6th Sunday of Easter(A): Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Acts 17:22-31

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

In my tradition, we pray a prayer at the beginning of Sunday worship called a Collect (COLL-ect), which gathers together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme for the day. The Collect assigned for this Sunday describes a God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love.[i] This idea of experiencing the incomprehensible God through love rather than knowledge is expressed in a Christian tradition known as apophatic theology, which insists that God can never be truly known through human intellect. The apophatic tradition reminds us that all our thoughts, images, and ideas about God are just that: about God, not actually God. In fact, our attachment to ideas about God can easily become idolatry. Surprisingly, this rich tradition of apophatic theology has roots in Paul’s address to the Areopagites in Acts 17.

As Paul waits for his missionary partners in Athens, he notices how crowded the city is with idols and discovers one altar dedicated to an “unknown God.” Because Paul is a gifted evangelist, he knows that all cultures have within them seeds of the Gospel that need to be affirmed, watered, and grown.[ii] So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” is really the God who has made himself fully manifest and accessible in Christ.[iii] Eventually, Paul is brought to the court of Areopagus, where he essentially says, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God and I’m here to tell you that this God has been made known in the Risen Christ, through whom we can tap into the divine source of being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”[iv]

The lectionary unfortunately leaves out the Athenians’ response, which is mixed: some scoff, some want to hear more, and two listeners become convinced that Paul is speaking truth: a woman named Damaris and a man named Dionysius (17:32-33). Although Dionysius doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens.[v] But more importantly, Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination as the great spiritual icon for experiencing the God who is beyond all human understanding. In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this biblical character’s name as a pseudonym in writing books about accessing the God beyond all knowing. The author chose this pseudonym because he imagined that Dionysius had been deeply persuaded by Paul’s teachings about the “unknown God,” a phrase that inspired the author to formulate the foundations of apophatic theology. Today, this Syrian author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is considered one of the most significant theologians of church history. Most theologians since the 5th century have been influenced in one way or another by Pseudo-Dionysius, who is also referred to as “Psuedo-Denys,” or, as I prefer, “Denys the Menace” (because he laced his apophatic theology with a not-so-healthy dose of Neo-Platonism).

One theologian who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is an anonymous English author who wrote a text called The Cloud of Unknowing in 14th century Nottingham, the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood. Although the apophatic tradition does not conflate images with the divine, the Cloud author uses images to describe the human relationship with God. He explains that between ourselves and God, there is “a cloud of unknowing,” which we cannot penetrate with our thoughts, but which we can penetrate through humble love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through this cloud. He offers a practical way to do this which has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind and to detach ourselves from our thoughts. This sacred word is meant to be repeated as a kind of mantra, an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting carried away by our thoughts, we return to the sacred word. By returning to the sacred word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud.

I have personally found this prayer practice to be deeply beneficial and transformative as it helps me develop a healthy detachment from my thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of secondary benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and deeper sleep. However, the primary benefit I receive as I let go of my thoughts and try to be present to God through love is a direct experience of God as my very being. The Cloud author says, “God is your being…and God exists in all things, as their cause and their being.”[vi] In Acts 17, Paul says something very similar when he preaches, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Paul and the Cloud author invite us to experience the “unknown God” by being present to the simple reality of our existence because it is by being present to our existence that we are actually being present to God. Richard Rohr paraphrases the Cloud author when he says, “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God…Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[vii]

Although it is unlikely that Paul would have ever identified as an apophatic theologian, his prophetic words to the Areopagus provided the soil out of which apophatic theology could emerge and grow. From that soil, we have inherited the wisdom of Pseudo-Denys and the contemplative prayer practice of the Cloud author, both of which invite us to directly experience the God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love. By accepting this invitation, we can come to experience the “unknown God” as the One in whom we live and move and have our being; and indeed, as the One who is our being.

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The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California and author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic). He enjoys exploring the pristine beaches, gentle rivers, and stunning redwoods of Humboldt County with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi. He tries to practice Centering Prayer, but admits that he often sips coffee during contemplation.

 

 

[i] “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 225.

[ii] Christian Missiologists sometimes refer to these “seeds of the Gospel” as logoi spermatikoi. See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 23 – 72.

[iii] Even though the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the apophatic tradition insists that our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God.

[iv] My paraphrase of Acts 17:22-31.

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Kirsopp Lake. LCL 153 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1998), Book III.iv, 197.

[vi] Author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counseling, translated by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 139.

[vii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.

 

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

1 Peter 2:2-10

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

David Kessler is an expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His latest book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (published November 2019). In a Harvard Business Review interview in March, he commented that he believes “we will continue to find meaning now and when this [the coronavirus pandemic] is over.”[1]

Most of us have not arrived at the meaning stage. As I write this, I am not sure what state the world will be in by the time the fifth Sunday of Easter arrives. I do know that this Easter season will be like no other we have experienced in modernity. For that reason, you might consider nixing the “do not be troubled” opening line of John’s Gospel and instead pick up 1 Peter for your sermon inspiration.

Peter’s first letter is a good comfort for the distressed. We are suffering on a global scale. The grief, disappointment and hurt is palpable. I have participated in dozens of video calls where, at some point, someone on the call begins to cry. Physical distancing, self-isolation and other coronavirus-induced limitations on life should not be viewed as a trivial form of suffering. N.T. Wright explains: “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment…. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”[2]

This “poised, anxious sorrow” is the perfect reason to pick up Peter’s letter during the season of Easter. As the epistle serves to strengthen Christians in times of distress, it also sets their lives within the history of God’s activity and offers meaning for our experiences of sorrow, distress, and suffering.

Don’t be tempted to use your precious exhortation time unpacking the historical debates around the letter’s authorship. Save that for the clergy lectionary study or the Wednesday night Bible study where you can share the broader context. Rather, I suggest we consider it a piece of early Christian correspondence included among those New Testament writings that Martin Luther remarked, “show thee Christ.”

Peter’s first letter is addressed to a group of early churches that are alienated from the surrounding society, offering them comfort which is why it continues to offer us wisdom today. Particularly, this epistle reminds believers what it means to live out the sacraments as individuals and as a community. From 1 Peter, churches may discover clues to faithful living even while restricted in their public gatherings.

Peter reminds the churches that the Christian life, while not separate from the world beyond our doors, offers more, much more. Amazing promises are made to those who give their life to this new world by placing one’s full confidence in Jesus. As Peter writes to the church, those who love and trust Jesus will “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)

The author calls his readers to spend their time, despite their distress, renewing their identity in Christ. As we learn to live into a new normal, one of the ways we might make meaning during our suffering, is to spend the Easter season renewing our identity in Christ.

No amount of special facilities, programs, talents, digital platforms and “relevant” messages are required to experience this type of renewal. Don’t tell the finance committee, but it doesn’t even require a line item in the budget! What it does require is faithfulness to the process of becoming more Christlike. Wise preachers, even those weary from intensive on-the-job training as digital pastors, might heed this opportunity to strip away non-essentials and invite disciples into an intensive re-building project. Peter’s message reminds disciples that Christians and non-Christians don’t see different things, but that we see the same things differently. The disciple will make Jesus their bedrock while, for non-Christians, Jesus is an inconvenience, a rock to be tossed out of the way. This Easter season, as we await the remembrance of the Pentecost and invite the Holy Spirit to inspire us anew, believers have an opportunity to take seriously that having been born through water and the Spirit, they may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The epistolary lection is meant to offer affirmation and comfort for those chosen to be a holy people. By using images and phrases from the Old Testament, the epistle simply substitutes the language of Israel for the church. This catena of images previously reserved for Israel seeks to reinterpret the Old Testament for the expanding Christian community in Asia Minor. Any commentary worth their salt can offer an extensive review of the Old Testament allusions in this passage of the letter. If you are preaching this text in 2020, there is a great opportunity to remind the people of who they are and what that means for their daily lives as God’s holy people. If your congregation continues to shelter-in-place or practice physical distancing, providing specific ideas on how to shape their days while at home could serve as the bulk of your message.

One such practice might be in meal sharing since the passage offers a strong food metaphor. Suggesting that community members plan for a special meal – one that takes time and love to prepare – alongside a special prayer. You could write a special, short liturgy for members to offer before their meal or suggest the Moravian-inspired Love Feast. Through the meal, remind believers that we have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet.[3] The Lord is Christ and Jesus is to be the basis of their growth – they have tasted of him through the Word and through the Sacrament and now they can grow up in him. Because of this, they have chosen to see things as Christ sees them, not as the world sees. Through these new eyes, they can lay the cornerstone of their spiritual house and participate in re-affirming and in the case of many, re-building their identity in Christ.

[1] Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review. 23 March 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief. Accessed 2 April 2020.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Time. 29 March 2020. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/. Accessed 4 April 2020.

[3] I prefer Luke Timothy Johnson’s preferred translation of chrēstos as sweet: “Taste and see because the Lord is sweet.” Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third Edition. Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2010), 430.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Boundaries, Communications, Conferencing, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus and is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.[1]

Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.[2]

As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.

The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.

I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.[3] By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”[4]

In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:

When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”[5]

This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.

Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7.[6] It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. 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, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The word that sticks out to me in the readings assigned for today is only actually used once – and yet it seems to hover around all of them, tying them together somehow. In Acts, Peter is reported to say, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Let them know with certainty.

Now, maybe the word sticks out to me because it is so appealing – and yet, I know that it is entirely antithetical to faith. Faith, and God, are so much more mystery, and incomprehension, and immensity – and how can one be certain of any of those things?

Despite knowing that, certainty always has and likely always will appeal to me. I love the idea of knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have always liked to write things in my planner in pen, not pencil – thinking somehow the ink on the page created an unchangeable, immovable fact. It became something I could be certain of, not just a proposal of possibility.

But, can we ever be certain of God? Or, maybe a better question – should we ever try to be?

In a chunky reading from Luke, we have the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are walking along the road, and Jesus himself comes near to them, but they do not recognize him. He asks what they are discussing, and they explain to him that they are talking about Jesus, who they hoped would be the one to redeem Israel. Now, this must be interesting for Jesus to hear, because of course, as he understands it, and as we, his modern-day readers understand it, he DID redeem Israel. Yet the two disciples are so certain that they know what the Messiah will be like, that they don’t see that God is with them.

Our scripture says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could it be that their certainty was, in fact, their blindness?

They continue walking and tell Jesus about the women who have astounded them, by reporting that there was no body at the tomb, and, furthermore, that they had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps their certainty that this would never happen to women kept them from receiving the good news. Jesus calls it being “slow of heart to believe.”

I wonder if our hearts are slowed by our certainty.

Jesus becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never been certain about what’s actually happening in the breaking of the bread. Jesus has shared many meals with them, but maybe there’s always been a moment of mystery in that action. Maybe there’s always been a moment of inbreaking – a moment where God is revealed or cracked open – where God is beyond.

As soon as the disciples understand that Jesus has been with them – when they get certain about the identity of the stranger who has been travelling with them, he vanishes. As soon as we get certain about the way Jesus has appeared, he disappears again. It isn’t his way to be in a box, or to appear in the ways we expect. It’s his way to surprise, to delight, to break through our certainty and reveal to us mystery, instead.

So, I might edit Peter – because I don’t think we should come to God with certainty. My prayer is that we learn to live with such mystery, and with such ambiguity – that we greet everyone as if they are Jesus, travelling down the road with us.

 

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The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.

2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia!
You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia!
O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” (more information)

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!’”

The Second Sunday’s gospel text is familiar for the story not of Jesus’ walking through walls two Sundays in a row, not for Jesus telling the disciples that if they forgive sins, the sins are forgiven, but for Thomas’s missing the meeting and saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.“

For centuries, this honest humanness of Thomas’ words has gotten Thomas short shrift — and that mindset has encouraged blind faith. Blind faith in leaders and institutions has enabled those in power to commit and hide abuses across Christian traditions from the most Catholic to the most Protestant. While Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” this should not be taken as a rebuke of questioning or having doubt.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”

In the passage from John today, Thomas notices the mess. Jesus’ appearance at the beginning of the pericope takes place behind locked doors. Preachers should notice and name the messiness of how passages like this — especially from John — have been used to foment anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. This could be an historical-critical analysis of John’s community, the school of writing of the gospel, and how relationships to their synagogues and Jewish Jerusalem leadership. This could be as simple as a reminder of this Christian history and reiteration of God’s eternal covenants with the Jewish people.

After Jesus gets through a locked door, he shows those present his hands and side. This is Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples, and they see his hands and side. Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. John has her conveying her resurrection experience to the disciples just before the passage for 2 Easter starts. Luke’s account of the day, however, is clear that the men do not believe the women. In Luke, this prompts Peter to run to the tomb himself. Although Thomas misses this encounter, his request is no different than the other disciples: they see Jesus’ hands and side before they believe.

The context of the liturgical year cannot be ignored in preparing to preach on the Second Sunday of Easter. Either Matthew or John’s resurrection narrative has likely been heard the week before, either at a Vigil or Sunday Morning, or both. Thomas Sunday is a continuation of the Easter Day narratives, concluding the Octave of Easter — which is treated as one long day in the Orthodox Church. This Second Sunday of Easter (in the context of the calendar) bears two important notes: a resurrection appearance! and mystagogy (of the newly baptized).

If a congregation has had catechumens through Lent, the Second Sunday of Easter is an excellent time to begin public mystagogy — explanation of the mysteries of the faith. Even if no new candidates were baptized at Easter, mystagogy is a lifelong journey of growing closer to God, deepening the Christian faith.[1] While Thomas gets the most attention most frequently, this passage is an invitation for preachers to explore reconciliation of a penitent / confession and absolution however their tradition embodies that, communally and individually. Even the Presbyterian Church (USA) has A Service for Repentance and Forgiveness for Use with a Penitent Individual (Book of Common Worship, p. 1023). Jesus says in this day’s text, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus has given the disciples the Holy Spirit (by breathing on them, no less) and then given them — in some traditions — the Office of the Keys. This happens in the context of a resurrection appearance at the end of the first day of the resurrection. “I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia! / You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia! / O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” While Thomas has gotten much attention over centuries this Sunday, there is much more to this text — and much more than needing to justify Thomas or reclaim him or humanize him (as the beginning of this essay does!).

In preparing to preach this text, consider not only Thomas, but Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, his resurrection (alleluia), the forgiveness of sins (and God’s infinite forgiveness), and how the newly baptized — and not newly baptized — continue to learn about the depths of the Christian faith, especially in the Easter Week of Weeks.

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@JosephPMathews) is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He loves Music from St. Gregory’s, chanting, the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and podcasts. He is a shape note singer, soccer referee, and gay bar socializer for trivia or show tunes. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their son Topher and their cats Maggie and Stanton.

[1] https://todayscatholic.org/mystagogy-is-a-lifelong-journey-of-growing-closer-to-god-deepening-our-faith/

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.

On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.

This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.

But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”[1]

Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent”[2] so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.

While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.

This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.

Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.

Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.

As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?

Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?

It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.

 

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The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. 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 is currently working on 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.

 

[1] Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid.

 

Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

For many of us, Easter worship this year will look dramatically different than it has in years past. I know I am grieving that we won’t be packing into a sanctuary adorned with spring flowers, raising our voices as the swell of the organ and brass carries the sound of our joy, celebrating Christ’s resurrection with all the glory and gusto we can manage.

Recognizing that loss, I’ve heard pastors say that when we can gather together again, in person, with our people—that will be Easter. And it will—it will be a marvelous rebirth of our community after a long (much too long) dormant period.

Yet in some ways, I think this Easter will be much closer to what Easter originally felt like to the disciples. For them there was no glory or gusto. Instead, as they peered into the tomb at dawn, there was emptiness and gloom; confusion and contradiction; fear and doubt. No one began Easter morning dressed in new spring finery and no one gathered with special instruments to sing songs of praise, because on Easter morning the disciples were still in mourning, still lost and heartsick over devastating loss, still trying to grapple with a breath-taking new reality they had hoped never to experience.

Sound familiar?

For me, Easter Vigil (and Easter sunrise service) comes a little closer to this reality than the traditional Sunday morning pomp-and-circumstance celebration in the sanctuary. Of course, we still know the outcome, but there is a hush in the air; a sense of humility as we gather in plainer clothes and simpler circumstances. We are here to meet Jesus, not in the sanctuary, but in a cemetery.

And isn’t that the point? Jesus doesn’t wait for the moment of triumph. Instead, he meets us in the midnight hour, in the darkness before dawn, in the hopelessness of our lives and the brokenness of our world. This year—and every year—that will most definitely preach.

The first time I attended an Easter Vigil service was in college, at the UCC church just a mile from my campus. The thing I remember most about it was gathering outside and kindling a fire while the sun set and ancient words were read. It felt very elemental, and I remember feeling pleasantly surprised that such a primal-feeling service was part of my tradition.

The second time was a few years later at the Catholic cathedral where I sang in the choir during my year studying abroad in the south of France. We gathered before midnight to watch our friend Emanuel, a catechumen robed in white, be baptized into the church. When the clock rolled over to midnight, we broke our Lenten fast with platters of langoustines and profiteroles. Again, it felt ancient; sacred—like we were let in on a secret hours before anyone else would know the good news that Christ was risen…risen indeed!

In the lectionary readings for this service—famous for their quantity—there are the primal accounts of creation and the flood; stories of our foundational covenant with God and God’s making good on that promise by bringing the people out of bondage; pronouncements and praise and promise; zombie army performance art (thank you Ezekiel); good old Pauline exposition; and finally—finally—the Story; the good news that death has not triumphed! Love has!

I think each of these scriptures has the two pieces I felt at the vigil services I’ve attended: something elemental, fundamental, pointing to ancient forces playing off of each other in the oldest dynamic there is—light and dark, death and life, fire and flood, ancient wisdom, divinity and humanity. And good news that reads almost like a secret passed from person to person, people to nation, whispered in gardens and shouted from rooftops.

The Gospel reading, for instance, begins with an earthquake, an angel whose appearance recalls lightning and snow, and guards who faint at this blinding apparition. And then there is the message shared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (identified in Mark and Luke as Mary the mother of James, and likely the same Mary as the mother of James and Joseph who watched the crucifixion in Matthew 27:56): He is not here, he is raised; go and tell the others. (vv. 6-7)

Did you notice that even though the angel also tells the women not to be afraid, the Marys run off to share the news with a mixture of “fear and great joy” (v. 8)? (Maybe you’ve been there before, afraid to believe that what you could barely allow yourself to hope for has actually come to pass, your pulse racing and your stomach dropping even as your heart fills to bursting.) It doesn’t say so, but I imagine that the women’s fear only subsides when they actually meet Jesus, discovering for themselves that the angel’s good news is true.

This Easter, may we and our people encounter Jesus not just by hearsay, but for ourselves: in the midst of our fear and our joy, in the middle of the humility of our circumstances and in the celebration we manage to pull together anyway. In other words, may we meet him this year—and every year—where we need him most.

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The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

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.

Good Friday(A): No King But Caesar

Good Friday(A): No King But Caesar

John 19:8-16

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

“What are the kids going to eat?”

All schools in Fulton county had just been shut down due to an outbreak of coronavirus and I was talking with a church member about when they might re-open. As I wondered what it might mean for parents without flexible work schedules having to suddenly find childcare or for teachers having to play catch-up, she asked this question. It was the first time I had considered it, though it probably shouldn’t have been—as a church we pack lunches in the summer and weekend meal kits in the fall and spring for kids from food-insecure families. Yet the entire narrative surrounding the global outbreak of COVID-19 thus far had been financial in nature—a pandemic told through stock tickers, projected GDP dips, and productivity losses—and I am ashamed to say that one of my first concerns was how many Sundays it might cause a dip in giving. My first inclination, before compassion or love for neighbors, was fear.

Fear permeates the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John. I am sure that fear was a major motivating factor in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Fear of losing status and upsetting the established order seemed to be what was behind many of the religious elite’s plans to arrest and kill Jesus. Fear drives Peter to take up a sword in defense of Jesus, and hours later to deny any association with him. Fear chooses Barabbas over Jesus. Fear leads the people set apart to act as a priestly nation to side with an invading army over their own prophet. Fear forces Pilate’s hand.

Fear is the motivating force behind all empires throughout history—it was true of Roman society, and it is true in America today. Empires claim the right to reshape the world to fit their desired outcome and they demand submission and sacrifice in return. They use fear to claim the role that rightly belongs to Christ. Empire highlights your vulnerability and offers security. Empire elicits fears from past wrongs you have suffered (either individually or collectively) and offers vengeance. Empire emphasizes scarcity and offers economic advancement. Empire practices excluding, scapegoating, and oppressing others in order to offer membership in privileged group. Empire simultaneously creates and provides solutions to your fears. All you have to do is submit. You have no king but Caesar.

Good Friday provides us an alternative to the imperial ethos—the opposite of empire, in all of its violence and greed, is the love of the cross. The cross tells us that the way of security is vulnerability. The cross tells us that forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of wrong and vengeance. The cross tears down the barriers between those with and without status—the idea that God plays favorites makes no sense in the light of Good Friday. All you have to do is accept. You are loved by the creator of the universe.

That’s pretty good news.

20190318-dsc_2787The Rev. Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He, like the rest of you, is currently adjusting to working from home with his family due to a global pandemic. His 2 and a half year old has just discovered Fancy Nancy. Send help.

 

 

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Easter, the first Sunday.

It is the clergy’s Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. It is the biggest moment of the church year, rivaled only by Christmas, which is an inferior feast, by my estimation, only because of the simple fact that any human can be born. But this — this feast is when our all-human, all-God deity was raised from the dead. It’s quite a feat, rising from the dead — even for the Son of God.

This is the Sunday that most churches pull out all the stops. We blast the organ. We bring in the trumpeters and maybe even the dancers. We decorate the sanctuary with white and gold and lilies galore. We have potlucks and champagne and bright, ornate decorations. And if we don’t, we should.

As N.T. Wright now famously reflected: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simple the one-day happy ending tacked onto forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in the Church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope)

The late Gail R. O’Day, my own preaching professor, always encouraged her students to simply tell the story people came to hear on big feast days such as Easter. Often, we attempt to find a new, hot take when we know that more people than usual will be gathered to hear our sermon. Yet what they came to hear — the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who defeated death forever — is far better and far more powerful than the hottest of new takes on Easter. Really.

So this is the day when we simply get to tell the best story ever: one of a God who became human and showed people how to really live and really love, who healed the sick and challenged the powerful and befriended and comforted those whom society shunned. And all of this upset humanity so much that we killed him, yet that still wasn’t the end of the story. That same God, still human, reappeared in the garden three days later, alive.

It really is a great story, worth throwing our hats into the air over. It is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. Our big moment as the Church.

And yet.

To most of the world, it’s anticlimactic. By the time April 12 rolls around this year, Easter candy will have been in the stores since February, and there will have been more than a few Holy Saturday Easter egg hunts. What’s more, half the congregation you see before you might have been dragged to church against their will. Many of the people you see gathered before you will be experiencing grief or anxiety or pain and will have considered it a victory simply to have beaten the crowds to find a pew.

For all the clergy’s deep and abiding feelings around Easter (I myself get weepy at the very mention of the Exsultet at Easter Vigil), Easter itself, to most people, isn’t a big event. It’s barely a ripple in the massive movement of the world. Most Christians would likely list Christmas above Easter in their list of favorite Jesus-themed holidays, regardless of the ease of being born as it compares to coming back to life after a public execution.

If you look at the Gospel text for the day, however, you might notice that the first Easter had no trumpets. There were no lilies, no big celebrations. There was an earthquake, but that seems to have been more anxiety-producing than celebratory.

It began almost mundanely. Mary Magdalene and Other Mary get up and dawn and make their way as soon as they can to where Jesus has been buried. They come to care for their friend’s body. There are guards posted to ensure they don’t steal the friend’s body, likely adding indignity to an already fraught situation.

Just as they’re getting there, there’s an earthquake, and everyone present understandably freaks out, and the Angel of the Lord comes and rolls back the stone and plops down on it. The guards are, quite literally, shook.

The angel then informs the women that Jesus is risen, revealing that he didn’t roll away the stone to let Jesus out; Jesus had already managed to get loose on his own.

He’s alive. Wait — he’s alive?! How could that be?

There must’ve been a rush of confusion and questions, but the women know what to do.

The Marys run to tell their friends, the disciples, what they’ve seen and heard, and Jesus “suddenly” meets them on the way. Does he say something profound? No. He says, “Greetings.”

There are still no trumpets; there’s just the guy who was formerly known as dead appearing and saying “What’s up?”

Then Jesus gives Mary & Mary some travel instructions about where he’ll meet the disciples, and that’s it. That’s the big story. It’s a story so anticlimactic that the disciples themselves heard it secondhand from the church’s first Gospel preachers, Mary and Mary.

But you know, and I know, that that was only the beginning.

Jesus rose again on Easter. Hope rose again on Easter. And it was only the beginning.

Maybe, just maybe, this Easter is only the beginning for someone out in that congregation, too. Someone who has just started on the long road to recovery from addiction. Someone who feels unloved and has just shown up at a random Easter service because that’s what it feels right to do. Someone who just lost their mother and feels hopeless. Or maybe even a preacher who is preaching for the twelfth Easter Sunday in their career and just can’t find anything else to say about it anymore.

Those people need hope to rise again. They need a spark.

Easter 1 is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union.

And it is also only the beginning of a 50-day celebration. It is the spark of hope that ignites the flames of Pentecost.

So go out and preach the story they came to hear, preacher. You don’t need to preach anything new. Just go preach the story they came to hear and let the Spirit fan that spark of hope into flame in due time. We have at least 50 days.

So let’s get find that spark in the pages of this Gospel reading, and let’s get this party started. Amen.

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The Rev. Anna Tew

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.

Palm Sunday (A): Which Jesus Will We Choose?

Palm Sunday (A): Which Jesus Will We Choose?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

We hear it every year: “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to (insert evangelist here).” Our people know the story quite well; Jesus is presented for charges against the state, judged by the mob, and condemned to die in one of the most brutal fashions: crucifixion. Preaching something ‘new’ or ‘edgy’ on Palm Sunday can be an exercise in frustration. As preachers, we want to say something of merit. We pore over old sermons and read what others have written in hopes that we’ll find something for today’s context. Sometimes we strike out, sometimes we hit home runs; most of the time, we’re doing well just to touch the bases.

But this Palm Sunday offers a unique challenge in concert with current context. This Palm Sunday occurs during an election year.

For the past four years, this nation has seen the rise of nationalism, racism, ageism, misogyny, and many other horrific human constructs to a terrifying degree. Our populace is polarized, giving diatribe the mainstage where dialogue used to reign. The political wound has widened so far as to not only bleed into the faith-based realm, but to hemorrhage into it—a deluge of theological and political conflation. While these two arenas aren’t mutually exclusive (i.e. social justice), in times past we haven’t seen this level of disagreement. I have to wonder if ignoring the “voting” that occurs within Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Passion is tantamount to silencing the nature of Palm Sunday altogether.

Isn’t it striking that the mob, when presented with the option between two people named Jesus—Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah—choose poorly? This group is so hard-pressed to hang onto previously held truths concerning belief they would rather set a murderer free than turn toward a savior. These people don’t care for change, they only see things as the establishment presents them—the ‘way we’ve always done it.’ Yet, lest we forget, Christ came into the world to challenge the establishment, to throw off the yoke of an oppressive society set against itself. He came to impart change on a world that only cares for those who maintain the status quo; people who live in fear of challenging those in control in order to make way for a better life.

In this moment, we see the “best of times and the worst of times”—the tale of two Jesuses. What does it say to our congregations if we’re unwilling to place our people—and ourselves—in this story? The mob mentality of voting for the person who will change us the least must fade away. Our real goal should be to speak truth, no matter how difficult it becomes. We would do well to remember that ours is a task of proclaiming the gospel by word and deed—something that, due to the decline of church membership nationwide, we can be reticent to do.

Can we ask our congregations whether we have changed so much in two thousand years that we no longer vote along popular lines, but instead vote with conscientious hearts and minds? We may espouse a virtue-based decision-making mindset, but in reality, many of us and many of our people struggle with how to move past espousing actions to actually following through with them. Is the Jesus we vote for nowadays the one who fits us best, or the one who challenges us to be better versions of ourselves? The one who makes us feel warm and fuzzy, or the one who calls us to stand up and speak out against the realities of an increasingly isolationist society? Is he the version of Jesus we hold in our minds so that we can sleep at night? Or do we dare to challenge ourselves, and our people, to vote for the savior we so longingly proclaim on Sundays?

We must ask these questions of ourselves and of our parishioners. Which Jesus will we vote for today? Which Jesus do we want to see out in society—the one who will bring death, or the one who will bring everlasting life? Which Jesus do we want to preach? On this Palm Sunday, the power of that decision lies within us. I hope we choose well. I hope we cease shouting, “Crucify him!” and instead shout something else…

“Praise him.”

Fr. Sean Ekberg
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.