Easter Day(B): Tell the Story

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By: The Rev. Anna Tew

“I was thinking, over-thinking

‘Cause there’s just too many scenarios

To analyze, look in my eyes

Cause you’re my dream please come true.”

Like many folks my age who grew up in evangelical culture, I came of age listening to songs by a Christian band called Relient K. This song was on an album appropriately titled Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right, but Three Do.

I was thinking — over-thinking.

It’s a problem every Easter for preachers everywhere: we sit down to write our Easter sermons and sit there staring at the blinking cursor on the blank document, flipping back and forth between social media sites and our text messages and preaching commentary and, for some reason, a live feed of a baby panda. It seems to get worse, not better, every year, as we try to preach something better than our Easter sermon from last year, or at least try very hard not to preach basically the same one.

The advice that has carried me forward for Easter after Easter has been Dr. Gail R. O’Day’s advice in her lectionary preaching class at the Candler School of Theology to “just tell the story they came to hear.” But even then, I find it a bit hard to just tell the same story, as good as it is, from year to year. Jesus died. The women came to the tomb. The tomb was empty. And there was much rejoicing.

Every now and then, however, the world gives you a gift in preaching that at first looks like a horrid curse. You know, the kind where you can tell the story and then just gesture to the world.

Listen, Preacher. Don’t overthink this one.

The story today is about new life, and new hope, when we thought all was lost. We, and our people, have stood at too many graves this year, have seen too much death, have experienced too much loneliness as our very homes have become like tombs in quarantine. Then three vaccines were developed in record time and things are finally beginning to look up. No, things haven’t been perfect. Not by a long shot. But resurrection is rarely simple, is it?

It has taken me ten Easters of preaching to realize that what Dr. O’Day meant by “just tell the story they came to hear” includes but also reaches beyond telling the story told in the biblical text. It is also about telling the stories of resurrection that you find all around you: from creation coming back to life in springtime, to the United States finally crawling out of the pandemic, to the signs of new life that you see in your own community. Given the year that we have all had, people need these reminders.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “People have an idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics.… What they don’t know is that they are the actors on the stage; the preacher is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.”

In this moment, preacher, do not attempt to be the actor, the performer who puts on a good show. Instead, be the prompter standing in the wings. Remind your people of what in your community, in your church, in your world is coming back to life when you thought that all was lost. Acknowledge the death and the pain and point them towards the new life already at work around them.

They will forget your hot take on the resurrection by next week. They’ll forget your hilarious illustration in a month. They will forget your biblical analysis by the time they have lunch. What they will remember is how you helped them see their lives, and their stories, through the story of Jesus, and how that gave them hope in hard times.

Don’t overthink this one.

Take them to the empty tombs found all around your town. Take them to the empty tombs in their lives. Hell, take them to the more than half a million tombs that are still full from covid-19 and declare beyond any reason other than Jesus that there is still hope for tomorrow, that in Christ even this shall someday be made right.

Whether you gather in person or online, the story of the empty tomb in Palestine is the one they will come to hear. The story of the new life springing up all around them is the one they need to hear, and I’m betting that it’s the one that you need to hear, too. If hope and resurrection and new life are indeed a reality in our lives today when we thought the world was ending a year ago — don’t overthink this one.   

Go get ‘em, preacher.

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.

The Great Vigil of Easter(B): Mark’s Slant on the Easter Proclamation

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By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

On the Great Vigil of Easter, Episcopalians gather by a fire to tell stories. We light the Paschal Candle, from which we then light our own individual candles, and listen to the deacon chant the ancient words of the Exsultet. As we try to avoid spilling hot candle wax on ourselves and the furniture, we become gradually dazzled by the meta-narrative of God’s creative power as told through the mythopoetic language of Genesis, the lyrics of the Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, the wisdom of Proverbs, the visions of Ezekiel, and ultimately, through the Gospel account of the resurrection. This year, as parish leaders discern the safest way to celebrate this Queen of Feasts, we hear the proclamation of the resurrection as told by St. Mark the Evangelist, whose version of the story often leaves readers befuddled.

In fact, readers have been so perplexed by Mark’s open-endednon-conclusion over the centuries that ancient copyists apparently decided to try tying up the loose ends themselves by adding verses 9 – 20 to Mark’s final chapter. The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly at verse 16:8: “So [Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, in Mark’s Gospel, fear literally has the last word.[1] To make matters worse, these female disciples (who are often portrayed by Mark as more faithful than the men) are doing precisely what the heavenly messenger explicitly told them not to do. The white-robed man urged them not to be afraid and then charged them to go tell the other disciples that the Risen Christ had gone ahead of them to Galilee (16:6-7), but they seem to let their fear get the best of them, so they tell no one. And that’s where the Gospel ends.

This is Mark’s unique and cryptic way of declaring the great Easter proclamation that Jesus Christ is indeed risen. Mark seems to be following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson who famously said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”[2] The truth of Christ’s Resurrection is proclaimed by Mark, but his exceptional slant gives us permission to be confused, to ask questions, to contemplate our own conclusions, and to ultimately be dazzled by Truth’s “superb surprise.”[3] 

We may ask ourselves why the women disciples were so overwhelmed and initially silenced by their fear. In asking this question, we are invited to put ourselves in their shoes. Obviously, they have just experienced an event far beyond the realm of everyday life: the empty tomb of their beloved rabbi whose brutal crucifixion they had just recently witnessed; and a mysterious, white-robed man informing them that said rabbi is now waiting for them 75 miles away in Galilee. This is reason enough for anyone to be petrified by fear, shock, and amazement—not to mention, utter disbelief. Or they may have been afraid of potential punishment by the Roman authorities who might feel threatened by rumors of a crucified bandit’s supposed resurrection. Or they may have felt afraid for the disciples who had abandoned their teacher in his most desperate hour; and thought that the risen Jesus was returning to Galilee to severely chastise the disciples for their cowardice and reprimand Peter for his spineless denials. Their fear may have been a potent cocktail of all these concerns or perhaps their fear was not based upon any reason at all. Either way, they were afraid, even terrified; and being told by a mysterious, white-robed man to not be afraid was not going to help them calm their nerves.

Whenever I’m seized with fear, I personally do not find great solace in someone simply telling me not to be afraid. Although I appreciate the charming sentiment that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible (one for every day of the year), I have found that letting go of fear is certainly easier said than done. And what I find so encouraging about Mark’s unique slant on the Easter proclamation is the fact that even when we are afraid and even when that fear might get the best of us, God’s life-giving truth will still win the day.

In her book Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel, Bonnie Thurston writes, “I think the very odd ending of Mark’s gospel at 16:8 is his intended one … there is a word of promise, and there is the failure of the human disciples. But the word of promise predominates. If the disciples and witnesses fail (and they do), the message and the cause is not lost.”[4] The very existence of Mark’s Gospel “bears witness to the fact that in spite of terror, and fear,” the women disciples eventually do share their experience of the empty tomb.[5] I imagine the women exhibited the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. defined as the “inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations,” in spite of overwhelming fear.[6]

The Easter proclamation of Christ’s resurrection urges us all to not be afraid: since Christ has trampled down death by death, we ultimately have no reason to fear. However, Mark’s slant on the Easter proclamation assures us that even when we do feelafraid—for whatever reason or for no clear reason at all—we still know that God’s life-giving truth ultimately prevails.

COVID-19 has given us all plenty of reason to be afraid and even terrified as it uncovers deep social ills, heightens political division, and prevents us from gathering in healthy ways to be renewed by our faith community. I imagine all of us are plagued with fear to some extent right now, whether or not we are conscious of its grip on our lives. While the Easter promise invites us to let go of our fear, Mark reminds us that even if our fear causes us to fail, the Easter promise still speaks to us. Even if our fear leads us to deny Christ like Peter or even become complicit in violence like the Roman soldiers, Christ returns from the grave to say, “I forgive you. Let’s try again to let go of that fear, but if you’re still afraid, that’s ok, because my love is always stronger.” Mark’s slant on the Easter Promise invites us all to be gradually dazzled by the light that overcomes the darkness, the life that destroys death, and the superb surprise that God’s love will triumph even when we are afraid.


[1] In a strictly literal sense, the last Greek word is gar (“for”)as in ephobounto gar (“for they were afraid”).

[2] Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263. I’m grateful to my parishioner Laura Rose for sharing these words with me while I was contemplating Mark’s Easter account.  

[4] Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 80 – 81.

[5] Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark, 13.

[6] Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love: Sermons from “Strength to Love” and Other Preachings (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 120. This year, Easter Sunday happens to fall on April 4, the feast day of the pastor and martyr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Daniel London, PhD is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, California. He is an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross as well as the Community of the Transfiguration. He lives with his wife, Dr. Ashley London Bacchi in the Transfiguration House, where he live-streamed Holy Week and Easter services last year (as pictured above). He recently finished walking the virtual Camino de Santiago and looks forward to walking the real Camino in northern Spain in the not-too-distant future.

Maundy Thursday(B): Doing it Anyway

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By: Dr. Emily Kahm

On Maundy Thursday, we read again about the Last Supper – but this portion of the text isn’t about the meal; rather, it’s about the foot washing. In fact, there really isn’t much description of the meal at all. Instead, Jesus gets up, washes feet, predicts the future, and recites quite a few sermons before they leave. At least in Matthew’s gospel, it sounds like he got a few bites to eat!

In John’s gospel, here and throughout, Jesus is especially divine-seeming and prescient, soothsaying and sometimes distant. One gets the sense that his mind is so preoccupied with things yet-to-come that he almost floats above the ground rather than walking on it. He seems like a helium balloon, only lightly tethered to the mortal plane of existence.

This is one reason that it’s rather shocking (and gratifying) to have a moment where Jesus gets so physical with his disciples, washing their (presumably) gross feet, serving them bodily in a way that’s humble and intimate and kind. It’s not a comfortable experience for all of them – Simon Peter tries to wriggle his way out of it, and then goes overboard trying to take it back when Jesus reacts poorly, which tells us a lot about how unsettled the guy must have been. They’re friends, obviously, but there’s a power distance between them and Simon Peter feels it acutely.

It’s also interesting how before the foot washing begins, the text reminds us that Jesus was perfectly aware of Judas’ inevitable betrayal. Nothing he was about to do, no great preaching moment or act of service, was going to turn aside his fate or change Judas’ actions. Still, he crouches on the floor with some water and a towel and washes his betrayer’s feet anyway. Why? I can only assume it’s because whoever Judas is, whatever choices he has made, this is just who Jesus is. He can’t bring himself to exclude someone he loves, despite how badly he is hurt by them.

It’s this inconvenient truth that keeps me encouraging students who have fallen behind in my courses, even when I know there’s nearly no chance they’ll keep all their enthusiastic promises to turn in late work and stay on top of readings and study hard. It’s why I offer pep talks and affirmations and help them construct detailed catch-up plans, knowing it’s probably going to make no difference for this particular semester. I don’t shy away from offering my assessment of their chances, and I never offer false hope, but if they insist they want to try, I give them every opportunity in the world to succeed. At some level, it doesn’t really matter if I doubt they’ll keep their promises; the kind of teacher I want to be is one who’s engaged and encouraging, who is willing to let students set their own goals and even endure their own failures. It’s not about who they are; it’s about who I’m trying to be. It’s okay if it doesn’t change anything that I can see.

Judas never found his way back to experiencing Jesus’ mercy, at least not that we’re told in the Bible, but one has to wonder if that foot washing moment came back to the other disciples later. “He knew Judas would betray him… but he treated him with kindness anyway.” How much could that example have inspired and convicted those first leaders of Christianity, whose message was so frequently received with derision or confusion? Would Christianity have survived at all if they hadn’t kept with the hard work of evangelism, knowing that their efforts might not produce much that they’d get to see?

As much as it can be a drudgery, I find wisdom in the idea of doing it anyway; living into our values even when they gain us nothing, being true to ourselves even when others will dismiss us, doing the hard, minimally satisfying work that is our best despite knowing it won’t be recognized. Ultimately, we are the person we are when we least expect to be rewarded for it. And who knows? There might be new life or growth that finds its beginnings in the icky, foot wash-y moments of doing it anyway.

Dr. Emily Kahm is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. She lives with her spouse, Chris, their son, Xavier, rabbit, Hildegard, and as-yet-unnamed new child due in May of 2021.

Good Friday(B): Where God Meets Us

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By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

I’m cheating a little because the part of the Good Friday story I’m going to focus on here doesn’t even appear in this Gospel—but it does appear in the Psalm.

The fourth of Jesus’s seven last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, featured in Mark and Matthew’s accounts of the crucifixion, comes from the first line of Psalm 22, this year’s psalm for Good Friday.

I love this line because, for me, it encapsulates the mystery of not just the crucifixion but of the incarnation: Jesus is God, imbued with divine salvific power; yet he also knows the painfully human experience of feeling utterly powerless and forsaken by the Divine. Serving as a pediatric chaplain attending parents facing their worst nightmares and now serving my parishioners in some of their worst moments, I find it deeply moving to meditate on the fact that Jesus is paradoxically with us, even—perhaps especially—when we feel most abandoned by our Maker.

Psalm 22 also, of course, serves as inspiration for a few other parts of the crucifixion narrative: the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:24 comes from Psalm 22:18, while Luke 23:37 (“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”) echoes the taunt found in verse 8: “‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver—let God rescue the one in whom God delights!’”

The psalm features classic elements of a psalm of lament, seesawing back and forth between complaint (vv.1-2; 6-8, 12-18) and expressions of trust (vv.3-5, 9-10), onto petition (vv. 19-21) and finishing with anticipatory thanksgiving (vv.22-25) and a call to praise (vv. 26-31).

It also contains striking imagery, including the only time in the Hebrew Bible that a human is called a worm (v. 6), a stunning image of God as the midwife who places the newborn on its mother’s chest (vv.9-10-11), a common trope comparing the psalmist’s enemies to wild animals (vv.12-13, 16, 20-21), and a description of the psalmist’s suffering so vivid (a heart like melted wax, a tongue dried up like a potsherd, vv. 14-15) that it calls to mind Job, the gold standard for bodily suffering.

Read on Good Friday, the depiction of physical devastation in this psalm points us to the reality that Jesus came to be with us on earth in part to draw closer to us not just through our joys, but through our embodied pain. His human experience is one way we know how much God loves us: that God-made-flesh chose to share our finite and fragile lot.

And what a lot it was. As the Gospel reading reminds us, in his last days on earth Jesus was betrayed and humiliated; sustained grievous physical wounds; and suffered the immense spiritual pain of being abandoned by God, forsaken in his utmost hour of need.

How many of us have felt similarly abandoned in the moment of receiving a diagnosis; in the midst of chronic illness; in the war zone that is a bitter divorce; in the depths of depression or addiction; in the bleak midnight of broken dreams; in the long, loss-filled marathon of a global pandemic?

Yet in that mysterious paradox, through his suffering and death Jesus is with us, even in the barren wasteland of our forsakenness. Through Jesus, somehow God is with us even when we are abandoned by God: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me but heard me when I cried to God.” (v. 24)

What might at first seem a stunning admission of faithlessness—whether by the psalmist or by our Savior—actually goes straight to the heart of our faith. On the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” becomes a beautiful, despairing cry—a witness to the Gospel’s power to penetrate into even the most despair-filled corners of our existence.

May we bear witness, too—to Jesus’s pain, to our own, to the world’s pain; not flinching away from it but boldly facing it, insisting along with the psalmist that God meet us there—and ultimately trusting, along with the psalmist, that it will be so.

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.

Palm Sunday(B): The Mind of Christ

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By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. . .

On first glance, the imperative seems like the original WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) – exhorting listeners to be as Christ-like as possible. And there is good theology naming each of us as little Christs, with the responsibilities that go along with such a title. But I have to wonder: is it actually possible for the same mind to be in us that was in Christ Jesus? I mean, isn’t that what makes Jesus spectacular, and set apart, and Divine—that his mind was different from each of ours?

Paired with the long gospel for Palm Sunday, the sentiment is particularly challenging. In our gospel, Jesus is anointed, breaks bread with his disciples, prays, is betrayed, tried, stripped, mocked, and crucified. And not once in the trials does Jesus raise a hand or give a harsh word to those who are causing him such pain. He is the picture of non-violence, even to the point of a cruel death.

Can that same mind really be in us, which was in him? And if we can have such a mind, then what about the heart? What about the spirit? How much like Jesus can we be?

I think another way to ask that question might be: how much like us is Jesus? How human is the Son of God, exactly? And, if you’re anything like me, it sort of depends on what day you ask. Sometimes, I feel like Jesus was very human. I think of the Syrophoenician woman, for instance, when Jesus compares her to a dog. A very human moment. I think of some of the times he behaved in ways I find unpalatable—perhaps not radical enough, or conforming too closely to the culture of his day. When I read those passages, I am convinced of Jesus’ humanness. But then there are other times like this gospel reading, where, even in the midst of his own betrayal, he implores his disciples to non-violence, when I am convinced that Jesus is very little like me. When I read stories of his healing, or the miracles he performs, I feel like we have little in common, and he moves from on-the-ground human to pie-in-the-sky Divine.

What I see in myself, as I grapple with the question, is my own flip-flopping. My emotional state controls much of how I see the world. And my emotional state is sometimes swayed by something as simple as a cup of coffee, or a well-placed snack. There’s something about Jesus, in comparison, which feels solid; certain; sure. And how did he get that way?

As I’ve travelled through the last pandemic year, logging on to Facebook most mornings to lead morning prayer for my church, I’ve been reminded of the way that regular prayer works its way into my body. Jesus prays often in our gospels. And yet, because it’s usually just one sentence, it hasn’t always been something I’ve focused on. Prayer is central to his ministry. It bookends almost every miracle he performs and guides his interactions. I am not nearly so solid in my own prayer discipline, though I am learning. Tethering myself to a daily practice—to the rhythm of the apostles creed and the prayers, tedious though they may seem in the moment—gives me a sense of regulation. Though this regulation is far from making me as solid and sure as Jesus seems to be, it certainly tethers some of my more wayward leanings.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, then, might not be about whether we can become Jesus—that is, not about whether we can change our core personalities—rather, it might be about how we pattern and regulate our lives; what we allow to guide and shape us. For Jesus, prayer was the guiding force of his life. Prayer surrounded and infused all he did. In his last moments of life, he prayed from the cross, for himself and others.

I doubt that I can be very much like Jesus, because I doubt my own capacity for forgiveness and love and mercy, all of which Jesus had. I doubt my own motivations, and know my ego gets in the way too much. But perhaps I can be a little bit like Jesus by teaching my wayward heart, again and again, to return to God in prayer. And to keep returning.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. And let it be molded by prayer.

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka maoli woman, serving St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church and Maluhia Lutheran Church in Maili and Makaha, on the West Side of Oahu, Hawaii. She loves to cook, garden, laugh with her wife, and walk barefoot in sunshine. 

5th Sunday in Lent(B): Sacrifice & Loss

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The Rev. Sean A. Ekberg

We’ve been living in an eternal Lent. Well, what feels like eternal, as it’s been since March of last year that any of us has lived life normally. To preach on Lent, what it means, and ‘giving up’ of oneself almost seems laughable at this moment in time. We gave up our social connections, habits, and haunts. We gave up our church buildings and onsite ministries. Some people just gave up.

Jesus talks about this giving up every year during Lent. He reminds us that, “To love one’s life is to lose it, and those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, JC, I get where you’re coming from but c’mon man…we’ve been giving up so much in the last year that there isn’t much left of us. How then can we preach to congregations concerning ‘giving up’ when we don’t feel like we have much left in our lives?

This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me.

Our creature comforts have often become roadblocks on the path to Jesus. We rely on bars and restaurants; movies and sporting events; in person worship followed by coffee hour; dates with partners, moments with family…the list goes on and on. With all of these moments simultaneously stripped away, our lives have become seemingly less, somehow—at least on the surface. Loneliness and separation have cost people loss of life in multiple ways, so how can we continue to lose what we don’t have?

I think to preach on loss is important, even if we feel the way mentioned above. Christ didn’t ask us to forgo movies for faith; Christ asked us to live lives filled with faith in God instead of faith in penultimate joys. For us, the job of asking folks to continue to lose is one of reframing the word ‘loss’ into the word ‘sacrifice’. We haven’t lost anything, really. We’ve had to sacrifice for the greater good—we have made these sacrifices to keep our loved ones’ safe and healthy, and they have done so for us. We have ‘died’ to worldly ways, sacrificing comforts for well-being. How have we filled those empty spaces once inhabited by those comforts? Have we been able to seek God in the midst of all this chaos, or have we retreated into the holes left by our sacrifices and hidden from hope and prayer? Have we recognized that Jesus Christ can be worshiped from a computer screen just as faithfully as he can from a pew—or have we fallen away from worship altogether because we feel abandoned? These are important introspections that I believe we all need to encounter, if we already haven’t, and our people need us to admit our sense of sacrifice so that they can approach theirs.

After all, Jesus’ was the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes our minds concentrate so heavily on the sacrifices that we’ve made that we gloss over the sacrifice God made. Being a season of penitence, my hope is that we will preach sacrifice and not loss—while still acknowledging that we have lost loved ones, jobs, and other important facets of life, we must also note the sacrifice we make so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We sacrificed our lesser freedoms to do our part for the rest of humanity…

God sacrificed God’s entire human life to save it. Let’s remind people of that.

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.

4th Sunday in Lent(B): God So Loves the World

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By: The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly

If you listen closely, I suspect you could hear the collective sighs of preachers near and far who, in their preparation to preach, saw that John 3:16 was among the lectionary texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Now, don’t get me wrong: John is my absolute favorite Gospel to preach on, to study, or just to sit down and read! I am not alone in my love of John. In fact, there is something of a cult-like following of the Fourth Gospel among preachers.

Alas, as every preacher knows, the more familiar a text is, the more difficult it can be to preach on! Sometimes, it seems that everything that can be said about a text already has been said—and by someone who said it better than I can! Nowhere is this more clearly the case than with John 3:16. Martin Luther infamously called this verse, “The Gospel in a nutshell,” and for better or worse, it has been emblazoned on billboards and bumper stickers, sewn into throw pillows and baseball caps, and it has even appeared tattooed into the skin of more than a few actors and athletes.

A more fruitful homiletical pathway might lead us to explore the verses immediately preceding verse 16. They are undoubtedly some of the most unfamiliar verses in the New Testament, and they draw our attention to a rather opaque section of Torah—namely, the book of Numbers, which the People of God hear from three times in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. The story to which Jesus is referring picks up with the Hebrew people who, having long been liberated from the Egyptians, are nonetheless still wandering in the wilderness, in search of the land which has been promised. The longer they wander, the crankier they become. They take aim at God and Moses alike, crying out in petulant frustration.

All told, Numbers depicts five of these so-called “murmuring episodes” wherein the Hebrew people grumble and complain about an assortment of perceived grievances. They don’t like the food; they want more water; they’re tired; they want to go back to Egypt; they’re sick of camping. Picture a minivan loaded up for a road trip with a gaggle of disgruntled toddlers kicking the seats, throwing popcorn, and screaming, “Are we there yet?” and you won’t be far off!

Each episode follows a predictable pattern: the Hebrew people complain, God gets angry, the Hebrew people realize they’ve made God angry and beg Moses to intercede on their behalf, Moses does, and God calms down. Then, a few chapters later, another tantrum erupts, and the same pattern unfolds. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Finally, their sniping reaches a boiling point. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness,” they grumbled against God and Moses, “For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

If you listen carefully, you’ll catch the level of absurdity underpinning their whining. “There is no food and water,” they moan in one breath, and then, “we detest this miserable food,” they carp in the next breath. In response, God punishes them for their insolence and sedition by sending venomous snakes into the encampment.

Now, at this point, some of us may be thinking, “Well that was a little harsh, God. Those snakes bit people, and some folks even died!” But we must leaven our reading of Scripture with a bit of theological imagination.

The Hebrew people were faced with a choice. On the one hand was a life-giving relationship with God that challenged everything they thought they knew about the way the world worked and pushed them to greater depths of faith and obedience. On the other hand was the monotony of slavery in Egypt which would surely lead to death, but at least it offered some semblance of consistency and predictability along the way.

Over and over again, the Hebrew people voiced their desire to go back to Egypt and pick up where they left off as slaves to Pharaoh. In one scene, they actually hatch a plan of sedition: “…Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (Num. 14:4b) At least in Egypt, they knew how the system worked. With God, there was no telling where they would be led, or what they would be asked to do. So enough with this “chosen people” stuff, we’ll take our mundane life of slavery back, thank you very much!

And yet, the narrative arc of the Old Testament in particular, and Scripture in general, is one of a relentless and undeterred God doing whatever it takes to maintain a relationship with humankind. Even here, as the Hebrew people are hell-bent on marching back to certain death in Egypt because they feared what they did not know and couldn’t predict, God is ultimately and inexorably the source of life. As the Hebrew people repent from their foolish and seditious ways, God hears their prayer and once again sets before them a wellspring of life and healing.

But the way God chooses to do it is what makes this passage even more strange: God tells Moses to craft a venomous snake and put it onto a pole so that those who were bitten could look at it and be healed. Moses did as he was told, and crafted a venomous snake from bronze, put it on the pole, and set it in the midst of the people. Whenever a snake bit someone, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.

In fact, the statue worked so well that it became a kind of cultural icon among the Hebrew people. The statue was passed from one generation to the next until, centuries later, it winds up in the temple in Jerusalem. By then, it had garnered both a name (Nehushtan) and a cult-like following, which prompts King Hezekiah to have it destroyed. (2 Kings 18:4)

Although there is little hope that this unfamiliar and bizarre tale will make it into the Vacation Bible School curriculum anytime soon, at its heart is a universal truth: there is no venom quite so deadly as fear.

Fear of the unknown; fear of the other; fear of failure; fear of death—nothing causes spiritual and emotional paralysis more effectively than fear. It corrodes faith, cuts off our pathways for giving and receiving grace and mercy, and if it is left untreated long enough, it gives way to hatred, recalcitrance, hardness of heart and soul, and leads ultimately to death.

As we continue on our Lenten journey, there may be no more important time for us to take account of the ways in which each of us are afflicted by the venom of fear. Only when the Hebrew people brought that which they feared most into full view, were they made whole.

The same is true for us. As we come into full view of the cross and the reality of death, it is only by walking headlong into death’s dark shadow that we come to know the fullness of Christ’s resurrected life.

For indeed, God so loves the world.

The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.

3rd Sunday in Lent(B): Contemplating the Cross

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

Luke 2:22-40 shares the story of the Presentation. In it, we discover the holy family on a pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem fulfilling their requirement “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v 23). That is, to offer their firstborn to the Lord through the sacrificing of a small bird.

The Presentation not only marks the time when the young Jesus was presented to God in the temple, it formally marked the Son of God taking on our nature and giving itself back to God the Father. This theodrama played out when Sts. Simeon and Anna announced that the glorious return of Yahweh to his holy temple had happened right before their eyes – For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation (v 30). In today’s Gospel, the young Jesus has now come of age. Entering into the temple court again, he now passes judgment on it and declares that his very body had become the new temple. A few days later, this new temple would give his final sacrifice on the cross, offering himself yet again to the Father for the redemption of the world.

We’re at the point in this season of Lent where the image of Christ’s cross begins to take shape. If Epiphany is the season to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, Lent is the time to come alongside Jesus with his cross. Remembering is challenging. Even his closest followers could not comprehend the cross. St. Peter would not fathom the Messiah undergoing suffering and death (Lent II).

Today (Lent III), we learn that it was only after “he was raised from the dead” that his disciples “believed” (Jn 2:22). Two thousand years later, are we still like Peter? We know the story, and like the disciples, we remember what is written (v 17). Like Peter, we often deny that we will one day die and even ignore the truth that our closest friends and family will do the same. Forgetting we are dust and to dust we will return is prevalent in our culture, even as we have experienced significant death this year due to the ongoing pandemic (Gen 3:19).

Contemplating death alone leaves one with a sense of hopelessness. Set this despair up and against the cross of Christ, and death has no sting (1 Cor 15:55). Again, we know the story. God raised him from the dead. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). There are three more Sundays left in Lent. Use this time to not only remember your death but to contemplate the cross.

The Rev. Brandon Duke is pastor to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. During the pandemic, his family chose to homeschool their oldest child and will continue to do so for another year. It’s an adventure and a cross to bear all at the same time.

The Last Sunday after Epiphany(B): Be the Body of Christ

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Oscar Rozo

The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?

On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.

Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.

Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well. 

During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read: 

“For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.

The Rev. Oscar Rozo is the Diocesan Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina and priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Newton, North Carolina. He is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Tester and father of Ezekiel (3 years old) and Miriam (1 year old).

Epiphany(B): Epiphany is for Outsiders

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

One of our most basic human needs is the need to belong. In fact, this is one of the concepts I drill into my Intro to Religion class—why are people religious? We have lots of reasons to be religious, but a major reason is our need to belong. We are social. We need community! One of the downfalls of the human need to belong, however, is that people often shove some people out of the group to make clearer the boundary around it. We deal with the temptation of proving we belong by insisting those other people don’t belong. I am on the inside. I know what is going on. I belong here. This place, this circle, this church is for me.

On Epiphany we celebrate that the Gospel includes the outsiders, that Christ did not come only for some, but for all. We experience this with the traveling Magi, who bring gifts from afar through a long journey to meet the Christ child. They are enthusiastic, recognizing the transformative power that has entered the world, seeing the miracle that not even all on the inside recognized. They even go to visit an insider, King Herod, to celebrate this new joy. Yet the insider, King Herod, cannot be trusted. He does not see this new birth as a time to celebrate transformation and embrace outsiders, but instead, it is a threat to his place, to his power.

I am struck by the idea that the Magi tried to include King Herod, building a bridge between outsiders and insiders around this new birth, this new joy to the world, this new reign of peace and justice. I am further struck that they realized he was not to be trusted through a dream, and afterwards, affirmed their own sense of self-knowledge by prioritizing what they learned from the dream. What can we gain from this story?

I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might recognize truth that insiders miss. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might be the ones that offer invitations, even when rejected by insiders. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might bring truth that supersedes what the insiders know to be true—that King Herod is not their king, and so going against his wishes because they have discerned a truth outside of him is a reality made possible due only to their outside status.

I think all of us can resonate with the sense of being an outsider in an insider space. I did not grow up in a denominational setting, so sometimes I feel like an outsider in denominational church spaces. And yet, there is a deeper level to the insider/outsider status that is rooted in justice and oppression in our world. So now, I turn to a reading of this story through the lens of prioritizing those on the margins. We read through the lens of those on the margins not only because we see a grown-up Jesus doing that time and time again, but because we see through Epiphany that those on the margins have a full story they are living, too. They might even invite us into their narrative if we are receptive to the invitation.

And all the while, even as all are included, and all leave their mark on the story, sometimes those on the margins have reasons to distrust those in power, like King Herod. And when that happens, I can’t help but hope they follow their instincts, listen to their dreams, and persist following the way of light and justice and transformation.

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram is Director of Religious Life and College Chaplain of Franklin College. She lives with her spouse in Franklin, Indiana. Her current pandemic-related hobbies include sending mail, spending all social time with only a scarce few people outside, playing Animal Crossing, and watching uplifting comedies like Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso on repeat.