, Prayer A, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”

These words came to mind this morning as I read Paul’s admonition to the Church in Rome.  His thesis is clearly one of unity and peace for the sake of a consistent application of the Gospel.  It seems as though Jewish and Gentile Christians were at odds with one another. Why else would he feel the need to prooftext four different Old Testament passages?  That Jewish and Gentile Christians didn’t always get along isn’t an unknown concept.  The reason we have Deacons as an order in the Church is because Roman Christian widows weren’t being treated the same as Jewish Christian widows.  And so, the prayer of Paul for the Christians in Rome is that God might grant these two communities harmon with one another so that they can glorify God with a united voice.

Unity, Constancy, and Peace.

Given the deep divides in our common life as Christians in 21st Century America, it might behoove us to all be praying for the God of steadfastness and encouragement to grant us to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Jesus Christ.    We ought to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.  Not throwing the other away for their theology which we have determined to be anathema.  Not doubling down on our own rightness as if our beliefs could somehow save the faith, but rather, by listening with open ears and open hearts to the hopes and fears of the other so that we might move toward unity, constancy, and peace.

This is difficult work.  For progressive Christians, it means giving ear to a theology that seems to be dehumanizing to our LGBT+ siblings in Christ.  For conservative Christians, it means creating space for a theology that seems to discredit some of the foundational understandings of Scripture.  Without the ability to even listen to one another, however, we dehumanize the other and throw out the Gospel of grace.  Without an ability to hear the fear of the other, we cut short the work of welcoming the stranger and make impossible the hope of unity for the sake of the Gospel.  Without grace and a willingness to let God do the hard work of deepening faith and relationship, Christians do nothing more than mimic the poisonous culture of politics, echo chambers, and fear.

For 2,000 years, the Church has struggled, perhaps most of all, to make space for the other who also calls on the name of Christ Jesus.  May Paul’s prayer for the Romans be our prayer for this day so that we might come a bit closer to living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the whole world.

Time Out to Give Thanks

Advent 1 and the full rush of the Christmas season may already be upon us, but in a world where JC Penny’s is so desperate for cash that they’re opening at 2pm on Thanksgiving Day, it seems appropriate that this blog, only barely resuscitated from a long layoff, pauses to reflect on Thanksgiving, one of only two secular holidays that is given Major Feast status in our Book of Common Prayer.  Not to get too deep into it, but the tradition of recognizing some kind of harvest festival pre-dates the Christian Way by millennia.  According to Marion Hatchett, in our tradition, a means of giving thanks for God’s provision first appeared in the 1662 Book, and was upgraded to a votive, complete with propers in 1928.  The 1979 Book is the first time it is listed among the Major Feasts (the same pattern from 28 to 79 is true for the other secular feast, Independence Day).  As usual, I’ve digressed.

In my congregation, Thanksgiving Day will be the last celebration of the Eucharist in Year C.  The Gospel lesson appointed comes from John 6 and is well suited to our consumerist culture that requires retail employees to eat Thanksgiving breakfast with their families because they have to work a 12-hour shift beginning at noon so a store full of more crap that nobody needs can open at 2 (Ask me my unpopular hot take on election day as a national holiday sometime).  Jesus, having just fed the multitudes sent his disciples to the other side of the lake while he prayed.  In the middle of the night, Jesus met the boat by walking across the lake, much to the disciples amazement.

The lesson opens with the crowd, having run around the lakeshore to find where Jesus and his disciples had gone asking him, essentially, “how’d you get here?”  Jesus, always quick with a non-sequitur replies by wondering aloud about the crowds motivation.  Did they come seeking him out because he had fed them?  Was it because of the miracles?  No, Jesus suggests, those things, while powerful and indicative of the work God was doing in the world wouldn’t sustain them.  What the crowd really came to find was “food that endures for eternal life.”

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To use a crude metaphor that is from before my time, the Kool-Aid that Americans have guzzled down willingly is that we don’t have enough and more will make us happy.  This theology of scarcity, coupled with the political cult of the zero-sum game has created a scenario in which millions of Americans will rush out on a day that is set aside, by both secular and religious authorities, to give thanks for all that we have, to buy, buy, buy more, more, more.  We are addicted to food that perishes, and the system is quite happy to keep us buying more, paying sales tax, interest, and late fees, until the weight of debt crushes us all.

This Thanksgiving, reject the narrative of “not enough.”  Take the day, the whole day, to stop feeding the addiction to food that perishes, and give thanks to God for the abundance that you already have.  Feasting on food that endures to eternal life will do good for your soul.

A Romans 13 Advent

The one exception to my rant against the ant-Christmas Advent mafia comes by way of the Revised Common Lectionary.  Until my one man campaign to change the liturgical calendar, moving Advent to November and expanding Christmas from the Sunday after Thanksgiving through Epiphany, is successful (spoiler alert – it never will be thanks to the lies we tell ourselves about the way things have always been) we will be stuck with some pretty tough lessons on the Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Year A is no exception.

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One of the cliches of the secular Christmas season is the Christmas party at which somebody/everybody drinks too much.  A quick Google image search of “Christmas party” leads to lots and lots of pictures of champagne toasts and people having way more fun than is humanly possible.  Pre-2019, this was coupled with tales of random hook-ups at office parties and icky stories of harassment by drunk executives.  Yet, on Sunday morning in Advent 1, Year A, we will hear Paul encouraging the fledgling Church to be ready for Christ’s second coming by living “honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Over the course of this past year, my own relationship with alcohol has changed quite a bit.  After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, my new medication had printed twice on the label something like “do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.”  After more than a decade and a half of being “a couple of beers after work” guy, I’ve become more of a “occasional good glass of bourbon” guy.  In the initial stages, I went something like 3 months without a drop of alcohol and realized just how consumed with booze our culture is.  TV, movies, advertising, social commentary, dining out, whatever it is, the norm in our culture seems to include alcohol, and too much of it.

Maybe it makes sense, then, that we are met on Advent 1 by Romans 13:11-14.  Perhaps in the lead up to the greatest joy earth has ever known, we might set aside the things that dull us to the pains of the world; that which tries to fill our never ending search for joy and happiness.  I’m not saying everyone needs to take a dry Advent, but certainly we ought to avoid the traditional office party cliches that Paul names directly: drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness.  A Romans 13 Advent invites us to look forward with clear minds and open hearts to the good news of great joy that will come to us again on Christmas.

New Year’s Resolution

It is that time again.  The people involved change.  They take on new monikers like Weird Anglican Twitter (WAT).  The arguments are more or less obvious.  Yet, it happens like clockwork.  Every year, about two weeks after that one FM station switches over to all Christmas all the time and those big box hardware stores are filled with inflatable things  of all kinds wearing Santa hats the snotty Episcopal crowd gets all fussy about the liturgical calendar.  “Christmas starts December 25th,” they cry out into the void of their slowly dying congregations.  For the one time all year when the American mindset is, even with impure motives, focused on peace, joy,  and love – the things that Jesus found pretty important – Episcopalians on social media are trying to wrap a wet blanket on the whole season.

It is that time of year again wherein I rebel against this craziness.  Let me be the voice of one crying out in the wilderness and invite you, dear reader, to cast off these works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.  If you need to put your tree up in November, its ok, I promise you it doesn’t cause early snows (that’s unchecked greed and climate change).  If you need to belt out “All I Want for Christmas is You,” in your best-worst Mariah Cary impersonation, go for it.  You need the Muppets and John Denver Christmas album, I affirm your choice.  Rather than getting all fussy about timing, I’m happy to embrace the best parts of the Christmas season.  It seems this year, maybe more than ever, “We all need a little Christmas now.”

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What I would recommend this Advent season is to, in the midst of your Christmas revelry and before the pressure of the Gregorian Calendar New Year weighs heavy, is that you take this changing of the season and the liturgical new year, to make your new year’s resolution.  Here’s mine – to take better care of my spiritual self.

Life is busy.  With kids involved in stuff, work always in my pocket, and my schedule increasingly not under my control, I’ve lost my moorings.  As you have seen, blogging was the first to go.  The 20 or 30 minutes that were so easy to find in seminary, as an associate, and even in my early days as a Rector seem more elusive as the days roll by.  The Daily Office held on longer, but it too has succumb to the pressures of my own making.  So, here’s my Advent 1 New Year’s Resolution – to get back to it.  To read the Daily Office with regularity and to write on this here blog, or if that’s not feeding my soul anymore, to find a new spiritual discipline, in order to feed my soul.  As we enjoy the increased skyglow that comes with Christmas decorations, I ask you to pray for me in trying to keep my new year’s resolution and, if you share, I’ll pray for you in yours.

Faithful Endurance – 175 Years of CECBG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] Ibid., 234-5.

[5] Ibid., 235.

[6] Ibid., 236.

[7] Ibid., 236.