What Would the Avas Have Us Do?

My middle school years marked the heyday of the What Would Jesus Do era.  WWJD made its way onto license plates, t-shirts, and of course, bracelets.  No self-respecting Manheim Township Middle School 7th grader who considered themselves a Christian was without a WWJD bracelet in every color that the Provident Bookstore had to offer.  Later in life, I was surprised to learn that those bracelets that were all the rage in the early 90s come from a theology that is based on a novel written in 1896 that sought to teach Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel.  Lost somewhere in the hype of being seen as properly Christian by wearing the right bracelet was the reality that What Would Jesus Do? is a shockingly countercultural question.

In the last few days, we’ve been reminded of what Jesus would do.  He would eat dinner with sinners and tax collectors.  He would turn the tables in the Temple and call to account a system of religion that was built upon on the backs of the faithful poor.  He would stand up against the challenges of the Pharisees and Scribes, unafraid that it might cost him his reputation.  He would challenge his followers to love one another.  He would get down on his hands and knees and wash their feet.  He would willingly be betrayed and handed over to be mocked, scourged, beaten, and ultimately killed in the name of love. And on this night, we are brought to mind, yet again, that Jesus would rise from the dead and in so doing defeat death forever.

As the Exsultet that Deacon Kellie sang so beautifully says so eloquently, “this is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”  That’s what Jesus would do.  That’s what Jesus did do.  And so, we gather on this most holy night to recall the events of salvation history throughout time.  We remember the covenant that God made with all of creation after the flood, that by the sign of the rainbow we would be reminded of God’s promise to bring us back into relationship by another way.  We remember the Exodus, and how on the banks of the Red Sea, God opened the waters so that God’s chosen people might begin their journey to the Promised Land.  We remember the testimony of the prophet Isaiah, and how every time a prophet proclaimed God’s judgement upon the people, it was followed by the promise of restoration and renewal.  We remember the vision of Zephaniah and the assurance that one day all people will be drawn into the loving embrace of God’s forgiveness.

This night isn’t simply about the events of the past, however.  If tonight was only about things that had already happened, we’d be stuck looking for the living among the dead.  No, what we are about on this night is what comes next.  Our question isn’t just “What did Jesus do?”, but “What would Jesus do in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2019?”  So, on a night in which we recall the various ways in which God has called us back into right relationship, it is also especially appropriate that we baptize new members into the household of God.  Through water and the Holy Spirit, we welcome two Avas into the ongoing story of God’s salvation history.  Alongside them, and with their sponsors, we recommit ourselves to what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus in world today, and we promise to seek God’s help as we work to take our place in the resurrected life.

It is interesting to me that both of our newly baptized members are named Ava.  Ava is a variant on the first name ever given, Eve, which is likely familiar to most of us.  Eve was the wife of Adam.  His name, Adam, wasn’t really a name, but is simply the generic word for humankind.  It is based on the world for dirt, from which God made humanity.  Eve, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for life.  It seems particularly appropriate tonight, as we seek to encounter the resurrected Jesus alongside the two Avas, that we might reframe that age-old question.  Not, what would Jesus do, but maybe tonight we ponder, what would Eve do?  What would these Avas have us do?  How will we live life differently as a result of the promises that we’ve made with them?  What brings life, true life, eternal life, the resurrected life into the world?  On this night in which we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen, still, from the dead, to what kind of life does the resurrection call us?  Let’s not be about looking for the living among the dead, but rather, let’s be about looking for stories of the resurrection life among those who are living it.  So, while what would Jesus do is an important question to ask, this Easter, I invite you to carry with you our two Avas and instead ask, ‘What would Ava, life, real, abundant, resurrection life, have me do?  Amen.

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The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ

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Seriously, don’t see this movie

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise

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I grew up fifteen miles from Paradise, Pennsylvania.  It, like Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, and other strangely named south-central Pennsylvania towns was a gorgeous bucolic setting with rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see.  Because I was brought up in that area, I can’t help but picture it every time I hear Jesus tell the thief who repented “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  It might be a boring piece of God’s creation, but there are far worse places than Paradise, PA to spend eternity.

This is, of course, said tongue in cheek, but I do wonder what the average person in the pew thinks when they hear Jesus say these words.  I mean, our understanding of heaven and hell is so skewed by Dante and popular culture, that it is really hard to even begin to give a real thought to what Jesus had in mind as he promised the thief entrance into his kingdom in that most holy hour.

The English word “paradise” is basically a transliteration of the Greek “paradeisos,” but it has roots that are even more ancient.  Originally, the word comes from the Avestan language, an Eastern Iranian dialect that is known to us only through the scriptures of Zoroastrianism.  In Avestan, the word is “pairidaeza” and it means a grand enclosure or park.  By the time it came into Greek, the word carried a royal connotation.  It is the park of the king’s palace.  In Judaism, it was the portion of Hades set apart for pious souls to wait for the resurrection.  Others thought it was the paradise of heaven.  By the time of the Church Fathers, Paradise was thought to be the Garden in which Adam and Eve first lived; a place that didn’t exist either in heaven or on earth, but outside of both.

This promise of Jesus makes for interesting theological discussion.  Did Jesus mean that the thief would be with him in heaven?  Was there, as many early thinkers have suggested, another place of waiting for the righteous?  If when we die, we no longer exist inside the confines of space and time, does this place of waiting really exist at all?  Can’t we skip immediately to the final judgment?  What did Jesus have in mind?

In light of this lesson being read on the Feast of Christ the King, what strikes me over and above all these “how many angels fit on the head of a pin” debates is the fact that even in his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criteria: faith.  This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was who he said he was, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom.  His faith was exercised in a moment of great pain and terror.  Would that we might be able to show such faith in times of crisis, or even in our moments of relative comfort.  Jesus, the King of kings, invites us to join him in Paradise.  Will you enter?

C.R.E.A.M.

In the words of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, C.R.E.A.M, get the money, dolla, dolla bill y’all.”  In its original context, this is, of course, what the Parable of the Talents is all about.  A man is going on a trip and rather than letting his significant wealth sit idle while he’s gone, he gives it to three of his slaves, each according to their ability, in order that they might put it to good use.

These are not insignificant sums of money.  Depending on whether you subscribe to weights of measure or daily wage theories for what a talent was in Jesus’ day, we’re talking the modern day equivalent of $1.7M or $375K per Talent.  I’m a daily wage guy, since that’s what I’ve read most in the scholarship, so a talent equals 15 years worth of the average daily wage for a laborer.  In Foley, Alabama, that is roughly $375,000.  So to the first slave goes $1.875M, the second gets $750k, and the third, $375k.  Upon his return, the first gives his master back $3.75M, the second, $1.5M, and the third still has $375k.  That’s an overall ROI of over 87%!  The lesson, obviously, is to be wise stewards of the gifts that God has given for the upbuilding of the kingdom.

What I’ve found interesting this week is that clergy throughout the ages have been uncomfortable with the Wu Tang Clan’s CREAM philosophy.  Over and over again this parable has been used metaphorically to talk not about money, but rather about the natural skills and aptitudes with which God has blessed us.  It has happened so often and for so long that etymologically, the meaning of the English word “talent” comes from this exegetical slant on Matthew 25 (HT Kathryn Matthews).  Don’t believe me, here’s what Google says when you ask it for information on the etymology of talent.

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Of course this parable is about money, CREAM isn’t just for rap stars.  It is also about much more than, but if preachers are so afraid to talk about the money piece with their congregations as to create a new word usage in English, then we’ve got a problem that can’t be fixed by fancy word choice and dancing around the issues.  So as you prepare to preach this Sunday, in the midst of what is probably stewardship season, remember, dear reader, the wisdom of the Wu Tang Clan, “Cash Rules Everything Around Me, CREAM, get the money, dolla, dolla bill, y’all”