Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

Christmas Day: Into the Treasury of Life

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

What does it mean to truly live? This time of year is full of all kinds of wonderful things: friends having get togethers, office parties (though one could question the goodness of those), and family time. These are the times of year that we see people that maybe we’ve lost contact with over the course of the year and maybe we finally manage to reconnect. We get to make amazing memories of the holidays.

I remember my Christmases growing up in North Alabama. There weren’t many white Christmases to speak of, but there were lots of memories. My dad has always loved to decorate the house for Christmas. We always had these amazingly beautiful Christmas light displays: vis a vis Clark Griswold from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” There were two amazingly tall Southern Magnolia trees (magnolia grandiflora) in our front yard. They had to be at least 40-50 feet tall. Though I have to confess, they seemed bigger than that as a child. One year when I was a kid my dad decided that he wanted to hang lights on those trees in the front yard. I thought he was absolutely out of his mind. But he was determined, so he came up with a rig. He basically used a smaller tree with all the branches cut off, leaving only a Y at the top of the pole to run lights up into the huge magnolia trees. I can’t believe it even now! Looking back at it, I am amazed at his determination and his commitment to making something special and amazing of that Christmas.

I think about all of the special memories and amazing moments of my life and I am filled with awe and inspired to try to make wonder filled moments with the kids I work with. When I was in seminary, I remember one of my professors saying, “Christians and Jews march on their memory.” It is a comment that has stuck with me after many other things have passed from my memory. I think it has stuck because it is deeply ingrained in my own spirituality. It’s one of the ways that I seek balance and hope in times of trouble. To remember the depth of God’s love and the continual promise of God’s seeking human redemption. Lamentations tells us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

In certain moments it is very difficult to hold this idea and our experience of our daily lives hand in hand. I’m writing less than a week after the tragic shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My heart is broken by this tragedy and the hatred that has been leveled against my Jewish brothers and sisters. Hate is not found in the heart of God. Crimes of hatred and violence betray the very image of God that lays inside each and every human being. Just a few days after the shooting, I had the privilege of standing alongside Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, Mormons, Lutherans at a synagogue here in Calgary and declare that we will reject hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and stand together as people of different faiths to support our Jewish brothers and sisters following the massacre in Pittsburgh. It is one of the positive moments to come from such a terrible tragedy, but it isn’t the only one. Our Muslim brothers and sisters formed rings of protection around synagogues in Toronto on the most recent Shabbat.[1] We have to look at the good things that can come from these horrible tragedies. It is hard for us to hold these terrible moments in human history alongside the Glory of God revealed in the incarnation.

It is easy to reflect on the power and prestige of the birth of Jesus, but when we celebrate the glory of the incarnation that comes into such a messed-up world where there’s violence and hatred and evil it is much harder to imagine the God of heaven and earth deciding to enter into this world for its redemption. I would love to believe that Jesus entered into a world that was filled with less hate or less pain, but that simply isn’t realistic. It isn’t true to the human experience, and it isn’t faithful to the message of God’s redemptive acts throughout human history for our salvation. God comes in times that are most confused when people have most lost their hope and direction in life and aren’t sure how to live as God’s people in a new age.

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, it was to break the yoke of Pharaoh’s slavery and give us freedom to worship and love God. When God brought God’s people into the promised land, it was that they might not wander lost in the desert eternally but to give them a home. When God came to dwell among us, it was not into a sanitized world apart from the reality of human suffering, but it was to a people who were oppressed by the Roman authorities and crushed under the burden of the legalistic religious authorities that we might know the freedom of true life. St. John Chrysostom in his famous homily says, “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.”[2]

Jesus comes to dwell in and among our ordinary human life filled with both suffering and beautiful things to show us the true treasure of life and invite us to participate in God’s saving work. That we might know the abundant life to which God has called us a life of freedom and belonging and to open to the whole world the way of salvation. There surely is no greater proclamation of God’s love than God’s enduring embrace of the whole of creation through the incarnation. God reaches out through the incarnation to make God’s love known to us and to the whole of creation.

[1] “‘We Share That Pain’: Muslims Form Rings of Peace at GTA Synagogues in Wake of U.S. Shooting.” CBC. November 03, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/gta-muslim-pittsburgh-synagogue-peace-ring-1.4890743.

[2] St. John Chrysostom. “St. John Chrysostom: Homily on Christmas Morning.” Prydain. December 25, 2008. https://prydain.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/st-john-chrysostom-homily-on-christmas-morning-3/.

 

 

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The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod W. McCormack was recently ordained a transitional deacon in Diocese of Calgary in the Anglican Church of Canada. He serves as the Spiritual Health Practitioner for the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Alberta and as a deacon for St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary. He’s a native of Alabama but has been sojourning in the Great White North for several years now and is pleased to call the Canadian Rockies home.

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Advent 4C: Holy Welcome

Luke 1:39-55

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Luke presents the story of Jesus as a combination of history and biography. He sets out to give an “orderly account,” committed to telling the story of Jesus in such a way that makes all things clear. Luke’s attempt at capturing the story of Jesus in fullness walks the line other ancient historiography does, “marked by the paradox of two or more less competing interests – veracity (the attempt to depict events that actually happened) and narrative (the attempt to set events within a coherent, meaningful series, the presentation of which accords privilege to causation and teleology).”[i]  It is an opportunity for us to say, “We don’t know if this is exactly how it happened, but we know that this story is true.”

The narrative element of Luke’s writing invites readers to engage the story with imagination rooted in the text. This can be a delightful task when the text includes angels, which happens quite a bit in the opening chapters of Luke. As we read the lectionary pericope this Sunday, we just miss the appearance of one. We enter the narrative while the wonderful glow from the angel who announced Mary’s pregnancy to her is still fading.

If we are reading from Mary’s perspective, it may not have been so wonderful. An unwed pregnant woman was not a good thing to be in her time. Joseph, her fiancé, had a couple of choices. He could have her stoned or he could walk away leaving her with a newborn and no income. Neither option would have been good for Mary.

And then there is the actual pregnancy to consider. Any pregnancy can be difficult, but teenage pregnancy is particularly hard. Beyond what scholars can tell us about the social and historical context of the text, we know this because we know the obstacles and risks teen mothers face today. The preacher might take time to look at teen pregnancy and birth rates in their state and/or community along with available resources to localize the situation for the congregation. We cannot help but wonder how things would have worked out for Mary if she had been an unwed teenage mother in our time – would she still have been shunned, uninsured, and with less access to maternal healthcare?

After the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy, we usually just skip to the Magnificat. The angel leaves and then Mary starts singing, right? But Luke says there is more to the story. Perhaps the most overlooked element of the Magnificat is when it appears in the story. Mary does not burst into song when Gabriel shows up. She does not start humming the tune when the angel tells her The Plan. She does not shout from the rooftop as Gabriel exits. She barely clears her throat.

When the angel disappears, Mary has a panic attack. This is not in the text, but read between the lines. It happens in the little empty space between verses 38 and 39 where we’ve added the title Mary Visits Elizabeth. Immediately after the angel flits away, Mary packs her bags and leaves town. “In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” She is scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She is in trouble. She’s a pregnant teenager without any support. So she runs, hoping that her cousin Elizabeth will keep her from getting stoned or shamed to death.

The moment that Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth’s house, everything changes. The first thing Elizabeth does when Mary shows up at her door is to bless her with holy words of welcome: “Welcome, dear one. Welcome. Come and stay for while.” She called Mary blessed. Blessed. And then, then it is that Mary sings about being lifted up, about mercy.

When does Mary sing the Magnificat? When does she find her voice? When is she convinced that everything is going to be okay? After she gets help, when she finds refuge, in the wake of being welcomed and embraced. Mary’s Magnificat, which follows in verses 46-55, is made possible because Elizabeth’s welcome helped Mary find her footing. And we cannot separate Jesus’ life and ministry from the woman who raised him with the words, “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” on her lips.

This pericope is the linchpin of the story. The Good News is Elizabeth’s response to a scared, pregnant teenager who doesn’t have the resources to take care of herself. This is when everything turns, where the story of Jesus pivots in the right direction. The key ingredient is holy words of welcome.  

And now it is our work to continue the story. What welcome is the church speaking today?

[i] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke (p. 15). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is associate minister of Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ and a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Oklahoma State University.

 

 

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Advent 3C: The Way Things Are is Not How They Have To Be

Luke 3:7-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

I’ve recently entered a fun part of my vocational journey. It seemed as if my 20s were spent in endless preparation—an advent that felt like it would never end. I was learning and teaching and practicing, but all of it was done in a liminal space due to the educational programs in which I was enrolled. I was a full-time student and only part-time everything else. And now, in my thirties, I have entered into a new space—one with a full-time job that is in line with my vocational call and professional goals, and so my time is spent less thinking about “someday,” and more spent honing in on who I am and what I have to offer. In short, my eternal relationship with advent has come to an end.

Or has it?

You see, in my role as a college chaplain at a small liberal art college that does not presume religious faith of any kind, I have been forced to articulate a vision for my role’s existence. In 2018, if a college is not specifically faith-based, why have a minister at all? It’s a question I myself wrestle with, but when I read this account of John the Baptist, I find a kindred spirit in vocational call.

As I have been articulating just what this vocational call is, recently my message of a misplaced pastor in a secular setting has been this: The way things are now is not how they have to be. It seems to me that this is John’s message as well.

In the first several verses, John calls the gathered group to repentance.[1] In the right context, such requests for accountability and changed living can be a message of hope. When we are caught in patterns of sin, particularly when they are causing us pain, offering a way out suggests that the way things are now is not how they have to be. We can be different. We do not have to bear bad fruit. We can do something to heal the world.

But how?

John responds to the “how” question with practical tips. He says that whoever has two coats should share with someone who has none, which suggests that we are all responsible for generosity. The willingness to share what we have is not only demanded of the rich, but of anyone who has what someone else does not.

Following this, John addresses two professions that at the time held the potential to be abused by exploiting others. John’s admonishments here are not as much about the professions themselves as they are about the condemnation of exploitation. Combined with the verses immediately before, we see that John is advocating for the social and economic care of each person in the community. There is not indictment of the poor themselves, but instead, the conviction and responsibility is placed on those who take and keep from those who do not have. Again, the way things are now (exploitation and inequality) is not how they have to be.

In the final verses, John points to someone who is coming whose presence is a purifying fire that burns away the sins of the world—injustice, exploitation, inequality, hoarding resources, abuse. The way things are now is not how they have to be. And perhaps this is my call as a chaplain who works with religious and non-religious students alike: not only to remind people over and over that the way things are is not how they have to be, but also to work with them to figure out ways that they can participate in the social transformation. And perhaps my call, like John, is not to do this for my own sake, but to point the way to one who comes who is much greater than that which we do accomplish in the meantime. We pare down our closets and share our food now, knowing that we are preparing the way for more and more. We are changing the world. And more is coming.

“So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Amen.

[1] It should be noted here that in Matthew’s version of the story, John specifically calls out religious leaders. In that passage and in this one, I encourage my fellow Christian ministers to take care not to perpetuate the idea that religious people of the time, specifically Jews, were any more of a problem than religious people of this time, including Christians. Even with the best of intentions, this interpretation has bolstered anti-Semitism by instilling in Christian congregants the idea that early and current Jews are less than Christians in practice or belief. Obviously Christian doctrine about other religious traditions vary widely across denomination, but anti-Semitism itself has violent consequences, and particularly after the Tree of Life shooting October 27, 2018, Christian preachers should exercise discernment about the impact of their words.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

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

 

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just to be clear: this is no small, trivial act. From this moment of revelation emerges a prophetic ministry that sets all things in motion, proclaiming the time that is soon at hand, a mission of preparing the way for the One who is to come. Saint Luke’s detailed location of this event as a moment in time is much more than an obsessive attention to detail.

The specificity of the time and place defines the enormous significance of this occasion. It is not a moment to be overlooked, but a time and place worthy of note.

After all, the word of God coming to someone, to anyone, in the wilderness of all places, was no ordinary occurrence. There had been hundreds of years of silence. Generation after generation had been born, lived, and died since the people of God had been in the presence of a prophet, one who had received a word from on high.

John’s message was rooted in the words of his predecessor, the great prophet Isaiah. In the days of old, the prophet cried aloud to make ready and prepare the way of the Lord, to straighten the paths that had grown crooked and smooth that which had been made rough. All of this was to serve that single purpose – that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”

The word of God came to John, and a prophet was in their midst. The message of God’s abiding and redeeming love was being made known anew.

Let’s be honest: in our own time, prophets are many. Their messages are even more numerous and varied. Silence is not common. Some of our prophets claim to speak a word from God, while others boldly claim a message that is all their own. Some shout loudly on street corners and across airwaves, while others seek a more subtle transmission. There is no shortage of prophets in our midst.

For us, followers of Jesus in this day and this time, the careful work of discernment is all the more challenging. Who and where are the prophets who truly speak a word from God?

This passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel issues an important clue into where we might best look: to the wilderness. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God’s good news emerges on the fringes and at the margins, far from the seats of power and privilege. In the places that appear so bare and desolate, absent of the presence of anything that is holy, the prophetic word of the living God is made real.

Where are such wilderness prophets today? A few ideas…

Perhaps we need to go to a literal wilderness, to the desert Southwest of these United States, where families arrive at our nation’s border, day after day, in search of sanctuary. Fleeing violence and fear, in search of safety and peace, these children of God—men, women, and children—arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. From the wilderness of tents and detention centers, what word might they speak to us this Advent season?

Perhaps we need not venture far from home to find ourselves deep in the wilderness. In the neglected and overlooked neighborhood of our own city, the wilderness might look like the parking lot of the market with a ‘check cashing center.’ Inside, the individual who is struggling to make ends meet, agonizing over which bill can be paid this month, is the recipient of a loan that may never be repaid, bearing a rate of interest so high that it renders them enslaved. What word from God might emerge in just such a wilderness?

Perhaps we need only look at the wilderness of our own faith community to discover a fresh word in this season of anticipation and expectation. In the pew sits the mother whose family does not look like every other family, the forgotten widower who wonders if he has been noticed, the child who has been told she is not enough. The wilderness of experience, rather than location, is no less desolate, no less isolation. What word from the Holy One might they proclaim to us as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts and souls?

These are prophets, each and every one, testifying to the truth from the wildernesses that call to us, people of the Jesus Way, here and now.

To ask the question of where and who the prophets of our place and time might be emerging, we do well to remember that, in ancient days, the word of God appeared in the most unlikely of places, in the wilderness, to the man named John. In the wilderness of our own days, in this year, 2018, may a good word from God be heard anew, and may we have the grace and power to share it, that all shall see and hear and know the salvation of our God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Luke 21:25-36

By: Casey Cross

If you have eyes, ears, and/or any kind of awareness of your surroundings, you might be like me right now. Angry. Heartbroken. On the verge of hopelessness. What the heck is wrong with our country – the (not so) United States of America? What the heck is wrong with our world? How have we grown so far from simple acts of stewardship and care for our earth and neighbor? Why are we stuck arguing over lawful rights versus human rights? You know what makes it feel worse? THIS IS NOTHING NEW. Humans seem to be really good at being awful to each other. You know how I know that? Because in today’s text, Jesus is talking about the same stuff thousands of years ago.

In some ways, this text almost makes sense. I mean, I’m writing this with Halloween only a few days away. Grappling with our present racist-misogynist-socio-economic-political situation seems an apt way to experience a serious House of Horrors. Only this isn’t something we can walk away from with a shuddering laugh, this is our real life.

I can also see this text making sense in another way. Jesus is in the last days of his life, stirring stuff up and preaching truth to power. In context, we would be reading this passage with sunglasses to shade us from the gleam of impending resurrection – Easter is coming. Yeah, we know bad stuff is going to happen, but Easter will too.

However, neither of those reasons really fit for now and they aren’t meant to. This passage is not for Holy Week, but for the first Sunday of Advent. Remember? Advent? The time when we get all excited for Christmas and sparkly decorations and family (maybe) and good food and PRESENTS… and… Oh yeah! Cute baby Jesus is born too.

Wait.

By entering Advent with Jesus who is entering his last days in Jerusalem, we get to sit with his words in a new way. We get to read these words with honest eyes that aren’t shaded by anything other than the crappy stuff happening in our lives that we brought with us as we read the text.

Oh. And maybe that’s the point. The crappy stuff doesn’t change. Humans need a lot of help. But this is when the Son of Man appears. (Jeez. Do you know how many times Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man? Yeah, it’s his favorite way to speak in the first person.) There will be signs… distress… fear and foreboding… No, this isn’t about the so-called “end times.” This is about today. This moment. All is not lost. When we are the most distressed, the kingdom of God draws near.

Jesus speaks to his listeners then as he speaks to us today. Be aware, on guard, expectant. Do not let the shock-and-awe horror show of the 24/7 news cycle weigh us down into the pit of despair where all we can count on is immediate gratification and addictive coping mechanisms. Stand. Stand up and raise your heads with faith in the words of Jesus that will never pass away. Stand firm with faith in the ever-lasting, redemptive love of our Savior who chose to be with us in the worst of times, as a vulnerable, naked, poor baby. Jesus doesn’t promise an escape from the pain, fear, and awfulness of the world. Jesus promises to live through it, with us. We aren’t in this alone. God is with us, Emmanuel.

This is the true challenge of faith. Can we stand to face the injustices and pain of the world? Can we respond with faithfulness, loving God, self, and neighbor as Jesus taught us, rather than freeze in fear?

The secondary challenge of faith is remembering that it does not belong to a single one of us, but to all of us – the Body of Christ. This faith is ours. We are not alone because we stand together, bound by our faith, called by our God to be caretakers of our world and each other. We can cry, we can lament, we can fear. These are our human, God-given emotions. God also gave us the capacity to act in response. So as we cry out, let us stand together and act out the ways Jesus taught us to live.

Here are just two responses to distressful, horrific times. While these may or may not be explicitly about faith, I find that they exemplify the gifts of faith in action. Just as humans are good at being awful to each other, we are even better at lifting each other up.

The first example comes from Michael Moore, written in February of 2017.

This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.

The second example is entitled, “Inscription of Hope” by Z. Randall Stroope. It was based on words found scrawled on a cellar wall by Jews hiding from the Nazis in Cologne, Germany during the second World War. https://youtu.be/GAFzjjFdcYE

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
And I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial there is always a way.
But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter
and to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me saying “hold on my child”
I’ll give you strength
I’ll give you hope
Just stay a little while
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace.

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can find her singing along to Spotify, reading books, listening to books, writing stuff, laughing a lot, walking her dog, cooking with her husband, and loving life in Idaho. If you liked this, you can check out more of her writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com

Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

Reign of Christ(B): Talk Less, Listen More

John 18:33-37

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Coming from a church that does not celebrate the liturgical calendar, I am aware that many Christians may not be aware of the particular festival that is celebrated as Reign of Christ Sunday. Within the liturgical calendar, Reign of Christ Sunday marks the end of Ordinary Time and as well as serving as a prologue to Advent (our preparation and waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas). I believe that knowing the purpose of this particular Sunday provides aid in the interpretation of the scripture appointed for today: John 18:33-37.

In preparing this essay, one part of the interaction between Jesus and Pilate really stood out to me. In the NRSV translation, Jesus answers Pilate’s question, “So you are a king?” with this response:

You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (verse 37)

In a world and culture where the loudest voices seem to get the most air time; where shouting and yelling seem to be the preferred method of getting our point across; where we fail repeatedly to truly hear the person on the other end of the conversation; it seems to me that listening is a skill and practice that we so desperately need to be teaching, learning, and practicing. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to the crowd’s desire to know if he truly is the Messiah by reminding both them and us that Jesus’ “sheep hear [his] voice” (John 10:27).

This particular scripture walks a very fine line between the politics and theology of Jesus, the early church, and first century Rome. The reality of that particular time period is that there was little to no separation between what we would classify theological and political. In many ways, the theology of the time was political and vice versa. It makes sense for Pilate to question Jesus’ status as king in order to understand if Jesus’ “Kingdom” poses a threat to Rome. Jesus points out that his kingdom is not of this world.

I personally interpreted this statement as Jesus claiming that his kingdom was not created in this world. The Common English Bible translates Jesus’ reply to Pilate as, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.” (John 18:36) Many seem to interpret this statement to mean that Jesus’ kingdom is “out there somewhere” and “not here.” In many ways, this type of interpretation keeps us from doing the work of Christ’s church right now and where we are. In the words of one of my favorite Christian musicians, TobyMac, “If you gotta start somewhere, why not here? If you gotta to start sometime, why not now?”[1] The Kingdom of God is both here, now and is always coming and developing into the future.

As I type this essay, Brett Kavanaugh is being questioned concerning the sexual assault allegations that have been brought to light in the midst of his nomination to the Supreme Court. It appears to me that most of our politics have become a yelling match. Each side attempting to scream the loudest in order to have their voice heard. All the while, the voice of those in pain and hurting are rarely heard or even acknowledged. This is concerning as both an American citizen and a human being.

As a pastor, I am more concerned that this type of culture is overflowing into our churches. Many churches are dividing themselves down theological and political lines. Many churches are yelling at the top of their lungs so their voice will be heard. However, I often find myself wondering how many of our churches are listening to the voice of Christ.

I believe Christ is asking us to do a better job at listening to one another. Maybe we should talk (and in most cases, yell) less and listen more. Maybe we should blame less and confess more. Maybe we should listen to the people that we hear every single day less and listen to the people no one hears more. Jesus shares a very powerful parable in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel about the nations being separated as sheep are separated from goats. One side will be blessed because they feed Christ when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, clothes him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison. The scripture continues in verse 37:

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we say you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40 NRSV)

For those that may be preaching on this text and preparing sermons for the Advent celebration to come, I might suggest a similar focus on listening with care, love, and understanding. This Reign of Christ Sunday offers to us the importance of listening to the other (both politically and theologically). As we move into the Advent season, we begin to quiet our minds and prepare for the coming of the light of the world. What better time to begin intentionally practicing the listening skills that our world so desperately needs: skills such as listening, understanding, confessing, loving. Who knows? Maybe in learning to listen people to one another and learning to listen to the people no one else seems to listen to; we can learn to better listen to Christ himself: our Lord and Savior.

[1] TobyMac – City On Our Knees From the album Tonight.

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

 

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving (B): Saying Thank You

Thanksgiving (B): Saying Thank You

Matthew 6:25-33

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

Modern theologians and philosophers The Rolling Stones melodiously gifted their wisdom when they proclaimed, “You can’t always get what you want; but you get what you need.” Consumer culture—especially during the months of November and December—would benefit greatly from setting that song on repeat. We love to spend money on crap we don’t need just to satisfy a desire to impress our neighbors, our peers, and sadly, ourselves. The way we know God loves us is by counting the amount of material possessions we have, right?

Wrong.

In fact, prosperity preachers—while intending to proclaim a positive message (I hope)—do more harm than good to those less fortunate than themselves; AND to those just as fortunate. The message of “If you pray like me, then you shall have a nice house, three cars, and a boat,” tends to lead to despondency rather than hope; feelings of inadequacy instead of acceptance. What does it say to the single mother of three who works two jobs just to keep her children housed, fed, and safe? “Sorry, you must not be praying hard enough; keep trying. Meanwhile, I’m going to continue being God’s favorite; I mean, look at all my stuff!” There seems to be a general sense of self-importance brought about by tying our self-worth to our obtained earthly desires. I am guilty of this more than I like to admit, just as I imagine you might be, too. But the question I have is this: When is enough, enough?

Humanity is driven by desire; desire to be loved, accepted, appreciated and safe. We want—at our base level—to feel a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, we express that desire in flawed human ways, sometimes forgetting that God has more for us than we could ever need if we would only turn around and accept it. C.S. Lewis explains this in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” where he preached,

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.1

Our desires have been co-opted in the name of consumerism, the neo-God of the twenty-first century who only takes and never gives back. What would it look like if we simply reigned in our crazy and accepted the fact that, regardless of income and possession, God loves us equally, regardless of our achievements? Psalm 51 says, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” but I think that we’re more satisfied with praying, “Fill my wallet, O Lord, and I’ll ask you for a raise.” With these desires running rampant and unfulfilled, when do we have time to say ‘thank you’ to God? When do we stop and rest, knowing that we have already received the greatest gift we can be given—the gift of redemption by way of Jesus’ death on the cross? We haven’t expressed our gratitude to God nearly enough, nor could we ever, for that boon.

But at least we could try.

Praise and thanks are the keys to rebooting that desire, as well as the means to understanding our true needs—to ensure that we love creation in good order, and allow the rest to come after. St. Augustine reminds us how to do this, as he writes,

But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.2

Doesn’t this sound like implicit gratitude and praise? By stopping and weighing that which we love, we are also noticing its worth. “Thank you, Lord, for my neighbor, I will love her.” “Thank you, God, for your grace. I will share it with others.” If we can reorder ourselves to notice HOW we love things, then I imagine that the things we love will inevitably change, becoming those which we ought to have sought in the first place.

Preaching thanks and praise can be difficult. I can almost see the eye-rolls and hear the groans of people in my congregation, “Yes, Sean, we KNOW that we’re supposed to say thank you.” But perhaps taking a glance at how we desire will provide a hearing-aid to those who can’t discern the intention behind living a thankful lifestyle. Matthew’s gospel wants us to reorder our yearnings and to lay down our worries; worries that we’re not good enough and that we always have to seek more. The reading also tacitly reminds us to be thankful for that which we already have, and to know that God will always provide what we need. Reminding our folks that they’re starting from a place of that absolute love and care—and asking them to take a look at what they really want—could mitigate some of their anxieties surrounding the upcoming holiday season. And, it might just be the little nudge they need to accept themselves as they are, the Imago Dei, rather than as the world wants them to be.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 1.

2 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, I 27-28.

Fr. Sean Ekberg
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

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