When I think of traditional Lenten themes, I think about penitence, repentance, self-reflection, self-denial, and meditations on mortality. While I whole-heartedly support these traditional themes of the season, taken alone, they can be a real bummer. Yes, we should remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but that does not mean that we are to sit around moping until the end arrives.
One way to reinvigorate our Lenten disciplines might be to expand our practices to the role of blessing. While practices of penitence, repentance, etc. allow us the self-reflection necessary to be in right relationship with God and to hear God’s call, today’s story of Abram shows us how that self-reflection can lead to a life of blessing.
If we look at the narrative arc of Genesis up to this point, it has been one of disobedience, destruction and curse. Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise and cursed. Cain slays Abel and is cursed. The people reject God, so God curses them with a flood. The people build a tower in Babel, and God curses them.
Finally, we come to today’s lesson about Abram, and the narrative shifts from cursing to blessing. Other than a genealogy, this is our first introduction to Abram (later Abraham). God calls Abram to leave his native land in a threefold litany of departure: “Go from your country [land], your kindred, and your father’s house” (Gen 12:1 NRSV). Furthermore, God tells Abram that he will lead him to a new land in order that God “will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). God does not make Abram and his descendants a great nation to the end that Abram have power and dominion, but in order that Abram and his descendants “will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). Through this give and take of inward reflection leading to outward movement, we see God, Abram, and the world engaging in an intricate dance of blessing. When Abram follows God’s call into new and scary places, God blesses Abram in order that Abram might bless the world.
Remembering that this story of Abram comes after the many stories of disobedient humanity and God’s curses on the disobedient, I would highlight the willingness of Abram to listen and respond to God’s call. In Genesis 12, we have not yet been told that Abram is a righteous man, but his ability to hear and follow God’s call demonstrates his righteousness.
An ability to listen and respond to God lies at the heart of our Lenten disciplines and begins the dance of blessing. Practices of prayer, fasting, and self-denial focus our hearts on God’s call. Through self-examination and repentance (metanoia—turning back toward God) we realign our lives with the path that God has laid for us. Through these practices, we, like Abram, can move out from our comfortable places of home and church and into the world where we can both share God’s blessing with others and be blessed in return.
The dance goes something like this:
God carries us into new territories
God blesses us through others
God blesses others through us
This dance of blessing lies at the heart of God’s covenant with Abram, and it is the blessing that Paul finds in the cross of Christ, particularly in his Epistle to the Romans, which we will read much of during Lent. Through Jesus, all the Gentiles are brought into the family of Abram, whose primary purpose in life is to bless. A sermon built upon today’s lesson from Genesis provides the opportunity not only to create a Lenten discipline around blessing, but to illuminate the difficult readings found in Romans in our Lenten lectionary. 
How might we as churches, communities, and individuals take our Lenten practices of self-reflection and transform them into ways of blessing the world? If we take Abram as our example, it means that we must leave our comfortable places of our own neighborhoods and families. It means going out into new territories where we might be cursed by others. God’s promise—the same promise God makes to Abram—is to journey with us.
Into what uncomfortable territories might we journey this Lent? How might God bless us, and how might God use us to bless others?
 Much of my thought on Paul and Judaism comes from Mark Nanos. For further reading, I suggest his commentary on Romans in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 2nd Ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017) and his book Reading Paul Within Judaism (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).
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.
The church tradition of my upbringing (non-denominational; vaguely Baptist) didn’t use the lectionary. I probably only learned what it was in college or in seminary, and I’ve been enamored ever since. At its most romantic, it pushes us as preachers to preach on a variety of texts that we might otherwise never willingly choose. (In actuality, the lectionary skips some complicated texts itself, and we still get to choose between passages if we want, so it’s not a perfect system.) So, when Modern Metanoia branched out beyond the Gospel texts, I was ready to go big or go home. I was ready to pick the text I’d be least excited by. I was ready for God’s revelation to break forth through a passage I would normally struggle with.
And so here we are—with a passage from Romans about sin and Adam and condemnation.
I think it is important to admit that we sometimes struggle with texts as preachers because it lowers the barrier for others to fall in love with the Bible. Writer and speaker Rachel Held Evans was particularly good at this—openly wrestling with difficult texts not because she didn’t like the Bible, but because she loved the Bible.
So, what is this sin-weary feminist who is uneasy about the times we only reference men in the Bible to do with a text all about sin and death?
First, Brian Peterson suggests that we contextualize this passage for those who understand that this passage does not rely on the literal transmission of sin and death from Adam to the rest of us. For contexts that understand the earth as existing for billions of years, it is important to note that death has been embedded in the cycles of nature for as long as earth has been here. Instead, the death and sin connection embedded in the Genesis story is one of the spiritual consequences of sin—sin is not what God wants for us. Sin points to broken relationship with God, ourselves, creation, and others.
Second, this passage points us to a larger story than what we see now. To me, the beauty of this passage is that it reminds me of the sin and redemption cycle that is bigger than my own personal experience. I have entered into a story that started before my character had a line and it will continue longer than I’m on the stage. Sin and death were a part of the world before me and will persist after me, but so has the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.
While this passage names individual characters in the story—Adam and Moses—these names are placeholders for the rest of us. One person’s sin is all people’s sin, and one person’s grace can save us all. The gospel message that breaks forth when I read this text is that the story is bigger than me and so we are all in this together. Since the story is bigger than me, it is not just about me. It is not just about Adam or Moses, either.
Sin has bound us together, but grace holds us altogether as well. Many stories in one. I cannot separate myself from your sin, and you cannot separate yourself from mine. Our collective experience of grace and life for all insists on this.
What I walk away from this text with is more questions. What does it mean for my life if I really am connected to what pains and troubles you? The Gospel text for this week is about the temptation of Jesus. What if the temptations we experience were shouldered in community, rather than in the privacy of our own relationship with the Tempter? Are there ways that we could address sin collectively so that we may experience grace communally? (This must be done with safety in mind, to the extent it can be, of course.)
I’ve seen the alternative—parishioners isolated with the demons that haunt them. I’ve experienced glimpses of divinity when grace abounds between people that have shared their shame and received acceptance. How might the church transform if we move beyond individual stories of sin and grace to recognizing our place in a much larger narrative that puts our sin and redemption in relationship with everyone else’s? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out.
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.
“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?
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.
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.”
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.
 Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 91.
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.
I hate it when my thoughts are given voice by the villains in stories. It’s just the worst.
Every time I read this passage about Mary’s extravagant and symbolic display of affection and devotion, I get uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a very romantic and intimate moment between Mary and Jesus. Just imagine, you’ve been invited to a dinner at Lazarus’ house, which is already kind of strange because Lazarus died. But now, Lazarus is alive again somehow and willing to host a meal at his home with his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is listed as the host of the party, but Martha serves all the food. Then Mary pulls out some incredibly expensive perfume and rubs three-quarters of a pound of it into Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair, and rubs his feet again with her hair. This is so intimate.
Feet are intimate. Hair being let down is intimate. This is all very intimate. I can only imagine how awkward it would have been to be present for such a moment. Because of that, I know I would have had a million thoughts in my head about how inappropriate it was. The easiest to justify is that the use of three-quarters of a pound of pure nard was wasteful. If you’re going to make the dinner party uncomfortable, at least be thrifty. At least make an attempt at maintaining some holiness and decency.
Then Judas voices my discomfort and I feel a wave of shame wash over me.
The parenthetical verses explaining that Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus (12:4) and that his concern for the poor was a lie (12:6) don’t help either. Judas’ concern about the inappropriate use of perfume had nothing to do with any real care for the poor. He was concerned only about his comfort in a weird and intimate moment. Judas was concerned about his own desires for material wealth and the comfort that his position afforded him. Seeing a real and tangible display of affection for Jesus disrupted that sense of comfort and demonstrated a threat to Judas’ way of life.
I don’t really want to be too hard on Judas here. I think Judas represents more of us than we would like to admit. He’s a part of a new movement of religious hopefuls that are eager to overthrow the roman occupation and rebuild the Kingdom of God with power and wealth that had last been seen by Solomon. The only model for a new kingdom that any of have ever known is built with wealth and power, not with submission and love. His motivation is very human.
But, it isn’t the way of Jesus.
And that is the tension we stand in.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are on the edge of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of our year. We are about to worship through the very real tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow an oppressive empire and the let down at watching him be crucified by his own religious community in the very same week before the drama of resurrection on Easter Sunday. This story about Mary’s intimate love for Jesus and Judas’ discomfort with her wastefulness is a perfect reminder of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who can transcend death. And Judas is stuck wanting some benefit for himself.
So, this Sunday, I think it is important to do the important work of just sitting with this tension. For me, I do still kind of wish Jesus would use the power of God to just fix everything. I am disappointed that Jesus’ ministry was cut short after just a few years. I wonder what would have happened if he were willing to play by the rules of society. I imagine our world would look very different.
But, then again, it probably wouldn’t. As it turns out, humanity is already too good at using power and wealth to get more power and wealth. That is a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself. Mary demonstrates a drastically different way of pursuing life. She just loves extravagantly. Jesus shows a new way of life. He becomes a servant to the world in order to disrupt the cycle.
Preaching this scripture is weird. It’s a little too intimate and if you read it wrong, it can sound like Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. But I think that is a good reason to wrestle with this passage. It is a perfect reminder for all of us to reconsider the motives of our faith. Thank God for that.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.
Economics has long been called “the dismal science,” and, for me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son conjures memories of economics class in college. I am not what one would call, “a math person,” but rather someone much more interested in the roots of suffering than the root of an integer. In a nutshell, I’m bad at math, and I’d rather not do it to any great extent.
Imagine my horror on my first day of economics class. Numbers and equations, graphs and charts all spelled “doom” as I calculated that I needed four full semesters of this stuff to graduate college. Yet, somehow, from all these numbers I gleaned that there exists a “supply” of goods to be sold and a “demand” for them to be bought, and a good’s price depends on where this supply and demand meet.
Generally, as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases. More people want something, so it becomes more expensive. As supply increases, the price of an object decreases. Because there is more to sell, and the same amount of demand, the object becomes cheaper. For example, if there are a ton of apples rotting in a warehouse, they are likely to be sold at a lower price than if apples were rare, juicy, and in demand. Or something like that.
Early on in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against what he calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares,” he writes. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.
After despairing at the abundance of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer establishes the concept of costly grace. He does this by metaphorically limiting its supply, saying, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.” The pastor writes that, because God’s sacrifice on the cross cost much, therefore grace itself costs the Christian much, even their life. Now, Bonhoeffer is rightly calling for Christians to display some sort of counter-cultural living and oppose the Nazi regime. His argument calls others to live like grace changes something. Costly grace is precious and rare. Costly grace is eight juicy granny smith apples when everyone wants to bake a pie.
Even the great Bonhoeffer cannot escape the laws of supply and demand, and Jesus paints a picture of extremely cheap grace. The supply is literally unlimited, driving its price down to zero. In this week’s parable, the youngest son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father lavishes love, forgiveness, and—yes—money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. Only the older brother, who lived a life of moderation, wound up angry and corrected. I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.
This week, in the midst of our Lenten discipline, I will relish the opportunity to celebrate grace that is prodigal. Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.
While many may wish for grace to be cheap, many others still prefer it remain too expensive for most to afford. The weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” Some may even quote Bonhoeffer down their noses, demanding to see signs of costly grace. This parable, however, reminds us that even (especially) the spendthrift, the disrespectful, the prodigal remain loved and celebrated and welcomed. Perhaps the change that Bonhoeffer wishes grace to cause is the movement from self-righteous brother to extravagant father.
I may not know economics, but I have an understanding of prodigal grace. Prodigal grace changes lives, however freely given it is. Prodigal grace provides homes for those who can’t seem to pay their bills on time. Prodigal grace welcomes refugees even though they overstayed a tourist visa. Prodigal grace prays with a prisoner after their guilty verdict. Prodigal grace puts one’s life on the line for those persecuted in Nazi Germany. Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay. How do you like dem apples?
The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is how Jesus speaks of the city that plans to kill him, the city to which he has set his face, to which he is on his way — but not there yet. “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
For whatever reason, this passage from Luke stirs in me Jesus’ tenderness. Like Zechariah says upon first seeing Jesus, in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. Here we hear Jesus tenderly talking of the city of his people, even in the midst of his own personal trials and tribulations, which aren’t even coming to a head yet. He’s not yet to the cross, but he knows where he is going.
The lectionary plays somewhat fast and loose with the passages from Luke this Lent, starting in Luke 4, fast forwarding us to the middle of Luke 13, and then having us at the beginning of Luke 13 before going to Luke 15. As the depths of Lent increase, so too must the preparations for baptism — the culmination of Lent at the Great Vigil of Easter. Rather than asking “What does this text have to do with repentance?” we must ask “What does this text have to do with baptismal formation?” of which repentance is necessarily a part.
As far back as Luke 9 (vss. 51-56), Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, a passage that does not appear in the Sunday RCL Lenten lectionary. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem in a town that does not welcome him in Luke 9. This is a Samaritan village that does not receive him. The disciples, who have professed him as Messiah and heard him predict his own death, want to destroy the village with fire and brimstone rained down from heaven. Jesus suggests that they simply try another town.
In today’s passage, Jesus has been going through villages that do welcome him. He’s preached turn or burn sermons, healed a crippled woman, told a story about the necessity of preparing plants for harvest before giving up on them, made a joke about the Kingdom of Heaven being a weed that is somehow much larger than ever earthly possible, said that God’s reign is moving through creation like a little bit of yeast through flour, and directed the difficulty of following him.
Now in our passage, a Pharisee—teachers of the law who are not Jesus greatest allies—warns him to stay away! “Herod is trying to kill you!” Jesus is unfazed by this warning and command. He’s predicted his own death and made up his mind to go to Jerusalem. He responds not with safety and a plan to leave. He doesn’t do what the disciples tried to do at the Samaritan village, plan destruction in order to avoid difficulty. He answers with bravado and compassion — the tender compassion of our God as the dawn from on high breaks upon creation.
“You tell that fox” Jesus says, “I’ve got people to take care of. I’ll deal with him soon enough.” Then he shows God’s compassion my declaring again his ongoing mission during his earthly ministry: Casting out demons and performing cures. He’ll finish his work on the Third Day.
The foreshadowing in these three verses is so thick you can almost taste it. Jesus’ work will be accomplished on the Third Day, alluding to the Resurrection, while also again predicting his death: “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Those who warn him will not see him again until his triumphal entry, the beginning of the end of his life, as they call out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Even as Jesus predicts his death, he weeps for this city, this city where God has sent prophets and sages, monarchs and judges, to bring them back to God’s direction to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Time and again they have turned away from God by killing those who proclaim repentance and good news. Yet still Jesus’ response isn’t to destroy the city. It’s a listless sigh of the city’s name — and the desire to give it a hug.
This passage from Luke gives us one of the most tender images of God, and one of the most clearly feminine images of God in Greek Second Testament scripture: that of a mother hen gathering her brood unto herself. This is like the prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describing Jesus as having “stretched[ed] out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” (BCP, 101)
Julian of Norwich says this
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
Christ carried us within him in love and travail,
until the full time of his passion.
And when all was completed and he had carried us so for joy,
still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love.
What then is a preacher to make of baptism from these five verses that are not about repentance, or even about water? In baptism, we are joined to Christ our mother, who carried us within him in love and travail until the full time of his Passion. We are joined to his death and resurrection through the waters of the font, the womb of the Church by which we are born of water and the Spirit.
God’s love, known through Jesus’ words, is not unlike the sighs earthly mothers make for their children who they know can do better but haven’t seen how or chosen how yet. Still, God continues to send prophets, sages, and preachers to call them to do better. In baptism, Christians are gathered under God’s wing, and when renewing their baptismal promises try to do better. Again. The passage from Luke 13 appointed for the Second Sunday of Lent in RCL Year C invites Christians to look deeper into God’s love for them while living the reality of their faults. While not about repentance, this passage is deeply about baptismal formation, preparation, and daily living.
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.
When I was in seminary, I was required to do CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education. My CPE placement was at a hospice outside of Atlanta that had an in-patient unit for severe cases, or for families who had home care but need a break or additional medical treatment for a short stay.
As a freshly minted seminary graduate, but not yet an ordained minister, I began my summer as a hospice chaplain. In many ways, I loved working at the hospice. The nurses were caring in a way that I had not seen in other medical settings. You have to have a certain mindset to care for patients who you know will not survive their illness. I walked with grieving family members and held the hands of those who faced death with varying reaction: stoicism, quiet contemplation, relaxed joy, and assurance. And, unlike other medical situations, I always knew what I was getting when I walked into a room: someone was dying.
Yet I found that hospice chaplaincy—and much of ministry in mainstream America—is infused with a pernicious lie: that God Has A Plan.
I loathe the “God Has A Plan” sentiment. It’s theologically bereft, shallow, and only sounds good to her person saying it (and I’ve said it).
God Has A Plan theology shows up in times of crisis, times of unexpected misfortune, or distress. God Has A Plan helps us to feel like there is something in control of all this awfulness, and that my suffering—my heartache—means something.
God Has A Plan when my high school best friend lost her dad to cancer right before her 19th birthday.
God Has A Plan when my colleague labors to deliver her baby girl, only to find that the baby died in the delivery process.
God Has A Plan when a freak car accident takes a student’s life.
God Has A Plan theology is a lie.
The reading for this Sunday in Luke 13:1-9, shows Jesus summarily dismissing God Has A Plan theology. He addresses the crowds and asks first, whether or not the Galileans who were butchered by Pilate so inhumanely that their blood was mixed with their sacrifice, were worse sinners than the Israelites in the crowd.
What Jesus is asking in a larger sense is: are people who die because of human sin/folly/evil actions sinners who deserve to die? Did their sin cause and/or justified their deaths? This is a theology linked to God Has A Plan, which is that Sin Causes All My Suffering. Sin Causes All My Suffering theology jumps over human freedom and places all actions as a result of God’s will.
The second example Jesus gives is of eighteen people who were killed when the Tower at Siloam fell. He asks the crowd if those eighteen were worse sinners because of that horrible accident. Here too, Jesus is pointing to God Has A Plan theology—that God planned their deaths for some inexplicable reason: punishment for sin, for some greater glory, because God does whatever an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being wants.
To both of these problematic theologies Jesus says, “No, I tell you.”
Their deaths expose the fragility of life—and the urgency that we each should have in repentance. We can’t know when our lives will end, whether by human folly or freak accident. So, we need to repent now.
Jesus wants us to Take Life Seriously. Take Life Seriously theology means recognizing how precious—and precarious—life is and living differently because of it.
His parable of the fig tree that follows (Luke 13: 6-9) shows that judgement and mercy are interwoven. The fig tree isn’t producing and a farmer *sought* to rip it up and plant a new tree that can produce fruit. But, the gardener advocates for one more year. While it’s tempting to read this as a straight allegory, I think it’s better as a metaphor. Life is precious. Each year is valuable, and judgment is inevitable. Take Life Seriously. Repent, live differently, and get to the good work of building God’s kingdom.
So this Lent, check that bad theology at the door! Get rid of your God Has A Plan and your Sin Causes All My Suffering. Take Life Seriously and revel in its preciousness. Don’t wait to make the changes you’ve been considering—start today! And know that in the midst of the worst distress, we have a Savior who journeys with us.
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.
The irony of this passage is that it tempts the preacher to write about ALL OF THE THINGS![i] There is SO much packed into this short segment that it provides rich fodder for the preaching and pastoral imagination, and it could be explored any number of ways. The challenge, then, is to pick one direction – what is the one thing that you most want your people to hear in this story?
The trial of a well-known text, for me, is finding the refreshing new angle; the new thing to say about it that hasn’t already been heard, preached, or commented on umpteen times. And yet, as I read once again this familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, I heard something I had never heard before in the many times I have heard it proclaimed and preached and meditated on: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Forty days (Bible speak for a really long time) of tempting and testing and trial and tribulation precede the three traditional temptations that we focus on. The thing I never noticed before is that Jesus only gets these three major temptations when he’s already at the end of his rope. (Not to mention not eating anything all that time! If Jesus was anything like me without food, he was probably hangry, too.) If he’s gone through test after test after test, he’s likely bone-tired, creativity drained, energy exhausted; mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally spent.
Haven’t we all been there? At some point or other, it all catches up to us. Perhaps our forty days have been the last few months, or a year, or maybe even longer. Everything that could go wrong, it seems, has. Bills pile up. Job satisfaction is low. The country, maybe even the world, appears happily headed to hell in a handbasket. Our communities are in chaos, the drama is never-ending. Maybe we’ve been through abnormally painful personal ordeals: friendships and marriages fail, toxic family relationships demand more than we have to give, an unexpected medical or spiritual illness zaps our strength, we lose out on that dream job.
It’s then – when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted – at that moment when we’re starving for refreshment, that the devil pops into our head with a juicy temptation. Why not just cut off that toxic family member? Why not just tell that friend to go to hell? Why not throw that difficult coworker under the bus and take the promotion yourself? Why not just call it quits entirely, walk away and don’t look back?
But here’s the thing… we only reach those moments of total burnout, and the temptation to give in and give it all up, when, like Jesus, we have been tested for a really long time during which we have eaten nothing at all. I wonder if this story introduces us not to the divine Jesus, but to the fundamentally human Jesus? This is a Jesus I can relate to: hangry, tired, fed up, and really, trulytempted to take advantage of the options the Devil offers.
The first temptation is to put the gifts I’ve been given to the wrong use, where my own self-interest becomes my fundamental priority. This is why I love my tradition’s definition of sin: the seeking of my own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting my relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. We live in a culture that tells us our happiness is dependent on “making it” to that place where we feel fulfilled, happy, stable. And, of course, tells us that the way to do that is to accumulate. Fill our lives with things that will give us that sense of happiness and stability. But if my “happiness” and “stability” is dependent on physical fulfillment – whether having that perfect closet of clothes and accessories to support the “got it all together” image I want to project, or having enough money in the bank to not have to worry about buying groceries or paying rent – I have given in to the temptation to self-reliance and independence from God. I think a lot of people think “I’ll give my gifts when I’m stable enough to give.” I think a lot of us humans convince ourselves that once we’ve “made it” we’ll be in a better position to help the other people God calls our attention to. When my hunger is met, of course I’ll my power to turn stones into bread to help feed other people. Jesus himself could have put that power to good use and become a very popular guy with all those actual hungry people he was trying to minister to. But the problem is, we never “make it.” Life happens. There will always be some other problem, some other bill to pay, some other item I have to have to fill the void. And when my behavior reinforces putting myself first every time, by the time there’s enough or more than enough to meet my own needs, I tend not to give or to give as much as I could because, well, there’s that vacation I really want to take, or that next item to purchase that will convince me I have all I need. The energetic and spiritual deprivation that comes with accumulation, ironically, results in deeper hunger to have more. One only needs to listen to Lily Allen’s song, The Fear, to understand the toll this culture of consumption takes on our spiritual well-being.
Jesus’s response to the temptation to put himself first was to remind himself that “one does not live by bread alone.” Those who live in poverty, who actually struggle every day to meet their physical needs, are often those who trust most in God’s provision and care. They have to. Those with resources tend to rely on themselves; those without know they are dependent on others and on God and have the humility to admit it. Even those of us with resources are only one major illness or accident away from finding ourselves in the place of depending on God and others to get us through. We get it backwards – our cultural ideals of “happiness” and “stability” are fleeting. Physical satisfaction alone cannot satiate spiritual hunger, and self-care is different from self-absorption. Only our deep relationship with the Divine, the source of the things that truly matter in life, and connection with compassionate communities of care provide us the spiritual nourishment necessary to bring us through the wildernesses we journey through.
The second temptation is to take the easy way out, to trade what God calls me to do for power and prestige. To do what’s convenient instead of what’s right or just. We need look no further than the halls of power in our own country to see how prevalent and rampant this particular human temptation is, and the impact that thirst for power has on the whole. Or perhaps our own churches. Or our own families. The human craving for power is as ancient and insidious as the human desire to be like God that tempted the first humans in the garden. And power plays play out in all kinds of ways. Promoting my own agenda instead of what’s best for the group. Withholding affection, or resources, or support in order to get my own way. Allowing my own perception of reality to sway my participation towards what I’m most comfortable with over what requires me to change. Our lives are not lived in black and white; usually we find ourselves in gray areas where right and wrong aren’t terribly clear. More often, our choice is between bad and worse, or good and better. Subtle, seemingly small and insignificant choices in how I live, how I progress through the journey of life, whether I accept the reward for conforming to the status quo and upholding misused power and control – these are the moments that can greatly affect the state of my soul, my relationship with God, and with my neighbor. The temptation to “get ahead” might lead me to base my worth, my value, on success rather than faithfulness. Or to use my power to exercise control over people instead of advocating for justice and mutuality. Or to allow the riches of the world to distract and captivate my attention instead of doing the work God has given me to do. Or to compromise where God might want me to take a stand. When we trade on our integrity for comfort and convenience, the rewards may be great indeed… but what does it profit me to gain the world and lose my soul?
Jesus responds to this second temptation by remembering and recognizing the Ultimate source of his power and authority. All he has been given is to be used to accomplish God’s purpose, which is also Jesus’s purpose: reconciling humanity with God and God incarnate in humanity. Jesus will exercise power. He will forgive sins, cast out demons, heal disease and infirmity. I suppose that Jesus could have decided to set up shop, could have made a lucrative career out of being a healer and miracle-worker, could have taken the easy way out and the easy power the Devil offered. But he didn’t. He kept his focus on God, trusted in God’s call and God’s will, and refused to be distracted from the mission God gave him. And through him, God’s love reigned supreme, love which overturns and transforms human power and greed.
The final temptation I once heard described at a leadership conference as the temptation to perform to the expectations of the crowd. The problem with basing your self-worth on the approval of the crowd is that you’ll have to throw yourself off higher and higher heights to continue to impress. Jumped off the Temple, you say? Saw that one last week. We’ll really be impressed when you jump off that cliff! That’s a great interpretation, but the deeper challenge here is whether or not we’ll really submit, really surrender to God’s will and God’s call regardless of where God might lead us. God’s call, while always good, is rarely easy. Death is certainly involved, even if only dying to self-will, but to truly follow God’s call often comes with a cost to give up more than we might want to. And so this temptation usually comes at the most opportune moment – in that moment when I’ve given all I think I have to give, when I’m at the end of my rope, when I’m tired or discouraged or frustrated and there’s nothing but me and the choice I must make to trust the call that I’ve heard. Those moments when I’ve been tempted to throw it all in and get out while I can, those are the moments I’m tempted by escape, rescue from the burden of following God where I really don’t want to go. Maybe it’s escape from my vocation, or from the particular ministry I’m involved in, maybe from having to give up my possessions and move halfway around the globe to be a missionary to unknown people in an unknown land. Maybe it’s to do the hard work of confronting broken relationship. Maybe it’s being present in and with the extreme suffering of another person. Maybe it’s having to excise those parts of my ego and psyche that continually resist God’s commands.
In this challenge, the Devil presents Jesus with the temptation to be rescued from sure and certain death. This is the mother of all temptations. Go ahead, put God’s promises to the test. What I’ve discovered is that this temptation to escape usually comes precisely at the moment I’m actually most in concert with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When I actually am doing God’s will. When I am following, however imperfectly, though I may know nothing about it. If the forces of evil really want to work a number on us, this is the way to do it. Get her to give up when she’s just getting going. Make it seem like nothing he’s doing is accomplishing anything. Kick them out of sync with what God’s about to do, derail the plan. But Jesus’s response is to submit to God’s command. To drink the cup though he did not want to. Jesus fulfills God’s purpose, and his purpose, not by escaping but by accepting his call. Trusting. Choosing to do what he knew God wanted of him, even though it meant suffering and death, even though he would have chosen otherwise if left to his own devices. And in following God’s call, Jesus utterly vanquished the powers of evil and death.
Jesus knew temptation, a universally human experience. For me, the power in this story, “the wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning, but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted.”[ii] What gave Jesus the strength, over and over again? Because these refusals weren’t the end: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” For us humans, the opportune time are those moments when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted. If that’s where you’re at, you definitely haven’t been eating enough!
We could do worse than to adopt Jesus’s rule of life: “One does not live by bread alone”: go do something that fills you with joy! Connect with a friend. Do something creative. Get out of your office and take a walk. Whatever it is that gives you joy, joy is one of the sure signs that God’s kingdom is present and active.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”: Fill your mind, heart, and soul with scripture – know it and use it as Jesus did. Choose to trust in God’s promises. God’s brought you to this moment, right now, and hasn’t done that just to drop you on your face. Believe that you are beloved, you are called, and you are enough.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”: Faithfully resist the temptation to do less or other than what God has called YOU to do. God has given you everything you need to fulfill the purpose for which you are chosen. Pray regularly for God to guide and direct your paths. All of us have to “work it out” as St. Paul says; “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”[iii]
The more that I learn about the spiritual life, this strange calling to walk in the Way of Jesus, the more I fall in love with this beloved prayer penned by Thomas Merton – may it be comfort and grace to you, too.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
[i] For an excellent explanation of ALL OF THE THINGS contained in this text, including some of the thoughts that influenced this essay, see Alan Culpepper’s commentary on this passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.
Four years ago, I gave birth to my first child. After hours of intense labor, I was exhausted and in need of rest and healing more than ever before. Ironically, the finish line of the giving birth marathon was also the starting point of a new marathon. Before I even left the delivery room, I began caring for this squishy and vulnerable little person. As I held her on my chest to keep her warm, caring for her became the most important purpose in my life. I have taken care of her nearly every single day since. Though she constantly becomes more independent, I am back in the trenches of baby care with my new son. It truly is a marathon of feeding, changing diapers, bathing, snuggling, and assuring that both children are tended to every moment of every day.
I have always loved the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet for the way it resonates with what I understand to be the very heart of Christian teaching: that by humbly serving those considered lesser by the world, we can experience God’s love for us. That in Jesus’s love for each of us, especially the poor and oppressed, the whole world is saved. Since becoming a mother, though, I understand this passage in a new light. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, even knowing that he was about to be betrayed, was not a mere symbol of his love for them. This act of physical care is a literal representation of his love for his disciples. Though I understand the symbolism of feet within this context, I would argue that this act is not about the feet. When I change my son’s diaper, it is impossible to separate the act of caretaking from the love I have for him. The wiping, the words I speak to him, the songs I sing, the eye contact I make, the care I take to ensure the tabs are not attached in a way that scratches his skin—these things are all physical manifestations of my love. Though these years of constant physical care are certainly draining, my husband and children are the very easiest people for me to love. In practicing love for them, I become better equipped to love each person in my life.
In the second part of this passage, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.” By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus demonstrates a love that we can extend to anyone. The way Jesus encourages us to extend love reminds me of the Buddhist principle of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness is the kind of love that actively changes the way you see others, “the heart-felt aspiration for the happiness of beings and is the antidote to hatred and fear.” In the development of lovingkindness, love of even one’s enemies begins with meditation on loving one’s self. Only once you truly love yourself, believing that you are deserving of peace and freedom from suffering, you move to loving someone dear to you. After myself, I might focus on my baby son, who is adorably easy to love. From there, you move to someone who is neutral to you, and eventually on to someone who is difficult for you to love. From your starting point of loving yourself and those close to you, you can picture the ways that this not-so-lovable person is not very different than you or your beloved at all. That person that is hard for me to see eye-to-eye with was once someone’s baby. Someone once changed that person’s diapers, fastening the tabs to make sure they weren’t scratchy.
Though I (thankfully!) don’t physically care for every person I come across, these acts of physical care for those closest to me can nurture a love that I can ultimately feel for any person. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was not only an act of love for his disciples, but an act of humble love for the whole world. I imagine that Jesus intended this initial physical act of service to symbolize how we are to love the world. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the ripples of water starting small but quickly growing larger to reach all the water, our small acts can help us to love as Jesus loved. Jesus washed the feet of only a few men, but in doing so taught us to love and serve everyone.
Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).