My first sermon back in the saddle at Saint Paul’s is now on the website. You can listen to it here, or read on.
Good morning. To paraphrase this week’s E-Pistle, “I’m baaaaack!” For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Steve Pankey and I’ve been the Associate Rector here at Saint Paul’s for more than eight years. I’ve been gone for the last three months on a sabbatical where I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of pages for my Doctor of Ministry thesis. Thankfully a full draft is in the hands of my Advisor, but there will be plenty of corrections to go before I’m done. I cheated the sabbatical a little bit, spending two weeks serving as a Deputy to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City. It is a real joy for me to serve the Church in that capacity, so even though it meant long days and little sleep, I don’t feel like I cheated too much. There was also plenty of time for sleeping late and relaxing with family, and while I really did enjoy my time away, it sure feels good to be back standing in this pulpit, which I guess is an ambo now that there is only one reading desk up here. I guess change really is the only certainty in life. Still, home is always good. Sabbaticals for Associates are quite rare, so I want you to know how special this church is and to thank you for the opportunity.
Now, I assure you that I didn’t look at the lessons when I scheduled when my sabbatical would end, but by happy accident it worked out quite well. I love the Letter of James. In fact, I love it so much that at one point during my freshman year of college, my roommate and I read this five chapter book every day for a month. It is a book filled with wisdom for disciples who are trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in the ups and downs of everyday life. We’ll hear lessons from James over the next five Sundays. During that stretch it might be a good idea, as you prepare for worship, to read the whole book of James on Saturday night, it’ll only take about 15 minutes. We may not preach on it each week, but being immersed in such a deep text will surely change your life, and changing your life is what the Epistle of James is all about. If you can’t find time to read the whole book, then let me suggest another option. Get a 3×5 card and in the brightest marker you can find write these words from James 1:22, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” And then tape it to your bathroom mirror so that you can be reminded of it every day.
This would make the author of James very happy, since he longs for us to look in the mirror and walk away remembering what we want to change about ourselves to be more like the image of Christ, but for me there is a better analogy. Way back in the old days, before there were smartphones with hefty data plans, even before there was a GPS device in every car, you used to have to go to Google Maps and actually print out paper directions. I know archaic, right? Like the Scriptures, those directions were your only guarantee of getting where you wanted to go, and so following them was important. The problem, for me, was that I have a terrible memory. I can forget your name while I’m still shaking your hand. I would print out the directions, set them on the passenger seat and begin my trip. I could usually make my way to the highway without incident, but then it would start. I’d glance over and read step 6, take Interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319. OK, I can do that. Ten minutes later, I’d think, what was that exit again? Take interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319. 319, got it. Ten more minutes later, what exit am I looking for? Take interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319. Right, 319. What mile marker am I at? 310… cool… now which exit was it? Over and over again, I’d read the directions and forget them almost immediately. I was too preoccupied with driving or with my thoughts or with the song on the radio to pay attention and actually do what the directions were telling me.
Following the direction of Scripture to become a doer of the word is what discipleship is all about, but it is really easy to get preoccupied with life. How often do we show up on Sunday, listen politely as the lessons are read and our favorite preacher preaches, read the Prayers of the People, say the Confession, receive the bread and wine, and then walk out those doors to go about our lives as usual? It is easy to forget what we’ve heard, what we’ve read, what we’ve said, and what we’ve done here when life comes crashing in upon us. When the bills come in, it is easy to get anxious. When the lines are long at Winn Dixie, it is easy to get frustrated. When the traffic is slow, it is easy to get road-ragey. It is so easy to forget to love God and love neighbor, to not follow the commandments of God, and to become the hypocrites that we so very much despise.
So what do we do? Should we just give up, throw up our hands and say, “I’m just wired this way?” Of course not. Instead, we do the same thing that I did when I forgot which exit I was looking for 20 times in the course of 35 miles, we keep the directions close at hand. In order to be doers of the word, we must know the word. In James’ day and age, in order to know the word, it had to be heard. Nearly 2,000 years later, in a mostly literate society, we can know the word by reading it, but here’s where things get complicated. The Bible is a tricky text. It was written by dozens of different people in all sorts of different styles over the course of more than 1,500 years. The Old Testament was originally written in a version of Hebrew that was dead for so long it had to be backward engineered back into existence. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, which went out of common usage roughly 1,700 years ago. And every bit of the Bible started out not as a written text, but as a story, told over and over again by parents to their children; teachers to their students; rabbis to the faithful.
The truth of the matter is that the Bible was never intended to be read in isolation. The story of God’s interaction with his good creation is a story of community meant to be read in community. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t read your Bible by yourself at home, but, to stretch my analogy to its very limits, you need a navigator to help you with the directions. This is why churches exist, to give the faithful a place to be in community, to learn the way of the kingdom, and to grow as disciples together. This is why there are sermons and Bible studies and Draughting Theology. We gather together to hear the Scriptures read, we work together to unpack their meaning: what they meant in their time and what they mean for us now, we pray that God might help us to fulfill his will on earth as it is in heaven, and then we go forth, hopefully changed by what we learned together, to be doers of the word. Ideally, that’s the way it should work, but when we fail, and we all do from time to time, the community pulls us up and invites us to try again.
The Good News of Jesus Christ can change your life, and the Bible, as a good set of directions, contains everything you need to know about what God dreams for you and for the world God created. Keep the Scriptures close at hand, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, study them in a community of the faithful, and let them transform you from merely being a hearer who so easily forgets to a doer who joins in the life of the kingdom right here and right now. Amen.