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…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.
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.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John 12:4-6
If your brother were just raised from dead, wouldn’t you throw a party? Mary and Martha sure are, and I’m guessing it was probably pretty crowded. Lazarus himself was there, of course, the man of the hour. Both sisters, of course, as well as Jesus – guest of honor! – and his disciples. This we know from the text. I suspect that many of those who had been present at the tomb were also in attendance: friends, family, the townsfolk of Bethany. The party may well have filled the house, and spilled out into the area around it – an abundance of guests, feasting and rejoicing.
And we know what happens next.
Mary pours an entire flask of perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet, and Judas berates her for the waste of resources. It could have fed so many!
Honestly, I think most of us sort of empathize with Judas in this moment, thief though the story says he is. Should all of our resources go to the poor? Shouldn’t feeding people be our top priority always?
In many ways, Jesus’ response doesn’t help. Not because of what he says, but because of how we hear it. Even those with the text in front of them tend to read the line as “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That first phrase has become part of our collective consciousness, an explanation – even an excuse – for continuing systemic inequalities.
If only that were what Jesus actually said.
In many instances in this Gospel, we find side by side narratives; functioning as illustrations of what it means to be a disciple. In parallel courses, we’ll see stories of those who understand and those who don’t; those who are in relationship with Jesus and those who are not. For in this Gospel, relationship is the marker of true discipleship, true belief, while a lack of relationship becomes the definition of sin. So early on in the text, we have Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee who kept trying to make all of Jesus’ answers fit into his own particular paradigm… followed by the Samaritan woman, who heard Jesus and immediately him to stay in her home: she entered into relationship, expanding her own paradigm in the process.
We see a similar phenomenon here. On the one hand, we have : Judas, who should understand what’s going on – he’s been a disciple for a long time, after all! – who keeps trying to fit Jesus into a nice, neat box, comprehensible and safe. On the other hand, we have Mary of Bethany (n.b.: not Mary of Magdala) who has just really begun to understand, with the resurrection of her brother, what it is that Jesus is really all about.
And we see her understanding in her actions: that it is Lazarus’ resurrection that will mark Jesus for death; that the time of preparation for burial is at hand; that it is still not a time for grief, but for love, and love poured out abundantly.
Judas, who has heard Jesus’ predictions of death several times over; Judas, who should have known what was coming, cannot break out of his own mindset, his own preoccupations. Judas cannot get out of his own way to see what is right before him. Judas needs reminding of his role as a disciple, as one who is in relationship with Jesus.
Judas needs Jesus to speak truth; the same truth, perhaps, that we need to hear: “the poor you have with you always”. Which is, despite how we hear it, not a statement of future certainty, but a terrible condemnation of the present time, in which the poor are present. For this is not Jesus pulling off a mic-drop soundbyte, but reminding us of a truth spoken generations earlier, in the Torah:
There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. -Deuteronomy 15: 4-5
“There will be no one in need, if only you will obey…” Ouch. How’s that going, Judas?
That the poor are always with us is not an acknowledgement of the way of the world, but evidence that we have fallen away from God, and remained out of relationship with Jesus. For there are poor – and hungry, and homeless – in a land that produces abundantly; a land in which we have been blessed… a land in which we have continually kept that blessing for ourselves.
Seems this is another thing that Mary understands better.
Seems that her anointing, her preparation for his burial, is preparation for herself, as well. For Mary is giving of all she has of value – this perfume which cost a year’s wages, made of a rare flower from India – and giving fully, pouring out the entire contents in this one moment. She is participating in an act of relationship, in act of intimacy that echoes the one expressed earlier in this same Gospel, where Jesus dwells at the bosom of God: an image of trusting intimacy, of sustenance, of nurture, of nourishment. Mary makes clear her choice to trust fully in the nurture of God-made-flesh, even as he goes to his death.
While Judas, on the other hand… needs to keep a little back for himself, in case. In case this Jesus moment is just a flash-in-the-pan. In case this God thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It strikes me, from this portrait, that it is Mary – wasteful, prodigal, extravagant Mary – who will obey God in the commandments given. It is Mary who will live into a world in which the poor are not always present; it is Mary who will ensure that no one around her is in need, who will continue to give generously of her abundance.
It is Mary who will remain in relationship with Jesus, rather than those who, like Judas, continually wonder if there shall be enough – who will count every coin, who will micro-manage every transaction, who will dwell more readily in the fear of scarcity than in the blessing of abundance.
Both Mary and Judas have smelled the stink of death close at hand. Lazarus is among them, after all; fresh – or not so much! – from the tomb. And Judas, it seems, wants out already – to get away from away from the stench, to find a reason to condemn the hospitality and leave early. Judas wants to escape the spectre of death, currently sharing a table with him, lest, perhaps, it cling to him as well. But Mary… Mary responds, instead, with a scent that fills the house, that provides an aroma more powerful than death, an odor with which the smell of death cannot compete. Mary’s perfume, poured out as abundantly as the wine at Cana, as the loaves and fishes that fed thousands, as the grace of God upon the world that God loves. It fills every crack, every crevice. It clings to everyone’s hair, everyone’s clothes – even Lazarus’! – and then follows them for hours, if not days. Mary’s perfume becomes the scent, not of death, not even of preparation for death and burial, but of but preparation for the life eternal. It is a preparation for a life in relationship with Jesus, in which there is no one in need, in a land of abundance; in which we can hold God’s feet in our hands; in which we can feel, see, taste God’s grace; in which that grace smells like the costliest perfume, poured out extravagantly.
Judas’ question resonates with us, but this text reminds us that the resonance we hear points us in an unfortunate direction, one that ill-prepares us for the life and discipleship to which we are called. We who prepare ourselves, this Lent, for resurrection would do well to have a good look at how we embody that preparation; to ask ourselves whether we experience the abundance that Mary gives so readily? Do we participate, here and now, in the extravagance of eternal life? or do we participate in the fear that cannot see beyond death? Do we, like Judas, fear to trust in the sustenance of God; in the providence of God to do the impossible: to bless the land so richly that there need be no poor, no hungry, no homeless?
Where do we abide, the descendants of Mary and of Judas: in the incomprehension of Nicodemus? in the slush fund of Judas? in the anger of the authorities at having their world turned upside down?
I hope not.
I hope that we, too, can smell the overpowering scent of rich perfume, can live in the experience of abundant life, can breathe the fragrance of life eternal clinging to our very skin.
I hope that we, too, can live into a resurrection world, celebrate gift of life here in this world: in which there need be no poverty; in which God’s abundance is poured out around us daily.
I hope that we, too, can give of ourselves fearlessly, without counting cost; that we can pour ourselves out abundantly, extravagantly, intimately; so that all may know the sustenance, the nourishment of God in this world.
For ours is not a faith of fear, or of death, and we do well when we prepare ourselves instead for resurrection. We do well when we act in ways that recall that death will never have the last word.
Ours is not a faith that counts the cost; ours is not a faith that puts restrictions on giving, or that debates who is most worthy of our help.
Ours is a faith of Mary, wasteful and extravagant in her certainty that there is enough – more than enough! – for the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be housed, the grieving and despairing to be known, and seen and loved.
Ours is a faith of the God who became flesh and abides among us.
Ours is a faith of resurrection.
May we prepare ourselves as Mary did: in acts of intimate relationship, in acts of extravagant generosity, in acts of abiding love, which cling to us and give fragrance to our world.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ John 2: 3-5
For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.
But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.
This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.
Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.
It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves. Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.
Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.
And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.
This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action. And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.
Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine. Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him. At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing. At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.
The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.
I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities. We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us. We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are, and who we might become. For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.
However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out. Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.
This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.
Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.
Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.
What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.
Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:
My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:
They should have done what they were told.
What can you expect from that generation?
We’ve always done it this way before.
Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.
Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.
But we come after.
The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.
For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.
And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love. We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.
Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.
It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.
And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.
And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer. We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” Luke 1: 46-48
This seems rather an odd text for this third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Not because Mary doesn’t seem joyful in her hymn of praise to God, but because there seems no good reason for her to be joyful in the first place. Certainly, she has found favor with God – Gabriel the Angel told her so, and who wouldn’t believe an angel, right? And certainly, she’s going to have a baby, which certainly can be good news under the right circumstances… but Mary’s don’t really feel right, by that measure, do they?
The reality is that Mary, whatever favor she may have found, is an unwed, teenage mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary, young, unmarried and pregnant, was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one.
Finding favor with God, though it sounds like a real treat, was no guarantee of comfort or security, as the scripture notes on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, God’s favor seems more likely to get one into trouble than just about anything else.
I discovered this week that Islam, in its telling of Jesus’ birth, goes into great detail about Mary’s life. The Qur’an traces Mary’s lineage back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and tells the story of her own parents: how, in order to maintain this lineage of prophets, they prayed for years to have a child – only to end up with a girl! Right from the beginning, it seems, the patriarchy was a part of poor Mary’s life. But so was prophecy, which she embodied beyond her parents’ expectations. But, like most prophets, Mary found that her gift – and the presence of God which it implied – would not make life any simpler for her. For Mary, as for the prophets of generations past, favor with God would be a hard road. After all, prophecy – especially when it comes to calls to repentance, or to the question of bringing the people back to God, is almost never well-received.
Prophecy may not be the tradition in which we, as Christians, tend to place Mary, but this text certainly bears out that particular reading – as, indeed, does the entire Gospel narrative around the mother of Christ. For Mary puts herself, here especially, squarely into the midst of a reality that does not yet exist, and then calls others – like Elizabeth – into that reality alongside her. Mary chooses to live in a reality in which the humble are blessed and the mighty are brought low; in which the hungry are fed and the marginalized are lifted up.
Mary chooses to live in a reality in which an unwed teenager can give birth to God incarnate – and does so joyfully, even knowing what probably awaits her.
It is not at all absurd to hold Mary as a prophet. It is entirely within the Gospel tradition to hold her as a proto-disciple, embodying the call that her child would eventually put to all humanity. There is a good reason that Mary is held in veneration by so many, and it is not for her living into some unattainable level of feminine perfection and purity. Rather, Mary’s importance stems from an ability to believe fully in the covenant promises, even when they seem tremendously distant; her ability to live joyfully into a reality that isn’t, yet – that will only come into being in the person to whom she will give birth. Mary is able, beyond all reason, to live out the unimaginable reality of love and justice, even when she is faced with incredible hardship and trial, the likes of which most of us would never consciously choose.
But what if we did?
What would it look like for us, to live as Mary did: choosing joy?
Would we, like her cousin Elizabeth, follow her into this new reality of possibility? Elizabeth, after all, had everything – the social status, the location, the ancestry – to believe that she should have been the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Yet she sets all that aside to rejoice entirely at the presence of God in one who is, by all standard measures, a lesser person.
Could we, like Elizabeth, embody the joy that lifts another up? Even another who seems so terribly unworthy, in comparison?
What would it look like for us to imitate Elizabeth: to learn our discipleship at Mary’s feet? What would it look like for us to live into a discipleship that embodies the joy that can surpass even real, rational fear?
What would it look like for us to choose to rejoice at God’s movement and presence in this world, even when it comes at a very real cost to us? What would it look like to embody joy at a God who would appear in the least expected places, in the “least worthy” people, the God whose light shines in those places where we so often hesitate to tread?
What would it look like for us to live as Mary did, singing praises of the God who continually calls for the disruption of our comfortable lives, the God who calls us to prophecy and its consequences? What sort of discipleship would Mary teach us, but the one that she taught her son, to live for the sake of love and justice throughout the entirety of God’s creation?
Mary teaches us, throughout the generations, to believe fully in a God of prophetic discomfort – in the God who will be present with us as we live into the consequences of our prophetic voice. For Mary knew, more intimately than we ever could, the presence of a God who walks with us through the difficulty and discomfort; the God who took on our weakness and our vulnerability so as to truly be Emmanuel: God with us.
Our call to discipleship may not put poetic hymns on our lips, or angels before us. Our prophecy may not cause unborn children to leap in the womb. But our God is present. God-with-us remains, disrupting, pushing, making life hard and uncofortable. For the same God who found favor with Mary calls us now, to live into the prophetic reality of hope, of peace, of joy and of justice. The same God calls us over and over to the power of weakness and vulnerability; as of a teenaged mother, as of her newborn child.
The same God who found favor with Mary invites us now, in the midst of discomfort, of prophecy, of impossibility, to choose joy over fear; to choose the reality of a God-with-us world; to embody the joy of God’s presence without counting the cost.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25
This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there. It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular phrase, “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women. It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.
“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain. So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” – and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply, “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.
But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me. Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”
So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?
We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol. But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ. As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death. To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution. It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.
That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke. That was the imagery that Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.
Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation. His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross. Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself. Choose it for yourself. Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness. We must choose, freely and without coercion.
And what happens when we choose the cross? when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”? What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment? What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?
What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.
The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”. The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.” The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all. Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship. I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”. Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.
And it may well cost us.
It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world. It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.
It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love. It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right. Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis. Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.
Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.
May we so choose. May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.
May we so choose.
Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.
Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.
Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.
Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46
Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold. Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value. I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.
But we don’t live in a fairy tale. We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?
If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it. Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow. It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.
Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else. To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else. Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law. The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.
And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?
We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted. Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked. Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized. For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons – half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter. In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.
That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed. The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard. For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it. Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer. But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts? When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?
What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk? What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens? What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?
The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.
The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater. It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal. It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort. The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control? why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?
Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?
In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.
For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything? What is our parable, for this modern age?
I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.
For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice. It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace. For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.
That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.
sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.
While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a
It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples, walking away from Jerusalem. More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise. We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end. They knew the prophecies. They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.
Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.
After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them. After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed. After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?” What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?
This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels. And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking. “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?
Hope is such a terribly human emotion. We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something. In our hope, we maintain certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes. And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along. We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.
In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses. Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.
Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment. Would any of us expect less? After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!
Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?
These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day. For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset. And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered, “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”
Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all. For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”
And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves. These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead. When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.
Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.
We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining. We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts. We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour. We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread; in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present. And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.
God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”
God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.
God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.
For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen. So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.
That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.
That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.
We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.” And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision. For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result. But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped. May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.
And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.