Keep ya head up

In 2011, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the songs that in shaped rock.  The Guardian has called it one of thousand songs that everyone must hear.  And it has been running through my mind all week as I’ve read the Gospel lesson from Luke that is appointed for Advent 1C.  Tupac Shakur’s “Keep ya head up” is a song dedicated to black women, an anthem for the many who have been subjugated, violated, and treated as less than by men.  The album from which it comes is not a title I can share on this blog, but the song itself is quite clean, so I offer you the music video, should you be interested.

While it is the chorus, which features a sample from The Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” that has been my earworm for the week, the verses actually have something to say about apocalyptic vision that Jesus offers the crowd in Sunday’s lesson.  I’m especially drawn to these words:

It’s hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I’m headin’ for the pen
I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family

It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from getting wetter
You know it’s funny when it rains, it pours

They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said, there ain’t no hope for the youth
And the truth is, there ain’t no hope for the future

And then they wonder why we crazy
I blame my mother, for turnin’ my brother into a black baby
We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya got to keep your head up

Read more: 2Pac – Keep Ya Head Up Lyrics | MetroLyrics

The world of East Harlem in the 1970s, the world in which Tupac was raised, was not that far removed from the vision that Jesus offers for the end times.  Fed up with racial profiling and police violence, the Black Panther Party, of which Tupac’s parents were both active members, was, at times, at war with the powers-that-be.  Much later in life, and now on the other side of the continent, Tupac wrote “Keep ya head up” in a situation in which not whole lot had changed.  The deck was still stacked against young African-Americans born into the poverty.  The men often took to the hustle to make enough money to eat and pay the rent.  Violence was a daily part of life.  Women, especially as featured in this song, were often left to raise children all on their own, either because the father was dead, could’t afford a baby, or had moved on to… less fertile pastures.

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Having come out of a world that seemed like the future was absolutely hopeless, Tupac Shakur chose to write a song about keeping your head up.  As Jesus looks upon a world that seems hellbent on its own destruction, where power and might are the only things that seem to actually mean anything or hold any value, it seems just as odd that he too might tell the oppressed and the downtrodden to, in the words of Tupac Shakur, “keep ya head up.”  Yet, that’s exactly what Jesus does.  For neither of them are these words meant to be platitudes, but rather, they speak to a deep truth that even when all hope seems lost, even when you’re fed up, the only real option is to keep your head up.  Keep striving for justice, for mercy, for righteousness.  Keep speaking truth to power.  Keep claiming your own dignity and worth.  Keep your head up, because the redemption of the world is drawing near.

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Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week.  I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song.  It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering.  It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving.  Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”

Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul.  As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving.  I know this is true in my life.  Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love.  Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.

The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.”  So how do we change?  How do we work toward being more loving?  How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend?  First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible.  Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God.  Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us.  When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service.  Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship.  With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.

Wednesday in Holy Week 2017 – a homily

This is the sermon I preached at Wednesday’s Downtown Church’s Holy Week Service.


Good afternoon.  It is my pleasure to be in the pulpit at First Christian Church today.  Megan and Kyle have been such gifts to me during my recent transition into Bowling Green, and so I am extra glad to have my first ecumenical Holy Week sermon take place here.  We have heard two excellent sermons so far, this week.  I’m grateful for my colleagues who have modeled for me what a noonday prayer service homily is supposed to look like.  I hope I don’t disappoint.  Let’s turn our attention then to that which never disappoints us, the word of God.  Our lesson for today comes from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John.

At supper with his friends, Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples– the one whom Jesus loved– was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”

When someone asks me how they can get in the habit of reading the Bible with regularity, I always point them to John’s Gospel.  It isn’t that it’s the best book in the Bible or that it tells the Good News of Jesus more effectively than the Synoptic Gospels, but more that I think John was just a remarkable story teller.  Like any good sermon, John hooks us with a fantastic introduction.  The first half of the book uses seven signs and discourses to point us to the mission and ministry of Jesus.  Then, in the second half, John turns his attention to the Passion, which for John is Jesus’ ultimate coronation as the King of kings.  All the way through the text, John weaves key themes as reminders of what this story is really all about.  John’s Gospel is like a great symphony or the score of an epic film.  These leitmotifs, which are introduced at the very beginning, continue to pop up throughout the course of John’s Gospel.

“And it was night.”  Throughout the course of John’s Gospel, the theme of light and dark – day and night – sight and blindness – appear again and again.  In John’s great prologue, he introduces Jesus as, among other things, the light of the world.  Those who live in the light of God’s Son are given the ability to see clearly the will of God for creation, while those who choose to live in darkness are subject to the sort of blindness that happens at night.  Nicodemus, you’ll remember, comes to visit Jesus in the cover of darkness.  When Jesus invites him into the light by being born again, he can’t handle it, and disappears back into the perceived safety of the shadows.  Later, when a crowd had lifted up stones against the woman caught in adultery, Jesus invited them to step into the light.  “Let the one among you who is sinless cast the first stone,” he challenged them.  In the stark light of Christ, none of them were found to be sinless, which prompted Jesus to make one of his great “I am” statements, another leitmotif for John.  “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Even still, the Pharisees would not step into the light – choosing instead to remain in the safety of the darkness.

The theme returns in the story of the man born blind.  Just before Jesus spat on the ground to make the mud that would heal the man, he reiterated to his disciples that his work was to occur in the light of day.  After the drama with the Synagogue was over, the Pharisees again chose to remain blind, living in the darkness of the certainty of their rules and regulations about the Sabbath rather than stepping into the joyful light of Christ’s healing presence.  Yet again, at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus reintroduces the theme of light and darkness.  Over and over again, in John’s Gospel we hear of Jesus who is the light of life while the powers that are actively fighting against the Kingdom of God remain blind in the dark of night.

“Nothing good happens after midnight.”  I’m sure Bo Schembechler wasn’t the first person to say this phrase, but he did make it famous.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve known this to be true in my own life.  We may no longer believe that the night air carries with it evil spirits, but there is still a lot of blindness that happens at night.  Here on Spy Wednesday, we are reminded of that truth on what was one of the darkest night of all, the night Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Way back in chapter six, John tells us that the darkness had already entered Judas long before Jesus handed him that piece of bread.  It seems that Judas had been working for quite a while on his own scheme for the Kingdom of Jesus.  James and John were more forthright, asking Jesus plainly to sit at his right hand and at his left.  Judas was more discreet.  His plan was to use the cover of darkness to launch a surprise attack.  It would require an army, a careful plan, and a leader who was willing to fight.  Increasingly, however, it became clear to Judas that Jesus wasn’t that kind of leader.  Jesus preferred the light of day.  He entered Jerusalem on a donkey in the brightness of the Sunday afternoon sun.  He flipped the tables in the Temple court in front of everyone.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, in the light of day, right in the middle of the Temple court, during the busiest travel holiday on the Jewish calendar, Jesus directly challenged the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees.  By the time dinner rolled around on Wednesday evening, Judas was fully in the dark as to how Jesus’ plan could possibly work, and so, like so many others, Judas committed himself to the darkness.  Maybe if he forced Jesus’ hand.  Maybe if he could get him arrested, Jesus would finally call up the army Judas had been waiting for.  Maybe those legions of angels would come and restore the throne of David to its rightful place.  All of Judas’ maybes depended upon the darkness, but he forgot one key point: Jesus is the light of the world.  The plans of the darkness will never work in the light.  The light always wins.

As we prepare for the Triduum, the most holy of the seasons of the Church, I find myself struggling with the darkness.  Maybe you are too.  Sometimes, it seems, my plans would be so much easier than God’s plan.  Sometimes, it seems, that the safety of the darkness is preferable to the vulnerability of living in the light.  Sometimes, it seems, that Judas exists within all of us.  But Jesus is the light of the world.  Jesus invites us to put our trust in his plans.  They may not be easy, certainly dying on a cross wasn’t easy, but the will of God is light and life abundant.  Jesus invites us to step into the light, warts and all, so that we might see the fullness of God’s overwhelming love.  Jesus invites us to see the Judas that lives inside of us, to be honest about our sinfulness, our failings, our comfort in the darkness, and to allow God’s grace to flood us with the light of life.  “It was night,” John tells us, and we know that it is only going to get darker as the week comes to an end, but we also know that the light of day is soon to break once more.  “The light shines in the darkness,” John assures us as he introduces this theme in the prologue, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It was night.  It is night.  But thanks be to God, the light of the world is coming.  Amen.

The imagery of Gergesa

One of the classes that I’m taking here in my last summer as a DMin student at the University of the South, is taught by the Rev. Martin Smith called “Implanting the Word: Skills for Helping People Internalize Scripture’s Transformative Symbols”  The core thesis of the class is that through imaginative engagement with the symbolic world of the Scriptures, religious leaders can help their people make the transformative work of God in their lives more of a living and active thing.  With my fears that the class would be nothing be spiritualist navel gazing suitably dispensed with, I’ve found this class to by actually quite a lot of fun.  We’ve made deep cuts into developmental psychology, symbology, and hermeneutics.  As we now turn our attention to the role of symbol in the sermon, today we spent time brainstorming the symbol of exorcism in Mark’s version of the story of demoniac from Gergesa.

What struck me in the work of my small group was a) how much I miss my long-lost lectionary study group, and b) how my engagement with a symbol from my particular context can inform and be informed by the engagement of another from his/her particular context.  As we bounced ideas around, we alighted on all sorts of profound images and symbols in Mark’s story, many of which make their way into Luke’s version which will be heard this Sunday.  I would encourage you to read this lesson aloud a few times and to let the various symbols sink in through mediation.  (I know what you’re thinking, can Steve Pankey possibly be writing this?  To paraphrase Paul, “I type with my own hands).

Of particular interest to me is the image of binding and loosing.  Maybe because it took me back to the first few days of my seminary experience and Tony Lewis’ brilliant teaching of Greek for dummies, but this idea of being loosed, one that has very little standing in contemporary American idioms, is a powerful one.  To what am I being bound by outside forces?  More importantly, to what do I bind myself?  What his holding me back from a full relationship of love to God and neighbor?  And, in light of the story, what is Jesus doing to loose me from those bonds?  What does it feel like to be set free?  I’m once again finding myself drawn to music, and specifically to Chris Tomlin’s work on the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” for a recent film on William Wilberforce, a man who worked to set people free even as he struggled to be loosed from the confines of his position in English Parliament.  The preacher might engage those thoughts imaginatively in sermon prep this week. For me, even thought I’m not preaching, that work has already been fruitful.

John reminds us of our brokenness

Perhaps the hardest part about the Gospel lesson for Advent 3, Year C, is that JBap reminds us that we, like all those who have done this humanity thing before, are broken.  It is not a fun reminder any time of year, least so here during the holidays.

Yesterday on Episcopal Cafe, Sam Candler, Dean of St. Philips’ Cathedral in Atlanta wrote a piece on Advent, Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah” and the difficult reminder of our brokenness.  Here’s a part:

“The season itself is broken, isn’t it? We don’t know whether we are supposed to be still lingering over Thanksgiving, or being joyful, or refraining from singing Christmas carols because it’s not really Christmas yet. Are we supposed to be happy now, or preparing for something else? We don’t know.”

Read it all here.

When I shared this article on Facebook yesterday, a friend responded with the link to Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” live. Talk about art emulating life, this version is broken.  Cohen is almost painful to listen to as he, himself a broken man, sings a broken word of praise.

Candler goes on to write, “So, don’t be afraid if (sic) something breaks this Advent, of even if you break something. That brokenness can be an occasion for holiness. It can be an occasion to sing Hallelujah.” It is good advice as John reminds us of our brokenness. It isn’t a bad thing, us being broken, in fact, it is the reason that God came to earth. Our brokenness serves as a reminder that God loves us so much that he got down and dirty, himself broken on a cross, to redeem us. That, I’m certain, is worth a word of praise.

Hallelujah!