Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Mark 5:21-43

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

“The interruptions are the work.”

This was one of the first things that was said to me when I started my first year of Contextual Education at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Atlanta, a parish where more than three-quarters of the congregation lives with a chronic mental illness.

I didn’t understand it then, but it became a mantra. Someone stands up, starts talking to themselves, and leaves a service.

The interruptions are the work.

You have to stop running your evening programing to break up an argument.

The interruptions are the work.

Someone stops your conversation to tell you how much what you said two weeks ago made them feel loved.

The interruptions are the work.

Good or bad, right or wrong, convenient or not—The interruptions are the work.

This has become a mantra for my own ministry. Sometimes it has served me well. Other times it’s gotten me into trouble, made me late, or thrown me off the great and holy ministerial workflow. But its always been there.

In interruption there is wisdom. Let us attend.

When Jesus gets off the boat, he’s given something to do. The leader of the local synagogue pleads with him “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” It’s a task that Jesus takes on, and he sets down the road to Jairus’ house.

Then comes the interruption. A woman who has bankrupted herself in healthcare costs makes one of the most amazing statements of faith, that If I only touch his cloak, I will be made whole, and presses through the crowd, straining to touch the hem of his robe.

It would have been imperceptible to anyone but Jesus. It could have been entirely ignored. A silent miracle, one more thing amongst the works of Jesus that, as St. John says, would fill more volumes than the world could contain. (John 21:25, KJV) But Jesus stops, not because Jesus is offended by a perceived theft of power, but because Jesus wants to encounter this woman. Because, the Lord knows, the interruptions are the work.

But work or not, interruptions take time. Time that Jairus’ daughter didn’t have. And a scant few verses later, Jesus is being told to go home. It’s too late. Don’t bother. We hear the words of Martha echo in our ears “Lord, if you had been here…” (John 11:21 NRSV) And where we see death, we see the end of this young woman’s life. Jesus sees but an interruption. Jesus gets to work.

I’ve had to nuance my understanding of what it means to find the holy in the interruption. Interruption is not always good in and of itself. What makes interruptions good and holy is that we attend to them knowing what our end, what our goal, is.

This kind of attention to interruption only worked at Holy Comforter because we knew in our bones that the mission of that parish was to be beloved community for those who were cast to the margins of our society, and anything we did, any interruption we attended to would be in service of that mission.

If we get clear about where it is we’re going, and what it is we’re doing, then we can abide the interruptions, and not let them become distractions.

What we see in the Markan pericope is Jesus clear that he is moving toward the healing of Jairus’ daughter, setting her as a type of the kind of life that Jesus is to bring. New, abundant, resurrected life. Everything that happens on the road to Jairus’ house works in the service of that end. The hemorrhaging woman, though an interruption to the task at hand, becomes another opportunity to share life and healing in the service of Christ’s purpose— to make known the reign of God come near.

What this means for us then, us as church, is that we have to get clear about what our end, our telos, our purpose, is. Is it to, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”? (P. 855, BCP1979) If so, what does that mean for those who we would encounter as interruptions on the way? Can we see them as moments of the spirit breaking in? Will we allow ourselves to be conduits of Christ’s love and power? Will we be tools for healing?

If we know in our bones whose we are, and what it is that we are working for, then we can have the grace to let the interruptions be the work, and not to grow weary.

The interruptions are the work.

Blessed be the work.

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the exhausted parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman

Proper 7(B): Speaking in Chaos

Proper 7(B): Speaking in Chaos

Mark 4:35-41

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a millennial who happens to also be a parish rector, I sometimes feel alone in the storm of our present ecclesial age. Church decline is a frequent topic of conversation in the communities where I congregate with fellow clergy and laity. While I am gratified that many in my peer group are braving that conversation rather than systematically ignoring it (as in ages past), too often the conversation get hijacked by those who want quick and easy answers and is therefore diverted into a conversation about how to recruit millennials to fill our empty church buildings. That is when eyes begin to fix on me, (often the only millennial in the room), as if to say, “you’re a millennial, tell us how to get more of your kind.”

Forget for a moment that objectifying a whole generation into a utilitarian target market which you hope will “save” your church is offensive and may be part of the reason that those we seek avoid us and turn with me to the Gospel lesson of the day.

Jesus is found sleeping on the job while a violent storm rages. At this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples are not totally sure about Jesus. They have heard his parables and teachings, and they have enough faith in him to get in the boat and head across the sea to Gentile country, but they clearly do not understand the fullness of his power and purpose at this point in the story. So in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee they wake him to seek clarification—essentially asking, “Do you care about us or not?”

Their reported question reveals a faith that acknowledges the fact that Jesus could stop them from perishing if he wills. But it also reveals a faith that is not yet mature enough to know that his role is not to calm every storm, but rather to teach them to trust in spite of the weather. His follow up questions on fear and faith reveal that deeper purpose. And that the word of God (peace and stillness) is essential to how we respond.

To take it a step further, it is the word of God spoken in the chaos of the storm “Peace, be still,” that brings about the transformation and strengthening of their faith, not Jesus’ questions to them. This is revealed in their final remark on the wind’s obedience. Jesus is not simply calming a storm to save their lives, he is revealing his power and authority to them. The storm is part of God’s revealing purpose.

The wise preacher might offer this as a word of hope in the storminess of our common life. In churches where mere survival is the goal, Jesus’ word of peace and stillness may be the calling to discernment rather than easy answers and new marketing strategies. The same can be applied to the many storms of our lives. Whether it be political anxiety, personal crisis, declining health, financial uncertainty, or even literal storms in places traumatized by recent hurricanes, wildfires, or tornadoes. The word of God in the midst of it all is the same peace and stillness.

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The Rev. Ben Day

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

Proper 6(B): The Kingdom of God and the Sown Seed

Proper 6(B): The Kingdom of God and the Sown Seed

Mark 4:26-34

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

One of my favorite books is Good Omens, a humorous take on the apocalypse written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The two best characters are an angel and a demon who have been working for their respective ‘sides’ undercover, posing as humans—for millennia. They share a lot in common and end up occasionally getting together to vent about their bosses, life on Earth, and the peculiarity of humans. They’re astounded by what humans find as miraculous. We see the image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast and praise God for the bountiful blessing. Instead, the angel and demon think humans should be astounded that a seed put in the ground eventually becomes a vine that grows grapes—and it does it every year! That’s a miracle. Existence as we experience it every moment of every day is the miracle. And we humans seem to take it for granted.

In 18th and 19th century England, two new inventions revolutionized agriculture. The first invention came about around 1700. It was called a Seed Drill and it allowed farmers to plant seeds directly into the soil instead of scattering them about and hoping (and praying) for them to grow. This seemingly minor invention improved seed yield and helped mitigate for bad growing seasons. The second invention came in the 1800s when farmers realized they could plant turnips, clover or some other similar crop, and it would replenish the soil significantly better than the traditional method of letting half the land lay fallow every three years. In fact, researchers estimate that between 1480 and 1700 about 1 in 4 growing years were considered “bad,” and 1 in 5 were considered “catastrophically bad.” Jumping from such a low yield (and at the mercy of really bad growing seasons) to a higher yield and more diverse, predictable crop growth made many farmers incredibly wealthy. It ushered in a new era of wealth and prosperity in England.

We live in the shadow of those inventions that helped mitigate poor growing seasons and our latest technology has only added to our agriculture production. In fact, a few years ago, the American Midwest experienced a near record drought and thousands of acres yielded poor returns. Yet, I still went to the grocery store and bought corn, strawberries, apples, etc. Perhaps I paid an extra dollar or so, but I don’t remember “feeling” the result of the drought. For most of us in America, we don’t worry about the weather affecting our food supply. In a way, we don’t need faith in order to eat. We thank God for our food, but do we really feel that our sustenance is provided by God? I remember an episode of the Simpsons when they asked Bart to bless the meal and he said, “Dear God, we paid for all this food, so thanks for nothing!” Does a part of us tend to think that way, even if we don’t consciously admit it?

In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as someone who scatters seed on the ground, then anxiously watches for the seed to grow. The text says the farmer got up night and day, monitoring the status of the crops. Finally, after anxiously watching the crops grow into plants and come to fruition, the farmer grabs the sickle because the harvest time has come. This all raises the question: How do we relate to this farmer when most of us live so disconnected from the stress of possible food insecurity? Jesus is describing a scenario where someone with land and seeds and seeming resources still lives exposed to the whims of the elements. And what are we to make of the fact that Jesus tells this parable to explain the kingdom of God?

Perhaps we are the fickle crops planted by the triune God, anxiously hoping and praying that we will grow? I often feel blown about by the whims of the elements of daily life, distracted or intentionally avoiding that which will make me grow.

The second agricultural parable explaining the kingdom of God has to do with the mustard seed. It’s this tiny thing that is planted in the ground, watered and somehow becomes a large plant. (I’m not going to address the scientific accuracy of the parables claims of a mustard seed being the smallest and then becoming extremely large. I feel that distracts from the point of the parable.) This reminds me of the quotation from Good Omens about the daily miracles that we fail to notice. What habits and practices will form us into a people who recognizes the micro-miracles of daily life? Not just a ‘spend less time on Facebook’ or ‘stop and smell the roses’, although those are part of it, rather a shift in how we interact with the world. I think consistently gathering with other Christians in order to faithfully worship God is formative. As an Episcopal priest, I would recommend weekly Eucharist as formation in the kingdom of God.

The Gospel passage gives us two parables on the Kingdom of God. Taken together, these parables encourage us to faithfully and continually grow while becoming a people who sees the micro-miracles in everyday life. This involves some intentionality and work on our part. For example, I can’t just whine about my poor prayer life (which it is), I have to take agency and designate an extra few minutes each morning to prayer. It also involves intentionally noticing the flowering world around us and praising God. It involves a deep seated thanks to God for the profound and bountiful blessings of this life! These are practices that must be continually cultivated over the course of our Christian lives. Amen.

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.

Proper 5(B): A Terrible Confusion

Proper 5(B): A Terrible Confusion

Mark 3:20-35

By: Jerrod McCormack

Some of the greatest discoveries in human history have been due to a terrible confusion or a happy accident. Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered penicillin, only did so because his scientific practice left a lot to be desired. According to Fleming, he left some petri dishes next to an open window and they became contaminated with mold spores. When he looked closely at the petri dish he discovered that the bacteria nearest to the mold spores were actually dying. Alexander Fleming once said, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”[1]

Imagine how different the 20th century might have looked if, on that morning when Alexander Fleming walked into his lab and discovered the contaminated petri dishes he did what most people do with moldy dishes and just set about cleaning up what appeared to be a failed experiment. It would have been an absolute travesty. People would have gone on dying just as they had been and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, Fleming took the time to look closely and examine what was happening in those petri dishes and discovered a treatment that would cure a number of bacterial infections. We hear an equally confusing and exciting story in this Gospel lesson.

Jesus has gone home and the people there are very confused about who he is. Mark records that his family is concerned and the scribes coming down from Jerusalem describe him as being possessed by a demon. Their concern is so great that Jesus’ family decides to stage an intervention. They go out and, according to Mark, are trying to “restrain him.” Without a doubt, Jesus’ family believes that what they are doing is in his best interest; after all, they’re convinced that he has lost his mind. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible indicates that “[this intervention] is surely one that deeply misconstrues Jesus’ ministry and actions.”[2] It is this “misconstrued moment” that is picked up on and expanded by the scribes. The scribes soon begin to describe Jesus’ ministry as the work of Satan and decry Jesus as possessed by a demon. They say that he casts out demons by the ruler of demons.

At the suggestion that he is possessed, Jesus questions whether a house that is divided against itself could possibly stand. As we look around at the world today, we have all kinds of reasons to divide ourselves against each other. We are pretty different from one another. We come in a multitude of colors, a multitude of political ideologies, and a multitude of sexual orientations and gender identities. We are decidedly different from one another. But if we look deeper than all of those things, we might discover that our neighbors and our enemies are in fact more like us than we might imagine. We all struggle in this life. I won’t soon forget the first time that I heard it said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle that you know nothing about.” This is what it means to be deeply human: we all struggle, but at the core of each of us is a part that longs for understanding, acceptance and love. We are part of a truth that is deeper than every single division that exists.

We have to be careful when we cast dispersion upon the work of others in the world. Jesus warns those who have labeled him as possessed that there is forgiveness for everything under the sun except for one who ‘blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.’ This is a serious call for us to be careful when we declare something to be contrary to God. The scribes saw Jesus casting out demons and determined that it had to be the work of the devil and not the work of God. Jesus warns them that this is the one thing that God won’t forgive.

We should be careful when we look at others who claim to be doing God’s work in the world. Many times, both liberals and conservatives are much too quick to judge each other’s work as invalid. I might push this even further and suggest that as Christians, we are far too quick to judge the work of God in other religions and cultures to be the work of the devil. But what if it isn’t? What if God has chosen to reveal Godself in a multitude of ways to a multitude of people? Perhaps, this text is calling us to be more open to a God who chooses to act and reveal Godself in many ways.

It isn’t easy to open ourselves up to the fact that God might act in the world in ways that we don’t understand or through people we might not even like, but the Christian tradition is full of amazing stories of men and women who found God at work in strange and perhaps unexpected places. I grew up listening to people say, “God works in mysterious ways.” That line probably comes from a poem written by William Cowper, an 18th Century English poet. This is what he wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will. [3]

I didn’t know the source of that phrase until much later, but this idea that God calls and leads into places that surprise and might confuse doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Jesus goes on in this passage to say, “Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters? They are the ones who do God’s will.” It might seem at first a hefty insult to Jesus’s own family. However, when we consider that Jesus comes into the world in the stillness of a manger born to a young woman who in her own moment of profound faith says yes to the will of God. Perhaps, Jesus saying that his mother and brothers and sisters are the ones who do God’s will isn’t an insult as much as a new way of looking at the world. God’s new family is one that transcends familial relationships. We become a family of those who live by the Spirit and who follow the Spirit into unexpected places.

[1] Alexander Fleming (1881–1955): Discoverer of penicillin: Singapore Medical Journal  2015 Jul; 56(7): 366–367. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4520913/

[2] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 2003: 1811.

[3] Poem Hunter: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/god-moves-in-a-mysterious-way/

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is a postulant for holy orders in the Diocese of Calgary. He works as a Spiritual Care Practitioner for the Alberta Health Service and is the Manager of the bookstore at St. Mary’s University. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the Rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Mark 2:23-3:6

By: The Rev. Lauren Carlson

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes, “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

This story has stuck with me since I first read it several years ago. In many ways, it seems to go hand in hand with the theme of “hardness of hearts” I see playing throughout the gospel of Mark.[1]You can certainly find this expression in other places of scripture, but I find it interesting how many times this phrase can be found in Mark alone. It seems that this is the way Jesus often describes the people when he is frustrated or disappointed with their actions and understanding. It is as though they have written the law on their hearts, and yet the grace of it has not fallen inside yet. They see the miracles, but the profound truth has not reached to the depth of their being. In each situation, this hardness of heart prevents the people from living into the fullness of relationship to which they are called to live, with one another and with God.

In our gospel reading for day we hear in 3:5, “[Jesus] grieved at their hardness of heart,” referring to the Pharisees who would rather let a man continue suffering than heal him on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are challenging Jesus on his adherence (or lack thereof) to the law about working on the Sabbath, which raises two questions for me: 1) What is the purpose of law? and 2) What is the purpose of the Sabbath?

  • When God gives laws, it is not for the purpose of individual piety. Law is not for the sake of having a checklist of righteousness. Rather, the purpose of law is to be in right relationship with neighbor and with God. Jesus clarifies this to the Pharisees when challenged on which is the greatest commandment. He says that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs ALL THE LAW and the prophets. In other words, if we are loving God and loving our neighbor, these things will fall into place. This is the purpose of the law: to live in loving relationship.
  • “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”[2] Just like all other laws, this Sabbath-keeping law is for wellbeing in community and not for self-righteous piety. Sabbath is something we It is about rest and healing so that we can be refreshed and renewed for this work of loving God and loving our neighbor. Yes, loving can be work because we are broken and essentially just suck at this sometimes. But it is the most worthwhile work we can do! Sabbath rest is a gift from God; a time to be aware of the abundance of love and grace that God is constantly pouring into us, so that we can continue that work. But it is NOT meant to be at the detriment of another. How can one feel filled by God’s love while watching another continue in suffering?

What might this self-righteous (even self-serving?) sense of law and Sabbath look like in your congregation? Where are you seeing signs of hardened hearts? How can you remind them of the fact that good news is actually meant to be good news?

When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law.  When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world. So perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints who have gone before us, have hardened hearts. But the truth is that in spite of (or even in light of) our hardened hearts, eventually they will crack wide open and words of grace and love and gentleness will fill them and heal them again. Because God’s acts of grace and love and healing not only continue on the Sabbath, they are essential to the Sabbath.

  

[1] Mark 6:52, 8:17, 10:5 are a few examples

[2] Mark 2:27

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The Rev. Lauren Carlson

The Rev. Lauren Carlson is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) currently serving in a call with her husband, Paul, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Appalachian State University in 2004, served a year of Young Adults in Global Mission through the ELCA in Edinburgh Scotland, and then headed to Dubuque, Iowa where she earned her Masters of Divinity at Wartburg Theological Seminary. If ministry were not enough to keep her busy, her two young, spirited children are! In her “spare time” she enjoys catching up with friends, breathing fresh air, continuing her involvement with camping ministry, and brewing beer (and has great dreams of learning to play guitar, sew, and actually conquer her reading list!)

 

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a child, whenever I received a gift, I was not allowed to play with it until a thank you note was written, signed, addressed, and mailed. My parents wanted to instill in my siblings and me the practice of expressing gratitude to those who offered something to us, and it has served me well throughout my adult life and ministry. I am grateful for this practice that my parents instilled.

That was not always true, though. Around the second grade, I was not yet reading, so my parents had me tested by an educational psychologist and discovered that I am dyslexic. There are degrees of dyslexia which gauge the severity of one’s learning disability, and on the scale used at the time, I was a 6 of a possible 7 on the scale. The psychologist told my parents I would be functionally illiterate unless they intervened immediately. Even with intensive intervention and a plethora of supplemental resources and instruction time, I spent most of my primary and secondary education trying to “catch up” to my grade level in reading and writing skills.

On Christmas or after a birthday party, as I opened gifts, with every rip into the wrapping paper, I dreaded the thank you notes that must follow. My family’s tradition back then was to open all the gifts together, and then immediately retire to a table or comfortable chair with a hard-bound book in our laps to write out all the necessary thank you notes.

Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to get through one note because I had to keep stopping to ask my family how to spell words like “grateful” or “lovely” or “sincerely.”

My family always tried to be cheerful in helping me. But it got on their nerves, I am sure—especially my older siblings. I found out just a few years ago that they were threatened within an inch of their lives by our parents if there were ever caught teasing me about my dyslexia, or refusing to help when I asked. Despite their coerced but helpful attitudes, it was a struggle and embarrassment nonetheless. I wanted not to need so much help. I wanted to be “normal.”

That brings us to the gospel appointed for Thanksgiving. St. Luke’s gospel tells the story of ten lepers who begged for mercy and were made clean of their ailment, but only one returns to show gratitude to Jesus after realizing the miracle of his healing.

Often we hear this text preached as a call to gratitude and praise for the gifts of our lives. Those include the the primary gifts for sustaining life: food, shelter, clothing; along with other material gifts: cars, homes, and boats; and even the sentimental gifts: family, friends, and loved ones. In sermons like these, we are usually led to consider some active application of the text like how to “live thanksgiving every day” or “embrace gratitude as a new spiritual praxis,” or maybe something even more saccharine or cliché.

As I attempted the read the text with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about those other nine who didn’t return, more than I had before. Why didn’t they return? Were they ungrateful, or did they just not know a return to say “thanks” was an expectation? Were they careless, or were they carried away in a mad fury to show their newly healed skin to those they were separated from by that dreadful bacteria? Were they distracted by the celebration with one another? Were they ungrateful, or were they swept up in the possibility of their new lives given in healing, and maybe even forgetful?

Those questions led me to a more graceful reading of this story than I’ve heard or even proclaimed previously. Jesus’ response to the lone returner, a Samaritan “foreigner” at that, may lead the preacher to highlight how we can forget to express gratitude, even though we experience it. The power of it is not the private emotion, but the offering. We uplift the Kingdom of God and therefore the world, not in feeling grateful but by BEING grateful—expressing it!

As we enter a season filled giving and receiving, let us commit ourselves to the graceful proclamation of the power of gratitude as an expressed element. Let us avoid drawing a false dichotomy of the grateful one, versus an ungrateful nine, but instead preach the power of expressive and bold gratitude offered to one another.

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, Kennesaw, Georgia.

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Matthew 25:31-46

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I am not always proud of who I am or about the things I’ve done, but there are times when I’m guilty of telling myself “well, at least I’m not like him.” There are people who embody the exact opposite of the faith and grace I have come to love in Christ and I am guilty of looking down and judging them for it.  When I am honest with myself, in my heart I know there are times when my only thought about someone is: “Thank heaven that’s not me,” or “I am such a better Christian than they are.” When these thoughts cross my mind I hope I am subtle about it. I hope I don’t let it show. But whether it’s seen by others or not, I know I can be self-righteous. There are times I need to remind myself I’m not the one who separates the sheep from the goats.

Judgment comes from a place of vulnerability inside each of us. It comes from our need for self-assurance. It’s a misguided way of convincing ourselves that we have God’s favor because someone else does not. There are many reasons we judge others. Sometimes we judge because it simplifies a complicated world by putting people in boxes of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Most of us grew up watching TV shows and reading stories where it was obvious what side a character was on. A child reading The Lord of the Rings knows that the Orcs and Goblins are the bad guys and the Elves and Hobbits are good. In old Western movies you could distinguish good and bad by the color of someone’s hat. But in the real world people don’t fit into simple visual narratives, although it would make life much easier. People are ambiguous; saints can be sinful and the wicked can be redeemed. We see only a small snippet of each other’s stories. Even after spending a lifetime with someone, at the end we will have only understood a fragment of who they are in the eyes of God. It is God who alone sees us in our entirety and decides where we ultimately belong.

In the First Testament passage from Ezekiel God is described as a shepherd who cares for the flock. Those sheep who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [your] horns until [you] scattered them far and wide” are rebuked and judged for their actions. The passage is filled with promises from the shepherd about what he will do: “I myself will search;” “I will rescue.” It is worth noting just how active this shepherd is. It is a theme Jesus draws upon repeatedly. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims a great separation that will happen at the end of the age. Wheat will be separated from the weeds, chaff from grain, good fish from bad and goats from sheep. But none of this is self-selected. The sheep don’t decide who gets into the barn. The fish don’t get a say in who’s kept and who’s tossed back. That decision is made by the one to whom they all belong.

Judging is not the same as having an opinion. Being non-judgmental does not mean anything goes or that we should accept unacceptable behavior. What someone says and does communicates who they are and influences how we will relate to them, so of course we will have opinions about others (it would be naive to think otherwise). The difference is that opinion is something open that can be changed; a person can reform and relationships can mend. But a judgment is something final, something we don’t revisit once it’s been made. Once we’ve judged someone then we have dropped a curtain on them and refuse to pull back up. That’s something we don’t get to do. That is something up to God alone.

It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats. The kingdom of heaven is not a club with us handing out entry tickets. We are more like promoters, not bouncers; we help send the invitations but who gets admitted isn’t up to us. Our job is not to be the gatekeepers but to care for everyone as long as we’re out here in the field. What happens after that is up to God, and until then we are called to love without reserve or distinction.  We have all sinned in the eyes of God. It is not that one person is more worthy to receive God than another, but that God continues to love us all regardless of our past.

 

Tj's Headshot pic
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Reverend TJ Tetzlaff serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and has worked with a number of churches and nonprofits. He and his wife Chana, recently moved to Wilmington, North Carolina with their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his spare time TJ can usually be found walking on the beach, playing board games, or playing with his dogs.