At the date of this writing eleven weeks has passed since I have celebrated Holy Eucharist. Eleven weeks has passed since the congregation I serve have participated in any formal sacrament. Like the lamenting Magdalene who cried out twice, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” we call out to the authorities of the church as well as to God in our disorientation (Jn 20:2, 13). By now disorientation has slowly turned to disillusionment with the bishops of the church continuing to preach steadfastness while the resurrected Lord remains to reveal the world his wounds. St. Paul promises that our sufferings (disorientation & disillusionment?) grounded in a life of Christ “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 3b-4). The bishops are right in preaching steadfastness in the faith because it allows us the audacity to hope. But hope for what? Hope to regather and celebrate Communion? Yes. But that’s not all. If indeed, the resurrected Lord continues to reveal his wounds to the world, and our faith calls us to participate in Christ’s sufferings, then the sacramental life (right now) is revealed to us in our own brokenness. Like the Magdalene, we cry out, and God answers us by calling our name (Jn 20:16). Once Mary’s name was heard she “went and announced…“I have seen the Lord”” (Jn 20:18). Once we name our own laments, God calls us each by name to wake us up to the reality of resurrection still found in his wounds intimately joined to our own. This is the Body of Christ broken for you, and at once we are forgiven and free to proclaim hope within the sufferings of the world.
What does steadfastness tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like washing one’s hands (Ps 26:6a). Only when we (as the priesthood of all believers) wash our hands in innocence may we go in procession round the Lord’s altar (Ps 26:6). When we wash our hands we are at once acknowledging our past as well as preparing for the future. We do the hard work of self-examination (confession, forgiveness, discernment) in order to go around the altar of the world in a spirit of hope, praise, mercy, justice, and compassion.
What does a revealing of Christ’s wounds to the world tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like a house built upon a foundation of Love (Ps 26:8). In this house the “wonderful deeds” of God are the topics of conversation (Ps 26:7). We vulnerably admit that our hands have been dirty, and like Christ are invited to show the world their redeemed wounds. At once, the world sees its own past as well as a hopeful future where God, table, and house become the place “where [God’s] glory abides” (Ps 26:8).
Over the past several months, kitchen tables have replaced altars, and houses have become little churches. The sacraments have been administered, only this time in the form of kindness, patience, compassion, justice, and mercy. These are not easy times, but they are hopeful times. Like Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” in new and exciting ways. He is [still] Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Come, let us adore Him in our own brokenness alongside a broken and redeemed world.
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Through the pandemic he has used technology to pray and teach Morning & Evening Prayer to his congregation. They have been praying together online twice every day since April. Brandon blogs at https://fatherbrandon.com/.
When big decisions loom ahead, we often wonder what to do. We may ask ourselves, what does God want me to do? What does God want for us? What is the “best” decision? Utilizing wisdom and understanding in these moments is commonly known as discernment. The more time I have spent with this passage from Romans, the more I see that Paul is fleshing out the full meaning of discernment. The new life in Christ that Paul speaks about is not just about having more faith or doing the right things. The new life is the becoming, the transformation. Our whole selves are rooted in Christ so that our whole life becomes what it was always meant to be – a response to the goodness of God’s perfect will. Ours is the process of becoming, growing into, the good creation we were always intended to be; whereas, God’s will is complete, whole, and perfect. As we are made whole, healed, and united, we live into our purpose, and God’s will is made known to the world.
Some may conclude that Paul’s explanation of the new life in Christ comes down to living a perfect, pure, and sinless life. I mean, he says, right there, that God’s will is perfect, right? However, the connotation and use of the word have more to do with growth and maturity, not moral perfection. What is growth, if not a form of becoming?
Paul walks us further into understanding our purpose of wholeness and maturity in Christ. From our transformed minds, attuned to God’s will, we can step forward in our discernment of self and others. The hierarchy is stripped away. We are all members of the same body. Though our function and faith may differ, we are God’s. We are all equally precious. We each have the same purpose; though, it may be lived out through different means.
The task of removing hierarchy is difficult. We humans like to feel special, important, and measure ourselves against each other. Unfortunately, we humans also have limited, or imperfect, abilities to honestly and truthfully evaluate ourselves. Psychologists and neuroscientists have scientifically proven how, why, and in what ways we do this through a variety of research. One of the most famous examples is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, at its core, suggests that people fail to recognize their intellectual and social shortcomings because they simply lack the expertise necessary to see them. As such, the effect reflects a double-curse: People’s deficits cause them to make many mistakes, and then those exact same deficits prevent them from seeing their decisions as mistakes. As a consequence, the pervasive tendency for people to overrate themselves and their talents is not necessarily due to their ego, but rather to intellectual deficits that they cannot see.
Rather than being trapped in biased, scattered and incomplete decision-making, we can recognize what we know and don’t know, and bring it all to God. In our process of transformation, we are integrated. As we grow and are shaped by God’s intention, we turn inwardly to know all of who we are. We heal within ourselves and then, in our relationship to others. We experience reconciliation and in that healing we know wholeness. Our actions, words, and life will then reflect God’s will. It is then that all that we do becomes vocation.
Paul lists seven important vocations, all of which are incomplete without discernment. Each vocation exemplifies the necessity of wholeness within ourselves and in relationship to others. Each vocation is for the purpose of God’s will, becoming a new creation in Christ.
Prophecy in proportion to faith – Prophecy flows from faith. The prophetic words for community require a balance with the prophet’s faith. Faith is defined as a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. If a prophet is speaking from incomplete trust and lack of faith, how is it in response to a discernment and fulfillment of God’s will?
Ministry in ministering – All ministry is for the purpose of attending to the needs of someone. If the need is not there, but the “ministry” is, how is it in response to discernment?
The teacher in teaching – A teacher is one who shows or explains to (someone) how to do something. The only way one can show or explain to another is by fully understanding what it is they themselves know and do not know. If a teacher is unable or unwilling to be taught and shaped by God’s will, how will those they teach learn and experience new life in Christ?
The exhorter in exhortation – A skilled exhorter will be charismatic and persuasive. Their work is to address or communicate, emphatically urging someone to do something. If their exhortation is not grounded in a continuous discernment process, how easy will it be for them to manipulate others toward a purpose and action other than God’s will?
The giver in generosity – Generosity is the quality of being kind and generous. Giving is a matter of vocation! Being a generous giver is a quality that infuses our full lives, not just a church’s financial stewardship. If the giver is not giving out of kindness and instead a begrudging perspective of scarcity and duty, how is it in response to a life transformed by the will of God?
The leader in diligence: Leadership is not just about having a special title or always being in the front of the room. Paul defines the gift of a leader by their diligence, their careful and persistent work or effort. This careful and persistent effort is proportionate to their careful and persistent discernment. If a leader is not careful in their work with others, how will they lead them into a life of wholeness and healing?
The compassionate in cheerfulness – Those who are compassionate can also struggle with burnout and exhaustion, bitterness and cynicism. That is why compassion must be grounded in accompaniment and a continuous return to discernment. When compassion for ourselves and others originates in the new life of Christ, our lives are refreshed with cheerfulness, which is the quality or state of being noticeably happy and optimistic. Optimism comes from our hope in the new life for all of creation promised in Christ. If cheerfulness does not accompany compassion, how does that compassion come from a response to God’s will?
In each of these vocations, there is a cycle of return to discernment, centered on God’s intended purpose for all of creation, a return to self, and another turn out into community. In each turn we grow and become more wholly who God created us to be. Ultimately it is all by the grace of God. All we can do is keep showing up, presenting ourselves before God’s mercy, and living into the gifts God has given us. It is in the process of our transformation that we will grow in our knowledge of God and others will know God through us.
No matter what questions arise for us in the days to come, no matter our decisions, God will not abandon us. Each step is a new step in becoming. May you learn from Paul’s words what it is to live in this cycle of discernment and new life in Christ. May it free you to share this abundant life with others in through your whole life.
Casey Cross is serves as the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. Check out some of her other work and writing at http://caseykcross.com.
I love the story of Joseph. I think it’s because I’m partial to musicals – and the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is one of my favorites. Whatever the reason for my initial love of this story, there are always lessons to learn from it. In the story of Joseph, there are themes of betrayal, family dysfunction, oppression, rising from the ashes, and, perhaps most unlikely of all, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the portion assigned for today, we meet Joseph close to the end of his story. After having been brutally betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, he is taken captive to Egypt. After a period of imprisonment, he rises into one of the top-ranking officials in Egypt because of his ability to interpret dreams for the Pharaoh. His brothers, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times – there is a famine in the land—and their only hope is to go to Egypt and beg for mercy and assistance. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. In our reading, Joseph makes some admirable choices: first, to reveal who he is to his brothers; and second, to treat them with love and kindness, despite the cruel ways they treated him.
As I read through this passage, the part that stood out to me was when Joseph says, “Come closer to me”. In those four words, I think we see the beginning of reconciliation. “Come closer to me” is an invitation, a digging in, a pulling near. How often are we bold enough to ask those who have wronged us to come closer? Our human instinct is surely to pull away – to retreat, reject, and distance. And yet, here we have a man who has endured unimaginable hardship at the hands of his own brothers, and when faced with an opportunity to retaliate, he chooses instead to reconcile.
None of us, I hope, have been through the particular kind of excruciating betrayal that Joseph went through. And yet many of us have been hurt – by those we love and by those we don’t know very well. So often, in that hurt, we recoil; we retreat into our shells. This reaction is completely normal. It comes from a place of self-protection, and fear of being further hurt. But when we do that, the distance in the relationship widens. When Joseph is confronted by his brothers, instead of recoiling, he pulls in to close the gap in the relationship.
What would it look like, I wonder, to invite people who have wronged us to come closer to us? There are, of course, situations when reconciliation and “coming closer” are not possible—such as when doing so may put us or those whom we love in danger. Indeed, sometimes the wrongs other people cause are deeply personal and painful. But often, particularly in our current political climate, we harbor resentment towards others because they don’t believe the same things we do. We harbor resentment because of who someone chose to vote for, or what they believe in. The algorithms on social media make it so easy to let space creep in between us – to widen the chasm, instead of closing it.
One of my favorite prophecies in Isaiah says that those who offer their food to the hungry and work for liberation will be called the repairers of the breach. In our world, we live in the breach. Far more seems to separate us than unite us – and all of us are caught up in a web of distance, confident that the only way to treat others who are different from us is to create chasms between us, judging one another by our own standards.
But our world needs repairers of the breach. We need people to call, “come closer to me” after there has been a hurt, or a wrong. Joseph looks at his brothers who have wronged him – but who are now starving, and hungry – and he calls them in closer. As Christians, our call is to have the courage to do the same – to call in those who are hungry, those who are on the margins, those who have faced oppression. We are to call in those who think differently, those who voted differently, those from different racial and economic vantage points.
I love this story of Joseph because of the model it gives of what it might look like to live, reconciled. I pray that we all might learn to say and to live the words, “Come closer to me.”
The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.
There’s a man in Charlotte known as the “Jesus Saves Guy.” Before the pandemic, he would stand on the corner of Trade and Tryon streets in center city and bellow with all of his might, “Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you! Jesus saves!” He now drives a rickshaw through my neighborhood of South End, loudly proclaiming the same message, “Jesus saves! Jesus loves you!”
As of late, I’ve been feeling quite overwhelmed due to the demands of parish ministry and the challenge of working from home. My daily life feels as if it’s on repeat like the movie Groundhog Day. Coupled with the news of rising Coronavirus deaths, the lack of political leadership at the federal level, and a nation coming to terms with the evils of White Supremacy, it’s enough to wear on all of us.
Earlier this summer, as I sat at my dining room table, deep in sermon-writing procrastination, I felt like I had nothing to offer; no words to say. I felt hopeless and humbled by events outside of my control. And then I heard the rickshaw. “Jesus saves! Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you!”
In the gospel appointed for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the disciples find themselves caught in a storm. Battered by the waves with the wind against them, Jesus arrives walking on the water. The gospel tells us they were terrified, and they cried out in fear. But Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent commands in scripture. It is spoken to Abram as God promises to make him a great nation. It is spoken to Hagar just after she and her son are cast out and discarded. It is spoken to Moses as he leads the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It is spoken by the prophet Isaiah as Israel is held captive in Babylon. It is spoken to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she is told she will conceive a son. It is spoke to Saint Joseph in a dream. It is spoken to the shepherds in the fields. It is spoken by Jesus to his disciples.
I have heard many sermons about what happens next in this story. Most have focused on Peter’s lack of faith and perhaps that is where we should focus. After all Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But from my reading of the text I am not certain if Peter’s lack of faith is from fear of the waves or from his certainty that he could walk on water too.
Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman, professor of Biblical Studies at United Lutheran Seminary, contends that the gospel writer might be trying to demonstrate Peter’s over confidence, his lack of faith in Jesus, who alone can walk on water and calm the seas. 
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a much more reasonable invitation. Quite honestly, I don’t want to walk on water. I’d rather trust the One who can.
Perhaps, preachers, Jesus is calling us to embrace our helplessness in this moment, to trust that he alone can calm the storm around us. Perhaps, Jesus is reminding us that no matter what happens in the world around us, or in our own lives, we belong to him. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
This is the promise of our baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Jesus will never abandon us, and we belong to him. We don’t need to learn how to walk on water or beat ourselves up when we get overwhelmed by the waves around us, because even if we look away for a moment Jesus will catch us.
Many of our parishioners are overwhelmed. Many are facing the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. They might be behind on their bills and uncertain of the future. They don’t need to hear a message that promises if they simply keep their eye on Jesus, they can do the impossible like walk on water. Perhaps, the message they need to hear is that they belong to Jesus, he has them, especially when they’re sinking.
We don’t have to walk on water. Trust the One who can. Do not be afraid because Jesus saves.
The Rev. Jacob Pierce is Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He served as Curate at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church and as Associate Rector at St. Peter’s before his call to become Rector there this spring. He lives in South End with his husband, Adam Santalla Pierce, and their dog Hamlet.
***Editor’s Note: This Essay Originally Ran in 2017***
How many times does the lectionary pick up a gospel reading with some form of the phrase that begins the selection for this proper: “after he heard this…?”
Especially in instances where the lectionary does not treat the text sequentially, as is the case here, it’s important to explore exactly what it was that Jesus heard. In this instance, he heard about the death of John the Baptist in a gruesome affair involving his head being delivered to Herod’s wife, Herodias, on a silver platter. It seems that John had gotten on Herodias’ bad side. Beware the thin skin of politicians. This had to have been on Jesus’ mind as he withdrew. To a deserted place. By himself. In case you missed any of the clues that Jesus went to be alone, Matthew drives the point home in a redundant manner.
The place that I connect with Jesus in this text is not in the Eucharistic metaphor but in his grief. One imagines that he is mourning the death of his cousin and forerunner. My father died rather unexpectedly about 2 months ago at the point that I am writing this entry, and so it is inevitably the lens with which I view Scripture right now. We don’t know how long Jesus stays in the deserted place by himself but it reads as a brief interlude. He doesn’t get a lot of time and space because the crowd follows him on foot along the shore.
You know, with 2000 years of Christian history and living in a Judeo-Christian society, we might take these stories and the divinity of Jesus for granted, forgetting that he was also human. He must have felt the emotional, spiritual, and physical fatigue of his grief- compounded by the fact that this foreshadowed his own execution. Yet in the midst of it all he sees the crowd and has compassion for them. And he resumes his work of curing the sick.
I had to do a funeral very shortly after I returned from burying my dad, and on the 2-month anniversary of his death I was in the cardiovascular ICU with someone who was in critical condition—this was the same kind of unit in which my dad spent the last 24 hours of his life. It takes extra emotional energy now to be present and the recovery time for me after these moments is significant. And so I wonder what was the cost to Jesus to do this? To show up in this moment and be present to the crowd and to his disciples? Have you had an experience like this? And more to the point—what members of your congregation have had experiences like this? “The show must go on,” right? Do we ever afford ourselves the quiet and the space to do life’s essential work? Whether that’s grief? Joy? Or something else? I did withdraw to a deserted place by myself and that is following Jesus’ example as much as anything else in the Gospels.
Maybe when the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away into the villages, they’re not dismissing them so much as trying to build in some space and rest for Jesus. We don’t know of course, but surely they are surprised at Jesus’ response: “You give them something to eat.” Can you just see the expression on their faces change from concern to shock? And then maybe the shock turns into incredulity. The translation from Greek to English ‘we have five loaves and two fish’ is pretty straightforward but I think the translation from thought to words was something more like “are you freaking kidding me?”
One of the challenges of preaching on this proper is that this is such a familiar story. In an entry in the periodical Christian Century, Lauren Winner recommends reading Scripture in a location different from what you’re used to. I did this and I found myself wondering—were there really 5000 men plus the women and children? Or did the disciples overestimate the size of the crowd because they underestimated their ability?
And what about that crowd? What did it feel like to be fed from this abundance? Were they even in on the miracle or was that simply between the disciples and Jesus?
One other aspect of the text that we miss if we go by the lectionary rather than read the Gospel all at once is that an almost identical situation comes up shortly after this takes place.
Fast-forward to a few paragraphs later in Matthew’s gospel. It’s hard to tell how much time has passed though Jesus has been in several other towns before finding himself back along the Sea of Galilee, and this is what happens:
“He went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ (Matthew 15:32-39)
And the disciples just did this a few paragraphs back, so naturally their response is:
“We’re on it, Lord! We’ll see how many loaves of bread that we can find and maybe someone has a few fish that they’ll share. We’ll bring that to you so you can bless it and we know we’ll end up with a feast and plenty of leftovers…”
Yeah right. You’ve done the reading so you know that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the disciples said:
“But Jesus, Panera is closed now and the grocery store’s too far and you know the restaurants won’t do separate checks…”
Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing.
Jesus must have a bottomless well of patience, because goodness knows the disciples. Just. Don’t. Get it.
But there is good news in that for us. No matter how many times we have to relearn the same lesson. No matter how many times we make the same mistake. No matter how many times we miss an opportunity.
Jesus has patience with us—and we always get another chance to gather the loaves and fishes, and to share in the feast.
The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. She enjoys walking with her goldendoodle, Gordon, throwing culinary theme parties for her friends, and is a proud Star Wars nerd. Ann graduated from Sewanee and Florida State University, and hopes to add Australia to the list of continents she’s visited before 2020.
On April 6, 2020, Maria Cain got word that her sister Franca Panettone, a 46-year-old woman with Downs syndrome, died alone in her hospital bed after several days on a ventilator battling COVID-19.
Sighs too deep for words.
On May 25, 2020, witnesses watched in horror as a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer, who knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, choking him as he cried out for his breath.
Sighs too deep for words.
As cases of coronavirus continue to rise in the United States, robbing people of breath and life, and as more and more white people come to an awareness of the systemic racism and white supremacy that have robbed black people of breath and life for over 400 years, we find ourselves at a time when we need the Spirit to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words.
The NRSV translates the Greek word στεναγμός as “sighing,” but the more common translation is “groaning.” The word specifically implies the groans of those in distress.
I am a chronic anxiety sufferer. I have experienced panic attacks for nearly two decades. Over the years, my anxiety has manifested in a number of different ways, but one of the most common is a feeling of tightness in my throat. This “choking” sensation, common among anxiety sufferers, is actually where we get our word “anxiety.” It comes from the ancient Latin root angere, meaning “I’m choking” or “I can’t breathe.”
One of the things that I have learned over the years as both a chronic anxiety sufferer and a Christian is that it is extremely difficult for most people to integrate anxiety, anger, and sadness into their understanding of a “spiritual” or religious life. Particularly among white people, “spirituality” is often associated with peaceful feelings, calmness, quietness, and being nice. Sadness, fear, and anger are understood as “sinful”… they lead to “the dark side.” It is for this reason that many people cannot conceive of the relationship between spirituality and social justice, or between religion and the public square. Consequently, many “spiritual” people respond to the totally justified anger, fear, and grief of black people with dismissive platitudes about love, nonviolence, and the need for inner transformation, while many “religious” people respond to the totally reasonable, medically-informed anxieties about the spread of a deadly disease with denial and the demand to return to public worship.
Of the many cultural trends that have dominated the American religious landscape over the last century, the “positive thinking” movement remains one of the most insidious and pervasive. Often associated with Norman Vincent Peale and the Religious Right, the origins of this movement do not necessarily lie within Christianity itself, but in the Transcendentalism of the mid-19th century and the New Thought movements of the early 20th century, which offered a uniquely American interpretation of Hinduism that linked modern capitalist ideals to the belief that individuals could earn God’s (or “the universe’s”) favor through positive thinking and the avoidance of “negative” thoughts. These ideas have given rise not only to the multibillion dollar secular mindfulness industry, which promotes individualistic self-help through the consumption of trendy, positivity-based “spiritual-but-not-religious” practices, but also to the hyper-individualized “feel-good” version of Christianity that has given us megachurches, the prosperity gospel, and the Christian pop of “positive and encouraging K-Love.”
While we may easily chortle at the saccharine spirituality of ultra-spiritual guy or the Precious Moments chapel, this tendency to split off from our so-called “negative” emotions in order to avoid conflict and pain is as common in “progressive” Christian circles as it is in evangelical communities and the SBNR “love and light” crowd. Mainline churches have also been guilty of using spirituality to ignore the cries of the those who can’t breathe. I can’t count the number of times mainline clergy have tried to use Matthew 6:27 (“who of you by worrying can add a day to his life?”) in a misguided attempt to control or suppress my anxiety (seriously people… stop doing this). Conversations about mental illness are shut down in mainline church contexts almost as swiftly as conversations about death (“It was all a part of God’s plan”) and conversations about systemic racism (“Why cause trouble by bringing up the negative?”).
In 1984, Psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypassing” to describe this habit of using “spiritual” beliefs and practices to avoid dealing with painful feelings and uncomfortable realities. “Part of the reason for this,” writes Robert Masters, “is that we tend not to have very much tolerance, either personally or collectively, for facing, entering, and working through our pain, strongly preferring pain-numbing ‘solutions’, regardless of how much suffering such ‘remedies’ may catalyze” (click here for more information about spiritual bypassing).
Christian clergy, cognitive behavioral therapists, “wisdom” teachers, motivational speakers, and New Age gurus alike have taught us that the path to healing entails a process of learning how to transform and/or replace “negative” emotions with “positive” ones. But as Sri Lankan philosopher of psychology Sahanika Ratnayake writes in The Problem of Mindfulness, “the focus tends to be solely on the contents of an individual’s mind and the alleviation of their distress, rather than on interrogating the deeper socioeconomic and political conditions that give rise to the distress in the first place.”
Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that while spiritual “techniques” may be helpful in offering short-term relief from everyday stresses, they are largely counterproductive for navigating anxiety, depression, and anger, precisely because these emotions are often rooted in experiences of trauma, abuse, neglect, and oppression. Attitudes of suppression or even “nonattachment” can impede the kind of direct confrontation with the pain that is necessary for long-term healing and social transformation.
At this moment in our communal lives, it is critical for religious and spiritual people to begin to understand that our “negative emotions” are not exclusively anger, sadness, and fear, but any emotion to which we become overly attached. Calmness, peace, love, and hope can all become extremely negative and toxic when we cling to them at the expense of acknowledging painful truths. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that the primary shared trait among psychopaths is a profound lack of anxiety, fear, and sadness. Thus, spiritual and emotional well-being does not extend from a steady, zen-like state of calmness, but from an emotional fluidity that allows for an engagement with the full spectrum of reality.
Perhaps we can forgive our wayward SBNR friends for being swayed by feel-good cultural trends. But as Christians, we ought to know better. We know from the Biblical witness that there can be no love without justice, and no justice without a humbling of those in power and a lifting up of the lowly. Ours is a God who despises the false optimism and “positivity” of those who sing songs of praise while ignoring the cries of the poor and the oppressed. Ours is a God who abhors those who honor Him “with their lips” but who meanwhile “make someone out to be guilty,” by ensnaring the defender in court, “and with a false testimony deprive the innocent of justice.” (Is. 29: 13, 21). Through the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus, we have come to know a God who was born into poverty, a God who wept, a God who got angry over religious hypocrisy, and a God who even despaired of God while he was suffering and dying unjustly at the hands of those in power.
When the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in times of distress, it is not with platitudes of prosaic positivity, but with the wordless groans of empathic lament. Any spirituality that does not make room for anger, sadness, and fear is not a truly Biblical “spirituality.”
Because what happens when those groans go unheard and unacknowledged?
What happens when the grief and the fear and the anger are ignored?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
—Langston Hughes, Harlem
Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.
2020 is not the year that we lost control. 2020 is the year that we lost the illusion that we were in control in the first place. The comforting habits we had formed were disrupted. The plans we had made were gone. While this felt new, like we had just now been tossed into a sea of uncertainty, the truth is that the plans we made were always conditional; the daily norms were always just for today and maybe until something changed again.
I’m reminded of the colloquialisms of my elders in the faith: “If the Lord tarries…” or “God-willing and the creek don’t rise.” I’ve wondered before if this strand of my forbears’ faith was rooted in pessimism or whether it was realism—after all, the old country Baptists that trained me up as a child had seen some things. They had seen sickness, war, and poverty up close and personal. Not only did the Bible tell them God was going to return someday, triumphant over these big worldly sins, but they had seen death enough to know on a deeper level than naive optimistic Hannah that no day, no moment was guaranteed. If the Lord tarries… maybe we’ll have that big party or event or vacation. Or maybe there won’t be any tarrying and our plans will go out the window.
In 2020, a new generation of folks are learning that plans and habits are conditional, and this is disorienting. This disorientation has real effects on our mental and emotional health. Lest you think I’m glorifying the Christian version of non-attachment that puts an asterisk on every single hope for earthly joy, I’m actually very concerned that living life in a constant state of perceived threat takes a toll on a person. My own family lineage has anxiety interwoven with the Baptist faith—both passed on to us through generations of the faithful who were God-fearing and world-fearing simultaneously.
What I see in the texts for this week, then, is assurances to an anxious people about who God is. To Jacob, God said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God goes on to say to Jacob in his dream, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” When Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, “”Surely the LORD is in this place–and I did not know it!”
God is in this place. God is with us, wherever we go. This theme continues in the 139th Psalm: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” In a time that seems uncertain because of pandemic and unemployment and persistent racism, God insists on God’s presence, and the psalmist testifies that there are no limits to this presence. I am particularly struck by the line, “If I make my bed in Sheol” as it implies my own agency in the building of the bed in the place of death, and yet, still God is there. Because there are various human contributions to the pains and sufferings that are being felt on a global scale, this assurance that God does not abandon us even when we’ve made our own bed in Sheol is specifically reassuring. I do not know what 2021 brings, but I know that here in this moment, as bad as it is or as anxious as I am, God is here.
Even the other psalm, Psalm 86, praises God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” which is another message of hope in the face of human-exacerbated crisis. I often imagine God as the parent who cares for all people (Wisdom of Solomon 12:13) but possessing more wisdom and perspective than we have in our youth. And so, this image I have for God as parent is compassionate for the mistakes we make along the way even while pushing and teaching us to do better. Likewise, the Romans text names us as children of God who call out to God as Abba, a term of parental endearment.
Where can the beloved toddler go where their parent will not be with them? What could the child do to cause the holy parent to abandon them? Our plans are on shifting sand, and even our human relationships with parents sometimes fail us, but God does not. Whether the Lord tarries or not, God does it with us, side-by-side. That is good news in 2020.
The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.
 Right now, my spirit is stirred by these assurances of who God is, but a different part of me wants to preach a sermon called, “The Father Dreams, Too,” since often it’s Joseph who is considered the dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Jacob’s got some big dreams himself though, both this week and in a couple weeks depending on how you interpret his wrestling with an angel.
This passage involving Jacob and Esau, and the birthright traded for pottage, is one of the famous stories of the Genesis tradition. However, while this is quite familiar passage for those of us steeped in the Bible, there are definitely parts of it that we pay attention to and parts that we gloss over. I would like to poke around those murky areas to see what they can teach us, specifically about our relationship with the Other.
From the very beginning of this passage, we see that we are talking about how groups of people relate. Notice, for example, verse 20. Twice within the course of one sentence, the author here reiterates that Rebekah, a major matriarch of The Chosen People, is a foreigner. She’s an immigrant who married into the family. We cannot tell the story of our sacred history without including the story of immigration and inter-racial marriage. The passage insists that we must recognize the role of the foreigner in making us who we are today. Adopting this perspective then opens up a significant theme in our passage: foreigners and relationships between peoples.
Take, for example, the oracle given by God in verse 23. God makes it clear that this story is not just an anecdote about two individual people. It about nations and their relationship with one another. We are talking about groups of people and how they interact with one another.
And what group of people are we talking about? Well, obviously Jacob is Israel (as his later name change makes clear). In verse 30, we learn, in a rather ungainly construction, that Esau here really is referring to Edom (the neighbor to ancient Israel). So the author tells us that there are two people groups: Israel and Edom. Except, in reality, there might not be. The thing is, as we learn more and more about the region from archaeology, we are learning that, as a matter of fact, Israelites and Edomites were not all that different from one another. As much as the powers that be wanted a clear-cut, nonporous line demarcating who is really an Edomite or an Israelite, in reality, there were a bunch of different families and tribes, all of whom were operating more or less independently, and they may or may not have wanted to be lumped into that label of “Edomite” or “Israelite.”
The story serves an etiological function: it explains why things are the way they are. What is the situation that it is explaining? It’s not immediately clear. Were the “modern day” (at the time of writing) serving under Israel? Did Israel see them as inferior to themselves? If so, this story would give justification for this ethnocentric view.
Interestingly, though, scholars think that the name and nation “Edom” did not actually originate from Esau, as claimed here, but was pre-existent. However, right around the time that this story was being written down, the nation of Edom was consolidating and becoming an actual nation, so it was very important for the Israelites to clarify who was and wasn’t actually an Israelite. Thus, we have a story that is actively and intentionally involved in the process of boundary-defining and community-constructing, specifically designed to explain who “we” are and why we’re better than “them.”
Even if this story is telling about the inferiority of the Edomites, though, it certainly does not appear to be the standard criticism leveled against Esau. He seems much less of an evil person who rejects all that is of value, and more of a bumbling, idiotic drama queen who makes stupid decisions.
Take for example this anecdote with the food in verses 29-34. Esau comes home from the field hungry. Presumably, dinner would be served soon enough—he belongs to a rich enough family. However, this is not good enough for him. In a fit of melodrama, he claims that he is starving to death. Jacob seizes on his hyperbolic state to con his brother out of a massive amount of money and the spiritual blessings due to the favored child.
Esau came in starving. He saw a pot of red food. What would he have assumed other than that this was a rich, protein-filled meat stew? What other foods are red? But instead of at least getting a fancy meal for his birthright, he learned too late that it’s simply red lentils.
And yet it doesn’t particularly seem to matter to him! Examine verse 34. The writing style is much different. We’re just given a rapid-fire list of actions, as if Esau were rushing through them as fast as possible. He doesn’t even understand the import of what he just did. He doesn’t have regrets. He’s just hungry and will do whatever he needs to satiate that hunger.
We learn that Esau is not good at weighing options and that Jacob is a con man. And yet, somehow, out of all of this, we are apparently supposed to choose Jacob (=Israel) as the good guy, whereas Esau (=Edom) is deserving of our wrath. (That is certainly what the Hebrew prophets choose, as they direct a disproportionate measure of God’s wrath toward Edom.) Even this anecdote, which is supposed to be another brick in the pedestal elevating Israel as the superior nation, fails to do so and simply muddies the ethical water.
These kinds of stories are the kinds of tales that groups throughout the ages have told to prop up one group above another. These stories function to try to create firmer and firmer boundaries between the self and the Other. They try to erase the existing similarities, which muddy the boundaries between “in” and “out.”
In our current historical moment, in which we experiencing the blossoming of xenophobia and nationalism, it is worthwhile noting that, even in the sacred stories we create about “us”—who we are, where we came from, why things are the way they are—these stories are inextricably linked to the presence of “them.” As much as we try to define ourselves as a self-contained entity, the inherent interconnected nature of the very identities that we are constructing betrays our project. As many non-western folks throughout the ages have insisted (against the values held sacred by western individualism), we are inextricably bound together in a network of mutuality (to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.). No matter how much we think that ”we” as a people are better than “them,” we can never lose sight of the fact that our very nature is intertwined with theirs.
Colin Cushman currently is the camp director at Camp Indianola in the Seattle area. He has previously worked as a pastor at local churches. He loves teaching the Bible and helping people to find meaning from even the most obscure parts of the Bible.
When I was a child, my family and I belonged to a church that loved to talk about sin—who was sinning, what was sinful, and even the parts of Scripture that proved something or someone was sinful. Suffice it to say that I grew up with a robust list of behaviors that were sinful. If I needed to know right from wrong, all I had to do was consult my list.
Once, when I was in the third grade, the teacher gave a pop-quiz on our multiplication tables. Now, being the studious little eight-year-old Poindexter I was in those days, I had studied my multiplication tables, and I was fully prepared for the quiz. But my friend across the table from me wasn’t quite as prepared for the quiz. She leaned in and whispered, “Is six-times-four 20?”
Now, because I had my mental list of what was and was not a sin, I knew that cheating was a sin, but I also knew that lying was a sin. So, in a moment of ethical angst, I shook my head, “No.” I had quickly worked it out that I wouldn’t be cheating unless I actually told her the answer—which I wasn’t going to do. All I was doing was truthfully answering a question: Six-times-four is not 20!
“Is it 22?” She whispered again.
I shook my head again.
“Is it 24?”
I was trapped! If I said “yes,” I would be cheating—definitely a sin. But if I said “no,” I would be lying—which was even worse! After all, there’s a whole commandment about lying! So I just stared at her. I didn’t nod, I didn’t say yes, and I didn’t say no.
Little did I know that our teacher was standing at the back of the room watching all of this. And in front of everyone, she called down the thunder!
“Marshall Jolly,” she roared, “you are cheating and that is not allowed! At recess today, you will sit with the teachers and write, ‘I will not cheat in math class’ 100 times!” Obviously, a grave injustice was done to me on that day, and I’ve really never much cared for math ever since.
But in all seriousness, we all have our lists, don’t we? We all have our notions of what a “good Christian” is; or what it means to be a “good person;” or what “good family values” look like. Lists aren’t always bad—I’m a big fan of grocery lists, otherwise I spend two hours and two hundred dollars in the grocery store without actually buying anything that can be made into a meal!
Lists are easy—they’re linear. You’re either on it or you’re not. The box either gets checked, or it doesn’t. We as a culture like lists—Top 10 lists, bestseller lists, Wikipedia even has an entire page that is nothing more than a list of other lists! And in some ways, I think that our penchant for list-making has crept into our lives of faith.
“Did I pray today?” Check this box.
“Did I go to Church this week?” Check that box.
“Did I remember to write my check towards my pledge?” Circle that one.
But perhaps the most dangerous list that we’ve grown accustomed to making is a list of sins. When we treat sin like it’s a checklist of “right behaviors” versus “wrong behaviors,” our faith gets reduced to a list of stale and rigid rules governing how we are to act, rather than how we are to live, and preachers and theologians become nothing more than referees, making calls about what is inbounds and what is out of bounds. Pretty soon, our relationship with God becomes paralyzed under the weight of legalistic rules, meant to keep us in check rather than fostering a way of life.
So how did we get here?
For 2,000 years, Christians have largely misunderstood sin.
I’m not suggesting that we suddenly woke up in the year 2020 with a clear-eyed, modern, progressive view of what sin is. The Biblical witness for what sin is hasn’t changed in that time. We’ve just been overlooking it.
By my count, the word sin, which is most often derived from the Greek word hamartia, appears 121 times in the New Testament. More than one fourth of those appearances are in the Book of Romans alone.
But hamartia, this word for sin, didn’t actually originate with the New Testament. It originated with Aristotle, who uses it in reference to archers, whose arrows miss their target. Its literal definition is “to miss the mark,” or “to make an error in judgment.”
When we think of sin with the added dimension of missing a mark or a target, it suddenly becomes more relational.
Sin is less about asking what’s inbounds or out of bounds and more about asking how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with our children or our partners; our neighbors or our friends; and ultimately, how we have “missed the mark” in our relationship with God.
This is the tension that Paul writes about in Romans: the tension between doing what is easy—making our lists and checking our boxes on our terms; and giving ourselves over to something that is absolutely beyond our control—a relationship with the God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
The tension between the two is so great that Paul writes that they are at war. “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
We like to focus on what we can manage and control; on what we can figure out and solve. That’s why we’re so well-suited for list-making. The trouble with that is, we can’t manage and control death or grief or relationships or other people, and we can’t manage and control God. And when we try, we “miss the mark.” We ignore the law of God, in favor of the law of sin—of distorted relationship. We come under the illusion that we can act or behave our way to salvation.
Truth be told, this is the heart of human sinfulness: the delusion that we can save ourselves. We try and try and try, but we miss the mark every time. But Paul, that fiery, uncompromising, stubborn, and controversial Apostle—bless his heart—reorients us to the truth.
He writes, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Although we continue to miss the mark with our lists and our egos and our insatiable desire to manage and control, God is determined to love us more than we can possibly imagine; to redeem our brokenness; and to save us in spite of ourselves.
This is the very definition of grace. We receive a gift that we didn’t know we needed, and like it or not, little by little, we’ll be transformed into who we’re called to be.
And I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine life any other way.
The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (DMin, MDiv, & Certificate in Anglican Studies). In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.
I’m glad I’m not the only one asking the question “How long, LORD?” It’s a daily question for me, one that remains unanswered.
How long, LORD, until I can hug my family and friends again?
How long, LORD, until income is secure for all people?
How long, LORD, until we can trust those making decisions on our behalf?
How long, LORD, until health care is available to all?
How long, LORD?
David laments as I lament:
How long, LORD? Will you forget me
How long will you hide your face
How long must I wrestle with my
and day after day have sorrow in
How long will my enemy triumph
I don’t need to write pages and pages in my own journal, I can just let David do the writing for me! Is it comforting to know that humanity has faced this kind of discomfort from the beginning of time or is it depressing to know this is how it will always be? Yes.
I think we’ve all had a moment of lament like this (or several) over the last few months: God, where are you? Have you forgotten us? Have you given up on humanity? We need you — where are you??
And if that weren’t enough, we’re home day after day wrestling with our never-ending thoughts: When is it safe to go to the grocery? Why do we have to wear masks? Yes, I’ll wear a mask, but I won’t like it. How many more meals must I cook myself? I miss my friends.
And still more is piled on as I scroll through social media and see hatred continue to spread: Why are they behaving like this? When will truth be a given? Who is my enemy right now? I’m so confused. Who is the right person to listen to?
There’s a reason this psalm, along with all the other laments, are included in the Bible. They are valid. They are real. They are us. I have permission to voice all of my feelings, not just the ones that make others feel good. God gives us space to cry and be angry and moan and groan. Our feelings are valid. We can bring our whole selves before God without worry of rejection.
I appreciate that David laments and that he doesn’t end there. He allows himself the space for despair and desolation, but he keeps going through it to a place of consolation. He doesn’t let the lament have the last word. However, just before he turns to praise, he states his complaints and his worries. He acknowledges his fear and anxiety around failure. He puts it all out there, and then…
David ends with praise. Will I end my litany of fears, anxieties, and lament with praise too?
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Every night as I lay my head on the pillow, I name at least three things from the day for which I give thanks. This daily practice has saved me for over three years now. There are some nights when I have to “stretch” to find something I’m grateful for (i.e. this pillow), but for the most part I can name way more than three. I’m glad to know David had a practice of gratitude as well.
Now, we don’t know how long it took David to write this psalm. We don’t know how long it was ruminating in his mind before he spoke it out loud. He may have been in that space of despair for quite some time before he moved into praise. Reading it in the Bible makes it look like everything happened at once… but we don’t know.
I know for myself that it might take days, weeks, months, even years, before I can find the heart space to praise God in the midst of a hard time. Praise doesn’t naturally come out of my mouth when I’m hurt and scared and uncertain. I have to be intentional about it, which is why I make myself practice gratitude every night, whether I feel like it or not.
If you’re not in the place of praise today, that’s okay. I’m not sure David was right away either. Whether you’re asking How long, LORD or singing God’s praise, it’s all held by God.
After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.