An Aiden of Lindesfarne Moment

Since my sabbatical came to an end yesterday (I promise I’ll stop talking about it soon), and with one last evening in the sports doldrums upon us (The US Open begins today), I decided to do some reading for work and cracked open my new copy of Susan Brown Snook’s God Gave the Growth, a guide to church planting in The Episcopal Church.  I’m only a few chapters in, but, as expected, I’m finding Susan’s book to be insightful and well worth a read.  Of particular note is her willingness to strike a balance between the call to social justice and evangelism, “The church must make new disciples if we plan to do social justice work, help the poor, or transform unjust structures of society.  This is long-term work, and it will requite generations of disciples to do it” (13).

With that still rattling around in my mind, I opened up Morning Prayer on the Forward Movement website and read with great joy the collect for the feast of Aiden of Lindesfarne.

O Loving God, you called your servant Aidan from the peace of a cloister to reestablish the Christian mission in northern England, and endowed him with gentleness, simplicity, and strength: Grant that we, following his example, may use what you have given us for the relief of human need, and may persevere in commending the saving Gospel of our Redeemer Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

I like my saints ruggedly handsome, thank you very much.

As a monastic, a missionary, and an evangelist, Aiden spent his life rebuilding the church in Northumbria through a combination of preaching the Good News and showing what it meant by feeding the hungry, caring for the widows, and loving his neighbor.  In so doing, Aiden lived a life worthy of the Epistle of James, from which we hear these words this week, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

Faith without works is dead, James tells us.  In the same way, social justice without the Gospel is hollow and the Gospel without love is false.  As disciples of Jesus we are called to follow all of his teachings: caring for the least and seeking out the lost, but in the hyper-political world in which we live, many have forgotten to live in this tension.  Perhaps we need an Aiden of Lindesfarne Moment; a reminder of the fullness of God’s call to Go!  Go, and make disciples.  Go, and feed the hungry.  Go, and share the Good News in word and deed.

Be Doers – a sermon

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.

The Great Rummage Sale

As my sabbatical draws to a close, I’m thankful to once again be preparing a sermon for Sunday.  Though I am out of the habit and am feeling quite rusty, there is something about being immersed in the study of Scripture that is soothing to my soul.  While I’m not particularly excited about the way in which the great Revised Common Lectionary divining rod has decided to reenter Mark’s Gospel after what felt like 100 weeks in John’s Bread of Life Discourse, it does serve as a great bridge for me from my last sermon through sabbatical time to everyday parish ministry.

My thesis, the proposal for which you can read here, takes a look at the ways in which The Episcopal Church might be well suited to meet the needs of a changing America.  This assumes that we can all agree that things are changing.  Having received some pushback from at least one professor who thinks that this time is no different than any other, I set my sights on the great Phyllis Tickle and her book, The Great Emergence.  Tickle cites the late bishop of Bethlehem (PA), Mark Dyer, in arguing that though our time is not unique, it is a rare moment of opportunity for the Church to engage in the hard work of a rummage sale.

“About every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace [1] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.” [2]

In many ways, the Church today: be it Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and even non-denominational conservative evangelical; can be accused of the same thing.  Each expression of the Christian faith can be accused of worshiping its worship.  Each can be called to task for paying attention to their own desires over the dream of God.  Each can be accused of inviting God to bless their plans rather than fulfilling God’s plan for them.  Jesus’ message is as needed today as it was in the Synagogue 2,000 years ago.  We must move beyond our obsession with tradition in order to live more fully into the kingdom of God.  The work is not easy, there really is some awesome crap crammed in there, but the task of cleaning house, of seeking to follow God more closely, is certainly holy.

[1] The hard upper shell of a turtle, crustacean, or arachnid.
[2] The Great Emergence, 16.

True Religion?

This Sunday, as with every Proper 17 Sunday, we will pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  Three years ago, when this collect happened to also join the lessons appointed for Proper 17 in Year B, I took the opportunity to preach on the subject of true religion with some help from my friend and professor, Diana Butler Bass, asking the question, “what is true religion?”

I’m pretty sure we aren’t praying for more expensive jeans

Three years later, I still find myself asking that question, especially in light of the lesson from James, which ends with these words that seem to capture the yin and the yang of religion, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

Scholars are uncertain about the etymology of the word “religion.”  The more popular understanding says that it comes from the Latin, religare, which means to tie or to bind.  That is, true religion means to be bound to a way of life.  In the Christian expression, that means to follow the Way set forth by Jesus of Nazareth in his life, death, and resurrection.  Others, however, follow Cicero and suggest that religion comes from relegere, which means to read over again.  Again, from a Christian point of view, this means that true religion is found in the practices of Christianity: prayer, scripture reading, fasting, and even attendance in worship.

The word translated as religion in James is equally troublesome, however it probably carries a connotation that fits more with Cicero than with common understanding.  Robertson suggests it comes from thermoai, which means to mutter forms of prayer, and that the author is using it ironically.  True religion, then, isn’t merely showing up at Church, saying the right things, and going through the motions, but rather, true religion is following in the Way of Jesus.  This doesn’t preclude prayer, study, and regular church attendance, but it means sharing the fruit the grows from those practices: love, compassion, charity, and self-control being chief among them.

So this Sunday, as we pray that God might increase in us true religion, keep in mind what you are really praying for: the chance to listen for God’s will in prayer, Biblical study, and worship AND the opportunity to live out God’s will in acts of love and kindness throughout the week.  True religion is a 24/7 job that can only be done with God’s help.

[Don’t] Add it to the List

SWH and I use the Grocery IQ app to keep track of our every-growing grocery list.  Our phones are synced so that each time one of us updates by either adding or subtracting an item, it is updated, in real time, on the other persons phone.  Most days you’ll hear one or the other of us say, “Add it to the list” about some ingredient, household cleaning product, or snack item, the need for which came up in conversation. This sort of addition is presumably OK in God’s eyes, but we hear in both the Track 2 Old Testament and the Gospel lesson that God isn’t too keen on our adding things to his list of commandments.

As Moses prepares the people to receive the 10 Commandments that God has provided for their life in the Promised Land, he warns them not only that they shouldn’t forget what the Lord is requiring of them, but also that they mustn’t “add anything to what I command you.”  As Jesus is getting flack from the religious authorities for his disciples’ poor personal hygiene, Jesus reiterates this point, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

To be fair, the tendency to add rules to God’s law is a natural one.  We need to have more rules for a couple of reasons.  First, it is almost impossible to believe that God requires so little of us.  Jesus sums up the Law in two commandments.  Two.  TWO!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is one, and love your neighbor as yourself is the other.  Never mind that these two laws are impossibly to live up to all the time, it is in our human nature to make things even more difficult.  We’ve got to know what God thinks about dancing, drinking, card playing, and sex, and if we have time, we’ll maybe consider the hundreds of times God talks about money.  So we pile things on and make things harder than they need to be.

Which leads me to the second reason we add rules to God’s list: we need to know who’s in and who’s out.  Never mind that God has already been clear that he loves his whole creation, we can’t imagine that God would love them, so we make rules to exclude.  Have you noticed that we rarely make new rules for ourselves to live up to, but they always for someone else.  Which means we violate Commandment #2 in our pursuit of more rules.  Oops.

Maybe this week’s Lectionary offers us an opportunity to get back to the basics of discipleship.  Maybe we’d do well to remember that the two Commandments of Jesus require a lifetime of work to accomplish.  Maybe we should offer our neighbors (and ourselves) just a bit more grace and refuse to add anything else to the list.

Powers and Principalities

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, SHW, the kids, and I joined some friends for Worship on the Water at the Florabama Lounge.  It was one of my sabbatical goals to worship there, but to be honest, I found it disappointing.  I didn’t drink a beer during church, though I suppose I could have.  The music was entertaining, but nobody was singing along, even when they sang Amazing Grace.  The theology was what you might expect, conservative and evangelical, though with a healthy attitude toward outreach, especially to those battling addiction.  What I found most disappointing, however, was the sermon.

The founding pastor preached.  I’d heard good things about him, his ministry, and his preaching ability, but it was really quite flat.  He told good stories and he had a few good punch lines, but he was sprinting the entire time.  Maybe it was the heat, but he left us with no chance to laugh at the jokes because he was already on to something else.  You didn’t come here for a review of Worship on the Water, however.  You came here to read something about the Bible.  Coincidentally, the sermon preached that morning was the last in a series on the armor of God that Paul writes about in the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

While battle imagery has gone out of fashion in most Episcopal congregations, this image of being strong in the Lord is one that is vitally important, especially as we’re already 6 years into a 4 year presidential election cycle with another 15 months to go!  The call to be ready to stand against the wiles of the devil and his “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil” are perhaps even more crucial today then they were in the first century because if there is one thing the media is good at, it is hyping up what the King James’ version of the Bible calls “powers and principalities.”

For those who are sure how these different dangers all fit together, I found this handy chart.

Whether it is Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, the key to primary presidential politics these days is building and allaying fears.  Immigrants are bringing drugs and taking your jobs, but I’ll deport them.  Republicans want to leave the poor to starve to death in the gutters, but I’ll feed the masses.  Hilary can’t be trusted with national security, but I’ll keep you safe.  Liberals are spending us into slavery to China, but I’ve got a plan to cut taxes, stimulate growth, and remove all entitlements.  The power and principality of fear is alive and well in our culture, and if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strong in the Lord, we will easily succumb to its wiles.

Let’s put on the full armor of God and take on the fear that threatens to overwhelm us.  Let’s place our trust in the LORD, not the rulers of this world.  Let’s follow after the will of God and see about changing the world.

Talk About Offensive!

As I noted yesterday, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson we hear that even Jesus’ disciples were having a hard time with his teaching on the Bread of Life.  “This teaching is difficult,” they lament, “who can accept it?”  Jesus is fully aware that what he is teaching is hard to grasp: John even tells us that Jesus knew from the beginning who would be able to accept it and who wouldn’t.  It is the response of Jesus, which, as usual, brings us short.

“Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”

Remember that in John’s Gospel not only is there no institution of the Eucharist, but there is also no ascension into heaven.  Yet more than once, Jesus foreshadows an ascension.  Scholars are quick to suggest that for John, the moment of ascension, when Jesus is lifted up, isn’t as he rides a cloud into heaven, but when his cross is lifted into the air on the hill called Golgotha.  Talk about offensive!

Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald

Jesus is keenly aware that things are only going to get more offensive as the years wear on.  This teaching about bread and wine and flesh and blood is nothing compared to what will happen on a Friday later called “Good.”  As Jesus ascends to his rightful place, his teaching will move from difficult to damn near impossible to accept.  Even his closest disciple, the one who says “where else would we go?” will turn away and hide, unable to accept what it means that Jesus is the King of kings.

Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are a long way away, but as the calendar turns toward fall and the second half of the Season of Pentecost approaches, we will hear more and more about the crucifixion.  We’ll find the disciples, even the 12, having a harder and harder time accepting what Jesus is teaching.  We’ll be reminded again and again that Jesus isn’t inviting us into a faith that is easy or simple, but rather, we are invited to follow Jesus through the most difficult parts of life.  He’s been there, in the depths of human depravity – hanging fully offensive naked and bleeding on a cross –  even as he was lifted up to his rightful place on the throne of heaven.  Yeah, I guess all that is pretty offensive.