You May Need To Woe

By Miriam Perkins

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Matthew 23:1-12

In Matthew’s 23rd chapter, Jesus warns his disciples and the crowds about duplicitous and arrogant teachers. Among the religious leaders of his time and ours, arrogance obscured wisdom, and proud lifestyles hid hypocrisy. Jesus instructed his disciples to “follow what they teach, but do not do as they do.” And with words chilling to pastors and educators, Jesus admonished them to call no one father, rabbi, or teacher – for we have one Father in heaven, and one teacher, the Messiah.

Sunday’s lectionary reading ends there, omitting the more biting “woes” Jesus speaks against the Pharisees. However, you may want to consider adding them back in.

About four years ago, I was preparing for a Wednesday class as the 2016 presidential election results came in. The next day, I wondered how to approach the course content considering the election outcome. While student responses across the country were varied, at my own seminary students were in a state of shock and distress unlike anything I had experienced as an educator since September 11. When I opened class with, “I know it has been a tough day,” one student responded emphatically, “Please, don’t understate it.”

I set aside material I planned to cover. Instead, we worked on collaboratively writing stanzas of a pastoral prayer for the country and its citizens. We started with  some blessings in the spirit of Matthew’s Beatitudes: blessed are those who stay hopeful even in a moment of disappointment; blessed are all who pray for our leaders no matter who wins an election; blessed are those who vote even when it seems their vote won’t be counted or count.

Then we wondered what it might look like to include some “woes” to express our worries and laments about the election. These proved harder. What does it mean to speak a “woe”?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt 23:23).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous” (Matt 23:29).

As a legal historian, Cathleen Kaveny describes words like these as “moral indictment.” Even though harsh, moral indictments are useful when they avoid slandering specific people and instead name broad violations of core values (Prophecy Without Contempt, 2018). Woes should aim to convict our hearts and remind us, as Jesus does, of what is most important: integrity, justice, mercy, faith.

A “woe” can speak a powerful word of support for the lowly and disenfranchised. It can seek God’s protections over the just and merciful. It can remind us that Death is lurking in unsuspected places. It can point us and others toward the world we long for despite our political fractures and frustrations. Woes, like laments, are deep cries of hope – we want things to be otherwise.

Here are some of the “woes” students wrote and spoke four years ago:

Woe to those who lack compassion, for they do not feel the weight of mercy! Woe to those who are dismissive, who do not listen and remain deaf to the cries of the marginalized! Woe to those who idolize patriotism and nationalism! Woe to those who speak ill of people of color, of women, of homosexual people! Woe to the rich, white, and comfortable who are complicit with racism and bigotry. Your earthly comforts are fleeting! Woe to you who are dominated by fear. Christ compels us to act boldly in the force of senseless evil!

During this election week, you may need to speak a blessing. You may also need to speak a woe. Lament. Call out hypocrisy. As you do, nurture a spirit of humility. Remember both the indicting woes of Jesus and his humble life: “for the greatest among you will be your servant; all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:11-12).

Image Credit: Machiel van Zanten

Love of Neighbor and the Mystery of God With Us

 

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 22:34-46

As someone tasked with weekly sermon preparation, I often find that the most helpful reflections are those that, rather than make a single, uniform point about the text, offer a few possible directions for exploration and uncovering.

As I read this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, there are a number of directions I think any homilist could go, and I hope that the following possibilities are helpful in either your preparation and writing, or in your prayerful reflection on the text as a spiritual discipline. Read more

Learning to Trust

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Exodus 32:1-14

What do you do when the only world you’ve ever known has been torn out from under you? When the world as you’ve known it has crumbled and you’re left standing in a desolate place with an unknown future before you? How do you respond when it appears that the One whom you’ve trusted has disappeared? Read more

The Vocation of the Vineyard

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7

Psalm 80:7-15

Philippians 3:4b-14

Matthew 21:33-46

Crying to God for justice in a world of violence.

Recognizing inherited privilege.

Hoping for a future of reconciliation.

We are witnesses of the outcries against racially-charged violence and the reactions of white supremacy to those laments. We hear the longsuffering pleas of “How long?” in the midst of an ongoing pandemic (one that seems destined to get much worse before it gets better), and we sense the faint hope and longing for a future of reconciliation beyond these struggles. We know and experience what these opening lines describe. They are preoccupations that are very familiar to us, yet this description is not drawn from our current crises but from our appointed lectionary texts for this week, speaking to us in powerfully new and relevant ways. Read more

Cultivating Compassion

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

This week’s scriptures simmer with conflict. Our reading from Exodus finds the “congregation of the Israelites” stranded in the wilderness of Sin, in a decidedly unhappy mood. Water is in short supply, and people know exactly who to blame. Things get so ugly that even after the people drink their fill, Moses names the place “Massah” (testing) and “Meribah” (quarreling).

Sunday’s gospel account from Matthew 21 recounts Jesus’ escalating battle with the religious leaders. Accusatory thrusts and countering questions lead to conversation-ending judgment: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Temperatures are rising. Trouble is on the horizon. Read more

Gifts in the Wilderness

By Ben Lee

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

During my family’s annual week-long family reunion, my parents would sometimes find unique things for us to do as a family. One year, when I was around twelve years old, he decided to rent a boat and take us out to a nearby island. Many of my cousins and I spent the day snorkeling and collecting shells, rocks, and even a few fossils. The next year, he arranged for us all to go on a deep-sea fishing trip for the day. After these two years, I began to expect something even better. I even had the gall to say “What are you going to do for us this year? It needs to be something that is more exciting than deep-sea fishing.” That was the year that my dad decided to do nothing. I was furious. It was going to be the worst year ever. Forget the fact that even being able to take a week-long vacation was a tremendous privilege.

The more I calculated what was coming to me, the more I distorted the dynamics of the gift that was being offered. And so my dad withheld that particular gift, lest I confuse the reason why he was offering it in the first place.  Read more

Mercy Shortage

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

 

Genesis 50:15-21

Psalm 103:1-13

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

 

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now.

                                                                        –Mary Gauthier,  “Mercy Now”

 

I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.

                                                                        —Dorothy Day

 

As reprehensible as it was, Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene’s recently posted image of herself holding an AR-15 next to pictures of the group of progressive Democratic Congresswomen known popularly as “The Squad” wasn’t especially shocking, and not only because it was but one instance in an extensive and expanding catalogue of her outrageous behavior. Such belligerent, threatening actions, facilitated by the anonymity of the internet and enabled by so-called leaders who thrive on divisive rhetoric that often crosses the line into bigotry and hate speech, is no longer exceptional. Political differences have morphed into battle lines, and violence, directed disproportionately toward the powerless at the margins, is not uncommon. While the political roots of this crisis run deep and are many and complex, they are easy enough to sum up theologically: we collectively suffer a critical shortage of mercy. “Every single one of us,” as Mary Gauthier sings, “could use some mercy now.” Read more

Of Birth Pains and Birthday Parties

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Exodus 12:1-14

I remember well the days my two boys were born, one in September and the other in May, four years apart. When they were born, although we were obviously expecting them, they each decided to arrive earlier than expected and we were not fully prepared for their arrival. But their births, at least for this mother, were memorable. Read more

Returning to the Scene

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

I have been experiencing depression for the first time in my life over the last year or so. While not recognized as an official pathology, climate depression (or climate anxiety) is on the rise. I lose a lot of sleep. I find that I simply cannot read certain portions of the newspaper. At last year’s Ekklesia Project, I had to excuse myself during Mike Budde’s talk because I couldn’t bear to hear him detail the irreversible damage happening to our home, our planet.

Part of the problem is recognizing how complicit I am in climate change. The militaries of the world, aluminum smelting, concrete manufacturing, global shipping, industrial agriculture, certainly these are all among the chief culprits of our crisis. But I have traveled extensively around the world. I cool my home so that it can be more comfortable. I shop on Amazon. I am trying to change my habits and choices, but I also recognize I have so far to go. Read more