2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

2nd Sunday of Easter (A): The Faith of Thomas

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia!
You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia!
O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” (more information)

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!’”

The Second Sunday’s gospel text is familiar for the story not of Jesus’ walking through walls two Sundays in a row, not for Jesus telling the disciples that if they forgive sins, the sins are forgiven, but for Thomas’s missing the meeting and saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.“

For centuries, this honest humanness of Thomas’ words has gotten Thomas short shrift — and that mindset has encouraged blind faith. Blind faith in leaders and institutions has enabled those in power to commit and hide abuses across Christian traditions from the most Catholic to the most Protestant. While Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” this should not be taken as a rebuke of questioning or having doubt.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”

In the passage from John today, Thomas notices the mess. Jesus’ appearance at the beginning of the pericope takes place behind locked doors. Preachers should notice and name the messiness of how passages like this — especially from John — have been used to foment anti-Semitism throughout Christian history. This could be an historical-critical analysis of John’s community, the school of writing of the gospel, and how relationships to their synagogues and Jewish Jerusalem leadership. This could be as simple as a reminder of this Christian history and reiteration of God’s eternal covenants with the Jewish people.

After Jesus gets through a locked door, he shows those present his hands and side. This is Jesus’ first resurrection appearance to the disciples, and they see his hands and side. Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning. John has her conveying her resurrection experience to the disciples just before the passage for 2 Easter starts. Luke’s account of the day, however, is clear that the men do not believe the women. In Luke, this prompts Peter to run to the tomb himself. Although Thomas misses this encounter, his request is no different than the other disciples: they see Jesus’ hands and side before they believe.

The context of the liturgical year cannot be ignored in preparing to preach on the Second Sunday of Easter. Either Matthew or John’s resurrection narrative has likely been heard the week before, either at a Vigil or Sunday Morning, or both. Thomas Sunday is a continuation of the Easter Day narratives, concluding the Octave of Easter — which is treated as one long day in the Orthodox Church. This Second Sunday of Easter (in the context of the calendar) bears two important notes: a resurrection appearance! and mystagogy (of the newly baptized).

If a congregation has had catechumens through Lent, the Second Sunday of Easter is an excellent time to begin public mystagogy — explanation of the mysteries of the faith. Even if no new candidates were baptized at Easter, mystagogy is a lifelong journey of growing closer to God, deepening the Christian faith.[1] While Thomas gets the most attention most frequently, this passage is an invitation for preachers to explore reconciliation of a penitent / confession and absolution however their tradition embodies that, communally and individually. Even the Presbyterian Church (USA) has A Service for Repentance and Forgiveness for Use with a Penitent Individual (Book of Common Worship, p. 1023). Jesus says in this day’s text, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus has given the disciples the Holy Spirit (by breathing on them, no less) and then given them — in some traditions — the Office of the Keys. This happens in the context of a resurrection appearance at the end of the first day of the resurrection. “I am risen and behold and am with you, Alleluia! / You have placed you hand on me, Alleluia! / O God, how wonderf’lly you know me, Alleluia!” While Thomas has gotten much attention over centuries this Sunday, there is much more to this text — and much more than needing to justify Thomas or reclaim him or humanize him (as the beginning of this essay does!).

In preparing to preach this text, consider not only Thomas, but Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, his resurrection (alleluia), the forgiveness of sins (and God’s infinite forgiveness), and how the newly baptized — and not newly baptized — continue to learn about the depths of the Christian faith, especially in the Easter Week of Weeks.

Processed with VSCO with a6 preset
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@JosephPMathews) is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He loves Music from St. Gregory’s, chanting, the Reconciliation of a Penitent, and podcasts. He is a shape note singer, soccer referee, and gay bar socializer for trivia or show tunes. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their son Topher and their cats Maggie and Stanton.

[1] https://todayscatholic.org/mystagogy-is-a-lifelong-journey-of-growing-closer-to-god-deepening-our-faith/

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

Maundy Thursday(A): Whose Feet Would You Refuse to Wash?

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

The ritual that comes out of the gospel reading for Maundy Thursday is incredibly beautiful—the central image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, patiently explaining to them that service is the highest expression of love. Many congregations re-enact this ritual because it is such a counter-cultural and humbling practice.

On Maundy Thursday, it is easy to skip over the introduction to the entire scene because we focus so intently on the ritual and the new commandment, but the text begins, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1, NRSV). Jesus heard the clock ticking and was aware that there were precious few teachable moments left. Jesus knew his fate.

This, of course, is not a surprise to those who believe that Jesus understood himself to be sent by God as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. It was his life for humanity’s sin. Everything about his life and ministry led up to his death on the cross because it was The Plan.

But Jesus’ knowing that his time was short is also not a surprise to those who do not hold said theological understanding. Divine or not, Jesus would have known “that his hour had come to depart from this world” because he had seen firsthand what the Roman Empire did to agitators and status-quo disrupters. Crucifixion was a “form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority, whether chronically rebellious slaves or leaders (and sometimes members) of resistance movements, violent or nonviolent.”[1]

Jesus would have been aware with every healing, every pardon of sin, and every act of inclusion of someone deemed unclean made him more of a threat. Given that Jesus had been welcomed into Jerusalem with a joyful parade just a few days before (what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), the authorities desperately needed to discourage his followers using “a very public and prolonged form of execution deliberately designed to be seen and be a deterrent”[2] so no further protests or uprisings would be organized. But Jesus never changed his message to cause less trouble because being faithful to death to living the kingdom of God, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) was The Plan.

While it might seem easy to skip over the introduction to the foot washing scene and the giving of the new commandment on Maundy Thursday, it is arguably our sole focus the other 364 days of the year. There has been much time and energy spent debating why Jesus knew his time was short. Actual wars have been fought over the person and substance of Jesus, scattered the Church with capital “C” to the four winds, and cause more than a few congregations to splinter.

This continues today. We still spend an incredible amount of time differentiating ourselves from one another. So-and-so believes this. So-and-so denies that. What we believe about what someone else believes makes them either in or out, no matter one’s theological bent. We divide into factions, denominations, and teams, all declaring not to be “that kind of Christian.” We have explicit and implicit lists of beliefs by which we measure each other, self-declaring who is a “real” follower of Jesus who and who is not.

Perhaps this was something else Jesus knew would happen, just like his death.

Maybe this is why he not only gave us the examples of humble service to one another in the act of foot washing, but then directly said that love is how his disciples would be identified—not by creeds or doctrine or litmus tests.

As we prepare for Maundy Thursday, the text gives us an opportunity for multiple considerations. We might wonder not only whether others identify us as followers of the Prince of Peace, but also about what gives us away. Are we marked as Christians by our love or because of a list of beliefs? Are we more interested in being right or being loving? Then we can turn the question around: how do we identify others as followers of Jesus? Who have we written off as heretics instead of partners in Christ’s service?

Put another way: Is there someone whose feet we would refuse to wash?

It is not hard to imagine what Jesus would have to say about that.

 

19957000_1857818704537707_4376645885528786019_o
The Rev. Lori Walke

The Rev. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.

 

[1] Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power And How They Can Be Restored (p. 99). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid.

 

Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Easter Vigil (A): Where We Need Him Most

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

For many of us, Easter worship this year will look dramatically different than it has in years past. I know I am grieving that we won’t be packing into a sanctuary adorned with spring flowers, raising our voices as the swell of the organ and brass carries the sound of our joy, celebrating Christ’s resurrection with all the glory and gusto we can manage.

Recognizing that loss, I’ve heard pastors say that when we can gather together again, in person, with our people—that will be Easter. And it will—it will be a marvelous rebirth of our community after a long (much too long) dormant period.

Yet in some ways, I think this Easter will be much closer to what Easter originally felt like to the disciples. For them there was no glory or gusto. Instead, as they peered into the tomb at dawn, there was emptiness and gloom; confusion and contradiction; fear and doubt. No one began Easter morning dressed in new spring finery and no one gathered with special instruments to sing songs of praise, because on Easter morning the disciples were still in mourning, still lost and heartsick over devastating loss, still trying to grapple with a breath-taking new reality they had hoped never to experience.

Sound familiar?

For me, Easter Vigil (and Easter sunrise service) comes a little closer to this reality than the traditional Sunday morning pomp-and-circumstance celebration in the sanctuary. Of course, we still know the outcome, but there is a hush in the air; a sense of humility as we gather in plainer clothes and simpler circumstances. We are here to meet Jesus, not in the sanctuary, but in a cemetery.

And isn’t that the point? Jesus doesn’t wait for the moment of triumph. Instead, he meets us in the midnight hour, in the darkness before dawn, in the hopelessness of our lives and the brokenness of our world. This year—and every year—that will most definitely preach.

The first time I attended an Easter Vigil service was in college, at the UCC church just a mile from my campus. The thing I remember most about it was gathering outside and kindling a fire while the sun set and ancient words were read. It felt very elemental, and I remember feeling pleasantly surprised that such a primal-feeling service was part of my tradition.

The second time was a few years later at the Catholic cathedral where I sang in the choir during my year studying abroad in the south of France. We gathered before midnight to watch our friend Emanuel, a catechumen robed in white, be baptized into the church. When the clock rolled over to midnight, we broke our Lenten fast with platters of langoustines and profiteroles. Again, it felt ancient; sacred—like we were let in on a secret hours before anyone else would know the good news that Christ was risen…risen indeed!

In the lectionary readings for this service—famous for their quantity—there are the primal accounts of creation and the flood; stories of our foundational covenant with God and God’s making good on that promise by bringing the people out of bondage; pronouncements and praise and promise; zombie army performance art (thank you Ezekiel); good old Pauline exposition; and finally—finally—the Story; the good news that death has not triumphed! Love has!

I think each of these scriptures has the two pieces I felt at the vigil services I’ve attended: something elemental, fundamental, pointing to ancient forces playing off of each other in the oldest dynamic there is—light and dark, death and life, fire and flood, ancient wisdom, divinity and humanity. And good news that reads almost like a secret passed from person to person, people to nation, whispered in gardens and shouted from rooftops.

The Gospel reading, for instance, begins with an earthquake, an angel whose appearance recalls lightning and snow, and guards who faint at this blinding apparition. And then there is the message shared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (identified in Mark and Luke as Mary the mother of James, and likely the same Mary as the mother of James and Joseph who watched the crucifixion in Matthew 27:56): He is not here, he is raised; go and tell the others. (vv. 6-7)

Did you notice that even though the angel also tells the women not to be afraid, the Marys run off to share the news with a mixture of “fear and great joy” (v. 8)? (Maybe you’ve been there before, afraid to believe that what you could barely allow yourself to hope for has actually come to pass, your pulse racing and your stomach dropping even as your heart fills to bursting.) It doesn’t say so, but I imagine that the women’s fear only subsides when they actually meet Jesus, discovering for themselves that the angel’s good news is true.

This Easter, may we and our people encounter Jesus not just by hearsay, but for ourselves: in the midst of our fear and our joy, in the middle of the humility of our circumstances and in the celebration we manage to pull together anyway. In other words, may we meet him this year—and every year—where we need him most.

Leah headshot PACC
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a nice long walk, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.

Good Friday(A): No King But Caesar

Good Friday(A): No King But Caesar

John 19:8-16

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

“What are the kids going to eat?”

All schools in Fulton county had just been shut down due to an outbreak of coronavirus and I was talking with a church member about when they might re-open. As I wondered what it might mean for parents without flexible work schedules having to suddenly find childcare or for teachers having to play catch-up, she asked this question. It was the first time I had considered it, though it probably shouldn’t have been—as a church we pack lunches in the summer and weekend meal kits in the fall and spring for kids from food-insecure families. Yet the entire narrative surrounding the global outbreak of COVID-19 thus far had been financial in nature—a pandemic told through stock tickers, projected GDP dips, and productivity losses—and I am ashamed to say that one of my first concerns was how many Sundays it might cause a dip in giving. My first inclination, before compassion or love for neighbors, was fear.

Fear permeates the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of John. I am sure that fear was a major motivating factor in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Fear of losing status and upsetting the established order seemed to be what was behind many of the religious elite’s plans to arrest and kill Jesus. Fear drives Peter to take up a sword in defense of Jesus, and hours later to deny any association with him. Fear chooses Barabbas over Jesus. Fear leads the people set apart to act as a priestly nation to side with an invading army over their own prophet. Fear forces Pilate’s hand.

Fear is the motivating force behind all empires throughout history—it was true of Roman society, and it is true in America today. Empires claim the right to reshape the world to fit their desired outcome and they demand submission and sacrifice in return. They use fear to claim the role that rightly belongs to Christ. Empire highlights your vulnerability and offers security. Empire elicits fears from past wrongs you have suffered (either individually or collectively) and offers vengeance. Empire emphasizes scarcity and offers economic advancement. Empire practices excluding, scapegoating, and oppressing others in order to offer membership in privileged group. Empire simultaneously creates and provides solutions to your fears. All you have to do is submit. You have no king but Caesar.

Good Friday provides us an alternative to the imperial ethos—the opposite of empire, in all of its violence and greed, is the love of the cross. The cross tells us that the way of security is vulnerability. The cross tells us that forgiveness is the only way to break the cycle of wrong and vengeance. The cross tears down the barriers between those with and without status—the idea that God plays favorites makes no sense in the light of Good Friday. All you have to do is accept. You are loved by the creator of the universe.

That’s pretty good news.

20190318-dsc_2787The Rev. Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He, like the rest of you, is currently adjusting to working from home with his family due to a global pandemic. His 2 and a half year old has just discovered Fancy Nancy. Send help.

 

 

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Easter Day (A): Tell the Story

Matthew 28:1-10

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Easter, the first Sunday.

It is the clergy’s Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. It is the biggest moment of the church year, rivaled only by Christmas, which is an inferior feast, by my estimation, only because of the simple fact that any human can be born. But this — this feast is when our all-human, all-God deity was raised from the dead. It’s quite a feat, rising from the dead — even for the Son of God.

This is the Sunday that most churches pull out all the stops. We blast the organ. We bring in the trumpeters and maybe even the dancers. We decorate the sanctuary with white and gold and lilies galore. We have potlucks and champagne and bright, ornate decorations. And if we don’t, we should.

As N.T. Wright now famously reflected: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simple the one-day happy ending tacked onto forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in the Church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” (N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope)

The late Gail R. O’Day, my own preaching professor, always encouraged her students to simply tell the story people came to hear on big feast days such as Easter. Often, we attempt to find a new, hot take when we know that more people than usual will be gathered to hear our sermon. Yet what they came to hear — the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who defeated death forever — is far better and far more powerful than the hottest of new takes on Easter. Really.

So this is the day when we simply get to tell the best story ever: one of a God who became human and showed people how to really live and really love, who healed the sick and challenged the powerful and befriended and comforted those whom society shunned. And all of this upset humanity so much that we killed him, yet that still wasn’t the end of the story. That same God, still human, reappeared in the garden three days later, alive.

It really is a great story, worth throwing our hats into the air over. It is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union. Our big moment as the Church.

And yet.

To most of the world, it’s anticlimactic. By the time April 12 rolls around this year, Easter candy will have been in the stores since February, and there will have been more than a few Holy Saturday Easter egg hunts. What’s more, half the congregation you see before you might have been dragged to church against their will. Many of the people you see gathered before you will be experiencing grief or anxiety or pain and will have considered it a victory simply to have beaten the crowds to find a pew.

For all the clergy’s deep and abiding feelings around Easter (I myself get weepy at the very mention of the Exsultet at Easter Vigil), Easter itself, to most people, isn’t a big event. It’s barely a ripple in the massive movement of the world. Most Christians would likely list Christmas above Easter in their list of favorite Jesus-themed holidays, regardless of the ease of being born as it compares to coming back to life after a public execution.

If you look at the Gospel text for the day, however, you might notice that the first Easter had no trumpets. There were no lilies, no big celebrations. There was an earthquake, but that seems to have been more anxiety-producing than celebratory.

It began almost mundanely. Mary Magdalene and Other Mary get up and dawn and make their way as soon as they can to where Jesus has been buried. They come to care for their friend’s body. There are guards posted to ensure they don’t steal the friend’s body, likely adding indignity to an already fraught situation.

Just as they’re getting there, there’s an earthquake, and everyone present understandably freaks out, and the Angel of the Lord comes and rolls back the stone and plops down on it. The guards are, quite literally, shook.

The angel then informs the women that Jesus is risen, revealing that he didn’t roll away the stone to let Jesus out; Jesus had already managed to get loose on his own.

He’s alive. Wait — he’s alive?! How could that be?

There must’ve been a rush of confusion and questions, but the women know what to do.

The Marys run to tell their friends, the disciples, what they’ve seen and heard, and Jesus “suddenly” meets them on the way. Does he say something profound? No. He says, “Greetings.”

There are still no trumpets; there’s just the guy who was formerly known as dead appearing and saying “What’s up?”

Then Jesus gives Mary & Mary some travel instructions about where he’ll meet the disciples, and that’s it. That’s the big story. It’s a story so anticlimactic that the disciples themselves heard it secondhand from the church’s first Gospel preachers, Mary and Mary.

But you know, and I know, that that was only the beginning.

Jesus rose again on Easter. Hope rose again on Easter. And it was only the beginning.

Maybe, just maybe, this Easter is only the beginning for someone out in that congregation, too. Someone who has just started on the long road to recovery from addiction. Someone who feels unloved and has just shown up at a random Easter service because that’s what it feels right to do. Someone who just lost their mother and feels hopeless. Or maybe even a preacher who is preaching for the twelfth Easter Sunday in their career and just can’t find anything else to say about it anymore.

Those people need hope to rise again. They need a spark.

Easter 1 is our Super Bowl, our Grand Prix, our State of the Union.

And it is also only the beginning of a 50-day celebration. It is the spark of hope that ignites the flames of Pentecost.

So go out and preach the story they came to hear, preacher. You don’t need to preach anything new. Just go preach the story they came to hear and let the Spirit fan that spark of hope into flame in due time. We have at least 50 days.

So let’s get find that spark in the pages of this Gospel reading, and let’s get this party started. Amen.

Screen Shot 2020-01-05 at 9.28.12 AM
The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

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.

Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 4.47.04 PM
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

Picture1

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

 

Picture2
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.

img_1651

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.

 

Profile
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.