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.

6th Sunday after Epiphany: Finding the Right Tension

6th Sunday after Epiphany: Finding the Right Tension

Matthew 5:21-37

By: The Rev. David Clifford

I vaguely recall reading somewhere that one key to public speaking is to look for the audience members that are most engaged. It is easier, the article (or maybe person telling me this) suggested, for our minds to find those people less engaged and thus influence the self-doubt that can arise with the act of speaking in public. I find this to be true for myself. I am a very personal, introverted, and shy individual. Yet, I am also a pastor that speaks to over one hundred people every week.

Given that I am a millennial (as are each of the authors for Modern Metanoia), I have not been preaching all that long really. However, I have had the occasion of being in the middle of a sermon and starting to notice the glazed over eyes of a few parishioners (even some that seem asleep). I am encouraged by the length of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew’s Gospel. This Sermon on the Mount extends for three chapters (5-7) at the beginning of his ministry.

I am also aware of the tension that can arise in proclaiming the good news of the Lord. This tension not only occurs based on the length or style of the preacher, but can sometimes arise from the content of what is said. In fact, just recently Andy Stanley, evangelical senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, received some backlash from people attacking his view of Scripture based solely on one part of one sermon in a series. While I may disagree with Stanley on his view of the inerrancy of Scripture, I can empathize with him about the tensions that can arise from the words we discern God luring us to say to the body of Christ.

I find myself wondering if Jesus experienced such tension from his own sermons. We have countless examples of the tension Jesus faced because of his actions of healing, sharing meals, and living life with those whom society wanted to ignore. However, we are only told at the end of his Sermon on the Mount that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV).

One fear that can come with preaching and proclaiming the good news is the fear that each little word will be dissected and judged; the fear that one wrong sentence can be the end of a career, or worse, the end of a ministry. This is part of the tension in proclaiming God’s Word. While I sometimes worry about and experience such a tension as part of my own life in ministry, if I am completely honest I must also admit that when I read today’s gospel lesson I find myself doing such a thing to Jesus.

I find myself in tension not just with Jesus’ words but with Jesus as he stands on that mountainside delivering what is probably the most read sermon in history. Who among us hasn’t gotten angry and uttered words of contempt to someone or about someone? Who among us hasn’t looked lustfully at someone? With the divorce rate at approximately 50%, many of us and many of those we preach to on Sunday mornings have been divorced or are married to someone who is divorced. Jesus points us to fires of hell.

As a preacher, I am not a big fan of hell, fire, and brimstone. It doesn’t sit well with my own theological understanding and experience of God. However, it would appear that Jesus (at least in today’s lectionary) is using this very technique. There is tension here for me. This is not the Jesus I was taught about growing up in the church. This is not the Jesus I sing about loving me. This is not the Jesus I experience in the midst of God’s Kingdom and Family. In fact, many biblical scholars speak of this language as hyperbole and that Jesus is merely attempting to make a point. However, the fact remains that tension continues to exist. Just as tension continues to exist in our world despite Jesus’ teachings of peace and reconciliation.

I am an amateur guitar player and recently received a new guitar for Christmas. I was reminded of the importance of tension. When you receive a new guitar, the first thing you must do is tune it. This requires you to tighten the strings to the proper tension. Each time I tune my guitar, I have this fear that the string cannot withstand the tension. I had an experience once in tightening a string that had outlived its life only to have the string snap in two and leave a nasty cut on my hand. I am reminded of this experience each time I tighten a string while tuning my guitar. And yet, I continue to tune my guitar and create tension in the strings because it is through this tension that the music (sometimes beautiful, sometimes not) rings out.

The same is true for our scripture lesson: the beauty of God’s grace and Kingdom is that through the tensions, we are saved and enter into the Realm. Jesus tells us in his sermon that we must “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24 ESV). This is true of our relationship with Jesus as well. We must tune our hearts to Christ; finding the perfect tension that will create the note that God would have us play in the Kingdom and body of Christ.

The reality of Jesus’ life and ministry is that he cared for and supported those he would preach this sermon to. While the crowds were astounded at his teaching at the end of the sermon, the very next thing Jesus did was to heal the man with leprosy. There is good news in the tension for those that we preach this scripture to. We must only find the proper tension. There is also good news for each of us that are called to preach and proclaim God’s Word to God’s people.

The words we say are not nearly as important as the lives we live. Words are important, don’t get me wrong. And we should strive to make every attempt to say the words God would have for God’s people: words of grace, mercy, and love. However, Jesus’s live and ministry show us that the ways in which we interact with those around us is much more important. After all, this is what Jesus’ sermon is all about: creating right relationships with those around so that we may bring about the Kingdom of God.

Proclaim God’s Word and vision for the world, despite the tension and (most importantly) be an example of how to live in a such a world. This is the message of Jesus. As Christians we can hear about it, experience it, and be an example of it in both word and deed; if we merely spend time to struggle with our own tensions and find the proper note.

 

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he graduated in 2014 with degrees of both Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling. David currently serves as Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, TX, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading and lives with his wife and three children.

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Point to the Truth

5th Sunday after Epiphany: Point to the Truth

Matthew 5:13-20

By: The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer

Oh, this week’s text is fraught with temptation for the Epiphany-weary preacher. With Christmas finally fading from view (thank the little-baby-Jesus) and Ash Wednesday lurking in the early bits of March, this text offers the preacher the tantalizing possibility of splitting the pericope for an easy tagline. Most commentaries will tell you to divide and conquer this text: pick the seasoning, pick the light, or pick the law and the righteousness, and preach from there. It’ll be tempting. But my encouragement is to resist.

Resist your desire to preach on salt. On its history and origins. On its various uses as a spice and vitamin, as currency, as a way to keep semi-trucks from skidding off of icy winter highways. As fascinating a meditation as you can craft on that crystalline flavorizer, your community doesn’t need a message about salt right now. Resist.

And further, resist your desire to preach on light. I know, I know. It could be beautiful. You could finally do that great object lesson with the lava lamp and the basket. And who doesn’t want more lava lamps in worship? But your community doesn’t need a message about light right now. Resist.

And oh, please, do not preach on righteousness. Because I don’t care how much you try, those messages always wind up sounding like a humble-brag or a slow and painful barrage of guilt, not unlike repeated Nerf bat blows to the head and neck. And your community doesn’t need a message about righteousness right now. Resist.

Because what your community needs right now is to hear about all of it: the beauty and the mystery of the metaphors right up alongside the call to righteous action. Just as Matthew’s community did.

Matthew didn’t have an easy job. There was tension to navigate with a legalistic Judaic school of thought at the time. And internally, there was friction. Matthew sought to show that Jesus’ teachings were authoritative because his life was an illustration and fulfillment of the Torah and the prophets. Most commentaries agree on Matthew’s literary pluck in crafting Jesus’ five discourses in the book as a nod to the five books of the Torah, and it’s no secret that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses. (He’s preaching this sermon from a mount for good reason.) But beyond writing of Jesus as the Rabbi Supreme, Matthew also needed to inspire; to spark the imaginations of his community to become curious about how mere interpretation of the Law and prophets was not the same as embodying them. Matthew’s boldness is in his insistence that Jesus was the Torah, the Instruction…and then in insisting that his community’s task was to do the same. Pretty badass, but it’s a vision that must be cast finesse, and the Sermon on the Mount does so brilliantly: it first outlines reward, then a vision for practice.

As we break it up for the lectionary, last week we got the Beatitudes, outlining the alternative rewards that a community seeking to embody Torah might expect to receive and endure. It’s always smart to start with the rewards. Next week, we’ll get the compare and contrast essay: You’ve heard the law is like this, but here’s how it really is when it’s lived out. And this week? Well, this week, we have this strange transition between the two.

Verses 13-16 (Salt ‘n’ Light, as I affectionately call it) are not pure Matthew, but placing them as a transition piece is a unique move. It’s important to note that these are metaphors, not parables and not allusions or allegories which are easily representative and thus more easily interpreted. Metaphors are an entirely different beast. They stretch. They move. They are elastic with time. As I sit here preparing for an ice storm to hit St. Louis, my ideas of salt have different connotations than Matthew’s Jesus likely intended. And with my electricity humming as I write in the evening, light probably means something different to me as well. And that’s OK. Because these images are metaphor. They are malleable in their interpretation. We could spend time fleshing them out, characterizing and making them more solid, more relatable. But I don’t think we should. I think we should resist. Mostly, because that’s what Matthew did.

Instead, he shifts the tone and gives some direct talk on Jesus’ mission, correcting any misinterpretation that may have happened along the way. “Don’t misunderstand me,” Jesus says. “I’m here to be righteous. But I’m also here to tell you that there’s a new righteousness in town.” Ah! Can’t you just imagine the disciples high-fiving each other during this speech?

But the radical assertion Jesus makes in this passage is the same assertion Matthew is making with his Gospel: that righteousness is not about knowing the Law and being able to stand in its presence. Rather, righteousness is knowing the Law and living the Law…and then having others learn the Law by observing it as it is embodied. The gift that Jesus gives the disciples, Matthew gives to his community, and we have the honor (and the challenge) of giving it to ours: that instruction is taught through action, not simple instruction. Jesus points out that the Pharisees’ error is that they learn and then interpret and then teach through interpretation. The question Jesus raises is why righteousness needs interpretation at all. Salt needs no interpretation. Nor does light. Nor does righteousness that is learned by living example.

Salt cannot help being salty. Light cannot help but shine. They are set apart, unique, endowed with a clear and certain purpose and identity. In these metaphors, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand their unique and unchangeable identities as people of God, which cannot be transmuted.

And righteousness is not just to be learned. It is to be learned and lived, and in living it, it is taught. Jesus embodies this. And in this passage, Jesus offers the disciples a way to understand how his unique task is both revolutionary and required. Matthew’s community needed to hear both of these messages. Your community does, too.

Your community has endured the most contentious, painful, traumatic election of their lives. In full technicolor and 24-hour surround sound. They have watched the farewell address of a President who encouraged the nation to talk to those they disagree with, and they have witnessed the inauguration of a President who won the election with the central theme of wall-building. To some in your community this represents defeat. To some in your communities, it’s victory. These are times to be bold. These are also times to teach by example.

Your preaching task isn’t to describe and define what saltiness and light are for us today. The metaphors speak for themselves. But you do need to remind your community that they are called, that they are inherently, deeply, elementally called to be God’s people in the world.

Your task also isn’t to define righteousness. Matthew works hard to show us that Jesus is righteousness. Your task is to remind people that it’s not enough to know righteousness when you see it, whether in legalism or in the life of Jesus. Your task is to point to the fact that Jesus taught his disciples who taught others who taught others about walking in the way that leads to life by actually walking in the way that leads to life. And that it’s not enough that your people simply inherit this teaching. They must find a way to live it. And they must find a way to transmit that teaching through their living.

You don’t have to define what all of this looks like. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to point to the truth that is the truth and has always been the truth. Salt is salt. Light is light. And righteousness is a way of life, not a curriculum.

 

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The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer

The Rev. Chelsey Hillyer currently serves as Pastor for Union United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She is an activist, writer, and community-builder. You can contact her via email at pastorchelsey@gmail.com.

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Ben Day

One Sunday while serving as the Curate at an urban Atlanta congregation, I was confronted by the matriarch of our parish community as she exited the nave. “You preach the same sermon every time I come to church,” she said, “try changing it up once in awhile.”

I have never been one to avoid confrontation or to shrink in the face of what I think is unjust criticism, so without missing a beat or stopping to consider what I was about to say, I responded, “Well ma’am I only preach that sermon when I see you come in the door. I will change my sermon when you change your bad attitude.”

The lady turned and glared at me, and then in a moment of pure grace, burst out laughing, as I stood shattered and humiliated by what I had just blurted out.

I would like to think that I have matured a great deal as a person and a pastor since then. But I was reminded of that moment again when I read today’s text recalling Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The years of seminary coursework on pastoral care, all of the hours spent studying on family systems theory, the interpersonal work of CPE, learning to be a “non-anxious presence…” As I stood in the doorway of the parish, none of those things appeared in my mind or inspired grace to come from my mouth.

The gospel explains that Simeon prepared too. It was revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah appear during his lifetime. He knew to expect it and be vigilant. But as I read his response in verses 29-32, which is sometimes called the “Song of Simeon,” I wonder whether he might have been a little caught off guard by what he holds in his arms?

We learn that he is led by the spirit to the Temple that day (v.27), but upon meeting the child, he takes him in his arms and offers an elegant but visceral description. Not just a description, but a proclamation. And not just any proclamation either, but also a prophecy. And the holy family is amazed.

The content, though, can’t be that amazing. Simeon is at least in part paraphrasing Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 32-33), and Mary proclaims as much as Simeon does in her own song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  But the Holy Parents are “amazed” nonetheless. I am left to believe it must have been a scene to behold–Simeon’s offering of praise. Because what it lacks in original content must have been made up for in tone and style. An elder in the temple confirming all that you have been told, and all that you hoped and believed. A soul bearing description with pure wonder and praise – that would amaze!

Reading the lesson in this light, with a bit of theoretical imagination, I became aware of its subtle but strong connection to my own experience that day, standing in the doorway to the parish nave in Atlanta. Sometimes no amount of preparation or vigilance can prepare us to confront what stares us in the face. Our impulses and emotions are part of the journey of discovering the incarnate presence among us. Moments when we go off script and turn ourselves over to the messiness of our impulsive selves, we can discover new things concerning our relationships to God and one another. For me I discovered grace. For Simeon, I think it was wonder and praise. In a world that seems to market test and choreograph everything, including an increasing amount of its religious activity (see Megachurch culture), I am encouraged. Impulsive messiness matters.

 

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a 16mo son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.

4th Sunday after Epiphany: Blessed are Who?

4th Sunday after Epiphany: Blessed are Who?

Matthew 5:1-12

By: Emily Kahm

It is remarkable, and perhaps a little sad, how quickly I tune out the Beatitudes when they come up in the lectionary. “Blessed are the poor of yep, I remember how this one goes.” There’s a popular Catholic song by David Haas based on this reading called “Blest Are They.” The verses run together in my head, but they slowly build into a powerful and unforgettable refrain:

“Rejoice and be glad! Blessed are you, holy are you. Rejoice and be glad! Yours is the Kingdom of God!”

When I read the Beatitudes, I inevitably start doing so in the rhythm of that song. It’s joyous and affirming and a beautiful mix of both the meditative and the exuberant aspects of liturgy. It’s the kind of music that you inevitably end up humming after Sunday and well into Monday.

Reading it again, I wonder if the beauty of the hymn hasn’t clouded my memory of the actual passage. The refrain is directed at “you,” which I typically take to be “me.” But in scripture, Jesus actually switches subjects at the end of his list—for most of the lesson, he’s referring to “they,” a group of people presumably not present. It’s only at the end that he switches to the second person and says (to us, we presume) that we are blessed when we are insulted or persecuted. Up until that point, it’s not “us” being blessed; it’s “them.” The translation factor adds a new and confusing layer on top of this—was that how Jesus intended to say things? Furthermore, translations change the subject of each sentence dramatically. The poor in spirit is alternatively translated as “those who know they are spiritually poor,”[1] “those who recognize they are spiritually helpless,”[2] or “those who know there is nothing good in themselves.”[3] While they may all be a translator’s earnest effort to bring Jesus’ words and meaning into modern English, they contain substantively different nuances and, perhaps, direct our attention to different people. So who, exactly, is blessed in all of this?

It’s easy to personalize readings that aren’t necessarily meant to be personalized. We can easily interpret “blessed are they who mourn,” to say “blessed am I when I mourn,” but that isn’t the way Jesus framed it. He’s speaking to a large crowd; certainly some among them are mourning, or are thirsting for righteousness, or making peace, but he calls their attention away from themselves and towards who is missing. His proclamations almost ask the question: “Who is it I know who is gentle and merciful and pure of heart, and do they know that they’re especially blessed?”

Catholic theologians incorporate this reading when explaining our doctrine of “preferential option for the poor,” that is, our recognition that those on the margins and those who are most negatively affected by the injustices of our world are especially beloved by God and must be especially served by us. Living with a preferential option for the poor means constantly looking around and wondering who we have left out so that we can find ways to bring them in. With this lens, we can see that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with taking the Beatitudes personally—that is, as all about ourselves—when we could instead be watching for these people who, in spite of their struggles, have a special closeness with the divine. Blessed are YOU, well-dressed widow who comes to Mass by herself every week. Blessed are YOU, mother of that noticeably squirmy preschooler and the baby who just discovered the fun of yelling in echo-y churches. Blessed are YOU, gentleman who looks like he’s been doing hard physical labor before church and didn’t have time to change clothes. And especially blessed are you, people who are so far away from me and my reality that I don’t even know your daily struggles. Because God’s blessings aren’t just about me—they’re about how I can bring blessing to your life.

[1] Good News Translation

[2] God’s Word Translation

[3] New Life Version

 

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Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm is an adjunct instructor in Religion at Augustana College and a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. Her research interests include religious sexuality education, theological themes in video games and gaming, and lived religion. She lives in eastern Iowa with her spouse, Chris, and two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.