Last Sunday after Pentecost(B): Telling the Truth

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By: The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

I promise I’m not going to write an entire essay about this, but I have to begin by saying that for many (most?) traditions, this day is called “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Even in my own tradition (The Episcopal Church), many churches use those titles for today–although it is technically not in the prayer book or authorized elsewhere. So where did it come from? The short answer is Pope Pius XI declared the last Sunday after Pentecost the feast (actually, a solemnity, but stay with me here) of Christ the King in 1925 and other liturgical traditions followed suit–as most Western Protestants tend to do with the Vatican (but that’s another sermon in and of itself). The longer answer is more sinister. The best analysis I’ve found comes from David Kertzer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Pope and Mussolini. Read it, then decide if you still want to call today “Christ the King” Sunday.

Okay, on with the text!

We find Jesus in the Gospel of John, not in resurrected power and triumph, not transfigured in raiment white, not preaching peace, not showing forth his glory; but rather, unfairly arrested, unjustly accused, and sitting before the Kangaroo Court in Pilate’s headquarters. This is a scene, not of Easter glory, but of Good Friday despair. In fact, the only other time we hear this passage in church is on Good Friday.

John’s Gospel sets the scene for us. Jesus has upset those in charge at the courthouse and the temple by suggesting that they were not doing their jobs. And so, in an effort to maintain their control on the status quo, they killed him. So make no mistake: It wasn’t atheism and anarchy that brought Jesus to the cross and to the tomb. It was good old fashioned law and order in cahoots with religion.[1] Here stands Jesus in the court of Pilate—at the epicenter of the kingdom of this world; the kingdom of the status quo—as Pilate asks just what kind of King Jesus is.

“King” is a political term and Pilate is a political person. If Jesus is the King—of the Jews, or of anyone for that matter—he’s guilty of treason because the Emperor in Rome is the king of everyone, everywhere. But Jesus is well-trained in the art of cross-examination. He answers Pilate’s question, not with a simple yes or no, but by saying, “My Kingdom is not from this world…I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ truth-telling broke open Pilate’s cold and hardened heart to the love of God. But we know it didn’t. I wish I could tell you that Pilate considered all of the evidence and decided to dismiss Jesus’ case. But we know he didn’t. And I wish I could tell you that the world saw Jesus for what he said he was: King of kings and Lord of lords. But we know we didn’t. We know what happens next. Jesus is stripped, beaten, flogged, and made to carry his own cross to the place of his crucifixion, where he died. He came to tell the truth, to lay the world bare by His light, and he did it so well that the kingdom of this world killed him because of it.

Late in the day on that fateful Friday afternoon, when word reached Pilate that the deed was done, I suspect he propped his feet up. Finally, the ugly truth had been silenced! I’d be willing to bet that Pilate and the rest of Jesus’ accusers slept pretty well Friday night, and had a pretty good day on Saturday. But then Sunday came.

Suddenly, the kingdom of this world stood in the presence of the resurrected Christ, and it is there that we begin to realize that in the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed.[2]

As Dr. King reminds us, although the kingdom of this world employs violence in order to murder the liars, as well as the truth tellers, it cannot murder the lie, nor can it murder the truth. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[3] 

I wish I could tell you that if we only loved a little more, and were just a tiny bit more peaceful, and just a pinch more hopeful, that the scales would begin to fall from the eyes of the world, and that things would begin to get noticeably better. But I can’t. All I can tell you is what I believe in my bones to be true: Even when violence and death seem to be winning; even when everything we hold dear seems to be fading away; and even when the world itself seems so very uncertain and hopeless, Christ is still testifying to the truth and calling us to do the same!

Christ is telling the truth of strength through vulnerability; justice through mercy; and power through weakness. Christ the King bears witness to the Kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain unto his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all things are possible![4]

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror” in The Christian Century March 18-25, 1998, p. 283.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?” in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), p. 62.

[4] David Lose, “Christ the King B: Not of This World” in In the Meantime, 16 November 2015,

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (DMin, MDiv, & Certificate in Anglican Studies). In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of


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By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

For all you liturgy nerds out there, you may have noticed that Year B of the lectionary begins on Advent 1 with Mark 13:24–37 and concludes today (ok, we still have Christ the King Sunday next week, but ignore that for a minute) with Mark 13: 1–8. We begin the liturgical year with the end of Mark’s Little Apocalypse, and we end the year with the beginning of the Little Apocalypse. Perhaps this is just a fluke of the calendar, but I like to think that the editors of the lectionary intentionally decided to keep the cyclical motion of the years moving forward. We begin the year with a promise that no matter how bad things get, Christ still comes into the world, and we end the year with that same promise.

One of my favorite activities to do with adults and youth alike is teaching about apocalypse. When asked to draw an apocalypse or list words that come to mind, I frequently get hoards of zombies roaming nuclear waste-filled roads or ragtag teams of survivors dodging asteroids and alien invaders. Death, destruction, bleakness, and survival of the fittest reign in our post-modern apocalyptic imagination.

In Advent of 2020, I offered an adult education class on Advent and Apocalypse called Have Yourself an Apocalyptic Christmas. Predictably, and with much glee from this millennial priest who loves shaking up the norms, people were horrified by the title. That was the point. Why, when the world is decked out with Santa Claus and angels and presents and bows, do we read the apocalyptic literature of Isaiah and Mark?

At that time, we were in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I, perhaps naively, was holding on to the hope that the pandemic might ease up, if not for Christmas, then for Easter. The end of the world seemed tangible. Of course, the pandemic has not yet eased up, but we’re learning new ways of being church and new ways of following Jesus. The fear and tribulations are real. So are the hopes of days to come.

So, why all this talk of apocalypse then and now? Biblical scholar Michael Gorman explains it this way:

“Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.”[1]

While a message of impending zombies, aliens, nuclear fallout, and catastrophe does not inspire much hope in the world, when we read the biblical apocalyptic stories imaginatively against the many disasters and oppressive regimes of our own day, we see that the hope of God through Jesus sustains us.

While I see many holding on to this hope, I also see growing division and feuds over whom to trust. Jesus warns his disciples, “beware that no one leads you astray” and further warns them that others will come to speak falsehoods in his name (Mk 13:5–6). How do we dig through the barrage of fearmongering and falsehoods to get to the liberating truth of God’s love? Do we get a vaccine? Which vaccine do we get? Do we mandate masks or ban them? Do we go out with friends, hole up in our homes, or try to find some balance between the two?

One way the church has tried to discern these hard questions is through turning to our practice of listening to the Holy Spirit through worshipping communities where Word and Sacrament reveal the holy in our lives. Put another way, keep on coming to church—in person or online! Keep reading the Bible! Pray! With others! The revelation of the Holy Spirit rarely comes through one individual, but through intentional discernment in community steeped in the love of God.

Jesus also gives us another clue as to where to find the hope of truth. Jesus does not simply say, “there, there. It’ll be alright.” Instead, he acknowledges the suffering and pain in the world and likens it to “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk 13:8). In other words, the ways of God are the ways of life, and we do not discount the pain in the world. While the Christian life is always a life of hope, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we blindly turn to a Pollyanna optimism that diminishes suffering. We acknowledge the suffering, we lament with those in pain, we do our best to support one another, and we rest in the knowledge that new life is coming in God’s time.

As I’m writing this essay, our church is still trying to figure out how to engage the upcoming program year. How will we do Sunday School when many of our families do not feel safe attending anything in person, and other families are unable to connect with Zoom and other digital platforms? What have we learned from the past year and a half that will sustain us through the uncertainty of storms, pandemic, warfare, and the effects of sin? How will we stand firm in a faith that teaches us that even in the midst of this suffering, God does not abandon us? How will we proclaim the mystery of our faith that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again?

These are questions with which I imagine every church is grappling. In only a few weeks, we will have our Christmas pageants, and they most likely will look different from last year’s, which looked different from previous years. Even so, last year, Christmas came. It will come again this year, and not just because the Hallmark Channel has been insisting since October.

Mark’s Gospel teaches us to prepare for the battle against sin and to do so in the hope and knowledge that God will prevail.

[1] Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Kindle Edition. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011. Kindle Locations 505-508.

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen holds a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest (Episcopal) and serves as Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, DE. Prior to ordination, Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor and stage director, and he brings those gifts of storytelling to his love of teaching the stories of the Bible. During the pandemic he joined thousands of other millennials in baking bread, crocheting, and spending a small fortune on Lego sets.

All Saints’ Day(B): Living, Breathing Saints

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By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

The Gospel lesson today is another one of those times where what Jesus does in a story is impossible for us to replicate. It falls under the same category as walking on water, opening the eyes of the blind, and restoring hearing to the deaf. There are just some things that Jesus did that we cannot do. Imagine, for instance, being at a funeral service and attempting to answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” based on this story. Who among us is willing to try to raise the dead? It is likely there would be no volunteers to make the first attempt, much less have a second go at it upon initial failure.

But of course, few (maybe none?) of us have ever witnessed anyone earnestly trying to raise someone from the dead. The dead are dead. We simply cannot do what Jesus did in this situation. Even pastors, who some might think have special training or at least a better chance, do not know these trade secrets. This is not covered in seminary (among other things, like church finances or how to avoid fights over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary).

As we consider this story in the context of All Saints Day, we might admit that we usually feel the same way about those we have named as saints. It is common to understand saints as a “special class of believers.” This is true even for those in traditions that do not award sainthood posthumously, after a formal ecclesiastical process. Saints have an “extra something” that the rest of us are missing. We simply cannot live up to their standard. They are saints, and we are not.

But in the New Testament, we find a different understanding of saints – they are living, breathing, active believers, and sometimes named as whole faith communities (i.e., Acts 9:13, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and Ephesians 4:12). They are ordinary Christians doing the work of building the kingdom of God on earth. Saint comes from the Latin word sanctus or holy. The basic definition of holy is “dedicated to God.” Saints, then, are people dedicated to God.

Even if we were to read the text without layering on developed doctrine, traditional teachings, or creeds regarding divinity, we would likely describe Jesus as a saint. Why? Well, the obvious answer is that he raised Lazarus from the dead.

But it could be for other reasons.  

Leaning into the New Testament’s description of saint(s), we might reread the passage and reconsider what makes Jesus a saint. Perhaps it is because he showed empathy: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved . . . Jesus began to weep.” In a world where we are taught to keep a stiff upper lip and to “never let ‘em see you cry,” mourning with one another is a radical act.

Study the passage with an eye towards seeing the “ordinary” as “extraordinary.” In doing so, the powerful acts of Jesus expand far beyond raising Lazarus from the dead. When Mary expresses disappointment (and anger?) in Jesus, he does not leave in a huff. He understands she is grieving. Jesus also does not pack up and move out upon hearing that Lazarus is dead. Instead, he moves towards death, closer to people who have big feelings, and nearer to that which was considered unclean and untouchable. These actions are certainly profound, but none of them require divinity or special ecclesiastical dispensation. What else might be included.

Suddenly, in situations that might have before seemed like there was nothing to be done, the act of showing up takes on the quality of remarkable. It may scare us to know that we really can seriously ask, “What would Jesus do?” and be able to realistically model his actions, since they do not necessarily require superpowers. Not all will hear this as good news.

Hopefully, this understanding is also empowering. There is so much more we can do to respond faithfully in any given situation when we stop thinking that we need a superhero cape.

Happy All Saints Day, indeed.

The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the senior pastor of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, a graduate of Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Emory University. She was once described as a loose cannon. Lori 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 25(B): Full and Abundant Life

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By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

Many of us will be deeply familiar with the story of Job. He is a man who loses everything as part of a divine wager in which the accuser is allowed to take away all of the wealth and privilege that he has been privy to throughout his life. As part of the test, the accuser takes Job’s fortunes, his friends, and even his family. Even Job’s wife tells him that it would be better for him if he would simply curse God and die. (Job 2:9)

Can you even begin to imagine what that must have been like? That everything you ever possessed was taken away and even your family turn their backs on you. They were convinced that Job had done something wrong to bring God’s wrath forth on himself. However, throughout this whole theodicy, that is the experience of the absence of God, it becomes so incredibly clear that this is not the consequence of Job having done something wrong. That was the dominant theology of the day. If you’re wealthy it’s because God has blessed you and if you’re poor then that is because you have sinned and God is punishing you. We still see this theology alive and well in what many refer to as the “prosperity gospel.” In the West, this type of theology is often married with nationalistic pride.

But here in the last chapter of the book we come to this passage that speaks about the restoration of his wealth and his family. The passage tells us that “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job’s life more than his beginning…”

I can’t help but wonder what it truly means to be blessed by God? Is that a life that comes with rich resources? Is it a life that comes easily? Or is it free from defeat or disappointment? I can’t bring myself to hold that any of those things are reflective of what it truly means to be blessed by God. For the sake of transparency, I should own my understanding is shaded by my own experience of life. My experience of life teaches me that not a single one of us escapes this life unscathed by challenges, difficulties, defeats, and disappointments. These things are simply consequences of being ‘alive.’

I’ve met with so many people who are struggling and asking the question of “Why is this happening to me?” It’s a question that many of us struggle with when we’re in these difficult places. We can be tempted to think that it’s because we did something or we didn’t do something we should have. Often, we are in difficult places because we’re alive and managing the struggles and challenges of life is just a part of it.

A wise young woman once said, “Why not me? Why am I so special as to be spared the pains and challenges of life?” I was privileged to know her for a significant chunk of her life and mine. I now find myself asking that question more regularly in the places where I am tempted to ask why instead I wonder why not me?

The last verse of this passage is one that really prompted my imagination. In spite of all the trials and challenges that Job had overcome, the scriptures record that when he died, “He died old and full of days.” (v. 17)

What does it look like to live a life that is “full of days?” I am convinced that it means living our lives to the fullest that we can. It means finding our passions in life and embodying them fully and by doing so to make life full and abundant.

We can see this in the life of artists who give up big careers and lots of money to pursue their art. We see it in the lives of those who devote themselves to the religious life for the sake of the world. We see it in the people who devote their lives to making this world a better place with one act of compassion at a time.

In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic, I’d be remiss to not mention the men and women who have given their lives to provide care for those who are sick and dying at great personal risk to themselves and their families.

St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “In this life, we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Finding that great love and making it manifest in the world is one of the ways that we can live our lives “full of days.”

What will it look like for you to live your life “full of days?”

The Rev. Jerrod McCormack is originally from Alabama and now resides in Calgary Alberta. He holds an Associate Degree in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College, Madisonville, TN; a Bachelor Degree in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, TN; and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, KY. He began his career in ministry as a pastor in the United Methodist Church some 20 years ago in East Tennessee. He became an Anglican in 2012 and was ordained a deacon in 2018 and priest in 2019. Jerrod is currently the Spiritual Health Practitioner and Team Lead for Spiritual Care at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Alberta Canada. His passions include nature, mountains, photography, hiking, and kilt making.

Proper 22(B): The Call to Integrity

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By: The Rev. David Clifford

The texts for the Proper 22 also happen to fall on World Communion Sunday. This is a rather challenging group of texts to incorporate into world communion Sunday, so I would recommend those preaching this Sunday to pick a theme and work from there. The scripture readings offer a few different suggestions. A main theme found throughout Job, Psalm 26, and Hebrews seem to be integrity. God boasts of Job’s integrity. The psalmist brags of personal integrity. And Hebrews speaks to Christ’s integrity. The Gospel reading seems at first not to fit into this theme of integrity as it deals with marriage, divorce, adultery, and entering the kingdom of God like children. However, I would argue that Christ’s integrity is on display within our Gospel reading.

Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to hear and near impossible to practice. However, his devotion to the ancestors of the faith and the ways in which God is constantly at work through our lives is always on full display. I believe this shows us a glimpse of the incarnation. In Jesus’ life, we see the divine and the creator. It is a life that is always pushing us to be more connected and more engaged with those we might otherwise wish to avoid.

Jesus is constantly engaged with the religious leaders who often attempt to test him or trick him. Of course, we must be careful here not to equate these religious leaders with the Jewish people (a common mistake that has had terrible fallout throughout our history). Instead, I find it helpful to equate the religious leaders of the Gospels with ourselves. After all, we are constantly looking for the loopholes in our lives of faith. Too often, we attempt to read only the parts of scripture that fit into our narrative rather than reading the entirety. Too often, we attempt to turn Christ into what we want him to be rather than who he is and who he is calling us to be.

In this way, we find another connection to the theme of integrity. In order for us to be complete and truly whole, we must be the person God has called us to be and live the life of love Christ calls us to live. I had a professor once who would often teach that integrity is the things you do when no one is around. Christ calls us to a certain life and too often we fail the test of integrity in attempting to live in a different way.

In Mark chapter 10 verse 14 we find a very interesting thing happen. We are told that Jesus is “indignant” that the disciples would rebuke people bring their children to him. The NIV translates aganakteo into indignant. You can also find this word translated to “displeased” in some translations. In any case, Jesus is upset with the disciples.

The interesting part of this particular passage is that this is the only use of aganakteo to describe Jesus’ emotional state in the Gospel of Mark.[1] There are only two others uses of this word in Mark’s Gospel. One is found in chapter 10 verse 41 when the disciples become indignant with James and John about them asking to sit at the right and left of Christ. The other is found in chapter 14 verse 4 when some gathered there become indignant about the unnamed woman using such expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. (Interestingly, this seems to be the last straw for Judas, because right after this he goes to the chief priests to set up Jesus’ betrayal.)

There is, of course, much written and preached about the example of children within Christ’s teaching of the faith. This particular passage even suggests that it if we do not receive the children, we can not enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus often seems to be able to take time to enjoy the innocence of the children around them. I often picture Jesus as one who is willing to learn from the children around him: from their curiosity, their playfulness, and even their integrity. Children often give you exactly who they are. They have not yet learned the various social norms of society and thus are willing to tell you exactly what is on their minds. Something many pastors have learned during an embarrassing answer to a question asked at the children’s moment of a worship service.

As a parent of three children myself, I am also struck by the things I have learned from my children. Sometimes the skeptical introvert in me can be caught off-guard by their innocent willingness to have conversations with everyone they meet. Of course, the adult in me often worries about stranger-danger and the need to protect them. And yet, there is something pure about the way they live into who they are and who they have been called by God to be.

Even in the midst of devastation to his family, his life, and his health, God boasts of Job’s integrity – proclaiming him to be a blameless and upright man. There is a word in these texts that calls upon our own integrity – it challenges us to be who we have been created to be. But we are also challenged to find the pure love of Christ in who others have been created to be. In my own experience that is so much more difficult.

In those moments when who we are crashes headfirst into who someone else is, we may be challenged to fall into indignation. It would be wise for those preaching from these texts to explore the ways in which our indignation can open up the Kingdom of God for more people rather than close it off. Who knows, maybe there is a connection to this theme of integrity and World Communion Sunday after all? However we spread this word, remember that Christ takes the children of God in his arms, places his hands upon them, and blesses them. I pray all those that hear these words from God would feel the same.

[1] Oh, Kirsten S. “October 3, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22/World Communion Sunday.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.

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

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?


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

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.

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.

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.