Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Romans 5:12-19

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The church tradition of my upbringing (non-denominational; vaguely Baptist) didn’t use the lectionary. I probably only learned what it was in college or in seminary, and I’ve been enamored ever since. At its most romantic, it pushes us as preachers to preach on a variety of texts that we might otherwise never willingly choose. (In actuality, the lectionary skips some complicated texts itself, and we still get to choose between passages if we want, so it’s not a perfect system.) So, when Modern Metanoia branched out beyond the Gospel texts, I was ready to go big or go home. I was ready to pick the text I’d be least excited by. I was ready for God’s revelation to break forth through a passage I would normally struggle with.

And so here we are—with a passage from Romans about sin and Adam and condemnation.

I think it is important to admit that we sometimes struggle with texts as preachers because it lowers the barrier for others to fall in love with the Bible. Writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans was particularly good at this—openly wrestling with difficult texts not because she didn’t like the Bible, but because she loved the Bible.

So, what is this sin-weary feminist who is uneasy about the times we only reference men in the Bible to do with a text all about sin and death?

First, Brian Peterson suggests that we contextualize this passage for those who understand that this passage does not rely on the literal transmission of sin and death from Adam to the rest of us.[1] For contexts that understand the earth as existing for billions of years, it is important to note that death has been embedded in the cycles of nature for as long as earth has been here. Instead, the death and sin connection embedded in the Genesis story is one of the spiritual consequences of sin—sin is not what God wants for us. Sin points to broken relationship with God, ourselves, creation, and others.

Second, this passage points us to a larger story than what we see now. To me, the beauty of this passage is that it reminds me of the sin and redemption cycle that is bigger than my own personal experience. I have entered into a story that started before my character had a line and it will continue longer than I’m on the stage. Sin and death were a part of the world before me and will persist after me, but so has the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.

While this passage names individual characters in the story—Adam and Moses—these names are placeholders for the rest of us. One person’s sin is all people’s sin, and one person’s grace can save us all. The gospel message that breaks forth when I read this text is that the story is bigger than me and so we are all in this together. Since the story is bigger than me, it is not just about me. It is not just about Adam or Moses, either.

Sin has bound us together, but grace holds us altogether as well. Many stories in one. I cannot separate myself from your sin, and you cannot separate yourself from mine. Our collective experience of grace and life for all insists on this.

What I walk away from this text with is more questions. What does it mean for my life if I really am connected to what pains and troubles you? The Gospel text for this week is about the temptation of Jesus. What if the temptations we experience were shouldered in community, rather than in the privacy of our own relationship with the Tempter? Are there ways that we could address sin collectively so that we may experience grace communally? (This must be done with safety in mind, to the extent it can be, of course.)

I’ve seen the alternative—parishioners isolated with the demons that haunt them. I’ve experienced glimpses of divinity when grace abounds between people that have shared their shame and received acceptance. How might the church transform if we move beyond individual stories of sin and grace to recognizing our place in a much larger narrative that puts our sin and redemption in relationship with everyone else’s? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

[1] Peterson, Brian. “Commentary on Romans 5:12-19.” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3181

 

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.

After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.

In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.

As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.

We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.

I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.

Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”

Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.

Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.

In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.

What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?

Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.

What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?

Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.

Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Matthew 17:1-9

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The last thing to happen between Jesus and his friends, just before this incredible and miraculous story that we call the Transfiguration is a heated argument between Jesus and his closest companion, Peter. Just before Jesus calls Peter up to witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus sharing time together on the top of a mountain, he refuses to trust Jesus’ prediction that he will suffer and die at the hands of elders, chief priests, and legal experts.

And just before that, all twelve of the disciples demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus overcame a worrying lack of nourishment in a crowd of thousands by multiplying a few loaves of bread and pieces of fish that might have fed three or four families into an abundance of food that fed more than four thousand families with baskets of bread and fish left over.

Of course, the response to that miracle among the religious insiders is just ridiculous: the religious leaders demand that Jesus should perform a sign. As if the news of abundance and healing weren’t enough. The religious leaders—the Pharisees and Sadducees insist that they need more. They heap on doubt and criticism in a way that multiplies itself.

So, Jesus warns his disciples, who were closest to him to be careful around the religious authority. Their subversion of the gospel grows like yeast. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t understand Jesus. After Jesus mentioned yeast, the disciples spin around in circles looking for bread, and complaining that there wasn’t any food to eat.

They just don’t get it. And their misunderstanding has potential ramifications for the future of God’s movement. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus knows that he will suffer, he will die, and he will rise up, but he needs to have his disciples there to lead this radical movement and carry Jesus’ message of grace and love into the world so that the Kingdom has a place to take root. In order for this movement to be effective, the disciples can’t be taken over by the subversive doubt manifesting in the religious leadership. They need to resist the impulse to doubt Jesus’ incredible ministry. They need to resist the impulse to categorize and contain Jesus’ message.

So, after Jesus and Peter get into a pretty nasty argument, culminating in Jesus yelling at Peter for embodying the power of temptation, Jesus invites a few of his disciples, including Peter, to come and see one more sacred sign that might lead them towards a new alignment with the Kingdom of God.

It is hard to understand what is happening on the top of the mountain without taking a quick glance at where we’ve come so far. In this tense moment with his disciples, just as he is beginning his journey towards the cross, Jesus brings his close friends to a thin place, where the Kingdom is fully tangible. There are no crowds around to distract the disciples. There are no other religious folks there to critique and question what they were seeing.

They simply witnessed a reunion of Israel’s past, present, and future illumined on the crest of a hill.

Then, from there, Jesus and his disciples go about business as usual. Jesus heals another young child, then teaches about the ethics of the Kingdom of God.

The Transfiguration doesn’t seem to change much. It certainly doesn’t give the disciples a sudden burst of clarity. It doesn’t change Jesus’ fundamental ministry. It doesn’t even change the timeline or the outcome of Jesus’ challenging message. He continues to heal. He continues to teach. He continues to frustrate the religious folks. He continues to expect more from his disciples than they ever are able to follow through on. Ministry just continues, which makes this sacred moment on the top of a mountain all the more interesting.

Transfiguration Sunday is such a weird and wonderful day to celebrate. In so many ways, nothing really happened. Nothing changed. The world wasn’t turned upside down. The disciples weren’t suddenly flooded with a new understanding of God or of Jesus. In other ways, it was incredibly important.

In reality, the moment highlighted how quick we are to categorize our experiences of holiness into easy, comfortable boxes. Peter’s response was just perfect: “something holy happened, let’s put up a tent!

But, in the scheme of life and ministry and faith, big moments are always just that. They are moments that stand out as significant and important nestled between other moments. For most people, life is filled with significant moments. Even if they are big and mind-blowing, those moments are rarely actually life-changing. Very few people have had single moments that changed the course of their life. That’s just not how life works.

Most of us require several moments strung together to start making an impact on our lives. We need multiple experiences nudging us in the same direction before we start walking faithfully.

As I read the Gospel of Matthew, that is exactly what I see. I see a group of friends who experience a series of significant moments together in the presence of Jesus, who slowly allow their lives and their perspective to be changed.

They witnessed healings and exorcisms, miraculous meals, thoughtful teachings, resurrections, and even the transfiguration of a friend into dazzling white. They witnessed faithfulness, and doubt, and growth. They witnessed lives transformed. They witnessed lives reborn.

For the disciples, it took every single one of these moments for them to start to understand the immanence and power of God’s Kingdom.

I wonder sometimes about the cultural preoccupation that we have with immediate gratification. I wonder if we look too hard for a life-changing moment or experience that will alter everything in our lives, missing the small moments that lead us towards transformation. I wonder about our habit to cancel the people who irritate us most. I wonder what would have happened if Peter had walked away after Jesus called him Satan. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have seen the transfiguration.

Without every moment leading up to the Transfiguration, I’m not sure Peter, James, and John would have seen Moses, Elijah and Jesus talking together. I think they needed the time together, traveling through villages and towns. I think they needed to see every single sick person healed. I think they needed to hear Jesus speak about a faithful ethic for the Kingdom of God. I think they needed the arguments and the debates. I think they needed the challenge.

All of that led to the top of a mountain. Then that moment led them back down the mountain. And life continued for them. And because life continued for them, it continues for us.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

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 Parish. 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.

6th Sunday after Epiphany(A): The Law of Life

6th Sunday after Epiphany: The Law of Life

Matthew 5:21-37

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so we would behave. I firmly believe that. With four law-heavy texts this week, one could easily stick to interpreting the rules. While they bear some explication, simply sticking to the “do’s and don’ts” of these texts could result in a proclamation that rings hollow in sanctuaries and hearts alike. With lots of law, what then of the Gospel? Moses tells the Israelites to “choose life,” and elsewhere James tells us that faith without works is dead. In this interplay between life and death, one can find a starting place for a meaningful and evangelical (i.e. Gospel-centered) proclamation.

Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book, The God of Life, makes a simple claim that roots what Protestants would call both law and Gospel in God’s identity. “God causes all that exists to be because God is the source of all things; God gives life because God is life,” he writes.[1] With God as life, God the father can be seen as life-creator and Jesus Christ becomes life-redeemer. In his crucifixion, Jesus takes death upon himself, and his resurrection is the eternal triumph of life over death. Crucially, for our purposes, Gutiérrez writes, “Oppression in any of its forms means death.”[2] Since God righteously defends life, God righteously opposes oppression, and since God have us life, we too oppose the same.

The authors of Deuteronomy illustrate more than they legislate. Though in the imperative, “Choose life” serves as a hearty reminder that the one who gave life and freedom is the one worthy of obedience. The law becomes more than a way to live but indeed a way of life.

Moses exhorts his people to keep the commandments as a kind of farewell, immediately after a renewal of the Covenant and before his death. Knowing his time is limited, he begs his people to see that the Law will preserve their lives, root out oppression, and foster peace among them. Gutiérrez writes, “The law or Torah must be put into practice; it is life because it is a way to God.”[3] Because God is a God of life, and oppression deals death to the oppressed, the law will bring life to the people. Likewise, because the law brings life, God’s law is a gift of life.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the life-redeemer fulfills this Law of life. Yet, if God is a God of life, the abundant life Christ brings hardly means the death of the law. The law becomes similarly abundant, similarly expansive. A simple injunction against murder becomes an exhortation to peace and reconciliation. The prohibition of adultery is a call to a pure heart. Divorce, which was once permitted, is reinterpreted with the oppression of women in mind. Honesty is similarly abundant, wherein a vow becomes unnecessary if one’s daily word is true. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a triumph of God’s righteous life over sin and death.

Elsewhere in his Sermon, Jesus commands his disciples to “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,”[4] highlighting two main themes in Matthew’s Gospel. First is the eschatological reality of Jesus’ coming on earth. Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth in his very person. Second is the righteousness of God in Jesus. If the kingdom of God is the locus where God’s law reigns supreme, Jesus’ arrival expresses the law’s fulfillment. Gutiérrez writes, “When Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel of seeking the kingdom and righteousness of God, he is calling attention to the demand that the seeking implies.”[5] So, then, the law becomes a mark of seeking God’s reign on Earth. The church seeks an eschatological reality by practicing the law here and now.

With this interpretive lens, a preacher has a little bit of grace with which to interpret the law. The God of life gives the law to bring life, not death, for people of all genders. Some interpret the command, “choose life,” as the prohibition of reproductive justice. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount appears to proscribe divorce. Yet, with an eye to a God of life, and thus a law of life, one has freedom beyond the plain text. Divorce would have been a means by which a woman lost all protection in a society where she could not work or hold property. It would have negatively impacted her life. In situations of abuse or an unhappy marriage, marriage could be death-dealing. In line with a great many thinkers, we ask ourselves, “What brings abundant life?”

I find grace in this text because it does more than show us how to behave. It shows us who God is, who God makes us to be through Jesus. The law of God gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, as if that kingdom were an earthly country. “This,” it seems to say, “is what life will be like when God’s kingdom fills all things.” In that kingdom, both faraway and near, death is forever conquered by life. Murder, adultery, and lying are no more. Relationships are healed and whole. All of this because God is life, and God gives us life abundant.

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The Rev. Joseph Graumman, Jr.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 1, Kindle.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Matthew 6:33, NRSV.

[5] Ibid, 103.

5th Sunday after Epiphany(A): Why Do We Worship?

5th Sunday after Epiphany (A): Why Do We Worship?

Isaiah 58:1-9a

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.

In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.

Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).

One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology,  and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She 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 spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.

Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Patience

Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Patience

Luke 2:22-40

By: Chris Clow

If there is one thing I struggle with (as if there is only one thing), it is patience. I have a horrible time waiting for things to happen. Of course, I can put some of the blame on all of my beloved smart devices, but when I am honest, I know that it’s mostly on me. I was always the kid who snuck down at 4am on Christmas Day to shake the presents and try to guess what I got. I’m the kind of person who will read the spoiler long before I ever see the movie – I always want to know how it ends. It is awfully hard for me to wait.

With that in mind, I have a hard time relating to both Simeon and Anna in this gospel passage.  It is difficult for me to imagine waiting my entire life to see something. Who knows how many times Simeon went to the temple wondering if today would be the day? Who knows how many children Anna looked at in the temple and then had to go, “Nope, not this one.” I know how difficult I would find it to persevere in that patience – to spend so long unsure whether you will see it pay off. I wonder how many others also found it difficult, and what they thought of both Simeon and Anna? Were these two respected as elders? Were they mocked for their continued presence? Or even worse, were they just ignored and branded as “old weirdos?”

And, of course, I have to wonder if I am like that. I find it hard to be patient with myself – what am I like with other people? I can think of times that I outwardly or inwardly push others – “Come on, you just have to get over it and move past it. Can’t you see you’re wasting your time?” Certainly, there is a season for everything, and there are people who do need help moving past difficult times in their lives, or out of harmful relationships. But given how we tend to pride ourselves on constantly staying busy and never missing out on the next best thing, do we look at people who don’t seem to be as productive as ourselves and think they are wasting their time? Do we do that with ourselves?

The many changes over the past few months have made it very difficult for me to stay patient.  My family and I have moved to a new city for my wife’s new job, and I have begun full-time stay-at-home dad duties. And I have loved doing it and I love getting to have all of this time with my son, but it has been a massive change to my life, and for as much joy as being a full time parent has brought me, it has also brought a lot of anxiety too. “What do people think of me when they hear that I am a stay at home parent? Why do they keep asking about when I will get a job? How can we afford to stay in this house if I don’t start working? How will we afford childcare if I do?” I try to have faith that all will come to fruition in the future, but it is hard in the present to stay hopeful, and I know that my family is still relatively well off and there are many in tougher situations than we will ever face. I cannot imagine how a single parent even has an ounce of patience left.

“Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” These words of Malachi ring out like a terrible challenge: yes, God is coming, and yes, thing will get better, but you’ve gotta wait! Seriously? Nevermind my anxieties; my mind goes to all kinds of evils occurring – the children taken from their parents at the border; the children in our schools being trained for what to do if someone tries to shoot them; the constant reminders of the damage being done to our planet. As I write this, we have a threat of yet another war in the Middle East. It is overwhelming to think about all the harm taking place in our world. How can we endure this?

Well, thankfully we remember that we have a God who also lived through such trials with us.  Jesus’ time on Earth was not paradise either. He was not born an earthly prince but as a poor man – “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” probably wasn’t just a metaphor for him. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us well: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God.” Surely a God who didn’t always know where he would sleep at night can relate a bit to a young couple worried about keeping the roof over their heads too.

And one other thing that helps me is trying to practice humility – that is, placing myself in right relationship with God and with others around me (and not the form practiced by some that basically amounts to self-flagellation). By being willing to acknowledge the things I do have power over and things I don’t, I recognize what’s worth worrying about, along with what I need to let go of. A prayer that was written in honor of Oscar Romero puts it well:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us…

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”*

I find solace in these words very often. Of course, I need to make sure I am doing my part to help bring about the Kingdom, but it is just that. My part. I cannot do everything, and that means that I can do a few things, and do them well. We do not know what Simeon and Anna did the very next day – if they went out to tell everyone that they had seen God’s promise fulfilled in this child, or if they simply went back to the temple and about their lives. In the overall scheme of the Gospels, these two did not do much. But they did their part – they waited in patience for God to deliver, and when God did, they recognized it and didn’t miss out.

Maybe that’s a takeaway for us. In times where it can be hard to wait, where the world can overwhelm us, let us remember that can truly cannot do it all, but we can do our little part, and do it well. In that, may we recognize Jesus coming into our lives.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow currently spends his days as a stay-at-home parenting for his now 15 month old!  Before this chapter of his life, he had spent 8 years as a Campus Ministry and Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.  He currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife and son, and is also looking forward to when another more “professional” ministry opportunity might arise.

 

 

*The prayer is titled A Future Not Our Own, written by bishop Ken Uetener of Saginaw; it can be found here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Ken_Untener_A_Future_Not_Our_Own.shtml

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World

Matthew 4:12-17, 23-25

By: Colin Cushman

As is the case with most other types of literature, we as Biblical interpreters should give an exceptional amount of weight to the beginning and end of major formal elements in books of the Bible. They are often quite revealing regarding what the author is trying to communicate through his story. This passage from Matthew 4 stands at a pivotal moment in the form of Matthew’s gospel: this is the point where we move from Jesus’ pre-ministry to his ministry proper. As such, this passage is particularly important for understanding Matthew’s gospel message.

Our story starts off with an ominous sign. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’ eventual fate, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist (who modern scholarship suggests was Jesus’s mentor) was arrested. Jesus’ response to this was to leave home and move to Capernaum. Exegetes for millennia have tried to figure out why Jesus did this. He certainly wasn’t fleeing for his safety: Capernaum was directly in the center of the Galilee, the very domain of Herod Antipas, the Roman-installed client-king who was responsible for John’s arrest, who would later kill John the Baptist, and would put Jesus on trial. So clearly, Jesus is not fleeing toward safety here.

Interestingly, this is in contrast to his parents under the previous Herod (“the Great,” Herod Antipas’ father). The Holy Family fled as refugees to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being killed in the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents. At this time however, Jesus, now convicted of his ministry, steels himself and moves straight into the lion’s den, toward his confrontation with the powers that be. Over and over again, Jesus foretells his own death: throughout his entire ministry, he has a resoluteness about his behavior and rarely shies away from delivering his message, even though it comes at considerable personal risk.

In reflecting on Jesus’ relocation, Matthew cites a passage from First Isaiah. Along with the whole of Jewish biblical interpretation in this time period (including both Rabbinic and early Christian interpretation), Matthew would fail a modern exegesis class. He cherry-picks a ”prophecy” from the Bible (remember, there was only one Testament at this time), which he appropriates, giving little if any regard to its original context, simply plucking out the phrase that suits his purposes and disregarding the entire rest of the passage. This would not go over well under the rules of modern exegesis; he violates the most core principles of the discipline of Biblical Studies. However, in Matthew’s defense, few if any Jews in the first century C.E. would pass muster by modern exegetical standards. So Matthew’s use of Scripture here indeed is crass, but he also is behaving within the interpretive principles of this time.

However, all is not lost. We can still understand the intertextual relationship between Isaiah’s passage and Matthew’s productively, even if we add more nuance than he does. The original passage, coming from First Isaiah, reflects on the Jewish experience of exile. The people ”who sat in darkness” are those hauled off into exile in Babylon. (Which, note, is a classed experience. The Babylonians didn’t see it as worth the effort to haul off the poor into exile.) These elites who used to be so high on the cultural totem pole have now suffered a severe reversal of status and have been kicked out of their homeland, never to go back within their lifetimes. Notice as well that for many of these exiles, their descendants would never end up returning to the Holy Land. Despite the prophets’ best urgings and the laments of some of the most fervent of those exiled, many Israelites did not experience the Babylonian exile as suffering and in fact saw a marked increase in their standard of living. This then created the conditions whereby they would decline to move back to the Holy Land when they were allowed to, creating a significant Jewish community in Babylon. (This Babylonian Jewish community is so significant that it will eventually produce one of the versions of the Talmud.)

However, Isaiah is not speaking from this perspective of those who have accommodated to life in Babylonia, but from the perspective of one who sees the Holy Land itself as a fundamental part of God’s promises to Israel. Thus, beyond the emotional distress and trauma of forced displacement, the Israelites have suffered the loss of God’s gift to them. So for Isaiah, returning home was indeed a blessing, a “great light.” These people who have been sitting in darkness, as Matthew adapts Isaiah poetry to say, are finally able to return.

For Isaiah, this is fundamentally a story of God’s restoration at work in the world, restoring that which has been broken. And for Matthew, this same restoration that Isaiah talked about has come to be through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.

Matthew continues to expand upon Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 17 by describing what Jesus’s mission ministry looks like. It contains the core of the message for Matthew’s Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change your lives, for this restoration that God is bringing to pass has arrived. Come participate in this restored world. And what does this restoration look like? Verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus’ restoration-ministry consists of preaching, teaching, and healing. The restorations of hearts, minds, and bodies that have been broken down by Empire and exile—finally restored to how God originally wanted them to be.

So Matthew provides us a fitting beginning for Jesus’s ministry: encapsulating Jesus’ emphases, providing a characteristic example of Matthew’s crass deployment of Scripture to try to prove his point, and demonstrating how Jesus’ message fits within the broader narrative of God’s redemption of the world that the people had been waiting for in the figure of the Messiah—all of which done is a characteristically Matthean fashion to demonstrate who exactly Jesus was.

Picture1Colin Cushman is passionate about teaching the Bible. His particular areas of interest are around the intersection of social justice and the Bible: race, sexism, imperialism, poverty, etc. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, daughter, and dog.