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

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

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By: The Rev. Sean Ekberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Praise him.”

Fr. Sean Ekberg
The Rev. Sean Ekberg

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

 

Lent 5(A): The Valley of Bones

5th Sunday in Lent(A): The Valley of Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

By: The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

In the year 597 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and his forces subjugated and destroyed Judah and Jerusalem. A decade later, while in captivity in Babylon, the Israelites receive word that Babylonian troops had returned to Judea and had destroyed both Jerusalem and God’s temple. It is during this tragic and challenging time that the prophet Ezekiel presents the vision of the Valley of Bones to illustrate Judah and Jerusalem’s state of hopelessness.

Although this event took place long ago in a far-away land, this image isn’t foreign to us. We all have experienced that same hopelessness that the prophet describes. At some point or other, all of us have walked through the Valley of Dry Bones. Can you think of a time when you felt extremely overwhelmed by the challenges of life? Can you think of a moment in your life when you were not able to have a sense of hope? In such moments, I have asked the same question that God brought to the prophet: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3) In other words, is there hope? Will I see a better tomorrow?

As God presents this profound question to the prophet, Ezekiel provides a powerful and refreshing answer: “O Lord God, you know.” This answer reminds me of my favorite childhood superhero, El Chapulin Colorado.

When I think about superheroes, I think about powerful, strong, mighty superhumans, but El Chapulin Colorado was the antithesis of this image. Whenever we turned on the T.V. to watch El Chapulin, a deep voice would introduce him with the following words: “More agile than a turtle, stronger than a mouse, nobler than a lettuce, his shield is a heart… It’s El Chapulín Colorado!” El Chapulin was a small, feeble and accident-prone superhero who seemed to cause more problems than the villains he faced. And yet, whenever he would find himself in the Valley of Dry Bones, whenever all sense of hope was lost, the answer to all his issues came from everyone else but himself.

Just like El Chapulin who experienced the Valley of Dry Bones constantly, Ezekiel doesn’t seem to find answers to God’s question in his own self, but in the other—specifically God.

God: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Prophet: “O Lord God, you know.” (Ezek. 37:2)

Ezekiel 37:1-14 reminds us that life sometimes isn’t easy. It reminds us that we will experience challenges and difficulties that might seem to disempower us. And yet, in the midst of our hopelessness we must remember that the key to life is God. As the prophet Ezekiel says: “Oh Lord, you know!” It reminds us that we don’t need to have all the answers. It reminds us that we must trust God and allow God to work through us.

Finally, as we take a time during this season of Lent to reflect on Ezekiel 37:1-14, perhaps we can take this time to reflect on the challenges that we are experiencing in our lives. Think about the people, the situations, the times in which we have lost all hope. As we come up with a list, give those people, situations and times to God—”Oh Lord, you know!” Allow God to give you the strength and the courage to find hope.

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The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is part-time rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin and Latino Missioner at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Tester, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Watertown Wisconsin and father of Ezekiel J. Tester-Rozo and Miriam N. Tester-Rozo. Their pit bull is Amos and their Persian kitty cat is Sheebs, short for Bathsheba.

Lent 4(A): Light & Darkness

Lent 4(A): Light & Darkness

Ephesians 5:8-14

By: Casey Cross

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Lent is an especially holy time of the year for me because it is in these six weeks that I find myself drawing closer and closer to Jesus. We know what’s coming. The cross looms ahead. Rather than shake my head in despair, I draw closer to Jesus. It is precisely this time of year that I realize I need something more. My will power is not enough. New year’s resolutions have come and gone. The hum of daily commutes and to do lists have lulled me to a kind of sleep. Winter is not quite ready to release its grasp. Spring has not quite yet arrived. Days are not as dark as they were, but the full sun does not seem to fill the sky. And so, we find ourselves in an in-between place of dusk and shadow.

 

Lent arrives with the reminder that it is from dust we come and to dust we return. This is the kind of unshakable truth I need to wake me from the daze. There is something dark to this truth, but necessary. For it is in those darkest of places that we realize the true power of light. It is when we seek out these caves and corners of truth that we see that the depth of darkness cannot quench even the smallest spark of light. This is the kind of light I imagine Paul referring to in his letter to the Ephesians. It is not the measure of light that determines its power, but its simple, unrelenting existence. The light does not negate the darkness from whence we came; rather, it draws us out, closer and closer to Jesus.

Maybe the darkness and light are not quite as at war with one another as we like to assume. I often hear the amount of light or dark in reference to a person’s faithfulness. We allow the immensity of darkness to determine the amount of faith we may or may not have. This perspective is harmful because it detracts us from what Paul was actually trying to say. The darkness in and of itself is not the problem to be solved by the light of the Lord. Rather, Paul is speaking of the fruitless hiding within the darkness, which keeps us imprisoned by fear, not free to live in faith. We think we must have only great faith or great light to banish the darkness of the world, but the wisdom of Jesus tells us again and again that it is in the smallest of these elements that great things are done. It is the faith of a mustard seed that will move mountains. It is the one, wild spark that starts a roaring fire.

One of the treasures of Lent is that it offers us the opportunity to focus on the interplay of light and darkness. We are anointed with ashes, we stand in the shadow of the cross, we lament and confess, but we also know the end of the story. Death is not the final answer. True life and light lie around the corner, but we aren’t there yet. We are standing among the long shadows, where truth and lies muddle and merge. It is hard to know what is right until that small, flickering light meets us where we are. It is not blinding or overpowering our ability to see the shadows we stand in, but it does offer just enough light to find the definition of what surrounds us. By this definition, we find hope. A small thing, as small as a spark, but unquenchable. That hope feeds faith. Faith leads us by the wisdom of the Spirit to know what is right and true. We stand in the light and reflect that light to others, no matter how deeply in the shadows they stand.

God, the Creator of the Universe and beyond, celebrates the beauty of both light and dark. It is hard to embrace these dark times of life because they are so often full of pain, but when touched by the light of Jesus, we see them with new eyes. We see the beauty born of pain. We might even go so far as to say we understand the necessity of the dark. Our journey of faith is full of bursts of light and dark, hidden spaces. Jesus meets us in both, exposing truths, healing secrets, and leading us through it all so we may live fully alive, transformed by the promise of Easter resurrection. “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

For Further Inspiration:

  • TED TALK [16:51]

“Now we have LED, but here you see the latest one, and you see how incredibly small it is. And this is exactly what offers us a unique opportunity, because this tiny, tiny size allows us to put the light wherever we really need it. And we can actually leave it out where it’s not needed at all and where we can preserve darkness.” Lighting architect Rogier van der Heide, Why the Light Needs the Darkness https://www.ted.com/talks/rogier_van_der_heide_why_light_needs_darkness

  • NPR ALL THINGS CONSIDERED

“Ask some of the survivors of the civil rights movement, as I have — survivors who sang these songs for protection and for courage — why ‘This Little Light of Mine’ survives and is still sung in the #MeToo movement and women’s movement,” he says. “They look at me straight in the eye and they say, ‘It is because those songs are anointed.’ As an academic, I have no way to refute that. Nor do I want to.” From ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ Shines On, A Timeless Tool Of Resistance, NPR
https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance

  • SONG [3:54]

“The greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far to stand in the light and be seen as we are.”
Stand in the Light
by Jordan Smith
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDrOVOoTjRU

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, ID. She loves her husband, dog, and being an aunt. You can find more of her writing and random reflections at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

 

Lent 3(A): Filled with Living Water

***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted for Lent 3 in 2017.***

Lent 3(A): Filled with Living Water

John 4:5-42

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Deep in the heart of the West Bank stands a stone church guarded by a thin, wizened, img_1643Orthodox Christian priest with a long white beard. He has been there for decades, despite living under the constant threat of death, escaping a death plot sixteen times. A crumbling chunk of the wall bears witness to the time someone threw a hand grenade at him. This priest, who spends his days writing icons, lived in the church for 14 years while surrounded by a hostile army, refusing to abandon the treasure he guards. He once refused a $1 million grant from Yasser Arafat to continue construction of the church because he did not want any political strings attached to his mission to keep the church open to people of all walks of faith. This priest is the protector of a treasure of the three Abrahamic faiths, and he fights with his simple, quiet presence to keep the site open to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He is the guardian of the treasure that sits deep at the very heart of the church.

As you enter the church, hundreds of lovely icons greet the eye, but one stands out from the others. It is simple and plain in comparison to the golden saints that gather everywhere the eye can see, but no less lovely for its simplicity.

This particular icon depicts a man and a woman in conversation, their gaze interlocked. She listens intently as he gestures confidently with assurance and authority. He points to the heavens with one hand, perhaps to her town with the other, as if to declare that there is an inherent tension between the two directions. Or perhaps he sends her—commissions her—to tell what he has shared in conversation. Either way, the tension is evident in her body turned toward him even as she appears to take a step away. She remains poised on the edge, almost as if she can barely believe what she has heard, yet yearning for it to be true.

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This icon is key to the Christian tradition about the site, and perhaps is why the priest guards this treasure so intently. The priest is the guardian of Be’er Ya’akov, Jacob’s well, a holy site open to people of all nations and faiths. The priest is the guardian of a deep tradition of radical hospitality to the “other,” the hallmark of Jesus’s life and ministry. This is the site where Jesus overcame all social mores and boundaries to encounter a woman in a deep, life-changing moment.

God in Jesus makes a radical statement in his meeting with the woman at the well. She is “other” in every way to Jesus. She is a Samaritan: considered heathen and apostate; he is a Jew: considered devout and Chosen. She is a woman: of low status in a man’s world, undeserving of notice; he is a man: respected as a teacher, noticed by crowds of people. She has a shameful past that distances her from her community (she comes alone at noon instead of in the morning, as women usually would); he is of good repute. She is nameless; he is Christ, the Son of God. Everything about this woman separates her from Jesus and from society: her gender, her religion, her social habits, her personal history, and her lifestyle. In the eyes of the world, she is a nobody.

But in Jesus’ domain, she is somebody—somebody worth noticing; somebody worth saving. Somebody worth filling to the brim with the gift of God, the living water of eternal life. Despite what she has done, Jesus does not turn away from her. Rather, he invites her into conversation, takes her seriously, and lodges in her village. He cares deeply about her welfare and about her community.

This is not just a tale about an individual. The story plays on a geopolitical front as well. Jesus approaches the nations, not just individuals. She represents an “outsider” nation. Samaritans believe in one God, but that God’s holy place is on Mount Gerizim not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans believe that they, and they alone, keep the “pure” faith, having preserved the bloodlines, traditions and old ways of worshipping for over 2,000 years. When Jesus tells her “Go, and come with your husband,” we may assume that he speaks to her in the language of the time. In Hebrew, the term ba’al may refer to master, husband, lord, or the particular god of a region. In Deuteronomy 22:22, an ishah ba’al is a married woman. The Hebrew word is also used in Jeremiah and Hosea to depict the relationship of husband and wife between God and Israel. Jesus tells her she has had five husbands (five gods?), and the one that she is living with is not legitimate. He describes her personal story, but also her nation’s story. The gods, traditions, and holy sites worshipped in the past are not legitimate. Legitimacy comes of worshipping the one God in spirit and truth, unconfined to particular spaces.

This is Good News, but also challenging news for the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ time, just as it is for Jews, Christians, and Muslims today. It is challenging news because it reminds us that the people we think of as nobodies are somebodies in the eyes of God. This text, says Deborah Kapp, “reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempt to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We often prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.” What does it mean that Jesus cares as deeply for the outsider as for his own chosen people? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth, when the particulars of tradition and dogma don’t seem to matter much to God?

The example of the priest at Be’er Ya’akov may provide us with the answer. Drinking deeply of the living water of God means having compassion for the other. In fact, as Jesus reminds us, it is at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel. “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If only we could open our hearts as Jesus does! Perhaps then the world would overflow with living water—embodying the true peace of God.

 

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

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

Lent 2(A): The Dance

Lent 2(A): The Dance

Genesis 12:1-4a

By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

When I think of traditional Lenten themes, I think about penitence, repentance, self-reflection, self-denial, and meditations on mortality. While I whole-heartedly support these traditional themes of the season, taken alone, they can be a real bummer. Yes, we should remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but that does not mean that we are to sit around moping until the end arrives.

One way to reinvigorate our Lenten disciplines might be to expand our practices to the role of blessing. While practices of penitence, repentance, etc. allow us the self-reflection necessary to be in right relationship with God and to hear God’s call, today’s story of Abram shows us how that self-reflection can lead to a life of blessing.

If we look at the narrative arc of Genesis up to this point, it has been one of disobedience, destruction and curse. Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise and cursed. Cain slays Abel and is cursed. The people reject God, so God curses them with a flood. The people build a tower in Babel, and God curses them.

Finally, we come to today’s lesson about Abram, and the narrative shifts from cursing to blessing. Other than a genealogy, this is our first introduction to Abram (later Abraham). God calls Abram to leave his native land in a threefold litany of departure: “Go from your country [land], your kindred, and your father’s house” (Gen 12:1 NRSV). Furthermore, God tells Abram that he will lead him to a new land in order that God “will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). God does not make Abram and his descendants a great nation to the end that Abram have power and dominion, but in order that Abram and his descendants “will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). Through this give and take of inward reflection leading to outward movement, we see God, Abram, and the world engaging in an intricate dance of blessing. When Abram follows God’s call into new and scary places, God blesses Abram in order that Abram might bless the world.

Remembering that this story of Abram comes after the many stories of disobedient humanity and God’s curses on the disobedient, I would highlight the willingness of Abram to listen and respond to God’s call. In Genesis 12, we have not yet been told that Abram is a righteous man, but his ability to hear and follow God’s call demonstrates his righteousness.

An ability to listen and respond to God lies at the heart of our Lenten disciplines and begins the dance of blessing. Practices of prayer, fasting, and self-denial focus our hearts on God’s call. Through self-examination and repentance (metanoia—turning back toward God) we realign our lives with the path that God has laid for us. Through these practices, we, like Abram, can move out from our comfortable places of home and church and into the world where we can both share God’s blessing with others and be blessed in return.

The dance goes something like this:

  • God calls
  • We respond
  • God carries us into new territories
  • God blesses us through others
  • God blesses others through us

This dance of blessing lies at the heart of God’s covenant with Abram, and it is the blessing that Paul finds in the cross of Christ, particularly in his Epistle to the Romans, which we will read much of during Lent. Through Jesus, all the Gentiles are brought into the family of Abram, whose primary purpose in life is to bless. A sermon built upon today’s lesson from Genesis provides the opportunity not only to create a Lenten discipline around blessing, but to illuminate the difficult readings found in Romans in our Lenten lectionary. [1]

How might we as churches, communities, and individuals take our Lenten practices of self-reflection and transform them into ways of blessing the world? If we take Abram as our example, it means that we must leave our comfortable places of our own neighborhoods and families. It means going out into new territories where we might be cursed by others. God’s promise—the same promise God makes to Abram—is to journey with us.

Into what uncomfortable territories might we journey this Lent? How might God bless us, and how might God use us to bless others?

[1] Much of my thought on Paul and Judaism comes from Mark Nanos. For further reading, I suggest his commentary on Romans in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and his book Reading Paul Within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

 

Cowen Headshot (2)
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector at Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish-speaking congregations. Prior to ordained ministry, Charles spent over a decade working in the professional theatre world as a director, actor, and puppeteer. His love of story informs his passion around biblical studies and sharing the Gospel of Christ.

 

 

Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Lent 1(A): Bound in Sin and Held in Grace

Romans 5:12-19

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The church tradition of my upbringing (non-denominational; vaguely Baptist) didn’t use the lectionary. I probably only learned what it was in college or in seminary, and I’ve been enamored ever since. At its most romantic, it pushes us as preachers to preach on a variety of texts that we might otherwise never willingly choose. (In actuality, the lectionary skips some complicated texts itself, and we still get to choose between passages if we want, so it’s not a perfect system.) So, when Modern Metanoia branched out beyond the Gospel texts, I was ready to go big or go home. I was ready to pick the text I’d be least excited by. I was ready for God’s revelation to break forth through a passage I would normally struggle with.

And so here we are—with a passage from Romans about sin and Adam and condemnation.

I think it is important to admit that we sometimes struggle with texts as preachers because it lowers the barrier for others to fall in love with the Bible. Writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans was particularly good at this—openly wrestling with difficult texts not because she didn’t like the Bible, but because she loved the Bible.

So, what is this sin-weary feminist who is uneasy about the times we only reference men in the Bible to do with a text all about sin and death?

First, Brian Peterson suggests that we contextualize this passage for those who understand that this passage does not rely on the literal transmission of sin and death from Adam to the rest of us.[1] For contexts that understand the earth as existing for billions of years, it is important to note that death has been embedded in the cycles of nature for as long as earth has been here. Instead, the death and sin connection embedded in the Genesis story is one of the spiritual consequences of sin—sin is not what God wants for us. Sin points to broken relationship with God, ourselves, creation, and others.

Second, this passage points us to a larger story than what we see now. To me, the beauty of this passage is that it reminds me of the sin and redemption cycle that is bigger than my own personal experience. I have entered into a story that started before my character had a line and it will continue longer than I’m on the stage. Sin and death were a part of the world before me and will persist after me, but so has the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.

While this passage names individual characters in the story—Adam and Moses—these names are placeholders for the rest of us. One person’s sin is all people’s sin, and one person’s grace can save us all. The gospel message that breaks forth when I read this text is that the story is bigger than me and so we are all in this together. Since the story is bigger than me, it is not just about me. It is not just about Adam or Moses, either.

Sin has bound us together, but grace holds us altogether as well. Many stories in one. I cannot separate myself from your sin, and you cannot separate yourself from mine. Our collective experience of grace and life for all insists on this.

What I walk away from this text with is more questions. What does it mean for my life if I really am connected to what pains and troubles you? The Gospel text for this week is about the temptation of Jesus. What if the temptations we experience were shouldered in community, rather than in the privacy of our own relationship with the Tempter? Are there ways that we could address sin collectively so that we may experience grace communally? (This must be done with safety in mind, to the extent it can be, of course.)

I’ve seen the alternative—parishioners isolated with the demons that haunt them. I’ve experienced glimpses of divinity when grace abounds between people that have shared their shame and received acceptance. How might the church transform if we move beyond individual stories of sin and grace to recognizing our place in a much larger narrative that puts our sin and redemption in relationship with everyone else’s? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.

[1] Peterson, Brian. “Commentary on Romans 5:12-19.” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3181

 

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

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.

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Ash Wednesday (A): Letting Go

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

A confession seems appropriate to begin a reflection for Ash Wednesday. So, here it is: I struggled to write this piece. No, it wasn’t procrastination or ‘writer’s block’ or that I was too busy. I honestly believe that it is about my own wrestling with the texts and the truth of this day in the life of our faith.

After all, Ash Wednesday is a hard day in the life of the Church.

In fact, one of the best sermons I have ever heard proclaimed on this day involved the preacher wondering aloud why we flock to churches to hear the stunningly honest proclamation of this day–you are dust, and to dust shall you return. These are sobering words, for they reveal our deepest truth as human beings. We are impermanent.

As I ponder this the appointed text from Matthew’s Gospel, I am reminded that, over the course of seven years of marriage, my spouse and I have lived in six different homes across three states. To write that is almost painful. However, along the way, through each move, we’ve learned quite a lot. We have strong opinions about moving companies, detailed plans for how best to pack, and a deeper appreciation for the ways that communities enable us to feel at home.

We have also been amazed at how quickly we amass ‘stuff’ in each placed we have dwelt. Even when we haven’t lived in a place very long, belongings seem to multiply quickly, and, before we knew it, every corner of storage space in the house is filled.

In the Gospel lesson appointed for Ash Wednesday, Jesus tells those gathered on a Galilean hillside not store up treasures on earth, where they rot, rust, or are stolen. Instead, Jesus bids them, store up treasures that will last, heavenly treasure. Treasure, he says, will lead the heart.

I’m always amazed that we read these verses, and the ones that precede them, on this day in the Christian tradition. Of all days, this day contains one of the most ‘treasured’ practices–the imposition of ashes upon one’s forehead. With a very public display of piety, so begins a forty-day sojourn in a wilderness of penitence, fasting, and self-denial.

Yet, Jesus’ warnings before his instruction on treasure storage focus on piety and prayer, suggest a much more private posture toward the actions we Christians will take on this holy day.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…”

“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door…”

“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…”

Like many who have read Matthew’s Gospel before us, I don’t believe Jesus is arguing that we should never pray in public, that we should never share our fasts with another person, or that we should stop placing our offerings in those shiny brass plates on Sunday morning. However, I do believe Jesus’ words call us to some deep reflection about our lives, our faith, and our treasure.

Maybe this day isn’t about putting on ashes, or anything else for that matter; perhaps this day, and the invitation to enter into the season that follows, is about what we need to take off or with which we need to part ways. After all, everything, including us, is impermanent.

In reading this Gospel passage on this sacred day, at the dawn of this holy season, Jesus’ warnings seem to invite us to travel lightly in the trek that lies before us. As the depths of winter begin to give way to the blooms of spring across much of the country, and the layers of cold weather attire give way to warmer days and lighter jackets, our faith might also do well to shed a few layers and be renewed by this hallowed journey toward resurrection.

What do we, as individuals, need to shed in the days ahead?

Perhaps it is a sense of shame at having not kept up a life of prayer or an addiction to the voices of various media that leave us in a haze of confusion and doubt.

What do we, collectively, as a people of faith, need to part ways with as we travel the familiar road of Lent?

Perhaps it is an attachment to the sacred symbols of tradition or a fear of taking a risk amidst a world that too often bids the Church play it safe.

Together, the soft, flaky ashes upon our foreheads and these ancient, familiar words of Jesus, invite us into this holy season, and call us to take stock of our individual and collective lives. Let us not fear shedding a few layers of whatever weighs heavy upon us in these days, that we might discover what truly matters, what really lasts–the eternal love of God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege is the Rector of St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. In his spare time, he is an avid reader, a runner, and a lover of golf. Andrew is married to Amanda and they share their home with their daughter, Eleanor, who was born in 2017.

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Last Sunday after Epiphany (A): Life Goes On

Matthew 17:1-9

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The last thing to happen between Jesus and his friends, just before this incredible and miraculous story that we call the Transfiguration is a heated argument between Jesus and his closest companion, Peter. Just before Jesus calls Peter up to witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus sharing time together on the top of a mountain, he refuses to trust Jesus’ prediction that he will suffer and die at the hands of elders, chief priests, and legal experts.

And just before that, all twelve of the disciples demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ teachings.

Jesus overcame a worrying lack of nourishment in a crowd of thousands by multiplying a few loaves of bread and pieces of fish that might have fed three or four families into an abundance of food that fed more than four thousand families with baskets of bread and fish left over.

Of course, the response to that miracle among the religious insiders is just ridiculous: the religious leaders demand that Jesus should perform a sign. As if the news of abundance and healing weren’t enough. The religious leaders—the Pharisees and Sadducees insist that they need more. They heap on doubt and criticism in a way that multiplies itself.

So, Jesus warns his disciples, who were closest to him to be careful around the religious authority. Their subversion of the gospel grows like yeast. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t understand Jesus. After Jesus mentioned yeast, the disciples spin around in circles looking for bread, and complaining that there wasn’t any food to eat.

They just don’t get it. And their misunderstanding has potential ramifications for the future of God’s movement. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus knows that he will suffer, he will die, and he will rise up, but he needs to have his disciples there to lead this radical movement and carry Jesus’ message of grace and love into the world so that the Kingdom has a place to take root. In order for this movement to be effective, the disciples can’t be taken over by the subversive doubt manifesting in the religious leadership. They need to resist the impulse to doubt Jesus’ incredible ministry. They need to resist the impulse to categorize and contain Jesus’ message.

So, after Jesus and Peter get into a pretty nasty argument, culminating in Jesus yelling at Peter for embodying the power of temptation, Jesus invites a few of his disciples, including Peter, to come and see one more sacred sign that might lead them towards a new alignment with the Kingdom of God.

It is hard to understand what is happening on the top of the mountain without taking a quick glance at where we’ve come so far. In this tense moment with his disciples, just as he is beginning his journey towards the cross, Jesus brings his close friends to a thin place, where the Kingdom is fully tangible. There are no crowds around to distract the disciples. There are no other religious folks there to critique and question what they were seeing.

They simply witnessed a reunion of Israel’s past, present, and future illumined on the crest of a hill.

Then, from there, Jesus and his disciples go about business as usual. Jesus heals another young child, then teaches about the ethics of the Kingdom of God.

The Transfiguration doesn’t seem to change much. It certainly doesn’t give the disciples a sudden burst of clarity. It doesn’t change Jesus’ fundamental ministry. It doesn’t even change the timeline or the outcome of Jesus’ challenging message. He continues to heal. He continues to teach. He continues to frustrate the religious folks. He continues to expect more from his disciples than they ever are able to follow through on. Ministry just continues, which makes this sacred moment on the top of a mountain all the more interesting.

Transfiguration Sunday is such a weird and wonderful day to celebrate. In so many ways, nothing really happened. Nothing changed. The world wasn’t turned upside down. The disciples weren’t suddenly flooded with a new understanding of God or of Jesus. In other ways, it was incredibly important.

In reality, the moment highlighted how quick we are to categorize our experiences of holiness into easy, comfortable boxes. Peter’s response was just perfect: “something holy happened, let’s put up a tent!

But, in the scheme of life and ministry and faith, big moments are always just that. They are moments that stand out as significant and important nestled between other moments. For most people, life is filled with significant moments. Even if they are big and mind-blowing, those moments are rarely actually life-changing. Very few people have had single moments that changed the course of their life. That’s just not how life works.

Most of us require several moments strung together to start making an impact on our lives. We need multiple experiences nudging us in the same direction before we start walking faithfully.

As I read the Gospel of Matthew, that is exactly what I see. I see a group of friends who experience a series of significant moments together in the presence of Jesus, who slowly allow their lives and their perspective to be changed.

They witnessed healings and exorcisms, miraculous meals, thoughtful teachings, resurrections, and even the transfiguration of a friend into dazzling white. They witnessed faithfulness, and doubt, and growth. They witnessed lives transformed. They witnessed lives reborn.

For the disciples, it took every single one of these moments for them to start to understand the immanence and power of God’s Kingdom.

I wonder sometimes about the cultural preoccupation that we have with immediate gratification. I wonder if we look too hard for a life-changing moment or experience that will alter everything in our lives, missing the small moments that lead us towards transformation. I wonder about our habit to cancel the people who irritate us most. I wonder what would have happened if Peter had walked away after Jesus called him Satan. I’m confident that he wouldn’t have seen the transfiguration.

Without every moment leading up to the Transfiguration, I’m not sure Peter, James, and John would have seen Moses, Elijah and Jesus talking together. I think they needed the time together, traveling through villages and towns. I think they needed to see every single sick person healed. I think they needed to hear Jesus speak about a faithful ethic for the Kingdom of God. I think they needed the arguments and the debates. I think they needed the challenge.

All of that led to the top of a mountain. Then that moment led them back down the mountain. And life continued for them. And because life continued for them, it continues for us.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

6th Sunday after Epiphany(A): The Law of Life

6th Sunday after Epiphany: The Law of Life

Matthew 5:21-37

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so we would behave. I firmly believe that. With four law-heavy texts this week, one could easily stick to interpreting the rules. While they bear some explication, simply sticking to the “do’s and don’ts” of these texts could result in a proclamation that rings hollow in sanctuaries and hearts alike. With lots of law, what then of the Gospel? Moses tells the Israelites to “choose life,” and elsewhere James tells us that faith without works is dead. In this interplay between life and death, one can find a starting place for a meaningful and evangelical (i.e. Gospel-centered) proclamation.

Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book, The God of Life, makes a simple claim that roots what Protestants would call both law and Gospel in God’s identity. “God causes all that exists to be because God is the source of all things; God gives life because God is life,” he writes.[1] With God as life, God the father can be seen as life-creator and Jesus Christ becomes life-redeemer. In his crucifixion, Jesus takes death upon himself, and his resurrection is the eternal triumph of life over death. Crucially, for our purposes, Gutiérrez writes, “Oppression in any of its forms means death.”[2] Since God righteously defends life, God righteously opposes oppression, and since God have us life, we too oppose the same.

The authors of Deuteronomy illustrate more than they legislate. Though in the imperative, “Choose life” serves as a hearty reminder that the one who gave life and freedom is the one worthy of obedience. The law becomes more than a way to live but indeed a way of life.

Moses exhorts his people to keep the commandments as a kind of farewell, immediately after a renewal of the Covenant and before his death. Knowing his time is limited, he begs his people to see that the Law will preserve their lives, root out oppression, and foster peace among them. Gutiérrez writes, “The law or Torah must be put into practice; it is life because it is a way to God.”[3] Because God is a God of life, and oppression deals death to the oppressed, the law will bring life to the people. Likewise, because the law brings life, God’s law is a gift of life.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the life-redeemer fulfills this Law of life. Yet, if God is a God of life, the abundant life Christ brings hardly means the death of the law. The law becomes similarly abundant, similarly expansive. A simple injunction against murder becomes an exhortation to peace and reconciliation. The prohibition of adultery is a call to a pure heart. Divorce, which was once permitted, is reinterpreted with the oppression of women in mind. Honesty is similarly abundant, wherein a vow becomes unnecessary if one’s daily word is true. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a triumph of God’s righteous life over sin and death.

Elsewhere in his Sermon, Jesus commands his disciples to “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,”[4] highlighting two main themes in Matthew’s Gospel. First is the eschatological reality of Jesus’ coming on earth. Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth in his very person. Second is the righteousness of God in Jesus. If the kingdom of God is the locus where God’s law reigns supreme, Jesus’ arrival expresses the law’s fulfillment. Gutiérrez writes, “When Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel of seeking the kingdom and righteousness of God, he is calling attention to the demand that the seeking implies.”[5] So, then, the law becomes a mark of seeking God’s reign on Earth. The church seeks an eschatological reality by practicing the law here and now.

With this interpretive lens, a preacher has a little bit of grace with which to interpret the law. The God of life gives the law to bring life, not death, for people of all genders. Some interpret the command, “choose life,” as the prohibition of reproductive justice. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount appears to proscribe divorce. Yet, with an eye to a God of life, and thus a law of life, one has freedom beyond the plain text. Divorce would have been a means by which a woman lost all protection in a society where she could not work or hold property. It would have negatively impacted her life. In situations of abuse or an unhappy marriage, marriage could be death-dealing. In line with a great many thinkers, we ask ourselves, “What brings abundant life?”

I find grace in this text because it does more than show us how to behave. It shows us who God is, who God makes us to be through Jesus. The law of God gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, as if that kingdom were an earthly country. “This,” it seems to say, “is what life will be like when God’s kingdom fills all things.” In that kingdom, both faraway and near, death is forever conquered by life. Murder, adultery, and lying are no more. Relationships are healed and whole. All of this because God is life, and God gives us life abundant.

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The Rev. Joseph Graumman, Jr.

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

 

 

 

 

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 1, Kindle.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Matthew 6:33, NRSV.

[5] Ibid, 103.

5th Sunday after Epiphany(A): Why Do We Worship?

5th Sunday after Epiphany (A): Why Do We Worship?

Isaiah 58:1-9a

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.

In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.

Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).

One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology,  and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.