Maundy Thursday – A Guest Post from Deacon Sue Bonsteel

Click here for the readings.

img_20161029_165133434In this world where we are often surrounded by harsh rhetoric, threats of violence and retaliation, and cries for “an eye-for-an-eye” type of justice, we hear a different message this evening. We hear gentle and enduring words about compassion and love and serving one another. It is an evening when we gather as Christ’s beloved community and listen again to the readings that foretell traditions that we are to remember and pass along from one generation to another. They are the words of Christ spoken more than 2000 years ago to his own disciples shortly before he would be tried by the Roman authorities and killed.

This story is imprinted on our Christian souls. In Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus had gathered his twelve disciples. He alone knew what was about to happen to him – that one of his own would ultimately betray him to the authorities; one would deny him three times; and all would abandon him during his hour of greatest need.

Yet Jesus called his friends together – they shared a meal; and he broke bread and poured a cup of wine; he ate with his friends and blessed them; then knelt down before them and washed their feet; and showed them love and grace and compassion during a time when fear and anger might have seemed the more likely emotions.

What had Jesus done to deserve what was to come? He lived a life of non-violence; he healed the sick and restored sight to the blind; he freed the captives; walked among the outcast and ate with the scorned. He spoke up in the presence of injustice. He brought hope and life to those who needed it most.

Those were his sins in the eyes of the authorities. Jesus was to be killed because the goodness he brought to the world was more of a threat to the ruling government and religious authorities than any army could ever be. He had so radically upended the status quo during his lifetime that those in power decided the only answer for them was to put him to death.

Jesus didn’t run away as another person might; he didn’t prepare himself for a battle, arming himself with weapons. Instead he chose to spend his final hours with the ones he loved and who loved him. Jesus needed to be with them for they would be the witnesses to what would follow.

You and I know what is coming…and still we willingly gather here together as a community. We find comfort in being together as a Christian family as we enter into the ancient stories of these last days of Jesus’s life and death.

For tonight is the night when Jesus gave his disciples (and the world) two things that would forever connect us to him and one another: the institution of the Holy Eucharist and the mandate to love. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” We gather on Maundy Thursday not only to share a simple meal, but to share in the symbols of humility, love and service to one another established on that holy evening in Jerusalem. The physical acts of washing one another’s feet and hands and communicating one another with the bread and wine are both rich and intimate experiences. Perhaps we find it a bit uncomfortable; perhaps it makes us feel vulnerable. Yet if we allow ourselves the time and the space to enter fully into the liturgy, we are given an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and ultimately to God.

It all comes down to love. The command to love one another sounds so easy, yet we already know how difficult it can be.  For it is human nature to strike back at the ones who try to hurt us or hurt the people we care about. It’s natural to feel repulsed by evil and immoral acts and think of ways to punish. However, that’s not the mandate Jesus left for the world. Indeed it’s just the opposite. Love everyone, he said, even those who wish us harm; even those who hate us and fear us. Just love one another.

The challenge for us, of course, will always be to discover ways to live that love in our relationships and in our communities and to use this blessed force of goodness in service beyond our selves. This type of agape love is selfless, and always committed to the well-being of others first. To seek out the marginalized and welcome them into our life; to take in in the stranger; to feed and clothe the hungry and the naked; to care for the sick and visit the prisoner – these are the ways we love the world as Jesus did.

Love is more than a fleeting passion or an emotional high. There is freedom in the word “love” but it carries with it a responsibility, a commitment, a sense of dedication to someone, to some principle, some value or truth that we hold dear. It is our relationship to Jesus and our faith in him that will always create the space to love our neighbor in a way that is authentic – in a way that accepts that person fully.

Jesus didn’t give us an easy formula to follow. He didn’t spell out in precise terms exactly how to go about doing this – to love the unlovable; to forgive the unforgivable; to see the humanity in those who act in ways that are inhumane. But he did something even better. Through his life and his deeds and his words he gave us an example, a sign, a clue, a road map to follow.

And so, beginning this Maundy Thursday, my prayer is that we may be generous with our love and deliberate as we live out the mandate to love one another. The words are simple yet they demand our whole life and attention. When we wash one another’s hands or feet; when we share in the body and blood of Christ, may we remember that we are celebrating Christ’s great love for us. And when we leave this place tonight, may we remember to bring that love of Christ to others.

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Crucifying Truth – A Palm Sunday Reflection

Click here for today’s readings.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of welcome, palms waving in the air as a sign of victory.  It was the same way they greeted a king. The way we greet someone who is supposed to vanquish the enemy and save us – a messiah. The problem with this messiah, is that he was a healer, not a warrior.

He pointed to us, his disciples, and tried to teach us how to be healing agents in the world, tried to help us understand that salvation is not about destroying those who are inconvenient to our lives, who trouble us and make us aware of our own complacency and privilege.

Salvation lies in the message of his Sermon on the Mount (transliteration from The Message):

  • you’re blessed when you mourn, when you are at the end of your rope, when you’re content with who you are
  • you’re blessed when you care, when your mind and heart are in alignment, when you can show people how to cooperate instead of fight
  • you’re blessed every time people put you down or speak lies about you because you are pointing to the Truth

Because you are pointing to the Truth.

Thomas Merton was a Christian mystic and poet – a Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.  In his book, No Man Is an Island, he wrote about Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”

He says:
We are too much like Pilate. We are always asking, “What is truth?” and then crucifying the truth that stands before our eyes… [Pilate’s] belief that the question did not require an answer was itself his answer.  He thought the question could not be answered… But even in his denial, Pilate confessed his need for the truth.  No [one] can avoid doing the same in one way or another because our need for truth is inescapable… (189)

 The fact that [people] are constantly talking shows that they need the truth, and that they depend on their mutual witness in order to get the truth formed and confirmed in their minds.  But the fact that [people] spend so much time talking about nothing or telling each other lies that they have heard from one another or wasting their time in scandal and detraction and [slander] and [vulgarity] and ridicule shows that our minds are deformed with a kind of contempt for reality. 

 Instead of conforming ourselves to what is, we twist everything around, in our words and thoughts, to fit [how our own mind needs to see it.  And the seat of this need] is in the will… Our wills are plunged in false values, and our restless tongues bear constant witness to the disorganization inside our souls.”  (190-1)

Merton includes this from the letter of James, “the tongue no [person] can tame, an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison.  By it we bless God and the Father, and we curse [people] who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:8-10)

How can we possibly be so self-righteous as to think that we know who deserves to be cursed?
How can we possibly be so arrogant as not to see the glory of God shine through in every creature, every atom of creation?

The Truth we crucify is that which is inconvenient for us to believe.

  • from the extreme humanitarian crisis in Syria and our culpability in it by denying access of refugees, to the stripping of people’s rights and repealing of environmental protection policies… We would rather not see this.  But we do.
  • from our need for strawberries on our tables in winter which deprives Mexican people of the lands they’ve farmed for centuries and makes it impossible to feed their families, to the continued pillaging of the land and water of native peoples for the convenience of business profit… We would rather not know about this.  But we do.
  • from to the gossip we spread about others so that we feel better about ourselves, to the denial of our own beloved nature and worth… We would rather believe lies about ourselves and others than the Truth.

Merton goes on to say, that in a society like ours, with all the comforts we experience, “life has become so easy that we think we can get along without telling the truth.  A liar no longer needs to feel that his lies may involve him in starvation… Half the civilized world makes a living by telling lies.  Advertising propaganda, and all the other forms of publicity that have taken the place of truth have taught [people] to take it for granted that they can tell other people whatever they like provided it sounds plausible and evokes some kind of shallow emotional response.” (193)

There is Truth.  We know it when we see it.  It’s nothing that we need to brag about on Facebook or seek affirmation for or feel justified about or protect ourselves from.

Truth is Love incarnate – mercy, justice, kindness.
Nothing more, nothing less.

When we protect ourselves from receiving and offering mercy…
When we stop ourselves from striving for justice for all people…
When we prevent ourselves from performing inconvenient acts of kindness…
from believing deeply in God’s love for us…

then, we are the Crowd standing with Pilate in a tomb of death, yelling “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  Crucifying the Truth that stands before our eyes.

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Dry Bones and Forgiveness: Jesus Meets Lazarus in the Tomb

The readings for Lent V can be found by clicking here.

To listen to me preaching, click the “play” button below.  Please note: You’ll hear my voice crack throughout because I find the call to forgiveness to be deeply personal and quite an emotional experience – nothing to be alarmed about.  🙂

From the prophet Ezekiel:
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

The prophets comprise some of the most fantastical poetry and prose in the entire Bible.  Ezekiel’s vision is an example of this tradition.  His vision of a valley of dry bones and God’s commandment to Ezekiel to prophesy to them.  It’s a piece of scripture so rich with imagery, you can almost see it like a movie.  Picture this:

Dry BonesEzekiel is plopped down in a wasteland, the air so thick with dust that the sun is not able to cast shadows, it’s grey and dirty.  Dry – a parched landscape.  The air is still, stifling underneath the cloud of dust that presses down.

And as Ezekiel looks around for something, anything that will give him relief, he steps forward and hears a crunching.  He feels the breaking under his foot and he immediately draws it back in confusion and horror and shock.

He looks down… to discover that the ground, the grey desiccated ground that makes up the entire landscape as far as he can see, is a never-ending sea of bones; dry, brittle – parched of all life.  Long-since forgotten.  Discarded.

Even in his horror, he feels drawn to walk around, fascinated and revolted by what he sees.  Cringing every time he steps on the bones.

And he hears, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
Still sickened and in a state of astonishment and perhaps even outrage, he replies, “O Lord, God, you know.”

Scholars read this vision of Ezekiel’s as a metaphor.
We’ve talked about the Babylonians invasions of Israel before. When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, captured Jerusalem in 597 BC, he took many of the leading citizens of Jerusalem as hostages in Babylon where they were held for 50 years – about 2 generations.  This was a way to prevent revolt in a newly conquered territory and establish control of the territory under the subjugating nation.

Ezekiel was one of the people captured and taken to Babylon.  He was a priest and once captured, became a prophet shortly after his exile.  So, this valley of the dry bones that Ezekiel is plopped in the middle of is the group exiles in Babylon.

In verse 11, God says, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

The vision is one of hope – that they will be restored and that this restoration is a re-knitting of a body – a community of people, who will be brought out of their graves, resurrected from this exile and returned to their homeland.

Verse 14 – God says, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

So, even in the driest, darkest of times, when we have no more life in us, when we are no longer capable of hope… when we have been shut away in our deathly tomb… and we cry out of the depths to God… the message is, that there is, in fact hope.

Even though we are not able to call it up ourselves, even though we have no hope in us… God comes to us, breathing life into us, bringing us back to life.

What remains curious to me is, why does God need Ezekiel?
Because, if it is God who acts, who brings hope and breath and life to us… then what exactly is Ezekiel’s role?
What is important about the fact that God asked Ezekiel to prophesy?
Why does God ask this Mortal to get involved?

As humans, we have great capacity to hurt one another.  We also have an equally great capacity to become healing agents in one another’s lives.

The hurting part is easy.  We do it without thinking.  As a matter of fact, it’s usually because we aren’t thinking – or because we are making thinking errors – that we end up hurting one another to begin with. Sometimes that means we make something up about someone – assign motivation to someone’s behaviors before we’ve checked, and certainly before offering compassion.  These thinking errors always bring hurt to ourselves and ultimately to others when we cannot contain the pain our thinking errors have caused us.Be kind

The healing part, though… that takes more.
It requires a strength that we don’t think we have, a vulnerability that we don’t think we can expose, and a commitment that we don’t think we can make.
In short, healing requires Christ.  And so that means, healing requires us.

Most of Jesus’ ministry was about healing.  Through the healing of individuals, Jesus healed deep wounds in the human race that were and that are still occurring because we continue to make thinking errors.

What was so miraculous about Jesus, and what is so important for us to understand about the Incarnation is this:  Jesus showed us that the capacity to share God’s healing, life-giving breath is very much a human capacity. 

That we have within us, the ability to open our broken hearts to one another even when we think we can’t.  We have the capacity to enable God’s healing, breath of life in our world even when all we see is an endless wasteland valley of dry bones.

But it’s not easy.  Reconciliation, forgiveness, boundless compassion.  These healing capacities that we are called to incarnate are incredibly difficult, sometimes even more so than others.  But they are the foundation for Resurrection – for our resurrection in Christ.

Today Jesus meets Lazarus in the tomb.  It’s a mysterious and fantastical story, much like the work of the prophets.  But the key moment in the entire story is when Jesus turns to Martha and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

This signifies to us the importance of the community and how the community brings Christ’s presence to one another and to the world. This story is not about Lazarus, but about the community who loves Lazarus – because that’s who Jesus responds to.  It’s up to Martha to believe so that Christ may be present.  He answers the call of the community – of Mary and the other Jews, who call upon the presence of Christ and Christ becomes embodied by the community… and the dry bones live again.

It is when we show up for one another – really show up for one another – that we see the glory of God.  We are not only witness to the Resurrection, but we become the Resurrection.

When I read the dialogue between Ezekiel and God, it’s apparent that this is more than just a metaphor for the healing of Israel.  Because Ezekiel is also being challenged personally.  Ezekiel has been hurt, victimized.  He is a marginalized person, held in captivity in a foreign land.

What if God poses these questions to Ezekiel because Ezekiel is so hurt?  Because he is only capable of seeing dry bones?  In his misery, Ezekiel is locked in a tomb of death with those who sinned against him.  All he can see is dry bones.

And so, what if this question, this command that God makes of Ezekiel is about Ezekiel’s transformation, Ezekiel’s redemption and restoration?  Which, ultimately leads to Israel’s resurrection?

It’s as if God is asking, “Are you capable of forgiveness?”
“Are you able to lay down your burden?  To open your own broken human heart?”

And Ezekiel surrenders, “O Lord God, you know.”
Another way of saying, “O God, I have no idea. But I’m going to show up and try.”

Ezekiel sees no health in these bones.  He sees only a wasteland, dismembered remains of bodies.  He sees only death because in his humanity, he is not able to call forth the capability that enables God’s healing to take place.  When this happens, both Ezekiel and his perpetrators are bound together in suffering, in remorse.

Water of Forgiveness

“Water and Forgiveness” by Hali Karla

God asks for one act of faithfulness – to prophesy to the bones, to speak to the bones of Love, to recognize the bones as if they are human, to show up and trust God long enough to see what happens.

God asks for this because God know that without it, both Ezekiel and those who have hurt him, remain bound together in a tomb of death.

I think we sometimes forget that forgiveness is a Lenten discipline – indeed perhaps the most important Lenten discipline.  We are called to forgive as a member of the Body of Christ so that ties of suffering and remorse can be broken and God’s entire body may be reconciled, restored, resurrected.

The point is that by doing the hard work of forgiveness, we are working toward healthy relationships amongst all of God’s beloved children. We are working at healing the world – at transforming the world – one person at a time.

And when we cannot extend forgiveness… when we have no capacity, when all we can see is an endless valley of dry bones, we can hopefully have the presence of mind to remember that we can call on God, out of the depths – to be with us, not to nurse our wounds, but to breathe life and Spirit to our dry  bones, so our own wound may be healed.

Often, forgiveness happens in spite of ourselves.  It opens our heart, if only just a crack.

And perhaps we need to do the work of forgiving our self before we can offer it authentically to an other.  Because, just as we cannot fully love another human without having the capacity to truly love and accept ourselves, we cannot open our broken heart into the compassion it takes to forgive unless have truly forgiven ourselves.

And so, God is always asking us, “Mortal, can these bones live?”

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Guest Post – Deacon Sue Bonsteel

You can read the readings for Lent IV by clicking here.

img_20161029_165133434Every so often I am startled by how unaware I am of my surroundings. There have been times when I get behind the wheel of my car and wonder how I arrived at my destination safely. If you’ve experienced it (and I know many of you have), it’s unnerving.  There’s a name for it – it’s called a dissociative state – a split in awareness between the normal conscious mind and other thought processes. It can range from mild to extreme, from normal to seriously disruptive. An example is when we carry out a normal motor task absent-mindedly – anything from knitting to pulling weeds to driving. We operate on “auto pilot” until something snaps us out of it – a phone call, a neighbor shouting hello, a red light. Dissociative states are very common when highly practiced motor skills are involved. People who work on assembly lines, for example, can let their minds wander and yet complete the task. Have you ever gotten “lost” in a book or a movie; or found yourself daydreaming? These are all normal, short-lived processes. We just “lose touch” with our immediate surroundings.

There are other explanations as to how we distance ourselves from what is around us that have nothing to do with “spacing out,” as we like to call it. Over our lifetime we cultivate practices that enable us to become unseeing people.  The routines we create in our life involving school, work, chores, family responsibilities can cause us to develop tunnel-vision – a single-minded concentration on one thing while ignoring others. So we focus on the task at hand or what is going on in interior selves and lose sight of the world in all its richness. We stop being mindful of the colors and sounds of creation and the diversity around us. Our vision becomes clouded by the repetitiveness of our day.

The risk for each one of us is when we become comfortable in our blindness – when it becomes all we know – and like a cocoon – keeps us protected from the world around us. We withdraw and see little outside our chosen field of vision.

It’s not a great place to find ourselves if our desire is to live fully as God’s own. Just consider the story of the blind man.

Many in the walked passed the blind beggar over the years but apparently few truly saw him. It wasn’t because he wasn’t always there; they knew that he was blind from birth. But it was because those who passed him on their way stopped seeing him as a human being. Rushing off to their destinations, they became increasingly blind to his humanity. Perhaps there was once a time when the community did wonder about him; perhaps they occasionally glanced at him; but before long they developed tunnel-vision and simply stopped seeing him as nothing more than a nuisance.

The disciples saw him – but as a convenient person whose situation made for an interesting theological question to pose to Jesus. They wanted to know: whose fault was it that this beggar was born blind? They asked Jesus, was it is his fault or his parents? Their question comes from a long-held but mistaken assumption that misfortune and illness came into one’s life as a result of some sin. So their concern was not the well-being of this man; they saw him as nothing more than a teaching moment.

In demonstrating God’s power, Jesus healed the man and his sight returned. It was more than the community could handle and so they retreated to what they knew. It was far easier and less dangerous to cling to their own understanding of power and rules and boundaries over the truth before them. They simply refused to see what was right before their eyes.

We can understand this reaction because fear does that to all of us. When we are afraid, our own tunnel-vision keeps us from seeing a larger reality and from living a larger vision. We deny what is right before our eyes and retreat to our old ways of thinking. For the truth is, if we do choose to open our eyes, then we have to confront the blindness within us in all its manifestations. That’s daunting and it can feel overwhelming. Yet if we wish to see God and the richness of life and live with others fully then we must pay attention to what is going on within us. There’s no other way. True sight begins in the heart and not the eyes.

Each of us is the blind man in this story. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest and author, puts it this way: Our sight is not about the quality of our vision or even the condition of our eyes. It is not about the lack of light around us but rather the amount of darkness within us. How we see others, how we see the world, the way we see life is less about the objects and more about our hearts. Until our eyes are opened by Christ, our seeing is just a reflection of ourselves upon the world. These are words worth considering this Lent.

If we wish to see God and live life fully with others then we must look deeply at what is going on within us. And as soon as we begin to acknowledge and accept our own fears and beliefs that live within us, we can begin to understand how they have impaired and distorted our vision. Fear narrows our world view, closing our eyes like the mud Jesus’ places on the blind man’s eyes. And if we cling to our fear, we lose the opportunity for conversion in order to be the Light in a troubled and fractured world.

Let’s put it in the context of something going on in our world now: the past several months there has been a growing movement in our area to confront the cruel deportation of undocumented people from marginalized communities. It’s a fearful time for many of our brothers and sisters; they have reason to feel unsafe due to the harsh rhetoric coming from some of our elected leaders and the constant threats leveled at them. Undocumented people are under attack and are afraid to leave their homes. Latino churches are reporting low levels of attendance. Latino children are showing signs of anxiety disorders, afraid to go to school for fear their parents may not be home when they return. It’s a terrible time for many in our own neighborhoods. Families are being torn apart; many who have no record of criminality. We – the larger community – must not be blind to their suffering. Yet it seems too many of us are.

We’ve all heard these comments: “They are illegal. “ They broke the law.” “They deserve to be deported.”  Our eyes are blinded by our fear. We hear a story of a crime committed by an undocumented person and we begin to see all people of color as threats. The restaurant workers we once greeted with a smile, we begin to ignore. We start making generalizations about the men and women who harvest our food, tend our gardens, and provide cleaning services to our homes and offices and whose children attend school with ours. We become suspicious of all who entered here from our southern border. We have stopped living in God’s world where all are valued and loved and welcomed. Instead, we begin to live in a dark world that we have created in our minds and not our hearts.

It needn’t be this way. We can choose to be people of the Light, with a vision to resist evil in all its forms including racism, sexism, homophobism, Islamophobia and those institutionalized structures that target the vulnerable.

Faithful people everywhere are finding ways to challenge the injustices. There is a resurgence of a Sacred Sanctuary movement throughout the nation. You may have also heard it called Radical Hospitality. To some extent, it is a public reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. It’s a pledge to stand with anyone under attack and to resist the evil that oppresses them. There are degrees of involvement in Radical Hospitality but may include providing safe space, food, transportation, moral and financial support to aid those being targeted as well as those left behind.  It’s a movement modeled after the early Judeo-Christian concept of sanctuary, where persons fleeing persecution could find protection in religious houses. It is a movement also founded on the religious values of compassion and love for all people.

Of course some will find this too difficult, saying this is a political issue and should be addressed by the courts. They may not see it as their concern. But it is, of course, much greater than a political issue. It is a moral issue and people of faith are being called to be moral voices in the wilderness in which we now find ourselves.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs the community to live as children of light; to find out what pleases the Lord; and not to take part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather, to work to expose them. The church therefore is to act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large. This is the challenge all of us face today. These are difficult conversations to have but they need to happen, here in church and in our homes. Our eyes must be opened to the immoral and broken systems in our society that demean the dignity and preciousness of every individual. We need to do our best and perhaps it still may not be enough, but we must try. For if truly we are to be people of the Light, then we must be willing to be changed for the sake of faith. We must be willing to see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be.

This is our work of Lent: to cast off our blindness, and to turn from our old ways of seeing ,that we may help be the Light of Christ that shines in our world today and in the days to come.

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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.”


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.



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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