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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Losing philadelphia

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Stevie Williams in Philadelphia’s Love Park

“Let mutual love continue.”

In the Greek it is only three words long, but it might be the most powerful homiletical imperative ever written.  Scholars squabble quite a bit about the origins of the Letter to the Hebrews.  While it was initially attributed to Paul, by the turn of the third century, Origen was already questioning if Paul had actually written it.  While it is often called a letter it really reads more like a sermon or even a series of sermons.  It is thought to be addressed to Jewish Christians living in the Diaspora, but even that can’t be known for sure.  Yet, despite all of the uncertainty over its authorship, style, and intended audience, it is still one of the most powerful texts in the New Testament Canon.

Unlike most of the other New Testament letters, the “Letter” to the “Hebrews” is written in a much more general style.  It speaks not so much to the particularities of a church in a time and place, but serves a theological backbone for the Church catholic that will continue to grow in the 1900 years since its writing. As the “Letter” comes to a close, the author begins to offer short reflections on the life of faith; exhorting his hearers to continue to live following The Way, despite the persecution that has been, is ongoing, and will continue to come, and it can all be summed up by this three word Greek sentence that opens our Epistle lesson this Sunday, “Let mutual love continue.”

That love that the author writes about is different from the love we hear about most often in the New Testament.  Instead of admonishing us to agape, self-sacrificial love, the author invites us to philadelphia, brotherly love.  We are to love our fellow disciples as if they are our sisters and brothers.  As Bryan Whitfield noted in a 2010 commentary on this text, “We are family, and we must continue to nurture and strengthen that bond if we are to find our way.”

In a world where there is a church designed to meet every possible whim and fancy of ecclesiastical taste on every street corner, this idea of treating our fellow disciples as brothers and sisters is fairly foreign.  Rather than seeing the church as a family with which we stick through thick and thin, more often than not these days, if something doesn’t tickle our fancy in our church anymore, we pick up and move.  Sometimes the reason for leaving is theological, but 99.9% of the time, it is adiaphora – things indifferent.  Whether you are no longer in love with the preaching style, the musical style, the choice of Tawny Port over Welch’s Grape, or the ongoing open question about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, our inability to “let mutual love continue” has created a culture in which there is no longer philadelphia in most churches.  Rather, we simply pick up our ball and go home.

The persecuted Church of the turn of the second century didn’t have that luxury, and, I would argue, neither should we.  Instead, let mutual love continue, learn to live in disagreement and find God in discomfort, and remember, that even when the music changes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The Invitation to Table Fellowship

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The most oft ignored rubric in the Book of Common Prayer might also be the most important.  Unfortunately, it is mired deep in the “Additional Directions” of the Holy Eucharist portion of the Prayer Book, near the bottom of page 407.  “While the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the sacrament in both kinds.  The bishops, priests, and deacons at the Holy Table then communicate, and after them the people.” (emphasis mine).  Whether I am in a seminary chapel, Diocesan liturgy, or Sunday morning worship, it is clear that neither celebrant nor the people know this particular rubric and the power of its intended imagery.

In order for the reception of the Eucharist to be a communal act, it must all be done together.  When the congregations watches as a single person, who has already spoken more than 90% of the words of our common prayer, receives a choice piece of bread and an unsullied sip of wine, something about the communal aspect of the Eucharist is lost.  the Holy Table is the place where we all gather as sinners redeemed to be nourished and blessed by the Body and Blood of our Savior.  We come to the Table whether we are 6 months or 106 years.  We commune next to this with whom we disagree politically and theologically.  We receive from those whom we have hurt and from those who have hurt us. We come, all of us, desperately in need of God’s forgiveness and blessing.  The act of Holy Communion is the living out of Jesus’ message to both guests and hosts in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.

And it all starts with an invitation.  For all the liturgical variety now available to us in as a people of Common Prayer, there is but one singular authorized invitation to the Lord’s Table.  The words are the same in Rite I and Rite II, and there is no provision for anything different in Enriching our Worship.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, the Prayer Book directs the following action: “Facing the people, the Celebrant says the following Invitation The Gifts of God for the People of God. and may add Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

This is not to say that this is the only invitation you might hear in an Episcopal Church, the Iona Invitation is growing in popularity, and might actually do a better job acting as an invitation, motivating people to live out the rubric on page 407 by coming forward, making the reception of the Eucharist a communal act for all four orders of ministry.  It is a true invitation because it actually invites people to do something rather than to simply stare at the now consecrated elements of bread and wine.

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

It isn’t Prayer Book authorized, so I can’t suggest you use it this Sunday, but my Bishop uses it, so I’m thinking we can try it here.  A true invitation to the Lord’s banquet, where we gather as one to receive what we all need.  Y’all come.

A Complicated Teaching

By and large, Jesus tends to stay on message throughout the course of his three years of active ministry.  Whether in parable, teaching, argument, or aside, his message tends to be about the immanence of the Kingdom of God and the preparations one should make for its arrival.  There are times, however, when you dig down into the nuts and bolts of what Jesus is actually saying and things get complicated.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is one such occasion as we hear Jesus flip flop a bit on the question of motivation.

In his teaching about table manners, Jesus suggests that guests choose a lower seat so that when we are invited higher, we might be honored in the sight of everyone.  Pausing only to turn his attention to the host of the dinner party, Jesus then tells him to not invite people who can invite you in return, but instead to invite those who are often left off the invite list.  Of course, anyone who has hung around religious circles much realizes that the question of motivation is ever present.  We shouldn’t follow Jesus to get out of hell, but there are plenty of churches that preach that message.  We shouldn’t do good works to earn God’s love, but there are plenty of sermons that imply that very thing.  We shouldn’t take pictures of people who don’t look like our congregation in order to make the website more diverse, but, well…

Read as a whole, the message of Jesus on the topic of motivation can be complicated.  Do we sit lower in order to be invited higher?  More often than not, we will find ourselves still seated in that lower place when the meal is all over.  Do we invite the poor who cannot repay us?  Absolutely, but that probably doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also invite the rich and the middle class who need to know the love of Jesus as well.  In the end, I find that balancing my motivations is of utmost importance.  As that great theologian Ice Cube once said, “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.”  Or in Rite I language:

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If you are volunteering in that ministry because your mother told you to 50 years ago or because it is where there is power to be had or because it is the group in which to see and be seen; well, you probably ought to check your motivation and find something else to do.  If you are engage in ministry to make yourself feel better, to get your face in the newsletter, or to make your neighbor feel guilty; thou has already wrecked thyself.  If, however, your motivation is love of God and of neighbor, then it doesn’t much matter if you are the President of the Standing Committee or locking up after a parish potluck, your name has been honored where in matters – in the kingdom of God.

Honor and Shame

If it is possible to imagine, the differences between the context of Jesus in 1st century Palestine and me in 21st century America seem to be even wider than two thousand years and six thousand seven hundred miles.

distance

Image from USAGeo.org

The amount of change that has occurred in the world even in the last 50 years is enough to render the past a totally foreign place, let alone 2,000 years.  Anyone who has traveled knows that the amount of change that happens between getting on a plane in Alabama and landing in Jerusalem means a steep learning curve on the other end.  So it is that when we open the Scriptures and read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, we are reading it through a glass colored darkly.  We can understand the story only in part.

Take, for example, the power of the honor and shame in the world in which Jesus lived.  As Asbury Theological Seminary’s Dr. Ben Wetherington notes in reference to Paul’s ministry, but with application to Jesus’ life, “The honor and shame culture Paul lived in was far different from contemporary Western culture and its values. “Honor” and “shame” in this context do not primarily refer to feelings of honor or shame, though feelings would be involved, but rather to being honored or disgraced in public.”  The goal of any point of argument in the culture of Jesus’ day would be to find a way to shame your opponent in order to bring honor to your point of view.

Which brings us to the tail end of Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Jesus has healed the bent over woman on the Sabbath day, much to the ire of the religious authorities, and in the brief spat between them, honor and shame plays a big part.  Jesus honored the woman by laying hands on her and setting her free from her affliction.  The leader of the synagogue tried to shame her, the crowd, and by extension, Jesus, by suggesting that they came to the synagogue with bad intentions, seeking to be healed rather than to honor God on the Sabbath.  Jesus shames the leader by suggesting that his rules are merely man made and enforced only at his own convenience, in order to honor himself.

Luke tells us that when the dust settled, Jesus’ opponents were “put to shame,” and the crowd rejoiced at “all the wonderful things he was doing.”  We miss something in the NRSV’s translation of the Greek which literally reads that the crowd rejoiced at honored things he was dong.  As tensions grow between Jesus and the religious powers-that-be, honor and shame will play a large role, and it would behoove the preacher to take a moment to understand the power of honor and shame in Jesus’ time in order to preach the story 2,000 years and thousands of miles removed.

Acceptable Worship

Say the word “worship” these days and often you’ll unwittingly start another skirmish in an ongoing war between those who imagine worship to look like this

worship

and those how prefer it to look like this

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The battles can be quite fierce, but as one who can find God in both sorts of settings, what is so interesting to me is how wildly off the mark the whole “worship war” thing really is.  Ultimately, worship has absolutely nothing to do with the architecture of a space, the number of pipes in one’s organ or the number of instruments in a praise band.  Appropriate worship, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us is, quite simply, giving thanks thanks to God.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe…”

In my Episcopal tradition, this takes on life in our liturgy through the Eucharist, a transliteration of the Greek word for “grateful” or “thanksgiving.”  In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper we pause to give thanks to God for the most precious gift of the Body and Blood of his Son, broken and poured out for our redemption on the cross.  With or without pipe organ.  With or without lead guitar.  Even with our without music, the service of Holy Eucharist lives up to the requirements of acceptable worship because, at its very core, it is a gathering of the people of God to give thanks.

Of course, as you might expect from this low churchman, Holy Eucharist isn’t the only acceptable form of worship.  There are plenty of ways to offer thanks to God for God’s “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101).  The Daily Office is full of opportunities to give thanks.  Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families, in setting aside time for prayers for ourselves and others gives us ample opportunity to give thanks, especially at the Close of Day.  Even for those who prefer not to pray from a book, the standard form of prayer taught in many evangelical circles weighs heavily on thanksgiving.  ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication encourages us to worship God through our prayers.

As you look around your world today, what opportunities are there to offer acceptable worship by giving thanks?

Running with a cloud of witnesses

My sermon for Proper 15, Year C can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I do not enjoy running.  I dislike it so much that recently Cassie bought me my own version of one of those 26.2 marathon stickers that people put on their cars.  Mine says “0.0 I don’t run.”

0-0-dontrun_img_006

Still, I can’t seem to get away from running.  Cassie loves to run.  She completed her first two half marathons last year and has hopes to run a full marathon someday in the near future.  She has a friend who is an ultra-marathoner, and we’ve been known to track his progress as he spends 24 or more hours running 100 mile endurance races.  Today’s New Testament lesson has a running theme, and with the Women’s Olympic Marathon happening this morning, I had little choice but to preach about the long race of the life of faith.

Unlike many Olympic marathons over the years, the marathon course in Rio will not end inside the track and field stadium, but instead the athletes will make their way to the famous Sambadrome, a parade ground built for the annual Carnival celebration in Rio.  As many as 90,000 spectators will line both sides of the last half mile to cheer on the racers from first place to 171st.  Having only run a few small 5K events, I can only imagine how it must feel to be absolutely exhausted at the end of a 26.2 mile run having given your all in the hopes of an Olympic medal to turn the final corner and see tens of thousands of fans cheering you on.  The adrenaline rush must be spectacular as you push harder than you thought possible to complete the course.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews was no doubt familiar with Olympic running competitions.  Like the modern day Olympic games with a whole lot less advertising and a whole lot more nudity, every four years from about 776 BC until 393 AD athletes from around the Greek speaking world would gather in Olympia to compete in events like track and field, boxing, wrestling, and chariot racing.[1]  Back then, the longest running race was called the Dolichos and was roughly equivalent to a 5k.  Runners would begin the race inside the stadium and then travel the Olympic grounds, passing by the shrines to Greek gods like Zues and Nike before reentering the stadium to cross the finish line with 50,000 fans cheering them on.[2] [3]  It must have been with that experience in mind that the author encourages the Greek speaking Christians in Rome to gain strength from the great cloud of witnesses, to run with endurance the race that was set before them, and to hold fast to their faith despite ongoing persecution.  Last Sunday, we heard the first part of his exhortation on faith as “the assurance of things hoped for” and “the conviction of things not seen.”  The author then goes on to describe Old Testament hero after Old Testament hero who lived their lives in devotion to God.  Noah withstood a flood of the entire world because he had faith enough to build an ark.  Abraham picked up his family and moved them to an unknown faraway land just because God asked him to.  Moses led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt because he had faith enough to take off his sandals in front of burning bush.  As we heard this morning, the list of heroes who lived faithfully in the Old Testament is too long to name, but they are worthy of our attention because they show us what it means to live lives of faithfulness: in assurance of things hoped for and confident in things unseen.

What is striking about this long list of heroes is that all of them lived before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  None of them knew the saving love of the Messiah, and yet, the author notes, in the end, all of them will enter the Promised Land alongside those of us who have come after them and claimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  We will all finish the race together, regardless of when we began.  This mind-boggling characteristic of God’s grace reminded me of a running story we heard from that ultra-marathoner friend of Cassie’s.  Paul is one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not designed to run for 24 hours non-stop, and so, these events often include pacers who run a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from getting lost or doing real damage to themselves.  Paul’s last event was the Hard Rock 100 mile race but he didn’t compete for a medal, his job was to set the pace for the final 40 miles.  He waited at an aid station until his group arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly exhausted.  What was unique about this year’s Hard Rock 100 is that the two leaders actually paced each other – running together for 80 of the 100 miles.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, having run the last 80 miles side-by-side, it didn’t seem right for either one of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  Jason Schlarb and Kilian Jornet had survived the 22 hour, 58 minute and 28 second journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

The life of faith is kind of like the ancient Dolichos, the Marathon, or sometimes even an ultra-marathon.  It can be a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we might grow increasingly exhausted and, perhaps, delirious.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, and one day we will all be gifted with the chance to cross the finish line together when we all join hands with Jesus Christ who will come again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

In the meantime, we cannot go about this journey alone.  We are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  It doesn’t matter if you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  When the race feels like it has gone on too long, when exhaustion sets in and you want to do nothing more than quit chasing after the dream of “things hoped for” and still “unseen,” remember that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on.  Tap into the adrenaline rush that comes from recalling the stories of faithful heroes of the past.  Invite God to open your eyes to see their hands out-stretched, inviting you to join them as together we pursue the finish line of the Kingdom of God brought to earth as it is in heaven.  Ready? Set. Let’s go!

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolichos_(race)

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stadium_at_Olympia

Only Together

SHW went to high school with a guy who has gone on to become an ultra-marathoner.  He’s one of those crazy people who thought that 26.2 miles of running just wasn’t enough, and so now he regularly participates in races of 50 or 100 miles.  We once followed his progress on a 100 mile race that took him well over a day to complete.  We woke up and he was already running.  Went to church – he was still running.  Ate lunch – still running.  Took a nap – running.  Went to dinner – running.  Watched a movie – running.  Went to bed – the man was STILL RUNNING!

The human body is not particularly designed to run for 24 hours non-stop. We were designed for the rhythm of day and night; sleep and awake; and so, these events usually include pacers who run only a portion of the race to keep people who are suffering from delirium and exhaustion from doing real damage to themselves.  P’s last event wasn’t a race but rather his task was to set the pace for the final 40ish miles.  He waited at an aid station until the leaders arrived and ran with them, through the night, as they became increasingly tired.  The two leaders ran together every step of the way.  When one needed to stop to adjust shoes or take nourishment, the other waited.  By the end of the 100 mile ordeal, it didn’t seem right for either on of them to be declared the winner, and so they “ran” across the finish line holding hands.  They had survived the journey together, and one succeeded only because of the other.

us-vs-us-philipp-reiter

The life of faith is kind of like an ultra-marathon.  It is a long and arduous journey, and if we are blessed to walk it for a while, we too might grow increasingly delirious and exhausted.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds his readers and us that for thousands of years, faithful people have walked the same path, but even those who have died have not yet crossed the finish line.  Instead, we will all be gifted with the chance to cross over together when as one, we join with Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead, comes again to bring about a new heaven and a new earth.

We cannot go about this journey alone.  Instead, we are called to take our place alongside those with whom we worship, live, and work as well as those who walk the journey in other places and even other times in running the race that is set before us – a race filled with struggles and hardship as well as joy and laughter.  Whether you are Moses, Rahab, Saint Peter or Mother Theresa, this race can only be completed together by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like really good news.