Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl, for it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. -Genesis 16:2

This is one of those stories that are just… uncomfortable.

 God promised Sarah children, but she’s like 80, so she forces her servant into a sexual relationship with her husband for the sole purpose of getting her pregnant with a child she won’t get to keep. It’s one of those stories that no amount of  “that’s just how they did things then” or “this was just about Sarah’s lack of faith” can possibly make better, because I doubt any of it was of any comfort to Hagar in the moment that she was being raped.  

It’s uncomfortable, because often, we turn to the Bible for guidance in how to live our lives, or in how to follow the way that God has laid before us. And this story… well, it certainly shouldn’t be used as a guide, but history tells us it has been. And that, perhaps, is the point after all.

This isn’t the story of one moment, among three people; it’s the story of how humans treat each other, use each other, hurt each other to get what we think we deserve.

There was a scene in one of my favorite children’s books, The Diamond in the Window, in which the main characters are invited to step through a series of magical mirrors, set out in pairs, each reflecting a particular version of themselves; each representing the choices that rise up before them: to lie or to tell the truth; to be oneself or to try to conform. The images, the mirrors, that play to our fears and insecurities (the story tells us) narrow our paths, while the ones that reflect self-love, courage, and vulnerability open before us in limitless possibility.

So many of the stories that our scriptures present us seem often to me like looking in one of those magical mirrors; while sometimes we see them as “examples of how God wants us to be,” perhaps they function better as reflections of the choices that lie before us, and the paths we choose to walk? And, indeed, what it was that put us on that path in the first place. Because often, these stories – and particularly this interaction between Sarah and Hagar, do not take place in a vacuum. Though the bible doesn’t spend a lot of time musing on the inner, emotional life of its characters, the story of all that comes before this moment informs and deepens our understanding, perhaps even clarifies the reflection we see of ourselves in this ancient story.

Because we have known Sarai a long time by now; indeed, since she was Abram’s sister, not yet his wife. We have seen her follow Abram out of the land where they had been living, possibly for generations; we have seen them bury their father, and still keep traveling; all of it with no sense of what this felt like for Sarai who had not, herself, heard from the God who called them forth. Perhaps most crucially for this story, we have followed the couple down into Egypt, where Abram, in fear for his own life refused to acknowledge their marriage and stood by while Sarai was taken to the harem of the Pharaoh, who had decided that her beauty gave him rights to her body. The scenario rendered Abram wealthy but God stepped in on the side of Sarai – the victim in all this – so she was released, and they could leave Egypt together.

But one has to wonder, in all this, how Sarai felt about the wealth that Abram claimed – all of it bought at the cost of her humanity? How did it feel to look about, and see her worth quantified in sheep, oxen, donkeys, camels, and slaves? One has to wonder how Sarah felt about being put in an exploitative situation, a traumatic situation, by her husband, her brother; about his willingness to risk her life to save his own? Sarai, in this moment, is stripped of her humanity, her agency; though God steps in Sarai does not forget. Sarai cannot forget. Because she returns to Abram, to the person she should have been able to trust; to the person who sold her out, who is now wealthy with the spoils she had made possible. Sarai is not – cannot be – the same person who initially went down to Egypt. She has been abandoned by her husband – her only family. She has lived on the cusp of violation, not knowing she would be saved.

The Sarai who comes back is a woman who knows the pain of trauma, and the further pain of trauma swept under the rug, as she makes a life with one whom she now knows will care for himself ahead of her, will enrich himself at her expense, if possible. So Sarah’s pain is set aside, shoved down, ignored; metastasizing, festering, becoming what trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem terms “dirty pain.” Dirty pain is the kind that is not processed, the kind we push away because there is no room for its discomfort, the kind we don’t have the space or the safety to feel, let alone deal with. Dirty pain is the sort that comes out as anger, as cruelty; it is when we long to inflict the pain we feel on others as well, so that we are not alone in our suffering.

Dirty pain, unprocessed trauma, is what takes a slave girl and forces her into pregnancy.

Can you imagine what Sarah saw, when she looked at Hagar? a young woman possibly as beautiful as Sarai herself was at that age? Can you imagine what Sarah heard, when she heard her speak in the language of the people by whom she had been kept for “use” by Pharaoh? In the accents that would trigger flashbacks and trauma responses; that would take all of her unprocessed, dirty pain and bring it right back to the surface?   Can you imagine Sarai, likely encouraged by her husband to enjoy their new wealth, ever being able to forget that that wealth – that those slaves who looked and sounded like her own victimization – had been purchased by her body, her sexuality, without her consent? And seeing Hagar – the tables turned, the power dynamics reversed – can’t you imagine all of that pain, all of that trauma pouring out? 

Sarah$i uses Hagar in almost the exact way that she herself was nearly used. Sarai inflicts upon Hagar all of the pain that she herself has borne for years. But it doesn’t make her feel better. It doesn’t make the pain go away, it simply sets her up once again in trauma, in powerlessness, in anger, in pain. And this time, God goes to Hagar, not to Sarah. God goes to the one being traumatized, rather than the one acting out her trauma on a powerless body.  Because dirty pain might be the reason for cruelty, but it is never the justification, and God stands with the victims of violence – as Sarai would do well to remember.

And indeed, perhaps this is the lesson for us all.

We watch Sarai’s story play out, in all its pain and dysfunction. And we hear the beginnings of Hagar’s – this woman who stands alone in her naming of God. And we are called to wonder if the trauma continues through Hagar, or if she finds healing despite the horrors she faces. We are called to wonder if the pain she endures is pain she will inflict, or pain she will try to spare those who come after.

We watch Sarai’s story play out, and we are called to wonder not only how Hagar handled her own trauma, but how we will handle our own; to look closely at the reflection that these stories give us and choose whether we will inflict our own unresolved trauma – our own dirty pain – upon those around us, or whether we will choose to feel our hurt instead of burying it; to acknowledge it, and the harm done, in the clean pain that doesn’t erupt out of us unawares but which gets felt, processed, metabolized, and eventually healed. We watch Sarai’s story, and dare to reflect on our own: on the ways that this pandemic has damaged our spirits, the ways the grief continues to live and move within us, the hard work of feeling all of the fear, the anger, the pain with which we have lived, until it marks every moment of our lives. And we get to choose, with the guidance of scripture, how we will respond. Will we, indeed, be like Sarai, with pain we shove so deep that it flies out sideways, until others hurt as much as we do? Will we continue the cycle of trauma, choosing to abuse what power we have rather than risking the possibility that we might again be powerless?

How do we respond, when faced with the mirror that uncomfortable stories hold up? When we stop giving them simplistic interpretations about how much faith any one character has; when we are reminded that we don’t have to travel backwards in time, don’t have to figure out “how they did things then,” in order to find our place within the tale – in order to hear God speaking to us, here and now? Our God, who stands on the side of those who are abused and exploited; our God, who cares for those who are in pain and seeks healing and wholeness for us all?

Because the guidance to be found in this passage is not simply about taking stories at face value and suggesting that because the foundational figures of our faith behaved badly, it is divinely sanctioned or justified for us to do likewise. Rather it is about seeing where God is, when terrible things happen, and situating ourselves on the side with God. Which is not to say that we should make ourselves victims, but that when we see oppression, when we see exploitation, when we see dirty pain being flung about by those who have known trauma, or when we feel the impulse to make others endure what we have endured, we are called to remember where in that scenario God will stand, and to do our best to stand on the side of God, whether that means doing all that is necessary to acknowledge and process our own pain, or doing all that we can to disrupt the cycles of trauma both individually and systemically.

Because the uncomfortable stories, when they become a mirror to us, show us the abiding love of God which might not be immediately apparent in the narrative. And it invites us to find it in our own lives as well.  For where God stands, there is healing; the clean pain of metabolized trauma and growth. Where God stands is the beginning of the kindom, opening before our reflections in limitless possibility.

Christianity has a status quo problem.

It shouldn’t be surprising: it’s a human institution which often forgets it’s supposed to be seeking God and tries instead to create God, to manage God, to put God in a little white box with a steeple on top. It’s a funny thing, for something that started out as a movement – by definition, something flexible, responsive, growing, shifting, changing. But growth can be uncomfortable, which is something I don’t need to tell all y’all; coming out invariably involves growth, some discomfort, shifts and changes in our lives and in our relationships.

But the thing is, unlike the current church – Big-C church, American Christianity broadly – when we come out, it’s not so much out of a closet as out of the institutions, the systems, the expectations that try to keep us within a status quo that cannot possibly fit us. We come out of the self-justifying, self-replicating paradigm of “this is just how things are,” the one that tries to change us, convert us, silence us ion order to maintain itself in its comfort.

The irony, of course is that when the church turns inward; when it prioritizes the institution over the movement it commits an act of profound harm, not only to us, but to itself – because it was never supposed to be a static institution, never supposed to be a place of certainty about what God wants instead of a place where we try to find out who God is.

In so many ways, the church needs the queers, though I’m not always sure it deserves our energy. But in so many instances in my life I have found communities that look more like Jesus among the queers than in the institution. Maybe because those of us who have had to break away from institutional expectations, pressures, or certainties know better than many how necessary that community is. Like when I look back to the 1980s, to the lesbians who nursed their dying gay friends when no one else would, or when I look at the chosen families who stepped in to support each other, help raise each other’s children, because the families of origin refused; when I look at those who have been out for a while taking the newly-out transwoman to buy her first bra or teaching her how to do her hair, then I’m pretty sure I’m looking at the divine, right here, trying to break out into this world, begging us to see beyond the expectations, beyond the institutions, and into a love that gathers everyone in  and says “it’s going to be okay, I’m here, you’re not alone.” 

And it breaks my heart, when the church refuses to be that place. It breaks my heart, when it hurts the people who try to get it to be  what it has so long promised to be.

The church needs the queers, in ways it cannot even comprehend.

It needs the folks who disrupt an institution mired in the ideals of the 1950s, with all its white cis-hetero normativity standing in the place where faith should be. The church needs the queers, and yet I will never ask you to go back to places that have hurt you, because you are far more than sacrificial lambs and it is not your job to fix the institutions that have done you such harm, individually or systemically.

So for those of you who are still Christian, who are trying to shift us all from institution to movement and from places of certainty to places of growth and community: thank you. You are the face of the holy, no matter what folks might tell you.

And for those of you who have been hurt, who have rejected this religion: I am sorry. I am sorry on behalf of the church which has sacrificed you for the sake of its own comfort. You deserve better, for you, too, are the face of the holy, beautiful and beloved.

And for us all, I implore you: no matter what your faith, what your tradition; no matter your dealings with American Christianity, keep showing us how it should be done. Keep being community together. Lift one another up, stand with one another in grief, care for one another when the hurt comes flying. Love one another in all the ways you needed to be loved. Because you, beloved community, have the power to change the world, no matter what the institutions may tell you.

This week… ugh. this week.

How does anyone preach on a week like this one has been? what could anyone possibly have to say? It’s the question that pastors around the nation faced, as we sat with events that seemed bigger than any words we could possibly find. Ultimately, of course, the response was the same one that we come to every time it feels as though we’ve finally reached the level of un-preachability: we preach the Gospel. We trust that the texts will have their message for us, even when we don’t have the words.

This week’s texts are timely, but I think most would be in this book whose focus lands so squarely on justice. John the Baptist stands in the wilderness, preahcing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In John’s preaching, repentance is necessary. But John’s repentance isn’t about going into a room to pray in solitude and ask God’s forgiveness. John calls the people to a public act, a deliberate act for which one has to leave the known places of their lives, and enter the wilderness. John calls the people, calls us, out of our comfort zones, out of the places we have created to protect ourselves and all that we love. Repentance calls us to a place of vulnerability, as we engage with discomfort within and around ourselves.

We talked last week about perfection not being required, or even desirable, as humans seek to interact with the divine. God does not need us to be perfect, but calls us continually to grow, and develop, and become more than what we were yesterday. And as good as it is to hear that God does not require us to be perfect, there is still a big difference between doing our work imperfectly and consciously committing acts of violence. If we define sin by its literal translation from the Greek – “missing the mark,” you can imagine an analogy in archery – there is still a big difference between not getting a bullseye and not even aiming for the target in the first place. Perfection may not be what God desires in us, but neither does God want grace to become a license for evil, whether that looks like acts of violence or it looks like the refusal to stand up against injustice. Grace is not our “get out of jail free” card: grace is what makes it worth our while to repent, to acknowledge where we’ve fallen short or screwed up and to commit ourselves to doing better.

And that’s just on God’s side.

In this story in the Gospel, both John and Jesus were equally aware that their calls to repentance were not simply about human relationships with the divine, but about human life in community with one another. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the full knowledge that true forgiveness – true reconciliation and healing – requires accountability, empathy, and remorse. And that a community that cannot commit to those principles will eventually collapse into violence.

There have been a lot of calls since the presidential election for unity and healing, for forgiveness and moving on. Indeed, even in the past few days I have encountered multiple instances of people who expect that Christian love means giving a pass to those who have done violence. I don’t know where or how Christianity substituted the seeking of justice with the concept of a niceness that doesn’t ruffle any feathers, but I do know that no one clued in either John the Baptist, or Jesus himself, about that shift. Because all those calls for unity and healing, without the simultaneous call for justice and repentance, stand in direct opposition to the Gospel which we profess to follow. It is worth noting that John got arrested–and killed– for his work, because the calls to repentance that he proclaimed loudly enough to bring crowds from Jerusalem to the Jordan would have completely overturned the balance of power at the time. His work ran so counter to the ideas of calm and niceness and comfort that those in authority needed to remove him, silence him… and any who might come after him. They needed to put the oppressed firmly in their place in order to maintain the status quo, in order to maintain their own power.

Because the faith which sent John out into the wilderness – the faith which with he called us all to repentance – is the faith that seeks truth over civility, vulnerability over power, justice over comfort. It is the faith that asks us to repent. It is the faith that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable with the fallout of their actions and their silences. The faith to which John called us, the faith which we follow in the person of Jesus, is still the very faith that rejects the emptiness of unrepentant niceness and forgiveness without consequence.

In what has since become a statement of incredible irony, the author JK Rowling, in the Harry Potter series,    noted that to commit acts of violence is to tear apart one’s soul. (Of course, she explicitly said that murder tears the soul, but since the books repeatedly lump the acts of murder, enslavement, and torture together as equally “unforgiveable” and meriting the same consequences, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that she meant that all acts of human violence are equally soul-tearing… did I mention irony?) And in this – unlike so much else she has recently said – I think she is right: the damage that we inflict upon others damages us, tears us apart, within our selves and from our communities. The only way, she notes, to repair that damage – the only way to heal a soul torn by its own violence – is to feel remorse, to feel the harm that we have done to another within our own selves. The only way to heal is to have compassion – literally, to feel with – the person we have harmed, a concept Rowling herself would do well to embody in her dealings with trans folk. She doesn’t use these exact words, but Rowling’s concept of healing is remarkably like the Gospel insistence upon repentance for the forgiveness of sins: a willingness to take responsibility, not only in words but to the core of ourselves, for the violence and harms we have caused, or even the ones we have allowed to happen before us; a willingness not only to take responsibility, but to repent before those whom we have harmed: to name, and feel, and own the deep and lasting damage that our violence, or our silence before it, have done to real people who are supposed to be our neighbors.

Because we cannot say that we didn’t know: only that we refused to see.

The acts of terror and violence this week happened on the day of Epiphany, and in that we must hear our call. The feast of the Epiphany marks the arrival of the Magi to honor the Christ child: it is a day, a season of illumination, of revelation, and letting ourselves see what is right before us. For we remember that the Magi expected to find the baby in Jerusalem and allowed their human understandings to send them off course. Their encounter with the child opened their hearts to the truths they had not understood: the power that Herod would not willingly give up, the violence he would be willing to commit in that process. Epiphany is that moment in our liturgical year when we set aside our understandings of the world as it is, and allow our experience of the Christ child, the reality of God-made-flesh, to break us open to all that we had refused to acknowledge before. This season of illumination throws the world around us into stark relief, changes our perspectives, holds up a mirror before us, and demands our accountability – demands that we take a good, long, honest, vulnerable look at ourselves, at our actions and our refusals to act, and all of the consequences of our deeds. The events of this week are a powerful mirror, setting before us the sins of this nation, of this society, and we are called, as surely as if John the Baptist’s voice rang among us, to go out into the wilderness – the places we are afraid to travel – to step willingly into our vulnerability, and to repent. Because the actions of those who committed violence out of fear of losing their power are a reflection of our unwillingness to believe what our marginalized neighbors have long been begging us to hear: that our nation has forever been one that upholds the power of whiteness, of maleness, of Christian nationalism with tremendous violence and utter impunity.

The events of this week show us, with a terrifying clarity, that white nationalists can plan and organize an insurrection (they had shirts printed, this wasn’t impromptu) with little to no resistance; can occupy the locations of power and authority in this nation and walk out again, most without even a scratch… and they know it. They flaunt it. Because they see, even if we refuse to, that this is indeed who we are. The events of this week force us to look at a nation that our neighbors of color have long described to us, have long begged us to acknowledge… and repent. Repent of the ways that we have refused to acknowledge racism. Repent of the excuses for police brutality. Repent of the silence that keeps us comfortable in our whiteness, in our gender or sexuality, in our citizenship, in our Christianity. The events of this week show us the stark reality that marginalized people cannot express their grief and pain at their oppression, cannot demand justice when they have been wronged, but that white people who simply do not want to share power – whose main purpose is to demonstrate to everyone watching just how much they can do and get away with, just how dangerous they are willing to be for the sake of their own power – can throw violent tantrums with minimal consequence. The events of this week show us who we are, even as our faith reminds us who we are called to be.

It will feel like a wilderness journey, as we venture out of the comforts of our known locations, out of the safety of our privileged experiences, and into the insecurity where so many of our neighbors are forced to live. It is a journey we must make with intention: willing to hear with remorse, and engage with responsibility, as we step closer to the baptismal waters to which we have been called. Because the Good News remains, even in the horrors of an insurrection, even in the wake of violence and terror: there is still the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare a way, even here, even now, for our God. And he may not be dressed in camel’s hair, her diet may not consist of sticky insects, but still they call, in the hopes that we will respond: proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Still they call: proclaiming a muddy, cold, uncomfortable accounting that will begin the process of mending the damage, the violence that white supremacist patriarchy has done to our souls, both individually and as a society. Still they call: proclaiming that the vows we made in our own water still hold us, still call us to be more than we are, still offer us the promises of grace in the face of sin.

The Good News is that the illumination of the Epiphany – the clarity we gain from our encounter with the incarnate God – remains before us, beckoning us to look closely, to look beyond our comfort, knowing that even in the unbearable clarity of revelation we are encouraged and held by the one in whom we find new understandings. The Good News is that there is a way to heal the soul-tearing damage of human violence, the rending of the Body of Christ and the bonds of our communal being, not through the niceness and civility that put a pretty façade on evil, but through the mountain-lowering, valley-smoothing, earth-shaking acts of repentance, of compassion, of justice that are possible by grace.

This week has shown us who we truly are, if we are willing to look, and see, and understand. It has offered us as well the opportunity to participate in healing, to repent of the damage we have done or have not prevented, and to seek in humility and love to carve a new path, to prepare a new way for our God. This has been a week that calls us anew into the wilderness, in confidence that there is a path forward, into the waters, that we may hear anew the voice that speaks grace as we emerge from the waters of repentance: the renewing promise that we are God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased.

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. –Mark 1: 10, 12-13

This story hits three major points in just a few verses: Jesus’ baptism, the wilderness and temptation, and the testimony that calls for repentance. Even in just 8 verses of Mark’s gospel, these still seem to be discreet stories; three separate movements of Jesus’ ministry. But together, these three provide a necessary schema: a paradigm for us all to follow in our own lived discipleship. In baptism, we remember that God knows us. In witnessing, we show that we know God. But that middle step, that wilderness time; that is crucial, for in it we come to know ourselves: the selves that God knows, and loves. Through that knowledge, we come to  know better the God to whom we are called to witness.


Edward Hicks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If we were to go directly from God’s powerful love out into public, out into testimony, we would go without fully understanding who or what it truly is that God loves enough to tear apart the firmament, to reach down through the heavens. We need to understand the full power of God’s grace before we try to bear witness to its impact on our lives and on the world around us.

Mark tells us little, here; this gospel writer takes a couple sentences to tell the stories that other gospel writers spend paragraphs on. We are used to hearing more narrative around this wilderness time – details that Matthew and Luke provide in abundance. But I wonder if we don’t need Mark’s brevity, his lack of detail, in order to make this story resonate more clearly in our own lives? I wonder if it isn’t good for us, to be left wanting more, if the lack of detail doesn’t push us to imagine for ourselves  what the temptation might have looked like? Does Mark’s bare narrative encourage us to imagine what it would be like to experience that solitude, that wilderness among the angels and the beasts; the love that the fears that inhabit us all?

When we are alone, when we are in wilderness times – when we are thrown into vulnerability and uncertainty – what prowls around, seeking to feed on us? What sustains us in nurture? And what are the temptations that pull at our hearts?

This week, as happens all too often, we are thrown again into the wilderness, into the desolation of despair as seventeen more lives were lost on a day when we as Christians were called to contemplate our own return to dust and ash. This week, we, too were placed among the wild beasts. We were placed as prey among predators: those who would pull us apart one little bite at a time. We were placed, all of us raw and wounded, before a prowling pack, and we found ourselves staring at the curved claws of anger, at the pointed teeth of violence, at the strong jaws of fear. We looked directly into the predatory eyes of  a culture built on anger, and self-interest; on power and weaponized violence.  And even we, who know ourselves beloved; even we, who understand God’s love and God’s grace for all of creation, felt the tempting pull of the fictitious safety that human power and weaponry promise. We felt the tempting pull of repaying violence with violence; of dehumanizing, of demonizing those of God’s beloved who commit acts of violence, those of God’s beloved whose response to the wilderness is not ours. Even we, who profess God’s love poured out upon us all feel, in times like this, the tempting pull of turning away from love in the name of individual freedom and security.

This week, as happens all too often, we who are God’s beloved have been put into this story of wilderness and temptation. We have found ourselves among beasts and angels. We have been face to face with the tempter, and in our responses, we have borne witness to the gods that we worship.

Jesus, cast out into the wilds beyond the Jordan – beyond even the wilderness where John was baptizing the people of Judea – came face to face with his own beasts: his own temptations about how to respond in the face of fear, in the face of possible violence. Jesus, in vulnerable solitude, likely heard the same tempting whispers that we ourselves have come to know: the ones that urged the security of the preemptive strike, the ones that suggested the safety of being the most powerful. Jesus, as human as any one of us, stood alone among the beasts, tempted. It is a story we find familiar, this week especially.

But Jesus saw what we so often neglect: the angels. Literally, these are the messengers of God, of the gospel – not necessarily the winged humans of renaissance paintings, but the presence of love, of grace, of humility, of compassion made tangible before him. Or before us.

We don’t know, from Mark’s account, what happened in that wilderness encounter when Jesus stood alone between the predators and the Good News of God. We don’t really know what Jesus saw, looking into the eyes of the beasts. We don’t really know what the temptations were, or about the specific nurture of God’s messengers in that moment. All we know is the response to that wilderness time was the witness to the imminence of God’s kin-dom, and the call to repent: to turn our hearts to the God whose love endures even wilderness predators.

What does our witness say of us? we, who are confronted with beasts; we, who hear the whispers of the tempter; we, who know the nurture of angels? What is our witness, as we emerge from this wilderness time, from our latest confrontation with violence, from our temptations to fear and human forms of security?

What is our witness as those who have been fully known, as those who have been called God’s beloved, as those who have been guided and kept by God’s Holy Spirit? What is our witness, to our friends and our families, on email and facebook and twitter?  What is our witness to our senators and representatives? What is our witness, to our communities, to our teachers, to our children? Is it our acquiescence to the power of the predators? Is it the temptation of dominance, of fighting violence with violence, death with death?

Or shall we emerge from the wilderness sustained by angels, testifying and bearing witness to the good news that the kin-dom of God is near, if we but turn our hearts. The kin-dom of God is near, where predators will lose their power and prey their fear, where 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 seventeen children shall finally lead us.

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.

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?


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.