5th Sunday in Lent(B): Sacrifice & Loss

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The Rev. Sean A. Ekberg

We’ve been living in an eternal Lent. Well, what feels like eternal, as it’s been since March of last year that any of us has lived life normally. To preach on Lent, what it means, and ‘giving up’ of oneself almost seems laughable at this moment in time. We gave up our social connections, habits, and haunts. We gave up our church buildings and onsite ministries. Some people just gave up.

Jesus talks about this giving up every year during Lent. He reminds us that, “To love one’s life is to lose it, and those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, JC, I get where you’re coming from but c’mon man…we’ve been giving up so much in the last year that there isn’t much left of us. How then can we preach to congregations concerning ‘giving up’ when we don’t feel like we have much left in our lives?

This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me.

Our creature comforts have often become roadblocks on the path to Jesus. We rely on bars and restaurants; movies and sporting events; in person worship followed by coffee hour; dates with partners, moments with family…the list goes on and on. With all of these moments simultaneously stripped away, our lives have become seemingly less, somehow—at least on the surface. Loneliness and separation have cost people loss of life in multiple ways, so how can we continue to lose what we don’t have?

I think to preach on loss is important, even if we feel the way mentioned above. Christ didn’t ask us to forgo movies for faith; Christ asked us to live lives filled with faith in God instead of faith in penultimate joys. For us, the job of asking folks to continue to lose is one of reframing the word ‘loss’ into the word ‘sacrifice’. We haven’t lost anything, really. We’ve had to sacrifice for the greater good—we have made these sacrifices to keep our loved ones’ safe and healthy, and they have done so for us. We have ‘died’ to worldly ways, sacrificing comforts for well-being. How have we filled those empty spaces once inhabited by those comforts? Have we been able to seek God in the midst of all this chaos, or have we retreated into the holes left by our sacrifices and hidden from hope and prayer? Have we recognized that Jesus Christ can be worshiped from a computer screen just as faithfully as he can from a pew—or have we fallen away from worship altogether because we feel abandoned? These are important introspections that I believe we all need to encounter, if we already haven’t, and our people need us to admit our sense of sacrifice so that they can approach theirs.

After all, Jesus’ was the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes our minds concentrate so heavily on the sacrifices that we’ve made that we gloss over the sacrifice God made. Being a season of penitence, my hope is that we will preach sacrifice and not loss—while still acknowledging that we have lost loved ones, jobs, and other important facets of life, we must also note the sacrifice we make so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We sacrificed our lesser freedoms to do our part for the rest of humanity…

God sacrificed God’s entire human life to save it. Let’s remind people of that.

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.

4th Sunday in Lent(B): God So Loves the World

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By: The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

If you listen closely, I suspect you could hear the collective sighs of preachers near and far who, in their preparation to preach, saw that John 3:16 was among the lectionary texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Now, don’t get me wrong: John is my absolute favorite Gospel to preach on, to study, or just to sit down and read! I am not alone in my love of John. In fact, there is something of a cult-like following of the Fourth Gospel among preachers.

Alas, as every preacher knows, the more familiar a text is, the more difficult it can be to preach on! Sometimes, it seems that everything that can be said about a text already has been said—and by someone who said it better than I can! Nowhere is this more clearly the case than with John 3:16. Martin Luther infamously called this verse, “The Gospel in a nutshell,” and for better or worse, it has been emblazoned on billboards and bumper stickers, sewn into throw pillows and baseball caps, and it has even appeared tattooed into the skin of more than a few actors and athletes.

A more fruitful homiletical pathway might lead us to explore the verses immediately preceding verse 16. They are undoubtedly some of the most unfamiliar verses in the New Testament, and they draw our attention to a rather opaque section of Torah—namely, the book of Numbers, which the People of God hear from three times in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. The story to which Jesus is referring picks up with the Hebrew people who, having long been liberated from the Egyptians, are nonetheless still wandering in the wilderness, in search of the land which has been promised. The longer they wander, the crankier they become. They take aim at God and Moses alike, crying out in petulant frustration.

All told, Numbers depicts five of these so-called “murmuring episodes” wherein the Hebrew people grumble and complain about an assortment of perceived grievances. They don’t like the food; they want more water; they’re tired; they want to go back to Egypt; they’re sick of camping. Picture a minivan loaded up for a road trip with a gaggle of disgruntled toddlers kicking the seats, throwing popcorn, and screaming, “Are we there yet?” and you won’t be far off!

Each episode follows a predictable pattern: the Hebrew people complain, God gets angry, the Hebrew people realize they’ve made God angry and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf, Moses does, and God calms down. Then, a few chapters later, another tantrum erupts, and the same pattern unfolds. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Finally, their sniping reaches a boiling point. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they grumbled against God and Moses, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

If you listen carefully, you’ll catch the level of absurdity underpinning their whining. “There is no food and water,” they moan in one breath, and then, “we detest this miserable food,” they carp in the next breath. In response, God punishes them for their insolence and sedition by sending venomous snakes into the encampment.

Now, at this point, some of us may be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God. Those snakes bit people, and some folks even died!” But we must leaven our reading of Scripture with a bit of theological imagination.

The Hebrew people were faced with a choice. On the one hand was a life-giving relationship with God that challenged everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked and pushed them to greater depths of faith and obedience. On the other hand was the monotony of slavery in Egypt which would surely lead to death, but at least it offered some semblance of consistency and predictability along the way.

Over and over again, the Hebrew people voiced their desire to go back to Egypt and pick up where they left off as slaves to Pharaoh. In one scene, they actually hatch a plan of sedition: “…Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Num. 14:4b) At least in Egypt, they knew how the system worked. With God, there was no telling where they would be led, or what they would be asked to do. So enough with this “chosen people” stuff, we’ll take our mundane life of slavery back, thank you very much!

And yet, the narrative arc of the Old Testament in particular, and Scripture in general, is one of a relentless and undeterred God doing whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with humankind. Even here, as the Hebrew people are hell-bent on marching back to certain death in Egypt because they feared what they did not know and couldn’t predict, God is ultimately and inexorably the source of life. As the Hebrew people repent from their foolish and seditious ways, God hears their prayer and once again sets before them a wellspring of life and healing.

But the way God chooses to do it is what makes this passage even more strange: God tells Moses to craft a venomous snake and put it onto a pole so that those who were bitten could look at it and be healed. Moses did as he was told, and crafted a venomous snake from bronze, put it on the pole, and set it in the midst of the people. Whenever a snake bit someone, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.

In fact, the statue worked so well that it became a kind of cultural icon among the Hebrew people. The statue was passed from one generation to the next until, centuries later, it winds up in the temple in Jerusalem. By then, it had garnered both a name (Nehushtan) and a cult-like following, which prompts King Hezekiah to have it destroyed. (2 Kings 18:4)

Although there is little hope that this unfamiliar and bizarre tale will make it into the Vacation Bible School curriculum anytime soon, at its heart is a universal truth: there is no venom quite so deadly as fear.

Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death—nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear. It corrodes faith, cuts off our pathways for giving and receiving grace and mercy, and if it is left untreated long enough, it gives way to hatred, recalcitrance, hardness of heart and soul, and leads ultimately to death.

As we continue on our Lenten journey, there may be no more important time for us to take account of the ways in which each of us are afflicted by the venom of fear. Only when the Hebrew people brought that which they feared most into full view, were they made whole.

The same is true for us. As we come into full view of the cross and the reality of death, it is only by walking headlong into death’s dark shadow that we come to know the fullness of Christ’s resurrected life.

For indeed, God so loves the world.

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.

3rd Sunday in Lent(B): Contemplating the Cross

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By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

Luke 2:22-40 shares the story of the Presentation. In it, we discover the holy family on a pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem fulfilling their requirement “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v 23). That is, to offer their firstborn to the Lord through the sacrificing of a small bird.

The Presentation not only marks the time when the young Jesus was presented to God in the temple, it formally marked the Son of God taking on our nature and giving itself back to God the Father. This theodrama played out when Sts. Simeon and Anna announced that the glorious return of Yahweh to his holy temple had happened right before their eyes – For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation (v 30). In today’s Gospel, the young Jesus has now come of age. Entering into the temple court again, he now passes judgment on it and declares that his very body had become the new temple. A few days later, this new temple would give his final sacrifice on the cross, offering himself yet again to the Father for the redemption of the world.

We’re at the point in this season of Lent where the image of Christ’s cross begins to take shape. If Epiphany is the season to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, Lent is the time to come alongside Jesus with his cross. Remembering is challenging. Even his closest followers could not comprehend the cross. St. Peter would not fathom the Messiah undergoing suffering and death (Lent II).

Today (Lent III), we learn that it was only after “he was raised from the dead” that his disciples “believed” (Jn 2:22). Two thousand years later, are we still like Peter? We know the story, and like the disciples, we remember what is written (v 17). Like Peter, we often deny that we will one day die and even ignore the truth that our closest friends and family will do the same. Forgetting we are dust and to dust we will return is prevalent in our culture, even as we have experienced significant death this year due to the ongoing pandemic (Gen 3:19).

Contemplating death alone leaves one with a sense of hopelessness. Set this despair up and against the cross of Christ, and death has no sting (1 Cor 15:55). Again, we know the story. God raised him from the dead. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). There are three more Sundays left in Lent. Use this time to not only remember your death but to contemplate the cross.

The Rev. Brandon Duke is pastor to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. During the pandemic, his family chose to homeschool their oldest child and will continue to do so for another year. It’s an adventure and a cross to bear all at the same time.

2nd Sunday in Lent(B): Naming, Sacrifice, & Grace

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Each of these passages of scripture stands alone and can be explicated and exegeted into its own sermon. Relationships should not be forced, nor should any passage be forced as the lens through which another is read. That being said, these are excellent texts for any number of Lenten themes. These Lenten themes are not about self-flagellation but are about repentance; they are not about trivial fasts, but renunciation of and dying to the old way of life, raised to new life through grace with Jesus in the Resurrection. 

Patrick Malloy writes, “The entire Easter cycle, from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, focuses on the Baptismal Covenant and is directed toward the Great Vigil of Easter. Even the penitential aspect of Lent must be seen as the church’s recognition that it has failed to express the grace God freely gave it in baptism. Lenten penitence is rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.”

The passage from Romans — as does much of the whole epistle — emphasizes that none of us, from Abraham through his descendants has earned God’s love of grace, that it is freely given. As Paul writes, “[H]is faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

While Paul in Romans relies heavily on penal substitutionary atonement, one need not accept it whole cloth to accept the joy of Easter on the horizon: Jesus, God’s Christ, has defeated death and sin. Through that defeat of death, all of the children of Abraham have had death defeated for them as well. This is the grace that is proclaimed and celebrated in baptism, a rite of the church that usually necessitates naming. 

In my tradition to begin the specific rite of baptism, the presider declares, “The Candidate(s) for Holy Baptism will now be presented.” Whether the candidate is an infant or an adult, their sponsors say — one at a time, for the whole assembly to hear individually — “I present Name to receive the Sacrament of Baptism.” Later in the rite, they are baptized by name. In some traditions, at Confirmation (which happens at the Vigil as well) candidates take a name for their confirmation. Someone baptized as Alyse may be confirmed as Catherine of Sienna. 

As in the Genesis passage to which Paul refers, naming matters. In Genesis 15 the Holy One of Old directs Abram, “‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” Despite Abram’s impatience and his dalliance with Hagar leading to the birth of Ishmael, God still begins Chapter 17 with, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Abram has in no way at all earned God’s promises or love, God’s miracles of not one but now two offspring in his old age. 

“Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.” In an act of solidifying their covenant, God gives Abraham and Sarah new names and promises to bless them through the goodness of God’s grace. 

If preaching on this passage (or any of these passages), spending some extra time on verse 7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” After centuries of antisemitism and supersessionism — the teaching that Christians have replaced Jews in God’s heart and plans — it is worth emphasizing the God’s covenant with Abraham’s descendants is everlasting. There are no caveats or asterisks in this covenant between God and Abraham, but there is a sacrifice. God expects Abraham and his descendants not to earn his grace but to respond to it with self-giving (detailed in the rest of this chapter, but not this passage). 

Jesus today warns his disciples and followers that following him requires self-giving, being transformed completely, even if their names aren’t dramatically changed by God. Jesus advises, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The cross Jesus’ followers take up is Jesus’ cross, the cross the leads to death — and its conquering. It is not an allergy or fly in one’s ointment. It is daily preparing to die to sin and be made into the image of Christ. Being made into the image of Christ is an act of God’s grace, unearned like Abraham’s children — but with responses and changed lives in mind.

These passages probably should not be all preached on, certainly not in depth, in one sermon. Rather, each of them lends a nod toward a theme of Lent as preparation for baptism: naming in the rite, the freeness of grace offered and given in baptism itself, and taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus, which are encapsulated in baptismal renunciations and promises. 

Whether God to Abraham, Jesus to his disciples, or Paul to the Church at Rome, these passages all invite reflection on as Malloy says, “repentance rooted in the church’s sense that it has not lived up to undeserved and unearned baptismal grace, not that it must do better to deserve or earn that grace.

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He has spent much of the pandemic’s isolation breeding very strand of flower in Animal Crossing: New Horizons and wrangling his now 16-month-old son Topher. Joseph lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon, Topher, and their cat Maggie (who did not ask to be a big sister).

1st Sunday in Lent(B): Temptation and Opportunity

Mark 1:9-15

By: The Rev. Anna Shine

So much transpires in these seven verses from the Gospel of Mark. We have Jesus’ baptism, his forty days in the wilderness, his temptation by Satan, the arrest of John the Baptist, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclaiming the gospel. Mark’s quick pace and immediacy, seen in his often-used word “immediately,” can make it hard to find a clear and concise message to preach. On the other hand, it provides for the opportunity to find something new to focus on each time the lectionary comes back around to those passages, which is both refreshing to the hearer of the Gospel, as well as to the one preparing the sermon upon that text.

The first three verses focus on the baptism of Jesus. We begin with Jesus, coming from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan river, where John the Baptist baptizes him. Then, as the waters part for him to rise up newly baptized, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (Mk 1:10). Parting of the water, parting of the sky, as two of the three members/persons of the Trinity meet. And in the midst of this, the third joins in, with a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:11). Three verses, during which the Trinity is revealed, right there in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel! It is an incredibly profound and shocking revelation, made so quickly at the start, and so easily missed. Because immediately, in that Markan fashion, he moves on. So we can be forgiven for missing it. After all, this is the first time we meet Jesus in this Gospel, and already he is revealed in the theological configuration of one of the most difficult concepts – the Trinity. The Trinity that flowed and moved in the great act of creation, now manifesting through the life of Jesus. And this inauguration into baptism then catalyzes his story, with the Spirit [driving] him out into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).

We do not know precisely what happened in the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, at least not in great detail, in Mark’s telling of the story. But it is clear that Jesus does not spend that time alone. In fact, he is tempted by Satan (Mark does not tell us in what way), he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mk 1:13). So, the wilderness served as both the place of temptation as well as the place for community and nourishment.

From here the text takes a markedly new turn, with Mark referencing John’s arrest as an indicator for the passage of time. Jesus returns to Galilee, the region he first hailed from in verse 9. And now he has come with news, the good news of God…saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mk 1:14-15). Repent! That beautiful Greek word metanoia shows up as part of Jesus’ gospel message. And as you can see at the top of this page, it is the very word that makes up the title of this blog. The definition provided in the picture reads as follows: “Metanoia: (n) The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life. Spiritual conversion.” What an incredibly beautiful and powerful word! Most often when people hear the word “repent” or “repentance,” they think of an action, typically made at one point in time, that then restores one to relationship with God. However, the dynamic of metanoia is deeper, calling us to a process, to a journey. It is not a one-time event that must be repeated over and over again, but rather a spiritual discipline that involves life-long amendment of life. As the definition states, it is a spiritual conversion, a conversion that I like to think spirals into deeper and deeper levels as one’s heart, mind, self, soul, or way of life wakes up to more intricate and loving layers. And that change and growth occurs as we continue to orient our lives toward that kingdom of God that Jesus tells us has come near. That kingdom of God that places us, the rest of creation, and God – in that beautiful dance of Trinity – into our own dance of Trinity. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. All bound together by that simple but not easy action and state of being called Love.

And what a beautiful message to receive at the beginning of our Lenten journey! We are ushered into Lent with that icon of baptism – witnessing Jesus’ baptism as we are reminded of our own. Then driven into the wilderness, where we face both temptation and an opportunity for respite and nourishment. What wild beasts might we meet in our forty days? And who will we discover are our angels waiting upon us? Perhaps by the end of our wilderness journey of Lent, we will come to the cross, sit in the tomb, witness the resurrection, and feel the need to proclaim our own gospel message. A message of the nearness of God’s kingdom. A kingdom that requires our repentance, that lifelong journey of learning how to more deeply love. Let it be so!


The Rev. Anna Shine currently serves as the Episcopal campus minister for the Presbyterian Episcopal Campus Ministry (PECM) at Appalachian State University. She also serves as the Missioner for Creation Care and Social Justice at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Boone, North Carolina. She loves listening to stories, doing puzzles, playing violin, and spending time with her dog, Hugo.

The Last Sunday after Epiphany(B): Be the Body of Christ

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Oscar Rozo

The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?

On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.

Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.

Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well. 

During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read: 

“For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.

The Rev. Oscar Rozo is the Diocesan Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina and priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Newton, North Carolina. He is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Tester and father of Ezekiel (3 years old) and Miriam (1 year old).

Ash Wednesday(B): Intense Honesty

Psalm 51

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

“Just as we taste food with our mouths, we taste the psalms with our hearts” 

-Bernard of Clairvaux. 

Psalm 51 is a powerful cry. Lyrically it conjures a deep pit from which David and other sinners find themselves trapped and unable to rise. Theologically, Psalm 51 is an ocean which may be plumbed for an eternity as the reader jumps from questions of original sin, to personal sin, sacrifice, remorse, justice, purity, punishment, and grace. My Church and I are spending the entire year of 2021 praying and worshiping with the Psalms at center stage and the presence of Psalm 51 on this Ash Wednesday is an excellent example of why we should do so more often. I think that scripture outside of the Psalms often provides a kind of built-in shield for us intellectually and emotionally. We are able to read of Adam and Eve in the garden, Elijah burning the altar before the prophets of Baal, Paul preaching in Ephesus, Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and, no matter how convicting the preacher might be, convince ourselves that these are fundamentally stories about someone else. It could be that they are stories that inform our own lives or that we can imagine ourselves as characters in, but we are able to keep a certain distance from Peter, Mary and the rest of our scriptural characters.   

The Psalms offer very little of that cover. While Psalm 51 provides a superscription attributing it to David after Nathan came to him, after David had come to Bathsheba, that’s it. When we read Psalm 51, as individuals or as a congregation, it is our lips that say: “I know my transgressions, my sins are ever before me” (v. 3, NRSV). Perhaps that is why, in worship, we assign the Psalms so often to a supporting role, as chant or responsive reading, to shift the weight of the burden, dull down the emotion with congregational monotone, or to polish it up with music. Brent Strawn writes, “Perhaps the intense honesty of these poems, which can run as close to blasphemy as one can imagine within the context of prayer, is what lead many Christians to distance themselves from the Psalms, respecting them only in a sterilized and sanitized sort of way.”[1] 

Intense honesty. 

If any day in the Christian calendar is a day for intense honesty, it is Ash Wednesday. The words of the Psalmist rightfully belong on our lips; truly have we sinned and transgressed. We have sinned and God is justified in dropping a divine hammer upon us. Repent and believe in the gospel. 

I would like to offer two main themes that, when coupled with the reality and emotional weight of [your, our, my] sin, could form the core of an Ash Wednesday sermon or homily. 

You alone have I offended.[2] Even in light of verse four of this psalm, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. If David did compose this psalm as a response to his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, he most certainly sinned against someone other than God. Setting that reality aside, in the Old Testament there is no sin that is only against God. “Even Idolatry, which might be thought to concern only one’s relation to the LORD, was understood to damage one’s community severely. The Old Testament knows of hidden sins and unintended sins but not of private sins that neither concern nor affect others.”[3] 

You could point to Matthew 25 as a positive example of this principle. What we do to each other, to our neighbor, to the least of these, we do to Christ. So any sin against our neighbor, the stranger, our siblings in Christ, is a sin against God. David caused harm to Bathsheba and Uriah, and as such David raped and murdered Christ. So too are our dealings with each other. When we buy products made with slave labor or that were sorted/packaged/shipped by underpaid and over worked warehouse employees, we force our Savior into poverty and slavery. When we hate our political adversary, we hate and despise the image of Christ in them from their births. 

In transgression I was conceived or as the NRSV says “I was born guilty.”  Related to the point above, I don’t think we should take this point to be an opening to preach about Augustine’s understanding of the Doctrine of Original Sin. Last year, my family welcomed our second baby, and I was once again struck that although we joke about our babies being “little sinners,” they have a purity that comes from being untouched by sins of action or inaction. 

The preacher could take this opportunity to talk about the universality of sin. Before we were born, sin was present in the world, we made our appearance into a world mired in sin.  My sons were born into a family of immense privilege. They will want for nothing. Both of their parents have master’s degrees and professional jobs. Our family has retirement and health benefits. The color of their skin at the very least provides them with the benefit of the doubt as they move throughout the world. Their sex means the world will always see them as capable and never ask for them to justify their presence. None of this is their fault or inherently sinful for them; however, it is a part of our larger communal sin. All of these privileges are baked into a system that grants privileges to some and denies them to others. If you are called to preach on communal sin, allow this to be your invitation. 

In the sermon outline above the opening and core of a sermon on Psalm 51 can revolve around the reality and ever-present power of sin. The preacher could name those individual sins and tie them into sins against God that grate the bonds of community or name those sins that are built into the very structure of our world, but please don’t stop there. 

The Psalm begins where the sermon should end. Grant Me Grace, God, as befits Your kindness. The Psalmist begins their confession with the full knowledge of God’s goodness and grace. The church is a place that confesses and proclaims God’s healing and help, to those who earnestly repent of their sins. We confess our sin and acknowledge the severity of our sin not so that we might wallow in guilt, but so we might orient our lives to God’s grace. Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for the offering of Christ crucified; a gift which was made possible by the Grace and Love of God in the first place. 

Sinners though we may be, all is not lost. In fact, the one who could render judgement and destroy it all has opened the door for us to declare our praise and live our lives in union with Christ’s offering to us.


[1] Brent Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship (Grand Rapids, MIchigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 5.

[2] Bolded translations are taken from Robert Alter, “Psalm 51” in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (NY: Norton & Company, Inc.), 132-133.

[3] James L. Mayes, Psalms (Lousiville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press), 200.

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Jonathan has been watching a lot of YouTube streamers to get tips and tricks he can bring into his own ministry during Coronatide and beyond. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Jon and Keri have two kids, one welcomed in the middle of the pandemic. They also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville UMC in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

5th Sunday after Epiphany(B): God is With Us!

Isaiah 40:21-31

By: The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles

This passage from Second Isaiah points to the coming end of exile by the Babylonians. There is rejoicing and gladness that comes alongside hesitation and worry. The people have long been away from their homes, the ancestors, the temple, and have forgotten, or are at least questioning, where God has been in the midst of it all. Could it really be that God has finally delivered them?

We have been in the midst of a pandemic for nearly a year now. Many of us, and our congregations, have asked where is God in the midst of this? We have been out of our sanctuaries and daily routine for so long, when things return to some sort of normal will we even be able to go back? These verses invite us to remember who we are, and to remember who God is. It is our memory and experience of God that ground our faith and give us hope.

The prophet, too, calls upon the people of Israel to remember who they are and to remember who God is. They begin the chapter by showing that there is nothing greater than this God, who laid flat the mountains and lifted up the low ground (v 4), who holds the seas in one hand (v 12). God was present, alone, in the very beginning, and stands, unwavering in all of history. Starting in verse 21, the author asks, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not been told from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

In other words, how have you forgotten how creative and powerful our God is?! Verses 21-26 focus on Israel’s God as creator and controller of the nations. We are reminded that God was in the beginning, that creation itself is the dwelling place of God. Our creator is not far off in the cosmos like the gods of the Babylonians, but here and present, acting in the world at present. In sum, look around you, this is all proof of a loving and present God.

The author goes on in verses 28-31 to assert that God will never fail. God offers God’s strength and might not to the powerful, but to the weak and weary. God’s power is unmatched, new, young empires and peoples may seem to be in control, but they will grow exhausted. God will not. God continues to act in the world by offering hope. Finally, the author says those who wait for God will be transformed, they will run and not be weary, they will soar like eagles.

It is in remembering that God has proved Godself over and over again that we are given hope. God created out of nothing, God led the people out of Egypt into the promised land, God raised up leaders to bring justice and mercy to the people, God became human so that God might offer love and salvation, God promised that after death always comes resurrection. This is our God, says Second Isaiah. God has been present since the beginning and will never leave us, we are the ones who turn our backs and forget. This week remind your people who they are. Perhaps they have a long history of mission work or justice work in the community. Remind them of this, encourage them to find ways to start this work again safely. Think about your congregation, who they are or who they have been, and remind them of this. And remind them of what God is doing in their midst even now.


The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Certificate for Theology in Ministry from Cambridge University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Candler School of Theology.
AnnaKate is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and pondering ways to escape quarantine.  
 

Epiphany(B): Epiphany is for Outsiders

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

One of our most basic human needs is the need to belong. In fact, this is one of the concepts I drill into my Intro to Religion class—why are people religious? We have lots of reasons to be religious, but a major reason is our need to belong. We are social. We need community! One of the downfalls of the human need to belong, however, is that people often shove some people out of the group to make clearer the boundary around it. We deal with the temptation of proving we belong by insisting those other people don’t belong. I am on the inside. I know what is going on. I belong here. This place, this circle, this church is for me.

On Epiphany we celebrate that the Gospel includes the outsiders, that Christ did not come only for some, but for all. We experience this with the traveling Magi, who bring gifts from afar through a long journey to meet the Christ child. They are enthusiastic, recognizing the transformative power that has entered the world, seeing the miracle that not even all on the inside recognized. They even go to visit an insider, King Herod, to celebrate this new joy. Yet the insider, King Herod, cannot be trusted. He does not see this new birth as a time to celebrate transformation and embrace outsiders, but instead, it is a threat to his place, to his power.

I am struck by the idea that the Magi tried to include King Herod, building a bridge between outsiders and insiders around this new birth, this new joy to the world, this new reign of peace and justice. I am further struck that they realized he was not to be trusted through a dream, and afterwards, affirmed their own sense of self-knowledge by prioritizing what they learned from the dream. What can we gain from this story?

I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might recognize truth that insiders miss. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might be the ones that offer invitations, even when rejected by insiders. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might bring truth that supersedes what the insiders know to be true—that King Herod is not their king, and so going against his wishes because they have discerned a truth outside of him is a reality made possible due only to their outside status.

I think all of us can resonate with the sense of being an outsider in an insider space. I did not grow up in a denominational setting, so sometimes I feel like an outsider in denominational church spaces. And yet, there is a deeper level to the insider/outsider status that is rooted in justice and oppression in our world. So now, I turn to a reading of this story through the lens of prioritizing those on the margins. We read through the lens of those on the margins not only because we see a grown-up Jesus doing that time and time again, but because we see through Epiphany that those on the margins have a full story they are living, too. They might even invite us into their narrative if we are receptive to the invitation.

And all the while, even as all are included, and all leave their mark on the story, sometimes those on the margins have reasons to distrust those in power, like King Herod. And when that happens, I can’t help but hope they follow their instincts, listen to their dreams, and persist following the way of light and justice and transformation.

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is Director of Religious Life and College Chaplain of Franklin College. She lives with her spouse in Franklin, Indiana. Her current pandemic-related hobbies include sending mail, spending all social time with only a scarce few people outside, playing Animal Crossing, and watching uplifting comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso on repeat.

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): I Need Reminders

Psalm 111

By: Anne Moman Brock

In the introduction of Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he writes this: “To live as a human being means that we use tools” (2). Prayer is a tool, however, “prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” When I approach the Psalms, I am reminded of this — they offer a tool for becoming closer to God, for being fully human.

When I read the Psalms, I also find myself stepping back in time, while in the same moment, being fully present today. The emotions they felt then are emotions I feel today. The distress they experienced then are experienced here and now. The uncertainty, the celebration, the anger, the joy — it unites us across centuries. The Psalms remind me that my feelings and experiences are valid and welcome when I turn to God in prayer.

Each psalm offers me a reminder of my humanity and it turns out I need a lot of reminders!

I think we all need reminders, which is why the Christian calendar and worship liturgy are important parts of our faith. Yearly, monthly, weekly — we need reminders. We know what’s going to happen every Advent season; there’s no surprise or shock when we hear the story year after year. And yet, we keep showing up to hear that story, to relive the moments, to be reminded of what we already know.

Psalm 111 reminds me of what I already know — that God’s deeds are majestic, that the LORD is gracious and compassionate, that God’s actions are faithful and just.

Psalm 111 also reminds me of how I can respond to these things I already know about God — to praise God with all of my heart, to name the good deeds God has put forth in my life, to acknowledge this presence in the world.

Additionally, Psalm 111 reminds me how to pray — one of the many prayer outlines found in the book of Psalms. This one goes like this:

A Promise to Give Thanks

Praising God for God’s Deeds

Naming God’s Deeds

Beginning to Understand God’s Ways

More reminders on how to be in relationship with God. More tools to help me be and become.

“I will extol the LORD will all my heart…” I’m grateful for the reminder to commit to thanking God. My personality type is responsible, so if I’ve promised to do something or made a commitment, it’s highly likely that I’ll follow through. Being reminded to commit myself to thanking God regularly for my breath, the sunset, or a good plate of food is so helpful. Before going any further into the words of praise, the psalmist recommits to thanking God. A reminder we could all use, I suspect.

“God has caused God’s wonders to be remembered…” I’m grateful for the reminder to praise God for all that God does for us. And, not just us humans, but for all of creation. Before even naming what God has done, the psalmist praises God for who God is. What a great reminder to be aware of God’s nature before focusing on God’s actions. Because of God’s character, God is worthy to be praised.

“God provided redemption for God’s people; God ordained God’s covenant forever…” I’m grateful for the reminder of what God has done for us. Because of God’s characteristics like graciousness and compassion, we can see God’s deeds from the beginning of time until now. God has proven to be trustworthy and just. We recall not just God’s nature, but how we see God’s nature carried out in our lives.

“All who follow God’s precepts have good understanding…” The last few lines of this psalm remind me that much is up to interpretation! I suspect that one person’s understanding of God’s precepts might vary from the next. However, the psalm ends with one final phrase we can agree on: to God belongs eternal praise.

The Psalms are a tool we can use to help us remember. When we forget how to pray, use the Psalms. When we feel alone, turn to the Psalms. When we struggle to worship, open up the Psalms. When we are unclear about our relationship with God, let the Psalms speak for you.

I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminders. I’m grateful the Psalms offer me page after page of reminders about God’s compassion no matter what I’m going through in life.

After fourteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — 12 year old husky and 2 year old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility, and writing at www.annebrock.com or on Instagram.