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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

Stir Up!

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Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen. – The Collect for Advent 3

As I mentioned on Monday, for all my dislike of Advent as it plays out in 21st century America, I love Advent 3.  I love the pink candle.  I love the Magnificat.  Above all, I adore the Collect for Advent 3.  Dating all the way back to the Gelasian Sacramentary, this prayer has been on the lips of Christians since c.750.  It was the last of what used to be a series of four “stir up” prayers that were used in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It is a 1979 novelty that it falls on Advent 3.

Because of its age, I dug out my copy of Massey Shepherd’s Oxford Commentary on the [1928] American Prayer Book to see what the good Doctor had to say about this prayer.  What I discovered there is that this comforting phrase “stir up” doesn’t actually appear there.  Instead, the 28 Book reads, “O Lord, raise up, we pray thee,…”  In his Commentary on the 79 Book, Marion Hatchett seems to infer that the Latin excita means “to stir up,” but what is actually happening there, is he is showing us the translation.  So, I went digging, and found that excita, can be translated in several different ways.  The Latin Word Study Tool from Tufts University suggests, “to call out, summon forth, bring out, wake, rouse.”

It is doubtful that there are resurrection connotations to this word, but it certainly assumes that something has gone dormant.  How often do we quell the power of God in our lives?  Isn’t is so much easier to lull that piece of us to sleep so that we can go about the motions of life, unencumbered by the fearful power of God?  It is a common fact of modern, western Christianity that the Spirit, that dangerous force that calls us to God’s will, is undervalued and systematically hushed.

This prayer, then, is a dangerous one.  It is asking God to rouse that power that we would much rather keep quashed.  It invites the Spirit to work in our lives for the restoration of our souls and the whole world.  It ought to be taken quite seriously.  This Advent, are you interested in stirring up, rousing, reinvigorating the power of God in your life, or would you rather keep things safe and calm, removing yourself from the possibility of being an agent of God’s reconciling love in the world?

How are we judged?

When John’s disciples approach Jesus with their teacher’s question, Jesus doesn’t balk at it.  In fact, it might be the only question Jesus answers in a straightforward manner in all four gospels.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is, despite my attempts to soften it yesterday, a question of judgment.  Even if there is hope behind John’s question, there is also a question of truth.  “Are you, Jesus, really the Messiah?” is about as forthright a question as you can get, and Jesus doesn’t shy away.  In fact, he responds the their question by giving them the criteria by which he wishes to be judged; which also happens to be the criteria by which his Body, the Church, and her members will also be judged.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus asks to be judged based on his words and his actions.  He wants the disciples of John to take back to him the lessons they have heard, specifically Jesus notes “the good news for the poor,” as well as his acts of mercy: the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers cleansed; the deaf hear; and the dead alive.”  These are the criterion of the Kingdom of God, and as such, they serve as the basis of discipleship in our everyday lives.

Advent is a season in which judgment is at the forefront.  It is a season that makes us uncomfortable because we don’t like being judged, but I think our fear of judgment is mostly based on the fact that we feel like we don’t know the rules by which we will be judged.  Here, we get those rules laid out for us very clearly.  As we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a child born in a stable and descending with power and might to judge the world the season of Advent is a perfect opportunity to take stock of our lives.  Are we being faithful in sharing the Good News to the poor, that is, the good news of God’s economic reversal to the physically poor and the Good News of God’s saving grace to the spiritually poor as well?

Only then should we begin the process of answering the “what do you see” question.  Are we reaching out in loving service to our neighbors?  Are we challenging unjust systems?  Are we bringing healing to the world?  Or, as Jesus says to wrap things up, “are our words and actions creating a stumbling block for Jesus, or are we living lives worthy of the Gospel?”

Doubting John?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison 19th-Century Print

Sick Eye Roll Bro

John the Baptist gets plenty of love.  Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year.  We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison.  With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around.  Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”?  There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible.  In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6).  So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?

The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator.  You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah.  The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing.  In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing.  Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.

John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful.  John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer.  He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for.  Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.

I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter.  In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all.  Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either.  These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes.  I, for one, can understand that.

Aorist Mary’s Song

Despite my oft written about uneasiness with the season of Advent in its current 21st century Amercian incarnation, the third Sunday of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, is one of my favorites of the entire church year.  To start, we get the last remaining “Stir Up” prayer in the American Prayer Book.  More on that later this week.  The lessons for Advent 3, a day that is set aside for joy, are always interesting, even if John the Baptist’s doubt leads to some difficult preaching.  More on that later as well.  Beyond all that, the absolute best part of the Lectionary for Advent 3 is the opportunity to sing Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting of the Magnificat.   Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of it to share with you.

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The setting is beautiful, but only because the words of Mary’s song are so powerful.  You’ll recall that this song comes from Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus.  Shortly after Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and informed of her new identity as the theotokos, the Mother of God, Mary heads to the hill country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was old and had long since given up hope of having a child, but she too is pregnant, miraculously, with the one who be known as John the Baptizer.  The unborn John leaps in his mother’s womb when he hears the voice of Mary.  Elizabeth offers the first Hail Mary, and in return, Mary sings her song.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

What I find particularly striking this morning is the verb tense that Mary chooses.  My favorite Canticle, sung on one of my favorite Sundays, uses my favorite Greek tense: the aorist tense.  As I’ve written before, the Rev. Dr. Tony Lewis, my Greek professor, taught the aorist tense this way.  Occasionally, the refectory [a fancy word for cafeteria] will feature the sausage bar.  There are Kielbasas, hot dogs, Italian sausages, and the fiesta dog.  The aorist tense is like the fiesta dog, you eat it once, and its effects last forever.”

Listen to some of the things Mary puts in aorist tense: that is, it has already begun and is ongoing:

“He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

A brief study of the news will tell you that none of this seems true.  It was perhaps less true in Mary’s day and age, and yet she sang with confidence and hope that her being chosen to bear the Son of God meant that God’s plan for salvation was already underway.  The lowly were being lifted up. The hungry were being fed good things.  The social structures that oppressed people were being subverted.  The world was being turned right-side-up.

It may be really hard to see the truth of Mary’s promise.  We may scoff at her choice of the aorist tense, but that’s what Advent is all about.  We wait.  We watch.  We work.  We proclaim the greatness of the Lord who has already defeated selfishness, pride, oppression, and death

The Prophetic Word of Hope

I don’t have the time or the energy to work through the entire Old Testament to prove it, but somewhere in the synapses of my mind there is a tidbit of information that says that every time a prophet declares God’s judgment, there follows a word of hope.  There is always the promise of restoration.  There is always the assurance of a faithful remnant.  There is always hope, which in this day and age of fear-mongering, might be the most prophetic word of all.

Hope is Paul’s prophetic word to the Christians in Rome in this Sunday’s New Testament lesson. Despite what appears to be some minor persecution and perhaps more significant infighting between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul uses this second to last chapter of his letter to encourage the fledgling Church.  To the Jewish converts, he notes that the Old Testament Law, though brought to its perfection in the Law of Christ and no longer necessary, was written “for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

To the Gentiles, he offers the assurance of inclusion in God’s Kingdom, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

And to the whole church, in 1st century Rome, 21st century America, and everywhere in between, he offers the blessing of hope, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Christians are a people of hope.  We take seriously the idea that God’s plan is good and perfect.  We believe that the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice.  And we work tirelessly, oftentimes without much success, alongside God to bring about the future that has been promised.  We do so because we have hope.  In a world that oftentimes feels hopeless, or as our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, “the nightmare this world often is,” we stand for hope, we believe in God’s dream, and we work to show God’s love.  Hope is the work and the word of the prophets.

Bear Fruit

In John’s Gospel, it comes from the lips of Jesus at dinner with his disciples during in his final hours.  “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”  It comes as part of his final instructions; Jesus is imparting his most important lesson at a critical hour, and his word is “bear fruit.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, where we will find ourselves for the duration of Year A, the same admonition comes near the beginning.  This time, it isn’t Jesus who is offering this important lesson, but rather his cousin, John the Baptist.  The NRSV translates it prett close to the Greek, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” but I’m finding myself partial to the New Living Translation because it parallels nicely with the Johannine Last Supper, “Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God.”

At Saint Paul’s we often ask the question, “if we closed our doors today, would anybody notice?”  Other times, people are asked about their personal lives, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be evidence to convict you?”  Both are kind of cheesy ways of raising awareness of an issue that was at the heart of the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus: Are you bearing fruit?

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Does your life look any different than the lives of those for whom their god is their belly? Is the call to repentance, literally to change direction, evident in your life?  Or, in a country where it is quite easy to be a Christian and where the Church is rather intimately tied into the culture of the empire, is your life simply about the pursuit of selfish goals and desires?

A tree bears fruit.  It is simply what it does.  However, it can only do so in the right conditions.  Bearing fruit requires fertilization, the right amount of rain, proper sunlight, and the occasional pruning.  The same goes for the life of faith.  Are you studying the Scriptures?  Are you taking time for prayer?  Have you learned to listen for God’s voice?  Is God asking you to repent, to give something up, or to take something on?  Are you bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

The King we Need, not the King we Want

Today’s sermon is posted on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


I’m always amazed at just how quickly November arrives.  It seems like only yesterday we were celebrating Mardi Gras and preparing for Lent.  Now, here we are at the end of the church year, once again celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.  Well, celebrating might not be the best word to use here in Year C when our Gospel lesson comes from Good Friday.  As we close out the church year and ponder what it means to call Jesus the King of kings and Lord of lords, this year, we do so with the stark reality of his death at the hands of Rome and the complicity of the Jewish leadership right in our faces.  It makes me wonder, in light of Good Friday, is Jesus the kind of king we want, or the one we need?

Questions about Jesus’ kingship are particularly difficult to answer for us 21st century Americans because our understanding of kings and queens are based mostly on history books and British tabloids.  While we might admire Queen Elizabeth II for her long reign in England, her monarchy is very different from the role of kings and queens historically.  Her’s is a constitutional monarchy: she rules with the help of an elected Parliament and Prime Minister.  This sort of power sharing has not always been the case.  More common throughout history is the absolute monarchy, a situation in which the king or queen is the sole ruling authority in the land.  In the Bible, we hear the story of Pharaoh in Egypt as an absolute monarch.  Sol, David, Solomon and the other kings of Israel and Judah were the same.  In Jesus’ time, Augustus and Tiberius, while technically Roman Emperors, served with the same sort of iron fist that we tend to think of with the absolute kingships of folks like Henry VIII of England and Louis XIV of France.

When the mocking soldiers called up to Jesus on the cross and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When the religious leaders laughed at Jesus and said, “If he is the Anointed One of God [a royal title if I’ve ever heard one] let him save himself” they had a particular image of kingship in mind.  When one criminal derided Jesus and asked, “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us” he had a particular image of kingship in mind.  All these were expecting the King of the Jews, the Anointed One, the Messiah, to be a man of power, arriving with a great army who would overthrow Rome and bring about the peace that Jerusalem had lacked for so long.  They expected a king like those they had known, men who ruled with power and might, horse and rider, sword and shield.

The truth of the matter is that Jesus was and is a different kind of king.  That he was the King of the Jews, there is no doubt.  He is the Messiah.  He is the Anointed One of God, but his kingship is unlike anything the world has ever seen.  His throne is not made of gold.  It does not sit in the throne room of a palace built from marble, exotic woods, and precious metals.  Instead, as Luke’s Passion Narrative so skillfully suggests, Jesus’ throne is two roughhewn wood planks, formed into the shape of a cross.  He doesn’t sit on his throne in luxury, but rather hangs from it in agonizing pain.  Yet from this throne, wearing a crown of thorns instead of gold, Jesus makes two royal proclamations.

The first comes immediately after he had been nailed to the cross and raised into the posture of his death.  Jesus looked upon the crowd around him.  He sees the soldiers, who have beaten him, ridiculed him, nailed him to a tree, and will cast lots for his clothing.  He sees the religious leaders, who have lied under oath, conspired with one of his closest companions, worked for months to trap him in his own words, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and now watch approvingly as he suffers for all the world to see.  He sees the crowd that just a few days ago welcomed him to town as a king, laying palm branches and cloaks along the road as they shouted out praises; the same crowd that had just that morning cried out for the release of Barabbas and shouted down Herod with chants of “Crucify him! Crucify Him!” the same crowd that is now getting what they thought they wanted.  Noticeably absent are his disciples, his closest followers, those who have seen his miracles, heard his teaching, and who first called him Messiah and Lord; they are hiding a safe distance away for fear that they might be next.  To all of them, there on the hill called the skull and those cowering in fear far away, Jesus declares pardon, saying “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ first official act as the King upon his throne was to declare absolution to all those who played a role in his death.  He forgives those who were actively involved like the soldiers, Pilate, and the Pharisees, and those who were passively involved like his disciples and the crowd.  Jesus Christ, the King of kings, leads through forgiveness.

His second proclamation happens later in the day.  After Jesus had hung there for hours under a sign that read “The King of the Jews,” one of the criminals being crucified beside him had the courage to ask for favor from his king.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  After hours of “if” statements, challenging Jesus to be the sort of king others wanted him to be, one man, convicted of a crime punishable by death on a cross, was willing to speak the truth.  Jesus responds with his second royal proclamation, promising salvation to the thief who believed.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus Christ will not be the type of king the world wants him to be, but instead, he is the king that we need him to be.  A king who leads through forgiveness, and as his second proclamation makes clear, offers salvation to anyone who asks for it, even and maybe even especially those who are well outside the bounds of proper society.

In his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criterion: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was the King of the Jews, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom

Jesus is certainly not the kind of king the world expected him to be.  He led through forgiveness.  He offered salvation to the criminals, tax collectors, and sinners.  He refused to come down from the cross because he knew that the only way for him to exercise his kingship was through obedience unto death.  By not saving himself, he saved the whole world, and made paradise available for everyone: male and female; Jew and Gentile; slave and free; just and unjust.  From his throne of torture, Christ the King declares forgiveness for the whole world, setting us free from our bondage to sin to live and serve in his kingdom of love and compassion.  Thanks be to God Jesus isn’t the sort of king the world wants, but is exactly the king we need.  Amen.