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

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.

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.

To Whom Was He Speaking?

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most written about speech in history.  Scholars debate the finer points of what Jesus said, as you might assume, but there has been plenty of ink and pixels spent simply discussing the context and setting in which Jesus gave this sermon.  It is helpful, of course, to know something about life in first century Palestine.  It is helpful to know that agriculture was the prevailing occupation, that land ownership was difficult for many, and that the Law had been heavily interpreted by the leaders of 2nd Temple Judaism.  It is equally helpful, though often impossible to really know, to think about to whom Jesus was actually speaking.  This is one of the main sources of controversy around the Sermon on Mount.  To whom was Jesus speaking?

It has been a few weeks since we heard Matthew set the scene for this sermon.  If you’ll recall, Jesus has been surrounded by large crowds who have been drawn to his ministry of healing.  As chapter five opens, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:…”  Most scholars read this to say that Jesus and his disciples took leave of the large crowd in order that Jesus might lay the foundation for the work ahead.  As his popularity grew, Jesus thought it important to take a moment, before things got way out of control, to make clear what this kingdom he was proclaiming was all about.  Some scholars find this reading to be difficult.  The idea that Jesus could be surrounded by such a large crowd and somehow find some space away from them seems hard to believe.  In their mind, it is more likely that Jesus did attempt to step away from the crowd with his disciples, but the crowd, at least the closest few hundred folks, were able to eavesdrop on the conversation.

I’ve probably been in the minority camp for most of my years of Biblical study, but that seems to be changing.   For some reason this morning, as I read the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses, I found myself really struggling to believe that the crowd could have heard all of this difficult teaching and stuck around.  I turned to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and found chapter 8 opening with these words, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…”  I just can’t imagine the Sermon on the Mount as a church growth technique.  It seems impossible that the crowd would have heard Jesus say, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and not have at least considered turning around and walking away.  As we prepare to hear more difficult teaching from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, to whom is it now speaking?  How do these hard words ring in the ears of the faithful?  The waffling?  Those on the margins?  How do we take these words and make them real in our context?

A call to perfection

The following statement may not be true of everyone on the planet, but I think it is true of most: human beings like to know the standard by which they will be judged.  Whether it is a math test, marital vows, or a job description, it is helpful to know what constitutes good work and what sort of actions would bring about the need for remediation.

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Sometimes, those standards are easy: get more than 70% of the answers right, and you’ll be OK.  Other times, it can be more elusive: what exactly does it mean to “honor” someone?  Sometimes, the bar is set very low.  I once heard the story of a boss who told an employee on their first day of work, “All I really need you to do is show up to work on time.”  By lunchtime, the new employee had decided that was just too much to handle.  Other times, the bar is incredibly high.  I remember during my final year of seminary when VTS was in search for its next Dean and President, we joked that the job description had them looking for Jesus Christ with PhD.

The latter is the case in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany.  In the passage from Matthew, we hear the final third of Jesus’ six anti-theses of the Law.  Through the homiletical device of “You have heard it said… but I say…” Jesus took the Law and dug down to its foundation, inviting his disciples to a much higher standard.  In fact, by the end of the these six injunctions that Jesus comes right out and tells us the standard by which we will be judged, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word that gets translated as “perfect” is the Greek word “telos” which means something different than our modern idea of perfect.  Instead, it is more like the completeness of something, the goal, the reason for its existence.  When Jesus invites his disciples to live into their telos just as God the Father is telos, he is, I think, hearkening back to the words that God spoke to Moses in the lesson from Leviticus.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The “you” there is plural, meaning the people of Israel and not just Moses himself.  Here’s where living in the south really comes in handy.  God says, “All y’all shall be be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Our telos is holiness, sacredness, set apart for God.  It would be easy to feel like this is yet another impossible standard to live up to, but the reality is that we have help.  God’s telos is perfect relationship.  We have been created in that image such that God living into God’s telos will help us to live into ours.  God is always searching us out, always inviting us into deeper relationship, always willing to forgive our sins so that we might once again be made holy.  It is God’s very nature to invite us back in so that we might live into our telos.  The bar might feel high, but thanks be to God we know what the expectations are and have God’s help in living up to them.

Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

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No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033