by Carla Christopher Wilson
This week's lectionary text takes us back to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. Jesus has finished giving his initial instructions to the twelve disciples he called and has begun a traveling and teaching ministry. Who is this new human source of wisdom and theology shaping knowledge anyway? At this point Jesus is still a minimally known and minimally resourced man of dubious origin. He is a rural tradesmen; brilliant but without prestigious bloodline or extensive economic privilege. He begins by speaking about an even more marginalized "outsider" character, his herald and cousin, John the Baptist.
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
Peter. Oh Peter. How I wish you had just not been included in the canon. But, here we are.
I have had to sit with this a minute. There are two ways to go at this and I am not sure how to bring them together. On the one hand, this is a letter to immigrants living in lands that despise them. This is a letter telling strangers in strange lands to keep going, to keep pushing, because the people in the nations in which they are living are being terrible to them. We can talk about how we treat immigrants, how God is on the side of the stranger, giving them strength and uplifting them.
On the other hand, this idea that God tests us, that God tests our faith is so harmful and often furthers oppression. Those of us who are white, wealthy, and/or abled generally hear this idea when in moments of personal strife. When a loved one has died, when we have a setback in our career, when we have been the victim of violence, or when we are diagnosed with a health problem for the first (and possible final) time.
And when this happens it SUCKS. We know, in our heart of hearts, that God doesn’t do this. Jesus never talks about God testing our faith. As a Lutheran theologian of Grace, this just doesn’t work with my lens. And yet, the idea that the bad things happening is God testing us is pervasive in our culture and deeply harmful to individuals and individual faith.
However, this idea is so much more harmful to people living on the margins. For generations those without power have been told that whatever pain they were going through was God’s will, that God was making them tougher, and that to fail to put up with a situation of abuse, violence and oppression was to fail God. And so we use these words written to strengthen outcasts being tried by everything from ostracism to violence to further oppress. We use scripture to cause suffering. These words have been used to keep people enslaved, to exclude and harm disabled people, to uphold abusive relationships, & to keep people in all manner of prisons.
We read scripture through the lens of Christ. What does Christ tell us about God? That God loves us endlessly, forgives us endlessly, wanted to be in relationship with us so badly they became human and put up with all the shit we put up with on the day to day. That is the God we know. Does God want us to cast all our anxiety on God? Yes! Jesus said something similar, and that is a word of hope in this time.
But maybe it is also a word of hope to preach against this idea that God tests us through putting trials in our lives. To encourage people by speaking of a God who is not that petty, who strengthens us through presence not trial. That suffering will come and go but God will always be there, with us, in the midst of our pain.
Another option for something to highlight this week might be the part in the gospel of John that says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Eternal life is to know God. In this life. We read this lesson and it tempts us to look to the clouds for the day of Jesus’ return (which he is very clear we will not be able to predict) or for our own eventual ascension, especially in times as difficult as these. We may be dreaming of heaven as an escape from the pains of this life. But here Jesus clearly tells us that eternal life is life with God, knowing God through Jesus. And that happens in this world. This dirty, diseased, painful, beautiful, complicated, amazing world.
Note: Due to the stress all y’all parish preachers are under, we’re producing our commentaries right now in house. Y’all have enough to do.
By Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
“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.”
WOOOOOOHHHOOOOOOO!!!! SOCIALISM IS BIBLICAL!!!
SAY IT AGAIN!!!
The earliest followers of Jesus, led by Jesus’ disciples (the people who knew him when he was live) lived in a way where they shared what they had communally *and* sold what they had in excess and then gave the money to any who had need. NO ONE HAD PERSONAL POSESSIONS.
This is revolutionary and runs counter to so much of what modern Christianity tells us about how to follow Jesus and how to live in this world.
I am fascinated by how many commentaries I read try to explain this description away as an ideal or short lived or didn’t really happen in ways I very much do not hear with other stories. Like, I’m not seeing these same denials for the very wild story of Pentecost that comes at the beginning of this very chapter. People not having possessions held in common trust instead of privately makes us more uncomfortable than the Holy Spirit descending on a crowd, inspiring a cacophony of languages to erupt from people who did not know them. That is WILD, friends. I’m not sure if that says more about how private property has perverted our lives or our lack of faith in humanity. Not just humanity, but the Holy Spirit. After all, that’s what enabled these people to live like this, right?
One can draw a direct line between this Acts story of, well, socialism (communitarianism maybe?) and Jesus’ statement as recorded in this weeks’ gospel lesson, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” What does abundant life in God’s kingdom look like? It means a home, a community, medical care, enough to eat, clean water, clean air for all God’s children. We would be a whole lot closer to abundant life for all creation were were to release the idea that we individually own things, that we, individually, earn things. But we all know that’s a real hard sell in the US, particularly in the more privileged communities in which many of us work and live.
This week we get to *explicitly* talk about how the disciples lived and draw comparisons to how we live as Christians and as Americans. This is an excellent opportunity to dig into the economics of what is happening right now and how things might be different if we were more willing to go half as far as the disciples and their followers and share. This community in Acts is going beyond sharing – they relinquish the idea of owning. That’s what is at the heart of this. It’s not sharing. It’s not owning, not possessing, not having the ability to claim a thing as “mine.”
Can we ask our people do take a moment and dream of a world in which we all held possessions in common?
What would it look like if a farming community struggling right now with distribution because of the way the food chain has become both concentrated and globalized had a communal way of processing the food they raise and grow instead of having to send it away? What if the whole community bore the responsibilities for the crops and livestock? How might things have been different if the community owned the coal mine or the steel mill or the fancy hotel chains? What if we started to let go of owning and possessing and started to hold things in common?
We cannot have conversations about abundant life or sharing (much less collective ownership) without talking about racism. Racism is why Black and Indigenous people are being infected with and dying from the Corona Virus and disproportionate rates. Racism is why we don’t have a robust public healthcare system. Racism is why government benefits can be so hard to access (which many people may be learning for the first time, and of which Florida is a prime example). According to study after study, white people don’t mind it so much if they think other white people are getting benefits, but they will be damned if Black people, Latinos, or Native Americans get benefits. White supremacy has convinced White people that People of Color are lazy, shiftless, unintelligent, and completely undeserving of public support & that to lift up People of Color is to demote White people. These beliefs have disastrous effects on Black & Brown communities including lower life expectancy and poor health outcomes. These disparities are being brought into the spotlight due to the mush higher infection & death rates seen in communities of color, particularly in Black & Indigenous communities. Not only does racism have disastrous effects on Black and Brown communities, it has disastrous effects for all of us, particularly poor white folk. In order to keep public benefits, public goods, and economic development from People of Color, white people have kept it from themselves.
The people of the first Christian community, according to this story, held all things in common. This is the Christian ideal; a model for who we should live together in the Holy Spirit. We can’t get there unless we dismantle white supremacy which has taught us that everything can be owned, even other human beings. But this world in which we hold things in common and sell our excess to benefit those in need is a dream worth aiming towards. The kingdom always is, especially in difficult times.
Links with facts to back up these words:
Heather McGee's Ted Talk Racism has a Cost for Everyone
Heather McGee on WTH Pod w Christ Hayes
Demos, a think tank on economics, and justice
USA Today Article on disparities in COVID cases
by Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings
We are living in a time between, “We just want things to get back to normal,” and, “What was wasn’t that great, can we imagine something different?” While there are some people who are firmly on one side or the other, I imagine many of us are stretched between these two statements. We recognize the world as it was (and as it is) is filled with inequity and injustice. We know something must be done about the giant gap between rich and poor, that we have to fix our nations healthcare system, that racial inequality is deadly. These things are all killing people. And yet, particularly for those of us who benefit from the system as it is, it is really hard to actually muster the energy to change. Change is hard and scary. Even when what we know is terrible, fear of the unknown often keeps us stuck in situations we know need to change.
We Christians know this all too well. For decades voices have been telling the church it must change, adapt, become made new, and yet comfort has called and we have remained the same. Which is ironic, because the Christian life is one of being transformed. In particular, it is a life of being refined and purified by the Holy Spirit that we might love.
Love is the result of the transformation we undergo in the name of Christ.
“Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth (of the spirit) so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
As much as we may… aspire to? hope for? agree with the idea of? being so obedient to God we are transformed to the point that we have genuine, deep mutual love, we also also tend to resist it with all of our will and/or don’t actually know how to do this. Who are our models for being transformed to this degree? How do we heal enough to allow ourselves to be consumed by love? What will happen to the person I know as “me” if I allow this to happen? For most of us, the fear of who we could become or what it will actually take or what we will have to give up to be transformed by love so that we might love in the way of Christ. Even though we know God will be with us the whole time.
This inner transformation and the possible transformation of our society have much in common. For each we will have to be willing to give of ourselves in ways that may be uncomfortable. For each, those who have more than they need will be called to open their hands and hearts and share privilege, power, money, resources. Each process calls for deep introspection, and in neither case do we know what lies on the other side of the transformation.
We also know these transformations, rooted in, transformed by, and growing towards love, bring us closer to the kingdom. These transformations are a piece of what we pray for every time we gather together in the words, “your kingdom come.” As we reach towards the kingdom and the kingdom approaches us, God is bridging that gap and holding us all the time. If you feel so called, this week could be an opportunity to move your people towards the transformation – their own and transformation for the new, just equitable world that could begin to rise out of this crisis.
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.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.