Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen

For all you liturgy nerds out there, you may have noticed that Year B of the lectionary begins on Advent 1 with Mark 13:24–37 and concludes today (ok, we still have Christ the King Sunday next week, but ignore that for a minute) with Mark 13: 1–8. We begin the liturgical year with the end of Mark’s Little Apocalypse, and we end the year with the beginning of the Little Apocalypse. Perhaps this is just a fluke of the calendar, but I like to think that the editors of the lectionary intentionally decided to keep the cyclical motion of the years moving forward. We begin the year with a promise that no matter how bad things get, Christ still comes into the world, and we end the year with that same promise.

One of my favorite activities to do with adults and youth alike is teaching about apocalypse. When asked to draw an apocalypse or list words that come to mind, I frequently get hoards of zombies roaming nuclear waste-filled roads or ragtag teams of survivors dodging asteroids and alien invaders. Death, destruction, bleakness, and survival of the fittest reign in our post-modern apocalyptic imagination.

In Advent of 2020, I offered an adult education class on Advent and Apocalypse called Have Yourself an Apocalyptic Christmas. Predictably, and with much glee from this millennial priest who loves shaking up the norms, people were horrified by the title. That was the point. Why, when the world is decked out with Santa Claus and angels and presents and bows, do we read the apocalyptic literature of Isaiah and Mark?

At that time, we were in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I, perhaps naively, was holding on to the hope that the pandemic might ease up, if not for Christmas, then for Easter. The end of the world seemed tangible. Of course, the pandemic has not yet eased up, but we’re learning new ways of being church and new ways of following Jesus. The fear and tribulations are real. So are the hopes of days to come.

So, why all this talk of apocalypse then and now? Biblical scholar Michael Gorman explains it this way:

“Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.”[1]

While a message of impending zombies, aliens, nuclear fallout, and catastrophe does not inspire much hope in the world, when we read the biblical apocalyptic stories imaginatively against the many disasters and oppressive regimes of our own day, we see that the hope of God through Jesus sustains us.

While I see many holding on to this hope, I also see growing division and feuds over whom to trust. Jesus warns his disciples, “beware that no one leads you astray” and further warns them that others will come to speak falsehoods in his name (Mk 13:5–6). How do we dig through the barrage of fearmongering and falsehoods to get to the liberating truth of God’s love? Do we get a vaccine? Which vaccine do we get? Do we mandate masks or ban them? Do we go out with friends, hole up in our homes, or try to find some balance between the two?

One way the church has tried to discern these hard questions is through turning to our practice of listening to the Holy Spirit through worshipping communities where Word and Sacrament reveal the holy in our lives. Put another way, keep on coming to church—in person or online! Keep reading the Bible! Pray! With others! The revelation of the Holy Spirit rarely comes through one individual, but through intentional discernment in community steeped in the love of God.

Jesus also gives us another clue as to where to find the hope of truth. Jesus does not simply say, “there, there. It’ll be alright.” Instead, he acknowledges the suffering and pain in the world and likens it to “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk 13:8). In other words, the ways of God are the ways of life, and we do not discount the pain in the world. While the Christian life is always a life of hope, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we blindly turn to a Pollyanna optimism that diminishes suffering. We acknowledge the suffering, we lament with those in pain, we do our best to support one another, and we rest in the knowledge that new life is coming in God’s time.

As I’m writing this essay, our church is still trying to figure out how to engage the upcoming program year. How will we do Sunday School when many of our families do not feel safe attending anything in person, and other families are unable to connect with Zoom and other digital platforms? What have we learned from the past year and a half that will sustain us through the uncertainty of storms, pandemic, warfare, and the effects of sin? How will we stand firm in a faith that teaches us that even in the midst of this suffering, God does not abandon us? How will we proclaim the mystery of our faith that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again?

These are questions with which I imagine every church is grappling. In only a few weeks, we will have our Christmas pageants, and they most likely will look different from last year’s, which looked different from previous years. Even so, last year, Christmas came. It will come again this year, and not just because the Hallmark Channel has been insisting since October.

Mark’s Gospel teaches us to prepare for the battle against sin and to do so in the hope and knowledge that God will prevail.

[1] Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Kindle Edition. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011. Kindle Locations 505-508.

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen holds a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest (Episcopal) and serves as Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, DE. Prior to ordination, Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor and stage director, and he brings those gifts of storytelling to his love of teaching the stories of the Bible. During the pandemic he joined thousands of other millennials in baking bread, crocheting, and spending a small fortune on Lego sets.

Proper 24(B): Turning the Tables on Death

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Joseph Graumann

Altars are like people: they come in all kinds, and some people concern themselves far too much with how they are dressed.

One altar that made quite the impression was that of my year one field education parish. This church was large and beautiful, and the entire chancel, including the wine-glass pulpit, were made of marble. There was a “Waltar”[1] made of marble and a very large wooden free-standing altar, upon which was carved “In remembrance of me.” Two marble steps up from the rest of the nave and a marble altar rail separated these two holy tables from the rest of the sanctuary. And yes, the altar wore designer clothes. A Tiffany stained glass window of the resurrection overlooked the whole affair, as if the morning sunlight could use some improvement.

Worship at this parish was beautifully done. The music stirred the soul and glorified God. The pastors preached with integrity and verve. The sanctuary overflowed of happy families, and the needs of the community were lifted up in prayer, and the announcements engaged the congregation in mission. The congregation leveraged about one million dollars a year into a vibrant mission and much help for their neighbors. God was—and remains—certainly at work in this big, beautiful, successful church.

James and John could be forgiven for thinking that discipleship was always going to be a “marble chancel” kind of work. They rather audaciously asked Jesus for places of honor at the divine banquet. I’d imagine they thought of themselves resplendent in rich brocades, with a heavenly Tiffany light cast upon them, having heard much of the glory of the Lord. After all, their teacher had been transfigured, and he was going about healing people and multiplying bread. Surely, Jesus brought with him joy and reconciliation. Who wouldn’t want a part of that?

Jesus has strong words for his ambitious disciples. He reminds them that he’s going to the cross, in fairly strong terms: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”[2] He pledges that they will share in both, and he’s talking about his death. And also the sacraments.

Both Baptism and Holy Communion are cruciform. In Baptism, we die with Jesus, drowning to sin and rising again to new life. In Holy Communion, we remember that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” and we take that paschal mystery into our bodies. We celebrate the forgiveness of sin in both sacraments, and with forgiveness there is eternal life. Yet, it can be easy to forget that in each of these sacraments, there too is death: the death of sin and the death of death itself.

Jesus reminds his disciples that this cruciform pattern defines the Christian life. To follow Jesus is to daily die and rise again. The topsy-turviness of following Jesus overpowers death, and it overpowers social convention along with it. To die to sin is to die to the sin of pride and position. He rightly identifies the Roman customs of status and patronage as contrary to his reign. To become great, he says, you must be a servant. To be highest is to become the most lowly. Jesus does this on the cross.

As church leaders, we find ourselves gathered around the Lord’s supper quite often.  It’s easy to believe that the mahogany altar standing on marble steps is the pinnacle of Christian practice. Make no mistake: God’s banquet is worthy of our best. Yet, my most cherished memories of feasting on Jesus feature much simpler furniture.

How often has a hospital tray become the holiest of holies! The words, “Given for you,” and “Shed for you,” mark the transformation of simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Similarly, a kitchen or a waiting room can become the grandest of churches. All this is possible because of the presence of the Most High, who became the lowliest of all on a cross and who rose in glory to bring us eternal life.

The church, with its great diversity, gathers around many tables each Sunday. Some are grand, and others much more simple. At each of these tables, the risen Christ holds out his wounded hands so that we could hold out our hands to a wounded world. We leave this banquet with bellies full of the Bread of Life, eager to feed others.

[1] An East-Facing altar or altar attached to a wall. You’re welcome!

[2] Mark 10:38, NRSV.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Proper 23(B): You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in 2018***

As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.” That’s certainly the case for this man with many possessions who runs to Jesus and kneels asking how to inherit eternal life. He leaves grieving after being told to give away all his possessions while Jesus continues on with the disciples, warning them of the spiritual risk that comes with wealth. This man does not hear what he wanted and expected, but he does get something much needed: an invitation to travel with Christ.

I wonder what this man wanted from Jesus and why he approached him. Why did he need Jesus to confirm he was doing the right thing if he already knew the commandments and had been keeping them since his youth? Is this an example of humble-bragging? Is he hoping Jesus to praise his efforts in front of the crowd and disciples? Perhaps he is simply an anxious personality looking for encouragement, hoping to be told he’s doing everything right and just keep doing what he’s doing. Whatever the motivation, his encounter with Jesus confronts him with a dilemma and leaves him shaken to the core (as encounters with the Holy usually do). 

I know many people (myself included) who have been like this; running to Jesus (or church) filled with excitement and enthusiasm, only to be left in shocked surprise when we find the reality is quite different. But following Jesus is not easy, and as any 5-year-old can tell you, life isn’t fair.  We don’t get what we deserve (at least not in this world). 

One of the most unattractive parts of faith is that it doesn’t make life easier. In fact, committing yourself to a life of faith will likely make things far more difficult. Following Christ means possessions and relationships will always be at risk. We commit ourselves to speaking truth and following Christ even when he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go. 

It’s doubly difficult for clergy who serve at the pleasure of their congregation; it’s one thing to talk about following Jesus in an abstract way but it’s quite another when you risk your career and your family’s income. We all come to a point where we have to decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. Prosperity is not the result of faithfulness, just as cancer is not the result of sin. Our behavior may influence it, but spiritual justice is not a kind of science that operates through cause and effect. Decades of hard work and faithful living might leave us aged and impoverished with nothing to show for it, but no sacrifice is forgotten in the heart of God, and if you’re in the Christian life to get material security, then you’re in the wrong place. Baptism is not a contract which guarantees an easy life without struggle.

If prosperity was always the result of hard work, then immigrant laborers who work 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week would be millionaires and a single mother holding down three jobs while raising her kids wouldn’t have to worry about having enough to cover the bills this month. The Disciples gave everything away and were persecuted for it. They spent their lives as homeless wanderers, and most of them ended up dying painfully, but they followed regardless. They continued on with Jesus even when, like James and John, it meant leaving family behind (Matthew 4:2). Jesus tells the young man with many possessions to give it all away, and he walks away shocked and grieving. Perhaps he left because he was overly attached to his possessions and he couldn’t leave them to follow Christ, but I can’t help but wonder if he might also be grieving a long-held belief about how the world works.  By telling him to give away all his possessions, Jesus may really be telling him that prosperity was not the result of keeping all the commandments since childhood. Perhaps what this man grieves isn’t just the loss of material wealth, but also years of believing that his possessions were proof of his faithfulness. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, he may have just lost his entire world view and how he has related to it, but that’s the risk we run by approaching Christ; the answer he gives us might not be what we want to hear and might leave us shaken.

That is the price of Discipleship.  

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff serves as Priest-In-Chart at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Noblesville, Indiana. He lives in Indianapolis 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 22(B): The Call to Integrity

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. David Clifford

The texts for the Proper 22 also happen to fall on World Communion Sunday. This is a rather challenging group of texts to incorporate into world communion Sunday, so I would recommend those preaching this Sunday to pick a theme and work from there. The scripture readings offer a few different suggestions. A main theme found throughout Job, Psalm 26, and Hebrews seem to be integrity. God boasts of Job’s integrity. The psalmist brags of personal integrity. And Hebrews speaks to Christ’s integrity. The Gospel reading seems at first not to fit into this theme of integrity as it deals with marriage, divorce, adultery, and entering the kingdom of God like children. However, I would argue that Christ’s integrity is on display within our Gospel reading.

Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to hear and near impossible to practice. However, his devotion to the ancestors of the faith and the ways in which God is constantly at work through our lives is always on full display. I believe this shows us a glimpse of the incarnation. In Jesus’ life, we see the divine and the creator. It is a life that is always pushing us to be more connected and more engaged with those we might otherwise wish to avoid.

Jesus is constantly engaged with the religious leaders who often attempt to test him or trick him. Of course, we must be careful here not to equate these religious leaders with the Jewish people (a common mistake that has had terrible fallout throughout our history). Instead, I find it helpful to equate the religious leaders of the Gospels with ourselves. After all, we are constantly looking for the loopholes in our lives of faith. Too often, we attempt to read only the parts of scripture that fit into our narrative rather than reading the entirety. Too often, we attempt to turn Christ into what we want him to be rather than who he is and who he is calling us to be.

In this way, we find another connection to the theme of integrity. In order for us to be complete and truly whole, we must be the person God has called us to be and live the life of love Christ calls us to live. I had a professor once who would often teach that integrity is the things you do when no one is around. Christ calls us to a certain life and too often we fail the test of integrity in attempting to live in a different way.

In Mark chapter 10 verse 14 we find a very interesting thing happen. We are told that Jesus is “indignant” that the disciples would rebuke people bring their children to him. The NIV translates aganakteo into indignant. You can also find this word translated to “displeased” in some translations. In any case, Jesus is upset with the disciples.

The interesting part of this particular passage is that this is the only use of aganakteo to describe Jesus’ emotional state in the Gospel of Mark.[1] There are only two others uses of this word in Mark’s Gospel. One is found in chapter 10 verse 41 when the disciples become indignant with James and John about them asking to sit at the right and left of Christ. The other is found in chapter 14 verse 4 when some gathered there become indignant about the unnamed woman using such expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. (Interestingly, this seems to be the last straw for Judas, because right after this he goes to the chief priests to set up Jesus’ betrayal.)

There is, of course, much written and preached about the example of children within Christ’s teaching of the faith. This particular passage even suggests that it if we do not receive the children, we can not enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus often seems to be able to take time to enjoy the innocence of the children around them. I often picture Jesus as one who is willing to learn from the children around him: from their curiosity, their playfulness, and even their integrity. Children often give you exactly who they are. They have not yet learned the various social norms of society and thus are willing to tell you exactly what is on their minds. Something many pastors have learned during an embarrassing answer to a question asked at the children’s moment of a worship service.

As a parent of three children myself, I am also struck by the things I have learned from my children. Sometimes the skeptical introvert in me can be caught off-guard by their innocent willingness to have conversations with everyone they meet. Of course, the adult in me often worries about stranger-danger and the need to protect them. And yet, there is something pure about the way they live into who they are and who they have been called by God to be.

Even in the midst of devastation to his family, his life, and his health, God boasts of Job’s integrity – proclaiming him to be a blameless and upright man. There is a word in these texts that calls upon our own integrity – it challenges us to be who we have been created to be. But we are also challenged to find the pure love of Christ in who others have been created to be. In my own experience that is so much more difficult.

In those moments when who we are crashes headfirst into who someone else is, we may be challenged to fall into indignation. It would be wise for those preaching from these texts to explore the ways in which our indignation can open up the Kingdom of God for more people rather than close it off. Who knows, maybe there is a connection to this theme of integrity and World Communion Sunday after all? However we spread this word, remember that Christ takes the children of God in his arms, places his hands upon them, and blesses them. I pray all those that hear these words from God would feel the same.

[1] Oh, Kirsten S. “October 3, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22/World Communion Sunday.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.

The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, KY. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, KY and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He has served churches in Indiana, Texas, and Kentucky. He currently lives in Henderson, KY with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.

Proper 11(B): Where Are Our Deserted Places?

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Anna Shine

To give some context to our Gospel passage from today, it is helpful to note what has happened leading up to our part of the narrative. Jesus has been rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and so he leaves and continues his ministry of teaching elsewhere. He then sends out his twelve disciples in pairs to cast out unclean spirits and to heal the sick. From there Mark inserts a vignette about the death of John the Baptist, which has happened at some point in the past, but is being recounted now. Immediately following this vignette is where our passage begins, with the twelve apostles returning from their being sent out and reporting back to Jesus what they have done and taught. Although the vignette about John’s death is not included in our passage for today’s reflection, it bears mentioning that its placement between Jesus’ disciples being sent out and then returning is a common rhetorical device used in Mark’s writing of the Gospel, suggesting that there is an important connection to consider with those stories.

But for today, our story begins with the apostles returning from their mission and updating Jesus on what they have done. And Jesus’ response is such an important one. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ (Mk 6:31). We often forget that fourth commandment to remember and keep holy the Sabbath day (Ex 20:8). It bridges the three commandments before it that pertain to our relationship with God, and the six that follow it that concern relationship between human creation. The meeting of the vertical (relationship with God) with the horizontal (relationship with others) – the crux of the cross. A whole sermon could be preached just on this verse and the implications of a command to rest. What might it mean to take that commandment seriously? Especially within the consumeristic and workaholic culture we find ourselves in these days. And how has rest shown up or disappeared in your life during this pandemic? Where are our deserted places, etc.?

Continuing with the narrative, the disciples get in a boat and go to a deserted place, whereupon they find it not deserted, but filled with a crowd that hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them (Mk 6:33). So perhaps the boat served as the deserted place for the disciples since they were greeted by a crowd on shore. Jesus, upon seeing this great crowd had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:34). I love the Greek word for “to have compassion for.” Splagnizomai. It literally means “to be moved in the inward parts,” [1] which depicts a visceral and physical component to the emotion Jesus feels. There is discomfort, a discomfort that moves a person to action. And that makes sense. Because the translation, “compassion,” means “to suffer with.” Jesus is moved in his innermost being, he feels the suffering with the people he is among, and he acts by beginning to teach them.

What normally would follow is the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand – where Jesus, having fed the crowd with his teachings, then provides a meal of bread and fish to sustain that learning. Next comes the story of Jesus walking on the water. But all of this is missing from today’s Gospel selection, leading from Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of people in the deserted place, to the healing of the crowds that followed him wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms (Mk 6:56). While I do not know why the lectionary chooses to leave out these portions of Mark’s Gospel, perhaps one reason is to emphasize the elements of the story that are less spectacular in their miracles, giving them the opportunity to be studied more closely. What we are left with is a command to rest a while, a display of compassion moving Jesus to action, and the gift of Jesus’ healing touch.

Of note is the word used for “touch.” And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. The Greek word, haptomai, means to touch, but in a way that involves modification. It is a kind of touch that influences and/or alters.[2] Through touching Jesus, people are healed.

Perhaps, by leaving out the stories of the feeding and the walking on water, we are able to see a different connection that would be hard to discover with all the action in Mark’s Gospel. Because, in a way, the compassion Jesus feels for the crowd is an inward kind of touch – a way of being touched – that leads to his being altered, changed, moved. Moved to action. And the crowd, having witnessed Jesus’ compassion through his teaching and healing, are moved in return to reach out towards him, to the act of touching him. To be altered, changed, moved by him. And through that they are healed. How marvelous and miraculous is that!

Questions for further thought might be:

What causes you to have compassion? What gifts might you have that can be used as the action compassion moves you toward? Are you a good listener? Storyteller? Craftsperson? Musician? Gardener? Cook? We all have gifts and skills that can help to alleviate suffering in the world – reflect upon yours, recalling that, as the Body of Christ, we need a diversity of gifts, and none are greater than the others. In what ways do you reach out to touch Jesus, allow yourself to be touched by him, and find healing in those acts?



The Rev. Anna Shine currently serves as the Episcopal campus minister for the Presbyterian Episcopal Campus Ministry (PECM) at Appalachian State University. She also serves as the Missioner for Creation Care and Social Justice at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Boone, North Carolina. She loves listening to stories, doing puzzles, playing violin, and spending time with her dog, Hugo.

Proper 10(B): The Cost of Discipleship

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The story of Herod the Tetrarch (not the same King Herod of the birth narrative) having John the Baptizer beheaded is one that has always sort of captured my attention. It is an oddly detailed story for Mark, given that so many other things are rushed through in his gospel. In this account of a political assassination, I see bits and pieces of so many other stories from Scripture. The first and most obvious parallel here is that it is a continuation of the king/prophet relationship established at the start of the monarchy of another tragic king, Saul, and another shabby looking but important prophet, Samuel (there are also parallels between Samuel and John and Jesus’s birth narratives). When verse 18 tells us of John skulking about, reminding Herod of his misdeeds in taking Herodias as his wife, I can’t help but think of Nathan confronting King David over Bathsheba. Images of Ahab and Jezebel as an antagonistic power couple against a beleaguered prophet Elijah also spring to mind.  

The strange thing about Mark’s account here is that Herod isn’t actually portrayed as an actively antagonistic or malicious person towards John. He may not like what John has to say, but Herod actually sees the prophet as a sacred, holy man who should be protected. I find myself having a little bit of a soft spot for Herod here. Herod is doing something that a great many other people would not – he protected someone who was openly denouncing him because he knew that person was holy. In a political and social culture where we often won’t even listen to people who disagree with us, much less stick up for them or protect them, Herod’s example here is something of a startling jolt to one’s ethical system.

This is, of course, overshadowed by what happens next, and what happens next is even more tragic. Herodias asks for John to be assassinated. Not just assassinated but killed in such a way and with such pageantry that he will be made an example of and disgraced. The story tells us that at this point that Herod can no longer protect John. Not because Herod agrees with Herodias, not because Herod is tired of protecting John, and not even because Herod wants to impress Herodias, but because Herod wants to do what would be considered right and keep an oath he made. He promised Herodias, in front of guests, that he’d give her whatever she wanted as a show of gratitude for her beautiful dance. This put him in a bit of a rock and a hard place. Does he break the commandment saying that we should keep our oaths or does he break a commandment and have an innocent person murdered? I know which one I’d pick, but I’m not an ancient king who made a rash promise in front of my whole court. If I look like a fool in front of my friends, it’s just another Tuesday around here. This brings to mind the tale of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), in which another innocent person had to be killed because of a rash promise made by one ruling over Israel. Even though Herod may be named after his father, he seems more like an amalgamation of the tragic rulers Jephthah the Judge and King Saul. Ultimately, Herod goes with keeping his oath and killing a prophet (a bit cowardly, if you ask me, but I wasn’t there).

To further serve the tragic figure motif, thee story says that Herod was “deeply grieved” by this. This is also demonstrated when Herod hears of Jesus working miracles among the people. Herod’s immediate assumption was that it was not a new teacher Jesus but actually that John the Baptizer had been raised and was out working wonders among the people. More specifically, he thinks that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Signs of a guilty conscience. I wonder if he’d have been so concerned over simply breaking an oath and looking foolish.

This is a story about a lot of things. One of the big ones is that it is about the real danger of people with power and privilege (not just “bad” people, but anyone with that much influence and authority over another life). John the Baptizer spoke a lot of words, and he won over a number of hearts, but not once did he give a quick order and have his goal accomplished so swiftly as Herod did when he took John’s head. A word, a request, an action, in the hands of powerful and privileged people can become quite deadly quite quickly if their motives are off or their courage is weak. Herodias is a prime example of a person of privilege (though not the most privileged in her society) harboring a prejudice against someone that turns out to be deadly. Herod is a prime example of what happens when people of decent conscience just go along with it. The words of another murdered prophet, Martin Luther King Jr, come to mind in this instance. He spoke out against the silence of the children of light and of the danger of the white moderate who allows injustice to stand in the name of keeping the peace or maintaining the status quo. These words, warnings, and culpabilities lay on all people in positions of power or privilege who, out of some confused sense of misplaced virtue or perhaps just cowardice, let hate and violence continue to claim the lives of innocent people, a number of whom may well be prophets.

There is a final comparison I want to make, but it is by no means the last one could engage in this rich story, and that is between Herod and Pilate. Herod doesn’t show up again in Mark to judge Jesus. It is a solo job for Pilate, and he ends up playing the role in the killing of Jesus that Herod plays in John’s murder – the powerful person presiding over injustice. They both seem to have a lot of internal problems about their respective executions, but Herod at least seems to understand and assume his responsibility in John’s murder, rather than just trying to shift the blame as Pilate is famous for doing. Both people reach out through the pages of Scripture and force us to consider our culpability in the social evils all around us. 

As I contemplate this story, it brings important and unnerving questions to mind. Am I being John the Baptizer, speaking truth to power, come what may, cost what it will? Am I Herodias hating a person who dares to disagree with or criticize me? Or am I Herod, who lets my mouth get ahead of me, doesn’t learn from past mistakes, and facilitates evil in the world, with my only defense being excuses and my only consolation being my broken conscience?

The Rev. Caleb Tabor is the chaplain for Episcopal Campus and Young Adult Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from Efland, North Carolina, he has settled down close to home, where he lives with his husband.  

Proper 9(B): Expectations Get in the Way

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber

When I was commissioned as an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I sent a letter of thanks to the pastor of my church growing up. I wanted him to know how grateful I was for his kindness, compassion, and care for me in an awkward stage of my own development. Bob had been a coach for my soccer team, a confidant for my development, and had even been the one to pick me up from the floor with my dad after overindulging in a celebration after a lacrosse championship. He was a good man. 

I sent the letter and put it out of my mind. A few weeks later, I got an email from him, thanking me for the note. It was exactly as kind, thoughtful, and gracious as I had remembered him to be. So, I went searching to find any recorded sermons from his current church, simply out of nostalgia. 

When I found his current church’s page, I found a list of audio links for sermons, I clicked the first one– the most recent one. And, wouldn’t you know it. It was a sermon about how God had worked miraculously in a former youth parishioner of his. The basic message was that there is no one that God cannot use for the Kingdom work we are all called to. Of course, he remembered who I was. 

As it turns out, no one really forgets who you were. Our identities are a unique combination of who we were, who we are, and who we might be. Each decision we make, each interaction we have continues to shape the people that we will be. The best people can hold each of those aspects of us lightly. They can see the past, the present, and the potential together without judging who you might be based on who you once were. 

That is a gift. It is a rare gift. 

As Mark illustrates for us, it is really difficult for people to let go of old memories and expectations. In the best of circumstances, those expectations help create potentially healthy norms in society: the oldest child should always be the one caring for his mother, the neighborhood handyperson should always be a phone call away. And, of course, those expectations can be really limiting and isolating: the “crazy” bastard son of Mary will always be “crazy” and unworthy of any reverence. 

And, of course, Jesus breaks each of those expectations. This isn’t even the first time. The last interaction Jesus had with his family was only three chapters earlier. They came to bring him home because he had stepped so far out of his expected role that the people were calling him crazy, and the religious folks were equating him with the embodiment of temptation itself. 

Expectations always get in the way. It seems that expectations can even limit the power of God. 

Mark tells us explicitly that he was “unable to do miracles” and that he was “appalled by their disbelief.” (Mk 6:5a, 6) 

Jesus’ own community stands in stark contrast to the stories that bookend this encounter in his own hometown. In Mark 5, we see two miracles. One marginalized woman who had been bleeding for 12 years–making her ritually unclean, reached with faithful hands to touch Jesus’ clothes and was suddenly free of her affliction. And one 12-year-old girl who was declared dead was given new life. Each of these women was given a new life, literally– because of their faith. 

And in the remainder of today’s passage, we see how quickly and easily Jesus’ message and power multiply in the parts of the world that are open to the life-changing invitation of God’s Kingdom. 

The only people who seem to be left out of this work are the people who let their assumptions get in the way of God’s work. Whether they are relatives, friends, neighbors, scholars, pastors or leaders, they are left out of the redemptive story of God’s Kingdom when they try to relegate God to the narrow confines of their expectations. 

My former pastor has modeled that kind of openness for me in my life. I’m sure you can think of people in your life who know who you were, but who also remain open to who you might be. As it turns out, their faith creates the space for transformation– at least that is true in my life. 

I wonder how God is calling you to hold your expectations lightly in order to see transformation in your own life. I wonder what expectations you have for your life that might need to be let go of in order to live a new life. I wonder how your congregation might hold expectations, assumptions, traditions, and customs lightly enough to witness Christ walking just beyond our sight. 

May Christ never have to wipe the dirt from his feet in your presence. 

The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.

Proper 5(B): Shut Up!

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: Chris Clow

“Shut up! Stop talking! You’re hysterical! That’s crazy talk! We know who you are, so stop this madness and come back home! Be quiet!”

Quite a response, huh? Jesus is trying to teach about the love of God and healing those in need, having to fend off the scribes and religious officials who are challenging him and saying he’s possessed by the devil, all while trying to keep this massive crowd under control, when he starts hearing people tell him to stop and try to hold him back. But it’s not the scribes, and they didn’t tattle to the Pharisees. It’s not the Romans either; and it’s not the crowd.

It’s his family. His own family are unwilling to listen to what Jesus has to say. Imagine what this would have felt like to him: to be trying to do what you were put here to do, only to look up and see your relatives going “Yeah, ok, carpenter boy. Big talk here. It’s about time you come on home, huh?”

A prophet is not welcome in his own house, indeed.

There are harsh lines at the end of this gospel: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Can we really be surprised, though? Jesus—while trying to do some good, contain the mob that is following him, and answer the religious nuts who hate him—is now having to fend off his own family who are trying to silence him. I’ve typically heard these lines discussed as opening up the concept of family beyond just biology and the unity of the community of believers—that Jesus is saying all of us who do God’s will are his family—and that may still be true. But I suspect this is also Jesus’ frustration rightly boiling over: “You say you’re my family, yet you are trying to get in my way and stop me. Is that really what my family would do?” You can understand Jesus’ relatives being concerned; this is behavior they haven’t seen from him and getting into theological arguments with the religious officials seems a bit beyond a poor carpenter’s son.  They might feel embarrassed, or concerned, or even outraged at his behavior. Yet Jesus, and in hindsight we, know that he is proclaiming the Gospel. We are able to see the change that his relatives couldn’t at the time. “See, I am doing something new,” it echoes in Isaiah 43. Yet they refuse.

Some of us are lucky enough that we haven’t ever had large blow ups like this with our family members, but I’m willing to bet far more of us have had something like this happen. Times when we felt a call to do something that others wouldn’t understand—maybe our family, our friends, or our coworkers. This moment certainly is a troubling time in our country. From the institutionalized racism and police brutality that people of color experience on a daily basis, to the immigration crisis at our border, to simply whether wearing a mask and getting a vaccine to a global pandemic is a good idea or not. And yet, instead of giving us a common goal to move towards, we continue to see more division, some speaking out, while others tell them (in essence) to be quiet. A common refrain is that we all have to “come together,” away from the extremes, back toward common ground, and be united again. It is a nice idea to have, and working for unity is not itself a bad thing.

However, it can be tempting to hear Jesus say, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” and then conclude that unity is some supreme virtue which we must always strive for. Jesus’ relatives were united in wanting him to shut up and stop calling attention to himself. But unity which is against the good is not virtuous at all. Jesus’ preaching and witness here is a threat to the unity of his time. Both the religious officials and his own family would rather he stay quiet, not bring these crowds of people out, and not threaten the status quo that they prefer. His family may or may not have liked the religious officials; they may have even agreed with what Jesus said, but by wishing that he just stayed quiet, they wound up standing in opposition to his message.

Similarly, I think we must be very careful when we hear (and participate in) calls to “meet in the middle.” It is one thing to learn how to better listen to those we disagree with. It is another thing entirely to decide that simply finding a balanced “middle” position is automatically a good thing.  If a scale is tilted to one side, you do not balance it by putting weight in the center of it. The problems in our country, such as the racism and police brutality experienced by people of color, the continued plague of gun violence, growing inequality, and the ever-widening wealth gap, will not be solved by waiting and half measures that appeal to a simple unity. It will take real, substantial change, and that change will upset some people. But silence is not the same thing as peace, and if in our desire to bring people together we sacrifice working for justice for those in need, then we become complicit in the injustice we claim to fight, and the silence that we have substituted for peace will not last for long.

Harsh words, perhaps, but I think we’ll hear harsher if we consider ourselves a part of Jesus’ family of believers and do not act like it. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Even when it gets difficult, may we find the strength to not back down from proclaiming the Gospel in our actions and words, so that we may rightfully be able to call ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ.

Chris Clow is currently a stay-at-home dad, but he was doing it before COVID hit and everyone started doing it. In a past lifetime, he was also a campus minister and liturgical musician at a small Catholic university. He now lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his theologian wife, Emily, their son, Xavier, and their soon-expected second child.

The Great Vigil of Easter(B): Mark’s Slant on the Easter Proclamation

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

By: The Rev. Dr. Daniel London

On the Great Vigil of Easter, Episcopalians gather by a fire to tell stories. We light the Paschal Candle, from which we then light our own individual candles, and listen to the deacon chant the ancient words of the Exsultet. As we try to avoid spilling hot candle wax on ourselves and the furniture, we become gradually dazzled by the meta-narrative of God’s creative power as told through the mythopoetic language of Genesis, the lyrics of the Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, the wisdom of Proverbs, the visions of Ezekiel, and ultimately, through the Gospel account of the resurrection. This year, as parish leaders discern the safest way to celebrate this Queen of Feasts, we hear the proclamation of the resurrection as told by St. Mark the Evangelist, whose version of the story often leaves readers befuddled.

In fact, readers have been so perplexed by Mark’s open-endednon-conclusion over the centuries that ancient copyists apparently decided to try tying up the loose ends themselves by adding verses 9 – 20 to Mark’s final chapter. The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end abruptly at verse 16:8: “So [Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So, in Mark’s Gospel, fear literally has the last word.[1] To make matters worse, these female disciples (who are often portrayed by Mark as more faithful than the men) are doing precisely what the heavenly messenger explicitly told them not to do. The white-robed man urged them not to be afraid and then charged them to go tell the other disciples that the Risen Christ had gone ahead of them to Galilee (16:6-7), but they seem to let their fear get the best of them, so they tell no one. And that’s where the Gospel ends.

This is Mark’s unique and cryptic way of declaring the great Easter proclamation that Jesus Christ is indeed risen. Mark seems to be following the wisdom of Emily Dickinson who famously said, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”[2] The truth of Christ’s Resurrection is proclaimed by Mark, but his exceptional slant gives us permission to be confused, to ask questions, to contemplate our own conclusions, and to ultimately be dazzled by Truth’s “superb surprise.”[3] 

We may ask ourselves why the women disciples were so overwhelmed and initially silenced by their fear. In asking this question, we are invited to put ourselves in their shoes. Obviously, they have just experienced an event far beyond the realm of everyday life: the empty tomb of their beloved rabbi whose brutal crucifixion they had just recently witnessed; and a mysterious, white-robed man informing them that said rabbi is now waiting for them 75 miles away in Galilee. This is reason enough for anyone to be petrified by fear, shock, and amazement—not to mention, utter disbelief. Or they may have been afraid of potential punishment by the Roman authorities who might feel threatened by rumors of a crucified bandit’s supposed resurrection. Or they may have felt afraid for the disciples who had abandoned their teacher in his most desperate hour; and thought that the risen Jesus was returning to Galilee to severely chastise the disciples for their cowardice and reprimand Peter for his spineless denials. Their fear may have been a potent cocktail of all these concerns or perhaps their fear was not based upon any reason at all. Either way, they were afraid, even terrified; and being told by a mysterious, white-robed man to not be afraid was not going to help them calm their nerves.

Whenever I’m seized with fear, I personally do not find great solace in someone simply telling me not to be afraid. Although I appreciate the charming sentiment that the phrase “Do not be afraid” occurs 365 times in the Bible (one for every day of the year), I have found that letting go of fear is certainly easier said than done. And what I find so encouraging about Mark’s unique slant on the Easter proclamation is the fact that even when we are afraid and even when that fear might get the best of us, God’s life-giving truth will still win the day.

In her book Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel, Bonnie Thurston writes, “I think the very odd ending of Mark’s gospel at 16:8 is his intended one … there is a word of promise, and there is the failure of the human disciples. But the word of promise predominates. If the disciples and witnesses fail (and they do), the message and the cause is not lost.”[4] The very existence of Mark’s Gospel “bears witness to the fact that in spite of terror, and fear,” the women disciples eventually do share their experience of the empty tomb.[5] I imagine the women exhibited the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. defined as the “inner resolution to go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations,” in spite of overwhelming fear.[6]

The Easter proclamation of Christ’s resurrection urges us all to not be afraid: since Christ has trampled down death by death, we ultimately have no reason to fear. However, Mark’s slant on the Easter proclamation assures us that even when we do feelafraid—for whatever reason or for no clear reason at all—we still know that God’s life-giving truth ultimately prevails.

COVID-19 has given us all plenty of reason to be afraid and even terrified as it uncovers deep social ills, heightens political division, and prevents us from gathering in healthy ways to be renewed by our faith community. I imagine all of us are plagued with fear to some extent right now, whether or not we are conscious of its grip on our lives. While the Easter promise invites us to let go of our fear, Mark reminds us that even if our fear causes us to fail, the Easter promise still speaks to us. Even if our fear leads us to deny Christ like Peter or even become complicit in violence like the Roman soldiers, Christ returns from the grave to say, “I forgive you. Let’s try again to let go of that fear, but if you’re still afraid, that’s ok, because my love is always stronger.” Mark’s slant on the Easter Promise invites us all to be gradually dazzled by the light that overcomes the darkness, the life that destroys death, and the superb surprise that God’s love will triumph even when we are afraid.

[1] In a strictly literal sense, the last Greek word is gar (“for”)as in ephobounto gar (“for they were afraid”).

[2] Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). I’m grateful to my parishioner Laura Rose for sharing these words with me while I was contemplating Mark’s Easter account.  

[4] Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark: The Untamed First Gospel (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2013), 80 – 81.

[5] Bonnie Thurston, Maverick Mark, 13.

[6] Martin Luther King Jr., A Gift of Love: Sermons from “Strength to Love” and Other Preachings (Boston MA: Beacon Press, 2012), 120. This year, Easter Sunday happens to fall on April 4, the feast day of the pastor and martyr Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Daniel London, PhD is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, California. He is an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross as well as the Community of the Transfiguration. He lives with his wife, Dr. Ashley London Bacchi in the Transfiguration House, where he live-streamed Holy Week and Easter services last year (as pictured above). He recently finished walking the virtual Camino de Santiago and looks forward to walking the real Camino in northern Spain in the not-too-distant future.

5th Sunday in Lent(B): Sacrifice & Loss

Click Here for the Lectionary Texts

The Rev. Sean A. Ekberg

We’ve been living in an eternal Lent. Well, what feels like eternal, as it’s been since March of last year that any of us has lived life normally. To preach on Lent, what it means, and ‘giving up’ of oneself almost seems laughable at this moment in time. We gave up our social connections, habits, and haunts. We gave up our church buildings and onsite ministries. Some people just gave up.

Jesus talks about this giving up every year during Lent. He reminds us that, “To love one’s life is to lose it, and those that hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, JC, I get where you’re coming from but c’mon man…we’ve been giving up so much in the last year that there isn’t much left of us. How then can we preach to congregations concerning ‘giving up’ when we don’t feel like we have much left in our lives?

This is where the rubber meets the road, at least for me.

Our creature comforts have often become roadblocks on the path to Jesus. We rely on bars and restaurants; movies and sporting events; in person worship followed by coffee hour; dates with partners, moments with family…the list goes on and on. With all of these moments simultaneously stripped away, our lives have become seemingly less, somehow—at least on the surface. Loneliness and separation have cost people loss of life in multiple ways, so how can we continue to lose what we don’t have?

I think to preach on loss is important, even if we feel the way mentioned above. Christ didn’t ask us to forgo movies for faith; Christ asked us to live lives filled with faith in God instead of faith in penultimate joys. For us, the job of asking folks to continue to lose is one of reframing the word ‘loss’ into the word ‘sacrifice’. We haven’t lost anything, really. We’ve had to sacrifice for the greater good—we have made these sacrifices to keep our loved ones’ safe and healthy, and they have done so for us. We have ‘died’ to worldly ways, sacrificing comforts for well-being. How have we filled those empty spaces once inhabited by those comforts? Have we been able to seek God in the midst of all this chaos, or have we retreated into the holes left by our sacrifices and hidden from hope and prayer? Have we recognized that Jesus Christ can be worshiped from a computer screen just as faithfully as he can from a pew—or have we fallen away from worship altogether because we feel abandoned? These are important introspections that I believe we all need to encounter, if we already haven’t, and our people need us to admit our sense of sacrifice so that they can approach theirs.

After all, Jesus’ was the greatest sacrifice. Sometimes we forget that. Sometimes our minds concentrate so heavily on the sacrifices that we’ve made that we gloss over the sacrifice God made. Being a season of penitence, my hope is that we will preach sacrifice and not loss—while still acknowledging that we have lost loved ones, jobs, and other important facets of life, we must also note the sacrifice we make so that we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We sacrificed our lesser freedoms to do our part for the rest of humanity…

God sacrificed God’s entire human life to save it. Let’s remind people of that.

The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.