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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

God’s Heart

       Author, Elizabeth Stone, tech pioneer, Steve Jobs, and my mother are all quoted as saying, “Having a child is like choosing to let your heart walk outside your body for the rest of your life.”  It seems Blessed Mary knew this reality all too well.  It began on the night of Jesus’ birth as shepherds came rushing into the cattle stall where the holy family was attempting to rest, bursting with the good news they had received from angels who appeared in their fields with trumpet and song.  Forty days later, Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple for her ritual purification and to dedicate her first born son to the Lord God, when a man whom she had never met, took the child into his arms and declared him to be “the salvation of all people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,” even as he promised to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well.  Less than two years after that, three wise men – magicians and priests from the East – came to visit Jesus armed with gifts of gold, suitable for a king, and frankincense and myrrh, symbols of death.  Meanwhile, her husband, Joseph, had a dream in which he was told to flee his homeland and take his family to Egypt to protect them. After a while bouncing around the Egyptian countryside, and almost as quickly as they were told to leave, Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus were once again told to pack up everything and return to Israel.  Instead of settling back in their old home in Judea, they made their way to Nazareth in order to protect their son from the powers-that-be who feared him and wanted him out of their lives.  Later, at age twelve, Jesus scared Mary to death, having stayed behind in the Temple while the family caravanned back to Nazareth.

       By the time we get to today’s Gospel lesson, Mary has already experienced a lifetime of worry over her son, whom she knew would be different since before he was even conceived.  This morning, we encounter a now thirty-year-old Jesus who has been quite busy collecting disciples, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Our lesson tells the story of Jesus’ first trip back home.  Between the crowd that was following him around the Galilean countryside and the crowd of interested locals, so many people came out to see Jesus that he couldn’t even move his arms to stuff some hummus in his face.  They were pressing in upon him so intensely that Mary began to fear for his life.  Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version says that his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” which is actually a pretty bad translation.  What the Greek actually connotes is that his family came to grab him, and they told the crowds, “He has lost his mind.”  One could write a whole book on Mark 3:21. There is double entendre aplenty in here.  The word that the NRSV translates as “restrain” also means “to keep careful hold of.”  The word often translated as “lost his mind” also means “amazed.”  His family said that he was crazy, but did they really believe it?  I can’t help but wonder if Mary saw all that was happening to her son and ran out to do whatever she could to save him.

       There is no question in the text, on the other hand, about what the Scribes were up to.  They had no intention of trying to protect Jesus from the masses.  Instead, it seems they were dead set on stirring the crowd up into a frenzy.  When you have the truth on your side, pound the facts.  When you don’t, you pound the table and call people names.  The Scribes didn’t ease their way into name calling either, but when straight for the jugular by calling him Satan.  “He’s Beezebul! He’s able to cast out demons because he is the chief among them!”  These are not the words of someone who came to engage in peaceful discussion.  It is clear that what the Scribes were hoping would happen was that someone or some mob would rid them of this meddling rabbi, but Jesus knew his time had not yet come and was having none of this.

       At its core, Jesus rejects the premise of the Scribes.  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, how can Satan cast out Satan?  It just doesn’t work.  By way of a parable, Jesus does show that he believes that the powers of evil are strong, and that he sees his calling as the one who was sent to defeat Satan once and for all.  The Father sent his only begotten son to tie up the powerful forces of Satan and to plunder the houses of evil – in empire, in business, in religion, and in families.  Jesus is clear that the fight that had already begun between him and the forces of evil, a fight that started when he was only a child, will continue, but he already knows that he will win, and in so doing, he will redeem almost all people back into right relationship with God.

Almost all, and here’s where things get particularly tricky, because of this unforgivable sin business.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear this warning from Jesus, I find myself checking my receipts.  Have I ever blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  There was that one time in seminary, when we were all sharing at a class retreat, and I said, “sometimes I hate the Holy Spirit because I get called to do things that aren’t easy.”  Is that unforgivable?  I really hope not.  Is Jesus talking to his family and the Scribes alike in this cryptic message?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think the eternal sin that Jesus warns the crowd about is the sin of assuming you are right; the sin of an intractable spirit; the sin of arrogance.  The Scribes, like so many who have come from positions of power and privilege over the centuries, simply assume that they are right, and Jesus is wrong.  There is no willingness to listen, learn, or grow.  Having been invited to receive the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide to God, they have said, “no thank you, we don’t need it.”  There is no saving those who don’t think they need to be saved.  Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich (powerful, privileged) person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who approach the Kingdom of God with humility, who embrace the invitation to follow Jesus, no matter what sins or blasphemies they might stumble into, can find forgiveness because they seek it.  Jesus’ family might not fully understand what he is up to, and they might let their worry overcome them from time to time, but they aren’t beyond redemption, and neither are you or me.  All who are willing to lay down their pride and be challenged by following Jesus can have access to the Kingdom of God, and can even help, from time to time, plunder the houses of evil.  Which is why we pray this morning that the God from whom all good proceeds, might grant us an open spirit to think what is right, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do so.  It isn’t always easy to know what is right, but with a spirit of humility and a willingness to follow the leading of the Spirit, we can avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that there is no longer room for God in our own little kingdoms.  When we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us think and do those things that are right, we are able to more fully follow the will of God, and, as promised by Jesus himself, have entrance into the family of Christ.  In Creation, God chose to let God’s heart walk the earth for all of eternity.  As children of God and members of the family of Christ, we are God’s heart in the world.  We must be careful not to allow our hearts to become hard, but rather, to be open to the ways in which God’s love for the whole world will be poured out through each of us.  Amen.

ACTS, with a focus on the T

       Nearly a quarter century after my Young Life days came to an end, there is plenty that I would quibble with their leadership about these days.  My understanding of God’s grace, of atonement, human sexuality, and gender have all changed in the last 25 years. Yet, I still find myself recalling fondly many of the memories from those halcyon days.  One of the best lessons I learned from my Young Life leader, Fletch, is the ACTS form of prayer.  Not as in the book of Acts, from which the Pentecost Day story comes, but the acrostic, ACTS.  When my prayer life gets dry, I’m grateful that the foundation of ACTS is always there to catch me.

       I have probably told you this before, but in case you don’t recall, ACTS stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.   A prayer that follows that pattern can never go wrong.  Adoration, as defined in our Book of Common Prayer, “is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”[1]  This comes first as a means to enter into the presence of God in prayer.  Rather than flinging our requests up to some far away God, we seek first to come into God’s presence, so that we can enter into a conversation with the God of all creation.  Confession, an action we do corporately every Sunday, is the act of acknowledging our sins in the hope of repentance and forgiveness.  It comes second so as to wipe the slate clean before diving into deeper conversation.  Thanksgiving is also defined in the Prayer Book as the act of thanking God “for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.”  I often wonder if human beings put this third, not because it makes ACTS easier to remember than ACST, but because we feel the need to butter God up before we move onto the fourth step.  Supplication is asking God to do or provide something.  Supplication can be split into two foci: intercession, wherein we bring to God the needs of others, and petition, where we ask God’s will be done upon our own needs.

       ACTS is a simple way to begin, or restart for the 4,000th time, a routine of regular prayer and conversation with God.  If I’m honest, however, I’ve found the Thanksgiving piece to be increasingly difficult over the last 15 months.  I suspect I’m not the only one.  As I said on Wednesday evening, COVID-19 has taken so much from us, there have been times when it felt nearly impossible to come up with things to be thankful for.  When you are working, schooling, cooking, cleaning, and everything else from home, it can be hard to even be thankful for that dang roof over your head.  I guess that’s why I’ve found myself drawn not to the typical Pentecost lesson from Acts, or even Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit in John, but to Paul’s short little lesson on the Holy Spirit from Romans.

       “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  Tell me about it.  Whether it isn’t knowing how to give thanks for the little things when COVID was raging, or not knowing how to pray through such weighty issues as police violence against our black and brown siblings, assaults on the democratic process in this country, white supremacist Christian nationalism, or the return of mass shootings in the post-COVID world, I have found myself stuck, not knowing how to pray as I ought, again and again.  Thankfully, the redemption of the world is not dependent on my ability to pray, and even if it was, my ability to pray isn’t even dependent on my ability to pray.  “The Spirit helps us in our weakness…” Paul asserts, “that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

       Off the top of my head, I can think of three famous prayer scenes in movies from the last three decades.  There is the grace prayed over Christmas dinner by Aunt Bethany that is nothing more than the Pledge of Allegiance in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  There is the grace prayed to tiny infant Jesus in his golden fleece diaper by Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights.  And finally, there is the dinner prayer of Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act.  “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”[2]  None of them know how to pray as they ought, and even though each prayer is ridiculous in its own right, I still firmly believe that the Spirit can translate even those prayers into words of thanks and praise.  Just imagine what the Holy Spirit can do with whatever prayers you or I might come up with.

       To further assuage my worry that my prayers aren’t up to snuff, Paul goes on to remind us that the reason the Spirit can take our deepest prayers to God using language that beyond words is that the mind of the Spirit is fully known to God the Father.  As we’ll hear again on Trinity Sunday next week, there is no brokenness in the relationship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mind of the Spirit, which knows what is on the hearts of each of us who are baptized into the Body of Christ, is the same mind that is in God the Father.  The Spirit knows that even in my inability to be thankful during this difficult season, my desire to be thankful is enough. 

       Sometimes, I worry that the reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t get much love in the denominations of the former Mainline Christianity is that we think we’re too proper for such things.  The Spirit is so often associated with ecstatic outbursts like praying in tongues or Benny Hinn type healing miracles, and we prefer a more polite version of God, thank you very much.  On this Day of Pentecost, however, in the midst of a long, difficult journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, a long overdue racial reckoning, and a highly polarized and often violent political climate, I wonder if we might be well served to remember that for all the wind and flames and foreign languages, what the Spirit is really about in our lives is carrying the mind of humans to heart of God, and mind of God to the heart of humans.

This morning, as we gather to celebrate Holy Eucharist together for the first time since March of 2020, I’m reminded that Eucharist means Thanksgiving.  We begin this morning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, a long-overdue season of Thanksgiving, for all that is past, for what is, for what is to come, but especially for the gift of God’s grace in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come and intercede to God on our behalf.  Come and show us the will of the Father.  Come and teach us to be thankful.  Come and refresh us, that we might help renew the face of the earth.  Amen.


[1] BCP, p. 857

[2] Thanks to Pastor Charlie Woodward at Epiphany Lutheran Church for transcribing this one. https://www.epiphanydayton.org/sighs-too-deep-for-words/

The Work of Lament

       One of the things I remember most vividly about seminary is the mantra of self-care that the faculty tried to instill within us.  Take your day off.  Eat right.  Exercise regularly.  Get a spiritual director.  See a therapist.  Advisors, Deans, random professors, even visitors to campus who had recently graduated would remind us, again and again, to take care of ourselves.  They did so, I assume, because they hadn’t, and knew the cost.  Like so many of them, I didn’t either.  I’ve never been terribly bad about taking my days off, but the seminary lunchroom was an all you can eat buffet.  Exercise requires self-discipline.  Spiritual directors might be easy to find in Washington DC, but not so much in Foley, Alabama.  And therapy?  I’d take care of that someday.  I graduated in May of 2007.  In May of 2020, I finally got a counselor thanks to the pandemic and the rise in telehealth.

It has been a little more than a year since I signed up with Betterhelp.com to deal with anxiety, stress, and grief, and these days, I find myself sounding a lot like those faculty members from so long ago, telling everyone who will listen that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of the strength you need to take control of your life and further your walk with God.  As COVID restrictions loosen and life begins to return to “normal,” I am keenly aware of the need we all have to find healthy ways to deal with the grief we’ve all experienced over the last 15 months.  Most obviously, we have to grieve the friends and family who have died during the pandemic, whose loss we have not been able to mourn in the usual ways.  Our list for this evening contains more than 30 names, but there are countless others whose funerals we’ve been unable to attend, whose families we’ve been unable to hug, whose stories we’ve been unable to share.  For many of us, the process of grieving the loss of loved ones has become backlogged in this long COVIDtide, as grief has stacked upon grief stacked upon grief.  Rather crudely put, we’re all a bit grief constipated at this point.

Less obvious is the grief associated with the loss of other patterns in our lives.  Two Easters were spent online and physically distanced.  Christmas Eve was a snowy night on State Street and quick walk-through nave to receive communion.  Graduations, proms, birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, dance recitals, concerts, sporting events, even Memorial Day picnics – you name it, the pandemic took it away or drastically changed it.  It might feel strange to mourn the loss of a watermelon seed spitting contest on the 4th of July, but it is real, and it is normal.

We gather this evening to do the important and necessary work of lamentation, grief, and remembrance.  According to the folks over at the Oxford English Dictionary, lament is a word that has gone out of fashion over the last 200 years.  Maybe it is because the industrial revolution’s goal is to make life easier and more comfortable, there’s been less reason to lament, but the act of expressing grief, in forms both ecstatic and humble, is part of what it means to be fully human.  Lamentation is a part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  There are 58 Psalms of Lament, both personal and corporate, making up 39% of the book of Psalms total number.  There is an entire book of the Bible called, Lamentations, in which the Prophet Jeremiah is thought to have penned five poems of lament after the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.  In the lesson we’ve heard read here this evening, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and a whole crowd of others gather in lamentation and mourning at the death of Lazarus.  Even our Book of Common Prayer acknowledges the holiness of lamentation, when, at the end of the Burial Office, it teaches that while we find our hope and joy in the resurrection of the dead, grief is not unchristian.  “The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deeps sorrow when we are parted by death.  Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend.  So, while we rejoice that [those] we love [have] entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

This service of lament and remembrance isn’t the end of the grief process.  More likely, it will mark only the beginning of a long road toward acceptance and hope, the final stage of grief as first posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969.  Looking at the world around us, it seems that corporately, we’re all stuck in the anger phase, which is often marked by lashing out at others for no apparent reason.  No matter where you are, or how many times you’ve walked through the stages of grief, the work is hard, but important.  As my counselor has told me on several occasions over the last year, “feel your feelings.”  Ignoring them won’t make them go away. Fighting them, won’t make the grief process any easier or help it go by any faster.  Instead, as individuals and as a community, the lament, grief, and remembrance work that we do tonight will be part of what God uses to carry us through the days, weeks, and months to come, so that, on the other side, we might be able to accept all that we have lost and look forward with hope to a brighter future.  If you don’t have a counselor, I can now, with confidence, invite you to find one.  If you don’t have habits of discipleship like prayer and Bible reading, I invite you to start one.  If you don’t know the stages of grief, I’d be happy to tell you more.  Tonight, we turn our focus on the beginning of a long, hard road.  The end of which, is nothing less than the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Loving Your Friends

       Nine times.  Jesus uses the word love nine times in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Nine times is a lot of times.  If I were a biblical numerology guy, I’d tell you that nine is three times three, and three is a symbol of completeness, but I’m not a biblical numerology guy, so I won’t tell you that.[1]  What is clear is that love is important to Jesus.  It is so important that, in his final hours with his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus spent most of his time reminding them that love was the most important thing.  After he had washed their feet, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, that they love one another.  After he shared with them the promise of the Holy Spirit as their advocate and guide, Jesus told his disciples that love would be hallmark of their faithfulness.  In this morning’s lesson, we hear Jesus yet again reminding his disciples to abide in his love while also commanding them to love one another as he has loved them.

       Love is so important to Jesus that he raises the stakes as high as possible when he tells them that the greatest illustration of love is laying down one’s life for one’s friends.  This is, of course, foreshadowing what would happen the next day, as Jesus would hang from a cross and die as the fullest expression of God’s love for all of humanity, but it doesn’t seem as though Jesus means to suggest that only he would be able to offer that kind of love.  It seems like Jesus thinks that any disciple should, and perhaps could, one day be called upon to lay down their lives for their friends.  As such, what constitutes laying down one’s life and who or what we might consider friends seem to be questions worth considering.

       One of the gifts of the past fifteen months is how it has opened our eyes to what it means to lay down our lives for our friends and neighbors in a less than literal sense.  As American Christians, it is extremely unlikely that we will be called upon to lay down our lives as martyrs for the Gospel, and since none of us knows how we would respond in a situation where the decision to sacrifice our life for someone else became necessary, I find great solace in the realization that maybe the call here isn’t just to a literal laying down of my life, but to a figurative one as well.  Over the last 15 months, we’ve been asked to lay down parts of our life in the name of public health and the greater good.  Some sacrifices have been difficult: not seeing family members, not attending in-person worship, and working and schooling from home were all significant parts of our lives that we had to give up in order to keep others safe.  Other sacrifices were merely to lay down some of the conveniences of modern life: stop dining out, wear a mask, and keep your distance; but even these were a means by which we could live into Jesus’ invitation to self-sacrificial love.  For all of its inconveniences, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to lay down parts of our lives out of love for our friends and neighbors.

When a young lawyer asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  For that young lawyer, and really, just about everyone who would have been within earshot of Jesus, that story would have been scandalous.  Neighbor might mean the people in your sphere of influence.  It might even mean the people in your neighborhood, so long as they were considered faithful and clean.  At the extreme outside, loving your neighbor might mean everyone you encounter in the marketplace, but the idea that the commandment to love your neighbor might include a Samaritan, or that a Samaritan would love more fully than a priest or a Levite was beyond the pale.  Yet, Jesus stretched the boundaries of what it means to love your neighbor to include even your enemies and those who would do you harm.

As I prayed about what it means to lay down our lives for our friends, I found myself wondering just how far that commandment might stretch.  Friend seems like much more exclusive term than neighbor.  I can more easily define who is in and who is out when it comes to my friend group.  So, I might lay down my life for y’all, but probably not for someone in Des Moines, Iowa who I’ve never met before.  Then, as I continued to pray and study for this sermon, I ran across a story that pushed the boundaries on who or what we should consider friends.  It is the story of Homero Gómez González.  A man none of you have probably even heard of before, but who was, in some small way, a friend to all of us here at Christ Church.  Mr. González was born into a family of loggers in El Rosario, a small, unincorporated area in the mountains of central Mexico.  He joined the family business and was a skeptic of growing efforts to limit deforestation in Mexico, fearful that it would lead to the end of the industry his family had known for generations.  As he grew older, he studied Agricultural Engineering at a state-run agricultural university.  There, he began to understand the negative effects that rampant deforestation was having on the climate, on people and plants, and especially on the hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies who call the mountains of central Mexico home every winter.  Eventually, González dedicated his life to environmental and anti-logging activism.  He became the mayor of El Rosario and worked to outlaw logging in the region.  Later, he was named manager and spokesperson for the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, one of several preserves that make up the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where 70% of the world’s monarch butterflies, including those that pass through our weigh station, spend their winters.[2]

Gómez González worked tirelessly to change the culture in his area of Mexico, and, as you might guess, he faced all kinds of push back.  In December 2019, he told the Washington Post, “it’s been a fight to maintain [the preserve], and it hasn’t been easy.”[3]  A month later, on January 13, 2020, González disappeared.  Two weeks later, he was found murdered in a well near the preserve.[4]  No one has been charged with his death, but his family and friends continue to fear that it was related to his efforts to end the lucrative logging industry in El Rosario.  It can be said, I believe, that Homero Gómez González laid down his life, both metaphorically before his death, and literally in it, for his friends, the monarch butterfly.  As a monarch butterfly weigh station, Christ Church should count Mr. González as a friend, and give thanks for the loved that he shared.

As we slowly emerge from our pandemic cocoons (I couldn’t help myself), new forms of self-sacrificial love will be called for.  As Mother Becca is quick to remind me, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed us all.  How will these changes continue to impact the ways in which we are called to love our friends, neighbors, siblings in Christ, and even our enemies and the wider world in 2021 and beyond?  Jesus used the word love nine times in our Gospel lesson today.  Eight of those times, he used it as a verb, and once, he promised that self-sacrificial love isn’t just the key to joy, but it unlocks fullness of joy.  In the days, weeks, and months to come, my hope is that we will each find ways to live out the commandment to love that Jesus offers us this morning, laying down pieces of ourselves for our friends and neighbors. May God give us the strength to love – friends, enemies, and strangers – as Christ commands so that we might come to experience the fullest form of joy.  Amen.


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/3-use-three-bible

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1290/

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/homero-gomez-gonzalez-mexicos-monarch-butterfly-defender-found-dead/2020/01/29/697d7c94-42ed-11ea-99c7-1dfd4241a2fe_story.html

[4] https://www.npr.org/2020/02/03/802359415/sadness-and-worry-after-2-men-connected-to-butterfly-sanctuary-are-found-dead

You are witnesses

       I struggled all week on how to start this sermon.  I just didn’t know what it would feel like to step into this pulpit for the first time in fifty-eight Sundays and see people sitting in the pews.  As I wrote this on Thursday, I still had no idea, but goodness does it feel ___________________.  It has been way too long.  While I can’t say I’ve missed the five am alarm clock, I have certainly missed you, my Christ Church family, and I look forward to May 2nd, when, God willing, we’ll be able to restart our 10 o’clock service as well.  The prospect of returning to Church in the Pews this week has been an opportunity for me to look back over the last 13 months and to think about what we’ve learned, how it’s felt, and what we might take with us into the future.  Surprisingly to me, I’ve found myself feeling profoundly grateful for the experience of the last year-plus, and wondering if maybe you’re feeling some of that as well?  I’m grateful that our girls got to be kids for most of 2020, riding their scooters, jumping on the trampoline, and using their imaginations as the world around them shut down.  I’m grateful for flexible work schedules, for polo shirts, and for strong WIFI.  I’m grateful for amazing teammates in our staff and parish leaders who have worked harder than you can imagine making sure Christ Church continued to live into its mission despite all kinds of hardship.  I’m grateful for each of you; for your patience, your support, and your witness to what God is up to even in the midst of unprecedented challenges.  In doing so, you have lived into the commission that Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning, serving as witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ for a world that desperately needs it.

       We might be two weeks out from Easter, but our lesson this morning takes place still on that first Easter day.  In Luke’s account, it has already been a loooooooong day.  It started just before dawn, when Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women gathered to prepare the spices and ointments to give Jesus a proper burial after he was hastily laid in a tomb on Friday afternoon.  At sunup, they found the stone rolled away from the now empty tomb, and were met by two men in white who asked one of the most profound questions in all of Scripture, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He has risen.”  Quickly, the women departed and returned to the upper room, where they found the eleven remaining Apostles, who, apart from Peter, dismissed the word of the women as an idle tale.  Peter, however, ran to the tomb, found it empty, and somehow decided to just go home.  At some point, we find out later, Jesus appeared to Peter, maybe over his morning cup of coffee as he scrolled mindlessly through his Facebook feed.  At least two of the disciples were so dismayed by the events of those three days that they decided to give up, go home, and see if they could get their jobs back in Emmaus.

       Just before our lesson for today, is the well-worn story of Jesus meeting those disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  Downtrodden, they plodded along the seven-mile journey, discussing with sadness all that had transpired.  “We thought, we really thought, he would be the one to redeem Israel.  He was a prophet, mighty in word and deed, and God was with him, but they killed him, and now his body is gone, and hope is lost.”  Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures and how all that had been written by Moses and the Prophets had led straight to the cross, but it wasn’t until they sat down at the table together and Jesus broke bread with them that he opened their eyes to see him, in his resurrection body, their Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord, before he disappeared from before their very eyes.  The two of them took off back to Jerusalem, where the rest of the eleven and a cadre of women were still in the upper room, sharing stories of the day, and wondering what it all meant.  “We’ve seen him!” the two exclaimed.  “So has Peter!” the crowd responded, and just then, Jesus entered the room.

       “Shalom.”  “Peace be with you,” he said to the small crowd that was nothing close to peaceful.  Luke tells us they were startled and terrified.  It’s the same root word Luke used to describe the shepherds watching their flocks by night on that first Christmas.  Jesus speaks peace into the midst of chaos and passes the standard tests to prove one wasn’t a ghost in antiquity, at least according to Union Lutheran Seminary Professor Mark Vitalis Hoffman.  First, they checked for extremities, where bones would be obvious – hands and feet – and saw them, intact, though scarred.  Next, the disciples made sure Jesus wasn’t Caspering around, and that his feet were touching the ground, which they were.  Finally, everyone knows ghosts don’t eat food, so when Jesus asked for and ate a piece of broiled fish, he passed the final test.  What they were witnessing wasn’t a group hallucination or a hopeful vision built upon stress and grief, but the actual flesh and blood of Jesus who had been crucified and died three days earlier.[1]  Even as they grew joyful that this was, in fact, Jesus in their midst, they were still amazed and in disbelief that it could all be true.

       For the second time that first Easter Day, Jesus opened up the scriptures to remind them, yet again, that the Messiah, HE, would die and rise again, that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed for the whole world in his name, and he commissioned them as his witnesses to all these things.  They were empowered to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ despite the hardship of the previous three days.  As inheritors of that Apostolic Tradition, you and I are still called to be witnesses of the ongoing work of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world today.

       As such, our work is two-fold: proclaiming the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus of Christ and proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The first task is summed up in First Peter 3, “If someone asks you about your hope, always be ready to explain it.”  This past year has been a difficult one for us all, but from where I stand, I’ve seen amazing signs of hope all along the way.  That so many of you continued to give to the mission of this congregation was a sign of hope, that someday, we’d be back together to do the work God is calling us to do.  That so many of you signed on to Zoom calls, Facebook Live, YouTube, and podcasts was a sign of hope that despite the hardships, you are committed to deepening your faith for the days to come.  That so many of you sent notes, emails, and text messages of encouragement and prayer was a sign of hope that we are connected, even when we are apart.  There are stories of hope to be told, no matter how crummy the last 13 months have been, and as Christians, we are all called to share them.

       The second task isn’t quite as easy.  Proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sin means calling sin, sin; both in our own lives and in the world in which we live, and then trusting in God’s forgiveness.  To take our calling seriously, we must be willing to take stock of the places in our own lives where relationships are broken, both with God and with our fellow human beings.  In the wider world, as Christians, commissioned by Jesus Christ to preach repentance, we must be willing to call out systems of oppression like gun violence, xenophobia, white supremacy, and police brutality, which keep the Kingdom of God from being fully realized here on earth.  God is eager to forgive, but we must be willing to repent, to change course, and move toward wholeness.

       Your witness over this last year has been a gift.  As we move into this next phase of pandemic life, I invite you to consider how you might proclaim repentance, forgiveness, and the Good News of the resurrection of our Lord to a world that still desperately needs it.  It’s been a long road, but our work is just getting started.  I look forward to the journey.  Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-luke-2436-48-4

Friday is Good, all on its own

For many years, I’ve loved a story told by theologian Tony Campolo.  It takes place in his church, during a revival where preachers from several local congregations were invited to speak.  While the goal was always to bring people closer to Jesus, secondarily, each preacher hoped to out preach the rest.  Tony remembers that he was on his game that particular morning, and when he sat down, he looked over at the preacher sitting next to him and whispered, “good luck.”  His counterpart simply responded, “Son, sit back.  The old man is going to do you in.”  For the next half hour, that preacher did him in with basically one line, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”

       For many years, I’ve loved this idea of “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” but after thirteen months of Lent, I’m beginning to understand that what makes this Friday Good really has nothing to do with what will happen on Sunday morning.  Instead, Good Friday, I believe, is good all on its own.  It would be good even if Jesus wasn’t resurrected from the dead on Easter morning.  Holy Saturday and Easter Day are good on their own merit as well, but this Friday is Good because of what Jesus Christ did on that Friday two thousand some-odd years ago.  This Friday is Good because of the prophetic words Jesus spoke from the cross as he gave up his spirit.

       In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are, “It is finished.”  What Jesus came to earth to do wasn’t almost done through his death on the cross, but it was finished, accomplished, complete.  Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation was made complete through his entering fully into the suffering of humankind.  As we’ve heard several times during this Lenten Season, Christ was lifted up to glory, not upon a throne, but upon the Cross.  Through what theologians call Christus Victor, Jesus’ death is the moment of God’s victory over sin and death.  By way of an act of divine love, God entered fully into the bondage of death and turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, liberating all of humanity from the fear of death in order to live lives marked by the Way of Love.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that Christ took away the sting of death forever.

Alternatively, in Mark and Matthew, Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 for his last words.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  These seem like words that are as far from good as one can imagine.  Jesus, whom we believe to be God, feeling forsaken by God is very, very, not good.  Yet, even these pain-wracked words of Jesus can be seen as good if we understand that part of what God came to do in the Incarnation was to fully enter into and redeem the human experience.  All of us, at some time in our lives, will feel separated from God.  Whether it is bound in grief, fear, or doubt, at some point, each of us knows the deep feeling of lostness when God feels far away.  In Jesus’ final act in human flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity temporarily relinquished godship in the ultimate act of solidarity with humanity.  This Friday is Good because it is the day that God experienced and redeemed godforsakenness.

It is Friday, and Sunday is coming.  It’s Friday after thirteen months of deprivation, anxiety, and separation, and Sunday is coming.  Sunday will be Good, but this Friday doesn’t need Sunday in order to be Good all on its own.  Jesus Christ died that we might have life, that the sting of death might not have victory over us, that we might know that even God experienced what it means to feel separated from God’s unending love.  It is Friday, and it is Good.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  Amen.

One Year

Most people remember Wednesday, March 11, 2020 because it was the day that Rudy Gobert, star center of the Utah Jazz, tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA suspended its season indefinitely. I remember it as the day, one year ago this morning, that Andy Beshear, the Governor of Kentucky, recommended that churches consider not holding services the following Sunday. At 11am, I met with our Christian Education Director to talk about whether or not we should hold our Wednesday Lenten program that evening. At 1pm, our Director of Music and I decided to suspend choir rehearsals. At 2pm, our audio/visual volunteer was in my office with a plan to live stream Sunday services.

March 11, 2020 was probably the most stressful day I’ve had at work. It was a day of hastily scheduled meetings, uncertainty, and difficult decisions, but it was also a day of great clarity. In the email I wrote to the congregation that day, time stamped at 3:07pm, I concluded with these words, “This will give us the time and space we need to make wise decisions for the health of our most vulnerable members while balancing our Christian call to be beacons of hope in our community.” The dual petitions for wise decisions and beacons of hope, has been my prayer, in one form or another, for a year now.

Of course, March 11, 2020 Steve had no idea what was coming. On March 16, we held our last in-person staff meeting. On the white board in the Conference Room, we drew up a calendar so that we could all visualize what was coming. I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram with this caption.

“Maybe the 90 day window was overkill…” We were so naive. That calendar is still there, untouched now for almost 365 days. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that on March 11, 2021, I’d spend five minutes frantically looking for SBC’s mask, trying to make sure she was on time to the eighth day of full capacity in-person school since March 16, 2020. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility that we would still holding online only services and planning for a second pandemic Holy Week. Nowhere in my mind was the possibility of 520,000 dead Americans, an estimated 100,000,000 infected, and yet, 25% of adults in Kentucky, including myself, at least half vaccinated.

It has been a long year. There has been so much to mourn, so much to worry about, and so many plans altered and scrapped. As one priest I know said recently, “we’ve all gotten PhDs in leadership this year.” And while it is still far from over, as I look back on the year that has past, I can’t help but find things to be thankful for. I’m thankful that, by and large, my family, friends, and flock have remained healthy. I’m thankful for partners in ministry who have prayed with and for me as we’ve made unpopular decisions and who have pivoted, sometimes as a moment’s notice. I’m thankful for Governor Beshear, Bishop White, and Superintendent Fields as they’ve modeled leadership that has balanced wise decision making and hope for a better tomorrow. Most of all, I’m thankful for a trampoline in our backyard.

It has been a long year. Give yourself space to grieve, space for gratitude, and space for rest. As I said on Sunday, normal can’t be our goal for post-pandemic life, but if we keep our prayers focused on wisdom and hope, what comes next can be a world that is more just, more loving, and more peaceful than the one we left behind.

Beware of false gods

       I am certain that somewhere this morning, some preacher will stand up before their congregation and say, “I must confess to you that I have failed to keep one of the Commandments.”  After a dramatic pause, long enough for members to mutter to themselves with shock and surprise, the preacher will continue, “I do not keep the Sabbath day,” and everyone will get a good chuckle.  In post-Industrial, 21st century America, it is easy to look at the Ten Commandments, see the admonition to keep the Sabbath, and roll our eyes.  Forgetting, for a moment, the reality that being able to order take-out, buy a widget, produce a car, and be in touch 24 hours a day, seven days a week is literally killing people by way of heart disease, cancer, and even COVID, it seems to me that the real sin of failing to honor the Sabbath day isn’t that it violates the fourth Commandment, but that it actually violates the number one, top of the line Commandment that God gave to Moses after rescuing the Hebrew People from Egypt, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

       We live in a world that is full of false gods constantly vying for our attention.  When we are young, it is the god of cool who tries to convince us to talk the right way, hang out with the right people, and wear the right clothes so that we will fit in.  The god of advertising would have us find happiness in the right car, shoes, or cell phone plan.  The god of 24-hour news brainwashes us to think only a certain way.  The god of right would have us break off all relationships with those with whom we disagree.  There are hundreds of gods in this world that would have us turn away from the One, True, God.

Perhaps the most insidious god of them all is the god of success.  If we can only get the right grades, go the right school, and focus on the right career, all our hopes will be fulfilled.  Of course, in order to succeed, we have to work, hard, constantly.  We work, and we work, and we work, until one day, we realize that Sabbath no longer exists, and that we have not only put our lives at risk by not taking the kind of rest that even the Lord God Almighty took at the Creation of all that is, but that we have replaced God entirely.

Of course, the devious nature of the gods of this world is nothing new.  There is a reason that the first Commandment that God gave to Moses some thirty-five hundred years ago was to have no other gods.  Human beings have been susceptible to the temptation to replace God since the very beginning.  It is why Adam and Eve ate that piece of forbidden fruit.  It is why Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish.  And it is why Jesus went bonkers in the Temple one Sunday afternoon.  It was the days leading up to the Passover Feast.  Pilgrims from all over were making their way to Jerusalem in order to remember God rescuing their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and to make their various offerings at the Temple.  Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, went as well.  What they saw upon their arrival in the Temple Court was the gods of this world running rampant in the house of the Lord God Almighty.

The sacrificial system had been established to give people a hands-on way to get right with God, but in time, many middlemen had entered the equation.  There were the cattle sellers, who, for a nice profit, would sell you the unblemished lamb you needed for your Passover sacrifice.  Of course, they had doves by the dozens should you need to be purified after childbirth, cleansed of a skin condition, or simply wanted to present a burnt offering to God.  Jesus, no doubt, saw the need for such businesses, as many pilgrims would have been unable to travel with their animal offerings in tow, but he also saw the god of the almighty shekel at work.  He saw the god of ritualistic religion taking the true intentions of the people and turning them into profit.  So, he tied up a whip of cords and began to chase the vendors, and the gods they represented, out of his Father’s Temple.

As they fled, Jesus turned his attention to the money changers, who were even worse.  The Temple Tax, which had to be paid by every Jewish person for the upkeep of the Temple, was paid in a very specific way.  In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome broke the Second Commandment.  In violation of the Commandment against idols was the graven image of the Emperor with an inscription that declared Caesar as divine and a high priest in the state religion.  This would obviously not do as payment for the Temple tax, and so the money changer took on an important role.  For a decent profit, they would take your Roman coins and give you the proper half shekel needed to pay the Temple Tax.  Here again, the god of the almighty shekel had teamed up with the false gods of ritual and government to bring distance between the People and the One, True, God.  In response, Jesus flipped their tables, sent change skittering all over, and ran them out.  Jesus has little patience for false gods in his Father’s house.

Today marks our fifty-second Sunday of Church at Home.  It has been a long, difficult year.  I miss seeing each of you so very much, and I look forward to preaching to more than a camera and Linda Mitchell someday soon.  But I also worry that this past year has introduced a new god seeking our attention – the god of normal.  I fear that we are all so desperate for normalcy, that we could lose sight of all that Almighty God has sought to teach us over these last 12 months.  Normal feels easy.  We can simply slide back into the old routines that we knew so well.  We’ll fall right back into the habits of the past, and this year long Sabbath that has been forced upon us will have been for naught.  On April 2nd, 2020, only about three weeks into the first pandemic shut-down, poet and social justice advocate Sonya Renee Taylor reflected on what was, even then, the already alluring siren song of the god of normal.  She wrote, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”[1]

The First Commandment might be the hardest one to keep.  The gods of this world are myriad.  Specifically, right now, the god of normal is seductive, but we must resist its temptation and instead listen for the will of the God of All Creation, the God of Love, as we discern what life looks like in months and years to come.  Lest Jesus enter into our lives and tie up a whip of cords, perhaps, in what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic, we should take time to root out the false gods who would vie for our attention and turn our focus toward the One, True God.  Thankfully, it is the Season of Lent, a time of preparation for new beginnings.  The tools we need are already at our disposal: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.   My friends, with so many false gods running around, I am certain we have all occasionally violated at least one of the Commandments, but with the help of Almighty God, we can find forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


[1] https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/?hl=en

Mindset

Peter is a pretty easy punching bag. Taking from the book “Lamb,” I once preached a sermon riffing on Peter’s name meaning “rock” and called him “dumb as a box of rocks Peter” throughout. That may have been too strong. He is certainly impetuous, but maybe not dumb. He’s quick to jump out of the boat, quick to answer Jesus’ questions, and in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, quick to tell Jesus he is wrong. It is pretty easy for the preacher to point to Peter and Jesus’ rebuke of him and say, “don’t be like Peter,” but the truth is, most of the time, most of us are right where Peter is.

His sin, you see, isn’t rebuking Jesus, but having his mind set on human things rather than divine things. I suspect most of us spend most of our time focused on the things of this world: money, power, success; rather than the things of God; justice, peace, and restoration. This seems particularly true the longer pandemic restrictions linger and more and more of us grow impatient. From our national leadership the focus on human things has trickled all the way down to the minimum wage worker. The mindset of our nation has been focused not on how to take care of one another, but how to keep the economy going so that money, power, and success can continue. Billionaires have made billions, but by making the powerless work to sell people the things they need and shorting the stock market to sell things they never owned. The most vulnerable have had to work, often without the necessary protections, in the name of the economy.

Our mindset is clearly set on human things. So, let’s stop short of laughing at Peter’s rebuke and wonder instead what Jesus might say to us in these (hopefully) waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. How might we change our mindset? How can we focus on divine things, even as we still have to pay bills, feed ourselves and our families.