Proper 22(B): Blessed are the Divorced

Proper 22(B): Blessed are the Divorced

Mark 10:2-16

By: Kristen Leigh Mitchell, M.Div.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kristen Leigh Mitchell

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




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

Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Proper 21(B): Textual Indigestion

Mark 9:38-50

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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


Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Proper 20(B): A Reversal of Social Order

Mark 9:30-37

By: The Rev. Kim Sorrells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid. 97

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The Rev. Kim Sorrells

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





Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Proper 19(B): Lose to Win!

Mark 8:27-38

By: The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes you gotta lose to win again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is my point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, we have to lose, to win again!

The Rev. Mashaun D. Simon

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


Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Proper 18(B): Humility and Jesus

Mark 7:24–27

By: The Rev. Charles Cowen

In my days working in the professional theatre, there was an apocryphal tale actors loved to share about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. During the filming of the film Marathon Man, Hoffman showed up to the set looking sickly, weak, and sleep-deprived. Olivier looked at his costar and asked if everything was ok. Hoffman replied that since his character, at this point in the film, had been awake for 72 hours, he, too, had stayed up for 72 hours. Olivier, in his droll English dialect, replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

This story always will make an actor laugh because we know first-hand the incredible power of imagination and empathy. Many Hollywood types get caught up in political debates and demonstrations because they spend their days imagining what it is like to be someone else–what  it means to be the other.

Perhaps more than any of the Gospels, Mark invites the audience to imaginatively walk not only with Jesus but with those whom Jesus encounters.[1] In today’s lectionary selection, we are given the opportunity to imagine two encounters with Jesus. Through these encounters, we, along with our first-century siblings, come closer to knowing the living God in the person of Jesus.

In the first story, I cannot help but place myself in the shoes of the Syrophoenician woman. I do not have children, but I have worked closely with children as a teacher and as a summer camp chaplain. The deep, deep love I have for those children gives me a tool for imagining and empathizing the fear, despair, and sadness a parent must feel when their child is threatened. This woman, who has heard the many stories of Jesus casting out demons, healing withered hands, and feeding over 5000 people, approaches Jesus in her desperation and begs for healing for her daughter. What parent wouldn’t? Every time I hear this story, I am jarred to my core at Jesus’ response: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27 NRSV).


Not only does this pain me as I imagine the children in my life whom I love, but it pains me as a 21st Century American who has heard our leaders refer to immigrants and their children as animals. Just as those who have sworn to protect our country see children of foreign birth as somehow lesser-than, Jesus, a Jew, here sees this Gentile as something lesser-than.[2]

Then something truly miraculous occurs. This incredible woman out of her love, her fear, her desperation, teaches Jesus—Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Son of God (Mk 1:1)—teaches Jesus a lesson about humanity.

Can you imagine the embarrassment of hearing a mother reply to your callous comment, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28)? We, the listeners of this story, are invited to consider the bravery and lovingness of this desperate mother while we also consider the humanity of Jesus as his arrogance is transformed into humility through an honest encounter with another human being: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter” (Mk 7:29).

As if this story does not already give us enough to imagine and reflect upon, we then immediately get another story where Jesus heals a deaf-mute. Just as the Syrophoenician woman speaks for her child, this man’s friends speak for him. Jesus, performing all the motions that healers of his time would have performed, does what other healers were unable to do—he loosens the man’s tongue and unstops his ears.

I invite you to undergo the same imaginative practice we underwent with the Syrophoenician woman with this man, with his friends, and with Jesus. It is a practice, simple in principle and powerful in deed. Congregations can be taken on this imaginative journey through preaching or in small-group Bible studies. As a matter of fact, this imaginative practice is exactly what we do when we participate in the remembrance of the Last Supper through the sacrament of bread and wine.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” (Lk 22:19). These familiar words are absent in Mark’s Gospel, perhaps because the entirety of Mark’s Gospel is an extended anamnesis—a sustained remembrance of who Jesus is and what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus, truly human and truly divine, brings with him truth of the coming of God’s new kingdom. Its unfolding brings healing and freedom not only to a specific people in a specific time and place, but to all people. Jesus himself learns this through the prophetic voice of the Syrophoenician woman and lives fully into it through his healing of the deaf-mute.

I admit freely that Year B brings me much joy. The theatre artist in me loves telling this story given to us by Mark. I love imagining alongside my parishioners and friends as we remember Jesus’ life and we remember the life of the Markan community. As Mark reminds us in the opening line of his Gospel, this is “good news” that cries out to be shared. How will you and your faith community remember these stories, empathize with its characters, and spread that love and empathy throughout God’s emerging kingdom?

[1] For an excellent resource in imaginatively engaging with Mark, I highly recommend Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel by David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. 3rd Edition. (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012).

[2] Please do not read anti-Semitism into this. The point is that humans are always looking at ways of categorizing others as “other.” I imagine a Gentile would have the same suspicion of a Jew.

Cowen Headshot
The Rev. Charles Cowen

The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church and Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. He received his M.Div. from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, and prior to seminary was the Associate Director for the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to his church work, Charles has worked as a playwright, actor, improviser, puppet builder, puppeteer, storyteller, director, comedian, and Emcee.

Proper 17(B): What About the Rules?

Proper 17 (B): What About the Rules?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

My spouse and I have a niece who is bright, glib, cheerful, and curious. From an early age, she’s one of those kids you want to listen to because everything that comes out of her mouth is unexpected and often hilarious. Yet, like so many extremely bright children, she has a particular penchant for seeking out precisely what she is not supposed to do. We talk about her as being the textbook example of obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. Not supposed to go past this point on the driveway? Well, she’s going to play exactly on that border. Need to sit down for meals? She can figure out the most complex and uncomfortable looking squat that is hard to classify as either “sitting” or “standing.” I watch her parents constantly have to decide whether she’s pushing the boundary too far, or whether her precise but hardly innocent obedience to their instructions is, technically, within the rules. Suffice to say, she’s awesome.

But what is cute in an exasperating child isn’t so attractive in full-grown adults, and I see Jesus tackling that impulse as he verbally spars with the Pharisees in this passage. They look to a clear law and can’t see any reason to flout it; why would Jesus’ followers be so careless about their ritual washing? It’s tradition; it’s presumably not that hard to do. In the disregard for this one law, I imagine, they see more than just eating with unwashed hands; they fear (or maybe hope to find) that this is evidence that Jesus and his followers aren’t as good of Jews as others think they are. Maybe this relatively innocuous choice reveals them as disdainful of tradition, or ignorant of it; maybe this choice is all the confirmation they need to be able to dismiss this band of misfits as nothing more than a group of troublemakers who don’t really care about their religion.

I wish it were harder to think of modern equivalents, but I know all too well how this plays out in my Catholic tradition. You don’t go to Mass every Sunday? Well, you must not have any real idea of what Catholicism means. You don’t go to the sacrament of Reconciliation twice a year like the bishops recommend? Then how can you expect anyone to take you seriously when you claim to love the Church? You’ve decided to use a method of birth control that the Church condemns? You’re not a real Catholic.

I’m endlessly frustrated when my faith tradition is regarded (by insiders or outsiders) as somehow nothing more than a collection of rules to follow. It’s something I hear often from my undergraduate students, especially those who weren’t raised in any religious tradition. Christianity, from their perspective, is a set of strict beliefs that one must wholly accept and flawlessly adhere to, and anyone who marches out of time is sent packing. It worries me that that is what they’ve seen modeled. The letter of the law, in this interpretation, has no room for humanity, for context, for imperfection, or for conscientious dissent – it is synonymous with the whole religion. To be Christian is to follow orders.

This is why I am so heartened by the way Jesus teaches following this tiff, calling attention to a person’s motivations and intentions as far more important than the rules they follow. He refuses to argue about the specific rule and instead pushes his learners to think beyond compliance into the much harder space of morality. What does it mean to be greedy, or deceitful, or lewd? That’s tougher to answer than the question of whether one washed one’s hands properly before a meal. Sometimes it’s easier to “round down” and to obey a rule rather than to try and figure out why that rule exists in the first place, what it’s supposed to encourage and discourage within a person’s heart. My niece will, at least eventually, understand that the boundaries her parents impose are usually about safety (stay on the sidewalk!) or compassion (you can’t hit your sister and take her toy) – if she somehow grew up without realizing this, and without trying out the values for herself (my friend is upset; is it more compassionate to let her vent, or to help her come up with a solution?), we probably would say something went wrong in her learning. In the same way, rules make great litmus tests; moral discernment, by contrast, is messy, awkward, and fraught with mistakes. You can be a great rule-follower by, well, obeying the rules; it’s darn near impossible to be a moral person without screwing up a lot because so much of our moral development happens by observing and acknowledging our errors.

Personally, I think that any work we can do as religious professionals or ministers to de-emphasize “rules” and talk in more expansive ways about moral decision-making is worthwhile, and not because the behavioral guidance passed down in our tradition is worthless. Far from it; to comprehend the “rules” is to understand more about virtue and vice and how earlier Christians have wrestled with the same questions. But we do ourselves a disservice when we forget to dig in, when we let our tradition be reduced to a series of boxes to tick. The goal for my niece is that she’ll come to understand what the rules are about (safety, boundaries, love, compassion); same deal for us. Jesus seemed to think so, anyway.

Dr. Emily Kahm

Dr. Emily Kahm is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Illinois, where she teaches courses on contemporary Christianity and Catholicism. She resides with her spouse, Chris, in Iowa, along with their dog, Bosco, and rabbits, Exodus and Hildegard.

Proper 11(B): Spiritual Oxygen Mask

Proper 11(B): Spiritual Oxygen Mask

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

By: The Rev. Lori Allen Walke

At first glance, the lectionary pericope for Proper 11 seems like an odd way to split the text. What happened to verses 35-52? Surely it was not that the community who put together the lectionary believed including those seventeen verses in between would be too much for one reading. There are plenty of lectionary selections that are longer than twenty-six verses.

The omitted verses include two important stories: the feeding of the crowd of 5,000 and Jesus walking on water. While other lectionary selections might be longer, those two stories are certainly a lot to cover in one scripture lesson. Perhaps we should be thankful we simply get the “bookends.” On the other hand, these bookends provide plenty to consider. It does require us to back up a little to see what brought Jesus and the apostles to this moment.

The scene opens with the apostles gathered around Jesus, telling him all that they had done and taught. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had sent them out two-by-two to proclaim the gospel. It was quite an adventure for them as they, “cast out many demons, and anointed many with oil and many who were sick and cured them.” We might imagine the group, having finally made it back to each other, talking over one another, interrupting with extra details, with Jesus trying to piece together their exploits. When we put the pericope in the context of other events in the chapter, we can assume that part of the discussion included the demise of John the Baptist.

In fact, this tragedy immediately precedes our lectionary selection. After John the Baptist’s head is put on a platter for political retribution, the disciples (it is unclear whether these are disciples of John or Jesus or a mix of the two) get involved. The text is rather brief about what happened: “when his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid in in a tomb.” We can only imagine the trauma. Whether these were John’s disciples or Jesus’ disciples, they all moved in the same circles. If the authorities killed John the Baptist, what was to stop them from killing his followers? Was this a message intended to put Jesus on notice? It is not unreasonable to assume that those who cared for the body of John the Baptist wondered if they were next. While the gathering of Jesus and the apostles was certainly a reunion, it was also likely a group therapy session.

Jesus responds quickly with pastoral concern: “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest a while.” The apostles are exhausted from being on the road. Ministry can be draining. There is also the murder of a prophet to process. Jesus sees it all and knows what to prescribe—time away, rest, and quiet.

I have a hunch prayer was involved. After all, Jesus was a praying machine. Jesus prays by himself, in public, in small groups, early in the morning, in the wilderness, on the mountaintop, at the table, before healings, and after healings. Jesus prays when he’s in trouble and for other people—the only situation missing is a prayer two minutes before kickoff (thanks be to God). Jesus offers the disciples a model for prayer—”pray in this way,” he says, and launches into the now familiar Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps the clearest instruction to followers of The Way comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ For Jesus, prayer goes hand-in-hand with faithfulness.

It is also a critical practice for spiritual care and renewal. Time after time, we read of Jesus stepping away to a solitary place to pray (Mark 1:35, Matthew 14:23, Luke 9:18, Luke 11:1, Luke 22:39, just to list a few examples.) Now, more than ever, the disciples need to center themselves, to eat a proper home-cooked meal, to be in communion with the Holy, and to sort through all that has happened. Jesus knows first-hand this requires intentionality, so he calls a time-out. We can imagine Jesus telling the disciples that they must take care of themselves if they are to take care of other people.

Jesus may have had a hunch of what was to come. The ministry of the disciples had caught fire. People were just as hungry for hope then as they are now. We know this because when the disciples finished their time away, crowds of people looking for the Good News immediately met them. Don’t forget—the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is in the omitted in-between verses of our bookends.

Verses 53-56 reinforce just how deeply people were drawn to the work and ministry of Jesus. Everywhere he goes, and subsequently everywhere the disciples go, people beg for healing, for care, for the Good News. Jesus is always ready to meet them, having done the necessary spiritual work. Thankfully, the disciples are too, in all likelihood because Jesus taught them how to first put their own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone else.

As we do the work of the Kingdom, as we encounter life’s deepest grief and highest joy, may we always remember that the necessity of rest and quiet for spiritual health. After all, the people need us to be ready to share the Good News with them.


The Rev. Lori Allen Walke

The Rev. Lori Allen Walke ministers alongside the people Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Lori holds an undergraduate degree in Political Science and a graduate degree in Health Care Administration. Passionate about social justice and the public good, she earned her JD from Oklahoma City University School of Law in 2009 and passed the Oklahoma Bar exam the same year. She earned her Master of Divinity from Philips Theological Seminary and was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2012. She is currently working on her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Lori lives in Oklahoma City with her husband, Collin Walke, State Representative for House District 87 and attorney, along with their beloved mutt, Tenzin.

Proper 10(B): New Complexity in an Old Story

Proper 10(B): New Complexity in an Old Story

Mark 6:14-29

By: Colin Cushman

If you are like me, this story has always been pretty straightforward: John the Baptist gets beheaded because he’s been speaking out about Herod’s incestuous relationship. And his daughter is the agent of this action through her stellar dancing skills.

Easy enough.

If we were getting more historical-critical, we could even note that at the time of writing, John the Baptist likely still had disciples of a parallel messianic cult, making this story part of the gospels’ polemic ensuring Jesus’ priority. However, if you peel apart the layers and really dig around a little bit, the basic story doesn’t change but all of a sudden it becomes much richer.

As a prelude to the main story, we see Herod in a panic. Like Macbeth, he is haunted by from having killed John the Baptist and sees him around every turn. When he looks at Jesus’ ministry, he can’t escape the specter of this executed holy man. And so the author takes us back in time to relive the events that lead to this state of affairs.

This flashback provides a prime case study of intertextuality (the way that multiple texts play off of each other and shape each other’s meanings). Echoing through this passage are numerous other Biblical stories that should shape our interpretation. Two immediate Hebrew Bible parallels come to mind. First, when we read that Herod ends up killing John on the basis of a rather stupid promise that he made, it evokes the tale of Jephthah, who kills his daughter as a sacrifice because of a similarly stupid vow he takes. Second, we also see traces of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel. So too in this story does a “king” (Herod is technically a tetrarch, not a king) succumb to his wife’s wily manipulations to kill Naboth and steal his land. Moreover, this story also had a similar afterlife: the belief circulated that Elijah would come heralding The Day of the Lord—a view that echoes the previous rumors about John.

The most prominent parallel, however, involves foreshadowing. Through his account of John’s death, our author primes our expectations for Jesus’ own death. Note the striking parallels. Both are executed unjustly by the dominant political rulers. Each ruler has a strange attraction to them, but through the pressure of an external agent, is coerced into executing them. Note, too, that the stories are even parallel in their implausibility: Pilate was withdrawn from his position by Rome (the very people who watched people fight to the death for sport) for being too violent; Herod massacred scores of people, including much of his immediate family, because he thought they might one day usurp the throne. It doesn’t seem particularly feasible that either of these rulers would be cowed into doing something they didn’t want to. Rather, Josephus’ account is more likely: Herod killed John because he saw the crowds he was gathering and eliminated him as a threat—just as he had done to so many others during his reign.

If we dig down into this story, another curious dynamic emerges. In verse 20, we hear a delightful yet confusing tidbit: “John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” Remember the content of what John was preaching. Q (the source behind Matthew and Luke) contains a condensed version of John’s sermons: “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?  Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives….  The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

That is exceptionally harsh and not at all fun if directed at you. John’s caustic message was compelling, especially among those disenfranchised for whom the current system wasn’t working. But enjoyable? Especially for someone in power? That was who John was most directly attacking. That just doesn’t square up. Which begs the question: If not John’s actual content, what was Herod hearing?

One conjecture is that Herod saw this as a spectacle rather than caring about the actual content. It’s not uncommon that one develops a morbid interest toward things that should not be enjoyable in the slightest. Consider Alice Cooper or car crashes or the Jackass movies. All of these, intentionally or not, are grotesque, yet many people can’t take their eyes off of them. Perhaps Herod, rather than enjoying the substance of John’s message, was similarly captivated by the human drama and fallout surrounding John’s acerbic message.

It is worth noting one additional dynamic in this story. The author really leans into the motif of food and eating. Immediately after this story, we see Jesus feeding the 5,000. The author juxtaposes these two to contrast the world’s power with the power manifested through Jesus. On one hand, you have a roomful of the most powerful players in society gorging themselves on a luxurious meal, which culminates in the macabre pièce de résistance: a platter of John’s head. On the other hand, you have a homeless man supplying a mostly poor mob with enough basic staples to fill them in the present moment. The contrast could not be starker. While Herod is entertaining a perverse orgy of the powerful, Jesus insists that God’s abundance covers all, including the poor and needy, with the basic necessities of life. Where Herod’s meal brings death, Jesus’ brings life.

As we noted earlier, while this story does hold up to our traditional, basic reading, it is also resilient enough to survive our poking and prodding. And out of this exploration comes a wealth of themes and additional nuances. This story derives meaning from these other complementary tales, while at the same time reading new layers back into the old stories—all of which combine to shape this into a fascinatingly complex depiction of the life and times of Jesus.

If you want to dive deeper into the literature on John the Baptist, consider The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism by Joan E. Taylor (Eerdmans, 1997).

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. In July, he will be starting his new appointments at Central: Seedro-Woolley UMC and Bayview United Methodist Church in the greater Seattle area.


Proper 9(B): What Are You Carrying?

Proper 9(B): What Are You Carrying?

Mark 6:1-13

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

At the outset of just about all of life’s journeys, there is some kind of ritual commissioning that sets things in motion. Military officers are commissioned with authority to perform certain tasks and duties commensurate with their rank; artists are commissioned to produce works of art; medical students have “White Coat” ceremonies; and pastors have ordinations and celebrations of new ministry.

For Christians, however, baptism is the ultimate “commissioning.” While different traditions utilize different language to speak about baptism, the gist is the same—love God; love neighbor. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “Baptism is the beginning of the spiritual life and opens the door into the sacramental world…”[1] And when we get right down to it, Mark chapter 6 serves as a kind of commissioning for the disciples as they prepare to journey across the Judean countryside proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m about to leave town for a few days, there are certain things I try and take care of in order to prepare. I fill up the car with gas; I water the plants; I put an automatic response message on my voicemail and email; I put a hold on the mail…you get the idea. In fact, my wife will be the first one to tell you that even if I’m only going to be gone for one night, I take at least two extra outfits, six books, three pairs of shoes, and at least three months’ worth of dental floss. One can never be too careful with one’s dental hygiene! 🙂

So as the disciples prepare for their journey, we might expect them to stop by the ABC store for an extra wineskin, or for them to run over to the department store for an extra tunic and a nice pair of walking sandals, or even to stop by the First Bank of Palestine to get some extra spending money. But listen to the way Mark describes Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as he commissions them for the journey:

[Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

Jesus tells the disciples, not just that they should pack lightly, but that they should pack nothing! The disciples depart, two by two, with nothing but their walking sticks, a fresh pair of sandals, and the clothes on their backs—filled to the brim with doubt and uncertainty, and probably no small amount of fear and anxiety as well.

But what the disciples would soon learn is that for the people they would encounter along the way, it wasn’t food or money or clothes that they most needed; no, the thing that the people to whom the disciples were called to minister needed the most was healing. And so Jesus required the disciples to give what was the hardest thing in the world for them to give: themselves.

Several years ago, a clergy friend of mine began a new ministry in a new diocese. One of the unwritten rules in her new diocese is that clergy are expected to volunteer to serve for a week in the summer as chaplain at the camp and conference center. Before I continue, allow me to dispel any idyllic, Walden Pond-esque notions you may have about the conditions of the camp and conference center of which I speak. This camp and conference center features mosquitoes rivaling a biblical plague; food so sinfully delicious that it comes with a wet wipe and an angiogram; and cabins that wreak of sweat, chlorinated pool water, and mildew.

My friend is, shall we say, not the camping type. And after several particularly horrible experiences as a camp chaplain, she and God had a very frank conversation about her ministry at summer camps. She was very clear with God that she never wanted to set foot in another summer camp again. Ever! But as usual, God listened, nodded, and went on with God’s plan. You can imagine her horror, not just at the requirement that she serve as a summer chaplain, but also at her assignment to serve at the biggest and most exhausting week of the entire year featuring High School sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

She grudgingly left the comforts of home, put on her sandals, loaded up her walking stick, and set out for camp—fully expecting a week of unadulterated misery. But what she found while she was on the mountain with a bunch of high schoolers is that her world didn’t come crashing down. In fact, she discovered something similar to what I imagine the disciples discovered: The moments when we put aside the comforts of home and step into uncertainty and risk are the moments when we are closest to God.

The question that Jesus causes us to ask ourselves is this: What baggage have we been dragging along with us on our journey of faith—not because we need it, but because we’re comfortable with it? What places in our relationship with God are desperate to be explored, but remain unreachable because of what we’re lugging along the way? God is inviting us to unpack the clutter we’ve been accustomed to carrying along with us on our journey and leave it behind. Only then can we take up our walking sticks and dust off our sandals and embark on a journey into God’s abundance!

**With gratitude to my friend and colleague, The Rev. Laurie Brock, whose experience at camp not only shaped my writing, but also shaped my vocation.**

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae vol. 58 (3a. 73-78) “The Eucharistic Presence” trans. William Barden, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1963), 10.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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

Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Mark 5:21-43

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

“The interruptions are the work.”

This was one of the first things that was said to me when I started my first year of Contextual Education at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Atlanta, a parish where more than three-quarters of the congregation lives with a chronic mental illness.

I didn’t understand it then, but it became a mantra. Someone stands up, starts talking to themselves, and leaves a service.

The interruptions are the work.

You have to stop running your evening programing to break up an argument.

The interruptions are the work.

Someone stops your conversation to tell you how much what you said two weeks ago made them feel loved.

The interruptions are the work.

Good or bad, right or wrong, convenient or not—The interruptions are the work.

This has become a mantra for my own ministry. Sometimes it has served me well. Other times it’s gotten me into trouble, made me late, or thrown me off the great and holy ministerial workflow. But its always been there.

In interruption there is wisdom. Let us attend.

When Jesus gets off the boat, he’s given something to do. The leader of the local synagogue pleads with him “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” It’s a task that Jesus takes on, and he sets down the road to Jairus’ house.

Then comes the interruption. A woman who has bankrupted herself in healthcare costs makes one of the most amazing statements of faith, that If I only touch his cloak, I will be made whole, and presses through the crowd, straining to touch the hem of his robe.

It would have been imperceptible to anyone but Jesus. It could have been entirely ignored. A silent miracle, one more thing amongst the works of Jesus that, as St. John says, would fill more volumes than the world could contain. (John 21:25, KJV) But Jesus stops, not because Jesus is offended by a perceived theft of power, but because Jesus wants to encounter this woman. Because, the Lord knows, the interruptions are the work.

But work or not, interruptions take time. Time that Jairus’ daughter didn’t have. And a scant few verses later, Jesus is being told to go home. It’s too late. Don’t bother. We hear the words of Martha echo in our ears “Lord, if you had been here…” (John 11:21 NRSV) And where we see death, we see the end of this young woman’s life. Jesus sees but an interruption. Jesus gets to work.

I’ve had to nuance my understanding of what it means to find the holy in the interruption. Interruption is not always good in and of itself. What makes interruptions good and holy is that we attend to them knowing what our end, what our goal, is.

This kind of attention to interruption only worked at Holy Comforter because we knew in our bones that the mission of that parish was to be beloved community for those who were cast to the margins of our society, and anything we did, any interruption we attended to would be in service of that mission.

If we get clear about where it is we’re going, and what it is we’re doing, then we can abide the interruptions, and not let them become distractions.

What we see in the Markan pericope is Jesus clear that he is moving toward the healing of Jairus’ daughter, setting her as a type of the kind of life that Jesus is to bring. New, abundant, resurrected life. Everything that happens on the road to Jairus’ house works in the service of that end. The hemorrhaging woman, though an interruption to the task at hand, becomes another opportunity to share life and healing in the service of Christ’s purpose— to make known the reign of God come near.

What this means for us then, us as church, is that we have to get clear about what our end, our telos, our purpose, is. Is it to, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”? (P. 855, BCP1979) If so, what does that mean for those who we would encounter as interruptions on the way? Can we see them as moments of the spirit breaking in? Will we allow ourselves to be conduits of Christ’s love and power? Will we be tools for healing?

If we know in our bones whose we are, and what it is that we are working for, then we can have the grace to let the interruptions be the work, and not to grow weary.

The interruptions are the work.

Blessed be the work.

Curtis Headshot
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the exhausted parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman