by Rev. Steve Jerbi
Most of us as church leaders are trying to reimagine how we strengthen our communities while living in separation. In the midst of zoom meetings and streaming services I also have this nagging thought. Most of the time it lies in the background but there are moments when it comes to the forefront. Hearing the surgeon general say, “This week, it’s gonna get bad” was one of those moments. And reading these texts - about death and death and death - is another.
People are getting sick. People will die. People we know. So preaching about dry bones and the death of the flesh and Lazarus seems about right.
by Rev. Jess Harren
John 9: 1-41
The passage for this Sunday, Lent 4, is full of sayings of Jesus, and a seemingly miraculous healing -- that is barely believed. Is Jesus from God that he healed a man? What about that he did it on the sabbath? Did someone sin? Yes, someone sinned. It wasn’t the man born blind or his parents, though. It was a group of someones. Jesus allows this sin to be removed, but gets in trouble for it with the authorities.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Part the first:
This reading from Romans is so abused. Far too often, people are told that God causes suffering to make us strong, to give us hope, to turn us into better people. This version of theodicy, or why bad things happen, is at the root of so much suffering. Historically, people who have suffered under various kids of oppression have been told that God is behind the suffering, that the people causing the suffering are doing God’s work, and that the purpose of the suffering is to strengthen the person suffering -- their soul, body and faith. This theology is also peddled to people who are grieving the death of a loved one, people who are sick, and people who have been victims of violence. Even when not explicitly taught from the pulpit, this belief that God hands down suffering is so pervasive in our culture that it necessitates firm and loud rebuke. I have cared for more than one victim of sexual violence that has walked way from God because they could not understand why God would do that to them -- this terrible theology had become ingrained in them so deeply before they were hurt that no amount of correction attempts on my part could convince them otherwise.
Here, Paul is writing of the specific kind of suffering that comes from living a life of faith. The Christians to whom he was writing were being cast out of institutions from family to civic life because of their embracing of Christ. God wasn’t doing it to them (in fact, Paul never says that God is behind it), rather society is causing suffering by exiling people for their embrace of the message of Jesus. A life of faith is difficult, particularly when a life of faith goes against how society tells us to live. This message is buttressed by the reading from Exodus, in which the people are suffering for following Moses, under the guidance of God, into the desert. In both of these stories, it isn’t God causing the suffering, but, well, life, and the message in both readings is that God has our back as we suffer.
In our time in American society, there are many who claim they are being outcast from society because of their Christian faith. But, in a capitalistic society where white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are the norm, who is it that is truly suffering for following Christ against the ways of the world? Those who are fighting to reinforce these ways, raking in millions as they do it, or those who fight against these oppressive structures in the name of love? How have our heroes of Christian life modeled suffering? By amassing wealth and fighting to have oppressive structures upheld, or by giving up what they have so that others might have abundant life? Suffering for your faith is not being forced to make a wedding cake or having your youtube channel shut down because you preach hate. No, it is being doxxed when you dare to challenge white supremacy, giving up your wealth so others may have more, and giving your life for preaching love.
Part the second:
The woman at the well is possibly my favorite story in scripture. Here, Jesus crosses all kinds of social boundaries to be present with a woman who has been outcast from her society to truly be present with her as a beloved child of God. I see her as the first female preacher, as she went out and told people what Jesus had done for her. In the act of presence, Jesus gives this woman new life.
Right now we are experiencing a horrible rising up of anti-Asian, particularly anti-Chinese sentiment. A contributor on Fox news questioned how we allow the Chinese to interact with “the civilized world.” Politicians on the right are calling COVID-19 “the Wuhan Virus,” and when challenged on this blatant racism, they double down with jokes like, “okay, fine, what if I call it the kung-fu virus.” Many members of our congregations are hearing this racist nonsense (and possibly spouting it themselves). The story of the woman at the well gives us an opportunity to talk to our people about the racism currently affecting people of Asian, particularly Chinese, descent and how Christ calls us to act differently. We can talk about Jesus example of not judging people by the stories we have heard about them and/or by the ways others are judging them. Jesus shows us welcome and compassion to those who have been marginalized by society. This story allows us to speak into this moment by talking about the care and nurturing Jesus shows a person who has been outcast by society, a woman his followers don’t even think he should speak to.
Now, we need to be careful here because the parallel could sound like we are decrying racism against people of Asian descent and simultaneously declaring them unclean or sinners. For too long, this story has centered around the supposed sinful nature of this woman because she has had five husbands. Instead of a story of welcoming the outcast, this story has become a weird intersection between slut-shaming and compassion. There is actually nothing in this passage that declares the woman a sinner! Jesus simply tells the woman he knows she has had five husbands. He doesn’t decry this as sinful or accuse her of anything. Her husbands could have died and/or left her because she couldn’t have children. Jesus understands her and why she has been ostracized. He does not call her a sinner, which, as we know, Jesus does! He routinely tells people they are clean from their sins or to go forth and sin no more. At no point does Jesus say anything about sin to this woman. He feels her pain, notes that she has had five husbands, and says nothing more about it.
In our time, as in the time of Jesus, there are so many people who have been and are being cast out and ostracized for myriad reasons. This is an excellent opportunity to proclaim that Jesus calls us to be in relationship with and show love to those who have been and are being ostracized and to center the ways people of Asian descent, Chinese descent in particular, are being harmed by racism as a result of fear-mongering about COVID-19. We can speak truth to this moment, explaining to our people that this is not a Chinese virus, it is not an Asian virus, it is a virus that attacks all people and there is no reason to aim our fear and anger at people of Asian or Chinese descent. Jesus shows us that in God’s kingdom, not only is there no room for racism and prejudice, but God specifically centers those who have been victims of hate and fear. We are called to go and do likewise.
From a pastor living in Seattle, in a center of the epidemic, I highly advise you (if you haven't already) to get with your leadership teams and your people and make preparations for what you will do if your local health organizations begin to advise you to not hold gatherings of more than 50 people and for people who are at highest risk to practice social distancing. Many of our faith communities are canceling worship and finding other ways to worship. One of the issues with COVID-19 is people can have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so holding gatherings with people who appear healthy can spread the virus. While most people who have COVID-19 will be fine, we don’t want to expose people at risk of developing the virus in its more severe forms nor do we want to overload our health systems. We’re at a point here where it took hours for a nurse hotline to call me back because people are flooding all of our systems because they are afraid. We need to be calm but cautious.
Prayers for all of you in this time of stress and worry.
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Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:1-2)
In the stillness of the night he's risking his life, status, world, testing the ground to see if Jesus it's worth it. He's a learned man, a scholar, a thinker. He is a man of reason, rationale and facts. But he is also a man of faith.He has studied the scriptures, the Torah, Pentatuech, Talmud and midrash of various teachers. He has read between the lines of scripture to understand the way of life and found himself in alliance with the Pharisees; legalists who believe the letter of the law the literal word as written. Yet something deep within tells him that everything he has learned and everything he sees in this Jesus is somehow colliding. He must be sent from God!
by Elle Dowd
We are beginning the season of Lent and this Sunday begins with two powerful narratives on temptation. Lent is a time of reflection and these narratives both have much to reflect on. I have offered up some questions, musings, and prompts. You will likely want to choose one or two to expound upon based on the needs of your own context. But be courageous, Lent is a time to push and challenge the people under our care for the sake of the transformation of the world and for their own discipleship.
Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
I’m really, really feeling this reading from Joel. If you’re not using Joel, I’m mostly wondering why not (but also scroll down for some thoughts on Matthew)?
I had a nightmare last week about a nuclear attack – I can still feel the sonic boom that rushed through me a few seconds before I woke up, terrified, wondering if my dream was just a dream or an omen of things to come. Like so many others, I feel that day of gloom and shadow coming in my bones and in my blood. I wake up most days wondering what the hell might be next.
We are all feeling it. Though we fear different things, one feeling I think most Americans share is fear. Fear, rage, dread: these feelings are spreading like a virus. This virus doesn’t get a CDC warning or time on the news (the news is, in fact, a contagion), but it is taking more lives than the dreaded Coronoa virus or the annual flu. Yet, the shadow overtaking us has yet to block out the sun; most of us know this is going to get worse.
Our fields have not been laid to waste, but far too many know starvation both of their bodies and their souls. Some are starved for food, some for justice (and often these people are one in the same).
So what are we to do as we await the days to come? Gnash our teeth? Freeze in fear? Rend our clothing?
No, no, this is not the solution.
God invites us to return to them. Calling, always calling us back to the source, to our source, to love and be loved. Look at this language! We aren’t being called back so God can scream at us or punish us (which too often seems to be how Lent leaves people feeling). We are being called back to God in our tears and mourning for a holy time. Called to fast (and we know what kind of fast God chooses, at least according to Isaiah). Called to gather together in a sacred (as one translation I found defined asarah) assembly. We are called to come together for sacred time of repentance.
Too often we don’t talk about how amazingly sacred repentance is. We have managed to frame it in a way that people feel like it is a chore and led people to equate repentance with shame. But here’s the thing: we *get* to repent. We get to sit in the loving presence of God and one another to take a good hard look at our lives so that we might see where we have gone wrong, apologize, make amends, and life differently. We have a blessed opportunity to be made new.
The Third Sunday of Advent has always fascinated me because of how different it was from most of the rest of the church year, or even the very season it is part of. Nestled near the end of the season of preparation, yes and of penance, that is Advent, we have this Sunday that doesn’t seem to belong. This sense of not belonging starts with the customary name of this day, for it is the only day in Advent that has its own special name. And that sense of not belonging increases as one enters into a church on this day and sees instead of the somber deep blue or violet of Advent the light pastel color rose in the vestments.
By Elle Dowd
The Feast of Christ the King is a fairly more recent addition to our liturgical calendar, created between the First and Second World War as a day set apart to resist the rise of fascism, nationalism, and godlessness. If you read the news, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to connect the threat of fascism to our contemporary headlines.
Rev. Carla Christopher-Waid
Texts: Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
At first read, the texts we wrestle with today speak to the resurrection. The faithful and ever believing Job speaks of when his Redeemer will walk the earth. Then, in one of the most lovely and intimate pieces of poetry in the First Testament, Job says that "in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another." The text turns to a blissful surrender of self for a delicious embracing of the connectivity, the unity, we experience once the moment is surrendered for the eternal. Once the loneliness of self alone is surrendered for self as part of a greater, interwoven whole. Job does not demonize his earthly flesh, he does not dismiss the importance of living fully into our God-given bodies. At the same time he looks forward to the beauty that comes from looking at his body and seeing not just the flesh of Job, but the Spirit of God. Job and God are one, Job's neighbor, the one who stands at his side, is also one with God. Therefore Job and his neighbor are not separate, not isolated and alone. They are both beloved creations of God, carriers of the same divine spark. That realization of our connectedness in the Redeemer is so beautiful that Job's "heart faints within" him.
by Rev. Marilyn Pagán-Banks
I spent many hours this past weekend watching the homegoing service for the Honorable Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (ashé) held at his home church, New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Many showed up and told of his life’s work and how he lived his life with love and integrity, taught and brought others along in the fight for what is right and gave his all to protect our democracy.
When remembering Congressman Cummings, one of his mentors, Larry Gibson stated that “the public Elijah that you saw was the real and authentic Elijah – there was nothing phony about him.”
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.