Mindset

Peter is a pretty easy punching bag. Taking from the book “Lamb,” I once preached a sermon riffing on Peter’s name meaning “rock” and called him “dumb as a box of rocks Peter” throughout. That may have been too strong. He is certainly impetuous, but maybe not dumb. He’s quick to jump out of the boat, quick to answer Jesus’ questions, and in the Gospel lesson for Sunday, quick to tell Jesus he is wrong. It is pretty easy for the preacher to point to Peter and Jesus’ rebuke of him and say, “don’t be like Peter,” but the truth is, most of the time, most of us are right where Peter is.

His sin, you see, isn’t rebuking Jesus, but having his mind set on human things rather than divine things. I suspect most of us spend most of our time focused on the things of this world: money, power, success; rather than the things of God; justice, peace, and restoration. This seems particularly true the longer pandemic restrictions linger and more and more of us grow impatient. From our national leadership the focus on human things has trickled all the way down to the minimum wage worker. The mindset of our nation has been focused not on how to take care of one another, but how to keep the economy going so that money, power, and success can continue. Billionaires have made billions, but by making the powerless work to sell people the things they need and shorting the stock market to sell things they never owned. The most vulnerable have had to work, often without the necessary protections, in the name of the economy.

Our mindset is clearly set on human things. So, let’s stop short of laughing at Peter’s rebuke and wonder instead what Jesus might say to us in these (hopefully) waning days of the COVID-19 pandemic. How might we change our mindset? How can we focus on divine things, even as we still have to pay bills, feed ourselves and our families.

On Careful Study

We live in an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture. The well-worn stories of Mother Becca’s flannel board don’t hold the same significance in the hearts and minds of those under 50 as they did in generations past. Passing references to Noah, Abraham, or Paul don’t ring in their ears the way to do for me, but of course, that’s because I took a vow to study the Bible on a regular basis. At best, 21st century America’s Biblical knowledge can be described by the image above – pithy statements that don’t actually say what they mean, but make us feel good as self-actualized capitalists.

This proves difficult when, on the 51st Sunday of COVID-tide, we hear the Genesis story of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, Paul’s very socially-defined explanation of that Covenant from Romans, and Jesus’ brief sermon on discipleship from Mark. All three scripture passages require significant explanations of backstory and social context. Here, when so many of us are exhausted, with our last bit of imaginative energies focused on a second pandemic Holy Week, we’re asked by the Lectionary to do some careful study before we lead our congregations down the path of supercessionism or the danger of a highly individualized faith wherein me and my Jesus carry my cross, and your way of living out your faith will most likely make Jesus ashamed of you.

Perhaps I’m projecting or overreacting, but on this particular Monday, I’m praying for you, dear friends. As you consider what you might preach, or pray for your preacher, please remember how challenging this is, how seriously we should take this calling, and how utterly obnoxious the RCL can be sometimes.

I’m Not Ready for Lent

            I’m not ready for Lent to start again.  It just seems like Lent 2020 never really ended, and we’ve lived in a perpetual state of discipline and self-denial since March of last year.  Aside from a couple of Sundays in Lent, our routine of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, from February 25 and 26 of 2020, are the last normal thing we did as a congregation.  Just down the hall from me, on the bulletin board near Moore Hall, hangs a collage of photographs from the Brotherhood of St. Andrew’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper.  Those pictures feel like a lifetime ago, maybe two.  Yet, here we are, almost a full year later, ready to start it all over again.  I’m just not ready for Lent.

            I’m particularly not ready for ashes on my forehead to remind me of my own mortality.  These ashes feel a lot more like ashes to ashes, dust to dust from the burial office than they do the remnants of some non-existent Palm Sunday celebration from last year.  With more than four hundred eighty-eight thousand Americans dead due to the Coronavirus, I don’t need the reminder.  This morning I woke up to text messages with an urgent prayer request for a young man with special needs who was being admitted to the hospital with COVID pneumonia.  I don’t need the reminder. Having buried or delayed burial for nearly a dozen of our people over the last year, I don’t need the reminder.  I am very keenly aware that death is all around thank you very much.

            There has been a gift in the never-ending Lent of 2020, however.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I have spent hours upon hours digging into the Book of Common Prayer, looking for ways to offer the worship of the Church to those who are staying safe at home.  It has been a gift to read the Prayer Book with a fresh set of eyes, to see where it invites innovation, where it welcomes experimentation, and what, when you distill it all down, is really important.  It happened again for me in thinking about this Ash Wednesday.  I kept getting fixated on this ashes to ashes idea, when it was pointed out to me that the prayer that Mother Becca will say over the ashes asks God that they might be a sign not only of our mortality, but also of penitence.

            Penitence, the act of feeling sorrow or regret for having done wrong.  These ashes are intended to remind us of our sinfulness as well.  To be honest, we probably don’t need that either.  In the last year, we’ve seen friendships and families torn apart by political discord.  We’ve heard our nation called to finally come to terms with its history of white supremacy.  We’ve watched as the world’s economy has been brought to its knees by rolling Coronavirus shut-downs due to our inability to simply do what is best for our neighbors.  We have seen, in stark terms, the wages of sin, and our need, both as individuals and as a collective, for repentance.

            In the Christian context, penitence doesn’t stop at feeling sorrow or regret.  In Christ, we are assured that our sins are forgiven.  We just heard that reaffirmed in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…” These ashes, then, are not just a sign of our mortality and penitence, but of God’s forgiveness as well.  They remind us that God hates nothing God has made.  In fact, God loves all of creation, even you and me.

            I may not be ready for Lent to come again, but I sure am eager to be reminded of God’s love and forgiveness.  Whether you can get here for ashes or not, whether you smudge some soot from the fireplace or ashes from your grill on your forehead, whether you look in the mirror for signs of last year’s ashen cross, my prayer is that this Ash Wednesday and all of Lent 2021, are a reminder to you of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love and an opportunity for you to offer that same forgiveness and love to your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, and friends.  Almighty God, you hate nothing you have made, and we shouldn’t either, give us a spirit of forgiveness and love this Lent, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

God in the Valley – Last Epiphany B

I forgot to post my sermon from Sunday. Better late than never.

When I was in high school, I was deeply involved with my local Young Life chapter.  Every Wednesday, I would cram into somebody’s basement with a hundred or more other high schoolers to sing praises to God and hear a Bible lesson.  Thursday nights, a small group of us spent the night at our Young Life leaders’ house so that we could wake up early on Friday morning for Bible study and monkey bread.  The highlight of the year was, of course, summer camp.  We’d pile into a fancy motor coach and make our way north to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York where we were guaranteed to have the best week of our lives.  There, on Saranac Lake, we’d spend a week immersed in experiences designed to bring us closer to God.  The music was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the Ski Nautique boats were perfect for water skiing and parasailing.  There is no mountain top experience like hanging by a parachute, three hundred feet in the air, being pulled around one of the most beautiful lakes in New York by a high-powered ski boat, captained by a college student who loves Jesus.

Mountain top experiences are amazing.  Of course, they are.  That’s why they’re called mountain top experiences.  They are the pinnacle of life experiences.  We just heard the story of the first Christian mountain top experience in Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story.  A brief look through Scripture shows us several others: God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign after the ark came to rest atop a mountain.  Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai.  Elijah heard the still, small voice of God at the top of Mount Horeb.  The mountain top is often a thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth is seemingly nonexistent, and the presence of God can be felt.  It is natural for us to yearn for those profound experiences of God.  When they happen, we should rejoice in them, just as Peter did when he recognized Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.  We should rejoice because they are amazing and few and far between.  The mountain top is hard to come by.  That’s why religious leaders often work hard to cultivate them for us.  That the mountain top experience is pre-designed doesn’t mean it is disingenuous.  It seems clear that even Jesus pre-planned this particular event.  He took a select few of his most trusted disciples with him.  They climbed a literal mountain.  A spectacular event took place.  That it was manufactured, doesn’t mean the mountain top experience of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration or my week at Saranac Lake aren’t real, but it does go to show that the mountain top, while beneficial and worth pursuing, isn’t normal.  Life isn’t lived atop a mountain, but in the ups and downs of daily life, and if life has taught me anything, it is that God is just as present in the valleys as the mountain tops.

Before I went to seminary, I was a part-time youth minister at the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Like the EYC here, we were a small, but committed group.  One summer, we joined with a large, international mission trip company, to spend a week in rural North Carolina rehabbing houses.  I was so excited for that trip.  Our partner company had slick resources, what appeared to be a decent theological foundation, and everything looked like it would be easy peasy lemon squeezy.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  We were assigned to a house that needed significant soffit and fascia repair.  My crew was me and five ninth graders.  Our first job?  Build two ladders.  That’s right, we were given a bunch of two by fours and some nails to build the ladders we needed to reach the roof.  Our second job?  Climb up our homemade ladder with a Sawzall to cut out of the rotten fascia boards.  Me. And five ninth graders.  Each night, the evening program was filled with “scared straight” type stories meant to get our kids to believe in Jesus just so they wouldn’t go to hell.  Our van broke down mid-week and my air mattress was flat each morning.  We were about as deep in the valley as we could go, yet, on our last night there, my kids and I got to experience the love of God in a deeply moving way.  I honestly don’t remember what the last night’s program was about, but I remember how our kids were able to see God amidst the hardship of the week.  Despite the lack of resources and despite my grumpiness, we all knew in that moment that God loved us, and we were transformed forever in that knowing and being known.

My friend, Keith Talbert, pointed out to me that the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, while often used to highlight the mountain top, could just as easily teach us to look for God in the valleys.  In a season specifically set aside to look for the “aha moments” of God in our lives, the lessons for this Sunday shine the bright light of God both on the mountain top, in the story of the Transfiguration, and deep in the valley, in the story of Elijah and Elisha from Second Kings.  Elijah’s final journey begins at Gilgal.  I’ll spare you most of the details, but it should be noted that there are several different Gilgals mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  A Gilgal is a circle of rocks, built as a monument to a major event, and we have no idea which Gilgal marked the start of their journey.  It could be the Gilgal near the River Jordan, where the Israelites camped just before they crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land, but that doesn’t make much sense given that the next stop is Bethel.  More likely is one of the gilgals erected in the mountains north and west of Jerusalem.  The story of Elijah and Elisha could, quite possibly begin on the mountain top, but like it was for Peter, James, and John, they couldn’t stay there.

As Elijah made his slow and steady march toward the Jordan River valley and his death, Elisha, heir to his prophetic voice, travelled with him in grief.  They came down from Gilgal to Bethel, where a company of prophets tried to dissuade Elisha from continuing to journey into the valley.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Bethel, Elijah and Elisha continued down to Jericho, where another company of prophets tried to keep Elisha from following his mentor into the depths.  “You know that today the Lord will take your master away, right?”  “Yes, I know, shut up about it.”  From Jericho, God called Elijah to the Jordan River, and Elisha followed yet again.  Finally, Elijah struck the river, the waters parted, and Elijah and Elisha found themselves standing in a dried-up riverbed.  There, about as far from the mountain top as one can go, Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit that rested upon Elijah and the glory of Lord came as a chariot of fire and took Elijah up to heaven.  At one of the lowest points on earth, during one of the lowest points of his life, Elisha experienced a profound encounter with the living God.

I don’t know about you, but after all that we’ve been through in the last eleven months, I find myself drawn to the story of Elisha and Elijah in a dried-out riverbed this morning.  From where I’m standing, there seems to be a lot of opportunities to walk uphill from here.  Even in the difficult times, however, we can rest assured that God is here.  God is present and ready to pour out grace and love in abundance on the mountain tops, in the valleys, and everywhere in between.  There are better days ahead, of this I am sure, but in the meantime, my prayer is that each of us will have the chance to experience the transfiguring love of God in the highs and lows of our everyday lives.  Amen.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Back in the early 1980s, the late Tom Petty wrote “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.”  While it is obviously a song about a woman, I’m guessing it wasn’t written about the prophet Anna, though it could have been.  Anna, Luke tells us, was waiting for the Messiah.  For nearly sixty years, Anna had lived in the Temple, praying, fasting, and waiting for God to fulfill the promise of a Messiah who would restore Israel and redeem the whole world.

After almost 11 months of waiting to see y’all in real life, I’m over it.  I can’t imagine doing this for another 700 months, 21,500 days, or 516,000 hours, give or take.  The waiting is the hardest part, but some things are worth waiting for.  For Anna, the wait was certainly worth it.  She was a prophet, not in the fortune teller sense.  Instead, for Anna, being a prophet meant she was in tune with God’s word.  Through her spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting, Anna had cultivated a deep relationship with God.  She had received the promise of a Savior, but didn’t know when it would come.  As she waited, I’m sure there were days of frustration.  I’m sure there were moments of desperation.  After 60 years of waiting, I’m certain that Anna had seen the depths of worry and sorrow, but then she saw him, and she knew.

How she knew that this forty-day old baby boy was the one for whom she had waited, I don’t know, but she knew, and she believed, and she praised God for the fulfillment of the promise of a child who would redeem the whole world.  As we wait for the full rollout of the vaccine, for life to slowly return to normal, I wonder how God might be calling us to deepen our relationship, to see the world through God’s eyes, and to work toward the Kingdom of God.

The waiting is the hardest part, but in the waiting, there is plenty of work to do.  I pray this day that God might give us all the spirit of Anna, that we might wait, patiently and with conviction, for the redemption of the world.  Amen.

Experiencing Jesus

       The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy.  Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes.  Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life.  Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment.  At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.  I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria.  Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units.  I got all kinds of experience.  Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh.  I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.

       As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person.  As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct.  She said what needed to be said.  I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?”  I learned to check my attitude that day.  Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us.  Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation.  I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly.  We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place.  I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us.  I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.  I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly.  Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love.  It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had.  As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.

       I think about that experience often.  How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus.  I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love.  In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh.  They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.

       A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near.  It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day.  Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.

       Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it.  Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength.  Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.

       In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.”  That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well.  We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus.  We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it.  You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus.  Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.

       This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves.  How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort.  In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort.  The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

       Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Notice your breath.  Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…

Think back over the course of this week.

Look around where you’ve been.

Listen again to the words you’ve heard.

Where did you see God?

Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?

Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?

In… and out… In… and out…

Amen.

Reacting to Jesus

As unremarkable as the miracle that Jesus performed in the Synagogue might have been, the focus of Sunday’s Gospel really seems fixated on the various reactions that people and spirits had to Jesus. Less than halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already engendered several strong reactions. At his baptism, the heavens reacted to Jesus by being torn apart and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The [Holy] Spirit responded by whisking Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tempted him for 40 days. Simon and Andrew reacted to Jesus invitation by dropping their nets and following him. James and John, sons of Zebedee, did the same.

Our story follows, with Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. He taught with a particular kind of authority, and the congregations reaction was, in the Greek, ekplesso, which literally means, they were blown away; not by what he taught, but how. Immediately, the scene cuts to a man with an unclean spirit. Just like it was with Satan in the wilderness, the unclean spirit knew something was up and their reaction is telling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” It seems the spirit could see beyond the flesh, and knew the heart of Jesus. The spirit was afraid of what Jesus might do, but we should be careful reading too much into the title that the spirit calls Jesus.

While most of us reading this passage would assume that the spirit knew that Jesus was the Messiah, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 61) notes that this phrase, “Holy One of God” mirrors a title given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9. Rather than a messianic title, it is a comparative title over and against the evil spirit. Instead, it makes clear that unlike the spirit, which belonged to the evil one, Jesus belonged to God. What follows is an example of how the power of God’s holiness is stronger than the power of evil, as Jesus casts out the spirit, leaving it disembodied and unable to act in the world.

The final reaction, then, is the crowd’s response to what they just saw. They were thambeo, astounded. Mark seems to use ekplesso and thambeo interchangeably, as both variously refer to the reaction people have to Jesus teaching and to witnessing miracles. Still, it is worth noting that even though the spirit saw Jesus as holy, the crowd is struck particularly by his authority. Their response isn’t worship, at least not yet. Instead, they are awestruck, flabbergasted, and astonished. It would behoove us, I think, to pay attention to how we respond to Jesus in our own experience. Are we amazed by the wisdom of his teaching? Are we astonished by his holiness of life? Are we fearful of his call upon our lives? How do you react to Jesus?

An Unremarkable Miracle

Due to a last minute scheduling change, I suddenly find myself preaching this week. With the need to write a sermon on my mind, I read the Gospel lesson for Sunday again this morning, and realized that in all my excitement at the word “authority” yesterday, I had totally missed what the story is about. Did you know that Jesus performs a miracle in this week’s text? Apparently, I didn’t until today.

My quick-and-dirty reading of the Scriptures notwithstanding, this miracle that Jesus performs does, in the grand scheme of things, seem somewhat unremarkable. First, it is the cleansing of an unclean spirit, which seems pretty common place among the Feeding of the 5,000, walking on water, and raising the dead. What’s more, in a Gospel that tends to be sparse on details, Mark tells us that this all happened in the Synagogue on the Sabbath, and nobody gave a darn about it. Normally, when Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath, everybody gets all up in arms about it, but here, nobody says a word. It’s not a thing. It’s totally unremarkable, well, kind of. I wonder why that is.

Rhetorically, it is probably because it occurs in Mark 1, and there is no need to raise the tension level between Jesus and the powers-that-be quite yet, but is there more than that? This unremarkable miracle didn’t get Jesus in trouble, but rather, is started the spread of his fame. He performed many other miracles that day, at least one, the healing of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law, we’re told came before sunset. What does the preacher do, if anything, with this unremarkable miracle?

One with authority

I’ve spent this weekend on Zoom. Not like all weekend, but several hours, each day, from Friday through a meeting scheduled in about 15 minutes, on Zoom as a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. Lots of words get spoken over the course of some 12 hours of online meetings, and not all of them are worth hearing, let alone repeating. Occasionally, however, you hear something through glitchy internet and bad audio that you want to remember. That happened to me on Saturday morning, during the presentation on the relationship between the Church Pension Fund and The Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, 11th Bishop of Ohio, noted that this purpose of our conversation was to clear up lines of authority, not for the purpose of one party holding authority over another, but rather, to clearly articulate responsibility for.

As I read about the response to Jesus teaching in the Synagogue, I can’t help but wonder if the astonishment that the people experienced upon hearing Jesus was because his teaching was based in “authority over” but “responsibility for.” That is, Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him, one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength. Human beings aren’t real accustomed to that kind of authority. It is no wonder the people who heard Jesus teach were astounded.

An Ironic Collect

Irony – a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, in which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…

In the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been that long since we heard an excerpt from Jonah read on a Sunday morning. Portions of Jonah are only read twice in the three-year lectionary cycle, and the lessons overlap by a verse which reads “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Back in the more Biblically literate times of the 1950s, hearing only a small portion of this story would elicit in the congregation’s mind the fuller context, but that can’t be assumed in 2021. While the preacher might chuckle at the irony of the Collect for Epiphany 3 being matched with a lesson that starts “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time…” not everyone will be in on the joke. Of course, maybe that gives us our entrance into the sermon. By helping our folks see how the prayer we pray on Epiphany 3 is basically one that says, “Give us grace, O Lord, not to be like Jonah,” we can help our people see two basic truths. First, that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. And second, that even one of the Lord’s great prophets struggled to share the good news of God’s grace at times. In an era of virtual evangelism, these might be helpful lessons for members of our congregations who are seeking to discern how God might be calling them to be evangelists.

So, tell the whole story. Let them in on the joke. It’ll be a great way to open the conversation.