Proper 17C: True Humility

**Editor’s Note: This essay originally ran in 2016**

Proper 17C: True Humility

Luke 14:1; 7-14

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

Humility: What does it mean to be a truly humble individual? This is a question that I suppose in some ways I have struggled with my whole life. For many years, I believed that it meant that I had to check every emotion before allowing it through the cracks in my well-honed and polite southern exterior, and every time the strongest of those emotions did make it through I felt guilty and carried shame because I wasn’t being understanding enough toward others. The ‘humility’ of much of my adult life wasn’t true humility at all. It was a masquerade of my own ego—not that I could have named it as such in the time. So what is true humility?

St. Augustine of Hippo says that, “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.”[1] That still doesn’t solve the problem of defining humility. Most definitions of humility involve some use of the word humble in them which isn’t very helpful. Many others define humility as the opposite of pride. For me, my best definition of humility is having in myself a profound understanding of my own reliance and need for God’s love and mercy in my life. This humility arises from the conviction that I need God’s love and mercy as much as anyone else. Humility is also about understanding our place in the cosmos. I am only one person among the estimated 7.4 billion people living on this tiny globe hurling through space in this little corner of the Milky Way.

My sense of humility today is profoundly different than it was only a few years ago. I have embraced a new way of engaging with the world. It is easy when we do not encounter those who are significantly different than us to assume that everyone must necessarily think the way we do. I think it is a natural thing for us to project our own way of thinking onto all humanity. In a culture where people of different religious faiths, spiritual practices, ideologies, social groups, ethnic identities, and origins come to live side by side, we cannot have the privilege of projecting onto the world our own ways of thinking. In post-modern thought, we need to bring a certain amount of humility to our interactions with the world. Post-modernists talk about this in terms of epistemological humility.

This idea of epistemological humility is actually fairly simple though the name makes it sound really complex. It means that we have to be honest about what we can and cannot know for certain. It means at the core of who we are that we must accept our own human experience as limited to the culture, religious faith, family of origin, ethnic identity, and nationality in which we’ve lived our lives. It is ultimately about honesty and integrity both spiritually and intellectually. St. Paul speaks of this humility when he says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)

When we understand that everything we know is but a fraction of the collected knowledge of humanity expressed in the faith of the Christian Tradition in our western culture, we can be more open to understanding the places from which others share their journeys in faith and doubt. It is this sense of our own place in the universe and in the world of God’s redeeming that allows us to approach others with understanding instead of judgement, with true humility instead of pride in assuming that we know what is right for them. Jesus tells us at the end of the first half of this reading that, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This isn’t about jockeying for a position at the table.

It is about the gospel that turns the world on its head. It’s about the young Israelite woman who at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel sings out, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:52-53) This call for the righting of all things has its roots in the hope for the messiah. Jesus connects this hope to the rewards of the resurrection. Reward will come on ‘the last day’ when God will give away seats at the banquet table to those who have humbled themselves first and then to those who have been proud and conceited. Notice that here in Luke’s gospel there’s no exclusion of the people who haven’t acted humbly. There is only a lesser place at the feast.

I can’t help but wonder what it means to have a lesser place at God’s banquet table. I imagine it to be quite contrary to the experience of being at the back of the line. Being at the back of the line brings with it a certain connotation that you will have to eat the crumbs and the leftovers after everyone has already had all the good stuff, but at the banquet in God’s kingdom there is no limit to the good stuff. The concept of limited resources doesn’t apply to the One who is boundless.

Jesus taps into the understanding of a radical hospitality when he says that when we invite guests to a feast we shouldn’t invite those folks who can repay us for our generosity, but instead we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. I can follow why Jesus would point us toward these marginalized groups. I have to wonder in what way it changes our perspective on the world when we hang out with the outcast, the friendless, and the downtrodden. Maybe it is here among the lowly that we embrace our own lowliness, explore our own disabilities, and find that deep sense of humility. I would say that when our lives intertwine with these marginalized groups we cannot be left the same.

One of the things I learned while I was in seminary was that the honor and shame culture of the ancient near east is a foreign idea to many western readers. It’s just something we don’t get because we aren’t embedded in a culture where honor is prized. I would argue quite the contrary. I am deeply a product of the southern culture in which I was raised. It is a culture with a hefty dose of honor and shame for all. In the small rural town in north Alabama where I grew up, honor was handed out primarily to those families that had been a part of the community for generations. Shame was heaped on the doorstep of anyone who dared to challenge the status quo and people who weren’t ‘like us.’ My experience of being an outsider in this culture has greatly shaped the way I have lived and the types of ministries in which I have invested my life. I worked or volunteered in churches, hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and long term care facilities. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the people whose lives I have been privileged to enter had as much effect on my life as I believe I have had on theirs.

[1] Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologicae, Question 161: Article 2.

HeadshotThe Rev. Jerrod McCormack was ordained a priest on June 22 in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Calgary. He is the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and an assistant priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Calgary and a member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He enjoys time spent with friends, hiking, and photography. He is originally from Alabama and now resides in the land of prairie and mountains in Southern Alberta, Canada.

Proper 16(C): Punching Down

Proper 16(C): Punching Down

Luke 13:10-17

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

I can’t remember where I first heard the concept of “punching up” and “punching down,” but I think it had to do with how comedians decide who or what in their lives they can turn into stand-up material. There’s something of an unspoken rule that you’re allowed to punch up as much as you want – to make fun of people or institutions that have more power than you. As the thinking goes, those people aren’t likely to be bothered by the musings of some random comic at an open-mic night. Maybe they’re public figures and know that being in the public eye means that people will occasionally poke fun at their lives, words, choices, etc. Regardless of whether this is entirely fair or good-hearted, it’s considered a good rule of thumb – if you’re going to mock someone, make sure it’s someone who can take the hit.

“Punching down” is the logical opposite – making fun of a person or group of people who are already on the margins. Making jokes at the expense of people who are LGBTQ+, or people of color, or disabled, or who are undocumented; creating material that denigrates women, folks living in poverty, people who have little or poor education. We know these “downward” jokes when we hear them because even when they are well set up and delivered, we don’t feel entertained by them. We feel awkward. We feel icky. Our gut sometimes knows better than our brain when we’re hearing something that isn’t okay.

What strikes me most about this passage where Jesus heals a woman who had been bent and in pain for 18 years of her life isn’t actually the part about the healing – it’s the reaction of the synagogue leader. At first glance, when you see that he gets angry and Jesus rebukes him, it looks like he’s directing his frustration at Jesus. It makes sense – Jesus is the one breaking the commandment this leader is so preoccupied with maintaining. Why wouldn’t he go yell at the guy?

But that’s not what the leader does. He admonishes the people who came to the synagogue seeking healing. He tells them they shouldn’t be there on the Sabbath; if they want their miracle, they can get it any of the other six days of the week. Maybe he was intimidated by Jesus’ following, his charisma, his power (and who wouldn’t be?) But instead of confronting the person who was really bothering him, he reprimands those who have come looking for relief. He berates the people who don’t have what he has – the sick, the hungry, the impoverished. He punches down.

This is where Jesus’ intervention turns from looking like a tough conversation to a refusal to witness injustice. He sees that this leader is taking out his frustration on the wrong people and he intercepts it. He isn’t just calling out an overly scrupulous leader, he’s taking the abuse that was rightfully his instead of letting somebody else get yelled at. He’s taking responsibility and using his privilege to protect people who can’t defend themselves.

Again, we know this sort of good leadership when we see it – it’s the boss that takes responsibility for the mistake of her employee and deals with the lecture from upper management so the underling can focus on fixing the error and learning from it. It’s the spouse who takes over when they see their partner’s tiredness and frustration is at risk of spilling onto the kids. The pastor who meets with the self-righteous parishioner who just doesn’t think it’s right to let “those people” (the gay couple, the unmarried parents, the family who might be undocumented) worship here too. It’s the kind of leadership that nobody really wants to have to do, but good leaders know it’s part of the system – you have the power, and sometimes you have to run interference for those who have less.

This isn’t the sort of Christian living I think we can expect to do elegantly; stepping in the way of an angry person’s rant is always going to make us nervous and it might be too much to hope that our outcome will humiliate the ranter and gain us the love of the spared in the tidy way Luke tells it. (I wonder if Jesus also got all shaky and tongue-tied after he’d been yelled at. Luke doesn’t say so, but maybe.) But it’s part of the mess of Christian living. When you see someone punching down, get in the way. Make them look at you. Defend people who don’t have your power or privilege, even if they don’t respond with gratitude. And maybe the world will become a little more just in the meantime.

 

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris; son, Xavier; and two floofy rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.

Proper 15(C): Compression

Proper 15(C): Compression

Luke 12:49-56

By: The Rev. Cn. Lee Curtis

I fully recognize that I’m out of line with many in my generation in saying that I’m going to mourn the (good, right, and necessary) loss of the internal combustion engine. As we move away from storing the potential energy in our vehicles in gas tanks and move it into batteries, there is a mechanical poetry that starts to disappear. Bruce Springsteen is never gonna write a song about a 188 kilowatt motor under the hood, or the limited freedom that 200 miles to a charge provides.

It’s a small price to pay for avoiding climate catastrophe, but still, it’s a price.

Much of the poetry of internal combustion rests in the pure simplicity of what it does. At its core an IC engine takes an explosion and directs it. Small explosions thousands of times a minute. Sips of refined hydrocarbon, puffs of air, flashes of spark pushed into an airtight chamber and changed into a rotational force that will take you as far as you want to go—as long as you keep that trinity of fuel, air, and spark running through pistons.

More and more I find my life in ministry to be wrapped up in essentially the same task. Take small explosions, and channel them into forward motion. Into movement.

When Jesus says to the crowds “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:49 NRSV) Our first instinct, many times, is to recoil. Many of us in pastoral work are conflict averse by training and inclination. We fall into a binary categorization of peace and conflict, to the point where many of us will dive to prevent any form of conflict, even if it has the potential to be generative, even if it has the potential to call us further into mission, and into line with where Christ is calling us in the world.

The snapshot the lectionary provides us for this Ordinary Sunday brings us in at the beginning of a long string of parables after Jesus has left a rather tense dinner at a Pharisee’s house. Standing nearly on their doorstep, Jesus opens his dialogue with this beautiful and inviting line “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1 NRSV)

It’s not hard to see how, through a line of parables about attentiveness and diligent work, we get to a place where households are set on edge and the kingdom appears yet again at hand.

Jesus is making movement. In every sense of that word.

There is an invitation here, difficult as it might be to see it. To live into the call of Christ is to enter into patterns of behavior and belief that will require change, movement, and motion from us. And that movement is going to cut to the core of our households and our families. Christ didn’t come to bring a false peace. Christ came to move us into liberation, to call us to fullness of life.

Our hope and our joy, then, is that Christ doesn’t call us into a vain hope. Christ doesn’t call us to work that Christ will not see to completion.

That’s the promise for us who are about the work of tending the Lord’s sheep. We are held, supported, and sustained in the work. We have already won, because Christ has already won. We are held together, even in the midst of conflict; of explosion.

We have compression.

Anyone who is familiar with the words “you blew the head gasket” can tell you why compression is important. Compression is the key that enables those thousands of small explosions to move the force of the piston down through the rods and into the driveshaft. If you don’t have compression all you have is a small explosion with nowhere to go.

So many of the conflicts that we fear the most are just that. Small explosions without direction. Conflagrations that burn through our energy and our effort with no tangible result in the life of a community. It’s one of those aspects of community life that is as frustrating as it is inevitable. Thanks be to God, then, that this kind of conflict isn’t the only kind. Those conflicts that stem from a frank, honest, and charitable conversation around value, around priority, around mission can, with careful guidance, bring about the kind of movement our world is so hungry for. The kind of movement worthy of the mechanical poetry of Springsteen and Pirsig. The kind of movement worthy of the Saints and Martyrs cut down so that the work of Christ may continue. The kind of movement that knows peace precisely because it knows conflict.

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The Rev. Cn. Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univeristy, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the exhausted parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman

 

 

 

Proper 14(C): It’s Just Stuff!

Proper 14(C): It’s Just Stuff!

Luke 12:32-40

By: The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

 

“Do you think he really meant that?” a classmate asked the professor as we discussed this passage one day in a seminary class.

“Yes, I do think he really meant that. Give half of your possessions to the poor. Why wouldn’t he have really meant that? It seems idealistic, yes. I’m not there yet and I hope one day I will be, but I think it’s something we should absolutely be striving for,” my professor responded.

I don’t think that was really the answer that anyone really wanted to hear, but it was an honest answer nonetheless. It is our humanity getting the best of us. We want the Gospel to be easy, but rarely ever is the Gospel easy. We know that when Jesus taught, it was rarely straightforward; there was always some larger meaning behind his teachings.

Recently my husband and I moved. It wasn’t quite cross-country, but it was a 9-hour drive from our old home to our new residence. Packing was an absolute nightmare. We didn’t have enough boxes for all of our things. The boxes we did have weren’t big enough. And at one point, the movers came back in the house and said, “Well, we’re almost out of room. What would you like to make sure we get on the truck?” I looked around and noticed that all of our bedroom furniture and all of our dining room furniture was still in the house sitting by the door. I panicked. As I was pacing back and forth, my family reassured me that it was going to be okay.

On the day that the landlord was set to come do a walkthrough of the house with us, I sat in the living room looking at all the stuff that we had left, looking out the window at my tiny subcompact car sitting in the driveway, back at the stuff, and back at the driveway before I just broke down. “How am I going to get all of that into there?!” Truthfully, I wasn’t. There was simply no way that even the most strategic of packers could get everything into my car. Calling my husband in a near breakdown, he said, “Relax. It’s just stuff…It can all be donated. We don’t need it anyway.”

He was right. We didn’t (and still don’t) need all of it. “It’s just stuff” is a mantra that we continue to repeat to ourselves as we unpack our boxes and decide what to keep, what to donate, and what to get rid of. But it’s a mantra that has played itself out in our everyday spending too.

The reality is this: we all have a lot of stuff, figuratively and literally. This scripture is reminding us that it isn’t any of the stuff that actually matters. It is the experience. Experiencing each other through relationships, experiencing life without distractions, experiencing creation, and experiencing God through all of those things. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t take it with you when you go,” which reiterates that the stuff of real value is not what you can possess, but what you can do for yourself, do for others, and do for God.

It seems like a very eschatological idea to think of the kin-dom. It seems very other worldly to think about Jesus coming back. Perhaps that isn’t really what is at the heart of this passage at all. Perhaps it has very little to do with the afterlife. Perhaps this passage is drawing from the part in the Lord’s Prayer that suggests that “thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Maybe, we are being called into deeper relationship through this text. Maybe really, at the core of this scripture, there is a call for repentance—a changing of hearts and minds to shift the focus back to God where it has gotten distracted by materialism. Because, perhaps the kin-dom isn’t so far away after all.

The kin-dom of which the text speaks is one of love and grace. Be alert, be prepared, we know not when those times will find us; when we are called to speak up and live out the Gospel, but when we live by love, through love, and in love, we are much closer to that kin-dom.

I wonder if, perhaps, this is not even a command as much as it is an invitation—an invitation to live into and to be. How will we respond?

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The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Erlanger, Kentucky with his husband, Ryan, and their three dogs, Bailey, Rey and Lexi. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky and attended college at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky where he earned his BA in Religion. He received his MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His passions include Chipotle, ice cream, reality television, bowties, family, and animals.

 

 

 

 

Proper 13(C): Getting Closer to the Whole Gospel

Proper 13(C): Getting Closer to the Whole Gospel

Luke 12:13-21

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about my two different Christian “families” I’ve been a member of: evangelical Christianity and progressive Christianity. Because we use these words in so many different ways at different times, I’ll start with a quick personal explanation of my use of these terms, and I’ll also apologize in advance for the simple reduction in terms. When I say evangelical, I’m not actually positioning it politically against progressive Christianity, but instead, I’m thinking of a whole culture. Evangelical culture, both of my youth and today, centers the New Testament and the salvation narrative of Jesus and Bible studies and worship music and personal relationship and well, evangelism. The progressive Christian culture of which I’ve also been a member centers the social justice messages of the Bible and the Jesus that suffers with and stands for the marginalized and is careful not to proselytize about Heaven, but instead, preaches a gospel of a more just world here on earth.

There are differences between the two, sure, but as someone who has been formed by both, I’m pretty defensive for each when one of them comes under attack by the other. I’ll stick up for the loving evangelicals and the activist progressives when the other team dismisses them because I recognize in both a commitment to love and serve Jesus. And what happens when we turn we clearly delineate between groups? We fall into the trap of thinking there’s a right group and a wrong group, and often, we like to think whichever group we’re on is the right one, or else we would be in the other group.

One thing I’ve discovered about my progressive Christian family is that we often like to discuss action above heart, what we do above what we believe. I myself have taught in class that “impact is greater than intent,” which is a suggestion that it matters not what you meant to do, but what your actions accomplish. (For example, this is an important distinction in conversations about the harm inflicted by policies that have disproportional consequences for people of color. A voter might say, “I’m not racist,” but the implication of their vote says otherwise.) For this group, it is essential to get away from personal language because sin and evil in society tends to be systemic, it is written into the codes of public policy and institutional life, so a single person’s intention is irrelevant.

This text in Luke, though, pushes us beyond action and into the realm of actual intent. Here, the heart matters too, because the heart is the root of the actions. In this case, it is greed that is undergirding the hoarding of resources for the rich man.

My progressive family knows what to do with a message about not storing up treasures—this is an anti-capitalist message against the hoarding of resources by “the rich” at the expense of “the poor!” It fits our categories of activism, and it preaches easily in a progressive context. (That’s probably what I’d do if I were preaching in my UCC context.)

My evangelical family knows what to do with this message, too—guard your heart against greed. Know that your time will come at any moment, and your heart should be right with God. Your life is not your own, so get your heart on board with that.

I have a nagging suspicion that neither approach is enough, which brings me back to my recent reflections about my two different church families—the evangelicals and the progressives. The social justice commitment deep in my soul knows that this text pushes us beyond individualistic hoarding, which has a detrimental effect on our society. The message missing from that, however, is the actual heart of the matter. You see, when progressive Christians focus solely on the societal implications of the text, they miss the individual conviction of how we are tempted to live on a daily basis. On the other hand, if we only personalize the texts every time we read them, we miss the conviction about what this radical idea might mean in an individualistic society.

If the only message I receive about this text is that the rich hoarding resources is bad, then I’m off the hook. I ain’t rich. And I vote for social safety networks to make sure poor people aren’t hurt by the corporations that practice corporate greed and underpay their staffs. So if I am only called to look at actions, to examine impact rather than intent, I never go to the deeper level in myself that is undergirding my actions. Why am I tempted to hold on tightly to what I have? Is it greed, fear, anxiety? Evangelical Christians are more likely to admit that we are broken people that act out of our brokenness, and if we’re willing to prayerfully examine ourselves, we might be able to grow through these broken patterns.

If the only message I receive about this text is that my heart needs to be unselfish, then our society is off the hook. I ain’t rich. And I donate money to causes that are important to me to make sure I’m not greedy. So if I’m only called to examine myself and make sure my own heart is right, I never look beyond at the impact of my actions or the actions of the larger group. Progressive Christians are more likely to look at society and see how people are being hurt by greedy systems, and if we’re willing to pull back the lens, we might see more that needs to be addressed outside the church walls.

What if we find a way to preach the whole gospel at once? What each group has in part can be integrated as one transformative, liberative message for both the individual and collective. Perhaps I am to be convicted to look at my heart, how I’ve tried to shore up safety and security for myself by holding tight to my possessions, while also looking at my actions as an individual and as a member of society. The gospel is so much bigger than any one church group. If we open our ears to each other’s messages, we might get a bit closer to what Jesus was trying and is trying to do with and for us.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

Proper 12(C): Teach Us to Pray

Proper 12(C): Teach Us to Pray

Luke 11:1-13

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you…”

The last two decades have been riddled by terrorism, natural disasters, and heinous acts of social injustice. Initially, we were shocked. When the twin towers sent smoke billowing into the sky on September 11th, we watched in absolute horror. The following weeks served as a testament to the American spirit and how we could come together…for a time. Then, one by one, atrocities seemingly began to abound. School shootings, night club massacres, bombings, floods, hurricanes, injustices afflicting many groups…the list built. As these moments came and went, the words, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” started becoming trite. People began to decry the phrase’s usage due to the lack of outcome and a sense of insincerity—we wanted prayers to be answered. And answered the way in which they were presented. In essence, people were treating (and still treat) God like a cosmic coke machine, expecting that the heinous crimes against humanity and the loss of life would cease simply because we were ‘prayin’ hard enough.’ Now, it seems that our patent response of, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you…” has become a tagline that isn’t even accompanied by prayers. Or thoughts, for that matter. Sometimes I think they’ve become mere meaningless words. (I know that many of us humbly pray and do so with intentionality, but much of the outside world does not.)

Because we want action.

We don’t want to sit faithfully and pray, awaiting the Marvel-esque God to sweep down and avenge the evils done to us. So, we march. We organize. We speak out. And we should. We are called to speak out against hatred and we have a sacred desire to come together in community to try to make this world a better version of itself through our actions. But we shouldn’t lose the true sense of prayer, nor should we cease reminding those around us of its power and importance. Luke 11:1-13 provides step-by-step instructions for us. “How do we pray?” could also have meant, “How should we pray when we’ve lost hope; or, have no idea how to ask/discern what’s best for us?” Our congregations and ourselves need reminding—the WORLD needs reminding—that prayer is the most potent tool in our everyday toolbox. Reteaching those around us (and perhaps ourselves) that prayer is more about a relationship with God, and is less about controlling the free will of others, is of paramount importance these days.

When travesties occur, our thoughts and prayers do matter; we have to remind ourselves of that. We may not always get what we want, but we will be granted the grace to help one another through our darkest moments. The times of trial only come when we face them alone—that is something we too often forget.

Perhaps a prudent plan for preaching Luke on Proper 12 would involve walking people through The Lord’s Prayer with intentionality. What does it really say? What is it really asking for? The people sitting in church on Sunday are most likely on auto-pilot during The Lord’s Prayer (thinking of lunch when ‘daily bread’ is mentioned) and aren’t being intentional about the prayer at all. If we’re honest with ourselves, some of the priests/pastors/ministers are guilty, too. But if we can successfully walk our people, and ourselves, through the lines of Jesus’ recommendation for prayer, maybe new meanings will emerge. If we think about what we’re praying for, our prayers will become more about encountering the Holy in times of joy, need, sorrow, and pain, and less about “Okay, God, I prayed. Now make all this go away.” Because, to quote a recent humorous commercial promoting Facebook, “That’s now how this works. That’s not how ANY of this works.”

If you’ll remember, Christ prayed multiple times to be taken from the hands of his enemies while in Gethsemane. Was he delivered from captivity and death? No. But he prayed anyway. I have to believe that, during those frightening moments, Christ’s heartfelt prayers were answered. They were answered with a sense of grace that gave him the courage to keep moving, regardless of the outcome. That’s the point of prayer: to remember God’s promise of salvation and that, while we ask, we may not always get what we ask for, but in the words of theologian Mick Jagger, we’ll get what we need. In the end, God will recognize part of Godself in us.

Preaching on the power of prayer—and the importance of it—is something we should never stop doing. Just like we should never stop praying. By reminding people to connect or reconnect with the words they’re praying while they’re praying them, we’re repairing a broken promise typed out in response or said aloud in rote tones…

Because our thoughts and prayers really will be with them. And within us.

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 11(C): A Focused Way of Living

A Focused Way of Living

Luke 10:38-42

By: Mashaun D. Simon

There is this saying, “What you focus on becomes your reality.”

Not too long ago I preached a sermon on the topic, “The Theology of Disappointment.” In the sermon, I engaged the power of perception. I argued that sometimes, we get distracted when what we desire becomes more of a priority for us than reality.

Sometimes, I argued, we get so trapped by what has our gaze that we miss out—we miss out on lessons, we miss out on experiences, we miss out on opportunities because we are laser focused on something else that really should not have our energy or attention.

That which has our focus becomes our reality. The problem with being so laser focused is that what we perceive as reality may not truly be reality.

When considering the text, I cannot help but to consider that this could potentially be the problem for Martha.

Here is Jesus, in her home, the home she shares with her sister Mary. This is Jesus, the same one who, by this time, has performed countless miracles—from raising the widow’s son, to feeding the five thousand, to healing a leper and the paralyzed one. Today, we have come to know this Jesus as the Messiah, the answer to the prophecy, the one who sacrificed his life so that we could be made free. This is that Jesus. And while that Jesus is sitting in the living room of Mary and Martha, it is Martha who seemingly doesn’t get what is going on before her.

Or maybe she does.

My knee jerk was to criticize Martha. My knee jerk was to chastise her for being distracted, for being so focused on the chores of the home that she was missing a moment; she was on the verge of missing her blessing.

My knee jerk reaction was to praise Mary, to celebrate Mary for recognizing the moment and being responsibly fixated on what matters most. Good job, Mary. Good job, Mary, for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening; and shame, shame on Martha, poor Martha, for being distracted.

Because, isn’t that the point? Isn’t it the point that when we place our focus on Jesus all is right, all is well, and because we have placed our focus solely on Jesus, we will be rewarded for our maturity and obedience?

Or could something else be at play here?

My knee jerk, like most others who have been “brought up” and conditioned within Christianity, is to pass judgment on Martha. Like most of us, our conditionings have taught us to almost robotically and naively turn our heads to “the Messiah” without a second-thought. Right?

But when taking a deeper look, when looking beyond the text and excavating more deeply, there is a revelation that I had honestly never had before.

What you focus on becomes your reality.

According to the text, Martha was distracted by all of the preparations that had to be made and Mary has chosen what is better, and that will not be taken from her because few things are needed.

Both Martha and Mary had made choices. Martha was more focused on preparation and as a result was distracted; but Mary, Mary was laser focused on one thing and was listening. Martha was frantic. Martha was emotional and angry and frantic because she had chosen to be more concerned with things that were creating for her distractions. But Mary, Mary was seemingly calmed and at peace. And because she had chosen such, the state in which she was in was not to be taken from her.

Maybe, just maybe, Martha’s problem was not that she was distracted but that she had placed too much emphasis on things that did not matter. And because she had made such a choice, maybe it was not that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, but that she was chosen something, one thing to place her focus and because of that she was obtaining something that Martha was not.

Maybe, just maybe it was less about Jesus and what he was saying and more about Mary’s choices and how those choices would serve her best.

Most people who know me know that one of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.

In the fourth episode of the fourth season, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is once again dealing with some kind of international issue while at the same building up to his re-election campaign.

Of course, there will be opposition from the opposing party in the upcoming election, but President Bartlet has recently learned that there would also be opposition from his own party, from a seasoned senator who has gotten into the race in order to “raise issues.”

Yet again, art imitates life. But, as far as Oscar Wilde is concerned, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Eventually, the senator decides to end his campaign for the presidency and endorses the President.

The senator communicates his decision to President Bartlet after a speech the President gave at a church. The senator tells the President,  “I was telling [one of our aides] about a friend who just got his pilot’s license. He told me the most remarkable thing. He said a new pilot will fly into cloud cover. There’ll be no visibility. And they’ll check their gauges, they’ll look at the artificial horizon, it’ll show them level, but they won’t trust it. So, they’ll make an adjustment and then another and another… He said the number of new pilots who fly out of clouds completely upside-down would knock you out. My office will make arrangements for me to endorse you in the morning. You keep your eyes on the horizon, Mr. President.”

I like this episode and its message because it’s simple: focus on what’s important.

All too often, we allow things to knock us off track, to detour and deter us, becoming overwhelmed, frustrated, and distracted. But sometimes, it is necessary to sit still and listen, to choose focus and peace and calm in the midst because being upset and worried about too many things is not needed.

At the end of the day, there is purpose in our choices. At the end of the day, that which we give our focus must be fulfilling and life giving. Life is meant to be lived. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Life is not meant to be spent worried and stressed, overwhelmed and distracted.

What you focus on becomes your reality. Let your reality make you better.

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Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a licensed and ordained preacher and writer from Atlanta, Georgia whose research, writing, and preaching engage topics of race, faith, identity and equity. He serves on the board of directors and ministerial staff of House of Mercy Everlasting Church in College Park, Georgia.