Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

Good Friday: Give Us Barabbas!

John 18:1-19:42

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

I’ve often wondered how it is that we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday so quickly. How is it that we can shout “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify!” the next? How can we want for Jesus to save us on Palm Sunday, and then revel in Jesus’ torture and demand his execution on Good Friday? One day, “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord;” the next day, “give us Barabbas!”

Is it our tendency for capriciousness? Perhaps. Could it be our desire for immediate satisfaction? Maybe. Might it be our desperation for certainty? Possibly. We might like to think that we would have reacted differently if we had been there. After all, we enjoy the benefit of having fast-forwarded a bit. In my parish, as well as in many others, the faithful will gather tomorrow evening at nightfall, kindle a new fire, and mark Christ’s passing over from death to life with shouts of, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

Where they were unsure about just who Jesus was, we know. Where they were under threat from the Empire, we enjoy the First Amendment. Where they were in the moment, we’ve read the story through to its end.

And yet…

…And yet…

…When everyone around us is calling for Barabbas, the voices of our better angels are drowned out.

“There is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness,” writes Wendell Berry. “This sort of violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.”[1]

The truth is that although we are sure that it is Jesus we want, each and every one of us still clings to Barabbas. For as much as we might like the idea of Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom of God, we’ve all gotten pretty used to Barabbas and the mechanisms of the Kingdom of this world.

We believe in Jesus, yes, but how much do we really believe in the ideas for which he gave his life? “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” but this is reality, so I’m going to “Do unto others before they get a chance to do unto me.” We teach our children to tell the truth, but how often do we rebuff or dismiss others when they speak their truth because it does not fit with our own? Justice sounds nice, but the moment we say, “I’m gonna get mine,” justice vanishes and is replaced with vengeance and retribution.

If Holy Week and Good Friday remind us of nothing else, they remind us that when it comes right down to it, we’re not quite prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We might be fascinated enough with Jesus to steal a knife and cut the ropes that tied him to the cross, but we will follow him only from a safe distance, so as to avoid sharing his fate.[2]

This is the great irony of Good Friday: the longer we convince ourselves that if only we had been at the foot of the cross instead of Jesus’ cowardly and fickle friends, his fate would somehow have been different, the louder our shouts demanding Barabbas and condemning Jesus become.

In his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the 19th century philosopher and critic of Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche, makes a startling observation. It was not the wicked who put Jesus to death; rather, Nietzsche argues, crucifixion was a deed of the “good and just.” “’The good and just’” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good. The “good and just” have to crucify the one who devises an alternative virtue because they already possess the knowledge of the good.”[3]

The crucifixion of our Lord was not the work of some foreign terrorist’s wicked plot. It was the result of good people like you and me who could not abide having our notions of justice and fairness and truth questioned. After all, as Solzhenitsyn reminds us in The Gulag Archipelago, “To do evil a human must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”[4]

In the crucifixion of our Lord, we encounter the crucifixion of our certainty. We encounter the crucifixion of our fickle and capricious notions of justice and fairness and truth. As the body of our Lord lay broken, we come face-to-face with our sinfulness—our treachery—and we are shattered.

“Give us instant gratification! Give us vengeance! Give us comfort!”

“Give us Barabbas!

And so they did.

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly (@MarshallJolly) is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is a frequent contributor to The Episcopal Church’s “Sermons that Work” series, and is the editor of Modern Metanoia. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

 

[1] Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle” in Our Only World, p. 94.

[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation p. 276.

[3] Ibid, p. 61. Volf is following Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1971.

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

Maundy Thursday: Servant Leadership

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

In the late 1960s, there was a senior executive at AT&T named Robert Greenleaf, who was increasingly dissatisfied with the conventional, authoritarian models of leadership that were so pervasive among corporations and institutions in the United States. So he spent the next several years researching different management styles and organizational structures, and he discovered that in fact, most top-down control-oriented systems don’t actually work very well. Attempts to compel compliance by those in power only elicited frustration and resistance from employees, and procedures and guidelines that were intended to streamline efficiency instead ended up preventing the natural flow of collaboration and creativity that leads to high-quality productivity.

In a groundbreaking essay, Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” as a way of describing what he found to be the most effective form of leadership, which seemed paradoxically to come not from a desire to lead, but from a desire to serve. The most successful leaders were the ones who put serving others first—including employees, customers, colleagues, and the larger community. This quality of leadership instills trust and calls forth the best in people, allowing creativity and freedom to flourish in an environment of relational awareness, empathy, and authenticity.

In 1977, Greenleaf wrote an influential book entitled Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, in which he optimistically observed that:

A new moral principle is emerging, which holds that the only authority deserving of one’s allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted in response to, and in proportion to, the clearly evident servant stature of the leader.

In today’s Gospel reading we see that this is not really a “new moral principle” at all. It is, in fact, a very old principle. And it’s a principle that lies at the very heart of Christianity.

The image of Jesus kneeling before his disciples to wash their feet during his last dinner with them is perhaps one of the most memorable and iconic examples of this principle of servant leadership. But of course the entirety of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching was meant to point the disciples towards that same foundational truth: that true power lies not in coercion or control, or achievement and success, but in kenosis – “self-emptying.” This is the word Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians when he implores them to “have the same attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself (εκενωσεν), taking the form of a servant.” (2:5-7)

I would argue that this “servant leadership” that Jesus embodies and calls forth in us is perhaps the most important, and yet the least understood and appreciated aspect of his entire ministry. The theology of a God who “empties himself” has been explicated and debated at length for centuries. But we have focused so much of our attention on questions about Jesus, trying to nail down the particulars of his divine constitution, that we have managed to conveniently avoid the whole matter of how we might go about practicing kenosis in our own lives. Thus, “servant leadership” as a lived moral principle has become so rare in our church institutions, and so against the grain of our so-called “Christian” culture, that when it is re-discovered by Greenleaf in the secular context of organizational management theory, it is thought to be a wholly new idea.

But as the late Episcopal bishop Bennett J. Sims observed after stumbling across Greenleaf’s work, we don’t believe that this paradox of servant leadership is true simply because Jesus taught it. Rather, we believe that Jesus taught it because it is true. If we truly understand Jesus to be the self-disclosure of God to humanity, then we should not be surprised to find those patterns and teachings that he revealed to us woven into the fabric of our everyday lives in the way things actually work.

This path of kenosis and servanthood is the key to understanding the true God of Christianity, who contrary to popular conception is not a remote, white-bearded, iron-fisted man who sits upon a throne in the clouds. That’s Zeus, the God of the Greeks. The Christian God is an active, self-emptying Love who chose to be born into human poverty and suffering, and who welcomed death in a humiliating scene of torture and despair in order to reveal to us a different kind of power, and a deeper kind of hope than anyone had ever dared to imagine. This is not a God who raises up the powers that be in this world; but rather, this is a God who casts the mighty down from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly. This is not a God who wants us to measure our success in terms of what we have gained, but measures in terms of what we have given away.

Of course, it’s incredibly difficult to live into such a radically countercultural paradigm, and if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we do not live this path of kenosis most of the time. Even many sincerely devoted Christians will spend much of their time asleep, caught up in an unconscious acquiescence to the dominant value system, which would have us define our value and the value of others in terms of what power, prestige, and possessions we have acquired.

This is why I love Peter. We call Peter the “rock” of the church. Roman Catholics recognize him as the first pope. In the Gospels he is usually listed as first among the disciples, and he often acts as a spokesperson for the twelve. And yet over and over again, Peter is depicted as the one who most flagrantly and unabashedly doesn’t get it. He strongly believed Jesus to be the “Messiah,” who would usher in the “Kingdom of God.” But it’s clear that throughout the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, he had no idea what that actually meant.

This scene at the last supper is particularly comical. When Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet, he is horrified. “You will never wash my feet!” he yells. It is reminiscent of that moment in Matthew 16:22, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to be killed, and Peter pulls him aside to yell at him saying, “No! That shall never happen to you!”

Peter, like most of us, cannot fully fathom the concept of a self-emptying Messiah – a true “servant leader.” All of Peter’s notions of power and success—everything he thinks he knows about what it means to be a “king”—are based on those same conventional top-down models of leadership that most of our human institutions (even the “democratic” ones!) still organize themselves around today. Peter, like many of us, does not have the “eyes to see” what Jesus is really up to, or the “ears to hear” what he is plainly saying. Even when Jesus insists that he must wash Peter’s feet in order for him to have a share in the kingdom, Peter hears this not as a demonstration of what real power looks like, but as an observation of how dirty he is. He exclaims eagerly, “then not just my feet but my hands and face too!” desperately hoping to be made clean enough to be worthy of entry into the Kingdom. You can almost hear the facepalm of Jesus as he reminds Peter that people who have already taken baths don’t require any additional cleansing.

This is what it looks like when we try to put new wine into old wineskins. So often we hear only what we expect or want to hear, interpreting words from within the context of what we think we know. Usually it takes something pretty major to burst those old containers. For Peter, it was the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Only in the context of a hope that was deep enough to embrace life beyond death did the pieces of the puzzle start to really fit together, and Peter was finally able to make that paradigm shift which enabled him to live out his own path of kenosis faithfully and courageously.

On this eve of crucifixion, perhaps many of us would like to skip Good Friday. Perhaps like Peter, we still want to believe on some level in a salvation that would let us somehow avoid that whole dying-to-self thing. And yet, this is the pattern that has been woven into the cosmos. This is the practice that enables a different kind of power to emerge. This is the unexpected entry point into new and abundant life: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

 

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Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is Assistant Director of The Servant Leadership School at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is also a freelance writer, theologian, consultant, and indie folk singer-songwriter with an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she focused her studies in music and art, theology of culture, Biblical interpretation, early church history, and ecumenical worship.

 

 

 

Palm Sunday (A): What is Palm Sunday?

What is Palm Sunday?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By Mashaun D. Simon

For the longest time, Palm Sunday was simply the Sunday before Easter for me. Yes, there were rituals we performed at church before and during that Sunday’s worship service. And yes, those rituals included acquiring and laying palms throughout the sanctuary.

Over time, I became more and more aware of the reasons we were doing what we were doing: the palms, their significance, and what they represented. But I cannot say with confidence what the moment meant for the church, and what the significance was of the palms.

I came to understand that we were doing it because Palm Sunday represented the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, complete with the celebrations surrounding this moment. But I did not fully understand why it was such a big deal and why there seemed to be the need to mark this moment in the calendar year.

Today, I possess this conclusion in my mind that Palm Sunday is, in many ways, about preparation and it is through this idea of preparation that I engage this year’s gospel text for Palm Sunday, which can be found in the 14th chapter of Matthew.

The themes of preparation are prevalent throughout. Here in the story we have Judas receiving currency for his betrayal, the disciples making preparation for the Passover meal, Jesus’ declaration that he will be betrayed, Jesus’ declaration that he will be denied thrice, and Jesus’ grieving and agitation.

Each of these scenarios have, in one way or another, some level of connection to preparation. Judas’ actions are the prequel to Jesus’ persecution—and we are being prepared for the full weight of it. The disciples seeking a place for the Passover meal is preparation for a moment of fellowship and covenant. Jesus’ two declarations—one of betrayal and the other of denial—provide preparation for lessons as well as bracing for what is to come. And Jesus going away to grieve ahead of the ultimate sacrifice is a signal of the realities of doubt and fear.

Throughout the story, we are being prepared for what’s next and being given a glimpse into the realities of human nature. I can’t help but see this theme of preparation throughout these verses and wonder what the overall takeaway should be at this time in this season as we await Easter.

Preparation is defined as the act of making ready or being made ready. We live in a society rooted in preparation.

Whether in school or on a job, we are all working towards a level of readiness. Being or feeling prepared is human nature. When we aren’t ready for what’s coming, we are often uncomfortable, uneasy, stressed even.

But what does being prepared mean for us in this text? What does being prepared mean for us in the seasons of Lent and Easter? Why must we prepare? And what are we preparing for? What are the benefits of being prepared?

I have friends who call me a control freak. They are convinced that I spend entirely too much energy on knowing what is coming or what is next and they consider that to be a form of needing or wanting to be in control. But for the most part, what they miss is that it is not always about being in control; rather, it is about being at my best.

Maybe that is what the theme of preparation is about in this text: Jesus being at his best and wanting the disciples to be at their best.

Jesus knew what was coming and wanted the disciples to be as prepared as possible for what they would need to do next. Here Jesus was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, and he wanted to give them time to understand not only what was happening, but an opportunity to be at their best once it happened.

Granted we are supposed to have an idea of how things panned out after Jesus’ persecution, and Jesus knew how things would work out, but his disciples didn’t. And so, Jesus wanted to prepare them for what was to come, and for the part that they would be made to play.

But more than a biopic of the life of the disciples during Jesus’ last days, Palm Sunday reminds us that we all have a part to play. God has a plan for us, yes, but that does not mean that we are to sit idly by, come what may. We are being called to do our part.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we are supposed to take from this day, this theme, and this season.

This season, think about what is before you. Think about what you are anticipating. Think about your call, and the ways you have committed (or not committed) to answer it, bracing yourself for what is to come.

Pay attention to the signs being provided; ready yourself for what is to come. Be mindful that regardless of what is coming, God is with you, equipping you for what is on the other side.

And then give God the praise for what God has done, is doing, and will do in the lives of God’s people.

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Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher, a teacher, a writer and a scholar in his native, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology with a triple focus in preaching, faith and formation, and race and religion, and double certificates in Black Church Studies and religious education. He contributes his thoughts and perspectives to online and print mediums, and serves at House of Mercy Everlasting (HOME) church in College Park, Georgia. Much of his research focuses on race, sexuality, identity and faith.

Lent 5(A): A Miracle Beyond the Miracle

Lent 5(A): A Miracle Beyond the Miracle

John 11:1-45

By: The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

When it comes to facing difficulties in life, I always become a Martha! In today’s reading from the Gospel of John we encounter one of the most painful and difficult moments that anyone can face in life: the death of a loved one. Scripture tells us that after being informed of Lazarus’ illness and death, Jesus arrives in Bethany four days later to be with Mary and Martha and console them in their loss. When Jesus arrives, he encounters a force to be reckoned with: the sisters’ anger, frustration, despair, and fear.

There are a few interesting interactions that take place in this story. First, when Martha realizes Jesus is in town, she decides to go out to the street to confront him. As soon as she sees him, she boldly says to him: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These few words carry an accusatory tone. Martha’s reaction to Jesus would have been revolutionary to most of Jesus’ followers—followers who never questioned Jesus. Second, unlike her sister Martha, it seems that Mary preferred to stay at home and remain in solitude in her mourning. Perhaps she was dealing with so much heartbreak that she couldn’t face Jesus. Both interactions with Jesus reminded me of times in which I have faced difficulties in life and have taken out my anger and heartbreak on God. An action that to some of us might seem revolutionary, after all who questions God?

As mentioned earlier on the first paragraph, I always become a Martha when it comes to facing life’s difficulties. Some months ago, after checking with our regular doctor, my wife and I were told we were pregnant once again. Even though we were excited about the news, I could not hide my apprehension. Unfortunately, we had suffered a few miscarriages throughout the past few years, and even though I was excited about this new pregnancy, I was also deeply sad and frustrated with God. I could not understand why God would allow our miscarriages to happen. As I was dealing with my own sadness and frustration, I realized that my wife was joyful and excited once again. The first few months of the pregnancy went by fast and once we got past the point in which we had miscarried before, I began to experience such joy as well. Then I said to myself, “perhaps I have been too hard on God. Perhaps I should never question God’s wisdom.” Then the doctors diagnosed our baby with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that affects the baby’s development of the brain and the baby’s spine. Just as Martha confronted Jesus: “if you were here, my brother would not have died,” I also confronted him: “if you were here, my son would not have spina bifida.” In the days following I did not even try talking to God. I was deeply sad, I felt lost and disappointed. I wonder how many of us have been there before? I wonder how many of us are Marthas and Marys?

But the story does not end there. Mary and Martha are on the street with Jesus, and while they are weeping, Jesus’ spirit is greatly disturbed and deeply moved. Then Jesus began to weep as well. Perhaps life is not fair, perhaps life is just a difficult journey in itself, but the one thing that I have learned throughout the past few months is that I am not alone. Just as I wept during the miscarriages, just as I wept when my son was diagnosed spina bifida, I knew in my heart that God was there with me, weeping.

This story is a reminder that regardless of how we deal with our pain, regardless of whether we are a Mary (heartbroken) or a Martha (anger) when facing difficulties, God is always there, holding us, walking with us and even suffering our own suffering. Perhaps this is the biggest miracle that takes place in this story. The miracle of God’s eternal presence in our lives, a miracle that transcends the resurrection of Lazarus, that transcends our own suffering and reminds us of an eternal unity between humanity and God.

Over the following months, as we have gotten closer to the delivery of our baby, what became most important to my wife and me is the fact that we have been blessed with the coming of our first child. The diagnosis of the spina bifida has faded into the background and we are excited to face whatever life has for us, after all: we have one another and we have God.

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The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is an Episcopal priest serving as priest in charge of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (Diocese of Milwaukee). Oscar is originally from Bogota, Colombia and moved to the U.S. in 2004. He now lives in Wisconsin with his wife, The Rev. Elizabeth Tester, their puppy Amos, and kitty Batsheva.

 

 

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Luke 1:26-38

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

In the parish I serve in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a stained glass window depicting the Annunciation located in the clerestory that rises above the nave (the part of the church where the people of God gather for worship.) On Wednesday afternoons, when the congregation of the faithful is often few in number, my seat is located directly below and across from this magnificent piece of art.

If at all possible, I try to arrive in my seat ten minutes or so prior to the start of the service—a time set aside for reflection and prayer that all too often, can go forgotten in the course of a normal week. During these moments, week after week, I continually find myself gazing at the image of the Annunciation.

The depiction is traditional in almost every way. The eventual Mother of God is devoutly kneeling, as though her noonday prayers are being interrupted by the angel who appears before her eyes. There is no resistance or hesitation; there is only adoration of the divine messenger—the one who will utter a word rendering her life, and the life of all creation, forever changed.

Bells toll from the tower and the Eucharistic liturgy must be underway. All too soon, my moment with the Blessed Virgin and the angelic visitor is over. But Mary remains, fixed in her position of consent and obedience, awaiting the next person who will pause to gaze upon her life-altering moment of divine visitation.

Annually, the Church returns to the Annunciation, nine long months prior to the mid-winter festival of the Incarnation. With each return, preachers and pew-sitters alike are faced with the question of what, if anything, this story has to offer our lives and journeys of faith.

After all, when an individual speaks of an angelic visitation, the twenty-first century impulse is more likely to make a psychiatric referral rather than record it as Gospel truth.  Yet, this story and its yearly festival remain on our calendar, with some leaving it forgotten in the confines of Lent while others mark it with great ceremony and devotion.

The angelic announcement to the eventual Mother of God is a biblical narrative in which, I believe, it is very possible to locate ourselves as twenty-first century readers and preachers and find meaning for the Christian journey in our present day. Mary’s is an unlikely tale of surprise and faithfulness that can reach beyond so many boundaries and enliven the absurdity of our common call as Christ-followers in this age.

When the angel of the Lord visits Mary, she pauses, resists even. Luke tells us that she is “perplexed by his words.” And who could blame her? The unwelcome guest has entered into her midst and is preparing to offer the most unlikely of invitations: a summons to join in God’s story of salvation for all time.

In our own time, the unwelcome guest with a life-changing message can appear in so many different forms, but rarely as an angel. One might hear the message of the angel in this passage but not be able to shake the words of the physician who has just named the spot on the X-ray as cancer. Another might envision the angel’s appearance before the youthful Mary but see only the image of a former employer announcing the terms of a layoff and a promising career taking an unexpected turn.

As Luke’s rendering of the event progresses, it is as though the teen girl is maturing into an astute woman before our eyes. Blessed Mary receives the improbable dispatch of the angel and responds with an even more astounding affirmation. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”

It begs the question: What divine call might we, as individuals and communities of readers, be wrestling with as this passage is proclaimed? As I write, faithful people in our nation are perplexed at how to respond to a ban on the entry of refugees into this nation. Others are pondering sustainable solutions to staggering reality of hunger in our various communities.  No doubt, other issues exist and will continue to arise.

As a preacher, I often think of my task as opening up the story and then stepping out of the way—a task easier said than done. In this passage, it is to invite a congregation to see this story for all that it is: an unlikely young woman receiving a visit from the divine messenger and offering a less than warm welcome. But, even more, it is to invite the hearer to respond to the call of the Holy One with a like fervor, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The location of the Annunciation window in my parish is significant, far beyond the fact that the presider is offered the opportunity to gaze upon her week after week. In the clerestory where the window stands are images that are associated with each of the apostles. They work their way around the sacred hall of prayer in order, from the front to the back, left to right.

Following this path, the same pilgrimage that marks the life of Jesus on the lower level, Mary’s Annunciation experience is first among those. She is the first apostle, the first to encounter the incomparable plan of God and to respond in affirmation.

Mary’s response to the divine summons, “let it be with me according to your word,” is the ‘yes’ that sets in motion the incarnation of the perfect reconciling love of God. Her ‘yes’ makes possible our ‘yes,’ our participation in the cosmic movement of redemption that is being worked out, day by day.

The Annunciation bids us all to find ourselves, individually and collectively, in the story of a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph, a girl who heard the unexpected invitation of God and said yes. Her story has the power to inspire each of us, in our own journeys, to follow in the path that she herself has traveled, a trail of faithfulness that leads us ultimately into the redeeming heart of God.

 

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

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

Lent 4: Telling the Truth

Lent 4: Telling the Truth

John 9:1-41

 

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

I am oddly comforted by today’s passage. It probably is not for the reasons you think. There are plenty of things in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel that point toward wholeness and goodness. We see Jesus heal a man who has been without physical sight; and even more than that, we see Jesus correct a bit of bad theology that assumes all bad situations are due to mistakes and sin in people’s lives. There are many great theological and exegetical resources which focus specifically on vision and sight that is restored through Christ.

However, for some reason, I am drawn to a different aspect of the story. This man who simply wants to celebrate his new ability to see and move on with life has to tell his story three separate times; first he told his neighbors, then twice to the religious leaders. I imagine that his first time telling the story, this man eagerly shared about the miraculous new sight he had been gifted with and the relatively gross way he had received sight. “I heard him spit, then felt a warm gritty mud get rubbed on my eyes. Then he told me to go and wash his spit off, and I could see!”

Then, rather than seeing smiles on his neighbor’s faces or hearing sounds of celebration, this man sees frowns, and hears people debating whether it is actually him or not. He is made to defend himself, simply because his story doesn’t fit into his neighbor’s worldview, even declaring “it is me!” after his neighbors engage in an awkward debate about whether or not this man is who he says he is—as he stands there in front of them!

You would think he would have been able to move on after proving who he was, and proving that he was given sight. But instead, he gets brought in front of the religious leaders who examine his story. They even bring in his parents to make sure he really was born blind. They hear his story, see the evidence of his new sight, confirm that he was born blind and now is able to see, and yet they still debate about the nature of the healing. They argue over the day on which Jesus healed him. They argue over Jesus’ ability to heal in general.

After debating about him, they go back to this man a third time, not to congratulate him, but instead to question and harass him. At this point the man born blind lets his frustration show through, claiming the obvious: “I was blind and now I see… this is incredible! You don’t know where he is from yet he healed my eyes!” (John 9:25, 30) He even offers a little theological truth, “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners. God listens to anyone who is devout and does God’s will. No one has ever heard of a healing of the eyes of someone born blind. If this man wasn’t from God, he couldn’t do this.” (John 9:31-33)

At this point, the religious leaders outright reject this man’s healing as a miraculous work of God. In fact, they return to their comfortable understanding of the man born blind as a product of sin and nothing more. With factual evidence of a greater truth staring them directly in the eyes, debating with them, the religious leaders reject it for the sake of the comfortable worldview that they had been trained to hold.

You may be wondering how this is hopeful at all. I don’t know about your daily routine, but mine includes scrolling a few different news sources, and frankly I am tired of reading about facts being belittled and demeaned for the sake of maintaining a comfort level that keeps people on margins of society. I’m tired of reading about false or alternative facts being spread in a way that keeps neighbors from loving and trusting one another. It makes me feel nauseous. There are moments where I feel like the celebration of intentional ignorance really can’t get any worse than it is.

Then I read John’s gospel account of the healing of the man born blind and I remember that Jesus has experienced this level of dishonest marginalization. I remember that Jesus did not abandon the man born blind when his neighbors and his church rejected him. I remember that Jesus heard the blind man had been rejected. When Jesus heard, Jesus looked for him. When Jesus found him, he welcomed him as one of his own.

It would be so easy for me to rest into the privilege I have and stop paying attention to the injustice around me, yet Jesus challenges that. Jesus, a man born with the privilege that comes through the ancestral line of David, who held knowledge of scripture over his elders as a child, who had authority to teach in the temple, refused to let the cultural norms of his society keep him comfortable.

This story of the man born blind receiving sight teaches me that there has always been a group of powerful people who reject the truth and create their own versions of reality that maintain social norms and customs. It also teaches me that there have always been those who are willing to speak up and speak out against this unhealthy habit. And when one of those people who tries so hard to live in the truth is rejected by the powers that be, there is always One who will seek them out, and call them to a new life.

In my ministry, and yours, I hope that we are able to stand with Jesus, offering good news of transformation, grace, love, and acceptance. I hope that we find the endurance that Christ has to seek out those who have been rejected to offer new life. I hope we never get so overwhelmed by alternative and comfortable facts that we neglect the truth that exists around us. Even more, I hope that we never let those inaccuracies manipulate grace and truth into oppression and neglect.

I am comforted to know that we are never alone in our efforts to love God and neighbor. I am comforted to know that scripture is full of people who try and fail. I am comforted to know that Jesus had the same struggles that you and I now share. How do we proclaim truth in a society that rejects truth? We follow Jesus’ example. We love those pushed to the side. We come alongside those who are hurting. And we tell the truth.

 

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber is the Associate Pastor of Congregational Care and Community Outreach at Decatur First United Methodist Church. He was recently commissioned as an Elder in the United Methodist Church after serving as a Local Pastor. Patrick is a graduate of Candler School of Theology with a focus in religious and non-profit leadership.

Lent 3(A): Filled with Living Water

Lent 3(A): Filled with Living Water

John 4:5-42

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Deep in the heart of the West Bank stands a stone church guarded by a thin, wizened, img_1643Orthodox Christian priest with a long white beard. He has been there for decades, despite living under the constant threat of death, escaping a death plot sixteen times. A crumbling chunk of the wall bears witness to the time someone threw a hand grenade at him. This priest, who spends his days writing icons, lived in the church for 14 years while surrounded by a hostile army, refusing to abandon the treasure he guards. He once refused a $1 million grant from Yasser Arafat to continue construction of the church because he did not want any political strings attached to his mission to keep the church open to people of all walks of faith. This priest is the protector of a treasure of the three Abrahamic faiths, and he fights with his simple, quiet presence to keep the site open to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He is the guardian of the treasure that sits deep at the very heart of the church.

As you enter the church, hundreds of lovely icons greet the eye, but one stands out from the others. It is simple and plain in comparison to the golden saints that gather everywhere the eye can see, but no less lovely for its simplicity.

This particular icon depicts a man and a woman in conversation, their gaze interlocked. She listens intently as he gestures confidently with assurance and authority. He points to the heavens with one hand, perhaps to her town with the other, as if to declare that there is an inherent tension between the two directions. Or perhaps he sends her—commissions her—to tell what he has shared in conversation. Either way, the tension is evident in her body turned toward him even as she appears to take a step away. She remains poised on the edge, almost as if she can barely believe what she has heard, yet yearning for it to be true.

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This icon is key to the Christian tradition about the site, and perhaps is why the priest guards this treasure so intently. The priest is the guardian of Be’er Ya’akov, Jacob’s well, a holy site open to people of all nations and faiths. The priest is the guardian of a deep tradition of radical hospitality to the “other,” the hallmark of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is the site where Jesus overcame all social mores and boundaries to encounter a woman in a deep, life-changing moment.

God in Jesus makes a radical statement in his meeting with the woman at the well. She is “other” in every way to Jesus. She is a Samaritan: considered heathen and apostate; he is a Jew: considered devout and Chosen. She is a woman: of low status in a man’s world, undeserving of notice; he is a man: respected as a teacher, noticed by crowds of people. She has a shameful past that distances her from her community (she comes alone at noon instead of in the morning, as women usually would); he is of good repute. She is nameless; he is Christ, the Son of God. Everything about this woman separates her from Jesus and from society: her gender, her religion, her social habits, her personal history, and her lifestyle. In the eyes of the world, she is a nobody.

But in Jesus’ domain, she is somebody—somebody worth noticing; somebody worth saving. Somebody worth filling to the brim with the gift of God, the living water of eternal life. Despite what she has done, Jesus does not turn away from her. Rather, he invites her into conversation, takes her seriously, and lodges in her village. He cares deeply about her welfare and about her community.

This is not just a tale about an individual. The story plays on a geopolitical front as well. Jesus approaches the nations, not just individuals. She represents an “outsider” nation. Samaritans believe in one God, but that God’s holy place is on Mount Gerizim not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believe that they, and they alone, keep the “pure” faith, having preserved the bloodlines, traditions and old ways of worshipping for over 2,000 years. When Jesus tells her “Go, and come with your husband,” we may assume that he speaks to her in the language of the time. In Hebrew, the term ba’al may refer to master, husband, lord, or the particular god of a region. In Deuteronomy 22:22, an ishah ba’al is a married woman. The Hebrew word is also used in Jeremiah and Hosea to depict the relationship of husband and wife between God and Israel. Jesus tells her she has had five husbands (five gods?), and the one that she is living with is not legitimate. He describes her personal story, but also her nation’s story. The gods, traditions, and holy sites worshipped in the past are not legitimate. Legitimacy comes of worshipping the one God in spirit and truth, unconfined to particular spaces.

This is Good News, but also challenging news for the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time, just as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. It is challenging news because it reminds us that the people we think of as nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of God. This text, says Deborah Kapp, “reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We often prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.” What does it mean that Jesus cares as deeply for the outsider as for his own chosen people? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth, when the particulars of tradition and dogma don’t seem to matter much to God?

The example of the priest at Be’er Ya’akov may provide us with the answer. Drinking deeply of the living water of God means having compassion for the other. In fact, as Jesus reminds us, it is at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel. “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If only we could open our hearts as Jesus does! Perhaps then the world would overflow with living water—embodying the true peace of God.

 

Profile
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Winchester, Kentucky and is part of the Network for Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Development. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts in the Kentucky countryside. Chana lives in Winchester with her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, and their hedgehog, Jacob.