Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

John 18:33-37

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Coming from a church that does not celebrate the liturgical calendar, I am aware that many Christians may not be aware of the particular festival that is celebrated as Reign of Christ Sunday. Within the liturgical calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of Ordinary Time and as well as serving as a prologue to Advent (our preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas). I believe that knowing the purpose of this particular Sunday provides aid in the interpretation of the scripture appointed for today: John 18:33-37.

In preparing this essay, one part of the interaction between Jesus and Pilate really stood out to me. In the NRSV translation, Jesus answers Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?” with this response:

You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (verse 37)

In a world and culture where the loudest voices seem to get the most air time; where shouting and yelling seem to be the preferred method of getting our point across; where we fail repeatedly to truly hear the person on the other end of the conversation; it seems to me that listening is a skill and practice that we so desperately need to be teaching, learning, and practicing. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the crowd’s desire to know if he truly is the Messiah by reminding both them and us that Jesus’ “sheep hear [his] voice” (John 10:27).

This particular scripture walks a very fine line between the politics and theology of Jesus, the early church, and first century Rome. The reality of that particular time period is that there was little to no separation between what we would classify theological and political. In many ways, the theology of the time was political and vice versa. It makes sense for Pilate to question Jesus’ status as king in order to understand if Jesus’ “Kingdom” poses a threat to Rome. Jesus points out that his kingdom is not of this world.

I personally interpreted this statement as Jesus claiming that his kingdom was not created in this world. The Common English Bible translates Jesus’ reply to Pilate as, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.” (John 18:36) Many seem to interpret this statement to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is “out there somewhere” and “not here.” In many ways, this type of interpretation keeps us from doing the work of Christ’s church right now and where we are. In the words of one of my favorite Christian musicians, TobyMac, “If you gotta start somewhere, why not here? If you gotta to start sometime, why not now?”[1] The Kingdom of God is both here, now and is always coming and developing into the future.

As I type this essay, Brett Kavanaugh is being questioned concerning the sexual assault allegations that have been brought to light in the midst of his nomination to the Supreme Court. It appears to me that most of our politics have become a yelling match. Each side attempting to scream the loudest in order to have their voice heard. All the while, the voice of those in pain and hurting are rarely heard or even acknowledged. This is concerning as both an American citizen and a human being.

As a pastor, I am more concerned that this type of culture is overflowing into our churches. Many churches are dividing themselves down theological and political lines. Many churches are yelling at the top of their lungs so their voice will be heard. However, I often find myself wondering how many of our churches are listening to the voice of Christ.

I believe Christ is asking us to do a better job at listening to one another. Maybe we should talk (and in most cases, yell) less and listen more. Maybe we should blame less and confess more. Maybe we should listen to the people that we hear every single day less and listen to the people no one hears more. Jesus shares a very powerful parable in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel about the nations being separated as sheep are separated from goats. One side will be blessed because they feed Christ when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, clothes him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. The scripture continues in verse 37:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we say you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)

For those that may be preaching on this text and preparing sermons for the Advent celebration to come, I might suggest a similar focus on listening with care, love, and understanding. This Reign of Christ Sunday offers to us the importance of listening to the other (both politically and theologically). As we move into the Advent season, we begin to quiet our minds and prepare for the coming of the light of the world. What better time to begin intentionally practicing the listening skills that our world so desperately needs: skills such as listening, understanding, confessing, loving. Who knows? Maybe in learning to listen people to one another and learning to listen to the people no one else seems to listen to; we can learn to better listen to Christ himself: our Lord and Savior.

[1] TobyMac – City On Our Knees From the album Tonight.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving (B): Saying Thank You

Thanksgiving (B): Saying Thank You

Matthew 6:25-33

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

Modern theologians and philosophers The Rolling Stones melodiously gifted their wisdom when they proclaimed, “You can’t always get what you want; but you get what you need.” Consumer culture—especially during the months of November and December—would benefit greatly from setting that song on repeat. We love to spend money on crap we don’t need just to satisfy a desire to impress our neighbors, our peers, and sadly, ourselves. The way we know God loves us is by counting the amount of material possessions we have, right?

Wrong.

In fact, prosperity preachers—while intending to proclaim a positive message (I hope)—do more harm than good to those less fortunate than themselves; AND to those just as fortunate. The message of “If you pray like me, then you shall have a nice house, three cars, and a boat,” tends to lead to despondency rather than hope; feelings of inadequacy instead of acceptance. What does it say to the single mother of three who works two jobs just to keep her children housed, fed, and safe? “Sorry, you must not be praying hard enough; keep trying. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue being God’s favorite; I mean, look at all my stuff!” There seems to be a general sense of self-importance brought about by tying our self-worth to our obtained earthly desires. I am guilty of this more than I like to admit, just as I imagine you might be, too. But the question I have is this: When is enough, enough?

Humanity is driven by desire; desire to be loved, accepted, appreciated and safe. We want—at our base level—to feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, we express that desire in flawed human ways, sometimes forgetting that God has more for us than we could ever need if we would only turn around and accept it. C.S. Lewis explains this in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” where he preached,

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.1

Our desires have been co-opted in the name of consumerism, the neo-God of the twenty-first century who only takes and never gives back. What would it look like if we simply reigned in our crazy and accepted the fact that, regardless of income and possession, God loves us equally, regardless of our achievements? Psalm 51 says, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” but I think that we’re more satisfied with praying, “Fill my wallet, O Lord, and I’ll ask you for a raise.” With these desires running rampant and unfulfilled, when do we have time to say ‘thank you’ to God? When do we stop and rest, knowing that we have already received the greatest gift we can be given—the gift of redemption by way of Jesus’ death on the cross? We haven’t expressed our gratitude to God nearly enough, nor could we ever, for that boon.

But at least we could try.

Praise and thanks are the keys to rebooting that desire, as well as the means to understanding our true needs—to ensure that we love creation in good order, and allow the rest to come after. St. Augustine reminds us how to do this, as he writes,

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.2

Doesn’t this sound like implicit gratitude and praise? By stopping and weighing that which we love, we are also noticing its worth. “Thank you, Lord, for my neighbor, I will love her.” “Thank you, God, for your grace. I will share it with others.” If we can reorder ourselves to notice HOW we love things, then I imagine that the things we love will inevitably change, becoming those which we ought to have sought in the first place.

Preaching thanks and praise can be difficult. I can almost see the eye-rolls and hear the groans of people in my congregation, “Yes, Sean, we KNOW that we’re supposed to say thank you.” But perhaps taking a glance at how we desire will provide a hearing-aid to those who can’t discern the intention behind living a thankful lifestyle. Matthew’s gospel wants us to reorder our yearnings and to lay down our worries; worries that we’re not good enough and that we always have to seek more. The reading also tacitly reminds us to be thankful for that which we already have, and to know that God will always provide what we need. Reminding our folks that they’re starting from a place of that absolute love and care—and asking them to take a look at what they really want—could mitigate some of their anxieties surrounding the upcoming holiday season. And, it might just be the little nudge they need to accept themselves as they are, the Imago Dei, rather than as the world wants them to be.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 1.

2 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I 27-28.

Fr. Sean Ekberg
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.

Proper 28(B): Life on the Other Side

Proper 28(B): Life on the Other Side

Mark 13:1-8

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The thirteenth chapter of Mark is known as the “little apocalypse.” The last verses of this chapter with Jesus’ teaching about the last days, the fig tree’s sign, and the need for disciples to “keep awake” kicked off the liturgical year for us back on December 3, 2017.  The Lukan parallel of this text is on tap for Advent I in a couple of weeks.

In my daily rounds, I find more conversation about the “end-times” in the secular rather than ecclesial sphere. Just this week I listened to an episode of Fresh Air with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about the real possibility of an asteroid entering the atmosphere and endling life as we know it.[1] In the wake of Hurricane Florence, the media is talking about “super storms,” with their unpredictability and massively destructive potential, becoming the rule, not the exception. The stark black-and-white cover of the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic Monthly poses this question: “Is Democracy Dying?” The issue explores whether we’ve out-smarted and out-manipulated ourselves in the name of progress through the tools of social media, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Kendrick Lamar, whose rap lyrics easily pierce the boundary between sacred and secular, voices the despondency, despair, and desperation experienced by many and has suggested that the ‘rapture is comin’’.[2]

These next two weeks offer the preacher a distinct opportunity to compare and contrast current end-time fears, hopes and laments with the long stream of apocalyptic concern found within our Hebrew and Christian spiritual tradition. Today’s end-time fears map so closely with those expressed in today’s pericope: destruction of the natural order as well as social and political unrest. The major contrast between our current fears, expressed more overtly in the secular realm than in my mainline, upper-middle class parish context, and those expressed in the Gospel is where hope lies. Today’s reading ends on a decisively hopeful note: the chaos is a sign of new life, “the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). On the other side of the suffering, the fear, and the unknown, is a new beginning. A vision for life on the “other side” of the end-times is blurry at best for someone like Lamar and simply not part of the conversation for Tyson and The Atlantic Monthly editorial team.

Preceding this chapter in Mark, we have two chapters detailing conflict after conflict between Jesus and the representatives of religious and political structures: the scribes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and Herodians, and finally the whole Temple hierarchy. After this chapter, Mark’s pace dramatically slows, as we hear about the particular evil revealed in the betrayal, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus and the perplexing hope revealed in the resurrection. Today’s reading serves as a reflective pause, inviting listeners to place the opposition to Jesus’ teaching in the wider context of a cosmic battle between God and the powers and principalities.

But if the preacher doesn’t want to wade into apocalyptic territory,[3] another approach might focus on the first two verses with the disciple’s exclamation about the temple and Jesus’ sharp response. What was the purpose and tone of the disciple’s remark about the temple’s grandiosity? Was the disciple trying to distract Jesus from constant conflict he experienced in the temple compound? Was he trying to get Jesus to appreciate the temple as a pointer to God’s majesty? Can we hear any echoes of ourselves in his seemingly placating questioning? I am a people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding person (lots of clergy types are). Certainly, I’ve used similar tactics to “save” people from conflicts they experience and “focus on something more positive.” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. The temple, with its large stones and impressive structure, isn’t eternal…and worse than that, it actually serves to drive people further from what is eternal, namely sacrificial love.

On my read, the temple is a stand-in for the dazzling idols that deceive us into thinking we are worshipping the real thing. The temple (its exclusive experts, its physical structure, its demands for purity and loyalty) had lost its legitimacy in Jesus’ eyes, as it no longer served to point people toward the real thing, toward a dynamic relationship with the Divine One who is generally invisible to our naked sight but none the less nearer to us than our next breath. For Jesus, that structural stumbling block had to be eliminated, ‘thrown down.’[4] What temple-like structures do you encounter in your ministry? In my context, on more than one occasion dissatisfaction has been expressed at the prospect of using our buildings and grounds for new ministries based on fear of “what could happen to the property.” It is so human, and sinful, to forget that the church buildings and grounds are there to point us toward the ‘real thing,’ the eternal thing, the way of sacrificial love.

[1] Gross, Terry.  “Fresh Air” Neil deGrasse Tyson on Astrophysics and the Military.  NPR, September 17, 2018.  https://www.npr.org/2018/09/17/648719837/neil-degrasse-tyson-on-astrophysics-the-military, accessed September 21, 2018.

[2] Lyrics to “Pray for Me” by Abel Tesfaye / Adam King Feeney / Kendrick Lamar / Martin McKinney, accessed on https://www.google.com/search?q=kendrick+lamar+lyrics+pray+for+me&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1-ab, September 21, 2018.

[3] If you do decide to stay with apocalyptic theme, I strongly recommend these two brief essays found on the Working Preacher website: “Preaching Mark in Times of Strife” by Matt Skinner and “Apocalyptic Preaching” by Anathea Portier Young.

[4] Of course, the temple had frequently been viewed ambivalently by the Hebrews. Just look at the story of the first temple’s construction by King Solomon which was built on the backs of the Hebrew people and the critiques of the temple establishment by many of the prophets.

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina–the “Gateway to the Smokies.” She would like to find time to hike, garden, and dabble in poetry. But she actually uses her time to run her two children around, weed, and read a poem or two as she drifts off to sleep at night…and she is grateful.

Proper 27(B): On Abundance

Proper 27(B): On Abundance

Mark 12:38-44

By: Sarah Harcourt Watts

When I first sat down to read this passage and take some initial notes to write this essay, I walked away from it without a single note written or even a vague idea of what I could say. In particular, the second portion about the widow’s offering seemed difficult to comment on because I couldn’t imagine what I would say about it that didn’t insinuate some level of guilt. The widow in the story gives everything she has to live on when she comes to worship God. Jesus tells us that she has given more than even the rich people who put in large sums because she had so little to start. If the poor widow who gave everything is the model in this story, then what does that mean for me? Is this literally about my financial contribution at church? If so, it left me with this uncomfortable feeling that I’ll never give enough. If I’m supposed to give everything I have to live on, how does Jesus suppose I’ll pay my mortgage next week? Who will pay for my family’s groceries? Surely the Jesus I know and love isn’t asking this of me, I decided. Either I blatantly misunderstood the point, or I just didn’t want to admit that I thought Jesus was asking too much here.

When I sat down to read it again, I did so with the perspective of God’s abundant love for each of us. Knowing that Jesus loves us deeply, how does he want us to respond to this story of giving away all that we have? With this reading, I noticed that the rich people contributed out of their abundance. They did give large sums, but surely not all they had. I wondered how these people who clearly had enough saw their own wealth. Did they feel anxious about what would happen if they gave too much? Did they see their own wealth as limited? Though the widow did not actually have abundant material possessions, maybe she actually saw her own meager possessions as abundant. She had two coins. Maybe that day was the first in many temple visits that she had had anything to give at all! Maybe as she approached the treasury, she put in her two coins not with the anxiety of wondering if she had given too much, but with gladness that she had money to give. Maybe she was the one who gave joyfully, feeling as though her gift was abundant. And, indeed, to Jesus her gift was the most abundant of all. It was worth more to him than the large gifts from those who literally gave out of their abundance.

Thinking about this perspective of abundance reminded me of an article by Glennon Doyle, an author and creator of the online community, “Momastery.” She tells about how she once posted a picture of herself in her kitchen online, and was instantly sent messages with suggestions of how she could update her kitchen. She had liked her kitchen before, but with these suggestions in her mind, she did notice how dated it had become and decided to look into updates. But then, she remembers this passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes.” She decides to look at her kitchen with the perspective that she already has enough, but only needs to realize it. She then lists the things her kitchen has to offer, which seem ridiculously abundant through her new lens: a refrigerator full of healthy food! A sink with unlimited clean water! A medicine cabinet that only needs to hold vitamins and supplements! A floor for dancing! As she reexamines her kitchen for the abundance that she already has, she declares, “It’s like my family hits the lottery every freaking morning.” The kitchen itself has not changed, but her new perspective has changed everything. Instead of seeing what she lacked, she was able to see just how much she really had.[1] When the widow from our passage obtained the two small copper coins, did she feel like she had won the lottery? Perhaps she felt so overwhelmed by her perceived abundance that her natural inclination was to give it all away.

For me, this passage is an invitation to see what I have as plenty. Applying this passage to our own lives is going to look different for each person. What we have to give, what we need to hold on to, and what feels like abundance to us looks so different for each of us. It certainly could nudge us to give financial gifts more freely to our churches or other causes we support. It could make us want to give of our time or talents in new ways. Most of all, though, this passage leaves me wondering this: How would I live differently if I truly believed I had plenty? In this passage, the giver’s perspective of her own abundance and the intention of her heart mattered more than her actual gift. There is no guilt to be had here, just a freeing sense that we can give abundantly no matter what we may possess.

[1] Glennon, D. (2014, August 11) Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt. https://momastery.com/blog/2014/08/11/give-liberty-give-debt/

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Sarah Harcourt Watts

Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Crestwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

 

All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death

John 11:32-44

By: Ryan Young

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is, I think, one of the most difficult pieces of scripture in the context of All Saints’ Sunday. It is the story of Jesus raising one of his friends from the dead, and we are supposed to preach this to a congregation, many of whom are dealing with the recent passing of loved ones who will not be returning any time soon. I will never forget the intense anger at God almost universally voiced by patients with whom I spent sleepless nights as a chaplain at Emory Hospital (to be sure, members of my current congregation experience the same, but it seems that people are more apt to voice those thoughts to a stranger). In the face of that anger, hurt, and confusion I am supposed to offer a story wherein Jesus overcame Lazarus’ death in a way that he did not for their loved ones?

Yes.

Yes, because this story offers us the identity of Jesus. Just prior to this snippet, in verse 25, Jesus claims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In raising Lazarus, that identity is fully revealed. It is God alone who holds power over life and death, and by exhibiting that power, Jesus is shown to be God incarnate.

By raising Lazarus, Jesus exhibits his power over death. By being raised himself, he will exhibit his victory over it. These two events cannot be separated in the Fourth Gospel. It is in fact Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that precipitated the final decision to kill Jesus (vv. 45-53). Jesus’ death is an expression of the measure of love that God has for creation, and his resurrection should convince us that the love of God will not be overcome. Moreover, this love leads Jesus to extend power over death to all who choose to accept it, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (vv.24-26) In other words, because of Jesus’ power expressed both in raising Lazarus and in his own resurrection, Christians are able to experience death differently.

Two years ago, I broke down during an Ash Wednesday service. The youth from the church had been sitting together and had all just come forward together to receive the imposition of ashes and to kneel for prayer at the altar. As our senior pastor proclaimed with each child, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” the truth of the service weighed heavily upon me—each of these children would die. My own child, with whom my wife was pregnant at the time, would also die one day. It is a truth that I could not bear then, and if I am honest it is a thought that I still have trouble entertaining for long. I think that is a sign that the Church has failed in one of its tasks. In my experience we do not talk much about death outside of a few special days each year, indeed unless you came to a Good Friday or All Saints’ service you may wonder what, if anything, Christians have to say about dying. In avoiding the subject of death, perhaps the Church has given the perception that the power of death is indeed stronger than God’s love.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are reluctant to talk about death is that we grasp so little about resurrection. Death seems to final and resurrection so ambiguous. Is it a bodily resurrection? Spiritual? Is it an eschatological hope, or might some on odd occasion share in Lazarus’ experience? If I’m being completely honest, I can’t tell you with any certainty. I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. To be clear, I am not intelligent enough to understand a third of the book, however I have always found Dr. Tyson to be a fascinating and engaging personality—as an added bonus, his voice puts my fussy one-year-old right to sleep. Near the beginning of the book, Tyson says that, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” This simple pronouncement recalled a truth I have always known. Mystery is baked into the fabric of existence. While not a theist, Tyson’s words served as a reminder that God is under no obligation to make sense to me.

We ought to talk about the raising of Lazarus, and not only on All Saints’ Day, but as often as we can because it points to the truth revealed in Jesus’ own resurrection—that death does not have the final word on human existence, but has been overcome by the love of God. God’s love for creation is so strong, so final, that it is present even in that of which we are most frightened. In Christ we hold to the mysterious promise of resurrection. Maybe it’s a promise that we can’t fully understand or explain, but it is nevertheless a promise to which we can cling.

 

In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
“How could you believe that the life within the seed
that grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat.
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried.
Could ever die?”
Here come the blue skies Here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high & the tears run dry.
When everything that dies.
Shall rise.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.

-from the song “Love is Stronger Than Death” written by Matt Johnson

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Ryan Young with his wife, Rachael, and daughter, Iris

Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.

 

Proper 25(B): Standing (or Sitting) in the Need of Prayer

Proper 25(B): Standing (or Sitting) in the Need of Prayer

Mark 10:46-52

By: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The church I serve has a table in its narthex equipped with pens, pencils, and a blank sheet where anyone can write down the name of a person standing in the need of prayer. If the remembered person is “not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me oh, Lord,” then they write down their own name as a way of asking the parish community to lift them up. The list of these persons is then offered in intercessory prayer during worship every Sunday. For Episcopal Christians, this movement within the liturgy is labeled, “The Prayers of the People.” Some parishes not only have lists that are read by someone from the community, but the reader will often invite the fellowship to, “offer up your own names either silently or aloud.” With this invitation, a cacophony of names rings out as if speaking in tongues—the Day of Pentecost remembered. Very early on in my ministry, I took the list for the prayers of the people and reached out to those persons who had requested prayer. On the sheet there’s a column for the person being prayed for, as well as the person who requested it. I did this as a way of praying with them, but also as a way of furthering relationship with the people in the community. I originally thought they could introduce me to the people in our fellowship needing prayer, and that I could visit them, perhaps bringing Holy Communion; however, I found out my instinct was off. Most of the people on the list were not from the initial community. Rather, they were friends and family of loved ones that happened to worship in that parish. This insight gently corrected my assumptions and reminded me that “the world” was brought into the life of the Church, and when praying in intercession, the Church was brought to them. Outsiders suddenly became insiders. Radical hospitality was offered while relationship became reciprocal.

On Sunday, October 28th, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints St. Mark’s account of “Blind Bartimaeus” (Mark 10:46-52). It is one of the healing narratives; and with these types of chronicles usually at least two foci occur.[i] There is a focus on Christ and his authoritative healing powers. With this Christological focus in mind, usually the person being healed is unnamed. The second focus is on faithful discipleship. Usually this is a named person who has been healed and follows Jesus on the way (v. 52). The latter applies to the healing and further ministry of Bartimaeus; yet, can it also be argued he already had a ministry never even having a chance to practice it? In other words, was he never asked to fully participate in the life of the community before Jesus healed him? With this line of thinking, the preacher may ponder if Bartimaeus asked for healing because he was excluded from the community as illustrated by him sitting by the roadside outside the city of Jericho (v. 46). Perhaps being made whole was taught as being a certain way, or conforming to a cult or normalcy. How many times are we guilty of “sternly order[ing]” those different from us “to be quiet” in thought, word, or deed (v. 48)?

It has always impressed me that Jesus “stood still” (v. 49), responded to Bartimaeus’ call for mercy (vs. 47, 49), and asked Bartimaeus specifically, “What do you want me to do for you” (v. 51). This direct question from Jesus empowered Bartimaeus to name for himself what mercy was needed, not allowing anyone else to claim otherwise. By “throwing off his cloak” (v. 50) and following Jesus on “the way” (v. 52) he was casting off old ways of being in community (outside the city) and entering into new life (inside the head and the heart of the community – Jesus himself).

Thinking back to The Prayers of the People story above, I believed those on its list were “insiders”—those whom I deemed were people of the Way—VIP’s if you will. I was gently corrected. Instead, they were outside that particular community, yes, but they were (and remain) inside the heart of the Church as the Body of Christ each and every time they are lifted up in prayer. Their names ministered to me even as I asked mercy for them. Mercy for what? I can always assume, but then again, that intercession is for them to name.

 

Brandon_Duke
The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The Very Reverend Brandon Duke serves as Rector of Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia as well as Dean of the Southwest Atlanta Convocation.

 

 

 

 

 

[i]  These two foci are laid out succinctly in: Nancy L. Eiesland and Don E. Saliers, Editors, Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, Colleen C. Grant’s Ch. 3: “Reinterpreting the Healing Narratives,” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 72-79.

 

Proper 24(B): There’s No “I” in Team!

Proper 24(B): There’s No “I” in Team!

Mark 10:35-42

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

There are so many ways to read scripture. We continually find deeper, richer meanings in the text. Stories that seem so familiar can still surprise us; they can still offer new insights to our human condition. This reading from the Gospel of Mark is no different.

There are rich sermons to be mined from the presumptions of James and John. Asking to be at Jesus’ right and left hands means asking for seats of power and honor in the ancient world. Their misunderstanding of the kind of ministry—of the kind of glory—that Jesus offers is a wonderful topic to bring forth. It’s a wonderful illustration of royally missing the point.

So too is the topic of servant leadership. True Christians leaders are not the ones out front saying, “Look at me! Look at my piety!” Indeed, in our selfie-stick world, Jesus’ emphasis that personal honor and glory are not to be pursued are counter-cultural. The ideals of servant leadership—of humility and putting others before yourself—were radical in the first century and are certainly radical today.

Both of these are excellent beginnings for prayer, reflection, and proclamation.

However, I will offer a third place to draw out the scripture. This is about teamwork.

When James and John ask to be seated at Jesus right and left hand, they are asking to be elevated above their peers. By asking for the places of glory and honor, not only do they miss the point that the Kingdom of God is about selfless service to others, but they also undermine the equity between the disciples. This is a community, a traveling team of believers spreading the Good News. Suddenly, two of the community are asking to be raised up; to be honored above the others, since only one person can stand on either side of Jesus.

This is a disruption to the new Kingdom that Jesus ushers in. Jesus scolds them, telling them they don’t know what they’re asking for. When the rest of the community hears about the request—the request to disrupt the peer to peer equality that has grown among them—they are disgruntled.

Of course they are! This is like the guy on your team who takes all the credit for a work project and asks for a promotion, not pausing to acknowledge any of the work the rest of you have done. This is like the kid who boasts that they are the star of the play, forgetting all the work of the tech crew and fellow actors. This is the star quarterback who only talks about himself and doesn’t acknowledge his teammates.

This is the human desire to be raised to glory—to seek human honor and validation. And Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Because in this new Kingdom things will be turned upside down. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, and lions will lay down with lambs, and little children will lead them. To sit in the place of honor is to suffer more, not less. It is to give of yourself more, not less. It is to see yourself as a member of a whole—of a body—with a unique and valuable part to play, but not a more or less important part to play. It is about equity and equality and making all things new.

The ten have good reason to grumble at James and John. They are acting like men of the world—men in pursuit of earthly glory and acknowledgement—and not men of the Beloved Community.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v 42b-45)

This new Kingdom will require equity. It will require a new modus operandi. It will require a new paradigm. James and John are still thinking within the old paradigm—a paradigm of earthly praise and honor. But in the Beloved Community there isn’t room for some to be “great” and others to be, well, not great.

The ten probably felt betrayed. They probably felt that the sacred bond of equality and equity between them was violated. Because it was.

As we consider the Church today, how does glory-seeking prevent true Beloved Community? Where is the cohesion of a team disrupted by those who are more attached to worldly validation instead of selfless commitment to others? Where have you struggled with seeking glory, instead of selfless service?

A sermon on the interdependence of the disciples—their teamwork and internal community—and how the request of James and John disrupted it would be welcome in many churches and congregations. It may be a space to call out the need for confession of sin—both personal and structural (like, how does implicit white supremacy and/or patriarchy create an entitlement that mirrors the request of James and John?). It may be a space to air out grievances, or to open the conversation for congregations needing to work through power struggles.

It may offer a point of reorientation and redirection. If you’re focused on being the greatest you can’t be on a team. The Beloved Community is an interdependent team of believers working together for God’s kingdom.

An African proverb says: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.”

Jesus desires us to go far. He sends us out to go two by two. Let us create healthy teams—Beloved Communities—that go far with and for the Gospel.

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.