Jesus Meets the Samaritan Woman at the Well

The hour is coming, says Jesus.
“The hour is coming when you will worship [God] neither in this mountain nor In Jerusalem.”
“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship [God] in spirit and truth.”

Buddy-Jesus

From the movie Dogma.

 

Whenever we hear prophecy, whenever we hear pronouncements such as this, I think we hear it a little like a promise and a little like a threat.  Something is happening, something is coming.  And that “something” is a good something.  But that “something” will also mess with my world and require me to change, force me to wonder “what will happen to me?”.

And this is how it is with the Reign of God.  Throughout the gospel, Jesus tells us of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God… wielding it as both a promise and a threat.

Because Jesus is usually reminding us that the world we have created – the rules and dividing lines, the hatred and the oppression and the injustice – this world that we have created is not of God.  But Jesus is also telling us that God will always rectify those inequities.  God will always save us from ourselves.  Which is good.  But it’s also going to require some effort on our part.

In the story of the Samaritan Woman is, essentially, a story about tribalism or racism.  A story about rules and judgment and boundaries.  It’s a rich story, full of symbolism and metaphor  In order for us to read this symbolism, it helps to know the context of John’s Gospel.  So, here’s a brief recap of the long history of Israel.

  • A group of tribes came together – over many, many centuries for mutual protection and opportunity and formed a nation which they named Israel (which means “one who wrestles with God”).
  • Israel eventually named a king and the nation gained some power in the region.
  • They built the Temple in the city of Jerusalem – Solomon’s Temple. This Temple was recognized as God’s presence on earth.
  • Israel split into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom retained the name Israel and its capital became Samaria.  Meanwhile, the southern kingdom became Judah. Jerusalem and the Temple were located in Judah.
  • Outside forces invaded both kingdoms – one of them being Babylon. As an act of war, Babylon attempted to eradicate the culture by deporting some people to Babylon, mostly those who were in the capital city of Jerusalem where the power was, and they destroyed the Temple.  Those that remained were typically in other regions – like the city of Samaria.
  • After about 50 years of war, a new occupying force came – the Persians – who allowed the Jews to return home and encouraged them to build a new Temple in Jerusalem, which they did. After the Persians, the Greeks controlled the area.
  • And eventually Rome gained power and territory (which is when Jesus enters the picture) and destroyed the Second Temple. The great diaspora of the Jewish people began as many fled the region.

 

2-kingdoms

The divided kingdoms.  Note the location of Samaria.

So, what does this have to do with today’s story?  The Samaritans  were among the remnants – those who stayed behind when the power base of Jewish leadership in Jerusalem were deported to Babylon.

 

During their 50 years in exile, the Jews in Babylon had to acquire a sense of themselves, an identity they could maintain while living in a foreign land.  They told stories, followed their own religious leadership and developed worship and patterns of life.  Some did what they could to maintain racial purity, while others took husbands and wives of Babylonia.

During these same 50 years, the Jews who remained in the land of Israel developed a sense of themselves as the oppressed people of a land invaded by foreigners.  They also told stories, followed their religious leaders, and developed appropriate worship practices.  And, while some of them attempted to maintain racial purity, others took husbands and wives from the invading force.

When the deported Jews were eventually allowed to return, you would think it would be a glorious and celebratory reunion.  And it was, to some degree.  But mostly, these peoples had grown apart in their customs and their rituals, and even in their understanding and worship of God.

This happens when people become inwardly focused.  They forget the connections they have to one another and they grow distrustful.  They don’t want others to join them.  They don’t want to be changed.

The people who had stayed came to be known simply as Samaritans, linked to the northern capital.  And so we have the false division of the Jews and the Samaritans.  Although they were related, they were estranged from one another, each group developed rules and dividing lines.  Over generations, they grew to fear and mistrust one another.  They came to hate one another.

And so we have Jesus, the Jew, who dares to talk to a Samaritan.  And even more scandalous, perhaps, is that he goes to the well, where women gather, and talks to a woman.  And his intent is to create in her a follower, a disciple.

His purpose in doing this, in crossing the borders created by generations of people, is to draw everyone’s attention to their own true identity – beloved children of God.  So that everyone might see that divisions are useless, the lines we draw in the sand are truly pointless because they are not of God.

Jesus is the one who reminds us that all of creation is God’s.
All the people who drive us crazy.
All the people who we think behave in a way that is inappropriate.
All the people who look different from us and act different from us.
All of us are God’s beloved creation.

And that when we try to take that power away from God, when we try to redefine borders and make rules, when we try to reorganize creation according to our whims and desires and false notions and fears… every time we take our pride to a dangerous place and allow it to become oppression and injustice… we will inevitably fail.  And we will fail miserably.

And so Jesus says, “the hour has come.”  The hour has come for this false separation to fail.  The hour has come for your arbitrary rules and your divisions to fail.  The hour has come for reconciliation.  You see – it’s a promise and a threat.

And Jesus is the one who reminds us of this.  He is the one who continually points to the other, to the person on the other side of the line we’ve drawn and says, “yes.  That person too.”

I know I’ve said this before but here is it again: Jesus reminds us, every time we create a boundary between ourselves and an other, he will be on the other side of it.  Because mercy is always on the other side of a line we draw, especially when we think we’re right.

 

In this week’s meeting with Jesus, we imagine ourselves to be in the place of the Samaritan woman.  We are this woman who, has got to be one of the crankiest characters in the whole of the Gospel stories:

An older woman who had likely been handed down from one brother to the next as the previous one died, a life devoid of affection but bound to child-bearing for a family.
Having to go to the well in the heat of the middle of the day instead of the cool hours of the morning so that she could avoid the humiliation of being outcast by the other women.
A well-hated woman – pointed to, laughed at, cast aside.  Of course she no longer cares about being nice and playing by societal rules.  Why would she?

I have a feeling, we all have that part of us that identifies with this crankiness.  Tired of the world.  Coping with it by being demanding of others or manipulating others in some way:
Refusing to be vulnerable for fear of disappointment.
Hardened and protective.  Rigid and challenging.
Or just resigned and disconnected.

And yet, Jesus talks to this cranky woman longer than he talks to anyone else.  Meeting each of her challenging questions with direct responses instead of demanding that she play by societal rules which, he knows, are arbitrary anyway.

She’s real with him, not asking for anything from him.  As a matter of fact, the whole interaction begins because he asks her for a drink of water.

It seems he enjoys talking to her.  Perhaps a refreshing change from the fawning, sycophantic, overly-deferential manner in which his disciples treat him.  As if to make that point, Jesus brushes them off annoyingly when they find him speaking to her.

This is the promise and the threat of prophecy.  People aren’t going to act how we need them to act all of the time.  People will push our buttons.  And the more we draw lines in the sand, the less we are open to the wideness of God’s mercy acting in us, and flowing through us to be there for one another.

Because, here’s the most important part: most assuredly, someone else always sees us as the cranky Samaritan woman. And here’s your question: Is that cranky person inside of us willing to listen to Jesus and be changed?

In this interaction, we are called to recognize that Jesus is here talking to each one of us.  At some length.  This isn’t about fixing the Samaritan woman we see out there.  This is about accepting that we all have a cranky Samaritan woman that we carry inside each of us.  And then learning to stop drawing lines in the sand because we are all in need of mercy.  We are all standing in the need of prayer.

Because Jesus is always going to be on the other side saying, “yes, this one also belongs to me.”

“The hour is coming, and is now here.”
For this is what we celebrate together each and every Sunday.  This is what Eucharist is about.  This is what that Table is about.  It is about Jesus calling us back to God.  It is about Jesus calling all of us, every single one of us back to God.

Water of Life

By artist Stephen Broadbent.  To go to a site that offers description of this statue, click on the image above.

 

The Table is first and foremost about reconciliation – the living water from today’s Gospel story.

The promise and the threat of prophecy requires that we do what we can to stop ourselves from drawing lines and creating borders between one another.  To call us out to something better, something bigger than the small worlds we create when we cut off one another off.  That requires us to forgive – both the other person and ourselves – and then, to go one step further, and offer our hand in reconciliation, even welcome.  All are welcome at God’s Table.

Jesus goes to the well and creates a disciple out of a Samaritan woman.  In one scandalous act, Jesus reconciles centuries of fear, hatred, mistrust, and shame.  Because reconciliation is the living water he was talking about.  That is what it means to worship God in spirit and truth.

The hour is coming, and is now here.  And God is calling us back to the Table again where we are all welcome.  Let us welcome one another.

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Jesus Meets Nicodemus in the Night

The theme for Lent this year is 5 Meetings with Jesus.  This week, Jesus meets Nicodemus in the night.  Click here for Lent II, Year A readings.

I love this story from John’s Gospel.  I love the symbolism and the storytelling.  I love the tentative and vulnerable way Nicodemus opens up to the teaching of the Spirit.  The way he begins remembering his soul.

Scholars estimate that John wrote this Gospel around the year 90.  This is about 60 years after Jesus’ death, and about 20 years after the destruction of the Temple and the death of Paul.  People had been telling stories about Jesus in their communities for 60 years at this point – 3 generations.  They had been telling stories about his teachings of God’s unbounded love, his ministry of healing and feeding those who were outcast by society, his demonstrations against the powers that be which resulted in his death.

And when the Temple was destroyed by the powers that be, the Roman oppressors, Jews all over Palestine were thrown into chaos.  The Temple had been God’s home amongst them, the center of their life and the center of their identity.  The Jewish community experienced the destruction of the Temple as a trauma – very similar to how people in the US experienced 911.

Some of these Jews had come to believe that this man Jesus was the messiah.  And other Jews believed the messiah had not yet come.  The religion of Judaism was going through a deep split in its response to the destruction of the Temple.  People were redefining themselves, beginning to call themselves Christians, disciples of this man Jesus who they saw as the Christ, the anointed.  While others remained and developed a new way to worship God without the Temple – rabbinic Judaism, which is what we know as the Jewish faith today.

The Gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – all wrote during this time of chaos.  They wrote down the stories that had been told to them for decades about this rabbi named Jesus.  They wrote in ways that their people would hear, with particular techniques and language, so the people they were leading and teaching could develop and deepen their belief – a new way of thinking that helped them to understand just what a messiah came to do and how they could become disciples of this rabbi Jesus.

John wrote for a community of believers who were in open conflict with the more orthodox Jews in the area – kind of like different strains of Christianity today who have heated debates over ethics and scripture and sin.  John’s community was coming to terms with this difference.  And, often, John criticizes the more orthodox Jews – calling them ignorant, unrighteous, rule-bound, even evil. 

It can be hard to read John’s Gospel sometimes for this reason.  So, it’s incredibly important to understand the context of the Gospel writers – what they were going through, the motivations they had, the points they were trying to make, and the audience they were writing to.

Because over the centuries, this Gospel more than any other piece in Christian scripture has caused untold death and destruction.  People who love to use scripture and religion against others, to vilify and condemn others, have used John’s Gospel as a rallying cry against Jews and the Jewish religion.  The people who do this, we call religious extremists.KKK

Extremism is an easy disease to catch because it plays on our fears and makes us believe that we, alone, are right.  It polarizes us into camps and emboldens us to act out our fears in mobs and groups.

Extremism hijacks our faith and turns messages of God’s love into rallying cries of hate.  It makes us believe in the phrase “kill or be killed” and seeks to destroy the very life that God has given to all of God’s children. 

Extremism annihilates our humanity.  It extinguishes hope.  And most devastatingly, it makes us leave our soul behind, forgotten, in favor of false certainty, false safety, and self-survival.

What does all this have to do with Nicodemus?

In case you haven’t picked up on the theme of this Lenten season by looking at the cover of the Worship Booklet, the Gospels in Lent talk about 5 different meetings with Jesus in 5 different settings.  How do we learn from these meetings?  How do we see ourselves reflected in these characters who find themselves face to face with Jesus in tender and vulnerable moments?

Nicodemus is a character who represents Jewish teaching and authority in John’s Gospel – those who were opposing the revelation of Jesus.  Indeed, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the most rule-bound of the Jewish sects.  They were the ones who insisted that the Law be followed to the letter because faith in God was demonstrated through adherence to the Law and the Law was only for Jews.  They were they extremists, scared in the aftermath of the trauma and using religion to scapegoat others.

And Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night – night being symbolic for “secret.”  He comes to Jesus in secret because a part of him is searching.  A part of his consciousness is seeking out a different teaching.  He has started to wonder if there is something more than the certainty of the Law, more than his hate, more than his fear.

And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you…” the only way to know God, the only way to see God’s reign here in this life, in this reality… is to have been formed by God’s Spirit, to have been born anew with a new way of seeing, a new way of knowing.

And our Nicodemus plays ignorant because John has written this story as a way of making fun of the more orthodox Jews:  Nicodemus says that you can’t enter your mother’s womb a second time.  You can’t be born again.

And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you…” you must be washed anew, you must be formed by Spirit in order to participate in the Reign of God.  Because the Reign of God is not of this world, it is not born of our fears and hate and certainty.  It is of God, the very ground of our being, that which is so much bigger than our small worldview. 

You must have faith in the Spirit and its ability to form us, to open us to new understandings, rather than be bound by rules or customs.  Because God’s Spirit will take you wherever it wants, regardless of our rules, even if we think these rules are from God.  Regardless of these customs that comfort us, especially if we are certain that we are right.

But Nicodemus still has trouble understanding.  He’s befuddled by this knowledge, confused.  And has asks simply, “How can these things be?”

heart-light-1And Jesus says, one more time, “Very truly, I tell you…” the gift from God, the Christ, the Spirit of God that came from God, will be witnessed by the souls of all, not seen with the rule-bound mind.  Because it is the Spirit that speaks to the soul.  God sends the Spirit to us – so that we might come to remember that part of ourselves that is beyond the law.  So that we might believe in something beyond our daily rule-bound lives of fear and certainty.  So that we might be truly saved by reaching out in love.

And I have to say, I feel like Nicodemus most days.  I’d like to say I believe, that I’m fully formed by the Spirit and can bear witness to the Reign of God in every waking moment.  But the truth is, I still get befuddled and confused.  I still want to ask my teacher Jesus, “How can these things be?”  How can God love us so much?  How can God, who keeps loving us, who keeps offering us grace, who keeps sustaining us even when we mess things up completely… How does this work?  How can it be?  What does this mean?

I struggle like Nicodemus.  I struggle with believing that God loves me.  Believing that this world is redeemable.  Believing that I am redeemable.  It’s easier to believe my own opinions about how the world should be.  How others should be.  How I need to be in order to survive.

And so I stand up here preaching, not to you, but with you.  A fellow traveler on this journey through Lent, who sees myself in Nicodemus… meeting Jesus in secret, under the cover of night, wanting to believe but not ready to believe.

Because something else is guiding me.  Something else besides my mind is seeking to be formed, to be opened, to be made new.  It is not the rational, studied, well-informed, certain part of myself.  It is the part of myself that wants to believe, that already does believe… is my soul.Face of the Soul

The soul – the part of ourselves that keeps hope alive in the darkness of the world.  This consciousness that isn’t ours but somehow belongs to us.  This consciousness that is a part of God’s consciousness waiting to be remembered by us.  The soul is beyond the negativity and all the things we think we know –  the judgments we carry about ourselves, judgments about others about this world.

In the reading from Genesis today, God asked Abram to leave behind what he knew.  And Abram did.  He became God’s servant and the ancestor of us all.  And in today’s Gospel, Jesus asked Nicodemus to leave behind what he knew.  And, eventually, Nicodemus did.

Christ PortraitAnd here we are centuries later.  A group of people sitting in St. John’s Episcopal church on a very cold March morning… and God is asking us the same question.  God is asking us all to remember our souls, to go on a quest, leaving behind the things we think we know and walk the journey of Lent to become a new creation in the resurrection of Easter.

Because you and I are Nicodemus.  Each one of us sitting in this church is seeking Jesus out for some reason
… wanting to believe but not quite ready to believe
…. staring at the face of Jesus with incredulity
… realizing that he’s asking us to leave behind the things that make us feel safe, the things that make us feel certain, make us think we’re in control
… and beginning to grasp that it is our soul that longs to return to God because it is our soul that already believes in boundless love.

So the question is: What is God asking you to leave behind so that you might remember your soul once again?

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Jesus Meets Himself in the Wilderness

The theme for Lent this year is Five Meetings with Jesus.  In the first meeting, Jesus meets himself in the wilderness.  Click here for Lent I, Year A readings.

This story from the Gospel always makes me think of that old trope from morality plays: The angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.  Jesus sitting there in the wilderness – devils and angels whispering to him.  It’s not exactly what happens in the Gospel story but it’s the same story – humans, in our finite nature, are self-oriented.  daria

And there is a battle for our soul going on whenever we are tempted: Will we choose the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do?  Will we sell our soul for fame and fortune?  Or will we live an honest, humble life?

It seems the choices are simple.  But the problem is, they really aren’t.  The tempting choices we face often don’t present themselves in such clear cut ways.  It’s not usually Satan that we’re facing. It’s usually ourselves that we’re facing – our lesser angels.

Today Jesus meets himself in the wilderness.  He faces the part of himself that wants to give in to a need for security, a desire for power and wealth.  He faces the part of himself that we all know.  The part that says, “What’s in it for me?”

Or more, specifically, if I do what is being asked, if I live my life as if God matters to me, what will happen to me?

As humans, it’s an understandable starting place – what will happen to me?  Will I be ok?  Will we be ok?  Will we have enough?  Will I get my needs met?  If I do this or if I trust in this – will it turn out the way I need it to?

The Temptation story is found in 3 of the 4 Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All have a bit of a different take, but they all take place immediately after Jesus was baptized and immediately before his public ministry.  The placement of the story is significant both because it explains that baptism alone is not going to save us and because it illuminates the struggle we all have when we are called to live our lives as if God matters to us.

Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan was an event in which Jesus was called out as the Christ, the anointed one.  In each Gospel the words are used – “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus has already been given the title of the Christ.

We have these temptation stories because even after baptism, even after Jesus was anointed as the Christ, he was tempted.  Jesus faced himself.  And so do we… face ourselves in the wilderness.  We are tempted by that question – What will happen to me?  Will I have enough?  Will I be ok?  

It comes down to what we believe.  Do we believe the dark stories of our lives – that we are not worthy, not loved, not good? That we are not capable, not safe, and that we do not matter? 

When we believe these wilderness stories, Jesus knew, we react by trying to gain value in some way, to procure love, to make sure we are seen as good.  We try to gain power – we do too much and make sure that people see us.  And we try to protect ourselves by building walls and claiming property and taking our toys and going home.

Or do we believe in a different story?  One that tells me I have an abundance to offer.  I am capable and worthy.  I am OK.  I am good and I am loved and from that place I can do what is being asked in living my life as if God matters.  I can trust in the ground of my being.

On Ash Wednesday, we were invited to observe a holy Lent.  And we were beseeched by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God.  Which is more than coming to Church and praying.  More than simply saying I believe in God or telling others that we believe.  

Being reconciled to God means that we live our lives as though God matters to us.  And being reconciled to God means that we know that our lives are not ours alone.  Because God, not our self, is the source.  God is the ground of our very being.

From our stories in Genesis and even from science – we know that we are fashioned from the elements of the earth.  We know that we are made from atoms of carbon and molecules of water.  We know that we are fragile beings who bleed and laugh and cry and breathe.  We breathe.Creation

And this breath is something we all share – all creatures of God, all people who walk the earth – we all breathe.  This breath has been given to us by God, this force of life that flows in our veins and pumps our heart and shines its light on us and through us.

We are made of dust and to dust we shall return and all of this life, this breath, this blood is lent to us for a time so that we may share life with one another and love one another.  The purpose of life is nothing more than this.

We know this but we don’t always believe this.  Because the temptation is very, very real. It’s in our minds most of the time, if we’re honest.

What will happen to me?
What will happen to me… if I invite someone to share my life?
… if I make friends with someone who doesn’t think like me or look like me?
… if I let someone use my stuff?
… if I help someone who is in trouble and I break the law while doing it?
What will happen to me?

I can tell you what will happen: You will change.  Relationship changes us.  It’s just that simple.

It is relationship that is life-giving.  It might not be the relationship we’ve always imagined for ourselves, but it’s the relationship we have been given.  I’m not talking about putting up with abuse – that’s not relationship, that’s oppression.  I’m talking about seeing the person right in front of you and opening up yourself to being changed by them to be in relationship with them because the purpose of life is nothing more than to care for one another… because we all breathe.

Witnessing others, being moved by them, celebrating them.  When we do this, we not only offer a blessing, but we are blessed ourselves.  This is what happened on the curb for us this past Wednesday with Ashes-to-go when we offered to impose ashes on people – we blessed them and we were blessed.  We said yes to relationship.

And we all have a different path through the wilderness, different temptations that try to keep us bound in fear and pain.  Temptations that keep us from being in relationship with one another.  But, through the wilderness we must go if we are to live our life as if God matters to us, to live our lives as if we matter to each other. 

Devonte HartIn the story of Jesus’ temptation we see ourselves reflected.  When Jesus meets himself in the wilderness, he sees his own face, just as we are met with ourselves, our own lesser angels, when we are tempted to live our lives for ourselves alone, as if God doesn’t matter.

Can we see Jesus in ourselves?  Do we believe the light of Christ shines through our own heart?

When we see Jesus in ourselves, when we are able to hold ourselves with compassion, we might just stop insisting that our world show up for us in the particular way that suits us.  And as we practice, we learn to identify the temptations we have and we get better at saying no to the story in the darkness and saying yes to the truth, saying yes to the light. 

We turn away from our fears and yes to the relationship that is awaiting us, that will surely change us.  When we are able to see the face of God in our own face, we can let go of the story that tells us we are not worthy, not loved, not safe – because we know that we are.  Reminding ourselves that God resides within us, helps us remember that we have everything we need and we are good and holy, precious children of God.

And we are able to withstand temptation and become what God is calling us to be – Christ, whose heart is broken open for the world.  When we finally learn to see Jesus in ourselves, then we can begin to see Jesus in others.  This is the first task of Lent – to recognize and believe in the Christ in ourselves.

May it be so

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This Night

You can find the Christmas I readings by clicking here.

You can listen by clicking below:

nativity-color

 

This night.  This sweet night.  This holy night.

With all that is happening in the world around us – the arguing and the threats, the raging and the fear, the blame and the anger, the loneliness and pain… we have a promise.  

And we show up here on this night because we believe in that promise, or because we want to believe, or because it’s what we’ve always done, or because we need to or want to find a way to let something in to vanquish the shadow from our lives. 

Someplace inside of us wants to be melted so we come to hear the story.  We come to this sanctuary and we celebrate this birth, this gift from God that is God incarnate.

Because it is in the midst of all the fear and anger and pain… in the midst of the desert of our disbelief… that God always comes to us.  The story we have of this promise is about a young woman named Mary, who was forced to travel through the desert with her beloved while she was with child.  She gave birth in a barn and put the baby in a feeding trough.

This hope is born in the lowliest of places.  In the terror of forced migration, the pain of childbirth, the filth of a cowshed, this child, this hope is born. 

Because God always comes to us unbidden as the light returns each year in the midst of the darkness of our own lives. With no worldly ceremony, no grand entrance, God breaks into the world… on this night.  This quiet night.  This holy night.

The human heart is a complicated thing.  Capable of great love and joy, this part of us is also the most tender, most vulnerable part.  We carry our entire lifetime in our heart – the memories of our own, personal human story – the hopes and disappointments, the joy and the pain, the love and the loneliness.  This story that tells us to keep ourselves hidden, not to hope too much, not to shine too much, not to love too much.

Our heart is understood by many to be an organ of perception – the instrument through which we view the world.  When our heart is open and joyful, we see abundance and possibility.  When our heart is burdened and in pain, we see problems and danger.

Neither is a marker of faith, nor any indication of our own goodness.  It’s just an indicator of where we are on our journey because sometimes these dangers are very real – like they were for Mary.  And sometimes, we are able to see the possibility, like Mary.

And so this is where the bigger story connects with our own.  God’s breaking in is real – it’s not just a story about something that happened 2000 years ago.  It happens all the time.  This is why we call Christ the Alpha and the Omega because it’s always happened from the foundation of the world through to the completion of all things because Christ is the beginning and the end.

God’s promise, which we celebrate this night, this beautiful night, this holy night… is that in the midst of our own darkness, our own pain and vulnerability, God’s light shines through the gloom to find us once again.  No place is too lowly.  No person is beyond hope.  No heart is incapable of mending.

heart-mangerIn this manger that is our heart, we find that when we make room, even if it’s just a small space, this light of Christ enters in.  And God breaks into our world once more.  When this happens, we might find that we have so much more room in our own hearts that we could have ever expected.

In this manger that is our hearts, we learn that our pride and our opinions… our stories about who we are, become impoverished in the presence of this vulnerable child of flesh.  And our greatness can do nothing but bow, our intellect surrenders, we fall on our knees in the presence of this meekness, this little one.

In this manger that is our hearts, our hardness softens, our darkness is pierced by light and we are humbled: our stories dismissed, our mountainous fears made into proverbial molehills. 

Because every stone shall cry in its presence.
Every stone shall cry… on this night.  This glorious night.

This story of hope that we have, this promise we celebrate on this night, is that God’s will is never accomplished by the ways of the world, by power or coercion, by social norms or expectations. 

This story we have tells us that God’s desire for us, God’s dream for us will come in the form of vulnerability in the lowliest of places, in the most hopeless of moments.  God’s will is accomplished in our surrender to the quiet spaces in our hearts that yearn for connection and truth, those aspects of ourselves that receive and respond to light, like a newborn baby opens her eyes for the first time as it gazes upon the love shining forth from his mother.

Because ultimately, what comes to us at Christmas is Love.
We look for a sign, we search for that star that will guide us, telling us where to go and who to follow.  But when we open our eyes and see with our hearts, what we find in the manger is Love.  Just Love.

And our only task is to receive this Love… on this night.  This glorious night.

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God Speaks and We Respond

Preached on Advent I.  You can read the lections here.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’  And there was light.”
God speaks and creation responds.

And by some strange coincidence, the sense of hearing is the first sense that develops in us.  Sound is the first thing we learn to attend to as we are being formed.  It’s the first thing that piques our curiosity.
God speaks and we are called to awaken, to wonder, to behold God.

jamesamangum-chanticleer

jamesamangum-chanticleer

Chanticleer, the rooster in this lovely painting by James Mangum, calls us awake from our sleep to behold the light, just as every rooster has ever done from the beginning. The sound of the rooster is the sound of the sun rising, a new day, dawn after a long night.

This painting takes its name from a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Chanticleer is a prideful rooster, convinced of his own virtue, that the sun rises for him.  One night, he dreams that a fox will be his downfall and, in his typically self-centered way, goes to his hens for reassurance.

Used to his obnoxious outbursts, they dismiss his dream, soothing him with words of comfort.  When he wakes the next day and begins his swagger around the barnyard, a fox is awaiting him.  Knowing that phrases of flattery will appeal to the rooster’s vanity, the fox convinces Chanticleer to really perform – to sing the new day into being by throwing his head back, and closing his eyes.  Which, Chanticleer does with great delight and self-satisfaction.

And, as you might expect, the fox snatches him, mid-crow, in his mouth.  However, as the fox is trotting out of the barnyard with the foolish Chanticleer in his jaw, his own arrogance gets the better of him.  Forgetting that his mouth is otherwise occupied, he opens his mouth to taunt the other animals with words of ridicule and derision.  And our rooster escapes to a tree branch, out of the fox’s reach.

The story of Chanticleer is poetic, if not ironic, because here we have a rooster who is asleep.  The one who is supposed to be waking us all up to behold God’s gift of a new day is the one who is so prideful, so convinced of his own virtue, that he can barely stay alive himself.

How are we so convinced of our own virtue, that we have become deaf to the impact we have on others?
How are we so focused on how someone else is missing the mark, entranced by the voices of our own stories, that we are missing God’s creation of a new day in our own lives?
How are we, instead, called to hear God’s incarnate Word among us?  For us?
What is being birthed in us? What are we birthing in ourselves?

The words of Matthew’s Gospel today sound foreboding:stay-woke
“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Matthew wrote well after Jesus’ death and after Roman forces had destroyed the Temple.  By this time, Paul had done his evangelism and there were pockets of Christ followers all over Asia Minor.  But Matthew wasn’t writing to these recently converted Gentiles.

Matthew was writing to a group of Jews who had come to believe Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah they had been waiting for.  And that his death had marked the beginning of the end of the world.

They anticipated freedom from this world through their own death or, more precisely, their own entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.  They believed that the coming of the Son of Man would be marked by the sun, moon, and stars going dark, and announced by the trumpeting sounds of angels.

This is why Matthew’s words sound so foreboding.  Because Matthew and the community of Jews he wrote for, believed the end of the world was approaching.
And… what we know is that the world did not end with the destruction of the Temple.  Nor did the world end with the death of Jesus.
Creation did not cease to exist.
The sun rose the next day and has risen every day since.

But just because Matthew’s intended meaning did not come to pass, it doesn’t mean that the Gospel means nothing to us. On the contrary, it means a great deal more to us because creation never ceases to exist.
It means that God’s promise is infinitely more than we have imagined.
It means that God’s hope, for us, is that we hear the call and awaken to this truth – that creation itself is holy and blessed because God is with us, incarnate among us.

Jesus was one of many messiah figures that lived in Palestine in the first century.  He developed a following like all the others because he preached about freedom and challenged the Jewish and Roman authorities. But he was different and people were wholly unprepared for the kind of messiah he was.
They wanted him to be a warrior.  But, instead, he spoke of love.
They wanted him to raise an army and conquer the oppressor.
But, instead, he healed people with his words.

So, for most Christians, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel has come to mean something other than the literal ending of creation.  We have come to understand that the Son of Man Matthew talks about is someone who taught us that the path to salvation is not through worldly means of winning an argument or conquering a foe… but through a spiritual practice of awakening to a new birth inside our own hearts.

We have come to realize that our freedom, the freedom that our Messiah has given us, is one that has nothing to do with political boundaries or beloved buildings or ways of life that we hold dear.   Freedom comes to us as we realize the truth of the Incarnation – that creation itself is holy and blessed.

This is why we carry the stories about Mary the God-bearer.
This is  how we know God becomes human, and is incarnate among us.
This is why we believe that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega; both before, and always.

The coming of the Son of Man is a promise, not a foreboding threat, a promise that God has blessed the whole creation and we are called to the spiritual practice of expectation, the practice of curiosity – of listening – for new teachings that will help us to become even more deeply present to God’s love.

We are all called to carry Christ and become midwives to new birth in our heart, because we are always becoming, never complete.
When we hear the sound of Chanticleer, our awakening is a call to be more present, more curious to what God is doing, more alive as a part of the blessed creation.

To listen for God’s voice.  To be quiet enough, silent enough in this age of cacophony, to attune ourselves to a different frequency.   We are called to wake up and look East toward the light that comes unbidden every day – as a gift from God.

God’s promise is a simple one: God speaks and creation responds. Storm Front
From the beginning of time, the sound of God’s hope and promise for all of creation, forever, is the sound of God’s Spirit moving over the deep and calling all things into being – sun, moon, and stars, earth, winds, and waters; all living things.

Chanticleer and Matthew both tell us that we are always in that moment where we are given a choice to be awake – not to expect others to be awake, but to awaken ourselves, that we may hear the whispers of God’s Spirit and choose them over the stories of pain and fear; that we may listen for the voice of love and respond.

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Guest Post – Deacon Sue Bonsteel

Sue Bonsteel, our deacon at St. John’s, preached on the Sunday after this year’s presidential election.  It’s posted as a guest post here because it’s an important piece of preaching.  Thank you, Sue, for your witness and your ministry.img_20161029_165133434
You can read the lections for the day here.

I learned this week that sermons should never be written when you’re upset. And I confess that I was – and remain – saddened and more than a little worried about the outlook for our country. It took me three tries before settling on these words.

I think we can all agree this is a very trying time for our nation. The future seems bleak at the moment for so many. However we marked our ballots last Tuesday, most aren’t insensitive to the pain around us. It is a time unlike any other in our collective memory. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” seems to be the best advice these days.

I’m aware that there will be some who will hear this sermon as “political.”  I’m not sure why “political” is a term ever used to describe a sermon but I suspect it’s because what is preached at times may make some of us anxious or uncomfortable, the way politics can. We hope for sermons that will be thoughtful and scriptural (which they certainly should be). And perhaps we desire sermons that don’t challenge our long-held beliefs. We want to be reminded only of God’s enduring love and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. In difficult times, we want to be reassured that all will be well. I understand. I feel the same way. Yet, I also can’t help but wonder how we often listen to the Gospel on Sundays and still overlook the connection between the important lessons we are being taught and how to live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. The tenets of our faith aren’t debatable. We are to love God and love our neighbor. Looking around our nation these past few days, I think we can agree that few of us have that down perfectly.

A spiritual director once reminded me that faith is not static; it is a living thing; it is dynamic…it’s always in need of strengthening and growth. He suggested that dark times may actually help deepen our understanding of our relationship to God and to one another. The challenge, he said, is to not turn away in fear – or worse, because we don’t care enough – but to welcome the opportunity to grow closer to God and to one another. Perhaps a commitment to a deeper, more mature faith may help us in the days ahead to stand up to those who have distorted the teachings of Christ – those who mistakenly believe they now have permission to denigrate, harass, abuse and defile others.

During turbulent times, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that the Son of God was himself seen as a first century political revolutionary. He encouraged his disciples to get riled-up in order to take on societal injustices and to challenge the powers that be. One of the most familiar images we have is of a furious Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, tossing over the tables of the moneychangers. Perhaps, my dear friends, it’s time again for you and I to turn some tables over and raise our voices, just as Jesus did, to be heard above the false prophets around us.

As I struggled with this sermon, I realized that if I didn’t get “political”, it would mean ignoring the pain of millions of our brothers and sisters. Rather than diminish what just happened to our country…to gloss over it with religious platitudes and “feel good” messages, I must speak as a deacon is called to do. And, if there remain any skeptics out there about the appropriateness of this, please check out my job description on page 343 in our Book of Common Prayer. It’s in the ordination rite and reminds the Church that deacons always have one foot in the Church and one foot out in the world, bringing the needs and concerns of the world to the people of God.

You and I don’t live in a bubble and the Church does not want us to. We don’t come to St. John’s to be sheltered from the world around us. We come to St. John’s to worship God and to learn how to live fully as Christian people in the broken world around us. You and I are called to change the wrongs we see and to work with love and compassion and hope in order to create a fair and just world for every one of God’s people. We are the Body of Christ and all shall always be welcome through these doors. ALL. Today it happens to be my job to remind us of this.

In 2001, just days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, I preached from this pulpit about the awful devastation and pain felt by our nation. I remember saying that it was probably too soon for us to be speaking about routine things such as vestry meetings, pledge cards and parish activities. Our country was in shock and the horror of that September day was just beginning to be felt by all of us. I remember speaking about ways we might come together through our prayers and love and support for one another and for our country. I’m sure you recall how people rose to the challenge. We expressed our unity through the hanging of flags on our homes, by donating to special concerts which raised money for the families of those killed, and by seeking out houses of worship as we sought comfort and peace in community as we reeled from the unexpected and horrific event. We needed to be constantly reminded that God was still in our midst. Our relationships to one another were stronger than the terrorists’ desire to tear us apart.

Certainly the election that took place on Tuesday does not compare to the September 11th tragedy. But I discovered this week that the depth of the emotions felt by so many people was as visceral and heartfelt as it was back then. There is real suffering in the lives of our brothers and sisters who now sense a physical and spiritual threat to their very existence. We have already seen shocking post-election images of gay men being beaten on the streets of our cities, parades being organized by the Ku Klux Klan, Muslim college students attacked on their way to classes, graffiti written on walls taunting our African-American brothers and sisters with hateful messages about returning to Africa, high school students in Pennsylvania marching down the hallways carrying political signs and yelling “White Power.” Folks I‘ve spoken to the past few days are inconsolable at the outcome of the election after a cruel and divisive campaign. The hateful and explicit language by a Presidential candidate, the attacks on Muslims, the disabled, Latinos, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, women and African Americans are shameful and as members of the Church, we must publicly denounce them. Yet somehow…someway…enough of us felt that a national leader could still be worthy of the highest office in our land despite his outright racism, coarse and misogynistic language and incendiary threats and lies repeated over and over again. Many Americans went to the polls and chose to look past this for reasons still difficult for so many others to fathom.

One of the most disturbing things about where we find ourselves now is the effect this campaign and election is having on our children. On the morning after the election my daughter sent an email that read, in part: Thomas (who is 8) woke up to the news that we had a new President this morning and asked if I was kidding when I told him who was elected. He had tears in his eyes and said “but he’s mean to women. Is something going to happen to you and Grandma?” Later, at the bus stop, our Muslim neighbors came over with their young son and said “We all need to pray.”

Perhaps you’ve heard similar disturbing statements from the children in your life. Little ones frightened by the rhetoric we adults allowed to continue and – in some cases – laughed at and shared on social media. It’s too late to take it back. But we must take responsibility for it and help reassure our children that they are loved and will be protected from harm, real or imagined. It will take a village to bind up the hurts felt by so many during this contentious election.

And this is where we need to focus our efforts as professed followers of the King of Peace. For we find ourselves in a crucial time to live like we are truly disciples of Christ.  We CAN make this better. We HAVE to make this better.

In 2004, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a wonderful book called God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time.” In it he writes that God depends on us always to be our best selves – to be carriers of justice, healing and wholeness in a world that is twisted and torn by hatred, divisiveness, and violence. His own country’s painful experience with apartheid helped shape his understanding of how God can lead humanity to create order out of disorder, peace out of chaos. He refers to the African ideal of ubuntu, (uu-boon-too) which acknowledges that our own well-being is contingent on the health and happiness of those around us. It’s a philosophy that emphasizes a universal bond of sharing that connects all people. Ubuntu (uu-boon-tu) speaks particularly about the fact that we can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It reminds us of our interconnectedness. In other words, I can’t be human all by myself – you can’t be human all by yourself. Tutu suggests that we think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another. But this is simply not true. We are connected and what we do actually affects the whole world. When we do well, it spreads out; it becomes a ripple effect of goodness and generosity and love that is for the whole of humanity. Only then is there hope for a better tomorrow.

The Good Bishop challenges us to work as “God’s rainbow people” and see our suffering neighbors and even strangers around us as part of our family. He asks, “Would we let a member of our brother’s or sister’s family – our relatives – eke out a miserable existence in poverty? Would we let them go hungry or homeless?” Yet, in reality, every 4 seconds someone dies of hunger and three-quarters of these are children under the age of 5. Bishop Tutu argues that if we truly realized that we are family, we would not let this cruelty happen to our brothers and sisters. To see others who may be marginalized in our society as members of our family…makes it much more difficult to turn aside when they are suffering from discrimination, religious intolerance, verbal abuse, physical violence and economic inequality.

Our own Bishops Dietsche, Shin and Glasspool issued a pastoral letter on Thursday which reads in part: “Our election on Tuesday was not what was expected, or at least not what we were led to expect. We discover now the depth and breadth of the rift that divides and separates Americans one from another…these differences, this divide cannot and must not be smoothed over in false hope of an easy reconciliation…the much harder task before…us…is to really listen to one another, to hear another’s pain and fear, to understand one another, and by the God’s grace to find together the deeper hopes and dreams which we all share…this task may be our most urgent work now as a church.”

You and I are God’s agents of transformation in this world. As Bishop Tutu writes: “Without us, God has no eyes; without us, God has no ears; without us,  God has no arms. God waits upon us, and relies on us.” Let me say that once more. God relies on us. That’s a big job on good days; it seems overwhelming at a time like this. But being a disciple of Jesus Christ means we have to work harder; to more fully commit ourselves to justice and to peace. For when one member of our family suffers, the entire family suffers.

In the days ahead we have to be willing to be uncomfortable…to be political…to be courageous. To stand with the stranger. To defend those who are made scapegoats. To speak for those without a voice. To protect the innocent. To name the evil for what it is. For once we do that, once we decide to risk it all, we will have finally chosen to leave the darkness of these days behind us and live in the Light.

Amen.

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John’s Story of Abundance

Dear friends,

As you may have heard, this past Sunday we kicked off our Stewardship campaign.  At our 10am worship service, parishioner John Bennett gave such a truly beautiful reflection on stewardship that people requested for us to make it available to read and pass along and John graciously agreed.  It was a wonderful worship service highlighted by his story of abundance.  I offer it here on my “blog” as a guest post.  Enjoy!

Click here to read: stewardship-sermon-for-2017

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