3rd Sunday of Easter(B): Living Scripture

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By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

Prior to ordination, I spent over a decade as a professional theatre artist. I worked as an actor, director, puppet builder/puppeteer, and improviser along with many other roles. Because my work was so varied, when people asked me what I specialized in, I simply said, “I’m a storyteller.”

When I think back over my life, I realize that my vocation as storyteller began at a very young age when my parents and grandparents told me stories. Our favorite genres were family history and stories of the Bible. I can remember loading all the stuffed animals into the top bunk of our bunk beds and screaming in terror as I imagined the room filling with water. I was Noah, chosen by God to save the animals. Every time we went to the fancy grocery store with the automatic glass doors that parted in the center, I would run ahead of my family, spread my arms wide, and shout, “Let my people go!”

As embarrassing as I’m sure these antics were to my family, they solidified the biblical narratives not only in my imagination, but in my very body. To this day, when I hear of Moses leading the people across the Red Sea or Elijah and Elisha parting the Jordan, I can feel the energy in my arms and imagine the wind roaring through my hair. My internalization of the biblical stories lives in my muscles and nose and ears and mouth.

Jesus, through his incarnational presence of God made flesh, not only brings God intimately into the world, but Jesus puts flesh and bone onto the promises of the Law and the Prophets. In today’s post-resurrection reading from Luke, Jesus says, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Lk 24:39 NRSV). It is vital for Jesus that his disciples know that this is not spirit only, but God made flesh resurrected in spirit AND body. Jesus goes on to say, “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (24:44 – 45). All of Holy Scripture points toward the promise of Jesus and his reality that dwells here and now in our physical world and bridges the gap between God and humanity.

If Jesus establishes a physical reality and relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels, it follows that this physical reality continues through all Christian witness from the Christian Scriptures, through the history of Christianity, and into our present reality. We who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection live an incarnational continuation of this story until our own ascension with Christ.

This incarnational understanding of Holy Scripture certainly informs today’s Gospel reading, and I would argue that it should inform all readings of the Bible. Drawing on my own experiences as a theatre artist and techniques I learned from David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie in their book, Mark as Story,[1] I often begin the study of any pericope by writing out the characters and the setting. When I begin thinking about these stories in a realized, incarnational way, I often glean new information that not only informs my preaching/teaching but allows me to experience and internalize the Bible in an intimate way.

Let’s explore this method using today’s first lesson from Acts. This pericope has a deeply rooted and horrific history of interpretation that allows Christians to blame Jews for the death of Jesus. This kind of hatred has led to senseless, cruel, and theologically unsound violence against Jews in movements such as the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Preachers/teachers today have an ethical responsibility to condemn such an interpretation, and I believe this method of narrative analysis helps us do that.

For example, in the Acts lesson appointed for today, I began with a list of characters. Immediately visible are Peter, John, and the people Peter calls “the Israelites.” Looking more closely, I also realized that the newly healed beggar born lame is present. If we read back, we see that many of these Israelites are the faithful Jews who daily carried this man to the Beautiful Gate of the temple in order to help him in his alms collecting. Some of those gathered had deep pity for the man. Others may have seen him as an annoyance. Imagine our own thoughts, reactions, and emotions when we see people begging outside our own churches. Either way, there is deep relationship between the man healed and the crowd Peter is addressing.

Furthermore, Peter names another vital character in this scene: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors” (Acts 3:13). God not only acts within this story, but the nature of God—which God; whose God—becomes known in this familial description.

Turning from characters to setting, we see that the crowd is in the Portico of Solomon in the Court of the Gentiles at the temple. We learn in the preceding pericope that “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon” (3:1). The setting for the narrative, then, is one of pious Jews going into the temple for prayer, and they are stopped at the liminal space right before entering a holier part of the temple set aside for Jews.

Synthesizing this analysis, we see that we have an entirely Jewish cast in a Jewish setting. As theologian Willie James Jennings remarks, “Peter speaks to his people. This is an in-house conversation. We have lost the sense and struggle of this family argument.”[2] Utilizing the actor’s tool of imagining how something must feel as we draw upon our own experiences, most of us know what it’s like to be in a family feud. Most of us know what it’s like to be in a church argument. Anyone who has served on a vestry/church council/leadership board, has certainly experienced or can imagine the awkwardness and sometimes pain of disagreement and the effects those have on the community. Likewise, we can imagine the healing that comes from acknowledging our histories and turning toward our communal, life-giving goals.

As you prepare to preach this or any text, I invite you into an imaginative process that brings the text to life. For me, I have the most fun when I do this with others. It may feel silly, but gather a group of adults, make costumes from things lying around the office, and act this scene out. Through imagination, empathy, and incarnational living of the Scriptures, you may find that their meaning becomes deeper, and they will become part of your physical reality as a baptized member of Christ’s own body.


[1] David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999).

[2]Willie James Jennings, Acts, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 43.




The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen serves as Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware, working alongside English and Spanish speaking congregations. He holds an M.Div. from Seminary of the Southwest, where his theatre background particularly informed his study of liturgy and biblical hermeneutics. During the pandemic, he has channeled his energies into learning to crochet, cooking new foods, and binge-watching shows that have convinced him that English clergy do very little parish ministry and lots of crime solving. 

2nd Sunday of Easter(B): Believing in Your People

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By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

“Do you believe because you see me? Happy (blessed) are those who don’t see and yet believe” (John 20:29 CEB). These are Jesus’ words, and they round out a story that historically resulted in the term “doubting Thomas”—not to mention a lot of guilt for some growing up in hard-nosed Christian homes.

The story itself is covered in peace. Jesus appears on Easter evening to his disciples and speaks “peace” and “forgiveness.” Of course, Thomas isn’t there. The disciples tell Thomas upon his return that they have seen Jesus. But unless he sees the wounds of Jesus, he will not believe them. Eight days pass and the disciples are in the same spot. Jesus appears and utters “peace” and then looks at Thomas. Jesus shows Thomas the wounds and says, “Believe!” And Thomas believes.

But is the idea that Thomas’ belief is based on sight a negative thing? After all, the other disciples saw Jesus too and they believed. Why does Thomas get the short end of the stick just because he missed the first party? Every character in this chapter sees Jesus and believes. And then along comes Thomas, who desires the same thing, and Jesus makes an example out of him!

I think there’s more to this story than just a simple narrative with a moral. In order to better understand, we need to look at the language. The word used for “happy”or “blessed” is from the Greek word makarios, which is also the word used in the beatitudes. Indeed, this word means “happy, blessed, to be envied,” but a more extensive meaning can be shown as the following: describing someone in a position to be envied.

“Do you believe because you see me? Blessed (and to be envied) are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Scholars believe that of the four gospels, John was likely written last. And like many of the other writings that make up the Bible, this gospel was written to a specific community. The community of John was likely made up of folks that were second (even third) generation Christians. They didn’t have the experiences of the first generation. They didn’t know Paul or many of the other disciples. They had never met Jesus. All they had to go on were stories.

Thus, it would make sense that this story would (only) find its way into the latest gospel. To a community who struggled with having not seen Jesus and the time of the first generation, the author of John sends an encouraging word. “You think the disciples were blessed because they saw? They aren’t to be envied. YOU are. After all, you have not seen and yet you still believe.”

Some of the best leaders I’ve known have encouraged people with what I call “statements of wish.” They’re not necessarily statements of fact, but rather a statement painting a desire for the future, a wish. One of my favorite pastors moved to a new church where the congregation had been through it. They’d had some rough times. And she began saying in every worship service benediction, “You are beloved children of God.” Over time, that constant reminder began to make its way into my heart and the hearts of others. I began to really believe that I was beloved, that before anything else, I am loved by God. This statement of wish took hold!

I believe this is what the author of John is doing for his community; a community struggling with not having been a part of the wave of the first generation. He is sharing a statement of wish. “You are not cursed. You are actually blessed. You are to be envied. Because you have not seen and yet you believe!” And perhaps over time, the reading and rereading of this passage reminded the audience that they were indeed blessed. Perhaps they came to really know that they were blessed.

Statements of wish are important in leadership, in parenting, in mentoring, in counseling. They help us to lead from a place of hope and care. What statements of wish have you spoken over someone lately?

Sources for language: https://biblehub.com/greek/3107.htm

The Rev. Andrew Chappell serves as the Associate Pastor of Newnan First United Methodist Church in Newnan, Georgia. Andrew has an M. Div from Candler School of Theology and has been in ministry for over 10 years. He is engaged to Adair, enjoys Star Wars, and hopes to one day take his mandolin-playing skills up to the next level.

Easter Day(B): Tell the Story

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By: The Rev. Anna Tew

“I was thinking, over-thinking

‘Cause there’s just too many scenarios

To analyze, look in my eyes

Cause you’re my dream please come true.”

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

I was thinking — over-thinking.

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

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

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

Listen, Preacher. Don’t overthink this one.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t overthink this one.

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

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

Go get ‘em, preacher.

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

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

7th Sunday of Easter (A): Casting Our Anxieties Upon God

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

As I write this post, it has been five-and-a-half weeks since our last in-person worship service. Based on our Bishop’s Pastoral Directive, it’ll be at least another six weeks before we can gather again. Based on my gut and what I’m reading, it’ll probably be even longer. As I look ahead to what will be the 7th Sunday of Easter, and the 11th Sunday of Quarantine, I really wish that 1st Peter hadn’t made it into the Biblical canon. Quite frankly, the author’s response to suffering and the question of theodicy is pretty weak, and borders on patronizing, especially if we attribute the text to the first Bishop of Rome.

As I write this post, thousands of people are dying everyday of a virus that has no known cure and no vaccine, millions are unemployed and fear losing their health insurance, and stimulus packages of all shapes and sizes are bogged down by governmental ineptitude. Hearing words like “don’t be surprised,” “it’s a test,” or “rejoice as you are sharing in Christ’s suffering,” feel like they fall short, and are the kinds of things that make us cringe when we hear them said at funerals. They are the words that people say when they don’t know what else to say. They might make the speaker feel better, but they ring hollow and can sting deeply those who are suffering under fear, stress, or grief.

In my experience as a parish priest, I’ve found that certain lessons can do more harm than good when they are read and not preached. It is why my congregations have always run with Track 2 in the Hebrew Bible during the season after Pentecost; the lessons just seem to “fit in” better. 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 begs to be preached in the ongoing stress of a global pandemic, if only to keep our members hearing the Bible reiterate dangerous theology like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “everything happens for a reason.”

Arguing that we should preach on a text is fine, but I think Modern Metanoia is better used as a resource for suggestions on how you might preach a text. For that, I think we have to skip past the platitudes of the first paragraph and focus more on the second. The author moves the attention away from scrambling to explain what they think God is doing in our suffering and toward what our proper response to that suffering should be. “Humble yourselves under the hand of God… Cast all your anxiety on [God], because [God] cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.”

I’ve not been great at the discipline piece, if I’m honest. I’m sleeping too little and snacking too much, but where I do find strength in this time of stress and anxiety is when I, in full confidence of God’s care for me, cast all my anxiety upon God. The Greek word, translated as “cast upon,” is a compound word that appears only twice in the New Testament. Its other usage comes in Luke’s gospel, when on Palm Sunday, the disciples cast their garments upon the colt that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. For me, the image of casting conjures up memories of my friend Will, standing knee deep in Big Lagoon just off NAS Pensacola, casting a net for bait fish. A combination of beautiful ballet and a haphazard toss is required to get the weights to spin out properly and to keep the net from becoming a tangled-up mess.

A similar mix of intentionality and chaos are required when it comes to casting all our anxieties upon God. Intentionality is required because honesty is necessary. Until and unless we can admit our anxieties, our fears, our inability to do it alone, we cannot even begin to find the healing, restoration, and strength that we are promised by God. Once we dig deep and begin to mine for that anxiety, if we really want to cast all our cares on God, then the haphazard nature of it begins. Digging deep, we fling all our fears—like sand at the bottom of a deep hole—tossing them all, even the stuff we’d rather hide and hold onto, so that God can offer full relief. Even so, as practitioners of pastoral care, we know that the process of casting our anxiety upon God is never finished. Like Will’s net in Big Lagoon, once we toss it, we’ve got to reset and cast again. It is a process that never ends. As we cast our anxieties on God again and again, we become more and more sure of the truth that God really does care for us, even when it feels like all hell has broken loose all around us.

 

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS he earned at Millersville University (’02).  As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace.  You can read more from him at his personal lectionary blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

6th Sunday of Easter(A): Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Experiencing the “Unknown God”

Acts 17:22-31

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

In my tradition, we pray a prayer at the beginning of Sunday worship called a Collect (COLL-ect), which gathers together (“collects”) our thoughts and prayers and sets the theme for the day. The Collect assigned for this Sunday describes a God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love.[i] This idea of experiencing the incomprehensible God through love rather than knowledge is expressed in a Christian tradition known as apophatic theology, which insists that God can never be truly known through human intellect. The apophatic tradition reminds us that all our thoughts, images, and ideas about God are just that: about God, not actually God. In fact, our attachment to ideas about God can easily become idolatry. Surprisingly, this rich tradition of apophatic theology has roots in Paul’s address to the Areopagites in Acts 17.

As Paul waits for his missionary partners in Athens, he notices how crowded the city is with idols and discovers one altar dedicated to an “unknown God.” Because Paul is a gifted evangelist, he knows that all cultures have within them seeds of the Gospel that need to be affirmed, watered, and grown.[ii] So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” is really the God who has made himself fully manifest and accessible in Christ.[iii] Eventually, Paul is brought to the court of Areopagus, where he essentially says, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God and I’m here to tell you that this God has been made known in the Risen Christ, through whom we can tap into the divine source of being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”[iv]

The lectionary unfortunately leaves out the Athenians’ response, which is mixed: some scoff, some want to hear more, and two listeners become convinced that Paul is speaking truth: a woman named Damaris and a man named Dionysius (17:32-33). Although Dionysius doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens.[v] But more importantly, Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination as the great spiritual icon for experiencing the God who is beyond all human understanding. In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this biblical character’s name as a pseudonym in writing books about accessing the God beyond all knowing. The author chose this pseudonym because he imagined that Dionysius had been deeply persuaded by Paul’s teachings about the “unknown God,” a phrase that inspired the author to formulate the foundations of apophatic theology. Today, this Syrian author is referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius” and is considered one of the most significant theologians of church history. Most theologians since the 5th century have been influenced in one way or another by Pseudo-Dionysius, who is also referred to as “Psuedo-Denys,” or, as I prefer, “Denys the Menace” (because he laced his apophatic theology with a not-so-healthy dose of Neo-Platonism).

One theologian who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is an anonymous English author who wrote a text called The Cloud of Unknowing in 14th century Nottingham, the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood. Although the apophatic tradition does not conflate images with the divine, the Cloud author uses images to describe the human relationship with God. He explains that between ourselves and God, there is “a cloud of unknowing,” which we cannot penetrate with our thoughts, but which we can penetrate through humble love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through this cloud. He offers a practical way to do this which has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind and to detach ourselves from our thoughts. This sacred word is meant to be repeated as a kind of mantra, an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting carried away by our thoughts, we return to the sacred word. By returning to the sacred word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud.

I have personally found this prayer practice to be deeply beneficial and transformative as it helps me develop a healthy detachment from my thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of secondary benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and deeper sleep. However, the primary benefit I receive as I let go of my thoughts and try to be present to God through love is a direct experience of God as my very being. The Cloud author says, “God is your being…and God exists in all things, as their cause and their being.”[vi] In Acts 17, Paul says something very similar when he preaches, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Paul and the Cloud author invite us to experience the “unknown God” by being present to the simple reality of our existence because it is by being present to our existence that we are actually being present to God. Richard Rohr paraphrases the Cloud author when he says, “Offer up your simple naked being to the joyful being of God…Don’t focus on what you are, but simply that you are!”[vii]

Although it is unlikely that Paul would have ever identified as an apophatic theologian, his prophetic words to the Areopagus provided the soil out of which apophatic theology could emerge and grow. From that soil, we have inherited the wisdom of Pseudo-Denys and the contemplative prayer practice of the Cloud author, both of which invite us to directly experience the God whose goodness is beyond our understanding and whose promises can be obtained through love. By accepting this invitation, we can come to experience the “unknown God” as the One in whom we live and move and have our being; and indeed, as the One who is our being.

Daniel London headshot
The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California and author of Theodicy and Spirituality in the Fourth Gospel (Fortress Academic). He enjoys exploring the pristine beaches, gentle rivers, and stunning redwoods of Humboldt County with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi. He tries to practice Centering Prayer, but admits that he often sips coffee during contemplation.

 

 

[i] “O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 225.

[ii] Christian Missiologists sometimes refer to these “seeds of the Gospel” as logoi spermatikoi. See Justin Martyr, St. Justin Martyr: The First and Second Apologies (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 23 – 72.

[iii] Even though the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), the apophatic tradition insists that our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God.

[iv] My paraphrase of Acts 17:22-31.

[v] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, translated by Kirsopp Lake. LCL 153 (Cambridge MA: Harvard, 1998), Book III.iv, 197.

[vi] Author of The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counseling, translated by William Johnston (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 139.

[vii] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (New York: Convergent, 2019), 224.

 

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

Easter 5(A): Rebuilding Identity in Christ

1 Peter 2:2-10

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

David Kessler is an expert on grief. He co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. His latest book adds another stage to the process, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief (published November 2019). In a Harvard Business Review interview in March, he commented that he believes “we will continue to find meaning now and when this [the coronavirus pandemic] is over.”[1]

Most of us have not arrived at the meaning stage. As I write this, I am not sure what state the world will be in by the time the fifth Sunday of Easter arrives. I do know that this Easter season will be like no other we have experienced in modernity. For that reason, you might consider nixing the “do not be troubled” opening line of John’s Gospel and instead pick up 1 Peter for your sermon inspiration.

Peter’s first letter is a good comfort for the distressed. We are suffering on a global scale. The grief, disappointment and hurt is palpable. I have participated in dozens of video calls where, at some point, someone on the call begins to cry. Physical distancing, self-isolation and other coronavirus-induced limitations on life should not be viewed as a trivial form of suffering. N.T. Wright explains: “There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment…. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.”[2]

This “poised, anxious sorrow” is the perfect reason to pick up Peter’s letter during the season of Easter. As the epistle serves to strengthen Christians in times of distress, it also sets their lives within the history of God’s activity and offers meaning for our experiences of sorrow, distress, and suffering.

Don’t be tempted to use your precious exhortation time unpacking the historical debates around the letter’s authorship. Save that for the clergy lectionary study or the Wednesday night Bible study where you can share the broader context. Rather, I suggest we consider it a piece of early Christian correspondence included among those New Testament writings that Martin Luther remarked, “show thee Christ.”

Peter’s first letter is addressed to a group of early churches that are alienated from the surrounding society, offering them comfort which is why it continues to offer us wisdom today. Particularly, this epistle reminds believers what it means to live out the sacraments as individuals and as a community. From 1 Peter, churches may discover clues to faithful living even while restricted in their public gatherings.

Peter reminds the churches that the Christian life, while not separate from the world beyond our doors, offers more, much more. Amazing promises are made to those who give their life to this new world by placing one’s full confidence in Jesus. As Peter writes to the church, those who love and trust Jesus will “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Peter 1:8)

The author calls his readers to spend their time, despite their distress, renewing their identity in Christ. As we learn to live into a new normal, one of the ways we might make meaning during our suffering, is to spend the Easter season renewing our identity in Christ.

No amount of special facilities, programs, talents, digital platforms and “relevant” messages are required to experience this type of renewal. Don’t tell the finance committee, but it doesn’t even require a line item in the budget! What it does require is faithfulness to the process of becoming more Christlike. Wise preachers, even those weary from intensive on-the-job training as digital pastors, might heed this opportunity to strip away non-essentials and invite disciples into an intensive re-building project. Peter’s message reminds disciples that Christians and non-Christians don’t see different things, but that we see the same things differently. The disciple will make Jesus their bedrock while, for non-Christians, Jesus is an inconvenience, a rock to be tossed out of the way. This Easter season, as we await the remembrance of the Pentecost and invite the Holy Spirit to inspire us anew, believers have an opportunity to take seriously that having been born through water and the Spirit, they may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The epistolary lection is meant to offer affirmation and comfort for those chosen to be a holy people. By using images and phrases from the Old Testament, the epistle simply substitutes the language of Israel for the church. This catena of images previously reserved for Israel seeks to reinterpret the Old Testament for the expanding Christian community in Asia Minor. Any commentary worth their salt can offer an extensive review of the Old Testament allusions in this passage of the letter. If you are preaching this text in 2020, there is a great opportunity to remind the people of who they are and what that means for their daily lives as God’s holy people. If your congregation continues to shelter-in-place or practice physical distancing, providing specific ideas on how to shape their days while at home could serve as the bulk of your message.

One such practice might be in meal sharing since the passage offers a strong food metaphor. Suggesting that community members plan for a special meal – one that takes time and love to prepare – alongside a special prayer. You could write a special, short liturgy for members to offer before their meal or suggest the Moravian-inspired Love Feast. Through the meal, remind believers that we have tasted and seen that the Lord is sweet.[3] The Lord is Christ and Jesus is to be the basis of their growth – they have tasted of him through the Word and through the Sacrament and now they can grow up in him. Because of this, they have chosen to see things as Christ sees them, not as the world sees. Through these new eyes, they can lay the cornerstone of their spiritual house and participate in re-affirming and in the case of many, re-building their identity in Christ.

[1] Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” Harvard Business Review. 23 March 2020. https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief. Accessed 2 April 2020.

[2] N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Time. 29 March 2020. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/. Accessed 4 April 2020.

[3] I prefer Luke Timothy Johnson’s preferred translation of chrēstos as sweet: “Taste and see because the Lord is sweet.” Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Third Edition. Fortress Press: Minneapolis (2010), 430.

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

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

Easter 4(A): Smelling Like Sheep!

4th Sunday of Easter(A): Smelling Like Sheep

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

By: The Rev. David Clifford

A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.[1]

Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:

The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.[2]

As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.

The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.

I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.[3] By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”[4]

In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:

When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”[5]

This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.

Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7.[6] It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!

[1] Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.

[2] Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.

[3] Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 20.

[6] John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The word that sticks out to me in the readings assigned for today is only actually used once – and yet it seems to hover around all of them, tying them together somehow. In Acts, Peter is reported to say, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Let them know with certainty.

Now, maybe the word sticks out to me because it is so appealing – and yet, I know that it is entirely antithetical to faith. Faith, and God, are so much more mystery, and incomprehension, and immensity – and how can one be certain of any of those things?

Despite knowing that, certainty always has and likely always will appeal to me. I love the idea of knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have always liked to write things in my planner in pen, not pencil – thinking somehow the ink on the page created an unchangeable, immovable fact. It became something I could be certain of, not just a proposal of possibility.

But, can we ever be certain of God? Or, maybe a better question – should we ever try to be?

In a chunky reading from Luke, we have the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are walking along the road, and Jesus himself comes near to them, but they do not recognize him. He asks what they are discussing, and they explain to him that they are talking about Jesus, who they hoped would be the one to redeem Israel. Now, this must be interesting for Jesus to hear, because of course, as he understands it, and as we, his modern-day readers understand it, he DID redeem Israel. Yet the two disciples are so certain that they know what the Messiah will be like, that they don’t see that God is with them.

Our scripture says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could it be that their certainty was, in fact, their blindness?

They continue walking and tell Jesus about the women who have astounded them, by reporting that there was no body at the tomb, and, furthermore, that they had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps their certainty that this would never happen to women kept them from receiving the good news. Jesus calls it being “slow of heart to believe.”

I wonder if our hearts are slowed by our certainty.

Jesus becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never been certain about what’s actually happening in the breaking of the bread. Jesus has shared many meals with them, but maybe there’s always been a moment of mystery in that action. Maybe there’s always been a moment of inbreaking – a moment where God is revealed or cracked open – where God is beyond.

As soon as the disciples understand that Jesus has been with them – when they get certain about the identity of the stranger who has been travelling with them, he vanishes. As soon as we get certain about the way Jesus has appeared, he disappears again. It isn’t his way to be in a box, or to appear in the ways we expect. It’s his way to surprise, to delight, to break through our certainty and reveal to us mystery, instead.

So, I might edit Peter – because I don’t think we should come to God with certainty. My prayer is that we learn to live with such mystery, and with such ambiguity – that we greet everyone as if they are Jesus, travelling down the road with us.

 

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The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.

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.

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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/

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.

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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.