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.
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 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.
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.
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 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. 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’’.
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, 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.’ 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.
 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.
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.
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. 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.” That’s certainly the case for this man with many possessions who runs to Jesus and kneels asking how to inherit eternal life. He leaves grieving after being told to give away all his possessions while Jesus continues on with the disciples, warning them of the spiritual risk that comes with wealth. This man does not hear what he wanted and expected, but he does get something much needed: an invitation to travel with Christ.
I wonder what this man wanted from Jesus and why he approached him. Why did he need Jesus to confirm he was doing the right thing if he already knew the commandments and had been keeping them since his youth? Is this an example of humble-bragging? Is he hoping Jesus to praise his efforts in front of the crowd and disciples? Perhaps he is simply an anxious personality looking for encouragement, hoping to be told he’s doing everything right and just keep doing what he’s doing. Whatever the motivation, his encounter with Jesus confronts him with a dilemma and leaves him shaken to the core (as encounters with the Holy usually do).
I know many people (myself included) who have been like this; running to Jesus (or church) filled with excitement and enthusiasm, only to be left in shocked surprise when we find the reality is quite different. But following Jesus is not easy, and as any 5-year-old can tell you, life isn’t fair. We don’t get what we deserve (at least not in this world).
One of the most unattractive parts of faith is that it doesn’t make life easier. In fact, committing yourself to a life of faith will likely make things far more difficult. Following Christ means possessions and relationships will always be at risk. We commit ourselves to speaking truth and following Christ even when he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go.
It’s doubly difficult for clergy who serve at the pleasure of their congregation; it’s one thing to talk about following Jesus in an abstract way but it’s quite another when you risk your career and your family’s income. We all come to a point where we have to decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. Prosperity is not the result of faithfulness, just as cancer is not the result of sin. Our behavior may influence it, but spiritual justice is not a kind of science that operates through cause and effect. Decades of hard work and faithful living might leave us aged and impoverished with nothing to show for it, but no sacrifice is forgotten in the heart of God, and if you’re in the Christian life to get material security, then you’re in the wrong place. Baptism is not a contract which guarantees an easy life without struggle.
If prosperity was always the result of hard work, then immigrant laborers who work 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week would be millionaires and a single mother holding down three jobs while raising her kids wouldn’t have to worry about having enough to cover the bills this month. The Disciples gave everything away and were persecuted for it. They spent their lives as homeless wanderers, and most of them ended up dying painfully, but they followed regardless. They continued on with Jesus even when, like James and John, it meant leaving family behind (Matthew 4:2). Jesus tells the young man with many possessions to give it all away, and he walks away shocked and grieving. Perhaps he left because he was overly attached to his possessions and he couldn’t leave them to follow Christ, but I can’t help but wonder if he might also be grieving a long-held belief about how the world works. By telling him to give away all his possessions, Jesus may really be telling him that prosperity was not the result of keeping all the commandments since childhood. Perhaps what this man grieves isn’t just the loss of material wealth, but also years of believing that his possessions were proof of his faithfulness. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, he may have just lost his entire world view and how he has related to it, but that’s the risk we run by approaching Christ; the answer he gives us might not be what we want to hear and might leave us shaken.
That is the price of Discipleship.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff 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).