Sunday, April 16, 2017

Encountering Jesus, Absurdities and All

Easter 2017
John 20:1-18

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! 
The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

A few years ago, my oldest daughter went to sleep away camp for the first time.  The drop-off was so much harder than I’d expected.  I was completely comfortable with the place.  She was going to Shrine Mont, the Episcopal retreat center and camp for this Diocese, a place where this parish goes for a weekend every summer and where I’ve been for countless clergy events.  I even knew the camp director fairly well.  But I was nervous.  I was worried that she’d miss us, or get scared, or have a mean girl in her cabin, or feel claustrophobic with the lack of privacy.  And so my stomach was clenched as we awkwardly and fairly silently gathered under the open air pavilion with the hundred or so other families waiting in line to check in their children in.  Waiting to leave them in cabins with perfect strangers and kiss them goodbye and get back in our cars alone.
And just then, there was a commotion behind us.  All hundred families turned to look as a big Toyota Camry with music blaring pulled up.  A young man got out of the back seat of the car and started dancing.  He was followed by a young woman.  And another.  And another.  And as we watched 14 people (I kid you not) got out of that car, each sillier than the one before.  These, it turned out, were our children’s camp counselors.  In just moments, they’d turned a nervous, uncomfortable horde of waiting parents and children into a laughing community in on a joke.  We could see that the people in charge of our children were fun, relatable young adults who cared about each other and would care about our kids (though perhaps lacking in motor vehicle safety).  Through this encounter, we all felt included in the Shrine Mont family.
I think our story this morning invites us into an experience like that.
This group has gathered here at St. Aidan’s this morning for all kinds of reasons.  Some because you are regulars and this is where you’ve found community.  Some because you know yourselves to be on a spiritual journey and have found support for that journey here.  Some because you have questions, or your kids have questions, that you’re having trouble answering.  Some because you were invited by family or friends, and some because you were dragged by family or friends.  Some because it’s Easter and coming to church is a part of what you’ve always done on Easter.  And some are just dipping your toe in the water.  No matter what our reasons, I’m betting that for most of us, they have very little to do with Certainty.  I’m betting that many of us find the Easter story is a hard one to swallow or make sense of.  This is the day when we claim the hardest things to believe: The miracle of life after the horror of crucifixion.  The vanquishing of sin and death. Resurrection.
And then we hear that story from John’s Gospel.  There is so much absurdity in the story we just heard.  A missing body, people racing on and off stage, mistaken identities, bizarre details, needless weeping, and confusion everywhere.  It barely touches any of that big theological, hard-to-believe stuff.  Instead, it lets us laugh at the absurd plot line, and raise our eyebrows at the strange details, and find ourselves in the all-too-human, relatable characters.  This story invites us to encounter Easter through its characters.  
There’s Mary Magdalene, who gets an unfairly bad rap in Christian lore, branded as a prostitute by the patriarchal church who couldn’t stand her importance to Jesus.  Mary of Magdala is the one who is always there, through thick and thin.  She accompanies Jesus during his ministry.  She holds vigil with him at the cross after most of the disciples have run away.  After encountering Jesus, she wrapped her life around his and now she can’t imagine a future without him.  So here she is at the tomb, mourning her teacher and friend, the only one who has ever accepted and welcomed her so fully. 
And there’s Peter, called the Rock by Jesus, though less because of his strength or reliability than because of his hard-headed stubborness.  He is brash and bold and full of shallow certainty.  Waving his arm wildly in the air to be called on by Jesus, wanting to be affirmed, wanting to be right, wanting to join Jesus in walking on water.  But more often than not his boldness becomes blundering.  His desire to be first turns into cowardice.  Just two nights ago, Peter rushed to defend Jesus from arrest by cutting off the ear of a soldier.  But then a few hours later, he denied knowing Jesus three times at Jesus’ time of greatest need and ran away from the cross.  And here he is, racing to the tomb to be the first inside.   
And there’s the so-called Beloved Disciple, unnamed and so the subject of all kinds of interesting theories and conspiracies.  He sat next to Jesus at the Last Supper, followed Jesus to the high priest’s courtyard after his arrest, stood below the cross to be chosen to take care of the Mother Mary.  And here he is, racing to the tomb, silent and observant, an ever-present witness. 
And then there are all of those offstage friends and followers who haven’t come to the tomb.  The ones that stayed back, waiting and worrying, too fearful to be seen in public, too lost to move at all.  But they’re here too, because that’s how this story spread and grew and lived to surround us.
And here are we.  I wonder where you are in this story?  Are you in the racing or the waiting?  The weeping or the fear?  The searching or the silence?  The blindness or the blunder?
Because while this story may leave us with more questions than answers, one thing it makes abundantly clear is that there is no one right way to encounter Easter.
When Mary arrives at the tomb, she’s still in the darkness.  For Mary, Easter doesn’t arrive with the empty tomb - to her, that just seems like evidence of more tragedy.  But she is determined.  She stubbornly stays at the tomb, asking questions of everyone she meets.  Even when Jesus is right in front of her, Mary doesn’t recognize him at first.  It’s only when he calls her by name that Easter arrives for Mary.  Though even then, she misinterprets him, understanding him to be a resuscitated version of his old self.  She thinks Jesus has somehow cancelled the cross, turned the clock back, and that she can return to the way it was before, when she accompanied him in his ministry.  She is ready to wrap her life around him once again.  But Jesus tells her that she can’t hold on to that version of him, or to that version of herself.  It won’t be as it was before.  Everything has changed.  God doesn’t remain inside the boundaries we set.  So Mary has to let go of what she thinks she knows, let go of the way it used to be, let go of her dreams of how it could have been, in order to move forward.
Maybe, like Mary, we encounter Jesus in the midst of our despair.  Or by stubbornly asking questions.  Or by hearing the echo of a familiar voice calling us by name.  Or maybe we encounter Jesus only as we let go of some old understanding of Jesus or faith or ourselves or our future in order to enter into the possibility of what God can do.
Or maybe we’ll be more like Peter.  I don’t think Easter arrives for Peter until after this story.  A week or so later when he is out fishing and the Risen Jesus gives him three chances to profess his love, redemption for Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus before his death.  Peter encounters Jesus when he experiences the forgiveness that he needs to recover from all the ways he hasn’t lived up to his own impossible standards. 
Maybe, like Peter, we encounter Jesus in an experience of forgiveness.  When we have a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us - beloved and accepted, foibles and all.
Or, maybe we’ll be more like the Beloved Disciple, for whom the empty tomb and cast-off burial cloths are enough for Easter to arrive.  In that moment, we are told, the Beloved Disciple believed even though he did not yet understand.  His belief wasn’t one of following a Creed or subscribing to some approved litany of theological statements.  His belief was all about giving his heart, entrusting himself to Jesus, and being comfortable with sorting out what it all meant as he went.  I’m sure he still had plenty of questions, plenty of uncertainty, plenty of doubt along the way.  The God we encounter, the Easter stories that matter most, are “too big and mighty to be encompassed by certainty.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)  
Maybe, like the Beloved Disciple, we will encounter God in a belief of heart made possible even before we understand, in some moment of trust that goes against rationality, in some quiet confidence that makes sense only to us.
For me, the greatest promise of Easter is that Jesus shows up in the absurdities of our stories, in the bizarre details of our lives, in the ridiculous characters that are US.  God meets us where and as we are.  It isn’t guaranteed that we will understand, or that it will all make sense, or that it will go a certain, comfortable way.  We are just promised that encounter is all around us.  However and whenever we arrive at the empty tomb.  Early or late, breathless or plodding, excited or weary, joyful or weeping, eager or cynical, certain or dubious.  Right here is where we start.  Easter isn’t the end of the story for Mary Magdalene, for Peter, or for the Beloved Disciple.  And it isn’t the end of the story for any of us.  Easter is only the beginning.
When it was time to pick my daughter up from Shrine Mont camp that summer, I went to the camp’s closing ceremonies.  After great music and prayers and a Eucharist, we all turned and faced the mountain and a few of the kids led us in the Shrine Mont shouting prayer, which is a pretty good Easter message in itself, so we’ll end that way too.  You just shout back what I say:
Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  

The Lord is Risen indeed!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blindness and Sight: A Co-Preaching Conversation

March 26, 2017
John 9:1-42

Another sermon conversation between John Baker and I.  We split the long Gospel reading into parts and took turns preaching about those parts.

v. 1-7
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Before we go any farther, I have to say a word or two about that line that probably just stopped many of us from hearing what came next.  Did Jesus really say that the man was born blind so God’s works might be revealed?  Did he really suggest that bad things happen so God can make a show of fixing them?  Well that’s the way John wrote it, and yes, hearing that line is like stubbing the same sore toe again when we hear it while conscious of a loss, or while living with hard news.  The line raises for us the consuming question of why bad things happen in a world created by a good God.  But I don’t think that is where John wanted to take us.  I think his homiletics professor would call him on that line.  Nothing else in this long passage suggests he wants to talk about why bad things happen.  It is, rather, a treatise on light and darkness, seeing and blindness. And if any side point is intended by John it is the one we may have just missed where he says that tragedy and troubles are not caused by sin.  I think he is telling us that every trouble we face is an opportunity for God to become present in some new,  creative, and life-giving way.  I hope that message wasn’t lost in that clumsy bit of wording.  I hope that you hear how big the scope of this story is.  It is the story of one man being healed, yes, but being healed not be the light of one man, but by the light of the world.  The gift of restored sight made possible by John’s Jesus is for every one of us.

v. 8-12
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

First, it was the blindness of this man that made his neighbors uncomfortable.  They were afraid of the sin and judgment they thought might be attached to him.  And I'm guessing he was also a reminder of how tenuous and fragile life can be.  Beyond that, he was a reminder of their own selfishness.

And so rather than including him as part of their community, they relegated him to begging on the outskirts.  That way they could keep him safely at a distance; feel sorry for him rather than having their theology, optimism or morality challenged by him.

But then, he was healed.  And they found that he still made them just as uncomfortable.  They had seen this man all of their lives as incomplete and disabled and sinful.  That was who he had become to them; they couldn’t imagine him any other way than as the Man-Born-Blind.  To these neighbors, his disability defined him.
And so it was easier for them to deny or explain around his healing than it was to change their way of thinking.

I wonder who makes us uncomfortable?  Maybe because of skin color, or country of origin, or physical ability, or education level, or political persuasion... or something else completely.  Whatever it is, whoever those people are, I wonder how might our imaginations need to expand to see people as fully as God sees them?

v. 13-17 
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Jesus is not easily pinned down.  He doesn’t observe the sabbath…..and he performs amazing signs.  He doesn’t follow the rules….and he is good.  He can’t possibly be from God…and he can’t not be from God.   We love to draw boundaries, we can not easily imagine a God who works outside the expectations we have established based on some earlier understanding of God. I sing a song with the day school children called God is Surprise.  That’s the chorus.  One of the verses says, “the people of Israel were looking for a king, God would save that way and freedom bells would ring, along came Jesus a man who’s poor and meek, that couldn’t be our God they said, he’s nothing but a freak….well surprise, surprise….  I learned that song when I was a teenager in a time when long haired, flower carrying, herb imbibing kids like me who scoffed at the rules were called freaks.  I like the idea of a Jesus who challenged the old ways of understanding things.  Of course I have now lived long enough that I often discover how crusted over my understanding of God has become. I sometimes find a Jesus I don’t expect challenging my views and operating outside my comfort zone…in my life!

Prophets are commissioned by God to carry God’s message to the people, to be God’s agents in the world.  Prophets get a lot of grief because the message is seldom what was expected.  

v. 18-23 
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

There are so many people in this story reacting to the healing of the man born blind.  His neighbors, the pharisees, and now his own parents.  You’d think at least some of these people would be cheered by his healing, be thrilled for him!  But in one fell swoop, we see that what should be this man’s entire support system fails.  And maybe his parents fail the most egregiously.  

I can only imagine what it must have felt like for those parents when they realized that their newborn baby was blind.  The hopes and dreams for him that must have slipped away.  The worries for his future that must have weighed so heavily.  And so it’s particularly hard to hear their utter lack of enthusiasm for his healing.  All we hear from them is fear for their own safety.  They know that to be identified with this healing is to be identified with Jesus.  And to be identified in any way with Jesus was to risk being rejected themselves.  And they’d seen up close and personal with their son the isolation and loneliness that entailed.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus provokes crises.  Once someone meets Jesus, they have a decision to make.  And playing-it-safe, middle-ground, not making waves decisions don't come out looking very good.  One of the reasons I love John's Gospel is because of these stories that are so easy to imagine ourselves into.  Stories with plenty of characters that we can identify with.  Which gives us the opportunity (and the challenge) to make these decisions right along with the folks in the stories.  Because these decisions aren't just in this story or back then.  These decisions are for us, right now.  God is on the move — he's got mud and spit on his hands and he's reaching out to us.  Will we plunge into the pool of Siloam -- the pool of the Sent -- or not?

v. 24-34 
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

The hard truth is that too often we don’t want the very good we claim to be seeking.  We reject some good thing that has come our way because we don’t recognize the package in which it arrives.  We prefer our old brand of faith, of church, of the story.  We cling to our addictions, our old hurts, our assumptions about whom we can trust.    And a sure sign of our being stuck in some bit of life that isn’t good for us is how quickly we condemn those who try to show us another way, like Jesus.  There is a reason this story is told in Lent.  Jesus is presented here as the “light of the world” and light sounds good, surely it is better than darkness, but we hear that we can be ambivalent even about the good that comes our way.  John always challenges us to think about whether we really can welcome the light.  Do we really want it?  It is funny how even pain can become so comfortable that we attack those who suggest that we might not have to live with it anymore.  Because he said, “I see,” they drove him out.

v. 35- 42
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Even as his persecutors entrench themselves more deeply in their blindness, the man-born-blind grows continually in his sight.  And not just his physical sight.  That was just the beginning.  His vision keeps improving:
from calling Jesus “the man” 
to thinking he must be a “prophet” 
to realizing Jesus is “from God" 
to giving him the Messiah’s title “Son of Man” 
to worshipping him as “Lord.”  

This man is help up as a model of faith, a model of discipleship.  In his openness to new ways of seeing God.  In his openness to God acting in his life and in the world.  And in his openness to seeing himself as a sign of God's transformation in the world.  

But what I really love about this story is how this man tells his story.  He doesn’t really understand what happened.  It isn’t something he can rationally explain.  He can't suddenly espouse a creed or explain a system of theology.  He only knows that he is changed.  “I was blind, but now I see,” said this man, simply.  His healing has become part of his self-definition:  He is no longer the Man Born Blind; he is now the Man Who Can See.  

I wonder if we are as open to seeing God in new ways?  To seeing God at work - in us and in the world around us?

And I wonder if we know ourselves to have the potential to be signs of God’s transforming work?


Monday, March 20, 2017

The Samaritan Woman - a co-preaching conversation

Because this Gospel reading is so long, John and I decided it would be fun to preach it as a conversation.  We broke the reading into six parts and took turns both reading the scripture pieces and preaching after each.  I'm including the reading pieces below to help give context for the preaching.

John 4:5-9
       Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 

Right before this reading John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is heading to Galilee, but he has to pass through Samaria to get there.
That’s the kind of place Samaria is.  An undesirable place you have to pass through to get to where you really want to go.
Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and although the Samaritans and the Jews were distant cousins, there was no love between them.  Samaritans were seen as ritually impure by the Jews — too close to the pagans and incorrect in their worship.  As we heard in our reading, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”
And yet, here is Jesus.  He’s resting in the heat of the day by the Samaritan well where low class women and servants come to get water.
And here comes this woman, this nameless woman who is not only part of the despised Samaritans but also disrespected because she is a woman and has a less than reputable personal life.  She is coming to the well to complete one of the most tedious of daily chores, lugging her heavy clay water jug, kicking up dust, sweating in the noon day sun.
Jesus is right here.  In this undesirable kingdom, with this disreputable woman, in this place of tedium.  God shows up.  This kingdom, this woman, this ordinary activity — It’s all worthy of God’s love and care.
There’s both hope and challenge.  Hope - because that means God can be found anywhere, with any of us, in the midst of whatever we are doing, however ordinary.  It’s all worthy of God’s love and care.  But also challenge - because I’m guessing God wants our love and care to stretch that wide too.
John 4:10-15
       Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”   

       It is so easy and so common to look first outside ourselves for what we think we need.  Think of the consumer market where, as Jackson Brown tells us, “the ads take aim and lay their claim to the hear and the soul of the spender”….. It is so common to believe that something out there can fulfill our desires, heal our hurts, make us whole.  It is common also to believe that something or someone out there is the source of our pain, our discontent.  Jesus often countered that idea.  You hear it in story after story.   “It’s not what we take in from outside that gives us trouble, but what comes from inside.”  God can make ancestors from these stones…..your salvation lies not in your lineage, but in your own heart.”  Jesus travels around Palestine working as a psychologist, teaching people to look for answers in their own lives, their own motives, their own stories before trying to explain the troubles or the sins of other people.  When Jesus encounters people pointing fingers at others he always led them back to their own situations, their lives.  That, says Jesus, is where they should be looking.  The answer lying inside is true, not only for what troubles us, but for what makes us whole as well.  Jesus tells this woman that she will find goodness within her that will fill her and sustain her and leave her refreshed.

John 4:16-26
       Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is his longest recorded conversation with anyone in the Bible.  
In this incredible back and forth between these two Jesus reveals his true self: “I am the Christ,” he says.  Something he hasn’t even told his disciples.  
And, we learn more about this woman than we do about most of the disciples! 
This unnamed, disreputable Samaritan woman has been excluded from proper religion because of her life circumstances.  But Jesus bothers to know her anyway.  He talks to her and listens to her and responds to her questions.  Maybe for the first time in her life, this nobody of a woman feels like she matters.  With Jesus she is able to share what is on her heart, to speak about God and her deep yearning for a different life.  For the first time, she begins to really know the God that she has always assumed was distant and Other and judgmental.
What parts of ourselves have we been too afraid to share with God?  How are we separated from God by our untold truths?

John 4:27-30

       Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.  

       I don’t know much that is harder than living with stories that can’t be told.  Stories that we are afraid of others finding out.  We have all done it, lived with such stories, and some of us live those stories much of our lives.  It is the same with fears, fears that often that have no grounding.  It is easy to worry about what others might think, easy to worry that scary things we don’t even know to be true about ourselves but might be.  Maybe I’m not as competent as I think I am.  Maybe that trouble really was my fault.  Maybe that bad thing I did year ago is coming back to haunt me. We have all been in the position of trying to look like we really have it together when deep inside we are pretty sure we don’t.  That can be an awful place to live.  
       Nothing can feel better—when we are finally ready to let go of our fearful secret— than the gentle laughter of a kind soul who, upon hearing it says with a caring smile, "You’ve been worried about that?" It can be like a warm spring shower that refreshes the flowers brightens the sky when it passes.  Everything changes.  The moment is a little resurrection.  Life begins again.  

John 4:31-38
       Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

        When Jesus sat down by the Samaritan well he was exhausted by his journey.  Maybe he was also exhausted by disciples who even after all the time they’d spent with him still understood God’s kingdom as being too small to include someone like this Samaritan woman.
But now, after his conversation with this woman, he is rejuvenated.  This conversation has nurtured his soul just as surely as hers.  For Jesus, being in relationship with people - maybe especially people that have been discounted and judged - and helping them explore their longing for God is as filling and nurturing as food.
The disciples are suspicious and jealous, but Jesus invites them to rejoice instead, Sower and Reaper together.  How might God be calling us to spread the kingdom in unusual ways and to rejoice in that work?

John 4:39-42
        Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  

       We are to experience God for ourselves.  Not rules or formulae or creeds, but experience.  What leads us to the point where we want to go see for ourselves is not preaching about what we should do or claims about what God wants us to do, but stories we tell about having met Jesus in our lives.  I may not want to hear about your religious ideas, but if you tell me how excited you are about painting the walls of the house your community is reading for a family of refugees I may feel drawn to join you.  We don’t talk that much about spreading the gospel but we do it in the best way possible.  We tell our stories and some of those who hear our stories decide to come find out for themselves.  When we ask why people are at St. Aidan’s the answer is often about having found a community that accepts us where we are and welcomes us.  Many of us can tell about the person in this community who told us about this place and who was glad to see us come out and see for ourselves.  
       The end of this story about a chance meeting is the story of Christianity.  It is the story of one who is stirred by an experience of Jesus and who tells the story to others who want that sort of experience themselves, people who in the end can say I believe because of what I have found in Jesus’ presence.  You story was good and I thank you for it, but now I have my own story to tell and that will carry me from here.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Being Salt and Light, in 5 sermons, or more

February 5, 2017
Matthew 5:13-20

I wish that our Gospel reading today was about Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.  Because instead of having 5 husbands, I have 5 sermons, and my present sermon is not really my sermon.  
But instead today we get Jesus talking about salt and light.  And in the end, maybe that’s just what I needed to hear.  Maybe it’s just what we all need to hear right now.  It just might take some time working on it to get to the point where we can begin to figure out what to do with it.
“You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells the crowds gathered before him.  Or, from another translation, “Let me tell you why you are here.  You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth….  You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.”
The light part sounds familiar, we’re used to hearing, singing, praying about light.  And we know what light does.  It allows us to see, produces warmth, creates growth and energy.  It’s a symbol of wisdom and joy and goodness.  It’s also an important metaphor for the people to whom Jesus spoke.  The people who were called to be God’s light to the nations.
Salt is a less familiar metaphor.  In Jesus’ day, salt wasn’t just used for seasoning.  Back before refrigeration, it was used to preserve food.  It was also an antiseptic, used to cleanse wounds.  And salt was a sign of hospitality and friendship. Eating salt together at the table was an expression of fellowship and peaceful relations.  Salt was also intimately involved with their religious experience.  Salt was part of every Temple offering and sacrifice because it symbolized the covenant between God and Israel.
So salt and light.  And we, the crowds gathered around Jesus a few millennia later, are included in this too.  We, too, are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
And at first hearing, I thought that seemed easy enough.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that recent months have made abundantly clear how hard it is to be salt and light.  Because we aren’t alone in this endeavor.  Other people are involved, and sometimes other people can make it tricky to be salt and light. 
In particular, for me, my task as a preacher has gotten a whole lot harder in the last couple months.  In the old days, I would sit with the readings for the week and it wouldn’t take long to figure out the piece that was calling me.  I would research and pray and imagine and before long I knew what angle I was going to take and, pretty soon at least, what story or modern application I could use to make it real.  Hopefully, my sermon would inform, or inspire, or challenge you in some way.  And all would be well.  But recently, my sermon work has been agonizing.  And this one was the worst so far.  Because in order to talk about salt and light, I had to figure out what it means for me to be salt and light.  And that is no light task right now.
Thankfully, John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon who was bashed and bloodied in the march toward integration, has been with me for my process this week, and he has been a great imaginary companion in my weeklong struggle.  His interview with Krista Tippett re-aired recently in honor of Martin Luther King Day and I’ve been thinking about it all week.  He was very helpful as I worked on my five different sermons for this morning.
My first sermon was about our call as Christians in the public square in our current national atmosphere.  I came out of our Diocesan Convention last week fired up by our bishops’ willingness to get arrested to protect the vulnerable.  I thought it would be fun to imagine and write a top ten list of God’s executive orders.  Starting, perhaps, with God’s executive order to the people of Israel once they finally made it into their own land: You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  
As I swirled ideas in my head I thought about the piece in John Lewis’ interview when he talks about growing up surrounded by segregation and racial discrimination.  “I didn’t like it,” he said.  “And I would ask my mother and my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why. They would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’”  But that advice didn’t work for Lewis.  Because, as he explained, “attending church and Sunday school, reading the Bible, the teaching of the Great Teacher,” he knew that “the way it is” had to change.  There are some things that our faith compels us to work to change.
The problem with this first sermon was that thinking about all the things in the world that need work, and all the ways we aren’t living up to God’s call, ended up completely stressing me out.  If this is going to be substance, rather than just rhetoric, there is so much big work to do in the world and that makes me feel incredibly powerless and a little desperate.  And I didn’t want to leave you all feeling that way too.  And so that inspired my second sermon about the worry and anxiety I’ve been feeling myself and seeing in others over the last few weeks.  I’ve had a constant onslaught of emails and social media reminders to make phone calls, sign petitions, attend meetings, write postcards.  As a politics major whose first career plan was to be the first woman president (which is still possible, I might note), I love witnessing the level of civic engagement growing in our country.  But, for some reason I find that the more I do, the harder it is to imagine that what I do makes a difference.  I find myself more cynical than I used to be.  Which I really don’t want to be.  
So I loved what John Lewis had to say about that.  He said the core of his action was always “this belief that somehow and some way things were going to get better, that you had to have this sense of hope, a sense of optimism, and have faith. You have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.… You just have to find a way to make it real.  If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe — not maybe, but it would happen in somebody’s lifetime.  But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time.”  In other words, we must, as faithful people, live as if the dream of God is already real.
The problem with that second sermon came when I remembered that today would be Scout Sunday and so there would be people here who didn’t already love me and give me the benefit of the doubt and so might not hear the Gospel shining through either of these first two sermons as much as they’d hear judgment or politics.  And so my third sermon was about how we need to learn to speak to each other differently and listen more gently, more spaciously, than perhaps we have gotten used to doing.  I’m guessing that you, like me, are inundated with angry rhetoric and reactionary us-them talk, especially on social media.  Trenches are being dug all around us, full of accusations and shoulds and judgment.  A friend of mine received a bomb threat yesterday because of what I would have said was a pretty mundane tweet.  I’ve seen seminary acquaintances accusing each other of losing sight of the Gospel.  The scorn and contempt and demonization of the Other is making dialogue harder every day.  Where can all of that possibly lead but down?  
But John Lewis has advice for us here, too.  “In the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being….  [W]hatever you do, whatever your response is, is with love, kindness, and that sense of faith. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
The problem with my third sermon became evident when it led to a heated discussion with my husband who reminded me that many people aren’t in a place where they can hear that message as anything but Pollyanna nonsense.  (Except his words weren’t quite so polite.)
And so my fourth sermon was about how hard this call we have as Christians is to be salt and light.  That this Christianity business isn’t for wimps.  That Jesus and his disciples had hard lives and we are called to the serious work of discipleship.  And that it won’t come quickly or easily but is a calling that we grow into over our lifetimes, if we’re lucky.  And that probably if we think we have it figured out and it’s going swimmingly, we are headed in the wrong direction.
And John Lewis spoke to that too.  “First of all, you have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence…. [It’s] love as steadfastness.  Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls.” 
The problem with my fourth sermon was, I’m sorry to say, my complete lack of authority to speak as if I know what I’m talking about.  My Christian life has always been fairly easy.  I’ve never had to give up much for it.  I get paid to be a Christian.  I have the best job on earth, with a rector who supports me as I figure out my ministry, and a parish that forgives me just about anything, as far as I can tell.  Who am I to preach about how much Christianity requires of us?
And then, just as I was starting to think there was no way to make any of this work, and beginning to imagine myself up here reading you all The Butter Battle Book or something, it hit me that these four sermons are all one.  These four sermons are the slow, hard, frustrating work of me figuring out what it means to be salt and light in this complicated, nuanced, fraught time we are living in.  Tensions are high, fears are real, relationships can easily be upended, our words and actions have consequences, and that’s exactly why being salt and light matters now more than ever.  Our faith is critically relevant to our walk in the world.  And we are in the midst of learning as we go how to walk in love, just as Jesus’ disciples did in their time, and John Lewis and his compatriots did in theirs, and as Christians throughout the ages have had to do in their own times and places.  How we go forward together is part of how we live as salt and light.
And maybe at this moment figuring out what that looks like is the most valuable gift we can give the world. 
Because, when you think of it, both light and salt get their value largely because of their relationship to other things.  The way they transform or affect something else.  Our calling to be salt and light isn’t something we do within ourselves, or something we do only with people that agree with us, or with people that make our lives easier.  Our salt-seasoning and light-bearing mostly happens out there, amongst other unpredictable people, in the wide, diverse, unruly world.  
And it isn’t even optional, not really.  Jesus doesn’t tell us we ought to be salt and light.  He tells us we already are salt and light.  That is who we are created to be.  Each one of us is of great value – and we are created to give our distinctive flavor and bring our unique light to all of our lives, so that by our presence and witness we transform the world around us.  We are created to live courageously and generously.  No matter what we do or where we live or who we know, this is our vocation, our identity.  To show God to the world and to help the world see the way out of fear and hatred.

But that’s another sermon.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Adventure of a Lifetime

January 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23 

We are now several weeks into the filler season.  It doesn’t even have its own name; we just call it The Season After Epiphany.  The miraculous stories of Christmas are over and we have ages before anything exciting happens.  There’s a whole month and a half until Lent when we start getting ready to come close to the mystery of Easter.  So here we sit in this in-between time, which the Church used to call Ordinary Time.   Which certainly doesn’t sound very exciting, but at least it’s honest.  
But we’re in luck, because today we are being invited to escape this ordinary time and head out on an adventure! 
Today we see disciples-to-be Peter, Andrew, James and John doing what they did before Jesus - casting and mending their fishing nets.  The waves are lapping at the shore, the stench of yesterday’s catch still lingers.  They are in the midst of their ordinary world, with their ordinary relationships and responsibilities. 
And then Jesus walks by and sees them.  “Follow me,” he calls.  And after that, nothing will ever be the same.
I love these stories about Jesus calling his disciples.  I love that he finds these unremarkable people in their mundane places and invites them to join him just as they are.  I find these stories so easy to relate to, with these imperfect, foible-laden disciples.  I can imagine myself into these stories more easily than some of the more miraculous stories of Jesus’ ministry.
And so I was thrilled when I was reading about this passage and came across a writer who mentioned that Joseph Campbell would have talked about this moment of Jesus’ coming upon the disciples and inviting them to follow him as the disciples’ Call to Adventure.  The moment when something shakes up their ordinary world and invites them to some kind of change.
This definitely caught my attention.  I love adventures!  I’m constantly proposing adventures to my kids when we have a free day.  It might be a new waterfall, a hike in the woods, an interesting installation of wacky art, or a picnic.  Anything that is outside our ordinary routine, that makes us get out of the house and try something different.  Apparently, I propose adventures so often at home that it has become something of a joke.  On a day off recently, my son Dylan asked if I was going to make them go on one of my “adventures.” (He even used the air quotes.)  
So, I say, lucky for Peter and Andrew and James and John!  They are being invited on the adventure of a lifetime!  And better yet, we already know they say yes and it changes everything for them!
This is just what we need right now too, don’t you think?  To escape the dreary weather, the political climate, our fears of the world.  To run away from everything and head out on an adventure that will make us forget it all!  To break free from the Ordinary!
Yesterday I brought my older daughter for an adventure into DC for the Women’s March.  
We wore our St. Aidan’s “Walk in Love” shirts and joined the throng of folks gathered on and around Independence Avenue.  
It was neat to be there in the sea of pink, reading the clever signs, listening (when we could hear) to the urgings of a slate of famous women.  There were more curse words and R-rated references than perhaps are ideal for my 13-year old, but there wasn’t a single person to be found that was anything but joyful, kind, helpful and friendly.  Walk in Love seemed to be the theme of the day for more than just Sophie and I.  While inspired by events of the recent past, the focus was largely on the future — how could we stand together to protect women, children, people of color, immigrants, gay people, the environment.   It was definitely an adventure, and I was glad to be there, but when it was all over, I couldn’t help wondering whether it would eventually mean anything.  Would it be more than some pretty incredible photos in the next day’s newspaper?  Would all of these well-intentioned, caring people be up for more than a one-day adventure?  Would we be able to really delve in to work on the harder but perhaps less inspiring everyday challenges that await us? 
That is always the rub of an adventure.  Even for a total adventure seeker like me, my interest sometimes lags and my enthusiasm depends on what kind of adventure it is and how long it takes.  
My chosen adventures are interesting, but fairly safe.  I want a fun chance to explore and learn new things, but I’d sort of like to eventually come back pretty close to where I started.  I prefer an adventure that I have some control over.  One I can prepare and plan for with the right maps and snacks and water bottles.  Truth be told, my kind of adventures give plenty of fun memories and great photos and some fodder for my journal — but they don’t completely upend things forever.
So I have to admit that many of the “adventures” in the Bible aren’t always the kind I’m looking for.  Like the adventure Moses had leading the people in circles in the desert for 40 years. 
Or like the adventure Jesus had in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  
And, when I think about it, maybe even like the adventure these disciples begin in our story today - leaving their families and careers and homes and creature comforts and pretty much everything they have to start out on an unknown path with a fairly unknown guy.  If we’re honest, probably few of us would envy them the adventure they end up on.
Maybe, in truth, today’s story isn’t offering so much an escape from the ordinary, but a delving more deeply into it.  Like last week’s story, where Jesus asked two disciples-to-be what they were looking for and invited them to “come and see.”  I don’t think any of these disciples when they met Jesus knew what they were looking for or what he had to offer.  Maybe they just had a feeling they were missing something.  Or had a feeling they weren’t quite the person they were created to be.  Maybe they longed for something they couldn’t quite put their finger on.  And then they met this person who was unlike anyone they’d ever met.  Who met them where they were and loved them as they were and just by his example and his presence called them to be more and better than they ever imagined possible.  Who upended their lives completely - not to make them easier, or safer, or more fun, but to make them deeper and more meaningful and life-giving.
Maybe this ordinary time is when the real work happens.  When we delve in to the truly life-changing adventure that never ends.  The call to adventure isn’t just for Peter, Andrew, James and John, but for all of us modern disciples.  Maybe this is when today’s story really starts in earnest, for all of us.  Jesus isn’t asking for us to make some once-and-done grand show of fealty but to shake up our ordinary world by continuing to do the hard work of walking in love with each step every day.  This is the only way to make any headway to the place where we long to be -- the place of our deepest desires and most daring hopes, the place where there is justice and peace among all people and the dignity of every human being is respected.
The disciples had the courage and wherewithal to keep coming and seeing, to keep following.   To continue their daily walk on this completely different kind of adventure, without really knowing where it would lead them.

I wonder if we do too?