Proper 5(B): Shut Up!

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By: Chris Clow

“Shut up! Stop talking! You’re hysterical! That’s crazy talk! We know who you are, so stop this madness and come back home! Be quiet!”

Quite a response, huh? Jesus is trying to teach about the love of God and healing those in need, having to fend off the scribes and religious officials who are challenging him and saying he’s possessed by the devil, all while trying to keep this massive crowd under control, when he starts hearing people tell him to stop and try to hold him back. But it’s not the scribes, and they didn’t tattle to the Pharisees. It’s not the Romans either; and it’s not the crowd.

It’s his family. His own family are unwilling to listen to what Jesus has to say. Imagine what this would have felt like to him: to be trying to do what you were put here to do, only to look up and see your relatives going “Yeah, ok, carpenter boy. Big talk here. It’s about time you come on home, huh?”

A prophet is not welcome in his own house, indeed.

There are harsh lines at the end of this gospel: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Can we really be surprised, though? Jesus—while trying to do some good, contain the mob that is following him, and answer the religious nuts who hate him—is now having to fend off his own family who are trying to silence him. I’ve typically heard these lines discussed as opening up the concept of family beyond just biology and the unity of the community of believers—that Jesus is saying all of us who do God’s will are his family—and that may still be true. But I suspect this is also Jesus’ frustration rightly boiling over: “You say you’re my family, yet you are trying to get in my way and stop me. Is that really what my family would do?” You can understand Jesus’ relatives being concerned; this is behavior they haven’t seen from him and getting into theological arguments with the religious officials seems a bit beyond a poor carpenter’s son.  They might feel embarrassed, or concerned, or even outraged at his behavior. Yet Jesus, and in hindsight we, know that he is proclaiming the Gospel. We are able to see the change that his relatives couldn’t at the time. “See, I am doing something new,” it echoes in Isaiah 43. Yet they refuse.

Some of us are lucky enough that we haven’t ever had large blow ups like this with our family members, but I’m willing to bet far more of us have had something like this happen. Times when we felt a call to do something that others wouldn’t understand—maybe our family, our friends, or our coworkers. This moment certainly is a troubling time in our country. From the institutionalized racism and police brutality that people of color experience on a daily basis, to the immigration crisis at our border, to simply whether wearing a mask and getting a vaccine to a global pandemic is a good idea or not. And yet, instead of giving us a common goal to move towards, we continue to see more division, some speaking out, while others tell them (in essence) to be quiet. A common refrain is that we all have to “come together,” away from the extremes, back toward common ground, and be united again. It is a nice idea to have, and working for unity is not itself a bad thing.

However, it can be tempting to hear Jesus say, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” and then conclude that unity is some supreme virtue which we must always strive for. Jesus’ relatives were united in wanting him to shut up and stop calling attention to himself. But unity which is against the good is not virtuous at all. Jesus’ preaching and witness here is a threat to the unity of his time. Both the religious officials and his own family would rather he stay quiet, not bring these crowds of people out, and not threaten the status quo that they prefer. His family may or may not have liked the religious officials; they may have even agreed with what Jesus said, but by wishing that he just stayed quiet, they wound up standing in opposition to his message.

Similarly, I think we must be very careful when we hear (and participate in) calls to “meet in the middle.” It is one thing to learn how to better listen to those we disagree with. It is another thing entirely to decide that simply finding a balanced “middle” position is automatically a good thing.  If a scale is tilted to one side, you do not balance it by putting weight in the center of it. The problems in our country, such as the racism and police brutality experienced by people of color, the continued plague of gun violence, growing inequality, and the ever-widening wealth gap, will not be solved by waiting and half measures that appeal to a simple unity. It will take real, substantial change, and that change will upset some people. But silence is not the same thing as peace, and if in our desire to bring people together we sacrifice working for justice for those in need, then we become complicit in the injustice we claim to fight, and the silence that we have substituted for peace will not last for long.

Harsh words, perhaps, but I think we’ll hear harsher if we consider ourselves a part of Jesus’ family of believers and do not act like it. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Even when it gets difficult, may we find the strength to not back down from proclaiming the Gospel in our actions and words, so that we may rightfully be able to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ.

Chris Clow is currently a stay-at-home dad, but he was doing it before COVID hit and everyone started doing it. In a past lifetime, he was also a campus minister and liturgical musician at a small Catholic university. He now lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his theologian wife, Emily, their son, Xavier, and their soon-expected second child.

Trinity Sunday(B): Speaking of the Trinity

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By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, JD

Perhaps the text from Isaiah is not the preacher’s first choice for Trinity Sunday for the obvious reason that Jesus had yet to make an appearance at the time of writing and would not for quite some time. Having all three “persons” of the Trinity would seem to be a prerequisite if the focus is on this particular designated doctrine. It almost feels like organizers of the lectionary knew they had to include a pericope from the Hebrew Bible, saw Isaiah’s thrice repeated, “Holy, holy, holy” in verse three, and called it close enough to include on this liturgical Sunday!

To be fair, none of the suggested lectionary texts in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament lay out an explicit explanation of the doctrine, in no small measure because the word “Trinity” itself does not appear in Scripture. The reality is that opting to read from one of the gospels or epistles is no guarantee of making Trinity Sunday any easier.

It is at this point that some preachers bail on talking about the Trinity at all (No? Just me?). But I suggest that the Isaiah text is a microcosm of our attempts to speak about experiences of God and the very real feeling of God’s presence in our lives. This was, after all, the purpose of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place, for like other doctrine, “it is not the development of purely intellectual considerations but is also an attempt to express the faith the church experiences in worship.”[1] In other words, when considering doctrine in the most generous light, its purpose is to deepen our spirituality and life of faith beyond a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.

Isaiah’s experience of God, the vision that we read about beginning in chapter 6, is one of those attempts at expressing faith. Some experiences of God were so clear and intense that the prophets try to share them in ways that the reader is invited to see and feel it, too. The prophet Isaiah manages to capture the unimaginable expansiveness and power of God using all of his senses. Whatever happened to Isaiah was a holistic event, felt spiritually and physically. We read of experiences like this from other prophets, including Jeremiah 15:16, where Jeremiah says he “found” and “ate” God’s words, and they became a “joy and delight of my heart.”

Walking line-by-line through Isaiah 6:1-8, we are repeatedly invited to connect with God using all of our senses and holy imagination. While some of the imagery is more easily modernized than others, it is clear that Isaiah is attempting to make real to others his experience of God.

Isaiah’s descriptions remind us of those moments in our own lives when God’s presence is larger-than-life: God’s presence is so large, just the hem of the Lord’s robe fills the temple. Some experiences of the sacred and the holy are so all-encompassing that it can feel like we are only seeing a few strands of the tapestry. 

Unfamiliar and strange creatures are part of Isaiah’s vision. Unexpected embodiments of God happen all the time, from the someone panhandling on a street corner to an artistic teenager to elements of nature. Instead of responding with mistrust, cynicism, or trying to rationalize, it may be that we just need to receive the experience with awe and wonder.

The prophet tells us that the scene was a bit hazy, for “the house filled with smoke.” Even if we have never been in a house filled with smoke, most of us have looked through the not-quite-invisible waves that drift in the air after blowing out a candle and noticed how it changes what is seen and unseen. There are some experiences of God and the Christian life that are not yet clear in their meaning to us yet. We may see the path forward as a fuzzy outline, as if obscured by smoke, but we can choose to trust that the Spirit is letting us see just enough that it still requires faith to take the next step.

Even if we struggle to identify with what might seem like over-the-top descriptions in Isaiah, we can use these passages to focus in on experiences of God that are more relatable—concrete, grounded, dirt-under-our-fingernails experiences of God. To circle back to the Trinity, the text with its grand descriptions may actually prompt us to think about the embodiment of God in Jesus as a person who experienced hunger, thirst, grief, and joy—all of which we can relate to.

On this Trinity Sunday, preachers can invite the congregation to think about experiencing God as a holistic event, just like the prophets in the Hebrew Bible did. Our ancestors of faith have always made a sacred effort to express our faith, and Isaiah is just one more example of this work. How might we add to this effort?


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez. Essential Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2005), pg. 175.

The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the senior pastor of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, a graduate of Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, and Emory University. She was once described as a loose cannon. Lori is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

Pentecost(B): The Language of the Heart

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By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The miracle of Pentecost is, indeed, just that. A miracle. Each person present heard the good news that God loves and values them, in exactly the way they needed to hear it, in fluent, flawless, perfect language of the heart.

In Luke’s extension of his good news, the Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost is the day that the Church celebrates the gift of God’s Spirit to the whole world. Viewed from a distance, from God’s perspective, the messy chaotic cacophony of voices shouting out good news all at the same time is sacred. Holy. Beautiful. But for those on the ground… I wonder. What is music to the Divine, more often sounds discordant and confused to us humans. Where God can see how all the tones fit together in the transcendent symphony of a universe designed for good, sometimes we encounter the discordant note right in front of us and wonder how it possibly fits into the whole. Standing on the ground, in the middle of the crowd, here and there we might discern a clear tone – here the mournful wail of a soul yearning to be seen, to belong; there the joyful trumpet of a heart’s desire fulfilled. Here the steady beating of a passionate heart for justice and mercy, there the screech of a misplaced intention interrupting the intended harmony.  

Anyone who has ever worked with a musical group, or a community of human beings, knows that it takes a lot of time, intentionality, and practice to become proficient in the language(s) of the whole. The flute has to understand how to give way to the French horn, the timpani to enter softly so that it doesn’t drown out the violin, the tenor to listen intently for the bass in order to keep concordant rhythm. To achieve transcendence, there must be an understanding that each instrument has purpose and place in the grand melody… or else we end up with a jarring, jangling mess. As followers of Christ, we can be in sync or out of kilter with the activities of God’s conducting Spirit, and sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly where we are, whether the Spirit is playfully disrupting our carefully laid plans or calling us to enter the song with a little more flare than our natural inclination. The language of music operates much as the language of the heart. And to speak to the heart, we must learn to speak to one another in the language that doesn’t come naturally to us, the language of the other.

Jesus was proficient in many languages. He was fluent in the language of religious insiders, and in the language of the outcast and shunned. He spoke the language of the common people, with an earthy, wry humor; he spoke the language of heady intellectuals, teaching at dinner parties in the halls of the influential. Against the language of dehumanization, Jesus spoke sacred worth. Against the language of fear, Jesus spoke peace and comfort. Against the language of violence and death, Jesus spoke self-offering love, the language of hearts turned to the fullness of Divine life powerfully present in their midst.

In a world that still clamors in a Babel of fracture and division, violence and dehumanization, fear and death, Spirit-filled people continue to sing out the good news of God’s justice, God’s grace, God’s care and concern for all of God’s creation. The Divine Work is often messy and creative, brilliant and tumultuous. The Spirit doesn’t always stay within the neatly marked lines we prefer –she throws in a playful trill here, a rest there; here a melodious glissando, there a diminuendo. Often, we find an ostinato (a repeated musical phrase or rhythm) in places that make no sense, and a coda where we anticipate a new verse. But with curiosity and awareness, intention and practice, listening beyond the dissonance of our own fears and disordered desires, we learn to enter spaces gently and to give way for a diversity of instruments and voices to join the holy Work. And when we’ve known, together, Christ’s love and agony in the yearning places of our conjoined lives, perhaps we will better hear and sing that transcendent harmony that reverberates through time and space: the music of Christ’s own heart beating as One with you and with me.

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

7th Sunday of Easter(B): Called in Prayer and Sustained in Love

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By: The Rev. Kimble Sorrells

This Sunday’s text invites us into an intimate moment in the life of Jesus: his prayer and conversation with his Father amid his farewell to his disciples. While the opening and closing parts of his prayer are selections for other days of the lectionary, this central section focuses on his prayer for the disciples as he anticipates their life without him.  

Jesus’ words convey that the disciples are called into his mission and will be sent into the world to live out their lives of faith. There is no escaping the world or its hardships; indeed, he says that the world will hate them. Yet they are called to be set apart as holy and a witness—to live in the tension of being “in the world but not of the world.” It’s important to note that while the prayer carries a weight of responsibility, it also reflects reassurance that they will not be left alone, but are entrusted to God’s ongoing care, guidance, and protection.

It is easy today to see faith and spirituality as a personal matter—something that I do for my own self and my own wellbeing. We might see it primarily as being about feeling filled and connected to the Divine presence. As someone whose ministry is primarily focused on contemplative practices and retreat ministry, these aspects are obviously something that I think are important. However, this prayer reminds us that Jesus’ final request for his followers was for our faith to be about much more than or own personal lives. While it’s good to rest and withdraw from the world to recharge, we must return to engage the world around us. As followers of Christ, we are called to bear witness to God’s ways of truth and justice. A faithful follower and faithful community must take seriously its role of being in solidarity with the victims of injustice and marginalization, calling out the broken systems and engaging in active witness to God’s ways. 

It seems that the times we are living in have made this tension even more apparent. Many in our faith communities are likely experiencing a bit “world-weary.” We have now lived through just over a year of a life-altering pandemic, and while we have hope of vaccines, we are certainly not out of the woods yet. Through this time, we also have experienced heightened suffering due to systemic racism, especially in the areas of police brutality and violence. Our country has grappled with the epidemic of gun violence as we see ongoing mass shootings. And of course, the threats to democracy that seemed a given shook our sense of security in a peaceful state. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all that’s happening, but it does seem exhausting.

To say that many of us are tired would be an understatement. If Jesus was sitting in front of me praying right now, I will be honest that I would much prefer that he pray for me to have a nice vacation—perhaps a little get away to the mountains. However, when Jesus prayed for his disciples (and that does include us today), he prayed that they not be taken out of the world but rather be made holy as a witness within it.  

The key of holding this tension lies in the hope that Jesus also entrusted us to God’s care, guidance, and loving presence. We can find fulfillment, rest, and joy as we experience connection to God and feel God’s love. This allows us to live as called people bearing witness to God’s ways in the world. In this way Jesus’ prayer offers us both a weighty responsibility and the reassurance that we are not alone; that God is with us. 

In preaching or teaching on this text, one might spend time exploring what this tension looks like to your community.  How is it that they might need to find ways to retreat and tap into and connect with the Joy of God’s love, and how is it that they might need to bear witness to that by engaging in the world around them? What is happening locally that contrasts with Jesus’ radical message of justice? How is it that your community might engage in faithful witness—both individually and collectively? What ways do you need to examine your own community of faith? Are there ways that it falls short of the ways of justice and inclusion? 

In preparing for worship or meditation, you may wish to examine the ways that your community may be feeling world-weary as well. What would serve to connect to God’s Love at this time? How might you spend time resting in the joy that Christ prays his disciples will experience? As we listen anew to the text for this week, we are invited again to overhear this intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father. We are invited again to receive a prayer on our behalf and lean into the call of discipleship, held and led by the Love of God as we go forth into the world. 

The Rev. Kimble Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ  and a graduate of Candler School of Theology (Emory University) and Berry College. Kimble’s interests are in using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the peace and resolve to be justice makers in the world. They are also a Registered Yoga Teacher and draw on this and other spiritual traditions to inform their ministry. Kimble has experience in a variety of ministry settings. They have worked in LGBTQ advocacy for many years including  as staff for Reconciling Ministries Network and the Atlanta Pride Committee, and organizing with Atlanta’s Trans and Queer community. They have also served in local congregations and as hospital chaplain. Kimble is also dedicated to civic engagement and is a member of the Civil Air Patrol and an Alumni of Americorps Program. 

Ascension Day(B): God has Gone WHERE with a Shout?

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By: The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

After eons of God scooching ever closer to us on the Divine Couch, Emmanuel walks with us for thirty-some years. This past Lent, we read the stories of ever-closer covenants between God and God’s chosen people. God moves from promising not to kill, through promising deliverance, to promising to write God’s law upon people’s hearts. Christians believe that the incarnation of God in Jesus is the culmination of this movement from heaven to earth, to God-with-us. When we again try to separate ourselves from this narrative by killing Jesus, he rises from the dead to share a few meals. My understanding of God’s relationship with humanity imagines a God constantly seeking greater unity with God’s people. This God, scripture tells us, is to one day gather all the world into God’s divine presence.

It does not fit my neat little narrative for God-on-Earth to get sucked up into space, away from the action. Thankfully, I am not alone in my perplexity, as early Christians also similarly struggled with the bodily absence of their Lord. After all, the epistles are brimming with conflicts among Christians that the presence of Jesus would have handily solved. Perhaps, if Jesus had stuck around, we might have avoided all those nasty debates about circumcision, and women would have maintained their rightful roles as leaders in the beloved community. Today, Christians are even more complexly divided, and it would be handy to have a godly referee to call the shots.

Sometimes one must step away to move closer. In the Book of Common Prayer, the first collect for Ascension Day sums it up nicely, saying that Jesus “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” By removing himself yet again, Jesus invites us to look elsewhere, once again reimagining the relationship between God and humanity. When Jesus is transfigured, he retreats up the mountain with Peter, James, and John. The disciples saw their Lord lifted up above all on the cross, upon which he brought salvation. The good news of Easter is first learned, not by the presence of Jesus, but his absence. He is not where they laid him! Often, the disciples ask, “Where is Jesus?” and the answer is rarely what one expects.

As in Luke’s account of the resurrection, his account of the ascension in Acts features the appearance of divine messengers, robed in white. On Easter, the women are greeted by two men who ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”[1] In Acts, after Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come to them, he is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight. Again, two divine messengers appear saying “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”[2] Once again, God works great things in Jesus, and once again his absence leaves his followers dumbfounded.

We modern disciples stand with our forebears, slack-jawed, craning our necks toward the heavens and scratching our heads. The angels tell us to look around, promising Jesus’ return and leading us to Pentecost. Soon, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit, the indwelling God who would imbue the church with holiness and complete the Divine Scooch. The God who slipped into Jesus’ skin will soon dwell in the disciples’ hearts, answering once-and-for-all the question of God’s dwelling place. We modern disciples have the benefit of this presence by virtue of our baptisms, enabling us to see God’s presence among us today, once again in flesh and blood.

To ask the question, “Where is God?” is the constant struggle of the Christian. Left without the body of Jesus to meet, we instead see God all around us. Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered, the church, the Body of Christ is there. When bread is broken and wine is poured in remembrance, Jesus is there. When water washes away sin, Jesus is there. Jesus is the “least of these” and the greatest. We need not look to the heavens. We need not look to the tomb. God’s messengers guide our eyes to each other, to creation, and to the church.

It’s hard to imagine the absence of Jesus as good news. Surely, we disciples would prefer a Jesus in flesh and blood. Yet, Jesus’ retreat marks a step closer to us. The good news of the empty tomb is reflected in Jesus’ ascension, and the disciples are encouraged to move past their confusion into the world. After all, God soon sends the Spirit to dwell in each Christian’s body, making them holy and embracing the church in power. No longer next to God on the couch, but surrounded by God on all sides, we are free to see God at work throughout all creation.

[1] Luke 24:5. NRSV.

[2] Acts 1:11. Ibid.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.



6th Sunday of Easter(B): God’s Kind of Friendship

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By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Growing up, I bristled when my church sang the popular hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” As a kid, I thought the song too sappy and monotonously rhymey. In my small Illinois town, I was firmly in the minority opinion, given how often the song was chosen during hymn sings. The song has long maintained a love-hate relationship among critics and the masses. As the Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal notes, “In spite of the fact that this hymn, with its tune, has been criticized as being too much on the order of the sentimental gospel type, its popularity remains strong, and the hymn retains a place in modern hymnals.”[1] My teenage condescension seems to have been made harmless by the tremendous service the hymn has provided to generations through the years.

Looking back, my reaction to the song’s sentimentality probably had more to do with the quality of my friendships at the time than my relationship with God. I couldn’t identify a friend in whom I could share all my weaknesses and sorrows. I had learned quickly that middle school friends were often not the best equipped to help bear my griefs and burdens. My “friends” seemed to delight in my trials and tribulations so the metaphor of “Jesus as friend” was not one I desired. I wanted my Jesus to be my rescuer, my defender, my God.

In middle age, I am becoming more appreciative of the song’s sentiments – even if they still seem a bit saccharine – especially as I spend more and more time in the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Typically, during the weeks of Eastertide, we remember the accounts of Jesus’ appearances during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension and then the 10 days of waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But this week, we don’t read a resurrection story.

Today’s lection is a speech of Jesus while he was still alive. These speeches are read during Eastertide because they are a sort of preparatory teaching – preparing the disciples for what lies ahead. This part of the Gospel of John sometimes referred to as the Book of Glory (13.1-20.31), a section demonstrating how those who believe in him become children of God. Scholars have identified chapters 14-17 of John’s Gospel as a presentation of several of the teachings of Jesus in the form of a “farewell address.”

Because of the repeated themes in chapter five, the careless reader might be tempted to speed through the verses set aside for the sixth Sunday of Easter. In doing so, they will miss some of the most intimate indications of God’s desire for relationship with humanity. Or they may find themselves collectively humming, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” as verse 15 is read aloud. Either way, the skilled preacher might consider unpacking what’s it means to be a friend of the Godhead including the notion of consent (according to Jesus, we get a choice in this relationship) and reciprocity (this is perfect friendship, shattering the barriers that often cause human friendships to stumble).

Jesus tells his disciples that his relationship to the Father has forever changed how we will be in relationship with God. Key to this relationship, according to Jesus, is remaining in his love. Remaining or abiding, from the Greek menó (to stay, abide, remain; of him who cleaves, holds fast, to a thing) should come as good news. We have a Creator who wants to be with us. Yet, in my experience as pastor, many church-going folks would prefer a root canal over hanging out with their Lord and Savior. Philosopher and spiritual formation teacher Dallas Willard reminds us that “the single most important thing about us is our idea of God and its associated images.” Far too many people have a picture of God that conflicts with the image Jesus shares in today’s reading. That picture often causes people to want to keep their distance from the Father.

Friendship as Being

But Eastertide offers preachers an opportunity to disrupt old notions of God for new generations. It also affords the teaching office to dispel any possibility of discipleship shortcuts for an on-demand culture. My spiritual director used to start our conversations by asking, “Are you still on speaking terms with God?” She was asking, have you been remaining or abiding in God’s love. Was I putting in the work to be the kind of friend that God’s desires in me? This is a life-long pursuit of investing in my friendship with God.

In “Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life,” Rowan Williams describes relationship maintenance with God in this way, “Discipleship is a specific way of being. It’s not intermittent. It’s keeping company with Jesus.” Keeping company with Jesus may sound easy. It is certainly what the early followers of Jesus did. Repeatedly, we hear of people – some committed, some simply curious – following him around the countryside. Classically, students hung out with their teacher as a way of learning. Jesus, in the role of the good rabbi, has a group of students who are abiding with him and learning first-hand what it means to be in true relationship with the Father. The Twelve certainly would have understood their relationship to Jesus in this age-old pattern of teacher to student. In his farewell address in John, Jesus is clarifying that their relationship is far more intimate than teacher and student. It is one of abiding friendship and love.

Learning rather than Trying

For disciples who are in pursuit of this kind of relationship with God, but have struggled with commitment to their spiritual practice, a pastor might encourage them to consider eliminating the word “try” from their vocabulary. A spiritual mentor once suggested this after listening to me complain about my fits and starts in my spiritual journey. “Embrace the role of a life-long learner of Jesus,” he suggested. “Instead of try, what if you used the word, learn? You’re not trying to keep the company of Jesus; you’re learning to keep the company of Jesus.” This psychological shift has given me grace to continue learning how to be a better friend to Jesus.

Which is a lesson we might all need to learn. We are learning to abide in God’s love. We are learning to keep God’s commandments and we are learning to love one another as God has loved us. Jesus sets the groundwork for a disciple’s learning plan in this lectionary reading.


[1] W. G. Polack. Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (1941). St. Louis: Concordia. p. 323.

The Rev. Kim Jenne serves as Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church. Before her current appointment, Kim served as pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus. She is slowly learning to keep company with God on a more regular basis.

5th Sunday of Easter(B): Incarnation of Love

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Sundays such as this are one of the main reasons I enjoy following and preaching from the lectionary. Each of these four texts have such wisdom and key pieces of the gospel flowing throughout them and really can stand on their own as formative texts from which to share the good news of the resurrection. However, when they are joined together as the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the theme of love provides a lens from which the preacher can begin their interpretive framework.

The epistle reading from 1st John focuses on the importance of love in the early church and the Johannine community. In fact, this section of 1 John could be read as a defining characteristic of the incarnation. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). We participate in the very incarnation of God through the love that Christ invites us to participate within. The “new life” of Easter is a life of love. I think if we focus on this important distinction, our interpretations of both the readings from Acts and the Gospel of John can be strengthened.

I have often heard sermons preached on Philip’s meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch as a reflection on the importance of our evangelistic work or our treatment of the foreigner. And, of course these things are amply important. However, as the political conflict continues to erupt over our (United States of America) own border with Mexico, it seems as if many in the USA seem to think that we, like Philip, have the answers for the foreigner seeking assistance.

We sometimes forget the power of the Spirit that is at work in this story from the book of Acts. Sudarshana Devadhar (resident bishop, New England, Conference, United Methodist Church) interprets Luke’s note of the time of day as an indicator of the guidance of the Spirit and Philip’s holy discernment:

At the end of Acts 8:26, which reads, “An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, ‘At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza,’” Luke makes a point, parenthetically, to tell the reader: “This is a desert road.” We don’t know why Luke specified the time of day, but it might indicate that Philip was called to go out in the heat of midday. In any case, this is a tall order for Philip, which seems to come from out of the blue! The text provides no explanation for the angel’s visit. What’s more, there is no indication that Philip questioned the angel about either the message or the assignment—Why he should go? Could he do it a little later in the day when the desert heat is more congenial for travel? Was there an alternative route he could take? Wasn’t there someone else who could go on this errand or at least accompany him? The text doesn’t indicate that Philip raised any objections or asked any questions. It simply says, the angel of the Lord told him to go; “So he did” (v. 27).[1]

I wonder how we might interpret this scripture differently through the lens of an incarnation of love in Philip’s spirit. Could it be that Philip is able to share the good news of the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch because he was so connected to the love of God through the incarnation of Christ? The preacher of these texts might explore the ways our spirit of love, as connected by Christ, affects and calls us to treat our fellow human beings differently and with more understanding (a play on words from the conversation Philip and the Ethiopian share).

In a similar way, the incarnation of love from 1 John may adjust the ways in which we interpret the lectionary text from the Gospel of John. Similar to the text from Acts, I have often heard sermons preached on this text from John’s Gospel as an elaboration of our call to evangelism. The usual interpretation says that if we are truly united with Christ, we will bear fruit and see the harvest of our work (which is so often translated as church growth).

However, if we utilize an incarnation of love interpretive framework, the thing we are abiding within isn’t a literal vine, but the love of Christ. Those who abide in Christ’s love, abide in Christ. For Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. The fruit we bear isn’t more butts in the church pews, but more love in the world. If any Christian is not loving, they are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.

Of course, all of this begs the question of how one might interpret the very task of evangelism through the lens of an incarnation of love. I find myself curious about how one might preach the call to evangelism through such a hermeneutical lens. Many people, especially in the younger generations, are tired of having religion and a “holy-than-thou” sharing of the “good news” shoved down their throat. Too often, the modern church has done more harm than good in our evangelical pursuit of sharing what is supposed to be good news to those in the margins of society.

I have heard it said that sometimes the best evangelism strategy is to tell people that you are a Christian and then not be jerk. These particular lectionary readings seem to suggest an even better evangelistic strategy: love people. It really isn’t a new or even radical concept. Yet, it seems to be one of the most difficult things for us to do in our society. As our divisions seem to grow farther and farther apart with more and more violent rhetoric toward one another, it certainly seems that our love for one another is shrinking.

There is “good news” in these scriptures for this difficult task. The strength and power of love that we so desperately need in our society comes, not from us, but from Christ. For Christ reminds us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart form me you can do nothing…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15: 5 & 7 NIV). We remain in a Savior that is the true incarnation of God’s love – not one that cuts off all the people we don’t like or that don’t act the way we desire. Christ is a Savior that prunes the hate of the world so that love will blossom and grow. This is the incarnation of love.


[1] Devadhar, Sudarshana. “May 2, 2021-Fifth Sunday of Easter.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.

The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He has served churches in Indiana, Texas, and Kentucky. He currently 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.

4th Sunday of Easter(B): What is Truth?

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By: Casey Cross

“What is truth?” is an innately human question. Do the birds twitter about it flying from tree to tree? Do the sea otters muse over it while cracking open mussels and floating under a wide open sky? I have a hard time believing my dog spends much time pondering it. I imagine that if she were to ask this question, her answer would be as quick to come as the question – Truth is as she lives. Sleep, walk, sniff, eat, play, snuggle, snooze, repeat. This is truth. But this kind of answer is not enough for humans. Particularly now, in the season of Easter. The question, “What is truth?” runs wild in our imaginations as we consider Jesus’ resurrection. Did Jesus really die and then, three days later rise to walk and eat and meet with his disciples? How? How do we know what is true? We want to believe, but we need to know what is true first. The first letter of John (1 John) speaks to this question. Scholars agree that this letter was heavily influenced by the Gospel of John. Knowing this makes it that much more interesting when I remember Jesus’ conversation with Pilate before his execution, which ends with Pilate asking the same question, “What is truth?” The answer to this eternal question resides in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

The writing found in 1 John serves as a testimony, a witness, to the truth found in Jesus and inexorably bound to the ways we live out our love for one another. Truth, the writer of 1 John posits, is not an idea to consider, but a response to be lived. We know how to live because we know Jesus. As we follow the way of Jesus, believing Jesus, not just a comfortable proof, we respond with our very lives. The purpose of this truth is not about being right or confirming our biases. The purpose of this truth made manifest in Jesus stirs us to action with and for each other. As we live this love for others, we are emboldened by the truth of Christ. The two go together. We must love one another to know the truth. We must know the truth as expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to actively love one another.

Depending on the day, one of these aspects may be more challenging than the other. Some days, the question of what is truth keeps me from knowing Jesus. Maybe Jesus was a real, historical figure, but Jesus the Christ is more a figure of speech; a representation of something we can attempt to aspire but really just an ideal. Other days, loving one another is the greater challenge. The excuses pour out – We all know we live in a divided country. It’s not my fault these people have chosen lies and conspiracy theories to feel safe. I could love them more if they weren’t so stubborn, or were more like me, or had a better sense of humor, or tried a little harder to get out of that situation, they need to at least meet me half way, etc. etc. This is where verse 18 can sting. We are reminded to love one another in truth and action. We can’t just think about it. We need to show up with our full selves. We need to physically act in ways of love.

1 John 3: 17 sets the scene, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” We squelch the truth of God’s love every time we let the fear of scarcity set the terms of how and when we help others. We squelch the truth of God’s love when we let terms and conditions determine who deserves our consideration.

We seek after truth, but shy away when its double-edge points toward us. And so, truth also means knowing when we have missed the mark. It means admitting when we have relied on our understanding more than the truth lived by Jesus. It means repenting and changing our ways. Loving one another in truth and action means we may need to sit through uncomfortable conversations. We may also need to speak up and create new boundaries with people who have abused our empathy and time. Loving one another does not mean we must serve as someone’s whipping boy. Loving one another also does not mean liking everyone or being everyone’s friend. Loving one another liberates us for autonomy and freedom. We are reborn in the empty tomb and revolutionized by the resurrection of Christ.

So, “What is truth?” Perhaps the answer my dog would give is, in fact, the answer we find in 1 John. Truth is as we live. Let us live as believers in Jesus and let us love one another in truth and action. As we live in these ways, we abide in the truth that surpasses all understanding. We are freed to love with every fiber of our being, with bold action, and compassionate care.


Casey Cross serves as the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She, her husband, and Lola love to take lots of walks and eat delicious food together. Cuddles are always appreciated. You can find more of Casey’s work at https://caseykcross.com/

3rd Sunday of Easter(B): Living Scripture

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By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

Prior to ordination, I spent over a decade as a professional theatre artist. I worked as an actor, director, puppet builder/puppeteer, and improviser along with many other roles. Because my work was so varied, when people asked me what I specialized in, I simply said, “I’m a storyteller.”

When I think back over my life, I realize that my vocation as storyteller began at a very young age when my parents and grandparents told me stories. Our favorite genres were family history and stories of the Bible. I can remember loading all the stuffed animals into the top bunk of our bunk beds and screaming in terror as I imagined the room filling with water. I was Noah, chosen by God to save the animals. Every time we went to the fancy grocery store with the automatic glass doors that parted in the center, I would run ahead of my family, spread my arms wide, and shout, “Let my people go!”

As embarrassing as I’m sure these antics were to my family, they solidified the biblical narratives not only in my imagination, but in my very body. To this day, when I hear of Moses leading the people across the Red Sea or Elijah and Elisha parting the Jordan, I can feel the energy in my arms and imagine the wind roaring through my hair. My internalization of the biblical stories lives in my muscles and nose and ears and mouth.

Jesus, through his incarnational presence of God made flesh, not only brings God intimately into the world, but Jesus puts flesh and bone onto the promises of the Law and the Prophets. In today’s post-resurrection reading from Luke, Jesus says, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:39 NRSV). It is vital for Jesus that his disciples know that this is not spirit only, but God made flesh resurrected in spirit AND body. Jesus goes on to say, “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:44 – 45). All of Holy Scripture points toward the promise of Jesus and his reality that dwells here and now in our physical world and bridges the gap between God and humanity.

If Jesus establishes a physical reality and relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, it follows that this physical reality continues through all Christian witness from the Christian Scriptures, through the history of Christianity, and into our present reality. We who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection live an incarnational continuation of this story until our own ascension with Christ.

This incarnational understanding of Holy Scripture certainly informs today’s Gospel reading, and I would argue that it should inform all readings of the Bible. Drawing on my own experiences as a theatre artist and techniques I learned from David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie in their book, Mark as Story,[1] I often begin the study of any pericope by writing out the characters and the setting. When I begin thinking about these stories in a realized, incarnational way, I often glean new information that not only informs my preaching/teaching but allows me to experience and internalize the Bible in an intimate way.

Let’s explore this method using today’s first lesson from Acts. This pericope has a deeply rooted and horrific history of interpretation that allows Christians to blame Jews for the death of Jesus. This kind of hatred has led to senseless, cruel, and theologically unsound violence against Jews in movements such as the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Preachers/teachers today have an ethical responsibility to condemn such an interpretation, and I believe this method of narrative analysis helps us do that.

For example, in the Acts lesson appointed for today, I began with a list of characters. Immediately visible are Peter, John, and the people Peter calls “the Israelites.” Looking more closely, I also realized that the newly healed beggar born lame is present. If we read back, we see that many of these Israelites are the faithful Jews who daily carried this man to the Beautiful Gate of the temple in order to help him in his alms collecting. Some of those gathered had deep pity for the man. Others may have seen him as an annoyance. Imagine our own thoughts, reactions, and emotions when we see people begging outside our own churches. Either way, there is deep relationship between the man healed and the crowd Peter is addressing.

Furthermore, Peter names another vital character in this scene: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors” (Acts 3:13). God not only acts within this story, but the nature of God—which God; whose God—becomes known in this familial description.

Turning from characters to setting, we see that the crowd is in the Portico of Solomon in the Court of the Gentiles at the temple. We learn in the preceding pericope that “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon” (3:1). The setting for the narrative, then, is one of pious Jews going into the temple for prayer, and they are stopped at the liminal space right before entering a holier part of the temple set aside for Jews.

Synthesizing this analysis, we see that we have an entirely Jewish cast in a Jewish setting. As theologian Willie James Jennings remarks, “Peter speaks to his people. This is an in-house conversation. We have lost the sense and struggle of this family argument.”[2] Utilizing the actor’s tool of imagining how something must feel as we draw upon our own experiences, most of us know what it’s like to be in a family feud. Most of us know what it’s like to be in a church argument. Anyone who has served on a vestry/church council/leadership board, has certainly experienced or can imagine the awkwardness and sometimes pain of disagreement and the effects those have on the community. Likewise, we can imagine the healing that comes from acknowledging our histories and turning toward our communal, life-giving goals.

As you prepare to preach this or any text, I invite you into an imaginative process that brings the text to life. For me, I have the most fun when I do this with others. It may feel silly, but gather a group of adults, make costumes from things lying around the office, and act this scene out. Through imagination, empathy, and incarnational living of the Scriptures, you may find that their meaning becomes deeper, and they will become part of your physical reality as a baptized member of Christ’s own body.


[1] David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999).

[2]Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 43.




The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish speaking congregations. He holds an M.Div. from Seminary of the Southwest, where his theatre background particularly informed his study of liturgy and biblical hermeneutics. During the pandemic, he has channeled his energies into learning to crochet, cooking new foods, and binge-watching shows that have convinced him that English clergy do very little parish ministry and lots of crime solving. 

2nd Sunday of Easter(B): Believing in Your People

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By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

“Do you believe because you see me? Happy (blessed) are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20:29 CEB). These are Jesus’ words, and they round out a story that historically resulted in the term “doubting Thomas”—not to mention a lot of guilt for some growing up in hard-nosed Christian homes.

The story itself is covered in peace. Jesus appears on Easter evening to his disciples and speaks “peace” and “forgiveness.” Of course, Thomas isn’t there. The disciples tell Thomas upon his return that they have seen Jesus. But unless he sees the wounds of Jesus, he will not believe them. Eight days pass and the disciples are in the same spot. Jesus appears and utters “peace” and then looks at Thomas. Jesus shows Thomas the wounds and says, “Believe!” And Thomas believes.

But is the idea that Thomas’ belief is based on sight a negative thing? After all, the other disciples saw Jesus too and they believed. Why does Thomas get the short end of the stick just because he missed the first party? Every character in this chapter sees Jesus and believes. And then along comes Thomas, who desires the same thing, and Jesus makes an example out of him!

I think there’s more to this story than just a simple narrative with a moral. In order to better understand, we need to look at the language. The word used for “happy”or “blessed” is from the Greek word makarios, which is also the word used in the beatitudes. Indeed, this word means “happy, blessed, to be envied,” but a more extensive meaning can be shown as the following: describing someone in a position to be envied.

“Do you believe because you see me? Blessed (and to be envied) are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Scholars believe that of the four gospels, John was likely written last. And like many of the other writings that make up the Bible, this gospel was written to a specific community. The community of John was likely made up of folks that were second (even third) generation Christians. They didn’t have the experiences of the first generation. They didn’t know Paul or many of the other disciples. They had never met Jesus. All they had to go on were stories.

Thus, it would make sense that this story would (only) find its way into the latest gospel. To a community who struggled with having not seen Jesus and the time of the first generation, the author of John sends an encouraging word. “You think the disciples were blessed because they saw? They aren’t to be envied. YOU are. After all, you have not seen and yet you still believe.”

Some of the best leaders I’ve known have encouraged people with what I call “statements of wish.” They’re not necessarily statements of fact, but rather a statement painting a desire for the future, a wish. One of my favorite pastors moved to a new church where the congregation had been through it. They’d had some rough times. And she began saying in every worship service benediction, “You are beloved children of God.” Over time, that constant reminder began to make its way into my heart and the hearts of others. I began to really believe that I was beloved, that before anything else, I am loved by God. This statement of wish took hold!

I believe this is what the author of John is doing for his community; a community struggling with not having been a part of the wave of the first generation. He is sharing a statement of wish. “You are not cursed. You are actually blessed. You are to be envied. Because you have not seen and yet you believe!” And perhaps over time, the reading and rereading of this passage reminded the audience that they were indeed blessed. Perhaps they came to really know that they were blessed.

Statements of wish are important in leadership, in parenting, in mentoring, in counseling. They help us to lead from a place of hope and care. What statements of wish have you spoken over someone lately?

Sources for language: https://biblehub.com/greek/3107.htm

The Rev. Andrew Chappell serves as the Associate Pastor of Newnan First United Methodist Church in Newnan, Georgia. Andrew has an M. Div from Candler School of Theology and has been in ministry for over 10 years. He is engaged to Adair, enjoys Star Wars, and hopes to one day take his mandolin-playing skills up to the next level.