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–The Rev. Steve Pankey


The Apostle to Samaria

       In case you missed it, Wednesday, March 8th was International Women’s Day.  Celebrated in various fashions since 1909, in 1977, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace be observed in every Member State.  March 8th became the generally recognized date in honor of the women who helped lead the February Revolution for Bread and Peace in Russia in 1917.  The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was #EmbraceEquity.[1]  As an international day for women’s rights, it is important to understand that we all start at different places.  Some begin life with economic privilege or geographic privilege or the privilege of good health.  True equity acknowledges that different means are required to create a level playing field for all, regardless of the privilege of where and to whom they were born.  International Women’s Day calls on all of humanity to seek true equity for women by challenging gender stereotypes, calling out discrimination, drawing attention to bias, and seeking out inclusion.  It is a gift, then, that our Gospel lesson appointed for the Sunday after International Women’s Day features an often-misunderstood woman with absolutely zero privilege meeting Jesus at a well.

       The chronology in John’s Gospel is quite different than what we find in the other three Gospels.  In John, Jesus and his disciples start their ministry in Jerusalem, but after an uncomfortable encounter with some Pharisees, they decide to head north to Galilee to regroup.  There were a few paths one could take to get from Jerusalem to Galilee.  Most Jewish folk would take the longer route, going east of the Jordan river through the Decapolis to avoid traveling through the homeland of the dreaded Samaritans.  Jesus and the twelve, however, took the shorter path through Samaria.  After a few days of travelling, about thirty miles north of Jerusalem, they stopped for lunch in a town called Sychar or Shechem.

       Jesus, worn out from the long days travelling, stopped at the well just outside of town while his disciples went on to buy some falafel for lunch.  While he waited, an unnamed woman came out to draw water for the day.  Over the years, people have made all kinds of assumptions about this woman from Samaria.  I too have been guilty of perpetuating the biased narratives of the woman at the well.  She came to the well at noon, well into the heat of day and way after the normal hour when women would have gathered to draw water and catch up on the news.  The assumption is quickly made that she is in some kind of notorious sinner, outcast from her community, and forced to do her work at odd hours to avoid awkward interactions, knowing glances, and whispered rumors.  These presumptions are exacerbated by her interaction with Jesus wherein he says the quiet part out loud.  She’s had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband.

       American cultural Christianity, no matter the denomination, is built on a puritanical foundation.  We are about as sexually repressed a nation as there is in the west, and so the story of this woman at the well has long caused American pastors and church goers alike to clutch their pearls and gasp at how sinful this woman must be.  Surely, she’s a prostitute, some allege.  Others wonder if she’s a serial adulterer.  Definitely, she’s a woman of ill repute whom Jesus should have steered clear of.  Reading this story through our own context is really unhelpful, however.  Neither Jesus nor the Gospel writer make any moral claims about her marital status.  Moreover, as a woman, she had no legal ability to initiate divorce.  She could have simply been widowed and remarried several times over.[2]  One commentary I read this week suggested that perhaps she was stuck in a revolving door of levirate marriage where her husband had died and she was forced to marry his brothers until, finally, one refused to marry her but agreed to keep her safe in his home.[3]

       If Jesus doesn’t mention her bad luck in love to shame her, then why does he name it at all?  Several possibilities are available to us.  First, Jesus met her at a well.  Wells are, in the Jewish scripture tradition, a place where powerful couples find each other: Moses and Zipporah, Jacob and Rachel, Rebekah and Issacs’s servant.  Jesus meeting a woman at a well would have brought the original audience to mind that somehow two essential figures were coming together.  Those five husbands are important as well.  Some scholars suggest they represent the five empires that had ruled Samaria since the Babylonian exile.  Others think that maybe the five husbands represent the mixed heritage of the early Samaritans.  I can’t help but wonder if it is a reference to the five books of the Torah, the only Hebrew scriptures to which the Samaritans still subscribed.

       No matter what, if anything, the five husbands mean, this encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well point us to the joining of Jesus’ ministry with people outside of Israel.  More than that, it isn’t that Jesus met a Roman Centurion or an Egyptian Eunuch, but this encounter at the well was with a woman. From Samaria.  She was the outsider’s outsider and not because of her martial status.  As a single woman, Jesus had no business talking to her.  He risked both of their honors by engaging her alone.  Even worse, she was a Samaritan, a race of people that had been at odds with the Jews for centuries.

       And yet, this woman, this Samaritan, this person whom the culture would have considered unworthy is the only person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus shares his true identity.  “I know the Messiah is coming,” the woman says to Jesus in their ongoing theological back and forth.  “I am the one,” Jesus replies, saying to her the name that God spoke to Moses at the burning bush.  In that moment, the woman knew to whom she was speaking.  The Messiah was standing there, right in front of her, and she dropped her water jar and ran to tell anyone who would listen.  In an instant, this woman went from outcast to apostle, sharing the Good News to her entire city.  Having met at the well, the woman and Jesus brought together the Messiah and world outside of Israel, and things would never be the same.

       Because the Gospels were written so long ago, in a culture so very different from ours, it is easy to treat them with a broad brush, and to read their stories through the lens of a lot of bad assumptions.  However, stories like this one invite us to dig in and to understand.  The Woman at the Well deserves a better, more equitable treatment in the story of Jesus.  When we put aside our biases and stereotypes, we hear the story of a woman of deep wisdom, who had likely experienced a lot of pain, seeking the living water of eternal life.  We hear of a woman who stood toe to toe with Jesus and in so doing, opened the door to salvation for the least liked of all of Israel’s foes.  Because of her witness, many came to believe that Jesus wasn’t just the Messiah of Israel, but indeed, the Savior of the Word, and we are here, at least in part, because this Woman at the well, the Apostle to Samaria.  Thanks be to God for her story, her tenacity, and her witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

[1] https://www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-3

Blessed Butt Dust

       I can’t experience an Ash Wednesday without thinking about my friend Anthony MacWhinnie.  Ant was a priest and fellow troublemaker in the Central Gulf Coast.  He and I were ordained at about the same time, so we went through a lot of firsts together.  He hailed from the panhandle of Florida and lived into that particular blessing to its fullest.  Prior to seminary, Anthony was a fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and spent almost his entire life within 30 feet of sea level.  Ant knew where to get good moonshine and could cook fresh fish like a master chef.  The reason I think of him every Ash Wednesday, however, is because of the picture he would share on Facebook each year.  On what appeared to be a manilla colored church bulletin was an ashen cross and the words that we hear every Ash Wednesday, “Remember, you are butt dust.”  With butt spelled B-U-T-T.  I loved his sense of humor.

       This year, as Ash Wednesday rolls around and my thoughts turn to my friend, Anthony MacWhinnie, my emotions are mixed.  Ant died unexpectedly a few weeks ago at the age of 53.  He suffered cardiac arrest in his home and despite the heroic efforts of his wife, Elizabeth, performing CPR, he died about a week later.  Ash Wednesday as an annual reminder of our mortality and need to repent and be reconciled to God is a little harsher than perhaps it has been other years.  These ashes that will soon be smudged across our foreheads seem a little more real.  My annual struggle with the incompatibility of Jesus saying, “beware of practicing your piety before others” while we leave this space with dark crosses of judgment and hope upon our brows seems silly to me this time around.

       I need the cross of ashes this year.  I need to see it on my own forehead, not because of what it tells others, but about what it says to me.  I need the reminder that yes, we all die, but even more so, that God hates nothing God has made and that, in Christ, all shall be made alive.  As I see the ashen cross in the rearview mirror or reflected on my phone screen, it will be a stark reminder of Jesus’ call to repentance, of which my friend Anthony’s untimely death has also recently reminded me.  In Lent, the Church invites us specifically to live out the call to repentance through ongoing and regular self-examination, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and mediating on God’s holy word.  This cross, for as long as it will linger on my forehead and in my memory, will serve as a reminder that repentance isn’t something that is done once and forgotten about, but a daily, sometimes hourly, even minute by minute, practice.

       We are butt dust, Anthony MacWhinnie would remind us today, but our dustiness isn’t the only thing that defines us.  We are dust blessed by God with the ability to love, to show compassion, and to care for our neighbors.  We are dust blessed with relationships.  We are dust that, when those relationships fall short of perfection, can reflect, repent, and be restored by God’s grace.  We are dust in these earthen bodies, but we are also souls that long for eternal life.  So, wear that cross boldly this year, remembering that you might be but dust, but you are also blessed, holy, and beloved.  Amen.


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Relationships Matter to God

         A few weeks ago, Richard Greer came into my office with a newspaper tucked under his arm ready to share it with me.  It was an article written by Doctors Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.  This study has been ongoing for 85 years!  Since 1938, Harvard University has had an astonishing 84% participation rate in this longitudinal study to determine patterns of happiness and health.  724 men started the study and since then, more than 1,300 of their male and female descendants have taken part.  The result is quite clear, the single most important factor in long-term health and happiness is good relationships.  On the other hand, there is growing evidence that loneliness can suppress your immune system, lower you brain functioning, and make sleep less effective.  For older people, this and other studies suggest, loneliness can increase the odds of a person’s death in any given year by 26%.

Digging into the data and looking at the nature of human beings, this makes sense.  The authors give the example of a women who lived fifty thousand years ago.  “An isolated person’s body and brain would have gone into temporary survival mode. The need to recognize threats would have fallen on her alone, so her stress hormones would have increased and made her more alert. If her family or tribe were away overnight and she had to sleep by herself, her sleep would be shallower. If a predator was approaching, she would want to know, so she would be more easily aroused and experience more awakenings during the night.  If for some reason she found herself alone for say, a month, rather than a night, these physical processes would continue, morphing into a droning, constant sense of unease, and they would begin to take a toll on her mental and physical health. She would be, as we say today, stressed out. She would be lonely.”  Chronic loneliness is like living in a house with the smoke detector going off all day, every day.[1]

It is a scientific fact that human beings are designed to be in relationship.  Of course, humans have known this since long before the scientific method existed.  In the first creation story in Genesis 1, we read that God created human beings in God’s image.  There are a few ways you can understand what it means to be created in the image of God, but the way I read it, our Trinitarian God is perfect relationship and so, to be made in God’s image means to be made to be in relationship.  Since we aren’t three in one like the Godhead, we live into the Imago Dei by creating healthy relationships with God and our fellow humans.  It’s why I continually harp on the idea that the mission of the Church is to restore all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  Later, in the second story of creation, we read the first thing that God says isn’t good.  In Genesis 2:18, God looks at Adam, whom God had created to till and keep the land and very quickly realizes that it is not good for human beings to be alone, and so God began to create all kinds of things to fill the void in Adam.  Cows.  Chickens.  Fish.  Cats.  Dogs.  God created all the animals of the land and the air and the sea, but still hadn’t made a suitable partner for Adam.  Finally, God created Eve as a companion for Adam.  Right relationship between human beings had been established, and it was good.

Which brings us to our very challenging teaching from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.  Jesus makes it pretty impossible to live up to the standard of the Kingdom of God.  “If you are angry at your brother or sister, you have committed murder.”  “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the fires of hell.”  “If you look at a woman with lust, you have committed adultery.”  “If you divorce your wife for any reason but unchastity, you commit adultery.”  “Don’t swear by heaven, earth, or your own life, just let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  With all due respect to Jesus, this is just plain crazy.  There is no way anyone can live up to the vision of right relationship that Jesus sets forth in this section of the Sermon on the Mount.

No, none of us can live a perfect life.  We’re going to get angry occasionally.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been behind the wheel of my car and yelled at a fellow driver, “you idiot!”  75% of the ads during the Super Bowl this afternoon will be based on getting men to look lustfully at something or someone in order to get them to buy a product.  We are all guilty, on some level, of breaking right relationship, of failing to live into the fullness of the image of God within us.  God knows this about us.  As with most of the difficult things Jesus had to say, its impossibility is precisely the point.  So why does Jesus take such a hard line against what he knows, full well, we human beings are going to do?

The simple answer is because Jesus cares.  Humanity is the only part of God’s creation that was made in the Imago Dei.  We bear within and upon us the image of God.  We are chief stewards, the managers of creation.  We are, for all intents and purposes, God’s best and most beloved handiwork, and because of this, God is mindful of us. And because God is mindful of us, the things we do and the things that happen to us matter to God.  And because these things matter to God, the pain we feel is known and felt by God. In the Incarnation, Jesus took the pain of this world into the Godhead so that today, God can walk alongside us in our hurt and heartache. Jesus takes such a hard line on relationships because when relationships break and people are hurting, it grieves God.

Relationships are hard.  Divorce is messy. So is cancer. Violence breaks God’s heart too. All of this is true. The tearing apart of human relationships hurts, no matter the reasons. The good news is, God is there. God is here. God is with us every step of the journey. God values relationships.  God made us to be in relationship. God understands that good relationships are the key to a healthy and happy life.  God also knows that relationships don’t always last. Whether our relationships are full and satisfying or difficult and challenging, God is there because God loves us and God is the creator of right relationship. Life is hard, but the Good News is God is here, always.  Amen.

[1] https://apple.news/AWBqJz5ehRA-6sjLSQj0ehQ

Little Orphie Anna – The Feast of the Presentation

         Growing up in Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day was a big deal.  My dad worked in a factory for his whole career and two big days for time off were the first day of hunting season and Groundhog Day.  It seems several of the guys who worked with him would drive the four hours to Punxsutawney after work on February 1st, join with the gang at Gobbler’s Knob in a night of drinking, and then watch to see if Phil saw his shadow to predict how much longer the winter weather would last.  Punxsutawney Phil is, I think, the nationally recognized prognosticator of spring.  He seems to be groundhog who gets all the shine.  He’s featured on all the morning news shows, and his prediction is the one I see plastered all over my social media feeds.

         What you might not know, however, is that Phil is not the only weather predicting groundhog who awakes from their slumber on February 2nd to look for their shadow in the early morning light.  Much closer to my hometown than Punxsutawney is a little village called White Rock, which sits on the west branch of Octoraro Creek.  There, the Slumbering Lodge of Hibernating Governors gather on the Feast of the Presentation to celebrate Octoraro Orphie, whom they affectionately refer to as “the one true groundhog.”  Orphie also predicts the coming of spring by either seeing his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter, or not seeing his shadow, which means spring is right around the corner.  This morning Phil saw his shadow, but Orphie did not, and so I’m Team Orphie all the way.

You may wonder why I’m offering you this history and geography lesson about large rodents on the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas, as it is known in many parts of the Church.  Well, it all goes back to Medieval Europe where Candlemas, 40 days after the birth of Christ and the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, was thought to be a special day of weather prediction.  An old poem says, “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another flight, but if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.”  Groundhog Day and the Feast of the Presentation are interconnected in several different ways, but today, I’d like to suggest to you that the story of Phil and Orphie is a parallel to the stories of Simeon and Anna.

Simeon, like Phil, gets all the shine.  His song is an integral part to the Daily Office and is said at every service of Compline.  His prediction to Mary, that a sword would pierce her heart, is often cited on Holy Week as the tragic story of Jesus’ Passion is told.  He is famous for having declared the infant Jesus as the Savior.  Anna, on the other hand, is the Octoraro Orphie of the Presentation.  Faithful to her core, the long-widowed Anna never left the Temple.  She fasted and prayed, day and night, for the salvation of her beloved Israel.  Her words aren’t recorded for us to say at Evening Prayer.  Her prediction that Jesus would bring about the redemption of the world is only mentioned in passing, and yet, Anna is as much a part of the story of the Messiah as Simeon is, though she is so often forgotten to history.  Anna wasn’t just faithful to her God, but to the promises of restoration, and she couldn’t help but tell anyone who would listen that this child was the one who would redeem Jerusalem, Israel, and the whole world.  On this Feast of the Presentation, may we have faith like Anna and the tenacity of Orphie to work faithfully to share the Good News of God’s saving love.  Amen.

Called and Equipped

One of the things I love about being an Episcopalian is the opportunity to pray prayers that have been prayed by the faithful for more than a thousand years.  Some of the words we pray go back as far as the 6th century.  Some, based in Scripture, go back to the days of St. Paul.   Of course, there are also wonderful prayers that are newer than that.  With every new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, we get new authors writing new prayers for the faithful to lift to God.  This morning’s collect is one of those prayers.  Written by the Rev. Dr. Massey H. Shepherd, JR. for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany is a prayer that focuses on the call to ministry for every baptized Christian.

Call is a funny thing, however.  As the world has focused more and more on specialization, the basic Christian call has been moved away from the baptismal font and toward ordination.  Those who are discerning ordained ministry are said to be “discerning a call,” and the process will invite them to repeat, ad nauseam, the story of “their call.”  This happens to the detriment of the Church, however.  The more we associate our clergy with some kind of special calling, the more we take away from the laity and their distinct calling as baptized members of the Body of Christ.

So, this morning, we pray in the words of the late, Dr. Shepherd, that God might give us the grace required to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This is a fine thing to pray for, but I can’t help but wonder if we understand what the call of our Savior really is?  To what is Jesus calling us?  Based on our collect and the Gospel lesson, I think there are three parts of the call every Christian receives from Jesus.

First, the call to repentance.  “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  This is the core message of Jesus.  However, repentance is a tremendously bad translation for what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel.  Repent comes to us from Latin.  It is the prefix “re” which means “again” and the word “poenitire” which means “to make sorry.”  Repentance, then, means to “be sorry again,” or as we commonly think of it in modern theology, “to be grieved over past sins and to seek forgiveness.”

The Greek word that is repeatedly translated as “repent” is metanoia, which has nothing to do with “making sorry,” but rather it is all about changing your mind or to reconsider your choices.  Jesus isn’t calling us to feel sorry and to beat ourselves up for our past actions, though confessing them and being forgiven is important.  Rather, Jesus calls us to a future in which we live with changed hearts and minds.  A future in which we don’t live based on our selfish desires, but for the kingdom of heaven, where God’s will is done; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the oppressed are set free.

That’s the first call, to repent.  Secondly, Jesus calls on his disciples to follow him.  For Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, this call was literal.  Jesus invited them to drop their nets, leave their old lives behind, and to follow him around the Galilean countryside as he proclaimed the good news, healed the sick, and cast out demons.  We too are called to follow Jesus, though in a more metaphorical sense.  We follow the teachings of Jesus, or at least that is the calling we are trying to live into.  We strive to follow the beatitudes and be peacemakers, who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We strive to follow Jesus’ parables and to look for the pearl of great price that comes from living our lives like Jesus lived his; loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

First, we repent.  Second, we follow.  Finally, then, as we prayed in the collect this morning, we are called to “proclaim to all people the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ.”  This is, no doubt, the most difficult of the three callings.  The first two aren’t easy by any means, but they tend to be more internal work, things we might be able to do without anyone really noticing.  “Proclaiming to all people the Good News” is going to get noticed, and it might make us Episcopalians feel downright uncomfortable, but it is part of the baptismal call.  In the Baptismal Covenant, we vow that with God’s help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  In our Catechism, it teaches the ministry of the laity is to represent Christ and the Church and to bear witness to Christ wherever they may be.  Further, it states that it is the duty of all Christians to, among other things, work for the spread of the kingdom of God.

I know what you are thinking.  “I’m not equipped to do one or more of these callings.”  I get it.  I’ve been there.  Many times.  I told this story from the pulpit back in January of 2020, but many of you weren’t members here back then, and since COVID took away our collective memories, I think I’m safe telling it again.  It happened at my first ever continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I attended a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.”  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people, some whom I still have contact with through social media.  For all the good that week had to offer, I also still remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?”  It all came to a head on the second day, in some non-descript hotel meeting room, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  The organizers had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where they had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the cup and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for the United Methodist Church, but for God.  It simply said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”

We are each called by God to repent, to follow Jesus, and to proclaim the Good News, and God knows we can’t do any of it on our own.  As life unfolds, and fears of inadequacy creep up, God is always ready to equip us with what we need to once again repent, follow Jesus, and proclaim the Good News.  As we embark on another year of ministry, may God give us grace and equip us with what we need to answer readily our call as a community of disciples here at Christ Episcopal Church.  Amen.

Baptized into Community

       This morning marks six years to the day since my first Sunday as your rector at Christ Church.  I remember that morning like it was yesterday.  The transition from nine and a half years as an associate to rector is a big one.  I can recall feeling pretty nervous about how steep the learning curve would be as I learned a new community, a new congregation, a new job, and all these one-way streets all at the same time.  The one thing I was confident about, and I told Deacon Kellie this early that Sunday morning, was that “I knew how to do church.”  In hindsight, that confidence might have been misplaced.

       The month of December 2016 was pretty hectic.  Saying goodbye to old friends in Alabama.  Buying a house.  Selling a house.  Moving into a condo at the beach because our house sold so quickly.  Moving to Bowling Green on New Year’s Day.  Getting to know 400 new faces. It was a lot.  Tucked into all of that was an ongoing conversation about the possibility of a baptism at the early service on my first Sunday.  I was excited by the idea of starting my ministry here by welcoming a new member into the body of Christ, but sometime just before Christmas, I got word that the godparents wouldn’t be able to make it and we’d have to reschedule.  No harm done; I knew how to do church.

       I arrived at O-Dark-Thirty on January 8, 2017, to get a lay of the land.  Deacon Kellie and the altar guild had preparations well underway, as always.  I looked over the bulletin, got comfortable with the nave, set my sermon in the pulpit, and rested on the idea that I knew how to do church.  As has become our custom, the altar party gathered at about five ‘til to pray.  Back then, we vested on the other end of the building, and so we huddled up in Surface Hall when we noticed a young family with a baby walk in.  I didn’t know anybody, so I didn’t think anything of it.  As I began to pray that God might be glorified in our worship, Kellie leaned over to me and said, “they are putting a white dress on that baby.”  Suddenly, all the confidence I had in “knowing how to do church” flew out the window.

       I wonder if John the Baptist had a similar feeling when he looked up from his ten thousandth baptism in the Jordan to see his cousin, whom he thought to be the Lamb of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah, standing next in line.  All of John’s confidence and bravado must have flown out the window when he saw Jesus waiting to be washed clean in a baptism of repentance.  Matthew is the only Gospel that records a back and forth between John and Jesus, but I suspect he edited it for content.  “What the bleep are you doing here?” was most likely John’s initial reaction.  It seems to have been the reaction of the Gospel writer and the vast majority of early Christians as well.  If Jesus was the Son of God, who lived as one of us, yet without sin, why on earth was he out in the wilderness waiting in line to be baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins?

“I should be baptized by you,” John says to Jesus in protest, “and yet here you are waiting to be baptized by me?”  Jesus, as always, knows something deeper is at work.  “Let it be so for now;” he responds, “for it is proper for in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus knew that John knew that the baptism John was offering wasn’t actually about the individual.  In first-century Palestine, as in most cultures up to today, individual piety wasn’t really about the individual.  Despite our modern, American obsession with sin being about the personal morality and purity codes we’ve inherited from our Puritanical colonial ancestors, for most of Judeo-Christian history, the worry about personal sin wasn’t about whether the individual was going to heaven or hell, but the impact that sin had on the community at large.  Sin is, at its most basic level, that which breaks relationship, and broken relationship is what leads to poverty, to addiction, to bigotry, to hatred, and to war, which are all things that impact the nation at large.

Jesus came to the Jordan to be baptized by John not because he was worried about being forgiven for lying to his mom about stealing a jolly rancher from the penny candy store when he was eight, but because Jesus wanted to see every person in Israel restored to right relationship with God and with each other.  In that moment, the beginning of moving toward “all righteousness” meant that even Jesus sought to be forgiven for the sins of the nation, the oppressive system into which he was born, and through which the Romans ruled with degradation and violence.  As Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and the work of the next phase of “all righteousness” began.  Jesus would surround himself with a community that together would show the whole world what it looks like to live in a state of forgiveness of sins – individual and corporate – that allows for life in right relationship with God and with each other as a community of Christ’s faithful.

That’s what we strive for here, and it proved to be true six years ago.  Thankfully, there are a lot of people at Christ Church who “know how to do church.”  Within minutes of Kellie’s panic-inducing whisper into my ear, we had the font moved, water warmed up, the family prepped, and lots of apologies offered for the confusion.  We threw out the bulletins and did the service from the Book of Common Prayer like in the old days, and Ryder Travelsted was joyously welcomed into the family of God at the slightly delayed 8 o’clock service on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord, 2017.  It was the perfect way to begin our shared ministry here.  It was an embodied metaphor that it isn’t about me, or any one of us, but about how we share in the ongoing work of our baptismal calling: supporting one another in our lives in Christ; in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers; persevering in resisting evil and repenting when we fall short; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbors as ourselves; striving for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.  None of us can do this alone, it is a communal effort that requires regular reminders of our common mission, confession when we fall short, a healthy dose of humility, and a whole lot of God’s help.  As we enter another year together, may the example of Jesus continue to show us how to live as a community of love for all righteousness to be found here on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen.

God Saves – Holy Name

       By now, WOVO’s North Pole Radio is already a distant memory.  Mariah Carey has once again been cryogenically frozen until next November, having made another $3 million in royalties for “All I Want for Christmas is You.”  I’m guessing for most, on this first morning of 2023, we’re ready to lay the Christmas festivities aside and focus on making 2023 a better year than 2022, or 2021, or 2020.  Come to think of it, the ‘20s have been a pretty rough decade so far.  Despite the understandable desire to move past Christmas, I’ve actually spent a lot of time of this week thinking about how each of us has our own soundtrack for Christmas.  For the first half of my life, back before streaming services and radio stations playing the same 33 Christmas songs for two months straight, there were two albums that played in my house indicating the Christmas season.  On the record player, we’d spin John Denver and the Muppets’ “A Christmas Together” and in the CD player was “A Christmas Portrait” by the Carpenters.  Since getting married, a third album has been added to the list, one that came from Cassie’s family, Amy Grant’s “A Christmas Album.”

       Track number four on “A Christmas Album” is a song called, “Emmanuel,” and leading up to this Feast of the Holy Name, it’s been stuck in my head all week.  The 80s synthesizer is pretty complex, but the lyrics are quite simple.

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

Wonderful, Counselor!

Lord of life, Lord of all;

He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One!

Emmanuel, Emmanuel

Here we hear seven different names by which Jesus is known.  A quick Google search comes up with more than fifty names and titles for Jesus that are found in Scripture.  So, what’s the deal?  Why is this name thing so important?  Why does Paul, quoting an early hymn, make the bold claim that God gave Jesus “the name above all names”?

       For those of you who grew up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the whole Feast of the Holy Name thing is probably still quite new.  Holy Name Day is a Major Feast in the Episcopal Church, but because it falls on January 1, it is rarely commemorated, unless, like this year, it falls on a Sunday.  Holy Name is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, replacing the Feast of the Circumcision, though as a faithful Jewish couple, we know that Mary and Joseph would have both named their son and had him circumcised on the eighth day, as prescribed by the Torah.  When it came time to name the child, there was no question.  Both Mary and Joseph had been told by an angel that they should name him, Jesus.

       Well, not exactly Jesus.  It is probably more like Yehoshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Joshua or Jesus in English.  No matter how you pronounce it, the name means “God saves.”  It is a name, a title, and a mission statement all in one.  Jesus, in name and in life, was the savior of all.  Jesus, born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved” who was engaged to Joseph, which means “may God increase,” was born to fulfill the promises of God throughout history and to save all of humanity from the power of sin and death. God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people.  From the time of Noah, whose name means “rest,” God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification.  On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant.  In Abraham, which means “Father of many nations,” God chose a nation through which all nations might come into God’s saving embrace.  Through Moses, “to draw out,” God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brothers’ unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs.  The prophets, Isaiah “God is salvation” included, again and again called the people of Israel “Wrestles with God” to forsake their sins and be saved.  When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to God’s people.  There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on the hope of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yehoshua, God saves.  Jesus was and is Emmanuel, the other title for their son which both Mary and Joseph received from God, which means “God with us,” and once Emmanuel came to be with us, God never left.

Sure, following the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven.  For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in Scripture, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason. But baptism is for next week.

This week, our focus is on the Holy Name of Jesus, God saves, and the many different names by which our savior has been known through the centuries.  Over the course of Lectionary Year A, we’ll hear at least fourteen different names and titles from Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus, the Son of David, Emmanuel, the Messiah, Lord, Ruler, God’s own Son, the forgiver of sins, the servant of God, the Sower of good seed, the Son of Man, the Prophet, Rabbi, and King.  No matter what name we call Jesus, he is and always will be the one who saves, who brings us into right relationship with God and with one another. The one who invites into a new way of living, a life that is based on love of God and love of neighbor, a life that seeks to set the whole world free from bondage to sin, oppression, fear, and heartache.  The Prince of Peace, mighty God, holy one.  Emmanuel.  Yehoshua.  Iesous.  Jesus, the name above all names.  Amen.

How Long?

       Advent is such a wonky time of year.  While down on 11th and College, the Methodists are having their Christmas Cantata this morning, we’re stuck with an imprisoned John the Baptist seemingly having second thoughts about his cousin, Jesus, being the Messiah.  Given all that our community has been through over the past few weeks, I can’t help but wonder why we can’t just get on with the joyful celebrations and familiar carols of the Christmas Season? If only God, and God’s church would conform to my expectations, all of this would be so much easier.  On second thought, I guess I can understand where John the Baptist was coming from.

Our passage begins with the surprise announcement that John is in prison.  Last we heard from John, he was in the wilderness baptizing people by the thousands and calling Pharisees and regular folk alike to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.  Of course, people don’t always like it when you tell them they are sinners who need to repent.  Those who like it the least are often the powerful and the privileged, those who likely need to hear it the most.  Herod the tetrarch found John the Baptist interesting, but when he started to meddle in Herod’s personal life, condemning him for stealing his brother’s wife, Herod’s interest faded, and John found himself in prison, wondering what would come next.

       At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he entered the Synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  John surely knew of this famous first sermon.  Afterall, it had gotten Jesus run out of town and nearly killed.  After escaping the angry mob, Jesus went about fulfilling the words of Isaiah.  He healed the sick, preached good news to the poor, brought sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, raised the dead, and gave hope to the oppressed.  So, you can imagine John the Baptist, sitting in a dungeon in one of Herod’s palaces, wondering when Jesus is going to do the whole “freedom for prisoners” thing for him, when he gets the idea to send his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you sure you’re the one?”

       Jesus’ response to John’s disciples is telling.  He tells them to go back to John and tell him what they had seen and heard, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus knows that John knows that Jesus is the Messiah, whether he springs him from jail or not, because Jesus is doing exactly what the Messiah was supposed to do.  Its why John asked the question in the first place, but John was tired of waiting for the Messiah to impact him directly, and so he tried to speed things up, which is really, really, relatable.

       Advent is a season of waiting.  We wait for the birth of the Christ child on Christmas, and we wait for the return of Jesus with power and great glory at his second coming.  In the midst of all this waiting, it can be easy to being to wonder, like John the Baptist did, “how long O Lord?”  This year, the waiting seems particularly keen.  Today marks one year since dual tornadoes ripped through our community.  For those whose homes were directly impacted, it has been a year of waiting on insurance claims, contractors, window deliveries, inspections, and occupancy permits.  For those of us whose impact was more psychological, the waiting to hear from family and friends, the waiting to know how to help, the waiting to see progress, or the waiting for our favorite butcher shop or restaurant to reopen is its own kind of challenge.

As we have waited on anniversary events like tonight’s “Light the Path,” our community has tried to have a normal December, celebrating the Christmas season as usual.  Early last Saturday morning, life was once again disrupted as the Bowling Green Police and Warren County Sherriff shared news of a shooting threat against a protest planned downtown.  The possibility of violence led to the postponement of the Jaycees Christmas Parade, the Miracle Mile race, and the Mistletoe Market.  Suddenly, our community found itself waiting again for joy, for hope, and for peace.  Then again on Thursday, violent threats against high school students in our community forced us to wait for answers, arrests, and a sense of peace.  And of course, front of mind all week long was Linda Surface as we prayed for her family while they kept watch, waiting for her journey to end and to be reunited with her beloved Howard.  I could feel the weight of our collective waiting this week as the fog of grief would come and go among our staff, the many volunteers who came through the building, and those who called, texted, and emailed to ask after her.

All week, I’ve felt myself asking God, “How long, O Lord, must we wait?”  How long until the scars of the tornado are healed? How long until there is no longer violence?  How long until illness ceases, death’s sting is undone, and every tear is wiped from our eyes?  How long, O Lord, how long?  I guess that means that Advent is precisely the right season for us at this moment in time.  Despite the trees and decorations and Christmas music all around, it hasn’t yet felt like the Christmas season to me.  I’m still waiting.  Waiting for joy. Waiting for healing.  Waiting for the good news of God in Christ to really take hold of my heart again.

I suspect I’m not alone in this.  It has been a difficult week, month, year, or longer for many of you as well.  And despite the desire to paste on a smile and to cover the sadness with the smell of cookies and the sounds of carols, our first step toward true joy this holiday season is to invite God to stir up some power, with great might to come among us, and with bountiful grace to speedily help and deliver us.  So that’s what I’m going to do today.  Tonight, we’ll remember the destruction of the tornadoes.  Tomorrow and Tuesday, we’ll mourn and tell stories of Linda (and Howard), we’ll mix laughter and tears, and ponder what is really the end of an era.  Who knows what Wednesday will bring, but all the while, the Holy Spirit will be here as our comforter and guide, reminding us that we do not wait alone, that God is with us, that Jesus has experienced our pain, and that there is always the promise that in Christ, mourning may last for a season, but joy will come in the morning.  So come Holy Spirit, in this time of waiting and grief, come fill the hearts of your faithful, kindle in us the fire of your love, and speedily help and deliver us. Amen.

All in All

       I grew up in a pretty different kind of Episcopal congregation.  There was no Hymnal 1982 in our pews.  Instead, we sang modern praise and worship music accompanied by a Julliard trained musician on pipe organ.  The theology expressed from the pulpit and in Sunday school was in line with evangelicalism of the 1990s.  When our youth leaders embezzled all the money in the youth ministry budget and the whole thing fell apart, I found myself active in Young Life.  There, in the basements of various friends’ houses, we sang the same kinds of songs as in church on Sunday, but to the accompaniment of a college student named Joe Garfinkel on the acoustic guitar.  While I am glad to have expanded my understanding of the abundant love of God since those days, I do sometimes miss the music of my youth.  One song that still makes its way into my head from time to time is entitled “All in All”.  I would now quibble with the individualistic language of the lyrics, but that issue aside, those words speak a truth that is worth remembering.  “You are my strength when I am weak/ You are the treasure that I seek/ You are my all in all/  Seeking you as a precious jewel/ Lord, to give up I’d be a fool/ You are my all in all/ Taking my sin, my cross, my shame/ Rising again I bless your name/ You are my all in all/ When I fall down you pick me up/ When I am dry you fill my cup/ You are my all in all.”

       “All in all” came to mind this week as I read through the Colossians lesson for this Last Sunday after Pentecost, commonly referred to as Christ the King Sunday.  In nine verses, Paul uses the Greek word for “all” ten times.[1]

  • All the strength
  • Endure everything with patience
  • The first born of all creation
  • In him all things were created
  • All things have been created through him and for him
  • He is before all things
  • In him all things hold together
  • So that, he might have the first place in everything
  • In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
  • Through him God reconciled all things

The vast majority of this lofty vision of the King of kings comes to us from an ancient creedal statement that was probably set to music and sung by the early followers of Jesus.  In it, we hear that they saw Jesus as both the creator of all things and redeemer of all things.  Yet even in this very spiritual image of Jesus, they are also clear that in Christ, all the fullness of God dwelt on earth.  Jesus was, for the earliest Christians, all in all.

       This vision of Jesus as all God and all human is also seen in our Gospel lesson this morning.  If you haven’t been paying close attention to the liturgical calendar, hearing the crucifixion on a random Sunday in November might have been quite jarring.  If we recall that this Sunday is kind of like New Year’s Eve, however, it makes a little more sense.  Next Sunday begins a new liturgical year.  Advent brings Year A, as we begin to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus, and so this Sunday’s lessons both highlight the kingship of Jesus and help us put a bow on the story of his life that we’ve been walking since back in June.  Everything we’ve heard since Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem has led to this.  On the cross, Jesus proclaims both his humanity as he dies and his kingly divinity as he offers forgiveness to those who crucified him and welcomes the repentant thief into paradise with him.

       As we make the transition into Advent and making preparation for the very human birth of the Christ child on Christmas, it behooves us to remember this both/and, all in all, nature of Jesus.  As we look ahead to the anniversary of the December 11th tornadoes, perhaps there is some solace in the reality that Jesus is both the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things.  As the busyness of life ramps up with cooking and cleaning and travel and parties and shopping and cooking and cleaning and end of the year work requirements and cooking and cleaning and everything else, we are blessed this Sunday with a reminder that Jesus is all in all, and, thanks to Paul’s words to the Colossians, we are gifted with a blessing to carry us down the road.  “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

       The same King who welcomed the repentant thief into paradise, welcomes us into right relationship.  The same King who was born in a manger as angels cried out “Glory to God in the highest” leads the choir of angels in songs of thanksgiving every time one who has fallen into sin repents and returns to the Lord.  The same King whom God sent to restore all things will continue to help each of us recover from the pains and heartbreaks that life can bring.  And the same King who forgave those who put him to death, forgives us all our sins – known, unknown, and those done by the systems in which we find ourselves.  Jesus took our sin, our cross, our shame, and on this Christ the King Sunday, we bless Christ’s name as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, our creator, our redeemer, and our all in all.  Amen.

[1] Thanks to Jennifer Wyant for pointing this out.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christ-the-king-3/commentary-on-colossians-111-20-5

All (Saints) Means All

In 1845, the first year that Christ Episcopal Church could send a report to the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Kentucky, the Reverend C.C. Townsend, missionary to Bowling Green, reflected upon the significant work that the parish had undertaken in its first year of existence. Townsend wrote to the Bishop and Deputies gathered in Louisville that “Regular services have been performed in Bowling Green, and at two important points in the country, and the Holy Communion administered the 4th Sunday of each month. A Sunday School commenced one year ago has increased to 40 scholars and 6 teachers, and an interesting Bible class is instructed in the country. The good friends of the church have furnished us with an adequate supply of books.” He finished his description of the fledgling ministry in Warren County with these words, “An effort on behalf of the servants has been regularly sustained for a year with encouraging results. The Prayer Book enables them also to worship God, and
they are taught the way of salvation from His Holy Word.”
In his recently updated history of Christ Church, David Lee follows these words with an editorial comment that they are “likely a delicate reference to the approximately 4,000 members of the enslaved community in Bowling Green and Warren County.” Like many communities in the agriculturally rich southeast, slavery was a significant part of the economy in antebellum Warren County. By 1860, the Federal Census counted 5,318 enslaved Black people in Warren County, meaning a full 30% of the total population was enslaved. Of those more than five thousand men, women, and children, approximately 183 were enslaved by families belonging to Christ Episcopal Church. Despite strong pro-Union leanings among the membership of Christ Church, with nearly 75% of the congregation leaving town when the Southern army entered, the reality is that like the rest of Bowling Green, Christ Church was made up of a significant number of pro-slavery or anti-Black members. It is not a stretch, more than 160 years later, to say unequivocally that Christ Episcopal Church is the direct beneficiary of the system of chattel slavery and the subjugation of Black people who were made in the image of God yet were not granted their full humanity. They weren’t even given names when listed in the 1860 census.
“Some of them have left behind a name,” writes Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, “so that others might declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten…” I’ve heard these words on All Saints’ Sundays for most of my life, but since learning of these 183 souls it has taken on new meaning for me.
Prior to now, when I thought of those who died as though they never existed, I imagined all the people who don’t have names on plaques or nameplates. Those dedicated but quiet members who made sure the coffee was made, or the pre-k Sunday school class had a teacher. The kind of disciple who makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every Wednesday for our community lunch or puts together fidget blankets for those living with dementia. Healthy congregations, like Christ Church, are full of members who go about the work of loving their neighbors, never seeking a reward other than the good feeling that comes with knowing you’ve shared the love of God with someone you may never even meet.
What I had never considered are all the people who aren’t or can’t be members of a congregation who also contribute to its mission and ministry. I have started to think about the Recyclops driver who helps keep our bulletins from going into the landfill or the team from NewCon that descends upon this building every
Thursday to make sure it is clean and welcoming for all who enter. More and more, I find myself thinking about the employees at the Bistro or Just Love Coffee who serve so many of us brunch on Sunday mornings and the myriad maintenance people who make sure the elevators run properly, the HVAC system functions most of the time, and the hot water is hot, and the cold water is cold. Then I go even deeper, as I think about the Black man who came to the Christmas Eve service in 1954 and, at least according to Vestry minutes, was treated in a way that brought pride to the heart of one Vestry member. And now, almost daily, I think about the 183, most of whom remain nameless to us, whose labor helped secure the future of Christ Episcopal Church even though they could never even consider becoming members.
In all of this, All Saints’ Day has taken on new meaning for me. I have always been clear that the only Biblical benchmark for sainthood is being a disciple of Jesus, but I’m beginning to wonder
if even that is too narrow a definition. What if on this All Saints’ Day we include all those who might want to follow Jesus but have been told they can’t? Or those who live so close to the margins that three jobs leave no time for a community of faith? Or those who died as though they never existed because the dominant culture told them they shouldn’t exist? What if on this All Saints’ Day, All really meant All?
In his Revelation, John of Patmos was given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet. There he saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every tribe and people and language who in their great diversity had in common that their robes were washed clean in the blood of the lamb. On this All Saints’ Day, I invite you to begin to look at the world with the eyes of John of Patmos and the heart of Ben Sira. See in all your neighbors the image of God. Pay attention not just to those famous men who get glory and power, but to those who live on the margins of society, as
though they never existed. Remember all the saints, and maybe especially those 183 whose names are known to God alone, whose lives and labor have brought this congregation to where we are today, a community of saints who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, and radiate God’s love to all. Amen.