6th Sunday after Epiphany(A): The Law of Life

6th Sunday after Epiphany: The Law of Life

Matthew 5:21-37

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross just so we would behave. I firmly believe that. With four law-heavy texts this week, one could easily stick to interpreting the rules. While they bear some explication, simply sticking to the “do’s and don’ts” of these texts could result in a proclamation that rings hollow in sanctuaries and hearts alike. With lots of law, what then of the Gospel? Moses tells the Israelites to “choose life,” and elsewhere James tells us that faith without works is dead. In this interplay between life and death, one can find a starting place for a meaningful and evangelical (i.e. Gospel-centered) proclamation.

Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book, The God of Life, makes a simple claim that roots what Protestants would call both law and Gospel in God’s identity. “God causes all that exists to be because God is the source of all things; God gives life because God is life,” he writes.[1] With God as life, God the father can be seen as life-creator and Jesus Christ becomes life-redeemer. In his crucifixion, Jesus takes death upon himself, and his resurrection is the eternal triumph of life over death. Crucially, for our purposes, Gutiérrez writes, “Oppression in any of its forms means death.”[2] Since God righteously defends life, God righteously opposes oppression, and since God have us life, we too oppose the same.

The authors of Deuteronomy illustrate more than they legislate. Though in the imperative, “Choose life” serves as a hearty reminder that the one who gave life and freedom is the one worthy of obedience. The law becomes more than a way to live but indeed a way of life.

Moses exhorts his people to keep the commandments as a kind of farewell, immediately after a renewal of the Covenant and before his death. Knowing his time is limited, he begs his people to see that the Law will preserve their lives, root out oppression, and foster peace among them. Gutiérrez writes, “The law or Torah must be put into practice; it is life because it is a way to God.”[3] Because God is a God of life, and oppression deals death to the oppressed, the law will bring life to the people. Likewise, because the law brings life, God’s law is a gift of life.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the life-redeemer fulfills this Law of life. Yet, if God is a God of life, the abundant life Christ brings hardly means the death of the law. The law becomes similarly abundant, similarly expansive. A simple injunction against murder becomes an exhortation to peace and reconciliation. The prohibition of adultery is a call to a pure heart. Divorce, which was once permitted, is reinterpreted with the oppression of women in mind. Honesty is similarly abundant, wherein a vow becomes unnecessary if one’s daily word is true. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a triumph of God’s righteous life over sin and death.

Elsewhere in his Sermon, Jesus commands his disciples to “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,”[4] highlighting two main themes in Matthew’s Gospel. First is the eschatological reality of Jesus’ coming on earth. Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth in his very person. Second is the righteousness of God in Jesus. If the kingdom of God is the locus where God’s law reigns supreme, Jesus’ arrival expresses the law’s fulfillment. Gutiérrez writes, “When Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel of seeking the kingdom and righteousness of God, he is calling attention to the demand that the seeking implies.”[5] So, then, the law becomes a mark of seeking God’s reign on Earth. The church seeks an eschatological reality by practicing the law here and now.

With this interpretive lens, a preacher has a little bit of grace with which to interpret the law. The God of life gives the law to bring life, not death, for people of all genders. Some interpret the command, “choose life,” as the prohibition of reproductive justice. Similarly, the Sermon on the Mount appears to proscribe divorce. Yet, with an eye to a God of life, and thus a law of life, one has freedom beyond the plain text. Divorce would have been a means by which a woman lost all protection in a society where she could not work or hold property. It would have negatively impacted her life. In situations of abuse or an unhappy marriage, marriage could be death-dealing. In line with a great many thinkers, we ask ourselves, “What brings abundant life?”

I find grace in this text because it does more than show us how to behave. It shows us who God is, who God makes us to be through Jesus. The law of God gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, as if that kingdom were an earthly country. “This,” it seems to say, “is what life will be like when God’s kingdom fills all things.” In that kingdom, both faraway and near, death is forever conquered by life. Murder, adultery, and lying are no more. Relationships are healed and whole. All of this because God is life, and God gives us life abundant.

IMG_2501
The Rev. Joseph Graumman, Jr.

The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, The God of Life, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 1, Kindle.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 6.

[4] Matthew 6:33, NRSV.

[5] Ibid, 103.

5th Sunday after Epiphany(A): Why Do We Worship?

5th Sunday after Epiphany (A): Why Do We Worship?

Isaiah 58:1-9a

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

Each week, we gather together as congregations to worship God and fellowship with one another. Each of our contexts and congregations are different, but we, in essence, all join together to do the same things. We sing, read scripture, participate in liturgy, hear the word preached, and respond to the word by our offerings, Eucharist, or an invitation to the altar. For some, this weekly ritual is deeply moving and helps them to connect more with the divine and then to share the love and grace of the divine with the world. For others, worship is a time to spend with friends, to sing, or is simply a part of their weekly schedule, but it has no real impact on what happens in their life after noon on Sunday.

In this week’s text, the people have returned to exile and found themselves in the same worship rut they were in decades before. The people appear to be very religious. They seek God’s presence and delight in drawing near to God (v. 2) and they fast often (v. 3). In some ancient religions fasting was done so that the deity would hear the people’s voices, and the Israelites seem to have fallen back into those traditions. They complain because God does not answer their fasting or their sitting in ash and sackcloth. Isaiah, writing in the voice of God, says the fasting they do is not one that God chooses as acceptable. Their fast and worship is self-serving. It does not loose the bonds of injustice (v. 6) or provide for the needs of the hungry, poor, and naked (v. 7). This text shows that what matters most to God, and what God demands, is worship that leads us to acts of justice and liberation. Isaiah says worship should lead the faithful to care for the hurting of the world.

Part of our job as preachers is to invite our congregations into transformative worship, but before worship can be transformative we have to ask why is it we worship anyway. Are we here because it is a habit or because we want to be guided by God to satisfy the needs of the broken (v. 10)? This week, I suggest sharing the struggle of Isaiah’s people. Ask those hard questions Isaiah asks: “Do you fast and still oppress your workers?” or with more modern language: “Do you fast and still support corporations who do not pay a living wage?” “Do you worship and bow down in atonement only to get up and ignore the hungry, homeless, and oppressed?” After all, we are not just preachers who proclaim good news to our congregations, but good news to all of creation, which sometimes feels like bad news to our own people. Isaiah declares that if you worship and inhale love and grace so that you can go forth to exhale God’s love and grace to a broken world, then you will find yourself made whole (v. 11), and you will be called “restorer” (v. 12).

One congregation who encompasses Isaiah’s vision for the worshipping body is St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans. It is a fairly small church and more than half of its attendees are experiencing housing and food insecurity. Each week the congregation gathers, some in dress clothes and others in dirty clothes they have been wearing for days, to sing, pray, and be together. It is nearly impossible to attend worship there without feeling transformed, without being led to participate in acts of justice. After worship, the people share a meal together and others experiencing homelessness or addiction are found in the area and invited into share in lunch. Together this congregation is transformed by worship, led to break bonds of injustice, and seeking to let the light of God break forth in dark places (v. 8). May it be so for us all.

AK Headshot
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles earned 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.

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Reign of Christ (C): A Different Kingdom

Luke 23:33-43

By: The Rev. Ryan Young

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.

20190318-DSC_2787
The Rev. Ryan Young

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.

 

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Proper 28(C): God’s Faithfulness is Eternal

Luke 21:5-19

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

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.

 

TJ Headshot Pic
The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

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).

Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

***EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally posted for Proper 27(C) in 2016.***

Proper 27(C): This Blog is (NOT) about Marriage

Luke 20:27-38

By: The Rev. William Culpepper

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.

 

Bill-Culpepper
The Rev. William Culpepper

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.

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Proper 25(C): How Bizarre

Luke 18:9-14

By: The Rev. Anna Tew       

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.

How bizarre.

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.

How bizarre.

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:

IMG_1297
The Rev. Anna Tew

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.

Proper 24(C): In Pursuit of Justice

Proper 24(C): In Pursuit of Justice

Luke 18:1-8

By: The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary places this parable in the “Jesus’ Gospel to the Rich and Poor” section of Luke.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] Culpepper, R. The New Interpreter’s Bible : Vol. 9 : The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. Nashville  Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995. p 335-339.

[2] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/759296478/in-arizona-s-competitive-senate-race-gun-control-is-a-major-issue

AK Headshot
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles

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.

Proper 23(C): One Out of Ten Lepers Agrees

Proper 23(C): One Out of Ten Lepers Agrees

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.

Leah headshot PACC
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Stamper, Meda. (October 13, 2013.) “Commentary on Luke 17:11-19.” Working Preacher. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1786

 

[2] Abbott, Mark. (Spring 2013) “Jesus According to Luke.” Seattle Pacific University Response. Retrieved from https://spu.edu/depts/uc/response/new/2013-spring/bible-theology/jesus-according-to-luke.asp

 

 

[3] Lyman Waldron, Leah. (October 14, 2018.) “Not Without Riches.” Park Avenue Congregational Church Sermons. Retrieved from http://www.pacc-ucc.org/sermons/sermon-not-without-riches/

Proper 22(C): Mustard Faith

Proper 22(C): Mustard Faith

Luke 17:5-10

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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![1]

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![2] 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![3] 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.

 

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

 

You don’t ever let go of the thread.[4]

 

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!

Amen.

[1] David Lose, “Everyday Faith,” Preaching Commentary, WorkingPreacher.org, September 30, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2773.

[2] Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 17:5-10,” Preaching Commentary, WorkingPreacher.org, October 6, 2013, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1785.

[3] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 278-279.

[4] 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.

Headshot3
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

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.

Proper 21(C): Know the Name

Proper 21: Know the Name

Luke 16:19-31

By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

I once took a class on church-planting. The students were asked what our ideal church might look like. Many of us confidently agreed that an Acts 2 church was the ideal. Acts 2:42-47 reads:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (NRSV).

The ideal church: where everyone practices daily, shares in communion and prayers, grows, and holds everything in common, with joy and sincerity. There is no class. There is no status. Everyone is on equal footing.

This abolition of status began with Jesus, and worked through Paul, who articulated in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).

The only status that seems to matter from here on out is our collective status in Jesus Christ. In Christ there is no competition, no economic need or gap. There is simply one playing field, one status, one class, in Christ Jesus.

The writer of Luke-Acts makes this a major point throughout his narrative. Jesus is the ultimate destroyer of status, and he levels the playing field. When John the Baptist baptizes in the wilderness, Luke declares that John does so as, “A voice crying in the wilderness—Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (NRSV).

What happens when you fill in a valley, and you lower a mountain? The ground becomes even. There is no longer a high place. There is no longer a low place. It is level.

As Jesus preaches this radical undoing of status throughout Luke, leveling mountains and filling in valleys, he tells a story of a rich man and a poor man.

The rich man wears the fanciest clothes, feasts every day, enjoying the finest foods, and lives in a nice, gated community. He has it all.

The poor man has nothing. He survives night and day at the rich man’s gate. His name—Lazarus—means “God helps,” but he receives no help. Every day, the rich man walks around Lazarus. Lazarus is sick, covered in sores, and continuously begs for any food, even the crumbs from the rich man’s table, but he receives nothing.

Both men die. Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, regarded in Judaism as the place of highest bliss. The rich man is buried, and falls to Hades, where during torment, he looks up and sees the poor man, reclining with Abraham.

The rich may cries out for assistance. Abraham declares that there can be no assistance given. During life the rich man received good and comfortable things, while Lazarus received the bad things. Now, Lazarus is in comfort, and the rich man is in torment.

The rich man begs Abraham twice to warn his brothers of this horrible fate. And twice Abraham declares that if they do not listen to the Torah now, they will not be convinced by anything else.

The end.

Now, in most societies, the following has historically been true—It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And typically, the WHO you know has been the wealthy, the powerful, the intelligent, the well-to-do. But Jesus turns this notion upside down, illustrating that if you are to know anyone, it should be the poor!

How does Jesus do this? He tells a story that demonstrates the unimportance of the current cultural status symbols dictating who is great and who is not, who is blessed and who is cursed. Riches no longer matter (in fact, they may actually hurt you in the long run).

Jesus also gives us a practical step concerning how to begin our status-less journey. He does so very simply in that only one of the two main characters—the rich man and the poor man—is actually named. We know the poor man’s name: Lazarus.

Why is that important?

The leveling of status begins with knowing the name. Think about it. When you know someone’s name, you begin a relationship. There is an attachment that happens. There is a responsibility that occurs (that’s why pet adoption agencies give you the name of the puppy you’re holding—once you know the name, there is a responsibility attached and you may be taking that dog home.)

At Yad Vashem—the Israeli Holocaust Museum and Memorial, there is a separate memorial to the children who were killed in the holocaust. The memorial is simple. The room is filled with darkness and lights that look like stars on a clear night. And every few seconds, a voice comes through hidden speakers for a few seconds and then disappears, and then reappears and disappears again. Over and over, every few seconds. All the voice says are the names of the children killed in the holocaust. One at a time. Again and again.

There is power in a name.

When you know the name, the 6 million+ killed in the holocaust becomes tangible.

When you know the name, you have a responsibility.

When you know the name, there is no status, just humanity.

And in Luke, Jesus tells a story, and beckons us, “Know the name.”

Know the name of the person next to you.

Know the name of the person you pass on the street.

Know the name of the person who asks you for food, or money.

Know the name of the person who waits on your table.

Know the names of those that serve you.

Know the names of these children that left here today, to go make a mess.

Know the names of their families.

You want to be an ideal church? You want to undo status, level the playing field, fill in the valleys and bring low the mountains?

Begin by knowing the name.

Andrew
The Rev. Andrew Chappell

The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.