Welcome Text Week Readers

I am honored to have earned a spot on the regular roster of The Text This Week resources.  If you’ve landed here from there, thank you for clicking over.  My goal is to blog Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so if you’re here early in the week, check back.  Be sure to comment if you have thoughts, and sign up for email updates.

–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Staying out of Politics

2017-08-16 10.24.23.jpg

THE UNIVERSITY OF THE SOUTH
To all who read this diploma
Greetings in the Lord,
Steven John Pankey
a very worthy young man, an alumnus of this University who
has conducted himself uprightly and who has duly and lawfully
completed the course of study leading to the degree of
Doctor of Ministry
We the faculty and Senate have by unanimous consent advanced to this degree
and have given and granted to him all rights, privileges, and honors which in
any way pertain to it.

One of the great privileges that comes with being a highly educated, white, middle-class, Christian in 21st century America is the ability to ignore, by and large, what is happening “out there.”  Several years ago, I gave up watching the news for Lent, and it was freeing.  No longer did I have to carry the stress of the 24 hour news cycle.  No longer would I be addicted to the adrenaline rush of a breaking news alert.  No longer would the vitriol of talking heads impact my life.  It was as delightful as it was sinful.

The reality is, my life isn’t much impacted by what happens in the news.  My retirement is far off, so the daily fluctuations of the stock market aren’t my concern.  My health insurance is really good and it is mandated that my employer pay for it.  My children go to an affluent school with plenty of resources and have never known what it means to be in want.  It doesn’t much matter what happens in the world around me, and increasingly, I’m realizing how privileged a way this is to live.

The same is true for my preaching as well.  Ever since I listened to a Convocation sermon at VTS that blamed George Bush for Hurricane Katrina – not the aftermath, but the very storm itself, at least that’s how I hear it – I have subscribed to the school of thought that says politics have little, if any, place in the pulpit.  My congregations have been mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly educated folks.  They have run the political spectrum from Tea Party Republican to Bleeding Heart Democrat.  They have, with few exceptions, been quite content for me to not get into those topics which make us uncomfortable.  Additionally, I take seriously my call to minister alike to young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, and so I work hard to teach people how to think theologically and come to their own discerned conclusions.  I preach the text first, and only with great caution consult the newspaper.  In light of current events, however, I’m beginning to see just how privileged a posture this is as well.

As a preacher, I don’t need to make direct claims about the President of the United States, that’s beyond my constitutionally protected (OK, IRS statute protected) status.  I do, however, realize that I can’t stay out of the political system in which we live and move and have our being.  I have to be willing to name sin, no matter where I see it, and right now, that sin that needs to be named is racism, a topic which some see as political.  I need to name it, not for my congregation, for my blog readers, or so I can look good on social media, but rather, I need to name it for myself so that I can bring it to the cross, repent from my silence that perpetuates it, and begin to be transformed so that I can be a part of the transformation that God has begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As I wrote on Monday, if ever there was a week to deal with this, to venture into that which some will consider politics, this is the week to start.  I continue to pray for you, dear reader, as I hope you will for me.

What goes in

5315137f62631bd11191685c51bc14d1

In the realm of “there’s nothing new under the sun,” middle-class America has become obsessed with what they put in the body of late.  There was time when it was just about whether or not one could eat eggs and maintain basic health,

but now a days, there are open, ongoing, and often long-winded conversations about the merits of gluten, meat, lactose, soy, paleo, and Whole30 related dietary needs, just to name a few.  We are, of course, not the first generation of human beings to worry about such things, though ours probably stems more from luxury than it did in bygone eras.

One such time when the conversation about what one ate raged loudly was in and around the time of Jesus and the rise of the Pharisaical sect of Jewish priests.  Their main theological goal was to return Judaism to ritual purity as described in the Torah.  As such, they placed a high value on the purity code that included avoiding certain foods, cooked in certain way, in certain pots, and, given their Roman occupied context, offered as sacrifice to certain gods.  While today they are an easy punching bag, especially in interpreting Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees had good intentions at heart.  In their promised land, occupied by a foreign, pagan, empire, the only way that the Jews could really maintain their identity was to live by the strict code that God had given them through the 10 Commandments and the Levitical law.

Whether it is to the privileged white dude ordering his non-fat, half-caf, organic, soy, three-pump, sugar free, locally-sourced vanilla, latte or the Pharisee who might be overly concerned with whether or not one’s mixing spoon was used in two different pots, Jesus offers a counter-point in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Not as a matter of health or even as a point in the conversation about the ethics of food sourcing, but rather as part of the ongoing human question about what does or does not make someone clean in the eyes of God, Jesus offers this advice, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  In modern idiom, it might be, it’s not how fair trade your coffee is, but how you treat your barista.

Jesus is much more concerned with our relationships with other human beings than he is with how fussy we are about the rules.  This isn’t to say that buying coffee from responsible growers isn’t a good thing, but that even there, it is about concentric circles of relationships.  How we treat one another, whether it is face-to-face or three thousand miles apart, is what matters in the Kingdom, and how we treat each other comes forth from the heart rather than the other way ’round.  So, the next time you feel like patting yourself on the back for that organic head of lettuce, stop and give thanks for the growers who have chosen to use earth friendly farming techniques, pray for the laborers who do the hard work of harvesting, the scientists who are making trucks more eco-friendly through the discover of DEF, and the grocer, who, one hopes, has paid a just sum for the product.  And, as always, don’t forget to smile at your cashier, tip your waiter, and thank your barista.  These are the things that come from the heart.

The Challenging Call to Preach

Being called to preach the Gospel is a noble and dangerous calling.  As the Letter of James says, “teachers will be judged more strictly.”  This is especially true on weekends like the one America just experienced.  After an unplanned rally of torch wielding white nationalists marched through the bucolic campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the whole nation seemed on edge.  By early afternoon on Saturday, the simmering pot had boiled over.  One woman was dead, twenty others injured as a man, now known to be a white supremacist, ran his car into a crowded street of counter-protesters.

On social media, there were many who called on preachers to immediately scrap their sermons and preach against racism.  Many preachers did just that; throwing out sermons that had been prepared to talk about Peter and Jesus walking on water, in order to name the sins of racism, white supremacy, and violence.  I applaud those preachers.  Others took a harder look at their texts and made changes to name the power that fear has in our lives.  The text explicitly invited that reading, and I applaud those preachers as well.  Still others chose to do nothing.  They preached the same sermon on Sunday morning that they had planned to preach when they woke up on Friday.  I don’t begrudge these preachers either.  These topics are weighty and with less than 24 hours to make changes without time for critical thought and fervent prayer sermons dealing with them could have easily caused more harm than good.

racism20is20sin

True, but what does one say next?

That pass runs out this morning, however.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson and a full week to study and prayer leaves no wiggle room for the preacher to avoid the topic of racism, violent rhetoric, and hate.  The challenge will come when the preacher names the sin of racism in the context of a story in which Jesus, whom Scripture and tradition tell us was without sin, makes a clearly racist statement.  He calls the woman of Syrophoenican descent a dog, and there is no way around it.  What are we to do?  I think the task is two-fold.  First, we have to talk about the reality of systemic sin.  It can be true that Jesus the Christ lived without personal sin while also being true that Jesus the first century Jew lived in a culture of systemic sin.  His response to the woman was perhaps as close as Jesus ever got to allowing the sinfulness of the system in which he lived to flow into personal sin.  We need to say that.  And then we need to be willing to say that Jesus learned something in that encounter, and that he grew beyond the closed-minded racial system of his time to see that the Kingdom of God is much wider than even his human will could have imagined.

Episcopalians will likely stop there.  We are very comfortable with talking about systemic sin, but this Sunday will also require us to talk about individual sin as well.  We need to talk about how we as individuals perpetuate racism in our own lives.  We need to talk about how the words that come from our mouths show the sin in our hearts.  We need to be clear that the way forward in our society isn’t through anger, hateful speech, or violence, but through love of neighbor.  We need to be willing to say the unpopular thing, that the sin of the man who organized the “Unite the Right” rally is on par with the sin of the man who threw a punch at him on Sunday morning.  The Church, if we are to have a distinctly Christ-like voice in the struggle toward a more just society, must distance itself from violence, must be willing to admit that Jesus meant it when he said that if we are angry with another we are guilty of murder, and must be able to move beyond partisan politics to offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus would have us help him build.

It will be a challenging week for Lectionary preachers.  Moving beyond emotional immediacy toward a considered, theologically sound, sermon will not be easy, but it is our call as preachers, and the Gospel lesson demands it of us.  You will be in my prayers this week.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

A Biblical Anachronism?

marty-mcfly-in-back-to-the-future-playing-a-gibson

Movies that take place in the past always run the risk of including some sort of  unintentional anachronism – that is, a chronological inconsistency.  For example, in this famous scene from the 1985 film, Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where his parents first met on a Gibson ES-345 guitar that wasn’t introduced until 1958. (1)  This is usually the result of poor research by a prop department or a lack of availability of something of the era.  More often than not, the general population doesn’t notice the flaw because most of us wouldn’t know a) what model guitar that was and b) when it came out.  And, quite frankly, most don’t care either.

Most.

There are always a few folks who do notice and do care, and so lists like Mental Floss’ “15 Obvious Movie Anachronisms” are published and the general public giggles at both those who notice such things and the multi-billion dollar movie industry that can’t spend the five minutes checking these things out.

If people don’t care about anachronisms in movies, I’m certain that nobody at all reads their Bibles looking for the same.  Yet, here I am, that one weirdo, who always struggles with the disciples initial reaction to seeing Jesus in the story of Jesus walking on water, which we will hear read on Sunday.  The NRSV renders it this way.

“But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.”

Every time I read that part of the story, I wonder to myself, “did first century Jews believe in ghosts?”  It is well established that thoughts about the afterlife were still very much in flux in first century Judaism.  The Pharisees, Jesus’ main adversaries in Matthew (and another anachronism, but that’s for another post), believed in resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8), while the Sadducees didn’t believe in any of those things.  Further complicating the issue is that the word translated as “ghost” in the NRSV is a hapax legomenon in the Canon of Scripture.  It appears twice in the Gospels, but it seems Matthew took it directly from Mark when he brought this story into his Gospel.  Thayer tells us that the word is common in Greek literature, appearing in Aeschylus, Euripides, Plato, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Plutarch, and others.  In Greek, it seems to mean something more like a supernatural appearance, which flows well from its Hebrew equivalent that connotes a vision.

Did the disciples believe in ghosts?  I can’t be sure.  Certainly, they experienced Jesus on the water as something supernatural, something they would not normally expect to see, something worth being scared witless over, but I wonder if our 21st century understanding of ghosts (see Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Witness, and Scooby Doo) create an anachronism in the story that clouds our understanding in an unhelpful way.  Or, maybe I’ve just fallen down another infamous Steve Pankey rabbit hole.  Either way, there’s another 500 words for you to ponder.


NB. If you are an astute reader of this blog, you’ll note that I wrote on this topic, with much more certainty, three years ago.  I only realized it when I saw that “Ghosts” was a tag I had used before.  But that’s why you read, isn’t it?  To see what new useless thing I’ll glom on to next.

Subtle Drama Lost

File Aug 09, 1 33 19 PM

Shortly after 6am this morning, I sat down in a rocking chair on my front porch to sip my first cup of coffee of the day.  It is the first day of school here in Bowling Green, so everything had to be moved ahead of the slower paced summer schedule.  I noticed, if only for its lacking, that the sun was not yet over the trees.  What had been an overwhelming brightness over the past several weeks was replaced by the redness of the newly risen sun, just barely peeking through the trees.  It was cool, the street was quiet, and I thought to myself, “this is the calm before the storm.”

By the Roman time keeping standard of the 1st century, 6am is the end of the fourth watch, the time stamp given for this week’s Gospel lesson in the Greek version (and honestly most others outside of the NRSV).  After a night spent in prayer, Jesus set out to meet up with the wind battered disciples on a boat somewhere near the middle of the Sea of Galilee by walking across the water.

I note the time of day as the fourth watch because I think it helps add in the subtle drama of the story.  We don’t know what time of year it was, so we can’t be for sure when the sun rise would have occurred on that particular morning, but the sky most definitely starts to gain light toward the waning hours of the fourth watch.  Unlike Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to teleport from one location to another, Matthew tells us that somewhere during the period between 3am and 6am, Jesus walked to meet his disciples.  It would have taken him some time to traverse the roughly four mile hike from the south-western shore to mid-lake.  As he walked, the sky began to wake.  First light came, and as the sun approached the horizon, the twilight grew until the figure on the water began to come into focus for the disciples.

It isn’t so much that the time of day really matters for preaching, except that it kind of does.  When we miss these details, the story loses some of its power because we are no longer able to put ourselves within it.  With the return to a fourth watch translation (and the requisite teaching required to help people know what that means), we can begin to imagine ourselves within the story.  Many have experienced the twilight of the morning.  We know what it is like as what was once darkness gives way to light and more and more things come into view.  Sometimes, all it takes is one small detail of subtle drama to allow us to experience more fully what the disciples were feeling, to understand the story more fully, and find our place in an ancient encounter with the Savior of the World.

Experiencing God with all the senses

Given its scriptural context, my sermon on Sunday focused on the eyes.  “Where have you seen God today?” was the recurring question, and it is, I believe, an important one.  This is not to say, however, that God is not made manifest through our other senses as well.  In fact, Sunday’s Track Two Old Testament lesson comes at the tail end of a story that all about how God makes himself known in unexpected ways.

clipart-five-senses-4

If you didn’t click the link to read the lesson, I’ll remind you that it is the story of Elijah’s flight to Mount Horeb.  After Ahab married Jezebel and worships her God, Baal, the Lord God of Israel withheld rain from the land for three years.  So it begins with God being manifest in the parched tongues of the thirsty and the empty bellies of the hungry.   Over and against Baal, the god of the storm, Elijah’s God is fully in control of sun and rain, ground and harvest, and even life and death.  Elijah, following the command, that is the voice, of God, departs for Zarephath where he is to find a widow who will care for him.  Here again, God is made known in water, oil, and flour, even the very taste of bread upon the lips of Elijah, the widow, and her son.

As the story unfolds, Elijah ends up in a spiritual battle with the priests of Baal over who’s god can bring fire to the earth.  God’s power is is made manifest in fire that consumes damp wood, stones, dust, and even water.  God was felt in the heat of the flames, and the smell of burnt wood.  For the priests of  Baal, the impotence of their god was known in the pain of their wounds as they tried to appease Baal with a sacrifice of their own blood.  After that amazing and ridiculous story, Elijah once again leaves town for safer quarters, and our lesson opens with Elijah hiding for safety atop Mount Horeb.  There God isn’t in the earthquake or the rock-splitting wind, or even the fire, as before.  Instead, God makes himself known to Elijah in the still, small voice.

God is willing to find us by any means necessary.  Through sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing, God calls us each in our own way.

Our own worst enemy

After a brief foray into Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we return to our regularly scheduled program in Matthew.  This week, we are gifted with one of Christianity’s favorite stories, the one that has made its way into pop culture more than any other, Jesus (and Peter, for a minute) walking on water.

hmqibsk

At Christ Church, we are using Old Testament Track Two, which, at least in theory, is supposed to offer thematic lessons in line with the Gospel.  Some Sundays, this is more true than others, but this week, the common thread seems rather obvious, even if it is undesirable.  Just as Peter causes himself to sink though doubt, Elijah crawls into a cave sure that he is the only faithful Jew remaining.  Both, it would seem, are their own worst enemies.

As much as I hate to admit it, I know this problem to be true in my own life as well.  Whether it is Peter’s sin of initially trusting myself too much, taking on too many tasks, and ultimately failing under the weight of my own hubris, or Elijah’s sin of frustration and lament over a situation that really wasn’t as bad as it seemed, I’m guilty, more often than I’d like to think, of placing too much trust in human beings and not enough in the power of the living God.

What are we to do in those circumstances?  Well, for both Elijah and Peter, salvation comes from God’s intervention.  The first thing to note in both stories is that the divine power of God is present, no matter what.  The voice asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” because God is right there alongside him.  Jesus reaches out to catch Peter because he won’t let him go too far astray.  So often, when we think we’ve gone out on our own, we assume that in so doing, we have left God behind.  Sometimes, it might even seem like we have gone too far; that this time, God couldn’t possible save us.  And yet, there is no place too far from the love of God.  No matter who many times we set out on our own, no matter how far down the path we might go, no matter how close the water might be to overtaking us, God is there, ready for us to call out for help.  As Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”