Advent 2(B): Apocalypse Now

2 Peter 3:8-15a

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Every year during Advent, the church has an apocalypse. Some people like to think of Advent as the church’s “new year,” but on hearing the lectionary readings for the second Sunday most of us come away in a decidedly more sober mood: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

“Apocalypse” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately, and with good reason. Not only are we still in the grip of a plague that has killed over a million people and has shut down schools, churches, restaurants, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, and pretty much everything else that once constituted life as we know it, but this summer we also saw a stark rise in authoritarianism as peaceful protestors demonstrating against systemic racism and police brutality were violently attacked by their own government, while those in power tried to frame “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism” as forms of domestic “terrorism.” Widespread deception and lies from political leaders contributed to a surge in conspiratorial thinking, and there was a significant rise in various forms of denial, as more and more people fell prey to their own psychological defense mechanisms in an unconscious attempt to cope with the mounting uncertainty and chaos. Widespread belief that the coronavirus is a hoax, insane theories about Hillary Clinton running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, and the conviction that the expansion of the Israeli state would bring about the end of the world were all considered as viable topics of adult conversation.

Meanwhile, as if to take a cue straight from the Book of Revelation, the whole of creation seemed to cry out with a noteworthy slew of natural disasters, which took on heightened symbolic meaning under the circumstances. Police in Texas were attacked by a rare swarm of 40,000 Africanized bees. One of the largest dust storms on record traveled across the Atlantic from Africa to choke the American South. And let’s not forget the record-breaking locust swarms, wildfires, and hurricane season, the infamous murder hornets, or the rivers in China and Israel that turned blood red. We even had a star disappear from the sky. Some people couldn’t help but wonder… is this the apocalypse?  

Well, technically yes, I do believe that we are experiencing an apocalypse. But please note that I am using the term here in a technical sense. “Apocalypse” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the entire Biblical lexicon despite persistent efforts of Biblical scholars, clergy, and theologians to correct course on the matter. Popular conceptions of “the apocalypse” are still largely shaped by the secular film industry and the religious propaganda of fanatical evangelical sects, which bombard us with vivid imagery of planetary destruction. Thus, the end of “the world” is nearly interpreted as the end of the natural, material, created world. This “Gnostic” interpretation of the apocalyptic writings of the New Testament is, from an orthodox perspective, heresy. The whole thing can be dispensed of rather easily by simply consulting the Book of Revelation, which even when taken at its most literal level describes heaven as coming to be made manifest on Earth. In other words, even in a strict eschatological sense, the apocalypse is not about some future demise of the planet.

The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about vision and about perception. The apocalypse is marked by a transformed and spiritually-informed way of seeing that pierces through the veil of deception, egocentrism, fear, and confirmation bias that pervades our everyday life in “the world” and prevents us from confronting the truth about ourselves, one another, and God. The day of reckoning that the New Testament writers wrote about was a day of ultimate truth-telling, a day when “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This is a day when all people everywhere will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear, and will be given the chance to turn from their narrow ways of thinking to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of humility, and love, and justice, and peace. This new reality that the early Christians longed for was conceived of as “a new heaven and a new earth,” characterized in the second letter of Peter as a place “where righteousness is at home.” This is the ultimate paradigm shift that would fundamentally transform the way that human beings operate on this planet.

The ancients understood that such an “unveiling” would necessarily entail a dissolving of our current ways of seeing and being – our false pretenses of power, our illusions of security, and the ways in which we idolize earthly leaders and celebrities as gods. A “revelation” on this scale would also require a dissolution of the social, political, economic, and religious powers that conspire and collude to deceive the masses and maintain those delusions. It would expose the “strongmen” of this world for what they truly are: poseurs of Divine power who are in fact cowards and slaves unto death. On this day, God alone is revealed as the Creator and Source of all life, having a power that stretches far beyond whatever earthly powers any one individual might grasp for themselves within their short lifetime. Those with the will to witness to the truth, even at the cost of their own suffering, are the ones who are revealed on that day as truly strong.

But apocalyptic literature also reminds us that there are larger social and systemic processes at play in our world, which “invisibly” and insidiously conspire to deceive people in order to justify and maintain the conditions of marginalization, oppression, and injustice. Through political institutions, media, religious cultures, economic systems, maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms, and everyday group dynamics, these larger “forces” have a power that stretches far beyond the scope of single individuals to foster widespread confusion, suffering, and pain in ways that are difficult if not impossible to root out. The writers of the New Testament used a particular kind of language to identify these destructive forces, calling them “demonic,” and referring to them as “powers and principalities” or “Satan.” Such outdated terms may sound a bit too mystical or magical for us today, but for the Biblical writers they pointed very pragmatically to real phenomena that are very much still a part of the world. The early Christians believed that these forces literally existed in the air, hovering just under the clouds, and so they naturally assumed that the final battle between these powers and God would take place in the sky, which is why Paul speaks in Thessalonians about being “caught up” (harpazo) to the clouds on the day of the Lord’s coming. The various levels of heaven into which Paul and others were “caught up” at various times to receive their visions and revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12) offered a foretaste of the day when all would be brought into a complete understanding of the truth.

Admittedly, texts like today’s pericope from 2 Peter have a long and problematic history of interpretation, and have themselves been made to serve those deceptive forces that oppose the kingdom of God. This situation has led many progressive Christians to either ignore them in embarrassment, or reject them outright as dangerous. Even Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, commented on the widespread controversies surrounding John’s Book of Revelation, which was very nearly excluded from the Christian canon altogether. Several church leaders argued that it was, at the very least, not much of a “revelation,” since its vivid symbolism and allegorical imagery was far too obscure and difficult to decipher.[1] To be sure, engaging with these texts in a preaching context requires careful study, deep discernment, and thorough clarification. The apocalyptic literature cannot be fully appreciated without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor can it be properly understood from within a context of privilege (which is perhaps why it was so perplexing to the patristics). It is only in the context of suffering and oppression that the full meaning of these texts can really begin to land.

However, now more than ever, I believe we need the message of the apocalyptic. Because when properly unpacked and contextualized, this strain of the Christian tradition provides us with a powerful resource for emboldening our faith and staying grounded in truth during times of great social upheaval. The apocalyptic tradition understood itself to be a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and like the prophets it offers a paradoxical balance between comfort and critique, offering hope and justice for the downtrodden while confronting and critiquing the complacency of the privileged, and challenging everyone to beware of the moral and spiritual dangers of colluding with those whom “this world” has deemed powerful for the sake of one’s own gain. As Gregory Stevenson writes,

“…on the one side are those who have encountered such hardship and suffering in the world that they are in danger of losing or distorting their faith. On the other side are those who have become so comfortable with the deception that ‘the kingdom of the world’ creates, that they are unaware of the danger it poses to their faith. The power of apocalyptic language lies in its ability to address both groups, because both groups share the same fundamental problem – a distorted view of the world… Both groups need an apocalypse, because both groups require a new vision of the world.”[2]

In the midst of this 2020 apocalypse, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unmasks the real values of so many public leaders and social groups, and as the veil continues to be lifted for so many white people who are becoming “woke” to the reality of systemic racism, and as the earth cries out with “the blood of Abel” in signs that speak to the unsustainable consumption practices of human culture (which are what caused those rivers to turn blood red, in both cases), we need both the challenge and the comfort of the apocalyptic, which promises us a day when the truth about the world will be revealed. Seeing things as they are can be painful, and that suffering tempts us with longing to retreat into the psychological safety of our delusions. Those who suffer to bear witness to the truth can begin to lose hope, believing that the forces of “this world” are too powerful to overcome. But the second epistle of Peter reminds us that when that day of vindication seems long delayed, we still must never give up our hope or our resolve. We must courageously continue in the work of the Lord, participating in God’s dream for humanity through acts of humility, solidarity, mercy, honesty, and love. Because the more we participate in the embodiment of that dream, the more people we will bring into that vision, and the closer we will get to manifesting the kingdom of God here on earth.   


[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 25.2.

[2] Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation, and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, Abeline: ACU Press, 2013.

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, spiritual director, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen looks forward to performing music and leading classes, retreats, and workshops again on the other side of this apocalypse. 

Advent 1(B): Keep Awake!

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?

It seems pretty easy to me.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.

The good news is that today, so has Advent.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.

The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.

Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.           

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

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.

Thanksgiving Day (A): Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving Day (A): Giving Thanks

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

This is a story about giving thanks! So, let’s use it on Thanksgiving! The lectionary folks really were just looking for key words on this one (sorry to be catty, it’s been a long year). Giving thanks is a big moment in this story, but I don’t read this as a story about thanks. I read it as a story about healing. It is also one of those ones best taken step-by-step, so here we go! 

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 

Jesus was walking the line. From the perspective of a traditionalist at the time, one might say that he is not just walking geographic border, but he’s walking a bigger metaphorical line. People on one side were God’s people who did things the right way. People on the other side were not because they didn’t pray the right way, weren’t the right skin color, didn’t have the right last names, had a heretical religion, didn’t have the right customs, and eat the right foods. And the bad people were the…Samaritans. Jesus was walking this line by going through this region between these two places. We tend to think of Jesus as on either the good or the bad side of things, not spending a lot of time in the gray area between.

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. 

Whether a Galilean, a Samaritan, or a Roman citizen, if you were a leper, no one wanted you around. They were equally bad, threatening, and scary for folks. It is important to recall that many folks might have even felt that the lepers brought their illness upon themselves due to their sinful ways that displeased God (any person nowadays with an STI, HIV, trauma-induced addiction, etc…) While Jesus was in a land that no one liked, ten people that no one wanted came up to him.

Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

Keeping their distance. Maybe because they were sick and didn’t want to get Jesus sick, but that doesn’t seem like a right reading to me since they are asking for the rabbi’s mercy. More to me it seems like maybe they have been harassed by others and were afraid to get close to anyone, not the least a community leader or a religious figure. A lot of people presently stay away from Jesus because they’ve been hurt by the communities that gather in his name.

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 

This seems like a terrifying prospect. Nearly everyone they know would change their minds about them if the priest ruled that they were “clean” again. However independent from our leaders we may perceive ourselves, as it turns out, most people follow the example, word, or ruling of the leaders they respect the most, whether a minister, a jurist, or a president (please stay off of Twitter). The lepers were made clean as they left and did as Jesus commanded. It is interesting that this is one of those healings where Jesus doesn’t touch anyone. He just wills something, and it is done.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. 

One of them didn’t follow Jesus’s instructions.[1] Anyway, one of them comes back and his himself a little thing folks in my evangelical friends call a “praise break.” Now, not thinking about the story itself, but thinking about the reception, it seems reasonable to me that folks at this point are really on this ex-leper’s side. He’s showing gratitude for being healed. Piety, joy, love, and a witness to a miracle. What a hero. I wish I was that grateful for most of the mercies in my life, but honestly, I usually just take them for granted.  

And he was a Samaritan. 

Aaaaand there it is. This is when the gospel lets the other shoe drop. It gets us all on this person’s side and then tells us that he is one of them.[2] This is where one is tempted to take refuge in the idea that the Samaritan who was healed didn’t actually follow Jesus’s instructions. There’s hope yet for us, friends, that the Samaritan may get a good chiding from Jesus for not following a divine command. Just like a Samaritan to get God’s instructions wrong.[3]

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

And, if we’ve really been following the themes of this story, then we’re not happy here. Jesus praises the person with the heretic religion, the stupid culture, the dumb habits, and the gall not to follow Jesus’s instructions like the others did. At this point, we should be the ones begging Jesus to have mercy on us and declare the degenerate unclean again. Alas, we suffer still. And that’s all he’s got to say to us about it.

            Now, the reflections above are precisely why having this as the reading for Thanksgiving Day is really only moderately relevant (read: sloppy). Giving thanks is an important function in an overall story about Jesus pulling a switch on us by transcending our prejudices. That borderland between Galilee and Samaria is a powerful metaphor for the reader if we take the time to look deeply and contextually. It is the border between the people we like and the people we fear. That border is everywhere in this world. It is everywhere because is exists primarily in human hearts, and just plays itself out in ways that diminish, hurt, ruin, and even end human lives. I’ll bet you more money than I’ve got that each and every one of us has that border in our own hearts too. 

This is a story we need at the moment. As I write this, the 2020 elections haven’t yet been held. I’m no prophet, but I imagine that things won’t be much better afterwards. This is not an invitation to make peace with injustice and it isn’t a “bothsidesism.” It is a plea not to forget the humanity of the people you hate, dislike, or fear. Robbing someone of their humanity is easier than you think. Often, it isn’t a drastic step, but rather a series of little moves that takes us down a truly cruel path. In this story we get an invitation to break the dehumanizing cycle we trap one another in. May we be wise enough to accept it.


[1] Some commentaries suggest he did. You can die on that hill if you want to, but I just don’t see it, honey.

[2] You can fill in the blank here on what “them” is in your life; a flaky liberal, a conservative bumpkin, someone who wears white after Labor Day, etc…

[3]You know how those people are…

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is the chaplain for Episcopal Campus and Young Adult Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from Efland, North Carolina, he has settled down close to home, where he lives with his husband.  

Reign of Christ(A): How Are You Doing?

Reign of Christ(A): How Are You Doing?

Matthew 25:31-46

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

“How are you?” It’s a commonly-used filler for passers-by on the street, in supermarkets, or generally any public place. We also say it in different demographical iterations: “How y’all doin?” “How’s it goin?” (Silent nod), etc. The interesting part is that we rarely expect an answer, or really even want one. With this pandemic, these statements are even less inviting. When I’m walking down the aisle in all my masked glory, I don’t really want to stop and talk to anyone these days, so I’ve all but ceased the empty greetings extended to my fellow human. Venturing out into the world takes courage—at least for me—and the last thing I want to do, once I’ve mustered the strength to leave my house, is stop and talk to a stranger.

That isn’t me. It isn’t the way I typically interact with the world. My spouse laughingly points out that when we’re in public, I ‘run for Mayor’—I’m in the middle of as many conversations as possible, and I try and meet everyone in the room. Extroverts, you feel me… Introverts, you usually run from me, and I don’t blame you. But nowadays, I’ve become a specter of that person; I don’t want to invite conversation, I don’t want to engage. I am scared of my neighbor. I love them, but I selfishly choose to avoid them if I can.

And, to use one of the wisdom sayings of my geographic context, “That ain’t right, y’all.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t necessarily giving us a checklist…a ‘If you do this, then you get that’, kind of thing. It’s more of a, “Have you checked on your fellow humans, lately?” question. What if we were to change the words of his lesson, to fit our current context? Let’s try it:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was shut out from the world and you gave me a phone call; I was walking through the store and you greeted me—not knowing that I was on the verge of a breakdown because I was so alone; I was a stranger and you didn’t avoid me; 36 I posted a political preference and you didn’t attack me; I was afraid of getting sick and you were, too, so we shared that burden by talking; I felt like I was in prison and you sent me a note to let me know that I was still loved.’” 

People are scared, right now. All people. We’re scared of COVID, we’re scared of the election season coming up, we’re scared about the economic crisis which already exists for many and looms for some, and we’re scared to be alone. It might be opportune for preachers to stand up and be a bit vulnerable in this time, with this Gospel; our people may need to hear that they’re not the only ones struggling. What if we held a conversation with our folks, allowing them to be vulnerable once we had, instead of preaching a ‘sheep and goats’ sermon? It might just be time for a wellness check.

It might be time to ask each other, “How are you doing?”…

…and actually listen to the response.

Then the ending line of that which we substituted words for, earlier, remains the same: ‘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’.

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

Proper 28(A): Life is Beyond Our Control!

Proper 28(A): Life is Beyond Our Control!

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

It may be that the most important and consequential question ever uttered in the history of humanity was Pilate’s three-word question, asked of Jesus: “What is truth?”

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term, “doublethink” to describe the phenomenon of rejecting things we know to be true or accepting things we know to be false in order to fit in with our peers or party or affinity groups. And while Orwell was writing fiction, he was revealing a truth that hits close to home: all of us, from time to time, tell ourselves things that we know aren’t true.

Of course, most of the time, these little fictions we pass off as truth don’t come from a place of malice; quite the opposite! We tell ourselves stories about why one grocery store is better than another, or why this brand of car is superior to that brand of car, or why our basketball team is the bestteam in the league. And to some degree, that’s simply a part of who we are. We tellourselves these things in order to build a sense of identity and character.

But these aren’t the only tall tales we try and trick ourselves into believing.

“One more credit card won’t bankrupt me.”

“One innocent little office flirtation won’t hurt my marriage.”

“God doesn’t really love me.”

Then, before we know it, the very things of which we’ve convinced ourselves turn out to be the lies that destroy us.

The same phenomenon was underway in the days of the Prophet Zephaniah. The people of Israel had gotten into the habit of convincing themselves that their perceptions were true, and that facts were false.

“God doesn’t care about us,” they said. “God is off doing other things. What business is it of God’s how I conduct myself? What God doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”

“We can’t trust God to protect us,” they lamented, “We’ve got to take charge and protect ourselves.”

“God won’t make us happy,” they scoffed, “Our mansions and our wealth and our power over other people! That will make us happy!” 

The people of Zephaniah’s day thought that God was an irrelevant relic of a bygone era, whose supremacy has once-and-for-all been eclipsed by the attainment of the pinnacle of human knowledge. Those who lived in Zephaniah’s day considered themselves free to do and act as they pleased, looking out chiefly for themselves, and then—and only then—maybe, if they got around to it, they might consider doing something magnanimous for someone else because it makes them feel good.

Zephaniah, of course, takes exception to this blasphemy and proclaims a fiery word to the people. It is a word so shockingly clear that it all-but-slaps us in the face: life is beyond our control! And the more we try and control it, the more uncontrollable it becomes.

An oil refinery explodes halfway around the world? We read about the environmental costs and the billions of dollars paid in reparations, but we don’t know anybody who knows anybody who works for them, so it’s not our problem, right? We’ve got everything sorted out in our well-managed, tightly-controlled lives, right?

But then we realize that the fish we’re feeding our families comes from that region. Oil and toxins seep into the bedrock and pollute streams and rivers and growing fields hundreds of miles away, where the produce that stocks our refrigerators is grown. The retirement plan we enrolled in, trying to secure our future, is heavily invested in BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil.

The United Kingdom votes to withdraw from the European Union—Brexit, we called it. Okay, that’s their choice; that’s how democracy works, but how does it affect us?

The Eurozone is the second largest buyer of US Treasury bonds, not to mention a huge importer of US manufacturing goods. What affects their economy today will affect ours tomorrow.

The more we try and anesthetize ourselves into believing that we’ve got it all figured out, the deeper the truth cuts when the facts are laid bare.

But wait just a second.

All of this comes from a tiny, three-chapter minor prophet, wedged in near the end of the Hebrew Bible? In the entire three-year lectionary cycle, we hear from Zephaniah all of three times, and I’m willing to bet that most preachers have preached on it even fewer times than that. (Until now, no one has ever written about it on this blog!) So can it really be all that important?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus was a preacher after Zephaniah’s own heart. He tells a parable about slaves who are given gifts in different amounts. And although we are quick to equate these so-called talents with money, the parable could just as easily have spoken of kindness or creativity or generosity.

The slaves who take their gifts and use them to offer other creative, elaborate, and much-needed blessings in the world around them are rewarded when the Master returns. But the one who takes what has been given to him and hoards it up only for himself is condemned.

If we can find a way to sort through all of the advertising and the marketing and the perception, we arrive at the truth that both Zephaniah and Jesus are desperately trying to tell: Our vocation is not to try and be in control in the universe; no, our vocation as followers of the God we meet in Jesus is to share the abundance of grace and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us.

We are commanded to plant seeds of generosity, knowing full well that we may never see a return on our investment. We are commanded to show kindness to people who don’t deserve it. We are commanded to love those who try their hardest to be unlovable and to forgive those who have gone out of their way to be unforgivable.

The Day of the Lord that Zephaniah and Jesus proclaim does not have to be a doom-and gloom, end-of-the-world scenario. For those who receive their God-given gifts with humility and then go and share them with the world, the Day of the Lord is a day of rejoicing; a day when our world that has long been turned upside down by greed and oppression and hate will be set right by peace and justice and love.

The question is: what will we do with all that has been given to us? Will we keep it locked up and hidden away under the bed? Or will we take a risk and open our hearts to share it openly and freely and radically with the world?

Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

***EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally ran in 2017.***

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Matthew 23:1-13

By: The Rev. David Clifford

As a pastor, I often find myself talking with people about their favorite Bible passages. However, I rarely find myself discussing people’s least favorite Biblical passages. It doesn’t seem to be something that many people want to admit to the pastor–“I don’t really like that Bible passage.” However, the truth is, we each have favorite scriptures that stand out to us. And, in the same way, we each have scriptures that we struggle with and just don’t seem to like all that much. This is true for us pastors as well.

If I’m completely honest (even at the risk of challenging the expectation that pastors love all scripture), this week’s lectionary scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is a scripture I find myself struggling with. Jesus begins to talk about the end times with his disciples and telling them stories about what God’s Kingdom and realm are really like. This particular story is about ten virgins: 5 of whom are wise and the other 5, well, not so much.

In this parable, Jesus draws to mind ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. The foolish virgins take with them no oil for their lamps. When they run out of oil, the other 5 refuse to help them. The foolish virgins must go buy more oil. While they are out, the bridegroom comes. The wise virgins go off with the bridegroom. When the foolish virgins return and knock on the door, the bridegroom replies, “Truly…I don’t know you” (verse 12 NIV).

In his book, The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus uses both common and traditional formatting for his parables. This particular parable is a perfect example of “Olrik’s “law of contrast,” the tendency toward polarization, especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.”[1] For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast[2]

Here’s my struggle and the reason I’m not a huge fan of this particular passage and parable. This is supposedly the same “Kingdom of God” that Jesus describes a few chapters earlier with the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18: 12-14, Jesus says:

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (NIV)

I find myself wondering if both of these stories can describe the same Kingdom. Is God’s Kingdom like the shepherd that is happier about the one lost sheep over the 99 that are not lost? Or, is God’s Kingdom like the bridegroom that closes the door on the foolish virgins simply because they were out getting more oil?

Of course, a simple answer is that these two parables are describing very different things. One is describing the joy at returning the lost, while the other is describing the fact that no one knows the time nor hour of the coming of the Son of Man and God’s Kingdom. However, I believe this week’s lectionary can be used to tease out some of the differences that Jesus may highlight about God’s Kingdom through his parabolic teachings. This particular parable can be compared to other parables. The formatting may be similar – “lost” versus “found,” and “in” versus “out,” or “wise” versus “foolish.” However, the truth of the parable seems to be very different. Crossan may be on to something. The formatting is common, while the content and contrast are dramatic and unexpected.[3]

As it relates to this week’s lectionary, I often found myself wondering why Jesus doesn’t highlight that God’s Kingdom is like 5 wise virgins that share their oil so that all 10 get to meet the bridegroom at midnight. He could have still highlighted that no one knows for sure when the Son of Man will come; while also highlighting the need for each of us to take care of one another while we wait. However, Jesus rarely meets our expectations and I can only assume that God’s Kingdom is similar.

It often happens to me that on Monday I come up with the perfect way to express my sermon for the previous Sunday. I usually note these things down and save them for a future sermon. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus missed a great teaching opportunity with this parable. Maybe the next day he thought, “I should have changed that story so my disciples would know how easy it would have been for those 5 wise virgins to help their neighbors.”

It could be that Jesus is merely highlighting the fact that no one truly knows the day or hour. However, the following two parables seem to suggest otherwise. It is difficult to interpret that the foolish virgins somehow find their way through that door. The very next parable tells us of servants given bags of gold, the servants who manage their gold well are reward. The servants who manage their gold poorly, are treated…not so well…

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 18:29-30 NIV)

Following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats. When the Son of Man comes, all will be divided into two groups. Sheep on one hand, goats on the other. To both parties the King will acknowledge whether they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, looked after the sick, and visit the prisoner. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). Those that did not do these things “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).

Of course, there is nothing in this listing of things the least of these needs that speaks about oil for their lamps as they await their bridegroom, but I can’t help but wonder if those 5 foolish virgins could be considered the least of these. What would our parable for this week’s lectionary look like if the 5 wise virgins had shared their oil instead of sending the foolish virgins of to the market?

If you are preaching on this parable for this week’s lectionary, it may be a great time to remind those hearing God’s Word about the unorthodox way in which Jesus teaches us about God and God’s Kingdom. Not that Jesus teaches in parable: many are doing that, but, that Jesus rarely meets the expectations of his followers and those who listen to his teaching. I struggle to fit many of Jesus’ parables together because it can be so difficult to follow a Lord and Savior who is constantly challenging you to be a better person; and whose entire life was a challenge to re-evaluate our lives and expectations. May God bless us with the strength and wisdom to continue in the faith and to continue the task at hand.

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David received a Master of Divinity and Master of Mental Health Counseling from Christian Theological Seminary in May of 2014. David has been serving at Westmont since July 2016. David enjoys reading and bicycle riding. He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Footnote 1 above.

All Saints’ Day(A): Holy! Holy! Holy!

All Saints’ Day(A): Holy! Holy! Holy!

Revelation 7:9 – 17

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

There’s a meme going around right now that makes me howl with laughter every time I see it. I feel like this woman and I are kindred spirits trying to figure out just what the heck is going on in the world and when it will be back to a semblance of normalcy.

This year we’ve dealt with a pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, murder hornets, the death of Justice Ginsburg, political turmoil, economic turmoil, online church, and even the cancelation of our favorite summertime trash tv reality shows (RIP Bachelor in Paradise). Parents and teachers struggle to know how to care for their children, pastors struggle to know how to care for their parishioners, and none of us knows completely what the future holds. This certainly feels like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding into town, and we’re all doomed.

The struggles we are enduring are real, and the emotional, mental, and physical effects of those struggles also are real. I do not in any way want to downplay this reality through humor. I do, however, think that humor offers us a way to see that we are united in our struggles, and we are united in our mutual care for one another as we maneuver the challenges of what often seems like impending doom.

The Revelation to John often gets a bad rap as a book about doom and gloom. Indeed, there are horrific images in this text that are cause for fear. When we read the text as a whole, however, we see that the prevailing image throughout is one of hope—hope for a bright future in the presence of a God who never forsakes us. New Testament scholar Michael Gorman summarizes Revelation as “a theopoetic, theopolitical, pastoral-prophetic writing. It is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness.”[1]

Gorman’s focus on the communal and political-boundary-crushing nature of Revelation comes right out of today’s appointed lesson. John has a vision not just of the Johannine community gathered around the throne of God, but of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9 NRSV). The fullness of God’s kingdom only may be realized when everyone has a seat at the table. The Johannine texts present Jesus as the one who brings the Gentiles into relationship with the God of Israel, and we, as followers of Jesus, are called to proclaim that good news to all the world. Divisions end, and unity is found in God.

This proclamation links us completely to those who have come before. This text becomes appropriate for the feast of All Saints not only because it depicts a life after death, but because it’s fullness hinges upon the Good News of Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us through the centuries by those who came before us and will continue to be proclaimed by us and those who come after us. Revelation reveals to us a reality beyond ourselves that we are called to share.

John sees this vision of the whole world praising God, and he is unclear exactly who they are. One of the elders provides this description: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The “great ordeal” generally is interpreted to mean persecution and those who have come through it the martyrs. I accept this interpretation fully, and I also think we need not limit the vision only to the martyrs. Martyrdom is the fullest form of following the example of Jesus who “also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2 KJV), but it is not the only form.

For those of us who have led worship in empty churches, for those who have faithfully attended church from their living rooms, to those who have kept daily prayers, to those who have lost jobs, freedoms, and loved ones to the pandemic, to all of those who go through our own great ordeal in 2020, God offers a vision and promise of community where no one is left out.

The woman in the meme looking to see what chapter of Revelation we’re doing today understands that the fullness of God’s kingdom only comes after many trials and tribulations. Jesus himself cried out from the cross the words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Out of that anguish and feeling of abandonment, Jesus suffered death, descended to the dead, was resurrected on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God.

It is easy to live through this time of great suffering and feel like God has abandoned us. What today’s lesson can teach us is that suffering and death are not the end. They are symptoms of a sinful world crying out for healing. When we look to the wisdom of the saints in glory, we see the great cloud of witnesses who also suffered and now rally around the throne of God crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” And that’s a vision worth sharing.

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware. He has a passion for studying feminist and queer readings of the Bible with a particular interest in the Pauline epistles. Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor, puppeteer, and director before completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He loves being in nature and learning new cooking techniques.


[1] Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 4211-4214). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Psalm 1 & Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

Maybe it’s just me, but when I first saw the pairing of readings from Leviticus and the Psalms, my first thought was that the organizers of the lectionary were worn out by the time they got to Proper 25 and they just stuck a couple of random texts together and trusted preachers to figure it out. Or to ignore it all together, which is what most preachers do with Leviticus anyway. To be fair, the alternative first Old Testament reading follows the complementary historical tradition of thematically pairing the Old Testament with the Gospel, so it isn’t really about the parallels between Leviticus and the Psalm, but still – they are paired readings. What is going on here?

As I have already alluded, Leviticus is challenging to preach from, for as theologian Samuel Balentine put it, “How does one “explain” and “apply” a book that devotes seven chapters to the bewildering, if not seemingly bizarre, requirements of ancient Israel’s sacrificial system and five chapters to details of ritual impurity, including such indelicate matters as menstrual blood and semen?”[1] It also can be described as dry in some parts. The Psalms are not always a cake walk to preach from either, especially for those who have a more a-theist theological perspective given its underlying assumption that life comes from the Creator, who also sets forth a moral order.

But as we look down from the metaphorical balcony at the arc of the biblical narrative, we can identify shared themes from the book of Leviticus and the Psalms, specifically the passages chosen as this Sunday’s lectionary suggestions.

Both center on what God expects of the righteous, what a faithful life looks like, and how to avoid the fate of the wicked. Psalm 1 offers a formula for a blessed life—a comforting thought for both ancient and modern communities. It also offers an explanation for why the wicked do not prosper, which serves as a warning useful to both ancient and modern communities who consider it Scripture. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 also lays out what God expects of the righteous and what faithful living looks like, only using more “on the ground” specifics than the metaphor-rich Psalm.

The message of these texts might speak to a modern community that also considers it scripture in some of the same ways it spoke to the ancient community that passed it on. First, it offers an alternative framework for living, which is to focus on God and righteousness. It is timeless advice, but seems particularly important to modern readers, specifically American Christians, who relish independence and self-direction. Instead, Psalm 1, “bears witness to the belief that the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction.”[2] The Leviticus text continually reminds the reader of their connectedness to others. Will the reader reject cultural norms of being “self-made” and instead root one’s life in study of the “law of the Lord” and flourishing of community? Like the ancient Israelites seeking identity apart from the surrounding culture, the texts provide a guide for those who live in a culture with values that might not align with those found in scripture.

This may be one of the most helpful ways to think about the lectionary texts this week – to help us consider and then enact an alternative framework for living as people who know that things are not as they should be, and who want to bring the world closer to God’s vision of justice and peace individually and communally. The history and context of ancient Israel played an important role in shaping the Book of Psalms into its current form and help to explain the role of Psalm 1. Postexilic Israel, working to find identity outside of a nation-state with a king of the Davidic line, “looked to their traditional and cultic literature for answers to the existential questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ and then shaped the literature into a document that provided answers to the questions.”[3] It has provided comfort and challenge for people of faith ever since. This holds true, too, for Leviticus. We can imagine that the instructions included in chapter 19 are, in part, a response to the status quo injustice of the day, that the poor were ignored while “the great” given deference, and vengeance was regularly enacted instead of loving neighbor as one would love one’s self.

Preachers and congregations might find it helpful to put the readings in the context of something familiar, but outside of the canon: The Road Not Taken, in which Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Ultimately, the lectionary passages present our living as an intentional choice, particular actions taken in opposition to other options that should reflect faithfully on God and God’s beloved community.

[1] Balentine, Samuel E. Leviticus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 64.

[3]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p 28–29.

19957000_1857818704537707_4376645885528786019_o
The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and recently completed her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

By: The Rev. David Clifford

In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.

For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.

In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.

But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).

The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.

“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.

We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

 

 

Proper 23(A): Working Like a Cynic

Working like a Cynic

Philippians 4:1-9

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

Sometimes, I think it’s okay to look at a Biblical text and want to shout at it, “THIS ISN’T HELPFUL.”

It’s not the text’s fault that it catches us on a bad day (or month, or year). There’s still beauty and wisdom in it. But when you’re in the depths of stress, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, deeply cynical and mourning the fact that the world you live in is nothing like you think it should be, a gentle, comforting exhortation like this one from Paul can feel more like a platitude. Platitudes, it should be noted, are naturally infuriating.

“Do not be anxious about anything!” Right, sure, I’ll get on that just as soon as I answer 7 more emails at 10pm so that I can look like a good worker in the midst of a global pandemic. “The peace of God will guard your hearts!” Well, it hasn’t yet, so when is that supposed to arrive? “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Oh Paul, dear sweet Paul, you wouldn’t survive 6 seconds on social media. We don’t think about the good things. We find every dumpster fire in the world and spend our time sharing articles about those instead.

The trick, then, is figuring out how to take this reading seriously instead of setting it (and those like it) on fire by the laser-beam force of our own cynicism. Paul, after all, wasn’t exactly a sunshine and butterflies sort of fellow, and plenty of his letters are basically a face-palm in epistolary format (case in point: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?!”). He lived in a real world full of greed and terror and anxiety, just as we do. His words surely weren’t just about being comforting and vapid. In fact, his instructions are a lot more interesting if you assume they’re coming from a fellow cynic.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” These aren’t banalities, they’re marching orders. Rejoicing can be hard work, and right now is one of those times. Paul is insisting that it’s work worth doing – just like quelling our own anxiety, and presenting our struggles to God rather than flailing around with them by ourselves. He tells us to fill our mind with beautiful things, and I don’t think he means to ignore the pain of the world to do so, but to see where the world’s pain is being tended to or healed and to think about those things. This meditation isn’t just so we can feel better – it’s so we can do better, having been inspired and enlivened by imagining what actions are within our power. He promises the peace of God, but maybe this is less the tranquil peace of a still pond and more the kind of exhausted satisfaction we find when, at the end of a very long and very difficult day, we settle into bed knowing we’ve given what we could.

I prefer this Paul, who faces the chaos of the world and digs in deep to find the beauty, and I think a lot of other people – especially those who are run ragged, down but not out – would too. It’s a helpful reminder as we pass each day that this is the work that means the most and that will sustain us the longest. As for that peace of God, well, I haven’t found it yet; but for the moment, I can dig down deeper and trust that maybe it’ll find me when I need it the most.

Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is a recovering cynic. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and her toddler son, Xavier.