Called to Go, but where?

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below.


My former Bishop once shared with me that every call story has two parts: the call to leave and the call to where.  At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about.  It was the fall of 2015, I had just finished a sabbatical, and the Pankey family was quite happy in Foley, Alabama, thank you very much.  Soon after those words, Keith and I had one of our quartly-ish planning days wherein we would leave the office behind, take our Bibles and our Prayer Books, and spend several hours listening for the Spirit.  As the day unfolded, we began to realize that God was calling us to try something new.  It was time for me to stretch my leadership wings a bit.  Just a few days earlier, I had heard that the Vicar of a small mission church up the road was going to give up driving an hour each way on Sunday morning as a gift to himself for his ninetieth birthday.  We prepared a plan to present to the bishop in which I would continue to serve Saint Paul’s three-quarter time and be named Vicar at Saint John’s for the other quarter.  Bishop Kendrick was excited about the possibility, but by the time he could check out the details, St. John’s had already invited another retired priest to fill their Sunday void.

As spring rolled around, Keith and I went back to the drawing board.  We were still praying for what God had in store for us next, and for the first time in nine years, there was nothing.  We decided to keep listening.  In mid-April, while attending a Gathering of Leaders conference, I received my answer.  It was time to go.  I had no idea where I would end up, but I knew that the time had come.  I also knew that I wanted to have complete control over the where question.  I began to scour the Office of Transition Ministry website for neat places to live.  The South Carolina coast sounded nice.  The Mississippi Gulf Coast wouldn’t be bad.  I might have even settled for the mountains of Colorado, when in June while at Sewanee for my last set of summer classes, fellow DMin student and friend, Paul Canady, the Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, where our own Cortney Dale serves as the Associate, sent me a Facebook message with a link to your parish profile that read, “I’m just going to put this right here for you… it’s got some good things going for it. Downside, of course, is that’s it’s not near the ocean.”  I clicked the link, read for a minute and decided that moving from the Gulf Coast to Bowling Green was not in my plans.  Less than 24 hours later, Elise Johnstone, Canon to the Ordinary across the border in Lexington approached me in the hall of the School of Theology and said, “It isn’t in my diocese, but there is a great church in Bowling Green, Kentucky that you should take a look at.  Solid budget, University town, and Amy speaks highly of the people.”

The Holy Spirit has her ways, and getting the point across that I am not in charge of either the when or the where was made abundantly clear to me during 2016.  I am not the first person to learn this lesson.  In fact, the call to go without having an answer to the where question has been a part of God’s plan for salvation since Adam and Even first ate of the forbidden tree.  In our Old Testament lesson for this morning we heard one of the many call stories in scripture that involve God inviting someone to go without a final destination.  As my friend Nurya Love Parish paraphrased the story, “God says to Abram, ‘Leave behind everything familiar, and go to the land I will show you.’ Not the land God has shown Abram.  Abram has to leave before he knows where he is headed.”[1]  All of salvation history hinges on Abram’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind and begin a journey to some unknown land that God has promised.

Abraham was faithful and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Abraham’s faithfulness to the call of God to go without an answer to the where is, to Paul’s mind, the premier example of the life of faith.  Moreover, the promise of God that is fulfilled in Abraham’s willingness to leave everything he knows behind is a promise to bless not just Abraham and his family, but the whole world.  Indeed, all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham.  Again and again, disciples are called to go.  Sometimes, like in my case, it is the call of God to a professional minister to pick up and move, but more often, the call to go without knowing where it will lead comes to the average Christian sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning.  These are the calls of regular disciples to go out and be a blessing to the world.  Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple.  God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.  If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, each of us can experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.

This is easier said than done, to be sure, which is why the story of Nicodemus is paired up with Abraham.  Nicodemus wants to be faithful to the call of God to follow Jesus.  He feels a pull to this Rabbi who is “from God,” but he just can’t commit.  He can’t give up all the comforts that come with his position of power as a Pharisee and leader of the Jews to follow the call to go without having some idea as to where it is all headed.  And so, he finds Jesus under the safety of darkness.  In the shadows of doubt and fear, Nicodemus knows he can meet Jesus on his own terms.  In the safety of the night, he can get his questions answered without his fellow Pharisees finding out.  Nicodemus wants to follow Jesus, but he wants total control over how it’ll take place.

Jesus’ answers to Nicodemus’ questions seem like a series of non sequiturs, but in reality, they are a continuation of the call of Abraham.  God is calling Nicodemus to give up all control, to leave everything he knows behind and follow Jesus to an unknown destination.  “You must be born again,” Jesus says, “the birth you have is one of power, prestige, and privilege, but you have to give all that up to follow me.  You have to get out of the darkness and into the light.  You have to be willing to risk everything to be my disciple.  You have to be comfortable riding the wind of the Spirit that goes wherever she chooses.”  Nicodemus couldn’t do it, at least not yet.  Later on in John’s Gospel, we’ll hear stories of his growing faith.  He stands up for Jesus, albeit somewhat tepidly, when the Pharisees begin to plot for his arrest.  After Jesus’ death, it is Nicodemus who helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body; bringing with him nearly one-hundred pounds of spices.

While it never does seem like Nicodemus can fully commit to following God’s call to go, we can take some solace in his struggle.  None of us is the perfect disciple.  None of us is always able to drop everything and go.  Each of us, from time to time, will want to have our say in how the when and where questions gets answered.  We all go astray from the will of God occasionally, but God’s grace is strong enough to overcome our doubts.  God didn’t give up on Nicodemus when he disappeared back into the night.  God continued to call him, continued to challenge him to give up control, continued to try to pour out blessings through him, and God does the same for each of us.  Every time we go astray, God beckons us to return.  Every time we cling to safety, God calls us to go.  Every time our faith fails, God forgives, and invites us to try again.  And when we do answer the call to go, God makes us to be his blessing in the world.  Every call has two parts: the call to go and the call to where: righteousness is found in our willingness to leave the safety of what we know to go to what we don’t know in order to be God’s blessing to a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/march-12-second-sunday-lent

The Call to Go

Tomorrow night, the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky will gather with our Bishop and other clergy from the Diocese of Kentucky at a service called The Celebration of New Ministry.  Our preacher will be none other than my former Rector, TKT, who will bring a word that the service itself really struggles to convey.  As glad as I am that the service has changed from the Institution of a Rector in 1928 to the Celebration of New Ministry in the 1979 Prayer Book, the service itself really lacks that reality.  It is, by and large, still all about me, the 25th Rector of Christ Episcopal Church  (Yes, I know there is a service in EOW, but like most everything else EOW attempts, the SCLM tried to fix too many things and as a result, created far too many problems).

I’ve not read TKT’s sermon, mostly because it probably won’t actually be written on a piece of paper, but I can still be sure that it will not be about Steve Pankey, the guy who’s work it is to be in the tent of meeting.  Instead, he will tell the story of Eldad and Medad from Numbers 11.  Depending on how you read the story, Eldad and Medad were either two of the 70 who didn’t go to the tent, or two in addition to the 70 who were gifted with the Spirit by God to do the work of ministry.  No matter how they ended up back in the village, the reality is that God chose to pour out the Spirit upon them and not just those who made their way to the tent of meeting.  It is a story about how God does the work of the Kingdom through all God’s servants, not just those who wear fancy collars, have calligraphic certificates on their walls, and draw stipends from the gifts of the faithful.

While the sermon will be important, what is more important to me is the effort TKT and his wife are going through to be here.  Not that I thought it would be any other way, but the process of leaving one church and taking a call at another is always a difficult one.  After 9.5 years of working together, there came an end, and rather than being bitter or frustrated, TKT has been affirming and supportive every step of the way.  That’s because we both took seriously the reality that God doesn’t just call people to a place, but there comes a time that God also calls people to Go.  As we both listened for the Spirit last year, it became clear to both of us that our work together was coming to an end, that I was being called to Go, and that both of our ministries would be fruitful if we were faithful to that call.

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In our Old Testament lesson for Sunday, we will hear Abraham’s call to go.  While the promise of God to Abraham is more than I could ever hope for, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” the hard truth is that God often calls his servant’s to go in order to bless others.  Sometimes, like in my case, it was the call of a professional minister to serve a new congregation, but more often, it is the call of a regular disciple to go out into the world in service.  Whether it is local work with the homeless, the outcast, or those in prison; or international service to bring clean water, education, or healthcare to those in need, God has a call to go for every disciple.  God has a plan to bless the world one person at a time through each of us who call Jesus Christ Lord.  If we are willing to listen, and more so, willing to take the risk and GO, we can all experience the blessing of Abraham; the blessing of following God’s call to go and be a blessing to someone else.

Customizable Temptation – a sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


One of the great joys of living in 21st century America is that we live in a world that is increasingly customizable. For roughly the last half century, advertisers have been helping us move from the “one size fits all” world that came out of the industrial revolution to a world where anyone can have it “your way, right away.”  Believe it or not, it has been 43 years since Burger King introduced “Have it your way” as their slogan.  According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, there were 1,024 ways to order a Whopper in the early 1960s, but now you can get it any one of 221,184 different ways![1]  In 2014, there were at least 80,000 different ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.[2]  Think about that.  It wasn’t that long ago that your choices were black, cream, and/or sugar.  Domino’s Pizza advertises that their menu allows you to choose from any of 34 million possible pizza combinations!  34 Million!  Madison Avenue has long since figured out that the best way to get us to buy their widget is to make sure their widget can meet our specific and varied tastes no matter what our whim might be at any given moment.

Before I say what I’m going to say next, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that all marketers are evil. What I am willing to suggest is that the art and science of marketing has at its root the Tempter who has been working on humanity since the very beginning.  The contemporary shift toward a fully customizable world is built upon a foundation of customizable temptation.   That is to say, the Tempter has been using various approaches to tempt human beings toward sin since the very beginning.  I can say that with some confidence seeing as we just heard the story of that first temptation in our Old Testament lesson this morning.  Our lesson opens with God giving Adam the only rule of the Garden.  “You may eat freely of every tree, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for on that day you eat of it you shall die.”

With the first rule comes the first opportunity for temptation, and the Tempter had his first goal: get Adam to eat from that tree.  The Tempter was hard at work long before the conversation between the serpent and Eve.  We can tell this is true because the serpent finds the first couple standing close to the forbidden tree.  Like telling a child not to eat a piece of candy, the only thing Adam and Even seem to be able to think about is that tree.  What beautiful fruit it has.  What would it be like to know the difference between good and evil?  Why would God hold this back from us? The Tempter had these questions swirling around in their minds as the serpent made his next move: twisting the words of God. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

She might not yet know the difference between good and evil, but Eve knows that the Tempter is wrong.  He gives Eve her first opportunity to stretch her discernment wings.  She corrects the serpent, and boy did that feel good.  He presses further, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”  That’s what that feeling was?  To be like God is to feel the power of correction and reproof?  The Tempter had found the right combination, and Adam and Eve ate.  His customizable approach to temptation had produced its first fruit.

Generation after generation, the Tempter continued to seek out ways to tempt God’s children away from right relationship.  For Noah, it was wine.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was impatience.  For Moses, it was frustration.  For David, it was lust.  For Solomon it was idolatry.  For Samson it was pride.  Again and again, the Tempter found the perfect way to turn the attention of Israel away from God, until finally, God had had enough, and he sent his Son to restore all of humanity to right relationship.

The Tempter did not give up with the birth of Jesus, of course.  In fact, just like in that moment when God first said, “you may not eat,” the Tempter saw his big chance come at the baptism of Jesus when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  God knew what was to happen next.  God was familiar with the Tempter’s work and knew that he would immediately begin to sow the seeds of sin, so without any hesitation, the Spirit took Jesus out into the wilderness to allow the Devil to try his best, and try he did.

“If you are the Son of God…”  The Tempter was in for a challenge with Jesus, and so he went dirty right from the start – pushing Jesus to question the identity that had just been spoken so clearly in his baptism.  “Are you really the Son of God?  Because if you are, then you shouldn’t have to be out here starving to death in the desert.  God’s Son should be treated better than that.  In fact, you have all the power you need to make bread from these stones.”  Jesus is not swayed by the Devil’s tactics, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God…” The Tempter tries a different approach.  Still calling into question Jesus’ primary identity, now he turns his focus to just how strong that relationship really is.  “If you’re so dependent on God, why don’t you take it a step further?  You trust God to feed you.  Do you trust God to keep you safe?  Prove it by throwing yourself down.  God has promised in scripture that ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’  By jumping, you’ll simply be demonstrating your total confidence in your Father’s promise.”[3]  Jesus again stands firm.  He won’t allow the Tempter to twist God’s words: quoting instead a passage from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

After two failed attempts, the Tempter changes tact one more time.   Rather than trying to get Jesus to question his identity, the Devil goes after his patience.  It will take years and an agonizing death on the cross for Jesus to be given all authority on heaven and earth.  Why wait?  “For the low, low price of worshipping me,” the Tempter offers, “all that you can see will be yours.  All the kingdoms, riches, and power on earth will be yours.”  Here again, Jesus withstands a third uniquely customized temptation.

The Tempter left, but not for long.  Again and again during his lifetime, Jesus came face to face with Temptation, and he resisted it each and every time.  This is because the Devil isn’t the only one who knows the power of customization.  As we prayed in our Collect for Today, God knows the weaknesses of each of us, and stands ready to help us stand firm.  Again and again in our lives, we will find ourselves in the Tempter’s snare.  Like Adam and Eve, we won’t always be successful at avoiding his wiles.  We will forget to turn to God for help.  We will allow our fears to be used against us, our pride to make us foolish, or our envy to bring us down.  But the Good News is that God is always ready to overcome our temptations and forgive our sins.  The Devil is tricky, and uses any means necessary to drag us into sin, but God is all the more crafty: knowing the weakness of each of us, God has a fully customized plan so that every one of us might find God mighty to save.  Save us from the time of trial, dear Lord, and deliver us from evil.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whopper

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/starbucks_n_4890735.html

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1973

Don’t Feel Holy, Be Holy – a homily

UPDATE: This sermon can be heard over on the Christ Church website.


One of the outreach ministries that I was most proud of during my time in Foley was the role Saint Paul’s played in Family Promise of Baldwin County.  Family Promise is a part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a national network that began in New York and seeks to help homeless families get back on the path to stable living conditions.  In Baldwin County, we were one of fourteen churches that opened our doors four weeks out of the year to host homeless families over night while their children attended school and parents worked or found jobs and learned how to make a budget, plan for the future, and save up enough for the deposits required to restart the housing search.  For two weeks at a time, we would provide safe and private sleeping quarters, a hot dinner, and the makings for breakfast and lunch to as many as twenty people spread across four families.  They would arrive on campus at about 5pm and leave often before the sun came up so that their kids could get to school on time.

Somewhere during the many years I made announcements to drum up volunteers and let people know that we had guests on campus, I realized a problem with my language.  I would stand up on the Sunday Family Promise was scheduled to arrive and say something like, “when you see our guests on campus, please be sure to make them feel welcomed.”  I realized at some point that making them feel welcomed really wasn’t what I was hoping for.  No, what I really meant to say was “make sure you welcome them.”  Notice the difference?  Making someone feel welcomed is easily done superficially.  A smile and a “hello” is enough to make someone “feel welcomed,” but to actually welcome a stranger takes a lot more work.  It requires a change within ourselves.  In order to welcome someone else into my space and my life means that I have to make room for them, for all of them, the good and the bad, and the many ways in which welcoming them will change me.  More than making them simply feel welcomed, I hoped that they were welcomed fully into the life and ministry of Saint Paul’s.

I think that difference is what Jesus is trying to make clear in this difficult passage appointed for Ash Wednesday.  As we prepare to put on an outward symbol of our piety, we hear Jesus clearly asking us to check our motivations.  Do we put on the cross of ashes in order to feel like we have done the work of repentance?  Do we keep these ashes on when we leave this holy place so that we can look like we are holy?  Or, do the ashes mean something more?  Jesus didn’t have Ash Wednesday to use as an example, but in his age, as in ours, there were plenty of religious practices that people could bend to their own devices.

“When you give alms,” Jesus says, “don’t give alms so that others can see how much you give and how generous you are.  Don’t give alms so you can feel holy or seem compassionate.  Give alms because God wants to bless the poor through your generosity.  If you are giving in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you are giving in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you pray,” Jesus says, “don’t make it look like you are praying by standing in the marketplace wearing long, fancy robes and saying beautiful and flowery words, but pray as if your life depended on it.  If you pray in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you pray in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you fast,” Jesus says, “don’t just make it look like you are fasting so that you can gain the respect of the crowd.[1]  Don’t fast so you can feel like you’ve done what you are supposed to do.  Instead, actually fast, so that you can gain a deeper relationship with God.  If you fast in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you fast in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you attend an Ash Wednesday service,” we might add, “don’t wear your ashes so others can see that you went to church and are therefore that much holier than they are.  Wear your ashes as a reminder of your mortality, your sinfulness, and your total dependence on God.   If you wear your ashes in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you wear these ashes in order to make a difference in yourself and a difference in the world; If you wear these ashes as a reminder that this Lent, and every day of your life, is a chance to join with God in the up-building of the Kingdom, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is too easy to make someone feel welcome or to make yourself feel holy.  The harder work comes when we risk change by actually welcoming the stranger and engaging in the hard work of discipleship.  As we begin this Lenten season of intentionality, don’t just look like you are fasting, but really fast, don’t just look penitential, but really repent, don’t just look like you are praying or reading the Bible, but really do it.  It’s risky, scary even, to really take on these discipleship practices.  They will change you.  They will change how you see the world, but in taking that risk, you will find yourself closer to God, and I can assure you, there is no greater reward than that.  This Lent, don’t settle for feeling holy, but rather, be holy.  Amen.

[1] Nurya Love Parish, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century weekly email, 2/27/2017.

Keeping the Feast means Keeping the Fast

As Lent begins, there are a few subtle changes to the regular pattern of our liturgy that are required and thereby signal for us the changing season.  The Opening Acclamation, optional in Rite I, but required in Rite II, moves from the familiar, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” to the more penitential “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins.”  Many congregations will move from the Gloria or a hymn of praise to the Kyrie or Trisagion, though this is not required in the rubrics.  The Alleluias that many congregations cheat into the Dismissal will get a brief reprieve, but again, they really shouldn’t have been their in Epiphany to begin with.  The clearest liturgical sign that Lent is upon us comes at the Fraction, where the usual anthem, optional in both Rites I and II, drops the Alleluias that are rubrically kosher the rest of the year.

We go from:

Alleluia.  Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore, let us keep the feast.  Alleluia.

To simply:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore, let us keep the feast.

In our Gospel lesson for Lent 1, we hear the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  This is, somewhat obviously, the underlying motivation for a forty day fast in the Season of Lent.  We follow the model of our Savior in taking time to keep the fast in order that we might properly keep the feast that is Eastertide.

big_fish_accord

As I’ve noted previously on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve struggled for many years with the giving something up for Lent cultural phenomenon.  When Arby’s is hocking fish sandwiches in early spring, the idea of Lent being a season of self-denial loses something for me, but the more I think about the correlation between our liturgical fast and the fast of our Lord in the wilderness, the more I think I might work to give something up this Lent after all.  Just as there is no resurrection without death: no Easter without Good Friday, so too there is no real feast without a fast.  There is no mountain unless one knows the valley; no exuberance unless one knows the doldrums.  As we prepare to keep the great feast, let us prepare ourselves by keeping the fast.

Practicing Piety in a Pluralistic Society

You’ll have to pardon the alliterative and rhyming nature of this post title, but it just came so easily, I couldn’t help but use it.  As I try to get back in the saddle of blogging after a week long bout with writer’s block, I’m also feeling the strong pressure of another busy week.  While preparing to make the move from Associate Rector at a Pastoral-Leaning-Pastoral/Program size congregation to Rector of a Program-Leaning-Pastoral/Program size congregation, there were many who warned me of the busyness that would come, and boy weren’t they kidding.  Some of it is startup stuff: meeting parish leaders, attending programs events, learning names, etc., some of it is just the pace of play in a congregation that should really have two priests working alongside a rock-solid lay staff, but a lot of it is just the way things work when you are the first phone call and the last desk upon which the buck stops.  I’m enjoying the work, please don’t get me wrong, but I’m learning that there will always be more to do than hours in the day.

Having gotten that trademarked Long Steve Pankey Aside out of the way, here’s my point.  In the midst of the busyness of life, we are staring down the barrel of a season that invites us to slow down.  Lent will be upon us in two short days.  Ash Wednesday, though quite late this year, is here.  As I work on preparing my homily for one of my favorite services of the year, I am reminded of the last time it fell on the same day as my wedding anniversary.  It was March 1, 2006, and I was in my middler year of seminary.  SHW and I planned to go out for Indian after the Ash Wednesday service in my Field Ed parish, and we struggled quite a bit about the right thing to do.  Would the staff at the restaurant think we were mocking their culture if we came in with black dots on our foreheads (my Rector was keen on the Blob)?

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Added to that concern, was the reality that in the Gospel lesson appointed for every Ash Wednesday, Jesus makes a clear injunction against showy acts of piety.  It seems that Jesus would have us return to our seats and immediately remove the ashen smudge from our foreheads.  What is a faithful disciple to do about practicing their piety in a pluralistic society?  The more I’ve thought about this in the eleven years since that last March 1 Ash Wednesday, the more I’m beginning to think that maybe none of us should be afraid of being faithful to our faith tradition.  In the same way we shouldn’t be fearful or self-righteous about a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or a Sikh wearing a turban, neither should we be fearful about wearing the ashen cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday.  Rather than asking anyone to water down their own faith tradition, we should honor the other just as we are faithful to our own.

With two kids in tow, we probably won’t be going out for Indian this year, but the question will remain every Ash Wednesday.  Will you wear your cross this Wednesday?

Peter’s Resurrection Moment -a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


It had been almost a week since that awkward encounter.  Jesus had probably long since forgiven Peter for it, but if Peter is anything like me, he had spent the last six days working those few minutes over in his mind again and again and again.  Six days ago, Jesus and his disciples were on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean that was 100% Roman: where Herod had built a Temple in honor of Caesar, and after his death, Philip the Tetrarch gave it the name Caesarea – Caesar Town.  There, in the shadow of an entire city built to honor the power of Rome, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

You can almost see them trying to avoid answering the question.  Like a classroom full of Middle Schoolers, no one wanted to make eye contact with Jesus.  Somebody muttered John the Baptist, which was a ridiculous answer.  John hadn’t even been dead a year; how could Jesus be John the Baptist.  Another person piped up, “Elijah,” which seemed more sensible.  Elijah was the one who was to return and prepare the way for the Messiah.  Another voice suggested “Jeremiah or some other prophet,” which was, again, not totally unreasonable.  Jesus pressed further.  With the Temple Complex of Caesar and Pan rising in the background, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, God love him, couldn’t contain himself.  He knew the right answer and wanted Jesus to know he knew it too.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter blurted out, without a care in the world as to where he was standing or who might hear him.  It just so happens that Caesar also carried the title “Son of God,” but that didn’t matter to Peter.   Jesus was the Son of the true God.  Jesus was the one who had been sent to rid Israel of their Roman occupiers.  Jesus was the one who would raise up an army, tear down the Temples built to pagan gods, and return the throne of David to its rightful place.  Jesus was here to rule with power and might, and Peter was ready to fight.

Jesus praised Peter for his forthrightness.  “Blessed are you, Simon… For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”  Peter was riding high, but Jesus continued to speak, telling the whole group that the Messiah wasn’t going to be about power and might; that the Messiah wouldn’t be raising up an army; but that the Messiah, he, Jesus, their Rabbi and friend, would be going to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hand of the religious leadership, and be killed, and, mind you, on the third day rise again.

“God forbit it, Lord!”  Again, Peter bowed up and blurted words out before he could even think.  This wasn’t right, it wasn’t how it was supposed to work.  Peter hadn’t left his wife and career to traipse around the Sinai Peninsula for years only to watch Jesus be killed, and so Peter balked.  He looked right in the face of Jesus and said, “No!”  And Jesus looked right back at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Talk about awkward.  The discernment that Peter had just done so well was flung right out the window.  From “my Father in Heaven revealed this to you” to “you have set your mind not on divine things but on human things” in the course of about 90 seconds.  The rest of the disciples went back to staring at theirs shoes, and for six days, it seems, nobody made mention of “the event.” Then suddenly, Jesus looked back at Peter and along with James and John, invited him on an afternoon hike up Mount Tabor.

Six days is a long time to stew on something.  I wonder just how down in the dumps Peter was feeling as they made the slow climb?  What did he expect when they arrived at the top?  Were James and John invited as witnesses for his further rebuke?  Was it a regularly scheduled prayer day?  Whatever Peter might have guessed was going to happen that day, the Transfiguration wasn’t it.  As Jesus’ face shone with the brightness of the sun and his clothes reflected a dazzling white, Peter again found himself speaking faster than his brain could work.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents…”  While the words were still making their way out of his mouth, a cloud enveloped them and a voice from heaven spoke to them, and Peter joined James and John in fear and trembling.  Six days of uncomfortable silence.  Six days of avoiding Jesus’ passing glance.  Six days of wondering if he had pushed past the point of no return, and now Peter was in the midst of a vision of God atop a holy mountain, and all he could do was sputter and stammer and kneel down in fear and trepidation.

Note what happens next.  God doesn’t rebuke Peter.  Jesus doesn’t call him out.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t smite him on the spot.  Instead, Jesus walked over to the three of them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus said to them.  In the Greek, what Jesus really said as his reached out in loving care to his three scared-to-death disciples was, “be raised, and fear not.”  The word translated as “get up” in the NRSV is the same word the angel will later use to describe what happened to Jesus on Easter morning.  “He is not here, he has been raised.”  In the depth of his despair, after nearly a week of anxiety, stress, and dis-ease, there on that mountain top, Peter was still talking faster than he could think, but it was precisely in that moment that Jesus gave Peter his own moment of resurrection.

As the Season of Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for Lent, the story of the Transfiguration serves as something of a bridge.  Starting Wednesday and for forty days, we will purposefully spend time paying close attention to our tendency toward sin.   We will be invited to take stock of the ways in which our wills are at odds with the will of God.  Marked with an ashen cross, we will be made keenly aware of our mortality and dependence upon God.  Some of us will fast, giving something up that distracts us from the dream of God.  Others will take something on, finding a new prayer practices, devotions, or scriptural readings that are meant to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to God.  No matter how you plan to spend your Lent, I pray that you will have a Peter experience, and I mean both sides.  I pray that at some point in Lent, either in your private prayers or on Sunday morning, you have a profound awareness of the sin that has separated you from God.  I’m not asking you to spend six days in that place, but maybe six minutes.  Feel the pain, the fear, and the awkwardness of knowing that sometimes your best intentions aren’t a part of God’s plan and then be ready to feel God’s hand upon your shoulder.  Listen for Jesus as he offers you a resurrection moment.  “Be raised, and fear not” for God loves you, forgives you, and wants to build the Kingdom of Heaven with your help. Amen.

If, somewhere in the next eight weeks, you can find your way there: from the depths of your sinfulness to the heights of your resurrection moment, you will have been blessed to have the glory of God revealed to you.  In Hebrew, the word for glory means “weight” or “heaviness.”[1]  By the grace of God, what starts as the weight of our sin is transformed into the weight of Christ’s hand upon your shoulder, inviting you to be raised and fear not.  My prayer for you this Lent is that you feel the weight of God’s glory so that you can join with Jesus on Resurrection Day.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Palmer, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century Email 20 Feb 2017.