Thanksgiving Day (C): All About Eating

Thanksgiving Day (C): All About Eating

John 6:25-35

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is ALL about eating. You don’t have to buy presents, you don’t have to put on a costume, you don’t have to decorate the house, you don’t have to buy fireworks, you don’t have to worry about if you have a date to take out—you just have to cook and eat with people you love.

For many years now, it has been my tradition to celebrate Thanksgiving with good friends in Rhode Island. We get up early, walk the dogs, preheat the oven, then I go to church. After the Eucharist, we gather in the kitchen to cook, laugh, and revel in the joy of being together. We eat around 2, take a nap, then repeat.

Our lesson from John appointed for Thanksgiving certainly mirrors this joy of eating in community. Those who preach regularly will remember that last year (Year B) we had five Sundays in a row going through the Bread of Life discourse that makes up Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. All of this, including our lesson appointed for today, stems from the Feeding of the 5,000–an image that many Thanksgiving chefs might have in their heads already!

The people who just have partaken of the feast of loaves and fishes are so amazed by that experience that they follow Jesus across a body of water seeking more. “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves,” Jesus says to the crowd (Jn 6:26). Jesus recognizes that the miraculous meal got the people’s attention. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the meal comes in the context of Jesus healing people (Jn 6:2). One sign leads to another: Jesus heals the sick, and the people are amazed. They follow Jesus to witness more of these healings, and suddenly there is a large crowd that needs to eat. Jesus not only points the way to the Kingdom of Heaven in restoring health to the sick (healing signs), but he points the way through attending to the physical needs of those gathered (sign of the loaves and fishes).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs always have two purposes: they address the immediate needs of those gathered, and they point toward the Kingdom of God which Jesus comes to initiate. In the case of the Feeding of the 5,000, the people are hungry. They need sustenance. Jesus feeds them. The sign also points the way to the Kingdom of God wherein God transforms even the smallest gift into abundance.

Coming back to today’s lesson, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (Jn 6:27). He further clarifies that he, himself, is that food that endures: “I am the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Jesus, here, is not knocking the actual meal. People were hungry. People were fed. That’s good. He goes a step further, however, in reminding the crowds that the good meal is a means to an end, not the end itself.

When I think about my favorite Thanksgiving gatherings with my chosen family in Rhode Island, we ate amazing meals. We drank delicious wines. We played games and laughed. The great joy of those gatherings, however, were not the turkey, the Pinot Noir, nor the Scrabble board. The joy came from the love for one another expressed in fellowship.

The love we feel and experience at Thanksgiving is heightened because of the occasion. The holiday festivities point toward the greater love found through fellowship. Just as the many signs in John’s Gospel point the way to the Kingdom of God, our Thanksgiving observations point the way to the joy of community in thanksgiving for the many blessings of this life. What is more kingdom-y than that?

Because the Gospel of John has no dedicated lectionary year, preachers might take this opportunity to highlight the nature of the Johannine sign. What signs does God show us in our Thanksgiving traditions that point the way toward the Kingdom of God? How might we incorporate these signs and revelations into our everyday lives? Where can we use these signs to point others toward God’s Kingdom?

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The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

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

 

Trinity Sunday (C): God is NOT a Puzzle!

Trinity Sunday (C): God is NOT a Puzzle!

John 16:12-15

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

“When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday and it is the one day in the year that we do not focus on a proclaimed message from the Gospel or readings for the day, but instead focus on a message or understanding that comes solely from centuries of the Church’s teaching about, and life in, God. Although our understanding of the Trinity is certainly and directly inspired by Scripture, it is important to note that the word “Trinity” is not found anywhere within.

When it comes to this doctrine of the Church, many (most? all?) of us get caught up in when we attempt to explain every detail and specific quirk about it. We try to put all the pieces together in a nice, heavily manipulated picture, and call the puzzle of the Triune God solved. In doing so however, we lose the freedom, power, and understanding the mystery of the Trinity holds and bestows in our lives.

So I’m not going to go there. Instead, what I want to highlight is what the Apostle Paul refers to in Romans 5.2 (the epistle reading for this Sunday) as “boasting in the hope of sharing the glory of God.”

In order to do so, let me first draw you all back again to that image of the puzzle that I mentioned briefly before. Whether they be crossword, Sudoku, or even just the plain old jigsaw puzzles,  my wife and I love them. We like big, complicated puzzles that take days to finish. And the reason we like them, I must admit, is because we know that if we just work at it hard enough and if we just work together well enough, we will finally be able to solve it. We will be able to turn that table top from a picture of chaos into a picture of—oh I don’t know—Mickey Mouse and all his friends, or one of Monet’s paintings, or anything really. The important point is that the puzzle is solved and we have a proud sense of triumph over it. We pat each other on the back and give each other a high five, before looking for the next puzzle to solve.

Now jigsaw puzzles might not be everyone’s preference, but most folks I know gain some degree of satisfaction from solving problems. There is something deeply rewarding about fitting together pieces of information until you can explain every detail and stand in triumph over it, knowing that nothing about that problem, question, or mystery escapes you any longer. This drive for solving problems have moved scientists to map the human genome, allowing them to put together certain pieces of DNA as if they were Lincoln logs or Legos. We are working on trying to solve the puzzle of life itself.

But God…

…God who is the source of all life?

God who created all things and knows each of those things, intimately?

God who weaves us together in our mother’s womb, names us, and numbers every hair on our heads before we take our first breath?

We try to solve God too, but we find that doing so is impossible.

When solving a puzzle, it’s often easier to fill in the border first, fitting each piece together until the image is contained in a neat, perfect box. That leads me to wonder: given that we often treat God as a puzzle to be solved, what borders does God have? What end pieces are there to limit the Creator of all? What box can contain the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

This is why we have so many heresies revolving this specific doctrine. People want to give God a definite border. But God is not a puzzle. God is not to be solved. No matter how much time and effort we put into solving God, we find that God is simply too big.

So then what does Jesus mean when he says that when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide us into all the truth? Doesn’t that mean we will be given all of the answers to life—that all the pieces of the puzzle will finally be put together? I wish it did.

At times, the questions and mysteries of life seem so great and overwhelming that I want to scream! Truth be told, I have screamed! I’ve cried out to God, hoping that God will make things black and white. “Make it clear and easy! Explain yourself to me! Tell me why you let it all get so muddled up! Why you let wars go on, tornadoes and hurricanes rip life apart, loved ones die, hunger prevail, and hate destroy?”

But you know, in return, more often than not (though seldom all at once), eventually I do receive God’s response. It does not come as a proof of some truth that acts as the keystone, solving all of my problems. Rather, it comes as understanding.

Understanding is not the same as solving a puzzle or problem. The details often go completely unexplained. Rarely (and to the chagrin of my math teachers) am I able to “show my work.” When I receive understanding, I do not receive some sense of triumph or victory over a puzzle solved; rather, I receive peace. Peace in the understanding that triumph and victory belong to God. The problems and puzzles in this world are solved by God’s hand, not mine.

Understanding that God is Triune reveals to us what life is and is to be. God is not to be solved, but God is certainly to be revealed. The Holy Trinity reveals to us that through the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is in full, life-giving relationship with Godself. And through the Trinity, we are invited into the truth, life, and peace that flows out of that relationship. In contrast, the individualistic culture that surrounds us in this world leads us to value and decide everything in terms of ourselves. The relationship of the Trinity, however, leads us to value and decide everything in terms of others.

Listen again to some of the key scripture verses we have in this powerful, life-giving faith of ours from just the Gospel of John alone. John 3:16 “For God so love the world that he gave his only son so that whosoever believes in him may not parish but have eternal life.” John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And John 16:15 “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I [Jesus] said that he [the Spirit] will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

In Christ we are invited and connected to the Holy Trinity by Jesus’ revealing act of the Father’s love on the Cross and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Through the Spirit, we are given the understanding that we have indeed been created in God’s image. We are created in that Triune image of God for relationship. We are made for each other.

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The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Reverend Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor along with his wife, Pastor Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa, where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Pentecost (C): Three Possibilities for Preaching

Pentecost (C): Three Possibilities for Preaching

John 14:8-17, (25-27)

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

On Pentecost Sunday in Year C, the Gospel enables us to make connections between the “tongues of fire” and blessed chaos depicted in Acts, and Jesus’ final teaching about the Spirit and life on earth after his departure. In reading the text, three distinct sermon possibilities emerged that address how it is we live faithfully after the chaos of both the crucifixion/resurrection/ascension and of the descent of the Spirit recedes.

On the Value of Asking Questions

The Farewell Discourses in John, or what one scholar calls “Table Talks” with Jesus are punctuated with earnest questions from well-intentioned and confused disciples.[1] Jesus knows it is his last night with them and shows them through gesture (foot-washing) and words how it is that they will go on…they will be okay…a “new normal” will emerge. Like us, the disciples are only capable of taking in Jesus’ teaching in bits and pieces, always partially—tending toward the literalizing of Jesus’ metaphorical language—and often reluctantly. Like us, the disciples questions reveal both an earnest desire to understand and follow Jesus and their ‘worldly,’ self-interested concern that they will be okay and survive the trial of the Passion that lies before them.

  • Peter asks where Jesus is going (13.36)
  • Thomas asks if the disciples can have a map to get there (14.5)
  • Philip, at the beginning of today’s periscope, asks to see the Father and then promises he won’t ask any more questions (14.8)
  • Judas (not Iscariot) wonders how Jesus will manage to reveal himself only to those who keep love him, and not to everyone else (14.22)

One idea for a sermon might be lifting up the questions that Pentecost brings up for us and encouraging question-asking as a fruitful means of prayer and an invitation to honesty that engenders genuine friendships among those on the “Way” (14.5f.)

Philip’s Quest to be Satisfied

Another tack for a sermon is to explore the insatiability of human desire, both for material ‘stuff’ and spiritual ones like proof that God exists and really loves us. After all, according to the Rolling Stones, we “can’t get no satisfaction,” and Dave Matthews echoes “what I want is what I’ve not got…”

“Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” I suspect that most of us have made similar demands on God. Like the Devil testing Jesus, I remember as an 8-year-old asking God to remove the tissue paper flowers on my dresser drawer overnight, so that in the morning I would know God existed. The next morning the flowers with their green pipe-cleaner stems were still on the dresser. Of course, had they disappeared, I suspect I would only come up with more creative “tests” to satisfy my doubt. The reality is that God doesn’t ‘prove’ himself to us on our terms. Instead, we are invited to the mystery, not certainty, of faith.

Jesus responds to Philip’s desire for satisfaction first by exhorting him to believe. Jesus sounds disappointed—just for a moment—that Philip doesn’t believe that the Father and Jesus dwell within each other. But let’s cut Philip some slack because the content of what Jesus wants Philip to believe—the idea of “mutual indwelling” is really hard to understand.  Jesus’ final “I AM” metaphor of the Father as Vinegrower, Jesus as true vine, and us as branches, from the next chapter, is helpful to folks like Philip, like me, and probably like you, who have trouble conceptualizing what it means for separate persons—human or Divine—to abide or dwell in one another. The process of believing is also a challenge to us because in John’s Gospel, belief isn’t a cognitive assertion, rather it indicates a relationship.[2]  Jesus wants Philip to know that Philip has seen the Father and has a loving relationship with the Father because he has seen and loves Jesus, the flesh and blood man who just washed his feet and looks him in the eye.

Jesus’ second response to Philip is to point him toward the ‘works’ themselves that the Father has done through Jesus. Jesus’ ‘works’ may refer to the “seven signs” so carefully conveyed with multi-layered symbols in the first half of the Gospel. Of the seven signs, one is celebrating, three are healings, one is feeding, another is rescuing, and the final one is resuscitating. Jesus indicates that those in relationship with him will do greater ‘works’ than what he has done. Of course, I doubt any one of us has done qualitatively ‘greater works’ than Jesus, but quantitatively the Body of Christ has done and does these works through our ministries in the community, in shaping people who respond to God’s call to serve, and in daily parish ministry where we work out, over and over again, how to follow Jesus’ new commandment in John:  Love one another (13.33).

Spirit-Abiding Prayer & the Alignment of Desire

The last section of the lection jumps over seven verses to maintain a focus on Jesus’ teachings about the parakletos. Parakletos literally means ‘called to one’s side,’ but signifies counselor, helper, advocate, or intercessor. The word functions as the job description for the Holy Spirit…and, notably a self-description of Jesus while he is with his disciples. At this point in the narrative, Jesus is future-focused. He is preparing the disciples for how the Divine Presence will be transfigured after his incarnation ends through his glorification.[3]  There will still be Someone alongside the disciples, but now that Someone, the Spirit of truth, will be like our breath, both inside and outside, of whom we can be conscious or unconscious.

This Holy Spirit of truth, teaches us “everything” (v. 25) and reminds us of all that the Lord said to us while he “pitched his tent” among us as the fully human and fully divine One (1.14). God will send the Spirit, after Jesus’ ascension and at Jesus’ request, just as God sent Jesus. On one level, all life exists in the Divine Presence (1.3 – 5), and yet our subjective experience and the testimony of John’s Gospel is also that God coming toward us through the various “sendings,” of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, and then of the disciples, which includes each of us through baptisms. Or, to put it oppositely, God is always drawing us to Godself (John 12.32). Whichever direction, the movement results in connection, closeness, and intimacy…that is, a relationship, which what ‘belief’ means in John’s Gospel.

So picking up on the theme of asking questions as path for prayer, the preacher may want to use verse 14 as a case-study: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Out of context, this verse can be misused as though it is magical incantation. But let’s analyze this verse in its immediate context: Philip has just asked Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus responds to Philip’s “ask” by reminding / teaching / showing Philip that he and the Father are one. And yet, I suspect that Philip left the conversation confused, wanting to see the Father based on his pre-conceived notions of what the Father was like. At this point, Philip can’t yet conceive the radical teaching about the Father’s dwelling in the Son dwelling the Holy Spirit (or whatever order you want to put it in…even Jesus mixes the order up), much less the that the Holy Spirit abides in Philip, just as Philip abides in the Spirit. The invitation Jesus gives Philip, and us, is to become aware of the abiding presence. Then, I suspect, more and more of what we “ask,” Jesus will do because our desire aligns more closely with purposes of God.

[1]Gordon D. Fee, “Expository Articles: John 14:8-17,” Interpretation 43/2 (1989): 170-174, cited in the Working Preacher Blog, accessed on 5/1/2019 here:  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=593

[2] I have learned this over the years through listening to the teachings of Dr. Karoline Lewis on faculty at Luther Seminary through their Center for Biblical Preaching, which produces the Working Preacher website.

[3] In John the glorification is a singular movement incorporating the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to the Father.

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina. When she isn’t at “church meetings” as her 3 year-old daughter says, she can be spotted raising children, reading, and occasionally piddling in the yard.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.