Sermon: Lament leads to hope (Feb 18, 2018)

Lent 1 (NL4)
February 18, 2018
John 11:1-44

INTRODUCTION

The raising of Lazarus is one of the most famous stories about Jesus. It is, of course a story about God’s glory and power. In fact, God’s power is so apparent in this story, that it is what finally moves the Jewish authorities to arrest Jesus – they feel that Jesus is a threat to their power. Immediately following this miraculous sign, they begin to plot Jesus’ death. It is an amazing moment, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb!

But today, as we begin our Lenten focus on healing and wholeness, we would be wise to consider what comes before that moment of glory. Just like the story of the man born blind that we heard last week, the actual event of the raising of Lazarus only takes a couple verses, at the very end. Most of the 44 verses we are about to hear are dedicated to the events and feelings of the surrounding circumstances: in particular, two devastated sisters and their friends, grieving, weeping, and even assigning blame in order to make sense of this tragedy. As you hear the story, take note of those feelings. Consider whether you have ever felt such feelings in the face of tragedy. And, consider what God can do with those feelings. Let’s hear the story.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            When we decided last fall that this year for Lent we would focus on healing, we knew it was a timely choice. We all have various sorts of brokenness in our own lives, whether that is an active illness or injury from which we seek healing, or painful relationships, or past hurts that we are still trying to work through. And we all have heavy hearts about the state of the world right now, whether your concern is with world hunger, or the environment, or the largest refugee crisis since World War 2, or tension with North Korea, or the decline in civil discourse and rampant fear and blame going on in our own country. All of that… and then, as if to hit home the immense need for healing in our communities, this past week, on Ash Wednesday, we learned of yet another school shooting, the 44th mass shooting this year alone. The picture that accompanied the Washington Post article showed a woman weeping in the arms of another woman who had an ashen cross on her forehead. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – those words she heard that day as she received that cross should not have become so real to her so soon and so tragically.

Our hearts are broken. This world is broken. The world is in desperate need of healing.

            Enter, the story of the raising of Lazarus. Here is a story in which grief is palpable. As I mentioned, the actual raising of Lazarus doesn’t even happen until the last two verses. Everything before that is the immense grief that accompanies pain, loss, death – the grief that accompanies brokenness. It is Martha, begging Jesus to ask God to fix it. It is Mary, weeping at Jesus’ feet, even, accusing him of not coming sooner. (Don’t we always want to do that in the face of tragedy? Assign blame to someone or something, in an effort to make some sense of it?) It is even Jesus himself weeping openly over the loss of his friend.

            It is so important not to gloss over this grief. Maybe we’d like this story just to be about the raising of Lazarus, but it isn’t. We’d like for it to go like this: “Jesus learned that Lazarus, whom he loved, was sick. So he immediately traveled to his friend, but he was too late. Only a little too late, though – no sooner had Lazarus died, then Jesus raised him again! New life! And everyone was happy. The end.” That’s how we want our own stories of loss to go, too. Immediate return to normal. No time to dwell in sadness. No time to fight about it. Just move on, and pretend nothing happened.

We as a society do not like to leave space for lament. And yet, the raising of Lazarus shows us that healing and new life must begin with lament: lament over the loss of something we loved, lament over the pain we and our loved ones feel, lament over things no longer as we wish they were. Only after we have done this, can we truly hear those words, “Unbind him and let him go!” as good news, and enter into the new life God has in store for us.

This focus on lament is one of the gifts of Lent. I often hear grumbling about Lent, with its sad hymns and focus on sin. As for me, I love that about Lent. Life so often demands that we put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine, even when it really isn’t. But here, we have the chance to admit to God, “No, everything isn’t fine. I am broken inside. I need some Jesus. I need the mercy and compassion of a loving God. I need healing, and freedom from my dis-ease.” Lent is a time when we can stand at the foot of the cross, and ask God to call us out of the dark tombs we find ourselves in, and to remove from us all that binds us, all that keeps us from living as full and abundant a life as God wants for us. It’s a time when we can listen for God to demand the bindings that keep us from freedom be unbound. Lent is not a time to wallow and stay still and throw up our arms and say, “There’s nothing that can be done. It is what it is.” No, the lamenting we do during Lent necessarily calls us out of the tomb, out of despair, and into hope and new life.

This morning, I’d like to start with you that process of recognizing what we need to lament, what we need freedom from, in hopes that once we can recognize it, we can be called out from under it. If you need help thinking about that, in your bulletin you have a green sheet that outlines different sorts of health and wholeness that we as followers of Christ strive for, including some suggestions for how you might address those types of healings if you find you are not where you’d like to be in any particular area. I hope that you will take the time to pray over that, and really consider how, concretely, you might seek healing during this Lenten season.

But for now, we’re going to enter into this through prayer and liturgical action. When you came in, you should have received a strip of cloth. I imagine these cloths as reminiscent of Lazarus’ bindings, what kept him dead and in the tomb – the very thing about which Jesus said, “Get rid of that and let him go!” Today, let these strips be symbolic of whatever it is that binds you, whatever keeps you in the tomb, living in dis-ease, whatever keeps you from living a whole and healthy life with God. In a moment, I’ll lead us through a prayer, and as you pray, bind yourself in your strip – wrap it around your arm, or your hand, and feel it constrict you.

And then, we will enter into a time of healing prayer. During that time, you are invited to come forward to the cross, and pin your cloth – and with it, whatever binds you and keeps you in dis-ease – pin it to the cross. Leave it here for Jesus. Pray that he would take it from it.

The healing time will be several minutes. If you’re not pinning what binds you to the cross, then enter into some other types of healing prayer. You can meditate on scripture [or images] or pray on your own, or you can talk with someone else. Or, I will be available for healing prayer and anointing, which is an ancient healing practice of the church. I can pray with you for personal healing, however vague or specific, and I can anoint you or not – your choice.

However you use this time, let it be an entry point into a season in which lament and grief are okay. Let it be a time to talk to God about where and how your life could be more abundant, and ask God to guide you in that direction. We’ll play some music during this time – when you hear our hymn of the day being played on the piano, that will signal the time to come back together.

And now, I invite you to take your strip of cloth, and let us pray…Lord God, we are bound. We are bound by our sins, things done and left undone. We are bound by our fears. We are bound by our insecurities. Unbind us, we pray. Help us to see what sort of healing you desire for us, and then help us to pursue it. Unbind us, so that we could walk out of our tombs, and into the newness of life that you promise. Unbind us, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Ash Wednesday 2018 sermon: At the doorstep

Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
John 10:1-18

INTRODUCTION

Normally when we hear today’s passage, it is divorced from its context, that is, from the sign that appears just before this that precipitates Jesus discourse. But this time around, we are hearing it in relative sequence – the context was this past Sunday’s reading. Anyone remember the story we heard on Sunday? It was about the man who was born blind, whom Jesus healed and no one could make any sense of it. The formerly blind man’s friends don’t even recognize him now that he can see. The Pharisees are put out by Jesus having healed on the Sabbath, saying he is a sinner. The formerly blind man insists that Jesus can’t be a sinner if he can heal like that, and the Jewish authorities kick the man out of the synagogue. It’s a story of being in, and being out, a story of what it means to be blind, or to see, and a story of how resistant we can be to someone offering something different from what we have always known to be true.

So now, what we’re about to hear is the discourse that follows that sign and the people’s reaction to it. Jesus will offer us some familiar images, calling himself the Door (which is translated here as Gate, to fit better with the pastoral imagery) and then the Good Shepherd, but let us remember as we hear them the context to which he offers them: a man has received his sight, but been thrown out of his community, the bystanders aren’t sure what to make of someone completely shifting their worldview, and the Pharisees have just been told that although they think they can see, they in fact still live in sin (which for John mean, they lack an abiding relationship with Jesus). Now, let’s hear what Jesus has to say about that. Please rise for the Gospel acclamation.

[READ]

A friend of mine from high school spent a year studying aboard in Brazil. My mom had been sort of a mentor to him, and so to thank her for helping him see some of his potential, he brought her a gift from Brazil. It was a photograph he had taken of a door. It wasn’t especially beautiful or ornate, but it was stunning in its color, its ruggedness, and in the fact that it did not seal very well so you could see the light shining around it. As I’m imagining it, I remember it maybe even being slightly ajar. When I picture the image of that door in my mind’s eye, the word that comes to mind is: possibility.

Perhaps that image is responsible for my intrigue with doors. Beautiful or plain, large or small, rugged or ornate, they all carry that same potential – when you walk through them, you walk into something different. For better or worse, what you find on the other side of the door is different from where you currently are. Inside to outside, narthex to sanctuary, hallway to classroom, cold to warm, dark to light… I often stand outside my kids’ bedroom door (they share a room), and listen to them talking together in their toddler gibberish, realizing that on the other side of that closed door they are in their own world, where they play games and have conversations to which only they are privy… and then I walk through the door and they greet me with their beautiful grins and welcome me into their world.

Walking through a door always brings with it that potential of walking into something new and amazing.

In today’s Gospel reading, we might be focused on the known and loved good shepherd image. But before Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he calls himself the door, or the gate. He calls himself that thing by which one enter into a new possibility, a new reality. “I am the door,” he says. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And then he goes on to explain what it means to be saved: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

It’s what we’ve been hearing from Jesus since he turned that water into wine even before his ministry began. When Jesus is involved, there is abundance. There is life. There is the possibility of walking through a door, and entering something new, abundant, and life-giving.

There is a particular church in the South Bronx – in a neighborhood that is high crime, and high poverty, a “bad” neighborhood. The church is located below street level. They never finished construction on the church building; they just roofed over the basement, and all that appears on the street is: a door. To some, perhaps that is all that it is – just a door – but to others, it is a very special door. For when you enter that door, you leave the peril of the street life, and you enter into a different realm: a realm in which people have identities, where they are called by name, where there is compassion and mutual support. You leave the high-tension street environment, and go into a reality of love. That door is much more than a door. It is an entry-point into a different life.

Jesus said, “I am the door.” There it is.

I find this door image to be an incredibly powerful one for us as we begin this Lenten season. A moment ago you came forward and heard those words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” as an ashen cross was traced over the oil cross you received at baptism. That’s pretty profound. I mean think about it, you willingly came up here and let me say to your face, “You are dirt,” and then smudge that reality across your forehead. Your willingness to do that tells me that in your soul you know something very important: that the only way you can ever have abundant and eternal life, is Jesus. That the only hope you have is to step through The Door that is our Lord. That if you truly want to live life abundantly, you must walk through that Door, again and again.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, we stand on the doorstep. We have gotten this far. This season of Lent is a time when we focus on what it will take to step on through the doorway. The mood and practices of the Lenten season make space to do that: It is a time when we lament and grieve where we have fallen short of our calling as disciples of Christ. It is a time when we repent of these shortcomings, and return to God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. It is a time when we keep our focus on the cross. All of these things help us know how to take that step through the Door.

As I mentioned before, this whole exchange about Jesus being the door happens by way of explanation of his healing the man blind from birth. How perfect that we are beginning our Lenten journey this year with a healing story, since our focus this year is on healing and wholeness. When we hear Jesus say, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” we must think about that formerly blind man. For him, the healing he craved that would offer him abundant life was to be able to see. It compels us to think for ourselves: what sort of healing do I crave? What sort of healing would help me to live into the abundant life that Jesus came to give? Or said another way, what brokenness is keeping me from walking through that door? What brokenness keeps me from having as full and abiding relationship with God as I could? In the coming days and weeks, I hope you will join me in reflecting on these questions for yourself, and seeking during these 40 days how you might find healing in whatever brokenness you experience, whether it is of body, mind or spirit. Could it be healing in an important relationship? Could it be deepening your prayer life? Could the healing you seek be in the form of more gratitude or generosity in your life? Or in seeking forgiveness for yourself or someone who has hurt you?

Christ came that we would have life and have it abundantly. Let us walk through the Door this Lenten season, following in the way of our Good Shepherd, so that we might also walk into the newness of the whole, healthy, and abundant life that God promises us in love.

Let us pray… Christ, our Door, we stand at your doorstep, eager to step into the abundant life you offer. Be with us in this Lenten season, showing us the way toward health and wholeness. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Wiping mud from our eyes (Feb. 11, 2018)

Transfiguration (NL4)
February 11, 2018
John 9:1-41

INTRODUCTION:

Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the Transfiguration. Normally, we hear a story that can be found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in which Jesus goes with three of his disciples up a mountain, and he is transfigured before them, becoming bright white, and Moses and Elijah appear with him. The disciples are terrified by this glory of God being revealed, and Peter says, “It is good for us to be here!” and says he wants to build a dwelling for everyone, so they can stay forever. But then everything returns to normal, and they all troops back down the mountain and, we come to find out, start heading toward the cross. It is the hinge that brings us from Epiphany, the season of light, into Lent, the season in which we prepare for Christ’s passion and resurrection.

Well today is Transfiguration, but we’re reading through the Gospel of John, and that story doesn’t appear in John. Why not? Perhaps it is because John’s entire Gospel is about God’s glory and light being revealed through Jesus’ signs. That blinding light already appeared, in the manger at Christmas, and has appeared several times since, including, we will see today, when Jesus heals a man who has been blind since birth. So far, the presence of that light on earth has not caused too much trouble – today, all of that changes, as we see the impact that change and healing really can have on us. This reading is 41 verses long, really longer if you count the discourse that follows (which we will hear on Ash Wednesday), but the healing itself only takes seven verses. The remaining verses are dedicated to the aftermath, to people trying to place blame, assign logic, and understand what exactly happened and what it means. Of course, Jesus told them outright: it means that he is the “light of the world,” sent to scatter darkness and bring healing and wholeness in ways that transcend logic, and might even transcend what we are comfortable with. Let’s see what happens… [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There was a woman who lived in Charlottesville, VA for many years named “Anna.” She told people that she was in fact Anastasia Romanov, the daughter of the last Czar of Russian. Many people believed this – it was such a compelling story! After she died, researchers acquired remains of her DNA from a Charlottesville hospital. They compared her DNA with that of members of the Romanov family in North America and in Europe. And guess what? She was an imposter, not Anastasia, and not a member of the Romanov family. She was a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness. One of her neighbors, however, didn’t want to give up the story. He believed that she was who she said she was, and so when he was told of the DNA results, he immediately responded, “I don’t believe it,” and proceeded to list reasons why the DNA test must be inaccurate.

It’s called cognitive dissonance: when reality does not confirm expectations, and so people continue believing what they believed previously, even against evidence to the contrary. This is not an unfamiliar concept to us. We see it in politics, in our families, in our neighbors, and if we’re honest, we see it in ourselves. No one likes to admit that something that they ardently believe could be wrong! We don’t like to have our worldview challenged, much less debunked. So we choose to interpret the evidence in such a way that it fits with what we believe in our heart to be true.

That cognitive dissonance is what makes up the bulk of today’s Gospel reading. The disciples start us off by indicating their worldview: if this man was born blind, he or his parents must have done something to deserve it. They must have sinned, because that’s the only way such a tragedy makes any sense. And so when Jesus not only says, “Nope, that’s not true,” but also heals the man (and on the Sabbath, no less!), their reality is shattered. They scramble to explain: maybe this isn’t the man? Maybe he wasn’t really blind? Maybe Jesus is a sinner. Surely, there is a way to fit this into how we know the world works! They couldn’t accept the possibility that, not only was this man transformed from blind to seeing, but their very understanding of how life works was also transformed.

What an interesting commentary on human nature this is. The new worldview that Jesus offers is a life-giving one: one in which light wins over darkness, in which sin does not get the final word, in which healing is possible. It is one not bogged down by keeping the letter of the law, but rather, lifted up by the promise of eternal relationship with God. These are good things! But with the exception of the man who was formerly blind, everyone, even his own parents, refuse the transformation.

And this may very well be the case with us, too. We do not like things to be different from what we already know so well, even if what we know is not really all that good. And so we might look at ourselves in the mirror and see ourselves not for our potential, but for everything that has ever been wrong with us. We are held back by our failures, our setbacks, our disappointments. Or, we look at others this way, only seeing them for who they were, how they failed, mistakes they’ve made or people like them have made, rather than for what they could contribute to the world or even to our lives. Isn’t it interesting that when the man suddenly can see, his own friends don’t even recognize him! They knew him only as the man who was born blind. How could he possible be anything else?

How does that feel, to be placed in a box like that? How does it feel to be labeled, and for people to assume that this is all there is to you? How does it feel to do that to yourself? I’ll tell you how it doesn’t feel: it doesn’t feel like life. It doesn’t feel like hope. It doesn’t feel like wholeness.

This week begins the season of Lent. Our theme for Lent this year is Healing and Wholeness. I spent this week writing several reflections on this topic for our Lenten devotional. One was on the story toward the beginning of John, where Jesus comes upon a man sitting by a pool, who has been ill for 38 years. Jesus asks him what he is doing; he says he is hoping to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” I was so captivated by this question! It’s so obvious: yes, of course I want to be made well! Why do you think I’m sitting here? Why would I want to continue in this way of dis-ease? And yet, how often do we look at our lives, see the areas in need of healing – in our bodies, yes, but also in our hearts, our minds, our work satisfaction, our relationships, our finances, our perspectives on life – we see where we need healing, and yet do nothing about it? Do you want to be made well? Well yes, but only if I don’t have to change. Only if I don’t have to face the fear of something different from what I’ve known for so long. Only if it doesn’t mess with the worldview to which I’ve grown accustomed. Only then do I really want to be made well.

Sound familiar? It is to me! Quick example: After holidays and the cold weather preventing me from getting out and moving as much as I’d like, I decided I could stand to lose about 5 pounds. Easy, right? And so every day, I get up, do exactly what I’ve been doing, eat the same food, and dutifully check the scale. And it’s the funniest thing – that number hasn’t changed yet! Go figure, right?

But if there is one thing we have seen again and again as we’ve read through John’s Gospel, it is that when Jesus shows up… things have to change. Lack turns into abundance when water is turned to wine. Former ways of worshiping are literally turned on their sides when Jesus enters the Temple. Centuries-long divisions between Jews and Samaritans are broken down. The despised become the beloved. Eyes and hearts are opened, indeed, they are transformed. When one encounters Jesus, things change, and life becomes abundant.

It sounds good… until we realize how very disruptive even a positive change can be. It is much less disruptive just to keep on keeping on in the same patterns we’ve always had, damaging, stifling, or unhealthy as they may be, rather than risk even the new life Jesus offers.

After worship today, we will hold our annual meeting. We will discuss several topics that have stemmed from a need for change. For instance, how we structure our ministry here, our council and committees. What we’ve done has worked for many years… but does it continue to bring life to this congregation? What does “life” even look like in terms of a congregation’s ministry structure? To me, it looks like joyful service and listening to the Spirit’s movement, and stepping out in faith. Does our current structure do that? What could? Another topic is the role of the pastor in a shared ministry. Bethlehem has had many fruitful years with a pastor serving solely at Bethlehem. The Spirit led Bethlehem into a covenant relationship with another congregation, which brought new life – but also necessarily changed the role of the pastor. So we will be talking today about how that looks. Part of it looks like the possible need for an earlier worship time, which we have been trying out for several months already. This, too, is a change that maybe some have been resistant to. But is it a change that could bring new life?

Not all change is good. Sometimes God’s voice is heard in our resistance to it. But whatever it is we face that is challenging our old worldview, or the way we see ourselves or other people, Jesus calls us to examine: where can life be found most abundantly? Where can the light of the world most brightly shine?

I hope that during our meeting today, and in this upcoming Lenten season, that you will take some time to reflect on these questions, for us as a congregation, and also for yourself. Next week I’ll be inviting you to make some healing goals for yourself to focus on and pray about during Lent. Where is Jesus smearing mud on your eyes and telling you to wash, so that you may see? What aspect of your life needs healing? What worldview are you clinging to, that may be keeping you from being able to enter new, abundant life?

Let us pray… Life-giving God, open our eyes to see where you might be working to transform our worldview. Give us the courage to step into a new life, into a deeper relationship with you. Help us to say, with the man born blind, “Lord, I believe.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Living Waters that Break Down Walls (Feb. 4, 2018)

Epiphany 5 (NL4)
February 4, 2018
John 4:1-42 (Samaritan Woman at the Well)

INTRODUCTION:

John begins this story by telling us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” A look at the map will reveal… he didn’t. Or rather, he did, but it was a vocational need, not a physical one. Why does this matter? Well let’s review about the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans share the same roots, but after Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split into North and South. Jerusalem was in the southern kingdom. You may recall from a couple weeks ago, that Jews believed that God could only be found… where? In the Temple in Jerusalem. So that was the only place to properly worship. So without access to Jerusalem, the Northern Kingdom (including Samaria) went rogue – they came to believe God could be properly worshiped on Mount Gerizim. Furthermore, these Samaritans married outside of the Jewish cult, meaning they were not racially pure like the Jews, and that they had developed some foreign religious practices. Over the years, the divisions grew deeper, because they were racially and religiously different, and leaders of both groups forbade contact with the other. There was a proverbial wall between these two groups, the Jews and the Samaritans, which no one was to cross. All of which makes John’s seemingly casual comment, “Jesus had to go to Samaria,” suddenly much more ominous! The reader thinks, “Oh no, this can’t go well…”

What follows is an encounter that gets more and more surprising. Jesus not only approaches a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman, and one that appears to have, shall we say, a checkered past. And she actually engages in dialogue with him – the longest dialogue in the New Testament, in fact – and asks him the most pressing theological questions of the day. There’s much to be learned and observed in this encounter, so… let’s get to it! [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, St. Martin held the first in a series of Community Conversations. Our first conversation was on the drug epidemic, and featured a wonderful panel of people who work in the recovery movement in various capacities. We had a great turnout – this is truly an area where people are thirsting for information and for hope – and I think everyone there left with some valuable nugget to think about. The nugget that I left with was one that was shared several times and ways by multiple speakers: that the opposite of addiction is connection. The opposite of addiction is connection. In other words, addiction is not so much about the pleasurable effects of substances, but rather about the inability of the user to connect in healthy ways with other human beings. It isn’t a substance disorder; it’s a social disorder. All of the recovery efforts our panel talked about focus on helping people make those meaningful, human connections, on seeing people who struggle with substance use disorders as real people with something valuable to offer, on building trust, and on not shaming or disregarding people for the struggles they face.

I’ve been thinking about this as I have studied this week’s Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well. Here we have a woman who lacks connection. She’s had five husbands, which means five men have either died or divorced her, and probably the latter means she is barren. This all means she is viewed by her culture as worthless, unable to have kids, or at least as damaged goods, and no one will have her. The guy she’s living with now is probably her dead husband’s brother, according to levirate law. She is probably more talked about than talked to. No one goes to the well at midday, at the hottest part of the day, unless they are trying to avoid seeing anyone, and so that is when she goes. And then she states herself how inappropriate it is for Jesus to be talking to her – not only a woman, but also a Samaritan. It is clear that this woman has every reason to be suffering. Indeed, she thirsts: thirsts for connection, for belonging, for acceptance… all thirsts we know something about.

So how does Jesus respond to her thirst? Well, first of all, he goes to her. John tells us that Jesus “had to go to Samaria” – was it to go to this particular woman, at this particular place and time? Maybe. More importantly, I think, the point is Jesus had to go to Samaria to see that the wall erected by centuries of bad blood between Jews and Samaritans had to come down. It had to be chipped away at, penetrated, deconstructed. Later in John, Jesus prays to God “that they [we] would all be one,” and so to break down that wall was indeed necessary for his mission. To Jesus, the fact that Samaritans were a different color, had different religious practices, and had different customs – none of that mattered so much as it mattered to make a meaningful connection with these “others,” in his effort that we would all be one.

And so Jesus goes to Samaria. He crosses that boundary. He goes to this marginalized woman. And the first thing he does is to make himself vulnerable to her, by asking for a drink of water. Suddenly, they are together in their thirst. He thirsts for water, she for connection. They stand together.

Going back to our community conversation last week, one of the most powerful things about it was how authentic and vulnerable the conversation was. A couple of the panelists got choked up as they shared their stories of walking with loved ones who are struggling. At one point, one of the panelists had everyone in the room stand who had lost a loved one to addiction. A third of the room stood, as people looked around and simply noticed: I’m not alone. Then she had everyone who has a loved one who has struggled with addiction stand up, and nearly everyone in the room stood. It was a powerful moment, in which we all recognized the importance of seeing one another as being on the same plane. Connection is powerful.

How else does Jesus connect with this woman and respond to her thirst? He goes to her, and then he engages her in conversation. How remarkable that this, the longest dialogue in the New Testament, is between Jesus and an unnamed, vulnerable, Samaritan woman. After Jesus approaches her, she is emboldened to ask him some questions, even about the hottest theological issue of the day: where one should worship. And he takes her seriously. He in no way dismisses her, or hurries away. He gives her his time and attention. He listens to her. He sees her. He connects with her. He quenches her thirst.

And she, in turn, becomes the first evangelist – running into town to tell everyone she meets, all these other Samaritans, “Come and see the man who has told me everything I have ever done.” Come and see the man who truly saw me, and truly knows me, who truly connected with me. Come and see the man who quenched my deepest thirst, by giving me living water. She invites others to Jesus simply by sharing her own story, and people are intrigued. They say, “We were interested by your story, but now we believe because we have seen for ourselves.” They, too, connect with Jesus, and have their deepest thirst quenched.

This is a story about how Jesus crosses borders and tears down walls. It is a story about how Jesus goes out of his way to meet the religious and racial other, meaningfully connect with them, come to know them, and quench their deepest thirst with the good news of his presence dwelling among us. It is a story about how the lowliest and most despised among us, when given the chance to be heard and valued, could become the most effective trumpet for declaring the good news of Jesus Christ.

And all because Jesus dared to cross the forbidden borders – across gender, religion, and ethnicity – opening doors instead of building walls, genuinely connecting with those in need, and quenching the deepest thirst of those whom he met. We are left to consider: if we are to be followers of this loving, connecting, thirst-quenching Jesus, then which walls do we need to break down? Which “others” do we need to seek out, to hear their stories, and share ours, and genuinely connect? Is it those of a different gender or ethnicity, like the Samaritan woman? For example, immigrants or refugees among us, or some of the millions of women with a story to share about sexual harassment or assault who have until now not been believed? Or to go back where we started, could it be those who suffer from a substance abuse disorder? Who else could it be? What walls and borders need to come down?

I’m excited about the community conversation series at St. Martin, because I think it will help us to learn about some of the “others” in our own community who are in need of connection, who are in need of some living water to quench their deepest thirst. I hope you’ll consider coming to future conversations. And I also call us all into prayer, prayer that we would be aware of what walls and borders we have around us as individuals or the church, and how Christ would have us cross them, so that we might be emboldened to genuinely connect, in the name of Christ, with those in need of living waters.

Let us pray… Thirst-quenching God, grant us courage and trust in you, as we encounter walls between us, and those who differ from us. Help us to follow you across the borders made by humans, so that we could live into your hope that we would all be one. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

“Do You Want to Be Made Well?”
Setting wellness goals for Lent

Jesus asks a man who was ill for 38 years if he wants to be made well (John 5). Well, what would you say? And if the answer is yes, then what are you going to do about it?

During Lent, choose one area of wellness that you’d like to focus on, one area where you’d like to “be made well,” and let Jesus make you well. The following will help you choose an area, reflect, and set some goals. There are some ideas – or choose your own!

 

Whatever you choose to do, incorporate prayer into it. Ask God for help, thank God after, or reflect regularly on how what you choose to do is bringing you into a closer relationship with God. Talk to a friend about it, or Pastor Johanna, or journal about it.

 

Spiritual Health: Living a centered life focused on God affects each aspect of our well-being. Turn to God for strength as you seek to live well in Christ. Nurture your relationship with God through prayer, devotions, worship, nature, art, and music. Explore who you are and know whose you are.

  • Attend Midweek Session on Feb 28 @StM: Contemplative prayer.
  • At the end of each day, think over the highs and lows of the day. Ask about each, “Where was God in this?” Do this alone, or with a friend.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Write down five things each day that you are grateful for (try for different and specific things each day!).

 

Social/Interpersonal Health: We are created by God to be social beings, living in community and instructed to help and love each other. We maintain social well-being through interaction, play and forgiveness. Take time to nurture your relationships with family, friends, congregation and co-workers.

  • Attend Midweek Session on Mar. 7 @BLC: Non-violent communication
  • Attend Midweek Session on Mar. 21 @BLC: Forgiveness, with Bishop Macholz
  • Having trouble forgiving someone? Ask God daily to help you want to forgive.
  • Be more intentional about thanking people you encounter at work and home.

 

Emotional Health: Being emotionally well means feeling the full range of human emotions and expressing them appropriately. Self-awareness is the first step. Recognizing and honoring your own feelings and those of others — stress, contentment, anger, love, sadness, joy, resentment — will help you live life abundantly.

  • Attend Midweek Session on Mar. 7 @BLC: Non-violent communication
  • Attend Midweek Session on Mar. 21 @BLC: Forgiveness, with Bishop Macholz
  • Try to boil down the emotion you feel to: mad, glad, sad, or afraid. Name it aloud: “I feel _____.” Don’t confuse “feel” with “think,” and speak for yourself, not someone else.
  • Practice deep breathing for five minutes each day.

 

Physical Health: While we are not all born perfectly healthy or able to live life without injury or illness, we can live well by tending and nurturing our body as a gift from God. Feed it healthy foods, keep it hydrated, build physical endurance through regular exercise, and respect your body’s need for rest.

  • Choose one unhealthy eating habit, and change it (drink more water, drink less soda, don’t eat after 6pm, “strive for 5” fruits/vegetables, avoid high fructose corn syrup, try “meatless Mondays”…).
  • Give your body what it needs: an extra hour of sleep, a daily walk, rest…
  • Get rid of some of the chemicals in your life (toxic cleaning supplies, artificial fragrance, personal hygiene) and replace them with something “green” and natural.

 

Financial Health: Being financially well involves making decisions based on our values, as reflected in the way we save, spend, and share. Tending to one’s financial well-being in this way requires us to be resilient, generous, and focused on sustainability.

  • Attend Midweek Session on Mar. 24 @BLC: Financial wellness (Financial Peace University)
  • Complete a “Money Autobiography” (Google it, or ask Pr. Johanna for a copy)
  • Try a Buy-Nothing Lent: don’t buy anything except food, essential items (gas, toilet paper…), and experiences that will enhance your relationship with God or neighbor.

 

Vocational Health: We all have a calling — a vocation — to follow Christ’s example by living a life of meaning, purpose and service to our neighbor. Our vocations make up our life’s work and passions — they are the everyday roles through which God calls us to help make this world a better place. Those who are well vocationally are faithful stewards of their talents and abilities, and find opportunities to build and use them.

  • Attend Midweek Session on Feb. 21 @St.M: Vocational wellness (living into our call)
  • Each evening, write down something you did well that day, and something that brought you joy. At the end of each week, notice any patterns – what comes up frequently?

 

Intellectual Health: Using our minds keeps us alert and active. Stay curious, ask questions, and seek answers. Explore new responsibilities, experience new things and keep an open mind. And remember, knowing when and how to let your mind rest is as important as keeping active.

  • Choose two activities during Lent that you have never done. Do them!
  • Attend any of our Wednesday midweek sessions, either Bible study at lunch, or soup, study and prayer in the evening (beginning at 5:30pm)
  • Be intentional about taking a sabbath, even just an hour a week. Instead of thinking or learning – pray, breathe, color, or something else to rest your mind.

 

 

Schedule of Midweek Topics:

Feb. 21 @StM – Vocational Wellness (Living Into Our Call) with the Rev. Mary Johnson, assistant to the bishop for candidacy (for ministry)

Feb. 28 @StM – Spiritual Wellness (Contemplative Prayer/Examen) with spiritual director, Bonnie Matthaidess

Mar. 7 @BLC – Interpersonal/Social Wellness (Non-Violent Communication) with Kit Miller, director of the Ghandi Institute for Non-Violence in Rochester

Mar. 14 @BLC – Financial Wellness (Financial Peace) with Kerri Donahue, teacher of Financial Peace University courses

Mar. 21 @BLC – Emotional Wellness (Forgiveness) with Bishop John Macholz

For detailed descriptions, see February Newsletter, or church website.

Healing of our Every Ill: Lenten Series 2018

The world is a broken place in need of healing. We seek health and wholeness in our personal lives, in our bodies, in our relationships… We all want to move from dis-ease into a life of wellness. 

God wants that for us, too! So during Lent this year, we will focus on how we can find such health and wholeness in all aspects of our lives. Using the Wellness Wheel as our guide, and trusting that our baptism is at the core of all healing, we will pursue health of body, mind and spirit in various areas of life. See below for a schedule of events:

Ash Wednesday: 7pm at St. Martin, imposition of ashes and Holy Communion. We will reflect on our brokenness, our “dustiness,” and the ways that our baptism promises us clean and whole hearts.

Sunday, Feb 18: Healing Service
On this first Sunday in Lent, we will have a healing service as our main worship service for the day. We will set our healing goals, and commit to seeking God’s help in finding healing in our places of dis-ease. Pastor Johanna will be available during and after worship for individual healing prayer and anointing, an ancient healing practice of the church.

Wednesdays at noon: Bible and Lunch.
Join us for a Bible study over your lunch hour on Wednesdays during Lent. From noon to 12:45, we will study scripture with an eye toward how it offers healing. Brown bag lunch.
Wednesdays in February @ Bethlehem Lutheran Church (1767 Plank Rd, Webster)
Wednesdays in March @ St. Martin (813 Bay Rd, Webster)

Wednesday evenings:  Soup Supper and Study.
In the evenings, join us for soup at 5:30, and stay (~6pm) to learn about one of the spokes on the “Wellness Wheel” from experts on those topics (see descriptions below). After we learn (around 7pm), we will do Holden Evening Prayer together.
     Feb. 21 – Vocational Wellness (Living Into Our Call) with the Rev. Mary Johnson
     Feb. 28 – Spiritual Wellness (Contemplative Prayer/Examen) with Bonnie Matthaidess
     Mar. 7 – Interpersonal/Social Wellness (Non-Violent Communication) with Kit Miller
     Mar. 14 – Financial Wellness (Financial Peace) with Kerri Donahue
     Mar. 21 – Emotional Wellness (Forgiveness) with Bishop John Macholz

Vocational Wellness: Are you living into your calling? Have you had a major change in your life (like retirement, or empty nest) that makes you question what your call might be now? Mary Johnson, Assistant to the Bishop for Candidacy, works with people every day who are discerning their call, whether that is to the ordained ministry, or some other ministry. She will help us discern our gifts and calls for whatever life situation we find ourselves in.

Spiritual Wellness: Where is God in your day-to-day life? This is a question Ignatius of Loyola asked, and from which he developed the “examen” – a simple practice of thinking over your day and discerning where God was present in it. Bonnie Matthaidess is a local spiritual director with a passion for Ignatian spirituality, and will help us learn how to incorporate this transformative practice into our daily lives, and deepen our relationship with God.

Interpersonal/Social Wellness: How can we have conversations that restore instead of divide? The division in our country and in our personal relationships is a painful reality. So often we only hear from others what we expect to hear, rather than taking the time truly to listen. Can this ever change? Kit Miller is the director of the Ghandi Institute for Non-Violence in Rochester. She recently spoke to the UN on her program’s efforts at peace-making, especially among youth. She will lead a workshop for us on “Four ways to hear a message,” helping us learn not only to hear, but to listen to people’s truest needs, even as we discern our own.

Financial WellnessDo you crave financial freedom? Kerri Donahue (BLC member) found new financial freedom through David Ramsey’s course, Financial Peace (www.daveramsey.com). She was so moved by it, she began teaching the course to offer others this same freedom. She will share what the class is about, and offer information for those interested in taking the full class next time she offers it later this spring.

Emotional WellnessWhat pain are you hanging onto, and how would it feel to let it go? Forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts God gives us, and one of the hardest both to receive and to give. But when it happens – what liberation! Upstate NY Bishop John Macholz will join us to talk about forgiveness: how to seek it, how to receive it, and why it matters in the life of a Christian.

Sermon: Faith in the midst of not knowing (Jan. 28, 2018)

Epiphany 4 (NL4)
January 28, 2018
John 3:1-21

INTRODUCTION

A word about interpreting John’s Gospel: We should understand that each of the Gospel accounts shows Jesus fulfilling his mission in different ways. For example, in Matthew, we have the sense that we are “marching toward Zion,” but we’re not yet there – that’s in the future. In John, however, we get the sense that Jesus’ very presence among us has brought the kingdom of God to earth. Jesus sort of pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the earth. The result is that, down here is flesh and darkness, and up here is light and spirit. There’s no way to get from down here to up here except through Jesus (remember, I am the Way, the truth and the life?). We can catch glimpses of it through Jesus’ signs, but we cannot fully grasp it until Jesus is lifted up and brings all of humanity with him.

Because of this, John’s Gospel is wrought with misunderstanding. Frequently when Jesus talks to people, it looks like this: someone asks a question of earthly significance, Jesus answers from up here in the kingdom, and the person responds with something stupid. Question, answer, stupid response – which then prompts Jesus to explain further. We see it with Nicodemus: he observes something about Jesus, Jesus says something about being born again, and Nicodemus says, “Uh, can I crawl back in my mother’s womb?” No, Nic. You missed it.

Still, it’s not so bad for the reader, because it shows us how very different our earthly understanding is from a heavenly understanding, and urges us to think differently than the world would have us do. So, watch for that in our reading, and see what you can pick up about the reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus is describing. Please rise for the Gospel acclamation. [READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“St. Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘Little boy, you can’t do that. The ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy, who is really an angel, responds, ‘And so, Augustine, is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”

That’s how I feel when I read John’s Gospel, and today’s story is no exception. How desperately we want real, concrete, understandable answers, just like Nicodemus! We want to understand God and God’s ways. We want to be certain about the questions of faith – like, why bad things happen to good people, why good things happen to bad people, who is going to heaven and who isn’t, and what the purpose of being here even is. All good questions – to which only God knows the answers. And the smallness of our minds compared to the vastness of God’s makes it impossible for us to know or understand.

Today’s story about Jesus and Nicodemus shows us just how much we don’t, and can’t, know. There is so much going on here, and much of it is so cryptic, and a lot of it sounds really judgmental. And yet in the midst of it all is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, a word of immense love, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believed in him would not perish but have eternal life.” The Gospel in a nutshell, as Martin Luther called it, and it’s true: it says succinctly the whole purpose of this faith: God loves us so much God didn’t want us to die, but to live forever in God’s care.

And yet this verse of love – as well as several other verses in this passage – have been used over the years not to include people in God’s embrace, but to exclude them. The “born again” imagery has been used by evangelicals to say that unless you have had a believer’s baptism – one in which the one being baptized is able to confess his or her own faith, as opposed the infant baptism – then it doesn’t count. The verses that follow John 3:16 are also judgmental ones: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It’s enough to make us all squirm a little – because even if you yourself do believe in Jesus, you probably have someone close to you who doesn’t, and we all want our loved ones to be with us in heaven. The fear that it could be otherwise is sad and unsettling.

So what do we do with all this? We come back to those tough questions of faith – who is saved, why do things happen as they do – and the fact that we simply cannot know. Our minds are the small hole in the sand, and we are that little boy, trying to fit the ocean in there.

But that doesn’t stop us from digging into God’s word and trying to understand. So first, let’s look at that word, “world.” The Greek word John uses there is kosmos, and throughout John’s Gospel, this word refers to “that which is hostile to God.” It is the “down here,” not “up here,” the thing that Jesus entered to ultimately bring it to himself when he is lifted up. So we could translate John 3:16-17 this way: “God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and, “God did not send the Son ‘down here’ to condemn even this world that despises God, but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” It is hard for our small-hole-in-the-sand minds to grasp such audacious and unexpected love as that!

Well that sounds good, you say, but what about all the stuff that comes afterward about condemnation for those who don’t believe? Ah yes, that is difficult. But take a look at it – nowhere does it say that God is the one doing the condemning. It says simply that their lives are in darkness, that they must endure all the things that darkness brings. In other words, life is better when you are living it with Jesus, and if you aren’t living it with Jesus, you are already suffering the negative impact of that. The consequence of not believing isn’t necessarily an eternal one – Jesus says later in John that he came to draw all people to himself, up into the “up here” – but rather, the consequence is right now.

(How’s that small hole in the sand doing? Is the ocean fitting? Mine is already overflowing!)

Maybe you’re thinking about now, “So, then what’s the point? Why believe if just anyone can get into heaven?” To that, I have two answers. One is: my mind is just as much hole in the sand as yours is. Who knows if anything I just said is true. I hope it is, but I don’t know! This is all way beyond me. It was way beyond Nicodemus. It is way beyond anyone who isn’t God, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. God and God’s ways cannot be understood. The fact is: we don’t know what happens in the final judgment, but one thing we do know is that it is up to God, not us. And if God welcomes someone into heaven that I wouldn’t have let in if it were up to me, that doesn’t in any way diminish my own experience of heaven. It’s just not worth worrying about – all we can do is the best we can, living into this life in the way Jesus teaches us how, by loving God and neighbor with all that we are and all that we have.

But my other answer is a testimony. If your question is, “What’s the point?” then let me tell you what is true for me. Here is why I believe in Jesus Christ: I believe in Christ because it makes my life better. I feel full. It gives me hope when I am in despair. It gives me strength when I am weak. As much as I cannot and will not ever understand about God, my faith still helps me to make sense of the joys and the challenges of this life. I believe in Jesus because that relationship makes me want to be better. It moves me every day toward living more and more authentically into life as a baptized child of God, a life of looking to the needs of others, a life of self-sacrificial love, a life of speaking out for the needs of the oppressed and vulnerable. I believe in Jesus because the story of death and life that God tells through Christ is one that I have seen to be true in my own life. It is a story that, because I know it is true, I am compelled to search for it. I am moved always to search for life, even in the darkest of deaths. And this keeps my head above water, and makes my life worth living. It gets me up in the morning and puts me down at night. And I tell other people about this, I share the good news, not because I want them to go to heaven (though I do!), but because I want them to experience the life right now that I experience by having a relationship with Christ. I want other people to feel the fullness and love that I experience by my belief in Jesus. For me, that’s the point.

We cannot know about things to come. Our minds are small holes in the sand, and we can only fit so much ocean into them. What we can know is this: that God loves us. God loves us so much, that God sent God’s only Son so that we could have a glimpse of that love, a glimpse of what is yet to come. God loves us so much that God doesn’t want us to live alone in the darkness of this world – with all its sin, death, loneliness, hunger, and want – but rather, to live in the light of knowing that God dwells among us. God loves us enough to provide us a Way into a life of fullness and light and love. That’s the point.

Let us pray… Lord of light, we thank you for your self-giving love. Help us to live with unanswered questions. Help us always to pursue your light. And help us to share your love and your light with all whom we meet. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Flipping over our false securities (Jan 21, 2018)

Epiphany 3 (NL4)
January 21, 2018
John 2:13-25

Introduction to the Story:
To understand today’s text, we need a bit of background on 1st century Jewish worship practices. In 1st century Judaism, it was understood that God dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem. And so around certain feasts (such as Passover), faithful Jews would travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. An important part of worship was animal sacrifice. And so the scene that we are about to see with people changing money and selling animals was a necessary one. They are selling worship supplies, just like today we buy communion wafers, or oil for candles or hymnals. Travelers from Galilee, for instance, couldn’t haul with them a goat or a dove to sacrifice. They also couldn’t use coins with Caesar’s face on it to pay Temple tax, so they had to change the money when they got there. So while the system may not have been perfect, those tables that were set up were there to enable people to worship God in the way they understood to be correct. All of which makes Jesus’ response to the scene all the more surprising.

Another interesting point about this account is that, while the cleansing of the Temple is a story that appears in all four Gospels, the other three all place it at the end, right before Jesus’ passion – in fact as the event that precipitates his arrest. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as if setting something up for us as we continue to witness his ministry. What is he setting up?

Some things to think about as we hear this story! Now, please rise for the Gospel acclamation.

[READ STORY]

I gotta say… I like this Jesus. I like him because I can’t relate very well to a Jesus who is meek and mild and always keeps his cool, who’s never riled up. That just can’t be true about someone who is fully human. I like him because he shows us that righteous anger is okay, that God gets angry about injustice and that this can be holy if it drives you toward working for justice. Most of all, I like this Jesus because as he is whipping around those cords and turning over tables, he is fighting his way out of the box that we so want to keep him in: the box in which Jesus is always gentle and kind, in which Jesus – and with him, God – is domesticated, palatable, understandable, and easy to take. God is not those things, and so neither is God-made-flesh, and this text shows us so in no uncertain terms.

And I think that is what John is trying to show us by putting this story right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is making an important statement about who he is, and what is different now that he is around. And namely, in this encounter, what has completely changed is the way people meet and interact with God. Until now, it was understood that the Temple was the one and only dwelling place of God. Synagogues were all over as places to pray and to hear scripture read and interpreted, but God wasn’t there – God could be found only in the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s why people took such pains to get there, and why this whole system of selling animals and changing money had developed, to accommodate that practice. But now that Jesus is here, where does God dwell? What did we hear on Christmas about that?… God dwells “among us.” Among us, in the person of Jesus Christ. So that is why Jesus is making such a fuss at the Temple: it is to tell people, “All this mess is unnecessary! Why are you making this a marketplace? You don’t need this Temple. I am the Temple! You don’t need to come here and buy sacrifices and change your money to meet God: God is standing right here in front of you!!”

How unnerving that must have been! For someone to stand there and tell you (with whip in hand!), “This thing that you’ve always done, this way you have always known to interact with God, this thing that you’ve been telling yourself is right and good – it’s not! It’s way off!” I can imagine Jesus wasn’t the only one who was mad at that moment! Even today, we have a hard time accepting change to things that we have done a certain way for a long time. Even here – we started doing worship a little differently, using a different set of readings and presenting them differently, and I know that a lot of people have had some trouble with that. I get it! I also love to be comfortable and know what to expect. I also wouldn’t appreciate someone coming in the door with a whip, turning over tables and saying, “Nope! You’re doing this wrong!” We like to stay in our comfortable boxes.

And not just in worship. We don’t like disruption in any of the things that bring us a sense of security, whether that is change in our families, or change in our town, or change in our country. I listened to a piece this week on “This American Life” about the town of Albertville, AL, which has experienced a dramatic increase of Latino immigrants over the past few decades. For 8 months, the show interviewed locals, immigrants, business owners… and the response from the locals was just what you would expect. The underlying current was, “It’s not like it used to be, and I don’t like it,” (with, of course, a healthy dose of blaming!). Despite their perception, however, the influx of immigrants, many of them undocumented, had actually improved the economy in the town, providing more and better jobs for longtime locals, not fewer. In fact, the town is thriving today. So they were right – it wasn’t like it used to be – but in this case, that wasn’t a bad thing. It was different, and that takes getting used to. No one likes to have their applecart, or their tables, overturned.

But perhaps our desire for keeping things the same, even if “the same” is ultimately an unhelpful system, like that of the Temple, is putting our faith and trust in powers offering false security. As one pastor writes, “I read the cleansing of the temple as a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours.” Ouch – I definitely see some of myself in that list! Maybe we need Jesus to take his whip and his words right into our hearts!

Well. It is easy to focus on the table-turning. This is the dramatic, and the difficult part of the passage. But you see, Jesus doesn’t turn over those tables of false security and then drop the mic and walk out. No, he shares with them a new reality, a deeper sense of security. No longer do they need this system in place, because he was offering them something new: he was offering them the presence of God dwelling among them, full of grace and truth. He was offering them direct access to God, wherever they might be, wherever they might need God’s presence. He was offering himself to them as the Temple, a Temple which could not be destroyed, but would always be there to give them access to the God of love and grace.

Change is never easy, that’s for sure – perhaps especially when it is presented to us so dramatically. But Jesus’ radical reaction shows us that while seeking and finding our security in God, rather than any number of false sources, can be at first unnerving, shocking, and uncomfortable… it can also bring light and life to our darkness. That Jesus could be the presence of God dwelling among the people required a complete shift in thinking for a people who only knew God to dwell in the Temple, and this new reality was utterly astonishing… just like it might be uncomfortably different and utterly astonishing for us to find God at work among us, in our day-to-day life, not only in our best and most admirable moments, but also in our difficult decisions, our most embarrassing failures, our lowest points. But the good news is that God sees us in all those places, the good and the bad, and loves us still. God sees and knows what we do and say, and still forgives us for our shortcomings. And a God who dwells among us, dispelling our darkness with God’s light, is life-giving news indeed.

Let us pray… Present God, we often seek our security in false promises and beliefs. Help us to see you dwelling among us, and to place our trust in only you. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen