Sermon: Suffering with (March 18, 2018)

Lent 5 (NL4)
John 19:1-22
March 18, 2018


The part of the passion narrative that we hear today is probably the hardest, because here is where the real pain and betrayal happen. Pilate continues to try to release Jesus, and “the Jews” continue to convince him otherwise. Jesus is flogged, mocked, handed over to be crucified, and hung on the cross between two others. It is all very painful to watch.

Before we get into this part of the story, I want to clarify something about John’s Gospel that I have been remiss in avoiding until now. Throughout this narrative, we hear about “the Jews,” about how they rallied against Jesus and convinced Pilate to kill him. Our 21st century ears may hear this message as anti-Semitic – it blames the Jews, even demonizes them. It has been damaging to this beautiful religion and its faithful followers. But it is important to know that the author of John’s Gospel was not anti-Jew. Jesus himself was a Jew, and would not be implicating himself or his people. Who John refers to when he says “the Jews” is really the Jewish leaders, in essence, Jesus’ colleagues – the same guys with whom he’s been in theological dialogue throughout the Gospel. And – this is important – watching their hurtful actions and shortcomings is not a reason to despise and blame them, but rather, it is an invitation to recognize our own shortcomings and sinfulness.

Perhaps that is what makes today’s reading so difficult. In a moment we will sing, “Were You There?” as we have done every week in Lent. Take the question to heart: what would you have done if you had been there? How would you have felt? What would you have said if you’d been there? How easy or difficult would it have been to resist the crowd – whoever they are – who is asking for Jesus’ death, and claiming to have no king but Caesar? How would it feel to see Jesus hanging on the cross? Consider these things as we hear this heart-breaking part of the story. Please rise.


The Crucifixion by Marco Palmezzaro

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

The year was 1373, and an Englishwoman lay sick in bed. If she had a husband or children before, the plague that was sweeping Europe and now caused her illness had already taken them. We don’t know much of anything about this woman’s past, but we do know about her future. She would recover, and change her name to Julian – Julian of Norwich, one of the greatest English mystics of all time, and the first woman to publish a book in English.

The book she wrote was called Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. In the 8th revelation, she reflects on Christ’s pain and suffering on the cross. She writes, “Is any pain like this? … Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, all my joy, suffer?” She goes on to reflect on the pain felt by all those who loved Jesus who also viewed this suffering – his mother, his followers, even us today – and goes on to make her most profound observation: “Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us, for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” In other words, Julian observed that in this moment of pain and suffering, God through Christ truly became one with all creation – all of us who suffer. “A great ONEING betwixt Christ and us.”

Let that sink in for a moment. In his suffering, God, the creator of the universe, became one with us in our suffering. We often talk about how Jesus suffered for us, died for us, and that’s very nice and important, too. Those words we hear as we receive the bread and wine, “given for you” are very powerful indeed – that God would care enough to do this for us, mere human beings!

But the word “with,” as in “one with us,” is something entirely different. Historian and religious author, Diana Butler Bass comments on this distinction.[1] She observes that “for” is a preposition of distance. It’s contractual. It separates the actor from the recipient. Jesus, the subject, died for us, the objects. It doesn’t require a relationship, just good intention.

With, on the other hand, is a preposition of relationship. With implies accompaniment, moving in the same direction – it makes both parties participants in the action. Butler Bass writes, “With is the preposition of empathy… of being on the same side, of close association. ‘No, you needn’t go for me; I’ll go with you.’ With is about joining in, being together.”

That is a really different way to view Jesus’ action on the cross. It utterly changes how we understand God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It is the natural ending to the story of a God who, as John said in the opening of his Gospel, “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates it, a God who “moved into the neighborhood.” God didn’t get an upscale apartment in a nicer suburb across town, God moved right into the dirt and grime, right next door, even, down the hall, and experienced what it is like to live like we live, to feel like we feel, and yes, to suffer like we suffer. This is a God who dearly wants to know us, because God dearly wants to love us, exactly where we are.

But viewing God as one who is with us doesn’t just change our understanding of our relationship with God. It also calls for a radical shift in our relationships with others, and how we see our role as people of faith. For if God is willing to walk with us, and suffer with us, then we see that part of our call as Christ-followers is to do the same with those around us.

Oh, but “with” is so very difficult! Sure, being “with” those we love isn’t too hard, but what about those people we fear, or who are unknown, or who just rub us the wrong way, or with whom we fundamentally disagree? How do we be with them? Wouldn’t we rather keep our distance, perhaps occasionally reaching out with “for” love by donating goods or doing something nice? But suffering with is not something that is comfortable for us. Butler Bass comments on the difficulty, saying, “We hide parts of ourselves from our neighbors, withhold the sorts of secrets that weave regular relationships for fear someone will use something against us. We judge others on what they can do for us. … We are skeptical of with – indeed, much of what we do in the world makes us ridicule, doubt, and even fear with. … It is safer to remain at a distance, to stay away from with.”

One of the most devastating lines in the passion story is what the Jewish leaders say to Pilate when he asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” Did you catch their answer? They say, “We have no king but the emperor.” Utter rejection of Jesus the Christ. Complete aversion to being with this man who has given them everything, even their very lives, and his own. They won’t even be for him. They only reject, dismiss, toss aside, instead vowing loyalty to a ruler who offers false promises, who would never walk with them, and suffer with them, in any way, shape or form. Devastating.

Oh, this line makes me so uncomfortable, because I have to wonder: have I done this, too? Have I rejected Jesus’ offer to be with and suffer with me? Or have I, when tempted by some quick fix, turned to false promises, to Caesar?

Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer to suffer with me by letting the offer stop with me – by receiving the gift, but then not offering the same to another in need? Or, have I rejected Christ’s offer by not allowing others to suffer with me?

For the past several months, I have been holding office hours at Panera. Every Wednesday, I sit in a booth in the back with my tea, wearing my clerical collar, and hoping someone will come talk to me. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. This week I tried an experiment: I added a sign on the table that said simply, “Free Prayer.” I admit I wasn’t much in the mood to be there, or to pray for anyone else – I was feeling very stressed, and was mentally and emotionally bogged down with preparing for Holy Week. I was praying for safety for students and school staff who were at that moment preparing to participate in a national walk-out (and my husband was among the administrators charged with keeping students safe). And I was praying for my seminary, which is going through some really tough stuff right now, and the board was meeting as I sat there.

Suddenly a woman walked right up, sat down across from me and said, “I’d like to pray for you!” Uh…. Okay! She took my hands and offered a lovely and sincere prayer for the pastor – here I was trying to offer something to others, and this woman, this disciple of Christ, sat down with me, and prayed with me, as if she could see that I needed someone to pray with me at that moment. It buoyed my spirits. It lifted me up. Knowing that this woman, this stranger, would be willing to get right down and suffer with me for a moment – it was the “life abundant” that Jesus talks about coming to give us.

Who would have thought that such abundant life could come through the act of suffering with someone? Who would have imagined that the Creator of the universe would choose to show the depth of divine love by a willingness to “move into the neighborhood,” live like we live, and suffer like we suffer? Who would suspect that death on a cross would bring us the hope of new life?

Reading today’s part of the passion, as Jesus is flogged, mocked, suffers, and is crucified, is painful. It should be – that is what it can feel like to love, and to be with people in their pain. But in that, we also find hope to endure, and strength to love, because we know: we are with God, and God is with us. We are in this together, walking beside the God of love.

Let us pray… Suffering God, that you would choose to move into the neighborhood, live like us and feel our pain causes us to tremble, tremble tremble… even as it gives us hope to endure. Give us confidence that, with you walking and suffering with us, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] References to Julian of Norwich and Diana Butler Bass’s thoughts on her work are outlined in this sermon: (Accessed March 15, 2018)

Sermon: Meeting violence with love (Mar. 11, 2018)

Lent 4 (NL4)
March 11, 2018
John 18:28-40


“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” We all know his name: Pontius Pilate. He lives in infamy in our creeds. All four Gospels include in the passion narrative an account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. But John’s account is the longest. We’ll hear part of it today, and more of it next week. So before we get into it, I wanted to give you a little info on this famous character in the story of Jesus’ passion.

Pilate was a Roman prefect, and a notoriously brutal one. He even had to be removed from one post in Samaria because he had been so harsh in stopping an uprising. In the first century, Philo, the Jewish philosopher, described Pilate as having “vindictiveness and furious temper.” In governance, Philo describes Pilate’s “corruption, his acts of insolence…, his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continued murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” Yeesh! All this makes it especially curious that Pilate seems to be trying to set Jesus free! Certainly an interesting character.

Now, about Jesus’ and Pilate’s conversation: Remember back when we started John’s Gospel, I talked about how in John, Jesus pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the world, and Jesus talks from “up here” in the land of spirit and light, while people of “the world” (and Pilate certainly represents “the world”!) talk “down here” from the land of flesh and darkness. This is abundantly clear in this exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Jesus talks about how his kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate has no clue what he’s talking about. So, let’s see if we can figure it out. Please rise. [READ]

Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”) by Antonio Ciseri

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

In an exercise with our confirmation class this past week, I asked the students to describe the world 20 years ago, the world today and what they predict the world will be like in 20 years. It was hilarious to hear them try to describe the world as it was when I was their age. But it was disheartening to hear some of their descriptions of the world today. “Scary,” they said. “Violent. High crime.” I agree with them. The world today is a scary place, for a lot of reasons. In many ways, it does not feel physically or emotionally safe, and it is difficult for people or societies to thrive in that environment.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus tells Pilate. Well, I should hope not! I hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world so often full of tears, loss, pain, and sadness. Yet, I don’t think Jesus is talking here about an afterlife, or heaven. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming this darkness. He has brought God’s kingdom to earth. And so, I think when he refers to “his kingdom,” he is referring not to some different place, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is “belonging to the truth,” as he says. Isn’t that what we pray for, after all, when we say, “Thy kingdom come”? We’re not praying that we would go to God’s kingdom, somewhere else, but that God’s kingdom would come here, on earth as it is in heaven. Whatever it is that makes God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom, we pray that it would come here, to earth, and soon!

So… what does that mean? What is it that we are praying to come here? Well, looking back over John, Jesus has made pretty clear that to “belong to the truth,” to have abundant life, to live as a part of God’s kingdom… means to be in an abiding relationship with God. In other words, God’s kingdom is about relationship. And while yes, the primary relationship we’re talking about here is the one we have with God, we could also say that our relationship with God is played out in our relationships with one another. After all, what commandment did Jesus give after he washed the disciples’ feet? … That we love one another as God has loved us.

Love one another. That’s what it looks like for God’s kingdom to be here and now. Love one another. Sounds simple enough, yeah? Of course depending on the situation and the people involved, loving one another can be pretty difficult. I wanted to talk about one such difficult situation for loving today because Jesus brings it up, and that is: violence. “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” In other words, in the kingdom of this world, “down here,” the one of flesh and darkness, people fight one another when they feel threatened – just like we saw last week, when Peter pulled his sword in the garden. Peter, Jesus’ follower, was willing to fight for him to keep him from being handed over! But Jesus says no. Jesus told him to put that sword away, because that is not the way of his kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is something different. In Jesus’ kingdom, his followers don’t resort to violence.

Now, I think a word about the meaning of violence is necessary here. Usually when we hear that word, “violence,” we think of physical violence – weapons, or hand-to-hand fighting, the sort Peter demonstrated. But I think words can be just as violent, maybe even more so. The childhood chant about sticks and stones is simply not true – words can and do hurt us. Bones heal in a few weeks, but the damage done over the years to our hearts and spirits – and yes, to our relationships – by people’s words can be incredibly difficult to overcome. And so if we are talking about a kingdom of God that is based on loving relationships, we need to address how we talk to one another.

This past Wednesday, as a part of our Lenten series on healing and wholeness, a group of us gathered with Kit Miller from the Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence. We talked about whether it was possible to have “conflict without contempt.” What would be required, she asked, for us not just to agree to disagree, which is sort of passive, but to actively work toward peace and restoration, even if we don’t end up agreeing with each other? We talked about how usually when we feel angry, it is a sign that there is some other emotion going on that is presenting itself as anger. If a child runs in front of a car and narrowly escapes injury, the parent will grab the child by the arm and say, “Don’t you ever do that again, do you hear me??” The parent seems angry. What do you think is the real emotion there? … Fear. So Kit challenged us, next time we are acting angry, to consider what the real emotion is behind that anger. We talked about how, when a conflict is present, whether big or small, it is because some emotional need is not being met, and she provided some tools for determining what our needs are. Once you can name the need, you can start working toward seeing that the need is filled in a healthy way, and conflict without contempt becomes possible.

I can’t speak for others who were present, but for me, as we worked through various scenarios, it felt as if my heart was weeping and healing, all at once. I felt like the struggles, needs and hopes of my heart were being acknowledged, named, spoken aloud. I felt hope – hope that we as a society can, actually, love each other, even in the midst of division and conflict, and that there is indeed such a thing as “conflict without contempt.” I felt hope that Jesus’ “out-of-this-world” kingdom can exist even in this broken world.

Martin Luther King, Jr., as you know, was a champion of non-violence. He drew a lot from the teachings of Gandhi, but his primary strength and guidance came from Jesus, especially his words in the Sermon on the Mount. This week I came across this wonderful quote from Dr. King, that could have come straight out of John’s Gospel: “The ultimate weakness of violence,” he says, “is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus’ truth, invites us to something different from violence – something a whole lot harder, but absolutely worth the effort. Is it risky? Sure. Who ever thought love wasn’t risky? Love is what got Jesus hung on a cross, after all. Love makes us vulnerable. It softens our hard hearts, and removes our guard.

But it also offers a lot more hope than the alternative. Love does diminish the evil. Love does establish the truth. Love does decrease the hate. And love does bring the Truth and the Light – indeed Christ himself – into the darkness of this world.

So… which followers do we want to be? The followers of this worldly kingdom, who try to overcome violence with violence, who fight to keep Jesus from being handed over? Or do we want to do the hard work of the followers of Jesus’ kingdom, who strive toward love and non-violence, who strive to mend and heal and build relationships, even when conflict threatens to destroy?

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life.” What a gift of love. If God loves us that much, then I, for one, would like to find it in myself to seek the more difficult, but also more loving path in my encounters with God’s other beloved children. It is hard work. But I believe this work can bring healing to this dark and broken world.

Let us pray… Loving God, you are the Light that dispels the darkness. You are the Love that establishes truth. You are the Truth, and the Way, and the Life. Help us to be citizens of your kingdom, who seek to overcome contempt and darkness with your love and light. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Peter’s Denial, and Ours (Mar. 4, 2018)

Lent 3 (NL4)
March 4, 2018)
Peter’s Denial (John 18:12-27)


A lot has happened since the last story we hear. Where we left off last week, Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet, describing this as an act of deep and devoted love, and imploring the disciples to follow his example by washing one another’s feet. Directly following that is what is known as the “farewell discourse.” For four chapters, Jesus explains to the eleven remaining disciples (Judas has already left to go betray him) that Jesus is going to the Father, and that the Holy Spirit will be coming to guide the disciples in faith. He tells them to love one another as he has loved them. He warns them of the challenges and persecutions they will face, but assures them that the world cannot overcome them, because Jesus has overcome the world. He finishes the discourse by praying for them, praying, “that they would all be one, as the Father and I are one.”

Then they all head out to the garden, and there they meet Judas and the soldiers and police, who are wielding swords and torches. They say they are looking for Jesus, and Jesus willingly hands himself over. Ever impulsive and eager to please, Peter leaps into action, pulling out his sword and cutting off the ear of the slave of the high priest. He must have missed the previous four chapters in which Jesus told them to resort not to violence, but to love one another! Jesus tells him to put his sword away, adding, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” And that brings us to today’s story.

Today we really get into the passion narrative. One thing to notice about John’s telling of this story, today and in the coming weeks, is that Jesus is absolutely willing, from start to finish. He will not pray that the Father let this cup pass from him, he will not cry out in anguish from the cross. He is fulfilling God’s will, at just the right time and place. Of course Jesus’ calm is in sharp contrast so the immense anxiety felt by the other characters in the story, so watch today how that plays out. Please rise.


Ethiopian, 17th century

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

A couple weeks ago, I spent two days at an event learning about family systems theory, especially how it can be applied to leadership in a congregation. What is family systems theory? In short, it sees any group of people who spend a lot of time together as a system, in which each member is affected by another’s actions. We are, each of us, formed by our family of origin, and then what we learned there plays itself out in whatever other systems we find ourselves in.

In particular, training yourself to see things through a systems lens helps you see how anxiety plays out. Now, anxiety is something we all feel, at various levels, and it can be triggered by all kinds of things. If you had a parent who left you as a child, you may find yourself getting anxious whenever you sense in life you are being abandoned by something you care about. If, as a child, your parents used food as a bargaining chip, you may find you have an anxious relationship with food as an adult. If you were a middle child always seeking to be noticed, you may spend the rest of your life trying to please people. And if you don’t get what your child’s heart determined you need, then your anxiety is triggered. That anxiety can play out in all kinds of different ways – as anger, sadness, fear, overcompensating, as making jokes at inappropriate times, perhaps as trying to make others feel as anxious as you do to diffuse your own anxiety, by offloading some of your anxiety onto someone else… or usually, some combination.

Now, not all anxiety is bad – indeed it is necessary for survival! If you don’t feel anxious when you meet a bear, then you become that bear’s lunch! But when the role of anxiety is not recognized and named, it can wreck all kinds of havoc in our relationships, in our families, in our workplaces, and yes, even in our churches.

Today, in our journey through John’s Gospel, we truly enter into the Passion narrative. And with my mind on family systems, I am also noticing the anxiety in that story – an anxiety that is so perfectly carried out in Peter’s story. Let’s recall again what happened directly before this scene, in the garden. When the police come to take Jesus away, Peter’s instinct is to unsheathe his sword and go for a man’s head. In other words, his first, anxious instinct is to meet the threat with violence – even though Jesus specifically told them in many and various ways that as disciples they are called to love one another, even when the loving gets tough. (After all, let us know forget that just before this, Jesus knowingly washed the feet of his own betrayer, Peter who would deny him, and the rest who would desert him at their first opportunity! For Jesus, “love one another” does not depend upon someone deserving love or not. Love means love, for everyone.)

But in a moment of such intense anxiety, it should be no surprise that Peter’s instinct would be not to love, but to fight… because isn’t that true for all of us? Most people, when they feel threatened or are in a high anxiety situation, resort not to love, but either to attack, or to protect. Fight or flight. We’ve seen these reactions following the Parkland shooting, in the call for more guns, in the form of arming teachers, or putting resource officers in schools, or by tightening school security. Defend and prepare to attack. We see it also in our personal relationships – if someone says something hurtful to me, my first instinct, whether or not I act on it, is either to defend myself, to attack back, or at the very least to go complain to someone else, “Do you know what so-and-so said to me? What a terrible person!” …which is its own sort of violence. Am I alone in this? I didn’t think so! And so to see Peter draw his sword seems to us, fellow anxiety-prone humans, like a completely reasonable reaction – it is a normal first instinct.

But Jesus calls for more than an instinctual reaction. He calls for a response – in fact, to a loving response. “Put your sword away,” Jesus tells him, and then willingly goes with the police to his certain death. And so now here we are where our text begins. Back in that upper room where Jesus had washed their feet, Peter had vowed he would never leave Jesus’ side, even if it meant dying right along with him, and so, Peter follows Jesus into the city. I suspect Peter’s anxiety at that point had never been so high. His friend was in danger, and when he tried to defend him, he got rebuked. He feels helpless, and afraid, maybe even a little ashamed – all anxiety triggers. Yes, Peter is anxious. And, we all know from experience, that when we are anxious, we rarely behave at our best.

And so when comes the ultimate test of his loyalty – when the first person asks him, “Aren’t you one his disciples?” – Peter’s anxiety gets the best of him. He knows better now than to attack; this time he chooses defense. He responds, “No, I am not.” Remember, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has identified himself as, “I am.” I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Door. I am the Light of the World. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I AM. And so here, in utter contrast to and denial of all that Jesus is, Peter offers his anxious, if somewhat pathetic, “I am not.” He not only denies Jesus, he denies himself, dismissing his own story, his own identity as a disciple, in favor of keeping himself safe.

One commentator on this passage observes, “Violence is easier than testimony.” From the beginning of John’s Gospel, we have seen the importance of testimony in the life of faith. John the Baptist came to testify to the light. Philip invites Nathanial to “come and see.” The Samaritan women at the well runs into town to tell everyone about the man who told her everything she has ever done. The man born blind testifies, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And now, Peter himself has the opportunity to testify, “Yes, I am his disciple!” … and he balks. He misses his big chance. When he felt threatened in the garden, he quickly sprang for the sword… but testifying is so much harder. Testifying takes some serious guts – vulnerability, courage, conviction, assurance of self. And it also takes a whole lot of love, of God, self and neighbor. In his anxiety, Peter can tap into none of this. And so he denies his Lord, and he denies his own identity as a disciple of Christ.

It makes me wonder – have we, as individuals or as the church, ever allowed our own anxiety to lead us to deny our identity as disciples of Christ? Have we fallen short of testifying our commitment to the demanding, self-giving, high-risk love that Jesus demonstrated as he washed the feet of his own betrayer? When we feel anxious – about the world, about our relationships, about our future, about our safety – when we feel anxious, is there some part of our Christian identity we would be willing to deny, in order to make ourselves feel a little safer?

I’ll answer for myself, but not with pride: absolutely. Jesus’ command to “love one another” would have me put my safety and interests secondary to the love and care of outcasts, even people who I see as dangerous, sketchy, or who make me nervous. I don’t want to do that. I want to feel safe and prepared for anything.

To “love one another” by Jesus’ definition would have me find it in my heart to let go of resentments toward people who have hurt me deeply, to forgive them, even to serve them. I’m not comfortable with that.

Jesus’ “love one another” command would even have me find a way to love a mass shooter (not condone his actions, but to love him with the love of Christ, by seeing him as the broken human being in need of love that he is). I definitely do not want to do that.

All of those things make me very anxious. A lot of things in the world right now make me very anxious. And sometimes, our anxiety does get the better of us, just like Peter’s. Sometimes we find we, like Peter, would sooner deny being disciples, or at least just pick and choose what parts of discipleship work for us, if it means we can feel safer and less anxious. But the question that I am trying to let guide me, as I navigate this demanding life of faith, is, “What does the love of Jesus look like in this instance? What would Jesus have me do?” …and then, striving for that.

And even as we fail (and we know we will – this is hard!), we can also find consolation in the fact that, even though Peter chose violence over love, and safety over testimony, God still had an important use for him. This darkest moment of his life of faith will not, finally, define Peter. After the resurrection, Jesus will come to Peter and ask him – three times – “Do you love me?” and then tell him to feed his sheep. And Peter does! Peter will have plenty more chances to testify to the love of Christ, in thought, word and deed, and because of Peter’s testimony, many – even thousands! – will come to faith in Christ. That is grace. That is the promise that God can use even us bunch of sinners and Christ-deniers for good. That is the story of the resurrection – that God’s power and love can overcome even our anxiety, just as Jesus overcame the world.

Let us pray… Gracious God, calm our anxieties and bring us your peace, as we navigate this broken world and seek to live into our identity as disciples, and help us to testify in all cases to your self-giving, life-changing love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Foot-washing can heal the world (Feb. 25, 2018)

Lent 2 (NL4)
February 25, 2018
John 13:1-17


When we left off, Jesus had just brought Lazarus back to life, called him out of the grave, and commanded the community to “Unbind him and let him go.” The act had so upset the authorities that they began to plot Jesus’ arrest and his death. Since then, a couple important things have happened: Jesus has gone into hiding to stay safe from the Jewish authorities. He has had his feet anointed by Mary (Lazarus’ sister) in their home. He has given his last public discourse, and, he has arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem is what we normally recall on Palm Sunday, and that’s what we will do this year well – so dog-ear that page, we’ll come back to it! But now, we skip ahead to the eve of the Day of Preparation for the Passover feast. The Passover, you may remember, is the Jewish festival that remembers the story of the Exodus of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. In the other Gospels, do you remember what major event happens at this meal? … The institution of the Lord’s Supper, in which Jesus gives the disciples bread and wine and calls it his own body and blood. In John’s Gospel, though, the meal is not the featured event. Instead, Jesus gives of himself in a very different way: he kneels down to wash the disciples’ feet. Let’s hear what happens. Please rise.

Public Domain. Wiki Commons.


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

In 1964, in the midst of the struggle for civil rights, some black and white protesters in St. Augustine, FL staged a “wade in” at a “whites only” pool at a motel. It was a typical non-violent protest, like a sit-in at diners, not meant to do harm so much as make a statement. The owner of the motel was displeased, and he tried to drive them out by throwing acid into the pool water.

A few years later, a new children’s show began, hosted by the Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers. Mister Roger’s Neighborhood first aired 50 years ago this past week. When Mr. Rogers was assembling the cast, he heard an African American man by the name of François Clemmons singing in church, and he invited him to join the cast as a singing police officer. Clemmons was hesitant at first – he had grown up in the ghetto and been poorly treated by the police, and didn’t think such a role would make much difference in the world anyway – but he agreed.

In an early episode, 1969, exactly five years after that motel swimming pool incident, Mr. Rogers began his show sitting in front of his house, with his feet soaking in a kiddie pool of water. He invites Office Clemmons to join him in soaking his feet. Officer Clemmons does, and the two men, black and white, soak their feet together. When Officer Clemmons gets up to leave, Mr. Rogers dries his feet for him. In an era in which black people and white people could not even drink from the same fountain, much less swim in the same pool, in which black people were routinely beaten and disparaged, Mr. Rogers publicly shared a pool with a black man, and then knelt down to serve him.

25 years later, for Officer Clemmons’ final appearance on the show, the two repeated the scene. This time, Officer Clemmons finished the scene by singing, “There are Many Ways to Say I Love You.” Later, in an interview with NPR’s StoryCorps, he commented, “I was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood, or in the world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong.” (Listen to the StoryCorp episode of these stories here.)

Well, who knows the impact that scene in a children’s show in 1969 had on the larger fight for civil rights in America. No question, it was a bold move by Fred Rogers, to invite François to be a police officer on his show at all, much less to broadcast sharing a pool with a black man in that moment in history. One thing we do know, though, is that this scene, and the biblical scene it harkens, in which a first century rabbi named Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, has the power to heal the world.

In the scene we just heard from the Gospel of John, tensions are running high. The disciples and Jesus both know that Jesus is a wanted man, that the authorities are trying to kill him. They know something big is about to happen. To prepare them for this, Jesus doesn’t arm them, teach them self-defense, or show them how to form a human barricade around him. No, he shows them in the most shocking and unexpected way the depth of his love for them: he, the rabbi, kneels down to wash the feet of this ragtag bunch of sinners and misfits. This was unheard of in the first century – people generally washed their own feet, or maybe a servant girl would do it, but never did a rabbi wash the feet of his followers.

I said this simple act could heal the world – how could that happen? It’s not so much the act itself – clean feet alone are good, but that won’t heal much – but rather, what heals is the acting out of what is required to carry out such an act: namely, humility, and vulnerability.

First, humility: Humility in this case is a willingness to kneel at someone’s feet, even to become the lesser, to put someone else ahead of you. To metaphorically wash another’s feet is to take the time to dwell completely in the needs of another – not with the intention of responding, nor certainly to refute, but simply to allow them to be heard, and their needs to be met. It is taking the time and energy to notice what is someone’s deepest need, and then simply to be there with them in it, and in doing so, to genuinely connect with them. This sort of connection takes a lot of humility, but this humble connection that Jesus demonstrates is what has the power to heal our divisions and our pain, wherever in our life they occur.

The flip side of humility is vulnerability – and vulnerability is indeed a powerful tool for healing. It seems unlikely, doesn’t it, because we normally associate vulnerability with weakness. Like if you don’t have proper armor in battle, then you are vulnerable to injury. But when I say vulnerability, I mean a willingness to truly be seen. Just as the foot-washer exercises the humility to dwell in your deepest needs, the washed allows those needs to be seen and expressed. Vulnerability is letting another see not just the shiny exterior you work so hard to make look presentable and acceptable to the world, but also the dark, embarrassing parts – your dirty feet, as well as your broken heart. It might look like admitting some of those less nice emotions we all have – like saying aloud to someone else that you are scared, or sad, and what it is that makes you feel that way. It might mean being willing to admit you are wrong about something, or that something you did or didn’t do allowed for someone to be hurt. It might mean being brave enough to say something important into a group where you know others disagree. It might mean admitting you don’t have the answers.

Each of these runs so much against our instincts when we are feeling hurt – our instinct is to protect our hearts, not to bare them! When you break a bone, it heals by putting a cast on it, not by leaving it loose and exposed to further danger! Why should our broken hearts be any different? And so we seek protection by becoming harder, by hiding, or by lashing out. It is not generally our first instinct to respond to pain by opening our hearts to the possibility of more pain. Peter shows us this when he insists Jesus not wash his feet. I usually read this like, “Jesus, you have no business washing my feet!” but I wonder if there is also a bit of, “I don’t want you seeing that embarrassing part of me.” But, as Jesus points out, this sort of exposure and vulnerability is required to have a close and meaningful share in a relationship with Christ.

And why wouldn’t we want Christ to see these parts of us? Yes I know, Jesus knows us through and through whether or not we share it with him – but I believe healing can only come when we actively share them with Jesus, when we take off our shoes and socks and show our smelly feet to Jesus and say, “Here, Lord. Here is where I need to be well. Help me.” Maybe that happens in prayer, maybe in a conversation with a pastor or a trusted, faithful friend. Whatever the case, however it looks, when we can be vulnerable with Christ, healing can begin.

I keep thinking about that scene from Mister Rogers. MLK had just been shot, racially charged tensions were high, black people were being beaten and lynched… and a neighborly young man invites the black policeman in his neighborhood to join him a moment, relax, and soak his feet. Clemmons said later, “The icon Fred Rogers was not only showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet. And so that scene touched me in a way I was not prepared for.” Mr. Rogers took a risk with this scene, and so did François. Though on the show they are just two friends, having a nice chat, we know that to play out that scene in that particular era required immense humility and vulnerability. And maybe it did do something to heal, as François called it, the worldly neighborhood in which they were living. But at the very least, it brought healing to a young African American singer and actor – because someone had been humble enough to make a real effort to truly see him, to know him, to dwell in his needs, and because he was vulnerable enough to let that happen.

At the end of our reading from John today, Jesus says he is setting an example. That example is both to venture out to wash one others’ feet – that is, to be willing to notice and listen to people’s deepest needs and to dwell with them there – and also to be vulnerable in our interactions with others and with Christ. If we are able to do this, I believe that the simple act of foot-washing can indeed heal the world.

Let us pray… Rabbi, Teacher, you showed us what true love looks like: to be humble and vulnerable with one another. Give us the courage to follow your example, and in doing that, make us agents of healing in this broken world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

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


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.


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


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.


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


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)


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