Proper 12(A): Sighs Too Deep for Words

Proper 12(A): Sighs Too Deep For Words

Romans 8:26-39

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

On April 6, 2020, Maria Cain got word that her sister Franca Panettone, a 46-year-old woman with Downs syndrome, died alone in her hospital bed after several days on a ventilator battling COVID-19.

Sighs too deep for words.

On May 25, 2020, witnesses watched in horror as a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer, who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, choking him as he cried out for his breath.

Sighs too deep for words.

As cases of coronavirus continue to rise in the United States, robbing people of breath and life, and as more and more white people come to an awareness of the systemic racism and white supremacy that have robbed black people of breath and life for over 400 years, we find ourselves at a time when we need the Spirit to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words.

The NRSV translates the Greek word στεναγμός as “sighing,” but the more common translation is “groaning.” The word specifically implies the groans of those in distress.

I am a chronic anxiety sufferer. I have experienced panic attacks for nearly two decades. Over the years, my anxiety has manifested in a number of different ways, but one of the most common is a feeling of tightness in my throat. This “choking” sensation, common among anxiety sufferers, is actually where we get our word “anxiety.” It comes from the ancient Latin root angere, meaning “I’m choking” or “I can’t breathe.”

One of the things that I have learned over the years as both a chronic anxiety sufferer and a Christian is that it is extremely difficult for most people to integrate anxiety, anger, and sadness into their understanding of a “spiritual” or religious life. Particularly among white people, “spirituality” is often associated with peaceful feelings, calmness, quietness, and being nice. Sadness, fear, and anger are understood as “sinful”… they lead to “the dark side.” It is for this reason that many people cannot conceive of the relationship between spirituality and social justice, or between religion and the public square. Consequently, many “spiritual” people respond to the totally justified anger, fear, and grief of black people with dismissive platitudes about love, nonviolence, and the need for inner transformation, while many “religious” people respond to the totally reasonable, medically-informed anxieties about the spread of a deadly disease with denial and the demand to return to public worship.

Of the many cultural trends that have dominated the American religious landscape over the last century, the “positive thinking” movement remains one of the most insidious and pervasive. Often associated with Norman Vincent Peale and the Religious Right, the origins of this movement do not necessarily lie within Christianity itself, but in the Transcendentalism of the mid-19th century and the New Thought movements of the early 20th century, which offered a uniquely American interpretation of Hinduism that linked modern capitalist ideals to the belief that individuals could earn God’s (or “the universe’s”) favor through positive thinking and the avoidance of “negative” thoughts. These ideas have given rise not only to the multibillion dollar secular mindfulness industry, which promotes individualistic self-help through the consumption of trendy, positivity-based “spiritual-but-not-religious” practices, but also to the hyper-individualized “feel-good” version of Christianity that has given us megachurches, the prosperity gospel, and the Christian pop of “positive and encouraging K-Love.”

While we may easily chortle at the saccharine spirituality of ultra-spiritual guy or the Precious Moments chapel, this tendency to split off from our so-called “negative” emotions in order to avoid conflict and pain is as common in “progressive” Christian circles as it is in evangelical communities and the SBNR “love and light” crowd. Mainline churches have also been guilty of using spirituality to ignore the cries of the those who can’t breathe. I can’t count the number of times mainline clergy have tried to use Matthew 6:27 (“who of you by worrying can add a day to his life?”) in a misguided attempt to control or suppress my anxiety (seriously people… stop doing this). Conversations about mental illness are shut down in mainline church contexts almost as swiftly as conversations about death (“It was all a part of God’s plan”) and conversations about systemic racism (“Why cause trouble by bringing up the negative?”).

In 1984, Psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe this habit of using “spiritual” beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with painful feelings and uncomfortable realities. “Part of the reason for this,” writes Robert Masters, “is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing ‘solutions’, regardless of how much suffering such ‘remedies’ may catalyze” (click here for more information about spiritual bypassing).

Christian clergy, cognitive behavioral therapists, “wisdom” teachers, motivational speakers, and New Age gurus alike have taught us that the path to healing entails a process of learning how to transform and/or replace “negative” emotions with “positive” ones. But as Sri Lankan philosopher of psychology Sahanika Ratnayake writes in The Problem of Mindfulness, “the focus tends to be solely on the contents of an individual’s mind and the alleviation of their distress, rather than on interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress in the first place.”

Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that while spiritual “techniques” may be helpful in offering short-term relief from everyday stresses, they are largely counterproductive for navigating anxiety, depression, and anger, precisely because these emotions are often rooted in experiences of trauma, abuse, neglect, and oppression. Attitudes of suppression or even “nonattachment” can impede the kind of direct confrontation with the pain that is necessary for long-term healing and social transformation.

At this moment in our communal lives, it is critical for religious and spiritual people to begin to understand that our “negative emotions” are not exclusively anger, sadness, and fear, but any emotion to which we become overly attached. Calmness, peace, love, and hope can all become extremely negative and toxic when we cling to them at the expense of acknowledging painful truths. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that the primary shared trait among psychopaths is a profound lack of anxiety, fear, and sadness. Thus, spiritual and emotional well-being does not extend from a steady, zen-like state of calmness, but from an emotional fluidity that allows for an engagement with the full spectrum of reality.

Perhaps we can forgive our wayward SBNR friends for being swayed by feel-good cultural trends. But as Christians, we ought to know better. We know from the Biblical witness that there can be no love without justice, and no justice without a humbling of those in power and a lifting up of the lowly. Ours is a God who despises the false optimism and “positivity” of those who sing songs of praise while ignoring the cries of the poor and the oppressed. Ours is a God who abhors those who honor Him “with their lips” but who meanwhile “make someone out to be guilty,” by ensnaring the defender in court, “and with a false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Is. 29: 13, 21). Through the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus, we have come to know a God who was born into poverty, a God who wept, a God who got angry over religious hypocrisy, and a God who even despaired of God while he was suffering and dying unjustly at the hands of those in power.

When the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in times of distress, it is not with platitudes of prosaic positivity, but with the wordless groans of empathic lament. Any spirituality that does not make room for anger, sadness, and fear is not a truly Biblical “spirituality.”

Because what happens when those groans go unheard and unacknowledged?

What happens when the grief and the fear and the anger are ignored?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes, Harlem

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, 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 leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

Proper 11(A): If the Lord Tarries and the Creek Don’t Rise

Proper 11(A): If the Lord Tarries and the Creek Don’t Rise

Genesis 28:10-19a

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

2020 is not the year that we lost control. 2020 is the year that we lost the illusion that we were in control in the first place. The comforting habits we had formed were disrupted. The plans we had made were gone. While this felt new, like we had just now been tossed into a sea of uncertainty, the truth is that the plans we made were always conditional; the daily norms were always just for today and maybe until something changed again.

I’m reminded of the colloquialisms of my elders in the faith: “If the Lord tarries…” or “God-willing and the creek don’t rise.” I’ve wondered before if this strand of my forbears’ faith was rooted in pessimism or whether it was realism—after all, the old country Baptists that trained me up as a child had seen some things. They had seen sickness, war, and poverty up close and personal. Not only did the Bible tell them God was going to return someday, triumphant over these big worldly sins, but they had seen death enough to know on a deeper level than naive optimistic Hannah that no day, no moment was guaranteed. If the Lord tarries… maybe we’ll have that big party or event or vacation. Or maybe there won’t be any tarrying and our plans will go out the window.

In 2020, a new generation of folks are learning that plans and habits are conditional, and this is disorienting. This disorientation has real effects on our mental and emotional health. Lest you think I’m glorifying the Christian version of non-attachment that puts an asterisk on every single hope for earthly joy, I’m actually very concerned that living life in a constant state of perceived threat takes a toll on a person. My own family lineage has anxiety interwoven with the Baptist faith—both passed on to us through generations of the faithful who were God-fearing and world-fearing simultaneously.

What I see in the texts for this week, then, is assurances to an anxious people about who God is. To Jacob, God said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God goes on to say to Jacob in his dream, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[1] When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, “”Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!”

God is in this place. God is with us, wherever we go. This theme continues in the 139th Psalm: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” In a time that seems uncertain because of pandemic and unemployment and persistent racism, God insists on God’s presence, and the psalmist testifies that there are no limits to this presence. I am particularly struck by the line, “If I make my bed in Sheol” as it implies my own agency in the building of the bed in the place of death, and yet, still God is there. Because there are various human contributions to the pains and sufferings that are being felt on a global scale, this assurance that God does not abandon us even when we’ve made our own bed in Sheol is specifically reassuring. I do not know what 2021 brings, but I know that here in this moment, as bad as it is or as anxious as I am, God is here.

Even the other psalm, Psalm 86, praises God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” which is another message of hope in the face of human-exacerbated crisis. I often imagine God as the parent who cares for all people (Wisdom of Solomon 12:13) but possessing more wisdom and perspective than we have in our youth. And so, this image I have for God as parent is compassionate for the mistakes we make along the way even while pushing and teaching us to do better. Likewise, the Romans text names us as children of God who call out to God as Abba, a term of parental endearment.

Where can the beloved toddler go where their parent will not be with them? What could the child do to cause the holy parent to abandon them? Our plans are on shifting sand, and even our human relationships with parents sometimes fail us, but God does not. Whether the Lord tarries or not, God does it with us, side-by-side. That is good news in 2020.

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

 

[1] Right now, my spirit is stirred by these assurances of who God is, but a different part of me wants to preach a sermon called, “The Father Dreams, Too,” since often it’s Joseph who is considered the dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Jacob’s got some big dreams himself though, both this week and in a couple weeks depending on how you interpret his wrestling with an angel.

Proper 10(A): No “Us” Versus “Them”

Proper 10(A): No “Us” Versus “Them”

Genesis 25:19-34

By: Colin Cushman

This passage involving Jacob and Esau, and the birthright traded for pottage, is one of the famous stories of the Genesis tradition. However, while this is quite familiar passage for those of us steeped in the Bible, there are definitely parts of it that we pay attention to and parts that we gloss over. I would like to poke around those murky areas to see what they can teach us, specifically about our relationship with the Other.

From the very beginning of this passage, we see that we are talking about how groups of people relate. Notice, for example, verse 20. Twice within the course of one sentence, the author here reiterates that Rebekah, a major matriarch of The Chosen People, is a foreigner. She’s an immigrant who married into the family. We cannot tell the story of our sacred history without including the story of immigration and inter-racial marriage. The passage insists that we must recognize the role of the foreigner in making us who we are today. Adopting this perspective then opens up a significant theme in our passage: foreigners and relationships between peoples.

Take, for example, the oracle given by God in verse 23. God makes it clear that this story is not just an anecdote about two individual people. It about nations and their relationship with one another. We are talking about groups of people and how they interact with one another.

And what group of people are we talking about? Well, obviously Jacob is Israel (as his later name change makes clear). In verse 30, we learn, in a rather ungainly construction, that Esau here really is referring to Edom (the neighbor to ancient Israel). So the author tells us that there are two people groups: Israel and Edom. Except, in reality, there might not be. The thing is, as we learn more and more about the region from archaeology, we are learning that, as a matter of fact, Israelites and Edomites were not all that different from one another. As much as the powers that be wanted a clear-cut, nonporous line demarcating who is really an Edomite or an Israelite, in reality, there were a bunch of different families and tribes, all of whom were operating more or less independently, and they may or may not have wanted to be lumped into that label of “Edomite” or “Israelite.”

The story serves an etiological function: it explains why things are the way they are. What is the situation that it is explaining? It’s not immediately clear. Were the “modern day” (at the time of writing) serving under Israel? Did Israel see them as inferior to themselves? If so, this story would give justification for this ethnocentric view.

Interestingly, though, scholars think that the name and nation “Edom” did not actually originate from Esau, as claimed here, but was pre-existent. However, right around the time that this story was being written down, the nation of Edom was consolidating and becoming an actual nation, so it was very important for the Israelites to clarify who was and wasn’t actually an Israelite. Thus, we have a story that is actively and intentionally involved in the process of boundary-defining and community-constructing, specifically designed to explain who “we” are and why we’re better than “them.”

Even if this story is telling about the inferiority of the Edomites, though, it certainly does not appear to be the standard criticism leveled against Esau. He seems much less of an evil person who rejects all that is of value, and more of a bumbling, idiotic drama queen who makes stupid decisions.

Take for example this anecdote with the food in verses 29-34. Esau comes home from the field hungry. Presumably, dinner would be served soon enough—he belongs to a rich enough family. However, this is not good enough for him. In a fit of melodrama, he claims that he is starving to death. Jacob seizes on his hyperbolic state to con his brother out of a massive amount of money and the spiritual blessings due to the favored child.

Esau came in starving. He saw a pot of red food. What would he have assumed other than that this was a rich, protein-filled meat stew? What other foods are red? But instead of at least getting a fancy meal for his birthright, he learned too late that it’s simply red lentils.

And yet it doesn’t particularly seem to matter to him! Examine verse 34. The writing style is much different. We’re just given a rapid-fire list of actions, as if Esau were rushing through them as fast as possible. He doesn’t even understand the import of what he just did. He doesn’t have regrets. He’s just hungry and will do whatever he needs to satiate that hunger.

We learn that Esau is not good at weighing options and that Jacob is a con man. And yet, somehow, out of all of this, we are apparently supposed to choose Jacob (=Israel) as the good guy, whereas Esau (=Edom) is deserving of our wrath. (That is certainly what the Hebrew prophets choose, as they direct a disproportionate measure of God’s wrath toward Edom.) Even this anecdote, which is supposed to be another brick in the pedestal elevating Israel as the superior nation, fails to do so and simply muddies the ethical water.

These kinds of stories are the kinds of tales that groups throughout the ages have told to prop up one group above another. These stories function to try to create firmer and firmer boundaries between the self and the Other. They try to erase the existing similarities, which muddy the boundaries between “in” and “out.”

In our current historical moment, in which we experiencing the blossoming of xenophobia and nationalism, it is worthwhile noting that, even in the sacred stories we create about “us”—who we are, where we came from, why things are the way they are—these stories are inextricably linked to the presence of “them.” As much as we try to define ourselves as a self-contained entity, the inherent interconnected nature of the very identities that we are constructing betrays our project. As many non-western folks throughout the ages have insisted (against the values held sacred by western individualism), we are inextricably bound together in a network of mutuality (to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.). No matter how much we think that ”we” as a people are better than “them,” we can never lose sight of the fact that our very nature is intertwined with theirs.

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman currently is the camp director at Camp Indianola in the Seattle area. He has previously worked as a pastor at local churches. He loves teaching the Bible and helping people to find meaning from even the most obscure parts of the Bible.

 

Proper 9(A): Missing the Mark

Proper 9(A): Missing the Mark

Romans 7:15-25a

By: The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

When I was a child, my family and I belonged to a church that loved to talk about sin—who was sinning, what was sinful, and even the parts of Scripture that proved something or someone was sinful. Suffice it to say that I grew up with a robust list of behaviors that were sinful. If I needed to know right from wrong, all I had to do was consult my list.

Once, when I was in the third grade, the teacher gave a pop-quiz on our multiplication tables. Now, being the studious little eight-year-old Poindexter I was in those days, I had studied my multiplication tables, and I was fully prepared for the quiz. But my friend across the table from me wasn’t quite as prepared for the quiz. She leaned in and whispered, “Is six-times-four 20?”

Now, because I had my mental list of what was and was not a sin, I knew that cheating was a sin, but I also knew that lying was a sin. So, in a moment of ethical angst, I shook my head, “No.” I had quickly worked it out that I wouldn’t be cheating unless I actually told her the answer—which I wasn’t going to do. All I was doing was truthfully answering a question: Six-times-four is not 20!

“Is it 22?” She whispered again.

I shook my head again.

“Is it 24?”

I was trapped! If I said “yes,” I would be cheating—definitely a sin. But if I said “no,” I would be lying—which was even worse! After all, there’s a whole commandment about lying! So I just stared at her. I didn’t nod, I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no.

Little did I know that our teacher was standing at the back of the room watching all of this. And in front of everyone, she called down the thunder!

“Marshall Jolly,” she roared, “you are cheating and that is not allowed! At recess today, you will sit with the teachers and write, ‘I will not cheat in math class’ 100 times!” Obviously, a grave injustice was done to me on that day, and I’ve really never much cared for math ever since.

But in all seriousness, we all have our lists, don’t we? We all have our notions of what a “good Christian” is; or what it means to be a “good person;” or what “good family values” look like. Lists aren’t always bad—I’m a big fan of grocery lists, otherwise I spend two hours and two hundred dollars in the grocery store without actually buying anything that can be made into a meal!

Lists are easy—they’re linear. You’re either on it or you’re not. The box either gets checked, or it doesn’t. We as a culture like lists—Top 10 lists, bestseller lists, Wikipedia even has an entire page that is nothing more than a list of other lists! And in some ways, I think that our penchant for list-making has crept into our lives of faith.

“Did I pray today?” Check this box.

“Did I go to Church this week?” Check that box.

“Did I remember to write my check towards my pledge?” Circle that one.

But perhaps the most dangerous list that we’ve grown accustomed to making is a list of sins. When we treat sin like it’s a checklist of “right behaviors” versus “wrong behaviors,” our faith gets reduced to a list of stale and rigid rules governing how we are to act, rather than how we are to live, and preachers and theologians become nothing more than referees, making calls about what is inbounds and what is out of bounds. Pretty soon, our relationship with God becomes paralyzed under the weight of legalistic rules, meant to keep us in check rather than fostering a way of life.

So how did we get here?

For 2,000 years, Christians have largely misunderstood sin.

I’m not suggesting that we suddenly woke up in the year 2020 with a clear-eyed, modern, progressive view of what sin is. The Biblical witness for what sin is hasn’t changed in that time. We’ve just been overlooking it.

By my count, the word sin, which is most often derived from the Greek word hamartia, appears 121 times in the New Testament. More than one fourth of those appearances are in the Book of Romans alone.

But hamartia, this word for sin, didn’t actually originate with the New Testament. It originated with Aristotle, who uses it in reference to archers, whose arrows miss their target. Its literal definition is “to miss the mark,” or “to make an error in judgment.”

When we think of sin with the added dimension of missing a mark or a target, it suddenly becomes more relational.

Sin is less about asking what’s inbounds or out of bounds and more about asking how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with our children or our partners; our neighbors or our friends; and ultimately, how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with God.

This is the tension that Paul writes about in Romans: the tension between doing what is easy—making our lists and checking our boxes on our terms; and giving ourselves over to something that is absolutely beyond our control—a relationship with the God made known to us in Jesus Christ.

The tension between the two is so great that Paul writes that they are at war. “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”

We like to focus on what we can manage and control; on what we can figure out and solve. That’s why we’re so well-suited for list-making. The trouble with that is, we can’t manage and control death or grief or relationships or other people, and we can’t manage and control God. And when we try, we “miss the mark.” We ignore the law of God, in favor of the law of sin—of distorted relationship. We come under the illusion that we can act or behave our way to salvation.

Truth be told, this is the heart of human sinfulness: the delusion that we can save ourselves. We try and try and try, but we miss the mark every time. But Paul, that fiery, uncompromising, stubborn, and controversial Apostle—bless his heart—reorients us to the truth.

He writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Although we continue to miss the mark with our lists and our egos and our insatiable desire to manage and control, God is determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine; to redeem our brokenness; and to save us in spite of ourselves.

This is the very definition of grace. We receive a gift that we didn’t know we needed, and like it or not, little by little, we’ll be transformed into who we’re called to be.

And I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine life any other way.

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The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

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

Proper 8(A): It’s All Held by God

Proper 8(A): It’s All Held By God

Psalm 13

By: Anne Moman Brock

I’m glad I’m not the only one asking the question “How long, LORD?” It’s a daily question for me, one that remains unanswered.

How long, LORD, until I can hug my family and friends again?

How long, LORD, until income is secure for all people?

How long, LORD, until we can trust those making decisions on our behalf?

How long, LORD, until health care is available to all?

How long, LORD?

 

David laments as I lament:

How long, LORD? Will you forget me

forever?

How long will you hide your face

from me?

How long must I wrestle with my

thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in

my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph

over me?

I don’t need to write pages and pages in my own journal, I can just let David do the writing for me! Is it comforting to know that humanity has faced this kind of discomfort from the beginning of time or is it depressing to know this is how it will always be? Yes.

I think we’ve all had a moment of lament like this (or several) over the last few months: God, where are you? Have you forgotten us? Have you given up on humanity? We need you — where are you??

And if that weren’t enough, we’re home day after day wrestling with our never-ending thoughts: When is it safe to go to the grocery? Why do we have to wear masks? Yes, I’ll wear a mask, but I won’t like it. How many more meals must I cook myself? I miss my friends.

And still more is piled on as I scroll through social media and see hatred continue to spread: Why are they behaving like this? When will truth be a given? Who is my enemy right now? I’m so confused. Who is the right person to listen to?

There’s a reason this psalm, along with all the other laments, are included in the Bible. They are valid. They are real. They are us. I have permission to voice all of my feelings, not just the ones that make others feel good. God gives us space to cry and be angry and moan and groan. Our feelings are valid. We can bring our whole selves before God without worry of rejection.

I appreciate that David laments and that he doesn’t end there. He allows himself the space for despair and desolation, but he keeps going through it to a place of consolation. He doesn’t let the lament have the last word. However, just before he turns to praise, he states his complaints and his worries. He acknowledges his fear and anxiety around failure. He puts it all out there, and then…

David ends with praise. Will I end my litany of fears, anxieties, and lament with praise too?

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the LORD’s praise,

for he has been good to me.

Every night as I lay my head on the pillow, I name at least three things from the day for which I give thanks. This daily practice has saved me for over three years now. There are some nights when I have to “stretch” to find something I’m grateful for (i.e. this pillow), but for the most part I can name way more than three. I’m glad to know David had a practice of gratitude as well.

Now, we don’t know how long it took David to write this psalm. We don’t know how long it was ruminating in his mind before he spoke it out loud. He may have been in that space of despair for quite some time before he moved into praise. Reading it in the Bible makes it look like everything happened at once… but we don’t know.

I know for myself that it might take days, weeks, months, even years, before I can find the heart space to praise God in the midst of a hard time. Praise doesn’t naturally come out of my mouth when I’m hurt and scared and uncertain. I have to be intentional about it, which is why I make myself practice gratitude every night, whether I feel like it or not.

If you’re not in the place of praise today, that’s okay. I’m not sure David was right away either. Whether you’re asking How long, LORD or singing God’s praise, it’s all held by God.

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Anne Moman Brock

After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.

Proper 7A: Is This What We Signed Up For?

Proper 7A: Is This What We Signed Up For?

Matthew 10:24-39

By: The Rev. Kimble Sorrells

If today’s passage were a product to be purchased it might come with a warning label: “Warning: side discipleship may lead to loss of status or family, rejection, division, and sometimes death.” Upon a quick glance it sounds about as appealing as a commercial for prescription medication with a laundry list of side effects. Is this really what I signed up for when I came to church? I just wanted a little time to recharge from my busy week.

The harsh realities of Christian discipleship may seem far off to many who live in a comfortable western Christian existence. If we are honest, most of us in the mainline American Christian world have grown stagnantly comfortable. In this passage Jesus warns of the costs of being his disciple.

Being a disciple of a teacher means we follow the same ways of being that they live, we follow their example, and walk in their footsteps. To be a disciple of Jesus is to pattern our life after his life, follow his example, and walk in his footsteps. In Jesus’ earthly life, and in the early days of the Church, the context is inextricably linked to the Roman Empire—an empire whose systems of inequality Jesus resisted. The vision of the Kin-dom of God that Jesus initiated on earth was one that challenged human systems of class, wealth, status, and oppression. Indeed, his resistance to the empire led to his crucifixion at the hands of the state. Thus, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we can expect to follow this path of resistance to oppression. Once again, a warning is helpful here: this work is dangerous!

Jesus warns that his mission will cause division. Some might face rejection, even by their own families.  It’s not that we need to renounce family simply for the sake of it, rather Jesus is pointing out that to follow him means elevating his mission of justice above all other areas of one’s life. Being a disciple isn’t a part time hobby or even a “Christian lifestyle” of being holy and going to church regularly. It’s about being all in for the work of God.

We can look to many in our recent history who have lived fully into this costly discipleship. Those who have fought for racial justice such as Dr. King have lived out the call to bring about God’s Kin-dom on earth, even though it cost them their lives. Or we might remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime led to his death. But what does this mean for us, in this moment?

To be a disciple of Jesus means committing ourselves to the work of bringing Gods Kin-dom on earth as in heaven. We must resist oppression and seek to build a more just world. Sometimes it may be a small action. Yes, that does mean you have to speak out and say something when your family members speak racist micro-aggressions at thanksgiving dinner; yes, even if it makes you uncomfortable and is going to disrupt conversation. After all, Jesus says even our families can’t hold us back from his work. But there is more than just individual moments. I doubt we need to look far to notice we are in a place where entire systems of oppression are glaringly obvious in our country.

As I write this, I am 50 days into social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis. We are nowhere near an end or improvement and yet, here in Georgia our elected officials have moved to re-open the state for the sake of the economy. While this virus itself does not discriminate, the effects of the virus have revealed how our social structure leads to disproportionate harm of those who are most vulnerable, those who are poor, and people of color. Those who are frontline workers, often working for less than a living wage, are putting themselves at high risk for contracting the virus on a daily basis. These employees must make the choice between a job or risking their health. Poverty and classism are highly visible as we see who is most at risk, and who can remain tucked away in relative safety. Furthermore, studies show that COVID-19 is infecting and killing black people in the US at disproportionately high rates. Public Health researchers say these high numbers reveal the systemic inequalities that exist in our society around resources and access to healthcare.[1]

This crisis, like many others, is showing in the full light of day the ugly structures our society is founded upon. We must ask ourselves in this moment what it means to be disciples of Jesus who sought to bring about a kin-dom of Gods love and peace. For many who have relative privilege or security, this will cost something. Moving towards equity and justice requires that we examine the ways that we benefit from systems of oppression. It requires that we change our participation in those systems and actively seek to change them rather than perpetuate them. For a small action, I might ask, “How do my choices in shopping affect those who work in essential jobs? Do I seek to patronize companies and stores that pay a living wage and aim to protect their workers?” Thinking a bit more broadly, do I join in organizing to change the systems that leave some vulnerable, or without healthcare? I do not have all the answers to what life might be like on the other side of this virus, but I know that it cannot be as it always has been.  Whatever “normalcy” we had, it was not the Kin-dom of God on earth as in Heaven that Jesus calls us to co-create with God.

Perhaps we should include a warning in our baptismal liturgies: This life may lead to loss of earthly comforts. But as Jesus says, those who lose their life will truly find it.

[1][1] Elingon, John. “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States.” New York Times. April 7,2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/coronavirus-race.html

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The Rev. Kimble Sorrells

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.

Proper 6(A): What Do We Need?

Proper 6(A): What Do We Need?

Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

By: The Rev. Maurice Dyer

What do we need to bring with us to do ministry?

I grew up playing sports. My favorite was soccer.  When I showed up to each game, I wore the same sweat pants—my lucky soccer warmup pants. Heaven forbid if I couldn’t find these pants before I left for a game! Looking back, I wore them because I thought they made me faster, made me play better, and, dare I say, I thought they made me look cooler.

What is it about lucky objects that make them so special?  What’s at the core?

In the lesson from Mathew, we find Jesus and his 12 disciples.  Jesus appoints these 12 people to go into the world, to all of the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is giving them a very important task, and it is the same task that Jesus gives to all of us. Go find the lost sheep; go proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. Our scripture drops us into a conversation that Jesus is having with his followers.

I can almost imagine myself there with the others. I can see it now, just excited–hanging on Jesus’ every word.

Jesus says I’m sending y’all out to go find lost sheep. “Right on,” the imaginary me would say.

Jesus says the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. “I’m ready to harvest Jesus, I used to live next door to a farm! I’ve picked carrots before…I’m ready!”

Jesus says I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. “…Wait a second, that doesn’t sound safe. Lambs in the midst of wolves…hmm. I’ll make sure to pack a stick to keep me safe.”

Then Jesus says I don’t want you to bring anything, don’t carry a purse, don’t carry a bag, and don’t even wear any sandals. “No sandals, Jesus? But I’ve got these lucky sweatpants that I like to wear.”

But Jesus says, “No, don’t bring anything!”

What is Jesus really asking of his followers? What is Jesus really asking of us?

Let’s think about the things that Jesus asks his followers to leave behind. A purse, a bag, and sandals. What do we use these things for?

I’ve seen a lot of survivalist shows on TV. People are allowed to bring next to nothing with them. But one thing remains the same no matter the show, they are all allowed to carry a bag.  In these bags, people carry tools for making fire, or food that they are saving for later.

In these bags, you can carry all of the things that might make you self-sustainable. The contestants on television are able to stay in the wilderness for weeks on end because of what’s in their bags. So why is Jesus asking his followers to leave their bags behind?

Jesus doesn’t want us to be self-sustainable.

Now, mind you, I’m not referring to “green” movements or eco justice. Rather, I am referring to the way that we are called to live with one another. Jesus doesn’t want us to be self-sustainable; he wants us to trust and rely on one another, to be others-sustained.

Jesus says don’t bring any sandals, so we know this will not be a comfortable journey.

So again I ask the question: What do we need to bring with us to do ministry?

Jesus tells his disciples that when they go into these towns and get invited into these homes, first they are to bring tidings of peace for their household. Then they should remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever the host provides, not moving from house to house.

I think what’s missing but is implied in these instructions is, “get to know the people.”

Jesus asks that we leave it all behind, our bags, our baggage, to strip it all away and to really make ourselves vulnerable. It is out of that vulnerability that we are able to meet people and really get to know them.

You see, when Jesus is talking about going out for a harvest, we don’t need the traditional tools that we normally would use, like a shovel or an axe. (What are the tools needed for a traditional harvest, anyway?) No, for the harvest into which we are being sent, we are the tools.

What are we to bring with us, if not our bags and sandals? Jesus says, “Just bring yourself. You have everything you need to do this work because it was given to you by the Holy Spirit.

You have your life, and you have your story. Christians are among the best story tellers in the whole world because we have been telling the same story for two thousand years.

We go and we tell others about Jesus, but not just that… we go out and we tell others what Jesus has done for us. How Jesus has changed our lives.

This is what Jesus is asking of the followers that we see in our scripture today, and it is what Jesus is asking of us all. That when we go out to the harvest, we bring nothing but our most honest and vulnerable selves to get to know people and to share the story. This is the mission to which God calls us all. Tell the story, then live the story.

Yes the world looks a whole lot different today, but Jesus’ charge to all of us remains the same.  It was never the things that we bring with us that show people who Jesus is, or what the kingdom of God is like. It has only ever been us, living our stories—living testimony to the work that God is up to in the world.

Amen.

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The Rev. Maurice Dyer

The Rev. Maurice Dyer is a California native and grew up in San Diego. He attended Cal State University at Monterey Bay, and graduated from the social and behavioral science department. After his undergraduate work, Maurice was called to serve as a missionary and moved to South Africa. While in South Africa, he lived in a Benedictine Monastic community with the other monks and taught at the school that they oversaw. He then moved to Capetown, South Africa and worked for an institute that assisted people in healing from trauma, particularly related to the South African Apartheid years. Upon coming back to the U.S. he went to seminary at the Virginia Theological Seminary and graduated in 2019. Maurice has worked in several churches in central California and Washington DC. He sits on the boards of the Global Episcopal Mission Network and the Episcopal Community Services of Philadelphia.

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Trinity Sunday(A): Origin Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

In his introduction to Genesis, Theodore Hiebert shares that the writer’s goal “was to make sense of the world [the Hebrews] knew by explaining how it came into being. They came to terms with who they were as a people by explaining their own origins in that world.” (The CEB Study Bible, 1 OT) Thus, Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins the Torah with a story detailing a very harmonious and beautifully-structured creation, not unlike the structure of Israel’s religious life, with a goal of articulating the climax of creation: the Sabbath (2:1-3). If a Hebrew child were to ask a question about the Sabbath, a teacher might have pointed to this very story and said, “It is at the foundation of who we are and who God is.”

Origin stories are important to us. Any K-12 education in the US comes with a history of how we became who we are with imagery of revolution, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Popular culture is filled with origin stories. How many times has modern America witnessed Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? (I honestly don’t think we can take another one!) Sometimes, when an adopted child grows older, they have questions about their parentage, leading to a search for answers.

In all of these things, one idea comes to the surface: knowing more about the beginning may shed light on the present. And in that manner, Genesis 1:1-2:4a sheds light on the very beginning of the Sabbath, the imago Dei, and the responsibility and stewardship of humanity over creation, ideas that have ever-present meaning for the modern reader.

The Psalmist demonstrates the concern with origins in the first praise psalm, which is a celebration of God the creator. The psalm carries with it the origin-centric understanding of the imago Dei when it declares, “You’ve made [human beings] only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (8:5-6, CEB). It seems that the very beginning of humanity and scripture still plays an important role in Israel’s present at the time of Psalm 8, and in the Christian lectionary today. From the start, humanity has been created in the image of God, to partner with God in bringing order to the chaos of the world and to care for creation and creature alike in harmony.

The origin of the Jewish people plays a role in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes to the community, “Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” (13:11, CEB) Why is this the call upon the life of the early Christian? It most certainly has some root in the creation story above. The harmony-bringing of God is still the call of humanity. The 2 Corinthians’ charge also has its beginnings in another origin story of sorts.

In Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus gives a mandate to his disciples that is the origin of most church vision statements and the historical evangelism (good and bad) of the global church: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This disciple-making — rooted in obeying Jesus’ commands — is rooted in his summary of the law: love God and love neighbor. But the origin of this understanding comes from the Torah, from Genesis, and from creation, when from the natural outpouring of God (who IS love) came creation, humanity made in God’s image, the structure of religious life, and the task to bring harmony and care to creation and to one another. And all of that has great implications for who we are today. Our origins matter. And this is our ultimate origin story. So how will the knowledge of our beginning influence how you live right now?

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The Rev. Andrew Chappell

Andrew 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.

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

Pentecost(A): Finding the Peace

John 20:19-23

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

I had to laugh as I read the Gospel passage for Pentecost this week. The disciples are behind locked doors, scared to go out; Jesus comes in and breathes upon them. From where I sit in coronavirus lockdown, I know well what it feels like to stay inside for fear of what’s “out there.” My viscerally negative reaction to Jesus exhaling on his disciples tells me a lot about how well I’ve internalized the importance of social distancing. And then he says, “Peace be with you.” Sure, Jesus. I’ll get right on that. I just need to wash my hands first.

It was encouraging, though, to remember that despite the fact this Gospel is read at Pentecost, this story isn’t about that fire-and-language-filled day; this is the story of the disciples just after the crucifixion, terrified that what had just happened to their friend would happen to them. They didn’t know if they were being hunted down by local authorities or if the friends who presumably brought them food and news would sell them out. Even when Jesus arrived, their reaction wasn’t excitement or comfort at first. Surely, they thought they were seeing a ghost – what else could come so easily through a locked door? Even when they realized he was there in the flesh, they had to have been terrified that he would be angry with them. They’d abandoned him and left him alone to suffer a brutal death! It’s reasonable to think he’d be a little salty about the situation. And now that it was pretty clear he wasn’t just another ordinary human, given that he was recently dead but currently wasn’t… how badly had they just ticked off the Almighty with their cowardice?

While the point of this reading is really about Jesus commissioning his disciples, I find myself more struck by the fear and isolation they experienced before and during his arrival because it so clearly echoes my current life landscape. Their community was fractured and strange, even while it was still real and important; mine is too, right now. I’m sure they were conflicted about what to do next, fearful of how long this in-between time would last; I know I am. But Jesus shows up in the midst of it all anyway, tells them “Peace,” and after a little bit more panicking, things aren’t as bleak anymore.

Jesus’ response to their disbelief and terror is one of the things he says most frequently in the Gospels, and the one thing that I most want to hear too while I’m locked in my own upper room – “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t promise them immediate resolution to all their fears or assure them that their troubles are over; he just reminds them that he is there, they can experience peace anyway, and that worrying isn’t necessary. This is my lockdown mantra; peace. Peace be with me, and my neighbors, and my family, and my students. Our trials haven’t ended, but we’re still here, and Jesus has showed up the way he always does. The peace is there for us, if only we embrace it.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and their energetic toddler, Xavier.

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

As I write this post, it has been five-and-a-half weeks since our last in-person worship service. Based on our Bishop’s Pastoral Directive, it’ll be at least another six weeks before we can gather again. Based on my gut and what I’m reading, it’ll probably be even longer. As I look ahead to what will be the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the 11th Sunday of Quarantine, I really wish that 1st Peter hadn’t made it into the Biblical canon. Quite frankly, the author’s response to suffering and the question of theodicy is pretty weak, and borders on patronizing, especially if we attribute the text to the first Bishop of Rome.

As I write this post, thousands of people are dying everyday of a virus that has no known cure and no vaccine, millions are unemployed and fear losing their health insurance, and stimulus packages of all shapes and sizes are bogged down by governmental ineptitude. Hearing words like “don’t be surprised,” “it’s a test,” or “rejoice as you are sharing in Christ’s suffering,” feel like they fall short, and are the kinds of things that make us cringe when we hear them said at funerals. They are the words that people say when they don’t know what else to say. They might make the speaker feel better, but they ring hollow and can sting deeply those who are suffering under fear, stress, or grief.

In my experience as a parish priest, I’ve found that certain lessons can do more harm than good when they are read and not preached. It is why my congregations have always run with Track 2 in the Hebrew Bible during the season after Pentecost; the lessons just seem to “fit in” better. 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 begs to be preached in the ongoing stress of a global pandemic, if only to keep our members hearing the Bible reiterate dangerous theology like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “everything happens for a reason.”

Arguing that we should preach on a text is fine, but I think Modern Metanoia is better used as a resource for suggestions on how you might preach a text. For that, I think we have to skip past the platitudes of the first paragraph and focus more on the second. The author moves the attention away from scrambling to explain what they think God is doing in our suffering and toward what our proper response to that suffering should be. “Humble yourselves under the hand of God… Cast all your anxiety on [God], because [God] cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.”

I’ve not been great at the discipline piece, if I’m honest. I’m sleeping too little and snacking too much, but where I do find strength in this time of stress and anxiety is when I, in full confidence of God’s care for me, cast all my anxiety upon God. The Greek word, translated as “cast upon,” is a compound word that appears only twice in the New Testament. Its other usage comes in Luke’s gospel, when on Palm Sunday, the disciples cast their garments upon the colt that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. For me, the image of casting conjures up memories of my friend Will, standing knee deep in Big Lagoon just off NAS Pensacola, casting a net for bait fish. A combination of beautiful ballet and a haphazard toss is required to get the weights to spin out properly and to keep the net from becoming a tangled-up mess.

A similar mix of intentionality and chaos are required when it comes to casting all our anxieties upon God. Intentionality is required because honesty is necessary. Until and unless we can admit our anxieties, our fears, our inability to do it alone, we cannot even begin to find the healing, restoration, and strength that we are promised by God. Once we dig deep and begin to mine for that anxiety, if we really want to cast all our cares on God, then the haphazard nature of it begins. Digging deep, we fling all our fears—like sand at the bottom of a deep hole—tossing them all, even the stuff we’d rather hide and hold onto, so that God can offer full relief. Even so, as practitioners of pastoral care, we know that the process of casting our anxiety upon God is never finished. Like Will’s net in Big Lagoon, once we toss it, we’ve got to reset and cast again. It is a process that never ends. As we cast our anxieties on God again and again, we become more and more sure of the truth that God really does care for us, even when it feels like all hell has broken loose all around us.

 

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02).  As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace.  You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.