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“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.'” -John 9:41
I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed. Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many. The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend. They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together. But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life. The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:
My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)
Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized. And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.
That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world. On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have? Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important. We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes. We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.
But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.
Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings. It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not. Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees? Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?
The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins. The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual. If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”. He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.
It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation. The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened. The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings. Both of which were refused. Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity. Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body. God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”. And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.
For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas. Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back. Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence. Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned. The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.
There is something still true in the notion of vision from within. No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)
We still see what we want to see.
What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own? What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?
What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time? What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?
What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?
What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store? the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around? the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?
What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them? And how will we respond? Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God? Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision? Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?
What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful? Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God. Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.
Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel. In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives. It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God. It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized. Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.
Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal. Jesus, unusually, comes back. This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate. Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected. Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith. Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s. Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:
In the broken.
In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.
In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.
Shall we let the blind lead the blind? Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?
Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside? Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?
In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks. Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow. For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.
[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.
I say that every single week, at both services. It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces. It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.
It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion. For that has never existed. This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.
It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan. There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power. And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins. But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews. Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.
The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy. The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south. But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea). The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.
So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.
But it would not have been an accident.
John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE. It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure. Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables. Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples. To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings. But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun. John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.
So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem. And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket. It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water. Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it. Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways. Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.
So: noon. Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in. Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive. There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her. And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace. She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean? “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem? Am I welcome even as a Samaritan? even as a woman? No, seriously, what’s the catch? What conversion or change is required?” The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.
It takes courage, to achieve such clarity. It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives. We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity. We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible. We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?) And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.
For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else? to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs? Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?
What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill? In the addict? In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?
What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?
Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?
The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too. We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen. We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace. We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.
We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe. We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts. We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts. We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.
We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another. It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing. We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives. We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.
We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.
We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.
God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes. We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else. We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach. And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.
But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday. The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows. The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included. The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome. The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.
Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.
Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome. Grace invites us, even in our fear.
God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God? What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done? We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.
God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.
God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation. God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12: 2
A colleague of mine recently offered up this prayer of her Lenten discipline, an unusually honest one: “Thy will be done, yes, of course, God. But if you need tips on “thy will” just lemme know. I have some ideas.”
Thus says a minister in Lent, but it is a reflection, I think, upon the way that we all often pray: speaking familiar words (thy will be done), thinking familiar thoughts, holding familiar people or images in our hearts. Sometimes we make specific requests, we pray for a specific outcome – for healing, or resolution, or change. But how often do we listen for the response? How often do we allow our prayers to be a conversation with God, rather than a dictation of our own ideals? How much more often are we inclined to offer our own ideas of “thy will”, and leave it at that?
Now certainly, God can make God’s own self heard quite nicely, when the need arises. Ask any clergyperson you know, and the story of their being called to ministry is usually one of God breaking through sometimes-dense human resistance. Psalm 29 talks about the voice of the Lord breaking the cedars, reminding us of the power that God can call upon as desired. But mostly, it seems, from my own experience and the experience of scripture, God does not desire great displays of power. God is neither a grand dictator, nor puppeteer of the universe. The preference, throughout, seems to be for subtlety, on God’s part: making us use brains we were given, making us choose whether or not to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. God chooses the subtlety of sending a baby, via an unwed, teenaged mother, to redeem the world; the subtlety of calling the fishy-smelling lowly to discipleship, and turning them into leaders; the subtlety of blessing.
Of course, blessing, in our time, has all the subtlety of a cast-iron frying pan.
Suddenly, you’re counting your blessings, aren’t you? It doesn’t take much more than hearing the word, and it triggers us to start reflecting on our lives. And I’ll wager that I can guess what your blessings are:
Your health. Your nice warm homes, especially on cold, snowy mornings like this one. The food you ate before coming here, the food you will eat later in this day.
But are these blessings?
Is good health a blessing, when millions in this country – let alone around the world! – are without insurance, or providers, or anything approaching adequate care?
Are our homes blessings, when millions are homeless or living precariously, hovering on the edge of eviction, or couch surfing?
Is the food that we so often take for granted a blessing, when millions are food-insecure, many of them right here in this community?
Are we counting blessings? or privileges? And if these are blessings, what does it say about the God who bestows them upon us, but not upon everyone?
Here again, we would seem to be putting God in human vesture, listening to the voice of our comfort rather than to “thy will”.
I came across an article last week by Scott Dannemiller, that speaks to this beautifully:I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. Like the “amen” at the end of a prayer. “This new car is such a blessing.” “Finally closed on the house. Feeling blessed.” “Just got back from a mission trip. Realizing how blessed we are here in this country.” On the surface, the phrase seems harmless. Faithful even. Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have? Isn’t that the right thing to do? No. First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers. I can’t help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M’s to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to poop in the toilet rather than in their pants. Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it’s for our own good. But positive reinforcement? God is not a behavioral psychologist. Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day. You read that right. Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day. The problem? Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture. I’ll take door number three, please. If we’re looking for the definition of blessing, Jesus spells it out clearly. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach
them, saying: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5: 1-12) I have a sneaking suspicion verses 12a 12b and 12c were omitted from the text. That’s where the disciples responded by saying, 12a Waitest thou for one second , Lord. What about “blessed art thou comfortable”, or 12b “blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?” 12c And Jesus said unto them, “Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.”
Who is this God to whom we pray? Is God the bestower of comfort? of privilege? or of blessing?
Abram may well have asked that; I know that we would, in his place.
Abram’s father, Terah, had been called from city – Ur of the Chaldeans – to God’s land, but stopped at a likely looking spot along the way. He stopped in a place where there was evidence that a good life could be built – land and water in enough supply to keep him, his family, and his livestock. Terah did not venture further, but lived his remaining years comfortably. But God, in one of those less-subtle, frying-pan moments, called again, this time to Abram. Now, the bible doesn’t record Abram’s response, but I’ll have a go at what it might have sounded like:
“Are you crazy? I’m 75! No kids to help but my nephew, and you want me in the hinterlands? And you call this a blessing?”
Isn’t that what we might say? In Abram’s place, what would we do with such a pronouncement? How would we receive this directive, with no reassurance except that we’d be a blessing to others? What would we do?
What have we done?
God didn’t puppeteer, in this instance; didn’t reach down and frog-march Abram off into the land that God has designated. God called, and Abram chose what his father hadn’t. And Abram was blessed.
God blessed Abram: God opened the door to possibility, of being a great nation, of an increased blessing over the course of generations. And Abram chose to walk through the door.
Do we? Do we accept the open doors, the opportunities of discipleship? Do we accept the promise of presence and increased blessing; of increased opportunity? Do we accept to open doors ourselves, to make ways for others? Or do we say “thy will and here’s how!”
We are blessed, each time we hear a need and think, “someone should do something about that.” And a door opens.
We are blessed each time we are invited to witness pain and vulnerability in others, or invite someone to witness ours; each time we are able to take a stand for our faith, even if it invites ridicule; each time an opportunity arises, and a door opens, and we may choose, or not, to be blessed, and to bless others.
We are blessed, if we can hear God’s call; if we can hear the still, small voice speaking amid the words of our own prayers. We are blessed if we can stop making suggestions and start taking them.
We are blessed even if we, like Abram, don’t really understand in the moment what it is that we are being called to do. Even if we don’t know where the open door will lead, but we choose to trust, to walk through the door, to take the first step.
We are blessed, not because of what we have, but because of what we might do. Because we are called, invited by God to the opportunities of discipleship and servanthood; to the presence of the swirling Spirit and the love that conquers death.
In Lent, we are called to be more present to God’s presence in the world: to empty ourselves of distractions – our suggestions to God – and allow room for God to move and speak. To pray familiar prayers, and then listen for a response; to see God’s movement in human hands, and human voices, and human actions; to count our blessings, not in things but in actions. We are to count our call, our opportunities to show God’s love in this world: the opportunities to bring God’s kingdom, to bring the promise of new life; the opportunities to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others.
God called Abram, at the age of 75, into the wilderness, with just the promise of blessing.
And Abram said yes.
May we be so blessed: may we be such a blessing.
Thy will be done, O God.
“[Eve] took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Genesis 3: 6a-7
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘ ” Matthew 4: 5-6
It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? The thing Adam and Eve did with their amazing new knowledge was to make clothes, and cover themselves. They were alone in the garden; they’d already seen each other naked, yet suddenly it became imperative that they be clothed. They didn’t look around them at the complex splendors of the Garden and the intricate creation that God had wrought – they scrambled for cover.
Shame is cultural, as I think we recognize pretty generally. Shame around nakedness is also cultural – spending just a few minutes looking at National Geographic should be enough to remind us of that, as it has reminded generations of ten-year-olds. The need to be clothed is a learned behavior: small children readily strip off their clothes in the summer, or around the house, regardless of who might we watching. And so this immediate need that Adam and Eve felt to cover themselves, speaks not to some inherent element of the human condition, but to the culture that told these narratives and wrote them down.
Because, of course, Adam and Eve did not write Genesis. As with all Biblical narrative, these stories began as oral traditions – stories told to make sense of the world and our place in it. These stories, as they were handed down, shifted and developed according to the understandings of the cultures in which they were being told: the language was updated, the examples adjusted to speak to the current generation. Only when the stories were finally written down did their evolution slow, and even then changes get made – Disney’s retelling and updating of stories like “Rapunzel” (in the recent movie, “Tangled”) being a good example. Our ways of telling stories, the words we choose to heighten the tension or illustrate emotional content speak far more clearly to the needs and concerns of the listeners, than to the stories’ characters, inevitably.
And this story from Genesis is no exception. The culture that finally codified the story, in roughly the form in which we read it today, came from a culture that used clothing as a marker: to distinguish between themselves and other cultures, to differentiate the rungs of the cultural and social ladder. This was a culture that viewed others, who wore less clothing, as less-than, uncivilized, unGodly. For these people, clothes showed status, and the mark of a person’s God-like-ness.
For that is the real temptation, always. It was the real temptation underlying the serpent’s cunning words to Adam and Eve. It was the real temptation that the devil offered Jesus: the temptation to be God-like. These stories are not about making a fig-leaf fashion statement; not about being knowledgeable for the sake of of knowledge per se: but about being powerful for the sake of power alone: powerful in a way that humans never can be.
There is something to the parenting metaphor that we often use for God. No matter what the language – Father and Mother have both been used, not just by our generation but back into antiquity – there are times when the metaphor just works well. Not just because I can totally see God, in next scene, looking at Adam and Eve in their new clothes and saying, “I knew it was too quiet around here…” But because God, in this story, is dealing with something that many parents hear and deal with in their own children. Because most children say, at some point, “I wish I was grown up!” Most children see, and envy, the privileges, the freedom, the ability to set rules that adults often enjoy, and even take for granted. Children see freedom of movement, of bedtime, of TV watching… without seeing the responsibilities, the constraints of adulthood. And they want what they see – didn’t we, as children? And if there had been a piece of fruit that offered us all that we saw, and wanted, and dreamed about… wouldn’t any of us have eaten it?
Wouldn’t we still? Wouldn’t we eat the fruit that would make us as important as we want to be?
Wouldn’t we throw ourselves from the peak, just for the joy of being seen, by all of Jerusalem, as the one who was important enough to be caught by angels? Would we refuse such symbols of power and status: the clothes, the objects, that prove us to be more civilized, more important… more God-like?
What would God wear? Fig leaves? LL Bean? Brooks Brothers?
Or more to the point: how would we dress God, in human vesture and after our own image?
That is the temptation that faced humans in Eden, that faced the human Jesus, that faces us all today; in the cunning of external forces, and the whispers of our own doubts and fears: temptation to reduce God to our level. The temptation to make reduce God to the testable, the sensible; the puppeteer and controller of our lives. To make God into the one who blesses us with human status, power, and wealth; into one who lives and judges by human values.
It is the temptation to believe that God is present when we succeed and against us when we fail; the temptation to believe that God – that love – might be present when we assuage our own hungers before seeing to the needs of others.
It is the temptation to put individual importance before community, to be the one the angels catch, rather than the angel who catches the poor soul in free fall.
It is the temptation to think that knowledge means wisdom, and makes us like Gods ourselves.
What would it look like if this story had been transmitted orally all the way to us, adapting to suit values of each generation – including, ultimately, this one? what would Adam and Eve have done with their newfound knowledge, what would they have made to show their new status? What symbol of our civilization would we give them to make the listener understand that that fruit had made them God-like?
In what do we put our faith, we humans? What is it that makes us, even now, children of Eden, rather than disciples of Christ, unable to resist the promise of the unattainable?
What tempts us, even today? And what is our response?
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain… Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” -Exodus 24: 15a, 17
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” -Matthew 17: 1-2a
It seems, in the past few years, that whenever I bump into a friend or acquaintance and ask how they are, the answer is no longer some variant of “fine, thank you” (the old, polite, brush-aside response); rather, I often hear, “okay, but I’m so busy!” Which, interestingly, does not accompany a tone of despair, or fatigue – any of the reactions to busyness that one might expect – but always sounds vaguely proud and satisfied. There is a moral value that we appear to have added, in recent years, to busyness: action has become somehow virtuous, in and of itself. Busyness means that we are important, perhaps indispensable. Busyness means that we are not, in political parlance, idle moochers, living off the busyness (goodness) of others.
But if busyness is good, what is the full implication? Do we still believe, with our grandmothers, that idle hands are the devil’s workshop? Has our Protestant work ethic come so far that we would condemn those who are not busy to the point of exhaustion, and proud of their inability to say “no”?
The virtue of busyness skews our priorities, to the point where we strive so hard simply to keep busy that when down time does arrive, we fidget. We wonder what is wrong, as we struggle against the discomfort of stillness and silence. Technology has not brought this moral value into being, but has solidified it, as we are presented with a means of keeping busy that can easily be carried in pocket or purse. We need never be alone; our work, our social communities, even vast libraries of books, are available at our fingertips 24/7.
When the busyness does begin to weigh; when we begin to feel overwhelmed, we break our routines without breaking the grip that “doing” has upon us. We all know people who have taken vacation time to work to “catch up” on everything else – which, other than not having to get showered or dressed, hardly sounds like a vacation. When we do actually get away – to “recharge our batteries” – we fill our vacations with things to see and read and do… and often neglect to turn off the notifications on our phones. Looking at someone’s vacation pictures on Facebook can be exhausting; it’s no wonder that we’re all so familiar with the phrase, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”
When busyness is virtuous in and of itself, and separate from the possible virtue of the actual actions accomplished, then all that productivity stops having much meaning. The tasks that we assign ourselves simply to stay in motion become burdensome; filled as we are with actions and goals and appearances and anxiety, we often feel hollow… and so we find other chores, other actions, that ensure that we continue to be busy for the sake simply of being busy… busy enough not to wonder why we are not fulfilled.
I wonder if that’s how Peter felt. After all, there must have been a lot to do, as a disciple: beyond just having to keep up, theologically, because you never really knew when Jesus was going to throw a pop quiz, and you had to be ready to understand parables and ask wise questions that showed you were worthy of discipleship after all. There were also all the Human Resources questions that come up when a prophet, twelve disciples, their families, and a bunch of hangers-on are all tramping around the Galilean and Judean countryside for three or so years. There are details to arrange – where is everyone going to sleep? What is everyone going to eat? It’s all well and good to feed five thousand on a hillside, but that doesn’t really help in the day-to-day of several dozen people! And with that many, traveling together for so long, there are always disputes to be settled at some point during the day. And poor Peter, trying his hardest, finds that every time he turns around, there went Jesus, going off by himself again. It must have been enough to drive one to distraction.
I wonder what lists, what details, were going through Peter’s head that day, as this small group headed off for a hike up a mountain? What problems was he earnestly trying to discuss with Jesus? Finally getting Jesus nearly to himself, was he talking as fast as the strenuous hike permitted, when this moment of dazzling brilliance broke in?
It is a hard thing to disengage from all of the doing that keeps us busy, and to just be. Several years ago, my family and I were out running errands, when we looked up to see one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever witnessed. The bring-you-to-a-full-stop-in-a-busy-parking-lot kind – very nearly a bring-you-to-your-knees kind. We all stared for a long moment, but then, rather than just being in that moment, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone and clicked on the camera. Instead of stopping, and just watching this amazing sunset, I fiddled with white balance and lighting settings… finally getting a bad picture of the very end of the sunset, that I deleted almost immediately as worthless. In the attempt to capture the moment – to be busy and stay in motion – I had missed it all.
It’s hard to stop. Caught up in details, in life, filled as we are with worry, busyness; things we’re running towards or things we’re running from, we leave no room for light – of sunsets or fiery mountaintops or dazzling radiance. We fill our lives so full of busyness and details that there are no spaces left; no cracks where God might enter and break us open. When light does appear in our lives – when God’s presence is so palpably obvious that we are stopped in our tracks, we take those moments and try to capture them, in cameras or in dwellings, rather than simply experiencing them. We prioritize motion over being; the human virtue of busyness over the experience of God’s abundance. When we are at a place where the dazzling radiance gets pushed aside, God’s daily presence in our mundane lives goes totally unnoticed.
We talked in Bible study this week about what is needed for us to experience moments of transcendence – of God’s palpable presence in our lives. The general consensus was that solitude is required, and certainly Moses and Jesus were both emblematic in their solitary tendencies. But neither of these moments, from today’s scripture, is an entirely solitary experience. The Israelites could see the glory of the fiery, cloud-shrouded mountain. Jesus had the disciples with him – for once, he had not sought to leave them behind. So while for both Moses and Jesus, their general comfort with solitude might have helped them to stop, to simply be, and experience the divine presence, these moments are as much their ability to let go. To let a trusted brother, or colleague, or friend, run things for a bit. To stop worrying, like Peter, about the details, or the protocol, or the right theology. To set aside the things with which we fill ourselves, so God can fill us, even if that means we’ll have to break old rhythms, or change our priorities and our values; even if it means that we’ll need to empty ourselves, so we may be filled anew.
I read a wonderful blog entry recently – a Christian blogger who was reflecting on fasting. And although her scripture was not what we are looking at today, her reflections are quite relevant, as she cites Matthew 9: “neither do people put new wine in old wineskins, if they do, the skin will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskin be ruined.” (Mt. 9: 16-17) She continues, saying:
“When I get swept up in my busy life – to distracted to get nourished properly from the Word, too intent on achieving my goal, even if it means that I get lost in the process – I become an old wineskin. I become that crinkled and cracked thing that can no longer hold new wine (new words, new ideas, new life) without spilling it all over the floor and wasting it.
“When I fast, I empty myself of the old wine. I shed a skin that can no longer perform its function of holding the new wine, and I take on the new skin that has been given to me – something capable of holding new wine, and all that is good.”
There is a reason that the lectionary exists, and it is not just to make lazy pastors like myself preach the hard texts, as well as the easy ones. There is a reason that the lectionary puts this transfiguration text in on the Sunday before Lent. We need this reminder of the power of God to break in and transform us… as well as the ease with which we, like Peter, set aside transformative presence, in the quest for action, or importance, or appearances, or simply out of habit. These are values, these are habits that we have a few weeks to try and shake, before we have the chance to be made new once again. These are the human values and the old habits that we must shed so that we may receive the new wine of new life, the light of a new day. We have a few weeks to empty ourselves of all that is crowding God out: to become aware of all that fills us without nourishing us: the things that fill our time, our hearts; that bring us momentary comfort or fleeting pleasure, but leave us feeling hollow. The things that speed us up, so that we are unable to stop and simply be present with God, that keep us clinging to the old wine, fearful of being made new.
For that new life is possible, even now; if we can let go of our self-importance, as Moses did, and leave trustworthy ppl in charge. If we can let go of the details, of the busyness, and trust in God’s abundance. If we can stop ourselves entirely, to see the dazzling glory of God in light, and beauty of this creation. If we can stop entirely when God shines brightly enough to stop us in our tracks. If we can stop, even in the midst of our routines, to see the presence that is always with us, even in muted, wintry, morning light; even in familiar surroundings, and familiar faces.
New life is possible wherever God is present, if we just make room.