Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Advent 1(B): Waking Up to Those Around Us

Mark 13:24-37

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

 

Confession: I really like my sleep.

It’s true. I am an early to bed kind of person and can even appreciate a short nap in the afternoon, every now and then. I really like my sleep. So, this passage from Mark’s Gospel appointed for the First Sunday of Advent is difficult for me.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says. Not once, but twice. Keep awake! Stay alert! For you do not know when the master of the house will come and you do not want to be found asleep.

Events surrounding sleep figure prominently in the Jesus story. In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Joseph experiences an angelic visitation in his sleep, foretelling the birth of the one with whom his wife to be was pregnant and by what name the child should be called.

When a man named Jairus approaches Jesus to tell him of his daughter who is ill and at the point of death, Jesus is delayed in arriving at the home by the woman who touched the fringe of his cloak. When Jesus does arrive, the girl is reported to be dead; but he responds to the cries of lament, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” And she is raised to life.

In the garden of agony, on the night of betrayal, Jesus found his disciples drifting off to sleep, not once, not twice, but three times, while he prayed in distress over what lay ahead.  To Simon Peter and the others he says, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” No, they could not.

Wakefulness and sleepiness, dozing off and remaining alert—these themes appear over and over again in the Gospel story, in each of the four accounts.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the first day of the Church year, we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel that takes place near an end, not at the beginning. We begin at the end.  Before Jesus is betrayed, handed over to suffering and death, he is in Jerusalem, around the Temple. No doubt, Jesus is teaching his disciples those most important truths, that which he wishes them to know most when he is longer with them.

In teaching about the hope of a hope-filled and glorious coming, with angels sent out to gather the faithful from every corner of creation, to the ends of the earth, Jesus issues a firm admonition: remain attentive. One does not know when this immense moment will arrive and does not want to be caught unaware, unprepared. So, keep awake, stay alert, remain vigilant.

So often I have heard this passage offered as a call to repentance and prayer, lest the hour of such a return arrive and one be found with unconfessed sin or an unprepared heart.  Seeking forgiveness and drawing nearer to God in petition and praise are rooted in the Christian tradition, to be sure. But, I wonder if there might be more for us to consider in this passage?

What might remaining awake and staying alert look like in our various contexts?

A few weeks ago, I sat in a circle of colleagues and pondered this question. There are a group of clergy in Lexington, Kentucky whose congregations band together to organize for just solutions to problems in our community.

Together we talked about the propensity toward dozing off as the people of God, not in our prayers or in our devotion to God, but in our concern for all God’s people. Keeping awake and remaining alert requires us, each as individuals and collectively as a community of faith, to see the needs of the world around us. And, even more, these needs, varied and great, call us as a people to not doze off.

In each of our communities, wherever we live, there are enormous challenges: inadequate access to direly needed healthcare, students who are not receiving the education they need because the myth of scarcity has proclaimed there are not enough resources, and lives ripped apart by epidemic of opioid addiction. There is hunger and homelessness.

At every turn, there is a world wondering, is anyone awake? Individuals cry aloud. Can anyone feel the burden that weighs me down? Does anyone see? Will anyone respond?

On this first Sunday in the season of Advent, as the church turns the page on a new year, as our eyes begin to turn toward the Christmas miracle, the invitation on this day, in this Gospel reading, is to wake up. When we, as the people of God, are awake, we are reminded that this Jesus whose coming we anticipate at Christmas and in the culmination of time is the One who entered into the fullness of our humanity, who knows the suffering of the human condition, and the weight of its pain.

He is the One who calls us to wake up, to be alert, not only in our hearts and souls, but in the world around us, where the cries for healing and wholeness have not quieted. Rather, they are often overlooked, cast aside, too easily forgotten.

This new season of Advent invites us into days of preparation, for Christ who comes as the Bethlehem baby and as great Redeemer of all creation. Might these days stir us to wake up from sleep and remain alert to the needs of the world around us?

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Reverend Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky.   Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a child, whenever I received a gift, I was not allowed to play with it until a thank you note was written, signed, addressed, and mailed. My parents wanted to instill in my siblings and me the practice of expressing gratitude to those who offered something to us, and it has served me well throughout my adult life and ministry. I am grateful for this practice that my parents instilled.

That was not always true, though. Around the second grade, I was not yet reading, so my parents had me tested by an educational psychologist and discovered that I am dyslexic. There are degrees of dyslexia which gauge the severity of one’s learning disability, and on the scale used at the time, I was a 6 of a possible 7 on the scale. The psychologist told my parents I would be functionally illiterate unless they intervened immediately. Even with intensive intervention and a plethora of supplemental resources and instruction time, I spent most of my primary and secondary education trying to “catch up” to my grade level in reading and writing skills.

On Christmas or after a birthday party, as I opened gifts, with every rip into the wrapping paper, I dreaded the thank you notes that must follow. My family’s tradition back then was to open all the gifts together, and then immediately retire to a table or comfortable chair with a hard-bound book in our laps to write out all the necessary thank you notes.

Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to get through one note because I had to keep stopping to ask my family how to spell words like “grateful” or “lovely” or “sincerely.”

My family always tried to be cheerful in helping me. But it got on their nerves, I am sure—especially my older siblings. I found out just a few years ago that they were threatened within an inch of their lives by our parents if there were ever caught teasing me about my dyslexia, or refusing to help when I asked. Despite their coerced but helpful attitudes, it was a struggle and embarrassment nonetheless. I wanted not to need so much help. I wanted to be “normal.”

That brings us to the gospel appointed for Thanksgiving. St. Luke’s gospel tells the story of ten lepers who begged for mercy and were made clean of their ailment, but only one returns to show gratitude to Jesus after realizing the miracle of his healing.

Often we hear this text preached as a call to gratitude and praise for the gifts of our lives. Those include the the primary gifts for sustaining life: food, shelter, clothing; along with other material gifts: cars, homes, and boats; and even the sentimental gifts: family, friends, and loved ones. In sermons like these, we are usually led to consider some active application of the text like how to “live thanksgiving every day” or “embrace gratitude as a new spiritual praxis,” or maybe something even more saccharine or cliché.

As I attempted the read the text with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about those other nine who didn’t return, more than I had before. Why didn’t they return? Were they ungrateful, or did they just not know a return to say “thanks” was an expectation? Were they careless, or were they carried away in a mad fury to show their newly healed skin to those they were separated from by that dreadful bacteria? Were they distracted by the celebration with one another? Were they ungrateful, or were they swept up in the possibility of their new lives given in healing, and maybe even forgetful?

Those questions led me to a more graceful reading of this story than I’ve heard or even proclaimed previously. Jesus’ response to the lone returner, a Samaritan “foreigner” at that, may lead the preacher to highlight how we can forget to express gratitude, even though we experience it. The power of it is not the private emotion, but the offering. We uplift the Kingdom of God and therefore the world, not in feeling grateful but by BEING grateful—expressing it!

As we enter a season filled giving and receiving, let us commit ourselves to the graceful proclamation of the power of gratitude as an expressed element. Let us avoid drawing a false dichotomy of the grateful one, versus an ungrateful nine, but instead preach the power of expressive and bold gratitude offered to one another.

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, Kennesaw, Georgia.

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Matthew 25:31-46

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I am not always proud of who I am or about the things I’ve done, but there are times when I’m guilty of telling myself “well, at least I’m not like him.” There are people who embody the exact opposite of the faith and grace I have come to love in Christ and I am guilty of looking down and judging them for it.  When I am honest with myself, in my heart I know there are times when my only thought about someone is: “Thank heaven that’s not me,” or “I am such a better Christian than they are.” When these thoughts cross my mind I hope I am subtle about it. I hope I don’t let it show. But whether it’s seen by others or not, I know I can be self-righteous. There are times I need to remind myself I’m not the one who separates the sheep from the goats.

Judgment comes from a place of vulnerability inside each of us. It comes from our need for self-assurance. It’s a misguided way of convincing ourselves that we have God’s favor because someone else does not. There are many reasons we judge others. Sometimes we judge because it simplifies a complicated world by putting people in boxes of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Most of us grew up watching TV shows and reading stories where it was obvious what side a character was on. A child reading The Lord of the Rings knows that the Orcs and Goblins are the bad guys and the Elves and Hobbits are good. In old Western movies you could distinguish good and bad by the color of someone’s hat. But in the real world people don’t fit into simple visual narratives, although it would make life much easier. People are ambiguous; saints can be sinful and the wicked can be redeemed. We see only a small snippet of each other’s stories. Even after spending a lifetime with someone, at the end we will have only understood a fragment of who they are in the eyes of God. It is God who alone sees us in our entirety and decides where we ultimately belong.

In the First Testament passage from Ezekiel God is described as a shepherd who cares for the flock. Those sheep who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [your] horns until [you] scattered them far and wide” are rebuked and judged for their actions. The passage is filled with promises from the shepherd about what he will do: “I myself will search;” “I will rescue.” It is worth noting just how active this shepherd is. It is a theme Jesus draws upon repeatedly. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims a great separation that will happen at the end of the age. Wheat will be separated from the weeds, chaff from grain, good fish from bad and goats from sheep. But none of this is self-selected. The sheep don’t decide who gets into the barn. The fish don’t get a say in who’s kept and who’s tossed back. That decision is made by the one to whom they all belong.

Judging is not the same as having an opinion. Being non-judgmental does not mean anything goes or that we should accept unacceptable behavior. What someone says and does communicates who they are and influences how we will relate to them, so of course we will have opinions about others (it would be naive to think otherwise). The difference is that opinion is something open that can be changed; a person can reform and relationships can mend. But a judgment is something final, something we don’t revisit once it’s been made. Once we’ve judged someone then we have dropped a curtain on them and refuse to pull back up. That’s something we don’t get to do. That is something up to God alone.

It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats. The kingdom of heaven is not a club with us handing out entry tickets. We are more like promoters, not bouncers; we help send the invitations but who gets admitted isn’t up to us. Our job is not to be the gatekeepers but to care for everyone as long as we’re out here in the field. What happens after that is up to God, and until then we are called to love without reserve or distinction.  We have all sinned in the eyes of God. It is not that one person is more worthy to receive God than another, but that God continues to love us all regardless of our past.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Reverend TJ Tetzlaff serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and has worked with a number of churches and nonprofits. He and his wife Chana, recently moved to Wilmington, North Carolina with their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his spare time TJ can usually be found walking on the beach, playing board games, or playing with his dogs.

Proper 28(A): Can’t We Just Skip This?

Proper 28(A): Can’t We Just Skip This?

Matthew 25:14-30

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

My knee-jerk response to this parable is negative for three illegitimate reasons:

1) I can’t bear to think of God as “harsh…reaping where [he] did not sow, gathering where [he] did not scatter seed” and engendering fear in his timid slave.

2) I really, really dislike the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” imagery.

3) I shudder to think that many read this parable as an endorsement of modern financial investment practices.

I doubt that I am alone in struggling with the temptation to skip right over this passage looking for more congenial lectionary texts. But if we give into that temptation over and over again (which can happen so easily), we deny our people the chance to wrestle alongside us and miss an opportunity to teach folks “how” (tools, concepts, etc.) one interprets hard texts. In this passage, three key “concepts are ripe for elaboration:  parables, eschatology, and apocalypse.

My first illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid this text is caused by an overly-allegorical approach to interpreting the parable. Often we want parables (or Scripture generally) to provide some sort of clear directive or advice or doctrine. That isn’t how Scripture works generally and especially not parables! The more we preachers can break open the Word from the chains of even subconscious literalism, the more we are inviting our people into spiritual maturity and real-time engagement with the Living Christ.

A common (mis)reading of parables looks to one-to-one equivalences.[1] In this case, the man is God the Father, the slaves are servants of God. Two of the slaves “invest” their talents and are rewarded. One buries it and is condemned to hell. So my first knee-jerk aversive response is based on lazy interpretation: Jesus isn’t suggesting that the “man going on a journey,” later referred to as the “master” is the first person of the Trinity. We might glean some meaning by making that association, but the association is limited. It doesn’t work the whole way through as a lens for understanding the nature of God – and that is okay because parables aren’t allegories.

Moving away from one-to-one equivalences also partially addresses my second illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid the text: the use of the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a misreading of the text to equivalate the “outer darkness” as “hell” in the “heaven/hell” binary of popular culture. This parable is not about soteriology (how Jesus saves or redeems the world and its creatures) and should not be reduced to a teaching about an individual’s fate after death; rather, it is one of a cluster of teachings about how to live faithfully when the world is falling apart around you. In other words, it is apocalyptic.[2]

The passage is situated in the Jesus’ “final discourse” in Matthew. Beginning in chapter 24 and concluding with the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of this chapter, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ questions about signs of Jesus’ coming and the “end of the age,” about eschatology. You can almost think of this section as a post-script to the ascension, even though this discourse precedes those events in the narrative. Perhaps Matthew, likely writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and certainly amid conflict with traditional Jews, imagines how Jesus would speak into Matthew’s present-day situation. How do disciples find the courage to live faithfully in a context where clear lines are surfacing between Jews who are part of the “Jesus movement” and Jews who aren’t, especially in a context where the first type of Jew could be persecuted by the Romans? The ultimate “End Time” that Jesus is purportedly addressing in the discourse is likely blurred with a proximate “End Time” for displaced, persecuted Jews who are realizing their allegiance to Jesus means they are no longer welcome in the synagogue.

As much as my skin crawls at the imagery of gnashing teeth, I am more empathetic to Matthew’s use of the terms when it is placed in the context of a literal struggle for survival.  Perhaps it is part of our unredeemed human nature to create binaries in which we find tend to make ourselves superior. Certainly this tendency is exacerbated when we feel threatened. Fear is a powerful motivator. (There are so many examples from our political life today; I don’t need to cite them.) This parable is one of several in this discourse that use judgement scenes almost as a trope to convey skills, dispositions, virtues  that disciples need as they wait the End Time when the Kingdom of Heaven is more fully realized.[3]

So now for my final negative knee-jerk reaction to this parable: that my parishioners will hear it the context of present-day global economics and believe Jesus encourages us to make good financial investments. Again, one-to-one equivalences distract us from the harder work of struggling with the parable’s meaning. In God’s economy, spiritual gifts, “talents,” grow when they are used and given away freely for the benefit of others here and now, not when they are controlled for some future “use,” as can happen with financial investments, endowments, etc.

The slaves don’t “earn” the money and certainly never lay claim to owning it. They are given the money each “according to their ability,” resulting in different amounts. This resonates with Jesus’ earlier parable in chapter 13 about the sower getting different yields.  We aren’t all given the same spiritual gifts, and we don’t all produce spiritual fruit in equal quantities. The master knows how much each slave is capable of stewarding well, and the slaves are accountable to the master for using what they’ve been given. The two who use their talents, who serve the master, find benefit for themselves (“enter into the joy of your master”). The one who doesn’t experiences “consequences,” as my father would say after I disobeyed him.

A question to wrestle with, and which might be an excellent topic for a sermon, is why the third slave buries the talent. If the third slave knew his master liked a return on the talents and was afraid of him, why wouldn’t the slave have sought even a modest return? Was he paralyzed by fear? Was he captive to his own desire for security and control? Was he just lazy and taking the “easy way” out? The master knew he was capable of doing more than he did but the opportunity for doing good (using spiritual gifts to strengthen the community) passed him by, and there were consequences of this inaction. Another possible angle for preaching is to look at how human beings respond in the context of fear. Does fear, say in this political climate, make us more timid to speak our minds, to use our gifts? Does fear make us more passive in the face of harsh, unjust powers? Which is harder in the long run:  hiding our talents and being cast into outer darkness or taking the risk to use our gifts and claim our voice even though we can’t fully control the outcome?

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains in Haywood County, North Carolina. When not thinking, reading, or writing about spiritual leadership, missional priorities, sermons, or pastoral care, she chases two kids, a cat, and a husband around Lake Junaluska and other beautiful spots.

 

 

[1] The conclusion to Amy Jill-Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus elaborates on this point.

[2] Hauerwas, Stanley.  Matthew.  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. p. 203.

[3] This is the thrust of Hauerwas’ argument.  Ibid. pp. 201 -212.

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Matthew 23:1-13

By: The Rev. David Clifford

As a pastor, I often find myself talking with people about their favorite Bible passages. However, I rarely find myself discussing people’s least favorite Biblical passages. It doesn’t seem to be something that many people want to admit to the pastor–“I don’t really like that Bible passage.” However, the truth is, we each have favorite scriptures that stand out to us. And, in the same way, we each have scriptures that we struggle with and just don’t seem to like all that much. This is true for us pastors as well.

If I’m completely honest (even at the risk of challenging the expectation that pastors love all scripture), this week’s lectionary scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is a scripture I find myself struggling with. Jesus begins to talk about the end times with his disciples and telling them stories about what God’s Kingdom and realm are really like. This particular story is about ten virgins: 5 of whom are wise and the other 5, well, not so much.

In this parable, Jesus draws to mind ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. The foolish virgins take with them no oil for their lamps. When they run out of oil, the other 5 refuse to help them. The foolish virgins must go buy more oil. While they are out, the bridegroom comes. The wise virgins go off with the bridegroom. When the foolish virgins return and knock on the door, the bridegroom replies, “Truly…I don’t know you” (verse 12 NIV).

In his book, The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus uses both common and traditional formatting for his parables. This particular parable is a perfect example of “Olrik’s “law of contrast,” the tendency toward polarization, especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.”[1] For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast[2]

Here’s my struggle and the reason I’m not a huge fan of this particular passage and parable. This is supposedly the same “Kingdom of God” that Jesus describes a few chapters earlier with the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18: 12-14, Jesus says:

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (NIV)

I find myself wondering if both of these stories can describe the same Kingdom. Is God’s Kingdom like the shepherd that is happier about the one lost sheep over the 99 that are not lost? Or, is God’s Kingdom like the bridegroom that closes the door on the foolish virgins simply because they were out getting more oil?

Of course, a simple answer is that these two parables are describing very different things. One is describing the joy at returning the lost, while the other is describing the fact that no one knows the time nor hour of the coming of the Son of Man and God’s Kingdom. However, I believe this week’s lectionary can be used to tease out some of the differences that Jesus may highlight about God’s Kingdom through his parabolic teachings. This particular parable can be compared to other parables. The formatting may be similar – “lost” versus “found,” and “in” versus “out,” or “wise” versus “foolish.” However, the truth of the parable seems to be very different. Crossan may be on to something. The formatting is common, while the content and contrast are dramatic and unexpected.[3]

As it relates to this week’s lectionary, I often found myself wondering why Jesus doesn’t highlight that God’s Kingdom is like 5 wise virgins that share their oil so that all 10 get to meet the bridegroom at midnight. He could have still highlighted that no one knows for sure when the Son of Man will come; while also highlighting the need for each of us to take care of one another while we wait. However, Jesus rarely meets our expectations and I can only assume that God’s Kingdom is similar.

It often happens to me that on Monday I come up with the perfect way to express my sermon for the previous Sunday. I usually note these things down and save them for a future sermon. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus missed a great teaching opportunity with this parable. Maybe the next day he thought, “I should have changed that story so my disciples would know how easy it would have been for those 5 wise virgins to help their neighbors.”

It could be that Jesus is merely highlighting the fact that no one truly knows the day or hour. However, the following two parables seem to suggest otherwise. It is difficult to interpret that the foolish virgins somehow find their way through that door. The very next parable tells us of servants given bags of gold, the servants who manage their gold well are reward. The servants who manage their gold poorly, are treated…not so well…

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 18:29-30 NIV)

Following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats. When the Son of Man comes, all will be divided into two groups. Sheep on one hand, goats on the other. To both parties the King will acknowledge whether they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, looked after the sick, and visit the prisoner. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). Those that did not do these things “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).

Of course, there is nothing in this listing of things the least of these needs that speaks about oil for their lamps as they await their bridegroom, but I can’t help but wonder if those 5 foolish virgins could be considered the least of these. What would our parable for this week’s lectionary look like if the 5 wise virgins had shared their oil instead of sending the foolish virgins of to the market?

If you are preaching on this parable for this week’s lectionary, it may be a great time to remind those hearing God’s Word about the unorthodox way in which Jesus teaches us about God and God’s Kingdom. Not that Jesus teaches in parable: many are doing that, but, that Jesus rarely meets the expectations of his followers and those who listen to his teaching. I struggle to fit many of Jesus’ parables together because it can be so difficult to follow a Lord and Savior who is constantly challenging you to be a better person; and whose entire life was a challenge to re-evaluate our lives and expectations. May God bless us with the strength and wisdom to continue in the faith and to continue the task at hand.

 

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David received a Master of Divinity and Master of Mental Health Counseling from Christian Theological Seminary in May of 2014. David has been serving at Westmont since July 2016. David enjoys reading and bicycle riding. He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Footnote 1 above.

All Saints’ Day: Broken Saints

All Saints Day: Broken Saints

Matthew 5:1-12

By: Chris Clow

I have to admit, it’s been a little more difficult than I would have thought to know what to say for All Saints Day. The stereotypical Catholic thing would be to say that I love the saints, and, I mean, it’s not like I don’t. I do love the saints, and I think that as disciples, we are called to be saints. It’s just that, after thinking that, it gets complicated.

To begin with, I’m named after a fake saint (how appropriate for the age we live in now).  Well, that’s a bit unfair. I suppose it’s better to say I’m named after a saint that has a lot of out there legends said about him, and we aren’t even sure if he really existed or not. Poor Christopher, it’s not his fault. So, I suppose #maybefakesaint? I guess that doesn’t help me to a good start.

I always had the impression growing up that the saints were these great models of faith and morals, people who show us what it’s like to be a disciple, people who really got it. And thinking about that now, today, honestly, it freaks me out. These are people who founded huge orders and organizations, who spread the faith to far off lands, performed miracles (and not just like finding a parking spot when you’re running late for work, you know, miracle miracles). They did crazy, wonderful, huge things in the name of the Lord, and lived incredible lives. St. Francis Xavier dreamed of bringing the faith to China. I dream of occasionally having a day off. Even when I try to do awesomely good things, I (to paraphrase St. Paul) screw it up and do something wrong instead. Often times I can’t conjure up enough faith to not be frustrated with my co-workers, or my students, or myself, much less move mountains around. What kind of saint can I hope to be?

Also, by the way, a lot of them were killed for their faith. Also, by the way, a lot of them were virgins. Not. My. Preference.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is famous. Everyone seems to love this one: “Oh, it’s the Beatitudes! How wonderful!” Maybe everyone else has figured out something I haven’t, but I have to wonder if we’re reading the same passage, because when I hear it, it doesn’t sound like I’m in the “blessed” category. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m closer to the opposite.

“Blessed are the meek?” I’ve got quite the temper, and I can get angry and frustrated, which while we’re at it also ruins the whole “Blessed are the merciful,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” thing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who cling to God with their whole lives and depend on God for everything because they find in God all they need? Nope, not there yet. I love my stuff way too much.

“Hunger and thirst for righteousness?” I mean, I certainly try to try and do that. But I tend to not be hungry and thirsty for very long (in all senses of the phrase).

“Clean of heart?” Yeah, not really, if I’m honest.

“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me?” I’m too scared to make a post on Facebook that might be deemed “too political,” even when my own bishops aren’t afraid to, because I don’t want any negative blowback. Yeah, definitely not me.

So, am I missing something here? I’m constantly fall short, I’m nowhere close to being blessed if this Gospel passage is what we should go on, and seeing as how many people love this passage, apparently they’ve all got these attitudes down and I’m the one with a problem. So am I screwed?

Well, no. I actually don’t think so. And I have the saints to thank for that. See, what I love most about the saints isn’t their steadfast holiness. I love the saints precisely because they remind me of myself at times.

The saints, holy women and men, are also unfailingly human and flawed. I mean, just look at some of these people: Peter and Paul weren’t angels. Peter denied the Lord, and Paul supported killing disciples. Both saints. Augustine, that great Doctor of the Church, was a womanizer, and probably set our sexual morality back 500 years because of his problems.  He’s a saint. Katherine Drexel, a more recent American saint, was filthy rich; she was definitely in the 1% (at least at the start). She’s a saint.

Even a very recent saint, Saint Pope John Paul II – the pope of my youth, the first Polish pope (!), the one I chanted “JP2 – we love you” to with almost a million teens during World Youth Day – made papal visits a thing and went to 129 countries during his lifetime, expanding the positive impact the pope could make, and had many great teachings, such as being a staunch peace advocate. He also presided over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and appointed the bishops and cardinals who passed the buck on it. He’s a saint, too.

So what’s the deal here? These people were all screw-ups, right? Yes, they were – that’s the point. The saints were all wonderful, faulty, flawed people, just like we are, whose love of God and trust in their faith endured alongside their human failings. They weren’t always embodying the Beatitudes perfectly either. But that didn’t stop them from trying. As complicated and as broken as some of the saints are, they still had faith which carried them through, and even with their brokenness allowed them to strive to serve God and others.

That’s a model I can follow after. And so, if we don’t see ourselves in the Beatitudes very easily, maybe we need to learn how to become more like those mentioned. To literally be with and stand with those who are in the Beatitudes. When we stand with and walk beside those who are meek, those who show mercy, the peacemakers, the persecuted, those who are poor (both in spirit and in physical need), we will begin to see the God that we’ve heard about come alive in our midst. If we want to come to know God better, we should start by knowing those whom God has deemed blessed.

We’ll fail, sure. We’ll fall short. But we can always get back up and keep trying. That is the ultimate mark of the saints we remember today. We can still be saints if we’re broken. It might as well be a requirement.

 

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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 college students to sing in the choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, enjoy a good beer (or 2 or 3, depending on how the Cards fare that day), and spend time with his wife Emily and the ever growing number of pets in their house.

Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Matthew 22:34-46

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

Matthew 22:34-46 is the last in a string of questions the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been asking Jesus. Earlier on in 22:15, Matthew says that the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said, meaning they wanted to get him debate them with the goal of getting himself into trouble by saying the wrong thing (politics and religion have changed so little). They pursue this with the Sadducees, who have no real affections for Jesus either.

First up to bat are the Pharisees, who ask Jesus a question about taxes, to which Jesus responds with the famous, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (or something like that). Later on than this, but still before Proper 25’s focus text, the Sadducees come and ask him a complicated question about levirate marriages in order to get him to, in a roundabout way, admit that there is no resurrection (because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection). Jesus wasn’t having much of that either. So he responded, then sent them on their way, leaving the crowd astounded.

To me, the Pharisees and Sadducees here always come across like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus, trying to go toe-to-toe with Moses, but can’t quite squeeze a win out of it. Now, we get to our focus text and the last of the tricks up the local leaders’ sleeves. In their final quip here they ask Jesus which commandment of the Law is the greatest. I’m always reminded here of Conan the Barbarian who was asked a similar question: “what is best in life? Conan responded something like: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to be more in Conan the Barbarian’s camp rather than Jesus the Messiah’s. Jesus responded very differently. He went for two quotations from the Hebrew Bible. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The first bit about loving God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your might. In Deuteronomy’s context it is the establishment of the requirement of loyalty to the LORD, the God of Israel (whom readers have just been informed is one and will later be told how to do this). The second bit of the Law which Jesus commends as greatest has to do with people and comes from Leviticus 19:18: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. Jesus goes on to say that on this hangs all the law and the prophets. All of the big, important stuff about God and people and the relationships among these respective parties can be boiled down to a threefold love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.

It was hard to argue with this, even though the Pharisee who asked was a lawyer, so it seems as if they just let it go. What stands out most to me in all of this is that as Jesus is winding down his ministry (this comes after his entrance into Jerusalem) he is getting to the point. He is also done with taking a bunch of trick questions and dealing with the same old antagonism from the same old folks. He goes on after this to give nothing less than a scathing criticism of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees and Sadducees just wanted to play games. They wanted to use theology as a weapon against Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t having it. He gave constant deflections and in the process let us all know what is best in life, and it isn’t war or defeating one’s enemies (sorry Conan!), it’s love.

There are a lot of times in life when a lot of folks will turn this commandment of love into another kind of Pharisaic trick. I know that in my own experience as a queer person I’ve often been given the false choice of loving God or loving myself.  Plenty of folks tried to convince me that I could love God and hate my sexual orientation, or I could love my sexual orientation and hate God. Theological entrapment.

Another example of this comes from the congregation in which I work. It is about half African American. A lot of the older black folks in the congregation recall having the Bible used against them as a weapon too, with white preachers and local leaders harkening to Scripture to twist and turn it, trying to wring out of it a definitive statement that people of color were less than whites, and to justify their segregation and marginalization, much as their white forebears did in defense of the institution of slavery.

In both the case of the social oppression of the queer and black communities (both of which have had a lot of media recent media coverage due to the Nashville Statement and the violence in Charlottesville respectively), people want to use God as a weapon of oppression or hurt, trying to entrap people in it rather than letting them be liberated by it.

A final thought on what speaks to me from the text today is that I really relate to Jesus’ position here. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have approached me to “just discuss” the issue of queerness and religion in order to basically entrap me. What offers a lot of hope to me as one who still continues in this kind of struggle is that when Jesus was cornered and confronted with religion in this way, his response was ultimately that loving God and loving one’s neighbor and loving oneself is the highest calling in life. The hope here is that he did not let the struggle with the local leaders break his spirit or distract him from the core of his message. This threefold love is the measure against which all Christians must measure their lives. It is the core of the Gospel. It is, more or less, not just what is best in life, but perhaps even the meaning of life itself.

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.