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

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Marvel, Wonder, Awe

Do you remember what it feels like to experience something you couldn’t quite grasp?  An experience so powerful that it left you speechless, smiling from ear to ear?  Can you remember that feeling of wonder, amazement, and awe?  Sometimes it happens to you.  Maybe it was meeting your favorite author, seeing a close magic trick, or the joy of good worship.  Maybe you felt it through the eyes of someone else.  Two weeks ago, I saw that sense of wonder again and again through the eyes of FBC and SBC during our Fall Break trip to Disney World.  It is a truly magical feeling, and it is often totally unexpected

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SBC meets Olaf

It may seem odd to think about these positive experiences of wonder and awe in light of the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  This is a story of fear, entrapment, and power, what does it have to do with the profoundly good feeling of joy and wonder: the stuff we pray for at Baptism?  Well, it seems as though an encounter meant to trap Jesus into either blasphemy or treason ended up having a profound impact on his would be nemeses.

“When they heard this, they were amazed.” Mt. 22:22a

The Greek word translated as “amazed” can also mean “marvel” or “wonder.”  Jesus’ brilliant response to their trap left even those who saw him as an enemy in a state of sheer wonderment.  Perhaps they were disappointed or frustrated, but I think it is more likely that they were beginning to realize that Jesus was something more than a thorn in their side.  This Jesus character was the real deal.  As Tuesday in Holy Week wears on, there are two more encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees.  First, a lawyer asks him about the greatest commandment.  Second, Jesus schools them on the Messiah.  By the end of the day, Matthew tells us, they wouldn’t ask Jesus another question.  They so marveled at his wisdom, that they had to know he was someone or something special.

So, if even the Pharisees marveled at Jesus, what is stopping you?  Episcopalians tend to be heady people.  They want to know a lot about Jesus, but end up not knowing Jesus very well at all.  Ask God for a personal encounter with Christ.  Create space and silence to welcome Jesus in.  Feel the wonder and marvel at his love.

Discipleship as giving my life back to God

I’m writing this blogpost somewhere in the air between Philadelphia, PA and Nashville, TN.  I’m too cheap to pay for inflight wifi, so it’ll be posted from the ground somewhere, but that sentence just felt cool to write.  I’ve spent the last three days at the Discipleship Matters Conference at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh or Port Washington or some such place.  It seems nothing in the Philadelphia suburbs is actually located in the town in which it claims to be.  For three days, I’ve been immersed in the deep end of God’s work in calling the Episcopal Church to deeper relationship with God and with one another.  The plenary sessions were live streamed and the recordings can be viewed on the Diocese of Pennsylvania Facebook page.  I especially encourage you to check out the opening panel discussion (starting at about 16:30), not because I was on it (at least not only for that reason), but because of the depth of passion and engagement present in my three co-panelists and the closing panel discussion because of the deeply practical ways in which St. James’ Madison Avenue, a resourced New York congregation, has created a culture of discipleship that doesn’t require resources.

With the last three days swirling in my mind, my attention is beginning to turn to a sermon for Sunday.  It seems logical to me that these two things would be blurry as I breathe recycled air at 36,000 feet.  It may fall into the category of eisegesis, but I can’t help but read Jesus’ answer to the trick question of the Pharisees as a call to something deeper than the separation of church and state.  Instead, I think it is a call to a life of discipleship.

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Photo by the Rev. Cn. Stephanie Spellers

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As I consider this passage, I can’t help but realize that everything belongs to God.  My very life, every breath I take, comes from God.  If I am going to take seriously these words for Jesus, then I have to be willing to give my whole life back to God, which isn’t a bad definition of discipleship.  I give my mind back to God through studying scripture and theology.  I give my heart back to God by using the compassion that comes from it to motivate the loving service of others and by opening it up to God in prayer.  I give my hands back to God by writing this blog, sermons, and notes of thanks, concern, and welcome.  I give my feet back to God by walking into hospital rooms, dining rooms, and standing behind the altar.  I give my wealth back to God by tithing for the upbuilding of the Kingdom.  I give my spiritual gift of administration back to God by effectively leading Christ Church into the future that God dreams for it.

What does discipleship look like for you?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving? Are you studying? Are you working at building the church?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  How are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?  What are you holding back?  What is God asking you to offer him today?  If discipleship is being a good steward of the things that God has given us, then maybe this week is an opportunity for a personal stewardship campaign: an invitation to give back to God everything that he has so graciously given us.

Approaching Jesus with good intentions

This Sunday is one of those weeks where preachers can do a lot of unintentional damage.  I’ve done some, over the years.  I’d be willing to be most of us have because when it comes to the dichotomy setup between Jesus and the Pharisees, it all seems so easy.  The Gospels often use the Pharisees as a foil against Jesus the hero.  They are the theological straw men upon which the Gospel writer builds their theology of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Pharisees play interlocutor to teacher Jesus so that he can expound a deep piece of wisdom.  And we, 21st century preachers, don’t know enough about the Pharisees/inherit two millenia of anti-Judiasm/succumb to the temptation of supersessionism and we put them before out congregations as sacrificial lambs for our sermon’s narrative arc.  We can do better, if, for on other reason than we are the modern day Pharisees and we ought to be careful.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Matthew tells us that Jesus can read the intentions of the Pharisees.  As a reminder, it is Holy Week, and tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day is about to boil over.  He’s come to town riding a donkey to cries of “Hosanna” and “Son of David.”  He has flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple.  He has engaged in theological debate.  He has threatened their understanding of the way in which God works.  That Jesus perceives malice in their question about paying taxes makes perfect sense.  This up and coming Rabbi is threatening not just their piety, but the foundation of the Pax Romana, and when one upsets Rome, the collateral damage is extensive.

It would be easy to say, “those Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, don’t be like them,” but how often do we approach the throne of grace with 100% pure intentions?  What percentage of the time are our prayers self-serving?  How often does fear of losing the comfort of the status quo motivate us to pray?  When do we not come before our Lord hoping to get something from him?  If Jesus was able to discern the motivations of the Pharisees, he is able to do the same with us.  As you say your prayers today, come with a clean heart and a settled spirit.  Come not looking for anything in return.  Don’t expect good feelings, comfort, or joy.  Before we look down our noses at the Pharisees, we ought check ourselves.

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How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

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As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.

Prayer brings peace – a sermon

The audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website once I get to reliable internet access… I hope.


In the fall of 2006, I began my final year of seminary.  After two years of not quite fitting in, I finally found my groove.  My classes were enjoyable, I had made some life-long friendships, and by then, I was even serving as Student Body President.  Cassie was happy at her work, she had good friends, and everything seemed to be running smoothly, until the evening of September 26th.  Our senior class retreat was scheduled for the next day, so this Thursday night was particularly hectic.  We did some grocery shopping, filled up the gas tank, and stopped at the liquor store; fulfilling all the requirements of a seminary class retreat.  It was getting late, and so we grabbed an ill-advised dinner from Taco Bell.  Not long after that, it started.  The stomach ache grew and grew, until I couldn’t find peace.  I spent the night tossing and turning.  In bed, on the couch, into the office, back to bed.  I had never felt so uncomfortable from a stomach ache before.  After a mostly sleepless night, and too many symptom checks on WebMD, I decided I should get looked at.

Cassie and I arrived at the INOVA Hospital Emergency Room at about 7:30 Friday morning.  After getting checked in, I called the Dean of Students’ office to let her know where I was.  As I came out of the CT Scan room, Marge was standing right outside the door, where she prayed for me, right there in the hallway.  Immediately, things began to feel better.  No, the pain didn’t leave.  There was no miraculous healing.  Yet, I distinctly remember something changing in that moment.  By about noon, it was clear that my appendix, not Taco Bell, had betrayed me, and it would have to come out.  Cassie made the requisite phone calls, and soon, the number of people praying for me began to grow exponentially: family members, the student body at VTS, my field ed. parish in Potomac, Maryland, my sponsoring parish in Lancaster, Cassie’s church in Grove City, my Bishop, and the clergy of Central Pennsylvania.  Prayers were going up across the eastern seaboard, and despite a five and a half hour wait for an operating room, Cassie and I both later reflected on the profound peace we felt in the midst of the uncertainty.  Yes, an appendectomy is considered “minor-surgery,” but minor surgery only happens to someone else.  I found myself in such a peaceful place that sometime, mid-afternoon, I fell asleep, right in the middle of the giant, curtain lined, pre-op waiting room.

As I’ve talked with Mother Becca this week, I’ve been reminded of my appendectomy story.  While her surgery wasn’t anything close to “minor,” she’s expressed to me on a few different occasions how at peace she feels in the midst of ambiguity.  Even as the first round of pathology results came back inconclusive, her mood was calm, noting that maybe taking things one step at a time would prove easier.  On Wednesday, when I checked on how she was doing the day after her eight-hour surgery, her response was Spirit-filled, “I have always believed in the power of prayer,” she wrote via text message, “but now I have experienced it in a deeper way than ever before.  I’m grateful for this as much as I’m grateful for the abundance of people praying for me.”  These stories, among dozens of others that I’ve experienced in my ministry, are all the proof I need to believe the truth of Paul’s encouraging words to the church in Philippi.  As Paul finishes his letter, he recapitulates several themes in quick succession.  His words, which are familiar to many, recounted in the comfortable blessing from the Rite I service of Holy Eucharist, are words that I hold close to me in times of uncertainty and fear; times like those we are experiencing in our congregation, in our nation, and even in the world.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  These aren’t instructions for a self-help manual that will lead you to “your best life now.” They aren’t meant to make you feel guilty when you do worry.  Instead, they are the very real reminder that only God can bring peace in the midst of disquietude.  Yes, Paul’s mood is imperative.  His verbs are commandments, not suggestions, but they are commandments made knowing full well that we cannot keep them on our own.  Paul knows this as well as anyone.  The Letter to the Philippians was written by Paul while in a Roman prison.  His missionary journeys had been successful, but several of the churches he founded along the way were riddled with strife.  Many questioned the authenticity of his claim for apostleship.  For various reasons, Paul knew what it was like to live in uncertainty and fear, and yet, he wrote with conviction, that the way of Christ’s followers is a way of joy, free from anxiety, and full of thankfulness and peace.

How could he be so sure?  How can we find that kind of peace that surpasses all understanding?  The answer seems to lay right in the middle of this passage.  It is the answer I found in my appendectomy story, and the answer Becca is experiencing right now.  It is the power of prayer.  “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Prayer is tricky thing.  The tradition teaches us that God is immutable, and that our prayers do not change the will of God, and yet the Scriptures tell of God’s openness to change.  An obvious example is Abraham and God bartering back and forth about the destruction of the city of Sodom.  The people of Sodom had failed to show hospitality to the stranger, and for failing to live into the most basic commandment of loving their neighbor, God planned to wipe them off the map.  Abraham balked, questioning God’s willingness to smite the righteous with the unrighteous.  “What if you find fifty righteous there?  Will you still destroy the city?”  God relents, he will not unleash his wrath if he finds fifty righteous.  Abraham negotiates God down to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and all the way to ten.  It seems that prayer can have an impact on the will of God.

The hard reality, however, is that the answer to our prayers rarely happens as we would wish.  In the end, Sodom was still destroyed.  Despite all the people praying for me that Friday afternoon, my appendix still had to be removed.  There was no miraculous healing, but there was peace, and that, is what Paul is promising on behalf of God here at the end of his letter to the Philippians.  When we pray for the needs of another, we create a connection with God, but it doesn’t stop there.  In those prayers, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we connect with those for whom we pray.  Hundreds, if not thousands of people, were present to Becca in her hospital room this week, as their prayers rose to heaven and their compassion and love made its way to Vanderbilt Hospital.  The peace that surpasses all understanding comes when the saints of God gather around one of their own in need, and I promise you, based on my experience, that peace will guard your heart and your mind and bring peace against all uncertainty.

So, pray.  Pray without ceasing.  Not just for Becca, but for Christ Church and all those on our parish prayer list.  Pray for our nation and its leaders.  Pray for Bowling Green, Warren County, for our schools, for our continued growth, and for those who find themselves in need.  Make your requests known to God, with a healthy dose of thanksgiving, and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will be present to us all, guarding our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, and leading us to joy that is beyond all measure.  Prayer works, my friends.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve felt it.  I’ve lived it.  And you can too.  Amen.

By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

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My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

Keeping it Basic

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My favorite lyric right now comes from the track “Mouth of the River” on the new Imagine Dragons album Evolve.  Unfortunately, I can’t share the track with you because of copyright issues, but I promise you, if you buy the album, you won’t be disappointed.  Anyway, the lyric goes like this:

Oh I’m alkaline
I’m always keeping to the basics

I like this line for several reasons.  First, it is really nerdy, which I dig.  Second, it is really fun to sing, which I need right now.  Evolve is my running album and I hate running, so having fun things is good.  Third, it restores the word “basic” which has been co-opted of late as pejorative colloquialism to describe “middle class white women who are perceived to predominantly like mainstream products, trends, or music.” (1) or “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.” (2)  I’ve never been a fan of taking words that are commonly used and making them mean something negative or hurtful.

As I listened to that lyric this morning, I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which we will hear read on Sunday (see point one above).  From this passage, we receive the Christ Hymn, a recounting of not just Paul’s Christology, but his Christian anthropology as well.  In this lesson, heady as it may seem, Paul invites the Christians in Philippi and, by extension, us, to keep it basic.  Rather than thinking we know it all or are living lives that are perfectly in tune with God’s will, Paul calls on disciples of Jesus to humility, which was the example of Christ.  Though he was both God and man, Jesus did not lord his power over us.  Instead, as Paul says so beautifully, Jesus “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” and is therefore “highly exalted.”  Jesus kept it basic: he loved and he showed compassion, and he invites his disciples to do the same.

At the end of this passage, Paul admonishes his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Through Christ, the Spirit continues to be present within us, helping us to keep it to the basics, not worried about what others are doing, but working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  God at work in us is seen when we love and when we show compassion.  It may seem simple, basic (in the pejorative sense) even, but it is the way in which the Kingdom of God is built, one basic compassionate act at a time.