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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

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The Song of Three Young Men

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One can quibble with the contents of the Veggie Tales video series.  The theology is, at best, moral therapeutic deism.  The worldview is fairly closed minded.  It might occasionally border on supercessionism.  This is all true, but is also true that some of the songs are downright catchy and that some of the dialogue can be pretty funny.  I don’t make a habit of watching Veggie Tales, but over the years, I’ve seen several episodes, and even own the Jonah movie.  For all of the good and bad, one episode in particular holds a special place in my heart.  “Rack, Shack, and Benny” tells the story of three friends of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar.  It is perhaps most famous for the “Bunny Song.”  I won’t get that stuck in your head, but I will suggest that another apocryphal song does.

In several Greek and Latin versions of the Hebrew Bible, in between Daniel 3:23 and Daniel 3:24, has been inserted a long passage that includes a song, purported to have been sung by Rack, Shack, and Benny.  It is called “The Song of the Three Jews” or, as the Book of Common Prayer calls it, “The Song of Three Young Men.”  On Trinity Sunday, a portion of that song, Benedictus es, Domine, is an optional responsory text.  John Rutter, the king of modern Anglican music, whose catalog made an appearance at both the Royal Wedding and my daughter’s dance recital on Sunday, set it to music, which can be found at S236 in the Hymnal 1982, and should be sung in every Episcopal congregation this week.

The canticle is appropriate for Trinity Sunday because it makes a passing reference to the Trinity (though that’s really just an appended doxology), but what makes me so bold as to suggest it should be sung everywhere this week is the clarity with which it handles the glory of God.  Trinity Sunday reminds us, preachers especially, that God is totally beyond our comprehension.  God is the creator of all things, the redeemer of our sinful lot, and the one who lifts us toward sanctification.  God is present in all things everywhere.  God’s throne is so large that earth is its footstool and yet God is so present as to be a still, small voice.  Because of how great God is, when we try to explain God with certainty, we fall into trouble, and so, the Benedictus es, Domine, helps to remind me that when words fail, praise can take over.

Trinity Sunday shouldn’t be about explaining the triune nature of the Godhead.  Instead, the telos of Trinity Sunday should be awe, wonder, and praise.  To my mind, there is no better form of praise than the note found at the 1:14-5 mark of the video above.  This week, dear reader, don’t get lost in the details of the Trinity, but rather, rejoice and praise.

Sue, John, and the Love of God

Every wedding is a special occasion.  We know this because of several reasons.  People tend to dress up for weddings.  In a world where business casual now includes denim, people dressing up is kind of a big deal.  Not that you can tell it, but even I wore a suit today, which is a rare feat.  People buy gifts for weddings.  John and Sue have specifically asked us not to bring gifts, but I’m sure a few of you out there picked up a little something for the happy couple.  People give up a portion of their weekend to come to a wedding.  “Time is money,” the old saying goes, and even on what was a dreary Saturday, giving up a portion of your free-time must mean that these two people are special to you.  Every wedding is a special occasion, but in all the weddings I’ve done over the past decade of ordained ministry, this one seems to be a little bit extra special.  I know that this event is extra simply by the sheer number of people, both within Christ Church and in the wider Bowling Green community, who have shared with me their excitement and joy for these two people.  Sue and John are beloved, and today, we gather to share in the joy of their coming together in Christian Marriage.

I am also keenly aware that this event is extra special because I’ve been a nervous wreck about preaching today.  I joked earlier this week that I thought I was more nervous about preaching the Parker-Wilson wedding than the Presiding Bishop was to preach the Royal Wedding earlier today.  As I read through the lessons, looked through the service, and prayed for Sue and John this week, I became more and more aware of the specialness of this and every wedding ceremony.  The marriage rite is unlike anything else we do in the church.  Neither Mother Becca nor I are really the officiants today, but rather, it is John and Sue who do the sacramental work. Their coming together in marriage, seeking after mutual joy and affection and grounded in love, is an outward and visible sign of God’s never-failing love for every one of us and for the world that God has created.

In just a few minutes, we will pray for John and Sue.  We will ask God to give them wisdom, but they have plenty of that already.  We will ask God to help them grow in love, but their lives have long since been dedicated to the cause of love.  We will ask God to help them reconcile and forgive when the inevitable disappointments and failures come their way, but they already know forgiveness to be the hallmark of a strong marriage.  Most importantly, it seems to me, is that we will pray that their marriage will be a sign of Christ love to this sinful and broken world.

In his sermon for that other wedding that took place this morning, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, noted that “There [is] power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”  Today, we gather to celebrate the power of love.  Love that has guided these two in their lives all along.  Love that has been shown in their families.  Love that has been shared with thousands of students.  Love that has been deeply known by their many friends.  And love, which in John and Sue, I see lived out every day, shown to the world by way of loving service, compassion, and care.

Every one of us knows John Parker and Sue Wilson to be living, breathing examples of God’s love as individuals.  What makes today so special is that from here on out, those individuals will become one flesh, and in so doing, will offer us a new way to see God’s love at work in the world.  Today, they bring with them all that has come before.  They bring two long and loving marriages, two dedicated families, years of life as widow and widower, serving the world and the church.  All of those pieces come together in this day, and from here on out, their love for each other will serve a sign and symbol of the way in which God’s love can overcome all things: bears all things, hopes all things.  We all know how special this day is.  That’s why you are here.  And so, this afternoon, we give thanks for the love that Sue and John have known in God: love given to one another, to all of us, and to the world God has created.  May the Lord bless us all this day with a deep and abiding sense of the true love that endures.  Amen.

The work of discernment – a sermon

Easter Seven is a weird, in-between, sort of time.  Long gone are the stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples.  We’ve run through a few Sunday’s worth of Jesus teaching his disciples while seemingly trying to use the word “abide” as many times as possible.  In our Gospel lesson, every Easter Seven, we hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples during the Last Supper.  Somehow, we’ve circled all the way back around to that upper room on Maundy Thursday.  I guess it makes sense.  This is day three of the awkward in-between time.  On Thursday, forty days after he was resurrected from the dead, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city walls, commanded them to not leave Jerusalem until the Spirit came, and then ascended into heaven before their eyes.  As they stood there, staring into the sky, two men, dressed in white, appeared and sent the disciples back to the upper room to pray and wait.

Our Acts lesson tells the story of that prayerful waiting.  For ten days, 120 of Jesus’ closest disciples, both male and female, spent their time intentionally praying for the Spirit and the future of the Way.  In the course of that time of prayer, Peter realized that the number eleven just wouldn’t do.  There were many disciples, but Jesus had set aside twelve as apostles, those who were explicitly sent to go and preach and teach and heal.  One of the twelve had failed to live into that calling.  We all know the story of Judas.  He betrayed Jesus and succumb to his own guilt.  His choices left a void in the group.  Twelve was the number of the tribes of Israel.  For a group of Jewish disciples seeking to restore the wholeness of God’s mercy in Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth, twelve was a nice, clean number.  Eleven wasn’t so nice a number, and so they put their heads together, still in prayer, and discerned two qualified candidates to replace Judas.  Two men who had been with Jesus since his baptism by John in the Jordan, a higher standard than most of the others could muster.  Two men who could share the responsibility of being “witnesses to the resurrection.”

In the end, the decision came down to the three-named Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus and Matthias.  They cast lots, an ancient custom for discerning the will of God, and it fell, conveniently, on the guy with one only name.  Matthias would be number twelve.  He would take his place among the inner circle.  He would be looked at as a leader in the community.  And, with that, just like his co-candidate, Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus, we never hear Matthias’ name again.  In fact, the only thing that the church seems to have held onto from this story is a New Testament scriptural warrant for casting lots.

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I know that the drawing names versus election conversation has a long history here at Christ Church.  I am aware that there were serious pastoral considerations at the time the move away from elections was made, and that there is still some anxiety about the move back to elections.  I’m certain that the age-old adage, “if you reach for the canons to win a debate, you’ve already lost” is absolutely true.  I’m also very familiar with how hard it can be to put yourself out there for an election.  Yet even with all of this, I’m apt to agree with my friend Evan Garner who suggested earlier this week that, ultimately, what method we use to choose leaders in the church doesn’t matter, so long as we’ve done our prayer homework, and that maybe faithful elections are just another way of casting lots, if we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit as our advocate and guide.[1]

Despite the scriptural tradition of Acts 1, it didn’t take the early church long to determine that the ancient practice of casting lots wasn’t the only way to make decisions.  History shows that by the third century, election was the preferred method for choosing bishops in the church.  Saint Cyprian, who died in 258, believed that it was through the election process that the Holy Spirit worked to keep unworthy candidates from rising to episcopal office.  In the Church of England, from the very beginning of the modern Vestry in 1598, those have been elected positions.[2]  In the United States, the Episcopal Church, whose governance structure was built by some of the same people who were building the civil government, democratic elections at every level of the church have been the norm since the Revolution.

We have elections to thank for our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry and for our Bishop, Terry White.  Even my coming to Christ Church wasn’t the result of casting lots or drawing names, but the intentional process of discernment that ultimately led to a vote.  Not that any of these wonderful things might not have happened if names were drawn from a hat, but I’m not sure that the final way we choose a name is what matters, instead it is about the process of prayer that leads up to it.

The first time I stood for election was for my high school Senior Class President.  I ran an elaborately childish campaign based on popular culture.  At the time, Saturday Night Live had a recurring bit called “deep thoughts by Jack Handy,” and so I created posters based on some of those pithy quotes.  The one I can remember most clearly read, “Sometimes I wish Steve Pankey was dead.  Oh wait, not dead, Senior Class President.”  They were kind of funny, and they got me a lot of attention, but I still lost the election.  It hurt to lose, but I learned a lot about myself in the process.  And twenty years later, I’m sure glad I don’t have to plan a reunion from seven hundred miles away.

A high school class election might not be the best example, but I can look back on the lessons I learned in every election and be grateful.  Thankfully, over the years, I’ve won more elections than I’ve lost, and each time, I know that I’ve grown a bit.  This is especially true in the elections I’ve been a part of in the church.  As I’ve considered whether to allow my name to be entered into nomination, I’ve had to do some intentional discernment work.  Am I gifted in the areas that are required?  Do I have the time and energy to commit to this work?  Is God calling me to give up something else in order to fill this role?  Are there people with whom I need to work to make this election, win or lose, something that can be upbuilding for the church?

In that upper room, during the ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, there was a lot of active discernment happening.  The disciples were praying for wisdom while listening for God’s plan for the future of the fledgling church.  They were, no doubt, asking questions about who would lead them, who would be called to serve, and how the physical needs of the community might be met.  As they prayed and listened, some clarity came.  Before anything else, they needed a twelfth person to be called Apostle.  With that, their prayer become focused around who might be called, and they discerned that it was Matthias.  Truth be told, the church probably would have been just fine had Joseph-Barsabbas-Justus’ lot been the winner because, in the end, it isn’t about who or how the person is ultimately selected, but about the work of prayer and discernment that goes into it.

We’re a long way out from electing another set of vestry members, but I think a lesson we can take away from the Acts reading is that we shouldn’t wait until the week before the annual meeting to begin the process of discernment.  Instead, we are called to constantly be in discernment for ourselves and our church, listening for God’s call to serve in all kinds of ways, from Sunday School teacher or Wednesday lunch volunteer to welcoming guests on Sunday morning or serving on the Vestry.  Pray for discernment.  Pray for your vestry and our ministry leaders.  Pray for the Church.  In doing this work of discernment, we can be certain that, by the time the next annual meeting comes around, every candidate is qualified, and that win, lose, or draw, the leadership of Christ Church Bowling Green rests securely in hands of God.  Amen.

[1] http://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2018/05/deciding-by-lots.html

[2] Prichard, Robert, History of the Episcopal Church, 9.

Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

The Open Font

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For the second Sunday in a row, congregations following the Revised Common Lectionary will hear of the profound power of the open font.  Last Sunday, it was Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8.  In that story, the Spirit compelled Deacon Philip to come alongside a foreigner who also happened to be a Eunuch, and share with him the Good News of Jesus Christ.  After Philip takes him from the Suffering Servant in Isaiah all the way through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Eunuch comes to faith, sees some water along the side of the road and asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”

The answer, of course, is nothing.  Nothing would keep him from being baptized.  It would be easy to consider this an aberration: a one off event with details so out of the ordinary as to be ignored.  It is as if the RCL folks knew this, and so, in this week’s lesson from Acts, we hear of a similar situation involving Peter and a group of Gentiles.  Here, instead of it being the outsider who asks, we hear from Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build the Church, asking, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

The answer, again, is no.  No one can withhold the waters of baptism.  Nothing would prevent someone who desires it from being baptized.  This is why, in proper Episcopal architecture, one passes by the font en route to the table.  It serves as a weekly reminder that we walk through the waters of baptism to be nourished weekly at the Table.

As you might suspect, I am not an advocate of so-called “open communion.”  I am a firm believer that our fonts should be wide open, that nothing should keep anyone from being baptized, but that it is through baptism, the outward and visible sign of “union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” that we are then brought to the Table to receive the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ (BCP, 858).

There isn’t, I don’t think, a need to preach on these theological arguments.  My guess is that the average Peggy Pewsitter doesn’t much care about the battles that get waged at General Convention.  There is, however, a teaching/preaching opportunity to highlight the hows/whys of our open font, architecture, and the call that all Christians share to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ.  If you didn’t preach Acts 8 last week, despite my pleas that you would, maybe this week’s short passage from Acts 10 will offer you the opportunity to share with your community God’s love for everyone, no exceptions.

The Irrational Logic of Love

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Under normal circumstances, the use of circular logic is not recommended.  It is a logical fallacy to use the end to justify the question at hand.  Describing the love of God, however, is not something that can be defined by logic.  God’s love is, as I’ve said elsewhere, prodigal.  It is poured out in abundance, with reckless abandon, such that all of humanity, good and evil, believer and heathen, sinner and saint, fall within the reach of God’s saving embrace.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one of those moments when the irrational logic of love becomes abundantly clear.  Well, clear as mud anyway.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 15:10-12)

If we keep the commandments of Jesus, we will abide in his love.  OK, great, so what are the commandments of Jesus?  To love one another as he has loved us.  Right, so we love like Jesus loves in order to abide in Jesus’ love?  That’s a lot of love.  So much love that these words from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he died fill me with a mixture of comfort and fear.  There is no way I can love my neighbor like Jesus loves me.  Yet, I take some solace in the promise that if I do, I will abide in Jesus’ love, for it is out of that love that I will be able to love.

Wait… what did I just type?

See, the love of God is irrational.  We who would follow Jesus are invited into that irrationality.  We are called upon to love beyond our means precisely because it will teach us to rely on God who is love.  We love because God loved us first, and it is in that relationship of receiving God’s abundant love in order to share it with the world that we ultimately experience the fullness of joy that is our promise from God.

So love the world recklessly and extravagantly, just as God does, because God loves you recklessly and extravagantly.

It is all about love

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Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.