Advent 1(B): Keep Awake!

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By: The Rev. Anna Tew

These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?

It seems pretty easy to me.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.

The good news is that today, so has Advent.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.

The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.

Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.           

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

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

Proper 28(B): Life on the Other Side

Proper 28(B): Life on the Other Side

Mark 13:1-8

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The thirteenth chapter of Mark is known as the “little apocalypse.” The last verses of this chapter with Jesus’ teaching about the last days, the fig tree’s sign, and the need for disciples to “keep awake” kicked off the liturgical year for us back on December 3, 2017.  The Lukan parallel of this text is on tap for Advent I in a couple of weeks.

In my daily rounds, I find more conversation about the “end-times” in the secular rather than ecclesial sphere. Just this week I listened to an episode of Fresh Air with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about the real possibility of an asteroid entering the atmosphere and endling life as we know it.[1] In the wake of Hurricane Florence, the media is talking about “super storms,” with their unpredictability and massively destructive potential, becoming the rule, not the exception. The stark black-and-white cover of the October 2018 issue of The Atlantic Monthly poses this question: “Is Democracy Dying?” The issue explores whether we’ve out-smarted and out-manipulated ourselves in the name of progress through the tools of social media, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Kendrick Lamar, whose rap lyrics easily pierce the boundary between sacred and secular, voices the despondency, despair, and desperation experienced by many and has suggested that the ‘rapture is comin’’.[2]

These next two weeks offer the preacher a distinct opportunity to compare and contrast current end-time fears, hopes and laments with the long stream of apocalyptic concern found within our Hebrew and Christian spiritual tradition. Today’s end-time fears map so closely with those expressed in today’s pericope: destruction of the natural order as well as social and political unrest. The major contrast between our current fears, expressed more overtly in the secular realm than in my mainline, upper-middle class parish context, and those expressed in the Gospel is where hope lies. Today’s reading ends on a decisively hopeful note: the chaos is a sign of new life, “the beginning of birth pangs” (v. 8). On the other side of the suffering, the fear, and the unknown, is a new beginning. A vision for life on the “other side” of the end-times is blurry at best for someone like Lamar and simply not part of the conversation for Tyson and The Atlantic Monthly editorial team.

Preceding this chapter in Mark, we have two chapters detailing conflict after conflict between Jesus and the representatives of religious and political structures: the scribes, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and Herodians, and finally the whole Temple hierarchy. After this chapter, Mark’s pace dramatically slows, as we hear about the particular evil revealed in the betrayal, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus and the perplexing hope revealed in the resurrection. Today’s reading serves as a reflective pause, inviting listeners to place the opposition to Jesus’ teaching in the wider context of a cosmic battle between God and the powers and principalities.

But if the preacher doesn’t want to wade into apocalyptic territory,[3] another approach might focus on the first two verses with the disciple’s exclamation about the temple and Jesus’ sharp response. What was the purpose and tone of the disciple’s remark about the temple’s grandiosity? Was the disciple trying to distract Jesus from constant conflict he experienced in the temple compound? Was he trying to get Jesus to appreciate the temple as a pointer to God’s majesty? Can we hear any echoes of ourselves in his seemingly placating questioning? I am a people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding person (lots of clergy types are). Certainly, I’ve used similar tactics to “save” people from conflicts they experience and “focus on something more positive.” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. The temple, with its large stones and impressive structure, isn’t eternal…and worse than that, it actually serves to drive people further from what is eternal, namely sacrificial love.

On my read, the temple is a stand-in for the dazzling idols that deceive us into thinking we are worshipping the real thing. The temple (its exclusive experts, its physical structure, its demands for purity and loyalty) had lost its legitimacy in Jesus’ eyes, as it no longer served to point people toward the real thing, toward a dynamic relationship with the Divine One who is generally invisible to our naked sight but none the less nearer to us than our next breath. For Jesus, that structural stumbling block had to be eliminated, ‘thrown down.’[4] What temple-like structures do you encounter in your ministry? In my context, on more than one occasion dissatisfaction has been expressed at the prospect of using our buildings and grounds for new ministries based on fear of “what could happen to the property.” It is so human, and sinful, to forget that the church buildings and grounds are there to point us toward the ‘real thing,’ the eternal thing, the way of sacrificial love.

[1] Gross, Terry.  “Fresh Air” Neil deGrasse Tyson on Astrophysics and the Military.  NPR, September 17, 2018.  https://www.npr.org/2018/09/17/648719837/neil-degrasse-tyson-on-astrophysics-the-military, accessed September 21, 2018.

[2] Lyrics to “Pray for Me” by Abel Tesfaye / Adam King Feeney / Kendrick Lamar / Martin McKinney, accessed on https://www.google.com/search?q=kendrick+lamar+lyrics+pray+for+me&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b-1-ab, September 21, 2018.

[3] If you do decide to stay with apocalyptic theme, I strongly recommend these two brief essays found on the Working Preacher website: “Preaching Mark in Times of Strife” by Matt Skinner and “Apocalyptic Preaching” by Anathea Portier Young.

[4] Of course, the temple had frequently been viewed ambivalently by the Hebrews. Just look at the story of the first temple’s construction by King Solomon which was built on the backs of the Hebrew people and the critiques of the temple establishment by many of the prophets.

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The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the rector of Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, North Carolina–the “Gateway to the Smokies.” She would like to find time to hike, garden, and dabble in poetry. But she actually uses her time to run her two children around, weed, and read a poem or two as she drifts off to sleep at night…and she is grateful.

Proper 27(B): On Abundance

Proper 27(B): On Abundance

Mark 12:38-44

By: Sarah Harcourt Watts

When I first sat down to read this passage and take some initial notes to write this essay, I walked away from it without a single note written or even a vague idea of what I could say. In particular, the second portion about the widow’s offering seemed difficult to comment on because I couldn’t imagine what I would say about it that didn’t insinuate some level of guilt. The widow in the story gives everything she has to live on when she comes to worship God. Jesus tells us that she has given more than even the rich people who put in large sums because she had so little to start. If the poor widow who gave everything is the model in this story, then what does that mean for me? Is this literally about my financial contribution at church? If so, it left me with this uncomfortable feeling that I’ll never give enough. If I’m supposed to give everything I have to live on, how does Jesus suppose I’ll pay my mortgage next week? Who will pay for my family’s groceries? Surely the Jesus I know and love isn’t asking this of me, I decided. Either I blatantly misunderstood the point, or I just didn’t want to admit that I thought Jesus was asking too much here.

When I sat down to read it again, I did so with the perspective of God’s abundant love for each of us. Knowing that Jesus loves us deeply, how does he want us to respond to this story of giving away all that we have? With this reading, I noticed that the rich people contributed out of their abundance. They did give large sums, but surely not all they had. I wondered how these people who clearly had enough saw their own wealth. Did they feel anxious about what would happen if they gave too much? Did they see their own wealth as limited? Though the widow did not actually have abundant material possessions, maybe she actually saw her own meager possessions as abundant. She had two coins. Maybe that day was the first in many temple visits that she had had anything to give at all! Maybe as she approached the treasury, she put in her two coins not with the anxiety of wondering if she had given too much, but with gladness that she had money to give. Maybe she was the one who gave joyfully, feeling as though her gift was abundant. And, indeed, to Jesus her gift was the most abundant of all. It was worth more to him than the large gifts from those who literally gave out of their abundance.

Thinking about this perspective of abundance reminded me of an article by Glennon Doyle, an author and creator of the online community, “Momastery.” She tells about how she once posted a picture of herself in her kitchen online, and was instantly sent messages with suggestions of how she could update her kitchen. She had liked her kitchen before, but with these suggestions in her mind, she did notice how dated it had become and decided to look into updates. But then, she remembers this passage from Thoreau’s Walden: “I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of the clothes.” She decides to look at her kitchen with the perspective that she already has enough, but only needs to realize it. She then lists the things her kitchen has to offer, which seem ridiculously abundant through her new lens: a refrigerator full of healthy food! A sink with unlimited clean water! A medicine cabinet that only needs to hold vitamins and supplements! A floor for dancing! As she reexamines her kitchen for the abundance that she already has, she declares, “It’s like my family hits the lottery every freaking morning.” The kitchen itself has not changed, but her new perspective has changed everything. Instead of seeing what she lacked, she was able to see just how much she really had.[1] When the widow from our passage obtained the two small copper coins, did she feel like she had won the lottery? Perhaps she felt so overwhelmed by her perceived abundance that her natural inclination was to give it all away.

For me, this passage is an invitation to see what I have as plenty. Applying this passage to our own lives is going to look different for each person. What we have to give, what we need to hold on to, and what feels like abundance to us looks so different for each of us. It certainly could nudge us to give financial gifts more freely to our churches or other causes we support. It could make us want to give of our time or talents in new ways. Most of all, though, this passage leaves me wondering this: How would I live differently if I truly believed I had plenty? In this passage, the giver’s perspective of her own abundance and the intention of her heart mattered more than her actual gift. There is no guilt to be had here, just a freeing sense that we can give abundantly no matter what we may possess.

[1] Glennon, D. (2014, August 11) Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt. https://momastery.com/blog/2014/08/11/give-liberty-give-debt/

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Sarah Harcourt Watts

Sarah Harcourt Watts is the Executive Director of Reading Camp. She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. Sarah lives with her husband, Luke, and two children in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Crestwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

 

Proper 25(B): Standing (or Sitting) in the Need of Prayer

Proper 25(B): Standing (or Sitting) in the Need of Prayer

Mark 10:46-52

By: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The church I serve has a table in its narthex equipped with pens, pencils, and a blank sheet where anyone can write down the name of a person standing in the need of prayer. If the remembered person is “not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me oh, Lord,” then they write down their own name as a way of asking the parish community to lift them up. The list of these persons is then offered in intercessory prayer during worship every Sunday. For Episcopal Christians, this movement within the liturgy is labeled, “The Prayers of the People.” Some parishes not only have lists that are read by someone from the community, but the reader will often invite the fellowship to, “offer up your own names either silently or aloud.” With this invitation, a cacophony of names rings out as if speaking in tongues—the Day of Pentecost remembered. Very early on in my ministry, I took the list for the prayers of the people and reached out to those persons who had requested prayer. On the sheet there’s a column for the person being prayed for, as well as the person who requested it. I did this as a way of praying with them, but also as a way of furthering relationship with the people in the community. I originally thought they could introduce me to the people in our fellowship needing prayer, and that I could visit them, perhaps bringing Holy Communion; however, I found out my instinct was off. Most of the people on the list were not from the initial community. Rather, they were friends and family of loved ones that happened to worship in that parish. This insight gently corrected my assumptions and reminded me that “the world” was brought into the life of the Church, and when praying in intercession, the Church was brought to them. Outsiders suddenly became insiders. Radical hospitality was offered while relationship became reciprocal.

On Sunday, October 28th, the Revised Common Lectionary appoints St. Mark’s account of “Blind Bartimaeus” (Mark 10:46-52). It is one of the healing narratives; and with these types of chronicles usually at least two foci occur.[i] There is a focus on Christ and his authoritative healing powers. With this Christological focus in mind, usually the person being healed is unnamed. The second focus is on faithful discipleship. Usually this is a named person who has been healed and follows Jesus on the way (v. 52). The latter applies to the healing and further ministry of Bartimaeus; yet, can it also be argued he already had a ministry never even having a chance to practice it? In other words, was he never asked to fully participate in the life of the community before Jesus healed him? With this line of thinking, the preacher may ponder if Bartimaeus asked for healing because he was excluded from the community as illustrated by him sitting by the roadside outside the city of Jericho (v. 46). Perhaps being made whole was taught as being a certain way, or conforming to a cult or normalcy. How many times are we guilty of “sternly order[ing]” those different from us “to be quiet” in thought, word, or deed (v. 48)?

It has always impressed me that Jesus “stood still” (v. 49), responded to Bartimaeus’ call for mercy (vs. 47, 49), and asked Bartimaeus specifically, “What do you want me to do for you” (v. 51). This direct question from Jesus empowered Bartimaeus to name for himself what mercy was needed, not allowing anyone else to claim otherwise. By “throwing off his cloak” (v. 50) and following Jesus on “the way” (v. 52) he was casting off old ways of being in community (outside the city) and entering into new life (inside the head and the heart of the community – Jesus himself).

Thinking back to The Prayers of the People story above, I believed those on its list were “insiders”—those whom I deemed were people of the Way—VIP’s if you will. I was gently corrected. Instead, they were outside that particular community, yes, but they were (and remain) inside the heart of the Church as the Body of Christ each and every time they are lifted up in prayer. Their names ministered to me even as I asked mercy for them. Mercy for what? I can always assume, but then again, that intercession is for them to name.

 

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The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The Very Reverend Brandon Duke serves as Rector of Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia as well as Dean of the Southwest Atlanta Convocation.

 

 

 

 

 

[i]  These two foci are laid out succinctly in: Nancy L. Eiesland and Don E. Saliers, Editors, Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, Colleen C. Grant’s Ch. 3: “Reinterpreting the Healing Narratives,” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 72-79.

 

Proper 24(B): There’s No “I” in Team!

Proper 24(B): There’s No “I” in Team!

Mark 10:35-42

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

There are so many ways to read scripture. We continually find deeper, richer meanings in the text. Stories that seem so familiar can still surprise us; they can still offer new insights to our human condition. This reading from the Gospel of Mark is no different.

There are rich sermons to be mined from the presumptions of James and John. Asking to be at Jesus’ right and left hands means asking for seats of power and honor in the ancient world. Their misunderstanding of the kind of ministry—of the kind of glory—that Jesus offers is a wonderful topic to bring forth. It’s a wonderful illustration of royally missing the point.

So too is the topic of servant leadership. True Christians leaders are not the ones out front saying, “Look at me! Look at my piety!” Indeed, in our selfie-stick world, Jesus’ emphasis that personal honor and glory are not to be pursued are counter-cultural. The ideals of servant leadership—of humility and putting others before yourself—were radical in the first century and are certainly radical today.

Both of these are excellent beginnings for prayer, reflection, and proclamation.

However, I will offer a third place to draw out the scripture. This is about teamwork.

When James and John ask to be seated at Jesus right and left hand, they are asking to be elevated above their peers. By asking for the places of glory and honor, not only do they miss the point that the Kingdom of God is about selfless service to others, but they also undermine the equity between the disciples. This is a community, a traveling team of believers spreading the Good News. Suddenly, two of the community are asking to be raised up; to be honored above the others, since only one person can stand on either side of Jesus.

This is a disruption to the new Kingdom that Jesus ushers in. Jesus scolds them, telling them they don’t know what they’re asking for. When the rest of the community hears about the request—the request to disrupt the peer to peer equality that has grown among them—they are disgruntled.

Of course they are! This is like the guy on your team who takes all the credit for a work project and asks for a promotion, not pausing to acknowledge any of the work the rest of you have done. This is like the kid who boasts that they are the star of the play, forgetting all the work of the tech crew and fellow actors. This is the star quarterback who only talks about himself and doesn’t acknowledge his teammates.

This is the human desire to be raised to glory—to seek human honor and validation. And Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Because in this new Kingdom things will be turned upside down. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, and lions will lay down with lambs, and little children will lead them. To sit in the place of honor is to suffer more, not less. It is to give of yourself more, not less. It is to see yourself as a member of a whole—of a body—with a unique and valuable part to play, but not a more or less important part to play. It is about equity and equality and making all things new.

The ten have good reason to grumble at James and John. They are acting like men of the world—men in pursuit of earthly glory and acknowledgement—and not men of the Beloved Community.

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v 42b-45)

This new Kingdom will require equity. It will require a new modus operandi. It will require a new paradigm. James and John are still thinking within the old paradigm—a paradigm of earthly praise and honor. But in the Beloved Community there isn’t room for some to be “great” and others to be, well, not great.

The ten probably felt betrayed. They probably felt that the sacred bond of equality and equity between them was violated. Because it was.

As we consider the Church today, how does glory-seeking prevent true Beloved Community? Where is the cohesion of a team disrupted by those who are more attached to worldly validation instead of selfless commitment to others? Where have you struggled with seeking glory, instead of selfless service?

A sermon on the interdependence of the disciples—their teamwork and internal community—and how the request of James and John disrupted it would be welcome in many churches and congregations. It may be a space to call out the need for confession of sin—both personal and structural (like, how does implicit white supremacy and/or patriarchy create an entitlement that mirrors the request of James and John?). It may be a space to air out grievances, or to open the conversation for congregations needing to work through power struggles.

It may offer a point of reorientation and redirection. If you’re focused on being the greatest you can’t be on a team. The Beloved Community is an interdependent team of believers working together for God’s kingdom.

An African proverb says: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together.”

Jesus desires us to go far. He sends us out to go two by two. Let us create healthy teams—Beloved Communities—that go far with and for the Gospel.

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The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.

 

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

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

Mark 10:17-31

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

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.

 

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The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff earned a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and served as Priest-In-Charge at The Church of Our Saviour in Richmond, Kentucky, and currently serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Church, Southport, North Carolina. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife and two dogs and spends his free time on the beach, reading, or playing chess (poorly).

Proper 22(B): Blessed are the Divorced

Proper 22(B): Blessed are the Divorced

Mark 10:2-16

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div.

It seems fitting that only two months after my own wedding I should be assigned to write about divorce. Let it never be said that God does not have a sense of humor.

My husband and I both believe in marriage as a sacrament—that is to say, we believe that when pursued as a committed relationship of unity, equality, fidelity, vulnerability, and mutual surrender, marriage can be a symbol and a sign of God’s grace in the world. But, there’s no getting around the fact that sometimes this kind of relationship is not possible between two people, because either one or both partners refuse to participate in this kind of mutually supportive exchange. In such cases, separation and divorce is the only way to move in a direction of healing, as Jesus himself instructs in Matthew 18. When faced with someone who sins against you and refuses to listen or repent even after multiple confrontations, “let such one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Sometimes, you have to wipe the dust from your feet.

But this week’s passage has been a sticking point that has prevented many people from doing just that. For that reason, it is quite possibly one of the most dangerous and damaging texts in all of Scripture. It has been used to justify all manner of evils, from pressuring people (especially women) to stay in abusive relationships, to socially isolating or excommunicating people (especially women) who have been divorced, to rejecting the validity of same-sex marriage as fundamentally unbiblical and unchristian. There is so much to unpack in this passage that many preachers may find it tempting to just focus on that nice little bit at the end with the children. But given its vast social and relational implications, we cannot responsibly leave folks to just take this text at face value.

One common approach to interpreting the text in a redemptive light is to argue that it offered protection to women in the context of first century Palestine. Since only men were allowed to initiate divorce, and women had few options for livelihood outside of marriage, Jesus’ strict position seems, at least indirectly, to support the needs and interests of women.

But aside from totally ignoring the needs and interests of women who find themselves in abusive relationships, this interpretation is problematic on at least two grounds. First, it demonstrates the anti-Semitic tendency to create a “straw man” out of the Pharisees, offering an unfair depiction of the forefathers of Rabbinic Judaism. It is true that there was debate among the rabbis at the time of Jesus regarding the circumstances under which a man could divorce his wife. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that there was an actual increase in the divorce rate during this time. It is not as if Jewish men were divorcing their wives left and right, leaving them on the side of the road to fend for themselves as prostitutes over one burnt dinner, as is sometimes suggested.

In fact, the debate was likely sparked by the Israelites’ encounter with Roman culture, in which divorce and remarriage was far more common, and was often pursued for economic and political gain (more marriages meant more dowries and family alliances). This was particularly common among elites. Some Israelites under Roman occupation may have been seeking loopholes in the Hebrew law in order to afford themselves the same economic and political privileges as the Romans. Tellingly, Jesus’ statement on divorce in Luke 16:18 is sandwiched between the parable of the dishonest manager and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In other words, Jesus does not bring up divorce in the context of a conversation about marriage, but in the midst of a conversation about greed.

The Hebrew law under dispute was Deuteronomy 24:1, which states that a man can divorce his wife if “he finds something indecent about her.” The Shammai strictly interpreted this as referring to instances of unchastity or adultery, but the Hillel sought to interpret it more loosely, as inclusive of anything from her appearance to her attitude to her parenting skills to her ability to bear children… and of course, infamously, her cooking. Additionally, there were two circumstances in which men could never divorce. The first was if he falsely accused his wife of infidelity and her parents could prove her innocence. The second was if he raped an unmarried woman, in which case he was required to marry her and was never allowed to divorce her.

This brings us to the second problem with framing Jesus’ “teaching on divorce” as “protective” of women. By the same logic, we could interpret Moses’ laws as protective, since a woman who was raped had been stripped of her virginity and was no longer considered fit for marriage. The law ensured a husband and an economically secure position for the raped woman.

But in what sense can we really say that women who are forced to marry their rapist with no possibility of divorce are “protected?” Only in the economic sense. Laws against rape did not apply to female slaves, prostitutes, or women from other nations who had been conquered in battle. Women were not being protected as women—that is to say, as people. They were only protected as the childbearing property of family units. Like cattle.

It is important for us to realize that the conversation about divorce and remarriage in the Bible—inclusive of the conversation in Mark between Jesus and the Pharisees—is fundamentally androcentric. In truth, it does not really consider the needs or interests of women at all. It is a conversation between men, about men, that focuses on the choices of men and the consequences of men’s actions. As Jane Schaberg writes, “women have had to read [the Bible] as though they were men in order to hear themselves fully addressed and challenged. Many of women’s deepest concerns, fears, weaknesses, and needs are not addressed.”[1]

Mark’s passage is especially confusing in this regard, because of the way it is worded: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery… and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” It sounds as though the woman has culpability here, doesn’t it? But we know this is not the case, since neither Hebrew nor Roman women could legally initiate divorce. A better way of reading it would be “…if she is divorced by her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Now, this understanding of the text may seem unfair to us (as indeed it should). Why are women held responsible for something over which they have no control? But it is confirmed in both Luke and in Matthew. Matthew 5:32 makes it explicit: “Anyone who divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery.” In other words, women have to bear the consequences of what happens to them, even when they are not in a position to do anything about it. Sound familiar?

This is a situation that many women still find themselves in today. While we may be disappointed that Jesus’ words do not liberate women from this unjust double bind, we should not pretend like they do. Jesus is naming a reality in this passage, not trying to correct it. His words do not seek to dismantle the patriarchy or empower women. Rather, he focuses on confronting the men with the hypocrisy of their underlying motivations. He calls them out of a mindset in which women have become bartering chips, and back to God’s original dream for the relationship between men and women, symbolized by the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis—a relationship of unity, equality, fidelity, vulnerability, and freedom in mutual surrender.

It has to be said here that this passage has nothing to do with the question of same-sex marriage or same-gender love, a phenomenon that was never addressed by Jesus or discussed by the Pharisees. Nor can we assume that Jesus’ intent is to “lay down the law” on divorce or marriage at all, since Jesus was not really in the business of updating or establishing new laws. Christians throughout history have gone to the Bible with a legalistic lens, looking for laws (and misinterpreting passages in order to find them). But Jesus’ entire approach—not just in this passage but throughout his entire ministry—is to highlight the limitations of precisely this kind of thinking. If anything, Jesus demonstrates that he is more interested in looking at the deeper nature of relationships than in establishing or arguing about marriage and family laws.

No, Jesus did not invoke revolutionary strategies to protect women, or to transfer power from the mighty to the weak. But he does find ways to undercut the privileged perspectives of those in power, while claiming that the Kingdom of God belongs to the oppressed. From that perspective, even the women who have been made into “adulterers” through divorce become the inheritors of the Kingdom. Just look at how Jesus treats the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Some scholars suggest that this is the meaning behind Jesus’ embrace of the children: they are recipients of the Kingdom not because they are “innocent” or “naive,” but because they are without power, status, or privilege.

Blessed are those whose lives have been broken because of divorce. Blessed are those who have suffered and escaped from marital abuse, for righteousness sake. Blessed are those who have been shunned by Baptists and excommunicated by Catholics. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.

 

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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 new husband and their dog Casey. She graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014, where she focused on the theology of music and culture. Kristen leads classes, retreats, and workshops, and regularly performs music at venues across central North Carolina.

 

 

 

[1] Jane Schaberg, “Luke,” Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, ed. Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe, page 369.

Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Mark 9:38-50

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Occasionally, when I find myself staring at a blank screen during sermon preparation, I’ll take a few minutes and pull up past sermons I’ve given on a particular text in order to get a sense of where I’ve been and where I’m going (or at very least, where I SHOULDN’T go!) This is my third pass through Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary since my ordination, so when I read this difficult and rather obscure text, I breathed a small sigh of relief, confident that my trusty sermon archives contained at least a few words of wisdom. But to my surprise, I discovered that in 2015, I elected to preach on the Epistle and in 2012, I elected to preach on the Old Testament! I have never preached on this passage before!

Given the fact that I’m the editor of this blog, I could have farmed this essay out to someone else; and I could have even broken my own rule and offered some thoughts on the non-Gospel readings for Proper 21. But if I’ve learned anything at all about preaching, it is that the preacher should always pay close attention to the texts that give you exegetical indigestion—even if that means wrestling a bit.

The first thing that troubles me with this text is just how much it sounds like me. My younger brother and I are five years apart, and the two of us are the youngest of five cousins—all of whom grew up within either walking distance or a short drive from our house. Somewhat predictably, there was lots of horseplay, scapegoating, and tattling. I can vividly remember many occasions when either my brother or I would run to our parents and complain, “Mooooooommmmmmm, Marshall sprayed the cat with the water hose…” or “Daaaaaaaaddddd, Christopher isn’t sharing the popcorn…” Of course, neither of us really cared about the damp cat or the hogged popcorn (although I do love me some good buttered popcorn!) Instead, we were concerned with proving how perfectly innocent we were by pointing out the misdeeds of the other.

Sound familiar?

“John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” Now, by all accounts, casting out demons is a good thing. And, truth be told, I don’t think that the disciples were upset about the demons being cast out. They were upset because they were being cast out by someone who wasn’t them. They had the corner on this whole Jesus movement, and if someone else was casting out demons, that’s a threat—nevermind the fact that demons are being cast out!

When my Dad taught me to play chess as a kid, he’d say, “Look at the whole board, not just the individual pieces.” The Disciples made the same mistake that I did. They were so focused on the individual pieces that they couldn’t see the whole board.

How many times has this happened to you? After a vibrant, glorious worship service, a parishioner meets you at the door with a complaint about the symmetry of the candles, or the positioning of the flowers. As if we could bring in the Kingdom if only we could properly adorn and accessorize the worship space! Every congregation needs to be reminded about the importance of charity and generosity towards others from time to time. This might be a good occasion for such a sermon.

In the same way, every Christian—and every Christian leader—needs reminding that there is more than one model for being Christian and being the Church. Big screens and praise bands may make some people’s skin crawl. But for others, the ancient liturgies of the Church have a way of stifling or snuffing out the fire of the Spirit. The best sermons are the ones the preacher most needs to hear her/himself. This might be a good occasion for a sermon rooted in humble introspection.

Although it’s rather subtle, there is yet another important word of wisdom here. Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “We’re all in this together!” There’s a lot of Kingdom to build, and there’s more than enough work for everyone! In a world that can sometimes feel like everything is falling in on itself, what a welcome breath of fresh air to hear that, no, in fact, the whole world does not depend on me. We are all in this together!

Thanks be to God!

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

 

Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Mark 9:30-37

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

This passage is one that many of us are familiar with. The call to serve or to welcome children are ones that we hear in church frequently. Often, we have heard this passage used in a fairly casual and warm-hearted manner. We may see it partially quoted on a Hallmark-style print with Jesus surrounded by happy children, or used to promote volunteer work. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with applying the text to these aspects of the Christian faith, if we are honest with ourselves, this texts asks much more of us than to simply welcome children in church or do an hour or two of volunteer work.

The way of life that Jesus calls his disciples to is one that flips upside down the values of power and prestige of their culture. Rather, here in his community the lowly will be elevated, and the higher up made humble. The ways of society that value some above others will be turned upside down. The word in verse 35 that the NRSV translates as “servant” is diakonos, which in that time referred to someone who served meals. They were the servant of all and the lowest rank of all servants. In fact, they were only allowed to eat after all others had been satisfied.[1] The next section on children was related. While we miss it in English, Mark’s audience would have noticed when hearing this read that the word paidon for “little child” is similar to another word for servant, pais, whose inflected form also has a “d” sound. Not only would the recognition be one of vocabulary, but they also would have heard the word child as referring to someone like a servant who served meals in that both were not honored or seen as holding any high standing.[2] A person would gain nothing by extending hospitality to these persons consider lowly. They have nothing to offer them and not status or power to be gleaned from them. And yet, these are the ones that Jesus says to honor them.

It’s not hard to see that what Jesus is calling for is a flip of what society tells us to do. If we are followers of Christ, we are to be the ones who are also turning our society’s values of prestige and power upside down. We are called to welcome those who have nothing to offer us; those who grant us no access to power or prestige.

I can’t help but notice that we don’t always do such a great job at this. As I write this, our country is currently consumed in a debate over immigration that sees people by what they can offer to us rather than as human beings. We see families torn apart, children cast into concentration style camps away from their parents, all because their parents sought to find asylum on our shores. Little children, servants, worthless—these are the ways we are treating them. And yet, as followers of Christ, we are called to turn that reality upside down and inside out. What would it look like if we elevate these children, welcomed them with hospitality the way that we claim to welcome Jesus? I image, much more so like the Kin-dom of God rather than a nation of humanity. I imagine it might look like a place where justice is the highest value, rather than power and prestige.

The sad reality is that there are a number of ways that we fall short of this expectation. Too many children face growing up in subpar schools or without adequate access to what they need to thrive. Too many people don’t receive basic healthcare because they can’t afford it. Too many people work well over 40 hours a week and yet cannot make enough to survive. Is it perhaps because we continue to maintain a system that fails to provide hospitality and honor to all humans?

We as people of faith are called to be change makers; to turn the system upside down. If we are not actively trying to dismantle systems of oppression, we are in fact perpetuating them. I believe the word this passage speaks to us today is that we must examine how it is that we are or are not living into this call to be change makers in our world. Are we perpetuating the status quo, or are we working to dismantle systems of oppression and instead bring about the Kin-dom of God, on earth as it is in Heaven.

[1] Ringe, Sharon H. (2010)  David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor (eds). Feasting on The Word, (Year B, Vol. 4, Proper 20, p 95) Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press

[2] Ibid. 97

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The Rev. Kim Sorrells

The Rev. Kim Sorrells is an Ordained Minister in the United Church of Christ, with an interest in Spiritual Practices and Justice work. Kim is also bi-vocational and spends their “day job” working for Atlanta Pride as the Programs and Partnerships Manager.

 

 

 

 

Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Mark 8:27-38

By: The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

Before I started writing this, I spent hours going through my files of sermons looking for my old notes. I felt as though I had preached a sermon from this text before and I wanted to see where my head was at that time.

After about 30 minutes of searching, I was reminded of the moment I preached the text. It was during my time as program coordinator for Columbia Theological Seminary.

It is a familiar text – one where preachers from far and wide have lifted the text to make the point of Jesus’ divinity and purpose. They have used this text to make the case that Jesus truly is the son of God, that his purpose was to come among us to save us from ourselves, and that while he understood this, he wanted to ensure that his disciples understood it as well.

Preachers have preached about how and why Jesus needed and wanted to prepare his followers for what was to come to them, what would happen to him, and how they needed to brace for what was to come when he would be gone.

During the sermon, I highlighted the 2012 hit by Fantasia Barrino, Lose to Win from her fourth studio album The Side Effects of You. I talked about how the song was an instant hit, becoming an anthem for many fans of the 2004 American Idol winner. I talked about how she explained during an interview that the song, according to the Grammy award winner, was not just about the realities of a failed relationship – but also the realities of anyone who may experience setbacks in life, love and career.

“When I say lose to win I don’t want people to think I’m only talking about love,” Barrino said in a 2013 interview. “There’s people out there who’ve lost homes and jobs…I want them to know sometimes you have to lose those things for God to put the right things in your life.”

If it makes you cry, cry, cry
Can’t get no sleep at night?

Sometimes you gotta lose to win again.

Through the sermon I attempted to bridge the similarities between Barrino’s hit single and Jesus’s engagement with the disciples. I talked about how at the beginning of the new academic year, students, faculty and staff would have to lose, to lose old ways of thinking, old practices, old habits to prepare for the next – and how Jesus attempted to do the same for his disciples as he was on the eve of his destiny.

I can imagine that the disciples, as they were engaging with Jesus at this point in Jesus’ ministry, full of hope. Here was the fulfillment of the many prophecies – their savior, their Messiah, here to rescue them from the oppressors’ snare. They could not have imagined the possibilities of heartache, of pain, of struggle. And when Jesus their Messiah began to forewarn them, it was a possibility they did not want to hear. They could not fathom.

This scene in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ ministry follows a series of miracles. The curing of a deaf man, the feeding of thousands, the healing of the blind man – countless signs and miracles as reported by Mark. While on their way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks, “Who is it people say I am?”

As the disciples respond, Jesus then asks a very pointed question: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Simple question, right? Jesus knew that in order to truly know him. They had to be able to fathom the repercussions and consequences.

Jesus was being like that drunk uncle at the family gathering: saying things that did not need to be said or that others did not want to be known. And Peter did what any matriarch or patriarch would do: he attempted to intervene before what was about to be said would embarrass the family.

Because this is not supposed to look like that, right?

This possibility of suffering, of potentially having to lose out is not something any of us are ready to embrace or fathom. But suffering, struggle, especially for something worth struggling for, is integral to life, to purpose, and especially to ministry.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 

What is my point?

The one thing I appreciate about the sacred text is that the text has a way of being contemporary without us realizing. We are living in some extremely interesting times. It seems as though chaos is all around us. But with that, we have choices.

For some, society seems chaotic. For some, their hope is shaken. For some, they are craving more but having no idea of how to get to where they think they want to be. And for others, the inevitable has been unavoidable.

Yet in all of that, the sacred text is still a resource. And at this moment, regardless of what is and has been, God is still concerned about us. God is concerned, but are we most concerned about?

Are we focused merely on human concerns, the needs of the present that we consider to be most important that are actually fleeting and selfish?

When I preached this text before, I encouraged those in the congregation to lose themselves; to sacrifice for the sake of truly being God’s beloved community. And I think the same is still true today.

God, I believe, is calling us to be selfless; to be focused; to be better and to be concerned about those things that God is most concerned. And it is not and will not be easy.

There will be those who will reject us, that will threaten us, that will hate us, that will feel threatened by us because of how we push against the status quo, the normal, the comfortable.

““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus said.

Sometimes, we have to lose, to win again!

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The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon is a writer and preacher from Atlanta, Georgia. Currently, Mashaun serves as Communications Manager for Spelman College. Mashaun is a licensed and ordained preacher and serves on the ministerial staff of House of Mercy Everlasting in College Park, Georgia. Mashaun is also a member of the Board of Directors for AID Atlanta and a member of the Advisory Board for the Counter Narrative Project. He holds a professional writing degree from Georgia Perimeter College, a Bachelor of Science in Communications from Kennesaw State University, and a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.