In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.
For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.
In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.
But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).
The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.
“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.
We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.
The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.
Sometimes, I think it’s okay to look at a Biblical text and want to shout at it, “THIS ISN’T HELPFUL.”
It’s not the text’s fault that it catches us on a bad day (or month, or year). There’s still beauty and wisdom in it. But when you’re in the depths of stress, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, deeply cynical and mourning the fact that the world you live in is nothing like you think it should be, a gentle, comforting exhortation like this one from Paul can feel more like a platitude. Platitudes, it should be noted, are naturally infuriating.
“Do not be anxious about anything!” Right, sure, I’ll get on that just as soon as I answer 7 more emails at 10pm so that I can look like a good worker in the midst of a global pandemic. “The peace of God will guard your hearts!” Well, it hasn’t yet, so when is that supposed to arrive? “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Oh Paul, dear sweet Paul, you wouldn’t survive 6 seconds on social media. We don’t think about the good things. We find every dumpster fire in the world and spend our time sharing articles about those instead.
The trick, then, is figuring out how to take this reading seriously instead of setting it (and those like it) on fire by the laser-beam force of our own cynicism. Paul, after all, wasn’t exactly a sunshine and butterflies sort of fellow, and plenty of his letters are basically a face-palm in epistolary format (case in point: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?!”). He lived in a real world full of greed and terror and anxiety, just as we do. His words surely weren’t just about being comforting and vapid. In fact, his instructions are a lot more interesting if you assume they’re coming from a fellow cynic.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” These aren’t banalities, they’re marching orders. Rejoicing can be hard work, and right now is one of those times. Paul is insisting that it’s work worth doing – just like quelling our own anxiety, and presenting our struggles to God rather than flailing around with them by ourselves. He tells us to fill our mind with beautiful things, and I don’t think he means to ignore the pain of the world to do so, but to see where the world’s pain is being tended to or healed and to think about those things. This meditation isn’t just so we can feel better – it’s so we can do better, having been inspired and enlivened by imagining what actions are within our power. He promises the peace of God, but maybe this is less the tranquil peace of a still pond and more the kind of exhausted satisfaction we find when, at the end of a very long and very difficult day, we settle into bed knowing we’ve given what we could.
I prefer this Paul, who faces the chaos of the world and digs in deep to find the beauty, and I think a lot of other people – especially those who are run ragged, down but not out – would too. It’s a helpful reminder as we pass each day that this is the work that means the most and that will sustain us the longest. As for that peace of God, well, I haven’t found it yet; but for the moment, I can dig down deeper and trust that maybe it’ll find me when I need it the most.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is a recovering cynic. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and her toddler son, Xavier.
We all know the story of Jonah. It is one of the first stories we hear as small children. God tells Jonah, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me (1:2, NRSV).” He immediately jumps on a ship to flee from the presence of the Lord. “But,” we tell our children, “we can never be hidden from the presence of God, because God is everywhere.” And so, God calls a huge storm, the people discover it is Jonah who has angered God, and he is tossed overboard into the sea. God is merciful and sends a huge fish to swallow Jonah whole to save him from drowning. After three days inside a fish, Jonah finally calls out to God for salvation, and the fish spits Jonah onto dry land. Then God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah and Jonah goes. And that is often where we stop. This is the story our people know: the disobedient Jonah learns his lesson and follows God’s commands. Except that Jonah goes only a day into the city, instead of three days to the center of town, and he is angry when they repent and follow God.
Jonah is in many ways an anti-prophet. He flees from God, changes the message God gives him, and is bitter in the end when God offers repentance to the Ninevites. He does the bare minimum required. Jonah stopped one day into the city in hopes that the message would not travel; he hoped that Nineveh would not repent and he instead could watch the city fall. In the passage for today God saw that the people believe, they repent, they change.
The news travels to the king of Nineveh, without the help of the prophet who normally is the one to carry the message to the King, and the king acts immediately. The king takes off his robes, takes off the things that show his power, and put on uncomfortable sackcloth, and then sits in ashes. He acts as though he is common; he acts in subservience to God. He then proclaims that all humans and animals alike put on sackcloth and fast from food and water and all will turn from their evil ways. The name of YHWH is not mentioned at all from Jonah and yet all the people of the city and their king know to repent. The king says that all shall do these things in hopes that God may nacham and change God’s mind and turn from his anger so the city will not be overthrown. In verse 10 God does nacham, God changes God’s mind, in the same way God changes God’s mind in Exodus 32:14.
God changes God’s mind and offers love and salvation for the bitterest enemy of Israel at that time. And Jonah is furious. Jonah intentionally offered no way for the people of Ninevah to repent, intentionally did the very minimum, and yet with that tiniest of nudges, the people believed in God and changed their ways. Jonah yells at God as an insult “ God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness! So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead (The Message)!” This is God’s very nature, and thanks be to God for that.
We look at this passage and judge Jonah harshly. Yet, in this strange and uncertain time I find myself aligning more than I am comfortable with Jonah. I look at the news and think THOSE people deserve what is coming to them, THOSE people should not be dealt with kindly and compassionately, THOSE people should get the virus because of their statements. I, at times, yearn for God’s wrath upon those who cause so much strife and misinformation. I get so angry about the proverbial bush (or gourd) that I forget entirely of God’s love and compassion for all of creation. As you preach this week consider the needs of your community: some need to know that even though Jonah was filled with anger and hate, God used that for good, some need to hear that in the midst of terrible things that we may be involved in ourselves God offers our redemption, some need to know of God’s care in the midst of their anger—after all God did give Jonah a bush to sit under. And maybe they need to hear that if even God can change God’s mind we can too—whether it is about wearing masks or examining our own privilege in light of protests. If God changes God’s mind, then we should not see changing our own minds as a weakness. I, for one, am thankful that in a season where I feel like I cannot offer my congregation what they really need or want, that God continues to use whatever we do for good. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Certificate for Theology in Ministry from Cambridge University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Candler School of Theology. AnnaKate is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and pondering ways to escape quarantine.
Perhaps you caught the viral video by filmmaker David Jones of David Jones Media featuring author Kimberly Jones earlier this summer. In it, Jones shares a powerful statement on the impact of racism on Black Americans, concluding with a hard truth for White people, “They are lucky Black people are looking for equality and not revenge.”
I remembered the first time I saw the video. As a cishet, college-educated White American of middle class standing, I am the female epitome of White privilege. Jones’ words were a punch in the gut. That’s it, I thought, she just nailed the primary fear of many White people (myself included), “what if we actually got what we deserved?”
In today’s assigned passage from Genesis, Joseph’s brothers might be wondering the same thing. After the death of their father Jacob they ask one another, “If Joseph bears resentment against us, he will surely pay us back for all the evil we caused him” (Gen. 50:15, trans. Robert Alter). They are not yet rid of their guilt following the sale of their brother for 20 pieces of silver in chapter 37. In the wake of their father’s death, the brothers, convinced that their ill deeds will be lorded over them, wants to renegotiate their relationship with Joseph. Of course, there has been nothing obvious to the reader to indicate that Joseph is harboring ill will against them. But is it really guilt if it’s not an obsession? Their betrayal looms large now that the “dad buffer” is gone. Sending intermediaries to feel out Joseph, they communicate their father’s deathbed instructions, calling upon Joseph to forgive the sins of his other sons. This request causes Joseph to weep.
Following the so-called last will and testament reading, Joseph’s brothers fall before him claiming to be his slaves. Their guilt and fear drips off the page.
Joseph doesn’t make much of an attempt to assuage them of it, nor should he. He responds with a mysterious rebuke, “Am I in the place of God?” (v. 19). As Walter Brueggemann describes, “Joseph is adept at sorting out which things belong to God (things like forgiveness and the birthing of children) and the things which are properly human (cf. Mk. 12:13-17).” He seems to understand the limits of his authority. Or, maybe he simply understands his own emotional limits concerning his brothers. After all, forgiveness is a process, not an event. Familial hurts have lingering power.
But this isn’t a story of the brothers’ guilt. That’s not the issue to be resolved. And, perhaps for our contemporary story of sibling hurt and betrayal, White folk need to be reminded that our guilt for the sins of racism can get in the way of the real story, reconciling Black and Brown people to full equality. In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes of the racial injustice of the 1960s, “In order to minimize the sense of hazard and disaster always latent in themselves, the whites have to project their fears on to some object outside themselves.” Privileged people are adept at making everything about themselves. In our Genesis story, the preacher might warn their White listeners to be wary of identifying with Joseph. This might be opportunity to connect with Jacob’s other sons and to reflect on the places in which we have betrayed and wounded our fellow human siblings. We might meditate on the ways in which we have tried to speed up forgiveness or rush through apologies to move past the awkward, the hurt and the tension.
You have heard it said that “time heals.” As Henri Nouwen writes, the phrase “is not true when it means that we will eventually forget the wounds inflicted on us and be able to live on as if nothing happened. That is not really healing; it is simply ignoring reality. But when the expression “time heals” means that faithfulness in a difficult relationship can lead us to a deeper understanding of the ways we have hurt each other, then there is much truth in it. “Time heals” implies not passively waiting but actively working with our pain and trusting in the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Up until now, the brothers have been preoccupied with their plan, that is, their plan to get rid of their younger brother. They were so consumed by this plan that they failed to see that there was another plan already at play. Even after their reunification with Joseph in chapter 45, they continued to obsess about their past deeds. So, Joseph reminds them of the plan unknown to all of them save God being unveiled, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (v. 20). And, staying true to his human authority as prime minister, Joseph reassures his family that they need not fear, he will provide for them. This he can do, but the work of removing the stain of sin is God’s and God’s alone.
While this passage concludes the book, Genesis is not an ending, it’s a beginning. The book begins with the goodness of creation and throughout the ancestral stories, God’s primary pursuit has been one of goodness. In comparison to the brothers whose purposes were for ill, God’s purposes are a constant good. For the people of today, we are called to remember that God’s good plan is at work here and now. It’s breaking through and, in some cases, it is yet to be revealed. But this good plan brings comfort, reconciliation and homecoming for the entire human family.
 Brueggemann, Walter. “Genesis.” Interpretation, Westminster John Knox Press, 370.
 Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Image, 25.
The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.
I remember an old, odd piece of wisdom that I still need every now and again: “You don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.”
There were a variety of options for preaching and teaching today, but one common thread through all of them is the value of community and belonging: more specifically, how do you mark that you are a part of the community, and how do you properly try to keep people loyal to what that community believes? In Exodus, we see the Passover ritual given to the Ancient Hebrews, something where the quite literal blood of a lamb marks them as members of God’s chosen flock. In Ezekiel, we hear about the important need to speak call out when those in our community sin, as Ezekiel was called to do for the Israelites. In Romans, we are reminded to “conduct ourselves properly as in the day” and to avoid succumbing to unholy desires (particularly of the flesh as Paul notes). And finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we should do if another sins against us—namely, take it up with them first, then bring witnesses, then tell the church, then “treat [them] as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”
So, it seems pretty cut and dry. These readings all reinforce that we need to pay close attention to what marks us as Christians, to be on guard to call others out when they fail at it, and to be ready to cast them out of the community if they don’t change. It’s up to us to keep the church pure and holy and to cast out those who don’t measure up. The Catholic Church (to whom I belong) emphasizes this point in their text notes on the Gospel reading via their website: “Just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so much the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refugees to repent.” So that must be it, right? Right?
Well, I hope it isn’t that simple, actually.
Don’t get me wrong—I think there is a real need for correction, within churches, within the Church, and within the world. This present moment in America is ripe for us to correct each other and to change our world–one with less racism, less sexism, less striving for power, and more desiring to serve each other and stand with one another.
BUT, and this is the tougher part to articulate, we need to be careful that in our desire to create a more just society we do not simply get rid of those who disagree with us and refuse to change (even if, in moments of weakness, that is a mighty tempting position to take). I want to look at that Gospel passage again—while on the surface it looks like a way to settle disagreements and to expel those who don’t relent, I think that isn’t doing the passage enough justice. After all, in the next two lines after this Gospel Jesus says that we should forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” (or seventy times seven in some translations – i.e. we should be constantly, always forgiving). The few verses before this Gospel passage talk about the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind to seek the lost one. How do we square that with the idea that people should be cast out of our community? Does it really fit together?
Jesus says that you should treat those who won’t acknowledge their wrong as you would a Gentile or tax collector. How exactly did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? In Matthew 8, Jesus encounters a Gentile centurion, yet is “amazed” at the man’s faith and heals his servant. Again in Matthew 15, he (eventually) helps the daughter of another Gentile. Oh, and what was the profession of the apostle Matthew, whom this Gospel is named after? Right, he was a tax collector. In fact, we see in this Gospel that Jesus regularly ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), and showed more mercy to them than judgment. That seems like a weird way to treat people that you are supposed to avoid.
So what’s happening here? Is this passage really about saying who’s in and who’s out? Or is it about redefining who’s in and who’s out? Consider the earlier Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the shepherd leaves the entire rest of the flock behind to go find the one that got away. I don’t know if you know any shepherds, but that isn’t a great business plan for them. That doesn’t sound like someone wanting perfection out of their sheep. Directly following our Gospel today, we see Jesus emphasizing the great mercy of God in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. And then in turn we see that servant (who may very well be us) turning around and not showing that same mercy. Maybe God isn’t the one saying who’s in and who’s out. Maybe that’s on us.
This Gospel makes me think of a modern day saint (even if unofficial): Dorothy Day. A Catholic convert in the early 20th century who had earlier been a radical and an anarchist, Day would go on to start the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” among many other things in her life. These houses were dedicated to those in need – i.e. the poor, and especially the “undeserving poor.” If you haven’t heard that term before, it should be easy to conjure up what it imagines – the ones who get called lazy, stupid, and sloppy; the ones who don’t smile at you when you give them money; the ones who aren’t grateful enough. I mean, sure, everyone can be like that, but those of us who aren’t poor have earned the right – because they’re poor, they shouldn’t be. At least, that tends to be the conventional wisdom.
But Dorothy Day saw it differently – she strove to see human dignity present in all people, no matter how insufferable they turned out to be. And believe me, some of the people who stayed at her Catholic Worker houses were insufferable. This piece from the Atlantic puts it well:
Dorothy Day lived with the forgotten man, and he was a huge pain in the ass. His name was Mr. Breen, and during his residency at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street he was a vituperative racist and a fire hazard. His name was also Mr. O’Connell, who stayed for 11 ill-natured years at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farming commune in Easton, Pennsylvania, slandering the other workers without mercy, hoarding the tools, and generally making himself “a terror” (in Day’s words).
Even so, Day still recognized that they were human beings too, created in the image and likeness of God, and nothing, neither the hardships they had endured nor the ones they put on others, could get rid of that: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
In light of Dorothy Day, I have to look at this passage differently. There will always be a need to settle disagreements. There will always be a need to speak truth to power, to act for real justice, and to change our systems so that justice may be possible. There is a need to tell people when they are doing wrong and harming others. But in doing so, we cannot lose sight that they too are children of God, and that they do not deserve to be dehumanized and ostracized either. This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is one that Jesus calls us to. After all, you don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.
Chris Clow is a stay-at-home dad for an energetic, noisy, wonderful toddler Xavier and loving husband and home cook for wife Emily Kahm. He was also a campus and music minister for 8 years before he and his family moved to Omaha for the next stage of their life. When he isn’t struggling to love those he doesn’t like, he enjoys playing video games, remembering what it was like when there was baseball on TV (just presuming this season doesn’t last), and coming up with new recipes and dishes to try and make at home.
At the date of this writing eleven weeks has passed since I have celebrated Holy Eucharist. Eleven weeks has passed since the congregation I serve have participated in any formal sacrament. Like the lamenting Magdalene who cried out twice, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” we call out to the authorities of the church as well as to God in our disorientation (Jn 20:2, 13). By now disorientation has slowly turned to disillusionment with the bishops of the church continuing to preach steadfastness while the resurrected Lord remains to reveal the world his wounds. St. Paul promises that our sufferings (disorientation & disillusionment?) grounded in a life of Christ “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 3b-4). The bishops are right in preaching steadfastness in the faith because it allows us the audacity to hope. But hope for what? Hope to regather and celebrate Communion? Yes. But that’s not all. If indeed, the resurrected Lord continues to reveal his wounds to the world, and our faith calls us to participate in Christ’s sufferings, then the sacramental life (right now) is revealed to us in our own brokenness. Like the Magdalene, we cry out, and God answers us by calling our name (Jn 20:16). Once Mary’s name was heard she “went and announced…“I have seen the Lord”” (Jn 20:18). Once we name our own laments, God calls us each by name to wake us up to the reality of resurrection still found in his wounds intimately joined to our own. This is the Body of Christ broken for you, and at once we are forgiven and free to proclaim hope within the sufferings of the world.
What does steadfastness tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like washing one’s hands (Ps 26:6a). Only when we (as the priesthood of all believers) wash our hands in innocence may we go in procession round the Lord’s altar (Ps 26:6). When we wash our hands we are at once acknowledging our past as well as preparing for the future. We do the hard work of self-examination (confession, forgiveness, discernment) in order to go around the altar of the world in a spirit of hope, praise, mercy, justice, and compassion.
What does a revealing of Christ’s wounds to the world tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like a house built upon a foundation of Love (Ps 26:8). In this house the “wonderful deeds” of God are the topics of conversation (Ps 26:7). We vulnerably admit that our hands have been dirty, and like Christ are invited to show the world their redeemed wounds. At once, the world sees its own past as well as a hopeful future where God, table, and house become the place “where [God’s] glory abides” (Ps 26:8).
Over the past several months, kitchen tables have replaced altars, and houses have become little churches. The sacraments have been administered, only this time in the form of kindness, patience, compassion, justice, and mercy. These are not easy times, but they are hopeful times. Like Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” in new and exciting ways. He is [still] Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Come, let us adore Him in our own brokenness alongside a broken and redeemed world.
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Through the pandemic he has used technology to pray and teach Morning & Evening Prayer to his congregation. They have been praying together online twice every day since April. Brandon blogs at https://fatherbrandon.com/.
When big decisions loom ahead, we often wonder what to do. We may ask ourselves, what does God want me to do? What does God want for us? What is the “best” decision? Utilizing wisdom and understanding in these moments is commonly known as discernment. The more time I have spent with this passage from Romans, the more I see that Paul is fleshing out the full meaning of discernment. The new life in Christ that Paul speaks about is not just about having more faith or doing the right things. The new life is the becoming, the transformation. Our whole selves are rooted in Christ so that our whole life becomes what it was always meant to be – a response to the goodness of God’s perfect will. Ours is the process of becoming, growing into, the good creation we were always intended to be; whereas, God’s will is complete, whole, and perfect. As we are made whole, healed, and united, we live into our purpose, and God’s will is made known to the world.
Some may conclude that Paul’s explanation of the new life in Christ comes down to living a perfect, pure, and sinless life. I mean, he says, right there, that God’s will is perfect, right? However, the connotation and use of the word have more to do with growth and maturity, not moral perfection. What is growth, if not a form of becoming?
Paul walks us further into understanding our purpose of wholeness and maturity in Christ. From our transformed minds, attuned to God’s will, we can step forward in our discernment of self and others. The hierarchy is stripped away. We are all members of the same body. Though our function and faith may differ, we are God’s. We are all equally precious. We each have the same purpose; though, it may be lived out through different means.
The task of removing hierarchy is difficult. We humans like to feel special, important, and measure ourselves against each other. Unfortunately, we humans also have limited, or imperfect, abilities to honestly and truthfully evaluate ourselves. Psychologists and neuroscientists have scientifically proven how, why, and in what ways we do this through a variety of research. One of the most famous examples is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, at its core, suggests that people fail to recognize their intellectual and social shortcomings because they simply lack the expertise necessary to see them. As such, the effect reflects a double-curse: People’s deficits cause them to make many mistakes, and then those exact same deficits prevent them from seeing their decisions as mistakes. As a consequence, the pervasive tendency for people to overrate themselves and their talents is not necessarily due to their ego, but rather to intellectual deficits that they cannot see.
Rather than being trapped in biased, scattered and incomplete decision-making, we can recognize what we know and don’t know, and bring it all to God. In our process of transformation, we are integrated. As we grow and are shaped by God’s intention, we turn inwardly to know all of who we are. We heal within ourselves and then, in our relationship to others. We experience reconciliation and in that healing we know wholeness. Our actions, words, and life will then reflect God’s will. It is then that all that we do becomes vocation.
Paul lists seven important vocations, all of which are incomplete without discernment. Each vocation exemplifies the necessity of wholeness within ourselves and in relationship to others. Each vocation is for the purpose of God’s will, becoming a new creation in Christ.
Prophecy in proportion to faith – Prophecy flows from faith. The prophetic words for community require a balance with the prophet’s faith. Faith is defined as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. If a prophet is speaking from incomplete trust and lack of faith, how is it in response to a discernment and fulfillment of God’s will?
Ministry in ministering – All ministry is for the purpose of attending to the needs of someone. If the need is not there, but the “ministry” is, how is it in response to discernment?
The teacher in teaching – A teacher is one who shows or explains to (someone) how to do something. The only way one can show or explain to another is by fully understanding what it is they themselves know and do not know. If a teacher is unable or unwilling to be taught and shaped by God’s will, how will those they teach learn and experience new life in Christ?
The exhorter in exhortation – A skilled exhorter will be charismatic and persuasive. Their work is to address or communicate, emphatically urging someone to do something. If their exhortation is not grounded in a continuous discernment process, how easy will it be for them to manipulate others toward a purpose and action other than God’s will?
The giver in generosity – Generosity is the quality of being kind and generous. Giving is a matter of vocation! Being a generous giver is a quality that infuses our full lives, not just a church’s financial stewardship. If the giver is not giving out of kindness and instead a begrudging perspective of scarcity and duty, how is it in response to a life transformed by the will of God?
The leader in diligence: Leadership is not just about having a special title or always being in the front of the room. Paul defines the gift of a leader by their diligence, their careful and persistent work or effort. This careful and persistent effort is proportionate to their careful and persistent discernment. If a leader is not careful in their work with others, how will they lead them into a life of wholeness and healing?
The compassionate in cheerfulness – Those who are compassionate can also struggle with burnout and exhaustion, bitterness and cynicism. That is why compassion must be grounded in accompaniment and a continuous return to discernment. When compassion for ourselves and others originates in the new life of Christ, our lives are refreshed with cheerfulness, which is the quality or state of being noticeably happy and optimistic. Optimism comes from our hope in the new life for all of creation promised in Christ. If cheerfulness does not accompany compassion, how does that compassion come from a response to God’s will?
In each of these vocations, there is a cycle of return to discernment, centered on God’s intended purpose for all of creation, a return to self, and another turn out into community. In each turn we grow and become more wholly who God created us to be. Ultimately it is all by the grace of God. All we can do is keep showing up, presenting ourselves before God’s mercy, and living into the gifts God has given us. It is in the process of our transformation that we will grow in our knowledge of God and others will know God through us.
No matter what questions arise for us in the days to come, no matter our decisions, God will not abandon us. Each step is a new step in becoming. May you learn from Paul’s words what it is to live in this cycle of discernment and new life in Christ. May it free you to share this abundant life with others in through your whole life.
Casey Cross is serves as the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. Check out some of her other work and writing at http://caseykcross.com.
I love the story of Joseph. I think it’s because I’m partial to musicals – and the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is one of my favorites. Whatever the reason for my initial love of this story, there are always lessons to learn from it. In the story of Joseph, there are themes of betrayal, family dysfunction, oppression, rising from the ashes, and, perhaps most unlikely of all, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the portion assigned for today, we meet Joseph close to the end of his story. After having been brutally betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, he is taken captive to Egypt. After a period of imprisonment, he rises into one of the top-ranking officials in Egypt because of his ability to interpret dreams for the Pharaoh. His brothers, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times – there is a famine in the land—and their only hope is to go to Egypt and beg for mercy and assistance. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. In our reading, Joseph makes some admirable choices: first, to reveal who he is to his brothers; and second, to treat them with love and kindness, despite the cruel ways they treated him.
As I read through this passage, the part that stood out to me was when Joseph says, “Come closer to me”. In those four words, I think we see the beginning of reconciliation. “Come closer to me” is an invitation, a digging in, a pulling near. How often are we bold enough to ask those who have wronged us to come closer? Our human instinct is surely to pull away – to retreat, reject, and distance. And yet, here we have a man who has endured unimaginable hardship at the hands of his own brothers, and when faced with an opportunity to retaliate, he chooses instead to reconcile.
None of us, I hope, have been through the particular kind of excruciating betrayal that Joseph went through. And yet many of us have been hurt – by those we love and by those we don’t know very well. So often, in that hurt, we recoil; we retreat into our shells. This reaction is completely normal. It comes from a place of self-protection, and fear of being further hurt. But when we do that, the distance in the relationship widens. When Joseph is confronted by his brothers, instead of recoiling, he pulls in to close the gap in the relationship.
What would it look like, I wonder, to invite people who have wronged us to come closer to us? There are, of course, situations when reconciliation and “coming closer” are not possible—such as when doing so may put us or those whom we love in danger. Indeed, sometimes the wrongs other people cause are deeply personal and painful. But often, particularly in our current political climate, we harbor resentment towards others because they don’t believe the same things we do. We harbor resentment because of who someone chose to vote for, or what they believe in. The algorithms on social media make it so easy to let space creep in between us – to widen the chasm, instead of closing it.
One of my favorite prophecies in Isaiah says that those who offer their food to the hungry and work for liberation will be called the repairers of the breach. In our world, we live in the breach. Far more seems to separate us than unite us – and all of us are caught up in a web of distance, confident that the only way to treat others who are different from us is to create chasms between us, judging one another by our own standards.
But our world needs repairers of the breach. We need people to call, “come closer to me” after there has been a hurt, or a wrong. Joseph looks at his brothers who have wronged him – but who are now starving, and hungry – and he calls them in closer. As Christians, our call is to have the courage to do the same – to call in those who are hungry, those who are on the margins, those who have faced oppression. We are to call in those who think differently, those who voted differently, those from different racial and economic vantage points.
I love this story of Joseph because of the model it gives of what it might look like to live, reconciled. I pray that we all might learn to say and to live the words, “Come closer to me.”
The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.
There’s a man in Charlotte known as the “Jesus Saves Guy.” Before the pandemic, he would stand on the corner of Trade and Tryon streets in center city and bellow with all of his might, “Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you! Jesus saves!” He now drives a rickshaw through my neighborhood of South End, loudly proclaiming the same message, “Jesus saves! Jesus loves you!”
As of late, I’ve been feeling quite overwhelmed due to the demands of parish ministry and the challenge of working from home. My daily life feels as if it’s on repeat like the movie Groundhog Day. Coupled with the news of rising Coronavirus deaths, the lack of political leadership at the federal level, and a nation coming to terms with the evils of White Supremacy, it’s enough to wear on all of us.
Earlier this summer, as I sat at my dining room table, deep in sermon-writing procrastination, I felt like I had nothing to offer; no words to say. I felt hopeless and humbled by events outside of my control. And then I heard the rickshaw. “Jesus saves! Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you!”
In the gospel appointed for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the disciples find themselves caught in a storm. Battered by the waves with the wind against them, Jesus arrives walking on the water. The gospel tells us they were terrified, and they cried out in fear. But Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent commands in scripture. It is spoken to Abram as God promises to make him a great nation. It is spoken to Hagar just after she and her son are cast out and discarded. It is spoken to Moses as he leads the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It is spoken by the prophet Isaiah as Israel is held captive in Babylon. It is spoken to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she is told she will conceive a son. It is spoke to Saint Joseph in a dream. It is spoken to the shepherds in the fields. It is spoken by Jesus to his disciples.
I have heard many sermons about what happens next in this story. Most have focused on Peter’s lack of faith and perhaps that is where we should focus. After all Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But from my reading of the text I am not certain if Peter’s lack of faith is from fear of the waves or from his certainty that he could walk on water too.
Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman, professor of Biblical Studies at United Lutheran Seminary, contends that the gospel writer might be trying to demonstrate Peter’s over confidence, his lack of faith in Jesus, who alone can walk on water and calm the seas. 
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a much more reasonable invitation. Quite honestly, I don’t want to walk on water. I’d rather trust the One who can.
Perhaps, preachers, Jesus is calling us to embrace our helplessness in this moment, to trust that he alone can calm the storm around us. Perhaps, Jesus is reminding us that no matter what happens in the world around us, or in our own lives, we belong to him. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
This is the promise of our baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Jesus will never abandon us, and we belong to him. We don’t need to learn how to walk on water or beat ourselves up when we get overwhelmed by the waves around us, because even if we look away for a moment Jesus will catch us.
Many of our parishioners are overwhelmed. Many are facing the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. They might be behind on their bills and uncertain of the future. They don’t need to hear a message that promises if they simply keep their eye on Jesus, they can do the impossible like walk on water. Perhaps, the message they need to hear is that they belong to Jesus, he has them, especially when they’re sinking.
We don’t have to walk on water. Trust the One who can. Do not be afraid because Jesus saves.
The Rev. Jacob Pierce is Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He served as Curate at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church and as Associate Rector at St. Peter’s before his call to become Rector there this spring. He lives in South End with his husband, Adam Santalla Pierce, and their dog Hamlet.
***Editor’s Note: This Essay Originally Ran in 2017***
How many times does the lectionary pick up a gospel reading with some form of the phrase that begins the selection for this proper: “after he heard this…?”
Especially in instances where the lectionary does not treat the text sequentially, as is the case here, it’s important to explore exactly what it was that Jesus heard. In this instance, he heard about the death of John the Baptist in a gruesome affair involving his head being delivered to Herod’s wife, Herodias, on a silver platter. It seems that John had gotten on Herodias’ bad side. Beware the thin skin of politicians. This had to have been on Jesus’ mind as he withdrew. To a deserted place. By himself. In case you missed any of the clues that Jesus went to be alone, Matthew drives the point home in a redundant manner.
The place that I connect with Jesus in this text is not in the Eucharistic metaphor but in his grief. One imagines that he is mourning the death of his cousin and forerunner. My father died rather unexpectedly about 2 months ago at the point that I am writing this entry, and so it is inevitably the lens with which I view Scripture right now. We don’t know how long Jesus stays in the deserted place by himself but it reads as a brief interlude. He doesn’t get a lot of time and space because the crowd follows him on foot along the shore.
You know, with 2000 years of Christian history and living in a Judeo-Christian society, we might take these stories and the divinity of Jesus for granted, forgetting that he was also human. He must have felt the emotional, spiritual, and physical fatigue of his grief- compounded by the fact that this foreshadowed his own execution. Yet in the midst of it all he sees the crowd and has compassion for them. And he resumes his work of curing the sick.
I had to do a funeral very shortly after I returned from burying my dad, and on the 2-month anniversary of his death I was in the cardiovascular ICU with someone who was in critical condition—this was the same kind of unit in which my dad spent the last 24 hours of his life. It takes extra emotional energy now to be present and the recovery time for me after these moments is significant. And so I wonder what was the cost to Jesus to do this? To show up in this moment and be present to the crowd and to his disciples? Have you had an experience like this? And more to the point—what members of your congregation have had experiences like this? “The show must go on,” right? Do we ever afford ourselves the quiet and the space to do life’s essential work? Whether that’s grief? Joy? Or something else? I did withdraw to a deserted place by myself and that is following Jesus’ example as much as anything else in the Gospels.
Maybe when the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away into the villages, they’re not dismissing them so much as trying to build in some space and rest for Jesus. We don’t know of course, but surely they are surprised at Jesus’ response: “You give them something to eat.” Can you just see the expression on their faces change from concern to shock? And then maybe the shock turns into incredulity. The translation from Greek to English ‘we have five loaves and two fish’ is pretty straightforward but I think the translation from thought to words was something more like “are you freaking kidding me?”
One of the challenges of preaching on this proper is that this is such a familiar story. In an entry in the periodical Christian Century, Lauren Winner recommends reading Scripture in a location different from what you’re used to. I did this and I found myself wondering—were there really 5000 men plus the women and children? Or did the disciples overestimate the size of the crowd because they underestimated their ability?
And what about that crowd? What did it feel like to be fed from this abundance? Were they even in on the miracle or was that simply between the disciples and Jesus?
One other aspect of the text that we miss if we go by the lectionary rather than read the Gospel all at once is that an almost identical situation comes up shortly after this takes place.
Fast-forward to a few paragraphs later in Matthew’s gospel. It’s hard to tell how much time has passed though Jesus has been in several other towns before finding himself back along the Sea of Galilee, and this is what happens:
“He went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ (Matthew 15:32-39)
And the disciples just did this a few paragraphs back, so naturally their response is:
“We’re on it, Lord! We’ll see how many loaves of bread that we can find and maybe someone has a few fish that they’ll share. We’ll bring that to you so you can bless it and we know we’ll end up with a feast and plenty of leftovers…”
Yeah right. You’ve done the reading so you know that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the disciples said:
“But Jesus, Panera is closed now and the grocery store’s too far and you know the restaurants won’t do separate checks…”
Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing.
Jesus must have a bottomless well of patience, because goodness knows the disciples. Just. Don’t. Get it.
But there is good news in that for us. No matter how many times we have to relearn the same lesson. No matter how many times we make the same mistake. No matter how many times we miss an opportunity.
Jesus has patience with us—and we always get another chance to gather the loaves and fishes, and to share in the feast.
The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. She enjoys walking with her goldendoodle, Gordon, throwing culinary theme parties for her friends, and is a proud Star Wars nerd. Ann graduated from Sewanee and Florida State University, and hopes to add Australia to the list of continents she’s visited before 2020.