Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ash Wednesday 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.

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon: Living water that breaks 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