Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Proper 8(A): Welcome is the Reward

Matthew 10:40-42

By: The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

“None of these will lose their reward.”

The lectionary does neither essayists nor preachers any favors by plucking these three verses from Matthew 10 to be heard on their own, without any context except the culture and places in which they are proclaimed. These verses are particularly challenging to hear in the American context where some form of prosperity gospel has been at root since the arrival of English Puritans to a land yet unknown to Western Europeans.

In these three verses from Matthew’s Gospel, the American mindset my quickly jump to rewards: What does it take to get the reward? How might we earn “stars in our crowns” as was commonly said in the culture of my upbringing? The concept of stars in one’s crown is not biblical, and this passage certainly doesn’t support it. Neither Jesus nor the author(s) of Matthew’s Gospel spell out what the rewards are, but there is a clear direction for these verses — welcome those who come to you.

“Diversity” is a popular buzzword both in the Church and in the American political left (and the right, but usually with derision). Not only a buzzword, it is often a code word not for welcome, but for tolerance. Religious institutions seek to diversify their make ups by inviting younger people, people of color, or other outliers to be present in bodies of governance, but not to actually voice their unique narrative from being an outsider. This is not diversity or welcome, and it does not bring about the rewards Jesus encourages.

In the Diocese of California, where I was previously the communications officer, diversity is a vitality practice. When the diocese and congregations embraced — truly embraced — diversity there was thriving. Diversity and welcoming of new perspectives were the reward, and vital life followed. Diversity and welcome as a vitality practice insists on going beyond tokenism or structuring organizations to require “one person under the age of 18, one person between 18 and 35” for the sake of optics and optics only.

Optics and representation are important. However, God’s new reign of the Resurrection is not built on optics. It’s built on new life and the freedom of the Resurrected Christ, particularly freedom often yet unknown to those who benefit from and are caught up in systemic power structures. As I wrote for DioCal, “The church is strengthened when varieties of perspectives are shared and each person’s place in the body of Christ is celebrated. To be diverse, we must first wonder if we lack diversity and strive for ways to bring new, treasured people to our midst. A four-part video series on diversity as a vitality tool is available here.”[1]

Not only is the church strengthened, all of civil society is strengthened. Jesus suggests as much when he moves from telling the Twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” to “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.” Jesus assures his hearers that all those doing welcoming will be rewarded, but does not make offering the welcome conditional. His hearers are expected to offer the welcome, not told what their reward will be, and yet will be rewarded. The welcome — bringing in new voices, perspectives, and beloved people of God — is reward in itself.

As Jesus’ hearers today, Christians are expected to offer water — and shelter and visitation — to those in need and those in need of welcome. In mid-2017, there are refugee crises related to warfare and persecution globally. American Christians with voices and representation in their government are charged by Jesus to offer welcome and to direct their government to do the same.

Jesus’ expectation that water will be offered to the little ones is not conditional to fear of the little one’s motivations. Jesus doesn’t say, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — unless they’re scared of the little one — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Heval Mohamed Kelli arrived in the US as a Syrian refugee three weeks after 9/11, after spending six years in Germany. He arrived in Clarksville, Georgia, a city that welcomes 1,500 refugees per year. Kell is a cardiologist now who has moved away from Clarksville but describes his welcome by saying, “’Two days after we arrived in Clarkston, we were terrified. And then all these people arrived at our door with food, wanting to help us learn English … You know, we thought they were the CIA or something, all these white Americans knocking at our door.’ In fact, they were members of Clarkston’s All Saints Episcopal Church: ‘They didn’t look at all like us. But they changed our lives.’”[2]

The Mayor of Clarksville, Kelli, and other residents all describe the innumerable rewards they have all received by being a place of welcome, and place where ethnic restaurants and grocery stores are as vast and varied as the skin tones of humanity.

Clarksville, which offers this welcome, is located in the heart of the American South — where I am from originally ‘a place very vocally opposed to welcoming refugees, particularly from predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of if those countries are embroiled in civil war and those fleeing war need much more than a cup of water. The people — and Christians — of Clarksville are asking for more of their governments, and they will continue to receive their rewards.

In mid-May 2017 the United States denied visa requests from gay Chechen men seeking relief from what is essentially a purge of queer people from society. Lithuania began granting refugee visas just when the United States was rejecting them.[3] From the “Heart of the Bible Belt” to a loudly proclaimed “Christian Nation,” Jesus’ instruction on offering welcome in this passage could not be clearer: simply, it must be done. While Jesus mentions rewards and assures they will not be lost, he does not say what they are.

While human or American inclination may to be ask “What’s in it for me?” this is never the inclination or teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. If that question must be answered “Jesus says to” should be an acceptable answer for those who seek to follow him. When advising the Twelve on how they should be welcomed — and how those most in need should be cared for — he mentions reward, but those who have studied welcome or given or experienced it know how Jesus can be so confident that the reward will not be lost: Welcome is the reward.

[1] “The Beloved Community.” http://diocal.org/bishop/vision/beloved-community#building

[2] “This small town in America’s Deep South welcomes 1,500 refugees a year.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/24/clarkston-georgia-refugee-resettlement-program.

[3] “Lithuania Opens Door to Gay Chechens Fleeing Persecution, While U.S. Slams It Shut.” Financial Times. http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/05/18/lithuania-opens-door-to-gay-chechens-fleeing-persecution-while-u-s-slams-it-shut-lgbt-lgbti-rights-russia-persecution-asylum-refugee/.

 

15094462_10101417654860542_1177092449639088088_n
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Proper 7(A): Jesus Doesn’t Believe in Family Values

Matthew 10:24-39

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke

One of the notions that I have never understood as a convert to the Christian family is the idea that Jesus stands for “family values.” In the American context, family values are focused on the nuclear family—the mom, dad and gaggle of children version of family. This family is, according to American Christianity, the center of ethical and moral teaching, and thus what Jesus came to preserve, protect, and promote.

Um, what?

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, who left his family and said some unpleasant things to his mom (John 2). When he was rejected in Nazareth his list of siblings is called upon (Mark 6:3) to scold him for bad behavior. But Jesus shrugs off his family, and invites 12 male disciples to do the same. These men likely left behind wives and children. In fact, when one of these disciples asks to go home and bury his father—a sacred duty in Jewish tradition—Jesus says that in order to follow him, one cannot even tarry that long (Matthew 8). One must pick up their Cross and follow Jesus—right now.

And then we have this reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is clearly setting up a frame of reference in which families are divided. Jesus boldly proclaims: “do not think that I have come to bring peace to earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set man against his father, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10: 34-36)

Jesus turns our expectations upside down. Jesus astutely foreshadows the kind of divisions that his followers would experience as they struggled within their Jewish (and Gentile) families. Moreover, those reading Jesus’ words in the context of the early Church (and perhaps even the 21st century Church) would have found the divisions about which Jesus speaks to be reflective of their present reality. In both cases, the message is the same: families are going to be divided, and if you don’t like it, get off the Jesus train.

Whoa man, wait a minute.

The dominant voice in American Christianity has been preaching to me the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family unit! Kids need strong a father figure, and a mother who stays at home and cares for their emotional needs. Gays can’t have kids because it disrupts the traditional family unit! Single mothers should be ashamed for not providing their children with a solid Christian foundation at home. And those who dare to be child-free? They are selfish and not opening themselves to God’s plan!

You’re heard that rhetoric, right? Having growing up in the American South, I certainly did. I didn’t even grow up Christian, but these ideals of the happy single-family house full of smiling healthy kids and two well adjusted parents was sold to me as the American dream. And maybe it is the American dream. But it isn’t the Christian ideal.

In this reading, Jesus is challenging just what the Christian “family” is. Families built on bloodlines will betray one another. Households—which in the ancient world were large and extended—would betray one another. The tribal bonds granted to us because of blood would be made secondary to a new bond—the one to Jesus Christ.

In the first part of our reading, Jesus describes the relationship between students and teachers, and slaves and masters. It’s not that the student or slave should surpass the teacher or master; rather, they are called to “be like” or emulate the teacher or master. We are those students and slaves, and we are called to imitate Christ. We’re called to boldly proclaim the Good News before others. But Jesus knows that this news doesn’t always sound good, and will divide whole communities—right down to father and son.

As Christians, we recognize that our allegiance has shifted. No longer are we to pledge ourselves primarily to family. Indeed, we are called to pick up our Cross and leave our family. What this looks like today is holding all of our relationships loosely, keeping Jesus as the primary relationship in our lives.

It also means we radically redefine family. No longer are parents and children the primary form of family. Jesus created a “found family” with 12 disciples of different ages, skills, and backgrounds. He created family with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. He created family in an Upper Room. Biological bonds are replaced by the bonds of kinship in the great family of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus illustrates with these bold statements is the high cost of discipleship, and the radical reorientation of God’s Kingdom compared with our own. We disciples are the students who are called to imitate the teacher. We are called to proclaim our faith publicly, before the world. We are also called to follow Jesus—to pick up the burden of the Cross—even as it divides our family. We are to find our life in Jesus, and not in the world.

Following Christ is radical. As a convert, I can tell you first hand that it is also divisive—although luckily there have been no sword fights in my family! Living for Christ means that supporting institutions which privilege the few and oppress the many must be called out. It means that we stand up for Jesus’ radical re-imagining of the world, even when it angers our parents, our siblings, our spouses, or our kids. It means that we find new family members in the body of Christ—and that we see other Christians as siblings, not as strangers. The things that are said in darkness must and will be brought to light. It’s a reminder that American values and God’s Kingdom values are not the same. And again, we disciples must choose who to follow.

 

14390757_649967333903_3936768780641352097_n
The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) currently serving as a Campus Minister and Director of Religious Diversity at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit Catholic university in California. Her research and programmatic work are focused on interfaith dialogue and intersectional identity. She studied History and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and earned her Master of Divinity from Emory University. When she’s not hurrying across campus, she is an avid reader, writer, and book reviewer.

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Proper 6A: God’s Inmost Parts

Matthew 9:35-10:23

By: The Rev. Paul Carlson

In this selection of scripture, we read that Jesus calls his disciples, equips them with authority, and then commissions them. But first we read that Christ looks at the crowds, sees their lack of direction and great need for a shepherd (as Jesus often puts it), and has compassion. This, I believe, is extremely important to emphasize when preaching, over and above the more “eye catching” parts of this passage. If we humans, and especially we followers of Christ, do not keep the driving force of Jesus’ presence in our lives (God’s love for all the world—AKA compassion) we will quickly lose track of our Shepherd’s voice, right when we are being commissioned to share that voice with all those who are lost. That small, quick little description of Jesus’ compassion is far too often overlooked in scripture by the more provocative sayings and images that follow directly after his stated motive.

When thinking of a title on this selection of scripture, I was struck by the number of sermons, biblical passage headings, and other commentaries I came across that focused the theme on verses such as, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” or “Shaking the dust” or “Sending the twelve” or “the coming persecutions.” Granted, I did not look in every single English translation, article, or commentary out there, but I went through enough to realize that God’s compassion is not at the forefront of the Western mind when it comes to this particular text. In fact, the only place I did see the word “Compassion” come into the title or theme or heading of this passage was in my 4th edition copy of the Greek New Testament. There, this passage was titled: “The Compassion of Jesus.”

Perhaps it’s because the emphasis gets lost in translation. Or perhaps not. But either way, in the Greek, the connection between this scene where Jesus has compassion on the crowds and the scene in Matthew 9:13, which comes just 20 verses before the start of this reading, is the clear theme to keep in mind. There, Jesus tells the Pharisees exactly what he is about.  He says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Mercy is what Christ shows throughout all of his ministry. It’s what Jesus reveals God to be both in the Incarnation and in his faithfulness on the cross. And in the Greek, the word for mercy is interchangeable with the word compassion. Furthermore, the compassion Jesus has for the crowds in 9:36 is not a noun like it is in 9:13, but a verb. Jesus is “moved in his inmost parts” with love for the crowds in such a way that the use of this word in the New Testament has messianic significance.  “…for it is only Jesus who shows compassion as in Mk. 1:42; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Mt. 14:14; 20:34. In each case what we have is not so much the description of a human emotion as a messianic characterization.”[1]

This text sets the framework for every commission given by our Lord. Jesus’ compassion must always be emphasized over acts of power, inevitable persecution, and knocking off the dust from one’s feet. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2 “…If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

When someone asks What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) There should be no hesitation. The answer is written throughout scripture. Jesus desires mercy. God is moved from deep within God’s inmost parts. And so Jesus shows compassion, because that is what He does.  Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for all the world.

Luke A. Powery says in his commentary from Feasting on the Word, “This is good news, because the movement of this passage reveals that when there is a need, Jesus shows compassion, and his compassion causes him to send out others on a mission to serve those in need… All Jesus desires is that the lost be found… It is insufficient just to see human need but not be sent out to do something about it.”

Jesus has seen the need. He has heard the cries of his people. He was and is faithful and compassionate, even upon the cross. The harvest is plentiful and we too have clearly been sent out to labor within it. It is impossible to not see the need. Have compassion, like Jesus did. Be moved toward mercy in your inmost parts just as God is moved in God’s inmost parts. And go into all the world, and share the good news.

[1] Geoffery W. Bromley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament p. 1068

Picture1.png
The Rev. Paul Carlson

The Rev. Paul Carlson is a Lutheran pastor, along with his wife The Rev. Lauren Carlson, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. Originally from the West Coast, he moved from San Diego to Dubuque, Iowa where he graduated from Wartburg Seminary. He has served calls in Wisconsin and Virginia and is now enjoying the opportunity he gets as a half-time pastor, raising two children in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

Trinity Sunday: Get to Work!

Trinity Sunday: Get to Work!

Matthew 28:16-20

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

I have preached every Trinity Sunday of my ecclesiastical career.

I don’t say that to boast—Simply to mark the fact that my ecclesial career has a) not been very long and b) has been spent by and large either as Seminarian, or as an Associate. I remember joking with friends about “Seminarian Sunday,” the last big day before we all head out the door to our respective summer routines, which (at least in many Episcopal churches) means dropping all activity to an idle and taking things slow(er).

It might be that the school year, as it currently stands, was the worst possible thing that could have happened to Trinity Sunday. The Deacon gives the dismissal, and we head for the doors with the same sense of relief as the last day of grade school. The text seems to fit—at least in this Lectionary year. Jesus has risen and has taken his place at the right hand of the Father. Matthew is winding down his Gospel. A nice tidy bow is being wrapped up on the narrative… right up until the last 2 lines:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)

We act like the passage ends with “Go therefore”, but what we’re getting is the Great Commission. The call to do the work. The Church’s raison d’être.

Trinity Sunday is an invitation. An invitation that we frequently miss. We treat ordinary time like its ordinariness has nothing to offer us. We speak pejoratively about the “Green Seasons” like they’re chores to be performed until we get back to the high points of Church life. The big feasts. The Christmases. The Easters. (We blow right past a number of Marian feasts that occur every summer, but that’s a different rant for a different day…)

We get so wrapped up in the moments of Ecclesiastical performance, that we forget where and why the work is. The work is named. Go Baptize. Jesus makes it clear: I am with the Father and I am with you. So go. Baptize in the name of the God who lives in community and calls us to do the same. To receive the charge and then to step off the gas is precisely what we’re not supposed to do.

That does not mean, however, we simply program more. Program is not what we’re charged with here. Program is not mission. The change of pace that comes naturally in our common life gives us a chance to open up to engaging in our neighborhoods. To forgo a bit of the rigors of performing “church,” to get into the business of community, and to do so in the name of the Trinity.

The Trinitarian bit might be, at least for us in the Mainline, the trickiest spot. It is also the most crucial. I’m blessed to have a job description which demands that I’m out engaging in a neighborhood as a regular part of my work, and what I’ve come to know is that the Trinity is foreign to the way in which the common American conceives of the God they increasingly don’t care about, or flat out don’t believe in. The average “None” is nominally Deist, Arian in what Christology they do have, and practically pantheist in Pneumatology. Jesus as good teacher is not news, and therefore cannot be Good News.

Jesus is part of a God that lives in community with Godself, that speaks to and moves with us in the Spirit. Now that’s news. That’s the Gospel we proclaim. That’s the Gospel that gets communicated when we take the room that the Ecclesial calendars give us, and get on with the work of being in a community, with a community, and for a community.

Trinity Sunday sets us up for a different kind of work. It launches us into the Green Season with the assurance that God is with us, and it demands that we live like it. Rest can very well be a part of that season, but it cannot define it. The world no longer operates on the agrarian patterns that made space for the “summer slump,” and the Church had little business following the academy’s lead in the first place.

Building community is the work. The reality of the Triune God is the good news we carry. If we heed the Great Commission and read well the signs of the season that we’re in, then we can’t help but live into our call. Go therefore. Make disciples. Set the liturgy on autopilot for a bit, sure, but then get on with the work. Maybe even enjoy it. It is Summer, after all.

 

CurtisAshWed
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.

Easter Vigil: This is the Night!

Easter Vigil: This is the Night

Matthew 28:1-10

By:  The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church, and let your holy courts, in radiant light, resound with the praises of your people. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This is the night. When God brought our fathers and mothers through bondage to freedom, when all who believe in Christ are delivered, when Christ broke the bonds of death. This, brothers and sisters, is the night.

A mentor of mine used to say that if we Christians were only allowed one service all year it should be this one. Not Christmas Eve, not Pentecost, not even Easter Sunday. But this one, the Great Vigil. Because this night is the night around which everything that we are pivots.

In the Jewish tradition there is a custom that, on the first night of the Passover, a young person asks an elder of the house, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ The reason it is different is because it marks the end the Jews’ years of slavery under the rule of the Egyptians. This night is their first night of freedom. And tonight we ponder the same question. Because this night is what St Augustine of Hippo called the paschal mystery, the mystery of passing over. This is the Passover of Christ, when Jesus moves from death into life and we who had been slaves to sin are set free through the might and power and love of God. This is a night unlike any other, as we sit in darkness, sit in a space where Christ’s light is but a flicker, a space of already and not yet, a liminal space.

Liminal comes from the Latin word Limin, meaning ‘threshold,’ and right now, in this moment, in the darkness, we sit at the threshold. The threshold of everything. This is the waiting period, the moments before the sun rises, the flower blossoms, or the child is born.  This is the same threshold at which we sit tonight. Throughout the world catechumens sit at the threshold of a new birth, a new life in Jesus Christ. The person they were when they walked into church, when they walked into church this night, is not the person they are when they leave. Through the waters of baptism they too pass over from darkness to light, from sin and death to everlasting life. And their world will never be the same again. The moments move ever slowly for them, as they have been preparing all through Lent, if not longer. They are ready, we’re ready to welcome them into the body, and Jesus is ready too. Still, the darkness holds them for a few moments more, as if to say, “Not just yet.”

We sit here in the darkness, and we, like Jesus, are enveloped in it. These final moments of Holy Week, being stretched out—seconds feeling like hours—as we steel ourselves for the moment that is to come. Oh, but not just yet!

Our emotions have been running all over the place, culminating in excruciating grief at the foot of the cross. Now, Jesus carries out his rabbinical duty, observing his own Sabbath rest, and now he waits. We wait. We wait for God to do whatever God plans to do. It is our great trust and surrender, together with Jesus’ trust and surrender. A new creation ex nihilo, creation from nothing, is about to happen. This Paschal Mystery serves as our great reminder that there can be no creation without there first being nothing. There can be no light without there first being darkness. This was true in the beginning at the creation, it was true on this night at Jesus’ resurrection, and it is true even still for us. There must be darkness before there can be light and transformation.

This night, Christ’s Body—the Church—gathers from around the world in preparation for this necessary transformation; a transformation not only of Jesus, but of our selves and our world. Yes, Jesus is the one who walks from the darkness of death into the light of resurrected life, but we gather tonight so that we may follow. We gather with the church in our local congregations, dioceses, districts, and synods, and throughout the world, so that we may walk through that great Paschal Mystery and experience it for ourselves. Can you feel the moment inching ever closer? Can you feel the prayers of Christians throughout the world wrapping around us as we prepare to cross that threshold?

We do not gather simply to remember Jesus’ Passover or to somehow reenact it. That is not what being the church is about. It is about living these moments with Jesus. We ourselves are making that passage from darkness to light. The catechumens make that passage through the sacred waters, the waters that parted for God’s people, and the waters that christened Jesus as the Messiah. In doing so they become the newest members of Christ’s Body, and we make that journey with them. And we will sprinkle ourselves with those same waters to remind them that they will never be alone as they begin their new lives in Christ.

We are all passing over this night with Jesus. Our sins, our prejudices, and all those things that have separated us from God have been nailed to the cross, and tonight, tonight we are free. Sin and death no longer have the final say. And tomorrow will be different: Easter Sunday, the first day of the week, the ever-new day of Resurrected Life, which will allow us from here on to read all our lives backward with understanding, and read them forward with hope—the kind of hope that tells us that things finally have a victorious meaning, no matter how grim they may seem. It is the kind of hope that sustains us through our darkest and most difficult hours. It is the hope that tells us in spite of our disappointments, failures, and broken hearts, the light of Christ will never be extinguished and that, as Julian of Norwich said, “all manner of things shall be well.” We may have to go through tremendous darkness first, but all manner of things shall be well. This is the biblical hope. The Easter hope. This is the hope we Christians rest in because we have journeyed with Jesus from the darkness of sin into the light of Easter. And this is the night when that hope is realized.

1926695_659468218834_7037241726326406463_n
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Palm Sunday (A): What is Palm Sunday?

What is Palm Sunday?

Matthew 26:14-27:66

By Mashaun D. Simon

For the longest time, Palm Sunday was simply the Sunday before Easter for me. Yes, there were rituals we performed at church before and during that Sunday’s worship service. And yes, those rituals included acquiring and laying palms throughout the sanctuary.

Over time, I became more and more aware of the reasons we were doing what we were doing: the palms, their significance, and what they represented. But I cannot say with confidence what the moment meant for the church, and what the significance was of the palms.

I came to understand that we were doing it because Palm Sunday represented the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem, complete with the celebrations surrounding this moment. But I did not fully understand why it was such a big deal and why there seemed to be the need to mark this moment in the calendar year.

Today, I possess this conclusion in my mind that Palm Sunday is, in many ways, about preparation and it is through this idea of preparation that I engage this year’s gospel text for Palm Sunday, which can be found in the 14th chapter of Matthew.

The themes of preparation are prevalent throughout. Here in the story we have Judas receiving currency for his betrayal, the disciples making preparation for the Passover meal, Jesus’ declaration that he will be betrayed, Jesus’ declaration that he will be denied thrice, and Jesus’ grieving and agitation.

Each of these scenarios have, in one way or another, some level of connection to preparation. Judas’ actions are the prequel to Jesus’ persecution—and we are being prepared for the full weight of it. The disciples seeking a place for the Passover meal is preparation for a moment of fellowship and covenant. Jesus’ two declarations—one of betrayal and the other of denial—provide preparation for lessons as well as bracing for what is to come. And Jesus going away to grieve ahead of the ultimate sacrifice is a signal of the realities of doubt and fear.

Throughout the story, we are being prepared for what’s next and being given a glimpse into the realities of human nature. I can’t help but see this theme of preparation throughout these verses and wonder what the overall takeaway should be at this time in this season as we await Easter.

Preparation is defined as the act of making ready or being made ready. We live in a society rooted in preparation.

Whether in school or on a job, we are all working towards a level of readiness. Being or feeling prepared is human nature. When we aren’t ready for what’s coming, we are often uncomfortable, uneasy, stressed even.

But what does being prepared mean for us in this text? What does being prepared mean for us in the seasons of Lent and Easter? Why must we prepare? And what are we preparing for? What are the benefits of being prepared?

I have friends who call me a control freak. They are convinced that I spend entirely too much energy on knowing what is coming or what is next and they consider that to be a form of needing or wanting to be in control. But for the most part, what they miss is that it is not always about being in control; rather, it is about being at my best.

Maybe that is what the theme of preparation is about in this text: Jesus being at his best and wanting the disciples to be at their best.

Jesus knew what was coming and wanted the disciples to be as prepared as possible for what they would need to do next. Here Jesus was about to make the ultimate sacrifice, and he wanted to give them time to understand not only what was happening, but an opportunity to be at their best once it happened.

Granted we are supposed to have an idea of how things panned out after Jesus’ persecution, and Jesus knew how things would work out, but his disciples didn’t. And so, Jesus wanted to prepare them for what was to come, and for the part that they would be made to play.

But more than a biopic of the life of the disciples during Jesus’ last days, Palm Sunday reminds us that we all have a part to play. God has a plan for us, yes, but that does not mean that we are to sit idly by, come what may. We are being called to do our part.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we are supposed to take from this day, this theme, and this season.

This season, think about what is before you. Think about what you are anticipating. Think about your call, and the ways you have committed (or not committed) to answer it, bracing yourself for what is to come.

Pay attention to the signs being provided; ready yourself for what is to come. Be mindful that regardless of what is coming, God is with you, equipping you for what is on the other side.

And then give God the praise for what God has done, is doing, and will do in the lives of God’s people.

msimonrobe
Mashaun D. Simon

Mashaun D. Simon is a preacher, a teacher, a writer and a scholar in his native, Atlanta, Georgia. He holds a Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology with a triple focus in preaching, faith and formation, and race and religion, and double certificates in Black Church Studies and religious education. He contributes his thoughts and perspectives to online and print mediums, and serves at House of Mercy Everlasting (HOME) church in College Park, Georgia. Much of his research focuses on race, sexuality, identity and faith.

Lent 1(A): Isn’t There an Easier Way?

Lent 1(A): Isn’t There an Easier Way?

Matthew 4:1-11

By: Ryan Young

I tend to avoid teaching on stories in which the devil is a main character because his character tends to suck all of the oxygen out of the room; the devil is all anyone wants to talk about, and more often than not, those discussions quickly spiral out of control. Ask anyone who is in or has recently been through the ordination process of the United Methodist Church about “Theology & Doctrine question #2” and watch them take a deep, uncomfortable breath. As a ministry candidate and a member of a theology and doctrine peer group I have witnessed the second question, “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in the world?” trip up more people than any other. It is unique in its ability to give ministerial candidates nightmares. It has an amazing ability to get candidates lost in the weeds of their own thought and can quickly give way to the despair and existential dread that comes with questioning the theological education that they are almost surely still in debt for. Biblical literalists will almost certainly back themselves into the corner of dualism by trying to use the devil to explain evil, and more theologically progressive candidates will often be taken to task for their lack of thought on supernatural evil.

However, I like this scripture because I think it speaks to an extremely human problem. I don’t mean the problem of temptation, although that is certainly in this pericope and has been written about extensively; what I see when I read this story is the inexhaustible desire to know why things are the way they are. I particularly enjoy the way that Tennyson writes about this desire in ‘Ulysses,’

“…And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

But if poetry isn’t your bailiwick, spend an afternoon with a parent of a kindergartner. They will ask “why” more in a single afternoon than you have asked in the past year. As a friend of mine recently said of his child, “I am extremely happy that she wants to learn everything about everything; I just wish she didn’t want to learn it from me!”

The scripture in focus is uniquely situated for the “why” question as it takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Directly after Jesus is baptized and the Spirit descends upon him, claiming him as God’s beloved Son, that same Spirit leads him into the wilderness to face three temptations. The questions that these temptations bring up speak a great deal to Jesus’ commitment to God’s purposes and perhaps a little to our own desires for an easier way.

In the first temptation, the tempter asks Jesus to turn stones to bread. As the preceding verse had noted Jesus’ hunger after his forty day fast, it would seem that the temptation is to use his miraculous power to feed himself. However, I’m not sure that this is the case. In 14:13-21 and 15:29-39 we have two stories in which Christ performs feeding miracles for five and four thousand people, and in a story that is even more odd, 21:18-22 tells about Jesus using his power to curse a fig tree that didn’t provide him with anything to eat. The argument which I find convincing centers around Matthew’s rendering the singular “loaf” present in Luke to “loaves.” Thus, Jesus was being tempted to live into his messianic calling, not by merely feeding himself, but by using his power to alleviate the hunger of the whole world. And why wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t ending hunger have instantly signaled his identity to the world?

In the second temptation, Jesus is taken to the busiest section of Jerusalem and asked to throw himself off so that the crowds could witness the angels serve him. To me, this is the most compelling temptation. It is not as if angels hadn’t protected Jesus before as his family fled from Herod the Great’s genocide to Egypt, moreover the angels would come and tend to his needs in verse 11. So why couldn’t Jesus use his position over them to make people see that he was indeed the messiah? Why wouldn’t Jesus want the most exposure and notoriety possible to spread his message? Wouldn’t it make sense: the more eyes that were on the Son of God the better?

The third temptation is the most obviously dubious. Jesus is offered control of all the kingdoms of the world, to bring about his kingdom immediately by becoming an earthly ruler. However, to gain this he would have to accept evil’s reign over the world and abandon the true God. Jesus’ rebuke to the tempter, “Away from me, Satan!” is echoed later in his ministry (16:21-28) as he rebukes Peter who is horrified at Jesus’ foretelling of his own death and forbids him from continuing on that path. Thus here we begin to see the “why” questions that were more obvious in the other temptations. Why did God choose to bring about the redemption of the world in this way? Surely there were more efficacious ways? Why did Jesus’ ministry end in suffering, death, and resurrection?

I find the temptation narrative to be one of the most human in the Bible, as it speaks to the universal questions about why things are the way that they are. When I was growing up, one of my mother’s favorite films was the 1973 masterpiece, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” During the crucifixion scene at the film’s conclusion, Jesus has a vision of Judas, played by Carl Anderson, who descends from heaven looking resplendent in angelic disco attire, complete with white fringe wings, to question Jesus’ motives and actions during his ministry. He sings,

“Every time I look at you I don’t understand

Why you let the things you did get so out of hand

You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.

Now why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation,

Israel in four BC had no mass communication.”

Perhaps Jesus didn’t miraculously end hunger because that is the calling of his followers—Matthew 25:35-40 seems pretty clear on that. Perhaps Jesus didn’t perform amazing death-defying miracles because his ministry was not a spectator sport, but a deeply relational invitation to something meaningful. Perhaps Jesus didn’t become an earthly ruler because you cannot legislate the Kingdom of God into existence. The temptation narrative brings up questions that I can only guess at. What it does make abundantly clear is that Jesus calls us into something that is both incredibly meaningful and incredibly difficult. There is no via expedius; and may God be praised for that.

 

unnamed
Ryan Young

Ryan Young was raised in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up in The Episcopal Church. He joined the Methodist Church while he was a student at Clemson University (Go Tigers!). He earned my Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2012 and has been in student ministry ever since. He currently resides in Roswell, Georgia with his wife Rachael and their dog Zooey.