More True Religion

       A new Vicar began her ministry in a small, rural parish on bright Sunday morning.  The hymns were glorious, and she preached a wonderful sermon.  During communion, there were so many people that they almost ran out of bread and wine, but the Lord provides, and all were fed from the bounties of Christ’s grace.  She went home exhausted, but excited for what the future held.  The next morning, she headed to the office where she was met by an older parishioner who was clearly troubled.  “What’s the matter?” the Vicar asked.  “Well, I’m afraid you didn’t do communion right yesterday,” the parishioner responded, “It just didn’t feel like church.”  “Oh?” she replied, “It wasn’t right?  How so?”  “Well, before each pass down the altar rail, our old Vicar would always stop and pray for every person kneeling at the rail to receive.  It was so good to know our priest cared for us and prayed for us each by name.  It just felt like you rushed through it, like you didn’t care.”  An accusation like this would shake any good priest to their core, and the young Vicar took it quite seriously.  She decided to call her predecessor to see what she could learn about his habit of prayer for the congregation.  He was an older gentleman, whose mobility issues had finally caused him to retire.  She explained the situation to him, and he laughed as he replied, “I wasn’t praying.  I stopped each time to touch the radiator.  I had to discharge static electricity, so I didn’t shock the daylights out of the first person at the rail.”

       This anecdote, or one like it, has been shared in seminary liturgy classes for decades.  It is an important reminder that human beings, especially those of us who take our faith seriously, make meaning out of all kinds of things, even things that maybe weren’t intended to have meaning.  This story comes to mind every summer when Proper 17 rolls around.  In the Collect of the Day we pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  I’m reminded that religion is a powerful word, filled with all kinds of meaning, and that even though all of us might call ourselves Episcopalians, each of us has our own understanding of what our religion truly is.  Every one of us has developed our own system of religious actions, those things that are important to our life of faith.  For some, church isn’t church without music.  For others, they can’t imagine church without communion.  There are even a few of you who wish we used incense every Sunday.  I know you’re out there.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our religious habits and to adapt them based on what we think is and isn’t safe.  Beyond the intensity of the last 17 months, the reality is that all of us are constantly updating our understanding of our own religion based on the circumstances of our lives, whether it is raising children, a job that requires work on Sunday, or our taste in music.  Heck, even the word religion itself has changed meaning considerably over the years.

       Its use in this week’s Collect is emblematic of that shift.  The first written edition of this prayer is found the Gelasian Sacramentary, a prayer book compiled around the year 750.  Some form of this prayer has been in use for almost thirteen hundred years!  When it was first written, the prayer simply asked that God might increase religion in us, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clearer about what kind of religion we were praying for.  Rather than the bad religious practices of the Roman Church, Cranmer thought we ought to pray for the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  This change can be seen as an early step in a long evolution for the word religion away from what it had meant in 750, which religious scholar William Cantwell Smith defines as “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; … or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  Since the Reformation and the rise of modernity, religion has become a more cerebral exercise.  At its most extreme, religious practice has the danger of becoming nothing more than seeking some kind of pure theological ideology.  Today, when we pray for an increase in true religion, it can feel more like we’re praying for our particular set of ideas to be better than those of the Baptists or Presbyterians, when, in truth, when this prayer was written, it was a prayer asking God to increase in each of us an awe for creation, wonderous and joyful worship, and trust in the God who calls us to see and feel the world in a particular way.

       That particular way of seeing and feeling the world is summed up nicely in all three of our lessons this morning.  In Deuteronomy, the whole premise of the book is that wandering Hebrews were nearing the Promised Land as Moses was nearing the end of his life.  Before they entered the land, Moses had one last chance to impart all the wisdom he had received from God.  He’ll spend the next twenty-six chapters reminding them of how God hoped they’d live their lives, but before he started, his advice was simple.  Remember.  Remember that the Lord calls you to a particular way of living in this world.  Remember that you didn’t get here all on your own, but that the Lord has brought you to this place.  Remember to teach this to your children, lest they forget.  As disciples of Jesus, we may not be called to live by the full law of Deuteronomy, but in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that no matter how we live out our religion, we’re called to do it not so that our actions might be seen by others, not to puff ourselves up, and not to burden those around us, but rather, everything we do should be a response to the love that God has shown us.

       It can be hard to know how we should live out our faith; hard to know exactly how it is that God would like us to see and feel the world around us, but thankfully, we have James.  The Letter of James never minces words.  It is a series of admonitions to disciples and church leaders alike on how the life of faith might be lived out day to day.  The Bible is rarely as clear as it is in James 1:27, “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.”  Our primary call as disciples of Jesus is to care for the needs of the world and to keep ourselves away from sin.  In the long run, it doesn’t really matter if you genuflect or not, if you like Bach or not, if you watch church in your pajamas or dress in your finest and get here by 8.  No, the true religion to which we are all called is, once again, summed up in this way – show your love of God by putting God’s will first, and show your love of neighbor by caring for their needs.  That’s a true religion I think we can all get behind, and one that I will gladly pray for more and more of.  Increase in us true religion, o Lord, for the honor of your name.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

What keeps your tongue bound by chains?

A quick google search proves that imagery of this story is mostly pretty scary.

Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

The second half of Sunday’s Gospel lesson doesn’t have the racism and sexism of the first half, but it is not without its own drama.  Jesus is somewhere in the region of Decapolis, en route to his home base at Capernaum, when a crowd finds him.  In their midst is a man who is both deaf and mute and wants to be healed.  The Greek word used to describe his condition is mogilalos, which literally means “to speak with difficulty.”  That is relatively unsurprising.

What should catch our attention, however, is how his healing is described.  Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears, which is strange, then he spits, which is odd, he touches the man’s tongue, which is gross, and finally he prays.  Marks tells us that the man’s hearing was opened, and the chains on his tongue were unbound.  How’s that for high drama!?!

The crowd that is with the no longer deaf and mute man are so impressed by what they have seen, that their tongues become unbound, even as Jesus tried to bind them back up.  “Tell no one,” he says, but they proclaim the miracle more and more.  Which makes me wonder, what keeps our tongues bound by chains?  Have we not seen miracles in our own lives or in the lives of others that need to be proclaimed?  Are we not excited enough about what God is doing in our lives to share that Good News?  I suggested on Tuesday that maybe Jesus’ prayer of “ephphatha” was for himself, but maybe it was for all who would follow.  Maybe even as he told them not to speak, he hoped that their tongues would be unbound and they would share the Good News of the Kingdom far and wide.

Either way, my prayer for The Episcopal Church today is just one Greek word, “ephphatha,” be open, be unbound, share the Good News.

Why I’m Praying for Kim Davis

Kim Davis is, at least as of now, the most famous County Clerk in America.  You’ve heard about her on the news, read about her in the paper, and been subject to various “We support Kim!” and “Kim needs to go!” social media posts from your friends across the political spectrum.  Truth be told, Kim Davis isn’t the only government official who is in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality.  Alabama has a few of its own.  She just happens to be the one being sued for it.  Whether you are for or against marriage equality, however, the one thing we should all be doing is praying for Kim Davis.

Her decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples isn’t the result of her own ignorant bigoted opinions, as the left would have us believe.  Instead, as Tony Jones rightly pointed out yesterday, she has made the choice to stand her ground based on her being taught some very dangerous theology in her church.  I’ll let her tell you, “To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision. For me it is a decision of obedience. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.”

It wasn’t that long ago that I was really struggling with the decision of General Convention to allow the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as Bishop of New Hampshire.  In my struggle, I was labeled and dismissed just like Kim Davis has been.  Over the course of the last 12 years, I have found my opinions on things pertaining to human sexuality to be changing.  I’ve seen the Holy Spirit at work in the lives and ministries of many gay clergy and lay leaders.  I’ve come to know the powerful witness of same sex couples eager to make a life long covenant before God.  I’ve realized that in a world filled with terrible understandings of the role sex in relationships, the Church should be lifting up monogamy and the two parent family as the ideal, no matter the genders of the two individuals involved.  I voted against the canonical changes for marriage equality at this last General Convention, but not because I don’t support marriage equality as a justice issue, but because the changes proposed were sloppy at best.  I’ve come a long way on the question of sexual orientation, but I know how long it took, I know how hard that change is.  Some continue to look at me as narrow minded for having ever held those opinions or for holding Church canon to a high standard.  They would label and dismiss me, but thanks be to God, I’ve come to know that it is OK for us to be at different places on this issue, just like we are on many others.

My favorite Greek word, that I’m pretty sure doesn’t appear in the Bible, is adiaphora, which means “things indifferent.”  In the context of theology, it means those things which are not necessary to salvation.  To use Kim Davis’ words, things that aren’t “Heaven or Hell decisions.”  Despite what you might hear from the extreme right or the extreme left, one’s opinions regarding same sex marriage are not, and never have been, a matter of salvation.  We should pray for Kim Davis that she might come to know the freedom that comes from the word adiaphora.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we are faced with the tricky reality that even Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh, God in man made manifest, needed time to come to grips with the fullness of God’s love for all of his creation.  In a story that is shocking to our 21st century ears, especially in the heightened racial tensions of the past several months, we hear Jesus using a racial slur in telling the Syrophoencian Woman that he came to show God’s love for the Jews.  In the course of Jesus’ encounter with the woman, he is changed.  His divine will overcame his human will as he realized what he had known all along: God loves everyone, no exception.

God loves you in your struggles.  God loves me in mine.  God loves David Moore and David Ermold, one of the couples to whom Davis has refused issue a license, in theirs.  And yes, God loves Kim Davis.  I pray she knows that even in her struggles, even if she did issue a same sex marriage license, God loves her.

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.