We love because he first loved us. Those who say “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. – 1 John 4: 19-20

As we work our way through this “Be the Church” series, so many of the phrases seem like no-brainers. We hear, “how to be the church: protect the environment, reject racism, embrace diversity” and most of us nod and say “well, of course.” I doubt there’s a single one of these phrases that we’ve read and been really shocked.

But this one: Love God. Isn’t this the most evident one? Isn’t it really our reason for being here? This one phrase, towards the end of the banner, feels more like a starting point than a goal toward which we, as a church, need to strive.

The idea of loving God echoes throughout scripture, from the phrase in Deuteronomy that has become a crucial prayer for our Jewish cousins: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. This phrase reappears in the Gospels, where it is both quoted and added to: we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And one might argue that all the rest of our Bible is just commentary on this one point that Jesus called the greatest commandment – commentary to which he added in abundance. And if we spend page upon page of scripture, parable after parable of gospel story, point after point of history and prophecy and reflection exploring what this one commandment actually looks like in practice, then maybe it’s safe to say that “Love God” isn’t nearly the no-brainer we’d like it to be.

In his extrapolation on the greatest commandment, Jesus reminds us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. The author of the epistle we read this morning emphasizes this point: that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor, from the love of those who are created, as we are, in God’s image. Which doesn’t leave much wiggle-room, though we seem to keep trying to find a loophole.

Several years ago, the British actor Russell Brand had a short-lived talk show, one segment of which has stayed with me. He invited two members of Westboro Baptist onto his set, to explain why they picketed funerals, pride celebrations, and churches like ours. Brand took the opportunity to ask how, in the light of such scriptures as we heard today, the folks at Westboro could preach such hatred? Their answer: it wasn’t hatred, but love. They did love the world, they said, so it was their duty to save it from the sins they saw as pervasive in our culture. And though I think that we can all recognize the corruption of the word love here, from a group whose signs often read “God Hates [fill in the blank],” it strikes me that the clear example here underlines the slipperiness we sometimes experience in acting out of a place of love. Because I have heard, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the shaming of women – over  their weight, their clothes – supposedly for the sake of their health, their attractiveness to a partner, their safety in this world.  All of which are seemingly benign, even positive reasons; all of which leave tremendous scars and can have devastating consequences to their physical and mental health. I have heard the loving parents who seemingly don’t want their child teased – again, a reason that seems utterly benign! – and so enforce conformity to social norms around what toys they use, what sports they play, what clothes they wear, until the child loses their self entirely, loathing their own impulses and doubting their own dreams. Is this love?

I have heard the people, bare-faced yesterday in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting their torch-lit certainty that only certain people are worthy of love, and that the rest are an infestation to be removed rather than beloved children of the creator. I’ve heard the assertion, in the name of fairness and love, that both sides – the armed and the unarmed, the prayerful and the threatening, the murderous and the self-defending – bear equal responsibility for violence.

I have heard corrective love, which says, “I love you so I’m going to tell you how wrong you are.”

I have heard inward-focused love, which says, “I love my people so much I’m going to get rid of the people not like us.”

I have heard conditional love, which says, “I love you, but I’d love you so much more if you’d change.”

I have heard tremendous harm done to human hearts and human relationships in the name of love, in the name of a loving God.

Having heard all of that, I tell you truly that we are failing at that greatest commandment, whether by constraining our own willingness to love, or by remaining silent in the face of an unjust, unloving world. And if we are failing at this commandment, I’m not sure how well we’re doing at loving God.

Because the person who quizzed Jesus about what it would take to achieve the Kin-dom knew the commandment. He knew to love God, knew to love his neighbor… but he still had to ask the question that we so often seem to ask, which is as much about how we love, as it is about whom we love. And Jesus told him a parable: about how the people who did things differently, the people we’d be tempted to “lovingly” correct in their beliefs, their manners, their ways of worship, might be the ones who could teach us a thing or two about what it really looks like to love. Jesus told a parable about how love is going to mean getting our hands dirty, about how it might cost us emotionally and financially, about how it might be the way into the Kin-dom of God.  Jesus told a parable about how the refusal to see the suffering of another, no matter how different, is a form of violence; not how we bring about the Kin-dom. Jesus told a parable in which we are reminded that love cares for a person as they are; that love seeks to heal, not to harm; that love sees the image of God in another – even the most different, despised other – and makes God visible in this world.

The love that we are called to embody is the love that we have known first from God: the love which is uncritical, unconditional; which sees in us the reflection of the divine, the creation which is blessed by God from the beginning of the world. The love that we are called to embody is is both incredibly simple and extremely difficult, because it calls us to see each other – beyond the familiar, beyond the known, beyond the comfortable; to see each other as we have been seen by God, to see each other as though we were seeing God. It calls for us to care as much about the stranger as we do about our own people; to remember that we are all kin, we are all siblings – of all shapes, all sizes, all genders, all colors – images of our one God walking through this world.

To love God is to love the presence of the divine made visible in that which God created, made present in our care for each other, without condition, without reservation; without harm, or shame, or correction.

And I hope that is, in fact, why we are here.

I hope that this is our starting point, when we come into worship, whether or not we consider this love a no-brainer. Because the love of God, present here in us all, is indeed the foundation on which we build all the other ways we are the church.  The vision we cultivate here of God’s image in us all – those who look like us, who think like us, and those who do not; those who are familiar to us, and those who are not – is the beginning of faith, the beginning of discipleship. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of seeing God in those who are not just like us, and of being seen as carrying God’s image within us. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of loving, and of being loved, in this place as we are with God, so that we can carry that practice out into the world and love our God by loving one another: all of us, who are created in God’s image, all of us, who are held by God’s grace, all of us, who are siblings to one another in God’s love.

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O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.

 

No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell.  Yet so it was, in the little town on the hillside; the prosperous little town full of healthy, hardworking people. A happy town known for its hospitality and generosity in abundance. 

Years later, when someone would ask, no one could say for certain when they’d noticed. It had been subtle at first, just barely perceptible in pants that felt loose, shirts that didn’t fit as well through the shoulders. Perhaps it was the very intimacy of these discoveries, the individuality of them, that kept people from noticing, right away. Perhaps it was the subtlety of the change: a pound gone here, another there, over the course of years. Slowly, though, the whispers began. First, about thelosses that others were enduring: parents in the schoolyard, talking in murmured euphemisms, of how their own parents seemed somehow to be fading; how, perhaps, have you noticed? the shop owner? the principal? the city councillor? is it just me, or…?

 No one remembered how it started; no one remembered when. But they remembered the first time someone said it, during a town meeting. They remembered how the mayor had been reassuring, but unconsciously hitched up his own pants, just a bit. They remembered how the town doctors had gone to a conference in the valley, how they’d been relieved to know it wasn’t just their town, how they’d been reassured, when the doctors came back sure it was just an infection. These things happen, you know. Feed a cold, you’ll be fine. 

They remembered how, at the town meeting called to hear the doctors’ report, a tiny girl had suddenly leapt almost out of her mother’s arms; had made the whole room laugh as she cried, “I FLY!”

 The reassurances of that meeting, and the question of a virus that would disappear with rest and nourishment, had sparked a sudden bustle of recipes. They were exchanged in whispers, argued over, bragged about. Choice ingredients disappeared from the market, following one fad, and then another, only to be kept hidden in the back of pantries. Neighbors grew suspicious of one another, as they borrowed a cup of sugar and saw  the pantry door, once thrown wide, was now kept half-closed. Community dinners, once lavish affairs, became more simple, as precious nourishment was kept within the family to try to stem the infection… or whatever it was, because no one could quite isolate it. And no meal, no expense, could stop what was, by this point, apparent: the town was getting thinner.

The terms used varied, depending on the person; the more politically savvy would say people were  “leaner,” but everyone recognized that for the tact, the spin it was. The simple truth was that the adults in the town losing weight. Less so the kids, though the age varied: somewhere between eight and twelve, thereabouts – the age of maturity, the age of awareness. The town was getting thinner, and the wind that blew down the hill seemed sometimes as if it would blow them all clean away.

 Meetings were called. Very soon the doctors’ findings treated with derision. Other specialists were called in: nutritionists, who called for a traditional diet; coaches, who recommended new workouts to hip music; consultants, who suggested treating the kids before they got it too… and not a few snake oil salesmen, as will happen, in situations like this. At every meeting, the townfolk became less convinced, and more skeptical – after all, nothing had ever worked, why should the new suggestions? And so the snake oil salesmen weren’t the only ones dismissed, after halfhearted attempts at working out to music that felt unfamiliar, or at treating kids for an ailment no one really understood anyway.

More than once, at a town meeting, the little girl had interrupted. Having soon grown too big for her newly-tiny mother, she would flap her arms and run up and down the aisles of the school auditorium where they all sat hunched up against the wind. The first time it had been cute; quickly, the adults, tense and anxious, asked her mother to remove her and not to bring her back, this little one who couldn’t understand the terrible gravity of the town’s problems. 

But no one could remember how it began. Surely, something had changed? Some thought that perhaps, if they could just remember;  just find the missing ingredient; the thing they’d had then, before the problems began… but as the years went on, the unity of the town began to splinter. Younger people, plagued with the same affliction, blamed their elders for not doing more, sooner. The elders blamed their children for not being more invested in finding a solution. They all blamed the wind, against which they struggled daily, wasting precious calories, having to fight to remain upright. Community dinners became tense affairs, with bland food in small dishes so there was hardly enough for those who brought the food, let alone for those who wandered in, hungry and tired, in need of hospitality. Indeed, it seemed that the whole town was collapsing inward: the stores closed, their owners weakened and tired. The roads cracked, potholes sank, street sweepers came less and less often.  Volunteers kept up the flower beds, until their bodies grew too frail, and the wind rattled the weeds that sprang up in abundance. 

The city council tried to step in, but dealing with a crisis like this was beyond anything they’d ever had to do, and they sat, looking at one another around the council table – at the gaunt, drawn faces, prominent collarbones showing under loose, ill-fitting clothes – debating for the twentieth time the same idea.

Town meetings were somber, bitter affairs by this time, lively only when they were antagonistic. On their way out, people were known to joke that they felt even thinner than when they’d gone in, and there might have been truth to that… but it was hard to tell. The children of the town were, by now, accustomed to adults who appeared almost skeletal, their eyes prominent above sharp cheekbones, their hands that seemed to be just a collection of bones wrapped tight in dry, leathery skin. Adults who leaned into the wind, struggling as though against an invisible assailant. And this sharp and brittle collection of people exchanged sharp, brittle words, as pointed as their elbows, seeking solutions and just as quickly picking apart the suggestions with bony fingers. 

The little girl, not quite so little anymore, stood quietly beside her mother – old enough now to be allowed in the meetings; no longer flapping down the aisles after cutting her finger on the protruding hip bone of a former shopkeeper. She stood and listened to the wind, rattling among them through the old, leaky windows and the cold, hissing words. In a moment when the wind stilled, and silence hovered, she spoke her solution to the ever-present problem, her words still full and round and childish: “We could fly…”

Brittle, hard laughter crackled around the room until the mayor looked thoughtfully at the child. “Perhaps,” he mused, his voice tight, “it’s the one thing we haven’t tried.” The room, shocked into deathly silence, gaped at him. He shrugged, a gesture that seemed to put him in danger of collapse. “The wind is the one thing left to us, if we can harness it…” Each word fell from his thin, fleshless lips, as the crowd drew its collective breath. 

It wasn’t that simple, of course, though it was not quite as hard as people would remember. No one wanted to leave the town. And between those who reluctantly began tearing down, convinced it was the end, and those who held on, certain it was their own bodies being torn apart, it was astonishing that it happened at all. Both sides were convinced that death was imminent. They saw it clearly in the walking skeletons who implemented tise final, desperate plan: the flying machine made of the schoolroom floors, the store counters, the mayor’s desk; nailed together with the accusations of precious materials held back and hidden safely away; sealed with the hopes born of desperation, that death might not come today; weighted down with the fears – on both sides – that this attempt, with everything at stake, would fail. For as the people grew lighter, as they grew to resemble walking bones, the possibility of flight weighed heavier among them until it seemed that even the strongest wind could not lift them from this place where they were rooted.  

Finally, the flying machine was ready. Finally, the will of the people would be put to the test. Finally, the work of their hands would lift them out of the desolation that had once been a prosperous and happy town. And in the years to come, everyone would remember how it happened that the people – mere bones by that point -took their place within this creation of theirs, this product of their hopeful anxiety, their despairing dreams. In the years to come, everyone would remember how the wind came up and blew over them, rattled through them; how they shivered once and seemed to fall apart, how they could not move. 

And then…

No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell. 

The little girl – the annoying one, the outspoken one, the bothersome one, with her crazy ideas about flying – was she among them, where they lay in the midst of all that was so precious? Was she still in the village? or up on the hill, looking upon them, her eyes full, spilling tears of grief, of compassion? No one could say, and no one would quite be able to remember, in the years to come, how long it was before the breeze stirred down the hill, through the village, around the flying machine; how the girl lifted her arms, leaned back, easily, gently, let the wind catch her lightness… let it catch her up as a parent lifts a beloved child to carry her to safety.

And how did it happen? How do such things happen, anyway? that the breeze brought her words back to stir among the bones of the people; words like the rush of summer wind: 

“It is not the work of our own hands that we need. We cannot control the wind. It is not ours. But we can still fly.”

And the wind, soft, gentle, round and warm and full of promise, moved over those who had been reduced to their hardest parts. And the bones trembled with possibility, as they felt themselves take flight.  

The hand of the Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

 

…he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.  -John 4:3-4

There are just moments in scripture that make me feel bad for the disciples.

In John’s gospel, the disciples’ call story follows directly on Jesus’ baptism. Those first  disciples are present, there at the Jordan, and they take John’s word for who Jesus is, and follow accordingly. From there, more join in, following the word of mouth invitation to “come and see.” And goodness, do they see! Those first experiences with Jesus were exhilarating: the wedding at Cana, where he turned water into wine must have felt like a joyful, easily appreciated sign. And even as Jesus, in Jerusalem for the Passover, drove out the money lenders and vendors from the Temple, it must have been fun to be behind him, watching this moment of purification. It seems like a moment that would be almost as intoxicating as the wine.

If what you knew of your teacher was wisdom, power and wine, it strikes me that it would be pretty easy to follow. And so I wonder if these new disciples didn’t relax a bit, as they traveled Judea and Galilee? I wonder if they didn’t get a bit lulled into ease and abundance?

And then they went home. Back to Galilee.

And Jesus had to go through Samaria.

It seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel; it’s not part of the lectionary text in this story, after all, how important could it be?

Samaria is the land between Judea and Galilee, home to those utterly despised by Judeans and Galileans alike. Contact with a Samaritan would render a Jew ritually unclean; travel through the region was therefore unsafe.  Although the direct line to Galilee could go through Samaria, no practicing Jew at time would take that particular route, but would go up the far side of the Jordan, so as to avoid the Samaritans. So as to avoid contamination.

But Jesus had to go through Samaria

I wonder what the disciples thought of this.  What did they think, as they approached Sychar and went to buy food from those whom they would have shunned, normally? What did they think, when they arrived back to find Jesus talking with a Samaritan – and not just a Samaritan, but a woman! A woman who had the audacity to look Jesus in the eye, to express her own opinions, to ask theological questions, to push and prod and examine him? We’re only in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, and the honeymoon is already over.

For us, here and now, this scene is not surprising. This is, after all, the Jesus we’ve come to expect: the one who doesn’t abide by social graces but lives in God’s grace, in every interaction. I think sometimes we forget that the disciples didn’t have the full picture. They didn’t know how the story would end. They didn’t entirely know what they had signed up for when they had been invited to “come and see.” They didn’t know the grace, the power, the resurrection, as we do. So they are far more shocked than we are to find Jesus hanging out with a Samaritan woman (not an immoral one, as tradition holds, but still a woman from a despised people).  We are not surprised that Jesus’ first illustration of the words he spoke, just one chapter before,  “God so loved the world that he sent his son…” should remind us that the world God loves includes Samaria. We are not surprised and how the story develops from there, and chuckle tolerantly at the surprise of the disciples for whom this is a startling development; who might be just starting to question who it is that they have chosen to follow.

We are not surprised when it happens to the original disciples, when it’s told in hindsight, when it’s a story. So why are we surprised when it happens to us?

That Jesus had to go through Samaria was as shocking to the disciples as it would be to us to find that he had to go through Syria, or Iran, or Sudan, or Somalia, or Libya, or Yemen, to find someone who would recognize the presence of God. I feel bad for those early disciples, shocked out of the joyous honeymoon phase, because I am a disciple myself who sometimes wishes that being church was all water into wine and turning the tables of corruption. I feel bad for them, because often enough, I don’t want to go through Samaria.

It’s a hard thing, to see the folks whom we’ve pushed to the margins as being beloved of God, as being part of the world God loves, as being able to make known to us the presence of God in ways we had not yet fully understood. It’s a hard thing, when those we follow call us to walk a path we’ve resisted all our lives, a path that feels unsafe and uncertain. It’s a hard thing, when discipleship calls us to question our assumptions, calls us to love those we have been taught to despise, calls us to choose compassion over sectarianism, calls us to risk our status in polite company – to choose the company of the “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome. It’s a hard thing, when following Jesus takes us to the margins, to the place where we are called to see the humanity of those whom we may have long excluded, whom we have called dangerous, or unworthy, or simply “other.” It’s a hard thing when being the church that follows Jesus makes it feel like the honeymoon is over, and leads us through Samaria.

It was a hard thing for the disciples then, and it is hard for us now. The call into the places we fear and avoid is every bit as hard to discern for us as for the disciples. But we who chuckle at the discomfort of the disciples could learn a bit from them, as well: these people who followed, even when it meant going through Samaria; even when following took them into uncomfortable, unclean spaces. We could learn from those who were taught how to accept hospitality from the “other”, the despised and rejected. We could learn from those who, against all their instincts and learned prejudices, followed Jesus, whom they were still learning to trust.

Even into Samaria.

The Samarias of our world might not look as they did to the disciples, but they will still be the places that we have written off, or the people that we have rejected. Our own walks through Samaria will be the ones that call us to question our assumptions and check our privilege. And they might just make us as confused as the disciples; just as uncertain of our path, and those who lead us along it.

There will be times when we look at our leaders – our pastors and modern-day prophets – and say, “You’re going to make us go through Samaria?” And we will long for the simplicity of wisdom and wine, of sweetness and abundance, of truth spoken to external powers, rather than to our hearts. I hope, that when those moments come, we will remember that sometimes it is only in Samaria that we find the presence of God revealed, that we see the full extent of God’s love for this world.

Because it is when we allow ourselves to be led into Samaria, when we find that we have to walk that path, that the expansiveness of God’s grace is truly revealed. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that God’s love exceeds our human limitations, and includes those whose exclusion we justify. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that the Body of Christ, the world that God loves, cannot be contained by human borders or judgments, but that God is present among those on the margins, among those whom we consider irrevocably “other.” It is in the Samaritan woman that we see God as God, rather than as a reflection of ourselves, and we remember why, despite our discomfort, we had to go through Samaria.

My prayer for us all is that we will end up spending a lot of time in Samaria; a lot of time seeking God in places we have not dared to venture for a long time. My prayer is that we  will trust in one another, and in the God who is beyond our understanding, and in so doing create anew a church in which grace abounds, in which love abides beyond all that we have experienced to this point, and that you will accept the hospitality to stay in the margins, the unexpected places where God is revealed.

Even if it means going into the places of uncertainty and discomfort.

Even if it means going to places you’d rather avoid.

Even if it means going through Samaria.

 

… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.  -John 3b-4

God  so loved the world… That famous verse, John 3:16, the verse that folks put  on signs at football games. I will admit: I don’t entirely get it. It’s a beautiful verse, yes, but there are a lot of beautiful verses, especially ones about God’s love. Why does this one get all the attention?

Reading Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, gave me a hint. In the book, she tells a story from her time in conservative Christianity. She went to Bible College, and one of the assignments was to go out and convert people – to get them to say the sinner’s prayer along with the student, and thereby accept Jesus in their heart. The version she prints says:

Jesus, I know that I have done bad things. I want to change. Please forgive me. I invite you to come into my heart and live there for the rest of my life. Amen.

That’s it. A conversion could be done, as Carol attempted, at an airport, in the time between getting coffee and getting on the flight. Just these few words – this brief profession – could mean salvation from an eternity of fire. Just these few words, without any real context – no real preparation, no real follow through – are sufficient in order to be “born again,” in order to cross the line of belief.

I want to be clear: these words are fine, there is nothing wrong with them. These words could be very meaningful, in the right context – they could be just the words that a person needs to say as they step into a life of faith. But airport conversions, like John 3:16 signs,  point to a thread in modern Christianity – and not just in  the conservative parts of it – that hold belief as the most crucial element ; that hold an individual’s direct connection with God, or Jesus, as the clearest indication of their salvation. It’s the idea that God loved the world enough to save believers, the ones who had made a choice – in an airport, or on a street corner, or in church – to accept Jesus, to be born anew, to get right with God.

It’s a compelling idea that there is a formula, that there is a key, that there are a few words that can turn everything around. It’s a compelling idea that belief is all we need: belief in one who loves, belief in one who does not condemn. It’s a compelling idea, possibly because it’s an achievable idea; because professing belief doesn’t really require much of us except, perhaps, acknowledging our imperfection and inviting Jesus to love us anyway.

It’s almost a shame that John’s gospel doesn’t end right there, with this lovely verse.

But it doesn’t.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, this learned religious man, about God’s profound love for this world, about God’s promised kingdom and our place within it. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loves the world that God’s own flesh will bring rebirth, renewal, salvation.

And then it goes on.

And then it goes on through Samaria.

We are told that Jesus, returning to Galilee from Jerusalem, had to go through Samaria. But that’s not geographically true. Really, no practicing Jew would have willingly gone through Samaria, would have risked encountering the enemy, or becoming ritually unclean, when it was just as easy to go up far side of Jordan River and into Galilee that way. But Jesus had to go through Samaria because no one loved Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because everyone knew God loved Judeans and Galileans best, these ones who worshiped correctly, in Jerusalem. Jesus had to go through Samaria, not because of geography, but because of theology. Jesus had to go through Samaria, this land the despised and demeaned, to remind us that it’s not all about us, to remind us that belief is just the first step. Jesus had to go through Samaria because God so loved the world, not just our little corners of it.

These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective, then as now, to the desire for a simple faith, to the desire to think that God loves us, took on flesh for us, and that our acquiescence – our acknowledgement of that – is sufficient. These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective that points us from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” (or, perhaps in John’s parlance, cheap love) which is that grace, that love which allows us our weaknesses, our prejudices, our failures, our animosity. Cheap grace tells Nicodemus it’s okay to despise Samaritans because God will forgive him. Cheap grace tells us that it’s okay to prioritize convenience over justice, because God will forgive us. Cheap grace justifies our actions, our human weakness, by telling us God understands – God was human too, once! – so we can just keep on keepin’ on. Cheap grace holds up the sign for John 3:16, but doesn’t move on to verse 17, and certainly doesn’t feel the need to go through Samaria.

Cheap grace doesn’t follow Jesus, once we know he loves us.

The grace that follows, that takes us beyond those stadium signs, is costly. The grace that speaks the words of the Sinner’s Prayer from the heart: that invites God’s love to come through us, as through Samaria, is going to ask something of us in return.

It is not uncommon, in reading this passage, to be a little condescending to poor Nicodemus: to think he doesn’t get it – of course Jesus isn’t talking actual rebirth! – to watch him walk away from the faith that we profess so easily on any given Sunday. But I wonder if that’s fair. I wonder if maybe he didn’t understand quite well what was being asked of him, the cost of the love that was being offered. I wonder if, perhaps, Nicodemus didn’t see the breadth of the world he was being asked to love, the need to expand his heart and change his perspective entirely? I wonder if Nicodemus didn’t understand that belief in one individual heart is a great starting place, but that it will necessarily compel us away from individuality, into relationship, into community, into the world? Maybe Nicodemus walked away because he understood better than we do that belief in a God who loves the world will make us go through Samaria, will make us love those we have been taught to despise, will make us choose compassion over sectarianism, will make us risk our status in polite company, will render us “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome.

Belief in God is not for the faint of heart. Because believing in God, and the only begotten Son leads us out into the world that God loves… even into Samaria, even into Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, even into the neighborhoods in our own nation where we drive with doors locked and windows up, even into cheap motels and encampments of our own city – these shelters of last resort, these unshelters of no resort. Belief in God and the only begotten Son leads us to see God’s love for the world reflected in those we despise, in those we fear, in those we shunt to the margins and exclude from “polite company.” Belief in God demands our hearts be broken, demands that our failings not become our excuses. Belief in God requires that that Sinner’s prayer become, not the words of our lips,  but the deepest desire of our hearts, the one that impels us out into this beloved world. Belief in God calls us to salvation, but we have to go through Samaria.

This is the grace that will cost us, that will change us entirely, that will plunge us, not once but over and over into the waters of rebirth, into the spirit of renewal. This is the love of God for the entire world that will call us, again and again, from a faith we profess to a faith we live and to a belief that lives through us. This is the faith  that will call us out into the Samarias of our world where Christ is present, if we have eyes to see. This is the faith that reaches deeper than stadium signs and airport conversions. This is the belief that reaches into our hearts and pulls us outward into the kingdom that awaits.

We just have to go through Samaria

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -Matthew 4:1

The devil takes a while to get to the scene of temptation.

Did you ever wonder why?

The common understanding is that the devil waited until Jesus was weakest. That makes sense, anyway – why not wait until your adversary is most likely to be defeated?

Perhaps that is the reason.

I wonder.

I remember, a little too clearly, what I was like in college: a white girl from a privileged Boston suburb, attending a city school, the University of  Pittsburgh. I remember watching my black classmates sit together at dinner, and wondering why I found it so hard to break in to their circle. I remember participating in specifically feminist activities and events on campus, all the while being very proud of myself for not “needing” to attend a women’s college. I remember being sure, somewhere inside myself, that if God loved all of us, and if we were to love each other, we needed to spend time together. And not in segregated spaces. This, it seemed, was the point of discipleship: hadn’t Jesus called people from all over, from all walks of life, to be together in the Kin-dom?  Hadn’t Paul called us members of one Body, and reminded us to eat together, to worship together, to shelter and feed each other?

When I was in college, I strove to be colorblind, to learn to compete and achieve in a man’s world. When I was in college, I believed in a meritocracy, and grounded that belief in God.

Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John – his cousin, according to some accounts – who had been preaching prophetically, out there beyond the cities, in his own wilderness. John preached, calling out hypocrisy, reminding us of our need for repentance, which is more than just saying we are sorry, but but changing, within our hearts, in irreversible ways. This prophet knows Jesus, in a very profound way; knows not only the man, but the spirit that is within him. Perhaps it is in the face of this Spirit, that he tries to decline, tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t need this water baptism, doesn’t need to be made new, doesn’t need to know God’s grace.  But Jesus insists.  Jesus, fully human, needs the rebirth of baptism. And then: perhaps, only then, can he follow the Spirit.

It strikes me, reading this text, that we need to feel the need to change before the wilderness is going to do us any good at all. We need to be aware of our need for repentance before we start the fast, before we seek after grace, before we go toe to toe with the devil.

It is human nature to filter our understandings of the world through our own experiences. It is human nature for people to not see or understand what they have not themselves experienced, to assume that others experience the world as they do, and that that way is “normal.” It’s why I didn’t understand the need for the black students at Pitt to find community in common experience. It’s why I didn’t truly get the power and potential of a women’s college for finding a voice that is too often silenced. It’s why so many of us don’t fully get the outrage at young black men, disproportionately stopped, arrested, and imprisoned. It’s why so many of us don’t quite understand the need for marginalized groups to be with those who don’t need to be educated, those who aren’t going to speak in well-meaning micro-aggressions. It’s human nature to see our lives as “normal” and therefore discount the experiences of others.

And human nature is hard to overcome.

It takes real acts of grace, in the face of our dismissiveness. It takes real acts of repentance and renewal to even begin, especially when we’ve been used to seeing our human nature as God’s will.

And although human nature is hardly washed away in the waters of baptism, that seems like a pretty good place to start, if one is preparing to walk along the path that God has laid before us. Even if you’re Jesus.  Because it’s not only at Christmas that we need to take the incarnation seriously: the reminder that the divine came to reside within humanity in all of its messiness. And if we do take the incarnation seriously, we need to remember that Jesus was human, with all the biases and struggles that entails; with all the need for repentance, and wilderness, and grace.

Because listening for the call of God is pretty easy, when God says what we want to hear; when we hear God speaking in our own voice – the voice of good intentions.

It took me a long time to see beyond my own privileged experiences. It took a lot of arguments before I learned to shut my mouth and listen; to recognize my own biases, my need for repentance. It took a lot of grace, from those willing to challenge my hubris. It took a long time before I was prepared even for that first step, that plunge into the water, let alone to take those first steps into the wilderness, that place of introspection and self-awareness, that place where we remember that the voice of God isn’t always calling us in ways that echo human nature. It takes a long time for human beings to recognize the particularity of our experience, especially when it’s considered “normal.” It takes a long time for humans – incarnate beings – to see our privilege: the things we can take for granted, the things that are handed to us, whether or not we deserve them. I t takes a long time to recognize the grace that we so often don’t deserve; to feel, in that grace, the need to change our hearts, our perspectives, in irreversible ways; to come face to face with the temptations this world pushes on us and recognize them for what they are.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. But the devil took a while to get there; or at least, to be recognized as such. Time enough for Jesus to take a good hard look at the world around him, in which he’d been raised, at the biases of his own human heart. Until finally, one day, in his hunger he looked at the rock and knew that he could use his power for his own benefit, but that true nourishment lies in community, not in isolation.

And that day he knew that he could leap from the highest point imaginable and not be hurt, but that true devotion was not making God fly to him, but standing with God at the margins to support those who fell easily off of pebbles.  That day, he saw clearly the trappings of power, of privilege, wielded for their own sake – even with the best of intentions – served as tools of oppression, and that the true power was held in open hands, given freely and without counting the cost.

It takes time, for us to approach the Jordan.

It takes time, for us to hear the Spirit’s pull into the wilderness.

It takes time, before we are ready to grapple with the tempter.

It takes time. Sometimes, it takes 40 days, often it takes more, to make the real, irreversible changes, to bring about repentance in the face of God’s grace that calls and accompanies us throughout our preparation for discipleship.

It takes time, but at the end, we walk out of the wilderness. At the end, we walk away from temptation, into the resurrection, and the kin-dom life of God’s eternal promises.

 

I am one of the lucky ones. I grew up in a progressive, loving United Church of Christ congregation. The church was my extended family: the people who watched out for me when I was a child, the place my friends were, the social fabric of my family’s life. Growing up didn’t change that: as a teenager, the church provided me with adults to confide in when I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my own parents about my crushes, my changing body, my existential angst.

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When my high school friends were being hurt by their churches for being gay or allies, my church was discussing whether to become Open and Affirming – overtly, explicitly welcoming of gays and lesbians. (This was before anyone talked about bi and trans.) When I came out, myself, I had no particular fear that my church would cut me off or shame me.

I am one of the lucky ones.

And so when I heard that Carol Howard Merritt was writing a book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, I knew that although I would want to read it – as a fan of Carol’s work and as a pastor to the wounded – I did not think of it as a book that I would need for myself – one of the lucky ones.

As I wiped my tears at the end of the first chapter, however, I began to suspect that I had been wrong.

There are many forms of spiritual wounding that the church, in its many forms, can inflict upon those who have sought to follow its teachings. In her book, Carol addresses directly many of the most egregious forms of harm: the sexism, the abuses of power, the homophobia that are so rampant in certain parts of Christianity. With great compassion and grace, Carol offers not only alternative perspectives, but prayerful exercises to begin the healing process.

It was in these exercises, indeed, that I realized the real power of this book. For it goes beyond telling the truth of these shattering experiences, but offers a framework for putting the pieces back together. And there, in that framework, I re-discovered that truth that undergirds our faith, but which is often too uncomfortable to remember: we are all broken. We are all wounded. Healing Spiritual Wounds is a work of truth-telling and grace not only for those who are most deeply scarred by the Church, but for the many whose brokenness comes in the form of a myriad of papercuts. The real power of this volume is in its ability to speak across experiences to a shared reality of woundedness, and the possibility for wholeness.

Healing Spiritual Wounds will certainly be a tremendous tool for every pastor, as we work with and minister to the many who have been deeply and directly wounded by the willingness of many churches to prioritize doctrine over compassion. Yet I think that those who see this book as a tool for helping others will be surprised at the healing that even we – the lucky ones – can find within its pages.

When I met Jeannie, she was about 22, recently graduated from college, and working as an intern in my company. She had been assigned to a project with some colleagues of mine, so I didn’t work directly with her; I saw her mostly in meetings, and noticed her because she was particularly quiet and attentive.

It took me a while to realize she was deaf; she had left stuff on copier, and I brought it to  her desk, approaching from behind her, talking and assuming she could hear.  She jumped, obviously; she hadn’t known I was there. I apologized, but was fascinated: I had never really known a deaf person! As I gave her the papers, I watched as she read my lips. She signed and said Thank you, her voice thick and imprecise.

Back at my desk, I emailed Jeannie to apologize again for startling her. She answered graciously, with some suggestions for how to approach her next time, so that she would be aware of my presence. I wrote right back – fascinated, curious. I asked questions about her life, her disability… the conversation was wonderful and exciting. Over email, I almost forgot she was deaf: she was bright and funny and articulate, telling me all of the ways she dealt with the world in college and in the workplace. She talked about her dreams for a future in engineering, although I was a little startled at the reason; I’d imagined it would be to create a better hearing aid or implant, but she was interested in cheaper, eco-friendly building materials to build low-income housing.

We hadn’t been friends for long when I thought about the healing service at my church. We hold it once a year, hosting a preacher who tours the country. He’s a really big deal and very expensive, but he went to school with our pastor so he includes us on the tour. Every year, we rent out the high school gymnasium and people come from all over. It’s an all-day thing, with local preaching and bands and prayer groups; at the end of the day, the famous preacher comes out and preaches, gets us all fired up with the Spirit, and ends by bringing a few people forward and healing them. I’ve seen people get over cancer; people  in wheelchairs get up and walk. I know – I didn’t believe it either! but I’ve seen it!

And I wanted Jeannie to go.

She was such a nice girl. I  wanted her to be healed, to be able to lead a fulfilling life.

I didn’t totally know how to ask her, so I just started casually mentioning my church while we were emailing, one day. When she expressed some interest, I asked her to come with me, and arranged to pick her up on Sunday morning.

When we got to church, I started to sit in my regular spot, sorta halfway back. But Jeannie gestured, and led us forward, so I followed, asking her why… forgetting she couldn’t hear me. I waited until she looked at me, and asked again why we had to sit at the front.

“To read lips,” she said. I’d forgotten how hard it was to understand her when she spoke aloud. Still, I nodded, and made the sign for “yes”; I’d learned a few basic signs, thinking that she’d be pleased. But she just smiled briefly and began looking around at the church. She seemed to follow service pretty well, and enjoy it; afterwards, I took her downstairs to get coffee and cookies. Another church member needed to talk to me, as often happens, so I introduced Jeannie to youth director and left them chatting.

It was about twenty minutes before I could come back to get her. Although alone in that moment, she seemed happy, and as we left it seemed to me she was glad she’d come.

During the week, I followed up with her over email, told her I’d pick her up again on Sunday. But she told me she’d take the bus, for the youth director had asked her to come early to help with programming. Sure enough, when I walked in for service, there she was, right up front. The music was particularly good that day, and I found myself both sorry that  Jeannie couldn’t enjoy it and glad she was coming to the church; she was on the path to healing, even though she didn’t know it yet. She didn’t know that she too would get to enjoy music…

In the weeks to come, Jeannie got more and more involved. She worked in the Sunday School, to the point where I nearly never saw her at coffee hour that she didn’t have a kid attached. And she volunteered with our mission projects, helping to build houses, working with the homeless. Actually, she was the one who pushed to have a washing machine put in at the church for the homeless, and she single-handedly organized a sleeping-bag drive for them, too.

Of course, through Jeannie, our church started working with the disabled. Soon, more and more of them started coming to our church. Some folks grumbled, but I was thrilled! I’d invited Jeannie so she could be healed; now all these other new folks could be too!

There really was something about Jeannie, though… she brought a new life, a new energy to the church. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a difference. Maybe I was just paying more attention? But it seemed like the church was filled with renewed life, added zeal; that the noise at coffee hour was up just a bit; that people were more animated – talking with their hands, kids running around, pushing the little girl who came in wheelchair, while taking care not to hit the blind man. Whatever it was, it was nice to watch… and nicer still to imagine what was in store for them.

The healing service happened on a Saturday.

We’d advertised for weeks leading up to it: talked about it in church, sent out emails and letters, posted on Facebook and Instagram. I arrived early to help set up, but felt continually distracted. I kept scanning for Jeannie, for the new people from church, unable to contain my excitement at the miracles I’d be seeing for people from my own church!

People began to arrive, the room began to fill; I was kept so busy I couldn’t watch as I would have liked for my own church members. As the event began I stood towards the back of the auditorium with the overflow – it was standing room only! – looking all around for a familiar head in the crowd. With the stage lights up and the house lights down, it was impossible to recognize any but those people right around me, and I finally resigned myself to simply enjoying the day, figuring I’d at least see them at the end, when the preacher called them up.

He was on fire, it was without a doubt the best preaching I’d ever heard. Dozens went forward to be healed at the end of the service, and I stood on my toes, craning my neck to see…

Jeannie was not among them.

No one I recognized was.

The next day I found Jeannie right in the front row at church, as usual. I stood right in front of her, hurt and angry, and looked directly into her face. “Why weren’t you there yesterday?”  She gazed at me, steadily, calmly, then held out her bulletin. I glanced down: it was the day of the children’s program. I was stunned. I knew she was involved, but… “You chose that over…” I sputtered. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore.

I took my seat – the one where I’d sat with Jeannie for weeks – still fuming.I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand.

Lost in my anger, I didn’t see the children come in, didn’t see that church was beginning until the pastor got up to welcome us… and one of the kids was beside him, signing. Translating. He was one of the new kids, so I  didn’t think much of it. But then another kid took his place, one who had been part of the church forever. There he was, signing the Call to Worship, grinning. Delighted in his newfound skill he was signing joy! Praise to God!

I couldn’t help but smile at him, too.

When we stood to sing, all the children gathered at the front of the church, the sighted ones gently leading their blind friends. Children with crutches, with wheelchairs came to the front, every child in the church dancing to the music, each moving as the Spirit led them. Each one radiant, purely happy.  Over to the side, Jeannie and the youth director were dancing as well; Jeannie had a good sense of rhythm, I realized.

Throughout the service, the kids took turns signing; during the prayer time, it was actually the kid who was signing who stood in the pulpit, as the interpreter stood to the side, translating into speech the prayers of the children: for food and shelter for our neighbors, for the earth, for an end to violence, in thanksgiving for a community that was truly welcoming.

When I looked around, to see the reaction, everyone was smiling and very few eyes were dry, my own included. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a joyful worship service: whether it was the delight of the children in participating and making the service accessible to everyone; whether it was the pride of the adults and the care and thoughtfulness of the children and their teachers… maybe that’s what filled my heart. But mostly, I think, it was the little boy, maybe 8 years old, who danced during the last song, slightly apart so that his crutches wouldn’t land accidentally on the feet of his friends; just to the side of the main group, he lost himself in the music, in the moment. When the song ended, he opened his eyes, looked right at his father, and into the momentary silence exclaimed “I danced!”

I caught up with Jeannie after the service – it took a while, everyone wanted to talk to her.

“I’m sorry.”

She nodded

“But why…?” The words trailed off as she took me by the shoulders, looked right into my eyes, then firmly turned me to look at the people gathered, drinking coffee in my church.

And I looked. And I saw.

Those gathered were, many of them, not just talking with their hands: they were signing. Awkwardly, in most cases; they were clearly still learning… but just as clearly, trying; laughing at their own ineptitude. I saw people guiding those whose vision was restricted; I realized the food tables now low enough for the folks in wheelchairs. How had I not noticed this before?

Jeannie tapped my arm. I turned; she handed me the morning’s bulletin, smiled, and walked away.  On it, she had written, You thought you knew what healing looked like…and who needed it.

I read her message several times, then looked around the room at the life, at the palpable joy. I walked slowly over to the little boy who had danced, and sat beside him, noticing his crutches resting by his side. “You danced well.”

He looked over at me, his face entirely lit up in a smile. “I never thought anyone would ask me to dance, especially in church!”

“Are you learning sign language, too?”

“We’ve all been learning from Miss Jeannie for weeks!” He bounced a little in his seat, excited, joyful

Hesitantly, I asked him, “Will you teach me?”

His face grew serious, but for the shining light in his eyes, as he took my hand, fingers splayed, then folded the middle two down to rest my fingertips against my palm.

“This is how you say, ‘I love you.’”

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; and the ears of the deaf unstopped… everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Now after that, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…” Matthew 2:13

Thus begins one of the hardest texts in our Gospels, yet one we rarely hear, for this section of Matthew tends to fall on the Sunday after Christmas, when most of us are on vacation. Titled in many bibles “The Massacre of the Innocents,” it tells of how Herod, upon learning that he had been tricked by the Magi (who went home by another way, instead of reporting back as ordered) had all the children in and around Bethlehem, who were under two years old, systematically killed. He was, of course, trying to destroy the child whom the Magi had named as a King – the infant born to Mary and Joseph.

Jesus and his family escaped. Most did not.

At this time of the year, we celebrate the coming of God into our world. We celebrate the incarnation: God made flesh, God with us. It is vital that we not overlook this detail as we re-tell the story; that we not lose ourselves in the cuteness of a baby surrounded by lambs and angels. God came into this world in the same messy way that all of us did: as vulnerable and dependent as any human baby. It is vital that we remember God’s choice to become fully human out of love for us, for here God reminds us that our humanity matters. Our bodies matter.

Nor was it only the body of one infant, born in a stable in Bethlehem, that was of consequence to God. As much as the original incarnation, the continuing presence of God made flesh matters. The Body of Christ – interwoven, interdependent humanity – matters. The Body of Creation – vulnerable and needy – matters to the God whose love incorporates the entire world.

But if the incarnation matters – if it matters that God took on human flesh and lived as one of us – then we must read this Gospel passage as more than a horrific story.

For a powerful ruler, fearful of a challenge to his authority, sent soldiers to kill the people of his own realm. The powerful ruler sent the army, not into battle against other troops, trained and ready for battle, but to kill those who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were able to escape, under cover of darkness, praying that the baby wouldn’t cry, that no one would see them, that somewhere, someone would welcome them: strangers in a strange land. Praying for Emmanuel: God with us, even as refugees.

The story that horrifies us in the Bible is unfolding in our daily papers, on the nightly news. People, who look much like Joseph and Mary, are fleeing state-sponsored violence, carrying their children and a few, necessary possessions. Children who look much as Jesus would have – brown-skinned children with wavy hair and big brown eyes – are watching as unspeakable horrors play out before their eyes.

Once again, Emmanuel – God with us – is fleeing before the specter of violence. Once again, people are dying because those in authority care more for their power than for human lives. Once again, the incarnate God is a refugee, seeking shelter from the cruelty that fearful humanity so often inflicts.

Once again, we are reading the story of the Massacre of Innocents. But now, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we would stand up to Herod’s violence. Now, we do not have the luxury of assuring ourselves that we would welcome this Nazarene carpenter, with his wife and son.

Now the Christ Child awaits a cease-fire, and a bus out of Aleppo. Now, Joseph barters passage on a leaky boat, in the hopes of reaching Lesbos. Now, Mary rocks her child to sleep in a sprawling refugee camp that has become Jordan’s third-largest city, and wonders how long she can survive in a tent. Now Emmanuel – God with us – wonders where to find shelter, welcome, love.

Friends, in this Christmas season, let us remember that it matters that God took on our humanity, our vulnerability, and came to live as one of us. And let us follow in the way of God, recognizing without fear our own vulnerability and interdependence. Let us live as thought the incarnation really mattered to us, right now, in 2017. Let us put ourselves into the story, let God-with-us know that we are also with God, wherever God is made flesh in this world.

For ways to help, please check out

http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

https://www.whitehelmets.org/en

 

 

I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.

I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons.  It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.

Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.

Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.

The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.

War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.

When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over,  “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”

That was all I knew.

War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.

 

Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.

The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real,  even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.

Green!

As though things were living, growing!

The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of  the pain of ordinary people.

This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…

She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.

I didn’t know anyone else was alive.

But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.

But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.

I fell at her feet and wept.

She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.

She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.

Then we reached the next hill.

The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I  kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.

People.

Not just me. Not just me and her. People.

Plural.

Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.

Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.

I found myself staring into eyes of a child.

A child!  It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.

I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my  voice hoarse from disuse.

I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.

Had someone really just helped me?

My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….

I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –

“No! Don’t hurt her!”

I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her;  made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at  this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?

Who has a child in times like this?

She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.

Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.

And every head turned.

And every voice faltered.

And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

 

We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.

I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.

It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.

Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.

It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.