Since 2016, this blog has published more than 360 essays by dozens of Millennial scholars, preachers, teachers, and lay leaders from across the Church and across the world. If I may take such a moment of personal privilege, it has been a delight and an honor to work on this project in these past years. As with everything in life, however, new seasons bring new changes. Although the blog will remain published (at least for now), this essay will be the blog’s last. I, along with many of our authors, am entering a different season of ministry, where new priorities are requiring my focus and energy. But enough about me…
About fifteen years ago, I was home from my first year of seminary, and the Episcopal church in my hometown was hosting a brief morning Eucharist to observe Thanksgiving Day (in The Episcopal Church, Thanksgiving Day is considered a “major feast”). My brother, who was also home from college, and I decided to attend. I must admit, it was the first time I had ever even thought about going to church on Thanksgiving. I’m glad I went!
Thanksgiving is not unlike other Federal Holidays (ahem…Columbus Day), in that it is accompanied by a certain saccharine nostalgia that works as a thin veil over blatant colonialism, racism, and oppression. But for Christians, there is an opportunity for a bit of rehabilitation and reconciliation for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is the one day of the year where life stops for the sole purpose of gratitude. The banks are closed, school is out, businesses are closed, and all attention is turned to the dining room table (and, to a lesser extent, the football field and the parade route in NYC). An essential part of the character of Christians is rooted in gratitude–for one’s family, for one’s friends, for one’s vocation, but ultimately, gratitude for the gift of God’s grace, mercy, and love made known in the face of Jesus Christ.
The truth is that there are those who are worried about what they will eat, or where they will sleep, and the idea that “God will provide” might seem like fickle comfort. But here is where the preacher can do some important work. Gratitude, at least from a Christian perspective, is always tied to action. “I’m grateful for X, therefore, I’m motivated to do Y.” “I’m grateful for the gift of Jesus Christ, therefore, I’m motivated to live a life of faithful obedience.” Therefore, part of our practice of gratitude–of thanksgiving–is to ensure that those in our communities who are worried about where they’ll eat or sleep are provided for.
How might the preacher utilize this moment of thanksgiving to spur the people of God into faithful action?
I promise I’m not going to write an entire essay about this, but I have to begin by saying that for many (most?) traditions, this day is called “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. Even in my own tradition (The Episcopal Church), many churches use those titles for today–although it is technically not in the prayer book or authorized elsewhere. So where did it come from? The short answer is Pope Pius XI declared the last Sunday after Pentecost the feast (actually, a solemnity, but stay with me here) of Christ the King in 1925 and other liturgical traditions followed suit–as most Western Protestants tend to do with the Vatican (but that’s another sermon in and of itself). The longer answer is more sinister. The best analysis I’ve found comes from David Kertzer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Pope and Mussolini. Read it, then decide if you still want to call today “Christ the King” Sunday.
Okay, on with the text!
We find Jesus in the Gospel of John, not in resurrected power and triumph, not transfigured in raiment white, not preaching peace, not showing forth his glory; but rather, unfairly arrested, unjustly accused, and sitting before the Kangaroo Court in Pilate’s headquarters. This is a scene, not of Easter glory, but of Good Friday despair. In fact, the only other time we hear this passage in church is on Good Friday.
John’s Gospel sets the scene for us. Jesus has upset those in charge at the courthouse and the temple by suggesting that they were not doing their jobs. And so, in an effort to maintain their control on the status quo, they killed him. So make no mistake: It wasn’t atheism and anarchy that brought Jesus to the cross and to the tomb. It was good old fashioned law and order in cahoots with religion. Here stands Jesus in the court of Pilate—at the epicenterof the kingdom of thisworld; the kingdom of the status quo—as Pilate asks just what kind of King Jesus is.
“King” is a political term and Pilate is a political person. If Jesus is the King—of the Jews, or of anyonefor that matter—he’s guilty of treason because the Emperor in Rome is the king of everyone, everywhere. But Jesus is well-trained in the art of cross-examination. He answers Pilate’s question, not with a simple yes or no, but by saying, “My Kingdom is not from this world…I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
I wish I could tell you that Jesus’ truth-telling broke open Pilate’s cold and hardened heart to the love of God. But we know it didn’t. I wish I could tell you that Pilate considered all of the evidence and decided to dismiss Jesus’ case. But we know he didn’t. And I wish I could tell you that the world saw Jesus for what he said he was: King of kings and Lord of lords. But we know we didn’t. We know what happens next. Jesus is stripped, beaten, flogged, and made to carry his own cross to the place of his crucifixion, where he died. He came to tell the truth, to lay the world bareby His light, and he did it so well that the kingdom of this world killed him because of it.
Late in the day on that fateful Friday afternoon, when word reached Pilate that the deed was done, I suspect he propped his feet up. Finally, the ugly truth had been silenced! I’d be willing to bet that Pilate and the rest of Jesus’ accusers slept pretty well Friday night, and had a pretty good day on Saturday. But then Sundaycame.
Suddenly, the kingdom of this world stood in the presence of the resurrected Christ, and it is there that we begin to realize that in the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed.
As Dr. King reminds us, although the kingdom of this world employs violence in order to murder the liars, as well as the truth tellers, it cannot murder the lie, nor can it murder the truth. “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I wish I could tell you that if we only loved a little more, and were just a tiny bit more peaceful, and just a pinch more hopeful, that the scales would begin to fall from the eyes of the world, and that things would begin to get noticeably better. But I can’t. All I can tell you is what I believe in my bones to be true: Even when violence and death seem to be winning; even when everything we hold dear seems to be fading away; and even when the world itself seems so very uncertain and hopeless, Christ is still testifying to the truth and calling us to do the same!
Christ is telling the truth of strength through vulnerability; justice through mercy; and power through weakness. Christ the King bears witness to the Kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain unto his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, that love is stronger than hate, and that with God, all things are possible!
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Perfect Mirror” in The Christian Century March 18-25, 1998, p. 283.
For all you liturgy nerds out there, you may have noticed that Year B of the lectionary begins on Advent 1 with Mark 13:24–37 and concludes today (ok, we still have Christ the King Sunday next week, but ignore that for a minute) with Mark 13: 1–8. We begin the liturgical year with the end of Mark’s Little Apocalypse, and we end the year with the beginning of the Little Apocalypse. Perhaps this is just a fluke of the calendar, but I like to think that the editors of the lectionary intentionally decided to keep the cyclical motion of the years moving forward. We begin the year with a promise that no matter how bad things get, Christ still comes into the world, and we end the year with that same promise.
One of my favorite activities to do with adults and youth alike is teaching about apocalypse. When asked to draw an apocalypse or list words that come to mind, I frequently get hoards of zombies roaming nuclear waste-filled roads or ragtag teams of survivors dodging asteroids and alien invaders. Death, destruction, bleakness, and survival of the fittest reign in our post-modern apocalyptic imagination.
In Advent of 2020, I offered an adult education class on Advent and Apocalypse called Have Yourself an Apocalyptic Christmas. Predictably, and with much glee from this millennial priest who loves shaking up the norms, people were horrified by the title. That was the point. Why, when the world is decked out with Santa Claus and angels and presents and bows, do we read the apocalyptic literature of Isaiah and Mark?
At that time, we were in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I, perhaps naively, was holding on to the hope that the pandemic might ease up, if not for Christmas, then for Easter. The end of the world seemed tangible. Of course, the pandemic has not yet eased up, but we’re learning new ways of being church and new ways of following Jesus. The fear and tribulations are real. So are the hopes of days to come.
So, why all this talk of apocalypse then and now? Biblical scholar Michael Gorman explains it this way:
“Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil.”
While a message of impending zombies, aliens, nuclear fallout, and catastrophe does not inspire much hope in the world, when we read the biblical apocalyptic stories imaginatively against the many disasters and oppressive regimes of our own day, we see that the hope of God through Jesus sustains us.
While I see many holding on to this hope, I also see growing division and feuds over whom to trust. Jesus warns his disciples, “beware that no one leads you astray” and further warns them that others will come to speak falsehoods in his name (Mk 13:5–6). How do we dig through the barrage of fearmongering and falsehoods to get to the liberating truth of God’s love? Do we get a vaccine? Which vaccine do we get? Do we mandate masks or ban them? Do we go out with friends, hole up in our homes, or try to find some balance between the two?
One way the church has tried to discern these hard questions is through turning to our practice of listening to the Holy Spirit through worshipping communities where Word and Sacrament reveal the holy in our lives. Put another way, keep on coming to church—in person or online! Keep reading the Bible! Pray! With others! The revelation of the Holy Spirit rarely comes through one individual, but through intentional discernment in community steeped in the love of God.
Jesus also gives us another clue as to where to find the hope of truth. Jesus does not simply say, “there, there. It’ll be alright.” Instead, he acknowledges the suffering and pain in the world and likens it to “the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mk 13:8). In other words, the ways of God are the ways of life, and we do not discount the pain in the world. While the Christian life is always a life of hope, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others when we blindly turn to a Pollyanna optimism that diminishes suffering. We acknowledge the suffering, we lament with those in pain, we do our best to support one another, and we rest in the knowledge that new life is coming in God’s time.
As I’m writing this essay, our church is still trying to figure out how to engage the upcoming program year. How will we do Sunday School when many of our families do not feel safe attending anything in person, and other families are unable to connect with Zoom and other digital platforms? What have we learned from the past year and a half that will sustain us through the uncertainty of storms, pandemic, warfare, and the effects of sin? How will we stand firm in a faith that teaches us that even in the midst of this suffering, God does not abandon us? How will we proclaim the mystery of our faith that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again?
These are questions with which I imagine every church is grappling. In only a few weeks, we will have our Christmas pageants, and they most likely will look different from last year’s, which looked different from previous years. Even so, last year, Christmas came. It will come again this year, and not just because the Hallmark Channel has been insisting since October.
Mark’s Gospel teaches us to prepare for the battle against sin and to do so in the hope and knowledge that God will prevail.
 Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Kindle Edition. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011. Kindle Locations 505-508.
In his commentary on the Book of Hebrews, Tom Long writes, “For those who take ropes and spikes and torches and descend into the murky cave of the Hebrews, there is much about this document we wish we could discover, but our historical lanterns are too dim.” Indeed, Hebrews is something of a mystery for many. The tradition surrounding the writing ascribes its authorship to Paul, but modern Biblical scholars almost unanimously dismiss this claim. It is both similar and different from any other epistle in the New Testament; it’s dense both theologically and linguistically; and the exact audience to which it was written is rather vague. Think about it: addressing a document in the Ancient Near East as “To the Hebrews” is akin to someone today addressing a document “To the North Carolinians.”
Nevertheless, for those willing to meet the challenge, Hebrews offers a depth and richness the likes of which is unsurpassed in the New Testament. Although New Testament scholars may quibble over the precise category into which Hebrews should be assigned, the text is at its heart urgently pastoral and exceedingly timely. We may not know the author’s name, but it is clear that they are a pastor, and there is trouble in the church.
The trouble isn’t situational: nobody appears to be misbehaving, heresy isn’t on the loose among the people, there doesn’t appear to be a rift between the pastor and the people, and there’s no evidence of external persecution threatening harm. It’s far more pervasive than any of that. The trouble is that the people of God have grown apathetic. Marilynne Robinson sums it up beautifully in her novel, Home: “The Sunday-school children were marrying, and the married couples had settled into difficult, ordinary life, and the grave old men and women who had taught the Sunday-school children about bands of angels and flying chariots were themselves crossing over Jordan one by one.” And so, in order to try and ignite a flame from the cooling embers, the pastor launches into a passionate description of the fullness of the Christian life, including the sublime Christological statement here in chapter 9.
The brave preacher might consider offering a multi-week sermon series or teaching series on the Book of Hebrews. Leavened with imagination, and populated with connections to the preacher’s own context, such a series bears enormous potential. I know of no congregation under Heaven where there aren’t at least a few cooling embers that desperately need re-igniting!
 Thomas G. Long, “Hebrews” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 1.
Many of us will be deeply familiar with the story of Job. He is a man who loses everything as part of a divine wager in which the accuser is allowed to take away all of the wealth and privilege that he has been privy to throughout his life. As part of the test, the accuser takes Job’s fortunes, his friends, and even his family. Even Job’s wife tells him that it would be better for him if he would simply curse God and die. (Job 2:9)
Can you even begin to imagine what that must have been like? That everything you ever possessed was taken away and even your family turn their backs on you. They were convinced that Job had done something wrong to bring God’s wrath forth on himself. However, throughout this whole theodicy, that is the experience of the absence of God, it becomes so incredibly clear that this is not the consequence of Job having done something wrong. That was the dominant theology of the day. If you’re wealthy it’s because God has blessed you and if you’re poor then that is because you have sinned and God is punishing you. We still see this theology alive and well in what many refer to as the “prosperity gospel.” In the West, this type of theology is often married with nationalistic pride.
But here in the last chapter of the book we come to this passage that speaks about the restoration of his wealth and his family. The passage tells us that “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job’s life more than his beginning…”
I can’t help but wonder what it truly means to be blessed by God? Is that a life that comes with rich resources? Is it a life that comes easily? Or is it free from defeat or disappointment? I can’t bring myself to hold that any of those things are reflective of what it truly means to be blessed by God. For the sake of transparency, I should own my understanding is shaded by my own experience of life. My experience of life teaches me that not a single one of us escapes this life unscathed by challenges, difficulties, defeats, and disappointments. These things are simply consequences of being ‘alive.’
I’ve met with so many people who are struggling and asking the question of “Why is this happening to me?” It’s a question that many of us struggle with when we’re in these difficult places. We can be tempted to think that it’s because we did something or we didn’t do something we should have. Often, we are in difficult places because we’re alive and managing the struggles and challenges of life is just a part of it.
A wise young woman once said, “Why not me? Why am I so special as to be spared the pains and challenges of life?” I was privileged to know her for a significant chunk of her life and mine. I now find myself asking that question more regularly in the places where I am tempted to ask why instead I wonder why not me?
The last verse of this passage is one that really prompted my imagination. In spite of all the trials and challenges that Job had overcome, the scriptures record that when he died, “He died old and full of days.” (v. 17)
What does it look like to live a life that is “full of days?” I am convinced that it means living our lives to the fullest that we can. It means finding our passions in life and embodying them fully and by doing so to make life full and abundant.
We can see this in the life of artists who give up big careers and lots of money to pursue their art. We see it in the lives of those who devote themselves to the religious life for the sake of the world. We see it in the people who devote their lives to making this world a better place with one act of compassion at a time.
In the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic, I’d be remiss to not mention the men and women who have given their lives to provide care for those who are sick and dying at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “In this life, we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Finding that great love and making it manifest in the world is one of the ways that we can live our lives “full of days.”
What will it look like for you to live your life “full of days?”
Altars are like people: they come in all kinds, and some people concern themselves far too much with how they are dressed.
One altar that made quite the impression was that of my year one field education parish. This church was large and beautiful, and the entire chancel, including the wine-glass pulpit, were made of marble. There was a “Waltar” made of marble and a very large wooden free-standing altar, upon which was carved “In remembrance of me.” Two marble steps up from the rest of the nave and a marble altar rail separated these two holy tables from the rest of the sanctuary. And yes, the altar wore designer clothes. A Tiffany stained glass window of the resurrection overlooked the whole affair, as if the morning sunlight could use some improvement.
Worship at this parish was beautifully done. The music stirred the soul and glorified God. The pastors preached with integrity and verve. The sanctuary overflowed of happy families, and the needs of the community were lifted up in prayer, and the announcements engaged the congregation in mission. The congregation leveraged about one million dollars a year into a vibrant mission and much help for their neighbors. God was—and remains—certainly at work in this big, beautiful, successful church.
James and John could be forgiven for thinking that discipleship was always going to be a “marble chancel” kind of work. They rather audaciously asked Jesus for places of honor at the divine banquet. I’d imagine they thought of themselves resplendent in rich brocades, with a heavenly Tiffany light cast upon them, having heard much of the glory of the Lord. After all, their teacher had been transfigured, and he was going about healing people and multiplying bread. Surely, Jesus brought with him joy and reconciliation. Who wouldn’t want a part of that?
Jesus has strong words for his ambitious disciples. He reminds them that he’s going to the cross, in fairly strong terms: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He pledges that they will share in both, and he’s talking about his death. And also the sacraments.
Both Baptism and Holy Communion are cruciform. In Baptism, we die with Jesus, drowning to sin and rising again to new life. In Holy Communion, we remember that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again,” and we take that paschal mystery into our bodies. We celebrate the forgiveness of sin in both sacraments, and with forgiveness there is eternal life. Yet, it can be easy to forget that in each of these sacraments, there too is death: the death of sin and the death of death itself.
Jesus reminds his disciples that this cruciform pattern defines the Christian life. To follow Jesus is to daily die and rise again. The topsy-turviness of following Jesus overpowers death, and it overpowers social convention along with it. To die to sin is to die to the sin of pride and position. He rightly identifies the Roman customs of status and patronage as contrary to his reign. To become great, he says, you must be a servant. To be highest is to become the most lowly. Jesus does this on the cross.
As church leaders, we find ourselves gathered around the Lord’s supper quite often. It’s easy to believe that the mahogany altar standing on marble steps is the pinnacle of Christian practice. Make no mistake: God’s banquet is worthy of our best. Yet, my most cherished memories of feasting on Jesus feature much simpler furniture.
How often has a hospital tray become the holiest of holies! The words, “Given for you,” and “Shed for you,” mark the transformation of simple bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Similarly, a kitchen or a waiting room can become the grandest of churches. All this is possible because of the presence of the Most High, who became the lowliest of all on a cross and who rose in glory to bring us eternal life.
The church, with its great diversity, gathers around many tables each Sunday. Some are grand, and others much more simple. At each of these tables, the risen Christ holds out his wounded hands so that we could hold out our hands to a wounded world. We leave this banquet with bellies full of the Bread of Life, eager to feed others.
 An East-Facing altar or altar attached to a wall. You’re welcome!
***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in 2018***
As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.” That’s certainly the case for this man with many possessions who runs to Jesus and kneels asking how to inherit eternal life. He leaves grieving after being told to give away all his possessions while Jesus continues on with the disciples, warning them of the spiritual risk that comes with wealth. This man does not hear what he wanted and expected, but he does get something much needed: an invitation to travel with Christ.
I wonder what this man wanted from Jesus and why he approached him. Why did he need Jesus to confirm he was doing the right thing if he already knew the commandments and had been keeping them since his youth? Is this an example of humble-bragging? Is he hoping Jesus to praise his efforts in front of the crowd and disciples? Perhaps he is simply an anxious personality looking for encouragement, hoping to be told he’s doing everything right and just keep doing what he’s doing. Whatever the motivation, his encounter with Jesus confronts him with a dilemma and leaves him shaken to the core (as encounters with the Holy usually do).
I know many people (myself included) who have been like this; running to Jesus (or church) filled with excitement and enthusiasm, only to be left in shocked surprise when we find the reality is quite different. But following Jesus is not easy, and as any 5-year-old can tell you, life isn’t fair. We don’t get what we deserve (at least not in this world).
One of the most unattractive parts of faith is that it doesn’t make life easier. In fact, committing yourself to a life of faith will likely make things far more difficult. Following Christ means possessions and relationships will always be at risk. We commit ourselves to speaking truth and following Christ even when he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go.
It’s doubly difficult for clergy who serve at the pleasure of their congregation; it’s one thing to talk about following Jesus in an abstract way but it’s quite another when you risk your career and your family’s income. We all come to a point where we have to decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. Prosperity is not the result of faithfulness, just as cancer is not the result of sin. Our behavior may influence it, but spiritual justice is not a kind of science that operates through cause and effect. Decades of hard work and faithful living might leave us aged and impoverished with nothing to show for it, but no sacrifice is forgotten in the heart of God, and if you’re in the Christian life to get material security, then you’re in the wrong place. Baptism is not a contract which guarantees an easy life without struggle.
If prosperity was always the result of hard work, then immigrant laborers who work 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week would be millionaires and a single mother holding down three jobs while raising her kids wouldn’t have to worry about having enough to cover the bills this month. The Disciples gave everything away and were persecuted for it. They spent their lives as homeless wanderers, and most of them ended up dying painfully, but they followed regardless. They continued on with Jesus even when, like James and John, it meant leaving family behind (Matthew 4:2). Jesus tells the young man with many possessions to give it all away, and he walks away shocked and grieving. Perhaps he left because he was overly attached to his possessions and he couldn’t leave them to follow Christ, but I can’t help but wonder if he might also be grieving a long-held belief about how the world works. By telling him to give away all his possessions, Jesus may really be telling him that prosperity was not the result of keeping all the commandments since childhood. Perhaps what this man grieves isn’t just the loss of material wealth, but also years of believing that his possessions were proof of his faithfulness. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, he may have just lost his entire world view and how he has related to it, but that’s the risk we run by approaching Christ; the answer he gives us might not be what we want to hear and might leave us shaken.
The texts for the Proper 22 also happen to fall on World Communion Sunday. This is a rather challenging group of texts to incorporate into world communion Sunday, so I would recommend those preaching this Sunday to pick a theme and work from there. The scripture readings offer a few different suggestions. A main theme found throughout Job, Psalm 26, and Hebrews seem to be integrity. God boasts of Job’s integrity. The psalmist brags of personal integrity. And Hebrews speaks to Christ’s integrity. The Gospel reading seems at first not to fit into this theme of integrity as it deals with marriage, divorce, adultery, and entering the kingdom of God like children. However, I would argue that Christ’s integrity is on display within our Gospel reading.
Some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to hear and near impossible to practice. However, his devotion to the ancestors of the faith and the ways in which God is constantly at work through our lives is always on full display. I believe this shows us a glimpse of the incarnation. In Jesus’ life, we see the divine and the creator. It is a life that is always pushing us to be more connected and more engaged with those we might otherwise wish to avoid.
Jesus is constantly engaged with the religious leaders who often attempt to test him or trick him. Of course, we must be careful here not to equate these religious leaders with the Jewish people (a common mistake that has had terrible fallout throughout our history). Instead, I find it helpful to equate the religious leaders of the Gospels with ourselves. After all, we are constantly looking for the loopholes in our lives of faith. Too often, we attempt to read only the parts of scripture that fit into our narrative rather than reading the entirety. Too often, we attempt to turn Christ into what we want him to be rather than who he is and who he is calling us to be.
In this way, we find another connection to the theme of integrity. In order for us to be complete and truly whole, we must be the person God has called us to be and live the life of love Christ calls us to live. I had a professor once who would often teach that integrity is the things you do when no one is around. Christ calls us to a certain life and too often we fail the test of integrity in attempting to live in a different way.
In Mark chapter 10 verse 14 we find a very interesting thing happen. We are told that Jesus is “indignant” that the disciples would rebuke people bring their children to him. The NIV translates aganakteo into indignant. You can also find this word translated to “displeased” in some translations. In any case, Jesus is upset with the disciples.
The interesting part of this particular passage is that this is the only use of aganakteo to describe Jesus’ emotional state in the Gospel of Mark. There are only two others uses of this word in Mark’s Gospel. One is found in chapter 10 verse 41 when the disciples become indignant with James and John about them asking to sit at the right and left of Christ. The other is found in chapter 14 verse 4 when some gathered there become indignant about the unnamed woman using such expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet. (Interestingly, this seems to be the last straw for Judas, because right after this he goes to the chief priests to set up Jesus’ betrayal.)
There is, of course, much written and preached about the example of children within Christ’s teaching of the faith. This particular passage even suggests that it if we do not receive the children, we can not enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus often seems to be able to take time to enjoy the innocence of the children around them. I often picture Jesus as one who is willing to learn from the children around him: from their curiosity, their playfulness, and even their integrity. Children often give you exactly who they are. They have not yet learned the various social norms of society and thus are willing to tell you exactly what is on their minds. Something many pastors have learned during an embarrassing answer to a question asked at the children’s moment of a worship service.
As a parent of three children myself, I am also struck by the things I have learned from my children. Sometimes the skeptical introvert in me can be caught off-guard by their innocent willingness to have conversations with everyone they meet. Of course, the adult in me often worries about stranger-danger and the need to protect them. And yet, there is something pure about the way they live into who they are and who they have been called by God to be.
Even in the midst of devastation to his family, his life, and his health, God boasts of Job’s integrity – proclaiming him to be a blameless and upright man. There is a word in these texts that calls upon our own integrity – it challenges us to be who we have been created to be. But we are also challenged to find the pure love of Christ in who others have been created to be. In my own experience that is so much more difficult.
In those moments when who we are crashes headfirst into who someone else is, we may be challenged to fall into indignation. It would be wise for those preaching from these texts to explore the ways in which our indignation can open up the Kingdom of God for more people rather than close it off. Who knows, maybe there is a connection to this theme of integrity and World Communion Sunday after all? However we spread this word, remember that Christ takes the children of God in his arms, places his hands upon them, and blesses them. I pray all those that hear these words from God would feel the same.
 Oh, Kirsten S. “October 3, 2021 Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22/World Communion Sunday.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.
It is no small coincidence that I should have chosen this passage for Proper 21 some time ago. I chose to write on this passage as a lover of contemplative prayer practices–particularly centering prayer–and I intended to write on silent prayer as a critical practice of listening for God. Due to unforeseen and unwelcome life situations, it has become something else. I have had many occasions for prayer and many experiences struggling with prayer over the past month. This essay is, with many apologies to Modern Metanoia’s editor, quite past the deadline we had agreed upon for its completion.
A few weeks ago, my family received distressing news about my wife’s pregnancy. We were advised to make an appointment with a specialist for further tests and care. The specialist was unable to see us for a week, so we spent the entirety of that week consumed by anxiety, which we tried to hide from our 3 and a half year old daughter. We didn’t want to tell her anything until we knew what was happening, but the stress of acting normal only further frayed our nerves.
Once we were able to see the specialist, we received an opinion that the worst possibilities, to which we naturally gravitated, were unlikely and that the concern was, thankfully, minor. That relief was short-lived. Only three days later we received news that our daughter was exposed to covid by a child in her class. Her asthma and stint in the ICU with respiratory problems as an infant have made us fearful of what complications a novel respiratory virus might cause her. A few days later her covid test came back positive, and we were once again in the depths of anxiety and uncertainty.
Amid all of this, I found it extremely hard to pray. I don’t have words of my own to encompass my feelings of helplessness. Praying the historic prayers of the church feels disingenuous. I cannot quiet myself enough to settle into centering prayer; thoughts and fears for my children are the only things that occupy my mind.
“Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Great. Except that I just couldn’t get there. Choosing a scripture that centers around prayer was beginning to feel like a really bad idea. The bright spot in all of this is that so many others have reached out to check on my family to see if we needed anything, to share words of compassion, and to ensure us that we were being prayed for.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…”
I began to notice that only one out of the eight verses in this scripture are actually a prescription for individual prayer. The majority of these verses speak about the importance of praying for one another. The author of James recognizes that we cannot escape the threads of common humanity and interdependence. They spend very little time advising individuals to pray because we do not exist as individuals and never have. For individuals, there are times where prayer is all but impossible, but the prayers and faithfulness of others are always available. Because we are one Body, we can rely on others to pray for us when we cannot pray ourselves. We can rely on others to sing songs of praise when we would rather weep. We can rely on others to believe for us when faith seems too big a task.
“The prayer of faith will make the sick whole, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you maybe made whole.” (My adapted translation from the NRSV. Both the word translated as “save,” sōzō, and the word translated as “be healed,” iaomai, also connote wholeness. Both can faithfully be translated, “to make whole.”)
Prayer does its work on the one who prays and the one prayed for. Prayer for others can bring them to wholeness. It also seems that prayer for others is what your wholeness rests upon–”so that you may be healed.” It is balm for the soul of those who cannot pray and brings forth the compassion of Christ in those who can. Elijah’s fervent prayer held back and then brought forth rain, which he had no ability to control. Home much more might our prayers elicit compassion, healing, and forgiveness, which we have the ability to both offer and receive?
“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Luke 9:32)
The disciples often make it easy to shake our heads in disdain as they completely miss Jesus’ point or hide their heads in the sand, but I have a lot of empathy for them here. Jesus has just come down off the literal and figurative peak of his ministry where he stood in glory with Moses and Elijah, then followed that up with healing a boy whose affliction had evaded the best efforts of his followers to cure it—but then he reminds those same followers that all too soon, the party will be over and their leader will be betrayed and murdered.
This isn’t the first time the disciples have been let down after a mighty ministerial victory; there was the feeding of the four thousand and the healing of the blind man, followed by the foretelling of Jesus’ suffering and death in chapter 8. It must have felt like whiplash to reach such high highs and then dip to such low lows; and the temptation to stay on the mountaintop and avoid those steep valleys—just as Peter urged Jesus at the Transfiguration (9:5)—must have been strong.
The first time Jesus foretells his death, Peter’s fear-strangled love for his teacher pushes him to address it directly; he tries to talk Jesus out of the road that lies ahead of him (8:32). The second time (our passage), the text explicitly mentions the disciples’ confusion and fear (9:32) before we watch them turn the conversation to something more palatable: their own importance (9:34). By the time we get to the third prediction of Jesus’s passion, their fear is only a quick aside (10:32) before James and John skip straight to the boldest favor asked in all of history: that they might be given the honor of sitting on either side of him in glory.
It’s clear that they do not know what to do with the bewildering, heart-sinking news Jesus keeps waving in front of them. Instead of digging deeper—asking Jesus questions, working through their fear in an attempt to understand—they take the much easier route of turning away, pretending it isn’t real or that his sense of doom is blown out of proportion. I imagine they find a certain comfort in turning to the illusion that their greatness will save them from the turmoil to come.
So often when we are confronted with bad news, we too are confused and afraid like the disciples, and we too turn to arguments about far less important issues, squabbling amongst ourselves in an effort to feel as though we have control when we’ve just been brutally reminded that in reality it’s the opposite.
Whether it’s another bout of climate-change-fueled forest fires, or the uptick in Covid numbers despite the availability of the vaccine, or the rising tidal wave of misinformation and willful ignorance against a backdrop of white supremacy…there is a lot of bad news in our lives and in our world. Our fear and confusion (and our fatigue) cause us to look the other way, to put our energy towards things we feel like we can win: Facebook arguments, spats with a less-than-gracious neighbor, church council disagreements, political posturing in an age when we can simply ignore facts that don’t suit us and our own errors in judgment. Congressional leaders in particular excel at focusing all energy on the question of who can dominate the public conversation while conveniently ignoring the human and natural devastation wrought by solvable problems; but to a lesser extent, many of us do the same.
The disciples had been on the road with Jesus for months, uncertain where they would find their next meal or the next roof over their heads, trying to absorb teachings that turned their perspectives upside down. They must have been exhausted. We too, living in a pandemic hyped up on an instantaneous online news cycle, constantly inundated with every terrible thing that has happened in every location in the world, are exhausted. And when we’re exhausted—and if we have the privilege to do so—we want to look away. It feels like a way to save our sanity.
But where does our energy and attention go when we take that break? Does it go, like Peter, to trying to convince the bearer of the bad news that they’re wrong, or it’s not as bleak as they say it is? Does it go, like James and John and the rest of the disciples, to shore up our fragile sense of agency and importance in an out-of-control world? Or does it go to whatever grounds us in the One whose hard teachings and dire predictions always, always, come with good news, too?
Did you notice that each of the three times Jesus foretells the crucifixion, he also foretells the resurrection? The disciples jump right past that part—and understandably, because the torture and execution of your beloved rabbi and the brutal (presumed) end of his ministry is a lot to take in. But the fact remains that even as he is preparing them for the worst, he is also, consistently, telling them that the worst is not the end. He is doing all he can, through his teachings and healings which the disciples are witnessing firsthand, to prepare them for the new life that comes after.
What does it look like for us to look bad news squarely in the face; to choose, when it becomes too much to bear, not self-aggrandizement or the illusion of control, but restorative sabbath; to envision what might lie beyond the acceptance of the bad news; and to pay attention to how Jesus is preparing us to be a part of building new life on the other side of it?