Reign of Christ(A): How Are You Doing?

Reign of Christ(A): How Are You Doing?

Matthew 25:31-46

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

“How are you?” It’s a commonly-used filler for passers-by on the street, in supermarkets, or generally any public place. We also say it in different demographical iterations: “How y’all doin?” “How’s it goin?” (Silent nod), etc. The interesting part is that we rarely expect an answer, or really even want one. With this pandemic, these statements are even less inviting. When I’m walking down the aisle in all my masked glory, I don’t really want to stop and talk to anyone these days, so I’ve all but ceased the empty greetings extended to my fellow human. Venturing out into the world takes courage—at least for me—and the last thing I want to do, once I’ve mustered the strength to leave my house, is stop and talk to a stranger.

That isn’t me. It isn’t the way I typically interact with the world. My spouse laughingly points out that when we’re in public, I ‘run for Mayor’—I’m in the middle of as many conversations as possible, and I try and meet everyone in the room. Extroverts, you feel me… Introverts, you usually run from me, and I don’t blame you. But nowadays, I’ve become a specter of that person; I don’t want to invite conversation, I don’t want to engage. I am scared of my neighbor. I love them, but I selfishly choose to avoid them if I can.

And, to use one of the wisdom sayings of my geographic context, “That ain’t right, y’all.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t necessarily giving us a checklist…a ‘If you do this, then you get that’, kind of thing. It’s more of a, “Have you checked on your fellow humans, lately?” question. What if we were to change the words of his lesson, to fit our current context? Let’s try it:

34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was shut out from the world and you gave me a phone call; I was walking through the store and you greeted me—not knowing that I was on the verge of a breakdown because I was so alone; I was a stranger and you didn’t avoid me; 36 I posted a political preference and you didn’t attack me; I was afraid of getting sick and you were, too, so we shared that burden by talking; I felt like I was in prison and you sent me a note to let me know that I was still loved.’” 

People are scared, right now. All people. We’re scared of COVID, we’re scared of the election season coming up, we’re scared about the economic crisis which already exists for many and looms for some, and we’re scared to be alone. It might be opportune for preachers to stand up and be a bit vulnerable in this time, with this Gospel; our people may need to hear that they’re not the only ones struggling. What if we held a conversation with our folks, allowing them to be vulnerable once we had, instead of preaching a ‘sheep and goats’ sermon? It might just be time for a wellness check.

It might be time to ask each other, “How are you doing?”…

…and actually listen to the response.

Then the ending line of that which we substituted words for, earlier, remains the same: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’.

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.

Proper 28(A): Life is Beyond Our Control!

Proper 28(A): Life is Beyond Our Control!

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Matthew 25:14-30

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

It may be that the most important and consequential question ever uttered in the history of humanity was Pilate’s three-word question, asked of Jesus: “What is truth?”

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term, “doublethink” to describe the phenomenon of rejecting things we know to be true or accepting things we know to be false in order to fit in with our peers or party or affinity groups. And while Orwell was writing fiction, he was revealing a truth that hits close to home: all of us, from time to time, tell ourselves things that we know aren’t true.

Of course, most of the time, these little fictions we pass off as truth don’t come from a place of malice; quite the opposite! We tell ourselves stories about why one grocery store is better than another, or why this brand of car is superior to that brand of car, or why our basketball team is the bestteam in the league. And to some degree, that’s simply a part of who we are. We tellourselves these things in order to build a sense of identity and character.

But these aren’t the only tall tales we try and trick ourselves into believing.

“One more credit card won’t bankrupt me.”

“One innocent little office flirtation won’t hurt my marriage.”

“God doesn’t really love me.”

Then, before we know it, the very things of which we’ve convinced ourselves turn out to be the lies that destroy us.

The same phenomenon was underway in the days of the Prophet Zephaniah. The people of Israel had gotten into the habit of convincing themselves that their perceptions were true, and that facts were false.

“God doesn’t care about us,” they said. “God is off doing other things. What business is it of God’s how I conduct myself? What God doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”

“We can’t trust God to protect us,” they lamented, “We’ve got to take charge and protect ourselves.”

“God won’t make us happy,” they scoffed, “Our mansions and our wealth and our power over other people! That will make us happy!” 

The people of Zephaniah’s day thought that God was an irrelevant relic of a bygone era, whose supremacy has once-and-for-all been eclipsed by the attainment of the pinnacle of human knowledge. Those who lived in Zephaniah’s day considered themselves free to do and act as they pleased, looking out chiefly for themselves, and then—and only then—maybe, if they got around to it, they might consider doing something magnanimous for someone else because it makes them feel good.

Zephaniah, of course, takes exception to this blasphemy and proclaims a fiery word to the people. It is a word so shockingly clear that it all-but-slaps us in the face: life is beyond our control! And the more we try and control it, the more uncontrollable it becomes.

An oil refinery explodes halfway around the world? We read about the environmental costs and the billions of dollars paid in reparations, but we don’t know anybody who knows anybody who works for them, so it’s not our problem, right? We’ve got everything sorted out in our well-managed, tightly-controlled lives, right?

But then we realize that the fish we’re feeding our families comes from that region. Oil and toxins seep into the bedrock and pollute streams and rivers and growing fields hundreds of miles away, where the produce that stocks our refrigerators is grown. The retirement plan we enrolled in, trying to secure our future, is heavily invested in BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil.

The United Kingdom votes to withdraw from the European Union—Brexit, we called it. Okay, that’s their choice; that’s how democracy works, but how does it affect us?

The Eurozone is the second largest buyer of US Treasury bonds, not to mention a huge importer of US manufacturing goods. What affects their economy today will affect ours tomorrow.

The more we try and anesthetize ourselves into believing that we’ve got it all figured out, the deeper the truth cuts when the facts are laid bare.

But wait just a second.

All of this comes from a tiny, three-chapter minor prophet, wedged in near the end of the Hebrew Bible? In the entire three-year lectionary cycle, we hear from Zephaniah all of three times, and I’m willing to bet that most preachers have preached on it even fewer times than that. (Until now, no one has ever written about it on this blog!) So can it really be all that important?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus was a preacher after Zephaniah’s own heart. He tells a parable about slaves who are given gifts in different amounts. And although we are quick to equate these so-called talents with money, the parable could just as easily have spoken of kindness or creativity or generosity.

The slaves who take their gifts and use them to offer other creative, elaborate, and much-needed blessings in the world around them are rewarded when the Master returns. But the one who takes what has been given to him and hoards it up only for himself is condemned.

If we can find a way to sort through all of the advertising and the marketing and the perception, we arrive at the truth that both Zephaniah and Jesus are desperately trying to tell: Our vocation is not to try and be in control in the universe; no, our vocation as followers of the God we meet in Jesus is to share the abundance of grace and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us.

We are commanded to plant seeds of generosity, knowing full well that we may never see a return on our investment. We are commanded to show kindness to people who don’t deserve it. We are commanded to love those who try their hardest to be unlovable and to forgive those who have gone out of their way to be unforgivable.

The Day of the Lord that Zephaniah and Jesus proclaim does not have to be a doom-and gloom, end-of-the-world scenario. For those who receive their God-given gifts with humility and then go and share them with the world, the Day of the Lord is a day of rejoicing; a day when our world that has long been turned upside down by greed and oppression and hate will be set right by peace and justice and love.

The question is: what will we do with all that has been given to us? Will we keep it locked up and hidden away under the bed? Or will we take a risk and open our hearts to share it openly and freely and radically with the world?

Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

***EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally ran in 2017.***

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Matthew 23:1-13

By: The Rev. David Clifford

As a pastor, I often find myself talking with people about their favorite Bible passages. However, I rarely find myself discussing people’s least favorite Biblical passages. It doesn’t seem to be something that many people want to admit to the pastor–“I don’t really like that Bible passage.” However, the truth is, we each have favorite scriptures that stand out to us. And, in the same way, we each have scriptures that we struggle with and just don’t seem to like all that much. This is true for us pastors as well.

If I’m completely honest (even at the risk of challenging the expectation that pastors love all scripture), this week’s lectionary scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is a scripture I find myself struggling with. Jesus begins to talk about the end times with his disciples and telling them stories about what God’s Kingdom and realm are really like. This particular story is about ten virgins: 5 of whom are wise and the other 5, well, not so much.

In this parable, Jesus draws to mind ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. The foolish virgins take with them no oil for their lamps. When they run out of oil, the other 5 refuse to help them. The foolish virgins must go buy more oil. While they are out, the bridegroom comes. The wise virgins go off with the bridegroom. When the foolish virgins return and knock on the door, the bridegroom replies, “Truly…I don’t know you” (verse 12 NIV).

In his book, The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus uses both common and traditional formatting for his parables. This particular parable is a perfect example of “Olrik’s “law of contrast,” the tendency toward polarization, especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.”[1] For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast[2]

Here’s my struggle and the reason I’m not a huge fan of this particular passage and parable. This is supposedly the same “Kingdom of God” that Jesus describes a few chapters earlier with the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18: 12-14, Jesus says:

12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (NIV)

I find myself wondering if both of these stories can describe the same Kingdom. Is God’s Kingdom like the shepherd that is happier about the one lost sheep over the 99 that are not lost? Or, is God’s Kingdom like the bridegroom that closes the door on the foolish virgins simply because they were out getting more oil?

Of course, a simple answer is that these two parables are describing very different things. One is describing the joy at returning the lost, while the other is describing the fact that no one knows the time nor hour of the coming of the Son of Man and God’s Kingdom. However, I believe this week’s lectionary can be used to tease out some of the differences that Jesus may highlight about God’s Kingdom through his parabolic teachings. This particular parable can be compared to other parables. The formatting may be similar – “lost” versus “found,” and “in” versus “out,” or “wise” versus “foolish.” However, the truth of the parable seems to be very different. Crossan may be on to something. The formatting is common, while the content and contrast are dramatic and unexpected.[3]

As it relates to this week’s lectionary, I often found myself wondering why Jesus doesn’t highlight that God’s Kingdom is like 5 wise virgins that share their oil so that all 10 get to meet the bridegroom at midnight. He could have still highlighted that no one knows for sure when the Son of Man will come; while also highlighting the need for each of us to take care of one another while we wait. However, Jesus rarely meets our expectations and I can only assume that God’s Kingdom is similar.

It often happens to me that on Monday I come up with the perfect way to express my sermon for the previous Sunday. I usually note these things down and save them for a future sermon. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus missed a great teaching opportunity with this parable. Maybe the next day he thought, “I should have changed that story so my disciples would know how easy it would have been for those 5 wise virgins to help their neighbors.”

It could be that Jesus is merely highlighting the fact that no one truly knows the day or hour. However, the following two parables seem to suggest otherwise. It is difficult to interpret that the foolish virgins somehow find their way through that door. The very next parable tells us of servants given bags of gold, the servants who manage their gold well are reward. The servants who manage their gold poorly, are treated…not so well…

29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 18:29-30 NIV)

Following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats. When the Son of Man comes, all will be divided into two groups. Sheep on one hand, goats on the other. To both parties the King will acknowledge whether they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, looked after the sick, and visit the prisoner. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). Those that did not do these things “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).

Of course, there is nothing in this listing of things the least of these needs that speaks about oil for their lamps as they await their bridegroom, but I can’t help but wonder if those 5 foolish virgins could be considered the least of these. What would our parable for this week’s lectionary look like if the 5 wise virgins had shared their oil instead of sending the foolish virgins of to the market?

If you are preaching on this parable for this week’s lectionary, it may be a great time to remind those hearing God’s Word about the unorthodox way in which Jesus teaches us about God and God’s Kingdom. Not that Jesus teaches in parable: many are doing that, but, that Jesus rarely meets the expectations of his followers and those who listen to his teaching. I struggle to fit many of Jesus’ parables together because it can be so difficult to follow a Lord and Savior who is constantly challenging you to be a better person; and whose entire life was a challenge to re-evaluate our lives and expectations. May God bless us with the strength and wisdom to continue in the faith and to continue the task at hand.

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David received a Master of Divinity and Master of Mental Health Counseling from Christian Theological Seminary in May of 2014. David has been serving at Westmont since July 2016. David enjoys reading and bicycle riding. He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Footnote 1 above.

All Saints’ Day(A): Holy! Holy! Holy!

All Saints’ Day(A): Holy! Holy! Holy!

Revelation 7:9 – 17

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

There’s a meme going around right now that makes me howl with laughter every time I see it. I feel like this woman and I are kindred spirits trying to figure out just what the heck is going on in the world and when it will be back to a semblance of normalcy.

This year we’ve dealt with a pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, murder hornets, the death of Justice Ginsburg, political turmoil, economic turmoil, online church, and even the cancelation of our favorite summertime trash tv reality shows (RIP Bachelor in Paradise). Parents and teachers struggle to know how to care for their children, pastors struggle to know how to care for their parishioners, and none of us knows completely what the future holds. This certainly feels like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding into town, and we’re all doomed.

The struggles we are enduring are real, and the emotional, mental, and physical effects of those struggles also are real. I do not in any way want to downplay this reality through humor. I do, however, think that humor offers us a way to see that we are united in our struggles, and we are united in our mutual care for one another as we maneuver the challenges of what often seems like impending doom.

The Revelation to John often gets a bad rap as a book about doom and gloom. Indeed, there are horrific images in this text that are cause for fear. When we read the text as a whole, however, we see that the prevailing image throughout is one of hope—hope for a bright future in the presence of a God who never forsakes us. New Testament scholar Michael Gorman summarizes Revelation as “a theopoetic, theopolitical, pastoral-prophetic writing. It is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness.”[1]

Gorman’s focus on the communal and political-boundary-crushing nature of Revelation comes right out of today’s appointed lesson. John has a vision not just of the Johannine community gathered around the throne of God, but of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9 NRSV). The fullness of God’s kingdom only may be realized when everyone has a seat at the table. The Johannine texts present Jesus as the one who brings the Gentiles into relationship with the God of Israel, and we, as followers of Jesus, are called to proclaim that good news to all the world. Divisions end, and unity is found in God.

This proclamation links us completely to those who have come before. This text becomes appropriate for the feast of All Saints not only because it depicts a life after death, but because it’s fullness hinges upon the Good News of Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us through the centuries by those who came before us and will continue to be proclaimed by us and those who come after us. Revelation reveals to us a reality beyond ourselves that we are called to share.

John sees this vision of the whole world praising God, and he is unclear exactly who they are. One of the elders provides this description: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The “great ordeal” generally is interpreted to mean persecution and those who have come through it the martyrs. I accept this interpretation fully, and I also think we need not limit the vision only to the martyrs. Martyrdom is the fullest form of following the example of Jesus who “also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2 KJV), but it is not the only form.

For those of us who have led worship in empty churches, for those who have faithfully attended church from their living rooms, to those who have kept daily prayers, to those who have lost jobs, freedoms, and loved ones to the pandemic, to all of those who go through our own great ordeal in 2020, God offers a vision and promise of community where no one is left out.

The woman in the meme looking to see what chapter of Revelation we’re doing today understands that the fullness of God’s kingdom only comes after many trials and tribulations. Jesus himself cried out from the cross the words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Out of that anguish and feeling of abandonment, Jesus suffered death, descended to the dead, was resurrected on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God.

It is easy to live through this time of great suffering and feel like God has abandoned us. What today’s lesson can teach us is that suffering and death are not the end. They are symptoms of a sinful world crying out for healing. When we look to the wisdom of the saints in glory, we see the great cloud of witnesses who also suffered and now rally around the throne of God crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” And that’s a vision worth sharing.

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware. He has a passion for studying feminist and queer readings of the Bible with a particular interest in the Pauline epistles. Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor, puppeteer, and director before completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He loves being in nature and learning new cooking techniques.


[1] Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 4211-4214). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Proper 25(A): The Road Less Traveled

Psalm 1 & Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

Maybe it’s just me, but when I first saw the pairing of readings from Leviticus and the Psalms, my first thought was that the organizers of the lectionary were worn out by the time they got to Proper 25 and they just stuck a couple of random texts together and trusted preachers to figure it out. Or to ignore it all together, which is what most preachers do with Leviticus anyway. To be fair, the alternative first Old Testament reading follows the complementary historical tradition of thematically pairing the Old Testament with the Gospel, so it isn’t really about the parallels between Leviticus and the Psalm, but still – they are paired readings. What is going on here?

As I have already alluded, Leviticus is challenging to preach from, for as theologian Samuel Balentine put it, “How does one “explain” and “apply” a book that devotes seven chapters to the bewildering, if not seemingly bizarre, requirements of ancient Israel’s sacrificial system and five chapters to details of ritual impurity, including such indelicate matters as menstrual blood and semen?”[1] It also can be described as dry in some parts. The Psalms are not always a cake walk to preach from either, especially for those who have a more a-theist theological perspective given its underlying assumption that life comes from the Creator, who also sets forth a moral order.

But as we look down from the metaphorical balcony at the arc of the biblical narrative, we can identify shared themes from the book of Leviticus and the Psalms, specifically the passages chosen as this Sunday’s lectionary suggestions.

Both center on what God expects of the righteous, what a faithful life looks like, and how to avoid the fate of the wicked. Psalm 1 offers a formula for a blessed life—a comforting thought for both ancient and modern communities. It also offers an explanation for why the wicked do not prosper, which serves as a warning useful to both ancient and modern communities who consider it Scripture. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 also lays out what God expects of the righteous and what faithful living looks like, only using more “on the ground” specifics than the metaphor-rich Psalm.

The message of these texts might speak to a modern community that also considers it scripture in some of the same ways it spoke to the ancient community that passed it on. First, it offers an alternative framework for living, which is to focus on God and righteousness. It is timeless advice, but seems particularly important to modern readers, specifically American Christians, who relish independence and self-direction. Instead, Psalm 1, “bears witness to the belief that the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction.”[2] The Leviticus text continually reminds the reader of their connectedness to others. Will the reader reject cultural norms of being “self-made” and instead root one’s life in study of the “law of the Lord” and flourishing of community? Like the ancient Israelites seeking identity apart from the surrounding culture, the texts provide a guide for those who live in a culture with values that might not align with those found in scripture.

This may be one of the most helpful ways to think about the lectionary texts this week – to help us consider and then enact an alternative framework for living as people who know that things are not as they should be, and who want to bring the world closer to God’s vision of justice and peace individually and communally. The history and context of ancient Israel played an important role in shaping the Book of Psalms into its current form and help to explain the role of Psalm 1. Postexilic Israel, working to find identity outside of a nation-state with a king of the Davidic line, “looked to their traditional and cultic literature for answers to the existential questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ and then shaped the literature into a document that provided answers to the questions.”[3] It has provided comfort and challenge for people of faith ever since. This holds true, too, for Leviticus. We can imagine that the instructions included in chapter 19 are, in part, a response to the status quo injustice of the day, that the poor were ignored while “the great” given deference, and vengeance was regularly enacted instead of loving neighbor as one would love one’s self.

Preachers and congregations might find it helpful to put the readings in the context of something familiar, but outside of the canon: The Road Not Taken, in which Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Ultimately, the lectionary passages present our living as an intentional choice, particular actions taken in opposition to other options that should reflect faithfully on God and God’s beloved community.

[1] Balentine, Samuel E. Leviticus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[2]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 64.

[3]  Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p 28–29.

19957000_1857818704537707_4376645885528786019_o
The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and recently completed her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

By: The Rev. David Clifford

In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.

For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.

In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.

But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).

The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.

“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.

We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

 

 

Proper 23(A): Working Like a Cynic

Working like a Cynic

Philippians 4:1-9

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

Sometimes, I think it’s okay to look at a Biblical text and want to shout at it, “THIS ISN’T HELPFUL.”

It’s not the text’s fault that it catches us on a bad day (or month, or year). There’s still beauty and wisdom in it. But when you’re in the depths of stress, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, deeply cynical and mourning the fact that the world you live in is nothing like you think it should be, a gentle, comforting exhortation like this one from Paul can feel more like a platitude. Platitudes, it should be noted, are naturally infuriating.

“Do not be anxious about anything!” Right, sure, I’ll get on that just as soon as I answer 7 more emails at 10pm so that I can look like a good worker in the midst of a global pandemic. “The peace of God will guard your hearts!” Well, it hasn’t yet, so when is that supposed to arrive? “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Oh Paul, dear sweet Paul, you wouldn’t survive 6 seconds on social media. We don’t think about the good things. We find every dumpster fire in the world and spend our time sharing articles about those instead.

The trick, then, is figuring out how to take this reading seriously instead of setting it (and those like it) on fire by the laser-beam force of our own cynicism. Paul, after all, wasn’t exactly a sunshine and butterflies sort of fellow, and plenty of his letters are basically a face-palm in epistolary format (case in point: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?!”). He lived in a real world full of greed and terror and anxiety, just as we do. His words surely weren’t just about being comforting and vapid. In fact, his instructions are a lot more interesting if you assume they’re coming from a fellow cynic.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” These aren’t banalities, they’re marching orders. Rejoicing can be hard work, and right now is one of those times. Paul is insisting that it’s work worth doing – just like quelling our own anxiety, and presenting our struggles to God rather than flailing around with them by ourselves. He tells us to fill our mind with beautiful things, and I don’t think he means to ignore the pain of the world to do so, but to see where the world’s pain is being tended to or healed and to think about those things. This meditation isn’t just so we can feel better – it’s so we can do better, having been inspired and enlivened by imagining what actions are within our power. He promises the peace of God, but maybe this is less the tranquil peace of a still pond and more the kind of exhausted satisfaction we find when, at the end of a very long and very difficult day, we settle into bed knowing we’ve given what we could.

I prefer this Paul, who faces the chaos of the world and digs in deep to find the beauty, and I think a lot of other people – especially those who are run ragged, down but not out – would too. It’s a helpful reminder as we pass each day that this is the work that means the most and that will sustain us the longest. As for that peace of God, well, I haven’t found it yet; but for the moment, I can dig down deeper and trust that maybe it’ll find me when I need it the most.

Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is a recovering cynic. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and her toddler son, Xavier.

Proper 20(A): God Changes God’s Mind

Proper 20(A): God Changes God’s Mind

Jonah 3:10-4:11

By: The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles

We all know the story of Jonah. It is one of the first stories we hear as small children. God tells Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me (1:2, NRSV).” He immediately jumps on a ship to flee from the presence of the Lord. “But,” we tell our children, “we can never be hidden from the presence of God, because God is everywhere.” And so, God calls a huge storm, the people discover it is Jonah who has angered God, and he is tossed overboard into the sea. God is merciful and sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole to save him from drowning. After three days inside a fish, Jonah finally calls out to God for salvation, and the fish spits Jonah onto dry land. Then God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and Jonah goes. And that is often where we stop. This is the story our people know: the disobedient Jonah learns his lesson and follows God’s commands. Except that Jonah goes only a day into the city, instead of three days to the center of town, and he is angry when they repent and follow God.

Jonah is in many ways an anti-prophet. He flees from God, changes the message God gives him, and is bitter in the end when God offers repentance to the Ninevites. He does the bare minimum required.  Jonah stopped one day into the city in hopes that the message would not travel; he hoped that Nineveh would not repent and he instead could watch the city fall. In the passage for today God saw that the people believe, they repent, they change.

The news travels to the king of Nineveh, without the help of the prophet who normally is the one to carry the message to the King, and the king acts immediately. The king takes off his robes, takes off the things that show his power, and put on uncomfortable sackcloth, and then sits in ashes. He acts as though he is common; he acts in subservience to God. He then proclaims that all humans and animals alike put on sackcloth and fast from food and water and all will turn from their evil ways. The name of YHWH is not mentioned at all from Jonah and yet all the people of the city and their king know to repent. The king says that all shall do these things in hopes that God may nacham and change God’s mind and turn from his anger so the city will not be overthrown. In verse 10 God does nacham, God changes God’s mind, in the same way God changes God’s mind in Exodus 32:14.

God changes God’s mind and offers love and salvation for the bitterest enemy of Israel at that time. And Jonah is furious. Jonah intentionally offered no way for the people of Ninevah to repent, intentionally did the very minimum, and yet with that tiniest of nudges, the people believed in God and changed their ways. Jonah yells at God as an insult “ God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead (The Message)!” This is God’s very nature, and thanks be to God for that.

We look at this passage and judge Jonah harshly. Yet, in this strange and uncertain time I find myself aligning more than I am comfortable with Jonah. I look at the news and think THOSE people deserve what is coming to them, THOSE people should not be dealt with kindly and compassionately, THOSE people should get the virus because of their statements. I, at times, yearn for God’s wrath upon those who cause so much strife and misinformation. I get so angry about the proverbial bush (or gourd) that I forget entirely of God’s love and compassion for all of creation. As you preach this week consider the needs of your community: some need to know that even though Jonah was filled with anger and hate, God used that for good, some need to hear that in the midst of terrible things that we may be involved in ourselves God offers our redemption, some need to know of God’s care in the midst of their anger—after all God did give Jonah a bush to sit under. And maybe they need to hear that if even God can change God’s mind we can too—whether it is about wearing masks or examining our own privilege in light of protests. If God changes God’s mind, then we should not see changing our own minds as a weakness. I, for one, am thankful that in a season where I feel like I cannot offer my congregation what they really need or want, that God continues to use whatever we do for good. Thanks be to God.

AK Headshot
The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Certificate for Theology in Ministry from Cambridge University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Candler School of Theology. AnnaKate is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and pondering ways to escape quarantine.

 

 

Proper 19(A): Intended for Good

Proper 19(A): Intended for Good

Genesis 50:15-21

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Perhaps you caught the viral video by filmmaker David Jones of David Jones Media featuring author Kimberly Jones earlier this summer. In it, Jones shares a powerful statement on the impact of racism on Black Americans, concluding with a hard truth for White people, “They are lucky Black people are looking for equality and not revenge.”

I remembered the first time I saw the video. As a cishet, college-educated White American of middle class standing, I am the female epitome of White privilege. Jones’ words were a punch in the gut. That’s it, I thought, she just nailed the primary fear of many White people (myself included), “what if we actually got what we deserved?”

In today’s assigned passage from Genesis, Joseph’s brothers might be wondering the same thing. After the death of their father Jacob they ask one another, “If Joseph bears resentment against us, he will surely pay us back for all the evil we caused him” (Gen. 50:15, trans. Robert Alter). They are not yet rid of their guilt following the sale of their brother for 20 pieces of silver in chapter 37. In the wake of their father’s death, the brothers, convinced that their ill deeds will be lorded over them, wants to renegotiate their relationship with Joseph. Of course, there has been nothing obvious to the reader to indicate that Joseph is harboring ill will against them. But is it really guilt if it’s not an obsession? Their betrayal looms large now that the “dad buffer” is gone. Sending intermediaries to feel out Joseph, they communicate their father’s deathbed instructions, calling upon Joseph to forgive the sins of his other sons. This request causes Joseph to weep.

Following the so-called last will and testament reading, Joseph’s brothers fall before him claiming to be his slaves. Their guilt and fear drips off the page.

Joseph doesn’t make much of an attempt to assuage them of it, nor should he. He responds with a mysterious rebuke, “Am I in the place of God?” (v. 19). As Walter Brueggemann describes, “Joseph is adept at sorting out which things belong to God (things like forgiveness and the birthing of children) and the things which are properly human (cf. Mk. 12:13-17).”[1] He seems to understand the limits of his authority. Or, maybe he simply understands his own emotional limits concerning his brothers. After all, forgiveness is a process, not an event. Familial hurts have lingering power.

But this isn’t a story of the brothers’ guilt. That’s not the issue to be resolved. And, perhaps for our contemporary story of sibling hurt and betrayal, White folk need to be reminded that our guilt for the sins of racism can get in the way of the real story, reconciling Black and Brown people to full equality. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes of the racial injustice of the 1960s, “In order to minimize the sense of hazard and disaster always latent in themselves, the whites have to project their fears on to some object outside themselves.”[2] Privileged people are adept at making everything about themselves. In our Genesis story, the preacher might warn their White listeners to be wary of identifying with Joseph. This might be opportunity to connect with Jacob’s other sons and to reflect on the places in which we have betrayed and wounded our fellow human siblings. We might meditate on the ways in which we have tried to speed up forgiveness or rush through apologies to move past the awkward, the hurt and the tension.

You have heard it said that “time heals.” As Henri Nouwen writes, the phrase “is not true when it means that we will eventually forget the wounds inflicted on us and be able to live on as if nothing happened. That is not really healing; it is simply ignoring reality. But when the expression “time heals” means that faithfulness in a difficult relationship can lead us to a deeper understanding of the ways we have hurt each other, then there is much truth in it. “Time heals” implies not passively waiting but actively working with our pain and trusting in the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.[3]

Up until now, the brothers have been preoccupied with their plan, that is, their plan to get rid of their younger brother. They were so consumed by this plan that they failed to see that there was another plan already at play. Even after their reunification with Joseph in chapter 45, they continued to obsess about their past deeds. So, Joseph reminds them of the plan unknown to all of them save God being unveiled, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (v. 20). And, staying true to his human authority as prime minister, Joseph reassures his family that they need not fear, he will provide for them. This he can do, but the work of removing the stain of sin is God’s and God’s alone.

While this passage concludes the book, Genesis is not an ending, it’s a beginning. The book begins with the goodness of creation and throughout the ancestral stories, God’s primary pursuit has been one of goodness. In comparison to the brothers whose purposes were for ill, God’s purposes are a constant good. For the people of today, we are called to remember that God’s good plan is at work here and now. It’s breaking through and, in some cases, it is yet to be revealed. But this good plan brings comfort, reconciliation and homecoming for the entire human family.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. “Genesis.” Interpretation, Westminster John Knox Press, 370.

[2] Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Image, 25.

[3] Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith. Zondervan. https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/how-time-heals/ Accessed 31 July 2020.

KimJenne_2017
The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

Proper 18(A): Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Proper 18(A): Who’s In and Who’s Out?

Matthew 18:15-20

By: Chris Clow

I remember an old, odd piece of wisdom that I still need every now and again: “You don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.”

There were a variety of options for preaching and teaching today, but one common thread through all of them is the value of community and belonging: more specifically, how do you mark that you are a part of the community, and how do you properly try to keep people loyal to what that community believes? In Exodus, we see the Passover ritual given to the Ancient Hebrews, something where the quite literal blood of a lamb marks them as members of God’s chosen flock. In Ezekiel, we hear about the important need to speak call out when those in our community sin, as Ezekiel was called to do for the Israelites. In Romans, we are reminded to “conduct ourselves properly as in the day” and to avoid succumbing to unholy desires (particularly of the flesh as Paul notes). And finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we should do if another sins against us—namely, take it up with them first, then bring witnesses, then tell the church, then “treat [them] as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”

So, it seems pretty cut and dry. These readings all reinforce that we need to pay close attention to what marks us as Christians, to be on guard to call others out when they fail at it, and to be ready to cast them out of the community if they don’t change. It’s up to us to keep the church pure and holy and to cast out those who don’t measure up. The Catholic Church (to whom I belong) emphasizes this point in their text notes on the Gospel reading via their website: “Just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so much the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refugees to repent.” So that must be it, right? Right?

Well, I hope it isn’t that simple, actually.

Don’t get me wrong—I think there is a real need for correction, within churches, within the Church, and within the world. This present moment in America is ripe for us to correct each other and to change our world–one with less racism, less sexism, less striving for power, and more desiring to serve each other and stand with one another.

BUT, and this is the tougher part to articulate, we need to be careful that in our desire to create a more just society we do not simply get rid of those who disagree with us and refuse to change (even if, in moments of weakness, that is a mighty tempting position to take). I want to look at that Gospel passage again—while on the surface it looks like a way to settle disagreements and to expel those who don’t relent, I think that isn’t doing the passage enough justice. After all, in the next two lines after this Gospel Jesus says that we should forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” (or seventy times seven in some translations – i.e. we should be constantly, always forgiving). The few verses before this Gospel passage talk about the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind to seek the lost one. How do we square that with the idea that people should be cast out of our community? Does it really fit together?

Jesus says that you should treat those who won’t acknowledge their wrong as you would a Gentile or tax collector. How exactly did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? In Matthew 8, Jesus encounters a Gentile centurion, yet is “amazed” at the man’s faith and heals his servant.  Again in Matthew 15, he (eventually) helps the daughter of another Gentile. Oh, and what was the profession of the apostle Matthew, whom this Gospel is named after? Right, he was a tax collector. In fact, we see in this Gospel that Jesus regularly ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), and showed more mercy to them than judgment. That seems like a weird way to treat people that you are supposed to avoid.

So what’s happening here? Is this passage really about saying who’s in and who’s out? Or is it about redefining who’s in and who’s out? Consider the earlier Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the shepherd leaves the entire rest of the flock behind to go find the one that got away. I don’t know if you know any shepherds, but that isn’t a great business plan for them. That doesn’t sound like someone wanting perfection out of their sheep. Directly following our Gospel today, we see Jesus emphasizing the great mercy of God in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  And then in turn we see that servant (who may very well be us) turning around and not showing that same mercy. Maybe God isn’t the one saying who’s in and who’s out. Maybe that’s on us.

This Gospel makes me think of a modern day saint (even if unofficial): Dorothy Day. A Catholic convert in the early 20th century who had earlier been a radical and an anarchist, Day would go on to start the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” among many other things in her life.  These houses were dedicated to those in need – i.e. the poor, and especially the “undeserving poor.” If you haven’t heard that term before, it should be easy to conjure up what it imagines – the ones who get called lazy, stupid, and sloppy; the ones who don’t smile at you when you give them money; the ones who aren’t grateful enough. I mean, sure, everyone can be like that, but those of us who aren’t poor have earned the right – because they’re poor, they shouldn’t be. At least, that tends to be the conventional wisdom.

But Dorothy Day saw it differently – she strove to see human dignity present in all people, no matter how insufferable they turned out to be. And believe me, some of the people who stayed at her Catholic Worker houses were insufferable. This piece from the Atlantic puts it well:

Dorothy Day lived with the forgotten man, and he was a huge pain in the ass. His name was Mr. Breen, and during his residency at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street he was a vituperative racist and a fire hazard. His name was also Mr. O’Connell, who stayed for 11 ill-natured years at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farming commune in Easton, Pennsylvania, slandering the other workers without mercy, hoarding the tools, and generally making himself “a terror” (in Day’s words).

Even so, Day still recognized that they were human beings too, created in the image and likeness of God, and nothing, neither the hardships they had endured nor the ones they put on others, could get rid of that: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

In light of Dorothy Day, I have to look at this passage differently. There will always be a need to settle disagreements. There will always be a need to speak truth to power, to act for real justice, and to change our systems so that justice may be possible. There is a need to tell people when they are doing wrong and harming others. But in doing so, we cannot lose sight that they too are children of God, and that they do not deserve to be dehumanized and ostracized either.  This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is one that Jesus calls us to. After all, you don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.

IMG_20190729_123125
Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a stay-at-home dad for an energetic, noisy, wonderful toddler Xavier and loving husband and home cook for wife Emily Kahm. He was also a campus and music minister for 8 years before he and his family moved to Omaha for the next stage of their life. When he isn’t struggling to love those he doesn’t like, he enjoys playing video games, remembering what it was like when there was baseball on TV (just presuming this season doesn’t last), and coming up with new recipes and dishes to try and make at home.