5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Saying “Yes!”

Luke 5:1-11

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

This story, and its parallel versions in Mathew and Mark, is a familiar one for many of us who have grown up in or around the church. The readily available imagery of fishing and catching lends itself nicely to children’s stories and Vacation Bible School themes. For me, growing up in an evangelical setting this story was often used a charge to go out and “save souls,” or convert people to Christianity. While there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to share something meaningful with others around you, to reduce the mission of Christ to focusing on individuals misses out on the transformation of the world and ultimately falls short of the fullness of Christ’s mission.

This story is about the calling of the first disciples not only to become followers of Jesus, but to be able to continue to carry out his mission of bringing about the Kin-dom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. As Arland J. Hultgren says, “Jesus has come into the world to reveal God and to redeem the cosmos. But he is known to us only through the witness of his apostles.” It is fitting then, he says, that the church read this story during the season after Epiphany—a time when we celebrate the manifestation of God in Christ and in turn contemplate our involvement in his mission in the world.”[1] Christ, the manifestation of God’s love and justice among us, has come to bring about the kin-dom of God’s peace and justice on earth as it is in heaven and show us the way of this work. In this way, the calling of the disciples is less about saving individual souls and more about building a movement to continue to build the kin-dom of God.

When I worked in faith-based political organizing, we spent a great deal of time talking about and working on “building the movement.” To create change, to bring about a more just society, we needed people to understand and believe in the cause we were working on, and then we needed them to also go tell their friends. In a way, it sounds almost like those “pyramid schemes” we hear about—I go recruit 5 people, who in turn do the same. Yet the reality is, this is how change happens on a larger scale. This is how we share the ways of peace and justice: by casting out our nets and catching people. Building a movement; a movement that builds God’s kin-dom of God on earth, takes ordinary everyday people deciding to get up and follow Jesus in his way of justice and peace, and to bring in others with them.

While Jesus is the main character, this passage is just as much about Simon and the others as they recognize Christ as a manifestation of God and make the choice to follow him in God’s mission. Like other call stories in the Bible, we first see hesitation from Simon. He is hesitant to let down the nets, but does as he is asked, calling Jesus “master.” However, as they haul in an abundance of fish, a miraculous portion, Simon recognizes that this man is more than a teacher. Here, his language shifts—calling Christ “Lord” as he falls to his knees in awe. Still resistant, this time from a sense of unworthiness, but as Christ calls to him to follow, he does. I imagine as he recognizes Christ’s nature he is compelled to follow, even as daunting as it might seem.

The call to be a disciple of Jesus is no less “all in” for believers today than it was for Simon and the first disciples. Certainly, the circumstances have changed, but the call is the same: to go forth and further the mission of God’s kin-dom on earth, catching people and building the movement. I imagine that for many of us, the call feels daunting. Maybe we too are hesitant and feel unworthy. Maybe sometimes the task feels too big. And yet, when we catch a glimpse of Christ among us, recognizing God in the midst of our lives, we are reminded that we are not alone in this journey. Rather, we are compelled to follow and empowered by Christ with us. Like those first disciples, Christ is at work in and among our everyday ordinary lives and among ordinary people. We need not have all the answers or have It all together.  Rather, all that is required is simply to say “yes” and follow.

As you sit with this text and what it says to our communities of faith, perhaps it’s worth asking where it is we see the movements of Christ among us, cultivating God’s Kin-dom on earth? Where is it that Christ is calling us to join into that movement and how is it that we might continue to call others into this movement with us? Maybe these questions don’t yet have clear answers. We need not know it all, we simply must be willing to say “Yes” and join in the movement.

[1] Hultgren, Arland J. (2010, February 7). Commentary on Luke 5:1-11. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=506

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The Rev. Kim Sorrells

The Rev. Kim Sorrells is an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, with an interest in Spiritual Practices and Justice work. Kim is also bi-vocational and spends their “day job” working for Atlanta Pride as the Programs and Partnerships Manager.

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

4th Sunday after Epiphany: How Not to Deliver Your First Sermon

Luke 4:21-30

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

 

In June of 2017, at the age of 27, I was commissioned as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. As it goes in the Methodist itinerant system, I was then appointed to a church. The church to which I was appointed (as associate pastor) happens to be a church that my father pastored and that my family attended from 1994-2001. You can imagine the mixture of feelings I had about that appointment, but most of all, I was elated to be given the opportunity to go home and minister to a congregation that had a hand in raising me.

My first Sunday there, I recognized so many faces. So many of the people in the congregation that morning had an enormous impact on my faith at an early age. A great deal of the sermon I preached that morning looked at the simplicity of the task Christ has given us. At the end of the sermon, I focused on thanking Northbrook for loving me at an early age and into my teens, and for showing me what it looked like to be a part of a loving, gracious community that loves people and most of all Jesus.

I am now halfway through my second year at this church. To serve a community that was so instrumental in my growth as a person and believer has been a joy. The honeymoon continues to this day, and I hope it never ends.

Our Scripture, Luke 4:21-30, finds Jesus in a similar situation. However, his honeymoon ends quickly. Jesus has come home to Nazareth; to his home-synagogue, and he is surrounded by people that raised him in both stature and faith. He preaches his first sermon, and Luke tells us that after claiming to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah, the congregation is impressed and even proud, looking at one another and saying, “That’s Joseph’s son isn’t it?”

Unfortunately, the pride is short-lived. At this point, our parallel stories of preaching to our hometown crowds diverge as Jesus essentially tells them that the prophecy which he has fulfilled today—that he will be the one “…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind,” and freedom to the oppressed—does not have a whole lot to do with them (4:18-19). In fact, it has a great deal more to do with the Gentiles and, using examples from 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5, Jesus demonstrates that, historically, this has been a long time coming.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel (the Acts of the Apostles) paint a portrait of Jesus that cares for the underprivileged, the sick, blind, lame, widows, the poor, AND the Gentiles. Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews. Jesus is the Savior of humanity! The Gospel of Luke inaugurates Jesus as the Savior of Jews AND Gentiles, and the Acts of the Apostles shows that same good news going viral, into all the world, to everyone!

Just 2 chapters before this, Simeon takes baby Jesus into his arms and proclaims that this child is indeed both a light for the Jews AND the Gentiles. Afterwards, he looks at Mary and acknowledges that this child will also be the cause of much division and heartache. And in Luke 4, we see the first fruits of that division. The message of salvation, of God’s grace for ALL is a hard truth to swallow, specifically for the insiders. The evidence? Jesus’ own home synagogue tries to kill him for such a message!

Nevertheless, Jesus’ message to the Gentiles and to the marginalized and to the world is so important that he has to begin his ministry with this universal message. His first sermon cannot leave it out. It has to be in the forefront.

As you ponder this passage, think about a few things:

  • What is something that, if preached, would cause your congregation to lose their minds in intense anger?
  • Who are the people your congregation intentionally or unintentionally leaves out? Why?
  • Why is an inclusive message so difficult for some to grasp?

Jesus has called us to preach hard truths; to reach out to those on the outside. That may very well cause division. May God be with you as you carry the inclusive and difficult message of Jesus. May God be with you when you bring the Gospel to those you know and those you don’t know, your hometown and out-of-town crowds. May God move you in the direction of spiritual growth. And may you always look to Jesus Christ, who continually shows us what it means to be human, what it means to be a disciple, and what is means to love.

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

3rd Sunday after Epiphany: Is God With Us?

Luke 4:14-21

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

Too often we sanitize Jesus’ ministry and today’s reading is one of the ways that we as preachers get ourselves stuck sanitizing or sanding down rough scriptural edges for our congregations. If we limit ourselves only to these eight verses, we miss the power and danger of the Holy Spirit.

Look at where this text sits. Jesus has been baptized (the gospel lesson from Baptism of our Lord), driven out into the wilderness (a text we won’t read ‘til Lent 1), and come back filled with the power of the Spirit. He begins to teach in the synagogue and was “praised by everyone.” He is handed the Scroll of Isaiah and begins to read Isaiah 4:17. He concludes, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone is amazed, and if we leave it there, the Holy Spirit works and everyone is #bff #blessed.

The problem is, that’s not the Jesus we get. He comes out of the desert after being tempted and gets right to work. Luke doesn’t tell us how long it is before Jesus arrives in Nazareth, but the gospel relates the events in near Markan breathlessness. Jesus goes from the desert to the synagogue fast. So here is a dusty, emaciated, threadbare son of a local craftsman showing up to read from the prophet Isaiah about how God is going to look out for the poor, oppressed, captive, and blind. The people might have just been amazed and praised Jesus because they were surprised he was standing, let alone reading scripture.

As preachers we have to be honest about the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a safe Spirit. The Spirit is poured out on Jesus in baptism and then DRIVES HIM INTO THE WILDERNESS TO BE TEMPTED BY THE DEVIL. The Spirit sees Jesus through the wilderness, and Jesus returns filled with the power of the Spirit. Jesus takes this power and preaches, and people are amazed and praise him. Until after v 21, when Jesus interprets some more scripture, AND THE PEOPLE RUN HIM OUT OF TOWN. The Holy Spirit should come with a disclaimer.

Now the thing about Spirit-filled ministry is that Jesus is doing it when they are praising him, and he is doing it when he is being run out of town (or driven into the wilderness). It is neither good nor bad, safe nor dangerous. The Spirit will lead where the Spirit needs and wants to lead.

So, how do we break this down for our congregations? What metric can we use to ensure we are doing the work of the Holy Spirit? What compass is there? Sometimes we are run out of town for not doing the work of the Spirit, and sometimes we are run out for being offensive insensitive jerks. Sometimes we are accepted by communities because we are accommodating, uncritical, and unchallenging and sometimes we are accepted because we speak of the hope and promise of Jesus Christ.

“The Great Thanksgiving for Advent” quotes the Magnificat saying, “You fill the hungry with good things, and the rich you send away empty.” Every Advent I am surprised, thrilled, and scared of these words as I stand at the Table and offer them to God and the congregation. Mary speaks to our fears nicely. We want for God to choose us, and over and over again God sides with the oppressed, the poor, the captive, the hurting, and the lost.

This is a terrifying word because it means that God may not choose us. It is scary that the good news might be for someone else and not for me, us, or you. We spend so much time in Christmas parsing the meaning of the incarnation. The Word became Flesh and dwells among usLove came down at Christmas….To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord… Glory to the newborn king, God and Sinners reconciled… veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. In the season of Christmas and Epiphany we move beyond the reality of the incarnation and dig into the “why” of incarnation. Why did Christ come in flesh? To save us from sin certainly, but also to speak into the reality of the world. To speak the words of the prophets in favor of the poor, oppressed, captive, and the hurting.

The metric we then use to determine if we are doing the work of God is “Am I where God is?” Are we with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, and the thirsty? Are we with God and God’s people when no one else is, when no one else wants to be, when everyone else tells us not to be? Maybe (as hard as this might be for us to stomach as Americans), God isn’t with us. Maybe God is with the people Jesus reads about in Isaiah.

If we as the Church are to claim the authority to act as the Body of Christ, we must be with Christ. Where can your congregation be with Christ in your community? Who can you be with that Christ is “bringing good news” “release” and “freedom” to? God is with us. God is with you. Christ cleanses us of our sin, offers us transformation, righteousness, and holiness. Can we fully grasp that holiness if we stand apart from the favored ones of God?

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord (& Child)

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. Jon and Keri welcomed their first child in July 2018, they also have a dog and some bees. Jonathan is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church and serves Yadkinville United Methodist Church in Yadkinville, North Carolina.

Epiphany 2(C): The Turn

Epiphany 2(C): The Turn

John 2:1-11

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like the one contained in these eleven verses the best.

Sure, there’s Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons and decrying the abuse of the poor. There’s Jesus the good shepherd and Jesus the smartass. There’s Jesus the gentle, cradling children in his arms, and there’s Jesus the wild and political, flipping over table after table in the temple and making an actual whip out of cords (that Jesus will show up about three verses after this text is over, actually).

I must say, however, that my absolute favorite Jesus is the Jesus of John 2:1-11. He’s the one who gets nagged by his mom then saves the party immediately before he turns the party. The Jesus of John 2 is like a good best friend; I love and relate to him and I remain a little in awe of him, even after all these years. (It helps that he always shows up at just the right time with the good wine.)

Times were hard in first-century Israel. Rome had them conquered and suppressed. Jewish folks like Jesus and the other wedding guests often feared for their lives. They lived with a powerful foreign power as an occupying force. They lived as a minority. Those who had power were very different than they were, and they often found themselves on the wrong side of the use of force.

As always, however, life went on in the first century as life tends to do; people were born, people died, people got married and sometimes people even fell in love. But times were hard. The text doesn’t tell us why the hosts of this wedding ran out of wine. Maybe they were poor, maybe the harvest was bad that year, or maybe they were just bad planners. The Fourth Gospel doesn’t think that’s an important detail. The point is, they ran out of wine. And Jesus’ mom, a guest at the wedding with her son, the Son of Man, noticed.

She whispers to him across the table. It would seem that she knows that he can do something. With a good dose of motherly cajoling including Jesus never actually agreeing, water is turned into wine, and not just any wine: good wine, and a lot of it.

Arguably the best part: in the story, only the servants, Jesus, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ disciples ever knew what happened. It’s the hosts of the wedding that get the compliments for bringing out the good wine. As readers of the Fourth Gospel, we are privy to knowledge that characters in the story aren’t; specifically, that Jesus kept the party going. What’s more, this is the first time that John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ disciples “believed in him” (v. 11). Jesus turns the party, and they believe.

These days, most of us are feeling tired.

The news moves at a pace that even professionals have a hard time keeping up with. Many of us worry about the state of the nation and the state of the world, as things seem increasingly unstable and most preachers feel compelled to comment on news that moves faster than they do. We constantly find ourselves struggling to find the words to say after another shooting and more violence and more deportations and assassinations and nuclear threats and tear gas and terrorists and the effects of climate change and infinite public petty arguments. Most of us, I think, find ourselves torn between being blatantly partisan because we’re just done and the other extreme of flying to the safety and cowardice of “both sides-ism.”

What’s more, during the season of Epiphany, those living in climates where it snows will, at times, find the weather hard to bear. Many, many more live under conditions so difficult that the weather is the least of their worries.

In the midst of all of it, this text finds us, in the middle of January during yet another year in furious America and in a furious world. This is where Jesus shows up and brings the good wine. The task of the preacher is to hold these two together, never neglecting to celebrate the abundance found in this text in the midst of the fury all around us and in the text itself.

John 2 is a text so full of joyful abundance that if you listen, you can hear the characters giggle in tipsy glee and newfound belief. They dance, even as they are in the midst of a furious and violent world and a risky existence themselves, because they are at a wedding, and because God showed up. In the midst of everything, they find something to celebrate: each other, and Christ’s presence among them.

Yes, of all the ways that Jesus is portrayed in the Bible, I think I like this Jesus best. So don’t forget to dance at the wedding, preacher. Even in the midst of your worries, have a glass of wine (or whatever it is you enjoy) and take this text for a spin around the dance floor this week. You’ll be glad you did.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Baptism of Our Lord: Worthy of Our Calling

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

 

In the Lectionary text for this week, John declares that he baptizes with water but one more powerful than he is coming who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (v16)” and he will use “his winnowing fork… to clean his threshing floor (v17).” The Lectionary then moves to the baptism of Jesus, which is different than the story found in the other synoptics. In Luke, Jesus is baptized alongside others and we do not get the details of the baptism, but are instead told that after he is baptized he prays, and that the Holy Spirit came upon “in bodily form like a dove.” (v22)

Luke does not tell us why Jesus goes to be baptized, and he does not tell us that it is John who does the baptizing, and so we use the scripture surrounding the text to help us understand why it is that Jesus is baptized. After all, for three chapters, Luke has been telling us that Jesus is the Promised One, born without sin. John baptizes as a result of repentance and calls on others to move from their sinful ways and care for those who are in need. One way to read these texts together is to continue reading into Jesus’ genealogy. Upon baptism the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus and a voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I dearly love (v22).” In this baptism Jesus is claimed as God’s child, Jesus’ genealogy is recited, and he begins his ministry.

Through baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s church, the family of God, we are made part of God’s mighty acts of salvation, and we are given new birth through the water and Holy Spirit. In the United Methodist tradition baptism occurring at infancy is common and so the vows of baptism are taken by the parents/guardians/ family on behalf of the child, with the hope that the child will later take on the vows themselves. Two of the vows are:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves[1]?”

In baptism Jesus is initiated into the family of God and claimed by God as God’s beloved child. In baptism Jesus accepts his ministry, accepts that he is the one John has been teaching about, and claims his identity as the savior that Zechariah and Mary have both prophesied. But baptism is not just about initiation or claiming God as your God. In baptism we also acknowledge the need to be in community with one another, and to resist wickedness and work towards a world where justice and equality reign. And this, we do not do on our own.

Perhaps that is why Jesus goes along with all the others for baptism not merely to show solidarity with humanity as they seek to repent of their individual sins, but because he knew the need to acknowledge and repent for the corporate sin that all of humanity is part of, merely by being human. In all things we as humans do exist within a structure that is unfortunately flawed and often overtly sinful. In sharing our humanity Jesus needed to name that through his genealogy of imperfect people like David and Abraham, he too is aware of the structures of sin.

We live in a time where it feels like resisting injustice and oppression is a full-time job. Nearly every news report shares another instance of inequality and abuse of a people group or the denial of justice by those who are powerful. I cannot help but think of those who are currently at our border literally wading through the waters of the Rio Grande hoping for freedom and protection for themselves and their children. Or the religious minorities in China and Myanmar who are being routinely killed because of their faith and ethnicity. In our cities, people of color are far more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than whites. Our planet is injured by our collective refusal to be caregivers of the earth instead of plunderers of God’s good creation.

As we preach on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, remembering the vows we take or have taken upon ourselves for our children who cannot speak for themselves is a remarkable way to call our congregations back into focus after the holidays. The work of repentance is not finished; we have work to do. Take this week to call your congregation into actions of repentance, into actions that are worthy of our calling as God’s children.

 

[1] “The United Methodist Book of Worship.” Nashville, Tenn. United Methodist Publishing House, 1992.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in Atlanta, Georgia. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling and eating tacos.

 

The Epiphany (C): The Light of God’s Liberation

The Epiphany(C): The Light of God’s Liberation

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Epiphany!  It is a holiday that I had no real idea about before I joined the Episcopal Church in college. Growing up vaguely non-denominational in the South, the Magi (aka Wise Men aka Three Kings)[1] sort of just went along with the Christmas story and disappeared (along with Mary) after we took down the nativity scenes before the end of the twelve days of Christmas were even up. Now, it is one of the most important holy days in the year for me.

Working in an Episcopal congregation that is about forty-five percent Latinx, the Epiphany, or Tres Reyes Magos (Three Magic Kings)[2] as it is called by many of my parishioners, has taken on new life and energy as it is a major celebration when the Reyes Magos come to pay homage to the Christ Child and bring gifts for the children at church with them (liturgically, this totally makes more sense to me than exchanging gifts on Christmas day, btw). I’ve seen the joy it brings to our congregation—for first- generation immigrants it is a taste of home, for the second generation it is a family celebration, for the rest it is an educational moment, and for all it is a thoroughly spiritual celebration of love of God and others.

The pictures and depictions of the Magi are also really significant. A lot of times they are depicted as coming from different continents, which shows the universality of Christ, the Gospel, and the Church. This means a lot in a time when border crossing is increasingly perilous and politicized and those with different customs and ways are increasingly demonized by polarizing politics and a culture that is being drained of its empathy faster than the political swamp is being drained of corruption. There is a ruler in this Gospel text who lacks empathy for others, and he is by no means shown in a positive light.

On a more personal note, I find myself relating to the Magi here on a few levels here:

As someone with a tendency to spend too much time in his head (read: nerd), the Magi are a reminder that the mind and the soul can become one in our quest for the Divine—much like St. Thomas Aquinas’ lifelong goal. As much as anyone can tell, astrology was an odd combination of science and magic in the ancient world, so perhaps their commitment to spirituality and to the observance of the natural courses of creation leading them to God is a helpful example in a time of changing climate and uncertainty about our future. Their heeding divine warnings about a perilous future if they keep their present path and deciding on an alternate, better course to prevent needless tragedy seems like a wise example here.

As a queer person, I love that Scripture isn’t ashamed of the Magi’s queerness or strangeness. In fact, it is their queer sensibilities and their queer ways that enable them to see and appreciate the actions of God at work right under the very nose of the Temple and other authorities, who either miss what’s happening or get so upset by it that they take tragic actions to stop God’s new and liberating work being done among the poor and the animals and the foreigners and the queer people. It’s hard not to relate to the Magi on this one. That and their aforementioned affinity for astrology, which is totally a thing in the queer community (and if you don’t believe me you can consult any queer social media and see exactly what I’m talking about). Additionally, many images of the Magi depict the men dressed rather flamboyantly and differently than others we see depicted in Scripture (an admirable commitment to style given the fact that they are on a presumably long journey).[3] The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is, to me, possibly one of the most affirming texts in the whole of Scripture for queer readers. And I might not be the only one to think so. Manila Luzon, Peppermint, and Alaska 5000 from RuPaul’s Drag Race even did a shockingly reverent and comfortingly queer music video We Three Queens with each of them representing one of the Magi with a traditional gift.[4]

The other level at which I find myself appreciating the Magi here is being an Episcopalian in the rural south. When we have visitors from the local Baptist or Methodist or non-denominational churches, one gets the impression that sometimes they have no idea quite what to do with us and our peculiar ways as we offer vessels of gold and rich incense at the altar of the Lord while adorned with unfamiliar vestments and saying or chanting strange prayers. Still, the message here is clear; gifts given by sincere hearts are acceptable to Christ whether they come from unfussy shepherds or zhuzhed up Magi.

The story of the Magi and the Epiphany is a message of warning to those who are trying to stop the flow of God’s gracious and liberating work in the world; you can do whatever you want, pull any strings you want, commit any atrocity you want, but you will not win. More importantly, it is a story of comfort to those who are on spiritual journeys or who find themselves feeling strange or outside of the regular come-and-go of life in either their church or broader communities. Whether the light of the Epiphany enables us to get a taste of our old home as we make a different life in new lands, or encourages us to be more welcoming of those who are traveling across borders, or shows the cruelty of rulers who abuse children in the name of politics, or brings our minds and souls into a singular commitment to God, or helps us own our place adoring and following a Christ who accepts our queerness without shame, or helps us to be more appreciative and understanding of those with different religious traditions than our own, or some other profound message that is no doubt embedded in the rich, but surprisingly brief, story, it is a light we need in our time. May it shine all the more brightly on all of those who encounter it.

 

St Cyps Preaching
The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Mebane, North Carolina where he lives with his husband, Logan, and dog, Dandy. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

[1] How many stage names do y’all need, honey?

[2] Apparently at least one more

[3] Werk!

[4] Either they think of this text in a liberating way or are just cashing in on a cheap pun for the holidays.  Whichever it is, I’m claiming it.  The Spirit moves where and how It wills.

Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

I once served as a hospital chaplain for a year. I was often rendered speechless by the pain I saw, and many times, silent accompaniment was what my patients and their families needed. Other times, I was called on to offer a word of hope.

Some of the most difficult cases were there was no clear happy ending. This could be because of a sudden crisis, or because of chronic pain or a bad diagnosis. In Atlanta, where I served, I was often tasked with offering hope to patients who were deeply religious, but were having a hard time seeing God’s presence in their lives at a particular moment. They sometimes called on me to help.

In time, I learned that often, the words of hope that patients wanted so desperately were not my words, but their own. It was my role as chaplain to be something of a midwife for hope; I was called only to ask the right questions.

Once, as I sat at the bedside of a patient, he described his deep faith but wondered if now God had abandoned him, because his health was failing. I assured him that God is not so cruel as to punish people by making them sick, nor do I believe that God abandoned him.

With tears in his eyes he said, “But I feel like God has left me. Has God left me?”

“Of course not,” I say, gripping his hand. “Can you tell me about the times in the past that you’ve felt God’s presence before?”

Nearly very time I had similar conversations, the results were always the same: the person would suddenly, even through tears, launch into praise as they narrated time and time again how God had been with them, about what they viewed as miracles — proof positive to them that their faith in God was well placed. They described mountaintop experiences.

“Do you believe that same God is still around today?” I asked this man gently.
“Of course! God is the same yesterday, and today, and forever!”

“Then I think that God is most certainly with you now as then.”

With that, he smiled and slept.

When we feel like God has abandoned us, it’s the times when our faith felt sure that can call us back.

In today’s Gospel, we venture with Jesus up to literal the mountain top. Peter, James, and John are there. They have come, they think, to pray. We don’t know how long they were there, but Luke does tell us: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…” Perhaps they waited and prayed for awhile, and night fell.

But then. Then, suddenly, everything changed.

Luke tells us that “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” Suddenly, before their eyes, Jesus is transformed, his clothes radiating with a dazzling white, radiating with all the glory of heaven. Moses and Elijah appear at his side, and there he is — the Son of God, shining in glory, flanked by Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. All is as it should be in that one shining moment. The disciples must have been floored. They must have imagined that this is why Jesus called them — to see this very moment.

I admit that I’ve often both related to and chuckled at Peter in this story. He reacts pretty practically, actually: “Let’s build something.” Let’s fix it. Let’s build shelters for all three of you. Depending on the time of year, this could have been very practical — if it was very hot or cold. Peter assumes, wrongly, that they are going to stay here. I can’t blame him. This miracle — this revelation — surely this was the ultimate revelation, right?

I imagine that they, at the very least, wanted to tell someone about all this, but Luke says that in those days, they kept quiet. Matthew adds a little more depth to the story; Jesus says to them on their way down the mountain: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line always gives me chills. This isn’t it. That wasn’t all. There’s more. And what comes next will be painful.

You see, they thought this was the end of the story. They thought this shining moment was the pinnacle of everything. But they hoped far too small. Because our God is not only or not even primarily found in those moments shining on the mountaintop when everything seems clear and where our faith seems certain. If that were the case, we should hope for more mountaintops and direct revelations.

Our God is found, most commonly, when things are at their worst. In the cross, we see that Christ is ever-present in human suffering. Certainly, we all marvel at mountaintop moments, moments when our faith seems sure and our call seems certain. But if you think that God is amazing because Jesus’ clothing is sparkling — you just wait until God takes what is dead and makes it new again.

The Transfiguration, the mountaintop, is not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. It will be the confirmation that the disciples think back to when things get hard. When things seem impossible. When things seem dead and irreconcilable. I imagine that, when the disciples were locked in the upper room after Jesus was killed on the cross, when all hope seemed lost, that there were whispers among James and John and Peter about the Transfiguration. “Remember?” they whispered to each other. “That was real. I saw it too.” The Transfiguration, I imagine, just maybe offered a glimmer of hope that this wasn’t the end.

“Remember?” I imagine Peter whispering. “Maybe… just maybe… maybe it’s not over.” And that is what mountaintop experiences will do for us — those shining moments aren’t extinguished easily. They give us hope in dark times.

So let’s look around and take this mountaintop moment in. Jesus is before us, transfigured, with the law and the prophets at his side. God speaks about him from the sky and tells us to listen to him. For one shining moment, we get proof beyond all doubt that we are following the right guy — that this Jesus isn’t just a great rabbi — he’s God made flesh, and he’s our only hope.

Remember the mountaintop moments in your life, too — times when it feels like God is right there and when your purpose seems so clear. Mark them, remember them, bless them. Because mountaintop moments like the Transfiguration aren’t for God’s benefit, they’re for ours. So that we can be sure that we are on the right path. So that we can know that even if the path leads to death, take heart, because even death leads to resurrection. And next week, as if on cue, the challenge of Lent begins, and we will venture even deeper into God’s unfailing grace.

And when Lent gets into full swing, let’s remember the alleluias today even as we anticipate the much larger alleluias of Easter. When Lent drags on, let’s whisper to each other, “Remember?” Let us look around on the mountaintop, so that we can remember that God, made flesh and true to his Word, is certainly, certainly still with us. Amen.

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

 

Presentation (B): Not So Fast!

Presentation (B): Not So Fast!

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

There’s a house on my block that sold weeks ago. No one has moved in. It sits empty; and there are still Christmas lights hanging from the roof. Its purgatory-like presence both intrigues and annoys. Annoys because the house and its yard are untidy. Intrigues because today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Let me explain:  Today marks the 40th day after Christmas, and with this feast the Church closes out the “Incarnation cycle.” In other words, it’s time to put away those Christmas decorations. We’re two weeks away from Lent…Shouldn’t we be tidying up the yards of our hearts, climbing a ladder to the roofs of our souls tearing down those Christmas lights? “Not so fast,” says this Feast Day. In fact, some Christian traditions hide away the light bulbs while the candles come out. For this reason, The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes referred to as Candlemas. It’s the day when the candles used in worship services will be blessed. It’s also a reminder that the long winter’s nights are still around, yet the light of Christ eternally radiates the darkness.

Luke 2:22-40 gives us three presentations to consider on this feast day. The holy family presented sacrifices of thanksgiving in accordance with the law of Moses (“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”) They also presented their newborn son, Jesus, who “suddenly comes to his temple;” thus fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy found in Malachi 3:1. The third presentation is that of Simeon and Anna, two pious and patient Jews, who waited their whole lives to present themselves to the Messiah.

Luke’s story also captures the tensions and realities found in new things. A new child was born as the Messiah, yet old thoughts and formularies about what this meant had to pass away. Mary, like any mother, was proud of her new son, yet she learned “a sword [would] pierce [her] heart” when new revelations about her child would be exposed (Luke 2:35). For each beginning, there is an ending; and the transitions in between are often messy and confusing.

As we transition out of Christmas and Epiphany into the season of Lent, may Candlemas be a day to honor what has come before, and to ready ourselves as to what may lay ahead. If the lights are still on your roof, know that the house of your heart does not stand empty, but is filled with God’s “wisdom and favor” (Luke 2:40). If the Christmas decorations are down at your house, take out a candle, light it, and present yourself to the Lord in prayer as Christ presents himself to you in illumination.

Below, please find the prayer that will be said in Episcopal churches and homes today. I offer it to you in thanksgiving for your ministry to Christ. Use the prayer as you light a candle, then find a word or phrase that sticks out to you, and meditate on its meaning. As for me (and my soon-to-be neighbor) who knows? I may go over to their sold, yet unkempt house, plug in those Christmas lights one last time, praying and contemplating something similar.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 239)

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The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The Very Rev. Brandon Duke serves Christ as pastor, priest, and teacher at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. As a parish priest, Brandon wants to raise up saints in the Church while stumbling along with sinners like himself. He tries to make his weekly sermons bloggable at https://fatherbrandon.com/. Follow him there, and judge for yourself.

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay in Your Lane

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay In Your Lane

Mark 1:29-39

Jay Butler

I am a huge sports fan. I like some sports more than others, but I at least try to keep my finger on the pulse of all of them. In fact, one of my strongest memories growing up was to be an anchor on SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program. I imagined cracking jokes and delivering awesome sports highlights alongside Dan Patrick, Linda Cohn, and the late Stuart Scott. One of the conundrums with sports news is that while it is meant to inform, it is also meant to entertain. That is why you see big stars like LeBron James or Tom Brady always discussed. Unfortunately, one of the people that is always talked about in sports news is Lavar Ball.

Lavar Ball is the father of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball. He is loud, opinionated, and flat out rude, if I say so myself. One of my least favorite interviews I heard from him took place on Fox Sports 1’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd. When he was naturally arguing and speaking over the host Cowherd, co-host Kristine Leahy tried to interject with her comments. Ball, without even turning his head to address her, told her to “stay in your lane.” He tried to silence her with one command. That is the quintessential thought process of a bully, or someone who has an unhealthy view of power. That mentality has oppressed numerous people groups for millennia. But can that phrase be redeemed in any way possible? How can Jesus empower us when we feel “stuck in our lane?”

This week’s Gospel text focuses on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Already in Mark 1, Jesus has been very busy. He’s been baptized, tempted, selected His first apostles, and healed a man with an unclean spirit at the synagogue in Capernaum. That’s where this week’s lectionary picks up. In the first half of our selection, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I also noticed the negative connotation of “staying in your lane.” They enter the house, and Simon and Andrew “told him about [Simon’s mother-in-law] at once,” as it says in verse 30. Why did they tell Jesus about the mother-in-law “at once?” Were they concerned about her health, or ashamed that she did not have the house ready or she was not prepared to entertain them? I interpret this as the brothers apologizing for Simon’s mother-in-law not doing what she’s supposed to do. It was an intensely patriarchal society in first century Palestine, and women “stayed in their lane” by serving the men of the household. However, Jesus does not accost her for not doing what was expected of her. He instead lifts her up, both literally and metaphorically. Her lane is widened and cleared because of the grace of God through Jesus Christ and His work.

In the second half of the text, we see another instance of people trying to have another person “stay in their lane.” Jesus “went out to a deserted place and, there he prayed,” as it says in verse 35. However, sensing that Jesus was not around them, or able to attend to their needs, they “hunted” for Jesus. They did not search or scour for Jesus. They HUNTED for him. You hunt for something when you feel you have a right to it. We hunt animals because we believe we have a right to be full or to enjoy the sport. We hunt for bargains because we feel we have the right to the best price for a good or service. They hunted for Jesus because the Apostles felt they had a right to be with him. According to verse 37, everyone else felt that they had a right to be with Him too. Did Jesus get out of His lane when He went to go pray by Himself? Certainly not. This revelation then begs the question, “What is our lane?” and “Who sets it for us?”

Our “lane” can be defined by many things. Sometimes we can define it, based on choices in our lives, or how hard we work to achieve our dreams. Sometimes it is defined by things are out of our control, like genetics or socioeconomic status. Society sets a lot of the lanes that we live in. For example, I stay in my ministry lane because it is what God has called me to, and I have the requisite training for the career. This also helps us figure out what lane we’re not supposed to be in. I am called to advocate for the oppressed, but I’m also called to lift up those who are oppressed, and follow their lead. I stay in the slow lane, while others more qualified are supposed to take the lead and set the pace. However, the core of what defines our lanes is the power of the Holy Spirit.

John 14:26 says, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (NRSV). The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to thrive in the lane we live in, or move into the one we were called. Many times we are placed in situations where we feel marginalized or misrepresented. The Holy Spirit, however, gives us hope when we feel powerless, and give us a connection to our Creator. We see that in our text through the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and through the connection Jesus has in prayer with God, respectively. We are given hope in the fact that although we may be “stuck in our lanes,” the Holy Spirit fights for us, and for a better tomorrow for us.

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

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.