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

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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).  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263. 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

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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.

3rd Sunday in Lent(B): Contemplating the Cross

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By: The Rev. Brandon Duke

Luke 2:22-40 shares the story of the Presentation. In it, we discover the holy family on a pilgrimage to the ancient temple in Jerusalem fulfilling their requirement “as it is written in the law of the Lord” (v 23). That is, to offer their firstborn to the Lord through the sacrificing of a small bird.

The Presentation not only marks the time when the young Jesus was presented to God in the temple, it formally marked the Son of God taking on our nature and giving itself back to God the Father. This theodrama played out when Sts. Simeon and Anna announced that the glorious return of Yahweh to his holy temple had happened right before their eyes – For these eyes of mine have seen your salvation (v 30). In today’s Gospel, the young Jesus has now come of age. Entering into the temple court again, he now passes judgment on it and declares that his very body had become the new temple. A few days later, this new temple would give his final sacrifice on the cross, offering himself yet again to the Father for the redemption of the world.

We’re at the point in this season of Lent where the image of Christ’s cross begins to take shape. If Epiphany is the season to reflect on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, Lent is the time to come alongside Jesus with his cross. Remembering is challenging. Even his closest followers could not comprehend the cross. St. Peter would not fathom the Messiah undergoing suffering and death (Lent II).

Today (Lent III), we learn that it was only after “he was raised from the dead” that his disciples “believed” (Jn 2:22). Two thousand years later, are we still like Peter? We know the story, and like the disciples, we remember what is written (v 17). Like Peter, we often deny that we will one day die and even ignore the truth that our closest friends and family will do the same. Forgetting we are dust and to dust we will return is prevalent in our culture, even as we have experienced significant death this year due to the ongoing pandemic (Gen 3:19).

Contemplating death alone leaves one with a sense of hopelessness. Set this despair up and against the cross of Christ, and death has no sting (1 Cor 15:55). Again, we know the story. God raised him from the dead. We preach Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). There are three more Sundays left in Lent. Use this time to not only remember your death but to contemplate the cross.

The Rev. Brandon Duke is pastor to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. During the pandemic, his family chose to homeschool their oldest child and will continue to do so for another year. It’s an adventure and a cross to bear all at the same time.

1st Sunday in Lent(B): Temptation and Opportunity

Mark 1:9-15

By: The Rev. Anna Shine

So much transpires in these seven verses from the Gospel of Mark. We have Jesus’ baptism, his forty days in the wilderness, his temptation by Satan, the arrest of John the Baptist, and the beginning of Jesus’ proclaiming the gospel. Mark’s quick pace and immediacy, seen in his often-used word “immediately,” can make it hard to find a clear and concise message to preach. On the other hand, it provides for the opportunity to find something new to focus on each time the lectionary comes back around to those passages, which is both refreshing to the hearer of the Gospel, as well as to the one preparing the sermon upon that text.

The first three verses focus on the baptism of Jesus. We begin with Jesus, coming from Nazareth of Galilee to the Jordan river, where John the Baptist baptizes him. Then, as the waters part for him to rise up newly baptized, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him (Mk 1:10). Parting of the water, parting of the sky, as two of the three members/persons of the Trinity meet. And in the midst of this, the third joins in, with a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mk 1:11). Three verses, during which the Trinity is revealed, right there in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel! It is an incredibly profound and shocking revelation, made so quickly at the start, and so easily missed. Because immediately, in that Markan fashion, he moves on. So we can be forgiven for missing it. After all, this is the first time we meet Jesus in this Gospel, and already he is revealed in the theological configuration of one of the most difficult concepts – the Trinity. The Trinity that flowed and moved in the great act of creation, now manifesting through the life of Jesus. And this inauguration into baptism then catalyzes his story, with the Spirit [driving] him out into the wilderness (Mk 1:12).

We do not know precisely what happened in the forty days Jesus was in the wilderness, at least not in great detail, in Mark’s telling of the story. But it is clear that Jesus does not spend that time alone. In fact, he is tempted by Satan (Mark does not tell us in what way), he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him (Mk 1:13). So, the wilderness served as both the place of temptation as well as the place for community and nourishment.

From here the text takes a markedly new turn, with Mark referencing John’s arrest as an indicator for the passage of time. Jesus returns to Galilee, the region he first hailed from in verse 9. And now he has come with news, the good news of God…saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mk 1:14-15). Repent! That beautiful Greek word metanoia shows up as part of Jesus’ gospel message. And as you can see at the top of this page, it is the very word that makes up the title of this blog. The definition provided in the picture reads as follows: “Metanoia: (n) The journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life. Spiritual conversion.” What an incredibly beautiful and powerful word! Most often when people hear the word “repent” or “repentance,” they think of an action, typically made at one point in time, that then restores one to relationship with God. However, the dynamic of metanoia is deeper, calling us to a process, to a journey. It is not a one-time event that must be repeated over and over again, but rather a spiritual discipline that involves life-long amendment of life. As the definition states, it is a spiritual conversion, a conversion that I like to think spirals into deeper and deeper levels as one’s heart, mind, self, soul, or way of life wakes up to more intricate and loving layers. And that change and growth occurs as we continue to orient our lives toward that kingdom of God that Jesus tells us has come near. That kingdom of God that places us, the rest of creation, and God – in that beautiful dance of Trinity – into our own dance of Trinity. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. All bound together by that simple but not easy action and state of being called Love.

And what a beautiful message to receive at the beginning of our Lenten journey! We are ushered into Lent with that icon of baptism – witnessing Jesus’ baptism as we are reminded of our own. Then driven into the wilderness, where we face both temptation and an opportunity for respite and nourishment. What wild beasts might we meet in our forty days? And who will we discover are our angels waiting upon us? Perhaps by the end of our wilderness journey of Lent, we will come to the cross, sit in the tomb, witness the resurrection, and feel the need to proclaim our own gospel message. A message of the nearness of God’s kingdom. A kingdom that requires our repentance, that lifelong journey of learning how to more deeply love. Let it be so!


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.

The Last Sunday after Epiphany(B): Be the Body of Christ

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Oscar Rozo

The author of the Gospel of Mark tells us this Sunday that after a long journey of ministry, after healing men and women, old and young, after feeding thousands and calling a group of followers to go out and heal, love, and transform the lives of others, that Jesus brings Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain where he is transfigured. As we listen to how “his clothes became dazzling white,” I wonder, what the meaning of this transfiguration might be for you and me?

On one hand, we are told that the transfiguration takes place to reveal Christ’s glory prior to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is a source of hope, strength, and comfort to his disciples as they approach difficult times. On the other hand, as Jesus’ physical body is transfigured, it indicates the glorification of the human nature in Christ. This last is a reminder of the human capacity to be transfigured as well. Perhaps not as individuals, but as a community.

Paul the Apostle, in his letter to the people of Corinth, reminds us that we “all” are the body of Christ, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:27) And if Paul is correct in his description of Christ’s body, if we are truly created in the image of God as it is described in the book of Genesis (1:27), the miracles, the healing, the transformation that Jesus provided to the world through his ministry on this earth is possible for all of us, if only we all come together as a beloved community.

Perhaps it won’t be the transfiguration that Peter, James, and John experienced at the mountain, but if we are capable to come together and be the body of Christ in this world, our lives, our work, our hopes, our journeys will be transfigured as well. 

During the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, shared with all humanity images of the transfiguration that humanity can experience if we come together. Gorman read: 

“For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Perhaps, as we listen to the transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, we should remind one another this Sunday that we all are part of the body of Christ, we all are called to a common mission, we all are called to walk together, to hope together, to dream together, to be together, and together be transfigured. And be the body of Christ.

The Rev. Oscar Rozo is the Diocesan Missioner for Latino/Hispanic Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina and priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Newton, North Carolina. He is married to the Rev. Elizabeth Tester and father of Ezekiel (3 years old) and Miriam (1 year old).

1st Sunday after Epiphany(B): Baptized in the Spirit

Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11

By: The Rev. Steve Pankey

One of the benefits of this prolonged season of Coronatide and Church at Home has been the opportunity to pay attention to the visual cues in our nave. When the goal is to beam a worshipful experience through a couple of camera lenses onto phones, tablets, and screens of all sizes, it helps to be aware of what the camera is seeing as well as what it isn’t. In the lead up to Advent and Christmas, one of the things we really began to explore was the power of light. During the Season of Advent, in the northern hemisphere, the outside world grows darker and darker as the nights grow longer and longer. Inside the nave, however, the light grows, from a single candle on the Advent Wreath, to the brightness of the light of Christ born in a stable under a star that brought the Magi from the East.

As we thought about how to play on this theme of light and darkness, we went a little overboard on candles. From five on the wreath, the vision grew and grew and grew, until we were lighting 49 candles between Advent 1 and Christmas Day. We cobbled together some memorial funds and purchased two brand new candelabras to help hold them all. Maybe I’m not a good Episcopalian, but I always guessed candelabras held nine candles. In the process of buying them, I learned they hold seven, and thanks to the good people at CM Almy, I learned why—the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. Apparently, there really is a theological reason for everything in the church.

Outside of singing Veni Sancte Spiritus or Veni Creator Spiritus at ordinations, it seems Episcopalians don’t pay much attention to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Heck, for the most part, it seems we’re quite comfortable to leave being baptized in the Spirit to those other churches, but on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord in Year B, it seems impossible to ignore.  Whether it is John the Baptizer promising that one was coming that would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” or the Spirit descending upon Jesus like a dove, or Paul laying hands on the believers in Ephesus so that they might receive the Spirit, we ignore this important component of baptism to our peril. In fact, if I might be so bold, this Epiphany 1, I suggest every congregation that has one, pull out your seven-light candelabra, light ‘em up, and let’s talk about what it means to not only join with Jesus in his baptism, but to be baptized by the Spirit through Christ. Let’s open up for our people, and ourselves, what it means to carry within us seven-fold gifts of the Spirit: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

Now, if you are anything like me, it can be difficult to discern the nuanced differences between wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. Maybe your particular understanding of the beatitudes holds meekness in high regard and doesn’t allow for might to be a gift of the Spirit. Perhaps piety’s definition has become so narrow as to be made simply for show. If you are feeling any of these things, imagine what your congregation might be experiencing as they hear phrases like “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues” or “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” As a place to start, I offer the following basic definitions of each of the seven gifts for you to explore.

  • Wisdom – the ability to discern between what is good and evil, truth or deception
  • Understanding – a deeper comprehension of God in terms of both who God is and what God desires
  • Counsel – seeking the diving will of God in the pursuit of poverty, chastity, and obedience
  • Might – perseverance in righteousness in the face of hardship
  • Knowledge – the ability to more deeply perceive God at work in the world, broadly, and in your life, specifically
  • Piety – devotion expressed in actions both internal (ex. prayer) and external (ex. worship) that show reverence to God
  • Fear of the Lord – awe and reverence toward God whose perfect righteousness is wholly other

Clearly, these definitions are not all encompassing, but I hope they are a beginning, a jumping off place to explore, for yourself and for your people, what it means to be baptized in the Spirit and to hear the voice of God declare, “you are my child, whom I love,” whether that experience came at baptism, confirmation, or on a pier, in the woods, or in a church surrounded by the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.

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

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.