Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

John 20:19-23

By: The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

Have you ever been so anxious or afraid that you felt like you couldn’t breathe? Your chest tightens; your pulse quickens. It feels like your whole body is in overdrive. When I was a child and felt afraid at night, I would pull the covers up over my head. Whatever monsters were lurking in the dark or under my bed surely couldn’t get me if I was hidden away, safe from harm. As an adult, I no longer hide under the covers, but I still find myself seeking to hide away from the things in life that are scary or stressful. I still find myself realizing that my body has tightened and I can’t even take a deep breath.

When we enter today’s Gospel story we find the disciples in their own place of fear and trembling—huddled away behind locked doors, hiding from those who would persecute them. It’s a very different Pentecost than the one we see in Acts. There are no dramatic winds or tongues of fire. No ecstatic speeches in multiple languages.  Instead, we see a quiet Pentecost. Into the midst of fear and trembling enters the Risen Christ and breathes into the disciples the Spirit, and with it, the Gift of Peace.

While it might seem less dramatic, it’s still a radical moment—to find peace in the midst of chaos. The disciples’ whole world had changed—everything that they had hoped for was linked to following Jesus. I imagine their fear left them breathless.

Into this space Jesus speaks, “peace be with you,” and breathes into them the Holy Spirit.  Gail O’Day reminds us in her commentary in the New Interpreters Bible that this echoes the moment of Creation wherein God breaths into humanity the breath of life. Here we see a new creation and new life given to these disciples through this breath of the Spirit.[1] I have to wonder if in this moment, they finally took a deep breath for the first time. I wonder if their shoulders relaxed and their fear melted away into a sense of radical peace.

Perhaps it is because I relate so much to these disciples that this image of breathing peace of the Spirit resonates with me. Or perhaps it is because as a yoga teacher, I know so well the power of connecting to the Spirit through our breath. Secular studies show us that these breathing practices do have an effect to calm our minds and bodies, but as a pastor, I think it’s more than that. When we pause to breathe in, to intentionally connect to the Spirit—our life source—that Spirit fills and empowers us. The Spirit changes us. She is there to transform us, if we only take a moment to connect.

Of course, this Spirit, this breath of life isn’t just there for Divine stress relief or touchy feely comfort. We are granted Peace so that we can be sent to continue Christ’s work in the world, even in the face of great trials. This story is both one of receiving the Spirit, as well as being commissioned by Christ to go forth to do God’s work in the world.[2]

I wonder how often we as individuals and as communities of faith hide ourselves away in fear, rather than living a life centered in the radical peace of Christ. I wonder how often we stay in fear rather than journeying out to do the work that God has called us to do.

I can admit—I would really love for God to call me to something safe. I love stability. I love comfort. And yet, the work of the Gospel isn’t always comfortable, or safe, or easy. Working for Justice in the world sometimes means getting our hands dirty or getting out of our comfort zones. Sharing God’s love might mean taking a step out into the unknown.

This path that we are called to isn’t an easy one, but it is one we don’t walk alone. Every step, the Spirit is with us, breathing into us Peace; breathing into us courage; breathing into us life. I wonder what this looks like in our lives and in our communities? Might it mean we step out and take a risk in order to share the gospel rather than trying to just get by?

Perhaps this Pentecost, instead of wind and fire, we might search for just a moment of breath. In that space of silent prayer, we can draw our awareness to the presence of the Spirit around and within us. In that moment, we breathe in, knowing that the sustaining Life we breathe in is nothing short of the Divine Spirit. Perhaps this Pentecost, we might choose to breathe in peace even in the places of our lives or our community’s life where we are afraid. Perhaps we might choose to go forth from that space of radical peace to do the work of God.

 

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The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.

[1] Gail O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:Abingdon, 1995) 9: 846.

[2] Ibid.

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

John 17:1-11

By: The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

Recently, my husband and I moved from Kentucky to Missouri where I accepted a call to serve as Co-Pastor at National Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When we arrived in Springfield, I showed up to the office for my first day at my new church and already had a message waiting for me. A reporter from the local paper had gotten word that a church in town had hired an openly gay minister and was calling with an interest in setting up a time to sit down with my Co-Pastor and I to do a story. While the article that followed highlighted the ministry that we are doing here at National Avenue, the reporter was also very interested in the theology of a church that would welcome everyone, affirm everyone, and even hire a gay minister. The product of our conversation together was an article that highlighted all of the things that made me fall in love with this particular congregation, but also gave people an idea of who I am as both a person and as a minister.

While we initially said “Yes!” to this opportunity to reclaim the conversation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, I quickly found myself being put on the defensive. We received incredible amounts of support and saw increased visitor traffic for a few weeks following the article’s run, but I was emotionally unprepared for how to handle the constant criticism of not only the authenticity of my call as a minister who happens to be gay, but also my worth as a person in general.

As I initially read these words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, I cringed a little bit. It seemed like these words that Jesus spoke were laced with exclusivity; the same sense of exclusivity that many have tried to use in order to keep me “out”—to convince me that I had done something to separate myself from the love of God.

When I finally got beyond my negative criticism of the text and finally started looking for the themes that I found to be helpful, I noticed a few things. First and foremost, there is a very obvious relationship at play here between Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Jesus acknowledges that while he is on earth finishing the work that he was sent to do, he is still one with God and is returning to God.

We also see a very real sense of devotion, loyalty, and authentic faith displayed through these passages. This whole prayer is being prayed for those who have followed Jesus. It is said in the text that these folks for whom Jesus prays have kept the word of God, have acknowledged Jesus’ oneness with God, and have received the words that have been given to them from God through Jesus. In many ways this is being set up as a commissioning of the disciples to carry on the ministry of Jesus beyond the time of his earthly life.

Toward the end of one’s life, or even at a time of real transition, it is common to find ourselves asking, “What about all of this that I have built? Who will care for it when I’m gone?” I found myself asking those same questions as I was wrapping up my ministry at my first call in Kentucky as I prepared to relocate to Missouri. I was nervous that the youth group I had built up would fall apart. I was afraid that the kids that I had loved and formed relationships with wouldn’t have anyone left to love and care for them once I was gone. I was scared that they would be forgotten in the midst of the chaos of a church in transition. So I did what I could do to ensure that that wouldn’t be the case. I began acknowledging the leadership I saw in some of our volunteers and making sure that they felt empowered and equipped to handle things in my absence. Once I saw that the kids would be cared for, I could breathe a little easier and found peace with the transition.

It seems like here Jesus is worrying about some of those same things. It seems as though he’s trying to position the leaders that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him through the teaching, preaching and healing—and empowering them to take over his ministry in his absence.

Even more importantly, though, it seems like there is a prayer from Jesus here that the church may become one—that the church that can be so divided may somehow find unity amongst themselves. I can’t help but think that in a time such as this, a time when we are facing great division over politics, sexuality, quality of life and care, and a whole host of other issues, that Jesus is still praying this prayer. For me, this scripture stands as Jesus’ ordination of the church to join together and continue his work in the world; showing his love and light to all that we encounter through the ways in which we live our lives.

May it be so.

 

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and two dogs, Bailey and Rey. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his Master of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Ascension: Caught Up With Jesus

Ascension: Caught Up With Jesus

Luke 24:44-53

By: Jerrod McCormack

Today, I opened my Facebook account and it took me all of five minutes to assess that the last week has been one crazy situation after another. The chemical attacks in Syria were responded to by a barrage of tomahawk missiles.[1] There’s so much senseless violence in the world. There are days when I struggle to comprehend how God is present in this hot mess. And make no mistake: humanity is a hot mess. We are a bunch of needy, emotionally tumultuous, sometimes senselessly violent individuals, and our collective history is a mixed record of great accomplishments and spectacular failures. And yet as I look at the news feeds and read the accounts of bombings and mass graves, I know that deep in the very heart of God there is a cry for peace, mercy, and justice.

In the Anglican tradition, there is a beautiful moment during the Nicene Creed during which many bow in reverence to the statement, “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”[2] This is one of the beautiful things that I loved about the liturgy since first becoming an Anglican. It’s full of all these moments when I am invited to participate in the worship of God’s people throughout the ages and to acknowledge the fullness of the mystery of God’s having chosen to dwell among human beings. The scriptures tell us that this is the moment that we have waited for: God has been made man. John 1:4 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

In order to understand the theological significance of the Ascension, we must first and foremost understand what God has done in the incarnation. Jesus is the God-Man; both fully divine and fully human. Jesus was subjected to all the temptation that men and women are subjected to, as we see in the temptations in the desert. He experienced uncertainty in his relationship with God and doubts about God’s plan for him as we see reflected in his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet ultimately, Jesus was willing to carry the cross, and suffer, and give his life for all of humanity. However, that is not the end of his journey.

Jesus’ journey then continues with his return to the Godhead. Defining the ascension of Jesus might seem a simple enough task; it means that Jesus disappeared through the clouds into the same heaven from whence he came. This answer was the one that I carried for many years. I won’t soon forget the first time a priest introduced me to the idea that maybe the ascension meant something more than just Jesus’ disappearing through the clouds. This new explanation seemed a bit scandalous and yet the more I contemplated the depth and meaning of this concept, the more I found it to hold more truth and theological significance for me. I think somewhere inside I knew there had to be more to this concept of Jesus’s return.

Today’s text tells us that Jesus opens the scriptures to his followers before his ascension: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus leads his apostles and disciples through this time of explanation. I have to wonder what sort of amazing things they might have learned from him during this time. The specifics are a mystery, and yet, Luke points us toward the greater truth when he tells us that Jesus began to explain to them the scriptures. He unpacks the meaning of God’s revealing work in how the Messiah must come, suffer, die, and on the third day rise from the dead. Is it all done now? Is God finished now that the resurrection is complete? The short answer is decidedly not. Luke points us toward the coming of the Holy Spirit in only a few short days. The apostles and disciples having borne witness to God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ and having received the promise of being clothed with power from on high, are blessed by Jesus as he is ‘carried up into heaven (v.51).

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is as mystical and awesome as the incarnation. In the incarnation, God unites the fullness of Godself to humanity, and in the ascension, God unites the fullness of humanity to Godself. St. Augustine in his sermon on the Ascension of Jesus says, “For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.”[3] Maybe it is a little scandalous to believe that the fullness of humanity has been drawn into the very heart and nature of God, and yet God has never shied away from us. God has continued to draw humanity closer and closer to Godself. That is the awesome story of the ascension. It is one of God’s continued drawing of humanity into God’s own heart.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the scandal of God’s drawing the fullness of humanity into Godself. He says, “Jesus ascends to heaven. The human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, disappears from the human world in its former shape and is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. And our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ ‘filling all in all’, as we heard in the epistle (Ephesians 1.15—end), we must bear in mind that picture: Jesus’ humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured.”[4]

Today, right in the very heart of God, Jesus cries out for all of his brothers and sisters. God hears their pain and knows their heartache. The scriptures remind us that Jesus’s role in heaven is to serve as the great high priest making intercession for us to God the Father. It cannot be underestimated how we need to remember that in moments when we are nearly overwhelmed by the terrible things in the world. God hasn’t shied away from the unpleasantness of humanity, but in God’s lovingkindness, God has reached out to understand. There will be justice, but God’s justice is tempered in perfect love and perfect understanding.

May Almighty God have mercy upon all of us.

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader and Ohana Community Cafe Coordinator at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

 

[1] “U.S. Cruise Missiles Strike Syria Airbase as Trump Reverses Position After Gas Attack”, CBC News http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-us-cruise-missiles-hit-syria-airbase-1.4059761

[2] Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1985) 188.

[3] St. Augustine, Homily on the feast of the ascension of the Lord, http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bread_on_the_trail/2011/06/st-augustines-homily-on-the-feast-of-the-ascension-of-the-lord.html

[4] Rowan Williams, Sermon on the Feast of the Ascension, May 21, 2009. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/883/a-sermon-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-at-the-ascension-day-sung-eucharist

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

Easter 6A: Love Has Consequences

John 14:15-21

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

At this point in the church year we are winding down Eastertide and looking towards Pentecost. The reading assigned for Easter Six rather obviously reflects this, in that Jesus is talking about the coming of an Advocate which will be with the apostles (and presumably at this point the Church which proceeds from them), but this selection of Scripture is about more than just the promise of a coming spiritual power.

There are a lot of paths people take when they try to exegete some meaning out of this passage. Of the many options presented here, the one that struck me upon reading the text and reflecting on it was the notion that Christ takes a moment here to help us figure out the roadmap for a relationship, complete with where we fit in, and how we can best live it out.

When I read this passage of Scripture, there is a phrase that comes to mind that may (or may not) be popular in your part of the world. I know growing up and continuing to live in the South (North Carolina—a state I didn’t used to have to apologize for every five minutes) it was and is popular for a great many folks, especially “youthy” kinds of people, to describe Christianity as “not a religion, but a relationship.” I think of that often (over)used phrase when I read this because most of this passage is taken up in relationship dynamics involving Jesus Christ, his Father, and his followers. There is a lot of I in you and you in me and I in the other kind of talk here (insert your own I am the Walrus joke here if you like—goo goo g’joob[1]). I am not particularly fond of that “not a religion, but a relationship” saying because I think it creates a false dichotomy. A religion is often about a relationship of some kind, and our relationship with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity and its consequences for our relationships with other people is a religion.

As I said before, what is set out for us today is the roadmap of a relationship/religion, looking at the dynamics of what would later come to be called the Holy Trinity and how we all fit into that eternal and undivided relationship of love which is at the heart of all things. It can be a little confusing to read it at first because a lot of the I in you, you in me language can read sort of like a tongue twister for your eyes. What the Gospel communicates here is that when we love Christ, we then find ourselves in the midst of the eternal force of love that is the Trinity. At the core here is the assurance that we belong and will not be abandoned, but rather strengthened if we consciously participate in a relationship with God in whom we live and move and have our being.

That being said, another popular issue arises.  Again, being from the South, I hear a lot about “faith, not works” leading to salvation (which is usually another way of saying that faith is what is really important and works are just kind of a nice detail). Unfortunately for this often misused tagline, the Gospel here does not really mesh well with it. When Jesus describes those having faith in him, in the same breath, he speaks of keeping his commandments. Faith and works (actions) together, like two sides of the same coin (like relationship and religion). Faith and actions are an intrinsic part of keeping this relationship with Christ going. The love of Christ is not conditional here. He phrases it such that those who love him keep his commandments. It is another way of saying that love has consequences. Just like any other relationship, if you don’t live out your love, it will wither on the vine. And if we do not keep Christ’s commandments, then we are in a one-sided relationship of love, where we receive but do not properly reciprocate. Any clergy who has done pre-marital counseling knows that is a giant red flag right there.

It can be a daunting task to think about being in a solid and growing relationship with God and basing it on not just having emotions, but letting actions flow out of them. Loving our enemies looking first to the outcasts and weirdos for the face of God, respecting authorities and partisans without letting them define us, promoting peace in a world of war, respecting the dignity of all, feeding the hungry, comforting the sorrowful and afflicted, healing the sick, casting out demons, loving God, loving Jesus, loving one another as Jesus has loved us—these are all difficult things to do more than once in some cases, much less make a whole lifestyle out of it. With Jesus no longer among us as he once was with the disciples, it can seem even more impossible to try, much less succeed. Much like the early Christians, faithful folks today may think, “Who will lead us?” “Who will guide us?”  “What power will sustain us?”

The answer to that is the Advocate spoken of here: the Holy Spirit. The early Christians faced these difficulties of maintaining a flourishing relationship with God in Christ while having to make basic decisions in the world and deal with impulses common to us all and contrary to the Gospel, but they were sustained by the same Spirit who has fallen afresh on each succeeding generation in the Church.

I often find that Christ’s commandments promote a vision of a world and a humanity that is so brilliant we can barely bring ourselves to look at it, a way of life so liberating that it frightens folks to consider all of the consequences, and then he calls us to live them out as a part of our relationship with God and others. I find it personally reassuring to see such passages that promise the Spirit’s help as we navigate the spiritual depths of our relationships with one another and with God.

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The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Rev. 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 and their dog Archer. 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.

 

[1] By the way, it is “goo goo g’joob,” not “coo coo ca choo,” as is often said. John Lennon may not have been bigger than Jesus, but he is certainly misquoted by his fans about as often.

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

Easter 5A: What Spiders?

John 14:1-14

By: Jay Butler

Growing up, my family strongly emphasized our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We went to church all the time, participated in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and any other activity that the church offered. It’s not that I was forced to go either. I genuinely wanted to be there. As a product of me being there all the time, I picked up a lot of information, especially after I started attending a Christian school in seventh grade. I was a “Bible class All-star”, because I was banking all of this knowledge. Knowing that information was important to my faith. It also warped what I thought a relationship with Christ was, but that’s a whole different story, for a whole different time.

My job as pastor now requires me to use that knowledge to help my congregation, and to help my congregation understand the importance of having that knowledge in their lives. Being a pastor also means we have to deal with people who don’t get it the first, or second time. It’s not because they’re trying to undermine your ministry. They just genuinely don’t get it. Nevertheless, ministry can sometimes give you “facepalm” moments.

Have you ever heard of a “facepalm” moment? A “facepalm” moment is when you are either so embarrassed or frustrated at something or someone, you put the palm of your hand up to your face and just shake your head in disgust. One of my most memorable “facepalm” moments occurred in seventh grade. We were reading “The Hobbit” in English class. In “The Hobbit,” Bilbo and his company of dwarves encounter and run away from a band of giant spiders. We talked about them for days in class, because it’s a sizable portion of the plot. However, one girl in our class looked up from her book and asked our class, “What spiders?” The class just froze. How could you miss that? The whole class just shook their head in disgust. Jesus must have a lot of those moments in the Gospels.

Jesus, in His ever-abundant patience, dealt with a lot of questions during His ministry on earth. Whether it’s people asking Him questions they already know the answer to, or Pharisees trying to trap Him with questions, Jesus answers them all to some degree. He also answers questions from his apostles. Oftentimes they’re questions they should already know the answer to. In this week’s Gospel reading, John 14:1-14, I want to look at the dynamic between Jesus and His apostles, specifically Jesus’ responses to those questions.

John 14:1-14 takes place in the middle of Jesus’ “Last Supper Teachings.” These are the final teachings of Jesus before He is arrested, and starts a process that leads to the death and resurrection of our Savior. It has iconic verses, such as, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” In many ways, this is Jesus’ farewell sermon. However, the first thing I notice when approaching this scripture is not Jesus’ profound wisdom, but the apostles’ many interruptions.

Jesus is interrupted twice in only fourteen verses. Thomas asks in verse 5, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” In the next verse, Jesus responds with the iconic “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, when Phillip asks Jesus another question, Jesus seems exasperated. It reads as though Jesus is confounded by the idea that Phillip doesn’t know the answer to his own question. For the longest time, when reading the Gospels, I grew frustrated at the apostles’ supposed sheer stupidity. How can you not understand what Jesus is saying? What don’t you get when it comes to following God? I then had a stark realization that my viewpoint was immensely prideful and arrogant. It was then I began to identify with the apostles in the Gospels.

Character studies can be a tricky way to exegete scripture. It’s not an exact science, but it allows the text to come to life, not just in the interpreter, but in the congregation that hears the interpretation. When we dive into the characters of the Bible, we make theology more relevant and applicable to our congregations. When preparing a sermon on this text, my mind immediately wanders towards the apostles. I want to know what they’re thinking, because even though Phillip and Thomas are the only ones that John mentions as asking questions, I’m sure that the others had questions as well. What was going through their head-space during Jesus’ last sermon? The text focuses a lot on Jesus leaving the apostles, so maybe there was confusion. This wasn’t the first time Jesus spoke about this in the book of John. Jesus has been dropping hints that he will be betrayed and die, so maybe there’s fear and anxiety. Finally, there may be some anger or stubbornness (I’m looking at you, Peter), because they do not want their Rabbi to be hurt, and will do whatever it takes to protect Him. Whatever they felt, I feel it’s necessary to look at the apostles and to look at their questions from their perspective.

When looking at the interactions between Thomas, Phillip, and Jesus, I notice that Jesus is trying to give some of His most important theology as an answer to the apostles’ questions. In the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “These verses announce in clear language the theological conviction that drives the Fourth Evangelist’s work…”[1] The verse that that theological conviction is based off of is verse six, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This powerful display of the power of God is in response to a “dumb question”! It wouldn’t have been given if Thomas hadn’t asked that question!

Thank the Lord that the Lord is so patient. Our humanity gives God many “facepalm” moments, but the Lord is just and powerful. It allows us to ask the questions like, “What spiders?” that portray us as not seeing the work of God overtly playing out in our lives. It gives us the freedom to grow, because God gives us gems in response to our questions. It frees us to grow unhindered, and to leave no proverbial stone unturned. Thank the Lord for patience, and ask your stupid questions.

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

 

 

[1] O’Day Gail R., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Luke/John, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (1995; repr., Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 633-34.

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

Easter 4(A): More than Sheep Sunday!

John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is Sheep Sunday! Every year on this Sunday, the lectionary doles out a reading from John 10–and, as the reader will quickly realize, the dominant metaphor of John 10 is sheep. Last year, Jesus was concerned with those who were not among his sheep because they did not believe. Next year, our text will pick up where today’s leaves off in verse 11, with the famous, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” But today, Jesus is concerned about the flock’s ability to recognize the shepherd.

The imagery of Jesus as shepherd and the faithful as sheep is to Christianity what apple pie is to America. They go hand-in-hand. Perhaps that is why most preachers I know–myself included–let out an audible groan whenever this Sunday comes around. What more is there to say about Jesus the Good Shepherd, anyway?

And yet, here we are…

 

For starters, I suggest steering clear of an agriculture lesson. Most folks have already heard the truth about sheep: they’re ornery, smelly, dirty, dim-witted, like to get into trouble, and would rather follow each other than their shepherd. We know the truth about goats too: they’re creative, agile, intelligent, and they have a built-in defense mechanism–horns! Yes, there’s a metaphor in there that could be mashed and patted out into a sermon, but I am convinced that there’s a more important word here that the faithful need to hear.

Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

By itself, this phrase sounds nice–comforting, in fact. But while it can be difficult to catch, this week’s Gospel lesson is actually the second part of a larger story that started at the end of chapter 9, which we heard way back on the 4th Sunday in Lent. Remember that? Jesus heals a man from physical and spiritual blindness, which causes the Pharisees to ask if Jesus was insinuating that they, too, were spiritually blind.

Here, we get Jesus’ answer to their question.

Jesus speaks of abundant life to emphasize the fact that our lives of faith aren’t simply about having sins forgiven or getting our celestial tickets punched. It’s also about our lives right here, right now!

Remember the man in chapter 9? For him, abundant life means sight. It means freedom from his socioeconomic station in life. And the healing that Jesus provided meant abundant life now–in the moment!

I think the word that our people need to hear from us is that the salvation made known to us in Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd is not an other-worldly, enigmatic thought experiment. It’s tangible, and it’s here among us, making itself known right before our eyes!

You know your community better than I do, so what would it look like to hold out examples of where abundant life is making itself known in your community–among your people?

Here in the living of these Easter Days, I’m reminded of Athanasius of Alexandria’s short but incredibly profound book, “On the Incarnation.” He writes this about God’s revelation in Jesus: “[The revelation of God] is in every dimension–above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.”

The salvation that Jesus invites us into is not some distant notion or cosmic future. It’s a concrete invitation to discover life more abundantly; to discover God in the world around us!

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Luke 24:13-35

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Third Sunday after Easter. We have passed the austerity of Lent, the spiritual high of Easter, and (hopefully) everyone is now back in their pew after the post-Easter slump. Now the real work of the Resurrection life can begin.

There is a lot of exegesis that could play into a study of this text, and if you go looking you are sure to find it. The third Sunday after Easter is always the Road to Emmaus. Every lectionary commentary deals with it at least three different ways and every commentary on Luke addresses the text at least once. That is to say nothing of the academic periodicals, blog posts, and preaching commentaries like this one that can be summoned from the depths of google and ATLA.

My advice to you is to resist a deep exegetical dive into this text. You may be tempted to delve into a complicated theological treatise on the divine presence of the Eucharist, but I say to you: RESIST.

People in the pews are tired after a long Lent and the exhausting ecstasy of Easter. Let deep theological explanation melt away this Sunday. Let the bread be bread. Let the fellowship be fellowship. Let the road be the road. Let the hospitality of Cleopas be hospitality. Let the Resurrection be the Resurrection. Humble yourself on Luke’s Emmaus Road; you cannot do better.

Let the text be the text, because in this story of fellowship and resurrection the specter of Good Friday is shed from the eyes of Cleopas and his companion. The road to Emmaus is about seeing God in our midst overcoming death, and the Church is preoccupied with death. Attendance, membership, and budgets have been steadily declining for 30-50 years.

The Millennial pastor to whom this blog is aimed is in an interesting position; we have never known a year of Church growth. Sure we may be part of growing communities, but we have grown up in failing denominations. We have heard about new methods for church growth our whole lives and now our whole ministries, because the Church has not found one that works.

As contrary as it sounds, millennial preachers, pastors, and priests are in a wonderful place because MILLENIALS HAVE ONLY KNOWN CHURCH DEATH! This could be a depression inducing epiphany, however I believe that this is our generation’s greatest strength. Who better to point to life? Who better to say look at who has come out of the tomb? Who better to stand with the disciples in Emmaus and say, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?!?!?!”[1] Life isn’t the status quo the church has been trying to hold onto, or claw back to life; true eternal life is a gift given only by and in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the joys and purpose of table fellowship. He says:

…The congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord will to be present when it prays for his presence. So it prays: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”—and thereby confess the gracious omnipresence of Jesus Christ… Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true gift: the true Bread of life itself; and finally, as the one who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God… At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened.[2]

Our gift as Christians, as the Church, is found in fellowship together. It is in fellowship that we see the resurrected Christ revealed, and realize both who has given us these gifts of life and who and what the true gift is.

For this third Sunday after Easter let Jesus confound our expectations. Emmanuel Lartey, who taught my Introduction to Pastoral Care course, said in class that the role of the pastoral caregiver is to walk into someone’s life and point to a God who is already there.[3] This Sunday, more than most, the role of the Preacher is to stand up and point to a God who is already there, to the places where God is at work, and the people who are inviting Christ into the community. We are Millennials (and folks who resonate with the Millennial generation). Who better to point to the creative, innovative, and new *gasp&shutter* ways that Christ is breaking the bread in our midst? Who better to see the new life that has been flowing all along, name it, and embrace it? Who better to see the ways that Christ has broken bread, broken death, and brought life than the very people who have only seen a church preoccupied with the power of death?

Preacher, SPEAK OF NEW LIFE! The dead will bury the dead and only the gift of Jesus Christ will raise the dead to life!

This week isn’t about deep exegesis of the text. This week is about a deep exegesis of the congregation. This week is about pointing to the moments where Christ is revealed in the lives of those in the pews. Speak of the grandparents who bring their grandkids to Church. Speak of the retiree who gives their time reading with school children during the week. Speak of the folks who staff soup kitchens, clothing closets, and homeless shelters. Speak to the creative, new, and unexpected ways that God is breaking into the world. God is already here. Speak of those who are caring for the immigrant and refugees in your community and our nation (Trust me. No matter what you think of your congregation’s politics, you will not have to look as far as you imagine). The resurrected Christ walks among us here and now. This Sunday do not let Christ get away without breaking the bread of himself and opening our eyes to the resurrection that is among us.

 

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a grad of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors, spending time fly fishing, biking, running, and hiking. He has thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a triathlon, keeps chickens and bees, and ran his first half marathon in March. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They have one dog named Nantahala (Hala for short).

[1] Luke 24:32; NRSV. Punctuation mine.

[2] Bonheoffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W.Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 67-68.

[3] Lartey, Emmanuel. “Introduction to Pastoral Care” Seminary Course, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 2013.