Proper 11(C): A Focused Way of Living

A Focused Way of Living

Luke 10:38-42

By: Mashaun D. Simon

There is this saying, “What you focus on becomes your reality.”

Not too long ago I preached a sermon on the topic, “The Theology of Disappointment.” In the sermon, I engaged the power of perception. I argued that sometimes, we get distracted when what we desire becomes more of a priority for us than reality.

Sometimes, I argued, we get so trapped by what has our gaze that we miss out—we miss out on lessons, we miss out on experiences, we miss out on opportunities because we are laser focused on something else that really should not have our energy or attention.

That which has our focus becomes our reality. The problem with being so laser focused is that what we perceive as reality may not truly be reality.

When considering the text, I cannot help but to consider that this could potentially be the problem for Martha.

Here is Jesus, in her home, the home she shares with her sister Mary. This is Jesus, the same one who, by this time, has performed countless miracles—from raising the widow’s son, to feeding the five thousand, to healing a leper and the paralyzed one. Today, we have come to know this Jesus as the Messiah, the answer to the prophecy, the one who sacrificed his life so that we could be made free. This is that Jesus. And while that Jesus is sitting in the living room of Mary and Martha, it is Martha who seemingly doesn’t get what is going on before her.

Or maybe she does.

My knee jerk was to criticize Martha. My knee jerk was to chastise her for being distracted, for being so focused on the chores of the home that she was missing a moment; she was on the verge of missing her blessing.

My knee jerk reaction was to praise Mary, to celebrate Mary for recognizing the moment and being responsibly fixated on what matters most. Good job, Mary. Good job, Mary, for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening; and shame, shame on Martha, poor Martha, for being distracted.

Because, isn’t that the point? Isn’t it the point that when we place our focus on Jesus all is right, all is well, and because we have placed our focus solely on Jesus, we will be rewarded for our maturity and obedience?

Or could something else be at play here?

My knee jerk, like most others who have been “brought up” and conditioned within Christianity, is to pass judgment on Martha. Like most of us, our conditionings have taught us to almost robotically and naively turn our heads to “the Messiah” without a second-thought. Right?

But when taking a deeper look, when looking beyond the text and excavating more deeply, there is a revelation that I had honestly never had before.

What you focus on becomes your reality.

According to the text, Martha was distracted by all of the preparations that had to be made and Mary has chosen what is better, and that will not be taken from her because few things are needed.

Both Martha and Mary had made choices. Martha was more focused on preparation and as a result was distracted; but Mary, Mary was laser focused on one thing and was listening. Martha was frantic. Martha was emotional and angry and frantic because she had chosen to be more concerned with things that were creating for her distractions. But Mary, Mary was seemingly calmed and at peace. And because she had chosen such, the state in which she was in was not to be taken from her.

Maybe, just maybe, Martha’s problem was not that she was distracted but that she had placed too much emphasis on things that did not matter. And because she had made such a choice, maybe it was not that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, but that she was chosen something, one thing to place her focus and because of that she was obtaining something that Martha was not.

Maybe, just maybe it was less about Jesus and what he was saying and more about Mary’s choices and how those choices would serve her best.

Most people who know me know that one of my favorite television shows of all time is The West Wing.

In the fourth episode of the fourth season, President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, is once again dealing with some kind of international issue while at the same building up to his re-election campaign.

Of course, there will be opposition from the opposing party in the upcoming election, but President Bartlet has recently learned that there would also be opposition from his own party, from a seasoned senator who has gotten into the race in order to “raise issues.”

Yet again, art imitates life. But, as far as Oscar Wilde is concerned, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

Eventually, the senator decides to end his campaign for the presidency and endorses the President.

The senator communicates his decision to President Bartlet after a speech the President gave at a church. The senator tells the President,  “I was telling [one of our aides] about a friend who just got his pilot’s license. He told me the most remarkable thing. He said a new pilot will fly into cloud cover. There’ll be no visibility. And they’ll check their gauges, they’ll look at the artificial horizon, it’ll show them level, but they won’t trust it. So, they’ll make an adjustment and then another and another… He said the number of new pilots who fly out of clouds completely upside-down would knock you out. My office will make arrangements for me to endorse you in the morning. You keep your eyes on the horizon, Mr. President.”

I like this episode and its message because it’s simple: focus on what’s important.

All too often, we allow things to knock us off track, to detour and deter us, becoming overwhelmed, frustrated, and distracted. But sometimes, it is necessary to sit still and listen, to choose focus and peace and calm in the midst because being upset and worried about too many things is not needed.

At the end of the day, there is purpose in our choices. At the end of the day, that which we give our focus must be fulfilling and life giving. Life is meant to be lived. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Life is not meant to be spent worried and stressed, overwhelmed and distracted.

What you focus on becomes your reality. Let your reality make you better.

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Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a licensed and ordained preacher and writer from Atlanta, Georgia whose research, writing, and preaching engage topics of race, faith, identity and equity. He serves on the board of directors and ministerial staff of House of Mercy Everlasting Church in College Park, Georgia.

 

Proper 10(C): “First, Kill All the Lawyers!”

Proper 10(C): “First, Kill All the Lawyers”

Luke 10:25-37

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

Antipathy toward those in the legal profession has been around for a long, long time. Even Shakespeare had one of his characters in “Henry VI” proclaim, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”[1] Luke, the author of today’s Gospel lesson also seems to lack affection for those in the legal profession. But, I don’t think this parable is specifically about lawyers, nor do I think all lawyers are bad. In Shakespeare’s play, Dick the Butcher was referring to corrupt, unethical lawyers. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society.[2] And for those in Jesus’ early audience, lawyers would have been considered positive figures. Lawyers, at that time, studied Torah for their interpretation of the law. Their close connection with Torah would have been a good thing. So, this story is not about whether lawyers on the whole are good, but the foolishness of this particular lawyer (and those like him). Consider the following depiction of the lawyer in this scene.

First, the lawyer calls Jesus “Teacher.” The very first political campaign I got interested in was the candidacy of my political science professor for Missouri’s 27th Senatorial District Seat. My professor, active in Democratic politics in southern Missouri, was up against the Republican incumbent, a lawyer by trade. I remember attending one of their debates in the fall of 1996 on campus. The incumbent had a funny way of referring to my professor, a tenured faculty member, as “Professor” throughout the debate. I and my classmates referred to him as Doctor Althaus as a sign of respect and deference for his experience and credentials. When the state senator referred to him as “Professor,” I quickly realized he didn’t mean it as a sign of respect; he meant it as a sign of contempt. When the lawyer calls Jesus, “Teacher,” it’s in a similar way that the Republican incumbent referred to his Democratic rival as “Professor.” It was meant to establish a power dynamic. If you read much of Luke, you begin to realize that for gospel writer, “Teacher” is only used when someone does not understand what Jesus is saying or when they do not respect him. For Luke, the better title for Jesus is “Lord.” Strike one.

The second negative against this lawyer is his reason for engaging Jesus in conversation in the first place. He doesn’t ask his question to gain knowledge, but to test Jesus. The fact that he is testing Jesus aligns him with Jesus’ critics and opponents. They are likely trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. Strike two.

And finally, the question the lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV) is the wrong question. The verb tense used here suggests a single, limited action. The lawyer thinks that this is just something to scratch off his to-do list: say a prayer, offer a sacrifice, put a $100 bill in the offering plate and “bada-boom, bada-bing, you getcha some eternal life!” Strike three.

Typical of Jesus, he responds to the man with a question of his own, forcing him to reply with something the lawyer should know, the law, and yet, in response to Jesus’ second question, “What do you understand from it?” The man fails to see the law’s full meaning.

Now, Jesus is a teacher even if Luke considers it a slight. He is a great teacher. And, standing before him is a man who is failing to understand today’s lesson plan so the lawyer “is about to become the recipient of a parable.”[3] As Jewish scholar Amy Jill-Levine says, we know “that if a parable is directed to a particular individual, the individual is likely to come to an unwelcome realization.”[4] This lawyer is not likely to enjoy the short story Jesus is about to tell.

The Do-Gooder

The modern understanding of the term as a synonym for a charitable “do-gooder,” sometimes takes the power out of the story. In order to fully appreciate Jesus’ parable, a skilled preacher will help a congregation realize that Samaria was an actual place in time and history and that Jews and Samaritans had a complicated relationship to say the least. Emphasizing that the two groups saw one another as mortal enemies will help congregations understand Jesus’ dramatic teaching.

Despite a common heritage through the ancestor Jacob,[5] Samaritans were in no way good in the minds of first century Jews. They are people to be avoided at all cost.[6] Samaritans were not righteous in the eyes of Jewish law. You could not scrub them hard enough to make them clean or holy. In John 8:48, the religious authorities call Jesus a “Samaritan” and a demon! Portraying a Samaritan, any Samaritan, as “good” would have been a shock to Jesus’ original audience. It would have been as contradictory as referring to someone as a “good murderer” or a “nice rapist.”

So, Jesus uses a shocking perspective in order to teach the lawyer in Luke an important lesson about what it means to be one’s neighbor (Lk. 10:29) according to the law. Ceremoniously unclean, socially outcast and religiously a heretic, the Samaritan is in all ways the very opposite of the lawyer asking the question. For first century Jews, lawyers were the ones who studied Torah all the time. They were considered among the most righteous of the community. By using the very opposite of the lawyer as the principal figure in his story, Jesus forces the lawyer to investigate a deeper understanding of the law. This is a theme that Jesus comes back to, time and time again. When he heals on the Sabbath, Jesus is choosing mercy over following the law to exactness (Mk. 3:1-6, Lk. 13:10-17). And here, he is asking the lawyer – one who is obsessed with rule-following – what is the better answer? For Jesus, that answer is always mercy marked by love. Love marks one as a disciple (Jn. 13:35). Love is the lived example of eternal life.

Resurrected Living

Jesus’ short stories are meant to incite action, to propel us toward something, to force us to question what we know of God and ourselves. Jesus’ story tells us of another way to live as one resurrected – as one who is living as an inheritor of eternal life and not as someone just trying to scratch something off their salvation list. That way of living is as the Samaritan in this story – as one who has no reason to serve another save for the love that you have for God. It is that kind of love that spills out into the world as mercy, kindness and compassion for those are overlooked and hidden from our world. Love is how believers do good in the world. Jesus has given us permission to not solely be moved with pity. Jesus tells us to move it into action. Take care of those battered in your community as you might your own flesh and blood: bandage their wounds, anoint them with healing, share your food with them and provide them shelter. This is the true meaning of neighboring in a God-filled world. Jesus tells his audience and now us to “Go and do likewise.”

[1] William Shakespeare, “Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/17/nyregion/l-kill-the-lawyers-a-line-misinterpreted-599990.html

[3] Amy Jill Levine, “Short Stories by Jesus,” 87.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jn. 4:12.

[6] Jn. 4:7-10: Jesus and the woman at the well. The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

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The Rev. Kim Jenne

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

Proper 9(C): Bearing Witness, Even in the Dust

Proper 9(C): Bearing Witness, Even in the Dust

Luke 10:1-11; 16-20

By: The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

By the time this article is published I will have been a priest for a very short time. My ordination to the priesthood comes some 20 years after the journey began. It has been a long and at times a circuitous route to arrive here. And there have been moments along the way where I was tempted to give up or just go home and do something else, but my conviction that God has called me to this work has called me to push on into God’s preferred future for myself and for the world. Luke’s Gospel, maybe more than any of the other gospels, contains an enormous push toward discipleship of the gentiles and toward the evangelical nature of the Church itself. It should not be possible to look at this text and understand it apart from those two natures. It would be too easy to think that this word is about making new priests or pastors to labour in God’s kingdom, but instead I would suggest that this passage is a call to all believers to come and work in the harvest and find the depth of faith.

This text poses a number of challenges to the would-be preacher. It would be so easy to get caught up in one of the rabbit trails that could take one away from the primary missiological and evangelical nature of this text. It would be tempting to get caught up in the woes that the lectionary has so graciously skipped over. And I say this not to diminish the text, but to acknowledge the challenge it presents to anyone who would proclaim the good news of God present here. This text mimics the sending of the 12 Apostles from chapter nine all the way down to the instructions to leave all the non-essentials behind. Focus on the mission that is really at hand. And that mission is the proclamation that God’s kingdom has come near.

I have been the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital for just under a year now. It has been a journey full of both great difficulty and great blessing. One of the things that has been so amazing about this journey is that I get to journey alongside people through tremendous moments of joy and celebration and on the opposite side I walk with people through the darkest moments of human life. It isn’t easy work, but it is work that needs someone with a heart for those who are suffering and a tremendous amount of empathy. But one of the things that this work has helped me to realize is that God is always present. God’s kingdom is always right there in the voice of a mom or a dad who has been left in distress because of their sick son or daughter. There may be days in my work where I don’t use the name of Jesus at all, but that doesn’t mean that I am not pointing people towards the light of the divine and the holy. By practicing great compassion and mercy to those who are suffering I am doing my part to expand the kingdom of love and mercy. It is not a work that fits within the model of Christendom, but it is definitely the work of God in the world.

It is perhaps most interesting that this chapter, which begins with the sending of the 70, would end with the parable of the Good Samaritan. That story ends with the question, which of these: the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan, was a neighbour to the man who fell in amongst the thieves? And of course, the answer is the one who showed him mercy. Jesus gives us instructions to go and do likewise. Not asking if these people are worthy to receive mercy. Not stopping to enquire about church membership or belief structure. Not querying their theological background or being sure that they subscribe to our particular way of being in the world, but offering a hand of assistance and help in times of desperation and trouble.

As God’s sons and daughters, we are called to go into the world and share mercy with those who haven’t seen it in a while. Including those who are on the church’s no go list. Maybe especially those who have been scared by the ministry of the church.

Every holy week in the Anglican Church, the priests and deacons attend a service where the Bishop makes new holy oils for the coming year. I was in downtown Calgary on my way to the Cathedral church for the Chrism Mass and I was verbally accosted by a homeless gentleman on the street. He began asking me how I could possibly wear my collar after everything that ‘you did to us.’ I hadn’t any clue about what sort of pain this man had endured in his life. And honestly, in my rush to get where I was going, my initial response wasn’t so holy. Instead of mercy I offered defensiveness, but that only fueled his fire. As he continued, I looked into his eyes and I offered a simple apology, “I am sorry for whatever pain you have endured in your life.” I wish we lived in a world where I could say that the Church was innocent, but I am not that naive.  Here in Canada as well as in the United States, though it is often unspoken there, there is a legacy of residential schools that set about stripping indigenous peoples and children of their language and culture in order to ‘civilize’ and ‘evangelize’ the indigenous populations.[1] It is an absolutely horrendous legacy and it is a stain on the life of the church.

On Friday, Aug. 6, 1993, the then Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Most Reverend Michael Peers said,

“I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.

On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.”[2]

We in the church have so much work to do. It begins in speaking the truth and then going into the world to offer mercy and love to God’s lost sons and daughters. Some of whom have been deeply wounded by the Church; and in those places, it means offering additional understanding and being willing to take upon ourselves the impetus to offer an apology for pain that we might not fully understand in a moment. I have thought about my encounter with that gentleman on the street corner and I hope and pray that the sight of a guy in a collar being able to say “I am sorry for whatever pain you have endured in your life” can offer a step towards healing and wholeness.

Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into the harvest who are willing to speak truth, own their own failures and shortcomings, and who will share mercy instead of judgement.

[1] Pember, Mary Anne. “When Will U.S. Apologize for Genocide of Indian Boarding Schools?” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/when-will-us-apologize-fo_b_7641656

[2] Peers, Michael. “The Apology- English” The Anglican Church of Canada, Truth in Reconciliation https://www.anglican.ca/tr/apology/english/

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The Rev. Jerrod McCormack

The Rev. Jerrod McCormack was ordained a priest on June 22 in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Calgary. He is the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and an assistant priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Calgary and a member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He enjoys time spent with friends, hiking, and photography. He is originally from Alabama and now resides in the land of prairie and mountains in Southern Alberta, Canada.

Proper 8(C): What Would Jesus Do?

Proper 8(C): What Would Jesus Do?

Luke 9:51-62

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

When I was a kid in the early 90s, WWJD swag was a big deal. I had bracelets, t-shirts, and even a bible with the letters emblazoned across it. With every action we took, we were to ask ourselves the question: What would Jesus do?

Now, at its core, this is not terrible advice. The trouble, of course, comes in knowing what Jesus would actually do. Anyone who has lived in any sort of community (a family, a seminary, a camp, etc.) knows that it is next to impossible to actually know the mind of someone else. It stands to reason that knowing the mind of God, even when God arrives incarnated as a human being, is even more difficult.

Our lectionary reading comes at a turning point in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has ended his Galilean ministry and is journeying toward his passion in Jerusalem. Here, he will confront the civic and religious leaders, and his message that God’s kingdom includes everyone will ultimately get him executed.

When Jesus sends messengers ahead to proclaim his arrival, a village of Samaritans rejects Jesus and his disciples. Given the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, this is hardly surprising. I can’t help but laugh when I hear James and John’s response to this rejection: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” How many times have I thought about destroying my own enemies or those who speak ill of me?

The comedian Daniel Tosh has a brilliant, if vulgar, routine where he remembers his WWJD bracelet. When an obnoxious man in a movie theater talks on his phone during the film, Tosh recounts that he wants to punch this man. One look at his WWJD bracelet, however, changes his mind. “Oh I was going crazy,” Tosh says, “but then I looked at my bracelet—what would Jesus do? So I lit him on fire and sent him to hell.”[1]

Ok, so maybe not a joke you’re comfortable using in the pulpit, but I think it’s exactly where James and John go. They remember the story of Elijah who sent fire down upon the worshippers of Baal (2 Kings 1:9-16). Wouldn’t Jesus want them to do as the great prophet did?

The inability of James and John, and presumably the other disciples, to understand Jesus gives me a kind of hope. When I read the second part of our Gospel lesson, I have an uneasy reaction. I’m supposed to ignore my family and become a religious zealot? My grandmother recently died, and I took time off from my church job to go home, be with family, and bury her. Is Jesus telling me in this passage that I should not have done that? Knowing the mind of Jesus is difficult.

As with most biblical passages and characters, I think Jesus has to be understood in light of the greater story and its context. This passage in Luke is not simply Jesus strolling through the countryside looking to create disciples. This is Jesus marching toward the center of Roman civic and Jewish religious authority where he knows that his proclamation of the Kingdom will lead him to execution. He has limited time.

The urgency of Jesus’ story and the Lukan community’s expectation of the Parousia gives us some parameters to set around our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Clearly, Jesus has great concern for compassion. When James and John suggest lighting the Samaritans on fire, Jesus rebukes them. When the first man tells Jesus that he will follow him, Jesus makes sure that the man understands what he’s signing up for. When another wants to follow Jesus after he’s tended to his own needs, Jesus reminds him that the time has arrived for action. Harsh? Maybe, but they are truthful statements.

As I think about how I might preach these two difficult passages, I think the theme throughout is discerning awareness of the magnitude of the work of discipleship. As followers of Jesus, we need constantly to turn to Jesus in prayer and through Holy Scripture in order to understand better how he calls us to follow. Furthermore, we need to be able to make that discernment in light of our own time and context. Just as Jesus in Luke’s Gospel has immediate political and religious challenges, we too have immediate challenges that come from our own social and religious realities.

One way we can bring this Gospel into our own contexts is to ask the question, who would I like to light on fire and send to hell? I’m fairly confident that this is NOT what Jesus would do. There is wisdom, however, in identifying those who impede the work of ministry and understanding that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is move on to the next village and trust that God will continue to love and care for those to whom we cannot minister. Likewise, we can ask ourselves these important questions: What things are standing between me and Jesus? What cares of the world are outweighing the immediacy of God’s kingdom? And where is the Spirit leading me as I follow Jesus’ path?

There is no one correct response to these questions, and I’m certain that different communities and individuals will have differing realities. That is the beauty of discipleship—we are not called as individuals, but as a collective Body of Christ. I am not singularly responsible for the evangelism of the world or the building of the kingdom. I am but one part of God’s great plan. God will utilize me as best suits my gifts, and God will utilize others as best suits theirs. Jesus reminds us in Luke that we should discern his will in our immediate context, keeping in mind the realities of empire and other power structures that attempt to work against us.

[1] http://www.cc.com/video-clips/0hwk4x/comedy-central-presents-what-would-jesus-do-

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The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. Utilizing his former acting career, Charles enjoys engaging with Holy Scripture through various forms of storytelling and performance. Since completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas in 2018, he has put much energy into learning the Spanish language and Latino culture in order to better serve the Latino community in Wilmington. When he is not at church, Charles can be found walking the many beautiful parks in Delaware or attending theatre and music performances.

 

Proper 7(C): Healing from a Place of Strength

Proper 7(C): Healing from a Place of Strength

Luke 8:26-39

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The scripture for Proper 7 offers an example of Jesus’ power over the scary world in which we live in his calming of the storm in verses 22-25. In this scripture, we are told the story of Jesus healing the demon-possessed Gerasene. This scripture reveals to us that Jesus not only has power over the natural world, but over the spiritual as well. We serve a Lord that wants healing for us physically, emotionally, spiritually. We serve a Lord that wants healing for our community and world. There are a few details to this particular scripture I would like to highlight.

While reading through commentaries on this particular scripture, there are two things that stand out to me. The first is that this Gerasene man highlights Jesus’ desire to minister to the world beyond Israel. Many within the church think of ministry to the Gentiles as beginning with Paul. However, this scripture (and many others) clearly shows that Jesus ministered to all groups and types of people. The Church, especially in today’s political and cultural climate, could be reminded of the inclusivity of Jesus’ ministry and his focus on the outcasts.

The second thing that really stands out to me from many of the commentaries are the ways in which so many biblical thinkers compare the demon’s that have possessed this man to the mental health struggles that so many face in our culture today. Personally, I believe there to be some similarities between the ways in which Jesus deals with demons in the scriptures and the ways mental health professionals deal with the mental challenges so many deal with in their own lives. However, we must be careful in the comparisons we make between the two.

It would be inappropriate and insensitive to equate the two and speak of mental health issues as being possessed by demons. In fact, in the history of the church, we have often done more harm than good in equating mental health issues to demon possession. Many in the church have read this scripture literally and believe that Jesus is the only cure to mental health issues. Many in the church have wrongly suggested that those needing mental health services to avoid the medical professionals in preference for prayer and the spiritual work of Jesus. We must acknowledge that this story (like all of scripture) is more complex than we might first acknowledge. In one moment, Jesus is healing this man physically, emotionally, and spiritually. All parts of the individual are important and we must honor each part of this man Luke describes in this explanation of Jesus’ wholistic approach to health, healing, and ministry.

I would highlight the strength of this individual in dealing with the “Legion” of demons. Many times, when individuals face their own demons (whatever they be), many experience a sense of weakness in receiving help and treatment. One of the things our society has done well is shaming folks for their own struggles. Jesus does not shame this individual. Instead, Jesus offers healing and peace. In a strange twist, Jesus does not even shame the demons. In fact, he honors their request to not go into the Abyss.

Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs, who immediately rush into the lake a drown (verse 33). I wonder what it would like to honor the man’s strength for dealing with the demons while continuing to live. The true testament to this man’s strength is that he had dealt with these demons “for a long time” (verse 27). There is no weakness in searching for help in our healing. In fact, we should commend folks for their strength in continually dealing with demons that would send us to drown in a lake.

After this miraculous healing, Luke tells of the witnesses that experienced this “new man” who is now so different: he is sitting at Jesus’ feet, is clothed, and in his right mind (verse 35). The crowd and the town are in fear because of this healing. In many respects, this begs us to question about the healing that we must each go through from our own fear and anxiety. We must each witness to the grace of Jesus in spite of our fear and anxiety in the world in which we live. I believe we are each called to witness to the strength of those on the outskirts of society, even (and especially) if society tells us and them how weak they truly are. We must honor the strength that it takes to deal with demons, just as we honor the strength it takes to exorcise demons (whether that be done physically, emotionally, or spiritually).

In fact, such witness is exactly what Jesus commands of the man when he begs to go with Jesus. “Return home and tell how much God has done for you” (verse 39, NIV). I invite you this week to join me in witnessing to the strength of God that can be found in the strength of all those who struggle daily with their own demons. We can be encouraged by this nameless man in scripture because of his own strength and the reality that Christ joins in our own strength to heal us in all of our aspects as creation and humanity.

 

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The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and serves as the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock Texas, where he lives with his wife and three children.

 

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Ascension Day: The Same Story Five Ways

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

On three different occasions before his death, Jesus taught his disciples about what was to come. He didn’t leave much up for debate or interpretation either. Just after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus flat out told the group that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priest, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[1] Despite this very clear teaching, the disciples never seem to quite get it. Twice more, Jesus has to remind them that the future they imagine – power, privilege, prestige – is not what God has in mind for the great reversal and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Despite three clearly articulated opportunities for the disciples to hear and understand what was to come, they each seem totally caught off guard when Jesus is rejected by the powers-that-be, undergoes great suffering on the cross, and is killed. In fact, they seem so clueless, that when it all goes down, their only reaction is to run and hide. For three days, they hide in fear. Once the Festival is over, they begin to plan their next steps. Two of them, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple decide to cut bait and head home. At some point on the seven-mile journey back to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus came alongside the two dejected disciples. He listened as they talked about all that had happened, and how they had hoped that this Jesus might have been the Messiah, but those hopes were dashed when he was rejected, crucified, and died.

Here again, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach them about God’s plan for salvation.  Beginning with Moses, Jesus used all the prophets and the psalms to, for a fourth time, show them how his rejection, suffering, death, AND RESURRECTION, were all necessary components of the restoration of the world. For the fourth time, Jesus showed them how God’s ways are not our ways and how love, grace, and mercy – not power and might – were the way to redemption. Still, despite a whole day walking alongside the yet unrecognizable Jesus, Cleopas and his companion didn’t realize that it was Jesus until they stopped for dinner and he broke the bread.

Off they went, sprinting back to Jerusalem to share the Good News that Jesus Christ was, in fact, alive! Back in that upper room, the door locked behind them out of fear, they told of their encounter with the risen Christ when he appeared before the crowd. With a mix of terror, confusion, and belief, they listened as Jesus, now for the fifth time, recounted what he had told them all along, “that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

In Luke’s Gospel, it is with this that the fifth teaching on the mission of Jesus; that his ministry on earth, finally comes to an end. After five distinct opportunities to hear that his life, death, and resurrection were all a part of the larger plan of salvation, it will be up to the disciples to figure out what that means going forward. They won’t be alone, however, for God has promised to send help. In Luke, it is called “the power from on high.” In the second ascension narrative from Acts, it is called the Holy Spirit. In John, it is the Advocate. No matter the name, the promise is that someone else will come in the place of Jesus to lead the disciples in truth, to guide them as witnesses of the Gospel, to encourage them in their proclamation, to help them interpret the Good News that they were unable to hear and comprehend; that God’s plan of redemption came to life through the cross and grave.

With this final teaching complete, Jesus led the disciples out of the city and to the mountain village of Bethany where he offered one final blessing before being carried up into heaven. Exegetically, things get a bit dicey here. We believe Luke and Acts to have been written by the same author, and the fact that the details of the ascension are a bit different between the two texts can feel a bit problematic. In Luke, the ascension seems to happen on Easter Day. In Acts, it is said to be forty days after the resurrection. In Luke, they run back to the city with great joy. In Acts, the disciples are left stupefied by the sight of Jesus’ ascension and two men robed in white have to motivate the slack-jawed crowd to return to Jerusalem. In Luke, they run to the Temple to praise God. In Acts, they gather in the upper room and await the Holy Spirit. Both lessons are appointed for Ascension Day, so what is the preacher to do? Do we ignore the differences? Do we admit them and attempt to explain them away? Do we Jesus Seminar them out of existence?

I’m one who believes that the variety of the Biblical story offers richness and depth. After all, Jesus had to teach the disciples about his death and resurrection at least five different times.  What is constant in the ascension stories is a) that Jesus had to return to the Father, b) that the disciples would not be left alone, and c) that the Spirit’s task was to turn disciples into apostles and evangelists. The good news of the ascension, whether it happened on day one or day forty is that the Gospel could now be spread from Jerusalem to all of Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  As inheritors of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, Ascension Day is our chance to give thanks for fullness of God’s plan for salvation – from the Annunciation to the Ascension – as we await the Spirit’s arrival with power and might in just ten short days.

[1] Luke 9:22

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The Rev. Steve Pankey

The Rev. Steve Pankey is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Steve holds an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary (’07) and a DMin from the School of Theology at the University of the South (’17), but the degree he seems to use most often these days is the BS in Business Administration he earned at Millersville University (’02). As a disciple, a husband to Cassie, a father to Eliza and Lainey, and now a Rector, Steve struggles to keep it all in the right order, and is constantly thankful for forgiveness and grace. You can read more from him at his blog, draughtingtheology.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Palm Sunday: No Hope Here

Luke 23:1-49

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell

If you’re looking for ways to spin the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the story of salvation, read no further, because that’s not what I’m going to offer here. In fact, I’d like to suggest that the crucifixion itself is not a story of hope and salvation, that it was never meant to be, and that trying to pretend like it is will always do more damage than good, leading us inevitably into moral and theological error.

And yes, I do still consider myself a theologically orthodox Christian.

A great deal has been written over the past century on the subject of atonement theology, and far more qualified theologians than I have already done the work of deconstructing the heresies associated with the idea of “substitutionary atonement” –the idea that Jesus “had to die” on the cross in order to pay the price for human sin by satisfying God’s wrath against all humanity for disobeying him in the Garden of Eden. It’s unnecessary for me to repeat all the criticisms of this theology here, but I highly commend Elizabeth Johnson’s excellent new book Creation and the Cross, along with Brock & Parker’s lengthy but thorough historical analysis in Saving Paradise.

 Suffice to say, while many people in the U.S.—Christians and non-Christians alike –still believe substitutionary atonement to be a core tenet of the Christian faith, most people with even the slightest bit of theological education or awareness of Western history know that the idea was not part of the Christian faith until Anselm of Canterbury proposed the doctrine in the 11th century, which was right around the same time that we find the earliest images of the crucifixion showing up in Christian art.

In other words, for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, there were no images of Jesus dying on the cross, and no references to Jesus’ death or the crucifixion event itself as being constitutive of salvation. Apparently, crucifixion is not necessarily the core of Christian faith.

Many mainline clergy and theologians have long since rejected Anselm’s child-like notions of the need to appease the abusive wrath of a parental deity with a blood sacrifice. But most still attempt to re-frame the crucifixion in “positive” terms, spiritualizing it as a metaphor for “kenosis,” self-sacrifice, or non-violent resistance. They attempt to reject Anselm’s doctrine while still retaining a framework that places Jesus’ death at the center of the faith. And yet, we still end up with a theology that is built around—and dependent upon—violence. This is a theology that teaches that the ends can justify the means—a theology which can only perpetuate and enable cycles of abuse and oppression by glorifying suffering and victimhood in such a way that encourages people to stay in abusive and oppressive relationships.

While Christians of the first millennium seemed to reframe everything in the context of life—incarnation, resurrection, and the redemption of the world—the crucifixion-based theologies of the second millennium dealt only in death, shifting the focus to the next world while giving up on this one. At the end of the day, this is a theology of despair, and has accordingly encouraged and contributed to the despair and death of far too many women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others who have found themselves defenseless on the wrong side of a power dynamic. Rather than experiencing God as one who calls us out of patterns of human violence and into new and redeemed life in Christ, many victims of violence believe that God is pleased by their suffering, demanding the erasure of selfhood for the sake of redeeming oppressors.

This is not the Gospel. It is nothing more than codependency writ large, and then reframed as a religion. This does not point the way to salvation. It is simply a defense mechanism that makes suffering more bearable by spiritualizing it and reframing it as altruistic.

I am convinced that no matter how you spin it, there is no way to frame the crucifixion narrative as positive or necessary without falling into this morally and theologically debased trap. I am also convinced that we do not need to frame the crucifixion as positive or necessary in order to be grounded in the Gospel Truth.

The story of the incarnation constitutes our hope and salvation. The story of the resurrection constitutes our hope and salvation. But the story of the crucifixion is a tragedy nothing more. It is the tragic story of a pattern that plays out in our world every single day, over and over again—in workplaces, in courtrooms, in classrooms, in churches, in living rooms, in bedrooms –a pattern in which the people most responsible for harm are the ones most shielded from having to take responsibility for it. A pattern in which oppressors look like victims, and innocents are framed as villains. A pattern in which those with power can wash their hands of blame, while the masses find easy scapegoats that can satisfy the desire for “justice” in ways that avoid addressing underlying power dynamics and allow us to return to the safety of the status quo. It is a pattern in which victims are left with no recourse but to accept whatever blame is foisted upon them, knowing that if they try to defend themselves, they will only invite more blame, and more suffering.

This is what makes the story of the crucifixion matter. And this is why it is important to tell it in all its vivid, excruciating detail. Not because it is a story that constitutes our redemption, but because it provides us with the recognizable context that makes resurrection matter. This is the hell that we are saved from – a hell that the poor and the oppressed know well, and will immediately recognize. It is a hell that must be named, because so many people are in the midst of it right now. We see crucifixion in abusive relationships. We see crucifixion in the structural racism that is built into our criminal justice system. We see crucifixion in the religiously-motivated dehumanization of LGBTQ people. We see crucifixion in bizarre stories like the one recently reported by the NY Times in which an innocent kid with codependency issues became the scapegoat for the tragic death of his friends, while the landlords and the city officials responsible for ensuring the building’s safety washed their hands of it.

The crucifixion is a story that needs to be told so that the people who find themselves living in this hell can understand that even though this is what happens, this is not God’s will, and they are not alone, and no matter what happens or how they are made to suffer, this is not the end. The crucifixion only has meaning through the lens of resurrection, and that this is the only way in which we can frame it through a lens of hope.

On Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) we must resist the urge to skip ahead to Easter by giving the crucifixion narrative a happy spin, or trying to frame it within a theology where violence is part of God’s plan, and realize that we tell the story of crucifixion so that we can name the truth about who we are as human beings, and the kinds of insanity that we are saved from, through a faith that would never call us into this kind of death, but always calls us into new life beyond death.

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Kristen Leigh Mitchell

Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div. is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie-folk singer-songwriter based in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, the Rev. Joe Mitchell, and their dog Casey. Kristen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on theology and the arts. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.