Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

Luke 20:27-38

By: The Rev. William Culpepper

In the introduction to his book “Sex God,” Rob Bell assures us that “this” really is about “that”—meaning  that the book really is about sex, even if it the particular chapter or section didn’t seem to be. It was a particularly good point to make at the beginning of the book because sometimes I found myself reading and asking was “this” really about “that”? And I find myself asking the same thing here: was the Sadducees’ question really about “this”? And was Jesus’ answer really about “that”?

I’m not talking about sex here (although I’m sure there is a commentary out there that does, given that the institution of marriage and sexual intercourse were so tightly bound during this time and in this culture.) But I do want to know what the Sadducees are getting at. Are they asking about marriage? If so, is this an intellectually curious question that has no real answer since we have no idea about the laws of marriage in the next life. Are they asking about resurrection? If so, are they honestly asking or seeking to undermine the teachings of Jesus since they do not believe in resurrection (verse 27)?

Is this some sort of mega-Schrödinger situation in which the woman is both dead and alive and also married to one brother and all of the brothers?

And then there is Jesus’ answer. What is he getting at? Does he adequately answer the question or is this one of those situations where Jesus seems to know more than we do and acts counter to what we would think he would do?

Is this question really about that? Is the answer really addressing that?

Let’s crack these hypotheticals by looking at the person of Luke. This story is included in both Matthew (22:23-33) and Mark (12:18-27), but Luke leaves out something that is included by both Matthew and Mark. In the other two gospels, Jesus begins his response by calling into question the Sadducees’ knowledge of both Scripture and the power of God. Luke probably doesn’t include this little detail because he is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, while the others are writing to primarily Jewish audiences. Instead, Luke begins Jesus response by saying “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage but those who are considered worthy of a place in that and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (v. 34-35)

Jesus’ answer is about this and that.

But the ‘this’ and ‘that’ isn’t marriage.

The ‘this’ and ‘that’ is life and death.

“Let’s step away from the hypothetical and into what matters,” says Jesus. Stop asking about a situation that probably never happened and start looking at one that happens everyday. Start asking about the difference between death and life. That is what the Sadducees were missing, and maybe that is what Jesus was referring in those interlinear passages found in Matthew and Mark. Resurrection is throughout the Scriptures; somehow the Sadducees have missed it.

And with no resurrection there is no way to escape death.

And with no escape from death, what can we hope for in this life?

And yet, God offers life as an escape from death through Jesus Christ.

And yet Jesus is the resurrection.

The Sadducees needed to stop asking about the letter of the law and start seeing the resurrection right before their eyes. They needed to open their dead eyes and see the life that is offered by Christ. Because things are different between this age and that age. And the difference is that we worship not “the God of the dead but of the living” (v. 38)

And those who worship this God experience life.

And those who are living that life experience death.

There is a difference between this and that. It’s resurrection. It’s Jesus.


The Rev. William Culpepper

The Rev. William Culpepper is an ordained Deacon in the South Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at a church in downtown Macon, Georgia. With a 2 year old daughter and newborn daughter, he and his wife Lindsey have their hands full but wouldn’t have it any other way.

All Saints Day (C): The Company of Blessing

All Saints Day (C): The Company of Blessing

Luke 6:20-31

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

Could a more appropriate Gospel text be appointed for All Saints Day? These verses from Luke’s Gospel offer us as readers both a lens through which to remember the saints of God of the distant past and a blueprint for identifying the saints living among us in the present day.

“Blessed are those who are poor…”

“Blessed are those who are hungry now…”

“Blessed are you who weep now…”

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when people exclude you…”

The Christian tradition is one filled with individuals who have expressed prodigious and inspiring faith, often when confronted with the direst of circumstances. For each of them, such faith came at a cost; for many, it came at the expense of their lives. Their stories of proclaiming the good news in the midst of poverty and hunger, sorrow and persecution are narratives that can inspire us all, individually and collectively, to be the people God has called us to be in this present moment.

Last year, one individual in my parish remarked that All Saints is a good day to “preach the windows.” Indeed, many of us are blessed with sacred spaces that help us to commemorate the lives of the faithful followers of Jesus who have lived in years now long in the past. All Saints Sunday is the perfect moment to remember the faithful of the generations gone by, those who are known to all and especially those whose stories so often get overlooked.

As an example, it might be helpful for a congregation to hear about a woman named Cecilia of Rome. In the early third century, she was converted to Christianity along with her husband and his brother. Ultimately, the two men were executed for their conversion and while, Cecilia was burying them, she also was killed for her faith. They are saints and martyrs, steadfast in the face of those who treated them and the faith that they had embraced with a fiery hatred.

Or, it might be good for a congregation to consider the life of a man such as Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was murdered in Alabama in August 1965.  Daniels, a white man, had ventured to Alabama to be a voice for those who were poor and weeping, beaten down by a system that did not value them as fully human because of their race. Daniels gave voice to the voiceless, even as his body was carried to the grave.

Or, a congregation can celebrate the newly canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Sometimes known as the “saint of the gutters,” Teresa devoted her life to the poor who had been cast to the furthest margins of humanity. Her work among the hungry and the weeping has been chronicled across the globe in the second half of the twentieth century with images that give a face to those who might otherwise have been forgotten.

All Saints Sunday might also be a good occasion to remember those more familiar narratives, the stories of the first apostles or patrons of particular denominational identities. Each of these accounts has so much to offer the people of God whose roots are deep and strong.

However, if All Saints Day is nothing more than a remembrance of those blessed ones confined to the distant past, then we miss much of its power. A serious consideration of the saints must invite all of us to look for the holy ones in this present moment.

In many of our faith communities, this day will be one that calls to mind those who have died in recent days, friends and family members and faithful congregants whose lives no longer enrich our daily existence. But, even more, who and where are the living saints in our midst?

Jesus points us toward those among us who are poor, those who are hungry, those who are weeping, and those who have been hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.

The nameless woman at the busy intersection who greets you each morning with her story written on a torn piece of scrap cardboard. She is a saint.

The young boy living just a few streets over who went to bed with an empty stomach because his family was forced to choose between buying food and paying a bill. He is a saint.

The spouse of fifty years that never imagined her life without her beloved one who died suddenly and without warning last year. She is a saint.

The man who fled his home with his family in search of a land free from war only to be cast aside because of the color of his skin and the name he calls God. He is a saint.

These are the blessed ones in our midst. These are the holy ones who are drawing us forth from the comforts of riches and pleasure to the margins of pain and suffering, to the places where the good news is most readily in need of proclamation. It is in these margins that we discover the heart of holiness, the very core of what it means to be blessed, to live a life of saintly proportion.  And it is to these margins that Jesus bids all the people of God.

To go there requires us also to listen intently to the “woes” of this passage and to honestly take stock of our own lives.

“But woe to you who are rich…”

“Woe to you who are full now…”

“Woe to you who are laughing…”

“Woe to you when all speak well of you…”

The treasures and privileges available to some have the potential to so cloud our vision that we fail to see true blessedness, the holiness that hides in the hurts and hunger of this world God has brought into being.

Reading this passage from Luke’s Gospel on All Saints Sunday invites each of us to look deep into the rich heritage of our faith. In that inheritance, we discover again the lives of the faithful who have been bearers of the good news in their own day.

But, even more, this passage opens our eyes to the saints alive and living among us—the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the cast aside—so that we might have the faith to join their company of blessing.


The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. 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.


Proper 26(C): The Whole Story

Proper 26(C): The Whole Story

Luke 19:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

If you grew up in the church as I did, you probably know this particular story from scripture very well. I am fairly sure I knew the story of the wee little man named Zacchaeus, who climbed the sycamore tree, “for the Lord he wanted to see” even before I could read the actual scriptural account in Luke’s Gospel. It is a noble thing that we teach our children the stories from the life and ministry of Jesus. However, we fail our children, faith, and God when we fail to continue teaching them as they get older. While I knew this particular story from the children’s song taught to me in Sunday School, it would not be until my time spent in undergraduate classes studying the scriptures academically that I would truly begin to read and understand this scripture.

If we only hear of the wee little man from the Sunday School song, we miss the context of who Zacchaeus represents in the Gospel. Zacchaeus is described in Luke’s Gospel as a “chief tax collector” and “rich” (verse 2). In the context of Luke’s Gospel, this puts Zacchaeus in the role of outcast. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary sets the context of the outcasts for us:

In Luke, the tax collectors function as the prototypical outcasts—those whom Jesus befriends. Roman officials contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the prescribed indirect taxes, tolls, tariffs, and customs fees in a given area. These entrepreneurs, the “chief tax collectors,” were required to pay the contract in advance. They would then employ others to collect the taxes with the hope that the amount collected would yield a profit. The system, not surprising, was open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by other Jews for their complicity with the Gentile oppressors.[1]

If we only know of Zacchaeus’ short stature and tree climbing capability from the Sunday School song, we may fail to understand his context and entrepreneurial zeal for making a profit off his own people. If we fail to recognize this context, we may not quite understand the crowds muttering and grumbling (depending on our translation)[2] and calling Zacchaeus a “sinner.” Zacchaeus’ “sin” was not his wealth, but his work for and with the Roman oppressors. Zacchaeus is an outcast in the town of Jericho.

This story is not so much a story of a wee little man climbing a tree; rather, it is good news for all who may be considered outcasts in any way. For many of us Christians, we assume that those who sin and find themselves outside of a relationship with Jesus are lost and need to be saved. We fail to realize this is a reality for all of us as finite creatures. Especially in our day and age of thinking everything that happens in the world is an attack on us as Christians, we must constantly remind ourselves of God’s preferential treatment of the outcasts.

Richard Beck is an author and professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Beck is also a prolific blog writer, writing almost daily at his blog, Experimental Theology. I find Beck’s work interesting in the ways in which he combines psychology and theology. In one of Beck’s blogs from December 2013, he shares an advent meditation from the bible study he leads at a local prison.

In this particular post, Beck describes the controversial art released in 1987 by photographer Andres Serrano entitled Piss Christ. Beck describes the photograph and its controversy in the following:


Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano

Piss Christ was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989 when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1998, the National Gallery in Melborune, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.[3]


Maybe you can relate to the Senate and their outrage? Maybe the image of Christ juxtaposed with the urine borders on the blasphemous for you?

Beck points to this reaction and yet shares another view in his prison bible study and blog:

Piss contaminates the Christ.

This is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure but sits with the pollutant.

This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant—the tax collectors and sinners—defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus’s presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Because pollution doesn’t work that way.

Thus, in the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively—and blasphemously—believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the “piss” of our lives.[4]

Psychologically, it seems counter-intuitive that something pure could clear the pollution it comes into contact with. At the very least, it goes against most of the chemistry and science that we have been taught. And yet, this is the good news of our scripture. Christ is stronger than the sin in our lives. Christ can purify each of us of the contamination of our finite lives as human beings. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is constantly meeting, living, and eating with the outcasts of the world. Many Christians today would have a field day on social media if they were to see Jesus sharing his life with such outcasts. They believe, like the US Senate in 1989, that the negative is stronger than the purification of Christ.

The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus is so much more than a story of a wee little man who wants nothing more than to see Jesus. It is yet another reminder than Christ is stronger than contamination and “piss.” As Christians, it often seems that we are quickest to judge. We believe that the outcasts and their “sins” will contaminate the sanctity and purification of our church and faith. When we judge the others around us in this way, we insult the forgiving power of Jesus…and God’s Grace. Real blasphemy, as Beck points out, is thinking the sin of the world is stronger that Christ, and not believing that the sacrificial love of Jesus can purify the world. The next time we as Christians have the urge to cry out blasphemy and point out sin, we might do well to remember two things: the first is that we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23). The second, and more important, is that Christ is bigger than sin. The Gospel and Good News is that Christ can purify the contamination and piss of our world and our sin.



The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he graduated in 2014 with degrees of both Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling. David currently serves as Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, TX, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading and lives with his wife and three children.




[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Volume IX, pg. 356.

[2] The NIV translates that the crowd “began to mutter” while the NRSV translates that the crowd “began to grumble.”

[3] Beck, Richard. Piss Christ in Prison: An Unlikely Advent Meditation. December 22, 2013.

[4] Ibid.

Proper 25(C): Standing Far Off

Proper 25(C): Standing Far Off

Luke 18:9-14

By: Sarah Harcourt Watts

I’m lucky enough to spend my summers with groups of incredibly resilient, yet humble kids. I am the director of Reading Camp, a non-profit associated with the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington that provides free camps throughout Kentucky for kids in 3rd-5th grade who are behind in reading. Kids come to us with low levels of confidence, largely because they spend the school year comparing themselves to the star students in their classes. The kids who raise their hands the fastest, always volunteer to read aloud, and who do so flawlessly outshine them every time. At Reading Camp, we are able to create a failure-free environment, largely due to the absence of those star students. Without the burden of comparison, students are free to focus purely on their own challenges and successes.

When rereading the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the image of the tax collector standing far off struck me. The first thing it brought to mind was this idea of comparison as a burden. Before, I had only thought of the locations of the two men as significant because of where they were in relation to the temple, bu4766261_origt with my reflections of how the campers compare themselves to others fresh on my mind, I was more aware of the positions of the two men relative to each other. The Pharisee defines himself on contrast to the tax collector. He builds himself up by tearing someone else down. The tax collector did not compare himself to anyone at all. Rather, the text relays that he was “standing far off.” We know that both men went to the temple to pray, but we don’t know whether the tax collector even saw the Pharisee. The tax collector never mentions the Pharisee, because he doesn’t need to. Of course this is a story about God’s grace—that God would exalt those sinners who humble themselves, but the tax collector’s focus on himself alone is the very place from which he is exalted.

But what can we do to be in that humble place, such that we can identify with the “right” actor in this story? I propose that we can “stand far off” ourselves. In an age of oversharing; of a constant knowing about the lives of others, we can step away. We can make an effort to refrain from comparing ourselves to others. Comparison sows seeds of discontent—often  for no reason. No doubt the Pharisee was also a sinner, but he wasn’t going to say so while at the temple. To some degree, every one of us filters the messiness of our own lives when presenting ourselves to others. Our public personas, often displayed on our social media accounts, are the glossiest versions of our lives. And that, in itself, is perfectly fine. I don’t take pictures of my toddler’s most dramatic meltdowns and share them on Facebook. That would neither be fun for my friends and family to see nor would it be respectful to her. So instead, I share pictures of her playing in fields of sunflowers and visiting the zoo. These pictures certainly relay an edited down, neatly packaged version of life with a toddler, but there is no shame in celebrating one’s brightest moments. The problem comes when we mistake the glossy, public lives of others for the whole package of an authentic life. We assume that others don’t have real problems and don’t make mistakes. And when we compare our real, complete, messy lives to the neatly packaged lives we see from others, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We feel as though we’ll never measure up. From this place of discontent, we look for others to falter, such that we can build ourselves up. Thus, we compare ourselves to those whom we see as lesser. Seeing others struggle can make us feel better about our own shortcomings. However, whether we compare ourselves to those we see as greater or those we see as lesser, we are still ultimately the ones harmed by this comparison. We sound like the Pharisee, saying “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” in either scenario.

Instead, we should seek to stand far off; to celebrate the lives and successes of others without thought of how they compare to us. Like the Reading Camp kids who flourish without comparison, we can be can be free from the comparisons that fill us with self-doubt and anxiety. Like the tax collector and Pharisee who are so different but who can only be justified by God, we can come before God without consideration of how we measure up to others.

I still think this text is primarily about those who humble themselves before God being exalted. Is freeing oneself from comparisons a way of coming humbly before God? Is standing far off, focusing your gaze inward the way for us to ultimately go home justified, as the tax collector did? I’ll keep wondering, and I invite you to do the same!


Sarah Harcourt Watts

Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She has also taught elementary school and worked as a Research Associate for the Pluralism Project, a non-profit focused on religious diversity. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and daughter, Ivy, in Lexington, KY. She loves being outside and tackling DIY house projects that should probably not be classified as DIY. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).






Proper 24C: The Unjust Judge

Proper 24C: The Unjust Judge

Luke 18-1-8

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

The parable of the unjust judge is a favorite story and passage in scripture regarding prayer for many people, perhaps due in part to the illustration being so meaningful and clear. It promises justice, both immediately and abundantly, and It also connects in a positive way with one of the more famous, popular, and generally universally accepted euphemisms “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” This story makes sense in the reality of human existence.  The “justice system” is often “unjust” but that unjust system does not always win.  Persistence and seemingly innocent weakness, through the humble power of simply irritating the strong and the proud (from time to time) has indeed proven to win out on the side of justice.

One of my personal favorite illustrations of this strange kind of justice comes from the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”  In it, the main character Andy writes one letter per week for six years to receive funding for a library the prisoners could use. When dozens of boxes filled with enough books to start the library arrive at the prison’s post office, there is a note attached that asks Andy to “please, stop writing us letters.” He grins both wryly and triumphantly, and tells the prison guard helping him with all the packages that, “Now I will start writing two letters a week.”

These stories, and others like them, describe quite well the power of hope that those who are considered weak can always wield over those who are considered strong.  At the end of the film, Andy writes yet another letter, this time to his friend, Red, who has just been released from prison. He writes, “Dear Red – If you’re reading this then you have gotten out. And if you have come this far, then maybe you are willing to come a little further … Remember, Red: hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. I am hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.  Your friend, Andy.”  (for reference, see:

In this reading, Jesus also attaches much hope to his story, which he tells—according to Luke—to encourage his disciples to pray persistently and not lose heart. Jesus says to them after he finishes with the parable (v. 6-8): “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

William Barclay points out in his commentary that although Jesus uses an unjust judge in his parable, we are not praying to an unjust God. He writes, “The prime lesson is not that shameless persistence painfully extracts blessings from an unwilling God; but that, in prayer, we are coming to one who is our Father and who is even more ready to give than we are to ask.”[1]

This parable inspires me toward faith, hope, and prayer through the telling and hearing of these words; but at the same time, like many other people I know, both faithful and unfaithful alike, I struggle with the seemingly equal persistence of “unanswered prayer.”  After all, would Christ ever have to encourage anyone to pray if unanswered prayers didn’t exist?

The pain and burden of unanswered prayer is more than enough to break off communication between God and God’s people. In preparation for writing on this topic of prayer, I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to share with me why had either ceased praying or never did pray in the first place. Here are a few responses: “What’s the point?” “Waste of breath,” “I am unworthy,” and “God does not care.”

These are quite possibly the same kinds of thoughts that many in our congregations struggle with in their daily lives.  More often than not these comments are attached to extremely personal stories of grief and loss. I believe that these thoughts, which inevitably come with the reality of unanswered prayer must be dealt with from the pulpit. Name its existence and personally share in the struggle so that the importance of having a relationship with God through prayer (our language of faith) might have a real impact.

If you can’t think of a personal story, think of Jesus. Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane went to God earnestly in prayer (multiple times according to Mathew and Mark), asking God to “take this cup” from him and received no answer. He then went to his disciples, even after receiving no answer from God, and told them to pray as well. Pray that they “may not enter into the time of trial.”

The grief and burden of this unanswered prayer was so great that in the Gospel of Luke, even after an Angel comes to him to give him strength, we read that his sweat became like blood falling down on the ground. Jesus knows what it’s like to struggle with what could be perceived as unanswered prayer and yet he continues to pray, always. He prays and encourages his followers to pray even for desires he knows full well are not “God’s will.”  Their time of trial does come. “This cup” is not taken from him. And yet he does not break off communication with the Father but begins to pray even more vigorously—faithfully trusting to the very end in the will of the Father.

The relationship Jesus has with God the Father is one that does not ever give up on communication. It is a relationship built so firmly upon a foundation of communication that the prayers Jesus makes go far beyond any description of persistence. It is a relationship of faithfulness that defines his identity as the Christ and forms every breath he takes into a breath of prayer, even to his last breath in which he exhales, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

For Jesus, prayer is not about answers. It is about relationship.

[1] William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus, p. 117.


The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife, Pastor Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Proper 23C: Faith that Makes Us Well

Proper 23C: Faith that Makes Us Well

Luke 17:11-23

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

“Your faith has made you well.”  -Luke 17:19

Faith. The Greek word used here is pistis. And it doesn’t mean belief, as in “I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…”  It doesn’t mean adherence to a certain religion, as in “I belong to the Catholic faith.” The Gospels are not a set of theological treatises and doctrines about God or Jesus. They are a collection of stories. In particular, they are stories about trust.

Pistis means “trust.”

Today in Luke, we have a story about trust. We hear about a motley crew of ten standing outside a village, crying out to Jesus for mercy. These ten had all been classified as “lepers,” meaning they had either contracted the bacterial infection mycobacterium leprae, for which there was no cure up until about 1940, and which caused a slow and irreversible degeneration of the skin tissue that eventually led to swollen deformities all over the body, or they had come down with psoriasis or some other skin condition that looked like mycobacterium leprae in its early stages, and got classified just the same. Folks designated as “lepers” were required by law to live in isolation, apart from their families, outside the city gates, wear torn clothes, keep their distance from others, and announce themselves to strangers by yelling “Unclean! Unclean!”

It sounds harsh, but nobody knew about bacterial infections back then. Leprosy was thought to have resulted from some kind of divine curse that was probably due to a sin on the part of the sufferer, or maybe their family. After all, it was pretty much accepted that people were responsible for their own fates.

We like to think we’ve come a long way since then. The World Health Organization announced in 2000 that global leprosy had been eradicated thanks to antibiotics. But I think we still have our “lepers” today. There are plenty of physical ailments and mental illnesses that still bewilder the best of modern medical practitioners, and those who suffer from them are often met with a similar attitude.


Take, for example, my mother, who has fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes her to experience debilitating pain all over her body, for reasons that no one is able to entirely explain. After nearly fifteen years, she has visited all manner of doctors, undergone all sorts of tests, and tried all kinds of treatments including prescription medications, vitamin supplements, hormone therapies, homeopathic remedies, yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal teas, and special nutritional vegan detox smoothie cleanses. All along the way, rationally-minded neurologists and new age positive-thinking healers alike have suggested that her illness is probably the result of her psychological attitude, or some set of choices she made along the way.

Similar assumptions are often made about folks living with all manner of poorly-understood conditions, from depression, to multiple sclerosis, to cancer—even homelessness and systemic poverty. We humans are relentless in our need to oversimplify and assign blame when answers are elusive. We want control. And so in the absence of real scientific, psychological, or sociological clarity, we still tend to fall back on those same age-old assumptions, that people are responsible for their lot in life, and that in the end we get what we deserve. Hey, it’s karma, man.

But Jesus steps into that world of inevitabilities and says to Hell with causes and conditions. Whatever your circumstances, there is always an opening to new life, which you can access through pistis. This, for me, is the meaning behind so many of the miraculous healing stories we find in the Gospels. Over and over, we hear the same refrain: “Your faith has made you well.” This is not about belief. This is not the idea that if you just believed hard enough in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior that he would make the cancer go away. Pistis is about trust. Radical trust. Faith is the life that we choose to live into, when life seems impossible. Faith is placing the weight of your trust on the Goodness and the Lovingkindness at the center of all reality, regardless of your personal circumstances. Faith is what allows us to move even towards our own death, trusting in the crazy, radical promise of new Life in resurrection.

The Gospel stories show us that when we act with trust in God, in spite of how dire our circumstances may seem, we demonstrate real faith and we find true healing. In today’s story, Jesus sends the ten lepers back to the priests to be re-classified as “clean” without having healed them! They were required to step into the reality of their own healing, even before it had actually occurred and without any evidence that it would. They were made clean as they went.

One of my favorite books is entitled Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. He writes:

The way of trust is a movement into obscurity, into the undefined, into ambiguity, not into some predetermined, clearly delineated plan for the future. The next step discloses itself only out of a discernment of God acting in the desert of the present moment. The reality of naked trust is the life of the pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a recovery strategy called “acting as if.” It involves making the conscious decision to act in accordance with one’s own recovery, even when the person feels totally overwhelmed by the negative thoughts and feelings that would drive back into addictive behavior. The trick is not to lie to yourself about what you are thinking or feeling, or to try and repress it, but to simply make a choice to live into a new and different reality.

That is pistis. Sometimes it can mean acting without belief. Sometimes it can mean “acting as if” you trusted in God, even if you aren’t sure whether or not God even really exists. There is real power in this kind of trust. This is the kind of faith that can move mountains, the deepest kind of faith there is. Because the choices we make in our lives, with our actions, express our inner convictions far more authentically than any mental construct, feeling, or creed ever could.

Much has been made in recent years of the doubts that plagued Mother Teresa in the last half of her life. Time magazine called it a “crisis of faith.” And yet what is truly remarkable, what actually makes her a stalwart of Christian faith and worthy of sainthood, is that she continued to act with overwhelming trust in God’s reality and presence, even when she could not personally perceive or feel that presence. That is Biblical faith.

“To trust in the love of God in the face of the marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces of life,” writes Manning, “is to whisper a doxology in darkness.” Sometimes the darkness is all we can see, and a whisper is all we have to give. When we find ourselves in the midst of pain, or sickness, or danger, or grief, Jesus does not ask us to whitewash it, deny it, analyze who is responsible for it, or try to make it go away. The faith that Jesus calls us to only asks that we step into our own healing by continuing to move in the direction of life and love, even (especially!) when all hope seems lost. This kind of faith is not contingent on ideas, or feelings, or particular outcomes, but on the choices that we make in every single moment of our lives. This is the kind of faith that has the power to make us well.

Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where she focused her studies in theological aesthetics, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Greensboro, NC, where she offers workshops, performs music, practices archery, grows vegetables, roller skates, writes, and serves as Assistant to the Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Proper 22C: The Apostles’ Retirement Plan

Proper 22C: The Apostles’ Retirement Plan

Luke 17:5-10

By: Ryan Young

My wife and I are, by all accounts, yuppies. We are young professionals who live a fairly comfortable life in the suburbs of Atlanta. We have two cars, a mortgage, and a dog; the only things that seem to be left on our checklists are 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. And a healthy retirement plan. And good life insurance. And a good investment portfolio (…should I know what a mutual bond is by now?). And a bit more recognition in our work lives. And one of those cars is a little old, so we’d better start shopping for a new one. And I would love for another week of vacation. And I guess we really ought to start thinking about kids; most of our friends already have children in day care. Oh my gosh, we haven’t even started looking into day cares in our area; I hear they start taking reservations for the one-year-old classes 2 years in advance! What if it’s too late to reserve a spot for our future kids, and then they start off without the best educational foundation? How are they going to get into a good college? College! How are we ever going to pay for that! We’d better get started saving now!

The above, apart from being a fun look inside my grab bag of neuroses and insecurities, is where I think the apostles’ heads were when they beg Jesus for more faith in Luke 17:5. Jesus has just laid down an incredibly difficult teaching in verses 1-4; not only is Jesus clear about how seriously he takes it when one of his followers causes someone else to sin, but he says that no matter how often someone sins against you, if they are repentant, a disciple is commanded to extend forgiveness. The demands that Jesus is putting on the disciples are exhausting, so they begin thinking of ways that would make following Jesus easier on them.

“If Jesus could endow us with a greater portion of faith,” they seem to think, “then it would be easier for us to fulfill these commands.” I’m not sure whether the apostles hoped that Jesus would respond to their plea by reducing his expectations of them, or by equipping them with a superhuman faith that would make his expectations easier to meet. Whatever their hope, Jesus responds in a way that I don’t think they anticipated; he comments, not on their need for more faith, but on their lack of understanding of the nature of faith.

In his commentary on Luke, Fred Craddock writes that the “if” clause in verse 6 is conditional according to fact rather than contrary to fact, and thus might better be understood, “If you had faith [and you do] the size of a mustard seed…” Jesus is then not rebuking them for their lack of faith, but explaining to them that the measure of faith they possess is adequate to the calling which he has placed on them. The absurd image of commanding a tree to uproot itself, walk into the ocean, and replant itself, conveys the idea that nothing is out of the realm of possibility for God; that God works through faith in ways that are contrary to human expectations. Jesus is telling the disciples that they already have the full measure of faith that they need to live up to his expectations and example, but I suspect they already knew that. I think that the disciples were acting in a way that I am so often guilty of; they were looking for an easier way.

This is the point at which I find the disciples to be the most relatable. I am always looking for the path of least resistance. I am always seeking that one thing, that once I attain it will make the other pieces of my life fall in line. We are people for whom ease and comfort are the primary goals. So much of our culture is geared toward this idea; we are driven to achieve not for the sake of the achievement or work, but so that on some distant day we might be able to rest comfortably on our laurels. We work hard so that eventually we will have enough in the bank and we won’t have to work anymore. Like us, the disciples are looking for the path of least resistance; if they have an increase of faith, the difficult tasks of loving and serving become easier. Perhaps they are even hoping that an increase of faith might speed them toward a time when their period of service ends.

It is to the desire for an easier way that Jesus seems to direct the parable in verses 7-10. A servant does not anticipate to be lauded for doing those things that are expected of them, nor does a servant ever reach a time when their duty is completely fulfilled; once they come in from plowing the field they know they must till and reseed it. Likewise, there will never come a time when the work of Jesus’ disciples is complete; the needy must always be served, the mourning must always be comforted, the hurting must always be loved, those who have aggrieved you must always be forgiven. There is no respite to the work of love, for love is always and everywhere needed in as great a measure as it can be given.

Ryan Young and his wife Rachael

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.