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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.
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 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.
When I met Jeannie, she was about 22, recently graduated from college, and working as an intern in my company. She had been assigned to a project with some colleagues of mine, so I didn’t work directly with her; I saw her mostly in meetings, and noticed her because she was particularly quiet and attentive.
It took me a while to realize she was deaf; she had left stuff on copier, and I brought it to her desk, approaching from behind her, talking and assuming she could hear. She jumped, obviously; she hadn’t known I was there. I apologized, but was fascinated: I had never really known a deaf person! As I gave her the papers, I watched as she read my lips. She signed and said Thank you, her voice thick and imprecise.
Back at my desk, I emailed Jeannie to apologize again for startling her. She answered graciously, with some suggestions for how to approach her next time, so that she would be aware of my presence. I wrote right back – fascinated, curious. I asked questions about her life, her disability… the conversation was wonderful and exciting. Over email, I almost forgot she was deaf: she was bright and funny and articulate, telling me all of the ways she dealt with the world in college and in the workplace. She talked about her dreams for a future in engineering, although I was a little startled at the reason; I’d imagined it would be to create a better hearing aid or implant, but she was interested in cheaper, eco-friendly building materials to build low-income housing.
We hadn’t been friends for long when I thought about the healing service at my church. We hold it once a year, hosting a preacher who tours the country. He’s a really big deal and very expensive, but he went to school with our pastor so he includes us on the tour. Every year, we rent out the high school gymnasium and people come from all over. It’s an all-day thing, with local preaching and bands and prayer groups; at the end of the day, the famous preacher comes out and preaches, gets us all fired up with the Spirit, and ends by bringing a few people forward and healing them. I’ve seen people get over cancer; people in wheelchairs get up and walk. I know – I didn’t believe it either! but I’ve seen it!
And I wanted Jeannie to go.
She was such a nice girl. I wanted her to be healed, to be able to lead a fulfilling life.
I didn’t totally know how to ask her, so I just started casually mentioning my church while we were emailing, one day. When she expressed some interest, I asked her to come with me, and arranged to pick her up on Sunday morning.
When we got to church, I started to sit in my regular spot, sorta halfway back. But Jeannie gestured, and led us forward, so I followed, asking her why… forgetting she couldn’t hear me. I waited until she looked at me, and asked again why we had to sit at the front.
“To read lips,” she said. I’d forgotten how hard it was to understand her when she spoke aloud. Still, I nodded, and made the sign for “yes”; I’d learned a few basic signs, thinking that she’d be pleased. But she just smiled briefly and began looking around at the church. She seemed to follow service pretty well, and enjoy it; afterwards, I took her downstairs to get coffee and cookies. Another church member needed to talk to me, as often happens, so I introduced Jeannie to youth director and left them chatting.
It was about twenty minutes before I could come back to get her. Although alone in that moment, she seemed happy, and as we left it seemed to me she was glad she’d come.
During the week, I followed up with her over email, told her I’d pick her up again on Sunday. But she told me she’d take the bus, for the youth director had asked her to come early to help with programming. Sure enough, when I walked in for service, there she was, right up front. The music was particularly good that day, and I found myself both sorry that Jeannie couldn’t enjoy it and glad she was coming to the church; she was on the path to healing, even though she didn’t know it yet. She didn’t know that she too would get to enjoy music…
In the weeks to come, Jeannie got more and more involved. She worked in the Sunday School, to the point where I nearly never saw her at coffee hour that she didn’t have a kid attached. And she volunteered with our mission projects, helping to build houses, working with the homeless. Actually, she was the one who pushed to have a washing machine put in at the church for the homeless, and she single-handedly organized a sleeping-bag drive for them, too.
Of course, through Jeannie, our church started working with the disabled. Soon, more and more of them started coming to our church. Some folks grumbled, but I was thrilled! I’d invited Jeannie so she could be healed; now all these other new folks could be too!
There really was something about Jeannie, though… she brought a new life, a new energy to the church. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a difference. Maybe I was just paying more attention? But it seemed like the church was filled with renewed life, added zeal; that the noise at coffee hour was up just a bit; that people were more animated – talking with their hands, kids running around, pushing the little girl who came in wheelchair, while taking care not to hit the blind man. Whatever it was, it was nice to watch… and nicer still to imagine what was in store for them.
The healing service happened on a Saturday.
We’d advertised for weeks leading up to it: talked about it in church, sent out emails and letters, posted on Facebook and Instagram. I arrived early to help set up, but felt continually distracted. I kept scanning for Jeannie, for the new people from church, unable to contain my excitement at the miracles I’d be seeing for people from my own church!
People began to arrive, the room began to fill; I was kept so busy I couldn’t watch as I would have liked for my own church members. As the event began I stood towards the back of the auditorium with the overflow – it was standing room only! – looking all around for a familiar head in the crowd. With the stage lights up and the house lights down, it was impossible to recognize any but those people right around me, and I finally resigned myself to simply enjoying the day, figuring I’d at least see them at the end, when the preacher called them up.
He was on fire, it was without a doubt the best preaching I’d ever heard. Dozens went forward to be healed at the end of the service, and I stood on my toes, craning my neck to see…
Jeannie was not among them.
No one I recognized was.
The next day I found Jeannie right in the front row at church, as usual. I stood right in front of her, hurt and angry, and looked directly into her face. “Why weren’t you there yesterday?” She gazed at me, steadily, calmly, then held out her bulletin. I glanced down: it was the day of the children’s program. I was stunned. I knew she was involved, but… “You chose that over…” I sputtered. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore.
I took my seat – the one where I’d sat with Jeannie for weeks – still fuming.I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand.
Lost in my anger, I didn’t see the children come in, didn’t see that church was beginning until the pastor got up to welcome us… and one of the kids was beside him, signing. Translating. He was one of the new kids, so I didn’t think much of it. But then another kid took his place, one who had been part of the church forever. There he was, signing the Call to Worship, grinning. Delighted in his newfound skill he was signing joy! Praise to God!
I couldn’t help but smile at him, too.
When we stood to sing, all the children gathered at the front of the church, the sighted ones gently leading their blind friends. Children with crutches, with wheelchairs came to the front, every child in the church dancing to the music, each moving as the Spirit led them. Each one radiant, purely happy. Over to the side, Jeannie and the youth director were dancing as well; Jeannie had a good sense of rhythm, I realized.
Throughout the service, the kids took turns signing; during the prayer time, it was actually the kid who was signing who stood in the pulpit, as the interpreter stood to the side, translating into speech the prayers of the children: for food and shelter for our neighbors, for the earth, for an end to violence, in thanksgiving for a community that was truly welcoming.
When I looked around, to see the reaction, everyone was smiling and very few eyes were dry, my own included. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a joyful worship service: whether it was the delight of the children in participating and making the service accessible to everyone; whether it was the pride of the adults and the care and thoughtfulness of the children and their teachers… maybe that’s what filled my heart. But mostly, I think, it was the little boy, maybe 8 years old, who danced during the last song, slightly apart so that his crutches wouldn’t land accidentally on the feet of his friends; just to the side of the main group, he lost himself in the music, in the moment. When the song ended, he opened his eyes, looked right at his father, and into the momentary silence exclaimed “I danced!”
I caught up with Jeannie after the service – it took a while, everyone wanted to talk to her.
“But why…?” The words trailed off as she took me by the shoulders, looked right into my eyes, then firmly turned me to look at the people gathered, drinking coffee in my church.
And I looked. And I saw.
Those gathered were, many of them, not just talking with their hands: they were signing. Awkwardly, in most cases; they were clearly still learning… but just as clearly, trying; laughing at their own ineptitude. I saw people guiding those whose vision was restricted; I realized the food tables now low enough for the folks in wheelchairs. How had I not noticed this before?
Jeannie tapped my arm. I turned; she handed me the morning’s bulletin, smiled, and walked away. On it, she had written, You thought you knew what healing looked like…and who needed it.
I read her message several times, then looked around the room at the life, at the palpable joy. I walked slowly over to the little boy who had danced, and sat beside him, noticing his crutches resting by his side. “You danced well.”
He looked over at me, his face entirely lit up in a smile. “I never thought anyone would ask me to dance, especially in church!”
“Are you learning sign language, too?”
“We’ve all been learning from Miss Jeannie for weeks!” He bounced a little in his seat, excited, joyful
Hesitantly, I asked him, “Will you teach me?”
His face grew serious, but for the shining light in his eyes, as he took my hand, fingers splayed, then folded the middle two down to rest my fingertips against my palm.
“This is how you say, ‘I love you.’”
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; and the ears of the deaf unstopped… everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Once upon a time there was a field.
What’s so special about a field, you ask? Probably nothing, in all honesty. Although this one did have good soil, plenty of sunlight and available water, all of which made the field fertile. Those who worked it would say, of course, that the abundance of produce had as much to do with tending, fertilization, and irrigation; caring enough to allow the field to lie fallow and recuperate every few years. Those who worked it would say it took labor, even as they recognized their good fortune in being able to work this particular land.
But from the outside… it’s not only grass that’s greener when seen from a distance.
The reputation of this particular piece of land grew: its ability to feed people, the height of the grain, the abundance of the produce. Stories grew, legends even, and with them: envy. Until eventually, a neighboring nation invaded, seeking the field for its own; seeking to feed its own people with its abundance.
Certainly that year, the crop was destroyed in the ferocious fighting; trampled by soldiers and horses, slashed with sword and spear. But the following spring, those who now inhabited land planted, fertilized, irrigated, tended, and harvested from the field. And the year following, and the following… right through the fallow year, for there was no one to remember when the soil needed to rest.
So it went, for years. The land produced, and those who occupied it learned to work it. While those who had been displaced remembered the fertility, but began to forget the work, the hard years; began to resent their exile away from such abundance and perfection. So they returned to re-take their land, and the two nations did battle again… and again…and again. They battled over the course of decades, of generations, for the sake of this one field, noted for its fertility and abundance, though now the battles raged so that there was scarcely ever a year of harvest; a year in which the seedlings were not trampled; a year in which anyone tended to irrigation or to fertilization; a year in which hope did not give way to resentment, to anger, to despair. Until, in time, the fighting moved to other fields, other areas, and no one even remembered why they had started fighting in the first place.
No one remembered the field which had once been so valuable.
One day, a soldier from one side (that of the original invaders, but who remembers that now?) was sent out to scout the enemy position, but became hopelessly lost in the forest. Finally he stopped, and made camp by night on the edge of a field. And so it was that he found himself, as the sun rose, face to face with desolation, feeling as though he must be the only human left in the world, such was the emptiness, the barrenness of this place. The soldier stepped out across the hard dry ground. Dust swirled around his boots at each step, settled into the cracks in the hot, hard earth. There was not a blade of grass, not a leaf, not a sign of life for almost as far as he could see.
So he was immensely startled by a movement, off to his right. He grabbed for sword and turned to see another man standing, just a stone’s throw away: an enemy soldier. The first soldier hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should kill him, and thereby remove at least some of the shame of getting lost? But even as he considered it, the other looked around, apparently unsurprised to have company.
“Can you believe it? This place really exists…”
The first man lowered his sword a little, understanding what the other said despite the slight difference in dialect. The second continued, “I thought it was just stories my grandmother would tell to get me to sleep…” He glanced up at the apparent confusion of first soldier. “Don’t you know? This used to be most fertile ground anywhere…”
The first man laughed at the impossibility of what had been said, and gestured at the barren ground before them. But the second, not looking at him, spoke his grandmother’s stories. He told them quietly, almost as an invocation, reverentially, as though pleading forgiveness from the land. His words wove themselves into the first man’s mind, into his heart; his words wove the stories into being, until they both could see the grain rising, the people at work, clearing irrigation canals, planting, harvesting; the battles that had wrought such devastation, the blood which had stained the ground. A tear fell from his cheek, and glittered for a moment on the hot, hard ground before sinking, turning that spot a darker red, as though the ground itself was bleeding
Two stood in silence. The sword of first man, still in his hand, became suddenly too much weight to bear and he flung it away, hard enough to slice a furrow into the dirt.
His heart leapt into his throat, and he moved slowly forward to pick up the blade, then used it to carve, with exquisite care, a long, straight line in the red and cracking ground. The second watched; the beauty of his stories gone, grief lined his face and he turned away. “It’s hopeless, you know…”
“So, what – are we supposed to go back and trample out another field in fighting?”
The two stood, still a little ways apart, and gazed around. The remains of earthworks and trenches masked the old irrigation canals, but the first could see where the old streams had been dammed up, so he started that way. “Come on.”
“You’re crazy.” The second one stood for a moment, uncertain, but then followed the first. The two worked together to move the fallen trees and rocks that clogged the stream. By the end of the day, both were soaked. Their armor and weapons had been set aside… on opposite banks, still, and not quite out of reach. They had argued, as they worked, over whose field it was, and thrown handsful of cold, slimy mud until they laughed at the childishness of it, at the idea of fighting over such desolation.
At the end of that day, more water flowed down to the field, and tiny, sparkling ribbons seemed to snake into the edges, darkening and dampening the long-dry ground.
In the end, neither returned to his regiment. They remained by the field, toiling as best they could – for they were soldiers, not farmers, and the knowledge of the land had long been lost, replaced by the knowledge of how to possess it. They toiled and they argued, though soon enough the arguments – old senses of nationality, of identity – faded into sore muscles and plans for tomorrow’s work. Weeks went by, and slowly others joined them. And the two would remember, in the eyes of those newly arrived, that they were enemy. In those moments, they would stare out at the field, still so barren, even as the water began to flow, and wonder why they bothered.
One night, the first man approached his friend, who stood apart from their little camp; away from the bickering of the newcomers from both sides. He stood by the field, sword in his hand, looking out at the reddened soil. The first looked back towards the clearing where they slept, remarking only, “They’d have us keep fighting.”
The second grunted. “Would almost be easier.”
They gazed together at the land they worked, the beginnings of new irrigation canals.
“It’s hopeless, you know.”
“We could give up. We tried. It’s not like we didn’t try.”
The second man turned, finally, to look his friend in the face. “That’s why I came here. I was leaving. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“What stopped you?”
The second man held up his sword for his friend to see. Even in moonlight, the blade looked battered. “This isn’t meant to be used for digging. It’s useless now.”
“Not so useless, it seems to me…” The first gestured at the long straight lines in which water now flowed across the field. “You know what they need?” he went on, gesturing to the camp, “Your stories. Your grandmother’s wisdom. The vision of what this place could be.”
“Perhaps. But look what they have done so far…”
The second man to look his friend directly in the eye. “Do you believe in it? That anything we do might make a difference?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to imagine. But I’d rather imagine life, than live in a reality that is only death.”
Without another word, they turned, together, and went back to the camp.
Once upon a time, there was a field.
What’s so special about a field, you ask? Probably nothing, in all honesty. Although this one did have good soil, plenty of sunlight and available water, all of which made the field fertile. Those who worked it would say, of course, that the abundance of produce had as much to do with tending, fertilization, and irrigation; caring enough to allow the field to lie fallow and recuperate every few years. Those who worked it would say it took labor, even as they recognized their good fortune in being able to work this land: the particular reddish soil that they worked with such care.
One day, two glittering columns of soldiers approached, one from either side, having heard tell of the fertility of this place: the height of the grain, the abundance of produce. They came to possess the land for themselves, to feed their own, to keep the land from the hands of others. But as they approached, each army was met by emissaries from those who worked the field, who invited the commanders down into the little village, set in a clearing beside a canal. Both commanders, of both armies, were invited to supper, together with the people of the land… each with their weapons left outside.
At the table, the villagers gathered amid laughter and good-natured teasing. Heaping dishes were brought and shared out generously. The people talked easily among themselves and with their guests, in a dialect both commanders understood, though it wasn’t fully the dialect either spoke.
As the meal ended, and people sat back, loosening their belts, a young woman stood and began to speak. She was a storyteller, and began a tale that she called “The Wisdom of our Grandmother.” With her words, she wove before the eyes of these commanders lush fields turned fallow and desolate, earth stained red and cracking beneath the sun. She spoke gently of the ravages of greed, and violence that put an end to all that people had fought to possess.
Late in the evening, the stories ended, the commanders were escorted back to their armies, past the fields where rusting spears supported rows of beans, where plows bore an uncanny resemblance to their own weapons… which suddenly weighed heavily at their sides. As they left, they turned to the two old men who, alone at the table, had been silent. They asked, “But how did you know this was possible? How did you know that death and despair would not win?”
And the two old men smiled. “We didn’t know. We still don’t. But we worked, and we hoped, and we learned, and we listened. And it was enough.”
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
For a while [the judge] refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.” Luke 18:4-5
She was late. Well, later than she meant to be, at any rate. But just as she was setting out, all hell had broken loose. The baby didn’t like being left with the neighbor – honestly, the neighbor didn’t like either – and so had fussed and cried until she’d ended up nursing the child to calm her. At which point, of course, the baby spit up. She rubbed at the spot, hoping it wouldn’t show; she needed all her confidence for this meeting, she needed not to be disheveled and smelling of spit up… or whatever it was that her five year old had had in his hands when hugged her good bye.
It was not the first time she would be going to a meeting like this; nor, she reflected, the last, most likely. She gripped her folder tightly, feeling the comforting thickness of all the paperwork inside. As she walked, she glanced over her shoulder, skyward, still afraid of the death that fell from the sky. Even after months here, this habit was too ingrained to break. She hurried past row after row of tents, past the children who played in the alleys, children who should have been in school. Children who should have been hers… but best not to think of that now.
Instead, she turned her thoughts to the judge; a large man, all button down shirt and power tie, a heavy ring with a black stone on his right hand, thick gold band on left. He was the only person she knew who could walk through camp wearing such wealth, who would not be robbed for the cash to pay a smuggler, so secure was he in his power. Perhaps this was why he had never made eye contact with her; he’d just told her, time and again, that her paperwork was incomplete, that they were over their quota for this month. He’d just dismissed her, every time she’d gone to see him.
She wondered if he’d have looked at her husband… and in the same instant, wondered if she’d even be doing this if he hadn’t died. For it had been his death, along with their oldest daughter, which had finally made her flee; it had been her desperate resolve to keep younger ones safe, to start life over in a place without bombs, for their sake, that had brought her here.
She reached his office, one of the rare semi-permanent structures, and stood for a long moment, staring at the door. She wondered why she bothered, why she kept coming back to this man who only saw in her an enemy; who only saw in her tiny children the potential for violence. Her children…
She took a deep breath, filled with the scent of spit up and mess, adjusted her hijab, once more rehearsed her speech in her head: “My husband and daughter were killed in airstrikes. We left Aleppo 15 months ago. I am requesting refugee status and and a visa to enter the United States.”
And she knocked on the door. Perhaps this time. Perhaps this time would be different.
We read this parable, and in my experience, the general response is to feel bad for the widow, persistent in her quest for justice. But do we ever really think about who she is? Do we question what injustice she might be seeking to right? I suspect we see her, inevitably, as an older woman: a woman who is familiar to us, like us… so we don’t wonder if we would agree with her complaint. We don’t consider how we ourselves might respond to her stubbornness.
We have a tendency to read stories like this with a certain lens: to see ourselves as the justice seeker, to be, therefore, convinced as to the rightness of the claim, because we assume she is like us. But we don’t know that. Only that she is persistent.
And we don’t always appreciate persistence.
She buttoned her blouse carefully, checked her reflection in the mirror, patted a loose hair into place, reached for her jewelry box. She’d wear the pearls today, the earrings and necklace. They gave her a sense of dignity, of respectability that helped, on days like today. She hummed as she got ready, the songs of her childhood, of her church; the songs she remembered her Grandma had sung. In the early days, she had tended to hum songs of encouragement, of justice… recently, she’d noticed that more and more, she needed the songs of comfort, as her heart grew more tender.
She paused, glancing at photo on her bedside table. Their son beginning to look so like him; same eyes, same smile. Her heart constricted, as it always did when thought of their son. He’d been twelve when his father died; he was fifteen now, fifteen going on thirty. And she worried. She’d had the talk with him. He knew what to do: don’t talk back. Do exactly what they tell you. Keep your hands visible. It was small comfort: his father had known this, too.
Today was a reasonably short trip, just about a two-hour drive, plus a stop at the airport to pick up two others, widows themselves. Like her, they were dressed neatly and wearing sensible shoes. Together, they drove downtown, parked, took their posters out and met the others. All of them had their game faces on. They prayed together, aware of how much they’d need it.
Together, they took their places on the pavement outside the courthouse, each with a poster bearing the smiling face of a husband, son, daughter, brother; their names, their dates. Across the top, the same word emblazoned on each poster: Justice.
They stood all day on that sidewalk, watching the people flow in and out of court. They stood, knowing intimately the proceedings going on inside. They stood, trying not to make eye contact with the passers-by. For, as usual, a few smiled, or gave encouraging signs, but many more catcalled, or yelled slurs, or suggested crudely that these people on the posters, these beloveds, had deserved their fate and earned their deaths.
She thought of her husband, who’d pulled his car over when he realized he was having a heart attack a dozen blocks from their house. He had knocked on the nearest door, hoping for help from a stranger; he was killed by the homeowner, who had assumed the knock was an attempt at burglary… at 4 in the afternoon. She thought of her friends, this group that traveled from city to city, court to court, pleading silently, persistently for justice. She thought of their family members, the names-become-hashtags; she thought of the family in the courthouse today, pleading for justice for their twelve-year-old who hadn’t had time to do what they told him to.
Shifting her weight on aching feet, she stood up straight, silently pleading her case, her husband’s case; persistent in the face of unrelenting judgement.
It’s interesting that we spend so much time pondering the widow, and so little pondering the judge; the one who doesn’t fear God, who has no respect for people – which, in many ways, amounts to the same thing. It’s interesting that, as we read this story, so often our identification is with the widow, rather than the judge; with the one who seeks justice, rather than the one who passes judgment.
This judge, who has no fear of God, no awe before the divine, no sense of his place within the mysteries of creation, no wonder at the complexities of this world, and his place within them… I wonder what went through his head during the widow’s first visits? I wonder why he denied her? what he refused to see in her? what he said to justify his lack of action; how he made her “other”, therefore unworthy or dangerous? How did he discredit her persistence – did he call her “inflammatory?” “inappropriate?” Did he decide that her protest was an “improper” way to call attention to injustice?
I wonder about the support, the complicity of those around him, those who encouraged his inaction, or soothed his discomfort. Those who helped him to justify his dismissal of this widow, and her needs.
I wonder that we do not see ourselves in that judge, for we are not always the widow. We are not always the justice seekers, but too often, the ones who grow weary of the persistence of those who demand that we do justice in this world.
At pub theology, the other night, we had a conversation about whether we’d recognize Jesus, were he to come back, here and now. But the more I thought about it, in the days that followed, the more convinced I became that we had asked the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether we “would” recognize Jesus. It’s a matter of whether or not we do.
Do we recognize Christ in the persistence of those fighting for access to treatment for addiction? Do we recognize Christ in the cries of those demanding that the minimum wage be a truly living wage?
Do we see Jesus turning tables, when we see the persistence of communities of color demanding that we acknowledge and end the violence of implicit bias in schools, in hiring, in the criminal justice system?
Do we see God in the widows of this world; widows of immigrants, widows of overdose, widows of violence, widows of indifference, begging us to acknowledge the injustice they have known?
Do we see the God who sees us, as we are reminded again and again in Luke’s Gospel? The God who doesn’t wait for us to ask, but sees us and knows us and calls us?
For that is the good news, here: that we who are persistent in our quest for acknowledgement will get our hearing. We will feel the movement of the arc of the moral universe as it bends, however slowly, toward justice.
But more than that: the good news is that our God will not let us go, when we refuse to see the widows of this world; when we continue to create “others” whom we need not respect and whose persistence we can ridicule and write off. Our God will persist in pushing us to do justice, with all the tenacity of the widow. God will not let us go, even when we have lost our respect for God and one another. God will but will continue to urge us, encourage us, demand from us justice for this world she so loves.
And that is, indeed, good news, for us and for the world.
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -Luke 12: 51
This is one of those tough texts… all the more because this is actually Jesus speaking. This talk of fire and division doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and love, however, does it? Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace to the earth – isn’t that what the angels in Bethlehem promised?
It’s hard to hear this angry-sounding Jesus who is talking about something that sounds more like a scorched-earth policy than like grace. Division that doesn’t sound like the call to relationship that we are accustomed to hearing in the Gospels; it doesn’t sound like the mutuality and trust that marks so much of discipleship.
Granted, scriptures like this make a lot of Christian history make sense. Read something like this, and suddenly it’s much easier to understand the bloodshed that has marked the institutional church nearly since its very early years. Crusades, colonialism, dominant culture… we can see where acts like these are rooted, when texts like this come along. Still: it feels pretty horrible, hearing all of this from Jesus himself, as though he would have approved of all the violence of Christian history. It’s disconcerting. Disorienting.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, gave a talk once in which she reminded us that texts like this can not only be used to justify past violence, but can also be actively used to excuse the violence and oppression of the present time; to suggest to those who know oppression that life is just hard, and violence is simply a normal part of human existence. This world is full of trials, says the theology of oppressed communities (in Flunder’s example, the American Black churches). Hardship and oppression is the status quo, the human condition; therefore faithfulness means enduring the terrible things that life gives you, in order to achieve God’s Kingdom in the life to come. Moreover, faithfulness means not fighting back against that which signals the coming realm, for to do so is to work against God, and God’s plan for us; possibly even to forfeit your place in that realm.
Neither interpretation probably feels right, to many of us today. Yet I would argue that it is a failure on the part of progressive Christianity that we cannot easily articulate a more loving and grace-filled vision, even in a text like this one. It says a lot about the progressive church that we are left to our feelings of discomfort and disorientation, when Jesus speaks words like this. It says something about our continued reliance on uncomfortable theology. Yet it says, I think, even more about our failure of imagination when it comes to God’s realm – when it comes to peace or love – than anything else.
For peace is not the absence of conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, whose writing Jesus knew and quoted often, warned against those who preached peace in this way, saying, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly”. For to understand peace simply as the absence of conflict is to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. It is the patch that smooths over but does not mend.
Nor is love complete agreement, as most families would, I think, understand. How many of us are in complete agreement even with those we love most? Rather, we love one another “even though”. Just a couple chapters ago in this same gospel, we read the story of the Good Samaritan – perhaps the prime example of loving-even-though.
That parable, so familiar yet so hard, placed just two chapters back from these disconcerting, disorienting words, serves as a reminder that context matters.
Because we can make the scriptures say a lot of the things we want to hear. We can make the Bible justify our thirst for violence and our acceptance of oppression, even from within… but only if we ignore the larger context. Only if we remove these passages from their place within the larger story, and allow them to speak for themselves, in a way that they were never intended to do.
Here, of course, the immediate context is Luke’s Gospel, which tells story of God’s love; love which gives voice to the voiceless, including women & foreigners. Love which crosses human boundaries, even unto our enemies, even unto Samaritans. Love which provides for all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For just a few verses before this morning’s passage, we hear Jesus remind us that even the sparrows – sold 5 for 2 pennies – are not so insignificant that they are forgotten by God (12:6). We hear how even the ravens, those scavenging omens of evil (12:24); even the flowers and the grass, who have no consciousness, no will of their own (12:27, 28) are fed and clothed and nurtured and known by the God who created all things. Then the Gospel asks, if God so loves these, whom we would consider insignificant, how much more does God love us?
Luke’s Gospel tells story of God’s love: a boundless, uncontainable love, a love that doesn’t make sense in human terms. God’s love is a love that pushes back against empire, against our culture, against our comfort with oppression, and with inequality, and with injustice.
Luke’s Gospel and the portrait of God’s love that it paints, is actually a pretty scary thing, if we take it seriously. And it’s going to cause divisions – it already did, even in Jesus’ time! For giving voice to voiceless means hearing new things, things we have probably not wanted to hear before. Crossing human boundaries means seeing beyond ourselves, thinking as much of others as we think of ourselves. Loving-even-though means reflecting on our prejudices, biases; doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and change.
To live into God’s love is not a choice to be undertaken casually. Christianity is not a half-hearted, feel-good movement, as much as we might wish it to be. Because the world we live in is not entirely the world that God created; it is of our making, and we did not build it on God’s love, but on human brokenness, on our willingness to live in fragments and to love within limits such as shared appearance or experience. To live into God’s love is to push back, hard, against the world. It is to put needs of many ahead of needs of few, even when we’re part of few. It is to listen without defensiveness to those who say they’ve never felt that their lives mattered. It is to grieve those whose despair drives them to senseless acts of violence; it is recognizing our own participation in a violent culture.
To live into God’s love is a counter-cultural act, and, as Jesus knew, a divisive one. For it calls us to reject what those around us – those we love – accept as the status quo, the human condition. It is to reject the systems in which we are told that it is God’s will (!) that some succeed, while some simply endure, and that questioning those systems remove us from God’s favor.
For I will push back, as Bishop Flunder pushed back, against the idea that the oppression of some and power of others might simply be the human condition; that the brokenness of this world is something simply to be endured for the sake of the hereafter. That remains view of those who would simplify love to agreement; that remains the view of the modern-day prophets who cry peace for the sake of making discomfort end, rather than for the sake of bringing justice; for the sake of the quasi-peace that silences dissent and lets wounds fester.
And I think Jesus would push back, too.
Jesus, who here speaks of love beyond divisions. Jesus, who reminds us not to fear. Jesus, who tells us time and again that God’s love is deeper than our divisions, that God’s love sinks all the way in, to root of our cracks, to our deepest fears and our deepest needs, to the stories and experiences that formed us… and there works healing, and peace, in our deepest selves.
That is, itself, a divisive notion indeed, as Jesus knew. It is divisive to commit ourselves to a discipleship that calls us away from this culture’s values and its judgments. It is divisive to live vulnerably, in a world that prizes security. It is divisive to live generously, in a world that prefers to see scarcity. It is divisive to live in the discomfort of self-examination in a world that tells us we’ve earned our comfort. It is divisive, because when we do our own work of self-examination, of justice-seeking, we call into question the choices of those around us – even those in our own families – and we can easily feel burned.
Division doesn’t feel like Good News. It doesn’t feel like grace. But the Good News has never been that discipleship is easy. It is never been that God’s grace enables us to allow harmful systems to persist because hey, we’ll be forgiven, so it’s all cool. The Good News has never been that there is a better life awaiting, once we’ve endured the horrors of this one.
The Good News is that even in the midst of division, even in the scary place of pushing back against the world for the sake of God’s realm, we are not alone; we are seen, and known, and loved. The Good News is that those who cry for justice are beloved, and we who hear those cries, and respond in love – even if it seems to cause division – are bringing God’s realm. The Good News is that, as scary as this work can seem, as much as it might seem like walking through fire, the true work of discipleship is not a patch job on the divisions the world imposes, but rather the deep, systemic work of love that builds enduring bridges and fills in the broken places. And we come through the fires tempered, stronger, made new in God’s love.
The Good News is that the God who knows each sparrow, who feeds the raven, who clothes the grasses of the field in splendor, created each of us, and blessed us so that we, fearful and broken as we might be, are still enough: to change the world, to walk through the fires, to bring God’s realm with life-giving love and enduring peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:29
“But wanting to justify himself…”
Did you hear that?
The lawyer, so well-versed in scripture, so sure of himself, is testing Jesus. Putting himself in the position of power. Jesus does not let him remain there, but turns the question around… and, put on the defensive, the lawyer seeks to justify himself and how he was living; he who knew the correct answer.
And Jesus told a parable, of a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Of two leaders of the injured man’s own people, who saw him there and distanced themselves. After all, someone in a ditch must have done something to deserve being there. Not to mention that the suffering of others tends to make us… uncomfortable.
And then along came a Samaritan, who not only stopped, but climbed down into the ditch with the injured man. The Samaritan got blood on his hands and dirt on his clothes, gave of himself in time, and heart, and money, for the sake of a total stranger.
Here’s the thing Samaritans and Jews were both Israelites, both descendents of Abraham, both people of the covenant. Samaritans were those who were not deported to Babylon, during the occupation and exile. But essentially, they were the same people, on the same land, with different experiences historically. They had been treated differently by those in power regionally, and had different responses to the powers around them in the region in Jesus’ time. Now, generations after the exile, the differences between the two groups were not simply respected as such – as elements of diversity between members of one family; rather, they were seen as the basis of moral judgment, as the divisive basis between right and wrong. And so these differences between those who should have been kin, one to another, led not to understanding but to distrust, judgment, and fear.
It’s probably a good thing they didn’t have guns.
Despite generations of Christianity, we are no different from those ancient people. We, too, seek to justify the ways we use difference to excuse violence. We pass judgment. We blame the victims, with phrases like “he should have just done what he was told…” and “she should have worn something more modest…” We scour the victim’s past… to find many of the same mistakes we ourselves made, but which in these cases become excuses. We find or create reasons that the traveler lies bleeding in a ditch: reasons that they deserved it; reasons to pass by, eyes averted.
And I am tired of it.
I am tired of hearing us prop up a violent system, in which minor infractions get the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a culture in which existence in wrong place at wrong time gets the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a world in which tell ourselves only way to be safe from violence is to carry instruments of death –death on a large scale – and to kill before we can be killed.
I am tired of hearing the justifications for violence that have sprung up just in the three years since the last time this text came up: days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in death of Trayvon Martin.
I am tired of the many people who have been reduced to hashtags. I am tired of having their names etched in my soul. I am tired of the justifications that dismiss the lived experiences of our kindred, that insists that equality necessarily means uniformity.
I am tired of the “thoughts and prayers” that don’t change a broken system, that don’t come close to healing this broken body of which we are a part.
I am tired, to my very bones, of the grief to which we have become accustomed; the violence that has become a daily occurrence; the culture and society that we justify, even though we know the answer.
I am tired of preaching a variant of this very same sermon, every single week.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself, we are told, and we, who do not want to do the self-examination, ask who our neighbor is. We look for loopholes, seeking to justify ourselves.
And Jesus tells us a parable.
A child of God lies bleeding by the side of the road, and a religious person comes by, engrossed in a facebook argument. They see the person in ditch, and mumble something about sin and what-can-you-expect, before they go back to posting “all lives matter” on social media. Moments later, a politician comes by, notices and shows their child the person in the ditch, as though the person were not human, but simply an object lesson: don’t let that be you. The politician offers their “thoughts and prayers for the victim and their family,” and goes on their way.
But there is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, battered and bruised and certain that no one cares.
There is still a child of God: wearing a hoodie. Listening to music in his car. Seeking help after a car accident. Selling loose cigarettes or CDs to survive. Playing shoot-’em-up on the playground. Pulled over for a taillight, or a failure to signal. Attending Bible Study. Holding his wallet or cell phone. Doing exactly what he was told.
There is still a child of God: drunk at a party. Walking home alone at night. Minding their own business on the subway. Being female. Being trans. Simply existing.
There is still a child of God: trying to maintain a good relationship with a distrustful community. Trying to protect innocent lives and the right to free speech and peaceful demostration.
There is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, waiting for someone who will call them neighbor.
There is still a child of God.
There is still a member of the body of Christ.
In justifying the violence done them, we do violence to Christ.
In dismissing their experiences of suffering, we dismiss the suffering of Christ.
We follow a brown-skinned low-income, unarmed homeless man who was executed by state for insisting that marginalized lives mattered; that we needed to pay particular attention to those who had suffered most and repent clearly and specifically for the love we had failed to extend, for the neighbors we had refused to recognize. We follow a man who believed deeply in the radical notion that love means we climb down into the ditch; that we get bloody and dirty for the sake of the stranger; that we take the time to learn their names:
We follow a man who insisted that we see victims of violence as humans; as kindred to us; as being of one body with us; as those whose lives, whose experiences, whose stories matter. Even if these experiences convict us, even if these stories change us.
We follow a man who believed so deeply in love that he refused violence, even when he knew that he himself would die, a victim of the very violence he refused.
Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? And Jesus, who believed more deeply than any of us that all lives matter, replied: “Samaritan lives matter.”
Gentile lives matter.
Women’s lives matter.
Marginalized lives matter.
The lives that you do not acknowledge, the lives that push you to justify your own judgment, matter. To say otherwise, to dismiss these lives, is to do violence.
But I tell you: love your neighbor as yourself. For a man of Samaria stopped, to tend to the wounds of the bleeding man, not caring for the dust, the blood he got on his clothes; finding that giving two days’ wages for the life of a stranger was worth it. For a black man stopped, to feed the hungry children before him, and he learned all their names, all their allergies, all their needs; their grief at the death of Philando Castile suggests his love was worth it. For a police officer stopped a black teen in a drug store, the day after Dallas, simply to ask how he was, for both were grieving; and the willingness to engage in mutuality is always worth it.
Who is my neighbor?
Who is our neighbor?
The one who has been hurt. The one who has reason to fear. The one against whom we try to justify violence. The one against whom we try to justify complacency. The one whose difference you see as inherently wrong or threatening. The one you’d rather pass by.
Who is my neighbor?
The one I should love as myself. The one whose life matters, no matter what society says.
Jesus said, to the one who sought to justify himself: who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
He said, “the one who didn’t judge, but got down to the messy, sacred business of caring for the wounded.”
Go and do likewise.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37
The stories abounded this week.
I was 8 years old, in church, when I was first told we could love the sinner and hate the sin.
I was 22 when a pastor told me I couldn’t join the church until I’d been cured, because even Mary Magdalene couldn’t follow Jesus until he’d cast out her demons.
I was in college when my roommate’s response to my coming out was to ask if she could pray over me, to be healed of my sin.
I was 48 when a church leader interrupted a free community meal to try to perform an exorcism on me.
I was 32 when the church refused to baptize my child because my husband and I “hadn’t renounced Satan.”
I was 27 when I stopped allowing my church to abuse me with the notion that I could “pray away the gay”
I was the age I am now when I last heard I was an abomination.
The stories broke my heart this week. It was hard not to hear them, as I read through Luke text, in preparation to preach. It was hard not to identify, on some level, with the man possessed, locked away, excluded; the man seen as dangerous, unclean, dwelling in death. But it was even harder to know that that identification would be more clearly made, between sexuality and sin, in pulpits around the nation. The very identification that has, indeed, been made,this week and in the years leading up to this week: made in a way that directly blamed the possessed man, that blamed the victim, that made the demons the sin, rather than the exclusion, shaming and rejection that he experienced.
Because this story isn’t really about one man and his demons. It’s not about one person being healed. It’s about the community that chose fear; it’s about the community that chose complacency.
It’s about us.
In each generation, we see certain things as inherently evil; as “incompatible with Christian teaching” to borrow a phrase. We see certain behaviors as the workings of the devil – evil incarnate – in this world. In each generation, we identify this particular man of the Gerasenes, or anyone else in scripture noted for having demons, as representative of our modern views. Yet in so doing, we reinforce the boundaries that we have, ourselves, created between us and the “other”. We reinforce our human boundaries between those whom God loves, and those whom we do not want God to love; those who follow Jesus and those whom we do not want to follow Jesus. We reinforce the boundaries that enable us to talk about them without having to include ourselves, without having to examine ourselves.
The funny thing is that every time we draw a boundary, Jesus ends up on the other side.
It’s easy to suggest that the demon-possessed man totally unlike his neighbors; that they – that we – are not held captive by external forces, the things over which it feels like we have no control. It’s easy to draw the boundary between us and him, to judge him as “other”, because it precludes our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It allows us to say that he needs healing, that he needs Jesus… all while ignoring our own needs for – and fears of – both of these.
It strikes me that it is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; it is whether or not we are comfortable with the demons that inhabit our lives.
It is when our demons begin to sit uncomfortably within us, when we acknowledge that we want no part of them, that we become dangerous. It is then that we are cast aside, shunned by those who are comfortable. It is then that we are demonized, shackled and constrained by the words used to make us “other”, by the confines of “polite society”, by the fearmongering and vitriol that have become all too prevalent around us. It is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; rather, it is when we choose self-examination and self-awareness. It is when we name the demons that live within us, when we reject the demons that fill the world around us. It is when our choice to reject our demons calls those around us to the frightening experience of doing the same uncomfortable work: of naming that which possesses us, the ways we’ve become so comfortable in possession that we internalize it, justify it, participate in it.
It cannot be overlooked that the one we demonize in this text is the one who is the one aware of, and at war with, his demons. The one we demonize in this text is the one who has done the painful work of grappling with the forces that held him, the one who has dwelt among the dead: looked death in the face, and acknowledged his own participation in its culture. The one we demonize in this text is the one who recognizes Jesus, when even the disciples do not; the one who calls him “Son of the Most High God.” The one we demonize in this text is the one who has the wherewithal to approach Jesus, just as he is, unapologetically; his vulnerability made clear in nakedness.
The one we demonize in this text is the one who is able to name his demons, and have them banished.
While the townsfolk, prey to those same external forces, see in Jesus someone more fearful than their demons: someone who could remove from them the demons with whom they’d become comfortable; rip them open to the unimagined possibility that they began to see in the healed man – the possibility of who they might become, in vulnerable relationship with Jesus. Of who they might become in the presence of the love so powerful it can drive out all else. Of who they might become when faced with a God whose only two options are unconditional love and extravagant welcome.
In this moment of healing, of the rejection of demons, the townsfolk see before themselves another way, but one which requires vulnerability and self-examination; the refusal to remain comfortable, complacent, complicit with the demons of this world.
This is really their story, our story, the church’s story. That much becomes more clear, in weeks like this one, when violence collides with stories of demons, and we begin to truly see where we locate ourselves within the story: as those who shun and oppress, shackle and demonize; as those who do the ongoing, often painful work of self-reflection, of choosing to reject the justifications for, and the comfort with, the demons of this world – even as we ourselves are called possessed.
This is our story: the story of being willing to acknowledge our participation in the culture of death, and to spend our time in prayerful repentence among its victims.
For the demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, but the beliefs and fears that do violence on those bases; the ones that fuel the stories that started this sermon, the ones that lead to the violence we have seen this week, the ones that lead to the erasure of the voices and the identities of those who were most directly impacted by violence.
The demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, for those do not keep us separate from the love that Jesus embodies, but recognize the power of standing, in love, on the side the oppressed.
The demons of this world are racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which our culture justifies in the fear-mongering and the hate which have become so pervasive, so subtle that we no longer see them, but accept and even justify them as comfortable. These are demons we are afraid to acknowledge, because grappling with them, recognizing our role in maintaining them, is painful to us, and threatening to those who remain comfortable. And we are afraid of being shackled or ostracized. We are afraid of dwelling among the tombs, among the victims of our hateful demons and our inability to let them go.
And so I hope we will all come to identify with this demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, who grappled with the demons, despite the pain. I hope that we will all identify with this man who recognized Jesus and called out to him, despite the fear; who named his demons, the sins that kept him separate from God’s love: the love that does not call anyone “other.” I hope we will have the courage to see the demons with whom we have become comfortable. I hope that we will find the strength to call them out, no matter who tries to shackle us, to demonize us. I hope we will have courage to tear down the barriersour demons have prodded us to create, so that we might find Jesus standing, as always, on the other side with the queers and the Latinx and the undocumented, beloved and grieving.
I hope we will have the courage to come before Jesus, just as we are, but prepared for the grace that can change us; the grace that can transform us; the grace that can encourage us; the grace that can clothe us in God’s abiding, unconditional love.