You think you know a guy

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Last week’s parable about the 10 bridesmaids had lots of people becoming members of the Jesus Seminar ready to cast a pocket full of black beads that Jesus didn’t actually say these things.  It is really hard to believe that Jesus would a) lift up the selfishness of the wise bridesmaids, b) call anyone foolish, c) declare that even his close followers who maybe didn’t quite get it would find themselves outside of his grace, and d) compare all of this to the kingdom of heaven.  We think we know Jesus and how the grace of God works, and because this story doesn’t compute, we want to throw it away as an editorial decision on the part of Matthew or some later redactor.

As I began to read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, I began to wonder if Jesus knew that this would be the reaction to his eschatological teachings, and so he told this parable to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what we think we know about Jesus isn’t all there is to know.  The third slave, you know, the one who dug a hole and buried his single talent because he was afraid of a master who “was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” thought he knew his master, but as with everyone whom we meet, there is always more to learn.

Remember that these parables are all coming late on Tuesday in Holy Week.  It is not unreasonable to think that the Disciples are absolutely clueless as to what Thursday evening through Sunday will bring.  They can sense things getting tense between Jesus and the religious authorities, but they’ve experienced that before.  Whole crowds have had stones in hand, and yet Jesus walked away, unscathed.  They think they know how this will end.  They think they know what the Messiah will do.  They think they know Jesus, but there is still much to learn.

One of the harder lessons they will learn will come when, like in the parable, Jesus departs from them.  How will they respond?  Will they be about the work he had given them authority to do?  Will they continue to expand his ministry?  Or, will they live in fear, unable to do anything but bury the ministry to which they were called?  After his resurrection and ascension, the same questions will arise as they stand, slack-jawed, staring into heaven.  Will they use the gifts they’ve been given to spread the Good News, or will they return, in fear, to the lives they once knew?

We think we know Jesus.  We think we know what he is about.  We think, but there are always surprises.

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Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

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Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

Named as saints – a sermon

My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.


Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand.  I am terrible with names.  So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible.  As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start.  “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure.  You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings.  Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.”  Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest.  Names are powerful.  We feel known when someone calls us by name.  We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.”  More than that, our names carry meaning in them.  Some carry generations of family history.  For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century.  How cool is that!?!  Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.

In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years.  The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning.  Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created.  His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity.  Place names were important as well.  After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning.  Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning.  Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians.  Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail.  The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us.  Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.

More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise.  The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good.  Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.”  What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.

For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason.  This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ.  I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning.  Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower.  Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong.  May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength.  She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey.  Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant.  Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.

Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ.  Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants.  This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.

In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes.  By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.

I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s.  On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation.  You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return.  You have raised me from a baby priest.  You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad.  I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God.  May God bless Hadley Caroline.  May God bless her family.  And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more.  Amen.

Jesus’ other name

Yesterday, I spent some time pondering the implication of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy to Ahaz, specifically what it meant that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.  We know, of course, that when push came to shove, and despite Matthew’s attempt to shove a round theological peg into the square hole of reality, Mary and Joseph did not name the child born in Bethlehem “God with us.”  No, they named him the name that was given to Joseph in a dream in this week’s appointed lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, the same name given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel in Luke’s version of the Nativity story.

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“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel that appeared to Joseph in his dream gives us insight into the meaning of Jesus’ given name.  Yeshua, the Hebrew original that gets bastardized into Jesus, means “to save” or “to deliver.”  According to that great theological resource, Wikipedia, it is a late Hebrew rendition of Yehoshua, which carries a stronger tie to God, as in “God saves” or “God delivers,” which is precisely the ministry of Jesus.

The promise of God’s deliverance of his people is not new in the person of Jesus.  By the turn of the Common Era, God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people.  From the time of Noah, God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification.  On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant.  In Abraham, God chose a nation through which he would bring all nations into his saving embrace.  Through Moses, God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brother’s unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs.  The prophets, Isaiah certainly included, again and again called the people of Israel to forsake their sins and be saved.  When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to his people.

There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on his hopes of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yeshua, Yehoshua, God saves.

Boarderlands

In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine.  Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire.  For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France.  After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign.   Such is the messiness of a borderland.

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While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans.  Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory.  The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile.  They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews.  That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria.  To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony.  In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans.  You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting.  The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on  Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.

With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land.  They have been removed from society.  They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.”  Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place.  These lepers weren’t even considered human beings.  And yet, Jesus sees them.  He treats them as worthy of love and care.  In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.

Is that you Jesus?

VARIOUS DR SEUSS

Zat you Santa Claus?

The Grinch tried to steal Christmas by dressing up as Santa Claus so as to go unnoticed on Christmas Eve.  At one point, while stuffing a Christmas tree up the chimney, the Grinch encounters little Cindy Lou Who who asks him, “Santie Claus, why? Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?”  The Grinch looked like Santa, but he didn’t seem to be acting like him, and Cindy Lou, a girl of maybe two, was quick to ask why.

This Sunday, the Lectionary gives us two of three “sayings of Jesus” that if Luke hadn’t expressly told us that Jesus said them, we’d seriously wonder about.  When Jesus doesn’t act like we think Jesus should, are we willing to be like Cindy Lou Who and ask questions?

Take, for example, the second non sequitur from Jesus that ends with this difficult sentence, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, `We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”  The whole issue of slavery aside, the idea that Jesus would encourage us to think of ourselves as “worthless” is totally foreign to the modern American reader.  We’re so used to God so loving the world and picturing Jesus as a giant Santa Claus in the sky to even begin to think that Jesus would utter this phrase.

So what do we do with it?  Well, we can dig into the translation a bit.  The Greek word translated in the NRSV as “worthless” can also mean “useless,” which doesn’t help very much.  Friberg also says it can be translated as “mere,” which feels a whole lot safer.  To be “merely” a slave seems a lot more palatable than to be a “worthless” slave.  A deep cut into exegesis takes me into the Thayer Lexicon, which describes this saying of Jesus as hyperbole.  “By an hyperbole of pious modesty in Luke 17:10 `the servant’ calls himself achreios, because, although he has done all, yet he has done nothing except what he ought to have done; accordingly he possesses no merit, and could only claim to be called `profitable,’ should he do more than what he is bound to do…”  Of course, resorting to calling it hyperbole feels like cheating my way out of a difficult saying.

There’s also the way translations have changed over the years.  From “unprofitable” in the King James and Young’s Literal to “unworthy” in the RSV, NIV, and ESV to “merely” in the CEV; it seems to be only the NRSV that takes such a hard line in translating achreios.  This makes stepping back from the Grinch Jesus a little less Joel Osteeny.  Maybe it isn’t that Jesus called us to feel worthless, but instead that he is reminding his disciples that in the Commandment to love, there is no wiggle room.  One cannot do anything more than has been asked when living into the full expectation of loving God and loving neighbor.  There is no way to do it more, only to fail and do it less.  And so, when we all is said and done, do we recognize that we have merely done our duty, or, more likely, do we give thanks for the graciousness of God who forgives us each time we fail to love with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It might not sound like the Jesus we are used to, but it is Jesus who invites us into love.