Christmas Eve(B): Celebrating Muck and Mundanity

Luke 2:(1-7), 8

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

How do we celebrate Christmas in the year 2020, this “unprecedented,” “undefinable”, “apocalyptic” and dumpster-fire-meme-inducing year?[1]

How do we preach “good news” in this year that has overwhelmed and exhausted us with ongoing disaster after disaster, tragedy after tragedy, and incalculable death and loss? How do we fill our people with the light of love, hope, joy, and peace when it feels like this year has held anything but? No matter what, we can’t “pretty up” Christmas this year. There’s no way to pretend that anything is normal, or that even keeping it quiet and simple will be anything but a shadow of celebrations before. Instead of the wonder and cheer of previous years, this year Christmas just feels a little too risky. But what if that right there, that notion that Christmas is a little bit daring, perilous, precarious … what if that is the good news?

We’ve heard the story so many times before that it’s become comfortably familiar, like the warm Christmas sweater we snuggle into this time of year. The tender glow of nostalgia paints a comfortable, welcoming picture into which we can almost place ourselves: we bask in the humid warmth of the cozy, wooden stable; we smell the sweet hay; we hear the melody of the animals – the treble baaing of the sheep, the bass of the cow’s low, the rustle of the hay crackling at our feet. We savor the honeyed aroma of contentment and peace. With Mary, we ponder the perfection of this moment heralded by the angels. Peace, good will, and joy to all! This is the magical moment when we hear that all is right with the world, the perfect birth story of God’s own perfection incarnate in the sweet, snuggly Baby Jesus. The story is so familiar that we let its nostalgia mask the scandal. 

My favorite Nativity icon is this Orthodox scene.[2] 

What I love about this icon is its starkness in comparison to other Nativity images, its reality, its daring. A cold, bleak cave replaces the cozy stable scene. Joseph, outside the entrance, ostensibly keeping watch, listens to a hooded, shadowy figure that represents the Adversary whispering “what if?” into his ear. What if it’s all a lie, a dream? What if, because we all know virgin birth is impossible, Mary has been playing him the fool? We see the conflict in Joseph’s brooding posture. Inside, Mary reclines in a pool of red –the residue, perhaps, of a labored birth process? What would it be like to give birth in a cramped, hard, uncomfortable and inhospitable space with no soft place to land? And the baby, instead of cozily snuggled in Mary’s arms, lays not amidst warm crackling straw, but in a stone box that looks less a feeding trough and more an ossuary swaddled tightly in bands of cloth, set deep back in a crack or niche in the wall of the cave….remarkably similar to the family tombs that dotting the Bethlehem hillside. And the gifts the magi will bring include the embalming herb, myrrh. Jesus is hunted as a rival by a jealous Herod. Even at his birth, the gospelers foreshadow Jesus’s death. Jesus is not safe.

Preacher David Schlafer writes that Christmas is about the “birth of the unexpected in the most unlikely of circumstances.” Over the years, we have heard the story so many times it has lost its edge. Christmas has become wrapped in the glow of nostalgia. We forget that Christ came into a politically dangerous world where Rome oppressed Judea with military dominance and heavy taxation. We forget that Christ came to a rigid world much like ours, where the religious and social class structure were unyielding, where the sick and outcast and foreigner were synonymous with the unclean or immoral. We forget that Mary and Joseph were “nobodies,” completely ordinary working-class people who lived in a backwater town in a backwater province of the Empire.

Such a dangerous, difficult world isn’t hard for us to imagine. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like our everyday reality. Jobs to do, taxes to pay, life marching onward against the backdrop of the empire’s power struggles and economic domination. These are not the things we want to focus on at Christmas…and so we settle for the comfortable fairytale, the illusion of peace and contentment wrapped in cheery paper at the foot of the evergreen tree; we hold to the familiar nostalgia of sweet baby Jesus, unassuming and unthreatening, simply there in perfect simplicity. Warm, snuggly, safe. But there is nothing about Jesus that is safe.

This icon reminds us that at the scene of his birth all is not cozy. And yet the good news of salvation, Schlafer notes, is that “the incarnation of God comes in the form of an illegitimate child; the birth announcements come to lowlife shepherds and pagan foreigners… God did not choose to come to earth at the highest point of life, but at its lowest point. God did not choose to enter the safe world of decorated churches and hallowed sanctuaries; instead God chose to enter the rough and tumble world of people with jobs to do, fields to tend, and government breathing down their necks at tax time.” Christ, the Savior, is born unexpectedly in in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Little wonder, then, that the first words of good news, the Gospel, counsel us “Do not be afraid!” This icon resurrects the inherent risk, the precarious danger surrounding the birth of this child, and points us to the paradoxical “good” news present at the very inception of this particular Child’s life – Savior because of, and through, his own death, his own fully embodied gift of self-offering, self-emptying, unconditionally gracious Love that is the very nature of God. Christ comes amid the muck and mundanity of everyday life rife with what ifs, loneliness, conflict, pain, shadow, death and loss—if we but seek, accept, and trust the light and Life to all he brings.

And, of course, this icon is not all stark realism. Good news surrounds the core promise, and the whole of creation receives this Child who redeems the whole of God’s Creation. God comes first to shepherds, representing those who are poor, marginalized, outcast, lonely and alone. God invites and includes them first in the great joy for ALL people. God comes to pagan strangers and foreigners, depicted here in this icon as both bearded and unbearded, those who are older and those who are young. God comes to the women, two of whom are inevitably midwives (a subtle nod to Shiprah and Puah) who would absolutely have been present and, likely, members of Joseph’s own extended family (since they returned to that area for the Census). The star still shines, the animals keep watch.

The paradox, this dance “between” – good and evil, light and shadow, joy and despair, gift and loss – is the reality of our human existence. In that, 2020 is not really “unprecedented, not terribly unlike any other year. What makes us feel like Christmas is “special” in years past has little to do with the reality of God’s presence coming into the muck and mundanity, and instead has largely been driven by our nostalgia around traditions. That’s not to say Christmas celebrations are not worshipful or beautiful experiences of God’s presence. They are. But beauty and warmth and glowing light are not really what Christmas is, or ever has been, about.

Christmas is about what’s Real. No matter the circumstances of our lives, we can trust that God is present with us. And the first message of Christmas is “Do not be afraid.” In a world filled with things to fear, a world filled with war and violence and oppression and degradation, with sickness and poverty, and waste and disaster, into this world Christ is born and the good news of God’s overwhelming, unconditional Love breaks in. Love sets us free – free to embody the light and love of Christ that lifts people from bondage and captivity to fear. And what is more real, or terrifying, than offering our very selves to God (to do with as God will) and to each other?

So take a risk this year. Do not be afraid. This year, keep Christmas real. Keep it messy. Keep it with joy, hope, peace, and self-offering love. Keep it a little dangerous and terrifying and awesome. Because THAT is what Christmas is all about – shaking us out of our comfort zones to meet a God who discomfits and disquiets us with unconditional love and grace from his first coming to his coming again. For that, may we rejoice!

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we embody care and concern for each person we encounter. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, enjoying fine food and whiskey, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.


[1] Image for purchase at: https://www.redbubble.com/i/poster/2020-Dumpster-Fire-2020-Meme-by-jtrenshaw/46745823.LVTDI

[2] https://myocn.net/the-icon-of-the-nativity/

Advent 3(B): Echoing Mary’s “Yes”

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

You’ll likely recognize the beginning of this passage as the scripture Jesus read in the synagogue on his first recorded day of public ministry (Luke 4:18-19). It certainly makes for a dramatic opening, one whose bold, poetic imagery fires our imaginations.

First, a series of reversals (vv. 1-3, also 7) prefiguring Mary’s Magnificat[1] set the scene for a re-ordering of society into a living embodiment of God’s kindom: those who are oppressed, imprisoned, and suffering great loss will be freed and restored.

And this is no small-scale redemption: the largess of God’s mercy is emphasized by the use of the Jubilee phrase “proclaiming liberty,” borrowed from Leviticus 25:10. The reference to Jubilee, a twice-a-century clearing of debts and returning of property, echoes the prophet’s mission to declare “the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 2).[2] The Jubilee allusion also dovetails with the mention of God’s vengeance (v. 2), a favorite Isaiahian phrase linked to redeeming Israel and punishing their enemies.[3]

Now here comes the poetry: the prophet, on God’s behalf, promises to give to those who mourn a “garland instead of ashes”—the KJV translation of “beauty for ashes” is particularly lovely—and to provide “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” (v. 3). These embodied details scale the communal reversals of Zion’s fortunes to a personal level as well. The vision of God’s anointed one refreshing formerly tear-stained faces, wrapping formerly hunched shoulders in new garments, and crowning formerly bowed heads with flowers are a tender reminder of God’s very personal attention to our losses.

Then in v. 3, “Oaks of righteousness” brings us back up to the forest view, so to speak, with a prime example of the agricultural metaphors Isaiah favors.[4] The perspective stays communal as a vision of the rebuilding of the city devastated by conquest and exile (v. 4) cements the people’s role in their recovery.

Verses 5-7 (not included in the lectionary reading) double down on God’s abundant graciousness; the people won’t just be restored to their former land, they’ll be rich enough to hire foreigners to work their fields and enjoy serving God in the special role of priestly people.

Why is God’s anointed one so committed to the restoration, individual and communal, of the exiled people? Verses 8-9 give us God’s own words on the subject: this is a manifestation of God’s commitment to justice as well as a new expression of the covenant made with Israel’s ancestors.

Verses 10-11 read like the concluding portion of a psalm, where God’s praises are sung by an individual on the receiving end of God’s graciousness, not the one on the proclaiming end of it. The repetition of imagery from the first few verses (garlands, clothing, flourishing plant life) celebrates the fulfillment of the promise laid out in the anointed one’s proclamation. God is faithful, the speaker declares, and when you’ve witnessed that faithfulness in your own life, you can’t contain the joy: “my whole being shall exult in my God!” (v. 10)

This last portion of Isaiah is preaching to those who have been exiled in Babylon for 70 years, speaking to them of a homecoming that was decades in the making. Yet the exiles–Jerusalem’s  religious, political, and royal elite–return to a city they barely recognize: the Temple is still in shambles, and the common people have filled the vacuum left when Babylon carted off the city’s leadership. As Elna Solvang writes, “The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees.”[5]

This gives a whole new read on the promise of comfort for “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 2). Imagine the tension between newly returned exiles expecting to resume their families’ former positions of power and those who remained, creating new patterns of leadership in their absence. As we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, the return was fraught with power struggles, demonization of the “other,” and questions about what it meant to be Jewish; the rebuilding of the city and the Temple was not exactly harmonious, requiring years of tumult and fits-and-starts effort.

Post-election, the United States faces divisions just as deep, if not deeper. The repair of multiple years’ worth, multiple generations’ worth of devastation is the task before us. Whether we’re talking about the latest salvos in four centuries of systemic racism; the loss of life and damage done to mental health, education, small businesses and more wrought by the pandemic; the calculated weakening of democracy; the stripping away of environmental protections; or the children torn from their parents whose traumatization will ripple through communities and families for years to come, the work of repair it isn’t going to happen overnight or without significant ongoing division.

So where do Isaiah’s words leave us, particularly as Advent people?

First of all, there is no ignoring the good news God’s anointed one is bringing to all those who have been wounded, forgotten, oppressed, or maltreated. Those Magnificat-esque reversals are central to the text, and the freedom and new life they portend are a central function of the Messiah coming anew into our lives and our communities. God-made-flesh brings hope, liberation, healing, and vindication to all those who desperately need it, within our congregations and without.

Second, the “repair [of] the ruined cities” and of “the devastations of many generations” (v. 4) is not accomplished by the magic wand-waving of the speaker, but rather by the work of “those who mourn in Zion” (v. 3), the ones who lament what has been lost, stolen, and corrupted in a land they so dearly love. In other words, it is our work – the work of we who mourn the devastations of the last four years, and the last four hundred.

Though it is our work, we certainly are not left alone in it – the God of justice, the covenant-maker, will be with us (v. 8) and will bless our descendants (v. 9), those who will benefit from the social and communal reordering we undertake now.

Isaiah’s words—and Jesus’s quoting of them—are both an immediate, personal balm and a long-term, communal assurance that large-scale wrongdoing will be made right. As we draw ever nearer to the birth of God-with-us, let us echo Mary’s “Yes” as we respond to these invitations to heal and to work for the rebuilding of our nation into a kindom of justice that will indeed bless those who come after us. Then we, too, will surely join the author of Isaiah in exulting in our Savior with our “whole being” (v. 10). Amen.


[1] Luke 1:46b-55; next week’s Gospel reading.

[2] Solvang, Elna K. “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11: Hope Sprouts from the Ruins.” Working Preacher, December 11, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1100

[3] Ex. Isaiah 34:8; 63:4; 59:17,20; 47:3-4).

[4] Roberts, J.J.M., “Isaiah,” The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (eds. Wayne A. Meeks et al.; New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 1101.

[5] Solvang, “Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.”

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a nice long walk, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris. Once she thrifted a pair of fabulous cowboy boots at a secondhand store in Atlanta called “Beauty for Ashes.”

Advent 2(B): Apocalypse Now

2 Peter 3:8-15a

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Every year during Advent, the church has an apocalypse. Some people like to think of Advent as the church’s “new year,” but on hearing the lectionary readings for the second Sunday most of us come away in a decidedly more sober mood: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

“Apocalypse” is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately, and with good reason. Not only are we still in the grip of a plague that has killed over a million people and has shut down schools, churches, restaurants, workplaces, concerts, sporting events, and pretty much everything else that once constituted life as we know it, but this summer we also saw a stark rise in authoritarianism as peaceful protestors demonstrating against systemic racism and police brutality were violently attacked by their own government, while those in power tried to frame “anti-fascism” and “anti-racism” as forms of domestic “terrorism.” Widespread deception and lies from political leaders contributed to a surge in conspiratorial thinking, and there was a significant rise in various forms of denial, as more and more people fell prey to their own psychological defense mechanisms in an unconscious attempt to cope with the mounting uncertainty and chaos. Widespread belief that the coronavirus is a hoax, insane theories about Hillary Clinton running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza shop, and the conviction that the expansion of the Israeli state would bring about the end of the world were all considered as viable topics of adult conversation.

Meanwhile, as if to take a cue straight from the Book of Revelation, the whole of creation seemed to cry out with a noteworthy slew of natural disasters, which took on heightened symbolic meaning under the circumstances. Police in Texas were attacked by a rare swarm of 40,000 Africanized bees. One of the largest dust storms on record traveled across the Atlantic from Africa to choke the American South. And let’s not forget the record-breaking locust swarms, wildfires, and hurricane season, the infamous murder hornets, or the rivers in China and Israel that turned blood red. We even had a star disappear from the sky. Some people couldn’t help but wonder… is this the apocalypse?  

Well, technically yes, I do believe that we are experiencing an apocalypse. But please note that I am using the term here in a technical sense. “Apocalypse” is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the entire Biblical lexicon despite persistent efforts of Biblical scholars, clergy, and theologians to correct course on the matter. Popular conceptions of “the apocalypse” are still largely shaped by the secular film industry and the religious propaganda of fanatical evangelical sects, which bombard us with vivid imagery of planetary destruction. Thus, the end of “the world” is nearly interpreted as the end of the natural, material, created world. This “Gnostic” interpretation of the apocalyptic writings of the New Testament is, from an orthodox perspective, heresy. The whole thing can be dispensed of rather easily by simply consulting the Book of Revelation, which even when taken at its most literal level describes heaven as coming to be made manifest on Earth. In other words, even in a strict eschatological sense, the apocalypse is not about some future demise of the planet.

The Greek word apokalypsis means “revelation” or “unveiling.” Apocalypse is about vision and about perception. The apocalypse is marked by a transformed and spiritually-informed way of seeing that pierces through the veil of deception, egocentrism, fear, and confirmation bias that pervades our everyday life in “the world” and prevents us from confronting the truth about ourselves, one another, and God. The day of reckoning that the New Testament writers wrote about was a day of ultimate truth-telling, a day when “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This is a day when all people everywhere will finally have eyes to see and ears to hear, and will be given the chance to turn from their narrow ways of thinking to walk in the way of Christ, which is the way of humility, and love, and justice, and peace. This new reality that the early Christians longed for was conceived of as “a new heaven and a new earth,” characterized in the second letter of Peter as a place “where righteousness is at home.” This is the ultimate paradigm shift that would fundamentally transform the way that human beings operate on this planet.

The ancients understood that such an “unveiling” would necessarily entail a dissolving of our current ways of seeing and being – our false pretenses of power, our illusions of security, and the ways in which we idolize earthly leaders and celebrities as gods. A “revelation” on this scale would also require a dissolution of the social, political, economic, and religious powers that conspire and collude to deceive the masses and maintain those delusions. It would expose the “strongmen” of this world for what they truly are: poseurs of Divine power who are in fact cowards and slaves unto death. On this day, God alone is revealed as the Creator and Source of all life, having a power that stretches far beyond whatever earthly powers any one individual might grasp for themselves within their short lifetime. Those with the will to witness to the truth, even at the cost of their own suffering, are the ones who are revealed on that day as truly strong.

But apocalyptic literature also reminds us that there are larger social and systemic processes at play in our world, which “invisibly” and insidiously conspire to deceive people in order to justify and maintain the conditions of marginalization, oppression, and injustice. Through political institutions, media, religious cultures, economic systems, maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms, and everyday group dynamics, these larger “forces” have a power that stretches far beyond the scope of single individuals to foster widespread confusion, suffering, and pain in ways that are difficult if not impossible to root out. The writers of the New Testament used a particular kind of language to identify these destructive forces, calling them “demonic,” and referring to them as “powers and principalities” or “Satan.” Such outdated terms may sound a bit too mystical or magical for us today, but for the Biblical writers they pointed very pragmatically to real phenomena that are very much still a part of the world. The early Christians believed that these forces literally existed in the air, hovering just under the clouds, and so they naturally assumed that the final battle between these powers and God would take place in the sky, which is why Paul speaks in Thessalonians about being “caught up” (harpazo) to the clouds on the day of the Lord’s coming. The various levels of heaven into which Paul and others were “caught up” at various times to receive their visions and revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12) offered a foretaste of the day when all would be brought into a complete understanding of the truth.

Admittedly, texts like today’s pericope from 2 Peter have a long and problematic history of interpretation, and have themselves been made to serve those deceptive forces that oppose the kingdom of God. This situation has led many progressive Christians to either ignore them in embarrassment, or reject them outright as dangerous. Even Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, commented on the widespread controversies surrounding John’s Book of Revelation, which was very nearly excluded from the Christian canon altogether. Several church leaders argued that it was, at the very least, not much of a “revelation,” since its vivid symbolism and allegorical imagery was far too obscure and difficult to decipher.[1] To be sure, engaging with these texts in a preaching context requires careful study, deep discernment, and thorough clarification. The apocalyptic literature cannot be fully appreciated without a thorough understanding of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, nor can it be properly understood from within a context of privilege (which is perhaps why it was so perplexing to the patristics). It is only in the context of suffering and oppression that the full meaning of these texts can really begin to land.

However, now more than ever, I believe we need the message of the apocalyptic. Because when properly unpacked and contextualized, this strain of the Christian tradition provides us with a powerful resource for emboldening our faith and staying grounded in truth during times of great social upheaval. The apocalyptic tradition understood itself to be a continuation of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, and like the prophets it offers a paradoxical balance between comfort and critique, offering hope and justice for the downtrodden while confronting and critiquing the complacency of the privileged, and challenging everyone to beware of the moral and spiritual dangers of colluding with those whom “this world” has deemed powerful for the sake of one’s own gain. As Gregory Stevenson writes,

“…on the one side are those who have encountered such hardship and suffering in the world that they are in danger of losing or distorting their faith. On the other side are those who have become so comfortable with the deception that ‘the kingdom of the world’ creates, that they are unaware of the danger it poses to their faith. The power of apocalyptic language lies in its ability to address both groups, because both groups share the same fundamental problem – a distorted view of the world… Both groups need an apocalypse, because both groups require a new vision of the world.”[2]

In the midst of this 2020 apocalypse, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic unmasks the real values of so many public leaders and social groups, and as the veil continues to be lifted for so many white people who are becoming “woke” to the reality of systemic racism, and as the earth cries out with “the blood of Abel” in signs that speak to the unsustainable consumption practices of human culture (which are what caused those rivers to turn blood red, in both cases), we need both the challenge and the comfort of the apocalyptic, which promises us a day when the truth about the world will be revealed. Seeing things as they are can be painful, and that suffering tempts us with longing to retreat into the psychological safety of our delusions. Those who suffer to bear witness to the truth can begin to lose hope, believing that the forces of “this world” are too powerful to overcome. But the second epistle of Peter reminds us that when that day of vindication seems long delayed, we still must never give up our hope or our resolve. We must courageously continue in the work of the Lord, participating in God’s dream for humanity through acts of humility, solidarity, mercy, honesty, and love. Because the more we participate in the embodiment of that dream, the more people we will bring into that vision, and the closer we will get to manifesting the kingdom of God here on earth.   


[1] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 25.2.

[2] Gregory Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb: Revelation, and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering, Abeline: ACU Press, 2013.

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, spiritual director, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen looks forward to performing music and leading classes, retreats, and workshops again on the other side of this apocalypse. 

Advent 1(B): Keep Awake!

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?

It seems pretty easy to me.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.

The good news is that today, so has Advent.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.

The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.

Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.           

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Thanksgiving Day (A): Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving Day (A): Giving Thanks

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

This is a story about giving thanks! So, let’s use it on Thanksgiving! The lectionary folks really were just looking for key words on this one (sorry to be catty, it’s been a long year). Giving thanks is a big moment in this story, but I don’t read this as a story about thanks. I read it as a story about healing. It is also one of those ones best taken step-by-step, so here we go! 

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 

Jesus was walking the line. From the perspective of a traditionalist at the time, one might say that he is not just walking geographic border, but he’s walking a bigger metaphorical line. People on one side were God’s people who did things the right way. People on the other side were not because they didn’t pray the right way, weren’t the right skin color, didn’t have the right last names, had a heretical religion, didn’t have the right customs, and eat the right foods. And the bad people were the…Samaritans. Jesus was walking this line by going through this region between these two places. We tend to think of Jesus as on either the good or the bad side of things, not spending a lot of time in the gray area between.

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. 

Whether a Galilean, a Samaritan, or a Roman citizen, if you were a leper, no one wanted you around. They were equally bad, threatening, and scary for folks. It is important to recall that many folks might have even felt that the lepers brought their illness upon themselves due to their sinful ways that displeased God (any person nowadays with an STI, HIV, trauma-induced addiction, etc…) While Jesus was in a land that no one liked, ten people that no one wanted came up to him.

Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

Keeping their distance. Maybe because they were sick and didn’t want to get Jesus sick, but that doesn’t seem like a right reading to me since they are asking for the rabbi’s mercy. More to me it seems like maybe they have been harassed by others and were afraid to get close to anyone, not the least a community leader or a religious figure. A lot of people presently stay away from Jesus because they’ve been hurt by the communities that gather in his name.

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 

This seems like a terrifying prospect. Nearly everyone they know would change their minds about them if the priest ruled that they were “clean” again. However independent from our leaders we may perceive ourselves, as it turns out, most people follow the example, word, or ruling of the leaders they respect the most, whether a minister, a jurist, or a president (please stay off of Twitter). The lepers were made clean as they left and did as Jesus commanded. It is interesting that this is one of those healings where Jesus doesn’t touch anyone. He just wills something, and it is done.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. 

One of them didn’t follow Jesus’s instructions.[1] Anyway, one of them comes back and his himself a little thing folks in my evangelical friends call a “praise break.” Now, not thinking about the story itself, but thinking about the reception, it seems reasonable to me that folks at this point are really on this ex-leper’s side. He’s showing gratitude for being healed. Piety, joy, love, and a witness to a miracle. What a hero. I wish I was that grateful for most of the mercies in my life, but honestly, I usually just take them for granted.  

And he was a Samaritan. 

Aaaaand there it is. This is when the gospel lets the other shoe drop. It gets us all on this person’s side and then tells us that he is one of them.[2] This is where one is tempted to take refuge in the idea that the Samaritan who was healed didn’t actually follow Jesus’s instructions. There’s hope yet for us, friends, that the Samaritan may get a good chiding from Jesus for not following a divine command. Just like a Samaritan to get God’s instructions wrong.[3]

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

And, if we’ve really been following the themes of this story, then we’re not happy here. Jesus praises the person with the heretic religion, the stupid culture, the dumb habits, and the gall not to follow Jesus’s instructions like the others did. At this point, we should be the ones begging Jesus to have mercy on us and declare the degenerate unclean again. Alas, we suffer still. And that’s all he’s got to say to us about it.

            Now, the reflections above are precisely why having this as the reading for Thanksgiving Day is really only moderately relevant (read: sloppy). Giving thanks is an important function in an overall story about Jesus pulling a switch on us by transcending our prejudices. That borderland between Galilee and Samaria is a powerful metaphor for the reader if we take the time to look deeply and contextually. It is the border between the people we like and the people we fear. That border is everywhere in this world. It is everywhere because is exists primarily in human hearts, and just plays itself out in ways that diminish, hurt, ruin, and even end human lives. I’ll bet you more money than I’ve got that each and every one of us has that border in our own hearts too. 

This is a story we need at the moment. As I write this, the 2020 elections haven’t yet been held. I’m no prophet, but I imagine that things won’t be much better afterwards. This is not an invitation to make peace with injustice and it isn’t a “bothsidesism.” It is a plea not to forget the humanity of the people you hate, dislike, or fear. Robbing someone of their humanity is easier than you think. Often, it isn’t a drastic step, but rather a series of little moves that takes us down a truly cruel path. In this story we get an invitation to break the dehumanizing cycle we trap one another in. May we be wise enough to accept it.


[1] Some commentaries suggest he did. You can die on that hill if you want to, but I just don’t see it, honey.

[2] You can fill in the blank here on what “them” is in your life; a flaky liberal, a conservative bumpkin, someone who wears white after Labor Day, etc…

[3]You know how those people are…

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is the chaplain for Episcopal Campus and Young Adult Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from Efland, North Carolina, he has settled down close to home, where he lives with his husband.  

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.

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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.

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.

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The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke

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

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

Proper 24 (A): Whose Image is This?

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

By: The Rev. David Clifford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rev. David Clifford

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

 

 

Proper 22(A): Bad Grapes

Proper 22(A): Bad Grapes

Matthew 21:33-46

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

In the opening chapters of Isaiah, the author shares a song about a vineyard. The song tells of a love song for a loved one and said loved one’s vineyard. The vineyard is planted in good soil. In fact, the owner of the vineyard did everything right in the planting and caring of the vineyard. And because the one who did the planting did everything right, the expectations of the harvest were high. But all that came of it were rotten grapes.

The love song changes gears here. From third to first person, the vineyard owner asks the reader: “Why do you think I have bad grapes?” It may be a hypothetical question, because the answer is, “Surely not the planter.” Rather, the fault of the bad grapes falls upon the grapes. The owner of the vineyard then shares exactly what he will do to the entire vineyard. It shall be destroyed.

The author the sums up the whole thing: the vineyard is Israel, the plantings are the people, and the planter/owner is God. The rest of verse 7 goes like this: “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isaiah 5:7, CEB).

The moral of the story is this: God did everything right by Israel. They did not do everything right by God. What’s left are a bunch of bad grapes.

In Matthew 21, immediately after Jesus has very upsettingly “cleansed” the temple, Jesus tells a number of parables to the chief priests and elders. One of these is a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard. Sound familiar?

The story begins in a similar way. The landowner plants a vineyard and does everything right. He builds a fence and a winepress and a tower. However, this landowner rents it out to some tenant farmers and leaves for a trip.

Harvest time comes around and the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, but the tenant farmers stop them. These farmers grab the servants and beat some of them, kill some, and others they stone to death. Anyone who knows the Isaiah passage can see where Jesus is going. But the story isn’t over. The landowner sends more servants, but the tenant farmers react the same way.

Then, the landowner sends his own son, after all, they would surely respect the son of the landowner. Wrong. The tenant farmers kill him, thinking that they might get his inheritance.

Jesus stops here, mid-parable, and asks these chief priests and elders, “What do you think the landowner is going to do to the farmers?” Perhaps these leaders remember the Isaiah passage, the images of the planter as God and the vineyard as Israel and the vines as the people of God. Maybe they don’t quite understand the layer of the tenant farmers and the servants. Perhaps they see themselves as the servants and the Romans or any other occupiers as the tenant farmers. Maybe not. Either way, they answer, “The landowner will definitely do away with the evil farmers and obviously rent the land to someone else who will be more cooperative.”

That’s when Jesus drops the mic. He quotes Psalm 118:22-23, something about a cornerstone being rejected, anticipating a difference of values between God and Israel’s religious leadership, and then he says a sentence that opens their eyes to the truth of the parable: “You will no longer be stewards of God’s kingdom; rather, the kingdom will be given to new farmers who will produce its fruit.

Jesus affirms their answer. They aren’t wrong. Of course the landowner should find new farmers who will produce fruit and cooperate at the harvest. And that is exactly what God is going to do. The religious leadership have missed their shot. It turns out that they are the ones who have been killing servant after servant (prophet after prophet) and will eventually kill the son of the landowner (Jesus). They have led Israel astray. They have not cultivated the plant well.

The same grapes as in Isaiah are still bad grapes, but the fault now falls on the vineyard workers, tasked with growing and cultivating the vines.

Whenever I read passages like this, I feel a strong sense of fear. Why? I am a minister. I am a faith leader. I am not unlike the chief priests and elders. I am in a position of faith leadership. And because of passages like this, I understand God to take faith leadership seriously.

What happens to those tasked with leadership and farming and raising a harvest when they raise some bad grapes? The landowner will do away with them.

It isn’t too different from a few chapters prior. “Whoever causes a little one who believes to fall into sin, they would be better off drowned in a lake” (Matthew 18:6). Or what about Luke 20, when Jesus actually warns anyone listening about the teachers of the law? “They like to walk around wearing fancy clothes, and they love for people to greet them with respect in marketplaces. The love to have the most important seats in the synagogues and at feasts. But they cheat widows and steal their houses and they try to make themselves look good by saying long prayers. They will receive a greater punishment” (20:46-47, NCV). Jesus is repeatedly hard on leaders of the faith community.

Proper 22 becomes especially difficult to preach about because its subject matter is pointed directly at me! Its hard-hitting points are pointed at me! How can I preach this passage to anyone but myself? I’m not sure. But I will start first worry about the plank in my own eye before becoming anxious about the speck in the eye of any other (Matthew 7:3).

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.

Proper 21(A): Being the Church in Coronatide

Proper 21(A): Being the Church in Coronatide

Philippians 2:1– 13

By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

For me, preaching and leading liturgy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging and exhausting. Everything has changed, and I am having to learn what it means to lead God’s people in new ways. Today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers not only a familiar text to return to as a touchstone of what it means to be church, but it also provides a model for how we can grow in faith through the challenges of the pandemic.

Paul, most likely quoting a well-known hymn or liturgical response, charges the followers of Jesus in Philippi to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5 NRSV). First, it is worth noting that the “you” in this passage is the plural form. (A favorite professor of mine used to provide students with her own translations of the Greek Scriptures, and she frequently used “y’all” to indicate the plural. One of many reasons I highly recommend reading the Bible with scholars from Texas.) Second, the “same mind” mentioned by Paul could be translated as the same “attitude,” which connotes a habitual action.[1]

Becoming imitators of Christ, which Paul charges the people at Philippi to do in order to remain faithful community, requires a group effort and growth into maturity that comes through practice. In other words, if you are not yet perfect, that’s ok. It takes time. It takes teamwork. It takes practice.

It occurs to me that much of what we do in our liturgical life is practicing being the people of God. A mentor of mine once likened going to church to kids playing “house.”[2] When you’re a kid and you play “house,” everything is perfect. You’re a happy family. You live in a beautiful house. You have the best car. Real life, however, even for those with the fancy houses and cars, is not perfect.

When we come to church, we play the Kingdom of God. Through our actions of praying together, learning together, praising God together, confessing our sins together, and turning back toward God together, we get a glimpse of the emerging Kingdom of God wherein there is no pain, nor suffering, nor division, nor death. Eucharistic worship heightens this even more as it culminates in a moment of the gathered assembly physically uniting with God and one another through the sacrament.

Our liturgical rites transform us in community through Christ.

One of the greatest challenges for churches during this time of pandemic has been that our centuries-old ways of being together have changed. While I have deep gratitude and respect for the many ways churches have engaged worship online, outdoors, and in other creative ways, we cannot ignore the incredible loss of our habitual ways of worshiping and being together. I am not suggesting here that the new ways of being church are better or worse than the ways we were church prior to the pandemic—I am suggesting that they are different and difficult.

As an Episcopalian, I have a deep love of my inherited tradition in the Book of Common Prayer. I also recognize that the book from which I preside was formally instituted in our church in 1979—hardly an ancient text. Its contents, not only the words but its formulations, however, span traditions and centuries. It is a container of liturgies both ancient and new. This is not unique to Episcopal worship. (Lutherans, for example, know the difference between “the red book” and “the cranberry book.”)

Part of the struggle of corona-tide, as we’ve come to call it in my parish, is that we are not practiced in the new ways of being church. Taking on the mind of Christ, being perfect imitators of Christ, requires a collective rehearsing much in the same way that an orchestra or dance troupe or soccer team must practice together over and over to form cohesion and perfection.

When Paul tells the people of Philippi to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), he is not suggesting that people’s own interests and wellbeing do not matter. Rather, he is showing the people that selfish interest denies the wholeness of community, and therefore, hinders the collective rehearsing of being one in Christ. Paul develops this theme more in his letter to the Corinthians when he lays out his Body of Christ theology (1 Cor 12).

If the old ways of being church have changed, how do we know if we are rightly rehearsing how to be the people of God through unity in Christ? The Christ Hymn in today’s epistle gives us something of a game plan.

Let the same habitual attitude of Jesus be in y’all (Phil 2:5 my translation)

However we worship in corona-tide, right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is rooted in community. Community can look like comments in a YouTube chat; it can look like a Zoom meeting; it can look like an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign or phone call; it can look a million different ways.

How are y’all practicing community during the pandemic?

He humbled himself (Phil 2:8 NRSV)

Right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is humble. It does not seek to exalt the self, but to humble one’s self in service to God and others. Jesus, the pre-existing Word of God, did not revel and delight in his lordship over the earth, but rather joined humanity as one of us as an act of love.

How are y’all practicing humility during the pandemic?

[He] became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (2:8)

Right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is obedient to God. We read the Holy Scriptures and dwell in God’s word in order to learn how God has taught us to live. We keep God’s holy commandments, and when we stray from them, we ask for forgiveness and turn (repent) back toward God.

How are y’all practicing obedience during the pandemic?

Preaching on this text in this time could be an entryway into a parish-wide conversation of what it means to be beloved community and what it means to be imitators of Christ. One might reflect on liturgical decisions made by your church in corona-tide and see where they reflect the practice of humility and obedience and how those practices might lead to the exalted life in Christ. Likewise, a meditation on these practices could reveal new ways of being community and new ways of practicing the Kingdom of God.

As a note to the leaders of the church, take comfort in this Christ Hymn. For me, I find I am exhausted more quickly and feeling the deep grief of losing “the way things were.” Learning new ways of being is hard! It can be life-giving, but initially, it is hard! If imitating Christ only comes about through habitual actions and practice, it makes sense that new ways are harder than old ones. Much as the marathon runner must train for months and months before jumping into a race, we are only beginning our training.

May God bless you with community, humility, and obedience that brings us ever closer to the exalted name of Jesus.

Cowen Headshot (2)
The Rev. Charles Cowen

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] Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians” in Philippians and Philemon, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 10, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009).

[2] The Rev. Michael K. Adams in a bazillion (stunningly beautiful) sermons.