Epiphany: Overwhelmed by Joy

Epiphany: Overwhelmed by Joy

Matthew 2:1-12

By: The Rev. Laura Brekke


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I love the Epiphany story; it is the tale of two seekers.

Wait a minute, did I just say two seekers? I thought there were three wise men?! I know Three is One and One is Three and whatever, but Christians can’t be that bad at math.

Most Christians aren’t bad at math (my personal failings notwithstanding.) The Epiphany story has two sets of seekers: King Herod on one side, and the Magi (or wise men) on the other. They each sought the star and the king that basked in that miraculous heavenly glow. But the motivations for each were wildly different.

In verse 3, King Herod’s motivation for seeking is made plain: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The Magi come, proclaim a wondrous miracle, and the King responds to the knowledge as though they issued a threat. Not only that, but his fear makes all of Jerusalem—all those over whom he has authority—afraid.  In verse 7 he calls a secret meeting of his advisors and schemes. In verse 8 he sends the Magi on their way, declaring that he too wants to pay homage to the child.

But we know this story.

We know that in Matthew 2:16, Herod kills all the boy children in the region in order to secure his throne. He responds to the mystery of the star with fear, scheming, and eventually rage. He understands the star as a threat to his power and control, and so he misses the very miracle of God in his midst.

The Magi seek differently. They are kings or scholars from the East; from a land and a people beyond Israel and beyond the Jewish religion. They are astrologers who use their education and their resources to fund a quest to follow the miraculous star to Bethlehem. They are men of means. They offer gold, frankincense and myrrh—which were the gold, platinum, and diamonds of their day—without expectation of a blessing in return. And yet, they seek not out of a need to control, but out of a sense of joy. In verse 10 the text reads: “When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Overwhelmed with joy.

What a radically different response to God’s miracle in the world! The Magi were not afraid of God’s awesome power, or of the kingship prophesied about the child. They were not threatened or made insecure in their earthly wealth or authority. They were seekers who sought for the pleasure of the seeking and were rewarded with abundant, overflowing joy.

There is much that can be made of the two responses to the miracle and mystery of the star. Do we fear God’s miracles or delight in them? Are we comfortable with the destabilizing effect of mystery, or do we seek to control it? Is God’s power a threat to our earthly power? Do we seek Jesus for power or control, or do we seek out of the sheer delight of finding him and knowing him? Do we seek and pay homage without expectation of a blessing or a reward?

St. Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th century theologian, coined the phrase “fides quaerens intellectumor faith seeking understanding. The Magi are a perfect illustration of this concept. They have faith that the star is a miracle and that they will find a king—a holy person—at the end of it. They don’t understand how or why the star arrived. They don’t scheme or seek to control the star, the child king, or the miracle. They have faith, and they go in search of understanding.

Their foil is King Herod. He has faith—faith that the prophecies are in fact true and the star is a clear sign they are set in motion. But he doesn’t seek understanding, instead he seeks control. He allows fear to hold him, closing his vision until all he can seek is a way out, instead of an expansive revelation. Herod is left in fear—fear that grows to paranoia and then to violent rage. The Magi, on the other hand, find a sense of wonder, of awe at the sight of baby Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy.

Do we have faith that seeks understanding? In a world of uncertainty, are we responding with fear and the need to control, or are we responding with expansive curiosity and wonder? Do we live with fear or do we allow the miracle of Emmanuel, God with us, to overwhelm us with joy?

The Rev. Laura Brekke

The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Reign of Christ (A): It’s Not Up to Us

Matthew 25:31-46

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I am not always proud of who I am or about the things I’ve done, but there are times when I’m guilty of telling myself “well, at least I’m not like him.” There are people who embody the exact opposite of the faith and grace I have come to love in Christ and I am guilty of looking down and judging them for it.  When I am honest with myself, in my heart I know there are times when my only thought about someone is: “Thank heaven that’s not me,” or “I am such a better Christian than they are.” When these thoughts cross my mind I hope I am subtle about it. I hope I don’t let it show. But whether it’s seen by others or not, I know I can be self-righteous. There are times I need to remind myself I’m not the one who separates the sheep from the goats.

Judgment comes from a place of vulnerability inside each of us. It comes from our need for self-assurance. It’s a misguided way of convincing ourselves that we have God’s favor because someone else does not. There are many reasons we judge others. Sometimes we judge because it simplifies a complicated world by putting people in boxes of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Most of us grew up watching TV shows and reading stories where it was obvious what side a character was on. A child reading The Lord of the Rings knows that the Orcs and Goblins are the bad guys and the Elves and Hobbits are good. In old Western movies you could distinguish good and bad by the color of someone’s hat. But in the real world people don’t fit into simple visual narratives, although it would make life much easier. People are ambiguous; saints can be sinful and the wicked can be redeemed. We see only a small snippet of each other’s stories. Even after spending a lifetime with someone, at the end we will have only understood a fragment of who they are in the eyes of God. It is God who alone sees us in our entirety and decides where we ultimately belong.

In the First Testament passage from Ezekiel God is described as a shepherd who cares for the flock. Those sheep who “pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with [your] horns until [you] scattered them far and wide” are rebuked and judged for their actions. The passage is filled with promises from the shepherd about what he will do: “I myself will search;” “I will rescue.” It is worth noting just how active this shepherd is. It is a theme Jesus draws upon repeatedly. Throughout the Gospels Jesus proclaims a great separation that will happen at the end of the age. Wheat will be separated from the weeds, chaff from grain, good fish from bad and goats from sheep. But none of this is self-selected. The sheep don’t decide who gets into the barn. The fish don’t get a say in who’s kept and who’s tossed back. That decision is made by the one to whom they all belong.

Judging is not the same as having an opinion. Being non-judgmental does not mean anything goes or that we should accept unacceptable behavior. What someone says and does communicates who they are and influences how we will relate to them, so of course we will have opinions about others (it would be naive to think otherwise). The difference is that opinion is something open that can be changed; a person can reform and relationships can mend. But a judgment is something final, something we don’t revisit once it’s been made. Once we’ve judged someone then we have dropped a curtain on them and refuse to pull back up. That’s something we don’t get to do. That is something up to God alone.

It is not our job to separate the sheep from the goats. The kingdom of heaven is not a club with us handing out entry tickets. We are more like promoters, not bouncers; we help send the invitations but who gets admitted isn’t up to us. Our job is not to be the gatekeepers but to care for everyone as long as we’re out here in the field. What happens after that is up to God, and until then we are called to love without reserve or distinction.  We have all sinned in the eyes of God. It is not that one person is more worthy to receive God than another, but that God continues to love us all regardless of our past.


Tj's Headshot pic
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Reverend TJ Tetzlaff serves as Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He received his Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School and has worked with a number of churches and nonprofits. He and his wife Chana, recently moved to Wilmington, North Carolina with their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his spare time TJ can usually be found walking on the beach, playing board games, or playing with his dogs.

Proper 28(A): Can’t We Just Skip This?

Proper 28(A): Can’t We Just Skip This?

Matthew 25:14-30

By: The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

My knee-jerk response to this parable is negative for three illegitimate reasons:

1) I can’t bear to think of God as “harsh…reaping where [he] did not sow, gathering where [he] did not scatter seed” and engendering fear in his timid slave.

2) I really, really dislike the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” imagery.

3) I shudder to think that many read this parable as an endorsement of modern financial investment practices.

I doubt that I am alone in struggling with the temptation to skip right over this passage looking for more congenial lectionary texts. But if we give into that temptation over and over again (which can happen so easily), we deny our people the chance to wrestle alongside us and miss an opportunity to teach folks “how” (tools, concepts, etc.) one interprets hard texts. In this passage, three key “concepts are ripe for elaboration:  parables, eschatology, and apocalypse.

My first illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid this text is caused by an overly-allegorical approach to interpreting the parable. Often we want parables (or Scripture generally) to provide some sort of clear directive or advice or doctrine. That isn’t how Scripture works generally and especially not parables! The more we preachers can break open the Word from the chains of even subconscious literalism, the more we are inviting our people into spiritual maturity and real-time engagement with the Living Christ.

A common (mis)reading of parables looks to one-to-one equivalences.[1] In this case, the man is God the Father, the slaves are servants of God. Two of the slaves “invest” their talents and are rewarded. One buries it and is condemned to hell. So my first knee-jerk aversive response is based on lazy interpretation: Jesus isn’t suggesting that the “man going on a journey,” later referred to as the “master” is the first person of the Trinity. We might glean some meaning by making that association, but the association is limited. It doesn’t work the whole way through as a lens for understanding the nature of God – and that is okay because parables aren’t allegories.

Moving away from one-to-one equivalences also partially addresses my second illegitimate reason for wanting to avoid the text: the use of the “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It is a misreading of the text to equivalate the “outer darkness” as “hell” in the “heaven/hell” binary of popular culture. This parable is not about soteriology (how Jesus saves or redeems the world and its creatures) and should not be reduced to a teaching about an individual’s fate after death; rather, it is one of a cluster of teachings about how to live faithfully when the world is falling apart around you. In other words, it is apocalyptic.[2]

The passage is situated in the Jesus’ “final discourse” in Matthew. Beginning in chapter 24 and concluding with the parable of the sheep and goats at the end of this chapter, Jesus is responding to the disciples’ questions about signs of Jesus’ coming and the “end of the age,” about eschatology. You can almost think of this section as a post-script to the ascension, even though this discourse precedes those events in the narrative. Perhaps Matthew, likely writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and certainly amid conflict with traditional Jews, imagines how Jesus would speak into Matthew’s present-day situation. How do disciples find the courage to live faithfully in a context where clear lines are surfacing between Jews who are part of the “Jesus movement” and Jews who aren’t, especially in a context where the first type of Jew could be persecuted by the Romans? The ultimate “End Time” that Jesus is purportedly addressing in the discourse is likely blurred with a proximate “End Time” for displaced, persecuted Jews who are realizing their allegiance to Jesus means they are no longer welcome in the synagogue.

As much as my skin crawls at the imagery of gnashing teeth, I am more empathetic to Matthew’s use of the terms when it is placed in the context of a literal struggle for survival.  Perhaps it is part of our unredeemed human nature to create binaries in which we find tend to make ourselves superior. Certainly this tendency is exacerbated when we feel threatened. Fear is a powerful motivator. (There are so many examples from our political life today; I don’t need to cite them.) This parable is one of several in this discourse that use judgement scenes almost as a trope to convey skills, dispositions, virtues  that disciples need as they wait the End Time when the Kingdom of Heaven is more fully realized.[3]

So now for my final negative knee-jerk reaction to this parable: that my parishioners will hear it the context of present-day global economics and believe Jesus encourages us to make good financial investments. Again, one-to-one equivalences distract us from the harder work of struggling with the parable’s meaning. In God’s economy, spiritual gifts, “talents,” grow when they are used and given away freely for the benefit of others here and now, not when they are controlled for some future “use,” as can happen with financial investments, endowments, etc.

The slaves don’t “earn” the money and certainly never lay claim to owning it. They are given the money each “according to their ability,” resulting in different amounts. This resonates with Jesus’ earlier parable in chapter 13 about the sower getting different yields.  We aren’t all given the same spiritual gifts, and we don’t all produce spiritual fruit in equal quantities. The master knows how much each slave is capable of stewarding well, and the slaves are accountable to the master for using what they’ve been given. The two who use their talents, who serve the master, find benefit for themselves (“enter into the joy of your master”). The one who doesn’t experiences “consequences,” as my father would say after I disobeyed him.

A question to wrestle with, and which might be an excellent topic for a sermon, is why the third slave buries the talent. If the third slave knew his master liked a return on the talents and was afraid of him, why wouldn’t the slave have sought even a modest return? Was he paralyzed by fear? Was he captive to his own desire for security and control? Was he just lazy and taking the “easy way” out? The master knew he was capable of doing more than he did but the opportunity for doing good (using spiritual gifts to strengthen the community) passed him by, and there were consequences of this inaction. Another possible angle for preaching is to look at how human beings respond in the context of fear. Does fear, say in this political climate, make us more timid to speak our minds, to use our gifts? Does fear make us more passive in the face of harsh, unjust powers? Which is harder in the long run:  hiding our talents and being cast into outer darkness or taking the risk to use our gifts and claim our voice even though we can’t fully control the outcome?

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in the Mountains in Haywood County, North Carolina. When not thinking, reading, or writing about spiritual leadership, missional priorities, sermons, or pastoral care, she chases two kids, a cat, and a husband around Lake Junaluska and other beautiful spots.



[1] The conclusion to Amy Jill-Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus elaborates on this point.

[2] Hauerwas, Stanley.  Matthew.  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. p. 203.

[3] This is the thrust of Hauerwas’ argument.  Ibid. pp. 201 -212.

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Proper 27(A): The Unexpected Parable

Matthew 23:1-13

By: The Rev. David Clifford

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.”[1] For Crossan, Jesus uses common and traditional – “expected” – formatting, but “dramatic content” and “unexpected contrast[2]

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.[3]

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

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.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. HarperOne, 2012. Pg. 109.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Footnote 1 above.

All Saints’ Day: Broken Saints

All Saints Day: Broken Saints

Matthew 5:1-12

By: Chris Clow

I have to admit, it’s been a little more difficult than I would have thought to know what to say for All Saints Day. The stereotypical Catholic thing would be to say that I love the saints, and, I mean, it’s not like I don’t. I do love the saints, and I think that as disciples, we are called to be saints. It’s just that, after thinking that, it gets complicated.

To begin with, I’m named after a fake saint (how appropriate for the age we live in now).  Well, that’s a bit unfair. I suppose it’s better to say I’m named after a saint that has a lot of out there legends said about him, and we aren’t even sure if he really existed or not. Poor Christopher, it’s not his fault. So, I suppose #maybefakesaint? I guess that doesn’t help me to a good start.

I always had the impression growing up that the saints were these great models of faith and morals, people who show us what it’s like to be a disciple, people who really got it. And thinking about that now, today, honestly, it freaks me out. These are people who founded huge orders and organizations, who spread the faith to far off lands, performed miracles (and not just like finding a parking spot when you’re running late for work, you know, miracle miracles). They did crazy, wonderful, huge things in the name of the Lord, and lived incredible lives. St. Francis Xavier dreamed of bringing the faith to China. I dream of occasionally having a day off. Even when I try to do awesomely good things, I (to paraphrase St. Paul) screw it up and do something wrong instead. Often times I can’t conjure up enough faith to not be frustrated with my co-workers, or my students, or myself, much less move mountains around. What kind of saint can I hope to be?

Also, by the way, a lot of them were killed for their faith. Also, by the way, a lot of them were virgins. Not. My. Preference.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is famous. Everyone seems to love this one: “Oh, it’s the Beatitudes! How wonderful!” Maybe everyone else has figured out something I haven’t, but I have to wonder if we’re reading the same passage, because when I hear it, it doesn’t sound like I’m in the “blessed” category. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m closer to the opposite.

“Blessed are the meek?” I’ve got quite the temper, and I can get angry and frustrated, which while we’re at it also ruins the whole “Blessed are the merciful,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” thing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who cling to God with their whole lives and depend on God for everything because they find in God all they need? Nope, not there yet. I love my stuff way too much.

“Hunger and thirst for righteousness?” I mean, I certainly try to try and do that. But I tend to not be hungry and thirsty for very long (in all senses of the phrase).

“Clean of heart?” Yeah, not really, if I’m honest.

“Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me?” I’m too scared to make a post on Facebook that might be deemed “too political,” even when my own bishops aren’t afraid to, because I don’t want any negative blowback. Yeah, definitely not me.

So, am I missing something here? I’m constantly fall short, I’m nowhere close to being blessed if this Gospel passage is what we should go on, and seeing as how many people love this passage, apparently they’ve all got these attitudes down and I’m the one with a problem. So am I screwed?

Well, no. I actually don’t think so. And I have the saints to thank for that. See, what I love most about the saints isn’t their steadfast holiness. I love the saints precisely because they remind me of myself at times.

The saints, holy women and men, are also unfailingly human and flawed. I mean, just look at some of these people: Peter and Paul weren’t angels. Peter denied the Lord, and Paul supported killing disciples. Both saints. Augustine, that great Doctor of the Church, was a womanizer, and probably set our sexual morality back 500 years because of his problems.  He’s a saint. Katherine Drexel, a more recent American saint, was filthy rich; she was definitely in the 1% (at least at the start). She’s a saint.

Even a very recent saint, Saint Pope John Paul II – the pope of my youth, the first Polish pope (!), the one I chanted “JP2 – we love you” to with almost a million teens during World Youth Day – made papal visits a thing and went to 129 countries during his lifetime, expanding the positive impact the pope could make, and had many great teachings, such as being a staunch peace advocate. He also presided over the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, and appointed the bishops and cardinals who passed the buck on it. He’s a saint, too.

So what’s the deal here? These people were all screw-ups, right? Yes, they were – that’s the point. The saints were all wonderful, faulty, flawed people, just like we are, whose love of God and trust in their faith endured alongside their human failings. They weren’t always embodying the Beatitudes perfectly either. But that didn’t stop them from trying. As complicated and as broken as some of the saints are, they still had faith which carried them through, and even with their brokenness allowed them to strive to serve God and others.

That’s a model I can follow after. And so, if we don’t see ourselves in the Beatitudes very easily, maybe we need to learn how to become more like those mentioned. To literally be with and stand with those who are in the Beatitudes. When we stand with and walk beside those who are meek, those who show mercy, the peacemakers, the persecuted, those who are poor (both in spirit and in physical need), we will begin to see the God that we’ve heard about come alive in our midst. If we want to come to know God better, we should start by knowing those whom God has deemed blessed.

We’ll fail, sure. We’ll fall short. But we can always get back up and keep trying. That is the ultimate mark of the saints we remember today. We can still be saints if we’re broken. It might as well be a requirement.


Chris Clow

Chris Clow is a campus minister and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. When he isn’t composing music or begging college students to sing in the choir, he likes to play games of all sorts, watch his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, enjoy a good beer (or 2 or 3, depending on how the Cards fare that day), and spend time with his wife Emily and the ever growing number of pets in their house.

Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Proper 25(A): The Meaning of Life

Matthew 22:34-46

By: The Rev. Caleb Tabor

Matthew 22:34-46 is the last in a string of questions the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been asking Jesus. Earlier on in 22:15, Matthew says that the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said, meaning they wanted to get him debate them with the goal of getting himself into trouble by saying the wrong thing (politics and religion have changed so little). They pursue this with the Sadducees, who have no real affections for Jesus either.

First up to bat are the Pharisees, who ask Jesus a question about taxes, to which Jesus responds with the famous, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s (or something like that). Later on than this, but still before Proper 25’s focus text, the Sadducees come and ask him a complicated question about levirate marriages in order to get him to, in a roundabout way, admit that there is no resurrection (because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection). Jesus wasn’t having much of that either. So he responded, then sent them on their way, leaving the crowd astounded.

To me, the Pharisees and Sadducees here always come across like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court in Exodus, trying to go toe-to-toe with Moses, but can’t quite squeeze a win out of it. Now, we get to our focus text and the last of the tricks up the local leaders’ sleeves. In their final quip here they ask Jesus which commandment of the Law is the greatest. I’m always reminded here of Conan the Barbarian who was asked a similar question: “what is best in life? Conan responded something like: “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” The Pharisees and Sadducees seem to be more in Conan the Barbarian’s camp rather than Jesus the Messiah’s. Jesus responded very differently. He went for two quotations from the Hebrew Bible. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The first bit about loving God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all soul, and with all your might. In Deuteronomy’s context it is the establishment of the requirement of loyalty to the LORD, the God of Israel (whom readers have just been informed is one and will later be told how to do this). The second bit of the Law which Jesus commends as greatest has to do with people and comes from Leviticus 19:18: “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. Jesus goes on to say that on this hangs all the law and the prophets. All of the big, important stuff about God and people and the relationships among these respective parties can be boiled down to a threefold love—love of God, love of neighbor, love of self.

It was hard to argue with this, even though the Pharisee who asked was a lawyer, so it seems as if they just let it go. What stands out most to me in all of this is that as Jesus is winding down his ministry (this comes after his entrance into Jerusalem) he is getting to the point. He is also done with taking a bunch of trick questions and dealing with the same old antagonism from the same old folks. He goes on after this to give nothing less than a scathing criticism of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees and Sadducees just wanted to play games. They wanted to use theology as a weapon against Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t having it. He gave constant deflections and in the process let us all know what is best in life, and it isn’t war or defeating one’s enemies (sorry Conan!), it’s love.

There are a lot of times in life when a lot of folks will turn this commandment of love into another kind of Pharisaic trick. I know that in my own experience as a queer person I’ve often been given the false choice of loving God or loving myself.  Plenty of folks tried to convince me that I could love God and hate my sexual orientation, or I could love my sexual orientation and hate God. Theological entrapment.

Another example of this comes from the congregation in which I work. It is about half African American. A lot of the older black folks in the congregation recall having the Bible used against them as a weapon too, with white preachers and local leaders harkening to Scripture to twist and turn it, trying to wring out of it a definitive statement that people of color were less than whites, and to justify their segregation and marginalization, much as their white forebears did in defense of the institution of slavery.

In both the case of the social oppression of the queer and black communities (both of which have had a lot of media recent media coverage due to the Nashville Statement and the violence in Charlottesville respectively), people want to use God as a weapon of oppression or hurt, trying to entrap people in it rather than letting them be liberated by it.

A final thought on what speaks to me from the text today is that I really relate to Jesus’ position here. I can’t tell you the number of times that people have approached me to “just discuss” the issue of queerness and religion in order to basically entrap me. What offers a lot of hope to me as one who still continues in this kind of struggle is that when Jesus was cornered and confronted with religion in this way, his response was ultimately that loving God and loving one’s neighbor and loving oneself is the highest calling in life. The hope here is that he did not let the struggle with the local leaders break his spirit or distract him from the core of his message. This threefold love is the measure against which all Christians must measure their lives. It is the core of the Gospel. It is, more or less, not just what is best in life, but perhaps even the meaning of life itself.

The Rev. Caleb Tabor

The Reverend Caleb Tabor is Vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a bilingual congregation in Oxford, North Carolina. He was educated at Elon University, Emory University, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Originally from North Carolina, he has settled down close to home in Carrboro, North Carolina where he lives with his husband Logan. Theology, coffee, creative writing, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are just a few of the things keep him occupied in his spare and not-so-spare time.

Proper 24(A): Show Me the Coin

Proper 24(A): Show Me the Coin

Matthew 22:15-22

By: The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

It is clear they are setting up Jesus. If Jesus states that taxes are lawful, he would lose the attention of the poor and the crowd who have been oppressed by the Roman’s tax system. However, if Jesus speaks against the Roman taxes, the Pharisees would have Jesus’ head served on a platter. Aware of their malice, Jesus replied to them: “Show me the coin used for the tax.”

All of us, or at least a great majority of us, pay taxes and pay our dues to our government. However, I always wonder about what belongs to God. Are we aware and do we understand what we should give back to God?

According to the book of Genesis, God is the creator and master of all. The first paragraph of the first book of the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (New International Version). Such depiction is mirrored in the first few prayers that are found in the Eucharistic Prayer C of the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer: “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home… From the primal elements you brought forth the human race…” (BCP, p. 370)

In my tradition (the Episcopal Church), we proclaim that we are a sacramental church. By “sacramental,” we mean that we observe the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as well as the sacramental rites: Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Reconciliation of a Penitent, and Unction. These practices remind us that life in itself is sacred, divine, and holy. Life comes from God and therefore life is sacred.

As I have written in previous essays for Modern Metanoia, my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Tester, and I just gave birth to our first son, Ezekiel (Zeke). Early on during the pregnancy, Zeke was diagnosed with Spina Bifida (SB), a birth defect in the baby’s spinal cord. As we were told about Zeke’s diagnosis, I was deeply saddened. I felt lost and disappointed. I could not comprehend how a sacred life could be born with SB. I paid my dues to “Caesar,” I paid my dues to God, and yet Zeke was going to be born with SB.

Hours after his birth, while standing in the NICU a nurse asked me if I wanted to hold Zeke. Unsure how to hold him without hurting him and causing him discomfort, I put my arms around him and took a good look at his big blue eyes. For a second I remember Victor Hugo’s line from his famous novel Les Misérables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Regardless of my disappointments and frustrations with his diagnosis, as I embraced him I realized how much I loved him and I realized he was perfect, he was sacred, and he was my Zeke.

As this realization set in, I remembered another line from Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). At that moment, I realized that Zeke, Elizabeth, and I belong to God.

We are to pay to Caesar what is due Caesar, for the image printed in the coin is Caesar’s, but we also are to give to God what is due God. In the face of every individual we encounter in this world, we encounter the image of God. In the same way that we are to pay our taxes to Caesar, we are also to pay God by loving our neighbor, by respecting each other, and by forgiving and asking for forgiveness. Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and give to God what is due God. Zeke is now 5 months old and he is a constant reminder of God’s love for us.

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo

The Rev. Oscar A. Rozo is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin (Diocese of Milwaukee). Oscar is originally from Bogota, Colombia and moved to the U.S. in 2004. He now lives in Wisconsin with his wife, The Rev. Elizabeth Tester, their 5 month old son Ezekiel (Zeke), their puppy Amos, and kitty Batsheva.