3rd Sunday in Lent (B): Being Driven Out

3rd Sunday in Lent (B): Being Driven Out

John 2:13-22

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

I’ve always found it useful to enter into a new place wielding a whip that I fashioned upon arrival whilst tossing around furniture and condemning the locals—said no one, ever. If you’re in ministry somewhere—let’s use the Episcopal Church—and you’ve just met the wardens and the vestry, it’s probably not the healthiest idea to take them to a beloved spot within their known center of worship and subsequently rearrange the furniture with gusto. Or a whip.

But if you’re Jesus…

We don’t know Jesus that well at this point in the Gospel of John. As a matter of fact, we’ve only heard a little about the Word “in the beginning” (John 1:1), followed by John’s proclamation of unworthiness (John 1:26), a baptism (John 1:32), the recruiting of his friends—(John 35-50), and a wedding wherein water was turned into wine (John 2:1-12.) Our limited understanding of Jesus through John’s lens depicts a man who is a departure from everything we’ve known before and a man who, with his friends, can throw a pretty mean party.

But then the unthinkable happens. The so-far faithful followers trail Jesus as he enters the Temple right before Passover, and they see their new leader grab some cords, weave a weapon, and start harassing the important people in the room. In a moment, the entirety of their understanding is shifted from ‘We found the Messiah!’ to ‘Oh no, he didn’t…’

Of course, those of us lucky enough to know the rest of the story begin fist-pumping and urging Jesus on as he throws down in the Temple. We know that he’s the Messiah without any doubt—we’ve read about his ministry, death, and resurrection—so, we aren’t shocked by his actions; we encourage them.

I think an important ‘aha’ moment in my ministry occurred while reading this passage. I was fan-boying-up Jesus and rooting against the people who were defiling the Temple when all of the sudden, I wondered, “Wait a minute. Would Jesus throw tables around in my Parish Hall if he showed up on any given Sunday?” Surely not. Surely my parish and I are the heroes, right? We’re the ones who don’t utilize our holy spaces to make money or have non-spiritual conversations and meetings throughout the week, including some Sundays. After reading and re-reading this passage, can I accept that I’ve chosen to be blind to the complicity of my own actions which sometimes mirror those of the people who were driven out of the Temple by a raging Jesus.

John 2:13-22 offers us an opportunity to look at the way in which we conduct ourselves as Godly people. Do we really know Jesus? Have we just read the first few lines of each chapter and then glossed over the middle, to the end, where we rejoice in Christ’s triumphant resurrection? Can we see areas in which our present actions shadow those of generations past? The acts of driving out the people, the proclamation of the Temple’s destruction, and the promise of its rebuilding can still serve as not-so-gentle reminders that we still have work to do.

How do we and our congregations view Jesus in this passage, and can we cast ourselves as those sitting in the Temple in need of someone to get us moving around again? Are there ways in which to figuratively tear-down some of our current practices in order to make space for new and life-giving ministries? Do we have enough faith to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us in this work, preaching a message of anti-complacency which could result in rebuilding?

An important moment in understanding always seems to come after admission of fault. Perhaps we are not the heroes of our modern-day Temples. Maybe we could stand to engage our people in a better knowledge of who Jesus was (and is) by virtue of being a little more Jesus-like in our preaching and teaching by driving out the accepted norms and making space for new ideas, rather than prematurely fist-pumping and thinking we’re always on the right side of things.

The difficult moment of stepping into the shoes of the driven-out simply means that we have the opportunity to become part of the rebuilding process. I know that if I were sitting in the congregation, I would want to be challenged a little bit more and comforted a little bit less during Lent. In a season of preparation and introspection, perhaps the best thing we can do for our communities is chase them out into the world with a challenge to change status quo, tear down established poor theologies, and bring people back with them to take part in the still-being-written work of Jesus Christ. Just maybe without the whips.

 

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The Rev. Sean Ekberg

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

 

 

Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Mark 8:31-38

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Mark 8:31-38, English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There are moments in life that are very brief, yet remain with us for a very long time—maybe even forever. As a parent, most of these moments in my own life revolve around my children. I have found memories of each of my three children trying on various versions of my shoes and attempting to walk around the house in them like daddy. I don’t know what it is about these particular memories, but they continue to bring me joy, and I pray they always do.

I consider myself a fairly empathic person. I am able to pick up on emotional cues fairly easily from the people around me. Sometimes, I understand these cues well and at other times I struggle to know what are my feelings and what are the feelings of the people around me. In many ways, it is as if I am wearing the various shoes of the people around me, attempting to walk around the room as they do.

In many regards this helps a great deal in my own personal ministry. I think I am able to understand the people around me (as much as is possible.) This helps me to minister with the various individuals that make up my congregation given all their differences of personalities, histories, opinions, and beliefs. The more I am involved in ministry leadership, the more I am learning the strength of my empathy.

However, I must constantly make sure I am “trying on” all of the respective shoes that may come through my congregation. I cannot allow myself to throw off a pair of shoes because they are uncomfortable or difficult to walk in. In fact, I would argue that the more uncomfortable the shoes are for me to walk in, the longer I should try and walk with them on. This allows a greater understanding of the other I may struggle to understand. The easier it is to be empathic, the less likely I probably need to use that particular skill in the relationship.

I say all of this with this week’s lectionary text in mind because I often find myself wearing Jesus’ shoes and aligning myself with Jesus when I read this particular scripture. However, it’s easier for me to walk in Jesus’ shoes (at least for this particular scripture) than it is for me to walk in Peter’s shoes. We have all experienced times when even our best friends seem to suggest or even lead us down paths in our lives that are the opposite of what God wants for us. This is Jesus’ experience. As he shares the difficult path ahead of him, Peter steps in to tell Jesus, “Surely, that’s not what God wants for you.”

The path of Christ is hard. Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must deny ourselves. We must take up our cross daily. Many of us believe that the difficulty and struggles of our lives are our cross. There are many times when both we and the people around us want our path to be easier. However, I don’t think this is exactly what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knew the path God was leading for him. Jesus knew the suffering and pain that was to come. Jesus continually attempts to point this out to his followers and to Peter. Yet, Peter did not like this path. Jesus’ disciples and those following his ministry believe him to be the Messiah. I think for many of them this meant that Jesus would restore God’s people, freeing them from the rule of Rome. But this would not be the case. Jesus would die to Rome.

The Gospel Transformation Bible points out in its notes that in this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34.) Each of these three predictions is followed by instruction and teaching on the cost and nature of discipleship (8:34-37; 9:35-50; 10:35-44.)

In many ways Jesus is teaching us that to follow him as our Messiah means to give up and “die” to the vary ways in which we imagine the Messiah saving us. The more and more shoes I find myself wearing as I attempt to understand the various different people around me is teaching me a very valuable lesson: we must allow Jesus to be who Jesus is. We cannot expect Jesus to come to people only with our own biases and wearing our own shoes. I fully believe that Jesus loves each of us no matter what our shoes look like. And I praise God for that.

Yet, if we are honest, I believe most of us would be like Peter. We would want to stand up and fight for Jesus. In fact, many in the church do this today. Depending on our preconceived notion of Jesus, we want to fight those that have another notion of Jesus because our notion must be right! If you are at all like me, you may struggle to understand how in the world Jesus could love some of the people you come across each day.

But I believe in those very moments, we are standing firmly in Peter’s shoes. It is in those moments that we are asking Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah than he is. It is in those moments that we expect Jesus to come and destroy our enemies, because surely, they are the enemies of God. And, it is in those moments that Jesus rebukes us and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

This scripture reminds us that Jesus is a radically different kind of Messiah than we may imagine. This Messiah wears a different kind of shoes, to follow the metaphor. However, this is precisely the kind of Messiah we need. Jesus is a Messiah that loves and dies for each of us. A Messiah that is able to teach us with his own life, death, and resurrection what it truly means to live a life of discipleship. A life in which we die to self in order to recognize the Messiah for who He truly is. A life in which we take off on own shoes in order to wear the shoes of those around us—constantly pointing them to love of Christ.

 

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David is a graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. David is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading.

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

Mark 1:9-15

By:  The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

“You’ve taken your first steps into a much larger world!”  -Obi Wan Kenobi

These are the words spoken by the wise old Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi to a young Luke Skywalker after the latter’s first Jedi training session in Star Wars (or, as time has forced us to call it, Episode IV or A New Hope). Luke, stretching out with his feelings and trusting his instincts, has just successfully used his lightsaber to ward off several shots from a droid while unable to see a thing. Obi Wan congratulates him. This is a huge moment for Luke, one that merits some sort of celebration. Yet there is no time for celebrating Luke’s accomplishment in this first Jedi training, instead he and Obi Wan must rescue Princess Leia, and later Luke must continue his training on his own after his mentor is defeated by Darth Vader (SPOILER ALERT!) This moment, though, is where it begins. These are Luke’s first steps.

Moments such as these are exciting and filled with so much promise. They are start of something new and exciting, yet also quite scary. We have such moments in the Church, of course. We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination. These may seem like self-contained events, but they are merely the first steps into a much larger world. Our lectionary today places Jesus in the moments after one such event.

We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves on January 7 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. On that day we ended the Gospel passage with those beautiful words from God, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we get the aftermath of that event.

What happens once Jesus is baptized? He doesn’t stop to celebrate or bask in his accomplishment. Like Luke, he is thrown into his call without warning, immediately driven out into the wilderness. That word, ‘immediately,’ is one of Mark’s favorite words. In Greek it’s eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly. Clearly, there is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus’ baptism. Instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, into an unknown and fearful world.

The story is told of a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer. This student chose to do her work in prison ministry. She arrived on her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ No warm-up or week of orientation; no, just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.

Jesus, likewise, is dropped into the wilderness.  Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations; all sorts of evils. The text says he is tempted by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally. Still, what a dreadful situation! Here is Jesus, right after this great, joyful, momentous occasion, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, having to go into a frightening circumstance that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves. How does he do it?

He does it because the Spirit is the one that drives him to it. The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.

Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not the end, but the beginning. In the same way, the same Spirit that descended upon us at our baptisms, or at our confirmations or ordinations—the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever—has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very frightening. We, like Jesus, have taken our first steps into this larger, frightening world, and God has told us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told: ‘OK, go do ministry!’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much. How? How can I, how can we, possibly do this?

I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness. Yet the Scripture tells us that the angels waited on him, or as Greek scholar Preston Epps translates it, they “ministered” to him. What a beautiful image! The angels surrounded Jesus, lifting him up and supporting him. The Good News here is that he was not alone.  Jesus did not embark on his earthly ministry totally on his own, and neither do we.

God’s angels—those messengers who help bring us the Good News—are all around us. If our eyes are opened we will see them, those who minister to us so that we may minister to others. Our priests, families, spiritual directors, therapists, teachers, coaches, and so many others are there to support us as those angels supported Jesus. Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ may seem like a monumental task; to be sure, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, and spreading the word that the Kingdom of God has come near are by no means easy endeavors. Nevertheless, we are reminded this day that such holy work is never done alone. After his death, Obi Wan continued to guide Luke, and he and his friends Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2 and others, managed to defeat the evil Galactic Empire. At no point, though, did they do it alone. In the same way, we are never alone once we take those first steps.

This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. It may seem daunting, but we have one another to minister to us and with us. We will face whatever comes; after all, these are merely our first steps.

 

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The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Ash Wednesday (B): Sometimes People are Awful

Ash Wednesday (B): Sometimes People are Awful

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

“The Internet can be an awful place full of awful people.”

Ever since Star Wars: The Last Jedi hit theaters, my partner and I find ourselves saying this on the daily—whenever we see people complaining about a fun movie, saying something reprehensible in the comments section of a news article, and so forth. And it’s easy to see how it’s true, right? You know the comments sections I’m talking about. The debates unfolding on your Facebook wall between your aunt and that one random person you met on a trip across the country. The people that seem to post from high horses about how amazing life is and how #blessed they are in a way that seems to mock others. The Internet can be an awful place full of awful people.

The problem though is that sometimes, we ourselves are those awful people. The Internet is only what it is because we use it in those ways. And sometimes, we as people just aren’t great.

The uncomfortable realization that people—ourselves included—just suck sometimes is what Lent is all about. Okay, that might be my Millennial pastor translation. In more formal terms, Lent is a period of 40 days ahead of Easter set aside to solemnly prepare oneself for the Holy Week observance. It represents the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert facing temptation in preparation for his own ministry. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which is what we are focusing on in the texts for today. Ash Wednesday emphasizes our mortality, as we remind each other “from dust we came and to dust we shall return.” Introspection about mortality often invites an honest recognition of our shortcomings, so the Lenten season is also seen as a time of repentance and renewal before the highest holy day in our tradition, Easter Sunday.

Which brings us back to this: sometimes people are awful, and we can see this play out on the Internet. It’s today’s texts that bring the Internet to mind, though, as our Ash Wednesday texts include the series of Jesus’s maxims about how to conduct one’s spiritual life in the world. He warns his audience that prayer, giving, fasting—these things are between us and God. In fact, in these passages, we see the suggestion that if we are to do these acts as a public display of piety, then our reward will be just as vain and worldly. We will get the satisfaction of knowing that others know how holy we are, and that’s it. These passages are particularly convicting in the age of social media. Sometimes it seems like nothing is done in secret. We know exactly how much our friends are donating to what causes, we saw their selfies from the community service site, and we know what page their on in their devotional books.

Like others my age, I love posting all about my life on Facebook and Twitter—my joys, my griefs, my goals, and my meals. And as a religious person, it feels natural to include religion and spirituality in the umbrella of topics and themes I reflect about online. But what are we to do with Jesus’s warning not to be “not be like the hypocrites” who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others?” Are we hypocrites if we post on Facebook or Twitter about our prayer, our fast, or our giving?

This dilemma accompanies almost every piece of wisdom attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Did Jesus literally want us to turn the other cheek? Sell all our possessions? Keep mum about our spiritual disciplines? And it’s not as simple as hoping Jesus didn’t mean what he said so that we can do what we want instead. There are actually good counterpoints to this advice. Yes, a humble person may stay quiet about the money they donated to a cause, but what making the donation publicly helps to encourage more giving? (This is the premise of crowdfunding sites after all.) And the same is true about spiritual disciplines—there is actually power in accountability. I know there are certain practices I should be doing for my own good, but it’s easy for me to put things out of my mind until I am reminded by someone else posting about prayer, reading, writing, and other practices that theoretically matter to me. Lent reminds me that I’m mortal, finite, flawed, and way too often, I fall short of who I want to be. Connecting with others online, in the best case scenario, reminds me that I am called to live differently.

So what are we to do this Lent? If we use the time to rededicate ourselves to spiritual disciplines, must we hide it to reap the rewards? I worry about my compulsion to water down the high demands my faith makes of me, so I won’t do that here. I’m not ready to let us off the hook. Maybe some of us do flaunt our spiritual acts too much, and maybe those 47 likes we got is the reward we get. After all, the drive of social media is to post about our lives and get interaction from other people. But maybe it depends on why we post and why we are embarking on spiritual practices in the first place.

If we set out to show people how good we are, then yes, the appropriate reward is the social media popularity. And still, if we are truly seeking support and accountability, we may find it online. I don’t know that the answer is that the Internet is horrible and it ruins everything. Instead, we may just need to be cautious of our motivations, knowing ourselves and the temptation level of posting updates about our lives to get affirmation from others in the form of likes and comments. Additionally, perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves why we are posting and if there is a better way to meet that need. If I am truly looking for accountability, maybe there is a friend I can reach out to online instead. If I’m truly looking for the opinion of a group of fellow pastors, maybe I can use my privacy settings in such a way to reach curated groups of people. The Internet can bring out our worst, for sure, but perhaps we can use it to bring out our best, too.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner Kyle just recently moved back to the state of their youth after eight years away collecting experiences and degrees.

 

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.