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… 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.
I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.
I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons. It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.
Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.
Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.
The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.
War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over, “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”
That was all I knew.
War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.
Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.
The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real, even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.
As though things were living, growing!
The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of the pain of ordinary people.
This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…
She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.
I didn’t know anyone else was alive.
But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.
But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.
I fell at her feet and wept.
She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.
She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.
Then we reached the next hill.
The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.
Not just me. Not just me and her. People.
Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.
Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.
I found myself staring into eyes of a child.
A child! It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.
I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my voice hoarse from disuse.
I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.
Had someone really just helped me?
My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….
I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –
“No! Don’t hurt her!”
I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her; made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?
Who has a child in times like this?
She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.
Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.
And every head turned.
And every voice faltered.
And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.
I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.
It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.
Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.
It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.
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.”
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 Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. -Luke 7:9-10
I think there are certain passages in the Bible that we would prefer to skip, as we read through it; and it strikes me that this is probably one of them. This is one of those passages that we have a hard time dealing with – that is easy to dislike – because I don’t think there are many people who have not had some experience, either in their own lives or with a loved one, with this kind of illness. And so to hear about the grief and the desperation that drove the Centurion to seek out Jesus’ help – that makes sense to us. Yet we feel this is unfair – a Centurion, a Roman soldier, occupying force within Galilee and Judea, not part of the in-crowd around Jesus, not part of the group we usually root for in the Bible, this is the guy who gets his servant healed. And all of us, with our own experiences of grief and loss and desperation are left feeling rather deflated and hopeless.
Why can’t we have miracles now? Why can’t we have these shows of power, of God’s holy and healing presence among us, that would make those whom we love so dearly rise, and walk?
There are those, here in this country and around the world, who do believe that by acts of faith we can restore the health of a human being. There was a couple in the news just recently – now, in 2013 – a couple in Philadelphia who were jailed for the death of their second child from bacterial pneumonia, who had not sought medical attention although they had seen this illness coming. They had, instead, prayed that the child might be delivered from his illness, and that didn’t work out so well.
And we would like to believe that people like this are outliers, part of a minute fringe group that does not have a great presence, but in fact this is a good-sized faith community in Philadelphia. It’s a church that encourages its adherents to this level of faith healing. And so they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Seeking medical attention for this child might have meant being turned out of this community that they knew, and that held them, prayed for them, prayed with them… But as it was, they not only lost their child, but the very community that they had counted on, being told that they had not prayed hard enough, that the child’s death marked them as sinful people who deserved, somehow, to lose their child.
It’s a no-win scenario.
I wish that in 2013 stories like this were relics of the past. I find myself being glad that this couple is being prosecuted for the deaths of their children. I find myself glad that they are being held accountable. I don’t know if that makes me a good Christian or not, but it’s how I feel. And yet, I’m left very uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two stories, in the news and in the Bible, as they come out so close to one another, and leave me unsettled. Because it doesn’t take a lot to hear in this Gospel story just what that couple heard, just what their community would have them hear: “Have faith and your loved one will be healed.” Doesn’t it sound like it’s all right there in front of us? And I think it’s especially uncomfortable to so many of us Christians who wonder if we are walking the line of faith correctly: if we are really putting our faith in humanity more than we are putting our faith in God, if maybe we ought to be just a little more faithful, just a little better at this Christianity thing.
You’re not getting that answer in this sermon. I don’t have it yet, sorry.
I do have a story for you, though. You’ve probably heard it before, it’s made the rounds in some form after most major recent disasters. There’s a flood – a huge, rising flood – and it threatens to swamp a man’s house. He goes up higher and higher in his house as the waters rise, until finally he’s sitting on the roof. And he shouts out his prayer: “Okay, God, I have faith in you, and that you will rescue me! Please come rescue me!” At that moment a guy in a canoe comes paddling by in the flood, and calls out, “Hey, you look pretty stuck – let me take you to higher ground!” But the man on the roof refuses: “No, thank you, my God will rescue me.” So the guy in the canoe goes on, and as the flood waters rise higher, the man on the roof prays again, “Oh, God, I have faith in you and that you will rescue me! You can come on down and rescue me now… please! Please?” And a woman comes by in a motorboat and calls to the man, “Hey, you look like you’re pretty stuck up there – come with me, I’ll take you to safety.” But again, the man on the roof refuses: “No, I’m fine. I have faith in my God, and my God will rescue me.” The woman shrugs, said, “Have it your way…” and goes on her way, looking for others who were stranded. And the flood waters keep rising, until the whole house is underwater and the man stands on his roof, knee-deep in the flood, shouting to the heavens, “Okay, God, now would be a really good time! Please God, I have faith! Come down and rescue me!” And as he is looking up to the heavens, he sees a helicopter descending, and a police officer sticks her head out and shouts, “Here, catch hold of the rope and we’ll pull you up! We’ll take you to safety!” Yet again, the man refuses, insisting on his great faith in God and his certainty of divine rescue. So the rope gets pulled back up, the helicopter leaves… and the inevitable happens. The man gets swept away in the rising flood waters and drowns. And when he finds himself in the afterlife, face-to-face with God, he gets pretty annoyed. “Alright, God,” he says, “What happened down there? I had faith! I never doubted that you would come rescue me! I waited for you! and you let me drown?!” And God responds, “Look, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
The passage in this morning’s scripture lessons says more about our views of illness than about our views of faith. Specifically, it says more about our ancient views of illness than about ancient practices of faith. Because when illness is caused by demons and sin, of course you’re going to pray. And of course you go to your local prophet to be your healer, and if the Son of God happens to be wandering around your neighborhood, so much the better. But the thing is that we don’t live in that kind of a world anymore. In the words of John Polkinghorne, Cambridge astrophysicist and Anglican priest, we do not live in a world in which a Divine Being snapped Divine Fingers and create a world that was then exactly as it is now. Rather, God created a world that continues to create itself; that would continue to involve us in an ongoing Creation. And as we continue to create ourselves and we continue to learn about this world, we discover that it is not, in fact, demons who cause illness; that the things that cause illness cannot necessarily be prayed away. We know now about microbes, and germs, and little malignant cells with no sentience and no malice, and no idea what they are doing to the sentient beings that they are inhabiting.
So we don’t go to our local prophet. And we don’t take our ill relatives to our local pastor (for which I am grateful). We go to those who understand – with our current knowledge of illness – germs, and cells, and human biology and physiology. We go to the people whom we know can help, in whatever capacity that looks like. In other words, really, we do exactly what the centurion did.
Because, it’s funny, but this isn’t really a story about prayer. This isn’t really a story about one man being particularly “in” with the Divine – having such a good relationship with God, having such a powerful means of prayer that he could effect the healing of his slave.
Rather, it’s about a man in relationship with his community. This is about an outsider – a Roman, an occupier – who came in and did not see the occupied as inherently “other”, or as less-than, or as necessarily even different, but who came in respectful of those whom he served near. He came in serving them, helping them to build a synagogue. I think it’s worth noting that this man – this manifestation of the occupying force – managed to have two sets of friends that he could send ahead, to see Jesus on his behalf; the first set being the Jewish elders of the town, who pleaded in a totally unscripted moment on behalf of the occupying power. “This man is not one of us, Jesus, but he is a good man, and he is a loving man, and he is worthy of your attention.” We see in the centurion not a man who sits idly by his servant’s bedside, head bowed in prayer, sweating with the intensity of his praying. We see a man whose prayer is in his very action, in his choice to send his friends out to Christ. We see his prayer in the choices that he makes – to ask for the help he needs – and in the relationships that he has formed. We see this story as the story of one who recognizes that answers to prayers do not necessarily come in a divine flash of lightning that ZAP! heals the slave – in the way, perhaps, that we would want it to happen – but that healing and answer to prayer and divine presence come more often through human hands. This is a man, probably, who would have gotten on that canoe – let alone the motorboat or helicopter – as the flood waters rose.
And that faith, that Jesus commended so highly? That faith that he had not seen, even in Israel? I wonder where he heard it. Was it in the second message, a verbatim message from the centurion, delivered in the first person and saying, “We’re a lot alike, you know. I have authority over the men that I lead, you have authority over the powers of this world. We’re similar, you know that, Jesus? So I think you can help me out here.” Or is it in the inherent similarities that the centurion leaves out? The similarities in their perspective – in not looking at people as “other”, the implied statement from the centurion that he is friends with the Jews, to the point of helping them build their synagogue; the implication that “I am going to you even though I am not one of yours, because I don’t look down on you. I am asking for help from my slave, because even though he is ‘lesser’ than I am, I see him as a full human deserving of healing and deserving of love.”
Does this remind you of anyone? Maybe? Just a little bit?
This is a story of Jews and Gentiles coming together. This is a story of free men and slaves coming together and seeing one another as human and seeing one another as made in the divine image.
This is a story of someone who really gets it, very early on in Jesus’ ministry.
And we – most of the time – pretty much get it. We hope. This should be – this is! – very helpful to us as we read through an otherwise rather difficult text. Until we remember once again that God’s not so into these feats of power and these displays of miracles that show off what a great God we have. But that’s kind of Luke’s point, throughout the entire Gospel: we have to remember that Luke himself was a Gentile, writing to Gentile audiences, and that the underlying argument throughout the Gospel is that the God of Israel is a way-more-powerful God, and a way-more-worthy God, than any of those piddling little gods that the Greeks and the Romans and everyone else in the Mediterranean basin are currently worshiping. So everyone really ought to convert to this new Christianity thing.
We don’t really need that now, though. We don’t get the same displays, we don’t get the same emphasis. The whole divine healing thing is a rarity, at best. But in this moment of worry and fear, of wishing for those miracles, we are in great danger of being stuck up on that rooftop, letting the help float past us; refusing the very relationships – the experts and the friends – that actually will bring us the healing that we’re seeking.
And it makes me wonder: if those parents in Philadelphia had just taken the help that is out there – there’s a lot of help out there, for little kids who are sick – might they have experienced the very healing presence that they were so ardently praying for, in the hands, and in the smiles, and in the compassion, and in the wisdom, and in the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who could have restored life to their child?
For it is actually faith in God – not the lack thereof – that gets us to put ourselves and our loved ones into the care of those who are actually called to be healers; those people in whom we see the compassion and the presence by which we recognize God in this world. And we remember that we cannot always separate faith in humanity from faith in God – that only suggests that God can’t work through us, which we all know isn’t true. And it strikes me, from what I have seen, that there is a whole lot more presence in the hands of a nurse, or of a doctor, or of any compassionate person, than there was in the church that cast such judgment upon those parents; the church that would put the grief of parents aside, and cast them out of community.
And it strikes me that there is more healing presence in this space and in this time here today – in the letters and notes that I know you send to one another and to our loved ones; in the calls and the visits to those who are ill or grieving; in the prayers that we offer here every single Sunday as a community and that we carry in our hearts throughout the week. I know there is more presence here in the healing that we can – each and every one of us – offer, whether it takes the form of a canoe, or a motorboat, or a helicopter, or whatever the situation calls for. There is presence, and there is healing, right here.
And there is one more thing I know: that centurion’s slave, who was healed by Christ and by faith, is not still walking around Galilee and Capernaum. It’s two thousand years later – you know he didn’t make it that long. You know that the life that Jesus gave to that poor slave only extended a life that must, still, necessarily end. Jesus did not grant immortality to anyone. But I know that the love that is palpable in this story continued to be present. That the community that surrounded the centurion, and that went out seeking healing on his behalf, that same community gathered around him when, inevitably, he grieved. What survives, in these miracles and in this healing presence; what survives to this very day is that love and is that community and are those relationships that make God’s healing presence known to us, here and now. In this very place and in this very moment, in the sacred meal of which we will partake, and in the coffee and the cookies that we’ll have after that. In the parking lot on a Sunday, or on the rooftop, with the floodwaters rising. For as long as love prevails, God’s healing does as well.