Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Advent 1(C): The Call of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24:36-44

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The start of Advent begins the new liturgical year for the Christian calendar. However, many churches find themselves pushing toward the end of the year and Christmas day. Our culture certainly does not help us enter into the Christian timeline. Usually by the start of Advent we have already received our Christmas catalogues, celebrated our hanging of the greens, and have begun making our wish lists. Many preachers may find themselves in this very struggle between where the congregation wants to be (preparing for Christmas) and where the Gospel text leads us (the apocalyptic judgment of God).

While some Christians would argue that the apocalyptic end is near with the divisive and chaotic news viewed when the TV is turned on, the passage from Isaiah for the start of our new year paints a very different picture of the apocalyptic judgment of God. Many readers of the Isaiah passage get lost in the dream of peace: swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. War will be no more. The vivid imagery of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks has tricked many a scripture reader into missing the bigger picture. Even the notion of ultimate peace can keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

Each of these texts runs the risk of being subverted for our own intentions. The reality of Christian history is that the church has too often used the final apocalyptic judgment of God to get whatever it is we believe the church (or, more accurately, ourselves) may want. Too often, the Advent season is like this. The challenge for the reader and/or preacher is to be true to the expectant waiting and preparation of the Advent season. I do not mean to suggest here that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. Instead we must find a way to allow the anticipatory nature of Advent to be what it truly is: a sitting/waiting in darkness for the light of Christ past, present, and future.

Isaiah’s vision, or dream, is a beautiful hope for the world. Who among us hasn’t wished and hoped deeply for peace in the midst of conflict, fighting, and war? However, the challenge of the future is that it is a dream – not unlike the Christmas wish lists made up from children whose families celebrate gift-giving. Too often peace seems to be a dreamy and idyllic hope. In fact, history if filled with individuals who have had such a dream who are meet with the violence of a world that cannot envision the dream with them.

Isaiah’s dream of peace does not just appear at the end of time. This apocalyptic peace comes with arbitration. The Holy One “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples” (verse 4). God not only speaks to the nations, but listens to grievances, disputes, and concerns. God listens and adjudicates. These two words— “judge” and “arbitrate”—are the only active verbs assigned by the text to God.[1] There can be no true and lasting peace without justice.

My own faith formation and theology reads scripture metaphorically more than literally. I do not read of the apocalyptic end times and God’s final judgement in a literal sense. However, this means I also do not read Isaiah’s dream of peace between the nations literally. The chaos, sorrow, pain, and violent conflicts do not merely disappear when Christ is born on Christmas day. To be true to the season of Advent means to acknowledge the struggles and doubts. The preparations made throughout Advent proposes risk and potential failure to live into the ideal of the dream.

It is here that Matthew’s Gospel reading enters. While the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is focused on the unknown future day of judgement, the setting is actually the present. The present day in which the thinking of the apocalypse is set is characterized by a lack of knowledge: uncertainty (possibly even doubt). This lack of knowledge extends beyond humankind to even the angels and the Son. Instead of preparing for Christmas, or even the future apocalyptic judgement of God, these texts have a word for us today.

Most people realize that too often they are like the disciples who follow Jesus around, yet almost always get caught up in the wrong things or miss the point altogether. We are so very often aware of our lack of understanding. However, most of us also want to be better. We hope and we dream about a future that is better. Many of us long for the peace of Isaiah’s dream. Humankind is excellent at dreaming. We struggle with the steps between here and there. Matthew’s Gospel text for the start of the new church year reminds us that there are some things we simply do not know.

The other thing humankind is excellent at is guilt and shame. The struggle in these two texts relates to the push and pull between peace and judgement. These poles suggest that there are two ways to miss the point of our scriptures: one would have us focused too much on the peace and miss God’s judgement. I personally see more people lean the other way: too focused on judgement and miss the peace. Our faith certainly requires action of us. We should be working toward God’s justice for God’s world. However, Matthew’s Gospel text points us toward the work of wakefulness and watchfulness.

We are called to peace. We hope for peace. We, as the church, work for peace. However, the highest mountain tops of Isaiah’s dream come – not from our work, but from somewhere outside and beyond it. We are called to watch for it. We are called to witness it. We are called to preach it to the world. As we enter a new year of the church may we prepare for the rapture. May a rapture of relief come over us when we realize we do not have to know everything. May a rapture of relief overwhelm us when we realize we need not do everything. May a rapture of hope, peace, joy, and love fill us this Advent when we realize that our work—while important—has nothing to do with our own or anyone else’s salvation.

[1] Noted by Paul Simpson Duke in the “Homiletical Perspective” of Isaiah 2:1-5 FEASTING ON THE WORD: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Transitional Minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David is graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). David lives in Henderson with his wife and three children where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading. He also coaches a local elementary archery team.

Thanksgiving Day (C): All About Eating

Thanksgiving Day (C): All About Eating

John 6:25-35

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is ALL about eating. You don’t have to buy presents, you don’t have to put on a costume, you don’t have to decorate the house, you don’t have to buy fireworks, you don’t have to worry about if you have a date to take out—you just have to cook and eat with people you love.

For many years now, it has been my tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving with good friends in Rhode Island. We get up early, walk the dogs, preheat the oven, then I go to church. After the Eucharist, we gather in the kitchen to cook, laugh, and revel in the joy of being together. We eat around 2, take a nap, then repeat.

Our lesson from John appointed for Thanksgiving certainly mirrors this joy of eating in community. Those who preach regularly will remember that last year (Year B) we had five Sundays in a row going through the Bread of Life discourse that makes up Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. All of this, including our lesson appointed for today, stems from the Feeding of the 5,000–an image that many Thanksgiving chefs might have in their heads already!

The people who just have partaken of the feast of loaves and fishes are so amazed by that experience that they follow Jesus across a body of water seeking more. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves,” Jesus says to the crowd (Jn 6:26). Jesus recognizes that the miraculous meal got the people’s attention. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the meal comes in the context of Jesus healing people (Jn 6:2). One sign leads to another: Jesus heals the sick, and the people are amazed. They follow Jesus to witness more of these healings, and suddenly there is a large crowd that needs to eat. Jesus not only points the way to the Kingdom of Heaven in restoring health to the sick (healing signs), but he points the way through attending to the physical needs of those gathered (sign of the loaves and fishes).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs always have two purposes: they address the immediate needs of those gathered, and they point toward the Kingdom of God which Jesus comes to initiate. In the case of the Feeding of the 5,000, the people are hungry. They need sustenance. Jesus feeds them. The sign also points the way to the Kingdom of God wherein God transforms even the smallest gift into abundance.

Coming back to today’s lesson, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). He further clarifies that he, himself, is that food that endures: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Jesus, here, is not knocking the actual meal. People were hungry. People were fed. That’s good. He goes a step further, however, in reminding the crowds that the good meal is a means to an end, not the end itself.

When I think about my favorite Thanksgiving gatherings with my chosen family in Rhode Island, we ate amazing meals. We drank delicious wines. We played games and laughed. The great joy of those gatherings, however, were not the turkey, the Pinot Noir, nor the Scrabble board. The joy came from the love for one another expressed in fellowship.

The love we feel and experience at Thanksgiving is heightened because of the occasion. The holiday festivities point toward the greater love found through fellowship. Just as the many signs in John’s Gospel point the way to the Kingdom of God, our Thanksgiving observations point the way to the joy of community in thanksgiving for the many blessings of this life. What is more kingdom-y than that?

Because the Gospel of John has no dedicated lectionary year, preachers might take this opportunity to highlight the nature of the Johannine sign. What signs does God show us in our Thanksgiving traditions that point the way toward the Kingdom of God? How might we incorporate these signs and revelations into our everyday lives? Where can we use these signs to point others toward God’s Kingdom?

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The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish-speaking congregations. Prior to ordained ministry, Charles spent over a decade working in the professional theatre world as a director, actor, and puppeteer. His love of story informs his passion around biblical studies and sharing the Gospel of Christ.

 

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Luke 23:33-43

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

It is jarring to read this scripture for Reign of Christ Sunday—the only characters here proclaiming Jesus as reigning over anything are doing so mockingly. Here we see Jesus humiliated. Here we see the Human One derided. Here we see the Messiah lynched. Hardly a fitting read for a day when we proclaim the universal Lordship of this figure. So then, what does it mean that “Jesus is Lord?” Just what type of “reign” are we talking about here?

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth he stood in front of the community of faith that had known him since childhood and declared precisely what this reign would look like:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

To proclaim release to the prisoners

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To liberate the oppressed,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

His home congregation, the very people who helped raise him, the ones in whose homes he played as a child, the ones who had watched him grow, the ones who had more cause to love him than any others, heard this and sought to throw him off a cliff.

Liberation of the oppressed is extremely popular in theory and rarely popular in practice because it means that those who benefit from injustice relinquish some of those benefits for the sake of others. And yet, this is precisely the path of salvation that Jesus offers us—in rejecting an unjust system for love of another the privileged also find release from a noxious system and reconciliation with the other. Sadly, we can’t delude ourselves into imagining that hostility toward the liberation of the Gospel was limited to the political and religious elite. It was the mob filled with average working citizens who called for Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ execution. The fear of change often overrides the distaste of the status-quo, even when the status-quo is killing us.

Jesus’ entire ministry was spent announcing and living out a way of being that was an alternative to exclusion, alienation, and violence. He spent his life among the poor, the sick, the enslaved, thieves, criminals, and hypocrites. Jesus traveled the provinces challenging established religious, political, and social structures and the powers that upheld them in the service of liberation and everywhere he went he was met with hostility. As Fr. Richard Rohr points out, Jesus was killed much more for his world-view than his God-view.

We know all of this and yet we find ourselves once again confounded by Christ, the Lord on the lynching cross, because we still hold onto the same belief of the soldiers and the criminal—that those with God’s favor will be spared from suffering and injustice. But that’s not the way God works. Our suffering had to be entered into, our injustice had to be faced. Liberation does not come from afar, reconciliation is not impersonal, and an unjust system cannot be upended from the outside. As his last act on earth Jesus witnesses to his alternative way of being by offering comfort to his fellow condemned and forgiveness to his executioners; both of whom are also victims of the powers of state and religion.

If we are to witness to the reign of Christ in any meaningful way, we must likewise enter into the suffering of others with love and the confidence that God goes with us. Because of the crucified and risen Lord we can proclaim the Kingdom of God which stands as an alternative to the economic, political, and religious systems that depend on division, exclusion, and violence. There will be pushback. There will always be pushback when we promote significant changes to established systems. So don’t be surprised when you upset people—they killed Jesus for it, and I’m not sure we should expect better treatment—but that’s the way of our Lord.

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The Rev. Ryan Young

The Rev. Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is looking forward to being commissioned as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church in June. When he is not engaging in holy mischief, he can be found sampling craft beers with friends at local breweries, reading, or singing Baby Shark with his wife Rachael to the delighted squeals of their toddler Iris.

 

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Luke 21:5-19

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

                                     –“Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelly

This poem by Percy Shelly describes an ancient statue of a once-mighty king who was filled with his own sense of importance and grandeur. Ages ago, the statue was a splendid and awe-inspiring figure, but deteriorated over time until it was nothing more than a ruin. None of Ozymandias’s works remain for us to see and the nation he once took pride in is gone. The gold he had and whatever works he accomplished had vanished long ago leaving behind nothing more than an obscure name on a broken statue, covered by the sands of time. Ozymandias is a haunting a reminder of the impermanence of this world, and perhaps that is the same lesson Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in this Gospel.

Jesus had just told the Disciples not to be taken in by appearances – that the few coins a poor widow offers has more spiritual value than wealth given out of abundance – but, as they travel through the city, the disciples are captivated by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, and are awe-struck by the ostentatious display of wealth. Jesus tries to snap them out of it and prophesizes that dark events are on the horizon; they will be arrested and persecuted, and nations will rise up against each other. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues and dreadful signs from heaven until, at last, the temple is torn down and every stone ripped apart. With such a grim and dismal future ahead, the disciples would have every reason to give up if Jesus’s prophesy stopped. But Jesus continues with the most important part of his message: “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Jesus essentially tells the disciples: ‘Regardless of how bad things get, I am with you. Life is going to get hard, but don’t lose hope.’ Over the years I find myself needing this reminder more and more often. Throughout life there are times when it seems like everything is falling apart and there is nothing left to hope for. As I write this, there are news reports about a possible impeachment and the continued dysfunction of our nation’s political system. A new study has been released stating that climate change is accelerating far more quickly than previously thought; in fact, surpassing previous estimates. Last summer the world watched in shock as the Notre-Dame burned; as, in less than a day, nearly a thousand years of history went up in smoke.

With so much dysfunction and brokenness in the world, I sometimes find myself getting lost in cynicism and wondering what the point of it all is. Why bother building up when someone else can come along and rip it all down? It’s times like these I need to be reminded that the value is in the effort itself, not the outcome. The Temple may have been destroyed, but the wailing wall is still a holy place for billions of people. Notre-Dame may have burned, but countless lives have been enriched during the thousand years it stood. Jesus’s words to the disciples in this gospel remind me that even when it looks like the world is in chaos, there is always hope. It reminds me that God is always with his people and meets us where we are, regardless of how broken our world becomes.

This Gospel is not just a reminder that the world is impermanent and nothing we build will last, but also a reminder of where to put our hope. It is a proclamation that God’s faithful love remains with us even when everything around us is falling apart. In the times we are left shocked and bewildered, and the things we’ve trusted in are suddenly gone, we remember that our hope doesn’t reside in this world. Our hope is based on God’s love for us and nothing more.  The only thing that is constant in this world is God’s continued love for us. It seems an appropriate reminder as we prepare for “Christ the King” Sunday. While everything in the world just seems to be so awful so much of the time, I need to be reminded that it’s all being held in the palm of God’s hand. Christ does not promise us that life is going to be easy; if anything, he warns us that our immediate future will be harder if we follow him, but the eternal rewards will be unimaginable. If, like Ozymandias, all our work is forgotten or torn apart, we remain in hope because God’s faithfulness is eternal.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff is the Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina.  He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife Chana and their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his free time, he enjoys reading, going on hikes, spending time with his family and playing chess (poorly).

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

***EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally posted for Proper 27(C) in 2016.***

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

Luke 20:27-38

By: The Rev. William Culpepper

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ answer is about this and that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet Jesus is the resurrection.

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

And those who worship this God experience life.

And those who are living that life experience death.

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

 

Bill-Culpepper
The Rev. William Culpepper

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

All Saints’ Day (C): Blessed Are You, Holy and Living One

All Saints’ Day (C): Blessed Are You, Holy and Living One

Luke 6:20-31

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

At the time of writing, our Jewish siblings are celebrating the High Holidays. They’ve welcomed the New Year by lighting candles saying, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Yom Tov light.” They’ve given thanks that they’ve again made it to this season, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this holiday season.”[1]

Weekly at Shabbat they pray, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has brought forth bread from the earth.” This may be familiar to Christians from certain traditions, “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.” In my tradition, Eucharistic Prayer 1 from Enriching Our Worship reads (after the Sanctus), “Blessed are you, gracious God, creator of the universe and giver of life. You formed us in your own image and called us to dwell in your infinite love.” Throughout Judaism and Christianity, humankind looks at ways of blessing God for what God has done — but the blessing is active. “Blessed are you…”

This is the language Jesus uses in the beatitudes: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. In these conditions, the ones who are wearied by the changes and chances of life are currently being blessed. As a comfort to them, Jesus makes promises to them: you will be filled, you will have God’s reign, you will laugh, you will be rewarded in heaven. There is waiting to be done, but the blessing is active and present, like God’s commands at creation.

In this text, Luke does a few things differently than the beatitudes from Matthew that are on bookmarks and plastered on children’s Sunday school walls. Luke’s beatitudes, like much of his Gospel, are earthy. These aren’t the poor in spirit; these are the poor. These aren’t those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; these are those who are hungry. While Matthew’s beatitudes can easily read as a list of things to strive for (peacemaking, meekness, showing mercy), Luke’s speak to the reality of the human condition on the margins of society: hungry, poor, weeping, and persecuted.

Luke doesn’t stop at offering blessings for those society despises. Jesus in this passage continues his message of justice — divine, cosmic justice against agents of empire and oppression, those who puff themselves up and enable income inequality. During Jesus’ Discourse on a Plain (versus the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus offers woes. “Woe to you who are rich, hungry, and laughing! This won’t last!”

The contrast between the blessings and the woes reiterates that Jesus has come into the world to cast down the mighty from their thrones and to lift up the lowly. This has been one of Luke’s messages since Chapter 1. Not only are the afflicted comforted during this Discourse on the Plain, Jesus warns of affliction for the comfortable. When embracing any narrative about the goodness of wealth — from religious or political leaders — Jesus’ warning of woe could not be clearer: “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

The Matthean Beatitudes are the history text for All Saints’ Day. The Revised Common Lectionary maintains that for Year A, and Luke’s for Year C. In Year B, the gospel text for All Saints’ Day is the raising of Lazarus. All three texts speak to God’s command over death and what is to come — from giving the earth to the meek to commanding Lazarus to come out to proclaiming that the full will be hungry later on. They also speak to the lives of the saints. Historically, All Saints’ Day commemorates those whom the Church has set aside for looking to as exemplars of the faith — those who hungered and thirsted (sometimes for righteousness sake, sometimes not) and have now, in God’s hand, gotten their fill.

All Saints’ Sunday celebrations often merge together All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. A friend likes to quip that All Saints celebrates Mary of Bethany and All Souls celebrates Great Aunt Mary, a True Christian. Although this distinction is often elided — particularly in traditions who understand sainthood coming by virtue of baptism — the Gospel texts for all three years speak of God’s salvation for God’s saints, especially those on the margins and with little control of their lives. The gospel texts for All Saints’ Day gives at least an eschatological hope to the hungry, the poor, the weeping, and the persecuted.

This may be an important them to highlight on All Saints’ Sunday because of how it serves as a hinge in the liturgical year. Although there are still three Sundays before Advent, the intervening texts’ themes are apocalyptic. At All Saints, the church starts proclaiming God’s restoration for all creation, which it will begin to actively emphasize in Advent.

The Gospel text for All Saints’ Day is one that speaks of blessings and woes, themes that will continue for the rest of the month until some in my tradition, on the first Sunday of Advent, begin their services again with blessing God: Blessed are you, holy and living One. You come to your people and set them free.

[1] https://www.newsweek.com/what-do-you-say-rosh-hashanah-blessings-prayers-greetings-kiddush-1461709

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@josephpmathews) is the vicar of St. Hilda-St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He is an avid trivia goer and reader of both novels and non-fiction and subscribes to over 20 podcasts — which he tries to keep up on. He and his husband Brandon welcomed their first child, Christopher Brandon, on October 18, so he is currently on family leave. All Saints Sunday is his favorite Principal Feast.

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Luke 18:9-14

By: The Rev. Anna Tew       

We’ve all been there. You get in the car and decide to listen to the radio for a change. The music that comes on takes you back.

:opening guitar riff, with an overlaid Spanish-inspired horn:

Instantly, you’re transported back to the late 1990s as OMC’s “How Bizarre” blasts over the radio. You might be recalling a lot of things in that moment, but as for me, I was a pre-teen in the midst of news I didn’t quite understand about the President and impeachment. I loved the series Animorphs, which planted the seeds of how to accept those who aren’t like me and to fight controlling and dominating powers, no matter how powerless I felt. Oh, and the series was about human teenagers turning into animals. How bizarre.

But then, it was a bizarre time.

I hadn’t yet thought about racial dynamics and policing, and to tell you the truth, I never really listened to the words of “How Bizarre” until 20-something years later, just last week, when the podcast Switched on Pop did a series on 1990s pop.

Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front / Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun / Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind / Loud voice booming / Please step out onto the line / Pele preaches words of comfort / Zina just hides her eyes / Policeman taps his shades / Is that a Chevy ’69? / How bizarre.”

With this catchy hit, we all sang along, knowingly or not, to a commentary on race penned by BIPOC: “Every time I look around / It’s in my face.”

You see, it turns out that OMC, the name of the band, stands for Otara Millionaire’s Club. Otara, you might not know, is a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, where the band is from. The community has Māori origins and has historically been inhabited by Māori and other indigenous peoples. Like many communities of color around the world, it has suffered from European colonization and a subsequent lack of resources. Until the mid-2000s, it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, such that OMC had a hard time booking in New Zealand. Thus, along with the commentary on race and policing, even the band’s name, Otara Millionaire’s Club, is a tongue in cheek commentary. OMC flips our expectations upside down and teaches us some serious, life-or-death lessons, all through a catchy, happy little guitar riff overlaid with a horn.

How bizarre.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us another catchy, feel good story so familiar that we may miss the words. Or, rather, we get so caught up in the words that we miss their meaning. We see “Pharisee” and immediately think of the people we can’t stand. Maybe we see the religious fundamentalists, or the evangelical right. Maybe we see self-righteous white liberals. Whomever you put in the position of Pharisee, however, if it’s not you, the impact you’re getting from the story is the exact opposite of its intent. This story isn’t about pointing fingers; it’s about realizing how righteous you aren’t. Let’s tell it another way.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two people went up to church to pray. One of them, a Lutheran pastor, loved justice, and was very proud of her stances against racism, sexism, and homophobia. The other was a white, straight Republican. He used to be religious, but now, he wasn’t sure, but here he was anyway. The Lutheran pastor, bowing her head in a corner pew, said this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like the NRA members I know, or the racists, or even this guy. I volunteer twice a week. I protest. I’m part of the resistance. I stand for your justice.” But the other guy, standing far off, wept over the state of the world, not sure what to do about it, but sure he had a part in it. He thought over the times in his past where he’d even said openly racist things, when he’d talked over women, when he’d ignored the violence and injustice in the world. “Oh God,” he cried, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”

“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).’”

Let’s be clear: this story isn’t supposed to make you feel like a hero. It’s supposed to make you angry.

The tax collectors in the Roman world were the worst. They were seen as traitors, to God and to their people. They stole from their own people to benefit the empire. However much you can’t stand your political enemies today is at least how angry and betrayed the average person felt about tax collectors in first century Palestine.

This story isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you mad. It’s supposed to turn your expectations upside down and make you take a hard look not only at yourself, but at your perceived enemy. The person who’s supposed to be good comes off looking like an asshole, and the person who’s supposed to be an asshole comes off looking contrite, thoughtful, self-aware, realistic, and ultimately, justified.

How bizarre.

I believe that the future of the world depends on how we treat those that we believe have got it all wrong.

This doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the wrongs done by others. I will not engage in spiritual bypassing, saying that if we’re just nice to those we think have it all wrong, that the world will be a better place. The story doesn’t say the tax collector lived happily ever after, either, or that there was never a reckoning for the injustice he caused.

What I am saying is that Jesus has a tendency to take our expectations — of ourselves and other people and the state of the world — and turn them upside down. It’s Christ who pulls the saint out sinners like us. It’s Christ who transforms death into new life.

So all I’m asking is this: let this story surprise you again. Let “How Bizarre” by OMC surprise you. The ending of that song isn’t a happy one, it’s a bizarre one. “Is that a Chevy ’69?” doesn’t solve racism. It just flips our expectations and surprises us and calls us to think more deeply as to why a traffic stop might be terrifying for BIPOC, and why this ending is bizarre and not as commonplace as a far more tragic ending.

The same is true of the publican and the Pharisee; the guy who has it all right actually has it all wrong. Sometimes the familiar songs and stories lay the hardest truths on us.

So let yourself be surprised, preacher. Stand for justice. See the humanity in others, even when they’ve got it all wrong. Pay attention. Notice when your expectations get flipped.

Let yourself say, at least once a day this whole week: how bizarre.

:guitar riff continues:

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.