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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Don’t Fall for It

Lin-Manual Miranda’s musical Hamilton is as popular in my household as it seems to be around the globe.  Despite its popularity and the fact that the touring group came through Nashville last month, we have not scraped together the two-grand it would cost for our family of four to see it.  We’re very much looking forward to the film adaptation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have most of the songs memorized.  While not 100% age appropriate for our kids, they found the soundtrack and have been singing every non-swear word to every song for more than a year now.  One our favorites is “Aaron Burr Sir,” which depicts the moment when Alexander Hamilton first meets Aaron Burr, who (spoiler alert) will one day be the man who kills Hamilton in a duel.  In the song, Hamilton seeks out Burr to talk about his desire to attend Princeton in an accelerated program, which Burr had just recently accomplished.  Upon finding out that both he and Burr were orphans, Hamilton exclaims, “You’re an orphan? Of course, I’m an orphan.  [Gosh], I wish there was a war then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”  In the song, Burr, only about 20 at the time, is already a polished politician.  While in real life he was active in the Revolutionary War effort, in the musical, Burr is depicted as a quiet, behind the scenes, negotiator type.  He encourages Hamilton to keep quiet, “fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”  A rousing pub song by some of the revolution’s key players interrupts their meeting, until the song comes to an end with Hamilton bluntly asking the young lawyer, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

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Hamilton’s question is one that has been asked over and over again in so many different ways throughout human history.  Life in America in 2020 has many of us asking this same question.  The Bible has a lot to say on the question of what it is that we are called to stand for.  In fact, all of our lessons for today invite us to think long and hard about what we stand for so that we might be better prepared to not fall for whatever our favorite outside force, false god, or social media feed might have us believe.  These lessons invite us to make a choice between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.  Like it was for Aaron Burr, making the choice between these two kingdoms can be quite challenging.

Standing near the edge of the Jordan River, just outside the Promised Land after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, Moses spoke to the children of Abraham.  After years of teaching, leading, and settling disputes, the now 120-year-old Moses is ready to impart his final wisdom upon God’s people.  Moses knows that he won’t be entering the land with them.  He knows that they have been prone to wander from the commandments of God.  He knows that they will need all the help they can get to stand firm in their faith when they come into this land thought to be flowing with milk and honey, and so he says, quite simply, “You’ve got a choice to make between life and death.”  Life is the way of love.  Life is available to those who put the love of God above all else, who walk in the way of Lord, who obey the commandments, and who follow the Torah.  Death, on the other hand, comes to those who fall for the allure of false gods, who choose the love of self over the love of neighbor, and who seek power, privilege, and prestige.  “What will you stand for,” Moses asks, “life or death?”

Rarely does the Psalm seem to fit in the with the overarching theme of our lessons, but even here, the psalmist is clear that those who stand in God’s commandments will find joy, while those who fail to keep the law will be forsaken.

In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul is forced to respond to several conflicts in the life of the church.  In the midst of their fighting with one another, Paul writes to remind them of the faith upon which they first learned to stand in the light of Christ.  He calls them infants in Christ – they have forgotten how to stand in love, and instead are crawling around in anger and bitterness.  It isn’t about Apollos or Paul, Paul writes.  They are not the ones in whom your faith stands, but rather, it is in God alone that we are able stand.  They might have planted the seed, or tended the soil, or watered the earth, but it is God who made each Christian in Corinth to stand upright, to grow in faith, and to produce the fruit of righteousness.

Finally, then, we come to a rather challenging portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus takes many well-known laws and turns them on their heads.  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder,’ but I say to you, if you insult a brother or sister, you are liable.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery,’ but I say to you, if you look at someone lustfully, you have already committed adultery.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall divorce your wife by decree,’ but I say to you, if you divorce someone out of convenience, you have sinned.”  “You have heard it said, ‘you shall not swear falsely,’ but I say to you, don’t swear an oath at all, let your yes be yes and your no be no.”  I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that everyone in this room has fallen short of the ethical standard that Jesus sets for us here.  Jesus lifts the bar so high as to be impossible to achieve, which is the whole point.  As followers of Jesus, the first step toward standing tall in our faith is recognizing that we are totally incapable of doing it on our own.

History has shown, over thousands of years, that left to our own devices, human beings will fall for anything that makes us feel good.  We are suckers for instant gratification.  Each time your phone dings to let you know someone liked a photo, your brain shoots off a hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good, and eventually, it happens enough that you become addicted, seeking that rush that comes with each notification.  We’ve fallen for it.  The twenty-four-hour news channel of your choosing is there to make you angry or scared, which again, releases chemicals in your brain that over time you begin to think you can’t live without.  That chemical addiction keeps more eyeballs glued to the TV for longer periods of time, which allows them to sell ad space for more money.  We’ve fallen for it.  The entire advertising industry is built upon the reality that human beings can be convinced that we don’t have enough of whatever it is they are selling and that only by buying, drinking, eating, coveting what they have to offer will we ever be truly happy.  We’ve fallen for it.  Unable to stand, infants in the faith, too many of us spend our days watching the news and crawling around social media lobbing insults at each other.

Jesus invites us to stand up.  Better yet, Jesus takes us by the hand and helps us to stand, and then to walk, and then to work, building up the Kingdom of Heaven on earth by choosing life, and obeying the commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors.  So, what do you stand for?  Is it the cross of Christ or have you fallen for whatever it is that the world is selling these days?  Choose life.  Choose the way of love.  Choose to stand with Christ.  Standing with Jesus is so much more rewarding than crawling around in the messiness of anger, fear, and vitriol.  The Psalmist is no Lin-Manual Miranda, but he does sum up the reward of our call to stand with God quite well, “Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!”  Amen.

Losing our Saltiness

Salt was way more important in the time of Jesus than it is today.  Thanks to refrigeration, we are not dependent on salt to preserve meat in order to not die from food-borne illnesses.  More so, the health community is quite aware that too much salt is detrimental to our health.  As one with high blood pressure, I can assure you, I’ve heard all about salts impacts.  Still, salt is ubiquitous on dining room tables in homes, restaurants, and cafeterias.  Salt is so commonly used that some countries mandated that iodine be added to it to prevent intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Between 1990 and 2006, thanks to a concerted effort on behalf of the World Summit for Children, iodized salt usage increased from 25% to 66% of households, and the worlds IQ rose because of it.  The course has begun to reverse, however, as pink Himalayan salt has become the rage.  While some pink salt may contain trace amounts of iodine naturally, the general consensus seems to be that if you want to avoid an iodine deficiency, you should look for white salt.

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Long, probably unnecessary introduction aside, what’s really fascinating to me in the move toward pink salt is that it has been shown to have a statistically significant lower level of saltiness.  That is to say, if you are using pink salt to season a dish, you’ll need to use more of it to achieve the same flavor profile.  You with me?

When Jesus makes the somewhat absurd claim that salt can lose its taste, my mind was immediately taken to pink salt.  It is pretty.  It looks great in instagram photos of you dinner table.  It is suggested that it has all kinds of health benefits, but it lacks two very important things – depth of flavor and added iodine.  The lack of flavor is inherent in the makeup of pink salt.  The lack of iodine is a result of outside forces.  As I think about the life of faith and how disciples of Jesus might lose their saltiness, I would venture to stretch this metaphor a bit further.  Disciples who have lost their taste seem to be missing both internal and external components as well.  To lose our fundamental identity as the salt of the world often comes from a lack of community.  Iodine infusion for salty Christians comes by way of regular participation in worship, communal Bible study, and corporate acts of compassion.  When we remove ourselves from a community of faith, we lose part of what it means to be the salt of the earth.

Furthermore, when these external forces are removed, it becomes easier and easier to craft God in our own image.  Less and less focused on what it means to be a Christian for the world, we get so focused on what it means to be a Christian for ourselves that we begin to lose our connection with God through the indwelling of the Spirit.  Not having any kinds of checks and balances on our faith, we tend to focus on the wrong things, and, it seems fair to say, run the risk of coming nothing more than superficial Christians.  It might look good on the outside through an elaborate series of filters, but the true purpose of our saltiness is lost.

Like I said, salt isn’t as important today as it was in Jesus’ time, so you’ll have to forgive the shoehorning of this metaphor for nearly 600 words, but I do think there is something there for us to consider.  What may have seemed absurd 20 years ago – that salt could lose its most basic value – has come to fruition in the explosion of pink salt.  It might seems absurd that disciples of Jesus could lose their saltiness, but I don’t think so.  I think it is a real risk for all of us who claim to follow Jesus.  Staying connected to community and listening for the Holy Spirit in context is important to the ongoing development of the life of faith.

The Presentation

There are only a small handful of Feasts that take precedence over a regular Sunday celebration.  A couple of them – Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday – regularly fall on a Sunday.  One, Ascension Day, can never be a Sunday as forty days after Easter Day will always add up to Thursday.  All Saints’ Day can be celebrated twice, but it is only Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Name (January 1), the Presentation (February 2), and the Transfiguration (August 6), will bump a regularly scheduled Sunday.  This week, we have a rare double Feast as the secular festival of Super Bowl LIV happens to fall on the Sunday of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple – a name that just rolls off the tongue.

The Feast of the Presentation, while not often celebrated on the Lord’s Day is still a pretty popular story in the minds of many Episcopalians.  Anyone who grew up going to an Episcopal Church Camp could probably still recite the Song of Simeon from Compline by heart.  Simeon’s song sums up not only the hope of an old man who longed desperately for the redemption of Israel, but it strikes deep chords within all of us who are looking forward to and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is through the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people that we as Christians have come to know not just our salvation, but the redemption of the world.

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What gets less play, because her words were not recorded, is the prophet Anna who, Luke tells us was also waiting for the restoration of her beloved Jerusalem.  Upon seeing the babe, she too couldn’t help but express joy, praise God, and tell anyone who would listen what the birth of this particular child would mean for the whole world.

While the focus in the name of this Feast is the ritual act of presenting Jesus at the Temple for purification, what really stands out to me this morning is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, and their willingness to share the hope that was within them.  Too often in our worship, Episcopalians focus on the ritual acts, forgetting that the Eucharist is meant to nourish us spiritually that we might go forth to share the love of God and the Good News of salvation in Christ with everyone we meet.

The Mission of the Jesus Movement

Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to:

  • Worship God with joy and wonder;
  • Learn and Grow together; and
  • Radiate God’s love to all.

As I sat in the Trustees and Council retreat this weekend, some in the group wondered if our attempt to craft a Diocesan Why or mission statement was worth the effort.  “It’ll just get printed on letterhead and ignored like all the others,” one person worried aloud.  Here at Christ Church, we run the opposite risk, as Shelley Carter wrote in her Senior Warden’s Report.  Our mission statement, like any mission statement, is in danger of being heard so often that it loses all meaning.  I imagine that most of you just tune out the first 20 seconds or so of the announcements each Sunday because you already know what is going to be said.  If it isn’t lived out in our daily lives, if it doesn’t form the foundation of our planning, if it isn’t really at the heart of who we are, then whatever we might say we are about matters very little.  What really matters is how we live, or as Shelley put it, there has to be “evidence that we are awake and actively living our mission.”

We aren’t the first Christian group that has sought to live into a mission statement.  In fact, one could argue that every Christian mission statement is just some variation on the mission statements of Jesus.  There are several versions of it.  In one place Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Elsewhere, he says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  At the Last Supper, he simply instructs the disciples that they should “love one another.”  In our Gospel lesson this morning, we hear the earliest iteration of the Jesus Movement’s mission statement as he calls his first disciples.

After forty days of being tempted by Satan in the desert, Jesus likely found himself on an extended stay in Jerusalem.  In order to carry the title, Rabbi, he would have had to study under a teacher, many of whom would have set up shop near the Temple.  Things grew tense between the Roman Government, the Temple Leaders, and reformers like Jesus and John the Baptist, until it all came to a head (pardon the pun) with the arrest of John for speaking out against Herod’s marital indiscretions.  Jesus knew that it wasn’t yet his time, so he took an 80-mile hike north to Capernaum where he honed his mission statement into one, seven-word Greek sentence, “metanoiete engidzon gar ha bassileia tone ouranon.”  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  “Turn your lives around, the reign of God is near.”

The first test of that mission statement comes almost immediately.  While walking down the beach, Jesus came across two brothers, who we presume he already knew.  Simon, the guy that Jesus renamed Peter in last week’s lesson, and Andrew a former disciple of John the Baptist who had returned to the family fishing business.  The time had come for their shared mission to begin in earnest, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” was all they needed to drop their nets and go.  Can you imagine their poor dad?  Andrew was finally back from his last adventure with a strange religious leader, and already he was off again.  Down the shore a bit, Jesus ran across two more brothers, James and John, who also quickly dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus on this mission to proclaim repentance and the Kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was now four-for-four in getting people to radically turn their lives around in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven.  He would not continue to bat 1.000, but in this story, we learn something about how it is that the Christian mission is lived out successfully – Christian mission has to be built on relationships.  While this story could be, and has often been, preached with the assumption that Jesus came across four random dudes and, in one sentence, convinced them to leave their families behind, I’m more apt to believe that Jesus, Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John already knew each other.  Most days, you could probably see them at the coffee shop arguing theology.  On the weekend, Jesus was on their boats, pulling in nets, and testing sermon ideas.  This moment, the in-earnest beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew’s Gospel, is built upon the foundation of deep relationships and love for one another.

Which brings me back to our mission statement here at Christ Church.  We have focused a lot of attention on the three missional foci – worship, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love, but I was reminded by our Gospel lesson this week that our mission statement, like the ministry of Jesus who we follow, is built on relationship.  We are, as I have said repeatedly for more than two years now, “a community of Christ’s servants.”  The extent to which we are successful in living out our ministry is dependent upon how well we work and play together.  Or, as the church growth people might say, how are we at building community?  As 2020 unfolds, I invite you to consider your role in the community of Christ Church.  Are you called to help us play more together?  Is your calling to bring us deeper in prayer?  Is your work to heighten our sense of God’s grace?  Are you supposed to help us be good stewards of our resources?  Is God simply inviting you to show up more often?  What is your role in building up the Body of Christ as it is lived out at Christ Church?  How is God inviting you to change your life in some way to build up the Kingdom of Heaven?  Where are you being called to work alongside your fellow servants of Christ for the glory of God?

You will, most likely, never be called to drop your nets, leave your family, and follow Jesus on a three-year journey through the Palestinian countryside, but there is no doubt that God has a mission statement for your life, a calling for you to live out, and gifts for you to utilize.  In our prayer for this day, we asked God to give us grace that we might readily answer that call so that together, we might share the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ: salvation that comes each time one of us, or all of us together, decides to wake up and actively amend our lives to work toward bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  Our mission remains resolute.  There is still plenty of work to be done both out there and inside these walls as we seek to build relationships with one another and with a world that desperately needs to hear of God’s unfailing grace.  I look forward to what 2020 will bring for this community of Christ’s servants called Christ Episcopal Church.  Amen.

Day of Midian?

I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m like hand sanitizer and 99.9% certain that no preacher wants to tackle Isaiah 9 on Christmas.  We’re so focused on the birth of the Messiah and the conflation of the Synoptic stories to worry at all about what boarders on a supercessionist shoe-horning of Isaiah’s oracle for Hezekiah’s reign into a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.  The odds are pretty good that one the congregation hears “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” on Christmas Eve, their imaginations are already in the shepherd’s fields waiting the heavenly chorus.  Knowing this, the RCL didn’t let us off the hook by simply hiding Isaiah 9 on the Feast of the Nativity.  Instead, it makes a triumphant reappearance here on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A.

While the common reading of this text as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah seems so easy and feels pretty good, I couldn’t help but get caught up on this image of the yoke of oppression being broken “as on the day of Midian.”  I’ve heard these words for 40 years, but have never given any real thought as to what that that reference was about.  Until today.  Today, for whatever reason, the day of Midian grabbed my attention.  Funny how scripture does that.

According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Isaiah was references a story recounted in the Book of Judges.  Before we get there, however, it behooves us to learn who Midian was.  The son of Abraham by Keturah, Midian and his brothers have a story similar to Ishmael.  As the children of a wife/concubine, Midian and his siblings were left very little when Abraham died.  His family was left to wander as nomads, left without a home.  Over time, the descendants of Midian grew in number and eventually became a great tribe, and when the Lord God needed to punish Israel for their worship of false gods, the Lord used the Midianites to oppress the people of Israel.   Judges 6-8 tells the story of the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s army’s conquest and Gideon’s almost instant return to idolatry.

It’s an odd reference, given that the relationship between God and Israel was only good for about half a minute, but when Isaiah uses this image of the rod of oppression being broken as on the day of Midian, it helps remind me that this salvation thing is ongoing work.  My salvation, as well as the salvation of the whole world, is being worked out day by day, as the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, deeper relationship, and the work of justice and peace.  The great light isn’t something we come to see in fullness in a moment, but is revealed to, epiphany after epiphany, through the course of our lives as disciples.

Praying Shapes Believing

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Praying Shapes Believing is one of the standard texts for anyone who is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  It has been for at least two decades, even if the Eucharistic Prayer chapter based on what is now thought to be some pretty outdated scholarship (that’s another post).  My own discernment process in Central Pennsylvania was pretty well based on the structure of this text, so its core concepts are engrained in me, and I am a firm believer that the things we pray for eventually become the things we believe and the things we believe shape the way we act.

Thus, I read with great excitement the Collect for Epiphany 3, which at Christ Church is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Would that we really wanted this prayer to be answered.  Would that all of us were ready, by God’s grace, to answer the call of Jesus to share the Good News of salvation with all people.  Would that we weren’t, and I’m not saying anything about “we” that I don’t also mean for “me,” weren’t so afraid of what others have done in the name of Jesus that sometimes, we hide our own faith under a bushel basket.

I’ve written extensively on the Episcopal Church’s discomfort with evangelism as anything more than doing good deeds.  I’d be happy to send you my doctoral thesis, if you need help falling asleep at night.  Alas, we’ve taken to heart this made up anachronistic supposed saying of Saint Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.” to the detriment of the Gospel and the lament of our churches.  As followers of Jesus, who experience the Gospel as a Way of Love rather than a way of fear, judgement, or condemnation, we should be the one’s out there, shouting from the rooftops the Good News of God in Christ.

We might not be there, yet, but thanks be to God for this prayer, which I hope will lead to belief in the importance of evangelism, which I hope will then lead us outside of these walls with the Good News of Christ Jesus in our hearts and on our lips.

A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.