What holds you back from the Kingdom of God?

This week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question in conjunction with the Good Book Club points us towards Holy Week:

A few weeks ago, we asked what burdens the Church needed to let go of to make room for the Kingdom of God.  In the story of the rich ruler, with Holy Week just around the corner, the question becomes much more personal.  What is holding you back from inheriting eternal life?

The story of the rich ruler is often simplified into a fable about money. We get so caught up in Jesus’ command to sell everything (and our own anxiety about that commandment) that we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Money, more often than not, is a symbol.  It stands for something else.  In the case of the rich ruler, and in my own experience as well, money stands in for self-reliance.  What holds the rich ruler and me back from inheriting the fullness of eternal life here and now is my pride – my certainty that I can handle things on my own.

Note the interaction between Jesus and the man.  After asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  “Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother.”  These are, if you had to categorize them this way, the easiest of the commandments to follow.  They are the obvious ones, the ones that mostly exist outside of your body.  It is the others that come earlier on the list, specifically, the “don’t put other gods before God” one, that are much harder to live by.

In his reply, “I have kept all these since my youth,” the ruler betrays his failure to follow the one that matters most.  He has made himself to be god.  It is by his own doing that he believes he will inherit eternal life.  Even his initial question shows us his sin, “What must I do?”  The same is true in my life.  When I start to get puffed up, thinking that it is somehow by my own strength that I can navigate life and bring about the Kingdom, that I lose sight of God’s will.  It is when I rely on my own ability to do things, that I find myself falling short of inheriting eternal life.

The rich ruler ended up sad and walking away from God’s gift of eternal life in Jesus because he knew that he could never give it all away.  He missed the point that to hand it all over can only happen when we realize that God is God and we are not.  Each morning, I try to make the choice to follow God, remembering that it isn’t by my own merits that I do it, but only by the grace of the God who calls me.

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The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ


Seriously, don’t see this movie

Have you ever wondered why we call the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and death his “passion”?  You haven’t?  Oh, well then, you can probably skip today’s post.  I know I have, and since it has been a while since we’ve had a patented Steve-Pankey-Speaks-From-Ignorance-Etymological-Study, let’s dive in.

Passion comes from the Latin word pati which means “to suffer.”  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the transition to mean “strong emotion or desire” didn’t occur until the late 14th century, but it seems to be the definition of preference some 700 years later.  While it seems clear that originally, the title of Passion was used because of the suffering Jesus endured during those 18 or so hours, I’m intrigued by the double meaning the newer understanding of passion gives us.

The way Mark tells the story, it doesn’t seem as though Jesus has a whole lot of agency in the crucifixion.  Other gospel writers spin the story differently, but in Mark, we hear Jesus praying to Abba that the cup from which he is to drink might be removed from his lips.  There is no sparring with Pilate over who is in control of the situation, like we hear in John.  And at the end, as Jesus cries out, it isn’t a word of completion, “It is finished,” but a cry of dereliction, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” that emanates forth.  It would seem for Mark that the passion of our Lord is only about the suffering.

And yet, there are glimpses of Jesus’ deepest desires.  As the unnamed woman anoints him for his death, Jesus praises her for “doing what she can” before his death.  As Judas approaches with a cohort of Roman soldiers, it is Jesus who walks towards them, offering himself freely.  When the Council can’t find two stories that match, it is Jesus’ own confession of I am, “ego emi,” that seals his fate.  Through it all, it seems clear that Jesus could have stopped it from happening, but he chose to see it to the end, so that the world, through him, might be saved.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve,” is the key verse to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  It is also key to understanding Mark’s version of the Passion.  In everything that happened that week, Jesus is serving the larger goal of inaugurating the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  That was his passion, his strongest desire, and that passion led him to the Passion, his suffering for the salvation of the world.

Save us, we pray!

The those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In the Episcopal Church, we use lots of unfamiliar words.  With some education, this is done well when we strike the balance between embracing the mystery of holiness, while helping newcomers find their way through the narthex and into the nave for Holy Eucharist.  During Lent, we forego the use of word alleluia, but our liturgy, especially on The Sunday of the Passion *colon* Palm Sunday is rife with the word with which it is often confused:


I am often asked why we can’t say alleluia during Lent, but hosanna is ok.  Its context within the Liturgy of the Palms is a helpful teaching tool.  As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, it would be easy to see this scene as nothing but a joyful victory parade, but upon further review, we realize that this is actually the humble entrance of one who has come to offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem riding on a white stallion or in the back of a jewel encrusted chariot.  Rather, he arrived in town atop an unbroken colt.  This animal was not a symbol of power and control, but a humble beast of burden, only borrowed by our Lord as a means of transportation.  The imagery must have been clear to the crowd, for even as they laid down palm branches along the path as a symbol of honor and respect, they cried out not “Alleluia” or “Praise to God.”  The cry of the crowd, as they watched their long-awaited hope ride into town was instead, “Hosanna” or “Save us, we pray.  Sure, maybe they thought salvation would look like a military victory over their Roman occupiers.  Perhaps they hoped that this Passover Feast would be a second opportunity for release from bondage and oppression.  But they didn’t assume that, and give praise to God.  Instead, they simply asked for God’s help and salvation.

We who will remember the events of that day would do well to know the word we will sing in the refrain of “All glory, laud, and honor.”  From this side of Easter, it would be easy to let our sweet hosannas be a cry of victory, but it doesn’t take too long to see that the world is still very much in need of God’s saving love.  Save us, we pray.  Save us from our idolatry.  Save us from our greed.  Save us from our scarcity mindset.  Save us from our selfishness, our oppression of others, and our bondage to sin.  Save us, we pray.  Hosanna!

The Calling of a Prodigal God


It is week five of the Good Book Club, and we are more than halfway through Luke’s Gospel, with an eye toward Acts during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Next week, Lent’s penultimate week, will be Holy Week in the GBC, but before we get there, we have some famous parables, including the one commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” from which this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question comes.

Prodigal (n) – a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way – is often used to describe the younger son in the well known parable, but what if the point of this parable is the prodigality of the father?  Tell of a time you were aware of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.

Recently, I have found myself in several different conversations about call.  It is a hazard of the job, I suppose.  For some, it is the early inklings of a call to ordained ministry.  For others, it is the frustrations of the innumerable midway points in the process that make progress impossible according to physics.  For a few, these conversations have revolved around the second way we discuss call in the Episcopal Church: finding a job.  See, once you have, with God’s [significant] help navigated the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry and been trained for that vocation, is discerning a call to a position, or more colloquially, a job.

In the past, that process hasn’t really been about call.  The Bishop, to whom you are beholden throughout the process, would often simply place seminary graduates in congregations that needed holes filled.  Certainly, there was some discernment involved, but three people to fill three holes means everybody gets placed, whether they are all a good fit or not.  In this system, the job was usually for at time-certain, often two years, and then the next call process would commence.  Except, when you know your paychecks will cease on a certain date, you don’t have time really let the Spirit work, and so discernment can quickly dissipate while the search for a job takes over.  In many cases, it wasn’t until the third call that someone really had the chance to experience the fullness of discernment and the joyful nature of call.

When I think about the prodigality of God, I’m often reminded of my own difficulty with call.  It was the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of my senior year of seminary when I found out that I would not be placed.  What felt like an earth shaking moment in which the rug fell out from under me, has, in hindsight, been a moment wherein I relish in God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It didn’t fell good at the time, not unlike, I’m sure, the younger son returning home to his father’ house, but I quickly realized the gift that was waiting for me.  As I moved from discerning a vocational call to discerning a call to a position, I became aware of how joyous that process can be.  As I’ve said many times in the last ten+ years, riding the wave of the Spirit is a whole lot of fun.

I am grateful, everyday, to know what call feels like.  To have experienced it in TKT’s living room in Foley in April of 2007 and in a rental car in Bowling Green in October of 2016 is a gift of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It is my prayer for all in discernment, whether they will graduate from a seminary with an MDiv or a diocesan school for ministry with a certificate, that they will, sooner rather than later, get to experience the same gift and blessing.

And, lest this post be another point in the accusation of my penchant for clericalism, I would note that I think this type of discernment isn’t exclusive to those of us in the professional class of ministry.  When God’s call is followed, in our work and in our churches, the experience of God’s grace can be overwhelming, in a good way.  May God bless you with the reckless extravagance as you take your place in the building up of the Kingdom of God.

Blog Force Participant


Yeah, but…


Following on the heels of John 3:16, we have another popular verse this week.  Last week, it was, arguably, the most oft-cited verse, this week, the most popular pulpit inscription.  Like John 3:16, John 12:21b is often ripped out of context and jammed into whatever usage the preacher might need, but I guess that’s a bit of how it works in the larger story anyway.

From the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry, we have skipped ahead to the last.  Whether this is the second or third Passover that Jesus has spent with his disciples is open for debate, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  The end is nigh, and Jesus knows it.  As the crowds begin to swell in Jerusalem for the festival, Jews and Proselytes from all over the known world are there to celebrate the Feast in hopeful expectation of what God might do this year; how God might save the Jewish people from their bondage-in-place at the hands of Rome.  The must have been a buzz in the city as people from all over shared stories of one particularly brazen Rabbi who was performing miracles and teaching with a conviction with which they had not known.

Word spread far and wide, until even Greek converts began to seek out Jesus.  A group of them approached one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  What follows is one of the most puzzling non sequitur responses that Jesus gives, and he was pro-level at the random reply.  Here, he doesn’t even begin to engage the request that Philip and Andrew make on behalf of the Greeks, but rather goes down a rabbit hole that the time has been fulfilled.  It is dangerous to mix Gospels, especially the Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and John, but if the timelines are close, then this is likely the day Jesus turned the Temple a second time.  Things are tense, to be sure, and so, we can forgive Jesus’ somewhat odd response.  Except, that there are still some Greeks who are out there hoping to see Jesus.

I imagine Andrew and Philip standing there, listening to Jesus, thinking, “Yeah, but…”  They had heard him talk like this before, but it hadn’t stopped him from proclaiming his message of repentance and salvation.  This time, though, it seems different.  This time, Jesus seems to be of a one-track mind.  The Greeks will see him, but not in the way they had hoped.  Instead, they will soon see him glorified, lifted high into the air on his cross, with arms outstretched, as the savior of the world.  This is more than a pulpit inscription, but rather, the Greeks name what will be the desire of all nations one day.  That we might see Jesus in his glory, welcoming us into his arms of love and the reach of his saving embrace.

God’s Confounding Love – a sermon

Due to technical difficulties, today’s sermon can not be heard on the Christ Church website, but you can read it here.

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the Bible makes absolutely no sense?  I can’t be the only one.  I mean, snakes on sticks is just crazy talk.  Am I right?  Of course, in some cases, the nonsensical nature of God is precisely the point, which might be what we are dealing with this morning.  But, in order to get a grasp on what we are supposed to take away from this strange Gospel passage that coincidentally includes perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible, we need to take a step back and figure out some context; we first must understand when, where, and to whom Jesus is talking.

Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from a larger story about a man named Nicodemus.  It follows on the heels of Jesus cleansing the temple, which, if you’ll recall from Kellie’s sermon last week, takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel, and not the end, like in the other three.  It is right around the Passover, the annual festival in which the Hebrews remembered God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  It is a time in which many faithful Jews came to the holy city of Jerusalem to offer prayers and sacrifices to God.  With the broken tables of the money changers still in the background, we hear the story of Nicodemus, who John describes as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people.

Nicodemus knew that coming to see Jesus was a dangerous decision.  He had certainly seen what had happened just a day or two earlier in the Temple.  He was, no doubt, aware of the many miracles that Jesus had performed during Passover Week.  The city was teeming with excitement over this new Rabbi who had burst onto the scene, and Nicodemus wondered what it was all about.  So, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus.  “Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Before Nicodemus can even ask his question, however, Jesus interrupts, and says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was well versed in the Scriptures and in the Law, but like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he knew nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.  Still, Nicodemus was sure that what Jesus was telling him made absolutely no sense.  Whatever he came to talk with Jesus about was flung far out of mind when suddenly, Nicodemus found himself engaged in a deep theological conversation over what it meant to be born of God, apart from being born of the flesh.  Jesus is clear, if you want to understand what he is talking about, you’ve got to give up your old ways and be born of water and the spirit.  Nicodemus, as smart and as well educated as he was, had no choice but to throw up his hands and say, “how can this be?”

It is from Jesus’ response to the confused and frustrated Nicodemus that our Gospel lesson comes.  Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus that as long as he continues to look for the Kingdom of God to be well ordered and to follow the constructs of human beings, he will remain lost and confused.  To prove his point, Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch his Biblical knowledge a bit. “Do you remember that story about Moses and the Hebrews in the wilderness?  It is in the Book of Numbers, one of the five books of the Torah.  You’re supposed to be an expert in the Torah, right?  Remember how the people complained bitterly against God and Moses?  How they wished they had been left as slaves in Egypt?  How they lamented that there was no food to eat, even as they complained about how bad the food they had was?  God got so fed up with them that he sent poisonous snakes to teach them a lesson.  As they cried out in their pain and torment, Moses begged God to do something, and do you remember what God did?

“I’ll tell you what God didn’t do.  God didn’t take the snakes away.  That would have made too much sense.  That’s what the wisdom of the world would have suggested, but that’s not what God did because sometimes, God just doesn’t make sense.  Instead, God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze, and to put it on a stick, so that when the people got bit, and they would continue to get bit, they might look at that bronze snake and live.  Talk about crazy.  Well, Nicodemus, that’s exactly what God is up to in me.  The Son of Man will one day be lifted up so that those who look on me will gain eternal life.”  You can almost feel the uncomfortable silence as Jesus then goes on to utter the most famous line in the Bible, John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  More than snakes on sticks, this line might be the hardest bit for Nicodemus, or any of us, to fully comprehend.  There just isn’t any logic to how much God loves creation.  There seems to be even less logic in how much God loves you.  And don’t even get me started on how it could be possible that God would love me that much.  Yet, that is what Jesus wants Nicodemus to know, God’s love is so much bigger than anyone can possibly comprehend, that its ultimate form looks like the utter humiliation of the Son, lifted high upon a cross, that will, paradoxically, also serve as the exalted throne of the King of kings.

In this encounter, Nicodemus is unable to wrap his mind around the utter illogicalness of God.  He leaves Jesus to return to the same darkness from which he originally sought him out.  For Nicodemus, this love is too big.  His worldview is based on judgment rather than grace.  Here, Nicodemus is not unlike many Christians I have come to know over the years.  They read John 3:16 and focus on the perish bit.  They read this as a pronouncement of God’s judgment upon those who do not believe.  Specifically, and quite often, a judgment upon those who do not believe exactly as they do.

Jesus invites Nicodemus and us to hear the promises of John 3:16 and focus on the love part.  God sending the one and only Son wasn’t meant to be an action of condemnation, but rather, Jesus entering the messiness of this world was an act motivated by God’s steadfast love.  If it is based in love, then the measure of belief isn’t one of intellectual assent to a prescribed set of theological tenants, but one of relationship.  To gain eternal life doesn’t require one to believe in every jot and tittle of Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory, but rather, to believe in God’s never-failing love, to place one’s trust in it, and to live one’s life as a means of sharing it.  Eternal life isn’t something we gain access to when we die and are judged worthy; it is something we are invited to take part in creating.  Eternal life is life in the Kingdom of God, and that life is readily available everywhere the goodness of God’s love is believed and enacted.

Sometimes, the Bible just doesn’t make any sense, and that Jesus would let a confused Nicodemus walk back into the darkness seems like one of those moments, but the story of Nicodemus doesn’t end in the darkness of that post-Passover night.  A few years later, Nicodemus will once again seek out Jesus.  This time, it’ll be as the sun is setting on the day before the Passover.  Nicodemus will come with a hundred pounds of precious myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial: the body which he had no doubt looked upon, lifted high like Moses’s snake on a stick, in order to be saved.  No, none of it makes any sense, but that’s just how it is with the love of God.  It might be too big for us to grasp, but thanks be to God, it is so big as to carry each of us to eternal life.  Amen.

The Way of Life

If John 3:16 is the most popular passage in the New Testament, I would guess that Ephesians 2:8 is probably in the top ten.  At least, this is true for those of us who spent any time in more evangelical circles.

For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God…

For those who didn’t have Ephesians 2:8 drilled into their hearts and minds at one form of church camp or another, it is probably easier to read the entirety Ephesians passage as a whole.  Those who accomplish such a task, are blessed when they reach the final verse of Sunday’s Epistle Lesson and read, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”  In the NRSV, unlike some other translations, the passage ends with a delightful idiomatic double entendre.  By choosing to translate a Greek phrase that essentially means “for us to walk in” as “our way of life,” the authors of the NRSV have invited us to see God’s creation of us through Christ for good works in two distinct ways.

First, and most obviously in the English, this phrase plays on the idiomatic expression of ones way of life as a typical pattern of behavior.  That is, those who follow Christ will, by their very nature, be driven to good works, toward charity, toward acts of mercy, and toward being ministers of compassion.  That this is not the case is a testimony of our sinfulness and our predisposition toward selfishness.  Or, as John puts it, our love of darkness.


in search of a way

It is with John’s Prologue as well as Sunday’s Gospel passage in mind that I find myself reading the end of the Ephesians lesson not descriptively, but prescriptively.  That is, what if the translation way of life isn’t so much about our normal patterns of behavior, but an actual way?  As in, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  The good works, which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus are the way of life, the path of life, the road map we should follow toward eternal life.  This reading, I think, follows more closely the Greek, which suggests that God has created good works for us to walk in.  As disciples, then, our task is to have our eyes open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us, looking for opportunities for good works as pathway markers, like a cairn in the woods, toward the Kingdom of God.  In spite of our way of life being aimed towards selfish desires, in Christ Jesus, God offers us a path to follow that is the way of life.