by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Upon my first reading of the text from Isaiah this week, I heard Israel crying out to God, longing for God’s presence and unable to find it. I heard a people who felt abandoned by God in a time of great need. I heard this, and I felt a resonance, an agreement between my soul and the people of Israel. Yes, God, where are you now? So many terrible things are happening in our world and you feel so far away.
Then I read it again, and something in me shifted. I moved from the comfort of knowing people throughout history, even God’s chosen, have felt far from God, to the discomfort of conviction. I felt in my bones the knowledge that much of this feeling of God being far away is not of God’s doing -- God is, in fact, still right here, where God has always been, in the faces of those around us. We have turned away from the many ways God makes Godself known in the world around us. This is our doing. We need to own this.
It is a shame the lectionary doesn’t continue so that our people may hear God’s response to these cries -- a response God must be tired of giving by this point in Isaiah. In chapter 65 God tells the people (in a repeat of other conversations God has had through Isaiah, chapter 58 in particular),
“I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’
to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held you my hands all day long
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices;
a people who provoke me to my face continually…”
These people speaking in Isaiah 64 are the same people God has told repeatedly their festivals are not important if they are not doing justice, their fast days mean little if they are still oppressing people. Over and over again, God has told God’s people what they want to see from Israel is people living justly among one another, people who do not oppress each other or lie or cheat. God wants their people to feed and clothe one another. God continually reminds us that it is in these actions their presence can be found, that by doing these things, God is near.
Here the people are again, lamenting God’s distance when they have not changed their behavior. And not just lamenting God’s perceived distance -- they actually have the gall to blame God for their sin. “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed,” they cry. For real? Like, you’re really gonna do this? God has told you time and time again what God asks for and painted amazing pictures of the future that will come for those who obey these calls for justice. God’s response in Isaiah 65 gives us the roots to Mary’s song we will remember as we continue through Advent,
“Therefore thus says the Lord God:
my servants shall eat,
but you shall be hungry;
my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame…
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or
come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.”
We are not unlike the people of Israel in this way of continually calling out to God, asking for God’s presence, wondering where God is, perhaps even blaming God for our own communal failures. All the while, we are in our collective situation because we, as a people (white people in particular) have been so seduced by the American Gospel of individualism disguised as freedom that we cannot even recognize that this situation we are in is largely of our own collective making. We struggle to glimpse God because, in our belief that we not only can, but must, do everything ourselves, we have separated ourselves from not only one another but from God. Millions have died because we have spent generations teaching personal responsibility over collective responsibility. Millions more suffer from the violence of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and so on because personal responsibility teaches us that we are only responsible for the things that we do intentionally as individuals and not for the structures we participate in and benefit from left to us by our forebears. Our belief in individualism and personal responsibility leads us to blame the homeless, the poor, the sick, and the disabled for their situations instead of looking at how these structures we have built limit people's access to what they need to have abundant life. We struggle to feel God’s presence because that presence lies in the loosening the bonds of injustice and the yoke of oppression, in feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. In short, we struggle to feel the loving presence of God because we have forgotten how to love our neighbor (and probably also ourselves). We have forgotten that it is within the stranger that God resides.
This may all feel a bit harsh for this season, especially in this year when people are starving for words that bring comfort and hope. But there is hope in this, is there not? Time is not up. God is not gone. We still have time to repent of our ways and to turn towards one another and, in doing, turn towards God. This is, after all, the season of preparation for Christ’s return. Repentance and atonement are indispensable components of preparation for God’s enfleshed return, as cleaning out the guest room is an indispensable part of getting ready for company. There is hope in the many descriptions scripture provides us of what the world would look like if we took seriously our responsibility to our roles as co-creators with God and people who hold the other half of a promise of salvation. There is hope in the beauty that can be created when we turn towards one another instead of away, and in the future of the world to come. As we are told in this week’s reading from the Gospel attributed to Mark, we do not know the time or the hour, but we must be ready. We must stay awake -- stay awake to the ways we participate in this world that feels like it is falling apart around us and how, through following God’s call, we can build something new, together.
by Elle Dowd
When compared to other feast days in our liturgical calendar, Christ the King - sometimes known as Reign of Christ - is relatively young. This holy day was instituted less than 100 years ago by Pope Pius XI in response to the threat of rising fascism in Europe. In that way, this feast of resistance continues to be tragically relevant. In the United States this month, many of us spent the days surrounding our national election in fear that the fascist who occupied the White House would stage a coup to ensure his continued rule. Under his administration, in the past year alone, we saw obvious examples of fascist eugenics, from sterilization through the forced removal of uteruses in people on our southern border, to the mishandling of the pandemic, weaponized as biological warfare. The rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 and the president’s leadership decisions showed a blatant disregard for people who 45 considered to be “the least of these.” The elderly were lifted up as a sacrifice to the gods of Wall Street in order to appease the economy. Resources were so scarce at certain points that people who are disabled or fat were declared to be less worth saving. Black and Brown people in particular continue to face disproportionate rates of infection and death. The elected leader of these United States retweets chants of, “white power” as our nation experiences yet another wave of racial reckoning in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, George Floyd, and so many others. In response to those protesting racial injustice, we saw, yet again, Empire empower the police state with millions of dollars in weapons against its own people while at the same time urging people to be, “peaceful.” This administration continues to support officers of the state using force against its own citizens under the guise of, “law and order,“ a white nationalist dog whistle, while many citizens cheer this on. Even though he is defeated, he continues to attempt to hold on to power, instinctively using the fascist playbook, while millions of Americans pay homage to him, genuflecting before his crumbling gold lamé throne.
It was only because of the heroic efforts of Indigenous, Black,and Brown organizers that this fascist was defeated in the voting booth (even if he does not recognize it yet).
Yet the defeat of one tyrant does not mean the defeat of fascism and white nationalism. White supremacy, cis-hetero patriarchy, and corporate greed know no political party. These characteristics may have been more obvious in Trump’s leadership, but they have been baked into the very office of the presidency from the inception of this nation. His removal is one step towards liberation, but there is much to be desired in his successor, and much work left to do. This is a perfect time for a Christian holiday that explicitly fights fascism. Lean into it.
The Gospel reading for Christ the King is a picture of judgement. This is Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew before his passion. Jesus has just spent time warning his followers that his death is coming and that they will face persecution. So, while it is true that this apocalyptic parable is incredibly stark, it also contains good news for its original hearers. The disciples know from Jesus’ warnings that they could count themselves among those who will be hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned. This parable puts the King in solidarity with their suffering, as one who suffers alongside them and who demands justice for the harm against them. The good news for the disciples, and for all who suffer, is that Christ is with us in our pain. Christ does not rule as earthly leaders rule, Christ does not sit on a throne lording power over people while they suffer, and he certainly doesn't cause suffering. Our king suffers with us.
Suffering is a reality for a growing number of people right now. This pandemic has meant that many people have lost their jobs and feeling hunger is not a metaphor. Trump’s gutting of the Clean Water Act means that more and more people are being poisoned by their drinking water, and being thirsty is very real. Immigrant children separated from their families at our border, now unable to be tracked down and reunited, definitely do not feel welcomed as strangers. Hospitals are again reaching capacity as cases of COVID-19 rise, and the sick are not able to receive visitors; peoples’ loved ones are dying alone and the frontline healthcare workers who could not save them weep in supply closets. Mass incarceration continues to disrupt families and lives - and prisons and jails have become major COVID hot spots.
In the midst of such enormous suffering, the Reign of God can feel far off. Matthew tells us that Christ’s reign is among us, now, in the kindness and dignity we show to the people that the world deems disposable. The Reign of God is not a country with borders. There are no imaginary lines drawn by imperial powers declaring who is in or out based on arbitrary maps. The people who are citizens of the Reign of God are recognized by the way they treat each other. The Reign of God is not made up of one idealized white super-race, the fantasy of fascist white nationalists. The letter to the Ephesians tells us that it is made up of people of all nations, all races, all skin colors. There is no savior in this commonwealth except The Savior. We should not bow, then, to any system or person demanding our uncritical obedience. No bosses, no masters, no idols deserve our allegiance. We pledge only to the sacrificial love and solidarity exemplified by Christ.
by Rev. Carla Christopher
I mentioned to a dear friend that I was writing on the famous parable of ‘The Talents’ and her response was “Ah, yeah. That one has long been the bane of my existence.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I am so bad at follow through. I have lots of talents and I feel like none of them are fully developed or utilized. It’s a struggle”.
There is a lot about this passage that is a struggle. As we continue our journey through the challenging cluster of Matthew’s grace and judgement parables, we once again are presented with those who don’t cross the finish line in time being tossed out into a void with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It would be inauthentic and insensitive not to wrestle with this part of the text. As the generous giver of livelihood and purpose who comes, departs, then returns again for a final reckoning, we can reasonably assume we are meant to link the “master” with Jesus in Matthew’s parable. How do we reconcile the generous Jesus of love and compassion we know with a slave owning capitalist who would deny housing and even life to a frightened servant? It just doesn’t make sense.
I would invite us to direct our attention to earlier in the passage where the servant describes just why he buries his large sum of money in the dirt. He accuses the master of reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not scatter; completely denying that God is the source of all that grows. It is this remark that angers the master and inspires him to punish the servant and place the servant outside the circle of care and protection. If we are identifying the master with Jesus, clearly the problem here is that the servant doesn’t know Jesus. Despite trust given, love shown, and invitation extended, this person has made a deliberate decision not to recognize Jesus as he is, not to see or embrace the love that is offered. Just as we saw wedding guests refuse an invitation and Bridesmaids frolic without regard or care for the well-being of the coming husband, this parable gives us another example of people Jesus makes every attempt to reach only to be refused.
by Suzannah Porter
Re-written in the quiet of the dark of night while I await the tally of the election, this piece evolved and grew under the weight of waiting. In the early morning hours, it grew from one of my least favorite scriptures to the one that carried me through the next morning, guiding my path as I struggled with what the faithful are called to do while we wait, and what we are called to sacrifice for peace.
Matthew 25:1-13 indeed used to be one of my least favorite verses. It was one of those verses that ended up with a lot of doodles in my bulletin. Usually accompanied by the message of "Look Busy, Jesus is Coming," it follows scripture full of similar sounding bottom lines of preparedness. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable and wiggly in my seat. I am not clergy. My context for uncomfortable scripture is most usually without conversation about theology, and more commonly the experience of sitting in a service riding along with liturgy and prayers about grace and love, suddenly punctuated with readings like this that are conspicuously without either.
So let us set the scene. Tradition held that once the groom makes an appearance, the wedding festivities are supposed to begin with the bridesmaids processing forward with their lamps and torches. Everyone is waiting for the collective big entrance to begin, a light show blazing through the shadows. But in this parable, the groom is delayed. Apparently hella delayed, because everyone had basically fallen asleep waiting for the groom to show. After this incredibly long period of time, the participants are alerted that the long awaited VIP member of the party has finally arrived. Now, after waiting an eternity to the point of taking a long nap, half of the participants face a quandary: they are not actually prepared. These "foolish bridesmaids" are meant to carry burning lamps, but they didn't bring any oil. The other half of the bridesmaids, identified as "wise," brought oil for their lamps.
Like most of the kids in every group work session of every class I have ever taken, the "foolish" ones (who had plenty of time to remedy the situation and do their homework) demand some of the resources from their wiser counterparts. Those of us who have been denied a place at God's table are rather familiar with this scenario. Queer folks, BIPOC folks, disabled folks, and often women in general, each of us clear that we were never assured a place at God's table by our less marginalized siblings, have followed the rules and prepared ourselves to the letter. Once there, someone nearby has taken the rules far less seriously than we, and they turn to us and demand accommodation. There's pressure to bend and keep afloat the ones who didn't do the work in order to keep the peace, and let the party go off without a hitch.
And this is the point where I start to doodle in my bulletin because I have become uncomfortable. There's a couple bits of scripture that make me pretty uncomfortable, but this one seems particularly unloving. I remember no one talking about what I perceived to be biblical mean girls that wouldn't share. As a lay person in a conflict-avoidant denomination, we are given the constant overall themes about Jesus bringing Peace and Grace, and not a lot of conversation breaking down the scripture that seems to contradict this saccharine simplicity. This parable shocks me the way that Matthew 10:34-36 shocks me - to be sitting in a service with liturgy about peace and love and be hit with the diddy, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'" The truth is Peace doesn't come without conflict, and it wasn't until family gathered around Thanksgiving of 2016 that many of us white, progressive people came to understand how the family upheaval of Matthew 10:34-36 might be a part of the process of ensuring that the promises of the Gospel were extended to more vulnerable people. The more we vocalized our concern for those on the margins - ostracized for their queerness, shot down by police for the color of their skin, left without healthcare when sick - the more conflict we felt in our own families.
Likewise, while we wait for the election results to trickle in, Matthew 25:1-13 calls me to the same uncomfortable conflict that comes after we have prepared ourselves for the Gospel, the same uncomfortable conflict that simultaneously opposes all the saccharine versions of "Peace and Grace" my church has sold me in its quest for theology for the lowest common denominator. And deep inside my internalized misogyny that has always demanded I provide 100% free labor to anyone who demands it, the next part still shocks me: The wise bridesmaids don't hand over their oil. They suggest instead that the others go find some of their own.
I mean, it goes against everything I have ever been taught about church, being a woman (and the eldest female child), and the exponential sum of combining those two things together. My church teaches forgiveness and Grace, and commonly covers all the uncomfortable parts of Scripture with a topcoat of these two things that is less like sugarcoating and more like aspartame. At first taste it is sweet, but the aftertaste reveals its lack of authenticity; I am left wanting and with an exhausting headache. My femaleness has had "sharing is caring" drilled into it ever since birth, and the world has demanded that "sharing is caring" mantra at every turn, regardless of what it cost me. It's been the universal foundation of all free labor I have exerted in church. The more I give it, the more it is expected. The less I draw attention to what it costs me, the more I am lauded. This scripture turns everything about the traditional expectations of my role in the church upside down.
And so while I've sat through many a sermon addressing the questions "Who are the foolish bridesmaids," and "Who is the Groom," I am instead interested in, "What is the oil?" and "Why would giving up the oil be unwise?" Apparently, the lesson is that it is not wise to share in this instance, and I want to know why - what is the nature of the oil that we are actually called to not share?
When it comes to Thanksgiving, elections, or church, I am not a party person. This mostly is related to the intersection of my femaleness, queerness, and health conditions. While Thanksgiving conversations will include asking me about my health, they will also demand - in the name of peace and family unity - that I not talk about my anxiety over the recent election that affects whether or not I have healthcare. While elections will demand I turn out to vote, they will also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I accept police 'reform' instead of a complete reimagining of neighborhood safety, even though the police are murdering my siblings of color. While church demands my offerings, not only in money but in the free labor of technology and musical ministry, they also demand - in the name of peace and unity - that I relinquish my call for them to become RIC congregations, a designation that comes with doing the hard work of preparing a congregation to be welcoming and affirming of our LGBTQIA+ siblings.
The last point strikes a particularly sharp dagger in my soul. I've learned to keep the edges of my mouth just slightly upturned in those conversations about LGBTQIA+ inclusion, because to let a frown leak out on my face would so incense the cult of respectability that demands my acquiescence. Without me handing over a smile during conversations that drain my soul of its fire, the other party will immediately jump to 'how angry' I am and shut off the conversation. While you tell me my queerness is an abomination but you 'love me anyway,' while you tell me the congregation isn't ready to even discuss the work, and while you tell me that welcoming LGBTQIA+ people doesn't require actually affirming their place in God's church, I am required to look as though I am thoughtfully entertaining the notion that my community is subpar. It takes all my strength to keep my 'respectable' smile on my face, as you remove half the oil from my lamp, and drain the fuel from the fire in my soul. All so church can do half of the work but still hold on to it's respectable place in the processional.
While waiting to get into the party, I am not unlike the bridesmaids: I'm asked to sacrifice a lot of the prep work that specifically is necessary for the kind of party Jesus is planning, and I am asked to do it so that many of the participants can appear to have done their job, when they in fact didn't think that their participation required work. So I would venture to say that if the bridesmaids had shared their oil, the party procession would have had to be a lot quicker. The light of the flames would have had to go out a lot sooner, or their intensity be a lot dimmer in order to last the length of time for which the processional was planned. And as I made those sacrifices in the past, waiting for a church to decide to embark on becoming RIC, waiting for the holiday meal to be served, I suddenly understand what is in that precious oil.
Last Sunday, I had the privilege of joining Rev. Carla Christopher and Rev. Brenda Bos in a brief All Saints Sunday service online for the queer community in the ELCA LGBTQ & Allies Facebook Group. It was unabashedly queer, thanks also in part to the most amazing prayers written by J Pace Warfield-May. We named our queer ancestors and ally ancestors who had lit fires, provided sanctuary, illuminated theology, and too often were gone too soon. We named our fears for the future, we mourned the losses of the past, we called each other family. No one there gave away an ounce of oil and I felt God's presence in worship more viscerally than ever. The fire that blazed in that worship for me was every ounce the fire Jesus intended in a processional of the Gospel into the world. And for once I knew what it was like to show up to worship with a lamp entirely full. The parable doesn't demand I not share oil, it demands I share the most blazing of lights for the longest period of time. I'm being asked to bring my full self to God's table. The sin was ever asking me to bring only half.
What is the point of a blazing processional that is half on fire? What is the point of an election with not all the votes counted? What is the point of a table where all are gathered if not all are welcome? What is the point of neighborhood safety if not all are safe? At some point, sacrificing our oil negates the whole point of the party.
In the parable, the foolish bridesmaids return to a groom who does not recognize them as participants of the party. They have missed the point about what participating means. Participation in God's Kin-dom never required some of us to be only half on fire for the Gospel.
May every vote be counted. May all be welcome to the table. May everyone bring their full selves with every ounce of oil. And may the processional of Jesus' Love and Grace blaze through all the shadows.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.