Easter 2(C): Sucking Wind

**EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay was originally published for Easter 2 in 2017**

Easter 2(C): Sucking Wind

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Sucking Wind

My Grandpa Charlie spent the last of his life suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD makes it hard to breathe because air flowing in and out of your airways is restricted, so you are progressively, and sometimes, aggressively relying on less and less oxygen. Grandpa would joke that he was “sucking wind” because it seemed his mouth would blow away more oxygen than it took in. As you might imagine, with COPD comes anxiety. The anxiety is contagious. Watching him wheeze and suck desperately at the air around him was painful and angst-ridden for my whole family. In his last months, nothing gave me more pleasure than sitting at his bedside during and after a breathing treatment. The gift of breath—the opening of the airways in his lungs—relaxed his oft-tensed face and his body. And then the Grandpa I knew and loved would reappear with a smile and a wink.

Anyone who has ever had the wind knocked out of them or experienced a panic attack knows that breath is one biological commodity that you only notice when it’s gone. That first wonderful gasp of air inflating your lungs after falling flat on your back off the swing set is like being reborn. The world looks different.

I think this might have been the case for the followers of Jesus when he summoned and gifted the Holy Spirit by his breath that evening on the first day. I imagine his appearance within the locked room sucked what little breath was left in it. And with a simple greeting of peace and the gift of breath, he gives them new life (cf. Gen. 2:7) invoking a new world whereby the relationship between God and humanity had forever changed. The world looked different.

Becoming God-Begotten (Reception of the Holy Spirit)

This passage in John witnesses Jesus widening his circle of post-resurrection believers. There is much to unpack in John’s second post-resurrection story. And yet, the practical preacher may find it best to focus on one of the three areas of this passage and allow the mystery of Easter to continue to resound. In particular, vv. 19-23 offers the hearer ample depth to plumb in reflection on the new relationship established through Christ’s resurrection and the connection between Jesus’ greeting of “peace be with you” and reconciliation through forgiveness. This passage, in particular, provides an opportunity for a congregation to wrestle with the purpose of the cross and what it says about the character of God.

As the sun begins to set on that first day, Jesus isn’t finished up-ending the world. This is the second post-resurrection appearance in John. Mary encountered her living “Rabbouni” (Teacher) in the place of her dead Lord early that morning and has sought out the disciples to share the Good News. When we next hear from the disciples, they are hiding out in a locked house.

Are the disciples are huddled in the dark because of what they heard Peter say about the empty tomb or are they wincing with anticipation of their own persecution foretold by their leader (Jn. 15.18-27)? It may be helpful to unpack for a Sunday morning crowd that the depiction of the disciples locked away “for fear of the Jews,” is closely connected to the growing tension and conflict between the synagogue and the Christian community at the end of the first century rather than the contemporary political climate immediately following the Roman execution of Jesus. The author, therefore, is writing into the Gospel narrative their own experience of persecution and marginalization within the Jewish community.

Despite this contextualization, the Gospel’s author offers a critical teaching in the way the Christ works in our life in this post-resurrection world. Forgiveness is a relational thing. We have to be in relationship in order to give and receive forgiveness. Jesus’ appearances to his disciples are bodily affairs: they cling to one another (v. 17), they are close enough to feel one another’s breath (v. 22), they reach for each other and poke one another’s flesh (v. 27). With the in-breaking of God into humanity through the personhood of Jesus, the Godhead is proclaiming a new, personal way of relationship for the believer. No longer are priestly sacrifices or bureaucratic and showy displays of religiosity required. Righteousness is far more basic and yet deeply intimate than that—relationship simply requires our reception of the breath that Christ offers us. That reception of the Holy Spirit can happen anywhere. In our grief. In our fear. In our locked rooms. Christ meets us in our fear and isolation, even when we are huddled together under the cover of darkness scared out of our wits, to empower us for the work of sharing that peace with others.

Christ is our Peace. The Church as Peace-Offeror

The reception of the Holy Spirit brings with it peace. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, is fully united with the Godhead. His greeting of “peace be with you”—offered three times in this chapter—represents the peace that resides in the Godhead and in relationship within each member of the Trinity. He reappears in the lives of his followers to bring them that peace. As the Alternative Service Book declares: “He has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. We meet in his name and share his peace.”[1]

Like fresh air filling up one’s lung, with the reception of the Holy Spirit, Christ grants the gift of new life that is meant to be shared through forgiveness and reconciliation. As John Wesley would say, the “fruit of this living faith is peace.”[2]

The Gospel offers the Church a chance to renew one of its critical marching orders. In this visit, Jesus teaches the early movement one of its key responsibilities: the power to offer forgiveness, peace, and the Holy Spirit to others. In a world filled with conflict, tension, fear, and pain, what witness does the Christian community and the individual disciple provide? Do we offer the Holy Spirit and gift of new life, or do we horde the gift of liberation for the precious few, particularly the ones we agree with, who look like us, pray like us, spend like us, vote like us?

Life requires breath. Being a follower in the way of Christ means to be receptive to the breath of the Spirit in the life of the community and in its followers. Because the Spirit is inherently relational, one cannot receive the Spirit without sharing that gift with others. The Spirit will always pull the believer toward community, toward relationship, toward the other. That is the Holy Spirit’s desire. It is who the Christ is. On the second Sunday of Easter, the community continues the feast of celebration by readying itself to receive the Holy Spirit.

In common parlance, sucking wind usually refers to people who are breathing heavily, usually while performing some activity, and because they are out of shape. My Grandpa understood that his way of labored breathing was the result of failing systems in his body. The Church might ask itself if it is sucking wind or if, like Jesus, it offers the Holy Spirit’s gift of peace and reconciliation, forgiveness and liberation from sin and oppression readily.

 

[1] Alternative Service Book (1980), 128.

[2] John Wesley, “The Marks of New Birth” (Sermon 18).

 

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

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

Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

Easter Vigil (C): The Mysterious Night

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The challenge of preaching during Holy Week and on Easter is that once again, only a year after we’ve told this story, it’s time to tell this story again.

Don’t get me wrong: as far as stories go, it’s a good one. It’s actually the main one for Christians. Christ died, buried, and risen again.

But when you’re a preacher tasked with inviting people into the story year after year anew, almost as if they’ve never heard it before, it’s easy to be intimidated.

It’s in these moments that having multiple versions of the story comes in handy. The lectionary rotates the stories around each year, changing up when we read one passage for Easter Vigil and when we read a different passage for Easter Day. We keep it rotating, and though the changes may seem small, they always provide us with particular lenses through which we can tell the new, old story.

This time around, the Johannine version of the story is reserved for Easter Vigil, which is delightful since the passage begins, “while it was still dark.” Because there is an aura of mystery in the night, there is rich imagery to explore in the mystery of the night, the mystery of the Easter story, and the mystery of faith in the resurrection.

There is mystery in the night simply because we cannot see as clearly in the dark as we can see when the sun is out. This sense of mystery and healthy fear would be embedded in us as animals from generations, dating way before we had electricity and ways to light up entire rooms efficiently. We honor this mystery in a couple different evening services in the life of the church: Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve are two most common, and both of those are connected to the mysterious incarnation of Christ.

There is mystery embedded in the story. Mary Magdalene arrives to the tomb first, and she is shocked and confused to find the stone rolled away. She thinks the body has been stolen, which is a sentiment that seems mysterious to current readers of the text. There is a mystery about who she goes to—Simon Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” And they do not know more than she does, in fact, the story tells us that they did not understand the scripture.

It is only when Mary Magdalene speaks with the angels and Jesus in the tomb that she realizes that Jesus is not dead, but alive. At first Mary Magdalene did not recognize him—though it is unclear whether that’s because she was so upset and unexpectant or because his post-resurrection self was hard to recognize. Either way, there is mystery surrounding the whole encounter, from the presence of angels to the recognition of Jesus.

Just as Mary Magdalene could not figure out where they took her Lord and just as the disciples “did not understand the scripture,” so it might be with the people of God gathered for Easter Vigil. People come to our churches on Easter for a variety of reasons: tradition, obligation, devotion, or any mix of the three. There are many who will be with us for Easter Vigil and Easter Day that are not sure how to make sense of the Easter story. It is full of mystery, not just for the followers of Jesus who found an empty tomb, but for those of us who read the story today.

Perhaps it is of great comfort for those who have a harder time making sense of the Easter story and the resurrection to hear that they are not alone in the mystery. Just as making one’s way through the dark is scarier alone than with other people, feeling like the only one in the room who can’t make sense of the mysteries of faith is scarier than knowing that there is room in the church for uncertainty. There was room for Mary Magdalene, there was room for Simon Peter and “the other one,” and there is room for all who are ready to embrace the mystery of our Christian faith.

And if we’re lucky, when we embrace the mystery of our Christian faith in the darkened setting of Easter Vigil, we can say that “We have seen the Lord.”

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The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram

The Rev. Dr. Hannah Adams Ingram serves as the Director of Religious Life and Chaplain of Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. She grew up in non-denominational evangelical land and is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She earned a BA from Anderson University, a Master of Theological Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a PhD in Religion and Psychological Studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. Her areas of interest include education, practical theology, and escaping overthinking by baking, crafting, and watching TV.

Easter Sunday (C): The “Crazy” Mysticism of Easter

Easter Sunday (C): The “Crazy” Mysticism of Easter

Luke 24:1–12

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

 

The word that resonates most deeply with me in Luke 24:1–12 is the word which the NRSV translates as “idle talk.” In the original Greek, the word is layros, which means “nonsense” or “folly” or “crazy talk.” The idea of male apostles dismissing the women and their testimony as “crazy” reminds me of the Nike commercial in which Serena Williams exposes the sexism within professional sports that derides female athletes as “crazy” for demonstrating human emotion and ambition. In the ad, Serena makes clear that the women who have initially been dismissed as crazy ultimately prove themselves to be truly courageous and awe-inspiring. Similarly, the women in Luke 24 inspire amazement in the one person who chose to take them seriously. Personally, I have had my fair share of skepticism in response to people’s mystical experiences of the Risen Christ. However, whenever I choose to remain open and look more deeply into such testimonies, I often become amazed and even transformed by that which I initially dismissed.

I teach a class on English Spirituality and Mysticism in which we study medieval English mystics such as Julian of Norwich, the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton, and Richard Rolle, who each describe mystical encounters with the Risen Christ in their own unique way. Perhaps the most eccentric of them all is Margery Kempe, who was derided by many in her lifetime and who remains unsettling to readers today. In The Book of Margery Kempe, which is the earliest extant autobiography written in English, Margery describes her experiences with the Risen Christ and the colorful ways in which she expressed her devotion in the 15th century.[i] She would weep, howl, shriek, moan, and roar excessively in the middle of worship services and homilies. She would wear white clothing, a sign of virginity, even though she had fourteen children. On her many pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Spain, Rome, Germany, and beyond, she would zealously tell others about her devout piety, whether they wanted to hear or not. Many of her contemporaries discredited her as hysterical or heretical or simply rejected her words as “idle talk” (layros). In fact, some scholars today question the veracity of her account altogether, arguing that her Book is really a fiction.[ii]

I see Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and the other women of Luke 24 as the spiritual mothers of female Christian mystics like Margery Kempe who have been dismissed as crazy but who inspire astonishment in those who choose to take them seriously. These women were the first people to encounter the Risen Christ, the apostles to the apostles, and, like many of their spiritual descendants, their words were considered nonsense according to the men in authority at the time. God chose these women as the first people to witness the resurrection of Christ, perhaps because God knew that they alone would have the courage and strength to be true and faithful to their own experience. Even when their words were discarded by the apostles, they did not seem to waver at all or question their experience of the angels and the empty tomb. They seemed to persist in their message in spite of the apostle’s doubts, thus proving that their faith was, in many ways, superior. Like Peter, who decided to look more deeply into these women’s testimony, I have personally been amazed by the Christian female mystics whose experiences of the Risen Christ have enriched and informed my own. When I probe more deeply into the testimony of Margery Kempe, I become encouraged and amazed by the compassion of the Risen Christ as manifested in her life.

I am moved when I learn that Margery’s copious tears were shed for all people, especially those who were suffering and those whom the church had considered damned. Like Julian of Norwich, Margery’s hopes bended towards universal salvation. I am encouraged by Margery’s experience of Christ’s presence in her day-to-day life, in her travels, trials, and tears. She heard Jesus say to her, “When you go to church, I go with you; when you sit at your meal, I sit with you; when you go to bed, I go with you; and when you go out of town, I go with you.”[iii] Towards the end of her life, Margery experienced Christ’s presence most powerfully in menial and mundane tasks and especially in caring for the sick and needy, including her severely injured and disabled husband. Because she lost one of her sons to a fatal sickness, she felt a deep kinship to Jesus’s mother Mary. In one of her visions, she comforts Mary after Christ’s death by serving her a “good hot drink of gruel and spiced wine.”[iv] In this same vision, she visits with Mary Magdalene, with whom she also felt a kinship, as the Risen Christ appeared to them both. Perhaps the greatest gift I discover in reading Margery’s Book is the invitation to encounter the Risen Christ in my own day-to-day life, in my own travels, trials, and tears. This gift helps me realize that the invitation of Easter is, after all, an invitation to mystical experience with the Risen Christ.

Sometimes the term “mystical” can turn people off because it sounds too obscure and esoteric and a bit like “crazy talk” (layros). However, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner insisted, “The Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic’ or will cease to be anything at all.”[v] According to Rahner, the future of Christianity depends on our willingness to take seriously the invitation of the Christian female mystics, which is the same invitation of Easter: to encounter the Risen Christ in our lives here and now, no matter how crazy that might seem. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, Margery Kempe, and countless other female mystics urge us to let our imaginations be stirred and inspired by the resurrection. To those whose thinking is dominated by death, the resurrection-stirred imagination will seem like nonsense (1 Corinthians 1:18), but not to those who look deeply and peer curiously into the empty tomb. For those who refuse to dismiss the women’s testimony as layros, the Risen Christ is waiting to be discovered and experienced here and now in the “crazy” mysticism of Easter.

[i] The Book of Margery Kempe, trans. and ed. B. A. Windeatt (Harmondsworth: Penguin), 1985. A helpful introduction to Margery Kempe and the medieval English mystics is Joan M. Nuth, God’s Lovers in an Age of Anxiety: The Medieval English Mystics (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2001), 121-140. Also recommended is Bernard McGinn, The Varieties of Vernacular Mysticism 1350 – 1550 (New York: Herder and Herder, 2012), 331-490.

[ii] Lynn Staley, Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions (University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

[iii] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:14, 66.

[iv] The Book of Margery Kempe 1:81, 236.

[v] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations VII, trans. David Bourke (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 15.

Fr. Daniel at Christ Church
The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

The Rev. Dr. Daniel London is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka California. He earned his PhD in Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California and teaches English Spirituality and Mysticism at the Center for Anglican Learning and Leadership (CALL). An abbreviated version of this course is available at ChurchNext. When he’s not reading the English Mystics, he is sauntering through the redwoods, playing acoustic guitar and ukulele, or listening to music from his modest vinyl record collection, with his wife Dr. Ashley London Bacchi.

 

 

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

Easter 7(B): Sorrow & Joy Made Complete

John 17:6-19

By: The Rev. Canon Manoj Matthew Zacharia

Some call John 17 the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. Whether it is the prologue that stresses Jesus as the incarnate word (Jn 1) or the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus proclaims: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (Jn 3:16) there is an ostensible shift in the theological emphasis of the Gospel of John.

The theological emphasis of our gospel today seems to depict a world negation not present in the rest of John’s gospel. The experience of angst seems to guide the High Priestly prayer of Jesus.

The words of Jn 12 sets a context: “Now my soul is troubled. (Jn 12:27-28) Confronting one’s non-existence puts things into perspective. Facing the reality that his time on the earth is limited, Jesus, according to the accounts of Matthew and Mark, goes to Gethsemane to pray (Mt 26:36-46; Mk 14:32-42) and becomes vulnerable to his companions. Jesus reveals, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”

The Chalcedonian (451 AD) formulary that emphasizes the equal and full divinity and humanity of Jesus is fully realized in Jesus’ grappling with physical non-existence but a social deprivation where those closest to him will abandon him for their self-preservation than in that statement of deep anguish.

The funeral liturgy of the Antiochene Rite gives us a glimpse of such anguish. The liturgy prays:

My beloved, why are you standing away from me?

`           Come near, bid me farewell… pray for and lament over me,

            for today death has stripped me at the gates of Sheol.

             Beloved, I am truly in distress, for terror and dread encompass me…

            My mind is distressed for the Savior of the world has sent and taken me away and I am bidding farewell  with deep grief.  [1]

While it is understandable to be swept away with lament when facing the reality of our finite existence, the emphasis of Jesus’ prayer is that we are sanctified into the truth. To be sanctified by the truth is to give ourselves over to the vision of the world as God has intended, a vision that has been lived out in incarnation, earthly life, and resurrection.

One aspect of this truth is that while the world was created by God, we have chosen to alienate it from God’s vision of, and for, the world.  Jesus as the Light of the World (Jn 8:12, 9:5) is shining truth amidst the layers of darkness that has been enfolded the world. Being sanctified by the truth is to give our heart over to Easter Hope. Such hope is the transformation of sorrow into joy (Jn 16:16-24) or death into life. The experience of resurrection is guided by a hope of a restored creation – a new earth and a new City of Peace. We are invited through the resurrection to:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

…See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:3-5)

As we continue in the joyous celebration of Easter, let us remember that being sanctified into the Truth is not merely offering a giddy ephemeral panacea that all will be well; but, a thrust to confront the reality of non-existence as we know it with the hope of a glorious re-creation rooted in the fullness of God through Christ.  For the Christian, there is no resurrection without the cross and no cross without the resurrection as the words of the Taize’ community signify: We adore your Cross O Lord, and we praise you for your resurrection.

The truth is that life is sorrow and joy made complete and the cross and resurrection symbolize that wholeness.

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The Rev. Cn. Manoj Zacharia

The Rev. Canon Manoj Mathew Zacharia serves as Sub-Dean/Vicar of Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. A native South Asian and New Yorker, he along with his wife Joelle and children Abigail and Johan are avid NY Mets fans and passionate about the gospel! Manoj is about to defend his Ph.D. dissertation on “Pluralistic Inclusivism as Theological Methodology” from the Toronto School of Theology (University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.) He requests your prayers!

[1]Burian Service IV for Men of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Trans and Ed Manoj M. Zacharia.

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

Easter 6(B): The Gift of Friendship

John 15:9-17

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

In this sixth Sunday of Easter, it seems appropriate to turn our attention to love. After all, Easter is about the love God has for humanity. We throw around the word love a lot: I love coffee, I love my spouse, I love Sunday afternoon naps, I love my best friend, and I love my dog. Love means something different in each of these instances and we ought to take the time to talk about what Jesus means by love this week.

There are several words for love in Greek: phileo, agape, eros, and epithymia. The Gospel writer sometimes uses the words phileo and agape interchangeably. In this passage, agape is used to mean a love that is interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. This love does not try to own or possess anything, and is not limited by time and place. This is the type of love that Jesus says the disciples, and we, should have for one another, and for all people.

Jesus says, “my father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…  This is my command, that you love one another as I have loved you.” In this Jesus says I have put you above my own self even to the point of death. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has alluded to his death and to the disciples being important not only in his life, but in the time to come. In this passage he takes their relationship to the next level. Jesus says, you are my friends and friends love one another, love others, and lay down their lives for one another. We read this passage every three years, and often we use it in other sermons, and I think we forget just how shocking it is for Christ, God incarnate, to call us friends. And nearly as profound, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”

Friendship changes us, makes us into people who are bound together. Aristotle says, “A friend is another self.” Christ offers a level of friendship that is beyond having dinner and playing board games, it is intentional life-altering friendship that changes who we are and how we see the world. Friendship with the Divine is a friendship that is not about attempting to gain favor or about just having good and pleasant feelings being friends. Jesus says the mark of a friend is someone who loves so deeply and truly that they might lay down their life.

In this Easter season, we cannot help but think of chapters that follow this, the chapters that lead to the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion, his literally laying down his life for the love of others, all of which he willing goes to. The commandment given by Jesus is to love one another as he has loved his friends. It is clear that we are called to lay down our lives for others. Laying down our life could mean literally dying that we might save one we love, but might it also mean laying aside our desires, ambitions, and self to be fully present with another person. Perhaps in this age where we are so aware of discriminations of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ persons we might acknowledge the privileges we each have and lay that privilege aside, or even better, use that privilege to come alongside our brothers and sisters in their struggles. We have a lot to lose, but so much more to gain when we all are living into the fullness of love that God first showed us.

Perhaps this week’s sermon can be used to remind our congregations that we are not only called to love one another as Christ loved us, but also that if we say love Jesus we must do works of love as a tangible sign of our discipleship, a sign of our friendship. We have a world that desperately needs people who stand alongside the outcast, the other, and who stand against those who stand for injustice and hatred. The mark of a faithful, loving community of God is one that looks like Christ, and that lays aside, or uses its privilege in acts of love.

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles is a Methodist Minister in New Orleans, Louisiana. She attended Converse College, a liberal arts women’s college, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English and Religion. Following college, AnnaKate attended Emory University’s Candler School of Theology where she earned her Master of Divinity. She also attended Cambridge University where she wrote her thesis on John Wesley and the Holy Club. She is currently a Doctor of Ministry candidate at Candler School of Theology. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at the Audubon Zoo as an educator and advocate for animal conservation, and eating tacos.

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off

John 15:1-8

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

Can I be honest here? I have really mixed feelings about this text. On the one hand, I value this text that reminds me that I am a part of something larger than myself, and I value this text as a sacred reminder that the fruitfulness of my life does not come from my own work, but instead comes from Christ dwelling within me. On the other, I grieve Jesus’ words that a branch that is withering will be cut off from the vine and thrown into fire. That is really hard to hear.

In my own life I have gone through some significant periods of doubt and mistrust of God. I have seen friends die tragic and sudden deaths way too early. I have witnessed depression and anxiety that has quieted and dulled some of the most vividly alive spirits that I have known. I have watched addiction pull families apart. And to think that this doubt, pain, or withering would bring God’s holy pruning shears breaks my heart. In fact, it seems to go against the scope of God’s grace, which may point to a greater truth that Christ is naming for his disciples.

These two significant overlapping feelings of abiding trust in the sustaining vine of God, and fear that I could be cut off at my most vulnerable moments are so overwhelming to me that I’m not even really sure how to react. This tension is almost enough to limit my relationship with God. With this tension, I’m not sure I will be allowed to stay on the vine or not. I can be pretty dry sometimes. I have doubts, I have persistent questions, I have days where I am confused, and I have days where I am just not interested. If that means I would be cut off, I’m just not sure I want to show those parts of myself.

The truth is that those feelings, questions, and experiences of doubt and uncertainty already make us feel pruned back, raw, and vulnerable. And maybe that is the point Jesus is making. Maybe Jesus isn’t warning the disciples that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, or doubt, or have periods of fruitlessness. It may be the case that my initial reading of the scripture as judgmental and exclusive missed some significant details that provide hope and healing. Maybe God is naming a truth that the disciples will learn in just a few short days.

These verses of scripture are a part of the last conversation that Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified. They are lingering at the door after the last supper. Jesus has already washed everyone’s feet (John 13:1-20), Judas has already left to sell Jesus out to the leaders of the day (John 13:27-30), and Jesus has even said, “Get up, we’re leaving this place.”(John 14:31b) I wonder if Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for their grief.

Jesus knows that the disciples will abandon him, according to Matthew’s Gospel he’s even told them that they will (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knows that Peter will deny Jesus three times, he’s even told him that he will (John 13:38). Jesus knows that he will die and then come back, he’s even told the disciples that he will (John 10:17-18; 12:20-36). But hearing these things is much more palatable than actually having to live through them.

If there were ever a withered vine to be pruned, it would be Peter. He denies Jesus (John 18:15-27), he walks away from ministry to return to his fishing boat (John 21:3), and yet, it is his redemptive conversation with Jesus after the resurrection that John’s gospel focuses on (John 21:15-19). Peter isn’t cut off in his moments of denial. The disciples aren’t cut off in their moments of grief. Thomas isn’t cut off in his moments of doubt. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up most vividly.

Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has conquered death. A branch attached to the vine cannot die. Any of us who struggles with life and faith is in good company of everyone else who has ever lived. Life is filled with heartache and tragedy as much as it is with joy and hope. But when we try to block that out, or when we try to put a happy face on when we just don’t feel like it, we cut ourselves off. See, I don’t believe God prunes us off of the vine, but I do worry that we cut ourselves off every time we try to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.

As we continue our celebration of Easter this Sunday, I wonder what would happen if we opened our hearts and minds to a God who meets us in our grief. Like the disciples before us, we live in a complicated world that can be simultaneously inspiring and terrifying—sometimes in the same moment. What would happen if we could dwell in the presence of our God even through that tension? What if we brought our dry and weary bones to Christ’s presence seeking nourishment and resurrection? I imagine we might find that God finds a way to bring new life even to the most wounded and disconnected parts of ourselves.

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The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber (with his wife, Susannah Bales)

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

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

Easter 4(B): What About the Mediocre Shepherd?

John 10:11-18

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

When I was in seminary, course assignments often asked students to imagine that they are serving a parish that is dealing with some issue—the need for a new Sunday school curriculum, the need for a policy of some sort, or any number of psycho-social conflicts that tend to arise when groups of people spend lots of time together in the same place. Whenever I was charged with completing one of these “what would you do” assignments, I would take my creativity to its logical and snarky conclusion, naming the imaginary church in question the “Church of the Mediocre Shepherd.”

The truth is, John 10:11-18 is so familiar that it’s gotten a little stale. It relies on agricultural imagery that is second-hand knowledge at best for most of us, so we insert idyllic and pastoral notions of fluffy white sheep gleefully following a dutiful and attentive shepherd. From there, it’s easy to see how the text becomes a simple allegory about Jesus’ sacrificial love on one side of the equation and the threats of wolves and fickle-minded farm hands on the other.

All of that is to say nothing of the tendency of preachers and parish leaders to cast themselves in the role of “Good Shepherd” tending the flock of Christ. But as Gerard Sloyan reminds us, “The danger is that shepherds who are doing the preaching will identify themselves with the “noble shepherd” at all points. It is good, even essential, to make Jesus’ cause one’s own, but making one’s cause that of Jesus is a risky business.”[1]

Perhaps a better homiletical move is to consider what might be underneath the text. We know of the dangers of wolves and derelict farm hands, but there’s another danger lurking just under the surface here. Think about it: If there is such a thing as a “good” shepherd, then it stands to reason that there have to be at least a few “not-so-good” shepherds around, right?

Let me explain what I mean: Jesus claims that a “good shepherd” lays down his life for the sheep. And yet, our political discourse is laden with words like “weak” and “small” and “lame” as adjectives for anyone who is not a macho, gun-toting, threatening figure. (Fragile masculinity, anyone?) We all know stories of heroes and heroines laying down their lives for someone helpless in harm’s way. Firefighters, first responders, police officers, and other folks who sacrifice themselves for others in this manner are rightly and justly celebrated.

But what about laying down one’s life for a sheep who has gone out of their way to get themselves into trouble? Sure, we’ll risk it all on a damsel in distress, but what about a sheep who has knowingly and willfully distanced herself or himself from the flock over and over and over again, refusing to help her or himself? Self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice isn’t exactly a good résumé builder.

And what about these other sheep that don’t belong to this fold? The “good shepherd” is going to get a reputation as a poacher if he’s not careful! Even in ecclesial circles, crossing into another shepherd’s pasture to minister to her or his flock is tricky! Better that there are many mediocre and not-so-good shepherds in the name of peace and “free association” than one “good shepherd” who is impervious to concerns about letters of transfer and membership status and ecclesiastical reports.

The threats facing the flock aren’t as easily-identifiable as wolves, or even inexperienced farm hands. It should come as no surprise that the cult of Nationalism is alive and well. “My shepherd is the strongest, the most well-armed, and the most able to protect me from danger. Everyone is afraid of my shepherd!” Maybe so, but will your big strong shepherd who’s armed to the teeth selflessly lay down his weapons and his very life for yours?

There are hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States alone, each with their own theological, doctrinal, geographical, and cultural eccentricities. How much are our mediocre shepherds really working to build ties that bind us together? I mean really? Psalm 85 speaks of righteousness and peace meeting and kissing each other. I’d be happy if the local clergy group could meet over pizza and discuss real-world concerns like racism, sexism, and gun violence without it turning into a snowball fight!

My point is this: When it comes right down to it, we who are in ecclesiastical leadership roles have two essential tasks. The first task is to admit that we’re not perfect. Our churches aren’t perfect; our flocks aren’t perfect; the world isn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t the goal. Discipleship is the goal. That leads me to the second task: our job as shepherds—mediocre as we may be—is to point our flocks to the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are not. We do our best and most important work when we remind the faithful (and ourselves) that the path of discipleship is not about following us mediocre shepherds; it’s about following the Good Shepherd.

[1] Gerard Sloyan, John in “Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching” (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 130.

 

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

 

 

 

 

 

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Luke 24:36-48

Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems as though the disciples are a little on edge. I imagine that they were experiencing some PTSD of sorts having just seen one of their closest friends and leaders meet such a brutal death right in front of their eyes. I imagine they were experiencing some grief as well. Sure, Jesus had prepared them for the work that they were to do following his death, but like any group of folks who has experienced the death of a leader, I imagine that they were in a sort of wilderness phase themselves. They were likely attempting to understand for themselves just how they fit into this whole teaching and preaching thing and working to garner up the confidence to do the work for which Jesus had prepared them.

And just then, like magic—BAM!—Jesus appears to them. Well…not exactly like magic. Jesus had already appeared to at least some of them on the road to Emmaus, but he felt it necessary to reappear. It becomes obvious in the verses that follow that Jesus did not need to do this for himself, as Jesus is already pretty confident in who he is. Rather, it was important for Jesus to reappear to the disciples, as it seems that no amount of reassurance on their part would have been too much. So much for faith, right? These were the people who had travelled with Jesus, had heard his teaching and preaching, and still could not seem to wrap their head around the fact that it could actually be him? What kind of disciples were they?

They were human. Jesus’ reappearance defied all conventions of humanity and mortality as they knew it, and as we still know it today.  They had watched him be crucified. They had witnessed his death. And in this moment, Jesus was not just reappearing to them as a ghost, but as a person in the flesh. He showed them his body, complete with the holes from the crucifixion that they had all seen with their own eyes. The fear, confusion, and doubt that overcame them was comprehensible by all human understanding.

And Jesus sat with them in that space. He let them experience their doubt, their confusion, and their fear. They were never chastised for being afraid; he never rebuked them. Neither, though, does he let them remain controlled by that fear. His role in reappearing to them seems far greater though, than just an appearance.

After he entertains their questions and their doubts, Jesus does what Jesus seems to do best—he breaks bread with them. Not just breaks it—blesses, breaks, and shares it with them. There seems to be some metaphorical significance to his doing this, as is often the case. It seems that this is also the structure of their visit together. Jesus reappears, blesses the disciples, and then breaks them open to this transformative experience of witnessing the resurrected Christ, before sending the disciples on their way to proclaim the good news and to offer this experience to others.

He seems to be readying them for the journey ahead. Sure, he had done all the teaching he needed to do in order to prepare them for their ministry, but there was one important thing missing from that toolkit—and that was the experience of the risen Christ. The experience that transcends any understanding that one may encounter from simple teaching and preaching and invites one into a new relationship. They knew who Jesus was, but it wasn’t until they were able to experience him that they were truly transformed.

I wonder how this translates to our present context in our local churches. We spend all this time preparing our folks to spread the good news, but I wonder how often we are missing the opportunity to experience the risen Christ. We have faith formation and Christian education classes, certainly. They have the opportunities to learn, understand, and interact with the stories of our faith; but how often are we inviting them into that next level relationship? Certainly that experience is not just through baptismal classes, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. What are the opportunities that we have as a church/as ministers to transform others?

When I was in college, I was serving a church as their youth intern. It was a small church with a youth group that consisted of about 10 kids, mostly siblings or cousins. One Sunday, I came in and one of the youth said, “You all—something crazy happened to me this week at school.” We all looked at her just waiting for the “crazy” moment, as she had described it when she finally said, “I was in the cafeteria one day, and this boy came up to me. He said, ‘Stephanie, what is it like to know the love of Jesus?’” she continued, “I was kind of confused. I just stared at him, and then finally asked, ‘What do you mean?’” She explained that she never really talked about her faith much at school, that it was kind of something between her and God, but in that moment, he said to her, “You just…I mean—it’s just obvious by the way that you conduct yourself that you know what it’s like to experience God’s love. And I want to know that feeling too.”

It was obvious that, through her relationship and her experience with Jesus, that she had been transformed. We all have that opportunity to be transformed. Pay attention to the ways in which that experience presents itself to you.

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and their three dogs, Bailey, Rey and Lexi. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

***EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an emergency with the scheduled author, we are re-posting the featured essay from 2016.***

Easter 2(B): Doubting Thomas…Or Not!

John 20:19-31

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Doubting Thomas: a tale of skepticism, suspicion, and contempt—or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. In reality, we’ve gotten far more mileage out of the label “doubting Thomas” than we have from the meaning of the story itself. And yet, every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear this story. In fact, this is one of the few passages in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that never changes. Every year, we journey through Lent and Holy Week, arriving at Easter Sunday with an interchangeable combination of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as our guides with John occasionally appearing along the way. But on this and every Second Sunday of Easter, we always hear from the twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel.

There is much fertile ground for preaching and teaching this text by following the trope of doubt—both in the text and in our lives. On closer reading, it becomes clear that Thomas’s doubt is not the exception, but the rule. Much the same is true in our own lives of faith. We all have moments—some longer than others—of doubt. It is important to note that Jesus never condemns or rebukes Thomas for his doubt and indeed, lovingly reminds both Thomas and us, “Do not doubt, but believe (John 20:27).” Preachers and teachers who follow this exegetical path will also find several good commentaries and other resources, such as the Feasting on the Word commentary series, or through several of the helpful resources provided weekly by TextWeek.com (oh, and an unsolicited plug: if you don’t know about the wonderful weekly preaching and teaching resources provided by The Text This Week, do yourself a favor and check them out!)

For my part, however, I find flowing from this passage a different but no less pervasive aspect of human identity being brought to bear: blame.

Although there are no overt mentions of the disciples blaming Thomas for failing to believe, this passage has been preached and taught as an exercise in blaming the “other” in innumerable ways. As early as the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE, St. John Chrysostom wrote that Thomas “is held to blame” for his unbelief at the Apostles’ assertion that they had seen the Risen Lord.[1] Artwork dating to the early 6th century also portrays Thomas as an obstinate, incorrigible doubter. The famous “Incredulity of Saint Thomas” is a fixture among the mosaics at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

The Patristic authors and classical artists aren’t alone in their contempt for Thomas. History is teeming with scores of (often bloody) examples of Christians rushing to position ourselves for Jesus and against anyone or anything we decide is against Jesus. And in Thomas’s case, doubting Jesus is just close enough to being against Jesus to wind up with a less-than-glamorous remembrance.

We know this “us versus them” dynamic all-too-well. If we can assign blame to the “other” political party or the “other” religious sect or the “other” ideology, then we can create for ourselves a cozy (albeit false) blanket of security, thinking ourselves immune from whatever interpersonal or religious or societal ills we’ve hocked at our enemies.

The Buddhist mystic and author Pema Chödrön writes eloquently and provocatively about our need to blame others in her book, When Things Fall Apart:

We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others… Blaming is a way to protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.[2]

Was Thomas the only person to doubt Jesus’ resurrection? Of course not. In fact, everyone doubted it! Was Thomas lacking in moral fortitude? Hardly. After all, Thomas’s affirmation of the Resurrected Christ as “My Lord and my God” is perhaps the most powerful statement of faith among any of the disciples. No, Thomas is our scapegoat; he’s our “fall guy.” And like it or not, we’ve all met him, and some of us know him well.

Thomas is the embodiment of the “other” that we blame for the problems facing our religions and our societies. Thomas is the one we saddle with blame so we can protect our hearts from vulnerability, from pain, and perhaps even from the parts of ourselves we’ve spent our lives trying to ignore and outrun.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said that our fears, our anxieties, and our insecurities lay the groundwork for sin because it is from these things that we are led to absolutize our values, identifying ourselves as “right” and everyone and everything else as “wrong,” in an attempt to satiate those very same fears,  anxieties, and insecurities.[3]

Perhaps, then, it is fitting after all that we hear this very same tale of Thomas every year on the Second Sunday of Easter—fitting because maybe we need Thomas to convict us of more than our doubts. Perhaps we also need Thomas to bear witness to all that is “other” in our world, blamed for an ever-expanding litany of sins, but in the end summoning the faith and the courage to proclaim, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homily 87 on the Gospel of John.”

[2] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart (Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2000), 100.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin, 1844. Trans. Walter Lowrie, 1944.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

Easter Day (B): What Should You Preach?

John 20:1-18

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

Here you are again (or again for the first time), trying to write an Easter sermon. If you’re a parish preacher and you’re like most new preachers, this task doesn’t seem easy. This is, after all, one of two times per year that you’ll see some of your parishioners: the fabled “Christmas and Easter” crowd. It makes sense, then, that preachers would be tempted to throw everything into this sermon, telling a story so compelling that at least one of the “Christmas and Easter” crowd will become a regular.

Every year, preachers make Easter their Super Bowl, trying to find some new take on Easter that will compel and wow the congregation. And every year, preachers fail at this task for one reason: the resurrection story was already compelling enough. People are not coming to church to hear your take on the Easter story.

            People come to church to hear the Easter story.

They come to smell the flowers and to shout, “Christ is risen indeed!” and to see everyone they haven’t seen since Christmas. And that’s okay. Because, you see, the tomb was empty before anyone else arrives. In John, there is no angel to announce that Christ is risen. The tomb is simply empty, and that is all God’s doing.[1]The tomb was empty before Mary arrived, and preacher, that is true for you, too.

Before the Easter flowers arrive, before the paraments are changed to white, before you write your sermon and put on your vestments, and before the people arrive at the church on Sunday morning, Christ is risen indeed.

So what should you preach?

The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing more, and nothing less.

You don’t even really need that much setup. Regardless of how often they come to church, the people that you will see from the pulpit do not need convincing that death is an impossible and draining reality. You will look from the pulpit into faces of those who have just lost their spouse to cancer last year, those who lost a friend in a car crash last week, those so overcome with depression that they only made it to church on Easter because they knew they’d hate themselves if they didn’t. You will look from the pulpit into the eyes of adults whose marriages are crumbling, children just coming to terms with the reality of the death of a grandparent, and the young adult who’s are hiding her addiction all too well. You’ll see the transgender teen who’s wondering if their parents will ever accept them as they are, and you’ll see the preteen who dreads going to school tomorrow because the other kids are so cruel to him.

Those people do not need to hear your groundbreaking fresh take on Easter; they simply need to hear that Christ is risen. In the words of Harvey Milk, “You gotta give ‘em hope.”

So here’s your chance, Preacher. Take a breath and get ready to tell them the story.

Tell them the story of a radical rabbi born to a poor carpenter and his fiancé who grew up in an occupied land. Tell them about how he grew up to tell everyone that God is loose in the world. Tell them about how he caused such a ruckus that his loved ones begged him to lay low for awhile, but he wouldn’t, because he had a mission. Tell them about how the powers that be captured him and mocked him, beat him, and killed him while the people looked on or even joined in. Tell them about how he was buried in a cold tomb hewn out of the rock, sealed there presumably forever, like every human who had died before him. And then tell them how Mary found that tomb empty three days later.

            Preacher, just tell the story they came to hear.

The story they need to hear.

            Tell the story you need to hear.

Because it’s also true that you have tombs of your own. If you’re preaching on the first Sunday of Easter, chances are good that you’re in parish ministry. You’re tasked with so much with so little support. You’re responsible for reports to the local denominational body and preparing for Bible study and pouring a ton of effort into sermons that a very limited number of people are likely to either read or hear. You’re answering emails with silly questions and consoling people who are upset over the color of the carpet and maybe even wondering if this whole church thing is worth it anymore. There are moments of hope and joy and there are wonderful people, yes. But there’s a lot of loneliness, too.

The church can indeed be a lonely place, especially if you’re the pastor and you’re the only person your age in your parish, as is the case with many millennial pastors.

It’s been pointed out many times before that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. She comes to the tomb, overcome with death’s effects, overcome with grief, weighed down. And the risen Jesus calls her name.

Because the Good News is that God is still loose in the world. Through the closing churches and the angry emails and the frustrations and the loneliness, God is still loose, undeterred by the Church’s failures, even the failures that are our own.

            Through it all, God still finds a way to get to us. Not even death could stop God.

So let go of trying to find a new take on Easter. Instead, consider preaching that Jesus is loose: in wine and bread, in water and words, in human bodies and broken souls. Jesus is loose and that matters, regardless of — well, anything else.

Preacher, Jesus was risen long before you arrived on the scene. Your job is simply to give ‘em hope — so just tell the story. Tell them that

            “Death took a body, and discovered God.

            Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.
            Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see….

            Christ is Risen, and death is defeated!

            Christ is Risen, and demons are cast down!

            Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

            Christ is Risen, and life is loose!”[2]

            Jesus is loose. God is loose. Love is loose in the world, coursing through your church sanctuary and every seemingly forsaken corner of the world and our own hearts.

That is all they need to hear. And just maybe, it’s all you need to hear, too.

Go get ‘em, Preacher.

 

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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 in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta 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.

 

 

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 377.

[2] John Crysostom, Easter Homily, (paraphrase)