One of our most basic human needs is the need to belong. In fact, this is one of the concepts I drill into my Intro to Religion class—why are people religious? We have lots of reasons to be religious, but a major reason is our need to belong. We are social. We need community! One of the downfalls of the human need to belong, however, is that people often shove some people out of the group to make clearer the boundary around it. We deal with the temptation of proving we belong by insisting those other people don’t belong. I am on the inside. I know what is going on. I belong here. This place, this circle, this church is for me.
On Epiphany we celebrate that the Gospel includes the outsiders, that Christ did not come only for some, but for all. We experience this with the traveling Magi, who bring gifts from afar through a long journey to meet the Christ child. They are enthusiastic, recognizing the transformative power that has entered the world, seeing the miracle that not even all on the inside recognized. They even go to visit an insider, King Herod, to celebrate this new joy. Yet the insider, King Herod, cannot be trusted. He does not see this new birth as a time to celebrate transformation and embrace outsiders, but instead, it is a threat to his place, to his power.
I am struck by the idea that the Magi tried to include King Herod, building a bridge between outsiders and insiders around this new birth, this new joy to the world, this new reign of peace and justice. I am further struck that they realized he was not to be trusted through a dream, and afterwards, affirmed their own sense of self-knowledge by prioritizing what they learned from the dream. What can we gain from this story?
I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might recognize truth that insiders miss. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might be the ones that offer invitations, even when rejected by insiders. I am reflecting on the idea that outsiders might bring truth that supersedes what the insiders know to be true—that King Herod is not their king, and so going against his wishes because they have discerned a truth outside of him is a reality made possible due only to their outside status.
I think all of us can resonate with the sense of being an outsider in an insider space. I did not grow up in a denominational setting, so sometimes I feel like an outsider in denominational church spaces. And yet, there is a deeper level to the insider/outsider status that is rooted in justice and oppression in our world. So now, I turn to a reading of this story through the lens of prioritizing those on the margins. We read through the lens of those on the margins not only because we see a grown-up Jesus doing that time and time again, but because we see through Epiphany that those on the margins have a full story they are living, too. They might even invite us into their narrative if we are receptive to the invitation.
And all the while, even as all are included, and all leave their mark on the story, sometimes those on the margins have reasons to distrust those in power, like King Herod. And when that happens, I can’t help but hope they follow their instincts, listen to their dreams, and persist following the way of light and justice and transformation.
“How are you?” It’s a commonly-used filler for passers-by on the street, in supermarkets, or generally any public place. We also say it in different demographical iterations: “How y’all doin?” “How’s it goin?” (Silent nod), etc. The interesting part is that we rarely expect an answer, or really even want one. With this pandemic, these statements are even less inviting. When I’m walking down the aisle in all my masked glory, I don’t really want to stop and talk to anyone these days, so I’ve all but ceased the empty greetings extended to my fellow human. Venturing out into the world takes courage—at least for me—and the last thing I want to do, once I’ve mustered the strength to leave my house, is stop and talk to a stranger.
That isn’t me. It isn’t the way I typically interact with the world. My spouse laughingly points out that when we’re in public, I ‘run for Mayor’—I’m in the middle of as many conversations as possible, and I try and meet everyone in the room. Extroverts, you feel me… Introverts, you usually run from me, and I don’t blame you. But nowadays, I’ve become a specter of that person; I don’t want to invite conversation, I don’t want to engage. I am scared of my neighbor. I love them, but I selfishly choose to avoid them if I can.
And, to use one of the wisdom sayings of my geographic context, “That ain’t right, y’all.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t necessarily giving us a checklist…a ‘If you do this, then you get that’, kind of thing. It’s more of a, “Have you checked on your fellow humans, lately?” question. What if we were to change the words of his lesson, to fit our current context? Let’s try it:
“34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was shut out from the world and you gave me a phone call; I was walking through the store and you greeted me—not knowing that I was on the verge of a breakdown because I was so alone; I was a stranger and you didn’t avoid me; 36 I posted a political preference and you didn’t attack me; I was afraid of getting sick and you were, too, so we shared that burden by talking; I felt like I was in prison and you sent me a note to let me know that I was still loved.’”
People are scared, right now. All people. We’re scared of COVID, we’re scared of the election season coming up, we’re scared about the economic crisis which already exists for many and looms for some, and we’re scared to be alone. It might be opportune for preachers to stand up and be a bit vulnerable in this time, with this Gospel; our people may need to hear that they’re not the only ones struggling. What if we held a conversation with our folks, allowing them to be vulnerable once we had, instead of preaching a ‘sheep and goats’ sermon? It might just be time for a wellness check.
It might be time to ask each other, “How are you doing?”…
…and actually listen to the response.
Then the ending line of that which we substituted words for, earlier, remains the same: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’.
The Rev. Sean Ekberg is the Rector of Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned a Master of Divinity from Seminary of the Southwest in 2015. His favorite pastimes are talkin’ bout Jesus, enhancing his terrible golf game, and taking vacation time with his favorite person in the world—his wife, Nicole. They have a thirteen year old pit bull named Ty. He likes Jesus, too.
It may be that the most important and consequential question ever uttered in the history of humanity was Pilate’s three-word question, asked of Jesus: “What is truth?”
In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell coined the term, “doublethink” to describe the phenomenon of rejecting things we know to be true or accepting things we know to be false in order to fit in with our peers or party or affinity groups. And while Orwell was writing fiction, he was revealing a truth that hits close to home: all of us, from time to time, tell ourselves things that we know aren’t true.
Of course, most of the time, these little fictions we pass off as truth don’t come from a place of malice; quite the opposite! We tell ourselves stories about why one grocery store is better than another, or why this brand of car is superior to that brand of car, or why our basketball team is the bestteam in the league. And to some degree, that’s simply a part of who we are. We tellourselves these things in order to build a sense of identity and character.
But these aren’t the only tall tales we try and trick ourselves into believing.
“One more credit card won’t bankrupt me.”
“One innocent little office flirtation won’t hurt my marriage.”
“God doesn’t really love me.”
Then, before we know it, the very things of which we’ve convinced ourselves turn out to be the lies that destroy us.
The same phenomenon was underway in the days of the Prophet Zephaniah. The people of Israel had gotten into the habit of convincing themselves that their perceptions were true, and that facts were false.
“God doesn’t care about us,” they said. “God is off doing other things. What business is it of God’s how I conduct myself? What God doesn’t know won’t hurt me.”
“We can’t trust God to protect us,” they lamented, “We’ve got to take charge and protect ourselves.”
“God won’t make us happy,” they scoffed, “Our mansions and our wealth and our power over other people! That will make us happy!”
The people of Zephaniah’s day thought that God was an irrelevant relic of a bygone era, whose supremacy has once-and-for-all been eclipsed by the attainment of the pinnacle of human knowledge. Those who lived in Zephaniah’s day considered themselves free to do and act as they pleased, looking out chiefly for themselves, and then—and only then—maybe, if they got around to it, they might consider doing something magnanimous for someone else because it makes them feel good.
Zephaniah, of course, takes exception to this blasphemy and proclaims a fiery word to the people. It is a word so shockingly clear that it all-but-slaps us in the face: life is beyond our control! And the more we try and control it, the more uncontrollable it becomes.
An oil refinery explodes halfway around the world? We read about the environmental costs and the billions of dollars paid in reparations, but we don’t know anybody who knows anybody who works for them, so it’s not our problem, right? We’ve got everything sorted out in our well-managed, tightly-controlled lives, right?
But then we realize that the fish we’re feeding our families comes from that region. Oil and toxins seep into the bedrock and pollute streams and rivers and growing fields hundreds of miles away, where the produce that stocks our refrigerators is grown. The retirement plan we enrolled in, trying to secure our future, is heavily invested in BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil.
The United Kingdom votes to withdraw from the European Union—Brexit, we called it. Okay, that’s their choice; that’s how democracy works, but how does it affect us?
The Eurozone is the second largest buyer of US Treasury bonds, not to mention a huge importer of US manufacturing goods. What affects their economy today will affect ours tomorrow.
The more we try and anesthetize ourselves into believing that we’ve got it all figured out, the deeper the truth cuts when the facts are laid bare.
But wait just a second.
All of this comes from a tiny, three-chapter minor prophet, wedged in near the end of the Hebrew Bible? In the entire three-year lectionary cycle, we hear from Zephaniah all of three times, and I’m willing to bet that most preachers have preached on it even fewer times than that. (Until now, no one has ever written about it on this blog!) So can it really be all that important?
Well, as it turns out, Jesus was a preacher after Zephaniah’s own heart. He tells a parable about slaves who are given gifts in different amounts. And although we are quick to equate these so-called talents with money, the parable could just as easily have spoken of kindness or creativity or generosity.
The slaves who take their gifts and use them to offer other creative, elaborate, and much-needed blessings in the world around them are rewarded when the Master returns. But the one who takes what has been given to him and hoards it up only for himself is condemned.
If we can find a way to sort through all of the advertising and the marketing and the perception, we arrive at the truth that both Zephaniah and Jesus are desperately trying to tell: Our vocation is not to try and be in control in the universe; no, our vocation as followers of the God we meet in Jesus is to share the abundance of grace and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us.
We are commanded to plant seeds of generosity, knowing full well that we may never see a return on our investment. We are commanded to show kindness to people who don’t deserve it. We are commanded to love those who try their hardest to be unlovable and to forgive those who have gone out of their way to be unforgivable.
The Day of the Lord that Zephaniah and Jesus proclaim does not have to be a doom-and gloom, end-of-the-world scenario. For those who receive their God-given gifts with humility and then go and share them with the world, the Day of the Lord is a day of rejoicing; a day when our world that has long been turned upside down by greed and oppression and hate will be set right by peace and justice and love.
The question is: what will we do with all that has been given to us? Will we keep it locked up and hidden away under the bed? Or will we take a risk and open our hearts to share it openly and freely and radically with the world?
The Rev. Dr. Marshall A. Jolly serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate work in American studies at Transylvania University, and his master’s and doctoral work at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is the curator of ModernMetanoia.org.
As a pastor, I often find myself talking with people about their favorite Bible passages. However, I rarely find myself discussing people’s least favorite Biblical passages. It doesn’t seem to be something that many people want to admit to the pastor–“I don’t really like that Bible passage.” However, the truth is, we each have favorite scriptures that stand out to us. And, in the same way, we each have scriptures that we struggle with and just don’t seem to like all that much. This is true for us pastors as well.
If I’m completely honest (even at the risk of challenging the expectation that pastors love all scripture), this week’s lectionary scripture from Matthew’s Gospel is a scripture I find myself struggling with. Jesus begins to talk about the end times with his disciples and telling them stories about what God’s Kingdom and realm are really like. This particular story is about ten virgins: 5 of whom are wise and the other 5, well, not so much.
In this parable, Jesus draws to mind ten virgins waiting for their bridegroom. The foolish virgins take with them no oil for their lamps. When they run out of oil, the other 5 refuse to help them. The foolish virgins must go buy more oil. While they are out, the bridegroom comes. The wise virgins go off with the bridegroom. When the foolish virgins return and knock on the door, the bridegroom replies, “Truly…I don’t know you” (verse 12 NIV).
In his book, The Power of Parable, John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus uses both common and traditional formatting for his parables. This particular parable is a perfect example of “Olrik’s “law of contrast,” the tendency toward polarization, especially of “good” versus “bad,” “ins” versus “outs,” “haves” versus “have-nots,” and those who fail versus those who succeed.” For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast”
Here’s my struggle and the reason I’m not a huge fan of this particular passage and parable. This is supposedly the same “Kingdom of God” that Jesus describes a few chapters earlier with the parable of the lost sheep. In Matthew 18: 12-14, Jesus says:
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (NIV)
I find myself wondering if both of these stories can describe the same Kingdom. Is God’s Kingdom like the shepherd that is happier about the one lost sheep over the 99 that are not lost? Or, is God’s Kingdom like the bridegroom that closes the door on the foolish virgins simply because they were out getting more oil?
Of course, a simple answer is that these two parables are describing very different things. One is describing the joy at returning the lost, while the other is describing the fact that no one knows the time nor hour of the coming of the Son of Man and God’s Kingdom. However, I believe this week’s lectionary can be used to tease out some of the differences that Jesus may highlight about God’s Kingdom through his parabolic teachings. This particular parable can be compared to other parables. The formatting may be similar – “lost” versus “found,” and “in” versus “out,” or “wise” versus “foolish.” However, the truth of the parable seems to be very different. Crossan may be on to something. The formatting is common, while the content and contrast are dramatic and unexpected.
As it relates to this week’s lectionary, I often found myself wondering why Jesus doesn’t highlight that God’s Kingdom is like 5 wise virgins that share their oil so that all 10 get to meet the bridegroom at midnight. He could have still highlighted that no one knows for sure when the Son of Man will come; while also highlighting the need for each of us to take care of one another while we wait. However, Jesus rarely meets our expectations and I can only assume that God’s Kingdom is similar.
It often happens to me that on Monday I come up with the perfect way to express my sermon for the previous Sunday. I usually note these things down and save them for a future sermon. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus missed a great teaching opportunity with this parable. Maybe the next day he thought, “I should have changed that story so my disciples would know how easy it would have been for those 5 wise virgins to help their neighbors.”
It could be that Jesus is merely highlighting the fact that no one truly knows the day or hour. However, the following two parables seem to suggest otherwise. It is difficult to interpret that the foolish virgins somehow find their way through that door. The very next parable tells us of servants given bags of gold, the servants who manage their gold well are reward. The servants who manage their gold poorly, are treated…not so well…
29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Matthew 18:29-30 NIV)
Following this parable is the parable of the sheep and goats. When the Son of Man comes, all will be divided into two groups. Sheep on one hand, goats on the other. To both parties the King will acknowledge whether they feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, looked after the sick, and visit the prisoner. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV). Those that did not do these things “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46 NIV).
Of course, there is nothing in this listing of things the least of these needs that speaks about oil for their lamps as they await their bridegroom, but I can’t help but wonder if those 5 foolish virgins could be considered the least of these. What would our parable for this week’s lectionary look like if the 5 wise virgins had shared their oil instead of sending the foolish virgins of to the market?
If you are preaching on this parable for this week’s lectionary, it may be a great time to remind those hearing God’s Word about the unorthodox way in which Jesus teaches us about God and God’s Kingdom. Not that Jesus teaches in parable: many are doing that, but, that Jesus rarely meets the expectations of his followers and those who listen to his teaching. I struggle to fit many of Jesus’ parables together because it can be so difficult to follow a Lord and Savior who is constantly challenging you to be a better person; and whose entire life was a challenge to re-evaluate our lives and expectations. May God bless us with the strength and wisdom to continue in the faith and to continue the task at hand.
The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David received a Master of Divinity and Master of Mental Health Counseling from Christian Theological Seminary in May of 2014. David has been serving at Westmont since July 2016. David enjoys reading and bicycle riding. He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children.
 Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.
In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.
For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.
In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.
But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).
The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.
“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.
We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.
The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.
I remember an old, odd piece of wisdom that I still need every now and again: “You don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.”
There were a variety of options for preaching and teaching today, but one common thread through all of them is the value of community and belonging: more specifically, how do you mark that you are a part of the community, and how do you properly try to keep people loyal to what that community believes? In Exodus, we see the Passover ritual given to the Ancient Hebrews, something where the quite literal blood of a lamb marks them as members of God’s chosen flock. In Ezekiel, we hear about the important need to speak call out when those in our community sin, as Ezekiel was called to do for the Israelites. In Romans, we are reminded to “conduct ourselves properly as in the day” and to avoid succumbing to unholy desires (particularly of the flesh as Paul notes). And finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we should do if another sins against us—namely, take it up with them first, then bring witnesses, then tell the church, then “treat [them] as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”
So, it seems pretty cut and dry. These readings all reinforce that we need to pay close attention to what marks us as Christians, to be on guard to call others out when they fail at it, and to be ready to cast them out of the community if they don’t change. It’s up to us to keep the church pure and holy and to cast out those who don’t measure up. The Catholic Church (to whom I belong) emphasizes this point in their text notes on the Gospel reading via their website: “Just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so much the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refugees to repent.” So that must be it, right? Right?
Well, I hope it isn’t that simple, actually.
Don’t get me wrong—I think there is a real need for correction, within churches, within the Church, and within the world. This present moment in America is ripe for us to correct each other and to change our world–one with less racism, less sexism, less striving for power, and more desiring to serve each other and stand with one another.
BUT, and this is the tougher part to articulate, we need to be careful that in our desire to create a more just society we do not simply get rid of those who disagree with us and refuse to change (even if, in moments of weakness, that is a mighty tempting position to take). I want to look at that Gospel passage again—while on the surface it looks like a way to settle disagreements and to expel those who don’t relent, I think that isn’t doing the passage enough justice. After all, in the next two lines after this Gospel Jesus says that we should forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” (or seventy times seven in some translations – i.e. we should be constantly, always forgiving). The few verses before this Gospel passage talk about the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind to seek the lost one. How do we square that with the idea that people should be cast out of our community? Does it really fit together?
Jesus says that you should treat those who won’t acknowledge their wrong as you would a Gentile or tax collector. How exactly did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? In Matthew 8, Jesus encounters a Gentile centurion, yet is “amazed” at the man’s faith and heals his servant. Again in Matthew 15, he (eventually) helps the daughter of another Gentile. Oh, and what was the profession of the apostle Matthew, whom this Gospel is named after? Right, he was a tax collector. In fact, we see in this Gospel that Jesus regularly ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), and showed more mercy to them than judgment. That seems like a weird way to treat people that you are supposed to avoid.
So what’s happening here? Is this passage really about saying who’s in and who’s out? Or is it about redefining who’s in and who’s out? Consider the earlier Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the shepherd leaves the entire rest of the flock behind to go find the one that got away. I don’t know if you know any shepherds, but that isn’t a great business plan for them. That doesn’t sound like someone wanting perfection out of their sheep. Directly following our Gospel today, we see Jesus emphasizing the great mercy of God in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. And then in turn we see that servant (who may very well be us) turning around and not showing that same mercy. Maybe God isn’t the one saying who’s in and who’s out. Maybe that’s on us.
This Gospel makes me think of a modern day saint (even if unofficial): Dorothy Day. A Catholic convert in the early 20th century who had earlier been a radical and an anarchist, Day would go on to start the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” among many other things in her life. These houses were dedicated to those in need – i.e. the poor, and especially the “undeserving poor.” If you haven’t heard that term before, it should be easy to conjure up what it imagines – the ones who get called lazy, stupid, and sloppy; the ones who don’t smile at you when you give them money; the ones who aren’t grateful enough. I mean, sure, everyone can be like that, but those of us who aren’t poor have earned the right – because they’re poor, they shouldn’t be. At least, that tends to be the conventional wisdom.
But Dorothy Day saw it differently – she strove to see human dignity present in all people, no matter how insufferable they turned out to be. And believe me, some of the people who stayed at her Catholic Worker houses were insufferable. This piece from the Atlantic puts it well:
Dorothy Day lived with the forgotten man, and he was a huge pain in the ass. His name was Mr. Breen, and during his residency at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street he was a vituperative racist and a fire hazard. His name was also Mr. O’Connell, who stayed for 11 ill-natured years at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farming commune in Easton, Pennsylvania, slandering the other workers without mercy, hoarding the tools, and generally making himself “a terror” (in Day’s words).
Even so, Day still recognized that they were human beings too, created in the image and likeness of God, and nothing, neither the hardships they had endured nor the ones they put on others, could get rid of that: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
In light of Dorothy Day, I have to look at this passage differently. There will always be a need to settle disagreements. There will always be a need to speak truth to power, to act for real justice, and to change our systems so that justice may be possible. There is a need to tell people when they are doing wrong and harming others. But in doing so, we cannot lose sight that they too are children of God, and that they do not deserve to be dehumanized and ostracized either. This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is one that Jesus calls us to. After all, you don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.
Chris Clow is a stay-at-home dad for an energetic, noisy, wonderful toddler Xavier and loving husband and home cook for wife Emily Kahm. He was also a campus and music minister for 8 years before he and his family moved to Omaha for the next stage of their life. When he isn’t struggling to love those he doesn’t like, he enjoys playing video games, remembering what it was like when there was baseball on TV (just presuming this season doesn’t last), and coming up with new recipes and dishes to try and make at home.
There’s a man in Charlotte known as the “Jesus Saves Guy.” Before the pandemic, he would stand on the corner of Trade and Tryon streets in center city and bellow with all of his might, “Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you! Jesus saves!” He now drives a rickshaw through my neighborhood of South End, loudly proclaiming the same message, “Jesus saves! Jesus loves you!”
As of late, I’ve been feeling quite overwhelmed due to the demands of parish ministry and the challenge of working from home. My daily life feels as if it’s on repeat like the movie Groundhog Day. Coupled with the news of rising Coronavirus deaths, the lack of political leadership at the federal level, and a nation coming to terms with the evils of White Supremacy, it’s enough to wear on all of us.
Earlier this summer, as I sat at my dining room table, deep in sermon-writing procrastination, I felt like I had nothing to offer; no words to say. I felt hopeless and humbled by events outside of my control. And then I heard the rickshaw. “Jesus saves! Jesus saves! Jesus Christ loves you!”
In the gospel appointed for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the disciples find themselves caught in a storm. Battered by the waves with the wind against them, Jesus arrives walking on the water. The gospel tells us they were terrified, and they cried out in fear. But Jesus says to them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” is one of the most frequent commands in scripture. It is spoken to Abram as God promises to make him a great nation. It is spoken to Hagar just after she and her son are cast out and discarded. It is spoken to Moses as he leads the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. It is spoken by the prophet Isaiah as Israel is held captive in Babylon. It is spoken to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she is told she will conceive a son. It is spoke to Saint Joseph in a dream. It is spoken to the shepherds in the fields. It is spoken by Jesus to his disciples.
I have heard many sermons about what happens next in this story. Most have focused on Peter’s lack of faith and perhaps that is where we should focus. After all Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But from my reading of the text I am not certain if Peter’s lack of faith is from fear of the waves or from his certainty that he could walk on water too.
Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman, professor of Biblical Studies at United Lutheran Seminary, contends that the gospel writer might be trying to demonstrate Peter’s over confidence, his lack of faith in Jesus, who alone can walk on water and calm the seas. 
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a much more reasonable invitation. Quite honestly, I don’t want to walk on water. I’d rather trust the One who can.
Perhaps, preachers, Jesus is calling us to embrace our helplessness in this moment, to trust that he alone can calm the storm around us. Perhaps, Jesus is reminding us that no matter what happens in the world around us, or in our own lives, we belong to him. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “So, then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”
This is the promise of our baptism. Through the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Jesus will never abandon us, and we belong to him. We don’t need to learn how to walk on water or beat ourselves up when we get overwhelmed by the waves around us, because even if we look away for a moment Jesus will catch us.
Many of our parishioners are overwhelmed. Many are facing the loss of a job or the death of a loved one. They might be behind on their bills and uncertain of the future. They don’t need to hear a message that promises if they simply keep their eye on Jesus, they can do the impossible like walk on water. Perhaps, the message they need to hear is that they belong to Jesus, he has them, especially when they’re sinking.
We don’t have to walk on water. Trust the One who can. Do not be afraid because Jesus saves.
The Rev. Jacob Pierce is Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He served as Curate at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church and as Associate Rector at St. Peter’s before his call to become Rector there this spring. He lives in South End with his husband, Adam Santalla Pierce, and their dog Hamlet.
***Editor’s Note: This Essay Originally Ran in 2017***
How many times does the lectionary pick up a gospel reading with some form of the phrase that begins the selection for this proper: “after he heard this…?”
Especially in instances where the lectionary does not treat the text sequentially, as is the case here, it’s important to explore exactly what it was that Jesus heard. In this instance, he heard about the death of John the Baptist in a gruesome affair involving his head being delivered to Herod’s wife, Herodias, on a silver platter. It seems that John had gotten on Herodias’ bad side. Beware the thin skin of politicians. This had to have been on Jesus’ mind as he withdrew. To a deserted place. By himself. In case you missed any of the clues that Jesus went to be alone, Matthew drives the point home in a redundant manner.
The place that I connect with Jesus in this text is not in the Eucharistic metaphor but in his grief. One imagines that he is mourning the death of his cousin and forerunner. My father died rather unexpectedly about 2 months ago at the point that I am writing this entry, and so it is inevitably the lens with which I view Scripture right now. We don’t know how long Jesus stays in the deserted place by himself but it reads as a brief interlude. He doesn’t get a lot of time and space because the crowd follows him on foot along the shore.
You know, with 2000 years of Christian history and living in a Judeo-Christian society, we might take these stories and the divinity of Jesus for granted, forgetting that he was also human. He must have felt the emotional, spiritual, and physical fatigue of his grief- compounded by the fact that this foreshadowed his own execution. Yet in the midst of it all he sees the crowd and has compassion for them. And he resumes his work of curing the sick.
I had to do a funeral very shortly after I returned from burying my dad, and on the 2-month anniversary of his death I was in the cardiovascular ICU with someone who was in critical condition—this was the same kind of unit in which my dad spent the last 24 hours of his life. It takes extra emotional energy now to be present and the recovery time for me after these moments is significant. And so I wonder what was the cost to Jesus to do this? To show up in this moment and be present to the crowd and to his disciples? Have you had an experience like this? And more to the point—what members of your congregation have had experiences like this? “The show must go on,” right? Do we ever afford ourselves the quiet and the space to do life’s essential work? Whether that’s grief? Joy? Or something else? I did withdraw to a deserted place by myself and that is following Jesus’ example as much as anything else in the Gospels.
Maybe when the disciples asked Jesus to send the crowd away into the villages, they’re not dismissing them so much as trying to build in some space and rest for Jesus. We don’t know of course, but surely they are surprised at Jesus’ response: “You give them something to eat.” Can you just see the expression on their faces change from concern to shock? And then maybe the shock turns into incredulity. The translation from Greek to English ‘we have five loaves and two fish’ is pretty straightforward but I think the translation from thought to words was something more like “are you freaking kidding me?”
One of the challenges of preaching on this proper is that this is such a familiar story. In an entry in the periodical Christian Century, Lauren Winner recommends reading Scripture in a location different from what you’re used to. I did this and I found myself wondering—were there really 5000 men plus the women and children? Or did the disciples overestimate the size of the crowd because they underestimated their ability?
And what about that crowd? What did it feel like to be fed from this abundance? Were they even in on the miracle or was that simply between the disciples and Jesus?
One other aspect of the text that we miss if we go by the lectionary rather than read the Gospel all at once is that an almost identical situation comes up shortly after this takes place.
Fast-forward to a few paragraphs later in Matthew’s gospel. It’s hard to tell how much time has passed though Jesus has been in several other towns before finding himself back along the Sea of Galilee, and this is what happens:
“He went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ (Matthew 15:32-39)
And the disciples just did this a few paragraphs back, so naturally their response is:
“We’re on it, Lord! We’ll see how many loaves of bread that we can find and maybe someone has a few fish that they’ll share. We’ll bring that to you so you can bless it and we know we’ll end up with a feast and plenty of leftovers…”
Yeah right. You’ve done the reading so you know that’s not what happened at all. Instead, the disciples said:
“But Jesus, Panera is closed now and the grocery store’s too far and you know the restaurants won’t do separate checks…”
Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing.
Jesus must have a bottomless well of patience, because goodness knows the disciples. Just. Don’t. Get it.
But there is good news in that for us. No matter how many times we have to relearn the same lesson. No matter how many times we make the same mistake. No matter how many times we miss an opportunity.
Jesus has patience with us—and we always get another chance to gather the loaves and fishes, and to share in the feast.
The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. She enjoys walking with her goldendoodle, Gordon, throwing culinary theme parties for her friends, and is a proud Star Wars nerd. Ann graduated from Sewanee and Florida State University, and hopes to add Australia to the list of continents she’s visited before 2020.
If today’s passage were a product to be purchased it might come with a warning label: “Warning: side discipleship may lead to loss of status or family, rejection, division, and sometimes death.” Upon a quick glance it sounds about as appealing as a commercial for prescription medication with a laundry list of side effects. Is this really what I signed up for when I came to church? I just wanted a little time to recharge from my busy week.
The harsh realities of Christian discipleship may seem far off to many who live in a comfortable western Christian existence. If we are honest, most of us in the mainline American Christian world have grown stagnantly comfortable. In this passage Jesus warns of the costs of being his disciple.
Being a disciple of a teacher means we follow the same ways of being that they live, we follow their example, and walk in their footsteps. To be a disciple of Jesus is to pattern our life after his life, follow his example, and walk in his footsteps. In Jesus’ earthly life, and in the early days of the Church, the context is inextricably linked to the Roman Empire—an empire whose systems of inequality Jesus resisted. The vision of the Kin-dom of God that Jesus initiated on earth was one that challenged human systems of class, wealth, status, and oppression. Indeed, his resistance to the empire led to his crucifixion at the hands of the state. Thus, if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we can expect to follow this path of resistance to oppression. Once again, a warning is helpful here: this work is dangerous!
Jesus warns that his mission will cause division. Some might face rejection, even by their own families. It’s not that we need to renounce family simply for the sake of it, rather Jesus is pointing out that to follow him means elevating his mission of justice above all other areas of one’s life. Being a disciple isn’t a part time hobby or even a “Christian lifestyle” of being holy and going to church regularly. It’s about being all in for the work of God.
We can look to many in our recent history who have lived fully into this costly discipleship. Those who have fought for racial justice such as Dr. King have lived out the call to bring about God’s Kin-dom on earth, even though it cost them their lives. Or we might remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime led to his death. But what does this mean for us, in this moment?
To be a disciple of Jesus means committing ourselves to the work of bringing Gods Kin-dom on earth as in heaven. We must resist oppression and seek to build a more just world. Sometimes it may be a small action. Yes, that does mean you have to speak out and say something when your family members speak racist micro-aggressions at thanksgiving dinner; yes, even if it makes you uncomfortable and is going to disrupt conversation. After all, Jesus says even our families can’t hold us back from his work. But there is more than just individual moments. I doubt we need to look far to notice we are in a place where entire systems of oppression are glaringly obvious in our country.
As I write this, I am 50 days into social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis. We are nowhere near an end or improvement and yet, here in Georgia our elected officials have moved to re-open the state for the sake of the economy. While this virus itself does not discriminate, the effects of the virus have revealed how our social structure leads to disproportionate harm of those who are most vulnerable, those who are poor, and people of color. Those who are frontline workers, often working for less than a living wage, are putting themselves at high risk for contracting the virus on a daily basis. These employees must make the choice between a job or risking their health. Poverty and classism are highly visible as we see who is most at risk, and who can remain tucked away in relative safety. Furthermore, studies show that COVID-19 is infecting and killing black people in the US at disproportionately high rates. Public Health researchers say these high numbers reveal the systemic inequalities that exist in our society around resources and access to healthcare.
This crisis, like many others, is showing in the full light of day the ugly structures our society is founded upon. We must ask ourselves in this moment what it means to be disciples of Jesus who sought to bring about a kin-dom of Gods love and peace. For many who have relative privilege or security, this will cost something. Moving towards equity and justice requires that we examine the ways that we benefit from systems of oppression. It requires that we change our participation in those systems and actively seek to change them rather than perpetuate them. For a small action, I might ask, “How do my choices in shopping affect those who work in essential jobs? Do I seek to patronize companies and stores that pay a living wage and aim to protect their workers?” Thinking a bit more broadly, do I join in organizing to change the systems that leave some vulnerable, or without healthcare? I do not have all the answers to what life might be like on the other side of this virus, but I know that it cannot be as it always has been. Whatever “normalcy” we had, it was not the Kin-dom of God on earth as in Heaven that Jesus calls us to co-create with God.
Perhaps we should include a warning in our baptismal liturgies: This life may lead to loss of earthly comforts. But as Jesus says, those who lose their life will truly find it.
The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.
I grew up playing sports. My favorite was soccer. When I showed up to each game, I wore the same sweat pants—my lucky soccer warmup pants. Heaven forbid if I couldn’t find these pants before I left for a game! Looking back, I wore them because I thought they made me faster, made me play better, and, dare I say, I thought they made me look cooler.
What is it about lucky objects that make them so special? What’s at the core?
In the lesson from Mathew, we find Jesus and his 12 disciples. Jesus appoints these 12 people to go into the world, to all of the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is giving them a very important task, and it is the same task that Jesus gives to all of us. Go find the lost sheep; go proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. Our scripture drops us into a conversation that Jesus is having with his followers.
I can almost imagine myself there with the others. I can see it now, just excited–hanging on Jesus’ every word.
Jesus says I’m sending y’all out to go find lost sheep. “Right on,” the imaginary me would say.
Jesus says the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. “I’m ready to harvest Jesus, I used to live next door to a farm! I’ve picked carrots before…I’m ready!”
Jesus says I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. “…Wait a second, that doesn’t sound safe. Lambs in the midst of wolves…hmm. I’ll make sure to pack a stick to keep me safe.”
Then Jesus says I don’t want you to bring anything, don’t carry a purse, don’t carry a bag, and don’t even wear any sandals. “No sandals, Jesus? But I’ve got these lucky sweatpants that I like to wear.”
But Jesus says, “No, don’t bring anything!”
What is Jesus really asking of his followers? What is Jesus really asking of us?
Let’s think about the things that Jesus asks his followers to leave behind. A purse, a bag, and sandals. What do we use these things for?
I’ve seen a lot of survivalist shows on TV. People are allowed to bring next to nothing with them. But one thing remains the same no matter the show, they are all allowed to carry a bag. In these bags, people carry tools for making fire, or food that they are saving for later.
In these bags, you can carry all of the things that might make you self-sustainable. The contestants on television are able to stay in the wilderness for weeks on end because of what’s in their bags. So why is Jesus asking his followers to leave their bags behind?
Jesus doesn’t want us to be self-sustainable.
Now, mind you, I’m not referring to “green” movements or eco justice. Rather, I am referring to the way that we are called to live with one another. Jesus doesn’t want us to be self-sustainable; he wants us to trust and rely on one another, to be others-sustained.
Jesus says don’t bring any sandals, so we know this will not be a comfortable journey.
So again I ask the question: What do we need to bring with us to do ministry?
Jesus tells his disciples that when they go into these towns and get invited into these homes, first they are to bring tidings of peace for their household. Then they should remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever the host provides, not moving from house to house.
I think what’s missing but is implied in these instructions is, “get to know the people.”
Jesus asks that we leave it all behind, our bags, our baggage, to strip it all away and to really make ourselves vulnerable. It is out of that vulnerability that we are able to meet people and really get to know them.
You see, when Jesus is talking about going out for a harvest, we don’t need the traditional tools that we normally would use, like a shovel or an axe. (What are the tools needed for a traditional harvest, anyway?) No, for the harvest into which we are being sent, we are the tools.
What are we to bring with us, if not our bags and sandals? Jesus says, “Just bring yourself. You have everything you need to do this work because it was given to you by the Holy Spirit.
You have your life, and you have your story. Christians are among the best story tellers in the whole world because we have been telling the same story for two thousand years.
We go and we tell others about Jesus, but not just that… we go out and we tell others what Jesus has done for us. How Jesus has changed our lives.
This is what Jesus is asking of the followers that we see in our scripture today, and it is what Jesus is asking of us all. That when we go out to the harvest, we bring nothing but our most honest and vulnerable selves to get to know people and to share the story. This is the mission to which God calls us all. Tell the story, then live the story.
Yes the world looks a whole lot different today, but Jesus’ charge to all of us remains the same. It was never the things that we bring with us that show people who Jesus is, or what the kingdom of God is like. It has only ever been us, living our stories—living testimony to the work that God is up to in the world.
The Rev. Maurice Dyer is a California native and grew up in San Diego. He attended Cal State University at Monterey Bay, and graduated from the social and behavioral science department. After his undergraduate work, Maurice was called to serve as a missionary and moved to South Africa. While in South Africa, he lived in a Benedictine Monastic community with the other monks and taught at the school that they oversaw. He then moved to Capetown, South Africa and worked for an institute that assisted people in healing from trauma, particularly related to the South African Apartheid years. Upon coming back to the U.S. he went to seminary at the Virginia Theological Seminary and graduated in 2019. Maurice has worked in several churches in central California and Washington DC. He sits on the boards of the Global Episcopal Mission Network and the Episcopal Community Services of Philadelphia.