In his commentary on the Book of Hebrews, Tom Long writes, “For those who take ropes and spikes and torches and descend into the murky cave of the Hebrews, there is much about this document we wish we could discover, but our historical lanterns are too dim.” Indeed, Hebrews is something of a mystery for many. The tradition surrounding the writing ascribes its authorship to Paul, but modern Biblical scholars almost unanimously dismiss this claim. It is both similar and different from any other epistle in the New Testament; it’s dense both theologically and linguistically; and the exact audience to which it was written is rather vague. Think about it: addressing a document in the Ancient Near East as “To the Hebrews” is akin to someone today addressing a document “To the North Carolinians.”
Nevertheless, for those willing to meet the challenge, Hebrews offers a depth and richness the likes of which is unsurpassed in the New Testament. Although New Testament scholars may quibble over the precise category into which Hebrews should be assigned, the text is at its heart urgently pastoral and exceedingly timely. We may not know the author’s name, but it is clear that they are a pastor, and there is trouble in the church.
The trouble isn’t situational: nobody appears to be misbehaving, heresy isn’t on the loose among the people, there doesn’t appear to be a rift between the pastor and the people, and there’s no evidence of external persecution threatening harm. It’s far more pervasive than any of that. The trouble is that the people of God have grown apathetic. Marilynne Robinson sums it up beautifully in her novel, Home: “The Sunday-school children were marrying, and the married couples had settled into difficult, ordinary life, and the grave old men and women who had taught the Sunday-school children about bands of angels and flying chariots were themselves crossing over Jordan one by one.” And so, in order to try and ignite a flame from the cooling embers, the pastor launches into a passionate description of the fullness of the Christian life, including the sublime Christological statement here in chapter 9.
The brave preacher might consider offering a multi-week sermon series or teaching series on the Book of Hebrews. Leavened with imagination, and populated with connections to the preacher’s own context, such a series bears enormous potential. I know of no congregation under Heaven where there aren’t at least a few cooling embers that desperately need re-igniting!
 Thomas G. Long, “Hebrews” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 1.
Many of us will be deeply familiar with the story of Job. He is a man who loses everything as part of a divine wager in which the accuser is allowed to take away all of the wealth and privilege that he has been privy to throughout his life. As part of the test, the accuser takes Job’s fortunes, his friends, and even his family. Even Job’s wife tells him that it would be better for him if he would simply curse God and die. (Job 2:9)
Can you even begin to imagine what that must have been like? That everything you ever possessed was taken away and even your family turn their backs on you. They were convinced that Job had done something wrong to bring God’s wrath forth on himself. However, throughout this whole theodicy, that is the experience of the absence of God, it becomes so incredibly clear that this is not the consequence of Job having done something wrong. That was the dominant theology of the day. If you’re wealthy it’s because God has blessed you and if you’re poor then that is because you have sinned and God is punishing you. We still see this theology alive and well in what many refer to as the “prosperity gospel.” In the West, this type of theology is often married with nationalistic pride.
But here in the last chapter of the book we come to this passage that speaks about the restoration of his wealth and his family. The passage tells us that “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job’s life more than his beginning…”
I can’t help but wonder what it truly means to be blessed by God? Is that a life that comes with rich resources? Is it a life that comes easily? Or is it free from defeat or disappointment? I can’t bring myself to hold that any of those things are reflective of what it truly means to be blessed by God. For the sake of transparency, I should own my understanding is shaded by my own experience of life. My experience of life teaches me that not a single one of us escapes this life unscathed by challenges, difficulties, defeats, and disappointments. These things are simply consequences of being ‘alive.’
I’ve met with so many people who are struggling and asking the question of “Why is this happening to me?” It’s a question that many of us struggle with when we’re in these difficult places. We can be tempted to think that it’s because we did something or we didn’t do something we should have. Often, we are in difficult places because we’re alive and managing the struggles and challenges of life is just a part of it.
A wise young woman once said, “Why not me? Why am I so special as to be spared the pains and challenges of life?” I was privileged to know her for a significant chunk of her life and mine. I now find myself asking that question more regularly in the places where I am tempted to ask why instead I wonder why not me?
The last verse of this passage is one that really prompted my imagination. In spite of all the trials and challenges that Job had overcome, the scriptures record that when he died, “He died old and full of days.” (v. 17)
What does it look like to live a life that is “full of days?” I am convinced that it means living our lives to the fullest that we can. It means finding our passions in life and embodying them fully and by doing so to make life full and abundant.
We can see this in the life of artists who give up big careers and lots of money to pursue their art. We see it in the lives of those who devote themselves to the religious life for the sake of the world. We see it in the people who devote their lives to making this world a better place with one act of compassion at a time.
In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic, I’d be remiss to not mention the men and women who have given their lives to provide care for those who are sick and dying at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “In this life, we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Finding that great love and making it manifest in the world is one of the ways that we can live our lives “full of days.”
What will it look like for you to live your life “full of days?”
Altars are like people: they come in all kinds, and some people concern themselves far too much with how they are dressed.
One altar that made quite the impression was that of my year one field education parish. This church was large and beautiful, and the entire chancel, including the wine-glass pulpit, were made of marble. There was a “Waltar” made of marble and a very large wooden free-standing altar, upon which was carved “In remembrance of me.” Two marble steps up from the rest of the nave and a marble altar rail separated these two holy tables from the rest of the sanctuary. And yes, the altar wore designer clothes. A Tiffany stained glass window of the resurrection overlooked the whole affair, as if the morning sunlight could use some improvement.
Worship at this parish was beautifully done. The music stirred the soul and glorified God. The pastors preached with integrity and verve. The sanctuary overflowed of happy families, and the needs of the community were lifted up in prayer, and the announcements engaged the congregation in mission. The congregation leveraged about one million dollars a year into a vibrant mission and much help for their neighbors. God was—and remains—certainly at work in this big, beautiful, successful church.
James and John could be forgiven for thinking that discipleship was always going to be a “marble chancel” kind of work. They rather audaciously asked Jesus for places of honor at the divine banquet. I’d imagine they thought of themselves resplendent in rich brocades, with a heavenly Tiffany light cast upon them, having heard much of the glory of the Lord. After all, their teacher had been transfigured, and he was going about healing people and multiplying bread. Surely, Jesus brought with him joy and reconciliation. Who wouldn’t want a part of that?
Jesus has strong words for his ambitious disciples. He reminds them that he’s going to the cross, in fairly strong terms: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He pledges that they will share in both, and he’s talking about his death. And also the sacraments.
Both Baptism and Holy Communion are cruciform. In Baptism, we die with Jesus, drowning to sin and rising again to new life. In Holy Communion, we remember that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” and we take that paschal mystery into our bodies. We celebrate the forgiveness of sin in both sacraments, and with forgiveness there is eternal life. Yet, it can be easy to forget that in each of these sacraments, there too is death: the death of sin and the death of death itself.
Jesus reminds his disciples that this cruciform pattern defines the Christian life. To follow Jesus is to daily die and rise again. The topsy-turviness of following Jesus overpowers death, and it overpowers social convention along with it. To die to sin is to die to the sin of pride and position. He rightly identifies the Roman customs of status and patronage as contrary to his reign. To become great, he says, you must be a servant. To be highest is to become the most lowly. Jesus does this on the cross.
As church leaders, we find ourselves gathered around the Lord’s supper quite often. It’s easy to believe that the mahogany altar standing on marble steps is the pinnacle of Christian practice. Make no mistake: God’s banquet is worthy of our best. Yet, my most cherished memories of feasting on Jesus feature much simpler furniture.
How often has a hospital tray become the holiest of holies! The words, “Given for you,” and “Shed for you,” mark the transformation of simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Similarly, a kitchen or a waiting room can become the grandest of churches. All this is possible because of the presence of the Most High, who became the lowliest of all on a cross and who rose in glory to bring us eternal life.
The church, with its great diversity, gathers around many tables each Sunday. Some are grand, and others much more simple. At each of these tables, the risen Christ holds out his wounded hands so that we could hold out our hands to a wounded world. We leave this banquet with bellies full of the Bread of Life, eager to feed others.
 An East-Facing altar or altar attached to a wall. You’re welcome!
***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in 2018***
As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.” That’s certainly the case for this man with many possessions who runs to Jesus and kneels asking how to inherit eternal life. He leaves grieving after being told to give away all his possessions while Jesus continues on with the disciples, warning them of the spiritual risk that comes with wealth. This man does not hear what he wanted and expected, but he does get something much needed: an invitation to travel with Christ.
I wonder what this man wanted from Jesus and why he approached him. Why did he need Jesus to confirm he was doing the right thing if he already knew the commandments and had been keeping them since his youth? Is this an example of humble-bragging? Is he hoping Jesus to praise his efforts in front of the crowd and disciples? Perhaps he is simply an anxious personality looking for encouragement, hoping to be told he’s doing everything right and just keep doing what he’s doing. Whatever the motivation, his encounter with Jesus confronts him with a dilemma and leaves him shaken to the core (as encounters with the Holy usually do).
I know many people (myself included) who have been like this; running to Jesus (or church) filled with excitement and enthusiasm, only to be left in shocked surprise when we find the reality is quite different. But following Jesus is not easy, and as any 5-year-old can tell you, life isn’t fair. We don’t get what we deserve (at least not in this world).
One of the most unattractive parts of faith is that it doesn’t make life easier. In fact, committing yourself to a life of faith will likely make things far more difficult. Following Christ means possessions and relationships will always be at risk. We commit ourselves to speaking truth and following Christ even when he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go.
It’s doubly difficult for clergy who serve at the pleasure of their congregation; it’s one thing to talk about following Jesus in an abstract way but it’s quite another when you risk your career and your family’s income. We all come to a point where we have to decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. Prosperity is not the result of faithfulness, just as cancer is not the result of sin. Our behavior may influence it, but spiritual justice is not a kind of science that operates through cause and effect. Decades of hard work and faithful living might leave us aged and impoverished with nothing to show for it, but no sacrifice is forgotten in the heart of God, and if you’re in the Christian life to get material security, then you’re in the wrong place. Baptism is not a contract which guarantees an easy life without struggle.
If prosperity was always the result of hard work, then immigrant laborers who work 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week would be millionaires and a single mother holding down three jobs while raising her kids wouldn’t have to worry about having enough to cover the bills this month. The Disciples gave everything away and were persecuted for it. They spent their lives as homeless wanderers, and most of them ended up dying painfully, but they followed regardless. They continued on with Jesus even when, like James and John, it meant leaving family behind (Matthew 4:2). Jesus tells the young man with many possessions to give it all away, and he walks away shocked and grieving. Perhaps he left because he was overly attached to his possessions and he couldn’t leave them to follow Christ, but I can’t help but wonder if he might also be grieving a long-held belief about how the world works. By telling him to give away all his possessions, Jesus may really be telling him that prosperity was not the result of keeping all the commandments since childhood. Perhaps what this man grieves isn’t just the loss of material wealth, but also years of believing that his possessions were proof of his faithfulness. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, he may have just lost his entire world view and how he has related to it, but that’s the risk we run by approaching Christ; the answer he gives us might not be what we want to hear and might leave us shaken.
The texts for the Proper 22 also happen to fall on World Communion Sunday. This is a rather challenging group of texts to incorporate into world communion Sunday, so I would recommend those preaching this Sunday to pick a theme and work from there. The scripture readings offer a few different suggestions. A main theme found throughout Job, Psalm 26, and Hebrews seem to be integrity. God boasts of Job’s integrity. The psalmist brags of personal integrity. And Hebrews speaks to Christ’s integrity. The Gospel reading seems at first not to fit into this theme of integrity as it deals with marriage, divorce, adultery, and entering the kingdom of God like children. However, I would argue that Christ’s integrity is on display within our Gospel reading.
Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to hear and near impossible to practice. However, his devotion to the ancestors of the faith and the ways in which God is constantly at work through our lives is always on full display. I believe this shows us a glimpse of the incarnation. In Jesus’ life, we see the divine and the creator. It is a life that is always pushing us to be more connected and more engaged with those we might otherwise wish to avoid.
Jesus is constantly engaged with the religious leaders who often attempt to test him or trick him. Of course, we must be careful here not to equate these religious leaders with the Jewish people (a common mistake that has had terrible fallout throughout our history). Instead, I find it helpful to equate the religious leaders of the Gospels with ourselves. After all, we are constantly looking for the loopholes in our lives of faith. Too often, we attempt to read only the parts of scripture that fit into our narrative rather than reading the entirety. Too often, we attempt to turn Christ into what we want him to be rather than who he is and who he is calling us to be.
In this way, we find another connection to the theme of integrity. In order for us to be complete and truly whole, we must be the person God has called us to be and live the life of love Christ calls us to live. I had a professor once who would often teach that integrity is the things you do when no one is around. Christ calls us to a certain life and too often we fail the test of integrity in attempting to live in a different way.
In Mark chapter 10 verse 14 we find a very interesting thing happen. We are told that Jesus is “indignant” that the disciples would rebuke people bring their children to him. The NIV translates aganakteo into indignant. You can also find this word translated to “displeased” in some translations. In any case, Jesus is upset with the disciples.
The interesting part of this particular passage is that this is the only use of aganakteo to describe Jesus’ emotional state in the Gospel of Mark. There are only two others uses of this word in Mark’s Gospel. One is found in chapter 10 verse 41 when the disciples become indignant with James and John about them asking to sit at the right and left of Christ. The other is found in chapter 14 verse 4 when some gathered there become indignant about the unnamed woman using such expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. (Interestingly, this seems to be the last straw for Judas, because right after this he goes to the chief priests to set up Jesus’ betrayal.)
There is, of course, much written and preached about the example of children within Christ’s teaching of the faith. This particular passage even suggests that it if we do not receive the children, we can not enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus often seems to be able to take time to enjoy the innocence of the children around them. I often picture Jesus as one who is willing to learn from the children around him: from their curiosity, their playfulness, and even their integrity. Children often give you exactly who they are. They have not yet learned the various social norms of society and thus are willing to tell you exactly what is on their minds. Something many pastors have learned during an embarrassing answer to a question asked at the children’s moment of a worship service.
As a parent of three children myself, I am also struck by the things I have learned from my children. Sometimes the skeptical introvert in me can be caught off-guard by their innocent willingness to have conversations with everyone they meet. Of course, the adult in me often worries about stranger-danger and the need to protect them. And yet, there is something pure about the way they live into who they are and who they have been called by God to be.
Even in the midst of devastation to his family, his life, and his health, God boasts of Job’s integrity – proclaiming him to be a blameless and upright man. There is a word in these texts that calls upon our own integrity – it challenges us to be who we have been created to be. But we are also challenged to find the pure love of Christ in who others have been created to be. In my own experience that is so much more difficult.
In those moments when who we are crashes headfirst into who someone else is, we may be challenged to fall into indignation. It would be wise for those preaching from these texts to explore the ways in which our indignation can open up the Kingdom of God for more people rather than close it off. Who knows, maybe there is a connection to this theme of integrity and World Communion Sunday after all? However we spread this word, remember that Christ takes the children of God in his arms, places his hands upon them, and blesses them. I pray all those that hear these words from God would feel the same.
 Oh, Kirsten S. “October 3, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22/World Communion Sunday.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.
It is no small coincidence that I should have chosen this passage for Proper 21 some time ago. I chose to write on this passage as a lover of contemplative prayer practices–particularly centering prayer–and I intended to write on silent prayer as a critical practice of listening for God. Due to unforeseen and unwelcome life situations, it has become something else. I have had many occasions for prayer and many experiences struggling with prayer over the past month. This essay is, with many apologies to Modern Metanoia’s editor, quite past the deadline we had agreed upon for its completion.
A few weeks ago, my family received distressing news about my wife’s pregnancy. We were advised to make an appointment with a specialist for further tests and care. The specialist was unable to see us for a week, so we spent the entirety of that week consumed by anxiety, which we tried to hide from our 3 and a half year old daughter. We didn’t want to tell her anything until we knew what was happening, but the stress of acting normal only further frayed our nerves.
Once we were able to see the specialist, we received an opinion that the worst possibilities, to which we naturally gravitated, were unlikely and that the concern was, thankfully, minor. That relief was short-lived. Only three days later we received news that our daughter was exposed to covid by a child in her class. Her asthma and stint in the ICU with respiratory problems as an infant have made us fearful of what complications a novel respiratory virus might cause her. A few days later her covid test came back positive, and we were once again in the depths of anxiety and uncertainty.
Amid all of this, I found it extremely hard to pray. I don’t have words of my own to encompass my feelings of helplessness. Praying the historic prayers of the church feels disingenuous. I cannot quiet myself enough to settle into centering prayer; thoughts and fears for my children are the only things that occupy my mind.
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Great. Except that I just couldn’t get there. Choosing a scripture that centers around prayer was beginning to feel like a really bad idea. The bright spot in all of this is that so many others have reached out to check on my family to see if we needed anything, to share words of compassion, and to ensure us that we were being prayed for.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…”
I began to notice that only one out of the eight verses in this scripture are actually a prescription for individual prayer. The majority of these verses speak about the importance of praying for one another. The author of James recognizes that we cannot escape the threads of common humanity and interdependence. They spend very little time advising individuals to pray because we do not exist as individuals and never have. For individuals, there are times where prayer is all but impossible, but the prayers and faithfulness of others are always available. Because we are one Body, we can rely on others to pray for us when we cannot pray ourselves. We can rely on others to sing songs of praise when we would rather weep. We can rely on others to believe for us when faith seems too big a task.
“The prayer of faith will make the sick whole, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you maybe made whole.” (My adapted translation from the NRSV. Both the word translated as “save,” sōzō, and the word translated as “be healed,” iaomai, also connote wholeness. Both can faithfully be translated, “to make whole.”)
Prayer does its work on the one who prays and the one prayed for. Prayer for others can bring them to wholeness. It also seems that prayer for others is what your wholeness rests upon–”so that you may be healed.” It is balm for the soul of those who cannot pray and brings forth the compassion of Christ in those who can. Elijah’s fervent prayer held back and then brought forth rain, which he had no ability to control. Home much more might our prayers elicit compassion, healing, and forgiveness, which we have the ability to both offer and receive?
“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Luke 9:32)
The disciples often make it easy to shake our heads in disdain as they completely miss Jesus’ point or hide their heads in the sand, but I have a lot of empathy for them here. Jesus has just come down off the literal and figurative peak of his ministry where he stood in glory with Moses and Elijah, then followed that up with healing a boy whose affliction had evaded the best efforts of his followers to cure it—but then he reminds those same followers that all too soon, the party will be over and their leader will be betrayed and murdered.
This isn’t the first time the disciples have been let down after a mighty ministerial victory; there was the feeding of the four thousand and the healing of the blind man, followed by the foretelling of Jesus’ suffering and death in chapter 8. It must have felt like whiplash to reach such high highs and then dip to such low lows; and the temptation to stay on the mountaintop and avoid those steep valleys—just as Peter urged Jesus at the Transfiguration (9:5)—must have been strong.
The first time Jesus foretells his death, Peter’s fear-strangled love for his teacher pushes him to address it directly; he tries to talk Jesus out of the road that lies ahead of him (8:32). The second time (our passage), the text explicitly mentions the disciples’ confusion and fear (9:32) before we watch them turn the conversation to something more palatable: their own importance (9:34). By the time we get to the third prediction of Jesus’s passion, their fear is only a quick aside (10:32) before James and John skip straight to the boldest favor asked in all of history: that they might be given the honor of sitting on either side of him in glory.
It’s clear that they do not know what to do with the bewildering, heart-sinking news Jesus keeps waving in front of them. Instead of digging deeper—asking Jesus questions, working through their fear in an attempt to understand—they take the much easier route of turning away, pretending it isn’t real or that his sense of doom is blown out of proportion. I imagine they find a certain comfort in turning to the illusion that their greatness will save them from the turmoil to come.
So often when we are confronted with bad news, we too are confused and afraid like the disciples, and we too turn to arguments about far less important issues, squabbling amongst ourselves in an effort to feel as though we have control when we’ve just been brutally reminded that in reality it’s the opposite.
Whether it’s another bout of climate-change-fueled forest fires, or the uptick in Covid numbers despite the availability of the vaccine, or the rising tidal wave of misinformation and willful ignorance against a backdrop of white supremacy…there is a lot of bad news in our lives and in our world. Our fear and confusion (and our fatigue) cause us to look the other way, to put our energy towards things we feel like we can win: Facebook arguments, spats with a less-than-gracious neighbor, church council disagreements, political posturing in an age when we can simply ignore facts that don’t suit us and our own errors in judgment. Congressional leaders in particular excel at focusing all energy on the question of who can dominate the public conversation while conveniently ignoring the human and natural devastation wrought by solvable problems; but to a lesser extent, many of us do the same.
The disciples had been on the road with Jesus for months, uncertain where they would find their next meal or the next roof over their heads, trying to absorb teachings that turned their perspectives upside down. They must have been exhausted. We too, living in a pandemic hyped up on an instantaneous online news cycle, constantly inundated with every terrible thing that has happened in every location in the world, are exhausted. And when we’re exhausted—and if we have the privilege to do so—we want to look away. It feels like a way to save our sanity.
But where does our energy and attention go when we take that break? Does it go, like Peter, to trying to convince the bearer of the bad news that they’re wrong, or it’s not as bleak as they say it is? Does it go, like James and John and the rest of the disciples, to shore up our fragile sense of agency and importance in an out-of-control world? Or does it go to whatever grounds us in the One whose hard teachings and dire predictions always, always, come with good news, too?
Did you notice that each of the three times Jesus foretells the crucifixion, he also foretells the resurrection? The disciples jump right past that part—and understandably, because the torture and execution of your beloved rabbi and the brutal (presumed) end of his ministry is a lot to take in. But the fact remains that even as he is preparing them for the worst, he is also, consistently, telling them that the worst is not the end. He is doing all he can, through his teachings and healings which the disciples are witnessing firsthand, to prepare them for the new life that comes after.
What does it look like for us to look bad news squarely in the face; to choose, when it becomes too much to bear, not self-aggrandizement or the illusion of control, but restorative sabbath; to envision what might lie beyond the acceptance of the bad news; and to pay attention to how Jesus is preparing us to be a part of building new life on the other side of it?
It is an interesting time… to write a lectionary reflection. I don’t know how everyone else feels but I got excited last spring. COVID-19 seemed to be coming under control as infection rates dropped and vaccination campaigns really kicked into high gear. For the first time in a year, it felt like we could plan more than a week into the future, as individuals, families, and the church. I am writing this reflection at the beginning of August for the middle of September. None but the LORD know what September 2021 will look like. So yeah, it’s a little strange writing this reflection and I imagine when September 6th rolls around and I actually sit down to write my sermon the ground will have shifted yet again.
In 2021, I have preached exclusively from the Psalms. Little did I know when I put together my Psalter lectionary for 2021 how appropriate the series would be. The past 19 months have been like one long exposed nerve. We joked in March 2020 that we would collectively get a lot of reading, hobby work, and exercise done during lock down. For a few glorious months we all had fresh baked sourdough, before turning downcast eyes to the tasks of surviving, interpreting CDC and Government guidelines, agonizing over whether we were being safe enough or too cautious, and mourning lost opportunities and broken relationships as friends and family came to deeply different conclusions than we did, all under the weight of conspiracy theories and partisan posturing. When the spring rolled around and it looked like we had turned a real corner, collectively we breathed a sigh of relief and started to plan our lives again.
And now, there’s something hovering in the air. Not an unease, not a fear, but a real lingering fatigue, like second-day soreness after a hard workout that you just can’t shake. That’s because for the vast majority of people, the pandemic year+ was not rest. It was not quiet. For families, it did not provide opportunity for solitude or contemplation. It was unsatisfying sameness, so familiar we forgot to try and even name it. But it was isolated, extended, slow-motion trauma.
The Psalms offer a simultaneous balm to the hurts of the past year and an outlet for the anxieties, fears, and anger that COVID culture has revealed. I would encourage you to incorporate them into your preaching more often.
Psalm 116 is especially poignant for the moment that we find ourselves in. The psalmist speaks of being encircled by cords of death and being beset by death and Sheol (v 3). For those who might be inclined to find the context of this danger and anguish, you will be disappointed at how tightlipped our poet is. The psalm doesn’t dive into the context or give many concrete clues as to the setting of the Psalm. The NRSV gives the psalm the heading “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Illness,” which it could be, “but in Psalm 18:5, a similar formulation refers to danger in battle.” Whatever the context of the Psalm, the psalmist seemed unconcerned with relaying the accident of their anguish and instead focused on God’s actions and promise. Which is fortunate for us because it allows us to fully enter into the world of the Psalm. Kathryn Roberts says that “in the Psalm and the Prophets, “death” and “Sheol” are often metaphorical, describing a state of being, such as the trauma of unwarranted persecution, the slings and arrows of an enemy, or the distress of body and mind.” After the last 19 months, I imagine that for each of us and our congregations death and hell exist in a liminal space between metaphor and reality, ready to appear transformed in some new and terrifying way.
In a New York Times piece, Allison Gilbert writes that researchers think that for each person who has died of COVID, there are at least 9 people left behind to grieve, and that number could be higher because it only includes immediate family so we could be looking at a number 10+ times greater. Another recent study finds that at least 37,000 children lost at least one parent. Any sermon on Psalm 116 (or that acknowledges the reality of the moment) would do well to reflect on the “cords of death” that have surrounded the world over these past 19 months.
Reality also gives way to the Gospel, a God who hears, listens, and rescues. Psalm 116 gives us the space to wrestle with where and how God has watched over the world. Helping our congregations to see God’s presence in our midst especially in times of uncertainty, wrestling with a tense faith, and practicing Hope could all become the central theme of a sermon centered around Psalm 116. The lection ends halfway through the Psalm with, “I walk before the Lord in the Land of the Living,” though going a few verses farther opens up questions of keeping the faith in the midst of distress.
Psalm 116 gives us a powerful opportunity to preach on the reality of the moment and the presence of God. One of my Contextual Education supervisors while I was working in a hospital setting said that our role in the hospital room was to “point to the God who is already there.” The Psalms give us the opportunity to enter into distress and point to a God who is already there… or to cry out trusting, through faith, that God is present, hears our cry, and has the power to rescue and resurrect.
My friend and Candler classmate, Rev. Mashaun Simon, wrote an excellent reflection on this week’s Gospel text when it last came across the RCL. If you would like to engage with the text from Mark, I would encourage you to read his reflection.
One of the most haunting verses in all of scripture comes in the middle of James’s second chapter. James is in the midst of a major teaching moment regarding favoritism. He begins the chapter with an ardent declaration, “Anyone who acts in a manner of favoritism has no real share in the faith of Jesus Christ.” He then gives a cutting example.
A leader of a church gathering gives a good seat to the rich person, but to the poor, he allows him or her to sit on the floor or stand in the back. The leader has become an evil judge and has in turn dishonored the very heirs of the kingdom, the poor. A few verses later, James cuts to the chase, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:12-13, NRSV).
The mandate is clear. We are not simply to be faithful people. We should be active people. We should not simply intend mercy. We should implement mercy. For God’s economy and politics are not aligned with those of humanity. Money is not king. Class is not of the highest value. Favoritism is out. Mercy is in.
And what happens to those who seem merciful but do not perpetuate mercy? What happens to those who empathize but do not actuate grace? James is pretty clear when he says, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17, NRSV). Intention without initiative is empty. Anyone who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.
James’s harshness to those who do not act mercifully reminds the reader of Jesus’ words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NRSV). Another echo occurs in Matthew’s passage concerning the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says, “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 25:40, NRSV). For James and for Jesus in the above passages, action is a must. Active mercy and grace are necessary in accomplishing the mission of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Being active in grace is also necessary if you wish to be shown the same. Call it Christian karma. But the above aren’t the only verses in Matthew where sharing mercy has a direct effect upon the mercy shown to me:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NRSV).
“For if you forgive others their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, NRSV).
“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35, NRSV).
All of this talk of showing mercy and its direct correlation with the mercy shown me by God is overwhelming and haunting. This Christian karma is overwhelming because there are so many areas of life that require me to show mercy and mercy is rarely easy. But I am haunted when I briefly glance at my past, only to see the amount of mercy that I have not actively demonstrated.
The haunting quickly dissipates when I think of Kathleen Norris’s understanding of grace. In her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris says, “Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become…We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us” (151).
Norris reminds me, when I feel the weight of James and Jesus and their commands of mercy and consequences concerning the lack thereof, that the greatest mercy is always found in God. God is the greatest initiator of active grace. Every once in a while, it is good for us to reflect on the weight of mercy. But it doesn’t need to scare us. May we always feel empowered by our God who is actively and continuously granting grace to us because he believes in us, and he encourages us to share that same mercy again and again and again.
When I read the snipped of Song of Songs from this week, I can’t help but think of a popular TikTok trend where the performer pretends to be an English teacher 100 years in the future reading today’s pop music hits like they are classical poetry with deep and rich meaning to them. In these videos, you see a serious teacher reading the lyrics of “WAP,” explaining to the theoretical high school students some metaphorical meaning to the song, and the joke lies in the fact that we experience the song now as just a joyful ode to women’s sexuality and that perhaps when we over-analyze poetry of old, we may be missing a simpler meaning.
Preachers who find themselves in the late summer months planning a sermon might choose to do a literary analysis of Song of Songs, sure, but they should also grant themselves permission to preach on embodied joy, as found in a straight reading of this text. Perhaps there are congregations looking for a taste of that which is good, and this week’s Song of Songs text might be a foray into that celebration of goodness this week.
If I were to preach on this Song of Solomon text and expand it into a lesson about the entire book, I might also tap into people’s heightened insecurities right now about their bodies, many of which have changed during the pandemic. I might try to connect Song of Solomon as a book on embodied joy and pleasure with a reminder that their bodies are good and deserving of appreciation and pleasure after a hard year.
A different question to bring to this text would be about the transition back to physical proximity with others in safe ways as more and more churches and other social groups are reopening. Approaching this passage in that way may highlight some tensions between the passage and our own experience—as we do not know yet if “the rain is over and gone.” In fact, changing strands of COVID-19 persists and racial injustice will take longer than a few month to address, but there is an electricity in the air about coming out of the shadows of social distance and blossoming anew. Could this text help us consider joyful transitions, even as we are cautious? If I went in this direction, I might connect this reading with this week’s reading in James, as many congregations have dealt with conflicts as they have sought to make safe decisions about resuming in-person worship services.
Some congregations have also faced a temptation to deny the real ministry that persisted during virtual worship in an effort to return to “normal.” The reminder in James of what true religion looks like, and even the Gospel reading of the week, might be a helpful reframing in the visioning conversations for this transition time of ministry. The passages in James or Mark could illumine what is important for a church to consider as they make more difficult decisions after a whole sixteen months of difficult decisions. What might it look like to prioritize God over human tradition? This question itself is bold when it contrasts with congregational conversations of returning “back to normal.”
There may be a way forward to celebrate joy and challenge us amidst conflicts and hard decision-making. In fact, the joy sustains us and gives us purpose to persist when it is hard to know how to move forward. As I think of preaching this week’s texts, I find myself wondering what the congregation needs and how to offer care in this moment. May God be with you as you seek an answer to the same.