Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Mark 2:23-3:6

By: The Rev. Lauren Carlson

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes, “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

This story has stuck with me since I first read it several years ago. In many ways, it seems to go hand in hand with the theme of “hardness of hearts” I see playing throughout the gospel of Mark.[1]You can certainly find this expression in other places of scripture, but I find it interesting how many times this phrase can be found in Mark alone. It seems that this is the way Jesus often describes the people when he is frustrated or disappointed with their actions and understanding. It is as though they have written the law on their hearts, and yet the grace of it has not fallen inside yet. They see the miracles, but the profound truth has not reached to the depth of their being. In each situation, this hardness of heart prevents the people from living into the fullness of relationship to which they are called to live, with one another and with God.

In our gospel reading for day we hear in 3:5, “[Jesus] grieved at their hardness of heart,” referring to the Pharisees who would rather let a man continue suffering than heal him on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are challenging Jesus on his adherence (or lack thereof) to the law about working on the Sabbath, which raises two questions for me: 1) What is the purpose of law? and 2) What is the purpose of the Sabbath?

  • When God gives laws, it is not for the purpose of individual piety. Law is not for the sake of having a checklist of righteousness. Rather, the purpose of law is to be in right relationship with neighbor and with God. Jesus clarifies this to the Pharisees when challenged on which is the greatest commandment. He says that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs ALL THE LAW and the prophets. In other words, if we are loving God and loving our neighbor, these things will fall into place. This is the purpose of the law: to live in loving relationship.
  • “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”[2] Just like all other laws, this Sabbath-keeping law is for wellbeing in community and not for self-righteous piety. Sabbath is something we It is about rest and healing so that we can be refreshed and renewed for this work of loving God and loving our neighbor. Yes, loving can be work because we are broken and essentially just suck at this sometimes. But it is the most worthwhile work we can do! Sabbath rest is a gift from God; a time to be aware of the abundance of love and grace that God is constantly pouring into us, so that we can continue that work. But it is NOT meant to be at the detriment of another. How can one feel filled by God’s love while watching another continue in suffering?

What might this self-righteous (even self-serving?) sense of law and Sabbath look like in your congregation? Where are you seeing signs of hardened hearts? How can you remind them of the fact that good news is actually meant to be good news?

When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law.  When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world. So perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints who have gone before us, have hardened hearts. But the truth is that in spite of (or even in light of) our hardened hearts, eventually they will crack wide open and words of grace and love and gentleness will fill them and heal them again. Because God’s acts of grace and love and healing not only continue on the Sabbath, they are essential to the Sabbath.

  

[1] Mark 6:52, 8:17, 10:5 are a few examples

[2] Mark 2:27

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The Rev. Lauren Carlson

The Rev. Lauren Carlson is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) currently serving in a call with her husband, Paul, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Appalachian State University in 2004, served a year of Young Adults in Global Mission through the ELCA in Edinburgh Scotland, and then headed to Dubuque, Iowa where she earned her Masters of Divinity at Wartburg Theological Seminary. If ministry were not enough to keep her busy, her two young, spirited children are! In her “spare time” she enjoys catching up with friends, breathing fresh air, continuing her involvement with camping ministry, and brewing beer (and has great dreams of learning to play guitar, sew, and actually conquer her reading list!)

 

Trinity Sunday (B): Be Moved to Join the Movement

Trinity Sunday (B): Be Moved to Join the Movement

John 3:1-17

By: Casey Cross

Every extraordinary experience sparks from the ordinary.  Full of curiosity, Nicodemus proactively seeks Jesus out at night. Jesus transforms what was an inconspicuous evening into a remarkable, life-changing event.

What I love about the Gospel of John is the way we readers, thousands of years later, are turned into witnesses. We become witnesses not just to fact-based, hard-nosed, “real news,” but to God’s reality on earth. We become witnesses, not to an ideology, but to the movement of God. We are suddenly standing alongside Nicodemus, bound by our physical bodies and limited perspective, about to have our mind blown by a completely new way of seeing and being in the world.

In this particular story, we see Jesus launch the transformation of Nicodemus from questioning leader, ἄρχων (John 3:1), to witness, μάρτυς (John 3:11) to the movement of God. The movement of God is Trinitarian; it is physical, spiritual, and divine. It takes our full selves to be part of this movement. We cannot compartmentalize it to one hour or one day. We cannot compartmentalize it to a single choice and belief. This is difficult for us to grasp because our entire world is about compartmentalization. We count the minutes and hours of our days, divvying up our time to work, relationships, goals, celebrations, conversations, and chores. This is also difficult for us to grasp because so much of our lives are about reaching certain dates, milestones and achievements. We live by the idea that once we reach that particular place, we will have “made it.” Nevertheless, the movement of God blurs and smudges the lines by which we have ordered our lives. The movement of God never stops. The movement is, in essence, God’s full self – Father, Son, and Spirit. During this late-night conversation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to wake up, be “born again,” move beyond the limits of his occupation and title and join the movement.

In his book, The Divine Dance, Father Richard Rohr describes the movement of God as flow. To join God’s movement is to step, jump, or dive into the flow of God’s full self with our full selves. The tide of God’s movement leads us to a way of life that is always growing, evolving, transforming; a way of life that is about unification, alignment, and action.

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Source: https://upliftconnect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Light-9-1.png

Like Nicodemus, it takes a little time for us to catch on. It’s hard to be moved from all that we know – this one body, this one life, our understanding of science and creation. Even without fully understanding Jesus’ words, Nicodemus is caught up in the tide of conversation and can’t stop himself from asking, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus doesn’t back down. With Jesus’ response, we 21st century readers are no longer merely observers of a late-night conversation. Jesus’ reply vibrates and echoes from the pages of the Bible to us, today. “You must be born from above.”

Jesus tells us to move beyond dualistic thinking into a Trinitarian way of being, the place where our bodies, mind, soul, and spirit meet. Jesus calls Nicodemus, and all of us, to live in the realization of all that we are. We are not just machines, a body moving by habit and functionality. We are not just spontaneous balls of unaware reactivity to the life being lived around us. God made us to be part of the Movement. While we struggle with discernment, wondering what God is truly calling us to, remember that the answer will always involve our full selves, it will involve our transformation (often over and over again), it will involve us physically moving, following the example of Jesus, and getting into it.

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Source: https://vtn.co/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/parkland-survivor-emma-gonzalez-holds-powerful-moment-of-silence-at-march-for-our-lives.jpg

Consider the social movements we witness in history books and the news. These movements do not appear from nowhere. They are products of an accumulation of factors, but we often wonder where they came from. Like the wind, we hear the sound of it, see the effects of these movements, but we do not always know where they came from or where they will go. Isn’t this just like the movement of God? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling Nicodemus, and all of us, to join?

 

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Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mysticism#/media/File:Grunewald_-_christ.jpg

Jesus knows we are suspicious. Jesus knows we are trapped by our need for tangible, provable facts. Yet, in this conversation, Jesus doesn’t stop there. We are called to join the Movement. Despite ourselves, we are made witnesses. We are not witnesses of our own understanding, but of God’s action, movement, in the world, for the world. Receive the testimony given to us by the Living Word who walked among us. Bear witness. Wake up. Be moved with your full self – your emotions, your mind, soul, and strength. Rise up. Join the movement of God. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She can be found in the kitchen with her husband, walking her black lab, Lola, listening to music, drinking coffee, reading too many books at once, and sitting around, thinking about stuff that might eventually get written about on her blog: http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.

 

 

Pentecost(B): What are we Celebrating?

Pentecost(B): What are we Celebrating?

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

By: Chris Clow

Today is the only Holy Day in the entire liturgical calendar devoted to the Holy Spirit.  Think about it – Jesus gets all the good feast days. Christmas lasts for 12 days (not to mention a whole season devoted to the buildup to it.) Lent is 40 days; Easter 50. Every day within the season of Easter is called the 3rd or 5th or even 7th ___-day of Easter.

What do we call the first day after Pentecost?

Monday.

The Spirit really gets a bum rap, and it’s not really fair. We’re talking about a whole third of the Trinity, after all. Without the Spirit, there wouldn’t be a Church. It is the Spirit that continues to move in us today, continues to animate the Church and keep it alive. Even throughout the years of persecution and pain, doubt and division, scandal and schism—Christianity is still around.

Today is the Church’s birthday. So, what are we celebrating?

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says that the Spirit will lead us all to truth. I will admit, sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that. I’ve been given a class of students to teach this semester (something I’m pretty sure they’ll never let me do again), and it has truly been an awe-inspiring to see how difficult it is to try and lead someone to any kind of truth. No wonder Jesus got frustrated with his disciples so often. And in times where I am just exhausted by work, by the stressors of life, it can become harder for me to strive to see the Spirit at work—both in myself, and in those around me.

I can sympathize with the disciples in the upper room that Pentecost day. All they had worked for still seemed to be lost, and while they had even seen Jesus fully resurrected and taken up into Heaven, they weren’t sure what to do next. He was their teacher, the one who knew what to do. Now what were they supposed to do with him gone?

I bet that for a lot of us, the feeling is mutual—when we get so consumed with the busy-ness of our lives that it makes us harder to see the greater purpose; when we get so weighed down with the concerns of the world that it’s harder for us to see our neighbor who is also struggling with us, who we might need to help carry, or who might need to help carry us. It can be hard to believe that the Spirit is still at work in a world that can seem so broken some days.

Yet, I know the fault is with me, and not with God. The problem is not that the Spirit has stopped moving, but more likely that I have stopped listening for it, even for just a bit. So, in this (one-day) season of Pentecost, how do we get better at listening to the Spirit? I’m no expert, but I think we have some clear lessons in Scripture on how to start.

The first thing: we need space. That can be a hard thing to find in our lives, and not just finding the free time—there is a constant temptation to fill up our lives with all kinds of excess and other random things. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with material possessions, but it sure does seem like we can get out of hand with it. The band “Arcade Fire” bemoans this in their song Everything Now: “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” – and there are times where I find that line hits a little too close to home for me. I’m betting I’m not alone in that.

It helps to remember that when Jesus called his apostles, he didn’t tell them to pack a suitcase, much less a second pair of sandals. Does that mean that we too need to follow in such an example of poverty? I don’t know. As my wife and I prepare for the birth of our child in a few months, I think it’d be a rather foolish thing to suddenly decide to sell the house, bed, and all the other things that will help us provide for this new life. But maybe we need to not be so attached to them. The things we possess are, at best, means to an end. If they help us to become happier, better, more loving people, then great. If they don’t, then what are we doing with them? We need to keep on clearing out our clutter, both spiritually and physically, to help us listen better to the Spirit move in our lives.

The second thing: we need community. The apostles before Pentecost were huddled in fear, yes, but also together. The Spirit did not come to each of their individual houses, looking for them on their own. It found them in community.  Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

Furthermore, that community doesn’t require some sort of saintly perfection in us. The Spirit didn’t come when the disciples were feeling particularly courageous—it showed up precisely when they were afraid. They were lost, and not sure what to do now that their Master was gone, but they still had each other. The Spirit did not ask for perfection from them; rather, it took what they were able to offer (even if it was just their presence) and strengthen them for what they would need. So to for us, even when we maybe aren’t “feeling it,” or don’t feel like we belong in this community of faith—the Spirit is still calling us, too, wanting to work in us all the more. God is not first seeking perfection; God first seeks us, as we are, and works with us, as we are, to help us become the best we can be.

Finally: we need to get out. Look, the wind and flame of Pentecost are an incredible sign of the Spirit’s presence with the apostles, but to me, that’s not the miracle. The miracle of Pentecost is that these sad, scared Apostles got out of the upper room, and went to spread the Gospel.  The Spirit is does not want us to just stay within this community, but to share the Gospel message with the world. Much as no one puts a light under a basket, but lets it out to shine (to paraphrase Jesus), so too is the Spirit meant, like a driving wind, to drive us out into the world.  You know, that world that can so often drag us down, that can worry and stress us out, that world which exhausts. I often feel like pulling the metaphorical covers over my head and trying to drown the world out, but this is not a Spirit-filled desire. I need to be able to go out into the world, even the parts of it I would rather ignore.  We need to be able to encounter the world, and share the Gospel news to all we meet, especially to those who are in need, even when we might rather not.

What are we celebrating? That the Spirit is continuing to dwell with us still, and that we are given a chance today to do as the early disciples did—to testify to the Gospel message of Jesus.  May the Spirit renew us all this Pentecost.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a campus minister and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. When he isn’t composing music or begging students to sing in his choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, spend time with his wife Emily and their pets, and prepare with joy (and just a touch of anxiety) for the arrival of their first child in September.

Ascension Day: Making Space

Ascension Day: Making Space

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Although I began serving my parish less than a year ago, it is evident to me that we have a space issue. Not because we’re starting to outgrow our building and Sunday morning worship feels a little cramped. Not because there are calendar conflicts between groups wanting to reserve use of our flexible space. No, the space issue that my congregation finds most challenging is in making room for those people who don’t conform to the norm of “how we’ve always done it.”

How does this issue manifest in the parish? Mostly through conversations about what it means to include noisy, boisterous children who wander around the sanctuary and distract us from contemplative worship. Or in conversations about whether or not to have designated alcohol-free fellowship events because some young families have requested family-friendly activities (“but no one will come!”). Or why it was courteous during the interfaith Lenten series we hosted, not to pray specifically “in Jesus name.” I’ll admit, most of these conversations have been induced by me and I’ve been pushing the point about “radical hospitality,” otherwise known as “making space for the other.” But it didn’t dawn on me until I read David Cunningham’s (Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) commentary on Ascension Day as to why this has been such an urgent and imperative point for me.

David observes that the Ascension is not really about the physical act of Jesus’s return to the Father but that the Ascension is about Jesus “making space so the mission of the church can begin.” One simple sentence opened my mind to understand an elemental belief I hold about God:

Making space is essential to God’s nature.

David goes on to cite Rowan Williams’ writings on the Trinity. He notes that “each of the three divine ‘persons’ seeks not to gain pride of place or to assert hierarchical dominion over the others, but to give place to the others, so that they too can most fully be what they are. As such, the divine Trinity models for us the true nature of community, in which self-assertion and hegemony give way to a polyphonic chorus of mutual participation and difference.”

Scripture attests to this.[1] From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is full of ways that God makes space creatively and purposefully, continually reminding us “See! I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”

In the nascent act of creation itself, God opens up the void and implants it with an interdependent community – vegetation, animals, oceans and fishes, birds, and humans who are commissioned to “rule and serve all [God’s] creatures.” From nothing comes life. God makes space for others to participate in God’s dance and to be fully what they are.

In the Exodus, when the Hebrew people find their path barred by the Red Sea as they flee from Pharaoh’s armies, God makes space. God divides the waters so that the people might pass through. From chaos and uncertainty, a new community emerges—the Hebrew people enter into covenant relationship, place trust in the God who liberates.

In the time of Exile, as God allows God’s people to be dispersed throughout foreign empires and Jerusalem falls to rubble and ruin, God makes space for transformation. God inspires prophets to exhort the people to return to God’s ways, and to remind them that God has not forgotten them though the community must learn to sing God’s praises even in a foreign land.

As the heavy hand of the Roman Empire slowly crushes the spirit of God’s people, the Virgin Mary consents to God’s request to use her life and her body to make space for God to incarnate. Definitely a new thing, and a promise of new life.

Christ persistently makes space around his own table, including those deemed beyond the pale of decent society (sinners and tax collectors) as well as Pharisees. He makes space in his busy schedule of preaching and teaching to touch the untouchables, to heal lepers and hemorrhaging women and to bring the dead back to life. He invites despised “outsiders” into relationship with him, Samaritans and Roman centurions and criminals. A community forms of people who otherwise might have nothing to do with each other.

God makes space in the empty tomb. Resurrection is unquestionably a new thing. The empty tomb becomes for us a sign of God’s promises: new life, reconciliation, and the shalom of God’s kingdom being ushered in.

Christ’s Ascension makes space for Pentecost; for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes possible the expansion of Christ’s mission from local to global. The Spirit continues to remake and renew God’s church, perpetually calling us into the reality of John’s vision of God’s kingdom: the gates of the new Jerusalem eternally flung open, overflowing with the river of life and shaded by the tree of life which produces healing for all the nations. From beginning to end, God gives place in community – mutual participation in all our God-created difference.

So why is making space and giving place so hard for us to do?

So often our culture teaches us a false dichotomy, that in order for someone else to be fully who they are means that I have to miss out. In a conflict, there are only winners or losers; for someone else to win, I have to lose. Or “there’s only so much pie to go around,” so if someone else gets a bigger slice then my slice is necessarily smaller. By all our “normal” cultural standards, this concept of giving place or making space goes against our rugged individualism. But when we recall that God doesn’t play by our rules, that God’s love is not scarce in supply and thus something to be hoarded, when we revel in being most fully what God has created us to be then we are free to invite others to discover fully who God has created them to be.

Making space is not easy work, particularly when we have grounded ourselves in particular religious, spiritual, and emotional spaces. God asks us to let go of our self-centeredness, our worldly illusions of stature, our need for control, our fear of change. Participation in that polyphonic chorus often looks and feels more like a rock tumbler. We tumble against each other until all our rough edges are smoothed out… that’s true community. Perhaps our exasperation with that child’s noisy shoes might give way to joy when we realize that she is a sign of new life in our midst. Perhaps if we make more of an effort to reach out to people who feel like outsiders, they might start showing up to more communal gatherings. Perhaps we can still passionately proclaim Christ through our ministry to others, modeling repentance and forgiveness of sins, even as we respect other faith traditions. Perhaps we can do mission not to the other but with the other.

What new thing may God be calling you and your people to become aware of? In what ways does God call you into deeper participation with God and with each other? What space must be made in order for your people to grow and your mission to be met?

For God is always doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

 

 

 

[1] I am grateful to The Rev. Chance Perdue for the insightful examples in his eloquent sermon preached at the Church of the Redeemer, Nashville, TN that prompted my thinking about the scripture portion of this essay. Check it out at: http://redeemernashville.libsyn.com/the-god-who-makes-space

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

John 17:6-19

By: The Rev. Canon Manoj Matthew Zacharia

Some call John 17 the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. Whether it is the prologue that stresses Jesus as the incarnate word (Jn 1) or the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus proclaims: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16) there is an ostensible shift in the theological emphasis of the Gospel of John.

The theological emphasis of our gospel today seems to depict a world negation not present in the rest of John’s gospel. The experience of angst seems to guide the High Priestly prayer of Jesus.

The words of Jn 12 sets a context: “Now my soul is troubled. (Jn 12:27-28) Confronting one’s non-existence puts things into perspective. Facing the reality that his time on the earth is limited, Jesus, according to the accounts of Matthew and Mark, goes to Gethsemane to pray (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42) and becomes vulnerable to his companions. Jesus reveals, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

The Chalcedonian (451 AD) formulary that emphasizes the equal and full divinity and humanity of Jesus is fully realized in Jesus’ grappling with physical non-existence but a social deprivation where those closest to him will abandon him for their self-preservation than in that statement of deep anguish.

The funeral liturgy of the Antiochene Rite gives us a glimpse of such anguish. The liturgy prays:

My beloved, why are you standing away from me?

`           Come near, bid me farewell… pray for and lament over me,

            for today death has stripped me at the gates of Sheol.

             Beloved, I am truly in distress, for terror and dread encompass me…

            My mind is distressed for the Savior of the world has sent and taken me away and I am bidding farewell  with deep grief.  [1]

While it is understandable to be swept away with lament when facing the reality of our finite existence, the emphasis of Jesus’ prayer is that we are sanctified into the truth. To be sanctified by the truth is to give ourselves over to the vision of the world as God has intended, a vision that has been lived out in incarnation, earthly life, and resurrection.

One aspect of this truth is that while the world was created by God, we have chosen to alienate it from God’s vision of, and for, the world.  Jesus as the Light of the World (Jn 8:12, 9:5) is shining truth amidst the layers of darkness that has been enfolded the world. Being sanctified by the truth is to give our heart over to Easter Hope. Such hope is the transformation of sorrow into joy (Jn 16:16-24) or death into life. The experience of resurrection is guided by a hope of a restored creation – a new earth and a new City of Peace. We are invited through the resurrection to:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

…See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:3-5)

As we continue in the joyous celebration of Easter, let us remember that being sanctified into the Truth is not merely offering a giddy ephemeral panacea that all will be well; but, a thrust to confront the reality of non-existence as we know it with the hope of a glorious re-creation rooted in the fullness of God through Christ.  For the Christian, there is no resurrection without the cross and no cross without the resurrection as the words of the Taize’ community signify: We adore your Cross O Lord, and we praise you for your resurrection.

The truth is that life is sorrow and joy made complete and the cross and resurrection symbolize that wholeness.

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The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

The Rev. Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia serves as Sub-Dean/Vicar of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. A native South Asian and New Yorker, he along with his wife Joelle and children Abigail and Johan are avid NY Mets fans and passionate about the gospel! Manoj is about to defend his Ph.D. dissertation on “Pluralistic Inclusivism as Theological Methodology” from the Toronto School of Theology (University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.) He requests your prayers!

[1]Burian Service IV for Men of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Trans and Ed Manoj M. Zacharia.

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

John 15:9-17

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

In this sixth Sunday of Easter, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to love. After all, Easter is about the love God has for humanity. We throw around the word love a lot: I love coffee, I love my spouse, I love Sunday afternoon naps, I love my best friend, and I love my dog. Love means something different in each of these instances and we ought to take the time to talk about what Jesus means by love this week.

There are several words for love in Greek: phileo, agape, eros, and epithymia. The Gospel writer sometimes uses the words phileo and agape interchangeably. In this passage, agape is used to mean a love that is interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. This love does not try to own or possess anything, and is not limited by time and place. This is the type of love that Jesus says the disciples, and we, should have for one another, and for all people.

Jesus says, “my father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…  This is my command, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In this Jesus says I have put you above my own self even to the point of death. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has alluded to his death and to the disciples being important not only in his life, but in the time to come. In this passage he takes their relationship to the next level. Jesus says, you are my friends and friends love one another, love others, and lay down their lives for one another. We read this passage every three years, and often we use it in other sermons, and I think we forget just how shocking it is for Christ, God incarnate, to call us friends. And nearly as profound, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Friendship changes us, makes us into people who are bound together. Aristotle says, “A friend is another self.” Christ offers a level of friendship that is beyond having dinner and playing board games, it is intentional life-altering friendship that changes who we are and how we see the world. Friendship with the Divine is a friendship that is not about attempting to gain favor or about just having good and pleasant feelings being friends. Jesus says the mark of a friend is someone who loves so deeply and truly that they might lay down their life.

In this Easter season, we cannot help but think of chapters that follow this, the chapters that lead to the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion, his literally laying down his life for the love of others, all of which he willing goes to. The commandment given by Jesus is to love one another as he has loved his friends. It is clear that we are called to lay down our lives for others. Laying down our life could mean literally dying that we might save one we love, but might it also mean laying aside our desires, ambitions, and self to be fully present with another person. Perhaps in this age where we are so aware of discriminations of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ persons we might acknowledge the privileges we each have and lay that privilege aside, or even better, use that privilege to come alongside our brothers and sisters in their struggles. We have a lot to lose, but so much more to gain when we all are living into the fullness of love that God first showed us.

Perhaps this week’s sermon can be used to remind our congregations that we are not only called to love one another as Christ loved us, but also that if we say love Jesus we must do works of love as a tangible sign of our discipleship, a sign of our friendship. We have a world that desperately needs people who stand alongside the outcast, the other, and who stand against those who stand for injustice and hatred. The mark of a faithful, loving community of God is one that looks like Christ, and that lays aside, or uses its privilege in acts of love.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at the Audubon Zoo as an educator and advocate for animal conservation, and eating tacos.

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

John 15:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

Can I be honest here? I have really mixed feelings about this text. On the one hand, I value this text that reminds me that I am a part of something larger than myself, and I value this text as a sacred reminder that the fruitfulness of my life does not come from my own work, but instead comes from Christ dwelling within me. On the other, I grieve Jesus’ words that a branch that is withering will be cut off from the vine and thrown into fire. That is really hard to hear.

In my own life I have gone through some significant periods of doubt and mistrust of God. I have seen friends die tragic and sudden deaths way too early. I have witnessed depression and anxiety that has quieted and dulled some of the most vividly alive spirits that I have known. I have watched addiction pull families apart. And to think that this doubt, pain, or withering would bring God’s holy pruning shears breaks my heart. In fact, it seems to go against the scope of God’s grace, which may point to a greater truth that Christ is naming for his disciples.

These two significant overlapping feelings of abiding trust in the sustaining vine of God, and fear that I could be cut off at my most vulnerable moments are so overwhelming to me that I’m not even really sure how to react. This tension is almost enough to limit my relationship with God. With this tension, I’m not sure I will be allowed to stay on the vine or not. I can be pretty dry sometimes. I have doubts, I have persistent questions, I have days where I am confused, and I have days where I am just not interested. If that means I would be cut off, I’m just not sure I want to show those parts of myself.

The truth is that those feelings, questions, and experiences of doubt and uncertainty already make us feel pruned back, raw, and vulnerable. And maybe that is the point Jesus is making. Maybe Jesus isn’t warning the disciples that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, or doubt, or have periods of fruitlessness. It may be the case that my initial reading of the scripture as judgmental and exclusive missed some significant details that provide hope and healing. Maybe God is naming a truth that the disciples will learn in just a few short days.

These verses of scripture are a part of the last conversation that Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified. They are lingering at the door after the last supper. Jesus has already washed everyone’s feet (John 13:1-20), Judas has already left to sell Jesus out to the leaders of the day (John 13:27-30), and Jesus has even said, “Get up, we’re leaving this place.”(John 14:31b) I wonder if Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for their grief.

Jesus knows that the disciples will abandon him, according to Matthew’s Gospel he’s even told them that they will (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knows that Peter will deny Jesus three times, he’s even told him that he will (John 13:38). Jesus knows that he will die and then come back, he’s even told the disciples that he will (John 10:17-18; 12:20-36). But hearing these things is much more palatable than actually having to live through them.

If there were ever a withered vine to be pruned, it would be Peter. He denies Jesus (John 18:15-27), he walks away from ministry to return to his fishing boat (John 21:3), and yet, it is his redemptive conversation with Jesus after the resurrection that John’s gospel focuses on (John 21:15-19). Peter isn’t cut off in his moments of denial. The disciples aren’t cut off in their moments of grief. Thomas isn’t cut off in his moments of doubt. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up most vividly.

Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has conquered death. A branch attached to the vine cannot die. Any of us who struggles with life and faith is in good company of everyone else who has ever lived. Life is filled with heartache and tragedy as much as it is with joy and hope. But when we try to block that out, or when we try to put a happy face on when we just don’t feel like it, we cut ourselves off. See, I don’t believe God prunes us off of the vine, but I do worry that we cut ourselves off every time we try to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.

As we continue our celebration of Easter this Sunday, I wonder what would happen if we opened our hearts and minds to a God who meets us in our grief. Like the disciples before us, we live in a complicated world that can be simultaneously inspiring and terrifying—sometimes in the same moment. What would happen if we could dwell in the presence of our God even through that tension? What if we brought our dry and weary bones to Christ’s presence seeking nourishment and resurrection? I imagine we might find that God finds a way to bring new life even to the most wounded and disconnected parts of ourselves.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber (with his wife, Susannah Bales)

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.