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.

Easter 3(C): How Will We Respond?

Easter 3(C): How Will We Respond?

John 21:1-19

By: Casey Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Casey Cross

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

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.

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

Maundy Thursday (C): A Daring Love

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

John’s Gospel text, appointed for this evening in Holy Week, invites us into the dining room of a home somewhere in the city of Jerusalem. It is not a familiar setting, for us or for Jesus and congregation his friends sitting around the table. From the other Gospel writers, we know that this is a borrowed table in the home of an unnamed resident.

The night that brings them around that table is the night that is different from every other night—the night that, for first-century Jews, the night of remembering the story we will also read from the Exodus. This night is a moment to pause and to recall with thanksgiving the great faithfulness of God who acted in mercy toward the people of Israel, bound for generations in slavery in the land of Egypt. It is a night to remember an identity.

And yet, all over again, this night is about to become different from every other night. Even as the twelve are around the table, Jesus is setting in motion a new remembrance; a new act of God’s mercy.

The sacred ritual that will mark this new, old remembrance is an act of humility; a chore reserved not for the leader of the movement but for the servant of the household. By removing his outer robe and wrapping the towel around his waist, the night became new and different all over again.

As the simple sound of pouring water strikes the bottom of the basin, one can almost sense the tension that must be present in the room.

What is he doing? Has he forgotten?

No, in fact, he is remembering who he truly is, as he attentively washes and tenderly dries the first pair of feet, then the next, and the next.

Simon Peter, for those in the room and, truly, for all of us, names the tension. To Jesus he wonders aloud, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus, in reply, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

And, in response, “You will never wash my feet.” Just like that, so many of us find, in this old Gospel lesson, a person with whom we can relate. Not me. Not my feet, Lord.

You will never wash my feet that haven’t had time to receive a pedicure.

You will never wash my feet that have walked around in these shoes all day long.

You will never wash my feet that went to the gym during the lunch hour.

Lord, you will never wash my feet.

To this, Jesus issues the most difficult of his responses: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Tough words, for the disciples around the table and for us who hear this text some two millennia later.

Their Lord and Teacher reminds them of his place among them; an example that they have seen and should go forth to imitate themselves—servants are not greater than their masters and messengers are not greater than their senders. But the teaching, the message, he tells them, is in this mandatum, this new commandment:

That you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

All that Jesus has showed them, all that he has taught them, all that he has sought to share with them in their journey has been summed up in this single and simple way: Love one another.

It is a daring love.

But let’s be honest about what the disciples either did not or could not say in that sweet, solemn moment: Loving one another like this sounds well and good; but when put into practice, it is not as simple as Jesus makes it sound.

Love one another.

Love one another and bear each other’s burdens.

Love one another and feel one another’s pains.

Love one another and allow the possibility of being hurt.

Love one another and open yourself to being understood in your depths.

Love one another and make amends where you have wronged the other.

Love one another and put your arm around the one who cries, who hungers.

Love one another and be willing to love even to the point of washing one another’s feet, as Jesus has knelt to wash those of his closest friends, his tender hands touching their dusty, calloused feet.

It is daring because this kind of love bids the invitation to open up to be seen for who one really is; to experience the type of intimacy that everything around warns us to guard ourselves from; to be vulnerable enough to look into another person’s eyes as they wash with water the calloused skin of a bare foot.

Love such as this is not easy because it is the type of genuine love that does not come cheaply.  This love comes at a cost; at a great expense. But in and through and by such love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Do we dare love so deeply?

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The Rev. Andrew Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

Good Friday(C): A Long Look in the Mirror

John 18:1-19:42

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

Preacher Fred Craddock advised lectionary preachers to “distinguish between lengthy readings that are single narratives and those which consist of collected teachings. The key is to be sensitive to the integrity of the text – that is, its inner most unity, whether it is one verse or fifty.”[1]

So what is a preacher to do about the Gospel selection for Good Friday? The pericope is over 80 verses long! On one hand, it is easily broken down into smaller narratives. There’s Jesus’ arrest in the garden and then the questioning and trials (first in front of Caiaphas, then Pilate). We overhear Peter’s three denials of being a disciple. Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial could each be a specialized attention. It would be reasonable to give a nod to the entire reading, but then focus on just one of those scenes. There is enough material in each of them for a sermon.

But in the context of Good Friday, slicing-and-dicing the text into smaller chunks isn’t particularly effective. To hear all eighty verses is to walk the entire road with Jesus. We should sit with the gravity of it, if nothing more than to note that even just reading it elicits tension and grief, even anxiousness to get it over with. Sunday’s coming, right?! Some of us might also admit beginning to count all the opportunities there were to stop the madness or at least join Jesus in the fray. Take your pick of the people who interacted with Jesus in the passage: the disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Peter, or anyone in the crowd. Where was their compassion, and, for the disciples, where was their conviction? Even though we know how the story ends, there is something about reading the entire narrative that elicits frustration over the abandonment and suffering of Jesus, maybe even a little judgment.

Why didn’t Peter admit to being a follower of Jesus? Why didn’t Caiaphas use his position as high priest to apply divine wisdom to the situation? Why didn’t Pilate listen to his better angels? Why didn’t anyone in the crowd do some fact checking? All of which low-key implies that we might have responded differently. Most of us are too humble to admit it out loud, of course. Just as we are sure we would have been marching with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement, we are certain we would have been right there beside Jesus through it all. There is, of course, an easy way to find out what we would have done in their shoes: take a long look in the mirror.

If we wonder what we would have done in the garden, whether or not we would have been peacemakers in the face of violence, we might reflect on our current behavior. What we are doing now gives us the answer. Are we offering a theological response to war? What about gun violence in our own neighborhoods? How about peace between our own relatives?

If we wonder how we would have answered the question of loyalty posed three times to Peter, we should consider to what extent we are willing to be inconvenienced in order to follow Jesus. What we are doing now gives us the answer. We are usually happy to be generous, as long as it doesn’t impact whether or not we can afford another cable station. We are typically willing to help a stranger out with gas or a meal, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our morning Starbucks run.

If we wonder what we would have done during Jesus’ trial, we might evaluate our connections to our neighbors and neighborhood. What we are doing now gives us the answer. How much do we know about the single mom living across the street? Have we exchanged more than a superficial hello with the family next door? If they were in trouble, would we know enough to step in and offer help? We might be interested in what’s happening to them, but that’s different than being invested in them.

As we sit with such a heavy text, let us use it as a mirror. Whatever we might have done in the garden, at the trial, or at the foot of the cross, we are already doing. Or not.

[1] Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 91.

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The Rev. Lori Walke

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