Proper 11(C): A Focused Way of Living

A Focused Way of Living

Luke 10:38-42

By: Mashaun D. Simon

There is this saying, “What you focus on becomes your reality.”

Not too long ago I preached a sermon on the topic, “The Theology of Disappointment.” In the sermon, I engaged the power of perception. I argued that sometimes, we get distracted when what we desire becomes more of a priority for us than reality.

Sometimes, I argued, we get so trapped by what has our gaze that we miss out—we miss out on lessons, we miss out on experiences, we miss out on opportunities because we are laser focused on something else that really should not have our energy or attention.

That which has our focus becomes our reality. The problem with being so laser focused is that what we perceive as reality may not truly be reality.

When considering the text, I cannot help but to consider that this could potentially be the problem for Martha.

Here is Jesus, in her home, the home she shares with her sister Mary. This is Jesus, the same one who, by this time, has performed countless miracles—from raising the widow’s son, to feeding the five thousand, to healing a leper and the paralyzed one. Today, we have come to know this Jesus as the Messiah, the answer to the prophecy, the one who sacrificed his life so that we could be made free. This is that Jesus. And while that Jesus is sitting in the living room of Mary and Martha, it is Martha who seemingly doesn’t get what is going on before her.

Or maybe she does.

My knee jerk was to criticize Martha. My knee jerk was to chastise her for being distracted, for being so focused on the chores of the home that she was missing a moment; she was on the verge of missing her blessing.

My knee jerk reaction was to praise Mary, to celebrate Mary for recognizing the moment and being responsibly fixated on what matters most. Good job, Mary. Good job, Mary, for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening; and shame, shame on Martha, poor Martha, for being distracted.

Because, isn’t that the point? Isn’t it the point that when we place our focus on Jesus all is right, all is well, and because we have placed our focus solely on Jesus, we will be rewarded for our maturity and obedience?

Or could something else be at play here?

My knee jerk, like most others who have been “brought up” and conditioned within Christianity, is to pass judgment on Martha. Like most of us, our conditionings have taught us to almost robotically and naively turn our heads to “the Messiah” without a second-thought. Right?

But when taking a deeper look, when looking beyond the text and excavating more deeply, there is a revelation that I had honestly never had before.

What you focus on becomes your reality.

According to the text, Martha was distracted by all of the preparations that had to be made and Mary has chosen what is better, and that will not be taken from her because few things are needed.

Both Martha and Mary had made choices. Martha was more focused on preparation and as a result was distracted; but Mary, Mary was laser focused on one thing and was listening. Martha was frantic. Martha was emotional and angry and frantic because she had chosen to be more concerned with things that were creating for her distractions. But Mary, Mary was seemingly calmed and at peace. And because she had chosen such, the state in which she was in was not to be taken from her.

Maybe, just maybe, Martha’s problem was not that she was distracted but that she had placed too much emphasis on things that did not matter. And because she had made such a choice, maybe it was not that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, but that she was chosen something, one thing to place her focus and because of that she was obtaining something that Martha was not.

Maybe, just maybe it was less about Jesus and what he was saying and more about Mary’s choices and how those choices would serve her best.

Most people who know me know that one of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.

In the fourth episode of the fourth season, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is once again dealing with some kind of international issue while at the same building up to his re-election campaign.

Of course, there will be opposition from the opposing party in the upcoming election, but President Bartlet has recently learned that there would also be opposition from his own party, from a seasoned senator who has gotten into the race in order to “raise issues.”

Yet again, art imitates life. But, as far as Oscar Wilde is concerned, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Eventually, the senator decides to end his campaign for the presidency and endorses the President.

The senator communicates his decision to President Bartlet after a speech the President gave at a church. The senator tells the President,  “I was telling [one of our aides] about a friend who just got his pilot’s license. He told me the most remarkable thing. He said a new pilot will fly into cloud cover. There’ll be no visibility. And they’ll check their gauges, they’ll look at the artificial horizon, it’ll show them level, but they won’t trust it. So, they’ll make an adjustment and then another and another… He said the number of new pilots who fly out of clouds completely upside-down would knock you out. My office will make arrangements for me to endorse you in the morning. You keep your eyes on the horizon, Mr. President.”

I like this episode and its message because it’s simple: focus on what’s important.

All too often, we allow things to knock us off track, to detour and deter us, becoming overwhelmed, frustrated, and distracted. But sometimes, it is necessary to sit still and listen, to choose focus and peace and calm in the midst because being upset and worried about too many things is not needed.

At the end of the day, there is purpose in our choices. At the end of the day, that which we give our focus must be fulfilling and life giving. Life is meant to be lived. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Life is not meant to be spent worried and stressed, overwhelmed and distracted.

What you focus on becomes your reality. Let your reality make you better.

mdsrobe3
Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a licensed and ordained preacher and writer from Atlanta, Georgia whose research, writing, and preaching engage topics of race, faith, identity and equity. He serves on the board of directors and ministerial staff of House of Mercy Everlasting Church in College Park, Georgia.

 

Proper 10(C): “First, Kill All the Lawyers!”

Proper 10(C): “First, Kill All the Lawyers”

Luke 10:25-37

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Antipathy toward those in the legal profession has been around for a long, long time. Even Shakespeare had one of his characters in “Henry VI” proclaim, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”[1] Luke, the author of today’s Gospel lesson also seems to lack affection for those in the legal profession. But, I don’t think this parable is specifically about lawyers, nor do I think all lawyers are bad. In Shakespeare’s play, Dick the Butcher was referring to corrupt, unethical lawyers. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society.[2] And for those in Jesus’ early audience, lawyers would have been considered positive figures. Lawyers, at that time, studied Torah for their interpretation of the law. Their close connection with Torah would have been a good thing. So, this story is not about whether lawyers on the whole are good, but the foolishness of this particular lawyer (and those like him). Consider the following depiction of the lawyer in this scene.

First, the lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher.” The very first political campaign I got interested in was the candidacy of my political science professor for Missouri’s 27th Senatorial District Seat. My professor, active in Democratic politics in southern Missouri, was up against the Republican incumbent, a lawyer by trade. I remember attending one of their debates in the fall of 1996 on campus. The incumbent had a funny way of referring to my professor, a tenured faculty member, as “Professor” throughout the debate. I and my classmates referred to him as Doctor Althaus as a sign of respect and deference for his experience and credentials. When the state senator referred to him as “Professor,” I quickly realized he didn’t mean it as a sign of respect; he meant it as a sign of contempt. When the lawyer calls Jesus, “Teacher,” it’s in a similar way that the Republican incumbent referred to his Democratic rival as “Professor.” It was meant to establish a power dynamic. If you read much of Luke, you begin to realize that for gospel writer, “Teacher” is only used when someone does not understand what Jesus is saying or when they do not respect him. For Luke, the better title for Jesus is “Lord.” Strike one.

The second negative against this lawyer is his reason for engaging Jesus in conversation in the first place. He doesn’t ask his question to gain knowledge, but to test Jesus. The fact that he is testing Jesus aligns him with Jesus’ critics and opponents. They are likely trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. Strike two.

And finally, the question the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) is the wrong question. The verb tense used here suggests a single, limited action. The lawyer thinks that this is just something to scratch off his to-do list: say a prayer, offer a sacrifice, put a $100 bill in the offering plate and “bada-boom, bada-bing, you getcha some eternal life!” Strike three.

Typical of Jesus, he responds to the man with a question of his own, forcing him to reply with something the lawyer should know, the law, and yet, in response to Jesus’ second question, “What do you understand from it?” The man fails to see the law’s full meaning.

Now, Jesus is a teacher even if Luke considers it a slight. He is a great teacher. And, standing before him is a man who is failing to understand today’s lesson plan so the lawyer “is about to become the recipient of a parable.”[3] As Jewish scholar Amy Jill-Levine says, we know “that if a parable is directed to a particular individual, the individual is likely to come to an unwelcome realization.”[4] This lawyer is not likely to enjoy the short story Jesus is about to tell.

The Do-Gooder

The modern understanding of the term as a synonym for a charitable “do-gooder,” sometimes takes the power out of the story. In order to fully appreciate Jesus’ parable, a skilled preacher will help a congregation realize that Samaria was an actual place in time and history and that Jews and Samaritans had a complicated relationship to say the least. Emphasizing that the two groups saw one another as mortal enemies will help congregations understand Jesus’ dramatic teaching.

Despite a common heritage through the ancestor Jacob,[5] Samaritans were in no way good in the minds of first century Jews. They are people to be avoided at all cost.[6] Samaritans were not righteous in the eyes of Jewish law. You could not scrub them hard enough to make them clean or holy. In John 8:48, the religious authorities call Jesus a “Samaritan” and a demon! Portraying a Samaritan, any Samaritan, as “good” would have been a shock to Jesus’ original audience. It would have been as contradictory as referring to someone as a “good murderer” or a “nice rapist.”

So, Jesus uses a shocking perspective in order to teach the lawyer in Luke an important lesson about what it means to be one’s neighbor (Lk. 10:29) according to the law. Ceremoniously unclean, socially outcast and religiously a heretic, the Samaritan is in all ways the very opposite of the lawyer asking the question. For first century Jews, lawyers were the ones who studied Torah all the time. They were considered among the most righteous of the community. By using the very opposite of the lawyer as the principal figure in his story, Jesus forces the lawyer to investigate a deeper understanding of the law. This is a theme that Jesus comes back to, time and time again. When he heals on the Sabbath, Jesus is choosing mercy over following the law to exactness (Mk. 3:1-6, Lk. 13:10-17). And here, he is asking the lawyer – one who is obsessed with rule-following – what is the better answer? For Jesus, that answer is always mercy marked by love. Love marks one as a disciple (Jn. 13:35). Love is the lived example of eternal life.

Resurrected Living

Jesus’ short stories are meant to incite action, to propel us toward something, to force us to question what we know of God and ourselves. Jesus’ story tells us of another way to live as one resurrected – as one who is living as an inheritor of eternal life and not as someone just trying to scratch something off their salvation list. That way of living is as the Samaritan in this story – as one who has no reason to serve another save for the love that you have for God. It is that kind of love that spills out into the world as mercy, kindness and compassion for those are overlooked and hidden from our world. Love is how believers do good in the world. Jesus has given us permission to not solely be moved with pity. Jesus tells us to move it into action. Take care of those battered in your community as you might your own flesh and blood: bandage their wounds, anoint them with healing, share your food with them and provide them shelter. This is the true meaning of neighboring in a God-filled world. Jesus tells his audience and now us to “Go and do likewise.”

[1] William Shakespeare, “Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/17/nyregion/l-kill-the-lawyers-a-line-misinterpreted-599990.html

[3] Amy Jill Levine, “Short Stories by Jesus,” 87.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jn. 4:12.

[6] Jn. 4:7-10: Jesus and the woman at the well. The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

KimJenne_2017
The Rev. Kim Jenne

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

Proper 9(C): Bearing Witness, Even in the Dust

Proper 9(C): Bearing Witness, Even in the Dust

Luke 10:1-11; 16-20

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

By the time this article is published I will have been a priest for a very short time. My ordination to the priesthood comes some 20 years after the journey began. It has been a long and at times a circuitous route to arrive here. And there have been moments along the way where I was tempted to give up or just go home and do something else, but my conviction that God has called me to this work has called me to push on into God’s preferred future for myself and for the world. Luke’s Gospel, maybe more than any of the other gospels, contains an enormous push toward discipleship of the gentiles and toward the evangelical nature of the Church itself. It should not be possible to look at this text and understand it apart from those two natures. It would be too easy to think that this word is about making new priests or pastors to labour in God’s kingdom, but instead I would suggest that this passage is a call to all believers to come and work in the harvest and find the depth of faith.

This text poses a number of challenges to the would-be preacher. It would be so easy to get caught up in one of the rabbit trails that could take one away from the primary missiological and evangelical nature of this text. It would be tempting to get caught up in the woes that the lectionary has so graciously skipped over. And I say this not to diminish the text, but to acknowledge the challenge it presents to anyone who would proclaim the good news of God present here. This text mimics the sending of the 12 Apostles from chapter nine all the way down to the instructions to leave all the non-essentials behind. Focus on the mission that is really at hand. And that mission is the proclamation that God’s kingdom has come near.

I have been the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital for just under a year now. It has been a journey full of both great difficulty and great blessing. One of the things that has been so amazing about this journey is that I get to journey alongside people through tremendous moments of joy and celebration and on the opposite side I walk with people through the darkest moments of human life. It isn’t easy work, but it is work that needs someone with a heart for those who are suffering and a tremendous amount of empathy. But one of the things that this work has helped me to realize is that God is always present. God’s kingdom is always right there in the voice of a mom or a dad who has been left in distress because of their sick son or daughter. There may be days in my work where I don’t use the name of Jesus at all, but that doesn’t mean that I am not pointing people towards the light of the divine and the holy. By practicing great compassion and mercy to those who are suffering I am doing my part to expand the kingdom of love and mercy. It is not a work that fits within the model of Christendom, but it is definitely the work of God in the world.

It is perhaps most interesting that this chapter, which begins with the sending of the 70, would end with the parable of the Good Samaritan. That story ends with the question, which of these: the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, was a neighbour to the man who fell in amongst the thieves? And of course, the answer is the one who showed him mercy. Jesus gives us instructions to go and do likewise. Not asking if these people are worthy to receive mercy. Not stopping to enquire about church membership or belief structure. Not querying their theological background or being sure that they subscribe to our particular way of being in the world, but offering a hand of assistance and help in times of desperation and trouble.

As God’s sons and daughters, we are called to go into the world and share mercy with those who haven’t seen it in a while. Including those who are on the church’s no go list. Maybe especially those who have been scared by the ministry of the church.

Every holy week in the Anglican Church, the priests and deacons attend a service where the Bishop makes new holy oils for the coming year. I was in downtown Calgary on my way to the Cathedral church for the Chrism Mass and I was verbally accosted by a homeless gentleman on the street. He began asking me how I could possibly wear my collar after everything that ‘you did to us.’ I hadn’t any clue about what sort of pain this man had endured in his life. And honestly, in my rush to get where I was going, my initial response wasn’t so holy. Instead of mercy I offered defensiveness, but that only fueled his fire. As he continued, I looked into his eyes and I offered a simple apology, “I am sorry for whatever pain you have endured in your life.” I wish we lived in a world where I could say that the Church was innocent, but I am not that naive.  Here in Canada as well as in the United States, though it is often unspoken there, there is a legacy of residential schools that set about stripping indigenous peoples and children of their language and culture in order to ‘civilize’ and ‘evangelize’ the indigenous populations.[1] It is an absolutely horrendous legacy and it is a stain on the life of the church.

On Friday, Aug. 6, 1993, the then Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Most Reverend Michael Peers said,

“I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.

On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.”[2]

We in the church have so much work to do. It begins in speaking the truth and then going into the world to offer mercy and love to God’s lost sons and daughters. Some of whom have been deeply wounded by the Church; and in those places, it means offering additional understanding and being willing to take upon ourselves the impetus to offer an apology for pain that we might not fully understand in a moment. I have thought about my encounter with that gentleman on the street corner and I hope and pray that the sight of a guy in a collar being able to say “I am sorry for whatever pain you have endured in your life” can offer a step towards healing and wholeness.

Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into the harvest who are willing to speak truth, own their own failures and shortcomings, and who will share mercy instead of judgement.

[1] Pember, Mary Anne. “When Will U.S. Apologize for Genocide of Indian Boarding Schools?” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-will-us-apologize-fo_b_7641656

[2] Peers, Michael. “The Apology- English” The Anglican Church of Canada, Truth in Reconciliation https://www.anglican.ca/tr/apology/english/

Headshot
The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod McCormack was ordained a priest on June 22 in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Calgary. He is the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and an assistant priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Calgary and a member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He enjoys time spent with friends, hiking, and photography. He is originally from Alabama and now resides in the land of prairie and mountains in Southern Alberta, Canada.

Proper 8(C): What Would Jesus Do?

Proper 8(C): What Would Jesus Do?

Luke 9:51-62

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

When I was a kid in the early 90s, WWJD swag was a big deal. I had bracelets, t-shirts, and even a bible with the letters emblazoned across it. With every action we took, we were to ask ourselves the question: What would Jesus do?

Now, at its core, this is not terrible advice. The trouble, of course, comes in knowing what Jesus would actually do. Anyone who has lived in any sort of community (a family, a seminary, a camp, etc.) knows that it is next to impossible to actually know the mind of someone else. It stands to reason that knowing the mind of God, even when God arrives incarnated as a human being, is even more difficult.

Our lectionary reading comes at a turning point in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has ended his Galilean ministry and is journeying toward his passion in Jerusalem. Here, he will confront the civic and religious leaders, and his message that God’s kingdom includes everyone will ultimately get him executed.

When Jesus sends messengers ahead to proclaim his arrival, a village of Samaritans rejects Jesus and his disciples. Given the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, this is hardly surprising. I can’t help but laugh when I hear James and John’s response to this rejection: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” How many times have I thought about destroying my own enemies or those who speak ill of me?

The comedian Daniel Tosh has a brilliant, if vulgar, routine where he remembers his WWJD bracelet. When an obnoxious man in a movie theater talks on his phone during the film, Tosh recounts that he wants to punch this man. One look at his WWJD bracelet, however, changes his mind. “Oh I was going crazy,” Tosh says, “but then I looked at my bracelet—what would Jesus do? So I lit him on fire and sent him to hell.”[1]

Ok, so maybe not a joke you’re comfortable using in the pulpit, but I think it’s exactly where James and John go. They remember the story of Elijah who sent fire down upon the worshippers of Baal (2 Kings 1:9-16). Wouldn’t Jesus want them to do as the great prophet did?

The inability of James and John, and presumably the other disciples, to understand Jesus gives me a kind of hope. When I read the second part of our Gospel lesson, I have an uneasy reaction. I’m supposed to ignore my family and become a religious zealot? My grandmother recently died, and I took time off from my church job to go home, be with family, and bury her. Is Jesus telling me in this passage that I should not have done that? Knowing the mind of Jesus is difficult.

As with most biblical passages and characters, I think Jesus has to be understood in light of the greater story and its context. This passage in Luke is not simply Jesus strolling through the countryside looking to create disciples. This is Jesus marching toward the center of Roman civic and Jewish religious authority where he knows that his proclamation of the Kingdom will lead him to execution. He has limited time.

The urgency of Jesus’ story and the Lukan community’s expectation of the Parousia gives us some parameters to set around our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Clearly, Jesus has great concern for compassion. When James and John suggest lighting the Samaritans on fire, Jesus rebukes them. When the first man tells Jesus that he will follow him, Jesus makes sure that the man understands what he’s signing up for. When another wants to follow Jesus after he’s tended to his own needs, Jesus reminds him that the time has arrived for action. Harsh? Maybe, but they are truthful statements.

As I think about how I might preach these two difficult passages, I think the theme throughout is discerning awareness of the magnitude of the work of discipleship. As followers of Jesus, we need constantly to turn to Jesus in prayer and through Holy Scripture in order to understand better how he calls us to follow. Furthermore, we need to be able to make that discernment in light of our own time and context. Just as Jesus in Luke’s Gospel has immediate political and religious challenges, we too have immediate challenges that come from our own social and religious realities.

One way we can bring this Gospel into our own contexts is to ask the question, who would I like to light on fire and send to hell? I’m fairly confident that this is NOT what Jesus would do. There is wisdom, however, in identifying those who impede the work of ministry and understanding that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is move on to the next village and trust that God will continue to love and care for those to whom we cannot minister. Likewise, we can ask ourselves these important questions: What things are standing between me and Jesus? What cares of the world are outweighing the immediacy of God’s kingdom? And where is the Spirit leading me as I follow Jesus’ path?

There is no one correct response to these questions, and I’m certain that different communities and individuals will have differing realities. That is the beauty of discipleship—we are not called as individuals, but as a collective Body of Christ. I am not singularly responsible for the evangelism of the world or the building of the kingdom. I am but one part of God’s great plan. God will utilize me as best suits my gifts, and God will utilize others as best suits theirs. Jesus reminds us in Luke that we should discern his will in our immediate context, keeping in mind the realities of empire and other power structures that attempt to work against us.

[1] http://www.cc.com/video-clips/0hwk4x/comedy-central-presents-what-would-jesus-do-

Cowen Headshot (2)
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. Utilizing his former acting career, Charles enjoys engaging with Holy Scripture through various forms of storytelling and performance. Since completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas in 2018, he has put much energy into learning the Spanish language and Latino culture in order to better serve the Latino community in Wilmington. When he is not at church, Charles can be found walking the many beautiful parks in Delaware or attending theatre and music performances.

 

Proper 7(C): Healing from a Place of Strength

Proper 7(C): Healing from a Place of Strength

Luke 8:26-39

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The scripture for Proper 7 offers an example of Jesus’ power over the scary world in which we live in his calming of the storm in verses 22-25. In this scripture, we are told the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed Gerasene. This scripture reveals to us that Jesus not only has power over the natural world, but over the spiritual as well. We serve a Lord that wants healing for us physically, emotionally, spiritually. We serve a Lord that wants healing for our community and world. There are a few details to this particular scripture I would like to highlight.

While reading through commentaries on this particular scripture, there are two things that stand out to me. The first is that this Gerasene man highlights Jesus’ desire to minister to the world beyond Israel. Many within the church think of ministry to the Gentiles as beginning with Paul. However, this scripture (and many others) clearly shows that Jesus ministered to all groups and types of people. The Church, especially in today’s political and cultural climate, could be reminded of the inclusivity of Jesus’ ministry and his focus on the outcasts.

The second thing that really stands out to me from many of the commentaries are the ways in which so many biblical thinkers compare the demon’s that have possessed this man to the mental health struggles that so many face in our culture today. Personally, I believe there to be some similarities between the ways in which Jesus deals with demons in the scriptures and the ways mental health professionals deal with the mental challenges so many deal with in their own lives. However, we must be careful in the comparisons we make between the two.

It would be inappropriate and insensitive to equate the two and speak of mental health issues as being possessed by demons. In fact, in the history of the church, we have often done more harm than good in equating mental health issues to demon possession. Many in the church have read this scripture literally and believe that Jesus is the only cure to mental health issues. Many in the church have wrongly suggested that those needing mental health services to avoid the medical professionals in preference for prayer and the spiritual work of Jesus. We must acknowledge that this story (like all of scripture) is more complex than we might first acknowledge. In one moment, Jesus is healing this man physically, emotionally, and spiritually. All parts of the individual are important and we must honor each part of this man Luke describes in this explanation of Jesus’ wholistic approach to health, healing, and ministry.

I would highlight the strength of this individual in dealing with the “Legion” of demons. Many times, when individuals face their own demons (whatever they be), many experience a sense of weakness in receiving help and treatment. One of the things our society has done well is shaming folks for their own struggles. Jesus does not shame this individual. Instead, Jesus offers healing and peace. In a strange twist, Jesus does not even shame the demons. In fact, he honors their request to not go into the Abyss.

Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs, who immediately rush into the lake a drown (verse 33). I wonder what it would like to honor the man’s strength for dealing with the demons while continuing to live. The true testament to this man’s strength is that he had dealt with these demons “for a long time” (verse 27). There is no weakness in searching for help in our healing. In fact, we should commend folks for their strength in continually dealing with demons that would send us to drown in a lake.

After this miraculous healing, Luke tells of the witnesses that experienced this “new man” who is now so different: he is sitting at Jesus’ feet, is clothed, and in his right mind (verse 35). The crowd and the town are in fear because of this healing. In many respects, this begs us to question about the healing that we must each go through from our own fear and anxiety. We must each witness to the grace of Jesus in spite of our fear and anxiety in the world in which we live. I believe we are each called to witness to the strength of those on the outskirts of society, even (and especially) if society tells us and them how weak they truly are. We must honor the strength that it takes to deal with demons, just as we honor the strength it takes to exorcise demons (whether that be done physically, emotionally, or spiritually).

In fact, such witness is exactly what Jesus commands of the man when he begs to go with Jesus. “Return home and tell how much God has done for you” (verse 39, NIV). I invite you this week to join me in witnessing to the strength of God that can be found in the strength of all those who struggle daily with their own demons. We can be encouraged by this nameless man in scripture because of his own strength and the reality that Christ joins in our own strength to heal us in all of our aspects as creation and humanity.

 

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

 

Trinity Sunday (C): God is NOT a Puzzle!

Trinity Sunday (C): God is NOT a Puzzle!

John 16:12-15

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

“When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday and it is the one day in the year that we do not focus on a proclaimed message from the Gospel or readings for the day, but instead focus on a message or understanding that comes solely from centuries of the Church’s teaching about, and life in, God. Although our understanding of the Trinity is certainly and directly inspired by Scripture, it is important to note that the word “Trinity” is not found anywhere within.

When it comes to this doctrine of the Church, many (most? all?) of us get caught up in when we attempt to explain every detail and specific quirk about it. We try to put all the pieces together in a nice, heavily manipulated picture, and call the puzzle of the Triune God solved. In doing so however, we lose the freedom, power, and understanding the mystery of the Trinity holds and bestows in our lives.

So I’m not going to go there. Instead, what I want to highlight is what the Apostle Paul refers to in Romans 5.2 (the epistle reading for this Sunday) as “boasting in the hope of sharing the glory of God.”

In order to do so, let me first draw you all back again to that image of the puzzle that I mentioned briefly before. Whether they be crossword, Sudoku, or even just the plain old jigsaw puzzles,  my wife and I love them. We like big, complicated puzzles that take days to finish. And the reason we like them, I must admit, is because we know that if we just work at it hard enough and if we just work together well enough, we will finally be able to solve it. We will be able to turn that table top from a picture of chaos into a picture of—oh I don’t know—Mickey Mouse and all his friends, or one of Monet’s paintings, or anything really. The important point is that the puzzle is solved and we have a proud sense of triumph over it. We pat each other on the back and give each other a high five, before looking for the next puzzle to solve.

Now jigsaw puzzles might not be everyone’s preference, but most folks I know gain some degree of satisfaction from solving problems. There is something deeply rewarding about fitting together pieces of information until you can explain every detail and stand in triumph over it, knowing that nothing about that problem, question, or mystery escapes you any longer. This drive for solving problems have moved scientists to map the human genome, allowing them to put together certain pieces of DNA as if they were Lincoln logs or Legos. We are working on trying to solve the puzzle of life itself.

But God…

…God who is the source of all life?

God who created all things and knows each of those things, intimately?

God who weaves us together in our mother’s womb, names us, and numbers every hair on our heads before we take our first breath?

We try to solve God too, but we find that doing so is impossible.

When solving a puzzle, it’s often easier to fill in the border first, fitting each piece together until the image is contained in a neat, perfect box. That leads me to wonder: given that we often treat God as a puzzle to be solved, what borders does God have? What end pieces are there to limit the Creator of all? What box can contain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

This is why we have so many heresies revolving this specific doctrine. People want to give God a definite border. But God is not a puzzle. God is not to be solved. No matter how much time and effort we put into solving God, we find that God is simply too big.

So then what does Jesus mean when he says that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide us into all the truth? Doesn’t that mean we will be given all of the answers to life—that all the pieces of the puzzle will finally be put together? I wish it did.

At times, the questions and mysteries of life seem so great and overwhelming that I want to scream! Truth be told, I have screamed! I’ve cried out to God, hoping that God will make things black and white. “Make it clear and easy! Explain yourself to me! Tell me why you let it all get so muddled up! Why you let wars go on, tornadoes and hurricanes rip life apart, loved ones die, hunger prevail, and hate destroy?”

But you know, in return, more often than not (though seldom all at once), eventually I do receive God’s response. It does not come as a proof of some truth that acts as the keystone, solving all of my problems. Rather, it comes as understanding.

Understanding is not the same as solving a puzzle or problem. The details often go completely unexplained. Rarely (and to the chagrin of my math teachers) am I able to “show my work.” When I receive understanding, I do not receive some sense of triumph or victory over a puzzle solved; rather, I receive peace. Peace in the understanding that triumph and victory belong to God. The problems and puzzles in this world are solved by God’s hand, not mine.

Understanding that God is Triune reveals to us what life is and is to be. God is not to be solved, but God is certainly to be revealed. The Holy Trinity reveals to us that through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is in full, life-giving relationship with Godself. And through the Trinity, we are invited into the truth, life, and peace that flows out of that relationship. In contrast, the individualistic culture that surrounds us in this world leads us to value and decide everything in terms of ourselves. The relationship of the Trinity, however, leads us to value and decide everything in terms of others.

Listen again to some of the key scripture verses we have in this powerful, life-giving faith of ours from just the Gospel of John alone. John 3:16 “For God so love the world that he gave his only son so that whosoever believes in him may not parish but have eternal life.” John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And John 16:15 “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I [Jesus] said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

In Christ we are invited and connected to the Holy Trinity by Jesus’ revealing act of the Father’s love on the Cross and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Through the Spirit, we are given the understanding that we have indeed been created in God’s image. We are created in that Triune image of God for relationship. We are made for each other.

Picture1
The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor along with his wife, Pastor Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Pentecost (C): Three Possibilities for Preaching

Pentecost (C): Three Possibilities for Preaching

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

On Pentecost Sunday in Year C, the Gospel enables us to make connections between the “tongues of fire” and blessed chaos depicted in Acts, and Jesus’ final teaching about the Spirit and life on earth after his departure. In reading the text, three distinct sermon possibilities emerged that address how it is we live faithfully after the chaos of both the crucifixion/resurrection/ascension and of the descent of the Spirit recedes.

On the Value of Asking Questions

The Farewell Discourses in John, or what one scholar calls “Table Talks” with Jesus are punctuated with earnest questions from well-intentioned and confused disciples.[1] Jesus knows it is his last night with them and shows them through gesture (foot-washing) and words how it is that they will go on…they will be okay…a “new normal” will emerge. Like us, the disciples are only capable of taking in Jesus’ teaching in bits and pieces, always partially—tending toward the literalizing of Jesus’ metaphorical language—and often reluctantly. Like us, the disciples questions reveal both an earnest desire to understand and follow Jesus and their ‘worldly,’ self-interested concern that they will be okay and survive the trial of the Passion that lies before them.

  • Peter asks where Jesus is going (13.36)
  • Thomas asks if the disciples can have a map to get there (14.5)
  • Philip, at the beginning of today’s periscope, asks to see the Father and then promises he won’t ask any more questions (14.8)
  • Judas (not Iscariot) wonders how Jesus will manage to reveal himself only to those who keep love him, and not to everyone else (14.22)

One idea for a sermon might be lifting up the questions that Pentecost brings up for us and encouraging question-asking as a fruitful means of prayer and an invitation to honesty that engenders genuine friendships among those on the “Way” (14.5f.)

Philip’s Quest to be Satisfied

Another tack for a sermon is to explore the insatiability of human desire, both for material ‘stuff’ and spiritual ones like proof that God exists and really loves us. After all, according to the Rolling Stones, we “can’t get no satisfaction,” and Dave Matthews echoes “what I want is what I’ve not got…”

“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” I suspect that most of us have made similar demands on God. Like the Devil testing Jesus, I remember as an 8-year-old asking God to remove the tissue paper flowers on my dresser drawer overnight, so that in the morning I would know God existed. The next morning the flowers with their green pipe-cleaner stems were still on the dresser. Of course, had they disappeared, I suspect I would only come up with more creative “tests” to satisfy my doubt. The reality is that God doesn’t ‘prove’ himself to us on our terms. Instead, we are invited to the mystery, not certainty, of faith.

Jesus responds to Philip’s desire for satisfaction first by exhorting him to believe. Jesus sounds disappointed—just for a moment—that Philip doesn’t believe that the Father and Jesus dwell within each other. But let’s cut Philip some slack because the content of what Jesus wants Philip to believe—the idea of “mutual indwelling” is really hard to understand.  Jesus’ final “I AM” metaphor of the Father as Vinegrower, Jesus as true vine, and us as branches, from the next chapter, is helpful to folks like Philip, like me, and probably like you, who have trouble conceptualizing what it means for separate persons—human or Divine—to abide or dwell in one another. The process of believing is also a challenge to us because in John’s Gospel, belief isn’t a cognitive assertion, rather it indicates a relationship.[2]  Jesus wants Philip to know that Philip has seen the Father and has a loving relationship with the Father because he has seen and loves Jesus, the flesh and blood man who just washed his feet and looks him in the eye.

Jesus’ second response to Philip is to point him toward the ‘works’ themselves that the Father has done through Jesus. Jesus’ ‘works’ may refer to the “seven signs” so carefully conveyed with multi-layered symbols in the first half of the Gospel. Of the seven signs, one is celebrating, three are healings, one is feeding, another is rescuing, and the final one is resuscitating. Jesus indicates that those in relationship with him will do greater ‘works’ than what he has done. Of course, I doubt any one of us has done qualitatively ‘greater works’ than Jesus, but quantitatively the Body of Christ has done and does these works through our ministries in the community, in shaping people who respond to God’s call to serve, and in daily parish ministry where we work out, over and over again, how to follow Jesus’ new commandment in John:  Love one another (13.33).

Spirit-Abiding Prayer & the Alignment of Desire

The last section of the lection jumps over seven verses to maintain a focus on Jesus’ teachings about the parakletos. Parakletos literally means ‘called to one’s side,’ but signifies counselor, helper, advocate, or intercessor. The word functions as the job description for the Holy Spirit…and, notably a self-description of Jesus while he is with his disciples. At this point in the narrative, Jesus is future-focused. He is preparing the disciples for how the Divine Presence will be transfigured after his incarnation ends through his glorification.[3]  There will still be Someone alongside the disciples, but now that Someone, the Spirit of truth, will be like our breath, both inside and outside, of whom we can be conscious or unconscious.

This Holy Spirit of truth, teaches us “everything” (v. 25) and reminds us of all that the Lord said to us while he “pitched his tent” among us as the fully human and fully divine One (1.14). God will send the Spirit, after Jesus’ ascension and at Jesus’ request, just as God sent Jesus. On one level, all life exists in the Divine Presence (1.3 – 5), and yet our subjective experience and the testimony of John’s Gospel is also that God coming toward us through the various “sendings,” of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, and then of the disciples, which includes each of us through baptisms. Or, to put it oppositely, God is always drawing us to Godself (John 12.32). Whichever direction, the movement results in connection, closeness, and intimacy…that is, a relationship, which what ‘belief’ means in John’s Gospel.

So picking up on the theme of asking questions as path for prayer, the preacher may want to use verse 14 as a case-study: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Out of context, this verse can be misused as though it is magical incantation. But let’s analyze this verse in its immediate context: Philip has just asked Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus responds to Philip’s “ask” by reminding / teaching / showing Philip that he and the Father are one. And yet, I suspect that Philip left the conversation confused, wanting to see the Father based on his pre-conceived notions of what the Father was like. At this point, Philip can’t yet conceive the radical teaching about the Father’s dwelling in the Son dwelling the Holy Spirit (or whatever order you want to put it in…even Jesus mixes the order up), much less the that the Holy Spirit abides in Philip, just as Philip abides in the Spirit. The invitation Jesus gives Philip, and us, is to become aware of the abiding presence. Then, I suspect, more and more of what we “ask,” Jesus will do because our desire aligns more closely with purposes of God.

[1]Gordon D. Fee, “Expository Articles: John 14:8-17,” Interpretation 43/2 (1989): 170-174, cited in the Working Preacher Blog, accessed on 5/1/2019 here:  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=593

[2] I have learned this over the years through listening to the teachings of Dr. Karoline Lewis on faculty at Luther Seminary through their Center for Biblical Preaching, which produces the Working Preacher website.

[3] In John the glorification is a singular movement incorporating the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to the Father.

_IMG1722 copy
The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 3 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.