The Only Privilege that Matters

I’m going to be honest here. This is a hard week to preach. First of all, I don’t much like this story. It’s a weird interlude in the middle of Matthew’s narrative, and it frankly makes Jesus look like kind of a jerk. Why would he ignore this poor woman? Why would he call her and her daughter dogs? What is going on here? Is he having a bad day? Maybe his blood sugar is low? Does he need a snickers?

I actually dislike this passage so much that I wrote a 15-page term paper on it in seminary. So I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this passage, and I could have a lot of very scholarly things to say about it. In fact, I wrote a whole outline that used my term paper’s conclusions as the basis for this sermon But when I sat down and started writing with my pages of scribbled notes about Greek words and scriptural references and the timeline of Matthew’s writing and the Temple’s destruction, it all really didn’t want to come together. So if you’re interested, I’d be happy to email you the term paper. I think it was pretty good, and I probably drew some helpful conclusions about Matthew and his audience.

The thing is, his audience is not my audience. Matthew was writing to some very marginalized people. Back in the late first century, Matthew wrote for a community of people a lot like the Canaanite woman – outsiders. They were either Jewish Christians who had been dispersed across the empire afterJerusalem was destroyed, and who might have been kicked out of their synagogues for being Christian; OR they were gentile Christians, who at this time were mostly slaves and poor people, not the Roman elites that came into the church later. The people in Matthew’s community would have lived largely in slums, “exposed to filth, poor sanitation, contaminated water, overcrowding, contagious diseases, inadequate food supply, poor nutrition, conflicts, crime, and catastrophe.” (Carter, Warren, “Matthew and the Gentiles: Individual Conversion and/or Systematic Transformation?” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 26 (Mr 2004):268.)

Whereas my audience is, well, you guys. And while I know none of you has had a perfect life, I hope we can all acknowledged that we are far from oppressed. And we need to name and own our position in society as privileged. More than any time in recent history, this week, we need to  admit that we are, most of us, privileged, by virtue of being largely white, Christian, more or less middle class Americans. You can argue about the difficulties you’ve faced in your life, and I won’t deny that. I’ve faced difficulties, too.

captain-america-wonder-woman-1000968-1280x0.pngBut as Christians in a Christian nations, as mostly white folks in a European-American culture, we daily see people who look and sound like us making the political decisions and controlling the majority of wealth. We see people who look more or less like us held up as ideals of beauty and achievement, as role models to be emulated and aspired to. Most of us in this room have never lived in abject poverty, and even if we have been poor, our society has told us that, because we are European-Americans, poverty is not what we should expect.
Meanwhile, plenty of our neighbors, especially people of color, African-American, Latino, Native Americans in particular, are regularly bombarded with the opposite message. A message that says, “if you’re in poverty, well, that’s normal for your people.” The privilege of race is nothing more than an accident of birth, but it is very real, and it is central to the American economic, education, and political structure.

When the ELCA was founded in 1988, part of our founding documents included a commitment to increasing our diversity. 5 years later, in 1993, the Churchwide Assembly adopted a statement that said, in part, “Racism – a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice – is a sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefor, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.” Throughout our history, our denomination has made clear and unequivocal statements about racism and privilege. This week and in recent months, in the face of rising Neo-Nazi and white supremacist rhetoric and growing Islamophobia, Christian leaders and Lutheran clergy have spoken out against racism and made efforts to build bridges. And yet the ELCA continues to be literally the whitest denomination in America. Statistically, we are the least diverse bunch of Christians in the nation. In many ways, we as a denomination represent the most insider bunch of insiders in 21st century America.

So how are we to understand a Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking help for her daughter? Matthew’s audience might have related to her, might have seen in her a fellow outsider. After all, she is a gentile, and a woman. She has a sick daughter, she lives in Roman-occupied territory. She is so unimportant that she is never even given a name. In fact, by calling her a Canaanite woman, Matthew is telling us that she was completely other, because by the first century, there were no Canaanites left. A Canaanite was a figure from the Hebrew Bible, an enemy of the Jews from long ago, wiped out as a separate race by generations of war and intermarriage. I don’t think we can really get our minds around what it was to be an outsider in the way that this woman was an outsider. Not like Matthew’s community could.

20785915_816349051858594_3605670913773246361_oBut we do know what it’s like to feel stuck. We do know what it’s like to be captive, and unable to free ourselves. At the vigil that we held for the community last Sunday evening, in conversations throughout the week, in Facebook posts and news articles, in my own thoughts and prayers, I have heard over and over again how stuck we are. How captive we are to the system of privilege and racism in which we find ourselves. People of good intention, kind, thoughtful, big-hearted people, have expressed frustration, disbelief, and utter horror at the events on the streets of Charlottesville last weekend. At the growing boldness of those who would sow hatred and discord in our communities. And these good, kind, thoughtful, big-hearted, frustrated people have also shared that they don’t know what to do. They feel powerless. They want to stand against it. But they are not in Charlottesville, they are here, in Washington, MO, and there are dishes to do, and kids to feed, and jobs to go to, and daily life to live. And they say, we say, I say, I am just one person. One small person, captive to a huge, long-standing system of sin. I cannot free myself.

And so we cry out to God, “Have mercy on me, Lord! Have mercy on me, help me get unstuck! Help us get unstuck!” But it mostly feels like God is staying pretty silent. And we feel lost, like sheep without a shepherd, and we call out again, “Lord, help me! Help us!” Because we’re floundering here. Families are falling apart, friendships are fracturing, we can’t even talk to each other about important things anymore because we are so broken, and we can’t seem to find God in all of this.

The Canaanite woman was stuck. She was a complete outsider in every way, and she needed God’s help. But when she called out for mercy, Jesus ignored her. Nevertheless, she persisted. She believed against all the evidence of her experience, that God would be active in her life. That God would show up there at the margins of the empire, at the margins of Israel, to help her, a gentile, not even a member of God’s chosen people. She persisted even when it seemed like she was being ignored, when Jesus gave her reasons to give up. She persisted, because she knew that God’s ultimate purpose is mercy and justice, that God shows up, has shown up, will show up, despite all evidence to the contrary. Because this is who God has proven to be. The One who shows up.

See, the other thing that Matthew tells us about Canaanite women is that God works through them. In the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Matthew, Canaanite women play a key role, even though they are outsiders. So it turns out that, as different as they are, Jesus and this Canaanite woman are kin. Jesus is descended from Canaanite women. And Jesus is also descended from Abraham, who was the father, not just of Israel, but of nations. Father Abraham, who was blessed to be a blessing. Abraham was chosen, set aside, named and claimed as God’s own, so that through him all nations would be blessed, and now here stands a Canaanite woman, both kin and outsider, desperate for help, and the Blessed One of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promises, is being asked to extend the blessing to her.

This is the same one who has named and claimed you in the waters of baptism. This is the one who has blessed you to be a blessing. This is the one who has entered into the messiness and stuck places of human relationship, into the brokenness of this world, where insiders and outsiders are determined by random categories that suit human ends, where we draw arbitrary lines of kinship and connection, ignoring our common humanity and common descent. This is the one who come into the world, not in spite of our mess, but because of it. To bless this mess.

We in this room are among the most privileged people in this world. We are privileged because of an fluke of birth that placed us in a society that values the color of our skin and the place of our birth and the accident of our DNA above that of another person. We have seen where human prejudices and reliance on our own privilege lead – it is not very far from white supremacist rallies to gas chambers. We have seen where our priorities of power take us – it was this kind of fear and hatred that led to the cross, to crucifying God’s own Son, for being other, for being different from us. For that reason, among so many, we cannot stand both with Jesus Christ and with white supremacy. We must speak against the privilege that strips our neighbors of their humanity and their dignity. And silence is complicity.

But we carry another kind of privilege that is far more important. It is the privilege of having been named and claimed by a God who has blessed us to be a blessing. It is the privilege of having a God who has come into this world to be one of us and to bless this mess, and then to free us from it. However captive to sin we may be, however stuck we may feel, we have a God whose ultimate purpose is mercy and justice, a God who shows up, has shown up, will show up, to draw us into a new way of being. This is the privilege we are called to use, to act out of first and foremost. This privilege makes it possible for us name our white privilege, our American privilege, our class privilege, all the arbitrary privileges that have been given us by the accident of our birth. The privilege of our baptism wipes out whatever shame or embarrassment we may feel, and frees us to use our privilege to benefit those who do not have it. It gives us the freedom to speak where we can; to stand between the hand of hate and the victim when necessary; and to be an active, vocal, and stalwart champion for peace, reconciliation and love in this world. It is not an easy privilege. Abraham’s blessing did not give him a life of comfort and repose. But it is the only privilege that matters.

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Resting in the Yoke

Come to me, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke, and you will find rest. Rest. Rest for your souls.

In Genesis, in the beginning, one of the first things God did was to create rest. On the seventh day, God rested. But first, God created rest. We usually think only of part of day 7, when God rested. But the text actually says that on the seventh day, God finished the work that God had done and God rested. God finished and God rested.

In Jewish thought, God’s rest was not a day off, or merely preparation for what was next. The ancient rabbis say that God’s rest was the completion of creation. The creation of rest itself – menuha in Hebrew – tranquility, serenity, peace, repose – rest in the deepest sense of fertile, healing stillness – this was the completion of God’s work. Until the creation of true rest – of Sabbath – creation itself was unfinished.

This is what Jesus is inviting the crowds to in today’s reading. What Jesus is inviting us to. True rest – Sabbath.

This passage lies in between two major sections of teachings. The first, the one we catch the tail end of in verses 16-19 is a discourse about John the Baptist. Jesus (and perhaps Matthew in his day) is reaching out to the followers of John and inviting them to his table. At the same time, he is criticizing the religious authorities, for their constant judgment of God’s messengers and rejection of God’s message. While God is busy sending emissaries, the religious leaders are busy bickering and feeling self-righteous, so that they miss God’s message altogether. Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears house, they are looking for a just-right Messiah. John the Baptist is too ascetic, too out-in-the-wilderness, so they decided he was possessed, that he had a demon. This one is too cold! Jesus is the exact opposite, too in the midst of human life, hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes, he must be a drunkard. This one is too hot! No one is just right. Except themselves.

The passage after this is where Jesus begins teaching about the Sabbath, the passage you may have heard about the Sabbath being made for man and not man for the Sabbath. These same critics who are looking for their just-right Messiah believe that the law of the Sabbath is the yardstick for judging who is just right. The law will save them, they believe.

There was a saying, that if everyone in Israel would keep the Sabbath the Messiah would come. And so they kept the sabbath, and enforced the sabbath, and wielded the sabbath as a tool and even a weapon, until they lost sight of the Sabbath altogether, lost sight of that menuha – the tranquility, the rest, true rest, that God intended the rest that makes space for connection to one another and to God. Instead, they used Sabbath to divide and to judge and to create walls between who was in and who was out. They turned the Sabbath into a proxy for their pain at being occupied by a foreign government. They turned the Sabbath into a vehicle for their fear – of others, of the future, of their loss of control.

Instead of letting go and resting in Sabbath, instead of reveling in God’s creation of rest- of menuha – they tightened their fists and held on even harder. And the Sabbath was lost. They had no place to lay down their heavy burdens; no place to rest their weary hearts and weary heads and weary feet. Sabbath, the place of rest, became a battleground, a proving ground where only the most righteous were welcome. It became another burden to carry.

And Jesus is calling them out on it. To what will I compare this generation? You have forgotten how to rest in God and so you rest in judgement and fear. You have forgotten how to rest in relationship and so you rest in factions and bickering. Like children who are more concerned with who is in and who is out of their games.

But this is not a game. This is God’s Creation. And you are a part of it. And God’s creation is not complete without rest. You are not complete without rest. You who are hearing this, you who are reading this, you are not complete without rest. Real rest. Tranquility. Peace. A break from the onslaught. Time to process and to simply be.

This kind of rest is not much valued in our society. When we do talk about rest, it’s in more the a “work hard, play hard” context. You might rest from work, but it’s so that you can work more, work harder, work better. Rest for the sake of productivity.

Or you might rest by playing, by being a different kind of busy – the weekend warrior who never stops moving, who is always on the go – whose rest is restless. We all know that feeling, at the end of a long stretch of work or school, at the beginning of a vacation, the feeling of rest-less-ness, the need to be doing something, but unable to settle to any one activity because it is not necessary, and we are used to filling our days and weeks the necessary. Even our sleep is necessary, so that we can continue to produce, to be that busy, effective, productive person we need to be, in order to be acceptable.

This restlessness has a convenient bonus. Staying busy to the point of exhaustion, so that even our rest is fully active, so that sleep is all we can do when and if we stop moving – when we are that kind of busy, we don’t have time to think. We don’t have time to listen to our thoughts. Which is, I think, why we stay so very busy. Why we avoid that true rest of silence and contemplation. Because when we start to leave space for silence, we start to hear the inner voices – our self-critics, our shame, our worries, our fears, our pain. All those voices rise up to fill the space, and we would rather not hear them.

So we stay busy, and we turn on the noise. We seem to revel in the onslaught. We scroll through Facebook to feel busy, or we turn on the television to fill the silence, or we fill the void with food, or drink, or whatever else will numb us to the internal assault.

One of the greatest ways to fill the void, to avoid resting with our own thoughts, is to fill it with anger or hatred. To drown out our own pain with our judgments of others. The writer James Baldwin once said, “…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” And we will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with our pain. Even if it causes more pain. For us or for others.

But that is why Jesus issues this invitation. He invites those around him to stop fighting amongst themselves, to stop filling the silence with the busy-ness of bickering and judgment and just rest. You who are weary of the constant onslaught, you who are sick of the restless burden. Rest.

Because whatever pain and grief, shame and fear you are carrying, whatever you’re trying to dull with your restlessness, God’s voice is looking for a space, for a break in the noise, a tiny opening to enter in, so Jesus can pick up those burdens for us. Because you are not your pain. You are not your fear. You are not your busy-ness or your restlessness or your judgments. You are not the walls you build or the masks you wear to protect those tender places that you are avoiding with all your constant activity. What you are, is loved. What you are, is created for love and by love and in love to be loved and to be love for the world. And James Baldwin also said, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

Jesus invites you to rest. Love invites you to take off the masks. To lay down your burdens. To admit that you are weary and in need of rest. To accept that you have been made by a creator who created rest as a necessary part, the necessary completion of creation.

Jesus will pick up the burden. The only thing you need to carry is his yoke, the yoke that connects us to God, and to one another. The yoke of love. Grace. Acceptance. Rest.

It may be difficult at first. It goes against everything we have learned. At first the pain or fear or grief will seem louder, as the other noises recede. But it was always there. And it is not who you are.

If you won’t lay your burdens down and rest for yourself, do it for others, for this neighborhood, for this community, for this world. You cannot help anyone else carry their burdens if you are weighed down by your own. You cannot welcome anyone else to rest if you will not rest yourself.

This summer, we at Peace are trying to make some space for rest. For ourselves, and for our world. Wednesday mornings the sanctuary is open for anyone who wants silent time, to catch up with their thoughts, to listen as the voice of pain recedes, and the voice of God grows louder.

But it turns out that’s super hard. We have a lot of learning to unlearn before we can do that. We need to learn how to rest ourselves before we can be a space of rest for others. So on Fridays, we’re having some training, learning some tools, so that we can begin to tune the radio dial in our heads, to let the static that is the world, our fears, our self-doubt, others’ expectations of us, our grief, our pain, our shame, the static that is our restlessness, fade. So that we can begin to tune into God’s voice. So that we can hear the sound of grace, creation, peace, healing, rest.

So take a moment right now.

Close your eyes if you are comfortable. Or Find a focal point – maybe the window here.14670836_660331107460390_1061349941849539888_n

Let yourself relax. And listen.

There will be static, that’s okay. Notice it, and try not to tune in to it.

I’m not going to leave you here long. But take a few moments to simply be. To rest.

How was that?

Scary? Exhausting? Weird? Refreshing?

These are all right answers. All fine.

Come to me, all you who are weary. All you who are carrying heavy burdens. And I will give you rest. You know your burdens. You know your weariness.

And you know, because I am telling you right now, that you do no have to carry them any longer.

Jesus is calling you, offering, inviting, begging you, to lay them down. To find your rest in him. He will carry those burdens for you. Has already carried them for you, right up onto a cross, and down into a tomb. They have no power over you.

Let them go.

Rest.

Boldly

Our texts from last week to this week are backwards. Last week, we read the very last passage from the Book of Matthew. In it, Jesus returned to Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles, as Matthew called it back in chapter 4. And in Galilee of the Gentiles, Jesus told his remaining disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. In Greek, the word for nations and Gentiles is the same. Ethnos. So in Galilee of the ethnos, all the disciples of Jesus were sent to make disciples of all ethnos. It’s the same word that has come into our language as “ethnic” or “ethnicity.” Basically, it means “people who are not like us.” “Others.” So the final instructions of Christ to his church on earth were to go to everyone who is not like you, and teach them to be disciples. An excellent start to the season of Pentecost – this long green summer season of the church, in which we focus on our mission and go out to share the stories we have been learning since Advent.

But now, this week, we back up almost 20 chapters, and have a very different set of instructions. In this text, Jesus sends out just the twelve, these closest followers of his, and gives them powerful authority to heal and cleanse and even to raise the dead. But he specifically sends them to their own people this time. Not to the ethnos. In fact he tells them to go nowhere among the ethnos, but to stay specifically among their own kind, the children of Israel.

This is where Jesus lays the groundwork for that larger mission, because Jesus knows that before you can go out to all those others, you need to reach out to the people you know, the ones most like you. This is where you do the initial work of building the church. But unfortunately, this is also where many of us stop. After all, Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week. 

Churches in our society rarely manage to move past this work, rarely get to the part where we move out and encounter the ethnos, the others, those most unlike us.

With good reason! Just this first part is hard work. Jesus knew that. Look, he says, I’m send you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. And who are these wolves? Not the others, not the ethnos. No, the wolves are the people the most like you. Because you are going to do and say things that are going to push them, that are going to rub them the wrong way. In fact, you are going to torque them off to the point where they will reject you and persecute you and even prosecute you. And frankly, that is exhausting and demoralizing, and most churches rarely get that far.

Instead, they adapt their message, and adopt the culture of the community, and make themselves comfortable. They, sometimes we, if I’m being honest, we become complicit in the cultural continuity. We reinforce the systemic oppressions around us. Throughout history, the church has adapted the gospel to justify slavery, misogyny, economic oppression, and colonialism.

We have created doctrinesGLC04093_0 that have justified the destruction of cultures, of entire races, of the very land we live on. Rather than boasting in our sufferings, as Paul instructs, we as the church have found ways to avoid suffering, and turned the story of Christ to our own worldly purposes.

It is no wonder so many young people have left the Christian church. This is the reputation we have built for ourselves over the centuries. An institution that is only interested in maintaining itself, rather than following the teachings of Christ. Any church that wants to take seriously the teachings of Christ, must contend with this history as well. Because we have, in our readings this week and last, instructions from Christ himself. Instructions that pretty firmly contradict much of the way the Church has operated throughout history.

As Lutherans, as Christians, we are called to return again and again to the message of Christ himself, to these instructions, and ask ourselves how we can better live up to them.

A few weeks ago, we here at Peace Lutheran took some time to examine how we are living out our calling. Immediately following worship, we gave everyone a bunch of sticky notes and invited them to put them on the walls around the sanctuary, under 15 different headings. These headings were descriptions of different ways that we engage with one another, with our community, and with God. In, Out, and Up.

The question we asked was not, what do we wish to be, but rather, what do we see already happening in the life of Peace Lutheran Church? Which of these values are we already spending our energy on? Where are our priorities as a congregation?

After everyone had put their sticky notes up, green for highest priority, yellow for medium, and red for lowest, we took pictures. At our next council meeting, we spent time in prayer and conversation, scrolling through all of these pictures and listening for the movement of the spirit.

In our discussion, we narrowed in on three main values that we are living out in our lives together, three values that we embody time and again as we seek to follow Christ’s instructions to his church, in our particular mission.

At Peace Lutheran, we value:

Growing Community;

Seeking Understanding;

and Welcoming Diversity.

This week at our council meeting, we came back together to discuss them further, and decided that we need to add a modifier, an adverb. Based on what we have heard from this congregation, and seen in this community, the council feels that we at Peace Lutheran church are

BOLDLY Growing Community;

BOLDLY Seeking Understanding; and

BOLDLY Welcoming Diversity.

This BOLDLY is important. You may know the Lutheran phrase “Sin Boldly.” People love to quote this. There’s even a beer made by a brewery in Moorhead, MN, called “Sin Boldly.” It sounds so good, and seems to give us broad permission, and there is nothing we like better than broad permission to sin. But, unfortunately, that is only part of the quote. And if we are to truly Sin Boldly as Luther said, we ought to understand what he meant.

LutherIn August of 1521, Luther wrote a letter to his dear friend and collaborator Philip Melanchthon, on the subject of marriage for priests and monastics. He believed that they should be permitted to marry, but he was willing to admit that he might be wrong, that he might be leading them all into sin. But as for that, he said, we’re all constantly being led into sin, because this is a sinful and broken world. However, we have a Savior, who has won for us salvation and forgiveness. So the entire quote is, actually, “Sin boldly, but cling to Christ more boldly still, and rejoice.”

He goes on to remind Melanchthon that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ, and he concludes his letter by saying, “Pray hard, for you are quite a sinner.”

We live in a broken and difficult world, in broken and difficult times. There are no clear-cut right answers. The difficulties we face did not begin with an election or a shooting or a trial. They run deep and wide.

This week alone saw a shooting in my home neighborhood, a place where I walked and played as a child, where I walked with my children just last week. There were mass shootings in several other neighborhoods this week, too, as well as the anniversaries of both the Pulse nightclub shooting last year and of the murders of 9 churchgoers at Mother Emanuel Church two years ago. In addition, yet another community feels that they have not had justice in the death of their brother and friend Philando Castile, and they see this as further evidence of our broken justice system.

Deeper and deeper, the chasms in our society grow and divide us, and thicker and thicker grows the scar tissue on our hearts, hardened to the pain, as we build the walls higher and higher, to hide our fear. Not just fear of the other, the ethnos, but fear of our own community, of those like us, because we are being sent out like sheep among the wolves, and the wolves in our community can be more vicious than anyone.

They will accuse us and tell us that we are sinning, that we are breaking all the rules, that we are not allowed to talk about these things:

  • we are not allowed to name racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia;
  • we are not allowed to name the violence in our streets, the violence in our language, the violence in our hearts;
  • we are being overly sensitive,
  • we are not being sensitive enough,
  • we are being too liberal,
  • we are being too conservative,
  • we are stirring the pot
  • and people just want to be left alone.

Meanwhile, the ethnos, the others we have been called to serve, are dying, are crying out, are waiting for us to show up with words of comfort, with good news for the oppressed, with sight for the blind, with freedom for the captives.

So I’m afraid we must be BOLD. We must be willing to sin against the sensibilities of polite society, and to make some people mad. After all, Jesus told those twelve that day, you’re going to torque some people off. If you are actually following Jesus, that much is guaranteed. In fact, it might be one way to know whether you’re actually following Jesus, whether you’re actually living out the gospel and working for the Kingdom of God, rather than the Kingdom of Humanity.

Are you making people uncomfortable?

Are you causing trouble in your neighborhood?

Are people bothered by the bridges you’re building, the healing you’re offering, the lepers you’re cleansing, the dead you’re raising?

We must be BOLD. We must sin boldly. Not so that we can cling to Christ more boldly still. But because we cling to Christ so Boldly.

Because we hope in the Kingdom of God, because we owe our loyalty to the Gospel of Christ, because we trust that God is at work reshaping this world, each and every day, we are BOLD.

We BOLDLY grow community, even with people we disagree with, both with people like us and with the ethnos, with people who make us uncomfortable and who think and believe and live and love differently. And if that ruffles feathers, if we are making a mistake, if we are breaking some taboos, we do so knowing that we are free in Christ to make mistakes, and break taboos, and ruffle feathers.

We BOLDLY seek understanding, learning about what makes our neighbors tick, investigating the world through science and through faith, deepening our understanding of our own faith, and learning about the faiths of others. And if that shakes us up a bit, if that causes us to ask some questions that are usually not asked, we do so knowing that in Christ, we are free to learn about God’s world, and ask tough questions, and to trust that God will still carry us in faith and carry this world forward, whether we understand how or not.

And we BOLDLY welcome diversity, reaching out to all the ethnos, as Christ instructed us, even though we do not yet fully agree among ourselves, even though we are uncomfortable, and we are probably going to make mistakes and say the wrong thing and embarrass ourselves and the people we meet. We do so knowing that diversity in this world is the work of God, and that God delights in all that God has created, and that we are called by Christ to go to all nations, all ethnicities, all others, for the sake of Christ. Boldly clinging to the cross of Christ, boldly living the mission that God has called us to in this time and this place –

Bound by Christ, to Break Boundaries.

Boldly.

A Tale of Two Stories

It is Palm Sunday. It is Passion Sunday. A day of two stories. One is a story of glory and conquest, of military aspirations and political ambitions. It is the story we tell ourselves over and over, throughout our lives, throughout our history. A story about our own ability to overcome and to save ourselves. A story of self-justification. The other is the story of the cross. It is the story that God tells about us, and for us, and through us. It is the truest story, a story about human ambitions and aspirations of self-satisfaction.

We start the morning with shouts of “hosanna!” and waving of palms, and we reenact the procession, Jesus arriving at last in Jerusalem, surrounded by adoring crowds. For those in the story, this is the moment when Jesus becomes their king. They will follow him into the city and stand behind him as he stands up to the Empire. He is the hoped-for Messiah who will reestablish Israel as its own nation. Even as they march up the west side of the mountain and through the city gates from the Mount of Olives, a contingent of Roman soldiers marches up from the sea and through the eastern gates, under the command of Pilate, a show of Roman power and might. For the people in the crowd, it is time for God to show power and might as well, and this prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee is finally here to do it. This is their vision, their ideal, their hoped-for community; this is the story they tell themselves – a powerful Israel, a strong nation, standing in its rightful place among the nations of the world.

During this season of Lent, a small group of us have been reading daily devotions from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who died under the Nazi regime just as the Allied armies were arriving. Last week, we read excerpts from his book Life Together, a book written for the small community of resistors that formed the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. And one quote in particular caught my attention: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community, even thought their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”

Those who love their dream of a community more than the community itself. This is not just about Christian community. This is about every community. This is every story we write for ourselves – our dream of what it should be like. Whatever it is. Our marriage, our weekend, our church, our nation, our Messiah. We write stories for ourselves about what they should be, a dream of what they truly are – ideals of perfection that cannot be achieved, visions of what a real family, church, nation looks like. This is what got the Israelites into trouble with kings in the first place, way back before God anointed Saul and then David to be King. The people went to God and said, “We want a king! all the other nations have kings, and we want to be like them! That’s what a real nation looks like!” And God said, “you have a king. I AM, God, your king.” And the people said, “yeah, yeah, yeah, we know all that, but we want a real king, because that’s what a real nation has.” And so God gave them a king, with all the troubles that go with it – wars and scandals and taxes and everything else.

Our nation has created all kinds of stories for ourselves, stories about a “Shining City on a Hill” and “Manifest Destiny” and the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Stories that we have used as self-justification, as excuses for slavery, for land-grabs, for oppression, even as we have convinced ourselves that our motives were ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. It’s what nations do.

You can think, I’m sure, of the stories you have written for yourself. Stories about what a “real” church looks like, for instance – how big, how many programs, how many children, or Sunday school classes, or worship services. Or stories about a “real” family – Sunday dinners, and children with manners, and obedient, snuggly toddlers who sit still while you read them a story. Or a “real” marriage – where conflict is handled appropriately and no one goes to bed angry. But these are ideals and dreams and visions, like the story that the palm-waving crowds were telling themselves. Because the truth is that there is no “Shining City on a Hill,” and “Manifest Destiny” is another way of saying that we think we are more important than the Natives of this land; and every church is unique; and every toddler wiggles; and every couple goes to bed angry at some point.

But there is another story today. It is a story that shows what is true. It is the story of the cross. There is nothing ideal or dreamy about it. It is a stark and unpleasant reality. It is what happens when we love our dream, our vision, our ideal of community, more than we love the community itself. It is what happens when we want to justify ourselves, setting ourselves over against others, seeking scapegoats, someone to take the blame for all that is “wrong” with our reality, all the ways our reality does not measure up to our ideal. This is not a story that we would tell about ourselves, because it is uncomfortable and harsh, this story about how, when faced with a choice between the ideal and the reality, people chose to crucify the God who had come into the world to be among them and to love them and to walk with them, even in the midst of their imperfect, messy reality.

The other side of the story, though, is the story as God tells it. Because this is God’s story. It is the story of God coming into the world to be among God’s beloved children, to love us, to walk with us, to know us in all of our imperfect, messy reality. It is a story that God so desperately wanted to be a part of that God was willing to die, on a cross, to take human form, to humble God’s self, and to become obedient to love, to the point of death. And this story changes every other story. Because while our stories are the ones we tell in order to justify ourselves, this is the story that God tells, the story of God’s justification of us. Of God’s love and forgiveness of us. This is the story that turns the Hosannas of Palm Sunday from human purposes to God’s purpose – from shouts of human glory and conquest to a song that we sing each week as we gather at the Table and remember the night on which he was betrayed, remember his body broken and his blood poured out, so that we can sing hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and remember, not our own dreams of ideal community, but God’s sacrificial love, that blesses and justifies the world, not as we wish it were, but the world as it is. So that we do not have to constantly rewrite new stories of our ideals, of our visions, or our dreams. Instead, we are drawn into God’s story and God’s vision for community, a community that includes everyone, not just the ones that fit our ideals; a community that is justified, not one that justifies itself; a community that is loved as it is, and drawn ever forward into God’s story, into God’s promised and preferred future.

Obstacles

We’re finally redoing the small bathroom in our house this weekend. We’ve lived with it for over 6 years, with is more than 6 years too long. It’s a tiny little 3×5 room, not more than a closet really, and a very unpleasant place, one that no one wants to use unless they have to. But there have been quite a few obstacles that have kept us from getting around to it. Money, of course. And know-how, which is probably easy enough to fix. Having several small people in the house demanding attention and food has been a major obstacle. But the biggest one is time. Finding 48 or so hours together that we can devote to a project like this, where both of us are available and awake enough. What has finally gotten us motivated enough? We have an exchange student from France showing up on Monday, a 15 year old boy. Another bathroom really is going to be necessary. One that people don’t mind going into. So this is the week.

Over the past few weeks, our Lenten readings have been about obstacles. Some obstacles are real. Some are imagined. Some are excuses. Some are of our own making. Some are put in our way by others, by society, by perceptions. In story after story, someone encounters Jesus but seems to be separated from him by some obstacle or another. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, afraid to reveal his interest in Jesus, obstinate in his misunderstanding of Jesus and his promises. And he left in the dark, still puzzling over what Jesus had said. The woman at the well met Jesus in full daylight. But she had her own obstacles – she was Samaritan, and female. She came with a history that seemed to separate her from her community. Last week, a blind man met Jesus, and obstacles were everywhere. He was blind, it was the sabbath, he was pushed out of the synagogue, out of his community, until he was alone in an alley.

Today’s readings are full of obstacles, too. Ezekiel was a prophet to the people of Israel in exile. He was with them when Jerusalem was conquered, when the people were decimated, when the entire generation was sent into exile across the desert in Babylon. The valley of dry bones is a vision for him, but it may also be a memory, a memory of a battle field he had witnessed. And those who survived that battle are now in Babylon, and they don’t know how to go on. They have always worshipped God in the Temple, on the mountain in Jerusalem. Psalm 137 tells the story of their despair:

“1By the rivers of Babylon —

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

2On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

3For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4How could we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land?”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? For the people of Israel, exile from the land means exile from God. Separation from the Temple means separation from God.

The people John is writing to are facing a similar situation. The community that first read this Gospel of John were living toward the end of the first century. Like the exiles in Babylon, they had witnessed the destruction of their Temple, the decimation of their people, the utter and complete devastation of their city. In addition, many of them were Jews who found themselves ostracized from their families and communities because of their belief that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Messiah. Like Nicodemus and the Pharisees in our stories, their families were so certain of the ways of God, so entrenched in the traditions of the Temple, that they could not see any other possibilities. Like the Samaritan woman and the blind man, John’s community were outside the only group they had ever known, cut off and alone. Not only that, but many of them had lost their families to the conquering Roman armies. Like Mary and Martha, they had wept at the tombs of those they loved. These are people in exile. These are people who know the grief of Psalm 137. By the rivers of Babylon, by the tombs of our family, by the battlefields, by the crumbled walls of our city, in the alleys outside our synagogues, in the community of the exiles, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion, when we remembered our loved ones, our Temple, our families, our homes. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, in a strange town, in a different language, in a new way? How can we even be sure that God knows where we are, who we are? How can we be sure that God is even with us?

And in each of these stories God shows up. In each of these stories, God brings new life, now. For the exiles in Babylon, God promises that these dry bones can live, and breathes new life into them, knitting them together into not just individuals, but into a community, where they are. Not waiting until they can come back to Zion; they do not have to make their way back across the desert to the mountain where God is waiting; instead, God comes to them, there in that valley, and creates them as a community.

For the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus promises living water, and sends her back into her community, back to those she has avoided, and gives her a new life and a new purpose, now, telling her, “I AM,” God is standing right here in front of you. Nothing stands between you and God.

For the blind man, sitting alone in an alley, Jesus comes and finds him, and restores him to community, to relationship, even outside of the synagogue. God is standing there in the alley with him, inviting him to trust, and to see.

Even for Nicodemus, going back out into the dark, still puzzling over what Jesus has said, Jesus has come to draw him into a new relationship with God, slowly opening his eyes, slowly stepping into the light, so that each time we meet Nicodemus, he is a little more trusting, a little more prepared to believe that God might actually be coming to him. That he might not have to climb his way to heaven. That God might be willing to bring new life and new hope into this world. Now.

And for Lazarus and Mary and Martha. For those who weep and worry, who wonder how God can reach them, or their loved ones, when death seems to be so much stronger, when darkness and destruction seem to be winning, when our tarrying seems to get in the way of life, when our grief seems so much bigger than anything that God can deliver. Jesus shows up. Jesus weeps with us. And Jesus reminds us that nothing, not exile, not darkness, not blindness, not certainty, not doubt, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

The next time we see Lazarus, he will be reclining at the table with Jesus, living as fully and as abundantly as it is possible to live, in the arms of his family, in the community of his friends, in the presence of his God.

So many obstacles would seem to stand in our way. The obstacles of a bathroom remodel are nothing compared to the obstacles that we find between us and God, between us and life, between us and resurrection. And yet every one of these obstacles is something that God has already overcome. God does not wait around for us to figure out how to get back to Zion, how to open our own eyes, how to truly believe and trust, how to find our way back into the good graces of the community, how to pull ourselves out of sin or doubt or despair. In this water, at this table, in this Jesus, `God comes to us, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, and knits us together, bone to bone, sinew to sinew, and calls us out of our darkness, into the light, into love, into new life. Right now. Right here.

What We Expect to See

The comedian Trevor Noah was born in South Africa under the rule of Apartheid. In his memoir, Born a Crime, he describes how, since his mother was black and he was “colored,” or mixed race, they could not safely walk down the street together. When his white father was along, it was even more complicated. In order to go to the park with her son, her mother devised a plan. She enlisted the help of a “colored” woman in their building, who would walk to the park with them. Trevor would walk next to this woman who looked like him, but was not his mother, while his real mother would walk behind, in the place of a servant. His father would walk on the other side of the street. And people accepted this. Because they saw what they expected to see, a colored woman with a colored child; a black servant; a white stranger; they were fine with it.

We see what we expect to see.

Two weeks ago, we met Nicodemus. An insider, a Pharisee, a religious authority, he came to Jesus at night, certain of who Jesus was. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” But Nicodemus would not or could not understand what Jesus said, and he left as much in the dark as he came.

Last week, we met an outsider, with at least three strikes against her. The wrong race and religion, the wrong gender, shamed in marriage not once but five times, the Samaritan woman at the well met Jesus in full daylight, at noon. And somehow, this outsider, this completely wrong person became the first evangelist, preaching to the people of her town, and bringing new disciples to Jesus using his own words, “Come and see!”

This week, we meet insiders and outsiders, all struggling with blindness turned to sight, with darkness turned to light; all struggling to reconcile the way that they thought the world worked, they way that they thought God worked, with this man from Galilee, who seems to be turning it all on its head.

The disciples set the stage: “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It would have been the common wisdom of the day. If someone is born blind, either God is visiting the iniquities of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation (as it says in Exodus). Or, following Ezekiel, who says, “a child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent,” they reason that the man himself must have sinned, perhaps even in the womb. And throughout the story, you can see this assumption lurking behind people’s words. The Pharisees even tell him, “you were born entirely in sins.” In any case, they know how God works; they know how the world works.

But you can see their dilemma – if this blindness is caused by sinning, then it could not be cured by sinning. Yet the man born blind claims that Jesus made mud on the Sabbath and used that to cure him. And making mud is work, which is forbidden on the Sabbath, so it’s sinful. How can Jesus do something sinful, and then use that sinful work to remove the sin that caused the blindness? It just doesn’t make sense!

The Pharisees aren’t being obstinate. They’re not being difficult. They just cannot understand how this could be, because it flies in the face of everything that they believe about sin, about judgment, about who is in and who is out. The fact that this man who was blind now can see has turned their world upside down. No wonder they keep hassling him to tell the story again. So much so that the man born blind even mocks them – “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Finally, in frustration, they drive the man out of the synagogue. They may not have answers, but they have their certainty. If this man’s sight calls their certainty into question – well, something’s gotta give. They would rather believe the evidence of their certainty than the evidence of their eyes. Who’s blind now?

We see what we want to see. We place labels before we know the truth. Thugs, hooligans, terrorists. We clutch our purse tighter. We cross to the other side of the street. We demand to know where someone is from. Only to find out that, though their skin is dark, though they do not fit our stereotype of “American,” their family has been here longer than ours. They are more “American,” whatever that means, than we.

We see what we want to see. We assume motivations and intentions, without asking. We take one person’s word over another’s, because it suits our assumptions. We break relationships rather than challenge our preconceived notions or what is real, who is in, who is out. We open our hearts, our tables, our doors to those who fit our idea of “Christian,” of “moral,” or “proper,” and risk missing out. Who’s blind now?

We have the same dilemma that the Pharisees had.

Either God works the way we want God to work – that is, the sinners are on the outside, like the blind man and the Samaritan woman at the well, and the saints are on the inside, like the Pharisees and Nicodemus – we understand how God works, and we maybe even have some control over how God works.

OR God is something wholly unexpected –blind men can see and sighted people grope about in the dark – God is doing the unexpected – reaching out to the outsiders and drawing them in.

In the gospel of John, this is what God is up to. In today’s story, Jesus shows up again at the end. After all the interrogations, after the name-calling and consternation, after the blind man is finally cast out of the synagogue for nothing more than stating the truth – “though I was blind, now I see” – Jesus comes and finds him. I picture him sitting in an alley, unsure what to do, having gained his sight but having lost his synagogue and his family and his friends. He’s leaning up against a wall, trying to understand everything that’s happened to him in the last couple days, and Jesus comes and finds him.

Because that’s what this story really tells us about. It’s not about whether we know how God works, or whether we are prepared to accept God’s miracles. It’s not about how we are insiders needing to reach out to outsiders, or we are outsiders who need acceptance by the insiders. It’s not about what we see.

It’s about God. God who comes to us – whether we are in the light or the dark; whether we are on the inside or the outside. Because really we’re both. We’re sinners and saints at the same time – constantly forgiven and constantly needing forgiveness.

Two weeks ago, we met Nicodemus – a sinner and a saint, who discovered just how much God loved the world. Last week, we met the Samaritan woman – a sinner and a saint, who encountered Jesus at a well, who was set free by Jesus’ love. This week, we meet a man born blind, who receives sight, and we meet Pharisees whose certainty becomes blindness – sinners and saints that Jesus finds, sinners and saints on whom Jesus shines his light.

Sinners and saints – that’s us – living constantly in the light and constantly in the dark. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Basics

As a rule of thumb, people can live for three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. These are the three most basic components we need to stay alive. Everything else is important, but without air, water, and food, we’re doomed.

So it struck me as an interesting experiment to think about the Scriptures through this basic fact. And just a quick survey showed me that, while I don’t imagine it will be the Rosetta Stone to open the entire Scriptures to us, it is at least one helpful lens. For example, the first thing that happens in the entire Bible is that a wind from God sweeps over the face of the waters. And the Hebrew word for wind and breath is the same word. So two of the first words in the entire bible are about water and air. And then one of the last things that we hear about in the story of Jesus and his disciples is that God sends the Holy Spirit to the disciples. And guess what? The word for Spirit is the same, both in Hebrew and Greek, as the word for wind or breath.

You can do the same thing with water and food, too. It’s a fun game to try at home! In any case, throughout the Bible, again and again, God provides water and food, and sends the Spirit to support, sustain, and inspire (ooh! there’s another double meaning word!).

For example, in the Exodus reading from this morning, the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. In Egypt, they were captive, but they did know where their next meal was coming from. They had their basic needs met. And now they are on their own, in a desert. Facing death. They blame Moses. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” But God provides. The same is true in the story just before this one – when the people cry out for food, God provides. These Israelites have broken free from their moorings, left behind everything they have known, have no idea how to live in freedom, not even how to get their own food and water, or how to find their way across the wilderness. And God has sent them what they need – manna from heaven, water from a rock, and the Spirit to guide them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Air. Food. Water. To show them that they can trust this God.

In the Book of John, these things come up over and over again as well. Water to wine at Cana. Last week’s conversation with Nicodemus, about being born of water and spirit. Today’s conversation at the well. Stories about feeding multitudes, or just reclining at the table with friends. Living water, bread of life, the lamb of God, the true vine – all point to these basic necessities – air, water, food. And the God who we can trust to provide them.

A professor of mine, Karoline Lewis, is an expert on the Gospel of John, and she likes to say that, just because a story mentions water doesn’t mean it’s about baptism, and just because a story mentions food doesn’t mean it’s about the Lord’s Supper. But, just because this story of the Samaritan woman at the well is not about baptism doesn’t mean that we can’t make a connection. Because what this story is about is relationship and belonging. Which is also what baptism is about.

First, a word about Samaritans and this nameless woman at the well. The Jews of Judea,

consider Samaritans to be half-breeds, descendants of invading armies and Israelite farmers too unimportant that be driven into exile. Samaritans worshiped Yahweh, but they only acknowledged the first 5 books of the Bible. And their version said that Mt. Gerazim in Samaria was the proper place to worship God, not Jerusalem in Judea. Only 150 years before Jesus’ time, the high priest of Jerusalem had burned the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerazim. As far as the Jews were concerned, Samaritans were impure, unclean, and to be completely avoided. Most Jews travelled around Samaria completely. But Jesus, remember, “had to” go through Samaria. And now here he is, talking to a Samaritan woman, completely violating about a hundred different rules.

And not only is she Samaritan and female, but she is so much an outsider, that she comes to the well at a time when no one else will be there. She is so alone, so outcast, that not even this most basic drudging chore receives the relief of community.

But let’s not jump to conclusions. I know the traditional reading is to assume that this woman is a prostitute or a serial adulterer. But the text does not say that, and at no time does Jesus call her a sinner, invite her to repentance, or even speak of forgiveness. There are many reasons within the law why this woman may have been in this situation, without it being exactly her fault. She may have been lawfully divorced by unfaithful men, or because she was barren, or simply because she dropped a casserole dish; she may have been widowed 5 times; she may have been forced to live with the brother of her deceased husband without being married to him, in order to continue the family line. She may be living with a brother or another male relative who is caring for her in the absence of a husband.

Whatever the case, since Jesus does not draw conclusions about her sinfulness, neither should we.

What we can say is that she is likely to be shunned by her neighbors. At best, she is unlucky, at worst, she is being punished. Either way, we can safely imagine that things are not going well for her, and that she is not used to being treated kindly or fairly. She is not used to being seen as worthy. She does not belong.

And so she comes to the well, with nothing but an empty water jar, and a sense of need. This nameless woman brings with her shame, worry, fear; she may carry grief, or horror, or guilt. Whatever she carries, Jesus welcomes her, and offers us what she most needs, what is most basic. Water. Living water. Which in the Book of John, in the Bible as a whole, is code for relationship.

How do I know that this is really about relationship? Well, for one thing, it happens at a well. Which, in the Bible, means something. It’s a set-piece. Like, for instance, in the first scene of a romantic comedy, the two characters who have an awkward meeting, like they come around a corner and bump into each other and spill everything, or they hate each other at first, you know those two are the ones that are going to end up getting together at the end, right? Well, in the Bible, when a man and a woman meet at a well, they get married.

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus is looking to marry this woman. But there is something in her life that has not been fulfilled, a relationship that she has not been able to resolve, and it has apparently subjected her to some level of dishonor. She has been pushed to the outside of the outsider group, reduced to a solitary life, forced to do her chores in the heat of the day to avoid the rest of the town. And here at this well is a man who sees immediately to the heart of her sorrow, sees her for who she is. So she asks this prophet the same question the Israelites ask in the wilderness. Where is God when I need God? Is God trustworthy? Will God come through? Is the Lord among us or not? Is God here on this mountain, or there on that one?

And Jesus’ answer is, neither. God is standing right here in front of you. “I am,” he says, revealing and claiming the name of God as his very own. I AM. You don’t need to climb some mountain to find God. When you need God, God is here. You do not need to go looking for God in the city or the wilderness or the Temple. Is the Lord among us or not? I AM, says Jesus.

I AM the living water, I AM the bread of life, I AM in the basic necessities, meeting you in water, meeting you in bread and wine, meeting you in the very air you breathe. Meeting you in the gathering of the people, and drawing you into the life of God, into the Body of Christ, into belonging. Into relationship.

This is what Jesus offers the woman, what Jesus offers you. Relationship. Acceptance. Belonging. You don’t have to prove yourself worthy, sinless, capable. You don’t have to buy anything or like the right music or wear the right clothes. You are simply invited to bring whatever you carry, and then leave it there at the well, just as this Samaritan woman left her water jar.

That’s how excited she was, how amazed she was. She came to the well in the middle of the day to avoid everyone in town, carrying all her shame and all their judgements. And there was Jesus, offering her the most basic thing she needed – living water. Relationship. And she was so excited, she left all of that stuff she carried with her, left her jar and ran back to the very people she had been trying to avoid, anxious to share what she had found. Anxious to bring them, even these people who have shunned her and shamed her, to witness this living water, to meet this God they could trust to provide. To be in relationship with the living God.

Each week we gather to ask a simple question. A simple, very difficult, sometimes painful question. Is the Lord among us or not? It can be hard to tell, through all of our needs, through our thirst and our hunger. It can be hard to tell, so distracted are we by all that we are carrying. Is the Lord among us or not? And each week, Jesus meets us at the well. Right here. With water, wine, and word. With relationship. Ready to accept us as we are, so that we will drop our burdens and run out to the world, proclaiming the good news. Come and see!