Faith In Action

Audio of this sermon will be available on the Christ Church website.


One of the things that drew my family to Bowling Green was the romantic ideal of four honest-to-goodness seasons, with real springs, falls, and winters.  In lower Alabama, it was said that there were really six seasons, each lasting two months.  Three of them were summer.[1]  Currently, they are suffering through “Hurricane Summer,” which I remember as the season in which you began to forget what outside looks like as you move from building to car and back again as quickly as possible.  In Bowling Green, the summer of 2018 has felt a bit like a lower Alabama summer, but even if it is raining, today shows us the promise of more fall-like temperatures on the horizon.

The church has its own equivalent of a six-month Gulf Coast Summer, which is commonly called Ordinary Time.  The Season after Pentecost usually runs from May or June all the way to December, and can feel like an interminable stretch of green.

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During the dog days of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary does us a favor by occasionally taking long walks in a particular portion of the Scriptures.  You might remember our five-week visit in the Bread of Life Discourse last month.  For the month of September, we’ll spend five weeks bouncing around the Letter of James, which holds a special place in my heart.  James is an often-misunderstood letter, that has become the scorn of Protestants ever since Martin Luther called it an epistle of straw.  Luther’s main objection was with the final three verses of today’s passage, which seem to undermine the Protestant overemphasis on St. Paul’s thesis of justification by grace through faith by suggesting that works are required to get into heaven.  I don’t think that’s a fair reading of James, but we’ll have to come back to that in a minute.

What I so appreciate about James is how straight-forward it is.  Unlike Paul’s sometimes serpentine-like run-on sentences about lofty ethics and big theological constructs, James was written, as Mother Becca told us last week, to be a letter of universal appeal.  James wrote about real things that congregations were struggling with in the first century.  These same things happen to be real things that congregations are still struggling with in the twenty-first century.  The not-really-hypothetical example that opens our text this morning shows that not much has really changed in the church in the last two-thousand years.  Human beings are still human beings, whether they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or not.  We are pre-disposed to play favorites, to defer to the rich and the powerful, and to look down on those who are living on the margins.

It is in this not-really-hypothetical example, that I think we really come to understand why James makes so many people uncomfortable.  He isn’t afraid to go from preaching to meddling – naming the evil he sees in the church, namely the rich getting preferential treatment over the poor – as sinful.  Here, James is in total agreement with Saint Paul in suggesting that the chief sin of most Christians is idolatry.  By judging our neighbors, we put ourselves in the place of God, and directly violate both the first and second Commandments.  “So, you didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery this week,” James says somewhat sarcastically in my imagination, “Congratulations!  But. If you judged your neighbor because of his disheveled appearance, you have still fallen short of the glory of God.”

“So, what are we to do then?” we might rightfully ask.  Christianity according to James is downright difficult.  If the standard for faithfulness to the Gospel is not killing anyone, we are all in pretty good shape, but when the bar gets raised up to “don’t make distinctions among yourselves,” we are all in a heap to trouble.  Here’s where we circle back around to that stuff that made Martin Luther so uncomfortable.  What if, when James writes that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” he is not being prescriptive, but descriptive.  Instead of reading James 2:17 as saying, “if you don’t do good works, God isn’t going to give you entrance into heaven when you die,” perhaps we should read this as saying that the only way we know that God is at work in our lives is through our good deeds.  This isn’t James undercutting salvation by grace through faith, but rather James’ honest assessment, based on his experience in the church that only when it walks like a Christian, talks like a Christian, and acts like a Christian, is it really a follower of Jesus Christ.  Or, as Saint Paul might have described it, if you can see the fruit of the Spirit at work in someone’s life, even when they occasionally fall short, you can be sure that God is there.

Over the last month, Christ Church has received an additional gift in the midst of the dog days of Ordinary time thanks to three baptism Sundays in four weeks.  Today, [at 10 o’clock] we welcome into the Household of God two people who are, in many ways, strangers to most of us.  Lindsay and Evelyn are here from Central America, where Lindsay’s husband, Ryan, serves in the Marine Corps.  Lindsay is a life-long friend of the Mitchell family, and so, we join with them in celebrating this momentous event for the Swoboda family.  Even more, our Prayer Book teaches that Holy Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” which means that today we act on behalf of the Church Universal to welcome Lindsay and Evelyn into the community of those who are on a daily basis striving to follow Jesus.  As we do at every baptismal service, [at 10 o’clock] we will reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant, a series of eight questions that summarize for us what it means to be a Christian.

Like it was for James, for the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, it was important that the life of a Christian be summarized not just in a series of theological concepts which must be believed in order to be saved, but that being a disciple of Jesus requires us to act as well.  We will affirm our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the words of our most ancient statement of faith, the Apostle’s Creed, but if we stop there, James would warn us, then our faith, by itself, is dead.  We must go on to seek God’s help in living that faith daily by way of engaging in the Apostle’s teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers, by working hard to resist the temptation to judge our neighbors, among other things, and when we fall short, returning to God’s grace, by proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, by loving our neighbor, and by respecting the dignity of every human being.

Being a Christian is hard.  If it were just an exercise of the mind, merely a system of belief that required no action on our part, it would be so easy, but the rubber meets the road, as we learn from James and from our Baptismal Covenant, when our faith comes alive and we put our belief in God to work.  As the dog days of Ordinary Time roll on, may the Lord who has given Lindsay, Evelyn, and all of us the will to do the good, hard work of Kingdom living, continually give us the grace and power to perform them.  Amen.

[1] https://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2013/10/finding_our_own_seasons.html

Compassion Means Action

It doesn’t take the shaking voice of Sally Struthers overlaid on images of starving children for most 21st century Americans to understand that there is a lot of suffering in this world.  Even in a relatively affluent place like Bowling Green, those who never take the initiative to (literally) cross the railroad tracks are faced with the reality of poverty sitting outside the grocery store, on the corner near where they get their prescriptions filled, or playing a beat up instrument near the town square.  Even among those who aren’t noticeably impoverished there are many who suffer silently with addition, mental illness, depression, broken relationships, unfulfilling work, and more.

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In our Eucharistic Prayer C, which was last week referred to as the “leisure suit of liturgy” before being memorialized in amber for generations yet unborn (inside church stuff, sorry), we pray that our eyes might be open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  For Christians, then, it seems prudent to see where God might be calling us to serve at any given moment.  Our example in this work is Jesus, who in Sunday’s gospel lesson, despite searching for rest and refreshment, sees the crowds of people hungry for redemption and release and “has compassion on them.”

Now, it must be noted that there is a difference between seeing a need and wishing something could be done about it and actually having compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin compati which means to suffer with – to co-suffer.  Having compassion doesn’t just mean that we watch others suffer as if we are seeing them through a TV screen, but rather, that we feel their pain, which should, if we are doing it right, motivate us to action.  Here again, our role model is Jesus, who saw the crowds, had compassion on them and then he taught and healed them en mass.  For Jesus, and for those who follow in his Way, compassion requires action.

As I read the lesson from Mark 6 this morning, I was reminded of that portion of the letter of James, wherein the author is admonishing his audience to live an active faith.  “Faith without works is dead,” he writes.  As an example, he posits this,

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” – James 2:15-16

We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, who pray that God might open our eyes to see the world as God does, must be ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work – sharing the Good News in word and deed – for the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God.

The Gift of Accountability

I’m a sucker for Hymn #686 in the 1982 Hymnal.  “Come thou fount of every blessing”, written by a Baptist Dissenter named Robert Robinson, speaks to the power of both sin and grace in the lives of the faithful.  The line which most resonates with me this week is “… prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…”  This is, for most of us, the life of discipleship.  We follow, sometimes very closely, to the will of God, but like the ancient Israelites, like the Apostles, like followers of Jesus throughout the generations, we soon fall victim to our own self-interests.

We forget that every good and perfect gift comes from God.  We begin to rely on our own power and intellect.  Before long, we have wandered far from the kingdom of God and are neck deep in our own sin, pride, envy, and greed.  Each of us is prone to wander, which is why James takes some time to remind those who are in the confines of grace to reach out to those who have gone astray.

“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” – James 5:19-20

Accountability is one of the key reasons why Christianity can not be done in isolation.  If there is no one but ourselves to call us back from our wandering, then we may never find our way back home.  God works through the Church, through Christian friends and family, to find us when we’ve gone astray.  That is a great gift for all of us who wander, but James reminds us that there is also a gift for those who go seeking after the lost.  In seeking, we find, not just those who are lost, but that which has been lost within ourselves as well.  That’s the two-way gift of accountability.  That’s grace.

Be Doers – a sermon

My first sermon back in the saddle at Saint Paul’s is now on the website.  You can listen to it here, or read on.


Good morning.  To paraphrase this week’s E-Pistle, “I’m baaaaack!”  For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Steve Pankey and I’ve been the Associate Rector here at Saint Paul’s for more than eight years.  I’ve been gone for the last three months on a sabbatical where I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of pages for my Doctor of Ministry thesis.  Thankfully a full draft is in the hands of my Advisor, but there will be plenty of corrections to go before I’m done.  I cheated the sabbatical a little bit, spending two weeks serving as a Deputy to the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City.  It is a real joy for me to serve the Church in that capacity, so even though it meant long days and little sleep, I don’t feel like I cheated too much.  There was also plenty of time for sleeping late and relaxing with family, and while I really did enjoy my time away, it sure feels good to be back standing in this pulpit, which I guess is an ambo now that there is only one reading desk up here.  I guess change really is the only certainty in life.  Still, home is always good.  Sabbaticals for Associates are quite rare, so I want you to know how special this church is and to thank you for the opportunity.

Now, I assure you that I didn’t look at the lessons when I scheduled when my sabbatical would end, but by happy accident it worked out quite well.  I love the Letter of James.  In fact, I love it so much that at one point during my freshman year of college, my roommate and I read this five chapter book every day for a month.  It is a book filled with wisdom for disciples who are trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in the ups and downs of everyday life.  We’ll hear lessons from James over the next five Sundays.  During that stretch it might be a good idea, as you prepare for worship, to read the whole book of James on Saturday night, it’ll only take about 15 minutes.  We may not preach on it each week, but being immersed in such a deep text will surely change your life, and changing your life is what the Epistle of James is all about.  If you can’t find time to read the whole book, then let me suggest another option.  Get a 3×5 card and in the brightest marker you can find write these words from James 1:22, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  And then tape it to your bathroom mirror so that you can be reminded of it every day.

This would make the author of James very happy, since he longs for us to look in the mirror and walk away remembering what we want to change about ourselves to be more like the image of Christ, but for me there is a better analogy.  Way back in the old days, before there were smartphones with hefty data plans, even before there was a GPS device in every car, you used to have to go to Google Maps and actually print out paper directions.  I know archaic, right?  Like the Scriptures, those directions were your only guarantee of getting where you wanted to go, and so following them was important.  The problem, for me, was that I have a terrible memory.  I can forget your name while I’m still shaking your hand.  I would print out the directions, set them on the passenger seat and begin my trip.  I could usually make my way to the highway without incident, but then it would start.  I’d glance over and read step 6, take Interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319.  OK, I can do that.  Ten minutes later, I’d think, what was that exit again?  Take interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319.  319, got it.  Ten more minutes later, what exit am I looking for?  Take interstate 78 for 35 miles to exit 319.  Right, 319.  What mile marker am I at? 310… cool… now which exit was it?  Over and over again, I’d read the directions and forget them almost immediately.  I was too preoccupied with driving or with my thoughts or with the song on the radio to pay attention and actually do what the directions were telling me.

Following the direction of Scripture to become a doer of the word is what discipleship is all about, but it is really easy to get preoccupied with life.  How often do we show up on Sunday, listen politely as the lessons are read and our favorite preacher preaches, read the Prayers of the People, say the Confession, receive the bread and wine, and then walk out those doors to go about our lives as usual?  It is easy to forget what we’ve heard, what we’ve read, what we’ve said, and what we’ve done here when life comes crashing in upon us.  When the bills come in, it is easy to get anxious.  When the lines are long at Winn Dixie, it is easy to get frustrated.  When the traffic is slow, it is easy to get road-ragey.  It is so easy to forget to love God and love neighbor, to not follow the commandments of God, and to become the hypocrites that we so very much despise.

So what do we do?  Should we just give up, throw up our hands and say, “I’m just wired this way?”  Of course not.  Instead, we do the same thing that I did when I forgot which exit I was looking for 20 times in the course of 35 miles, we keep the directions close at hand.  In order to be doers of the word, we must know the word.  In James’ day and age, in order to know the word, it had to be heard.  Nearly 2,000 years later, in a mostly literate society, we can know the word by reading it, but here’s where things get complicated.  The Bible is a tricky text.  It was written by dozens of different people in all sorts of different styles over the course of more than 1,500 years.  The Old Testament was originally written in a version of Hebrew that was dead for so long it had to be backward engineered back into existence.  The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, which went out of common usage roughly 1,700 years ago.  And every bit of the Bible started out not as a written text, but as a story, told over and over again by parents to their children; teachers to their students; rabbis to the faithful.

The truth of the matter is that the Bible was never intended to be read in isolation.  The story of God’s interaction with his good creation is a story of community meant to be read in community.  That isn’t to say you shouldn’t read your Bible by yourself at home, but, to stretch my analogy to its very limits, you need a navigator to help you with the directions.  This is why churches exist, to give the faithful a place to be in community, to learn the way of the kingdom, and to grow as disciples together.  This is why there are sermons and Bible studies and Draughting Theology.  We gather together to hear the Scriptures read, we work together to unpack their meaning: what they meant in their time and what they mean for us now, we pray that God might help us to fulfill his will on earth as it is in heaven, and then we go forth, hopefully changed by what we learned together, to be doers of the word.  Ideally, that’s the way it should work, but when we fail, and we all do from time to time, the community pulls us up and invites us to try again.

The Good News of Jesus Christ can change your life, and the Bible, as a good set of directions, contains everything you need to know about what God dreams for you and for the world God created.  Keep the Scriptures close at hand, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, study them in a community of the faithful, and let them transform you from merely being a hearer who so easily forgets to a doer who joins in the life of the kingdom right here and right now. Amen.

God Equips the Called – a sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read it below.

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this week thinking about the year 2008.  Friday marked the sixth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, which occurred on a nasty January weekend in 2008.  As I reflected on the six years that have passed, I was reminded, more than a few times, of just how much I’ve learned doing this thing called “full-time, ordained ministry” day in and day out.  I remembered, in particular, another weekend in 2008, this time in November, when I flew off to everybody’s favorite vacation destination, Oklahoma City, for a conference called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.”  It really was a great conference, filled with alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the greatest minds in the Emerging Church, and good fellowship with a some of people with whom I’m still in touch.  Yet, for all the good that the weekend had to offer, I still remember vividly the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

There I was, twenty-eight years old, not even a year-old priest, still trying to figure out life in Lower Alabama, mixing it up with some of the most imaginative minds in the Church.  It all came to a head sitting in one of the lower level meeting rooms at some Oklahoma City hotel at three o’clock Friday afternoon.  Jonny Baker, the head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England had set up a labyrinth experience like I had never seen before.  There were maybe a dozen prayer stations spread throughout the room complete with running water, working televisions, sand displays, and lighting effects.  As I took in what was happening around me, a little voice crept into my ear and told me, “You’ll never be this imaginative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time.”  As I plodded through the labyrinth, feeling depressed about how I’d never come up with something that engaging, I came to a station where we were invited to, and I’m not kidding, write down our fears on a piece of paper, fold it into an origami boat, and float it down the flowing river that Jonny had built in the middle of the room.  This really happened, I swear.  I knew my fear, it was that I was inadequate, not just to develop some alt.worship opportunity at Saint Paul’s, but for the whole shebang.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write down my fear, when, just a few letters in, the pen dried up.  I looked down in exasperation, and noticed that this wasn’t just any old bic pen, it was a promotional pen that somebody had given away somewhere.  But it didn’t say, “Saint Swithin’s by the Sea” or “Church Pension Group” on it, instead it read, “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.”  I tucked that dead pen in my pocket, and never looked back.

I think that “God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called” should be the lens through which we read this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Instead, I think it is most often read through the lens of guilt and inadequacy.  Here’s how the story goes when we read it that way.  Jesus, fresh from his baptism in the River Jordan, complete with doves and voices from heaven, followed by 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, moves to Capernaum by the Sea.  The next day, Jesus was walking on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when he runs in to two fishermen, Andrew and Simon Peter, who presumably, he’s never met before.  He says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they drop what they’re doing, leave behind steady jobs and family, to follow Jesus wherever he’s headed.  Just a few feet down the beach, their chief competitors, the Zebedee brothers, are mending their nets when Jesus calls out to them.  Not knowing him from Adam, James and John hand their nets to their father and walk off into the sunset with Jesus.  The sermon writes itself, “Would you be willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?  I bet not, and you wanna know why?  Because you are selfish sinners, that’s why.”  Maybe the sermon wouldn’t be that extreme, but you get the idea, like the example of Jesus’ baptism, the calling of Jesus’ first disciples seems so over the top, so impossible a model for us to follow, that it seems useless to even read the story.

Unless.  Unless, we’ve missed some vital details along the way.  Let me tell you the story one more time, this time including some of the details we can reasonably assume based on the Gospel accounts.  After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, he spent some time with his cousin, listening to him preach.  One day, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and presumably John, the son of Zebedee, followed Jesus back to the place where he was staying and spent the day with him.  Convinced that they had found the one they were looking for, the Messiah, both ran off to find their brothers to tell them the Good News.  Andrew returned with his brother, Simon, who Jesus called Cephas, which is translated as Peter.  Eventually, Jesus headed out into the wilderness for the forty day fast that would steel him for the journey ahead, and after he returned, he found out that John had been arrested by Herod.  Realizing this didn’t bode well for him, he decided to set up camp in a small fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, called Capernaum.  Having reconnected with Andrew, Simon, John, and James, the five spent time together as Jesus continued to teach them, to share his story and his vision for the Kingdom of God.  Ultimately, Jesus realized that the time was right for him to begin his ministry of formal preaching and teaching, and he went down to the shoreline, where he knew his friends would be working and called to them saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  They drop what they are doing to join their friend in the ministry that they will share, proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom to the people of Israel. Did you hear the difference?

in the first version, Jesus calls the already equipped, while in the second, he equips the called.  Jesus spent time with his disciples, equipping them for the difficult journey ahead, helping them to understand God’s plan for salvation, preparing them for their work as evangelists, a task to which every disciple is called and for which none of us feels very well equipped.  Of course, evangelism is what this week is all about.  From the Collect to the prophecy of Isaiah to Paul’s appeal to the Church in Corinth and the call stories of Andrew, Peter, James and John: this week’s theme is evangelism.  Now, before you get all hyperventalaty, after all most of us would rather have a root canal then engage in evangelism, remember – God equips the called.

Over the next few weeks, as we slog through the rambling beginning to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, evangelism will come up again and again.  He’ll remind them how he shared the Gospel with them.  He’ll comfort them, and us, that you don’t have to be an expert in rhetoric, homiletics, or theology to tell people about Jesus.  He’ll assure them, and us, in the knowledge that while we might do the talking, God is doing all the work.  He’ll share with them, and us, that the key to evangelism is simply knowing the saving power of Jesus in your own life.  He’ll reassure them, and us, that all we have to do is plant the seed, God will do the watering.

Evangelism is a scary word for those of us who think we aren’t equipped, but if we are paying attention to God’s work in our lives, then we quickly realize that everything God does is equipping us to share the Good News.  Simply put, evangelism is done when one person who knows the power of God in their life is willing to tell someone else about it.  It takes the form of relationships.  It looks a lot like conversations over coffee or lunch because that’s exactly what it is.  Evangelism is as simple as sharing the hope that is in you: the hope that comes through life in the Kingdom of God.  It isn’t elaborate, it doesn’t need to be painful, but it does need to be genuine and cloaked in prayer.  The Spirit will do the work; all you have to do is tell the story.  God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.  He did it for the hot headed Zebedee brothers, for that blow-hard, Peter, and for his brother Andrew.  He’s done it for me, and he’ll do it for you.  Follow Jesus, and he will make you fishers of people.  Amen.