4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

Mark 1:21-28

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.

“Not now,” said Aslan.

Unclean Spirits. New Teachings. Authority. Astonishment. Exorcisms. Amazement. Questions. The Gospel of Mark does not want for sermon topics. As I began to look at this passage, I did something I don’t do very often, but should do more frequently: I read the text in multiple translations. As it turns out, my preaching professors were right, this is actually a great place to begin sermon preparation, because this time the NRSV is hiding something.

Maybe ‘hiding’ is the wrong word, and maybe this will be obvious to everyone else. At the end of the passage, after Jesus has taught with authority and then shown that authority by casting out an unclean spirit, the people are standing around. In the NRSV, “They were all amazed…”  The Common English Bible reads “Everyone was shaken…

What does it mean to be amazed around God? The Greek word is thambeo, and as it turns out, Mark uses it more than any other Gospel—a total of 34 times. Translators give a lot of different translations for this sentiment: astounded, amazed, overcome with awe, overcome with excitement, agitated, stunned, and baffled to name a few. At the end of Mark when the women leave the tomb and tell no one what they have seen, they do so because “terror and thambeo had seized them” (Mk 16:8.) In the garden of Gethsemane before his death Jesus is “distressed and thambeo “ (Mk 14:33.) Thambeo shows up at exorcisms, healings, when Jesus walks on water. The word is paired with distress, fear, terror, and as a response to “strange things.”

Given what Jesus did in his time on Earth, amazement and absolute terror both seem like reasonable responses. Given what God is doing today, it seems that amazement and fear are completely appropriate responses. God is dangerous, and to follow Christ is to enter willingly into that danger with fear and excitement. I think that the Sufi master Hafiz says it best when he writes:

Love is grabbing hold of the great lion’s mane

And wrestling and rolling deep into existence

While the beloved gets rough and begins to maul you alive.

True love, my dear, is putting an ironclad grip

Upon the soft, swollen balls of a divine rogue elephant

And not having the good fortune to die.

Watching the lives of the disciples we see that following Christ causes them to have much to fear as they enter into the unknown. Jesus wasn’t welcome in his own home (MK 6:1-6.) Jesus tells the disciples to feed 5,000 people when they only had five loaves and two fish, which from the disciples perspective means giving up the food they had to fill their own stomachs (Mk 6.) Jesus says that whoever wants to be greatest must become like a little child, and not a famous wealthy religious elitist (MK 9.) On top of all this, Jesus keeps telling the disciples that he is going to die. Following Jesus is a proposition that runs counter to everything the disciples had ever dreamed of (which, as a side note, might be why women and the poor resonated with Christ’s message; it allowed them to dream and gave them a place in the kingdom.)

Following God is exciting, but it does not mean clear and easy sailing. If we suggest that following Christ means anything less than letting the power and authority of Christ rip us apart, we do a disservice to our congregations. The gospel is that God puts us back together again. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly healing, casting out spirits, and leading people into a fuller understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Christianity is not a recipe for success or wealth. Christianity is a path to true joy; joy found in relationship with the Creator. Lucy and Susan were both glad and frightened when they turned around only to find the recently deceased Aslan standing before them in greater glory than they had ever known. The people of Capernaum were amazed and shaken when Jesus taught then with authority by casting out an unclean spirit. We should be amazed and horrified when God calls us.

Be honest with your congregation. The call of Christ is earth shattering and life upending, but it is full of life and love. The call of Christ is the only thing that brings us into the fullness of the kingdom. To follow Christ is to surrender what we want to keep, and gain a wholeness we never knew was possible. To follow Jesus is to grab hold of the lion’s mane, and not have “the good fortune to die,” because this way leads to meaningful living, fulfillment, and to life eternal.

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Together, Jon and Keri have a dog named Hala, two beehives, and chickens. Jonathan was commissioned as a provisional Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2015. He serves two churches in McDowell County, North Carolina. He will be going before the Board of Ordained Ministry the first week of February for his Full Connection and Ordination interviews and would certainly appreciate your prayers.

 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Decentering Ourselves

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Decentering Ourselves

Mark 1:14-20

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

When I was first considering going to seminary and pursuing a life in the ministry, I had several pastors tell me, “If you can do anything else other than ministry and be happy, then do that. But If you can’t, follow that call and go to seminary.” I get their point—they were trying to help me sort out if I was called to this vocation. But at the same time, its not actually about my happiness. Its not about me. Perhaps what would have been better is if they said if you feel your way of living into discipleship is suited anywhere else, do that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone should go into the ministry as a full time vocation. But I am saying that all of us are called into ministry; into discipleship—not because it makes us feel good all the time, but because the world needs us.

As we enter this text, we see that the call that Jesus places on these first disciples is nothing short of a life change. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of People.” These disciples are asked to leave their homes, their families, and their jobs to become a disciple of Jesus. I don’t think he said “if you can do anything else and be happy, do that.”

This passage shows us that following Jesus is a life shift and might mean some sacrificing, because it’s not really about us. It’s about God’s work in the world.

I don’t think that God is necessarily calling all of us to leave our jobs and become monks, pastors, or leave our families. But I do believe that following Jesus will mean a decentering of our own self and a re-centering of Christ and Christ’s work in the world in our lives.

I wonder what this looks like for modern day disciples? I wonder what it looks like for me and for you? As I look around I see that we are living in a time when the kingdom of man is reigning supreme rather than the Kind-om of God. Wealth, power, and the abuse of power seem to dominate our headlines. This is fundamentally at odds for God’s vision for humankind. I wonder what it means for us to toss aside our “nets” and follow Jesus right now. Perhaps it might mean tossing aside our “niceties” and politeness, or our comfort to engage and speak out against injustice. Perhaps it might mean taking the time to recognize when you have places of privilege and to let go of those places of privilege and power to allow others’ voices to be heard. Perhaps it might mean letting go of some of your wealth for the greater good. Perhaps it might mean bucking the system and rocking the boat. One thing is clear: this life we are called to isn’t one of comfort and leisure.

Why then would we choose to follow this Jesus if its so hard? Perhaps like the disciples, we recognize that to be truly and deeply alive spiritually, there is something worth more than wealth or power. That depth of spirit calls to us. It draws us.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer contrasts this costly grace with cheap grace saying, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again…. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”[1]

The reality is that to live fully means seeking after a source for our spirit that will truly fulfill us. As Bonhoeffer says, this life of discipleship is true life, rather than an empty one.  It’s not that having security or comfort or family is bad. It’s a gift and is certainly part of having a full spiritual life. But to pursue the divine, to truly find a full life means decentering our own egos and lower minds and re-centering God in our lives. Then we find fullness.

At times the cost of discipleship might seem high or challenging, and yet, it is a cost we can’t afford NOT to pay if we want to be fully alive. And just as the disciples followed, then stumbled, then followed again, it’s a choice we’ll make not just once but many times in the course of our spiritual journey. Sometimes it’s a mundane choice, perhaps we don’t even think twice. Sometimes it’s a challenging choice. Yet with all relationships, we return again and again, to follow our beloved.

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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] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1st Touchstone Ed ed., New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1995, P 45.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Come and See!

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Come and See!

John 1:43–51

By: Charles Lane Cowen

News travels quickly. In our world where my iPhone gives me a push notification from The New York Times every time something newsworthy happens, this seems even more true. but even outside the world of the 24-hour news cycle, news travels quickly. If you’ve ever worked in an office on a day when someone brings cupcakes and leaves them in the break room, you know what I’m talking about. News travels quickly, and good news travels faster.

The Gospel of John from start to finish calls us to hear, believe, and share the Good News of Christ. John affirms this in writing that his Gospel was “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31.) John’s poetic and memorable prologue, which we heard on the first Sunday of Christmas, uses beauty and imagery to call us into the Good News of Jesus, and today’s lesson uses the witness of the Apostles to pull us in.

If we read back a bit before today’s appointed lesson, we see a pattern emerging which begins with John the Baptist. Upon seeing Jesus, John cries out, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36.) Andrew and an unnamed disciple follow—literally follow, as in walk after—Jesus, who invites them to “Come and see” (1:39.) Upon seeing, Andrew runs to his brother Simon and proclaims, “We have found the Messiah” (1:45.) Peter, whose interest has been piqued by his brother, then goes to meet Jesus and receives a new name.

Then we come to today’s lesson, where we see a similar pattern. This time Jesus initiates by saying to Philip, “Follow me” (1:43.) Philip shares the Good News with Nathanael saying, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”—in other words, the Messiah. When Nathanael balks, Philip offers the same invitation Jesus gave to Andrew and the unnamed disciple: “Come and see.” Finally, Jesus furthers this invitation into the future by giving Nathanael a vision of what “you will see.”

To put this retelling into a visual form, notice the patterns, parallels, and movements when we lay these verses out:

Look, here is the Lamb of God

Come and see

We have found the Messiah

Follow me

We have found [the Messiah]

Come and see

You will see

From John the Baptist’s initial invitation to “look,” multiple people are invited to look, see, proclaim, and invite. This pattern of Good News spreading—of gospelling—leads not only to naming the truth of Jesus’ messiahship, but leads to a revelation from Jesus of angels bridging the gap between heaven and earth (1:51). Look! You will see!

This is amazing to me! Just by stating the plain truth revealed to him, John the Baptist set in motion events that transcend not only his own lifetime but the physical realms of heaven and earth! Just as my running from the breakroom shouting “Yahoo!!!” from my pink-icing- covered lips and leaving a trail of cakey crumbs offers a foretaste of the free desserts left for all, John’s proclamation leads people, even skeptics like Nathanael, to the Messiah who gives life to all.

“Where did you get those cupcakes?” a co-worker might ask.

“Walmart,” I reply.

“Can anything good come from Walmart?”

Clearly, my co-worker has not tried one of the cupcakes. I don’t mean to diminish Jesus’ messianic salvation of the world to a mere big-box store cupcake, but the sugar fiend in me sees the parallels in the metaphor.

Turning back to the story in John, I find it fascinating that of the two disciples who respond to John the Baptist’s proclamation, only Andrew is named. Likewise, although Nathanael has a rather fleshed-out character in this gospel, in the Synoptics, Nathanael is never mentioned. While some scholars suggest that the Nathanael in John’s Gospel is the same as Bartholomew in the Synoptics, there is nothing in the text itself to suggest that. In my thinking, the anonymity of Nathanael and, even more so, the anonymity of the disciple who went with Andrew tells us something about the role of discipleship.

As a former actor, I, to quote Lady Gaga, “live for the applause, applause, applause.” The disciples, however, once they have brought others to Jesus, tend to fade away as Jesus becomes the focus. Sandra Schneiders notes in her commentary on John that “there are no ‘second generation disciples’ in John, because all are bound to Jesus by his own word.”[1] While one might read this to mean that those who brought others to Jesus no longer matter nor need accolades because Jesus’ love outshines them, I think there’s actually something bigger going on.

Perhaps more than any body of literature in the Bible, the Johannine corpus speaks to the notion of community. While we refer to the author of the Gospel as John, we also know that the Gospel comes from the witness of the entire community. Schneiders even argues in her book that the Beloved Disciple may not have a distinct identity because the reader should see herself in that role.[2] In other words, each of us is beloved of Jesus because Jesus knows us and we know him. The apostolic witness of those like the unnamed disciple and Nathanael, of whom we know very little, are not lost in the shadow of Jesus, but, rather, they are consumed in the light of Christ. Our very identity in Jesus changes our own identity as one of the bearer of the light of Christ. Simon is no longer Simon, but Peter. We are no longer our individual selves, but the beloved community of Christ.

Remembering the light of Christ which came into the world at Christmas and was revealed to the nations at Epiphany, I wonder how we will continue in the footsteps of the apostles.

Look!

Here is the Lamb of God!

Come and see!

We have found the Messiah!

Follow me!

We have found the Messiah!

Come and see!

You will see!

 

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Charles Lane Cowen

Charles Lane Cowen is a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island and a senior M.Div. student at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Prior to going to seminary, Charles spent a decade as a professional actor, director, storyteller, and puppeteer. He has performed with the Texas and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals and was formerly Associate Director of the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island.

 

 

 

 

[1]Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Revised Edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 143.

[2]Ibid., 239.

Baptism of Our Lord: Who am I?

Baptism of Our Lord: Who am I?

Mark 1:4-11

By: The Rev. David Henson

A few years back, as I was blearily returning from dropping my kids off at school one morning, a story came on the radio about new DNA tests that help people trace their roots and genealogy with surprising accuracy.

The story was mildly interesting, but then as the reporter Eric Weiner was preparing to send his test off, he said something so profound he nearly caused me to run a red light in my minivan.

“Hopefully in the next few weeks,” he said, off-handedly, “I’ll find out who I am and where I came from.”

And in that one sentence, Weiner distilled the internal quest of humanity: The question of identity; of discovering who we really are and who we really aren’t; the search to “know thyself” as Plato famously put it. But whether we are adolescents discovering autonomy for the first time, hovering in middle-age and asking if this is all there is, or nearing our end and wondering if we’ve done all we could and all we should, the question is always basically the same:

“Who am I?”

“How in the world did I get here, in this particular moment in time, in this particular place, with these particular wrinkles anxiously gathering at the corners of my eyes, with this particular set of passions and this particular hidden cache of flaws?”

“Is this really who I am?”

The capacity for self-conscious introspection, some argue, is exactly what makes us human. One of the ways humans have answered this question throughout history is by mapping our family trees, tracing our grandparents and ancestors, hoping to find an answer to the question of ourselves, creating meaning from fragments of our heritage. In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass talks about looking into her own genealogy and how religions around the world understand the fundamental spirituality of exploring our roots.

Even if we aren’t mapping our family trees, and even if we’re not members of Ancestry.com, we all do this in small ways without thinking. We take our children to our own childhood homes, our parents tell stories about what it was like when they were young, and then, over the holidays as families gather, we find ourselves retelling these old stories of who we are, and at times and often at the most inopportune moments, we find ourselves either reverting to our childhood roles in our families or even turning into our mothers and fathers.

And isn’t this what we do as Christians, too, when we gather on holy days like today, around this table, and retell the stories of Jesus, when we look back at our traditions and the communion of saints for guidance and inspiration, when we reaffirm and remind ourselves of our baptismal vows and identity?

Of course, this isn’t always an easy nostalgic look at the past, either. For some of us, this can be perilous and painful, as our pasts can be haunted by ghosts and marked by landmines. Like when one of the people featured in the NPR story discovered an ancestor had murdered another person — and a descendent of that victim of the crime, through the same genealogy program, actually contacted her to demand an explanation for her ancestor’s actions. Or as when actor Ben Affleck was recently featured on the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” discovered that his family had a history not only of social justice but also of grave injustice. His mother was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights Movement and his great-great-great grandfather owned 7 slaves.

And perhaps we shouldn’t even begin to look at the checkered history of Christianity itself with its holy generosity and compassion and its rather unholy participation in wars and exploitation.

If our individual, family, and religious histories tell us anything, it is that we are a mixed bag of proud accomplishments and actions we’d rather no one know about. And if we see ourselves only in the context of our families and our histories, it can feel confining and limiting. But of course we know that’s not all there is to us. The past, while feeding our present, doesn’t completely determine our future.

Regardless of our stage in life, we still have our own growing and our own flourishing to do, our own flowers to put forth in the world, our own seeds and legacy to send out to continue the story.

And I think that’s the beauty of Jesus’ baptismal story. It is fundamentally a story of identity. When Jesus is baptized, God tears open the heavens and declares Jesus’ true nature — as the Beloved Son. But that true identity doesn’t negate everything else about him. The author of Mark roots Jesus not just in his eternal identity but in his earthly one as well. Scholar Ched Meyers explains that Mark roots Jesus in a genealogy not of mamas and daddies like Matthew and Luke, but in a prophetic genealogy of John and the prophets of old, firmly rooting Jesus in the Jewish tradition.

Mark, of course, is trying to establish Jesus’ credibility and his historical and religious lineage, but to me, it speaks deeply to our identity as Christians and as humans; as citizens of God’s kingdom and of our everyday earthly realm of fathers and sons; mothers and daughters, where we are born not just of our parents, but of our traditions, cultures, and relationships as well, with all the everyday conflict and joy that being from somewhere and someone brings.

Jesus belongs to humanity. And Jesus belongs to God. Both are integral to his identity and his work that he begins. They are inextricably linked, undivided and whole. His identity is built from the ground up and from the heavens down.

 

And so it is with us. In our baptism, God declares who we truly are — our true identity as beloved offspring of God like Jesus our Brother. But in our baptism, we, like Jesus, don’t stop being who we are or get to ignore the history that inevitably and fundamentally shapes us to this moment. Jesus is still the son of Mary and Joseph, still the inheritor of John’s prophetic lineage, still born in Palestine, in poverty in the first century. He’s still from somewhere and from someone.

We bring all that with us — all of our humanity, all of the ways in which our families of origin and experiences have made us who we are. In other words, as Christians, our identities can’t be centered purely in introspection and individualism. They must also be rooted in our communities and contexts as well. To know ourselves, we have to know each other as well. My Belovedness has everything to do with your Belovedness as well.

Being named as God’s beloved isn’t just one thing about us given in isolation as individuals. It’s includes all those things about us and all of us together.

And that’s why I love that baptism is fundamentally about water.

Because water is not one thing either and it’s not something easily separated into individual molecules. But like our identity as God’s own, it is eternal and interconnected with all life on earth. It is eternal not because it is static and constant, but because it is dynamic and ever-changing and transforming. We aren’t making new water. Every drop of water here has always existed as water in some form of another; it is intertwined and imprinted with the entire history of humanity and the Earth itself.

The water we baptize with is both ancient and new. The water that runs clean from our tap descends from the murky water in which the first life was incubated. The water that Jesus was baptized in, that was transformed into wine, that flowed from his side in crucifixion is the ancestor of the same water we have today. Over the centuries, it has been transformed, scattered, polluted, cleaned, restored and destroyed. It is the snow and the ice, the rain and the mist, vapor and steam, the devastating flood and the relief from drought.

As baptismal fonts are filled around the world today to baptize, each basin carries with it the entire history of the world and is incubating its whole future. It carries with it the history of the faith and the hope of its future.

Like those who are baptized today, that water, blessed and released into the world, will change and transform over time. As it has for all of history, that water and those baptized in it will shape the Earth, its climate, and its inhabitants. Like our faith, some days that water might be cold and hard as ice, as delicate and fleeting as snow. Others it might be so hot it all but evaporates into thin air. Most times, if we’re honest, it might well be just this side of lukewarm.

It is the perfect symbol of our life of faith. Because it is honest.

And I believe that at least a part of it will one day return to another baptismal font where another generation will be dipped as God’s beloved and marked as Christ’s own forever. And the story will go on and on.

This baptism and water are our genealogies, recalling our expansive history and directing us into the future. That’s what it is to reaffirm our baptismal vows. It reminds us where we came from, of our fundamental identity, but it refuses to be static. It demands that we move. It demands that we act. It demands a faith that is in motion, ever-changing, ever-transforming, ever being born anew, in a cycle of life, death, and resurrection.

So today, as God’s beloved, let us renew our baptismal vows, recalling who we were, who we are, and who we are called to be.

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The Rev. David Henson

The Rev. David Henson is a priest in the Episcopal Church. The father of two boys and the husband of a medical resident, he lives in Western North Carolina and is perpetually behind on the laundry and lawn mowing. While he has a couple of degrees to his name, it is more important to know that he once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Which is pretty accurate metaphor for his entire life.

Epiphany: Overwhelmed by Joy

Epiphany: Overwhelmed by Joy

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

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(Image with reuse allowed: https://pixabay.com/photo-160632/)

I love the Epiphany story; it is the tale of two seekers.

Wait a minute, did I just say two seekers? I thought there were three wise men?! I know Three is One and One is Three and whatever, but Christians can’t be that bad at math.

Most Christians aren’t bad at math (my personal failings notwithstanding.) The Epiphany story has two sets of seekers: King Herod on one side, and the Magi (or wise men) on the other. They each sought the star and the king that basked in that miraculous heavenly glow. But the motivations for each were wildly different.

In verse 3, King Herod’s motivation for seeking is made plain: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi come, proclaim a wondrous miracle, and the King responds to the knowledge as though they issued a threat. Not only that, but his fear makes all of Jerusalem—all those over whom he has authority—afraid.  In verse 7 he calls a secret meeting of his advisors and schemes. In verse 8 he sends the Magi on their way, declaring that he too wants to pay homage to the child.

But we know this story.

We know that in Matthew 2:16, Herod kills all the boy children in the region in order to secure his throne. He responds to the mystery of the star with fear, scheming, and eventually rage. He understands the star as a threat to his power and control, and so he misses the very miracle of God in his midst.

The Magi seek differently. They are kings or scholars from the East; from a land and a people beyond Israel and beyond the Jewish religion. They are astrologers who use their education and their resources to fund a quest to follow the miraculous star to Bethlehem. They are men of means. They offer gold, frankincense and myrrh—which were the gold, platinum, and diamonds of their day—without expectation of a blessing in return. And yet, they seek not out of a need to control, but out of a sense of joy. In verse 10 the text reads: “When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Overwhelmed with joy.

What a radically different response to God’s miracle in the world! The Magi were not afraid of God’s awesome power, or of the kingship prophesied about the child. They were not threatened or made insecure in their earthly wealth or authority. They were seekers who sought for the pleasure of the seeking and were rewarded with abundant, overflowing joy.

There is much that can be made of the two responses to the miracle and mystery of the star. Do we fear God’s miracles or delight in them? Are we comfortable with the destabilizing effect of mystery, or do we seek to control it? Is God’s power a threat to our earthly power? Do we seek Jesus for power or control, or do we seek out of the sheer delight of finding him and knowing him? Do we seek and pay homage without expectation of a blessing or a reward?

St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century theologian, coined the phrase “fides quaerens intellectumor faith seeking understanding. The Magi are a perfect illustration of this concept. They have faith that the star is a miracle and that they will find a king—a holy person—at the end of it. They don’t understand how or why the star arrived. They don’t scheme or seek to control the star, the child king, or the miracle. They have faith, and they go in search of understanding.

Their foil is King Herod. He has faith—faith that the prophecies are in fact true and the star is a clear sign they are set in motion. But he doesn’t seek understanding, instead he seeks control. He allows fear to hold him, closing his vision until all he can seek is a way out, instead of an expansive revelation. Herod is left in fear—fear that grows to paranoia and then to violent rage. The Magi, on the other hand, find a sense of wonder, of awe at the sight of baby Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy.

Do we have faith that seeks understanding? In a world of uncertainty, are we responding with fear and the need to control, or are we responding with expansive curiosity and wonder? Do we live with fear or do we allow the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us, to overwhelm us with joy?

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.

Last Epiphany: Don’t Go Chasing Mountain Tops!

Last Epiphany: Don’t Go Chasing Mountain Tops

Matthew 17: 1-9

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

I am a university chaplain, and in my line of work, I get the special opportunity to act as a spiritual companion for young adults. Many of these young adults are Christians seeking a deeper understanding of their faith. They tell me of experiences of the closeness of God, or of the nearness of Jesus. They have spiritual highs after coming back to school from a summer at a Christian camp, or after a weekend retreat. They speak of the overwhelming feeling of God’s presence during Christian concerts, or in special fellowships. But they despair when that high fades and they are left back where they started, struggling to hold on to the nearness of God in the midst of a busy college life.

 

We call these highs “mountain top” experiences—moments when we are pulled out of ordinary life and transfigured in faith. Many of us have had them—I have, while riding along on a busy and winding mountain road in Guatemala. I felt as though I was an empty cup being filled by God’s warm grace. It was so powerful I have held onto that moment when doubts or stress creep in.

 

In the reading for today, Peter and James went to the mountain top with Jesus and had an experience of God. They saw Jesus physically transfigured before them, but the effect was to convert their own faith. Transfigure means to convert or alter, often (but not always) in order to glorify. Our mountain top experiences alter us toward deeper relationship with God—one that allows us to have a change of heart to glorify God.

 

But we can’t live on the mountain. This is a hard truth my students have to face. They can’t stay forever at summer camp or on retreat—just as I couldn’t make the bus stop so I could settle into life on the side of the road in Guatemala. We can’t build dwellings and stay. We must take that experience down into the world. In verse 7, Jesus tells Peter and James, “Get up and do not be afraid.” There is much to fear with a mountain top experience. What does it mean to have such an intense experience of Christ? What does it mean to hear God speak a word of faith? And, what does all of it mean for your life off the mountain?

 

It’s easy to become a person who seeks to stay on the mountain. We can chase the emotional high of the mountain top experience of closeness and assurance of God. We can count only the moments when we feel God’s awesome presence and discount all the quiet moments of service, of faithful reflection, or of deep contemplation. But that is not what God desires of us. God does not desire us to build dwellings, to honor that mountain top as sacred and stay there, trapped by our wonder and awe. God desires that we go down the mountain and into the world. God desires that we are transformed—transfigured—by our experience, and that we share it with all of God’s people.
Jesus led James and Peter back down the mountain and into the waiting crowds. We don’t know how long the “high” of the experience lasted. We don’t know exactly how their prayer life was changed when they came back to the valley. But we do know they didn’t chase the mountain top. Instead they shared their faith and love with the world. We too must not chase the mountain top; we too must share the grace of the experience with the world around us.

 

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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.

7th Sunday after Epiphany: WWJD?

7th Sunday after Epiphany: WWJD?

Matthew 5:38-48

By: Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

Alright, Millennial pastors, I’m talking to you for a minute. Do you remember those cool bracelets we used to wear that said “WWJD?” They came in so many colors that many Christians collected them. There was also an ongoing debate over which way the imposing question was to face on one’s wrist. Did you face it so that you were asking yourself every day “What Would Jesus Do?” or was it meant to be an evangelical tool to ask others that saw it to consider their own actions in light of what Jesus would do. While I remember this treasure of evangelical culture, I have fewer memories of what it meant to actually discern what Jesus would do in each moment. That part was much more difficult. After all, my biggest life stressors were school, love, parents, and part-time sandwich shop work—and the Bible didn’t talk about my specific problems as much as I wished at the time it would have.

Matthew 5 is a glimpse though, of what Jesus would do. The problem is that for readers in the 21st century, it’s still not very clear what Jesus would have us do. In fact, it kind of seems like Jesus wouldn’t do anything at all. It seems like Jesus would let a person slap him twice instead of just once and wind up naked when someone takes his clothes. This seeming inaction by Jesus sets some Christians on edge. Those who argue against pacifism say that we can’t afford to just sit back and take it like Jesus would. In that case, WWJD is understood as naive idealism that does not actually have a word for us in the 21st century amidst higher tech and more efficient forms of violence and oppression.

The historical context of Jesus’s response to violence, however, paints a different picture. Scholars suggest that for someone to slap another on the right cheek, it would have likely been a backhanded slap reserved for people considered to be of lower status. So when Jesus challenges his audience to turn the other cheek, he is encouraging a subversive act that equalizes the status of the two people. Giving a person who took a coat a person’s cloak, too, would likely embarrass the person who took the coat because without a cloak, the subversive act is standing nearly naked in a culture in which modesty is important. Walking an extra mile breaks the rule that Roman soldiers had which limited their ability to demand someone carry their pack to a single mile. So the early edicts of this passage are not about inaction at all, but instead, Jesus is modeling strategic resistance to oppression that demands action.

During the second part of this passage, Jesus continues to push his audience by admitting the revolutionary nature of these demands. Here, Jesus ensures that his message is political, meaning more than the self, and not just personal. He doesn’t suggest simply that if your brother punches you in the leg, you self-righteously give him your other leg to punch, knowing that in the end you both are on the same team anyway. It is easy, after all, to love those that you’re already in community with. Jesus explicitly explains that his challenge is not limited to the realm of family and friends, but that it includes enemies and those we do not want to have a connection with. This is what makes it political—its import in social relationships.

While Jesus’s specific advice does not easily translate to 21st century living, his call to act strategically and intentionally does. His model of culturally-informed direct action has influenced Christian social justice leaders and continues to inspire those who seek social justice today. Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Denver’s young chapter of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network for faith and community organizations that seek to come together to collect political power that is broad-based rather than issue-specific. The IAF model asserts that the power created by institutions working together in a community is far greater and fuller of lasting potential than groups of individuals that gather for the purpose of simply addressing one single issue, as in the latter case, the group would likely disband after its objectives were met. There is a clear privileging of the belief that what people and groups do together for the long run is better than what they can do in isolation at singular moments. This group has prioritized strategy over emotion, committing together to collect power and use it to transform injustice and oppression.

When I consider the second half of Matthew 5 in light of my participation with IAF, I see a call for smart, strategic action in the face of injustice. I see a vision of Jesus that calls me to live like this not just in my interpersonal relationships, but in my engagement with my so-called enemies, or in my current context, those that hold power on the national and global stage that are threatening the lives, security, and well-being of marginalized folks.

I also see a vision that seems too difficult to manage on my own. Even though Jesus points out that even the tax collectors love those who love them, it’s not always easy to love our friends and family. So when Jesus insists that we also love our enemies, this burden seems too much. It is almost salt in the wound that Jesus ends his call with, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I know I cannot be perfect. Yet perhaps Jesus isn’t simply ending his call with a shaming tactic, but with an encouragement that the hard work his challenge takes is worth it. We are actually called to live differently than the world around us because we are called to live as God would. WWJD?

 

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Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram has a PhD from Iliff School of Theology and is approved for ordination pending call in the United Church of Christ. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado, where she is an adjunct faculty member at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.