Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Matthew 10:40-42

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“None of these will lose their reward.”

The lectionary does neither essayists nor preachers any favors by plucking these three verses from Matthew 10 to be heard on their own, without any context except the culture and places in which they are proclaimed. These verses are particularly challenging to hear in the American context where some form of prosperity gospel has been at root since the arrival of English Puritans to a land yet unknown to Western Europeans.

In these three verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the American mindset my quickly jump to rewards: What does it take to get the reward? How might we earn “stars in our crowns” as was commonly said in the culture of my upbringing? The concept of stars in one’s crown is not biblical, and this passage certainly doesn’t support it. Neither Jesus nor the author(s) of Matthew’s Gospel spell out what the rewards are, but there is a clear direction for these verses — welcome those who come to you.

“Diversity” is a popular buzzword both in the Church and in the American political left (and the right, but usually with derision). Not only a buzzword, it is often a code word not for welcome, but for tolerance. Religious institutions seek to diversify their make ups by inviting younger people, people of color, or other outliers to be present in bodies of governance, but not to actually voice their unique narrative from being an outsider. This is not diversity or welcome, and it does not bring about the rewards Jesus encourages.

In the Diocese of California, where I was previously the communications officer, diversity is a vitality practice. When the diocese and congregations embraced — truly embraced — diversity there was thriving. Diversity and welcoming of new perspectives were the reward, and vital life followed. Diversity and welcome as a vitality practice insists on going beyond tokenism or structuring organizations to require “one person under the age of 18, one person between 18 and 35” for the sake of optics and optics only.

Optics and representation are important. However, God’s new reign of the Resurrection is not built on optics. It’s built on new life and the freedom of the Resurrected Christ, particularly freedom often yet unknown to those who benefit from and are caught up in systemic power structures. As I wrote for DioCal, “The church is strengthened when varieties of perspectives are shared and each person’s place in the body of Christ is celebrated. To be diverse, we must first wonder if we lack diversity and strive for ways to bring new, treasured people to our midst. A four-part video series on diversity as a vitality tool is available here.”[1]

Not only is the church strengthened, all of civil society is strengthened. Jesus suggests as much when he moves from telling the Twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” to “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.” Jesus assures his hearers that all those doing welcoming will be rewarded, but does not make offering the welcome conditional. His hearers are expected to offer the welcome, not told what their reward will be, and yet will be rewarded. The welcome — bringing in new voices, perspectives, and beloved people of God — is reward in itself.

As Jesus’ hearers today, Christians are expected to offer water — and shelter and visitation — to those in need and those in need of welcome. In mid-2017, there are refugee crises related to warfare and persecution globally. American Christians with voices and representation in their government are charged by Jesus to offer welcome and to direct their government to do the same.

Jesus’ expectation that water will be offered to the little ones is not conditional to fear of the little one’s motivations. Jesus doesn’t say, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — unless they’re scared of the little one — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Heval Mohamed Kelli arrived in the US as a Syrian refugee three weeks after 9/11, after spending six years in Germany. He arrived in Clarksville, Georgia, a city that welcomes 1,500 refugees per year. Kell is a cardiologist now who has moved away from Clarksville but describes his welcome by saying, “’Two days after we arrived in Clarkston, we were terrified. And then all these people arrived at our door with food, wanting to help us learn English … You know, we thought they were the CIA or something, all these white Americans knocking at our door.’ In fact, they were members of Clarkston’s All Saints Episcopal Church: ‘They didn’t look at all like us. But they changed our lives.’”[2]

The Mayor of Clarksville, Kelli, and other residents all describe the innumerable rewards they have all received by being a place of welcome, and place where ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are as vast and varied as the skin tones of humanity.

Clarksville, which offers this welcome, is located in the heart of the American South — where I am from originally ‘a place very vocally opposed to welcoming refugees, particularly from predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of if those countries are embroiled in civil war and those fleeing war need much more than a cup of water. The people — and Christians — of Clarksville are asking for more of their governments, and they will continue to receive their rewards.

In mid-May 2017 the United States denied visa requests from gay Chechen men seeking relief from what is essentially a purge of queer people from society. Lithuania began granting refugee visas just when the United States was rejecting them.[3] From the “Heart of the Bible Belt” to a loudly proclaimed “Christian Nation,” Jesus’ instruction on offering welcome in this passage could not be clearer: simply, it must be done. While Jesus mentions rewards and assures they will not be lost, he does not say what they are.

While human or American inclination may to be ask “What’s in it for me?” this is never the inclination or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. If that question must be answered “Jesus says to” should be an acceptable answer for those who seek to follow him. When advising the Twelve on how they should be welcomed — and how those most in need should be cared for — he mentions reward, but those who have studied welcome or given or experienced it know how Jesus can be so confident that the reward will not be lost: Welcome is the reward.

[1] “The Beloved Community.” http://diocal.org/bishop/vision/beloved-community#building

[2] “This small town in America’s Deep South welcomes 1,500 refugees a year.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/24/clarkston-georgia-refugee-resettlement-program.

[3] “Lithuania Opens Door to Gay Chechens Fleeing Persecution, While U.S. Slams It Shut.” Financial Times. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/18/lithuania-opens-door-to-gay-chechens-fleeing-persecution-while-u-s-slams-it-shut-lgbt-lgbti-rights-russia-persecution-asylum-refugee/.

 

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Matthew 10:24-39

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

One of the notions that I have never understood as a convert to the Christian family is the idea that Jesus stands for “family values.” In the American context, family values are focused on the nuclear family—the mom, dad and gaggle of children version of family. This family is, according to American Christianity, the center of ethical and moral teaching, and thus what Jesus came to preserve, protect, and promote.

Um, what?

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, who left his family and said some unpleasant things to his mom (John 2). When he was rejected in Nazareth his list of siblings is called upon (Mark 6:3) to scold him for bad behavior. But Jesus shrugs off his family, and invites 12 male disciples to do the same. These men likely left behind wives and children. In fact, when one of these disciples asks to go home and bury his father—a sacred duty in Jewish tradition—Jesus says that in order to follow him, one cannot even tarry that long (Matthew 8). One must pick up their Cross and follow Jesus—right now.

And then we have this reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is clearly setting up a frame of reference in which families are divided. Jesus boldly proclaims: “do not think that I have come to bring peace to earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set man against his father, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10: 34-36)

Jesus turns our expectations upside down. Jesus astutely foreshadows the kind of divisions that his followers would experience as they struggled within their Jewish (and Gentile) families. Moreover, those reading Jesus’ words in the context of the early Church (and perhaps even the 21st century Church) would have found the divisions about which Jesus speaks to be reflective of their present reality. In both cases, the message is the same: families are going to be divided, and if you don’t like it, get off the Jesus train.

Whoa man, wait a minute.

The dominant voice in American Christianity has been preaching to me the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family unit! Kids need strong a father figure, and a mother who stays at home and cares for their emotional needs. Gays can’t have kids because it disrupts the traditional family unit! Single mothers should be ashamed for not providing their children with a solid Christian foundation at home. And those who dare to be child-free? They are selfish and not opening themselves to God’s plan!

You’re heard that rhetoric, right? Having growing up in the American South, I certainly did. I didn’t even grow up Christian, but these ideals of the happy single-family house full of smiling healthy kids and two well adjusted parents was sold to me as the American dream. And maybe it is the American dream. But it isn’t the Christian ideal.

In this reading, Jesus is challenging just what the Christian “family” is. Families built on bloodlines will betray one another. Households—which in the ancient world were large and extended—would betray one another. The tribal bonds granted to us because of blood would be made secondary to a new bond—the one to Jesus Christ.

In the first part of our reading, Jesus describes the relationship between students and teachers, and slaves and masters. It’s not that the student or slave should surpass the teacher or master; rather, they are called to “be like” or emulate the teacher or master. We are those students and slaves, and we are called to imitate Christ. We’re called to boldly proclaim the Good News before others. But Jesus knows that this news doesn’t always sound good, and will divide whole communities—right down to father and son.

As Christians, we recognize that our allegiance has shifted. No longer are we to pledge ourselves primarily to family. Indeed, we are called to pick up our Cross and leave our family. What this looks like today is holding all of our relationships loosely, keeping Jesus as the primary relationship in our lives.

It also means we radically redefine family. No longer are parents and children the primary form of family. Jesus created a “found family” with 12 disciples of different ages, skills, and backgrounds. He created family with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He created family in an Upper Room. Biological bonds are replaced by the bonds of kinship in the great family of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus illustrates with these bold statements is the high cost of discipleship, and the radical reorientation of God’s Kingdom compared with our own. We disciples are the students who are called to imitate the teacher. We are called to proclaim our faith publicly, before the world. We are also called to follow Jesus—to pick up the burden of the Cross—even as it divides our family. We are to find our life in Jesus, and not in the world.

Following Christ is radical. As a convert, I can tell you first hand that it is also divisive—although luckily there have been no sword fights in my family! Living for Christ means that supporting institutions which privilege the few and oppress the many must be called out. It means that we stand up for Jesus’ radical re-imagining of the world, even when it angers our parents, our siblings, our spouses, or our kids. It means that we find new family members in the body of Christ—and that we see other Christians as siblings, not as strangers. The things that are said in darkness must and will be brought to light. It’s a reminder that American values and God’s Kingdom values are not the same. And again, we disciples must choose who to follow.

 

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Master of Divinity from Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Matthew 9:35-10:23

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

In this selection of scripture, we read that Jesus calls his disciples, equips them with authority, and then commissions them. But first we read that Christ looks at the crowds, sees their lack of direction and great need for a shepherd (as Jesus often puts it), and has compassion. This, I believe, is extremely important to emphasize when preaching, over and above the more “eye catching” parts of this passage. If we humans, and especially we followers of Christ, do not keep the driving force of Jesus’ presence in our lives (God’s love for all the world—AKA compassion) we will quickly lose track of our Shepherd’s voice, right when we are being commissioned to share that voice with all those who are lost. That small, quick little description of Jesus’ compassion is far too often overlooked in scripture by the more provocative sayings and images that follow directly after his stated motive.

When thinking of a title on this selection of scripture, I was struck by the number of sermons, biblical passage headings, and other commentaries I came across that focused the theme on verses such as, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” or “Shaking the dust” or “Sending the twelve” or “the coming persecutions.” Granted, I did not look in every single English translation, article, or commentary out there, but I went through enough to realize that God’s compassion is not at the forefront of the Western mind when it comes to this particular text. In fact, the only place I did see the word “Compassion” come into the title or theme or heading of this passage was in my 4th edition copy of the Greek New Testament. There, this passage was titled: “The Compassion of Jesus.”

Perhaps it’s because the emphasis gets lost in translation. Or perhaps not. But either way, in the Greek, the connection between this scene where Jesus has compassion on the crowds and the scene in Matthew 9:13, which comes just 20 verses before the start of this reading, is the clear theme to keep in mind. There, Jesus tells the Pharisees exactly what he is about.  He says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Mercy is what Christ shows throughout all of his ministry. It’s what Jesus reveals God to be both in the Incarnation and in his faithfulness on the cross. And in the Greek, the word for mercy is interchangeable with the word compassion. Furthermore, the compassion Jesus has for the crowds in 9:36 is not a noun like it is in 9:13, but a verb. Jesus is “moved in his inmost parts” with love for the crowds in such a way that the use of this word in the New Testament has messianic significance.  “…for it is only Jesus who shows compassion as in Mk. 1:42; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Mt. 14:14; 20:34. In each case what we have is not so much the description of a human emotion as a messianic characterization.”[1]

This text sets the framework for every commission given by our Lord. Jesus’ compassion must always be emphasized over acts of power, inevitable persecution, and knocking off the dust from one’s feet. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

When someone asks What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) There should be no hesitation. The answer is written throughout scripture. Jesus desires mercy. God is moved from deep within God’s inmost parts. And so Jesus shows compassion, because that is what He does.  Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for all the world.

Luke A. Powery says in his commentary from Feasting on the Word, “This is good news, because the movement of this passage reveals that when there is a need, Jesus shows compassion, and his compassion causes him to send out others on a mission to serve those in need… All Jesus desires is that the lost be found… It is insufficient just to see human need but not be sent out to do something about it.”

Jesus has seen the need. He has heard the cries of his people. He was and is faithful and compassionate, even upon the cross. The harvest is plentiful and we too have clearly been sent out to labor within it. It is impossible to not see the need. Have compassion, like Jesus did. Be moved toward mercy in your inmost parts just as God is moved in God’s inmost parts. And go into all the world, and share the good news.

[1] Geoffery W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament p. 1068

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The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Rev. Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife The Rev. Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Trinity Sunday: Get to Work!

Trinity Sunday: Get to Work!

Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

I have preached every Trinity Sunday of my ecclesiastical career.

I don’t say that to boast—Simply to mark the fact that my ecclesial career has a) not been very long and b) has been spent by and large either as Seminarian, or as an Associate. I remember joking with friends about “Seminarian Sunday,” the last big day before we all head out the door to our respective summer routines, which (at least in many Episcopal churches) means dropping all activity to an idle and taking things slow(er).

It might be that the school year, as it currently stands, was the worst possible thing that could have happened to Trinity Sunday. The Deacon gives the dismissal, and we head for the doors with the same sense of relief as the last day of grade school. The text seems to fit—at least in this Lectionary year. Jesus has risen and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Matthew is winding down his Gospel. A nice tidy bow is being wrapped up on the narrative… right up until the last 2 lines:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)

We act like the passage ends with “Go therefore”, but what we’re getting is the Great Commission. The call to do the work. The Church’s raison d’être.

Trinity Sunday is an invitation. An invitation that we frequently miss. We treat ordinary time like its ordinariness has nothing to offer us. We speak pejoratively about the “Green Seasons” like they’re chores to be performed until we get back to the high points of Church life. The big feasts. The Christmases. The Easters. (We blow right past a number of Marian feasts that occur every summer, but that’s a different rant for a different day…)

We get so wrapped up in the moments of Ecclesiastical performance, that we forget where and why the work is. The work is named. Go Baptize. Jesus makes it clear: I am with the Father and I am with you. So go. Baptize in the name of the God who lives in community and calls us to do the same. To receive the charge and then to step off the gas is precisely what we’re not supposed to do.

That does not mean, however, we simply program more. Program is not what we’re charged with here. Program is not mission. The change of pace that comes naturally in our common life gives us a chance to open up to engaging in our neighborhoods. To forgo a bit of the rigors of performing “church,” to get into the business of community, and to do so in the name of the Trinity.

The Trinitarian bit might be, at least for us in the Mainline, the trickiest spot. It is also the most crucial. I’m blessed to have a job description which demands that I’m out engaging in a neighborhood as a regular part of my work, and what I’ve come to know is that the Trinity is foreign to the way in which the common American conceives of the God they increasingly don’t care about, or flat out don’t believe in. The average “None” is nominally Deist, Arian in what Christology they do have, and practically pantheist in Pneumatology. Jesus as good teacher is not news, and therefore cannot be Good News.

Jesus is part of a God that lives in community with Godself, that speaks to and moves with us in the Spirit. Now that’s news. That’s the Gospel we proclaim. That’s the Gospel that gets communicated when we take the room that the Ecclesial calendars give us, and get on with the work of being in a community, with a community, and for a community.

Trinity Sunday sets us up for a different kind of work. It launches us into the Green Season with the assurance that God is with us, and it demands that we live like it. Rest can very well be a part of that season, but it cannot define it. The world no longer operates on the agrarian patterns that made space for the “summer slump,” and the Church had little business following the academy’s lead in the first place.

Building community is the work. The reality of the Triune God is the good news we carry. If we heed the Great Commission and read well the signs of the season that we’re in, then we can’t help but live into our call. Go therefore. Make disciples. Set the liturgy on autopilot for a bit, sure, but then get on with the work. Maybe even enjoy it. It is Summer, after all.

 

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.

Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

Day of Pentecost: Take a Breath

John 20:19-23

By: The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

Have you ever been so anxious or afraid that you felt like you couldn’t breathe? Your chest tightens; your pulse quickens. It feels like your whole body is in overdrive. When I was a child and felt afraid at night, I would pull the covers up over my head. Whatever monsters were lurking in the dark or under my bed surely couldn’t get me if I was hidden away, safe from harm. As an adult, I no longer hide under the covers, but I still find myself seeking to hide away from the things in life that are scary or stressful. I still find myself realizing that my body has tightened and I can’t even take a deep breath.

When we enter today’s Gospel story we find the disciples in their own place of fear and trembling—huddled away behind locked doors, hiding from those who would persecute them. It’s a very different Pentecost than the one we see in Acts. There are no dramatic winds or tongues of fire. No ecstatic speeches in multiple languages.  Instead, we see a quiet Pentecost. Into the midst of fear and trembling enters the Risen Christ and breathes into the disciples the Spirit, and with it, the Gift of Peace.

While it might seem less dramatic, it’s still a radical moment—to find peace in the midst of chaos. The disciples’ whole world had changed—everything that they had hoped for was linked to following Jesus. I imagine their fear left them breathless.

Into this space Jesus speaks, “peace be with you,” and breathes into them the Holy Spirit.  Gail O’Day reminds us in her commentary in the New Interpreters Bible that this echoes the moment of Creation wherein God breaths into humanity the breath of life. Here we see a new creation and new life given to these disciples through this breath of the Spirit.[1] I have to wonder if in this moment, they finally took a deep breath for the first time. I wonder if their shoulders relaxed and their fear melted away into a sense of radical peace.

Perhaps it is because I relate so much to these disciples that this image of breathing peace of the Spirit resonates with me. Or perhaps it is because as a yoga teacher, I know so well the power of connecting to the Spirit through our breath. Secular studies show us that these breathing practices do have an effect to calm our minds and bodies, but as a pastor, I think it’s more than that. When we pause to breathe in, to intentionally connect to the Spirit—our life source—that Spirit fills and empowers us. The Spirit changes us. She is there to transform us, if we only take a moment to connect.

Of course, this Spirit, this breath of life isn’t just there for Divine stress relief or touchy feely comfort. We are granted Peace so that we can be sent to continue Christ’s work in the world, even in the face of great trials. This story is both one of receiving the Spirit, as well as being commissioned by Christ to go forth to do God’s work in the world.[2]

I wonder how often we as individuals and as communities of faith hide ourselves away in fear, rather than living a life centered in the radical peace of Christ. I wonder how often we stay in fear rather than journeying out to do the work that God has called us to do.

I can admit—I would really love for God to call me to something safe. I love stability. I love comfort. And yet, the work of the Gospel isn’t always comfortable, or safe, or easy. Working for Justice in the world sometimes means getting our hands dirty or getting out of our comfort zones. Sharing God’s love might mean taking a step out into the unknown.

This path that we are called to isn’t an easy one, but it is one we don’t walk alone. Every step, the Spirit is with us, breathing into us Peace; breathing into us courage; breathing into us life. I wonder what this looks like in our lives and in our communities? Might it mean we step out and take a risk in order to share the gospel rather than trying to just get by?

Perhaps this Pentecost, instead of wind and fire, we might search for just a moment of breath. In that space of silent prayer, we can draw our awareness to the presence of the Spirit around and within us. In that moment, we breathe in, knowing that the sustaining Life we breathe in is nothing short of the Divine Spirit. Perhaps this Pentecost, we might choose to breathe in peace even in the places of our lives or our community’s life where we are afraid. Perhaps we might choose to go forth from that space of radical peace to do the work of God.

 

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The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.

[1] Gail O’Day. “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville:Abingdon, 1995) 9: 846.

[2] Ibid.

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

Easter 7A: Jesus’ Prayer

John 17:1-11

By: The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

Recently, my husband and I moved from Kentucky to Missouri where I accepted a call to serve as Co-Pastor at National Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When we arrived in Springfield, I showed up to the office for my first day at my new church and already had a message waiting for me. A reporter from the local paper had gotten word that a church in town had hired an openly gay minister and was calling with an interest in setting up a time to sit down with my Co-Pastor and I to do a story. While the article that followed highlighted the ministry that we are doing here at National Avenue, the reporter was also very interested in the theology of a church that would welcome everyone, affirm everyone, and even hire a gay minister. The product of our conversation together was an article that highlighted all of the things that made me fall in love with this particular congregation, but also gave people an idea of who I am as both a person and as a minister.

While we initially said “Yes!” to this opportunity to reclaim the conversation of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, I quickly found myself being put on the defensive. We received incredible amounts of support and saw increased visitor traffic for a few weeks following the article’s run, but I was emotionally unprepared for how to handle the constant criticism of not only the authenticity of my call as a minister who happens to be gay, but also my worth as a person in general.

As I initially read these words of Jesus from the Gospel of John, I cringed a little bit. It seemed like these words that Jesus spoke were laced with exclusivity; the same sense of exclusivity that many have tried to use in order to keep me “out”—to convince me that I had done something to separate myself from the love of God.

When I finally got beyond my negative criticism of the text and finally started looking for the themes that I found to be helpful, I noticed a few things. First and foremost, there is a very obvious relationship at play here between Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Jesus acknowledges that while he is on earth finishing the work that he was sent to do, he is still one with God and is returning to God.

We also see a very real sense of devotion, loyalty, and authentic faith displayed through these passages. This whole prayer is being prayed for those who have followed Jesus. It is said in the text that these folks for whom Jesus prays have kept the word of God, have acknowledged Jesus’ oneness with God, and have received the words that have been given to them from God through Jesus. In many ways this is being set up as a commissioning of the disciples to carry on the ministry of Jesus beyond the time of his earthly life.

Toward the end of one’s life, or even at a time of real transition, it is common to find ourselves asking, “What about all of this that I have built? Who will care for it when I’m gone?” I found myself asking those same questions as I was wrapping up my ministry at my first call in Kentucky as I prepared to relocate to Missouri. I was nervous that the youth group I had built up would fall apart. I was afraid that the kids that I had loved and formed relationships with wouldn’t have anyone left to love and care for them once I was gone. I was scared that they would be forgotten in the midst of the chaos of a church in transition. So I did what I could do to ensure that that wouldn’t be the case. I began acknowledging the leadership I saw in some of our volunteers and making sure that they felt empowered and equipped to handle things in my absence. Once I saw that the kids would be cared for, I could breathe a little easier and found peace with the transition.

It seems like here Jesus is worrying about some of those same things. It seems as though he’s trying to position the leaders that he has been training—those that had been walking beside him through the teaching, preaching and healing—and empowering them to take over his ministry in his absence.

Even more importantly, though, it seems like there is a prayer from Jesus here that the church may become one—that the church that can be so divided may somehow find unity amongst themselves. I can’t help but think that in a time such as this, a time when we are facing great division over politics, sexuality, quality of life and care, and a whole host of other issues, that Jesus is still praying this prayer. For me, this scripture stands as Jesus’ ordination of the church to join together and continue his work in the world; showing his love and light to all that we encounter through the ways in which we live our lives.

May it be so.

 

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and two dogs, Bailey and Rey. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his Master of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Ascension: Caught Up With Jesus

Ascension: Caught Up With Jesus

Luke 24:44-53

By: Jerrod McCormack

Today, I opened my Facebook account and it took me all of five minutes to assess that the last week has been one crazy situation after another. The chemical attacks in Syria were responded to by a barrage of tomahawk missiles.[1] There’s so much senseless violence in the world. There are days when I struggle to comprehend how God is present in this hot mess. And make no mistake: humanity is a hot mess. We are a bunch of needy, emotionally tumultuous, sometimes senselessly violent individuals, and our collective history is a mixed record of great accomplishments and spectacular failures. And yet as I look at the news feeds and read the accounts of bombings and mass graves, I know that deep in the very heart of God there is a cry for peace, mercy, and justice.

In the Anglican tradition, there is a beautiful moment during the Nicene Creed during which many bow in reverence to the statement, “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”[2] This is one of the beautiful things that I loved about the liturgy since first becoming an Anglican. It’s full of all these moments when I am invited to participate in the worship of God’s people throughout the ages and to acknowledge the fullness of the mystery of God’s having chosen to dwell among human beings. The scriptures tell us that this is the moment that we have waited for: God has been made man. John 1:4 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

In order to understand the theological significance of the Ascension, we must first and foremost understand what God has done in the incarnation. Jesus is the God-Man; both fully divine and fully human. Jesus was subjected to all the temptation that men and women are subjected to, as we see in the temptations in the desert. He experienced uncertainty in his relationship with God and doubts about God’s plan for him as we see reflected in his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet ultimately, Jesus was willing to carry the cross, and suffer, and give his life for all of humanity. However, that is not the end of his journey.

Jesus’ journey then continues with his return to the Godhead. Defining the ascension of Jesus might seem a simple enough task; it means that Jesus disappeared through the clouds into the same heaven from whence he came. This answer was the one that I carried for many years. I won’t soon forget the first time a priest introduced me to the idea that maybe the ascension meant something more than just Jesus’ disappearing through the clouds. This new explanation seemed a bit scandalous and yet the more I contemplated the depth and meaning of this concept, the more I found it to hold more truth and theological significance for me. I think somewhere inside I knew there had to be more to this concept of Jesus’s return.

Today’s text tells us that Jesus opens the scriptures to his followers before his ascension: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Jesus leads his apostles and disciples through this time of explanation. I have to wonder what sort of amazing things they might have learned from him during this time. The specifics are a mystery, and yet, Luke points us toward the greater truth when he tells us that Jesus began to explain to them the scriptures. He unpacks the meaning of God’s revealing work in how the Messiah must come, suffer, die, and on the third day rise from the dead. Is it all done now? Is God finished now that the resurrection is complete? The short answer is decidedly not. Luke points us toward the coming of the Holy Spirit in only a few short days. The apostles and disciples having borne witness to God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ and having received the promise of being clothed with power from on high, are blessed by Jesus as he is ‘carried up into heaven (v.51).

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven is as mystical and awesome as the incarnation. In the incarnation, God unites the fullness of Godself to humanity, and in the ascension, God unites the fullness of humanity to Godself. St. Augustine in his sermon on the Ascension of Jesus says, “For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.”[3] Maybe it is a little scandalous to believe that the fullness of humanity has been drawn into the very heart and nature of God, and yet God has never shied away from us. God has continued to draw humanity closer and closer to Godself. That is the awesome story of the ascension. It is one of God’s continued drawing of humanity into God’s own heart.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke about the scandal of God’s drawing the fullness of humanity into Godself. He says, “Jesus ascends to heaven. The human life in which God has made himself most visible, most tangible, disappears from the human world in its former shape and is somehow absorbed into the endless life of God. And our humanity, all of it, goes with Jesus. When St Paul speaks of Christ ‘filling all in all’, as we heard in the epistle (Ephesians 1.15—end), we must bear in mind that picture: Jesus’ humanity taking into it all the difficult, resistant, unpleasant bits of our humanity, taking them into the heart of love where alone they can be healed and transfigured.”[4]

Today, right in the very heart of God, Jesus cries out for all of his brothers and sisters. God hears their pain and knows their heartache. The scriptures remind us that Jesus’s role in heaven is to serve as the great high priest making intercession for us to God the Father. It cannot be underestimated how we need to remember that in moments when we are nearly overwhelmed by the terrible things in the world. God hasn’t shied away from the unpleasantness of humanity, but in God’s lovingkindness, God has reached out to understand. There will be justice, but God’s justice is tempered in perfect love and perfect understanding.

May Almighty God have mercy upon all of us.

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is the Youth Leader and Ohana Community Cafe Coordinator at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is also a Spiritual Care Provider for the Alberta Health Services. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

 

[1] “U.S. Cruise Missiles Strike Syria Airbase as Trump Reverses Position After Gas Attack”, CBC News http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-us-cruise-missiles-hit-syria-airbase-1.4059761

[2] Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1985) 188.

[3] St. Augustine, Homily on the feast of the ascension of the Lord, http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/bread_on_the_trail/2011/06/st-augustines-homily-on-the-feast-of-the-ascension-of-the-lord.html

[4] Rowan Williams, Sermon on the Feast of the Ascension, May 21, 2009. http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/883/a-sermon-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-at-the-ascension-day-sung-eucharist