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.

Easter 7(C): Love is a Risky Business

Easter 7(C): Love is a Risky Business

John 17:20-26

By: Anne Moman Brock

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. The Beatles

Reading this text feels a bit like deciphering Beatles lyrics from some of their later albums. There’s a lot of “me in you and you in me and all of us in this together” kind of thing going on. Add on top of it that Jesus is praying to God — the Son of God who is God, the Father and Son who are also One. I get a psychedelic feel from this passage, something that the Beatles represented well!

Jesus gathered the disciples together. He fed them, and he washed their feet. Jesus lovingly called out Judas and Peter. Then he started preaching to his friends. He still had so much to say to them, but he didn’t have much time left to continue on, nor did he think would they understand even if he did have time (16:12). As his speech comes to an end, he turns to God in prayer knowing that he was soon to be arrested in the garden.

The speech before this prayer was for his friends to hear, but this prayer was for God. And the passage for this week comes at the very end of that prayer — that heartfelt, earnest prayer to God the Father. A prayer that acknowledges the role each of them play in this act of ultimate love and grace.

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However — not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:36). In John, however, Jesus is overwhelmed with love and hope for these disciples and others who believe in him. And, he’s not just praying for those who currently believe, but also for the future believers — the ones that he will make himself known to over time (v. 26).

What is Jesus’ concern for those to come? It’s not about dogma or right belief. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s not about proper behavior or perfect speech. Jesus’ concern is that they know their oneness with God which fills them fully and completely with the love of God.

I can see where he’s coming from. I was a youth minister for 13 years and as much as I wanted those kids to know how to find scripture passages in the Bible and recite the fruits of the Spirit and recall John Wesley’s main points, that didn’t always happen. They had to be reminded who John Wesley was. We had to sing through the goofy song to remember the fruits of the Spirit. Page numbers were called out to help friends find the right spot in the Bible. They didn’t always get the lessons I was trying to teach.

However, no matter what they did or didn’t learn, I had one primary purpose to my vocation — that each and every person who walked into that room knew how much they were loved. I wanted them to be saturated in God’s love so that when they went away to school or left to find a new job, they would always be reminded of their inherent goodness and of God’s deep abiding love for them. I wanted them to be so saturated in God’s love that when life got really hard, they would know to whom and where they could turn. I wanted them to experience in human form — through staff and volunteers — the unending, powerful love of God.

I see what Jesus longs for… a community of believers that understand God is in and through them, a community of doubters that understand they are in and through God. I see what Jesus longs for… a community of misfits that somehow know deep within what it means to be in God and God in them. Perhaps we have a different starting point, but I don’t think Jesus’ longing was that far off from the longing of the protestors in the 1960s or the activists of today. We are one humanity; we are one in God. Jesus was saying it then; we’re still saying it today.

Jesus understands why he was sent — to make God’s love known to all people. Jesus understands why he will die — because he made God’s love known to all people. It’s a risky business suggesting that all people are worthy of love. It’s risky to claim that God is present in each and every human being. It’s risky to suggest that we — God, Jesus, and I — are one. It’s so risky that it led to his death.

Jesus moves from this prayer into the garden knowing what will come next — betrayal, denial and suffering. However, Jesus keeps moving forward knowing it will be hard and painful. Jesus keeps moving forward knowing that his mother and the disciple whom he loved will grieve. Jesus keeps moving forward knowing that this love being made known to all people must go the full distance. And so he does, knowing he’s in God and God is in us.

 

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Anne Moman Brock

After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility and writing at http://www.annebrock.com.

 

 

 

 

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

On three different occasions before his death, Jesus taught his disciples about what was to come. He didn’t leave much up for debate or interpretation either. Just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus flat out told the group that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[1] Despite this very clear teaching, the disciples never seem to quite get it. Twice more, Jesus has to remind them that the future they imagine – power, privilege, prestige – is not what God has in mind for the great reversal and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Despite three clearly articulated opportunities for the disciples to hear and understand what was to come, they each seem totally caught off guard when Jesus is rejected by the powers-that-be, undergoes great suffering on the cross, and is killed. In fact, they seem so clueless, that when it all goes down, their only reaction is to run and hide. For three days, they hide in fear. Once the Festival is over, they begin to plan their next steps. Two of them, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple decide to cut bait and head home. At some point on the seven-mile journey back to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus came alongside the two dejected disciples. He listened as they talked about all that had happened, and how they had hoped that this Jesus might have been the Messiah, but those hopes were dashed when he was rejected, crucified, and died.

Here again, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them about God’s plan for salvation.  Beginning with Moses, Jesus used all the prophets and the psalms to, for a fourth time, show them how his rejection, suffering, death, AND RESURRECTION, were all necessary components of the restoration of the world. For the fourth time, Jesus showed them how God’s ways are not our ways and how love, grace, and mercy – not power and might – were the way to redemption. Still, despite a whole day walking alongside the yet unrecognizable Jesus, Cleopas and his companion didn’t realize that it was Jesus until they stopped for dinner and he broke the bread.

Off they went, sprinting back to Jerusalem to share the Good News that Jesus Christ was, in fact, alive! Back in that upper room, the door locked behind them out of fear, they told of their encounter with the risen Christ when he appeared before the crowd. With a mix of terror, confusion, and belief, they listened as Jesus, now for the fifth time, recounted what he had told them all along, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

In Luke’s Gospel, it is with this that the fifth teaching on the mission of Jesus; that his ministry on earth, finally comes to an end. After five distinct opportunities to hear that his life, death, and resurrection were all a part of the larger plan of salvation, it will be up to the disciples to figure out what that means going forward. They won’t be alone, however, for God has promised to send help. In Luke, it is called “the power from on high.” In the second ascension narrative from Acts, it is called the Holy Spirit. In John, it is the Advocate. No matter the name, the promise is that someone else will come in the place of Jesus to lead the disciples in truth, to guide them as witnesses of the Gospel, to encourage them in their proclamation, to help them interpret the Good News that they were unable to hear and comprehend; that God’s plan of redemption came to life through the cross and grave.

With this final teaching complete, Jesus led the disciples out of the city and to the mountain village of Bethany where he offered one final blessing before being carried up into heaven. Exegetically, things get a bit dicey here. We believe Luke and Acts to have been written by the same author, and the fact that the details of the ascension are a bit different between the two texts can feel a bit problematic. In Luke, the ascension seems to happen on Easter Day. In Acts, it is said to be forty days after the resurrection. In Luke, they run back to the city with great joy. In Acts, the disciples are left stupefied by the sight of Jesus’ ascension and two men robed in white have to motivate the slack-jawed crowd to return to Jerusalem. In Luke, they run to the Temple to praise God. In Acts, they gather in the upper room and await the Holy Spirit. Both lessons are appointed for Ascension Day, so what is the preacher to do? Do we ignore the differences? Do we admit them and attempt to explain them away? Do we Jesus Seminar them out of existence?

I’m one who believes that the variety of the Biblical story offers richness and depth. After all, Jesus had to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection at least five different times.  What is constant in the ascension stories is a) that Jesus had to return to the Father, b) that the disciples would not be left alone, and c) that the Spirit’s task was to turn disciples into apostles and evangelists. The good news of the ascension, whether it happened on day one or day forty is that the Gospel could now be spread from Jerusalem to all of Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  As inheritors of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day is our chance to give thanks for fullness of God’s plan for salvation – from the Annunciation to the Ascension – as we await the Spirit’s arrival with power and might in just ten short days.

[1] Luke 9:22

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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 in Business Administration 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 blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

Easter 6(C): Holy Mischief

Easter 6(C): Holy Mischief

John 5:1-18

By: Ryan Young

In this Scripture, we see two connected instances of Jesus upsetting the established order in order to witness to the Kingdom.

In the first, Jesus speaks to a man who has been ill for thirty-eight years. We are told that he has no support structure, no advocates, and every time he tries to enter the healing waters of Bethsaida, someone (presumably less in need of healing from the narrative clues) jumps in front of him to take the healing for themselves. I imagine that Jesus’ question, “Do you want to get well?” fell heavy on his ears. The system is stacked against him. He has been left behind by his community. So it is little surprise that his response is defensive and frustrated. Of course he wants to get well, but how is that possible for someone like him in this system?

And so, Jesus heals him. He simply tells the man to pick up his mat and walk, and he does so without precondition (though there is an expectation of holiness after he has been healed in v. 14). This witnesses both to the validity of the healed man’s frustrations and to the reality of the “preferential option for the poor” –that Jesus is first and foremost on the side of the poor and powerless members of society.

The second instance is the reaction of the Jewish leaders to this healing. In ministering to this man, Jesus broke the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. This is not a small issue. This is one of the ten commandments handed to Moses at Sinai. The Jewish leaders understand this to be foundational to the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. For them, not only is Jesus acting unrighteously by healing on the Sabbath, he is also causing the healed man to act unrighteously by instructing him to carry his mat on the Sabbath. Exodus 20:8-11 notes that the Sabbath is a commemoration of God resting from work, and so the people of God ought also to rest from work on the seventh day. Jesus attempts to reframe their understanding of the fourth (or third depending on your numbering system) commandment—God is in fact always continuing the work of redeeming creation, and so the people of God should likewise always be working with God toward that aim, even on the Sabbath.

This is too much for the Jewish leaders. Jesus was attempting to overturn a widely-held, longstanding traditional understanding of Law. Jesus was blaspheming by taking onto himself authority that belonged to God alone. The irony of this viewpoint should not be lost on us since we readers understand that Jesus was in fact God incarnate and was using authority that was rightfully his to overturn traditional understandings of how God relates to humanity to bring about a new, freer expression.

Over the past few months, I have been teaching a class on church history for members of my congregation. What has struck me is how the Church is always undergoing reformation. How the church is always dealing with this same conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders—the tension between the desire for an established way of holiness and the freedom of the Spirit which is always calling the Church beyond its status quo into deeper understandings of God and fresher expressions of faith. I saw this in Basil the Great and his sister Macrina as they gathered hermetical ascetics who were greatly concerned with personal holiness and ordered their lives in monastic communities, channeling their zeal to meaningful work for the poor. I saw it in Martin Luther, who said of his younger days struggling to find grace in monastic requirements of holiness that, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” I saw it this year in my beloved United Methodist Church as we held a general conference where, as graciously as I can put it, the tension between concerns for traditional holiness and a moving with the Spirit toward a fresh, more inclusive understanding of faith were on full display.

As a soon-to-be-Provisional Deacon in the UMC, my calling is to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice, but there is a phrase that has been floating around that might better encapsulate both my work: holy mischief. This is what I see Jesus calling me towards in this Scripture. To engage in holy mischief is to follow Jesus’ lead to challenge and overturn social structures that are stacked against the vulnerable. To minister to people feeling left behind and invite them to be empowered by Christ—to get up and walk with me on the march to justice. To engage in holy mischief is to name those actions of the church which make it harder for the Spirit to reframe our understandings and call us into deeper and fresher expressions of faith. It is to proclaim the Kingdom that we are for, and not just the evils that we are against.

God is still working. Join us in some holy mischief.

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Ryan Young

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 is looking forward to being commissioned as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church in June. When he is not engaging in holy mischief, he can be found sampling craft beers with friends at local breweries, reading, or singing Baby Shark with his wife Rachael to the delighted squeals of their toddler Iris.

 

Easter 5(C): All You Really Need

Easter 5(C): All You Really Need

By:  The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

John 13:31-35

In the mid-1990s John Travolta saw a career resurgence with the now-classic Pulp Fiction. But around the same time he starred in another movie that garnered him a lot of attention, though it has gone mostly unnoticed in recent years. In the film Michael, Travolta portrays an angel who has come to earth for….reasons. In one of the movie’s best scenes he is sitting in the backseat of a car while a bewildered Oliver Platt and Andie McDowell ride shotgun. Leaning back, Michael says “I remember what John and Paul said.” Oliver Platt pops up and asks, “The Apostles?!” Michael retorts, “No! The Beatles! All you need is love.”

While my knowledge of Beatles songs is rather limited—apologies to my Beatles-loving wife (who I once tried to impress by telling her my favorite Beatles album is The White Album, even though I didn’t know a single song in it—I DO know that song!) It is a song that is filled with hope that really, honestly, seriously, the only thing we actually need in this world is love. If we had love, then so many of the problems that we know would cease. If we had love, we would know a world of peace and harmony the likes of which are hitherto undreamt of! It is such a nice dream.

For most of us in parish settings it is just that, a dream. Each week we pour so much into our sermons and are met with a lukewarm reception, we run ourselves ragged setting the parish hall up for a Wednesday program to which a smaller-than-expected crowd shows up, and just as we’re hitting our stride planning an upcoming liturgy we get that surprise visit from the parishioner who is concerned about the very last thing that you would expect. Let’s face it, ours is an environment that breeds disappointment and frustration. Someone is always upset, and even the best of our intentions go unappreciated. It’s easy for us to wonder how we are to respond when the expectations are so high.

As I read the lection for this week from the Fourth Gospel I thought about the disciples gathered at that meal with Jesus. I imagine their expectations were through the roof. This is it, y’all! Something big is about to happen. He’s going to unpack all of the mysteries of the universe right here and now. Maybe he’ll tell us his plan for overthrowing the tyranny of empire and ushering in a new era on this earth. OK, Jesus! Lay it on us!

“Love one another.” That’s all he says. “Just love one another, as I have loved you.” It can’t really be that simple, right? Doesn’t Jesus understand how complex this whole thing is? There has to be more to it than just “love one another.” Well, maybe there isn’t. Maybe that really is all that they (we) need.

What does it mean to love “as I have loved you?” I suspect that means things like forgiving when others deserve judgment, or feeding those who are hungry, or showing God’s radical welcome to all who meet us. Jesus did all of those things, but something else he did was hold all of the little things that his flock did that would otherwise cause most leaders to pull out their hair. When James and John selfishly want to sit at his sides in glory (Mark 10), when the disciples tried to keep some curious kids from interacting with Jesus (Matthew 19), or when they all complain that “this teaching his hard” (John 6, among MANY others), are all moments to which we congregational leaders can relate. We’ve all been there—as the line from one of my favorite tv series, Battlestar Galactica, is repeated, “All this has happened before, and it will happen again!” Somehow, though, Jesus handles it all. He holds their concerns, and even when some of them–*cough Judas and Peter cough*–literally turn their backs on him, he stills shows love and mercy. Because that is the mark of Christ, the sign by which everyone will know Christ and those who follow Christ. It is love.

So perhaps our task this Eastertide is to remind our congregations, and ourselves, that love is what will show the world that we are disciples. Arguing over sermon content, or fretting about the number of people that showed up, or getting defensive with the concerned person won’t show the world that we disciples. Only love will. Perhaps we can learn from Jesus and hold all of those concerns, and in doing so perhaps we can model for our folks a better way, inviting them to also see that the fretting, finger-pointing, and frustrations are not the signs of discipleship. As one of my mother’s favorite spirituals reminds us, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love!” They won’t know by our arguing!

In the end, maybe it really is that simple. Maybe we have just complicated it so much that we need to hear it spoken plainly once more from Jesus himself. Perhaps he really was opening up the mysteries of the universe. Perhaps the Beatles were right. All you really need is love!

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The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina, where he lives and serves with his wife Kristen Leigh and dog/chaplain Casey. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

 

 

Easter 4(C): Just Tell Us Already!

Easter 4(C): Just Tell Us Already!

John 10:22-30

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Each of the four Gospels sets out to do two basic things. First, they seek to tell of Jesus of Nazareth. Second, they seek to tell their respective audiences why they should care about this guy named Jesus from Nazareth. In the same way that writing Gospel has at its core these two interrelated tasks, so too does preaching Gospel.

In order to preach this text effectively, the preacher must be aware of John’s overarching program. Each of the Gospels have their idiosyncrasies and preconceptions, but John’s Gospel isn’t just different—it’s really different! John’s Gospel begins, not with a sequential narration of genealogy/incarnation (Matthew and Luke), nor with baptism (Mark). Rather, John begins with theology: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This central Christological claim serves as John’s thesis statement. From the opening words of the Gospel, John tells the reader who Jesus is: Word made flesh; and why the reader should care: this eternal Word is not simply in relationship with God; the Word is God. Every subsequent argument and claim about Jesus that the Fourth Gospel makes hinges on this crucial first claim.

This is especially true for interpreting John 10:22-30. Here, Jesus is asked for the first and only time in the Fourth Gospel, whether he is the Messiah. Instead of a simple “yes” or a simple “no,” Jesus restates his earlier claims, before rephrasing the most important claim of the Fourth Gospel: “The Father and I are one” (v. 30). Jesus then utilizes the question as an opportunity to expand the notion of Messiah from the simple notion of one sent or anointed by God, to a much broader and cosmic understanding of God made flesh.

“Tell us plainly!” Enough with the metaphors! You can keep your imagery! Just put an end to our wondering and tell us once and for all: are you the Messiah or not!? By chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, Jesus’ interrogators were desperate for clarity. The Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as a quasi-mystical figure who, at times, speaks in heavily coded theological idioms. In other words, clarity and concision are not Jesus’ style.

If Jesus responds to their statement, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” with a clear affirmation, then the Jewish establishment can label him a heretic and a blasphemer and begin the process under which one dealt with said offenses under Jewish religious law. By contrast, if Jesus answers in the negative, then the Jewish establishment can dismiss him out of hand. Instead, Jesus’ response confounds both possibilities, as it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus’ claim to Messiahship is at odds with the expectations of the Jewish establishment. In the same way that Jesus confounds expectations in his day, how might Jesus confound our expectations of God, and what it means to be God’s beloved?

Another possible avenue for preaching this text is to consider its implications for dispelling what is one of the most pervasive lies ever told about the Christian life: Namely, that it is easy or uncomplicated. The Christological and soteriological arguments at work in this passage are complicated enough, let alone the larger claims employed in the Fourth Gospel as a whole. And yet, while Jesus’ interrogators are focused upon understanding Jesus so they can figure out what to do next, Jesus is focused on those who believe in him and follow him. Although understanding and belief are interrelated, they are also distinct.

Understanding is a cognitive process. It implies perceiving the intended meaning of words and language and events. Belief, however, goes a step further. Belief requires an acceptance of something as true. Jesus encountered scores of people in his own day who understood his words and languages and events but did not believe them. Christians in our own day need not look far to find those who are more concerned with understanding religious arguments and theological claims than believing in the One who is the object of religion and theology: The God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Note well one final but important word of caution. Preachers and teachers must take care to unpack the way in which John pervasively and generically utilizes the word Ἰουδαῖος—the Jews. At various times in history, John’s use of this word has incorrectly and harmfully come to mean all Jews, and has served as a wholesale indictment of the Jewish people. Responsible preaching must be attentive to the ways in which the text has been misused to abuse and malign. One creative approach to this might be to consider utilizing John’s casual use of “the Jews” to invite our communities to explore how we too might be engaging in a similar practice of stereotyping.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.

Easter 3(C): How Will We Respond?

Easter 3(C): How Will We Respond?

John 21:1-19

By: Casey Cross

In the history of my serving as a youth, children, and family minister, there is one thing I really love to do. I get to talk to children and their parents about communion. We do not offer a series of classes leading up to one’s First Communion where kids are dropped off on a weekly basis until they can answer a series of questions in just the right way. The First Communion part of it isn’t the focus. Instead, we offer communion instruction for children or youth and at least one parent or guardian from the household. I always make a point to tell families, especially families with younger children, that they can revisit this instruction again and again. We can never spend too much time learning the Bible stories and wondering over the mystery of God’s presence in this simple act. In fact, I’d argue that Holy Communion is the epitome of our life together. It is where we experience the mystery of our faith in the most mundane of human acts, eating and drinking with friends and strangers, not even 100% sure of why we are there, but saying yes to the invitation anyway.

One of the first things I do in my communion instruction is ask families to talk about their favorite foods and special meals. A party isn’t a party without good food, good drink, and good friends. Balloons and piñatas are just that extra bit of flair. Of course, some kids might argue with me on that point. What I notice in this conversation is that everybody smiles. That simple question brings them somewhere else, links them to that favorite food or moment, and sparks a smile. I don’t think they even realize the way their eyes are shining or how the smile curls at their lips. It is a beautiful sight to see.

All I could think about when reading this passage from John was how much Jesus understood the centrality of food to our personal and communal connection and wellbeing. Food matters. It is not always the type or amount that makes a difference, but the manner in which it is shared.

It must have been a confusing and difficult time for Jesus’ disciples. I am sure, even after Jesus first appeared to them and did all of these miraculous things, they must have been left wondering, “Now what?” So I totally get that Peter had to get busy doing something as a way of sorting through all of his thoughts and feelings. I know quite a few people who like to go fishing for this very same reason. And in their “Now what?” numbness, the others followed him to the boat. They didn’t catch anything, but maybe that wasn’t their main purpose for being there. Maybe they weren’t even trying that hard. So when some dude from the beach tells them to try the other side, of course they would. Their hearts weren’t in it anyway. But this is what shakes them awake. THAT’S A LOT OF FISH! And, “Did that guy just call us children?” Then they see. This is their Lord. He is still with them. Again, Peter jumps into action and jumps into the water. They get to the shore and they are invited to sit around the campfire for breakfast, time together, communion. With the sharing of the bread, they had no doubt this was the Lord.

Jesus and Peter have a moment. In this moment, their entire life together comes into focus, the whole point of it all. “Do you love me?” How many of us have put ourselves in Peter’s place, thinking, “Of course! Of course I love you!” It is so easy to think, so easy to say. But Jesus pushes and continues to ask, “Do you love me?” Peter is hurt, thinking Jesus doesn’t believe him or hear him. Peter is focused on his personal love for Jesus. But Jesus is meeting Peter at the limits of his understanding and pushing, broadening his vision of what this love means. Where does our love for Jesus take us? Not to a building once a week for prayers and songs, but to each other.

Here is the resurrected Jesus’ call to all of us, with words, yes, but most especially modeled in his interactions with others. “Feed my lambs.” Feed my children. I do not think this is simply a metaphorical statement. Those who suffer the most from hunger are the children of our world. I think Jesus wants us to wake up and see the simple, most obvious meaning in this first call and response. Do we love Jesus? Then feed one another, make sure no one is hungry, especially our children.

In the second call and response, Jesus asks again if Peter loves him. Peter says again, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” And here Jesus takes the next step of pushing him further. “Tend my sheep.” Pay attention to and look after one another. Serve one another. Care for one another. This love is not about you, it is about the manner in which it is shared.

A third time Jesus asks of Peter’s love. He responds to Peter’s hurt and frustration with, “Feed my sheep,” but also some more instruction. When we let our love for Jesus lead our lives, we are led to people and places we would have never imagined for ourselves. We connect with people we would have never otherwise chosen to connect with. We are pushed beyond our comfort zone, even to the point of facing death.

Jesus concludes with a final call, “Follow me.” We do not hear Peter’s reply. We do not hear any more about this breakfast on the beach. We are left with the call. We are left to respond, not with our words, but with our very lives. Will we?

There is power in the meals we share. Certain foods connect us to not only special times, but special people. I was recently introduced to a resource that is committed to connecting grieving people through the power of food called, The Dinner Party (https://www.thedinnerparty.org/). Their tag line is, “We know what it’s like to lose someone and we aren’t afraid to talk about it.” The premise is simple. After signing up, you meet for dinner and bring something that reminds you of the person you lost. Simple, but not so simple because this food is so much more than food. When we meet for communion, we are doing the same thing. In communion, we meet Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We join the body of Christ that transcends time, connecting us with the past, the now, and the not yet. In communion, the stories we’ve read in the Bible since we were children become real stuff for us to chew on and embody in the world. This is what happened in every one of those resurrection stories, where Jesus is made obvious, real, and living among his followers with the breaking of the bread. When we gather for communion, we gather with the disciples on the beach, around a fire. We are sitting with Peter, hearing the call of love for Jesus and being left to respond with our lives to follow him.

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross is serves as the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. Check out some of her other writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com.