This morning’s collect from Prayers for an Inclusive Church speaks of an “Unclean God” … a God that gets into our mess. This past Friday was the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin and this morning we are singing lots of Marian hymns in her honor – remembering a God who crossed boundaries of propriety to be born of an unwed teenage mother from some hick town up yonder. And now this same Jesus, son of Mary and Son of God, whose parentage is questionable at best, dares call a Canaanite woman a dog! Wow … unclean God indeed! There’s much disturbing about this story. Jesus begins by entering unclean Gentile territory and this woman, desperate to help her ailing daughter, crosses the cultural and gender boundaries to get his attention. And Jesus’ first reaction is to ignore her. But she won’t take “no” for an answer – she shouts all the more. The disciples ask Jesus if he wants them to shut her up. Jesus responds by essentially telling her he didn’t come for “her kind.” He attempts to put her in her place. But she is undeterred! She kneels before him and begs his help. And that’s when Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” It’s nothing new that women get called a “dog” when they refuse to be put in their place! She pops off with a snappy comeback: “… even the dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table.” Jesus commends her great faith (in contrast to Peter’s little faith from last week’s reading) and says, “let it be done for you as you wish.”
There is much which troubles me in this story; however, the ending is what is sticking with me this week, perhaps due to the events which have unfolded. One could come away from this reading with the impression that if we just nag Jesus enough, whatever we want will be done for us as we wish. And there are plenty of people who will tell you if “you just have enough faith” and “just pray harder” God will hear you and answer your prayers. There are even hints of this in scripture itself. It’s as if God is some kind of indifferent parental figure that needs to be harangued until he gives in to our desires or some kind of benevolent sugar daddy doling out favors capriciously. My life experience tells me this isn’t true and I suspect deep down you know it too.
This story brings up the issue of what it means to be healed. It is a difficult question in our time and place because we often confuse healing with cure. The strides in medical technology have led us to believe that we can cure anything. We often read into the biblical narrative that those who are healed are cured when that isn’t necessarily so. Cure is the reversal of illness or disease and restoration to a non-diseased state. If you get strep throat, it is caused by bacteria. If you take an antibiotic, it will kill the bacteria causing the infection and support your immune system to clear your body of the disease. For the record, antibiotics don’t cure the infection – they provide support to your immune system by killing enough of the bacteria that your body can finish the job of clearing out the infection. There are some illnesses for which a cure is possible.
But more often than not, we suffer from diseases and infirmities which cannot be cured: infirmities are of body, mind and spirit. Many of these are just conditions – they are what they are. These conditions and infirmities can be managed, perhaps, but not cured. We have been painfully reminded of this in the death of Robin Williams this week. Mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia, addictions to alcohol or drugs, chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia, COPD, diabetes, congestive heart failure, many forms of cancer are not things for which there are cures. Treatments exist to help manage these chronic conditions. These treatments can bring us with a quality of life. But to expect a reversal, a cure, of this kind of disease is as unrealistic today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Diseases of body, mind and spirit can and do claim the lives of people we love and sometimes this happens in what seems to be tragic and untimely ways. We seem to be able to accept when people die from physical illnesses. If someone dies of cancer, we don’t blame their deaths on not “trying hard enough,” do we? But we often struggle to understand when the cause is addiction, mental illness, or even the deep spiritual diseases of our human condition. I think deaths from spiritual disease are the hardest to talk about because these infirmities are so deep and often hidden from us. This week, we have watched violence explode in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Mike Brown – a young black man who was unarmed and gunned down by a fearful police office. The spiritual disease of racism and fear runs so deep that we find it easier to couch this as police abuse or criminal behavior. But it is a disease of a spiritual nature. When young black men have to get “the talk” from their elders about how not to provoke the police, that is the spiritual disease of racism! When a trans or gay person dies at the hands of an angry mob, that’s the spiritual disease of heterosexism. Yes, it is criminal behavior in the taking of a life, but that is a symptom of deeper spiritual illnesses which only God knows whether or not they can be cured – but I do think they can be healed.
Chronic emotional illnesses are also places where we can hope for healing, but cure is impossible. Those who do not suffer from drug or alcohol addiction can quite wrongly stand in judgment of addicts and alcoholics and blame them for “taking that first drink” or “choosing to use.” These beliefs stem from a complete lack of understanding of how addiction binds our will and destroys our freedom – it impairs the ability to choose freedom. People who stand in that judgment seat are in denial of the fact they have their own addictions – even if only the addiction to self-righteousness. There is healing for addiction, but there is no cure.
For those who do not suffer from mental illness, we can fall into the mistaken idea that if those suffering would just “snap out of it,” “get on meds,” or “get some help,” they could be cured. This isn’t true either – there is no cure for mental illness. There is treatment and management, there is healing, but there is no cure. If there were a cure, our brother Robin Williams and our sister Sophia Schmidt would not have succumbed to death by suicide from end-stage mental illness.
If we look closely at this story, we hear in the end the woman’s daughter was healed … not cured. What that healing looked like is unknown to us. Perhaps she was cured … and maybe not. Maybe she received some relief from her torment or perhaps she received just enough grace to go on for one more day.
Healing is something we all need and we all seek. Every single one of us has something which cannot be cured – a dis-ease of body, mind or spirit. Healing is gift from God which brings a sense of serenity and wholeness in the face of what cannot be cured. I am persuaded that healing is something which happens in community – it does not happen in isolation. At our best, the Church is a conduit for the healing grace of God. It comes through our worship, the sacraments, how we are sacraments to each other by the giving of our very lives, and from the medical resources with whom we partner to address the physical and emotional components of infirmities. Faith plays a role in healing, to be sure, but God also wants us to avail ourselves of therapeutic treatments too. It’s not either/or … it is both/and.
This community of Grace has been a means God has used to bring healing to others. It doesn’t mean that those who come here are necessarily cured, but it does mean we are called to show the love and care of Christ to all who come through the door. It also means we run the risk of our hearts being broken. In my life, I have found this is a risk worth taking because only when my heart breaks can God’s grace flow in to heal me too.
Have you ever come close to drowning? I mean really close … like you really thought you were going to die. It only happened to me once when I was 16 years old. I was body surfing at the Wedge in Newport Beach – thus named because of how the beach came up against the Newport Harbor jetty. The formation there made the waves pretty big and with a great shape for body surfing. While other beaches had 4 – 6 foot surf, the Wedge would have 10 foot waves or more. I was out there one day and trying to get into shore after riding a wave. Walking up the beach and out of the surf, I suddenly felt all the water pull out from around my legs … and looked over my shoulder to see about a 10 foot wave about to crash on my head! It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I took a deep breath and before I could tuck down the wave crashed and pinned me face down and prone in the sand. I could not move! In that moment, I thought to myself, “Well, this is it. I’m going to die.” But then I heard another voice, “Hang on. The ocean always lets you go.” It was my father who taught me this and it’s true – eventually the pressure releases and the ocean will let you go. While it seemed like forever, it finally did release and I was able to get my feet underneath me and propel myself to the surface. I was shaken and sputtering, but I lived to tell about it. I am convinced that the reason I made it was because I remembered my father’s words and followed his instructions.
Today’s gospel talks a lot about water; but not just water … darkness and wind are part of the story too. It is a story which, if you want to take it seriously, absolutely cannot be taken as a factual, literal event – it’s just too weird! This idea that the Bible is 100% factual is really a belief which has only been around for about 150 years – it’s not how we’ve viewed scripture for most of Christian history. I think there are some things we need to take literally – that whole “love your enemies” thing … there just isn’t any real way to see that as a metaphor! But the problem is when we take everything as literal – like the Bible is some kind of newspaper account. That’s a problem because the weird stories leave us with only two options. The first is we must completely turn off our knowledge of physics and science. Somehow Jesus, and Peter (at least for a few minutes), become magically able to suspend the laws of gravity and not plunge into the water. Somehow the laws of nature and physics don’t apply to Jesus. If that’s true, it would stand to reason he could have suspended natural law in any number of other situations – like when he was on the cross, he could have just not died. This also contradicts what Paul said about Christ in his letter to the Philippians – “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Jesus was Son of God – but he was a flesh and blood human being … the laws of physics still apply!
The second problem in taking this as a factual account is that we cannot ignore science and so we discount this story as some kind of Christian fairy tale. This could lead to the thinking that if this story isn’t “true” (meaning factual), then nothing in the Bible is “true” and we can discount the whole of the Christian faith. Both of these conclusions are the result of having a literal/factual interpretation of the Bible.
I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally all the time. So today, instead of shutting off our brains and ignoring science or discounting the Gospel text as a fairy tale, let’s look at a third way – that of image and metaphor where water, darkness, and wind tell us more about a much deeper truth.
The story follows on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000 (which we heard last week) and it’s a story where the original language of Greek is more colorful than our translations can render. Jesus compels his disciples to get into a boat and go to the “other side” of the lake – or as the Greek says he tells them to go “into the beyond.” “Go into the beyond!” – sounds like the Gospel according to Buzz Lightyear, doesn’t it? The “beyond” he is referring to is Gentile territory – where the known comfort of a world bound by Jewish rules and customs gives way to the unknown world of … bacon eaters. The “beyond” already sets the stage for a rising anxiety of facing the unknown.
The disciples set out, Jesus dismisses the crowd and goes off to pray, he comes back down to find the boat a long way off shore and the disciples being battered by waves and opposed by the wind. The Greek gets kind of colorful here: the disciples were “tormented by the waves” and “opposed by the wind” which carries a note of hostility in it – they are opposed by a hostile wind! Notice that fear isn’t in the equation at this point in the story – but water, darkness, and a hostile wind are.
In the Biblical imagery, water, darkness and wind have deep symbolic meaning. Water and darkness are the twin powers of chaos and calamity – the two deep things we fear. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “wind” is also the word for “spirit” or “breath” (we have three words, they have one!). These three words take us back to the beginning … as in the first creation story in the Book of Genesis (and yes, there are two stories that don’t match … so much for factual accounts!). Genesis 1:1-2 reads:
“At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters …” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses). Notice the language from this Jewish translation: darkness, waters and “rushing-spirit of God” – or “wind” or “breath” of God. When these elements are coming together in a Biblical story, it is a sign of God’s power and presence – we call that a “theophany” or a revealing encounter with God. In this Gospel text, God is moving over the face of the water in the darkness again in the person of Jesus. The imagery is that of the chaos being under the feet of Jesus – God in Christ claims dominion over the chaotic waters in the middle of darkness and in spite of a hostile wind/spirit. A powerful image to Matthew’s community being persecuted in Antioch!
The disciples now become frightened when mistake Jesus for an apparition. His response was to tell them: “Have courage! I am. Fear not!” The words recorded in Greek are highly symbolic too. Whenever “I am” shows up in the Bible, it is reaching back to the voice which came out of the burning bush to Moses on Mt. Sinai when God said, “I am who I am.” Jesus, who claims dominion over the chaos and calamity, essentially says, “have courage, God is here, don’t be afraid.”
Now Peter, being who he was, shouts back a challenge: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus responds “Come” – and Peter steps out onto the chaos of the dark water himself. And notice that just for one brief shining moment, the chaos and calamity are beneath his feet too! Not because of his own strength and might, but because he had his focus on Christ. But then he saw the hostile wind/spirit and was distracted from his focus on God’s dominion over the forces of chaos and he begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord save me!” knowing full well his salvation didn’t come from his own ability. Jesus picks him up and doesn’t really rebuke him – he chides him a little “O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?” – doubt also means “hesitate” here. Why did you hesitate?
Peter hesitated for the same reason we do when we venture “into the beyond.” Sometimes we get thrown into the chaos of the beyond against our will – illness, job loss, death … there is a lot beyond our control. But even when we embark on something that we know is good and feels very right, we are still facing the chaos of the unknown which can make us hesitate. Ask any married couple if they had the pre-marital “cold feet” … “I know I want to spend the rest of my life with him/her … but what if I’m making a mistake?” And what about getting that great job offer … isn’t there hesitation when you want to say yes but you still have nagging doubts? Anytime we personally head “into the beyond” we can get distracted by the anxiety of the unknown. I confess I had that moment with our Food Forest project – on Rogation Sunday. When I stepped outside the kitchen with my coffee I thought, “How cool!” and then “Oh my God! What have we done??!! What if nobody shows up to help? Art’s gonna kill me. Where will we get plants? What if I’ve snapped my cap?” We all hesitate and have moments where the chaos gets more of our attention than it should get.
In those moments, I go back to Jesus’ words: “Take courage! I am. Fear not.” The Holy One who claims dominion over all the chaos of our lives and this world invites us to venture into the beyond in spite of our hesitation and fear and tells us we are covered by God’s grace. When re remember those instructions, there really is nothing for us to fear.
Oh the joys of lectionary preaching! Last week it was the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham and this week Abraham is told by God to kill his other kid. Who came up with this progression of readings?? If anything, these two readings in a row should dispel any idea that the Bible is a paragon of family values! But I don’t pick ‘em … I just preach ‘em!
This story from Genesis is known by Jewish rabbis as the Akedah – the near sacrifice of Isaac. It’s one of the more disturbing readings of the Torah. The idea that after Abraham turns out his firstborn son and his mother God would make the demand on Abraham to offer his son, his only son, whom he loved as a burnt offering is just too horrific to wrap our heads around. And the way it is told is absolutely cringe worthy! A three days journey before you leave behind the servants and continue on … Abraham knowing all the while what he was going to do and, from the questions Isaac raises, it’s unlikely he has any idea of what is going to happen. It’s just nauseating! What kind of God would do such a thing?
Needless to say, the difficult scriptures are the ones which generate the most discussion. This passage is right up there with the whole book of Job insofar as the amount of rabbinic commentary. There is much going on here but there are two things which are commonly held about this story. The first is that God is testing Abraham. There appears to be some question as to whether Abraham trusts in God completely or whether he has become overly attached to his son Isaac – in essence making Isaac an idol of sorts. The second objective of this story is to explain the etiology or root cause of why the Israelites did not sacrifice children as was common in other ancient cultures around the Near East and indeed around the world. The prophetic tradition of the Bible upholds the abhorrence of child sacrifice for the Israelites and this story provides the background of why the Israelites are different from their neighbors.
In this story, God has asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. There are two kinds of sacrifices in the Jewish tradition. A regular sacrifice, like the Passover lamb, would be ritually offered to God and also become part of a sacred meal. A burnt offering is giving completely and totally to God – put on the altar and burnt so that you could not take back any of it. It is the latter which God demands of Abraham.
Now the narrative says that at the last minute, Isaac is spared and a ram is offered up in Isaac’s place as the burnt offering. But I think if we look at this from an emotional and spiritual angle, there were other things offered up and burnt on the altar that day. Certainly the trust Isaac had in his father was destroyed that day! Think about it … if you were Isaac, would you trust the old man after this?? Not so much. I can only imagine Sarah asking Isaac how the trip with dad went … “Oh, he just tried to sacrifice me, but other than that, it was fine.”
When you look beyond the end of today’s reading, there are some things which support the idea of the death of the father/son relationship. There is no mention of Isaac leaving the mountain in the narrative – although we know he does because he shows up later in the story. I know if I had been Isaac, I would have bolted off of that mountain as soon as I was freed! The story says that Abraham returned to the two young men he left behind and they went down to Beer-Sheba and Abraham lived there. There is no mention of Abraham returning to Sarah after this incident and the very next part of the story records Sarah’s death. It is said that Abraham went up to mourn for Sarah – indicating he was not there when she died. Abraham buries Sarah in a cave at Machpelah near Hebron … but Isaac is not mentioned at all. It appears he is not there for his mother’s burial. We hear that Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, but we do not hear any direct communication between Abraham and his son over this – it is all done through Abraham’s servant. Finally Abraham dies and we do hear that Isaac and Ishmael together bury Abraham in the cave at Machpelah next to Sarah. The text implies that something changed between Abraham and Isaac that day on Mount Moriah and their relationship was forever changed … the way they had related to each other was burned on that altar that day. This raises a question for us: What might God be asking you to give up as a burnt offering so that you might grow closer to God in Christ? It’s a difficult question because there are all kinds of things which can kidnap our wills and affections.
Today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul – the pillars of the Church. Both of them had to make many burnt offerings in their lifetimes. They left their jobs to follow Christ, they left their security that offered, and eventually they were both martyred in Rome for their faith. But there were metaphoric burnt offerings they made – a major one being their prejudice against Gentiles. As observant Jews, Peter and Paul had to let go of the idea that Gentiles were excluded from Christ’s message – and a deeply ingrained prejudice is hard to offer over to God. But it was a kind of burnt offering which was given over so that the gospel could reach to the ends of the earth.
Yesterday at the Frederick Pride Worship service, we heard Frank Schaefer speak. If you've been following church news, Frank is the United Methodist minister who was defrocked for performing a same sex wedding for his son. As he told the gathering yesterday, of his four children, two of his three sons are gay and his daughter is lesbian. He said his youngest son had to “come out as straight!” He shared his journey of how his children led him to become an ally for the LGBT community within the United Methodist Church. He also spoke of his very real fears. After performing the wedding for his son, he expected to be fired from his job. He did not expect that six years after doing this wedding, charges would be filed against him and he would be put on trial and be stripped of his right to serve as a minister of the Gospel. He spoke of the fear of losing his call which meant losing his income, the family’s health insurance, and having no means by which to make a living. This trial didn't just end up about him, his own LGBT children were called to testify and be cross-examined. The whole family was put through a terrible ordeal. Frank knew he would be asked whether or not he would do another same sex wedding. He knew the church wanted to hear some kind of equivocating answer like, “Well, I can’t answer that because it would depend upon the circumstances and context.” That would have been the answer that might have protected his position … but it wasn't the truth. When Frank testified, he put his trust in God alone, threw away his notes and spoke from the heart about how the church has sinned in rejecting LGBT people and that he would never turn his back on this community because of his call to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel rooted in love. Frank made a burnt offering that day of his livelihood, his call, and the security of his family. During this time, he was able to sustain the family on his speaking honorarium and, when the insurance ran out he told us, “Obamacare kicked in and we now have better insurance coverage than the United Methodist Church ever offered our family!” Frank offered everything as a burnt offering … and on that mountain the Lord provided.
Not all of us are called to make such dramatic burnt offerings; however, we all have things in our lives which get in the way of following Christ more freely and fully. As a parent, I know the temptation to be overly involved in my children’s lives and over identify with them to the point of obsession. Admittedly, there is a fine line between caring and obsessive parenting. Perhaps Abraham’s issue was an obsession with Isaac – even to the point of rejecting Ishmael. It’s not that I would be offering up my children as a burnt offering so much as it is offering up my obsession with them – giving that completely over to God and taking nothing back.
Maybe what has captured you is your work – an addiction highly rewarded in our culture but one which can destroy significant relationships with spouses, partners, children and friends. When work gets so intrusive that I don’t have time for friends or family, then maybe it’s time for the way I relate to my work to be given over as a burnt offering.
Very early next Sunday, our mission team will be leaving for Indianapolis to work with some of their vulnerable citizens. You all are making a burnt offering in doing this. First you are offering up your time which is a burnt offering of sorts because you cannot take it back! Second, you are offering up yourselves in service and you will be changed in that process. You cannot take that service back and you will be different in some way when you return. That is the nature of a burnt offering.
God does not wrest things out of our hands against our will in order that we might be more like Christ. We have to be willing to give over completely that which impedes our ability to live freely and fully for God in Christ. What will you give over completely as your burnt offering?
The Expulsion of Ishmael and his Mother by Paul Gustave Doré
There are always two sermons a preacher has every Sunday: one they write and the other they preach. Sometimes they are the same … sometimes not. Today is one of the “not” days. I had a sermon all ready for this morning but at 9:30 last night, I ran across a prayer from Martha Spong and everything changed. She posted the prayer with an image from Gustave Dore – “The Expulsion of Ishmael and His Mother.” This woodcut image grabbed me and I knew that everything I had planned on preaching would change. Not that I was crazy about this idea – rewriting a sermon at 9:30 on a Saturday night isn’t what I’d planned on. I went to bed, it woke me up at 2:00 am … and this is what came up. You see this haunting image of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out is an ugly story of jealousy and abuse inflicted by two people who claimed to be following God: rejection from an unexpected source.
To understand the story of Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion, we need to go back a bit in the Genesis story. God begins the story of Abram and Sarai by making a promise: a promise of land and progeny. But in the course of the narrative, the promise of children (at least by Sarai) doesn’t materialize. It is believed Sarai is too old to have children, so she hatches a plan for Abram to take her slave girl Hagar as a second wife and have children by her. This was not uncommon in tribal culture but there is the discomfort of realizing Hagar really had no agency in this decision. She was a slave and defying her mistress’ order would have been unthinkable. So Hagar becomes pregnant by Abram. The narrative tells us that Sarai complains to Abram that after Hagar conceives that she looks down on Sarai. Abram tells Sarai to do with her whatever she wants – and Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar. We don’t know exactly what that means, but it was bad enough that Hagar runs away into the wilderness.
In the wilderness, an angel meets Hagar and tells her to return to Sarai. Hagar is given a promise that God has heard her plight and will greatly multiply the children who will be born to her son and make of them a great nation. In that encounter, her son is given the name Ishmael and Hagar calls the name of God “El-roi” which means the “God who sees me.” The God who sees me: sees me as a person and not as any of the labels like foreigner or slave which might have defined me. Hagar is known and seen by God and she receives a promise that God would bless her child. She returns and gives birth to Ishmael.
Some 13 years later, Abram meets God again who repeats his promise of land and progeny. Abram is given the name Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” and Sarai becomes Sarah, meaning “princess.” Sarah becomes pregnant by Abraham and bears him a son, Isaac. But now we hear that once Isaac was weaned, jealousy rears its ugly head. By patrimony tradition, Ishmael as oldest son would normally carry on the family name and receive the double-portion of inheritance. Sarah wanted no rivals for her son! So she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away – she cannot even bring herself to call Hagar or Ishmael by name: “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”
Abraham is troubled but receives an assurance from God that Ishmael and Hagar would be provided for and he follows Sarah’s orders and drives Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with a skin of water and some bread. Dore’s portrayal of this in his wood cut is heartbreaking: Sarah seated in the background with the toddler Isaac, looking down and frowning, Abraham standing with a forlorn look on his face and pointing away from camp, and Hagar and Ishmael in the foreground a tear running down Hagar’s cheek and Ishmael’s face buried in his mother’s skirts.
And in spite of all the assurances we hear as the readers of this story, what must Hagar have been thinking? She followed everything her owners told her to do. She dutifully produced a son for the patriarch of the tribe. And now she is thrown out? Rejected by these people who believe they are following God? This story is a disturbing reminder that following God does not make people immune from pettiness, jealousy and even abusing others. As Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks of our dying to sin, and by that he means the power of Sin to enslave us and forever destroy our souls, it doesn’t mean we will not fall into sinful actions even as we seek to follow God. Abraham and Sarah are not perfect people and Sarah’s jealousy and her desires to protect her son’s inheritance rights have tragic implications for Hagar and Ishmael.
Jesus speaks to this in his mission discourse in the Gospel. This is no pep talk he is giving to the disciples – it is a reality check. He warns them that by following his teachings, they will be opposed and rejected. That doesn’t exactly sound like “good news,” does it? Jesus warns them that he has already been called Beelzebub by those who oppose his message – and if that’s what they call him, how much more will his disciples be maligned. He tells them to expect opposition – this is what following the counter-cultural message of his teachings will bring. And they can expect the opposition to come from unexpected places – even from within their own households. Rejected by their fathers and mothers – and cast out just like Hagar.
When we follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, we will run into opposition and rejection – and sometimes it will be at the hands of those closest to us and even those who claim to follow God. The teachings of non-violence, economic justice, radical hospitality and equality still threaten the culture of violence in which we live. Make no mistake – there are many who profit and gain power from violence, income inequality and perpetuation of poverty, exclusion and inequality. Following the teachings of Jesus as Christians will bring us into conflict with others – even those who claim they are following God while still upholding the social status quo which opposes the Gospel. Someone once asked the question, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” If you have not experienced conflict with someone over following the Gospel, it’s likely you’d be acquitted.
We are not called as Christians to uphold the values of a culture of violence but to respect the dignity of every human being. When we really follow Christ it is risky business. We risk rejection from places where we would least expect it. But we are, like Hagar and the disciples, promised by God that we are known, seen, and will not be abandoned. El-roi, the God who sees me and sees you, has called us into the hard work of transforming the world. And the God who sees me and you will not leave us to face our perils alone.
In the year 1632 the Reverend George Herbert, poet, priest and Anglican Divine, sat in his Rectory at Bemerton, then just a little village outside Salisbury, and put the finishing touches to a small book which he called A Priest to the Temple, or, The Country Parson His Character and Rule of Holy Life. In it he wrote: “The Country Parson is a Lover of old Customs, if they be good, and harmless; and the rather, because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favor them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them.”
Borrowing from Herbert’s words, today is a day of “old customs.” It is the 6th Sunday of Easter which is also known as Rogation Sunday. Now I have an older Book of Common Prayer here … a 1928 BCP to be exact. It was given to me on April 17, 1976 – the day Bishop Richard Millard, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of California, laid his hands on my head conferring the sacrament of Confirmation. In the 1928 BCP, as in prior versions, this day appears in the lectionary as “The Fifth Sunday after Easter, commonly known as Rogation Sunday.” Take out your prayer books for a moment and turn to page 895. It is the lectionary for year A and you’ll see listed “Sixth Sunday of Easter” … but the word “Rogation” is missing. Rogation Sunday, and Rogationtide, was dropped in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and it was also dropped from the Roman Missal about the same time. Part of the reasoning behind this was that Rogation Sunday seemed a quaint throwback to a time where our economy was more agrarian and, with the rise of urban and suburban living, it just seemed out of step with our modern life. But, with all due respect to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and the General Conventions of 1976 and 1979 who approved our “new” BCP, I’d like to suggest they were just a bit shortsighted.
Rogation comes from the Latin word rogare meaning “to ask.” The tradition began in Vienne, France in 470 … in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The town had suffered from a period of severe natural disasters which decimated the crops. Rogationtide was the Church’s liturgical response. By the time George Herbert wrote his book, this almost 1200 year “old custom” had four distinct aspects to it: “First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field; secondly, justice in the preservation of bounds; thirdly, charity in loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any; fourthly, relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is, or ought to be used.” So Rogationtide was more than just about crops and fields – it was also about the preservation of boundaries which led to the tradition of “beating the bounds” and noting where parish lands had encroachments. Part of this process was to engage in “loving walking and neighborly accompanying one another” so that reconciliation of differences (especially with respect to boundaries) could be attained. And finally, as an act of stewardship and recognition that all blessings come from God, the relief of the poor through liberal wealth redistribution was to be accomplished. Clearly, blessing, boundaries, justice and generosity were all interlinked in this liturgical act.
At the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland in 2007, Resolution 2007-3 was brought to the floor. It was entitled “Caring for God’s Creation through Waste Prevention and Recycling” and it generally encouraged parishes to take up the cause of reducing waste and enact recycling programs as an act of stewardship. The final paragraph of the resolution read “Resolved, that this Convention urges parishes to designate the Sunday closest to Earth Day each year as Stewardship of Creation Sunday.” Now on the surface this sounds like a good idea, right? There’s only one problem … Earth Day was established in 1970 … one-thousand, five-hundred years after the first observance of Rogationtide. You see, the Church already knew about “Earth Day” – we’d been doing it since the end of the Roman Empire! But by dropping Rogationtide from our Prayer Book, the younger members of our Church had lost their history! Earth Day was copying the Church … and I thought it was time for us to take back the Church’s role in teaching the world about the stewardship of creation.
So I rose to speak to the resolution. I offered a friendly amendment to change the wording and strike the words “Earth Day” and replace them with “Rogation Sunday.” I gave the rationale for reviving Rogation Sunday and Rogationtide and was very appreciative that the Secretary of Convention was kind enough to let me speak before … calling me out of order because I technically wasn’t a delegate yet (I was 6 weeks shy of ordination). One of my fellow priests stepped in and offered the friendly amendment in my place and it was accepted and the motion carried on a voice vote.
The Church has historically defended care of the Earth, taught respect and preservation of boundaries, undertaken the work of reconciliation, and the teachings of Jesus speak directly to the rebalancing of wealth in care for the poor. This is our witness and this is who we are. This is why we blessed the Food Forest project today, why we blessed the animals and the town, and why we beat the bounds. And these practices are liturgically enacted this day but are reminders that what we do this day is part of the warp and weft of our lives as Christians.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is the one who asks the Father to send the Advocate, the Paraclete, to guide us into all truth. There really is no good translation for the Greek word Paraclete – but it implies the one who comes alongside us to help and assist us. It is this Advocate who helps us become co-creators with God, if we just listen for the opportunities to do so. I believe this Paraclete has been quite active here in the past three weeks as plans for the Brunswick Food Forest have come together far faster than anything I could have imagined and residents of Brunswick have joined this vision to bring fresh and healthy produce to our community. This is the work of Rogationtide, isn’t it? To ask God’s blessing on our work and crops that they might be a blessing to all of our community and to continue the co-creating and reconciling work of God in this community.
I invite you this Rogationtide to claim your Christian witness as a steward of the earth, a steward of right relationships with others in the respecting of boundaries, to seek reconciliation as an expression of honoring Christ in others, and to be generous in your giving of treasure and talents. We have something to teach the world in these old customs … and something to learn about God and ourselves.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does “abundant life” mean to you? Have you ever thought about that? What does it mean have “have life, and have it abundantly?”
The fourth Sunday of Easter is nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday” mainly because in all three years of our lectionary, there is some reading from the Gospel of John having to do with sheep. Today we hear Jesus is the gate by which the sheep come and go and find pasture. Baptism is our gate through which we enter the Church and each week we come back to be nourished at the Eucharist and then go out to be the Gospel in the world. But make no mistake, the thief who comes to steal, kill and destroy is ever present and ever trying to steal us away.
So who, or what, is this thief who tries to steal our “abundant life”? And what is abundant life anyway? In order to approach this, we need to see this story in context. The downside of the lectionary is it chops up scripture and we lose the context. This passage happens as the ending to the story of the man born blind – which we heard in Lent when Canon Slater was with us. Remember? That’s the story of when Jesus healed the man born blind. He didn’t restore the man’s sight; he created the man’s sight ex nihilo (out of nothing). The man is then brought into the temple and grilled by the Pharisees about what happened to him. There is a long interchange including bringing in his parents to testify. The upshot of it all is that in the narrative, the man born blind not only receives sight physically, he receives freedom and finds his voice to advocate for himself. This is liberation! And the price he pays is … expulsion from the community.
Immediately following the healing and inquisition is when Jesus teaches about abundant life. For the man born blind, abundant life was sight and freedom … but both came at a price of being cast out of the system. This implies that “abundant life” is contextual – what it meant for the man born blind isn’t what it might mean to you and me. And if abundant life is contextual, then the thief who would kill, steal and destroy it is also contextual. So what does this mean in our context?
I think we need to begin answering that by looking at our 21st century American life and the value system it promulgates. In theory, we live in a democracy (our political system) steeped in capitalism (our economic system) wherein all get to participate in the political process and the consumption of goods drives our economic engine to prosperity for everyone … right? Notice I said “in theory.” What we have seen as of late is this theory collapse on itself. If we look at economic date from 1979 to the present, it is clear that much of the economic gain has not just gone to the 1% … but to the 0.1%. Since 1979, the one-thousandths of uber-rich corporate executives have seen their incomes go up 400% while real wages for everyone have fallen. Even college graduates have seen a stagnation of their incomes since 2005. Now I didn’t get these statistics out of some “lefty” media organization like Mother Jones Magazine or MSNBC. These figures from economist Paul Krugman who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics and teaches at Princeton University (“Oligarchy: American Style” – NY Times November 4, 2011). He knows a lot more about economics than I do. He has rightly pointed out that America’s political system, as a result of largely unregulated capitalism, has evolved into an oligarchy – a government of the few, by the few and for the benefit of the few. As much as we want to deny this, if we are honest we know it is true. Money and political power are now largely in the hands of big corporations who buy the political influence of both political parties. The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, for crying out loud! And this evolution towards oligarchy isn’t solely the fault of Republicans, Democrats or Tea Partiers … it’s the whole system. Politicians’ votes are largely being bought by corporate interests regardless of political affiliation. This is the natural consequence of unregulated capitalism. It will always move towards oligarchy.
The result of this shift to a “democracy in theory but oligarchy in practice” has caused the middle class to shrink and puts many of us on the brink of falling out of it each day. Most of us are one or two paychecks away from being in the line at the food bank. We are one illness or car accident away from personal economic collapse. When I hear people say, “We want our country back,” I hear the fear in this statement. Sadly, I believe we spend our time blaming and venting spleens on Facebook more than we do understanding that this is the norm of human history.
That’s right. Oligarchies, as a governance structure, are historically the norm! Government of the few, by the few, for the few has been the dominant form of governance throughout world history regardless of culture. What we experienced in the post WWII era of a stable middle class with rising incomes was a fluke! It happened as a result of regulated capitalism with a taxation structure that redistributed the wealth … and yes, that’s a form of socialism. If we consider our reading from Acts 2 this morning – we hear about the early Christian church pooling their wealth and redistributing it! That’s right – the early Christians were socialists in the economic sense.
If oligarchies, government of the few, by the few, and for the benefit of the few, are normative for the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised that our economic and political culture is becoming more like the era when Jesus lived. In ancient Rome, a narrow band of elites governed the empire. The economic structure was proto-capitalistic but largely based on barter trade. Our economy has some different mechanisms, to be sure, but the challenges of income inequality are quite similar. This inequality has made us fearful – and fear is the thief which steals, kills and destroys our spirit! So what, then, does abundant life mean in our world of wealth inequality and fears of scarcity and want and how do we claim back our abundant life from the thief of fear?
I think we can begin by embracing the idea that abundant life isn’t just something promised in some future time when we die; it is something we are called to live into right now. Abundant life is a challenge to our faith to live contrary to the message we are receiving from the world. It is our call to resist the fears which make us want to pull in our horns and withhold our time and treasure from others. It is our call to remember that all things come from God and that God will provide all we need when we are generous with each other and the world. It is trusting that abundant life looks like freedom and liberation in Christ instead of the acquisition of worldly goods and earthly power. It is knowing that when we gather in community for the common purpose of serving others, we can do so because of the power of the risen Christ. We discover abundant life when we extend it to others.
I had a Holy Spirit moment when Tom+ read the Gospel today. I realized the stole I pulled out of the closet in the sacristy is a symbol of abundant life from a place quite far away. This stole was made by a Muslim woman in Sarajevo. She's part of a cooperative of women who sew and embroider vestments for Christian and Muslim clerics. This cooperative was born out of the violence of the civil war which tore their country apart. The thief of sectarian violence, genocide, and destruction tried to steal away their abundant life. But in the aftermath of that horrible collapse of their society, these women are reclaiming the abundant life God promised in Jesus Christ. While they do not share the same faith, they are learning again to trust each other and work together for the sake of a greater love.
What does this all mean for us here at Grace Church? Well, I think it means we need to relate to what God has given us in new ways. We have this building (and the one next door). We have land around those buildings. I am persuaded we are being led to use these assets in new and creative ways to bring people together for the purpose of serving our community in a new way. Some of you have heard about the idea of stealing back the food supply and using our grounds to grow food. I made a phone call last Monday to Mike Dickson who runs a nursery and restaurant. He is an urban gardener and I called him to ask questions about what creating an urban garden entails and how it all might work. When I told him I was from Brunswick, he was ecstatic! Mike is part of the Convoy of Hope which has been an annual event to help those in poverty with food, clothing and medical care. They have been looking for a site in Brunswick to stage an event and part of that program would be to plant an urban garden. Now you know me, I don’t believe in coincidences … but I do believe Jesus when he said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. The way that people and resources are quickly coalescing around this idea, the more I am persuaded it is something the Holy Spirit is asking us to do and be for the sake of God’s people. Maybe for us, abundant life looks like … tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans … and the people who will be fed both in body and in spirit from them.
“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. No merit of mine own I claim but solely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
That hymn and the Thomas Merton prayer were the two things which saw me through seminary. This isn’t a hymn I knew from my youth – it wasn’t in the 1940 or 1982 Hymnals (it is in Lift Every Voice and Sing, though). This hymn is one I go back to when everything seems to fall apart and I need reminding of where to place my hope. Where do you place your hope?
Today’s Gospel reading takes us back in time. This story from Luke’s Gospel, commonly known as the Walk to Emmaus, is one which informs our weekly liturgy. We hear about the disciples being met by Jesus on the road and hearing the scriptures and having them opened through teaching – this is the first half of our worship each Sunday. This is followed by the Eucharist where Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread. So if you think about it, each week we journey on the Emmaus road to find the risen Christ in this community which empowers us to take the good news of Christ into the world.
This is a joyous story of the appearance of the risen Christ which takes place on evening of the Resurrection. But there was something in the story this week which stuck with me – in fact, it haunted me. Luke tells us that the disciples were very sad as they walked towards Emmaus. They were depressed after all that had happened – their hopes were dashed. When Jesus comes alongside and asks what they are talking about, the disciple named Cleopas basically asks if he’s the only one in Jerusalem without a clue about what has happened. Jesus plays along and Cleopas tells him about himself – that he was a prophet, mighty in word and deed before God and all the people and how the chief priests and elders turned him over to the authorities to be crucified. He then says, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But we had hoped …
The disciples were Jews who had a very well formed idea of what the redemption of Israel would look like. It would be when a descendent of King David would rise up, drive out the Roman occupiers, and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel under their own autonomous control. This redemption plan had a very earthly and concrete set of expectations as to how it would happen. A suffering and dying Messiah just wasn’t in the equation! They had pinned their hopes on a vision of a preferred outcome and the loss of that outcome depressed them. They couldn’t see another way.
We are not so different from these disciples, are we? We can get caught up in our visions of preferred outcomes to situations. Don’t get me wrong, having a vision for the future is not inherently a bad thing. But when we set our hope on a preferred outcome instead of the risen Christ who is there regardless of the results, it is devastating and becomes idolatrous.
We have had many hopes dashed since the beginning of this year, haven’t we? Those haunting words of Cleopas, “but we had hoped,” are in our hearts too. But we had hoped … to avoid the layoff. But we had hoped … to get the job and didn’t. But we had hoped … at least one of those bids would have come through. But we had hoped … the chemo would have worked and Lila would still be here. But we had hoped …
Today we bring those dashed hopes to Christ here at Grace. We bring them to this altar in this community. We will be offering the sacrament of unction shortly, right here in front of this altar. I invite you all to come forward with those shattered hopes, your hurt and brokenness to meet the risen Christ, be anointed in his name, and to receive his spirit in touch and the oil. And then, may our eyes be opened to see the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of his Body and Blood.
“His oath, his covenant, and blood sustain me in the raging flood. When all supports are washed away, he then is all my hope and stay. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Tonight we enter the holiest time of the Christian year: the Triduum – the Great Three Days. The Triduum encompasses the three days of our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection – it is the central theme of our faith. I often tell my catechumens preparing for baptism and confirmation, “If you don’t get the Triduum, you are missing the center of your faith.” And the center of our faith begins with a commandment. This day is called Maundy Thursday and “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning mandate or commandment. We are given the mandate to love one another as Christ loved us. This is no small, trivial task.
We don’t know how to love well. None of us do. We often stunt our understanding of love and limit it to sentimental romanticism or sexual attraction. We treat it as a noun – as if it is a place or state of being with phrases like “falling in love” (as if it were a sinkhole … although at times this may be an apt metaphor!). This isn’t the kind of love that Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel. The love he speaks of is a verb and a willful act of giving oneself, even to death. It is a love which suffers – and great suffering always walks hand in hand with great love.
This night is one of both love and suffering. Jesus is gathered with his closest intimate friends. He knows that one of them is going to sell him out to the authorities – throw him under the bus. He knows he could run away to the Judean hill country and hide out. His followers would have likely applauded that move – “Way to stick it to the man, Jesus!” But he doesn’t run away … he stays right there – right in the middle of this mess. Why? Because real love does not cut and run when things go wrong. Real love presses through, suffers with, takes us into death and does not leave us.
This isn’t “touchy feely” stuff of sentiment. This is the hard road of the cross. Christ this night demands something from us – from you and me. That we love one another with the self-giving love he demonstrated. That we love to the point of losing ourselves – which is a kind of death. It is a death of ego, of selfishness, of wanting life on our terms and our terms alone. It is a death of grudge holding and score keeping that puts us in the sin accounting business instead of the loving business. It is the death of my small pathetic life on this earth so that God can do something so much bigger than anything this pea-brain can imagine. And you know what? I don’t like that idea any more than you do! That’s right. I fight it tooth and nail with a spiritual internal struggle that feels like Sisyphus eternally pushing that boulder up the hill only to have it roll down again … over and over and over.
And yet, like it or not, the way of love unto death is the only way out I have found. Because the truth is, death will come. We know this … and we deny this all the time. I’m not solely referring to physical death – I’m talking about all the kinds of death we experience around us. Death comes in many forms throughout our lives: death of dreams, of hopes, of careers, of our health, of security, of our abilities, of family and friends. Whether we choose to love others as Christ loved us or not, death will come – you can’t stop it.
The love that Christ commands us to show for one another is what transforms dying into something more than just a nihilistic end without meaning. It is dying so that something, or someone, might live and live abundantly. And on this day we not only hear of Jesus washing the disciples feet, but we also hearken to our other gospel accounts that this is the night where Jesus gave a new meaning to the Passover feast. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples telling them “this is my Body which is given for you.” Jesus himself is the sacrifice who is broken for us and who we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. And it is this kind of brokenness to which he calls us – to be broken for a reason … to be broken for love’s sake.
Jesus tells us to love him, love God, love each other and he shows us how to do it. As we partake of his Body and Blood broken and poured out for us, may this be our invitation to also love through our brokenness and be given to others for Christ’s sake.
In keeping with our Lenten theme of contrasts, this week is no exception. We have explored contrasts of temptation which tries to steal our identity as beloved daughters and sons and the contrasts of how we trust … or not. Today’s readings reveal the contrast between freedom and slavery.
For all of you in our Coffee Talk Bible Study … here’s the “spoiler alert” (plug your ears!) … Pharaoh lets the Israelites go. OK … you can take your fingers out of your ears now. Today’s reading from Exodus is another “whine and geez” party thrown by the Israelites in the desert. In the prior chapter, the people were whining about having no food and God provided Manna in the wilderness. This week, we hear they are at a desert place encamped and there is no water. So round 2 of the “whine and geez” party starts as the people quarrel with Moses. A big part of this whining has to do with how people deal with freedom.
The Israelites had been in slavery under the Egyptians for 400 years and suddenly they were free from that bondage. But freedom exacts a high price! The first stage in this freedom process is that the people have to grow up. You don’t get the luxury of having your overlords decide everything about your life anymore. You have to grow up and make your own decisions. This is no simple task!! The whole wilderness experience of the Israelites is about their growing up, making decision, and taking the radical risk that God really is in the midst of them. This is spiritual adulthood … and they aren’t sure they want it. And we are not unlike them at all, are we? I don’t know about you, but there are times I really don’t want to be the adult in the room! I’d rather have somebody else tell me what to do and then I get the luxury of blaming them when things don’t work out … who wouldn’t want that?
Slavery isn’t something we think applies to us, but it does. In his book Addiction and Grace, Dr. Gerry May talks about addictions and attachments which steal our freedom. Addiction is the absolute enemy of freedom and addiction isn’t just limited to drugs or alcohol. Think about it … there are many things to which we are addicted. In our culture, the most common addiction is money. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, does it? You always want more, right? These addictions and attachments are forms of slavery – they are the absolute enemy of the freedom God created us to live in. But giving up these addictions and attachments means we have to work … we have to think … we have to make decisions … and we have to place our trust in God’s presence even when things appear to be falling apart. We have to trust that there will be living water in our own wilderness instead of griping and falling back into our old ways. Admittedly, the Israelites are ambivalent about this freedom thing and it takes them a long time of wandering and trusting God before they forget the bondage of Egypt and trust in God’s freedom
In our gospel reading, we hear of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well and this too is a story about freedom and liberation. Too often, much is made of her domestic situation: she’s been married five times and now living with a man who is not her husband. I have seen way too many Biblical literalists classify this woman as a “whore” when Jesus uses no such word. Let’s be clear – there is NOTHING in this reading which indicates that the woman is engaged in immoral practices nor is there anything which condemns her sex life. There are all kinds of reasons she may have been in this situation. In a culture where women had no rights, a husband could toss his wife out on her ear for no reason by giving her a writ of divorce, and where life expectancies were shorter than today (Who knows? She may have outlived 5 men!), not to mention the requirement of the Levirate marriage which would have caused her to be married to the brother of her deceased husband to raise up children for the dead brother … well, let’s just say there are any number of reasons she was in this condition. Jesus never tells her to “go and sin no more” – in fact, sin isn’t even mentioned. So let’s get off the morality train right now and let that go! Her plight is likely one that is marked more by tragedy than immorality.
When Jesus tells her to call her husband and then tells her the truth of her life, her response is quite surprising – she doesn’t get defensive or argue. Did you notice that? Jesus puts the finger right on her place of greatest brokenness and she doesn’t get angry. That’s quite remarkable because most of us would get angry or lash out. I know how I am. When my spiritual director or therapist puts their finger on something broken in me, my first reaction is defensive. It hurts when somebody looks through us and tells us the unvarnished truth. But that’s when I have to take a deep breath and trust these people aren’t trying to hurt me – they are trying to help heal me. I think Jesus’ words are received by this woman as a non-judgmental statement of fact … meant for her liberation. Instead of responding in anger, she makes a confession of faith: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” In John’s gospel, the concept of “seeing” is strongly linked with believing. She believes that Jesus has really seen her too – she is a whole person to him, not just an object or a victim. She has worth in Jesus’ eyes.
Her next question may seem like a non sequitur: On which mountain will we worship God? This question continues to divide Jews and Samaritans. She is testing whether or not Jesus will separate himself from her because of the things which have kept her in captivity: her gender, her ethnicity, her dependence on other men. All of these have enslaved her ... will Jesus be just another Jewish man who will keep her in shackles?
Instead of the either/or response she expects, Jesus’ answer opens a third way for her – not a black and white answer which chooses sides. This third way opens a path of liberation for her where she can chart a new course to believe in God in a whole new way. And it is so exciting that she drops her water jars and races off to tell her friends. She leaves behind the very thing that had been so important to her – the water she drew which symbolically could be the chores and expectations placed upon her. In dropping everything, she was freed to share this news of a new and transformed life with her friends.
We, like this woman, are burdened with many struggles, temptations and challenges in life which can enslave us and hold us back from being the people God calls us to be. Take a moment and think … what are you facing right now? What are the past tragedies of your life that you need to drop and leave behind? A dead-end job? A death dealing relationship? An addiction or attachment which is killing you physically or spiritually? Anxiety, guilt, sadness? What holds you back from living into your freedom in Christ? Offer it to Christ right now and ask for the courage to drop your water jars, to seek God’s freedom and to give us the grace to tell our friends what God has done for us! What do you need to drop this day … on a broken altar … at the foot of a broken Christ on the cross?
For those of you who are going through football withdrawal – today is your day! Yes, it’s “John 3:16” day! You know, there’s always that guy in the end zone that you see when the kick is good holding up the sign with “John 3:16” on it. I’ve always wanted to go to a game and stand in the end zone with a sign that says “John 3:17” … just to mess with people. But in all seriousness, John 3:16 has become a bit of a cliché which gets rattled off by those trying to proof-text why unbelievers will not go to heaven or to bolster another believer who is going through a difficult time (after all, if God so loved the world, then you can’t really be having any problems, can you?). For those of you who are tired of this cliché, fear not! This sermon isn’t going there. Instead, I’ve been fascinated by the contrasts our readings have presented so far … and I think I’ll stick with that theme.
For those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday, you know why our altar is uncovered this Lent. If you missed that, here’s the recap. About 15 years ago, Grace Church experienced violence in its walls. There was a break in and vandals desecrated the church. In their rampage, the Blessed Sacrament was dumped out on the rug at the high altar and crushed under foot, candlesticks were smashed and this altar’s marble top was smashed. When you come up for communion, take a moment to look at it … run your hands over the damage. It was a day when a small group of people poured out contempt on Christ and his people. This community was violated. It was an act of evil.
We speak of evil in our prayer of confession and Lent is a time for us to face evil: the evil we do, the evil done to us and the evil done on our behalf as our confession prayer states. Evil and sin are intertwined and they manifest through our broken lives – broken like this altar, broken like Christ on the cross. Our readings thus far have talked about our broken nature. Last week’s readings were about the identity theft that temptation causes – the ways that our true identity as beloved sons and daughters is stolen when we are tempted to break relationship with God and others and “go it alone” in our lives. The contrast was between Eve and Adam who fell for the temptation to “be like God” and go it alone and Jesus who completely trusted God and stayed in solidarity with us.
Today we are given another set of contrasts – this time about trust. While the word “faith” and “belief” run rampant through these readings (especially in the Epistle), I’m using the word “trust” intentionally. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking “faith” and “belief” are intellectual assents to a set of propositions. That isn’t how the early Christians experienced this. It was about what you gave yourself over to completely – a complete act of trust: trust of body, mind and spirit. And trust is something with which we struggle, isn’t it? Anybody have “trust issues?” Of course we do. Our experience is that people have let us down and we are wary of trusting, giving ourselves over, to the care of someone or something outside ourselves. Abram and Nicodemus are both put in the position of being called into complete trust.
The Torah portion from Genesis is known by our Jewish sisters and brothers as “Lech, Lecha!” – or “Get up and Get out of here!” It comes from God’s call to Abram – “[Get up and] Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Notice that God does not say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to this lovely little condo I have picked out for you in Haifa. It has a great ocean view – you’re gonna love it!” No … God says, “Go … to a land I will show you.” Abram had no clue where he was going – but he had to go – and he trusted this voice and acted upon it as if it were true.
Now you might be thinking Abram was nuts and you would never be able to trust God at this level. Admittedly, God doesn’t tend to speak with us directly like he appeared to do with Abram. Perhaps it would be easier if God did do this. But we often hear the voice of God calling us through the mediation of regular old human beings … which brings up those trust issues again, doesn’t it? But think for a moment about a time when somebody called you – speaking something to your heart that you just knew was true. Now you may not have wanted to hear the truth – and it was painful to face. Truth isn’t always fun but it is always healing – always healing! Gloria Steinem is said to have riffed on this: “The truth shall set you free … but first it will piss you off.” This kind of truth is a place where Christ’s light shines into the darkness of the evil that may be enslaving you – it’s an invitation to drop the pretense, get real, and be free. And when you trust that truth, you begin to live as if it were real – even if you don’t really fully trust it yet.
It may be that a deep, heart penetrating truth gets spoken to you and it calls you to do or be something that you never imagined yourself to be. Think about that for a moment … did you ever have a moment when somebody believed you were capable of more than you thought? And because they had trust in you, you began to behave as if it were true even if you didn’t totally get it yet? The Saturday before Ash Wednesday, Wendy made a trip over to visit Lila and Bill Wenner. She asked me, “Is there anything I can take to them?” I said, “Yes … Holy Communion.” My response just came … and I think Wendy was a little taken aback as she asked me, “Can I do that??” I told her, “Of course you can. Let’s get a kit and I have a book for you.” And … she did. She took Communion to Lila and Bill and, reports have it and as we say in Brunswick, she “done good.” Now Bill did put her at ease by telling her that if she made a mistake, God would just laugh anyway. But here was a place where God called Wendy … oh sure, I was the mouthpiece, but I am persuaded God called her to this. She hadn’t seen this in herself up to that point – but when I said she could, she believed … she trusted this was true and acted as if it were true and she went. It was an Abram response.
The Gospel reading tells us of another response. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – out of the darkness to encounter the light of Christ. Forget your preconceived ideas about Pharisees – Nicodemus isn’t a bad guy. He’s genuinely interested in Jesus and acknowledges that he sees God’s power working through him. Jesus then tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless you are “born from above.” The phrase “born from above” also can mean “born again.” I think it’s a both/and – born again from above. He’s speaking of the death of our egos and our preconceived ideas of God and ourselves. This has to die for us to turn over our trust completely to God and thus be spiritually resurrected. This is totally going over Nicodemus’ head – essentially he says, “You can’t go back into your mother’s womb! That’s just crazy talk!” Nicodemus’ knowledge of scripture and his own attachment to his identity becomes a stumbling block – he can’t see the God behind the words of scripture. He can’t quite understand that no words, no Torah, no earthly container can possibly limit God’s power. Trusting Jesus’ words just is beyond him. Perhaps it’s because God’s call is being mediated through what appears to be a mere human being (we’re not the only ones with trust issues). Or maybe it is just seems too good to be true.
Abram and Nicodemus are two sides of our ability to trust God. There are those grace filled moments when we hear something that just cuts to our hearts and we know it is true – we know God is behind those words (even if we don’t really want to hear them) and we step out as if what was said was actually true. And then we have times when our preconceived ideas, our egos, our addictions and attachments, seem to get in the way of God’s call to us for a healed and resurrected life.
Now before we “flat Stanley” these two characters as “Abram who is faithful” and “Nicodemus who doesn’t get it,” we need to remember that Abram will doubt God’s call on more than one occasion (the folks w.ho journeyed through Genesis with us at our Coffee Talk Bible Study will remember that). Nicodemus does not disappear from the Gospel of John after he stumbles in his trust – he shows up again to defend Jesus’ legal right to a fair trial … and he shows up again with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Our ability to trust God’s call in our lives is, admittedly, a mixed bag and our challenge is not necessarily to always “get it right” but to keep struggling and wrestling with it. Our trust may be broken, like this altar, but it is the broken Christ who meets us in order to heal us and make us new again.