It is jarring to read this scripture for Reign of Christ Sunday—the only characters here proclaiming Jesus as reigning over anything are doing so mockingly. Here we see Jesus humiliated. Here we see the Human One derided. Here we see the Messiah lynched. Hardly a fitting read for a day when we proclaim the universal Lordship of this figure. So then, what does it mean that “Jesus is Lord?” Just what type of “reign” are we talking about here?
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth he stood in front of the community of faith that had known him since childhood and declared precisely what this reign would look like:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the prisoners
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To liberate the oppressed,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
His home congregation, the very people who helped raise him, the ones in whose homes he played as a child, the ones who had watched him grow, the ones who had more cause to love him than any others, heard this and sought to throw him off a cliff.
Liberation of the oppressed is extremely popular in theory and rarely popular in practice because it means that those who benefit from injustice relinquish some of those benefits for the sake of others. And yet, this is precisely the path of salvation that Jesus offers us—in rejecting an unjust system for love of another the privileged also find release from a noxious system and reconciliation with the other. Sadly, we can’t delude ourselves into imagining that hostility toward the liberation of the Gospel was limited to the political and religious elite. It was the mob filled with average working citizens who called for Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ execution. The fear of change often overrides the distaste of the status-quo, even when the status-quo is killing us.
Jesus’ entire ministry was spent announcing and living out a way of being that was an alternative to exclusion, alienation, and violence. He spent his life among the poor, the sick, the enslaved, thieves, criminals, and hypocrites. Jesus traveled the provinces challenging established religious, political, and social structures and the powers that upheld them in the service of liberation and everywhere he went he was met with hostility. As Fr. Richard Rohr points out, Jesus was killed much more for his world-view than his God-view.
We know all of this and yet we find ourselves once again confounded by Christ, the Lord on the lynching cross, because we still hold onto the same belief of the soldiers and the criminal—that those with God’s favor will be spared from suffering and injustice. But that’s not the way God works. Our suffering had to be entered into, our injustice had to be faced. Liberation does not come from afar, reconciliation is not impersonal, and an unjust system cannot be upended from the outside. As his last act on earth Jesus witnesses to his alternative way of being by offering comfort to his fellow condemned and forgiveness to his executioners; both of whom are also victims of the powers of state and religion.
If we are to witness to the reign of Christ in any meaningful way, we must likewise enter into the suffering of others with love and the confidence that God goes with us. Because of the crucified and risen Lord we can proclaim the Kingdom of God which stands as an alternative to the economic, political, and religious systems that depend on division, exclusion, and violence. There will be pushback. There will always be pushback when we promote significant changes to established systems. So don’t be surprised when you upset people—they killed Jesus for it, and I’m not sure we should expect better treatment—but that’s the way of our Lord.
The Rev. Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is a graduate of Clemson University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He is looking forward to being commissioned as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church in June. When he is not engaging in holy mischief, he can be found sampling craft beers with friends at local breweries, reading, or singing Baby Shark with his wife Rachael to the delighted squeals of their toddler Iris.
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
–“Ozymandias,” by Percy Shelly
This poem by Percy Shelly describes an ancient statue of a once-mighty king who was filled with his own sense of importance and grandeur. Ages ago, the statue was a splendid and awe-inspiring figure, but deteriorated over time until it was nothing more than a ruin. None of Ozymandias’s works remain for us to see and the nation he once took pride in is gone. The gold he had and whatever works he accomplished had vanished long ago leaving behind nothing more than an obscure name on a broken statue, covered by the sands of time. Ozymandias is a haunting a reminder of the impermanence of this world, and perhaps that is the same lesson Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in this Gospel.
Jesus had just told the Disciples not to be taken in by appearances – that the few coins a poor widow offers has more spiritual value than wealth given out of abundance – but, as they travel through the city, the disciples are captivated by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, and are awe-struck by the ostentatious display of wealth. Jesus tries to snap them out of it and prophesizes that dark events are on the horizon; they will be arrested and persecuted, and nations will rise up against each other. There will be earthquakes, famines, plagues and dreadful signs from heaven until, at last, the temple is torn down and every stone ripped apart. With such a grim and dismal future ahead, the disciples would have every reason to give up if Jesus’s prophesy stopped. But Jesus continues with the most important part of his message: “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Jesus essentially tells the disciples: ‘Regardless of how bad things get, I am with you. Life is going to get hard, but don’t lose hope.’ Over the years I find myself needing this reminder more and more often. Throughout life there are times when it seems like everything is falling apart and there is nothing left to hope for. As I write this, there are news reports about a possible impeachment and the continued dysfunction of our nation’s political system. A new study has been released stating that climate change is accelerating far more quickly than previously thought; in fact, surpassing previous estimates. Last summer the world watched in shock as the Notre-Dame burned; as, in less than a day, nearly a thousand years of history went up in smoke.
With so much dysfunction and brokenness in the world, I sometimes find myself getting lost in cynicism and wondering what the point of it all is. Why bother building up when someone else can come along and rip it all down? It’s times like these I need to be reminded that the value is in the effort itself, not the outcome. The Temple may have been destroyed, but the wailing wall is still a holy place for billions of people. Notre-Dame may have burned, but countless lives have been enriched during the thousand years it stood. Jesus’s words to the disciples in this gospel remind me that even when it looks like the world is in chaos, there is always hope. It reminds me that God is always with his people and meets us where we are, regardless of how broken our world becomes.
This Gospel is not just a reminder that the world is impermanent and nothing we build will last, but also a reminder of where to put our hope. It is a proclamation that God’s faithful love remains with us even when everything around us is falling apart. In the times we are left shocked and bewildered, and the things we’ve trusted in are suddenly gone, we remember that our hope doesn’t reside in this world. Our hope is based on God’s love for us and nothing more. The only thing that is constant in this world is God’s continued love for us. It seems an appropriate reminder as we prepare for “Christ the King” Sunday. While everything in the world just seems to be so awful so much of the time, I need to be reminded that it’s all being held in the palm of God’s hand. Christ does not promise us that life is going to be easy; if anything, he warns us that our immediate future will be harder if we follow him, but the eternal rewards will be unimaginable. If, like Ozymandias, all our work is forgotten or torn apart, we remain in hope because God’s faithfulness is eternal.
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff is the Assistant Priest at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Southport, North Carolina. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with his wife Chana and their two dogs Molly and Momo. In his free time, he enjoys reading, going on hikes, spending time with his family and playing chess (poorly).
In the introduction to his book “Sex God,” Rob Bell assures us that “this” really is about “that”—meaning that the book really is about sex, even if it the particular chapter or section didn’t seem to be. It was a particularly good point to make at the beginning of the book because sometimes I found myself reading and asking was “this” really about “that”? And I find myself asking the same thing here: was the Sadducees’ question really about “this”? And was Jesus’ answer really about “that”?
I’m not talking about sex here (although I’m sure there is a commentary out there that does, given that the institution of marriage and sexual intercourse were so tightly bound during this time and in this culture.) But I do want to know what the Sadducees are getting at. Are they asking about marriage? If so, is this an intellectually curious question that has no real answer since we have no idea about the laws of marriage in the next life. Are they asking about resurrection? If so, are they honestly asking or seeking to undermine the teachings of Jesus since they do not believe in resurrection (verse 27)?
Is this some sort of mega-Schrödinger situation in which the woman is both dead and alive and also married to one brother and all of the brothers?
And then there is Jesus’ answer. What is he getting at? Does he adequately answer the question or is this one of those situations where Jesus seems to know more than we do and acts counter to what we would think he would do?
Is this question really about that? Is the answer really addressing that?
Let’s crack these hypotheticals by looking at the person of Luke. This story is included in both Matthew (22:23-33) and Mark (12:18-27), but Luke leaves out something that is included by both Matthew and Mark. In the other two gospels, Jesus begins his response by calling into question the Sadducees’ knowledge of both Scripture and the power of God. Luke probably doesn’t include this little detail because he is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, while the others are writing to primarily Jewish audiences. Instead, Luke begins Jesus response by saying “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage but those who are considered worthy of a place in that and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (v. 34-35)
Jesus’ answer is about this and that.
But the ‘this’ and ‘that’ isn’t marriage.
The ‘this’ and ‘that’ is life and death.
“Let’s step away from the hypothetical and into what matters,” says Jesus. Stop asking about a situation that probably never happened and start looking at one that happens everyday. Start asking about the difference between death and life. That is what the Sadducees were missing, and maybe that is what Jesus was referring in those interlinear passages found in Matthew and Mark. Resurrection is throughout the Scriptures; somehow the Sadducees have missed it.
And with no resurrection there is no way to escape death.
And with no escape from death, what can we hope for in this life?
And yet, God offers life as an escape from death through Jesus Christ.
And yet Jesus is the resurrection.
The Sadducees needed to stop asking about the letter of the law and start seeing the resurrection right before their eyes. They needed to open their dead eyes and see the life that is offered by Christ. Because things are different between this age and that age. And the difference is that we worship not “the God of the dead but of the living” (v. 38)
And those who worship this God experience life.
And those who are living that life experience death.
There is a difference between this and that. It’s resurrection. It’s Jesus.
The Rev. William Culpepper is an ordained Deacon in the South Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at a church in downtown Macon, Georgia. With a 2 year old daughter and newborn daughter, he and his wife Lindsey have their hands full but wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’ve all been there. You get in the car and decide to listen to the radio for a change. The music that comes on takes you back.
:opening guitar riff, with an overlaid Spanish-inspired horn:
Instantly, you’re transported back to the late 1990s as OMC’s “How Bizarre” blasts over the radio. You might be recalling a lot of things in that moment, but as for me, I was a pre-teen in the midst of news I didn’t quite understand about the President and impeachment. I loved the series Animorphs, which planted the seeds of how to accept those who aren’t like me and to fight controlling and dominating powers, no matter how powerless I felt. Oh, and the series was about human teenagers turning into animals. How bizarre.
But then, it was a bizarre time.
I hadn’t yet thought about racial dynamics and policing, and to tell you the truth, I never really listened to the words of “How Bizarre” until 20-something years later, just last week, when the podcast Switched on Pop did a series on 1990s pop.
“Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front / Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun / Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind / Loud voice booming / Please step out onto the line / Pele preaches words of comfort / Zina just hides her eyes / Policeman taps his shades / Is that a Chevy ’69? / How bizarre.”
With this catchy hit, we all sang along, knowingly or not, to a commentary on race penned by BIPOC: “Every time I look around / It’s in my face.”
You see, it turns out that OMC, the name of the band, stands for Otara Millionaire’s Club. Otara, you might not know, is a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, where the band is from. The community has Māori origins and has historically been inhabited by Māori and other indigenous peoples. Like many communities of color around the world, it has suffered from European colonization and a subsequent lack of resources. Until the mid-2000s, it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, such that OMC had a hard time booking in New Zealand. Thus, along with the commentary on race and policing, even the band’s name, Otara Millionaire’s Club, is a tongue in cheek commentary. OMC flips our expectations upside down and teaches us some serious, life-or-death lessons, all through a catchy, happy little guitar riff overlaid with a horn.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us another catchy, feel good story so familiar that we may miss the words. Or, rather, we get so caught up in the words that we miss their meaning. We see “Pharisee” and immediately think of the people we can’t stand. Maybe we see the religious fundamentalists, or the evangelical right. Maybe we see self-righteous white liberals. Whomever you put in the position of Pharisee, however, if it’s not you, the impact you’re getting from the story is the exact opposite of its intent. This story isn’t about pointing fingers; it’s about realizing how righteous you aren’t. Let’s tell it another way.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two people went up to church to pray. One of them, a Lutheran pastor, loved justice, and was very proud of her stances against racism, sexism, and homophobia. The other was a white, straight Republican. He used to be religious, but now, he wasn’t sure, but here he was anyway. The Lutheran pastor, bowing her head in a corner pew, said this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like the NRA members I know, or the racists, or even this guy. I volunteer twice a week. I protest. I’m part of the resistance. I stand for your justice.” But the other guy, standing far off, wept over the state of the world, not sure what to do about it, but sure he had a part in it. He thought over the times in his past where he’d even said openly racist things, when he’d talked over women, when he’d ignored the violence and injustice in the world. “Oh God,” he cried, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).’”
Let’s be clear: this story isn’t supposed to make you feel like a hero. It’s supposed to make you angry.
The tax collectors in the Roman world were the worst. They were seen as traitors, to God and to their people. They stole from their own people to benefit the empire. However much you can’t stand your political enemies today is at least how angry and betrayed the average person felt about tax collectors in first century Palestine.
This story isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you mad. It’s supposed to turn your expectations upside down and make you take a hard look not only at yourself, but at your perceived enemy. The person who’s supposed to be good comes off looking like an asshole, and the person who’s supposed to be an asshole comes off looking contrite, thoughtful, self-aware, realistic, and ultimately, justified.
I believe that the future of the world depends on how we treat those that we believe have got it all wrong.
This doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the wrongs done by others. I will not engage in spiritual bypassing, saying that if we’re just nice to those we think have it all wrong, that the world will be a better place. The story doesn’t say the tax collector lived happily ever after, either, or that there was never a reckoning for the injustice he caused.
What I am saying is that Jesus has a tendency to take our expectations — of ourselves and other people and the state of the world — and turn them upside down. It’s Christ who pulls the saint out sinners like us. It’s Christ who transforms death into new life.
So all I’m asking is this: let this story surprise you again. Let “How Bizarre” by OMC surprise you. The ending of that song isn’t a happy one, it’s a bizarre one. “Is that a Chevy ’69?” doesn’t solve racism. It just flips our expectations and surprises us and calls us to think more deeply as to why a traffic stop might be terrifying for BIPOC, and why this ending is bizarre and not as commonplace as a far more tragic ending.
The same is true of the publican and the Pharisee; the guy who has it all right actually has it all wrong. Sometimes the familiar songs and stories lay the hardest truths on us.
So let yourself be surprised, preacher. Stand for justice. See the humanity in others, even when they’ve got it all wrong. Pay attention. Notice when your expectations get flipped.
Let yourself say, at least once a day this whole week: how bizarre.
:guitar riff continues:
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary places this parable in the “Jesus’ Gospel to the Rich and Poor” section of Luke. This section moves from stories of the “son of man” in chapter 17 to a focus on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom and the contrast between rich and poor in 18 and 19. This parable connects the rich and poor with prayer in a way that is not done in the other gospels.
The parable tells us from the beginning that its purpose is to show the disciples that they “should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1 NIV).” That is, they should pray persistently. We are given the tale of a widow, a woman with no power and likely no money, who goes before a judge who does not fear (has no reverence) God, and who has no respect for other people. We do not know what the widow is going before the judge about—perhaps it is about getting what she is owed from her late husband’s estate or for care in the community—either way the judge is not interested in hearing her case.
In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the community was expected to take care of widows and orphans and it was the calling of a judge to give members of the community a fair hearing (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). The widow is persistent in her search for justice and repeatedly goes to the judge demanding he grant her justice. He comes to the decision to give her justice, not because he has any respect for her or because he fears God, but because he is tired of hearing from her. Jesus says this judge will give justice because he doesn’t want to have to hear from the widow anymore, and if the judge will do this most basic level of justice then how much more will God do. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them (vs 7-8).”
Upon reading this parable, one cannot help but to picture a small child asking their parent for a toy over and over again until the parent gives in and buys the toy so the child will leave them alone. I remember a time when my brother and I tag team annoyed our parents until we finally wore them down and were given a castle playhouse. Is that the lesson of this parable? Go to God over and over again in prayer until God is worn down by your request and grants it so that God might be able to go back to God’s newspaper? Not likely. I imagine three possible ways to preach this parable that seem to be reflective of the text.
1. Jesus could essentially be saying, “Go ahead and bug God constantly with your prayers. They will be heard, and God will see that justice is done.” We can each imagine a parishioner sitting in a pew shaking their head yes, that it is in constant prayer before God that we get what we have asked for. We can also imagine the parishioner who has just buried their child shaking their head no, because how is the death of a child the just answer to constant prayer? Balancing the way in which we talk about justice as God’s answer to prayer is important, and a skill I have not found a way to attend to wholly.
2. The parable could also be a question of faith. Do you have the faith to search for justice continually, like the widow who demands night and day, day and night for justice to be done? Because God is listening, God is going to act swiftly, and when the Son of Man comes, will he find us searching for justice and holding onto the faith that justice will be done?
3. Finally, the parable could very well be a call to be doers of justice. There is a judge who has power, and is choosing to not use it to help the widow, the disenfranchised of society. There is a widow persistently pursing justice, but unable to find it because of her position in society. Through her constant questioning and nagging the judge gives in and offers justice. He uses his power to serve another’s interests, to bring about justice for someone who otherwise would not find it. Recently, NPR reported about Congress convening after a 5-week recess in which there were (at least) four mass shootings. The report mentioned the March for Our Lives groups, comprised of and led primarily by high school students, who have been marching and leading rallies all over the US demanding action on gun control and an end to gun violence. These young people will not be quiet, they keep demanding justice, and in some places whether because of a change of heart and desire for justice, or to bring about an end to the rallies, changes are being made, because of their persistence. Seemingly powerless teenagers are impacting the way the powerful think and vote, and justice is being done (albeit slowly).
Whether you focus on our need to pray constantly, seek justice, or find ways to be a people of faith, this parable will cause your congregation to pause and think.
 Culpepper, R. The New Interpreter’s Bible : Vol. 9 : The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. Nashville Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995. p 335-339.
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at-risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.
At first glance, this passage is about gratitude: remembering to thank God for the longed-for blessings in our lives. While there’s definitely a rich sermon there, it’s not really the focus of the text. Thanking Jesus is actually a function of recognizing Jesus: all ten lepers call Jesus “master” when they first see him, but only the Samaritan comes back to acknowledge that Jesus’ healing act was a function of his godliness. The lepers who were Jesus’ fellow Israelites know this wandering rabbi has been healing those in need and show him due respect, but the Samaritan—who worships God differently enough to be treated as a “foreigner” (v. 18), literally a non-Jewish outsider—knows that his power is of God and that “to thank Jesus is to glorify God.”
This shouldn’t be a surprising perspective in Luke’s gospel. After all, Luke is particularly concerned with demonstrating that the Son of God has come not just to the Hebrews, but to everyone: “Whereas Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy to Abraham, father of the Jewish people,” notes Mark Abbott, “Luke goes back to Adam, parent of us all.” And Luke is the evangelist most concerned with showing Jesus’ affinity for women, the poor, gentiles, and other outsiders. It’s the outsider here who sees Jesus for who he really is, turning back to throw himself at Jesus’ feet while praising God. In doing so, he signifies not just that Jesus has come for all but that those on the margins are the most likely to perceive God working through him, while the insiders (even, paradoxically, the leprous ones) miss the memo, preferring to work within the confines of the established institution.
Where are we guilty of the same myopia—of assuming that Jesus’ healing will be restricted to the four walls of our congregations, or of discounting the voices of those outside our communities because they point to a Jesus who doesn’t fit within our vision?
My friend Matthew has been homeless for the last twenty years. A devout Catholic, Matthew spent several years living on the streets of Boston before he visited a local seminary to share his conviction that churches should always be open, particularly as places of sanctuary for the homeless. He connected with professors and students, including my spouse, and people started asking him to share his message and his artwork at other seminaries, churches, and colleges. He is still without a permanent home, moving between the homes of his pastor friends and preaching the gospel of a homeless Jesus and of unlocked church doors.
I have to admit, his message challenges me. On a gut level, I’m on board: he’s right that we worship a savior who was himself homeless throughout his earthly ministry (Luke 9:58), a savior we are told we are welcoming whenever we provide shelter to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). And as a former staffer at a day shelter, I’ve never had a problem connecting my faith to my fundamental belief that housing is a human right. Churches should be open to those without a place to stay.
But our church houses a daycare which requires us to maintain stringent practices about who has access to the building. Maintenance and energy costs go up when your building is being used by more people more of the time. And getting your congregation on board with using your building as a shelter for those in need, let alone staffing and resourcing such a ministry, is no easy feat. I’ve daydreamed about bringing Matthew’s message of open doors to our church council, and for a host of very responsible reasons, I can’t see how we would find our way to making it a reality.
Yet every time I pull our sanctuary door shut to make sure it’s locked on my way out of our building, I think of Matthew.
Who is the Matthew in your setting? Who is challenging you to acknowledge divine authority beyond your institution? Who is the tenth leper, the foreigner who recognizes exactly who Jesus is and who proclaims the healing, restorative work he’s doing outside the church while the rest of us go about business as usual? Whose prostration and profuse gratitude to God, though it might embarrass or provoke you, might also be pointing you to the One laboring in your midst?
A few months ago while he was staying with us, Matthew came to Wednesday night Bible study. Our text that night was also from Luke, about the rich ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life: “You lack only one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come follow me.” (Luke 18:22) Matthew was silent for most of the evening, listening to us debate semantics about whether Jesus really meant the ruler should give up his material possessions, whether we’re really called to such a radical discipleship. At the very end of Bible study, he asked us a question that put us in the place not of the ruler, where we’d been all night, but of one of the many servants or tenants who must have made the ruler’s life possible. He offered us the outsider’s perspective. And we looked around at each other and realized we’d been guilty of the same myopia as the nine lepers: mistaking the established, the accepted, the traditionally authoritative for the holy.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says to the Samaritan; “your faith has made you well.” (v. 19) Typically Jesus says these words before a bodily healing has taken place, implying that what has been cured is not simply a physical ailment, but a spiritual fragmentation no doubt linked to the trauma of living on the margins of a society not able or willing to adapt to those living with disease or disability. In this instance, Jesus’ words to the tenth leper alone beg the question of whether the nine others missed out on a complete healing, and if so, what their spiritual fragmentation consisted of. They also beg the question of us: what is broken within us when we can’t see Jesus at work apart from where we expect him to be? And how might we go about fixing that brokenness – or, more accurately, inviting Jesus to fix it?
We might start, as Matthew suggested, with getting to know the outsider, of familiarizing ourselves with their journeys beyond our familiar confines. Because it is only through the eyes of the outsider – through the eyes of the one leper who saw Jesus clearly enough to thank him – that the whole picture of Jesus emerges.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a run, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.
My grandmother was an extraordinarily good cook! She canned green beans in the summer, she made homemade fried apple pies with apples from the orchard, and she opened up a veritable restaurant at major holidays, making sure that no guest of hers would ever have wonder if there would be enough food.
My childhood summers were spent at my grandmother’s house—along with just about every day after school—and it was during these special times that she transmitted to me the sacred art of cooking. While we may think it unusual now, my grandmother was not unlike most women of her generation, in that she never followed a recipe and refused to measure anything—ever! But after each savory dish and every freshly-baked confection had been prepared, came the moment—the moment when my grandmother took out two forks and she and I conducted the holy and solemn taste test!
Warm, flaky crusts; tender, juicy cuts of meat; perfect casseroles. And yet, no matter how delicious or how perfect a dish was, my grandmother always saw room for improvement. “If it just had a little of this…” or “If only I had used a pinch more of that…”
Although we may not do it when cooking, I think that all of us are guilty of the “if only’s” from time to time. “If only I made a bit more money, then things would be okay…” or “If only I could get to the gym more often and lose that extra 20 pounds, then things would turn around…” or “If only I had a better job, then maybe I could catch a break.” Although these thoughts may give us some degree of comfort, and while they may even contain some degree of truth, we often allow them to seep into our lives of faith, as well.
Here in Luke’s Gospel, even the disciples aren’t immune! “If only I had a pinch more faith, then I could live up to God’s commandments.” Or “If only I had a smidgen more trust, then I could get rid of my anxiety.” And we can’t really blame the disciples; after all, for weeks we’ve heard Luke’s Gospel tell us of all that being a follower of Jesus entails. We can’t help but ask ourselves: if Jesus’ hand-picked followers can’t get it right, where do we stack up?
After all, who among us hasn’t felt the way the disciples feel: overwhelmed by the demands that are placed on us in order to be “good Christians,” not sure we’re up to the task, and frankly a little worried about what exactly we signed up for in the first place? And after hearing Luke’s Gospel over the past several months and reading today’s passage, I suspect that more than a few of us are thinking, “Well…maybe this whole disciple thing isn’t for me after all.”
Need time to bid farewell to family and friends? You’re unfit for the Kingdom! Love your parents and spouses and children and siblings and life itself? You can’t be Jesus’ disciple! Not sure about giving up all of your possessions? Sorry, the Kingdom isn’t for you.
Can’t uproot trees and cast them into the sea using nothing but your faith? Sorry, you don’t have enough faith.
When we place our lives of faith on a scale or a rubric, looking for a particular quantity or degree, we will always come up short. For many churches, this text comes in the midst of a stewardship campaign. Nowhere are we more susceptible to placing our lives of faith on a scale or rubric than during pledge season! When we reduce stewardship to an amount or a percentage of our total budget, we come up short! Think about it: If I asked you precisely how many minutes I need to spend in prayer per day; or precisely how often I need to come to church; or precisely how many hours I need to spend serving others in order to be a faithful Christian, you’d probably think I was crazy! These are not quantitative questions! So it is with our faith and our generosity.
Of course, every institution has a financial reality that must be accounted for, but the primary goal of the Church is to make Christians more faithful and more generous—and these are not questions of rubrics or percentages or degrees; they are questions about a way of being! And even the simplest things, done in faith, or the smallest acts of generosity can have an enormous impact!
Imagine the congregation that will hear your sermon. Consider all of the good done every week by the people in your pews. Invite the congregation to imagine with you. Then imagine what last week would have been like if all of that never happened. What would our lives be without all of the wonderful deeds of faith and generosity done by our communities of faith?
What Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples—both then and now—is that having faith and being generous aren’t about quantities or rubrics or degrees; they’re about allowing ourselves to be completely transformed by God. We are, as Jesus says, “worthless slaves,” not because we don’t have value and worth before God, but because God owes us nothing! And that means that we are called to the banquet of the Kingdom of God, not because of our labors or our status or our merits, but because of who we are! And more importantly, because of the One to whom we belong! Imagine what might happen if, instead of acting as though faith and generosity were measurable in quantities or the number of miracles or percentages, we were transformed into the reality that even the most ordinary acts can be blessed by God and made extraordinary!
Far too often, Christians are made to believe that a deed of faith means a mission trip or building a new school or sending armies of volunteers and supplies to rebuild in the wake of disasters. Don’t get me wrong—those things are extraordinary deeds of faith, and they are incredibly important. But important deeds of faith and generosity are also right here in front of us—showing simple kindness in the grocery store, remembering to be patient when things don’t go our way, and being mindful of the fact that everyone is entitled to a bad day every now and then.
Little by little, what we believe to be tiny, mustard seed-sized deeds of faith, add up! And before we know it, mountains are moved; trees are uprooted and cast into the sea; and we discover that what we have long imagined to be impossible turns out to be possible with God! Although we may be tempted to think of mustard seed as those small round pellets that come in our spice racks, in Jesus’ time, mustard could actually be dangerous! The thing about mustard—particularly wild mustard—is that it is incredibly difficult to control! And once it takes root, it can take over an entire area—polluting and eroding even the most well-managed gardens and fields. It was the first-century version of Kudzu!
To paraphrase the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, mustard seed isn’t just any weed. It’s an invasive and dangerous plant that takes over everything. It’s the kind of thing that you would want only in small and carefully-controlled doses—that is, if you could control it at all! That’s the kind of faith that Jesus invites us to live into—the kind of faith that can’t be controlled and managed and contained.
William Stafford was one of 20th century America’s great poets. In his poem, “The Way It Is,” Stafford likens faith to a thread. Listen to his words:
There’s a thread that you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it’s hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old.
The faith that we have been given is a gift. We make a mistake when we spend all of our time trying to measure it or shield it from harm or worry that others may have more of it than we do. Our call is to use it—wherever we are and however we can. Because even the smallest deeds of faith can grow beyond your wildest dreams!
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 278-279.
 William Stafford, “The Way It Is,” in Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, ed. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 11.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.