Category Archives: Sermons

For Dorcas, Rachel, and All Good Shepherds

shutterstock_1084294370Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I’m always a little flummoxed by the day because I’ve never seen a real-live shepherd. I mean, I get it; the job of a shepherds is to take care of sheep. But I’ve often wondered if there couldn’t be an updated version, you know, one that modern people could relate to. I did see a couple examples (forgive the exclusive language):

A Programmer’s Psalm 23shutterstock_705197296

 The Lord is my programmer,
        I shall not crash.
    He installed his software
        on the hard disk of
        my heart;
all of his commands
        are user-friendly.
His directory guides me
    to the right choices for his name’s sake.
Even though I scroll
    through the problems
        of life,
I will fear no bugs,
    for he is my backup.
His password protects me.

An Architect’s Psalm 23

shutterstock_525927412The Lord is my architect,
        I shall not be mis-proportioned.
    He makes me enclose
        beautiful spaces,
he builds me erect in tranquility,
    He restores my
        deteriorated parts.
He puts me together
        to reflect righteousness
    for his namesake.
Though I am overshadowed
    by skyscrapers and cathedrals,
I will fear no evil,
    for you stay attentive  to me;
your pencil and creativity,
    they comfort me.

But they don’t really do the trick, do they? The shepherd image somehow works, even for 21stcentury, urban dwellers. How can that be? Maybe we can get a hint from Allstate. I almost always mute the sound when commercials come on TV. But there are some I actually like. Like the ads for Allstate Insurance that feature a character named Mayhem.Unknown-1

In one, a man is driving in his car and his cell phone starts buzzing. But the phone has fallen and gotten stuck between the seat and the console. As it keeps buzzing, the man keeps trying to get at it. Mayhem, who we can see lying underneath the seats where the phone would be, is goading him on: “Cold, warm, warmer . . .” until BOOM, the driver rear ends the car in front of him. “Jackpot!” exclaims a triumphant Mayhem.

Now, I’m pretty sure you know there’s no man on the floor hiding the guy’s phone – but you get the message. He symbolizes mayhem. Even if you’ve never dropped your cell phone and rear-ended a car as you frantically tried to find, there’s a whole series where “Mayhem” wreaks havoc in someone’s life. It’s a very effective way of tapping into the common human condition – stuff happens. The good news according to Allstate is: you’re in good hands.

Same message as the Good Shepherd. We know that neither God (23rdPsalm) or Jesus (Gospel of John) is a literal shepherd. But like “Mayhem,” the Good Shepherd (the anti-Mayhem?) hits us in the middle of our human condition. We get the message. The good news according to John: we’re in good hands. God cares for us, lovingly, faithfully, consistently. We matter to God. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we see that most clearly. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theo-logical language, is very powerful and moving. The 23rd Psalm is a prime example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” 

Now, today I’m going to focus on women as shepherds. Particularly one woman. In the passage from the Book of Acts, we learned about a woman named Dorcas (Greek), also known as Tabitha (Aramaic). You might recognize the name Dorcas as part of a trio of women commemorated annually on October 25. The official title for the day is: “Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe – Faithful Women.”

Saint_Tabitha
St. Tabitha (Dorcas)

But hold up a minute. Because we’re reading in English, it is very important to know that Luke identifies Dorcas with the Greek word ‘mathetria.’ You might wonder why that’s so important. Here’s why. Dorcas is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.”

Hmm. Isn’t it interesting that “when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry,’ but when Tabitha (Dorcas) performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works .’ 

“Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries (and in some churches, even today).”   Sermon Seeds

Scripture, of course, identifies many women who play important roles of shepherding and leading (even without the designation‘mathetria’).  And they come by it honestly. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as a shepherd, including the feminine aspect,
Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs in your arms, and carrying them in your bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep. 

Shepherds care for the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus followed that job description, and we follow his example. In Jesus’ time, one of the most vulnerable of God’s flock was the widow. In today’s story we know that Dorcas conducted her ministry among the widows of her community. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice.

The frequency of these urgings suggests that God’s will was not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. So what does Dorcas do? She makes clothing for them. In the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on. The emphasis in the story is her discipleship among them. She is their pastor.

An interesting fact is that the town of Joppa where Dorcas lived was where Jonah had 224px-Dublin_St._Patrick's_Cathedral_Ambulatory_Southern_Section_Window_Raising_of_Dorcas_by_Saint_Peter_2012_09_26been called to go to the hated Assyrians. This seems to have been a place where ministry happened on the margins of society. Dorcas ministered with women that society routinely overlooked. They had obviously become a close-knit community. When she died, these women came together to grieve her death – and then miraculously her restoration to life.

This is one of the several ‘restoration to life’ stories in the Bible. They are hard to deal with sometimes because they cause us to wonder ‘why that person and not this person?’ That question was certainly on many peoples’ minds last week after the tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. If you’re not familiar with her, she was the 37-year old mega-popular Christian writer, blogger, and speaker. Her ministry on the margins was with exvangelicals, those who have left evangelical Christianity for a more progressive church. Rachel herself had moved away from being an evangelical Christian to becoming Episcopalian. For many exvangelicals, she modeled the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

Rachel entered the hospital in April with flu-like symptoms, and then had a severe 440px-Rachel_Held_Evansallergic reaction to antibiotics. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma when she developed seizures. When they attempted to wean her from the drugs maintaining her coma, the seizures returned. Her condition worsened in early May and her doctors discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died on Saturday, May 4th, leaving behind her husband and her children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month. I imagine that Mothers Day will not be a happy occasion for them.

And I imagine that the many faithful people who were praying so hard for her recovery – and today hear this story of the restoration to life – will wonder, “why not Rachel; she was every bit the shepherd/minister as Dorcas.”

Sometimes these Bible stories really hit us where we live – and die. I remember the Sunday after ministering to a couple who had lost their baby to SIDS, when the first reading was the story of Elijah restoring life to the son of the widow of Zarephath and the gospel reading was the one in which Jesus brings back the only child of the widow of Nain. It seemed as if the lectionary was playing a cruel joke on us that week

These are the times we really wrestle with our faith and our understanding of scripture. It’s impossible for us to know the mechanics of healing. Living as we do with both faith in the healing power of God and knowledge of modern science, we wonder. When I was a hospital chaplain in Buffalo, NY years ago, there was a patient who had been declared brain dead. There was no possibility of recovery. But her family, all very devout Christians, believed with all their heart that she would be healed – not unlike the Oakland teenager whose family refused to have her removed from a ventilator after being declared brain dead. I know from working with the family in Buffalo the fine line I had to walk between faith and medical science.

So I wouldn’t want us to get so embroiled in these questions that we can’t answer that we lose sight of some truths that we can know. First Dorcas, though raised up by Peter at this point in time, would eventually die. Death is part of our human condition. We take a whole Easter season to celebrate the fact that death does not have the last word, that it is the gateway into life eternal. What we see in all of these restoration stories is the power of God at work through prophets like Elijah, through Jesus, and through some of the shepherds who followed in his path.

But the one I want to raise up today, on this day that we honor mothers and others who give motherly care, is Dorcas: not only ‘faithful woman’ but a mother of the church, disciple, shepherd, pastor.  And all the disciples – women and men – who show us what a shepherd of God’s flock looks like and acts like, so that we can do the same – go out into the margins and care for the most vulnerable of our community. And we do so without fear, knowing we are in good hands – in life and in death. Believing with all our hearts:

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me 
all the days of our lives,
and we will dwell in God’s house forever.

Amen

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room.

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked.

Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them.

Peter first made everyone go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive.

This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.

John 10:22-30

The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Porch, when the Temple authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The work I do in my Abba’s name gives witness in my favor, but you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”

 

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Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

Another Take on “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

This is a re-blog of a sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Toronto. It’s entitled “Letting Go of the Words Attributed to Jesus So that We Can Embrace the WORD – Easter 5A – John 14:1-14”

For me, the best part of the sermon is her story of being paired with a Hindu student for an assignment in a Religious Studies program. They were each asked to bring a piece of sacred scripture from their partner’s faith tradition that they found intriguing. To her chagrin, her Hindu friend brought “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me” to the table. And to her surprise, he then launched into – as she says – “an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Sermon for Lent 3: Radical Welcome vs. Empire

8f8568b69829d70122434ea48fb56d48We’re going to watch another clip from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan or you have no idea what’s going on. Just know that there is an organized resistance to the evil Galactic Empire. Our heroine, Rey, is doing battle against the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, who’s gone over to the Dark Side. And there’s all kinds of mayhem and stuff blowing up. But what I really want you to watch for is the first time Rey, who has lost family and friends in the resistance, meets Princess (now General) Leia Organa, who has lost both her husband and son.    watch clip

Now, I wonder if you can think of a time when have you felt welcomed in such a way, when it was totally unexpected or at least unknown what the reception might be, when you have experienced an extravagant act of welcome, acceptance, and kindness.

What came to my mind when I asked myself this question was my meeting with the church council of North Park Lutheran Church in Buffalo in October 1993. I had just accepted the call to North Park in September. Now, a month later, my marriage, which had been crumbling almost since the beginning, finally toppled. One of the bishop’s assistants was assigned to go with me as I met with the council to see how they would react. This was a former congregation of the Missouri Synod. I would be their first woman pastor, which was risky enough. Would they be able to also accept a divorced pastor? They’d have every right to rescind the call. The silence after the announcement was palpable, but then they began to speak in turn – some about their own divorces, about their sadness of what I was going through, about their support for my continuing ministry with them. There weren’t any hugs – at least not right then – but there were tears. I felt not just welcomed, but radically welcomed.

And that’s our theme for today: Radical Welcome, especially as it relates to our over-arching theme of “Ways of Resistance for Lent and Easter.” You may have noticed that today is supposed to be about “Redemption.” But I’d like to suggest that experiencing radical welcome is indeed an experience of redemption – one that then extends out to others in ways of redemption for the world.

The story of the immigrant Ruth being welcomed into a new community, the story of the religious outsider at the well being welcomed by Jesus, the story of Rey being welcomed by General Organa, my story, your stories of unexpected welcome and acceptance are examples of radical welcome. It’s not just about being nice. It’s a spiritual practice through which we live into the compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God. This vision includes the voices, presence and power of all people — especially those who have been defined as “other,” pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced and closeted — so they can help to shape our common life and fulfill this reconciling dream. It is a form of resistance against the forces of empire, which seeks to exclude and disempower.

I was at Pacific School of Religion this weekend for their annual Earl Lectures. This year’s theme was “Borders and Identity.” I don’t know how far in advance they planned, but the topic is certainly timely now with #45’s desire to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and 10,000 more ICE officers and his threats to target sanctuary cities. All the speakers were excellent. But it was something that Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ (one of the founding congregations of the Sanctuary Movement), said that really stuck with me. She said the most important thing about the movement is stories. And she showed photographs and told stories of people who had been welcomed into sanctuary.

It might seem that our Bible stories and our own stories don’t have the power to go up against the forces of empire. But in fact they do. And telling them is not without risk. Pastor Harrington commented that if you become a sanctuary church you can expect to get phone calls and hate mail. Of course that’s AZ. But radical welcome isn’t just about immigrants. At a church in Portland, OR last month, the pastor’s sermon about “loving otherness” was interrupted by a protestor who began shouting homophobic comments.

In the coming days, as we live further into this recent manifestation of empire, we may be10625088_10152384825811801_5282550587956105542_n called upon to live even more openly and explicitly into the words on our banner: “All Are Welcome.” But we know that the call to extravagant welcome isn’t new. The Bible tells us so. Our own stories tell us so. Even Star Wars tells us so.

When we feel radically welcomed and accepted as beloved people of God, when we feel radically welcomed and accepted by another person or group against all of our hopes or expectations, when we are radically welcoming and accepting of ourselves – we are able to enter into the spiritual practice that allows us to live into that compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God.

We have been redeemed. And we have joined the age-old resistance against the forces of empire.    Amen

 

Ruth 1-4
adapted from http://www.welcomingresources.org/1-HeartsUnbound-Ruth.pdf

With the pain of Exile fresh in their hearts, the Israelites wrestle with how to share their land and their faith with foreigners. Ezra and Nehemiah call for divorce from all foreign wives, specifically naming Moabite women as among those needing to be expelled. In the middle of this wrestling is the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman, whose intermarriage with Boaz keeps alive a bloodline that would otherwise have died out — a bloodline that in just two more generations will produce David, the shepherd-king.

NARRATOR: Long ago, during a famine, Naomi, a Hebrew widow, journeyed with her husband from the land of Israel to the land of Moab, only to have him die there, leaving her alone with two sons. The boys grew up and both of them married Moabite women. But soon both of Naomi’s sons died as well, and she was left only with two foreign daughters-in-law, in a foreign land. Now, to be a widow in your own land in the ancient world was bad enough; to be a widow in a foreign land, tied only to other widowed women – and foreign women, at that – Naomi was truly out of place.

When Naomi learns that there was food again in Israel, she decides to return to her  people. Although her two daughters-in-law initially set out with her, Naomi doesn’t wish them to now be out of place in her land. She urges them to stay in Moab and expresses her hope that they may find security among their own people.

AUTHOR: Wait! You can’t sum it up and leave out the best parts. Think about this: in an almost exclusively patriarchal society I dared to write a short story … featuring women. I dared to think that their feelings and their words might be … memorable. In fact, at least a few scholars wonder whether I might have been a woman storyteller myself to craft such lines for women. This is what Ruth said when Naomi encouraged her to go back to Moab:

RUTH: “Please don’t ask me to leave you and turn away from your company. I swear: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I’ll die there too and I will be buried there beside you. I swear – may YHWH be my witness and judge – not even death will keep us apart.”

AUTHOR: No wonder Naomi relented and welcomed Ruth’s company. These words have been echoed as expressions of fierce friendship – even borrowed for use in weddings – for thousands of years. But remember this too, that Ruth, who makes this stunning pledge of loyalty, is a Moabite. Her people are cursed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which says that no Moabite shall be allowed to join the “assembly of YHWH” not even after ten genera-tions — which is a fancy way of saying “not ever!” And after the Exile both Ezra and Nehemiah insist on breaking up all intermarriages between Hebrew men and Moabite women. Ruth carries some pretty significant ethnic baggage with her, but her loyalty to a Hebrew widow is given an eloquence that makes it a fitting metaphor even for God’s loyalty to us. This is what Naomi had to say . . .

NAOMI: I was blessed by Ruth’s companionship. I knew she’d be an outsider among my people, but as a widow myself, I’d also be an outsider even in my own land. Who can explain the depth of Ruth’s loyalty to me? But who can question such loyalty either? Hers was a gift of grace to me. In a world where widowed women had nothing, we chose to have each other.

NARRATOR: So the two women arrive in Bethlehem, where the relatives of Naomi’s husband lived. The townspeople were abuzz at their arrival. Naomi has been gone for more than a decade – and she had left with a husband and two sons. Now here she is: a widow without children, in the company of a foreign woman. Her fortunes have changed, to say the least. They arrive in town just as the barley is being harvested. Ruth, showing compassion for her mother-in-law, offers to go into the fields to glean barley for them to eat. By chance – or by Providence – she gleans in the fields of Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband.

NAOMI: Why didn’t I go myself? Why didn’t I accompany Ruth into the fields? The story doesn’t say, perhaps I was simply too old. Or perhaps the sorrows of my years had left me too frail to be much help. In any case, Ruth’s gleaning – this care shown to me by a foreigner, my daughter-in-law – is what kept both of us alive.

NARRATOR: When Boaz comes to the field where his workers were reaping, he notices Ruth following behind his workers and asks about her. The servant in charge tells him she’s “the Moabite” who came back with Naomi, and adds that Ruth has gleaned in the field tirelessly all day. In response, Boaz tells her that she’s welcome to glean in his fields — indeed he urges her to glean only in his fields and invites her to share the water he provides for his workers. At the midday break he invites her to sit with the reapers and share their meal. Afterwards, he instructs his servants to allow Ruth to glean even where they have not yet harvested and to toss some extra barley on the ground for her to collect.

RUTH: I was quite overwhelmed by his generosity, and I told him so — while bowing low to the ground in front of him. That’s how we showed deep respect and honor to those whose place in life was far above our own. It wasn’t just that he took his duty to the poor so seriously, but that he offered it so willingly to me, a foreigner. I had expected to be invisible, but he saw me.

BOAZ: Word travels quickly in a small town. Although I didn’t recognize her in the field, I’d already heard about this foreign woman, Ruth, and her faithful companionship to Naomi, the widow of my kinsman. So I was sincere when I said to her, “May YHWH pay you in full for your loyalty! May you be richly rewarded by the Most High God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to find shelter!” In fact, as soon as I spoke my blessing, I was strangely aware it was she who had spread her wings of refuge over Naomi … and that it was I, through the barley in my fields, who was now spreading my wings of refuge around them both.

NARRATOR: Later, Boaz took Ruth as his wife. Naomi was made safe as a member of their household. And in time God blessed Boaz and Ruth with a son.

John 4: 3-30; 39-42
Jesus breaks down the barriers – such as gender, ethnicity, ethics, and religion – that imprison persons and communities. Grace is insidious in its challenge of our prejudice and privilege. Grace overcomes our ethical and religious distinctions of clean and unclean, pure and impure, in and out. The Spirit goes where it will – it can’t be contained by religious orthodoxy, ritual, nationality, or ethical qualification. We can’t wall the Spirit in or out. It is not our possession or ours to control. God’s living waters are for all.

NARRATOR: Jesus and his disciples left Judea and returned to Galilee. The trip took them through Samaria. After a time, they came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat down beside the well for a rest. The disciples ventured off to look for provisions. It was about noon, and before long a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water. Jesus said to her,

JESUS: Would you please draw some water for me, and give me a drink?

NARRATOR: The woman was surprised, for Jews usually refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans.

WOMAN: I can’t believe that you, a Jew, would even speak to me, much less ask me for a drink of water!

JESUS: If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to! Because if you did, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.

WOMAN: Sir, you sit by this deep well, a thirsty man without a bucket in sight. Where would you get this living water? Do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who labored long and hard to dig and maintain this well so that he would have clean water to share with his sons and daughters, his grandchildren, and his livestock? How can you offer better water than he and his family enjoyed?

JESUS: Drink this water, and your thirst is quenched only for a moment. You must return to this well again and again. But the water I offer you is different. I offer water that quenches thirst forever. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within you, giving life throughout eternity. You would never be thirsty again.

WOMAN: Please, give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to keep coming here to get water.

JESUS: Go call your husband, and then come back.”

WOMAN: I don’t have a husband.

JESUS: “You’re right – you don’t have a husband. The fact is you’ve had five, and the one you have now is not your husband. So what you have said is quite true.”

WOMAN: Sir, it is obvious to me that you are a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”

JESUS: “Believe me, the time is coming when you’ll worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you don’t understand; we worship what we do understand – after all, salvation is from the Jewish people. Yet the hour is coming – and is already here – when true worshipers will worship God in Spirit and truth. Indeed, it is just such worshippers whom God seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”

WOMAN: “I know that Messiah – the Anointed One – is coming and will tell us everything.”

JESUS: I am the Messiah!

NARRATOR: The disciples, returning at this point, were shocked to find Jesus speaking with a woman. But no one dared to ask, “What do you want of him?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” The woman went back to the town, leaving her water jar behind. She stopped men and women on the streets and told them about what had happened. And because of her testimony, the village of Sychar was transformed— many Samaritans heard and believed. The result was that, when these Samaritans came to Jesus, they begged him to stay with them awhile. So Jesus stayed there two days, and through his own spoken word many more came to faith. They told the woman,

SAMARITANS: “No longer does our faith depend on your story. We’ve heard for ourselves, and we know that this really is truly the Savior of the world.”

 

Sermon for Lent 2: The Belonging You Seek Is Not Behind You – It Is Ahead

Maz_Kanata-Force_AwakensIt would appear that the quote from biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan didn’t apply to Nicodemus. Crossan famously said, “My point . . . is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

Nicodemus took Jesus literally. When Jesus said, “No one can see the kindom of God without being born from above,” Nicodemus is stunned. He thinks Jesus means he has to somehow get back into his mother’s womb. Imagine what he must have been thinking. Here was this teacher everyone was raving about, the one he – a Pharisee – had sneaked out to see. It was no small risk; as a member of the religious establishment, being affiliated with this rabble-rouser could have been seen as an act of rebellion against the empire.

So he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. And what does he get? This guy Jesus spouting some nonsense about being born again. We’re used to hearing that phrase; we have our own reactions when we hear it. We have to put ourselves in Nicodemus’ sandals to hear his bewilderment. Nicodemus thought that Jesus was telling him that in order to be part of the realm of God he needed to go back to the beginning, back to where he had come from. But that’s not what Jesus meant. Let’s watch a clip from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Listen for what Rey thinks she needs to do and for the advice given to her by the ancient, wise Maz Kanata.   Watch clip

Jesus couldn’t have said it better himself: “The belonging you seek is not behind you – it is ahead.” Not that we don’t remember and honor the past. Knowing from whence we’ve come is an important part of understanding ourselves. But we can’t stay or go back there, as much as we might be tempted or as much as we long for a time gone by.

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler identified seven stages of development in our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, it’s been widely accepted that one of these stages is where many people remain their entire lives. See if you can guess which one.

Stage 1 (birth-2) is characterized by learning the safety of our environment. If we experience consistent nurture, we develop a sense of trust about the universe and the divine. Conversely, if we don’t receive consistent nurturing, the opposite will be true.

The next stage is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. Our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society. Then, when we become school age, we start understanding the world in more logical ways. We generally accept the stories told by our faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. We have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and our images of God are almost always anthropomorphic (with human form and/or human qualities).

Then comes adolescence, characterized by conformity to authority and the development of our religious identity. At this stage, we tend to have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and don’t even recognize that we’re inside a belief system. We rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give us stability. We become attached to the forms of our religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.

The next stage, often begun in young adulthood, is a time of angst and struggle. We start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. We begin to critically examine our beliefs and often become disillusioned with our faith. Ironically, people in the stage before this one usually think that those in this stage have become “backsliders” when actually they’ve moved forward. This stage can end up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.

It’s rare for people to reach this next stage before mid-life. This is when we begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. We begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box.

The last stage is often called a “universalizing” or “mystical” faith. Few of us ever get there. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts. People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns. It’s pretty easy to see Jesus as an exemplar of this stage of human spiritual development.

Can you guess the stage in which many people remain? It’s the teenage stage, where we have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and rely on the institution to give us stability. I’d definitely put Nicodemus in that category. And Jesus was challenging him to grow in spiritual maturity, to move forward into a new way of belonging, to re-formation.

This is the same challenge before us today. Unless you’re one of the few enlightened ones, we’re all being called to move forward into a spirituality that is both mystical and practical. This is where our resistance to empire can be most effective. Our faith can both comfort and embolden us. When our emphasis is less on matters of personal salvation and more on the well-being of the Beloved Community of all God’s people and creatures, we are living into the reality of the kindom of God. After all, “for God so loved the world.”

Jesus said we are born of water and the Spirit. The water of the womb and the breath of life launched us on our way. The water of our baptism sealed us again with the Spirit and ordained us to our life’s mission as followers of Jesus. As each new age requires disciples to respond to the empire of that age, Jesus calls us forward now. Maz Kanata was right; the belonging we seek is not behind us – it is ahead. The Force Awakens is not just the title of a cool movie; it is our response to the movement of the Spirit in us and in our world.

Amen

 

John 3:1-17
The words of John 3:16 are more than a slogan to be put on signs at sports events; they describe the divine intentionality and universality. God loves the world. Salvation touches all creation, embracing our cells as well as our souls. There are no limits, outsides, or impediments to the ubiquitous and graceful providence of God.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can perform the signs and wonders you, unless by the power of God.”

Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer, “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.”

Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!”

Jesus replied:
“The truth of the matter is, no one can enter God’s kindom without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh,  and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.
Don’t be astonished when I tell you that  you must be born from above. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes,  but you don’t know where it comes from  or where it goes.  So it is with everyone  who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How can this be possible?”

Jesus replied, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these matters?
The truth of the matter is,  we’re talking about what we know; we’re testifying about what we’ve seen – yet you don’t accept our testimony. If you don’t believe when I tell you about earthly things,  how will you believe  when I tell you about heavenly things?

No one has gone up to heaven  except the One who came down from heaven –  the Chosen One. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,  so the Chosen One must be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes the Chosen One might have eternal life.

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler identified seven stages of development in our spiritual lives. Unfortunately, it’s been widely accepted that one of these stages is where many people remain their entire lives. See if you can guess which one.

Stage 1 (birth-2) is characterized by learning the safety of our environment. If we experience consistent nurture, we develop a sense of trust about the universe and the divine. Conversely, if we don’t receive consistent nurturing, the opposite will be true.

 

The next stage is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. Our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society. Then, when we become school age, we start understanding the world in more logical ways. We generally accept the stories told by our faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. We have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and our images of God are almost always anthropomorphic (with human form and/or human qualities).

 

Then comes adolescence, characterized by conformity to authority and the development of our religious identity. At this stage, we tend to have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and don’t even recognize that we’re inside a belief system. We rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give us stability. We become attached to the forms of our religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.

 

The next stage, often begun in young adulthood, is a time of angst and struggle. We start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. We begin to critically examine our beliefs and often become disillusioned with our faith. Ironically, people in the stage before this one usually think that those in this stage have become “backsliders” when actually they’ve moved forward. This stage can end up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s rare for people to reach this next stage before mid-life. This is when we begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. We begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols but this time without being stuck in a theological box. The last stage is often called a “universalizing” or “mystical” faith. Few of us ever get there. Those who do live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts. People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns. It’s pretty easy to see Jesus as an exemplar of this stage of human spiritual development.

 

Can you guess the stage in which many people remain? It’s the teenage stage, where we have a hard time seeing outside our religious box and rely on the institution to give us stability. I’d definitely put Nicodemus in that category. And Jesus was challenging him to grow in spiritual maturity, to move forward into a new way of belonging, to re-formation.

 

This is the same challenge before us today. Unless you’re one of the few enlightened ones, we’re all being called to move forward into a spirituality that is both mystical and practical. This is where our resistance to empire can be most effective. Our faith can both comfort and embolden us. When our emphasis is less on matters of personal salvation and more on the well-being of the Beloved Community of all God’s people and creatures, we are living into the reality of the kin-dom of God. After all, “for God so loved the world.”

 

Jesus said we are born of water and the Spirit. The water of the womb and the breath of life launched us on our way. The water of our baptism sealed us again with the Spirit and ordained us to our life’s mission as followers of Jesus. As each new age requires disciples to respond to the empire of that age, Jesus calls us forward now. Maz Kanata was right; the belonging we seek is not behind us – it is ahead. The Force Awakens is not just the title of a cool movie; it is our response to the movement of the Spirit in us and in our world.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genesis 12:1-4

The call of Abram (or Abraham as he later became known) to leave his homeland and migrate to an unknown country is one of the crucial events of the Old Testament. Despite the brevity of the text and the absence of Sarah as an equal protagonist, the passage points to forward looking spirituality. Whether the stories surrounding this migration are tribal legends or actual events, there is no doubt that they became a formative part of Israel’s faith history.  Later generations would look back to this patriarch and see in Abram’s obedience to the divine summons the initial response to God’s covenant with Israel.

 

It is written . . .

 

YHWH said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people, and the home of your parents, and go to a place I will show you. I will make of you a great people. I will bless you and make your name so great that it will used in blessings. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you. And all the people on the face of the earth will be blessed through you.”
Abram, who was 75 years old when he left Haran, began the journey as YHWH had instructed, and his nephew Lot went with him.

 

John 3:1-17

The words of John 3:16 are more than a slogan to be put on signs at sports events; they describe the divine intentionality and universality. God loves the world. Salvation touches all creation, embracing our cells as well as our souls. There are no limits, outsides, or impediments to the ubiquitous and graceful providence of God.

It is written . . .

 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, who came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher come from God; for no one can perform the signs and wonders you, unless by the power of God.”

Jesus gave Nicodemus this answer, “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.”

Nicodemus said, “How can an adult be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb to be born again!”

 

Jesus replied:
“The truth of the matter is,
no one can enter God’s kindom

without being born of water and the Spirit.

What is born of the flesh is flesh,
and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.

Don’t be astonished when I tell you that
you must be born from above.

The wind blows where it will.
You hear the sound it makes,
but you don’t know where it comes from
or where it goes.
So it is with everyone
who is born of the Spirit.”

 

Nicodemus said, “How can this be possible?”

Jesus replied, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you still don’t understand these matters?

The truth of the matter is,
we’re talking about what we know;
we’re testifying about what we’ve seen –

yet you don’t accept our testimony.

If you don’t believe

When I tell you about earthly things,
how will you believe
when I tell you about heavenly things?

No one has gone up to heaven
except the One who came down from heaven –
the Chosen One.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so the Chosen One must be lifted up,

so that everyone who believes the Chosen One
might have eternal life.

Yes, God so loved the world

as to give the Only Begotten One,
that whoever believes may not die,

but have eternal life.

God sent the Only Begotten into the world

not to condemn the world,

but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.