Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Ascension: Why Do You Stand Looking Up Toward Heaven?

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

As I write this commentary, a growing restlessness pervades the United States. Hopes and rumors that stay at home orders will soon be lifted abound. A roiling vortex of emotion about those decisions –joy and disbelief, relief and anger, grief, fear and hope – swirl together in a complex coil. No one knows what the future will look like. No one knows, with 100% certainty, if lifting the orders will result in greater death and economic disruption, or if our lives will slowly settle back into familiar patterns of the prosperity some of us have known. Experts and authorities are at odds with one another; antithetical messages battle for supremacy. And yet, through the melee a universal question surfaces over and over again: is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when our economic vitality will rebound? Is this the time that will force us to bridge our partisan divides and pull together? Is this the time that will catalyze our country (our kingdom), once again, to greatness?

As our church leadership thinks through what our communal life might look like in the aftermath of physical distancing, I hear the same question, and the same roiling emotions, surface: Is this the time of our restoration? Is this the time when we go back to our beloved buildings to gather together the same way we’ve always gathered, with the same experience of sacrament and space? Is this the time when people will return to the church and thus return the Church to its former role as a pillar of society? Is this the time when the Church will be restored, once again, to greatness? Yet even as we ask the question, there is some recognition that the worship traditions we cherish, and the way we’ve always practiced them, will likely have to change.

In some ways, the Church today asks Christ the same question that the disciples asked: will we be restored to our former glory? The disciples, even in the midst of their immediate, personal experience of the new thing God was doing in the Incarnation, got caught up in the religious and political expectations of their time. Expectations that the Messiah would deliver them from the yoke of Rome’s oppression, that Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel who had experienced centuries of inter-tribal division, the destruction and desecration of her Temple, the Exile and diaspora of her people, and the fracturing of her political independence and self-governance.

Our context today faces a similar political challenge, but the hope of restoration is different. The largest age demographic in most denominations are those who are 65+, aka the Boomer generation.[i] As children in the 1950s and 60s, their experience of religious life was as the epicenter of social and civic life. Sunday school classes were bursting at the seams, churches were planting roots in flourishing suburbs, volunteerism was at an all-time high because serving on a religious committee was socially emblematic of being a good citizen. However, in the longer scope of Christian history, what our tradition considers “normal” and what we long to return to is anything but. The dominance of Christian life in the 50s was an outlying blip on the overarching span of church history. What we long to return to as normal never was the norm and, I hope, will not be the vision we hold up as our longing for the future to come.

Which is why I appreciate the scene of Jesus’s Ascension in Acts Chapter 1. I confess that, in this time of physical distancing and pandemic isolation, I hear the words of this text differently than I have before: Jesus “ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father;” that “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…[and] you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[ii] Then as Jesus ascends into heaven, I’m sure with great cloudy fanfare and divine pyrotechnics, the disciples stare after him in awe, ostensibly taking Jesus’s instructions quite literally.

While they are waiting, in verse 11, two (angelic?) messengers give them the proverbial divine slap upside the head with the question “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” And so the disciples return to the city, where they spend many days “constantly devoting themselves in prayer” with other faithful believers. This period of prayer is followed by God fulfilling God’s promise at Pentecost, sending the Holy Spirit upon them and empowering them in language and deed to proclaim the good news of God’s love for all.

At the time of his writing, Luke’s context was not a pandemic, nor were the events global, and yet there is a global call to the work God gave the apostles, and us, to do.  Which is why I confess it difficult to empathize with the preoccupation to be restored to our buildings, to what we’ve always known, and the grief at how the church must change to adapt to meet the needs of the world around us. Hasn’t it always been our mission to meet the needs of the world with God’s love and power working through our hands and our feet? Has not God constantly been doing a new thing, shaking the foundations of our human structures, boundaries, and expectations? Do we not believe that baptism is our initiation into Christ’s body and a lifelong process of transformation with the help of the Holy Spirit working in us (sanctification)? Why then, would we expect to return to what we have been instead of anticipating what God is preparing us to become?

Much of my ministry as a priest has been to encourage communities to ask themselves the hard questions of if and how they are deepening their relationship with God, if and how they are listening for and to the Holy Spirit (who, in my experience, is constantly doing a new thing and constantly pushing us out of our comfort zones), if and how they are ministering to the needs of their neighbors around them in an authentic way, if and how they are willing to change in order to become the beloved community that God envisions, that accepts and welcomes ALL people created by God in God’s image.

As much as we declare ourselves to be people of resurrection, resurrection is uncomfortable. Resurrection is hard to define, takes time to come to fruition, and never looks the same. Resurrection requires a comfort with uncertainty and the Unknown that is not an innate human characteristic, but is a skill developed over time as we are pushed into growth situations (often against our will). Resuscitation to the old life we’ve always known would be much easier and much more comfortable.

Becoming people of resurrection means helping our churches become comfortable with the unknown. It requires immense courage and adaptive leadership: diving into the wilderness, trying new things, learning from failure, and picking up and trying again. [iii] It requires all the baptized to reclaim their baptismal gifts, empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue God’s mission and ministry. Getting comfortable with the unknown means taking risks and making decisions that may not be popular with those who want to return to the status quo. But risky, daring, bold, courageous leadership is needed from every heart if the people of God are going to survive and thrive in the midst of a “foreign (read secularized, unchurched) land,” on the margins, and in a “tent of perpetual adaptation.”

These are not skills valued by an institutional structure in its death throes and resisting, with every fiber of its being, the new life it is being called into. As a bishop once said to me, “such a style of leadership is not helpful for our institution.” He’s not wrong. But when did God call the church to become an institution? The church’s call has always been to continue the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ: proclaiming the good news of God’s love, offering healing and restoration to those who seek reconciliation with God, and serving our neighbors as we would serve ourselves. This moment requires of us the difficult, messy work of creative reimagining. In order to live into the new life of resurrection, we have to die to the old self and let go of the former ways of being. Easier said than done, as our hierarchies and structures have demonstrated, and mourned, for decades now.

I do not believe that the church is dying. I do believe that the institution as we know it is dying. I do believe that religious life as we know it is changing. But I do not mourn these things. This moment, this opportunity for exercising our God-given ingenuity and creativity to rethink our spiritual growth, mission, and ministry models fills me with hope, not dread or grief, or fear. I see a higher attendance rate and far more newcomers dropping in on our online services and offerings than before, and that tells me that the world is still hungry for God’s love and God’s presence, and our ability to mediate and interpret that with meaningful and tangible means. It is my hope that this moment may indeed call us to metanoia, conversion, awakening to reclaim the essentials of our calling and mission. As a wise colleague once reminded me, God is going to do what God is going to do, with or without the Church institution. We haven’t managed to kill the church through millennia of human history, action or inaction. The Body of Christ is the faithful who remember that God has acted before, abide in the promise of Immanuel: God with us, wait expectantly and eagerly for the new life to show up in unexpected ways, boldly venture into the unknown trusting the power of the Holy Spirit, working in us, to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

In his seminal work, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez exhorts the church to stop looking up toward heaven, waiting for God’s return or waiting for escape from the chances and changes of this life, and instead to focus on proclaiming the good news of God’s love in the here and now, doing our part in helping to usher in God’s kingdom of justice, love, reconciliation, and peace with the people beside us, part of the church or not.[iv] It is time for us to get evangelical, if you will, by which I mean reclaiming that word to its true meaning – proclaiming the good news of God’s love. To reinforce words with action, to do what we profess to believe. So what is the work of the Church in this time? There are several things that happen in this text that we can put to use as we creatively reimagine our models for mission and ministry:

Teach:

An essential part of the work of the Church is to give people a framework for interpreting and making sense of the events of their lives. Theology is important; how we understand God and what we believe about God shapes how we act in relation to God’s promises. Preach the message you discern that the Holy Spirit wants her people to hear, and teach boldly in a way that fosters spiritual growth. Challenge clichés, sit with the difficult questions and uncomfortable moments when questions can’t be answered, listen for the insights, wisdom and passion of the people you are teaching and learn from them, too.

Trust the promise:

Remember God’s good action and promises fulfilled in the past, and watch expectantly for God’s power to pop up in unexpected times, places, and people. God is constantly drawing outside the lines, calling us beyond our boundaries, asking us to meet Her in the wilderness moments of our lives, bringing forth streams in the desert and making crooked ways straight again, leveling high places and lifting up the lowly.

Receive the power of the Holy Spirit:

Say these sentences aloud, every day.
“God called me for a time such as this.”
“God gave me gifts to help build me up and to build up the people around me.”
“God gives me power and help to accomplish the purposes God intends for me.”
“God will work through whatever I offer, large or small, to do infinitely more than I can ask or imagine.”

Witness:

Tell others how God has shown up in your life. How has God healed or restored you? Where has God helped change your heart and renew your mind because of your participation in a faith community? Ask yourself why your relationship with God and God’s people is important to you, why it matters to you to get up and go to church or online worship each week? After you take time to reflect, write a Facebook post or tweet on Twitter giving thanks for a spiritual blessing you have discovered or a person who has helped you recognize God’s action in your life.

Finally, and most importantly, Pray:

The first thing the disciples did after this scene was to “constantly devote themselves to prayer.” They did this gathered together and, I presume, also on their own. Prayer in and for the power of the Spirit is the essential foundation for the tasks of ministry. It is not enough to simply experience Christ’s presence or know the words of scripture to be an effective minister; our tasks will simply be “doing” if we are not also grounded in the “being” of God’s presence. Prayer is as simple as inviting God to fully participate in all that we do, but there are also specific things everyone can pray together in unity for at this time:

  • For our church leaders to be given courage and confidence to have hard, truthful conversations, to make difficult decisions, to let go of the fears that create barriers to God’s mission of love and reconciliation.
  • For God to show us the people and needs God wants us to minister to, who need to hear the message of justice, reconciliation, and peace of God’s love.
  • For God to show us the gifts for ministry present in ourselves, in our faith community, in people we might not expect that can be asked to help us creatively reimagine how God would have us fulfill God’s purposes.
  • Or together to pray this prayer: Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even as we grieve the loss of power and influence we have enjoyed, even as everything we have known to be “normal” changes around us, even as “the way we have always done it” gives way to experimentation and failure and new ways of being, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

These are not new and innovative tools, but they are essential to braving the unknown with courage, gaining clarity in discernment, and getting our heads out of the clouds into the work God has given us to do right in front of us. I hope our faithful vision will be open, even amidst change and uncertainty, to the new thing God is doing in our circumstances, and the new life that will come out of it. At the root of apostolic faith (and the word, apostle) is an expectation to be sent out, to the ends of the earth, but also in our own communities to proclaim God’s love, God’s power, God’s justice, and God’s peace. The world is hungry for those promises. What are we waiting for?

May the God who shakes heaven and earth, whom death could not contain, who lives to disturb and heal us, bless you with power to go forth and proclaim the gospel of new life amidst the fear of death.[v]

[i] https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/episcopal-church/

[ii] Acts 1:4-5, 8. NRSV translation.

[iii] For a great resource on adaptive leadership, see Tod Bolsinger’s book “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.

[iv] Gutierrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation.

[v] https://www.fortworthtrinity.org/download_file/view/873/

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is an Episcopal priest with over two decades of leadership experience that includes public advocacy, social justice, teaching for transformative change, and interfaith collaboration. She currently serves as the Associate Rector at St. Christopher’s in Carmel, Indiana. Her great joy in ministry is helping people of faith ask the hard questions of life and God, to discover that “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live” (old Irish proverb). Or, as Jesus said it, we truly show our love for God when we show care and concern for every person we encounter, like us or not. In her spare time, Chana can be found fulfilling her bucket list items before she turns 65 (so far 23/75!), playing D&D, dancing Lindy Hop, or exploring local activities and events with her husband, TJ, and their dog-children, Molly and Momo.

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

3rd Sunday of Easter (A): Certainty?

Luke 24:13-35; Acts 2:14a, 36-41

By: The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The word that sticks out to me in the readings assigned for today is only actually used once – and yet it seems to hover around all of them, tying them together somehow. In Acts, Peter is reported to say, “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Let them know with certainty.

Now, maybe the word sticks out to me because it is so appealing – and yet, I know that it is entirely antithetical to faith. Faith, and God, are so much more mystery, and incomprehension, and immensity – and how can one be certain of any of those things?

Despite knowing that, certainty always has and likely always will appeal to me. I love the idea of knowing, beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have always liked to write things in my planner in pen, not pencil – thinking somehow the ink on the page created an unchangeable, immovable fact. It became something I could be certain of, not just a proposal of possibility.

But, can we ever be certain of God? Or, maybe a better question – should we ever try to be?

In a chunky reading from Luke, we have the story of the road to Emmaus. Two disciples are walking along the road, and Jesus himself comes near to them, but they do not recognize him. He asks what they are discussing, and they explain to him that they are talking about Jesus, who they hoped would be the one to redeem Israel. Now, this must be interesting for Jesus to hear, because of course, as he understands it, and as we, his modern-day readers understand it, he DID redeem Israel. Yet the two disciples are so certain that they know what the Messiah will be like, that they don’t see that God is with them.

Our scripture says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Could it be that their certainty was, in fact, their blindness?

They continue walking and tell Jesus about the women who have astounded them, by reporting that there was no body at the tomb, and, furthermore, that they had seen a vision of angels. Perhaps their certainty that this would never happen to women kept them from receiving the good news. Jesus calls it being “slow of heart to believe.”

I wonder if our hearts are slowed by our certainty.

Jesus becomes known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Perhaps it’s because they’ve never been certain about what’s actually happening in the breaking of the bread. Jesus has shared many meals with them, but maybe there’s always been a moment of mystery in that action. Maybe there’s always been a moment of inbreaking – a moment where God is revealed or cracked open – where God is beyond.

As soon as the disciples understand that Jesus has been with them – when they get certain about the identity of the stranger who has been travelling with them, he vanishes. As soon as we get certain about the way Jesus has appeared, he disappears again. It isn’t his way to be in a box, or to appear in the ways we expect. It’s his way to surprise, to delight, to break through our certainty and reveal to us mystery, instead.

So, I might edit Peter – because I don’t think we should come to God with certainty. My prayer is that we learn to live with such mystery, and with such ambiguity – that we greet everyone as if they are Jesus, travelling down the road with us.

 

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The Rev. Jazzy Bostock

The Rev. Jazzy Bostock is a kanaka mail woman, who loves walking barefoot, the warmth of sunshine, and planting seeds in her garden. She serves as a curate at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, Hawaii and is in her second year of priesthood. Serving God’s people is a joy and a privilege, and she laughs along the journey daily.

Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Patience

Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Patience

Luke 2:22-40

By: Chris Clow

If there is one thing I struggle with (as if there is only one thing), it is patience. I have a horrible time waiting for things to happen. Of course, I can put some of the blame on all of my beloved smart devices, but when I am honest, I know that it’s mostly on me. I was always the kid who snuck down at 4am on Christmas Day to shake the presents and try to guess what I got. I’m the kind of person who will read the spoiler long before I ever see the movie – I always want to know how it ends. It is awfully hard for me to wait.

With that in mind, I have a hard time relating to both Simeon and Anna in this gospel passage.  It is difficult for me to imagine waiting my entire life to see something. Who knows how many times Simeon went to the temple wondering if today would be the day? Who knows how many children Anna looked at in the temple and then had to go, “Nope, not this one.” I know how difficult I would find it to persevere in that patience – to spend so long unsure whether you will see it pay off. I wonder how many others also found it difficult, and what they thought of both Simeon and Anna? Were these two respected as elders? Were they mocked for their continued presence? Or even worse, were they just ignored and branded as “old weirdos?”

And, of course, I have to wonder if I am like that. I find it hard to be patient with myself – what am I like with other people? I can think of times that I outwardly or inwardly push others – “Come on, you just have to get over it and move past it. Can’t you see you’re wasting your time?” Certainly, there is a season for everything, and there are people who do need help moving past difficult times in their lives, or out of harmful relationships. But given how we tend to pride ourselves on constantly staying busy and never missing out on the next best thing, do we look at people who don’t seem to be as productive as ourselves and think they are wasting their time? Do we do that with ourselves?

The many changes over the past few months have made it very difficult for me to stay patient.  My family and I have moved to a new city for my wife’s new job, and I have begun full-time stay-at-home dad duties. And I have loved doing it and I love getting to have all of this time with my son, but it has been a massive change to my life, and for as much joy as being a full time parent has brought me, it has also brought a lot of anxiety too. “What do people think of me when they hear that I am a stay at home parent? Why do they keep asking about when I will get a job? How can we afford to stay in this house if I don’t start working? How will we afford childcare if I do?” I try to have faith that all will come to fruition in the future, but it is hard in the present to stay hopeful, and I know that my family is still relatively well off and there are many in tougher situations than we will ever face. I cannot imagine how a single parent even has an ounce of patience left.

“Yes, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” These words of Malachi ring out like a terrible challenge: yes, God is coming, and yes, thing will get better, but you’ve gotta wait! Seriously? Nevermind my anxieties; my mind goes to all kinds of evils occurring – the children taken from their parents at the border; the children in our schools being trained for what to do if someone tries to shoot them; the constant reminders of the damage being done to our planet. As I write this, we have a threat of yet another war in the Middle East. It is overwhelming to think about all the harm taking place in our world. How can we endure this?

Well, thankfully we remember that we have a God who also lived through such trials with us.  Jesus’ time on Earth was not paradise either. He was not born an earthly prince but as a poor man – “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” probably wasn’t just a metaphor for him. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us well: “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God.” Surely a God who didn’t always know where he would sleep at night can relate a bit to a young couple worried about keeping the roof over their heads too.

And one other thing that helps me is trying to practice humility – that is, placing myself in right relationship with God and with others around me (and not the form practiced by some that basically amounts to self-flagellation). By being willing to acknowledge the things I do have power over and things I don’t, I recognize what’s worth worrying about, along with what I need to let go of. A prayer that was written in honor of Oscar Romero puts it well:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction

of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us…

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”*

I find solace in these words very often. Of course, I need to make sure I am doing my part to help bring about the Kingdom, but it is just that. My part. I cannot do everything, and that means that I can do a few things, and do them well. We do not know what Simeon and Anna did the very next day – if they went out to tell everyone that they had seen God’s promise fulfilled in this child, or if they simply went back to the temple and about their lives. In the overall scheme of the Gospels, these two did not do much. But they did their part – they waited in patience for God to deliver, and when God did, they recognized it and didn’t miss out.

Maybe that’s a takeaway for us. In times where it can be hard to wait, where the world can overwhelm us, let us remember that can truly cannot do it all, but we can do our little part, and do it well. In that, may we recognize Jesus coming into our lives.

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Chris Clow

Chris Clow currently spends his days as a stay-at-home parenting for his now 15 month old!  Before this chapter of his life, he had spent 8 years as a Campus Ministry and Director of Music and Liturgy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.  He currently lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife and son, and is also looking forward to when another more “professional” ministry opportunity might arise.

 

 

*The prayer is titled A Future Not Our Own, written by bishop Ken Uetener of Saginaw; it can be found here: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Ken_Untener_A_Future_Not_Our_Own.shtml

Christmas Eve (A): All Together Now

Christmas Eve (A): All Together Now

Luke 2:1-20

By: The Rev. Lori Walke

I was seven when it was my turn. Seven, because my mama was the one who directed the Christmas pageant, and she let all the other girls my age take their turns first.  So, I was seven when I finally got to be Mary in the Christmas pageant. To be fair, for a very long time my mom had to force me to participate in anything that had to do with being in front of church people because I was really shy. But being Mary was as magical as I imagined it would be—a light blue gown with gold thread trimming and a delicate white head scarf safety-pinned into place under my chin.

The story was very straightforward to me back then. The angel announced that Mary would have a son and that she would call him Jesus. Mary thought this was a great idea, and it was so. Blessed Mary—obedient, demure, and full of grace.

Several decades and some theological education later, I understand Mary a little differently—not quite as obedient or demure, although still full of grace. Honestly, I would be a little more hesitant to step into Mary’s role if asked, but not because I am shy about speaking in church or because of my theological education.

Mostly, it’s that I’m not sure I would have gone along with “The Plan.” The Church often tells the Christmas story as if it can be reduced to the tag line, “a baby will fix it!” For some Christians, this particular baby was divine, literally God-made-flesh, sent to make right what went wrong in the beginning, a “starting over’ of sorts. Jesus was the “New Adam”—the Adam without sin. In this scenario, Jesus was born to die, to be punished in our stead, to atone for our sins.

On the other end of the theological spectrum, the plan to save the world with a baby has nothing to do with divinely sanctioned child sacrifice. Rather, it is the most unexpected thing God can do. It is what makes Christianity so subversive. The Jesus birth stories were written in the midst of Roman occupation of Jewish people and destruction of the Temple. Everyone was waiting on the next King David to come with sword and shield to save the people in exactly the same way they had been taken captive: by power and control. But God’s plan to redeem the world was not through violent takeover, but a revolution of love that started with the crying infant who would grow up to teach forgiveness and mercy. The Empire would never see it coming.

As far as stealth and surprise go, The Plan was genius. However, when it comes to practicality and thoughtfulness, using a baby to save the world is shaky, at best. Quite frankly, it would have been reasonable if someone had told God that this was a terrible idea. Babies do not care about other people. They only worry about themselves. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Nope. That is not in the Bible. That is a Christmas carol written by someone who apparently had never spent any meaningful time with an infant. Sweet baby Jesus probably screamed his tiny head off on that not-so-silent night. Perhaps God might come up with a plan that does not involve so much crying.

Interestingly, there is very little information about baby Jesus in scripture. Two of the Gospels—Mark and John—skip his infancy altogether. We are simply introduced to Jesus as an adult, seeking baptism. The other two gospels, Matthew and Luke, really say very little about baby Jesus. Instead, the birth narrative focuses on people who the Church has designated as the supporting cast. The Gospel of Luke in particular dedicates a serious amount of real estate telling us about everyone who surrounded the baby. When we consider the text before and after the lectionary selection for Christmas Eve, the supporting case is rather large.

Luke’s first story is about Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. We are told about Mary running to Elizabeth, who convinces her everything really is going to be okay and that this baby will be a blessing. When it comes to the actual birth, Luke focuses on all who attended. This is the part we know best—the heavenly host and the anxious shepherds, who show up and declare the baby to be a child of God. Then, post-birth, we are introduced to the prophets Anna and Simeon, who were at the temple to greet Mary and Joseph and their infant son. They welcomed him into the community with a blessing.

The way Luke tells it, the Christmas story seems not to be about a baby at all, but rather about the people who raised that baby—the men and women who showed up and stuck around; the host of people who believed that they had a responsibility to give their best to a child; the people who promised to encourage the child to be curious and creative, to be faithful, to love every single other, and taught the child that he was a beloved child of God.

Maybe this is what the Christmas Story is really about: that God used an incredibly random assortment of folks—holier-than-thou angels, the near-homeless shepherds, a pair of young parents mentored by an older couple, strangers and friends—to save the world.

Is this a narrative of the Church that describes our congregations? Or might it be our vision statement? How are we carrying on the legacy of the rag-tag holy community that raised the Savior?

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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.

 

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Luke 23:33-43

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

It is jarring to read this scripture for Reign of Christ Sunday—the only characters here proclaiming Jesus as reigning over anything are doing so mockingly. Here we see Jesus humiliated. Here we see the Human One derided. Here we see the Messiah lynched. Hardly a fitting read for a day when we proclaim the universal Lordship of this figure. So then, what does it mean that “Jesus is Lord?” Just what type of “reign” are we talking about here?

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth he stood in front of the community of faith that had known him since childhood and declared precisely what this reign would look like:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,

To proclaim release to the prisoners

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To liberate the oppressed,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

His home congregation, the very people who helped raise him, the ones in whose homes he played as a child, the ones who had watched him grow, the ones who had more cause to love him than any others, heard this and sought to throw him off a cliff.

Liberation of the oppressed is extremely popular in theory and rarely popular in practice because it means that those who benefit from injustice relinquish some of those benefits for the sake of others. And yet, this is precisely the path of salvation that Jesus offers us—in rejecting an unjust system for love of another the privileged also find release from a noxious system and reconciliation with the other. Sadly, we can’t delude ourselves into imagining that hostility toward the liberation of the Gospel was limited to the political and religious elite. It was the mob filled with average working citizens who called for Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ execution. The fear of change often overrides the distaste of the status-quo, even when the status-quo is killing us.

Jesus’ entire ministry was spent announcing and living out a way of being that was an alternative to exclusion, alienation, and violence. He spent his life among the poor, the sick, the enslaved, thieves, criminals, and hypocrites. Jesus traveled the provinces challenging established religious, political, and social structures and the powers that upheld them in the service of liberation and everywhere he went he was met with hostility. As Fr. Richard Rohr points out, Jesus was killed much more for his world-view than his God-view.

We know all of this and yet we find ourselves once again confounded by Christ, the Lord on the lynching cross, because we still hold onto the same belief of the soldiers and the criminal—that those with God’s favor will be spared from suffering and injustice. But that’s not the way God works. Our suffering had to be entered into, our injustice had to be faced. Liberation does not come from afar, reconciliation is not impersonal, and an unjust system cannot be upended from the outside. As his last act on earth Jesus witnesses to his alternative way of being by offering comfort to his fellow condemned and forgiveness to his executioners; both of whom are also victims of the powers of state and religion.

If we are to witness to the reign of Christ in any meaningful way, we must likewise enter into the suffering of others with love and the confidence that God goes with us. Because of the crucified and risen Lord we can proclaim the Kingdom of God which stands as an alternative to the economic, political, and religious systems that depend on division, exclusion, and violence. There will be pushback. There will always be pushback when we promote significant changes to established systems. So don’t be surprised when you upset people—they killed Jesus for it, and I’m not sure we should expect better treatment—but that’s the way of our Lord.

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The Rev. Ryan Young

The Rev. 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.

 

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Luke 21:5-19

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

                                     –“Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelly

This poem by Percy Shelly describes an ancient statue of a once-mighty king who was filled with his own sense of importance and grandeur. Ages ago, the statue was a splendid and awe-inspiring figure, but deteriorated over time until it was nothing more than a ruin. None of Ozymandias’s works remain for us to see and the nation he once took pride in is gone. The gold he had and whatever works he accomplished had vanished long ago leaving behind nothing more than an obscure name on a broken statue, covered by the sands of time. Ozymandias is a haunting a reminder of the impermanence of this world, and perhaps that is the same lesson Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in this Gospel.

Jesus had just told the Disciples not to be taken in by appearances – that the few coins a poor widow offers has more spiritual value than wealth given out of abundance – but, as they travel through the city, the disciples are captivated by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, and are awe-struck by the ostentatious display of wealth. Jesus tries to snap them out of it and prophesizes that dark events are on the horizon; they will be arrested and persecuted, and nations will rise up against each other. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues and dreadful signs from heaven until, at last, the temple is torn down and every stone ripped apart. With such a grim and dismal future ahead, the disciples would have every reason to give up if Jesus’s prophesy stopped. But Jesus continues with the most important part of his message: “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Jesus essentially tells the disciples: ‘Regardless of how bad things get, I am with you. Life is going to get hard, but don’t lose hope.’ Over the years I find myself needing this reminder more and more often. Throughout life there are times when it seems like everything is falling apart and there is nothing left to hope for. As I write this, there are news reports about a possible impeachment and the continued dysfunction of our nation’s political system. A new study has been released stating that climate change is accelerating far more quickly than previously thought; in fact, surpassing previous estimates. Last summer the world watched in shock as the Notre-Dame burned; as, in less than a day, nearly a thousand years of history went up in smoke.

With so much dysfunction and brokenness in the world, I sometimes find myself getting lost in cynicism and wondering what the point of it all is. Why bother building up when someone else can come along and rip it all down? It’s times like these I need to be reminded that the value is in the effort itself, not the outcome. The Temple may have been destroyed, but the wailing wall is still a holy place for billions of people. Notre-Dame may have burned, but countless lives have been enriched during the thousand years it stood. Jesus’s words to the disciples in this gospel remind me that even when it looks like the world is in chaos, there is always hope. It reminds me that God is always with his people and meets us where we are, regardless of how broken our world becomes.

This Gospel is not just a reminder that the world is impermanent and nothing we build will last, but also a reminder of where to put our hope. It is a proclamation that God’s faithful love remains with us even when everything around us is falling apart. In the times we are left shocked and bewildered, and the things we’ve trusted in are suddenly gone, we remember that our hope doesn’t reside in this world. Our hope is based on God’s love for us and nothing more.  The only thing that is constant in this world is God’s continued love for us. It seems an appropriate reminder as we prepare for “Christ the King” Sunday. While everything in the world just seems to be so awful so much of the time, I need to be reminded that it’s all being held in the palm of God’s hand. Christ does not promise us that life is going to be easy; if anything, he warns us that our immediate future will be harder if we follow him, but the eternal rewards will be unimaginable. If, like Ozymandias, all our work is forgotten or torn apart, we remain in hope because God’s faithfulness is eternal.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff is the Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina.  He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife Chana and their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his free time, he enjoys reading, going on hikes, spending time with his family and playing chess (poorly).

Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

***EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally posted for Proper 27(C) in 2016.***

Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

Luke 20:27-38

By: The Rev. William Culpepper

In the introduction to his book “Sex God,” Rob Bell assures us that “this” really is about “that”—meaning  that the book really is about sex, even if it the particular chapter or section didn’t seem to be. It was a particularly good point to make at the beginning of the book because sometimes I found myself reading and asking was “this” really about “that”? And I find myself asking the same thing here: was the Sadducees’ question really about “this”? And was Jesus’ answer really about “that”?

I’m not talking about sex here (although I’m sure there is a commentary out there that does, given that the institution of marriage and sexual intercourse were so tightly bound during this time and in this culture.) But I do want to know what the Sadducees are getting at. Are they asking about marriage? If so, is this an intellectually curious question that has no real answer since we have no idea about the laws of marriage in the next life. Are they asking about resurrection? If so, are they honestly asking or seeking to undermine the teachings of Jesus since they do not believe in resurrection (verse 27)?

Is this some sort of mega-Schrödinger situation in which the woman is both dead and alive and also married to one brother and all of the brothers?

And then there is Jesus’ answer. What is he getting at? Does he adequately answer the question or is this one of those situations where Jesus seems to know more than we do and acts counter to what we would think he would do?

Is this question really about that? Is the answer really addressing that?

Let’s crack these hypotheticals by looking at the person of Luke. This story is included in both Matthew (22:23-33) and Mark (12:18-27), but Luke leaves out something that is included by both Matthew and Mark. In the other two gospels, Jesus begins his response by calling into question the Sadducees’ knowledge of both Scripture and the power of God. Luke probably doesn’t include this little detail because he is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, while the others are writing to primarily Jewish audiences. Instead, Luke begins Jesus response by saying “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage but those who are considered worthy of a place in that and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (v. 34-35)

Jesus’ answer is about this and that.

But the ‘this’ and ‘that’ isn’t marriage.

The ‘this’ and ‘that’ is life and death.

“Let’s step away from the hypothetical and into what matters,” says Jesus. Stop asking about a situation that probably never happened and start looking at one that happens everyday. Start asking about the difference between death and life. That is what the Sadducees were missing, and maybe that is what Jesus was referring in those interlinear passages found in Matthew and Mark. Resurrection is throughout the Scriptures; somehow the Sadducees have missed it.

And with no resurrection there is no way to escape death.

And with no escape from death, what can we hope for in this life?

And yet, God offers life as an escape from death through Jesus Christ.

And yet Jesus is the resurrection.

The Sadducees needed to stop asking about the letter of the law and start seeing the resurrection right before their eyes. They needed to open their dead eyes and see the life that is offered by Christ. Because things are different between this age and that age. And the difference is that we worship not “the God of the dead but of the living” (v. 38)

And those who worship this God experience life.

And those who are living that life experience death.

There is a difference between this and that. It’s resurrection. It’s Jesus.

 

Bill-Culpepper
The Rev. William Culpepper

The Rev. William Culpepper is an ordained Deacon in the South Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at a church in downtown Macon, Georgia. With a 2 year old daughter and newborn daughter, he and his wife Lindsey have their hands full but wouldn’t have it any other way.

All Saints’ Day (C): Blessed Are You, Holy and Living One

All Saints’ Day (C): Blessed Are You, Holy and Living One

Luke 6:20-31

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

At the time of writing, our Jewish siblings are celebrating the High Holidays. They’ve welcomed the New Year by lighting candles saying, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Yom Tov light.” They’ve given thanks that they’ve again made it to this season, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this holiday season.”[1]

Weekly at Shabbat they pray, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has brought forth bread from the earth.” This may be familiar to Christians from certain traditions, “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.” In my tradition, Eucharistic Prayer 1 from Enriching Our Worship reads (after the Sanctus), “Blessed are you, gracious God, creator of the universe and giver of life. You formed us in your own image and called us to dwell in your infinite love.” Throughout Judaism and Christianity, humankind looks at ways of blessing God for what God has done — but the blessing is active. “Blessed are you…”

This is the language Jesus uses in the beatitudes: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. In these conditions, the ones who are wearied by the changes and chances of life are currently being blessed. As a comfort to them, Jesus makes promises to them: you will be filled, you will have God’s reign, you will laugh, you will be rewarded in heaven. There is waiting to be done, but the blessing is active and present, like God’s commands at creation.

In this text, Luke does a few things differently than the beatitudes from Matthew that are on bookmarks and plastered on children’s Sunday school walls. Luke’s beatitudes, like much of his Gospel, are earthy. These aren’t the poor in spirit; these are the poor. These aren’t those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; these are those who are hungry. While Matthew’s beatitudes can easily read as a list of things to strive for (peacemaking, meekness, showing mercy), Luke’s speak to the reality of the human condition on the margins of society: hungry, poor, weeping, and persecuted.

Luke doesn’t stop at offering blessings for those society despises. Jesus in this passage continues his message of justice — divine, cosmic justice against agents of empire and oppression, those who puff themselves up and enable income inequality. During Jesus’ Discourse on a Plain (versus the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus offers woes. “Woe to you who are rich, hungry, and laughing! This won’t last!”

The contrast between the blessings and the woes reiterates that Jesus has come into the world to cast down the mighty from their thrones and to lift up the lowly. This has been one of Luke’s messages since Chapter 1. Not only are the afflicted comforted during this Discourse on the Plain, Jesus warns of affliction for the comfortable. When embracing any narrative about the goodness of wealth — from religious or political leaders — Jesus’ warning of woe could not be clearer: “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

The Matthean Beatitudes are the history text for All Saints’ Day. The Revised Common Lectionary maintains that for Year A, and Luke’s for Year C. In Year B, the gospel text for All Saints’ Day is the raising of Lazarus. All three texts speak to God’s command over death and what is to come — from giving the earth to the meek to commanding Lazarus to come out to proclaiming that the full will be hungry later on. They also speak to the lives of the saints. Historically, All Saints’ Day commemorates those whom the Church has set aside for looking to as exemplars of the faith — those who hungered and thirsted (sometimes for righteousness sake, sometimes not) and have now, in God’s hand, gotten their fill.

All Saints’ Sunday celebrations often merge together All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. A friend likes to quip that All Saints celebrates Mary of Bethany and All Souls celebrates Great Aunt Mary, a True Christian. Although this distinction is often elided — particularly in traditions who understand sainthood coming by virtue of baptism — the Gospel texts for all three years speak of God’s salvation for God’s saints, especially those on the margins and with little control of their lives. The gospel texts for All Saints’ Day gives at least an eschatological hope to the hungry, the poor, the weeping, and the persecuted.

This may be an important them to highlight on All Saints’ Sunday because of how it serves as a hinge in the liturgical year. Although there are still three Sundays before Advent, the intervening texts’ themes are apocalyptic. At All Saints, the church starts proclaiming God’s restoration for all creation, which it will begin to actively emphasize in Advent.

The Gospel text for All Saints’ Day is one that speaks of blessings and woes, themes that will continue for the rest of the month until some in my tradition, on the first Sunday of Advent, begin their services again with blessing God: Blessed are you, holy and living One. You come to your people and set them free.

[1] https://www.newsweek.com/what-do-you-say-rosh-hashanah-blessings-prayers-greetings-kiddush-1461709

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The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews (@josephpmathews) is the vicar of St. Hilda-St. Patrick Episcopal Church in Edmonds, Washington. He is an avid trivia goer and reader of both novels and non-fiction and subscribes to over 20 podcasts — which he tries to keep up on. He and his husband Brandon welcomed their first child, Christopher Brandon, on October 18, so he is currently on family leave. All Saints Sunday is his favorite Principal Feast.

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Luke 18:9-14

By: The Rev. Anna Tew       

We’ve all been there. You get in the car and decide to listen to the radio for a change. The music that comes on takes you back.

:opening guitar riff, with an overlaid Spanish-inspired horn:

Instantly, you’re transported back to the late 1990s as OMC’s “How Bizarre” blasts over the radio. You might be recalling a lot of things in that moment, but as for me, I was a pre-teen in the midst of news I didn’t quite understand about the President and impeachment. I loved the series Animorphs, which planted the seeds of how to accept those who aren’t like me and to fight controlling and dominating powers, no matter how powerless I felt. Oh, and the series was about human teenagers turning into animals. How bizarre.

But then, it was a bizarre time.

I hadn’t yet thought about racial dynamics and policing, and to tell you the truth, I never really listened to the words of “How Bizarre” until 20-something years later, just last week, when the podcast Switched on Pop did a series on 1990s pop.

Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front / Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun / Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind / Loud voice booming / Please step out onto the line / Pele preaches words of comfort / Zina just hides her eyes / Policeman taps his shades / Is that a Chevy ’69? / How bizarre.”

With this catchy hit, we all sang along, knowingly or not, to a commentary on race penned by BIPOC: “Every time I look around / It’s in my face.”

You see, it turns out that OMC, the name of the band, stands for Otara Millionaire’s Club. Otara, you might not know, is a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, where the band is from. The community has Māori origins and has historically been inhabited by Māori and other indigenous peoples. Like many communities of color around the world, it has suffered from European colonization and a subsequent lack of resources. Until the mid-2000s, it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, such that OMC had a hard time booking in New Zealand. Thus, along with the commentary on race and policing, even the band’s name, Otara Millionaire’s Club, is a tongue in cheek commentary. OMC flips our expectations upside down and teaches us some serious, life-or-death lessons, all through a catchy, happy little guitar riff overlaid with a horn.

How bizarre.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us another catchy, feel good story so familiar that we may miss the words. Or, rather, we get so caught up in the words that we miss their meaning. We see “Pharisee” and immediately think of the people we can’t stand. Maybe we see the religious fundamentalists, or the evangelical right. Maybe we see self-righteous white liberals. Whomever you put in the position of Pharisee, however, if it’s not you, the impact you’re getting from the story is the exact opposite of its intent. This story isn’t about pointing fingers; it’s about realizing how righteous you aren’t. Let’s tell it another way.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two people went up to church to pray. One of them, a Lutheran pastor, loved justice, and was very proud of her stances against racism, sexism, and homophobia. The other was a white, straight Republican. He used to be religious, but now, he wasn’t sure, but here he was anyway. The Lutheran pastor, bowing her head in a corner pew, said this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like the NRA members I know, or the racists, or even this guy. I volunteer twice a week. I protest. I’m part of the resistance. I stand for your justice.” But the other guy, standing far off, wept over the state of the world, not sure what to do about it, but sure he had a part in it. He thought over the times in his past where he’d even said openly racist things, when he’d talked over women, when he’d ignored the violence and injustice in the world. “Oh God,” he cried, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”

“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).’”

Let’s be clear: this story isn’t supposed to make you feel like a hero. It’s supposed to make you angry.

The tax collectors in the Roman world were the worst. They were seen as traitors, to God and to their people. They stole from their own people to benefit the empire. However much you can’t stand your political enemies today is at least how angry and betrayed the average person felt about tax collectors in first century Palestine.

This story isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you mad. It’s supposed to turn your expectations upside down and make you take a hard look not only at yourself, but at your perceived enemy. The person who’s supposed to be good comes off looking like an asshole, and the person who’s supposed to be an asshole comes off looking contrite, thoughtful, self-aware, realistic, and ultimately, justified.

How bizarre.

I believe that the future of the world depends on how we treat those that we believe have got it all wrong.

This doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the wrongs done by others. I will not engage in spiritual bypassing, saying that if we’re just nice to those we think have it all wrong, that the world will be a better place. The story doesn’t say the tax collector lived happily ever after, either, or that there was never a reckoning for the injustice he caused.

What I am saying is that Jesus has a tendency to take our expectations — of ourselves and other people and the state of the world — and turn them upside down. It’s Christ who pulls the saint out sinners like us. It’s Christ who transforms death into new life.

So all I’m asking is this: let this story surprise you again. Let “How Bizarre” by OMC surprise you. The ending of that song isn’t a happy one, it’s a bizarre one. “Is that a Chevy ’69?” doesn’t solve racism. It just flips our expectations and surprises us and calls us to think more deeply as to why a traffic stop might be terrifying for BIPOC, and why this ending is bizarre and not as commonplace as a far more tragic ending.

The same is true of the publican and the Pharisee; the guy who has it all right actually has it all wrong. Sometimes the familiar songs and stories lay the hardest truths on us.

So let yourself be surprised, preacher. Stand for justice. See the humanity in others, even when they’ve got it all wrong. Pay attention. Notice when your expectations get flipped.

Let yourself say, at least once a day this whole week: how bizarre.

:guitar riff continues:

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

Proper 24(C): In Pursuit of Justice

Proper 24(C): In Pursuit of Justice

Luke 18:1-8

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary places this parable in the “Jesus’ Gospel to the Rich and Poor” section of Luke.[1] This section moves from stories of the “son of man” in chapter 17 to a focus on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom and the contrast between rich and poor in 18 and 19. This parable connects the rich and poor with prayer in a way that is not done in the other gospels.

The parable tells us from the beginning that its purpose is to show the disciples that they “should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1 NIV).” That is, they should pray persistently. We are given the tale of a widow, a woman with no power and likely no money, who goes before a judge who does not fear (has no reverence) God, and who has no respect for other people. We do not know what the widow is going before the judge about—perhaps it is about getting what she is owed from her late husband’s estate or for care in the community—either way the judge is not interested in hearing her case.

In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the community was expected to take care of widows and orphans and it was the calling of a judge to give members of the community a fair hearing (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). The widow is persistent in her search for justice and repeatedly goes to the judge demanding he grant her justice. He comes to the decision to give her justice, not because he has any respect for her or because he fears God, but because he is tired of hearing from her. Jesus says this judge will give justice because he doesn’t want to have to hear from the widow anymore, and if the judge will do this most basic level of justice then how much more will God do. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them (vs 7-8).”

Upon reading this parable, one cannot help but to picture a small child asking their parent for a toy over and over again until the parent gives in and buys the toy so the child will leave them alone. I remember a time when my brother and I tag team annoyed our parents until we finally wore them down and were given a castle playhouse. Is that the lesson of this parable? Go to God over and over again in prayer until God is worn down by your request and grants it so that God might be able to go back to God’s newspaper? Not likely. I imagine three possible ways to preach this parable that seem to be reflective of the text.

 

1. Jesus could essentially be saying, “Go ahead and bug God constantly with your prayers. They will be heard, and God will see that justice is done.” We can each imagine a parishioner sitting in a pew shaking their head yes, that it is in constant prayer before God that we get what we have asked for. We can also imagine the parishioner who has just buried their child shaking their head no, because how is the death of a child the just answer to constant prayer? Balancing the way in which we talk about justice as God’s answer to prayer is important, and a skill I have not found a way to attend to wholly.

 

2. The parable could also be a question of faith. Do you have the faith to search for justice continually, like the widow who demands night and day, day and night for justice to be done? Because God is listening, God is going to act swiftly, and when the Son of Man comes, will he find us searching for justice and holding onto the faith that justice will be done?

 

3. Finally, the parable could very well be a call to be doers of justice. There is a judge who has power, and is choosing to not use it to help the widow, the disenfranchised of society. There is a widow persistently pursing justice, but unable to find it because of her position in society. Through her constant questioning and nagging the judge gives in and offers justice. He uses his power to serve another’s interests, to bring about justice for someone who otherwise would not find it. Recently, NPR reported about Congress convening after a 5-week recess in which there were (at least) four mass shootings.[2] The report mentioned the March for Our Lives groups, comprised of and led primarily by high school students, who have been marching and leading rallies all over the US demanding action on gun control and an end to gun violence. These young people will not be quiet, they keep demanding justice, and in some places whether because of a change of heart and desire for justice, or to bring about an end to the rallies, changes are being made, because of their persistence. Seemingly powerless teenagers are impacting the way the powerful think and vote, and justice is being done (albeit slowly).

Whether you focus on our need to pray constantly, seek justice, or find ways to be a people of faith, this parable will cause your congregation to pause and think.

[1] Culpepper, R. The New Interpreter’s Bible : Vol. 9 : The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. Nashville  Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995. p 335-339.

[2] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/759296478/in-arizona-s-competitive-senate-race-gun-control-is-a-major-issue

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The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology,  and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at-risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.