Neighborliness is Risky

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In my email this morning was LeadingIdeas, a weekly round-up that I get each week from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Seminary.  Most of these emails get a quick perusal and are then filed in the trash folder, but for some reason this morning, I was drawn to an article entitled, “Is your Church Like Fine China? Proper, Pretty, and Only for Special Occasions?”  It was written by Cynthia Weems, a United Methodist Elder.  Like Episcopalians, apparently, the United Methodist Church is keen on big titles, and the Rev. Dr. Weems is no exception as the District Superintendent of the Southeast District in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and dean of the Florida Conference Cabinet.  The article is based on a longer presentation that I’ve linked below.

CynthiaWeems-TheChinaCabinet from Florida Conference on Vimeo.

Weems argues in both that the Church in North America has adopted an image of fine china. “Something beautiful with everything matching and not one piece out of place with plenty of places settings for the whole family.  The Christian life is like a matching pattern in a cabinet locked and unused most of the week.  Ouch!”

Ouch indeed.  In adopting this image of the Church as fine china we have relegated ourselves to the relative safety of our own, vast, buildings filled with deferred maintenance and wringing hands.  Weems goes on to suggest that the image of the potter’s wheel from Jeremiah as a better future for us all.  “Instead of pretty patterns, locked cabinets, and matching sets of breakable dinnerware, God shows us the messy, unpredictable results of sitting at the potter’s wheel.”  As I watched this 20 minute presentation that I didn’t plan on watching, I couldn’t help but think of the story of Jesus and the Lawyer appointed for Sunday.

In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we meet a couple of characters who are very worried about protecting God’s fine china.  The priest was too worried about becoming ritually unclean.  The Levite too concerned for his safety.  I get it.  They were traveling a dangerous road.  Heck, some guy got robbed and beaten on it.  In fact, he’s lying right over there.  Worse yet, maybe he was just the bait that a gang of thugs were using to lure you in to the same fate.  Upon wise evaluation, the less risky move was to cross to the other side, to lock the china up and use it only on special occasions, with special designation becoming more and more difficult to obtain each year.

In the Parable, it is only the Samaritan, already unclean, unwelcome, and unlikable, who was willing to risk something getting broken to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers.  Let’s face it, being neighborly is risky business.  It will mean welcoming people who don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us, smell like us, or follow a prescribed set of social conventions like us.  Being neighborly will probably mean the carpet getting dirty, kids wiggling, the bathrooms needed to be cleaned more often, and yes, occasionally, a dish or two might get broken.

Following Jesus doesn’t remove risk from our lives.  In fact, the closer we follow the Son of God who had no place to lay his head and who ended up arrested, beaten, and killed for being too damn neighborly to anyone and everyone, the riskier our lives will probably be.  But of course, risk is not without reward.  When we are willing to risk letting God reshape us, God will always make us more neighborly, and in so doing, will allow us a place in the ongoing restoration of the whole creation.  That, dear reader, seems to be a reward that is worth the risk of the occasional broken plate.

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The faithfulness of God

Way back, when I was in seminary, I studied Greek.  While I continue to use it occasionally in sermon prep, I couldn’t tell you the alphabet by rote and I don’t remember many of the rules for conjugation.  What I do remember are key details, things which help us understand a deeper meaning that isn’t present in the English translation, and more importantly, I remember how and where to look things up.  One of the memories that floods back in occasionally has to do with prepositions and how they can mean many different things in Greek.  For example, when we read of “faith in Christ” it could also mean “faith of Christ,” such that we are saved not by our own ability to put our trust in someone who lived, died, and rose again 2,000 years ago, but because of the faithfulness of that same person to live, die, and rise again.

This came flooding back into my consciousness this morning as I desperately looked for something new to write about.  Now in our fourth (fifth? I’ve honestly lost count) week of apocalyptic parables and imagery, it seems difficult to find a new way to riff on Jesus’ command to “stay awake.”  As I read the lesson from 1st Corinthians, I was drawn to this image of God being the faithful one who calls us into relationship.

As the Biblical story unfolds, there are a hundred or more places where God could have (should have?) given up on humanity.  As the Eucharistic Prayer puts it, “again and again, you called us to return,” but due to our own pride and/or apathy, we have repeatedly failed to live into the dream of God.  Sometimes, it was whole nations that failed.  More often, it is the hearts of individuals who stray from the Kingdom of God.  Yet, despite our ongoing resistance, God is faithful, inviting us back into relationship, and always ready to receive us into the arms of God’s saving embrace.

Advent seems like an appropriate time to spend sometime prayerfully considering the faithfulness of God.  As we prepare ourselves for the gift of salvation, born on Christmas Day, it makes sense to focus less on what role we take in that salvation, and to be mindful that it is by God’s steadfast faithfulness that, in the fullness of time, the Son comes into the world.  It can be hard, the whole “it isn’t about me” thing, but in a season devoted to preparation, it seems the right thing to do.

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.

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?

Contentment

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE makes a rousing return this week with a question that is both timely and applicable.  In the life of the Church as well as in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are rapidly approaching stewardship season, and as such, it is time, once again, for all of us to listen for God’s call upon our checkbooks.  As such, Acts 8 has invited all of us to consider this question: “How has financial giving affected your spiritual life?” For more information on how to offer your own response, click here.


I can’t remember when it happened, but I distinctly remember the feeling.  It must have been around a big football game: Black Friday before the Iron Bowl or the Saturday before the Super Bowl; as I drove around my neighborhood of modest starter homes, I began to notice lots of large, rectangular boxes sitting on the curbside.  At first, I didn’t  pay any attention to it, but by the time I passed the third box, I could feel the envy welling up inside me.  I wanted a big, fancy, new TV to watch the game with too!

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The problem was, unless I wanted to go into $500 worth of debt on my credit card, there just wasn’t the disposable income to cover a sweet new TV.  With a relatively new baby at home and my wife not working at the time, we were prepared to make sacrifices, but it was in that moment, driving through our neighborhood on trash day, that I realized that part of the sacrifice of giving to God is being content with what you have.

At the time, the Pankey family was still relatively new at tithing.  Even as late as seminary, we had subscribed to the left over model of giving to the church.  Of course, it was easy to justify the $2,400 a month we spent on rent and tuition to go to seminary in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country.  Once I was ordained, however, we knew that if we were going to ask people to give sacrificially, we had to as well.  And so, on day 1 of my first call out of seminary, we gave 10% of our income to the glory of God. There is a difference, however, between giving because you feel like you have to and giving out of contentment.  It took me several years to learn that lesson.

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, the author of 1 Timothy tells the young leader that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.  He warns Timothy of the trap of riches.  The temptation that comes with a lack of contentment takes our attention away from God.  Envy leads to ruin and destruction.  As I rode through my neighborhood that afternoon, those empty TV boxes pulled me to the edge of the root of all evil: the love of money.  Thanks be to God, the temptation of a shiny new TV for the big game didn’t win out.  In coming to grips with the opportunity cost of tithing, I realized that sacrificing for the Kingdom is something that should bring joy.  I’ve learned to give thanks for what I have, to be joyful in the building up of the Kingdom, and to be content in all circumstances.  Of course, I’m not always successful at it, but God continues to work on me.  The Spirit continues to call me to righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.  All these years later, I’ve learned the power of intentional sacrifice: a spiritual lesson that is helpful not just in financial giving, but in prayer, in time, in service, and in life.  I’ve learned to set my hope on God, who, as the author of 1 Timothy says, “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

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A Very Long Walk

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a tricky one.  It is a lesson full of apocalyptic imagery, difficult teaching, and enmity.  I’ll deal with that portion of it more in the days to come, but what I’m drawn to this morning is a glimpse into what brings Jesus to this point of seeming frustration.  Jesus gives us a clue as he begins this diatribe by turning his attention to himself, saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This journey from Mount Tabor where Jesus was Transfigured and enjoyed fellowship with Moses and Elijah to Jerusalem where he will turn the tables in the Temple, engage in intense debate, and ultimately be arrested, abandoned by his closest disciples, tortured, and killed has been going on for quite some time, and there is a pretty good hike left to go.  For days on end, Jesus has been thinking about what is to come, wondering how it will all play out, but certain that death on a cross is just over the horizon.

Jesus has been stressed out for as long as he can remember, and here lets his disciples know that he is ready for this period of intense pressure to be over.  Here we find Jesus in his full humanity; feeling the effects of long term stress just like we all do.  High blood pressure, lack of sleep, upset stomach, headache, trouble focusing, irritability, and even a speeding up of the aging process are all effects of ongoing stress in someone’s life.

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Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem was probably not unlike seven years as President of the United States.

Jesus is clearly ready for this very long walk to Jerusalem to be over, but there is still more to come.  More teachings.  More healing.  More parables.  More encounters with the least and the lost.  More controversy with the religious powers-that-be.  The road to Jerusalem is long and winding, and today, we see Jesus at his most vulnerable and yet his most determined.  He may wish the fire was already kindled and the waters of baptism already troubled, but he can read the signs, he knows that his hour has not yet come, and so he will continue on, faithfully proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

The God of liminal places – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon here, or read on.


“The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.”  This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, though I’m pretty sure he never actually said it.  Twain and his wife Olivia had four children, and even if in his day men didn’t change diapers, there is no way that Twain wasn’t aware that not even a baby with a wet diaper likes the activity of change, even if they might like the results.[1]  Both of my girls were skilled in the alligator death roll to avoid a diaper change.  This is to be expected, I suppose, because they are my children, and despite almost nine years of experimenting with new things in this congregation, I’m not really a fan of change either.  Nobody is.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we are hardwired against change.

In a 2011[2] study, scientists proved the existence of something that we have all experienced in our lives: the Doorway Effect.  This happens to me all the time, maybe it does you too.  I’ll be sitting in my office when I notice that I’m using the last page of my notepad.  I know that the notepads are stored downstairs, so I get up, walk through the doorway of my office, down the stairs, and promptly have no idea why I left my desk in the first place.  Even if I have the almost empty notepad in my hand, I can’t seem to remember why I’m carrying it around.  Of course, once I return to my desk, I remember.  Our brains are so adverse to change, that the very act of crossing through a doorway is enough for us to forget what we were doing.  Social scientists might call it the Doorway Effect, but fancy seminary folk like to use fancy Latin words.  Liminal is Latin for threshold, and during my time at VTS I must have heard the word a thousand times.  In fact, I was so sick of that word that I vowed never to use it again, but sometimes the right word is the right word, and the Seventh Sunday of Easter is all about the stress that comes with living in liminal places.  Everywhere we look, somebody is standing at the threshold of change.

As has been the case for a few weeks now, our Gospel lesson has us back in the upper room with Jesus on the night before he died.  For four chapters in John’s Gospel, Jesus offers his disciples a farewell speech like none other.  The disciples don’t know it yet, but they are standing at the threshold of the Kingdom of God.  In less than 24 hours, Jesus will be gone.  He will be hanged on a cross.  He will die an excruciating death.  He will be buried in a tomb, and locked behind a large stone door.  Jesus knows all these things, and he stands at the threshold with his disciples, offering them advice on how to live in this changed reality.  He washed their feet, and encouraged them to take on lives of service to others.  He gave them a new commandment, that they love one another.  He told them that he is the way, the truth, and life; that no one comes to the Father but by him.  He assured them that the Holy Spirit would come as their advocate, guide, and comforter to be with them.  He promised peace in the midst of immense turmoil; peace that only the Father can give.

And then, as our lesson opens up this morning, Jesus prayed for his disciples.  He prayed that they might have eternal life through faith in him.  He prayed that God would protect them when he went away.  He prayed that they might be sanctified in the truth; that they might be made holy, set apart for God’s honor and glory.  Jesus prayed for his disciples as they stood at the threshold of his death and resurrection, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  He went on to pray for all “those who will believe in him through their word.”  There, on the night before his death, Jesus prayed for Paul, for Constantine, for Augustine, for Thomas Cranmer, for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for you and for me.  He prayed for all of us who live in liminal places.

Easter 7 is all about liminal places.  For the disciples, it was the threshold between Jesus’ death and resurrection, but our Collect for today invites us to think of another threshold moment: the long ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day, forty days after Easter, when the resurrected Jesus left the earth, rising on a cloud to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the day, fifty days after Easter and ten days after the Ascension, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 with power and might, propelling them out into the world to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Easter 7 falls right in between those two Feast days, in that liminal place between Jesus leaving the earth and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and so we pray, like Jesus did, for all who live standing at the threshold; that God might not leave us comfortless.

In the same Farewell Discourse, the Holy Spirit is promised to his disciples by Jesus. He calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, Counselor, Helper, or, as the King James Version says it, the Comforter.[3]  After Jesus left the earth, the disciples spent ten days praying, listening for God to give them direction.  For ten days, their anxiety grew and grew as they heard nothing in response.  I suspect most of us can understand how the disciples felt in those ten days because we too live in a liminal place.  Between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, the disciples spent three days standing at the threshold.  Between Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival on the Day of Pentecost, they spent ten days standing at the threshold.  Since then, the Church has spent nearly 2,000 years standing at the threshold, living in the liminal place between his ascension and his coming again.

When Jesus prayed for all those who would come to faith through the testimony of his disciples, he was praying for all of us who will spend our lives trying to figure out how to follow him even though he longer walks the earth.  He prayed for all of us who will, from time to time, wonder if this life on the threshold is worth it.  He prayed for all those who will find the comfort of the Spirit hard to hold onto; all of us who will feel like God is absent from our lives; all of us who pray even though we sometimes wonder if our prayers aren’t just bouncing off the ceiling and hitting the floor.

Easter 7 is a chance to take a deep breath and remember that God is with us in every liminal place.  Every doorway we walk through, God is there.  Every change that happens in a world where the only constant is change, God is there.  Now that I think about it, maybe we are hardwired to resist change so that every liminal place can remind us of our dependence on God alone.  Every liminal moment, every threshold we cross, every change that comes our way is a chance to invite God, through the Holy Spirit, to walk with us, to guide us, and to comfort us.   Come Holy Spirit.  Do not leave us comfortless.  Come with power and might.  Be our comforter and guide as we stand here at the very threshold of the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain#Marriage_and_children

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/

[3] John 14:16