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No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell. Yet so it was, in the little town on the hillside; the prosperous little town full of healthy, hardworking people. A happy town known for its hospitality and generosity in abundance.
Years later, when someone would ask, no one could say for certain when they’d noticed. It had been subtle at first, just barely perceptible in pants that felt loose, shirts that didn’t fit as well through the shoulders. Perhaps it was the very intimacy of these discoveries, the individuality of them, that kept people from noticing, right away. Perhaps it was the subtlety of the change: a pound gone here, another there, over the course of years. Slowly, though, the whispers began. First, about thelosses that others were enduring: parents in the schoolyard, talking in murmured euphemisms, of how their own parents seemed somehow to be fading; how, perhaps, have you noticed? the shop owner? the principal? the city councillor? is it just me, or…?
No one remembered how it started; no one remembered when. But they remembered the first time someone said it, during a town meeting. They remembered how the mayor had been reassuring, but unconsciously hitched up his own pants, just a bit. They remembered how the town doctors had gone to a conference in the valley, how they’d been relieved to know it wasn’t just their town, how they’d been reassured, when the doctors came back sure it was just an infection. These things happen, you know. Feed a cold, you’ll be fine.
They remembered how, at the town meeting called to hear the doctors’ report, a tiny girl had suddenly leapt almost out of her mother’s arms; had made the whole room laugh as she cried, “I FLY!”
The reassurances of that meeting, and the question of a virus that would disappear with rest and nourishment, had sparked a sudden bustle of recipes. They were exchanged in whispers, argued over, bragged about. Choice ingredients disappeared from the market, following one fad, and then another, only to be kept hidden in the back of pantries. Neighbors grew suspicious of one another, as they borrowed a cup of sugar and saw the pantry door, once thrown wide, was now kept half-closed. Community dinners, once lavish affairs, became more simple, as precious nourishment was kept within the family to try to stem the infection… or whatever it was, because no one could quite isolate it. And no meal, no expense, could stop what was, by this point, apparent: the town was getting thinner.
The terms used varied, depending on the person; the more politically savvy would say people were “leaner,” but everyone recognized that for the tact, the spin it was. The simple truth was that the adults in the town losing weight. Less so the kids, though the age varied: somewhere between eight and twelve, thereabouts – the age of maturity, the age of awareness. The town was getting thinner, and the wind that blew down the hill seemed sometimes as if it would blow them all clean away.
Meetings were called. Very soon the doctors’ findings treated with derision. Other specialists were called in: nutritionists, who called for a traditional diet; coaches, who recommended new workouts to hip music; consultants, who suggested treating the kids before they got it too… and not a few snake oil salesmen, as will happen, in situations like this. At every meeting, the townfolk became less convinced, and more skeptical – after all, nothing had ever worked, why should the new suggestions? And so the snake oil salesmen weren’t the only ones dismissed, after halfhearted attempts at working out to music that felt unfamiliar, or at treating kids for an ailment no one really understood anyway.
More than once, at a town meeting, the little girl had interrupted. Having soon grown too big for her newly-tiny mother, she would flap her arms and run up and down the aisles of the school auditorium where they all sat hunched up against the wind. The first time it had been cute; quickly, the adults, tense and anxious, asked her mother to remove her and not to bring her back, this little one who couldn’t understand the terrible gravity of the town’s problems.
But no one could remember how it began. Surely, something had changed? Some thought that perhaps, if they could just remember; just find the missing ingredient; the thing they’d had then, before the problems began… but as the years went on, the unity of the town began to splinter. Younger people, plagued with the same affliction, blamed their elders for not doing more, sooner. The elders blamed their children for not being more invested in finding a solution. They all blamed the wind, against which they struggled daily, wasting precious calories, having to fight to remain upright. Community dinners became tense affairs, with bland food in small dishes so there was hardly enough for those who brought the food, let alone for those who wandered in, hungry and tired, in need of hospitality. Indeed, it seemed that the whole town was collapsing inward: the stores closed, their owners weakened and tired. The roads cracked, potholes sank, street sweepers came less and less often. Volunteers kept up the flower beds, until their bodies grew too frail, and the wind rattled the weeds that sprang up in abundance.
The city council tried to step in, but dealing with a crisis like this was beyond anything they’d ever had to do, and they sat, looking at one another around the council table – at the gaunt, drawn faces, prominent collarbones showing under loose, ill-fitting clothes – debating for the twentieth time the same idea.
Town meetings were somber, bitter affairs by this time, lively only when they were antagonistic. On their way out, people were known to joke that they felt even thinner than when they’d gone in, and there might have been truth to that… but it was hard to tell. The children of the town were, by now, accustomed to adults who appeared almost skeletal, their eyes prominent above sharp cheekbones, their hands that seemed to be just a collection of bones wrapped tight in dry, leathery skin. Adults who leaned into the wind, struggling as though against an invisible assailant. And this sharp and brittle collection of people exchanged sharp, brittle words, as pointed as their elbows, seeking solutions and just as quickly picking apart the suggestions with bony fingers.
The little girl, not quite so little anymore, stood quietly beside her mother – old enough now to be allowed in the meetings; no longer flapping down the aisles after cutting her finger on the protruding hip bone of a former shopkeeper. She stood and listened to the wind, rattling among them through the old, leaky windows and the cold, hissing words. In a moment when the wind stilled, and silence hovered, she spoke her solution to the ever-present problem, her words still full and round and childish: “We could fly…”
Brittle, hard laughter crackled around the room until the mayor looked thoughtfully at the child. “Perhaps,” he mused, his voice tight, “it’s the one thing we haven’t tried.” The room, shocked into deathly silence, gaped at him. He shrugged, a gesture that seemed to put him in danger of collapse. “The wind is the one thing left to us, if we can harness it…” Each word fell from his thin, fleshless lips, as the crowd drew its collective breath.
It wasn’t that simple, of course, though it was not quite as hard as people would remember. No one wanted to leave the town. And between those who reluctantly began tearing down, convinced it was the end, and those who held on, certain it was their own bodies being torn apart, it was astonishing that it happened at all. Both sides were convinced that death was imminent. They saw it clearly in the walking skeletons who implemented tise final, desperate plan: the flying machine made of the schoolroom floors, the store counters, the mayor’s desk; nailed together with the accusations of precious materials held back and hidden safely away; sealed with the hopes born of desperation, that death might not come today; weighted down with the fears – on both sides – that this attempt, with everything at stake, would fail. For as the people grew lighter, as they grew to resemble walking bones, the possibility of flight weighed heavier among them until it seemed that even the strongest wind could not lift them from this place where they were rooted.
Finally, the flying machine was ready. Finally, the will of the people would be put to the test. Finally, the work of their hands would lift them out of the desolation that had once been a prosperous and happy town. And in the years to come, everyone would remember how it happened that the people – mere bones by that point -took their place within this creation of theirs, this product of their hopeful anxiety, their despairing dreams. In the years to come, everyone would remember how the wind came up and blew over them, rattled through them; how they shivered once and seemed to fall apart, how they could not move.
No one was truly sure how it had happened. How do such things happen, anyway? And how long before they are noticed? It’s hard to tell.
The little girl – the annoying one, the outspoken one, the bothersome one, with her crazy ideas about flying – was she among them, where they lay in the midst of all that was so precious? Was she still in the village? or up on the hill, looking upon them, her eyes full, spilling tears of grief, of compassion? No one could say, and no one would quite be able to remember, in the years to come, how long it was before the breeze stirred down the hill, through the village, around the flying machine; how the girl lifted her arms, leaned back, easily, gently, let the wind catch her lightness… let it catch her up as a parent lifts a beloved child to carry her to safety.
And how did it happen? How do such things happen, anyway? that the breeze brought her words back to stir among the bones of the people; words like the rush of summer wind:
“It is not the work of our own hands that we need. We cannot control the wind. It is not ours. But we can still fly.”
And the wind, soft, gentle, round and warm and full of promise, moved over those who had been reduced to their hardest parts. And the bones trembled with possibility, as they felt themselves take flight.
The hand of the Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. -John 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
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.
Lent is very nearly upon us.
Did you groan at that? Even a little? Lent has something of a bad reputation as being a dark and punishing time – a time of deprivation and endurance. We slog through forty days without whatever little pleasure we’ve denied ourselves: Easter is our finish line, when deprivation can finally give way without guilt, and we can pat ourselves on the back for getting through such a miserable time.
It’s a cynical view, and one I hope none of your share in its entirety… but I very much doubt that there are many among us who didn’t recognize ourselves, at least a little, in the above description.
So perhaps this is the year to re-frame Lent.
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. More than that, we are reminded that we are all made of the same stuff – the same ash, the same stardust.
Given this perspective, what is it that we might give up, during these 40 days? What would change, for you, if you were to walk through this time, saying the Ash Wednesday blessing in your heart during every interaction: “Remember that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return”?
In Lent, we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that were presented to him: to use his abilities to feed himself, and calm his own hungers; to rule over all the world; to manipulate God.
During this time, perhaps we would do well to ask what temptations we face: To serve ourselves before others? To exercise power over others – our co-workers, our friends, our children? To try to bargain with God, or make God serve us? What is it that we are tempted to put before our love of God and God’s Creation?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to give up convenience for the sake of community? If we were to stop using Dunkin Donuts styrofoam or plastic cups, and remember to bring our own instead? If we were to commit to buying local, or second-hand? To walking more and driving less?
What if our Lenten discipline this year were to broaden our perspectives: to commit to reading only books written by women, or people of color, Muslims, or LGBT folk? What might we learn about ourselves, our God, and our temptations, if we were to journal such an adventure? What might we learn, if what we gave up for Lent were an insular perspective?
It strikes me that Jesus did not fast so that he could really enjoy his first meal back after the wilderness experience. His fast was one of purification, of focusing priorities, of gaining perspective on the tempting distractions of this world. He fasted so that he could see the offers made him for what they were: idols that would turn him from God. He fasted so that he would be better prepared to serve God – to serve God’s creation and the Body of Christ – with his whole self.
Perhaps that should be the goal of our disciplines as well. May we remove from our lives that which distracts us from one another and from God. May our fasts leave us changed for the better, able to fully appreciate and live into the new life of Easter.
For Further Reading:
Why reading books by black* authors is important:
*the principle applies to any non-white-straight-male authors, in my opinion
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ -Matthew 26: 40-41
Were you there?
It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week. It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there. There is tremendous desolation in the way that the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals. Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.
Were you there?
It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago. Of course none of us were there. But if we had been? For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come? Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?
Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss. We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.
Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present. Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all. This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences. We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo. We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:
This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing. We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…
Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…
The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.
Were you there? Are any of us?
It seems an odd question, but it is the right one. Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware. Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo. Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us. Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our energy, our attention, our love? Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know? Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?
Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone? that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us? Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?
The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us. We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong. We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.
We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”
“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” -Matthew 21: 8-9
This week, a friend blogged about something that’s really been frustrating him. Shay is a priest and an activist, and for both aspects of his life has done a lot of study and reflection. He has devoted a lot of his life to learning about theology, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and the intersections of all of these. And he is always willing to talk to those who might be new to any of those subjects; to begin to teach, to recommend resources. But he is not willing – or able! – to do it all of that work for someone else; to take all that he knows and just dump that information into someone else’s consciousness: as he reflects, “New understandings can’t just be handed to you. A one-hour conversation in a coffee shop or an email exchange won’t cut it. There are some things you can only understand by studying.”
You’ve got to do the work.
Sometimes I wonder how often Jesus thought something similar. I wonder how often he wished his new interpretations, his unpacking of scriptures, would lead people to actually study the law and the prophets; to go deeper in their faith, to really enter relationship with God.
Today, we encounter Jesus entering Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time. For this is the moment when the gauntlet is thrown, this mocking procession that so nearly mimics a warrior’s triumphal entry, according to the Psalms:
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118)
In keeping with the Psalm – familiar enough to be recognizable to the people of Jerusalem! – Jesus is treated like royalty, like a savior, like a conquering hero – but what does that mean to the very people who are throwing down branches and cloaks? What do they expect, as they see Jesus claiming the mantle, the authority of the Messiah, in the face of power? This is Jesus as many have long hoped to see him, but for a far different end result than most may be hoping for. Expectation trumps all that they have heard from him over the course of his ministry; appearances in the moment speak louder than the most poignant sermon. And so the people cry out: Hosanna! which means, Save us! Save us from the immediate problems we are facing – the occupation, the taxation, the struggle of daily life. Hosanna, Son of David, be the savior for this generation.
I wonder how many of them were still following with shouts and palms after he reached the Temple? For it was at the end of this procession that tables got turned and people got rebuked… how many were brought up short in their praise of the man who suddenly seems scornful of their religious practice?
How many stayed to hear his teaching in Jerusalem, which seems to take on a particular urgency in this week. The audience will be large, for it is Jerusalem at the Passover: there are many who might hear. But there is a deeper urgency, not just to be heard, but to get the people thinking enough, interested enough, to study and to follow: to go beyond immediate, to do the work, not for the Kingdom of Judea, but for the Kingdom of God.
This week especially, we are made aware, in the urgency, of the demands of discipleship. The twelve are about to discover that the discomforts of three years spent tramping around Galilee, Samaria, Judea were nothing at all, compared with this week in Jerusalem. We are made aware, in these days, that the triumphal entry of a humble King was not the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but the beginning of the end, the beginning of the real demands of discipleship. This week is the crucible in which discipleship is tested, in which we find out who had done the work, incorporated the lessons… And we watch, as one by one, Judas, Peter, James, John and the others disappeared from Jesus’ side, and even the women, Mary Magdalene among them, remain in the distance. This is the week in which we are reminded of the cost: that we are called to bear witness to suffering, even at risk to ourselves.
It’s hard to talk about the cost of discipleship without evoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor. After serving churches in Spain, Germany and England during the 1920s and 1930s, Bonhoeffer found himself teaching at Columbia University at the start of the war. I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for breathing a sigh of relief at his situation and continuing in his comfortable life in New York City, but that was not the discipleship that he knew himself called to. And so he went back to Germany. He went back into the Third Reich to found a Christian community – a community that would bear witness to the great suffering of all Germans during those years; that would serve as a bulwark of love against the pervasive hatred of the Nazi regime. In Germany, Bonhoeffer could live out what his discipleship called him to do: to stand at the foot of the cross, as Body of Christ was crucified before his very eyes. To leave comfort and security for community, relationship, and vulnerability. He had done the work, had traced the path that lay ahead of him and prepared his heart. He well knew the cost of discipleship (it would be the title of his most famous book), but knew as well the joy and the freedom that the cost made possible.
Did any of those waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna in Jerusalem have such understanding? Those shouting Save us! so that we needn’t do the work, needn’t bear the cost ourselves. Save us, as well as our comfort, our security, our familiar lives. Hosanna! Save us! they cried, but how many would follow, to the point of salvation? To the point where love won?
How many would do the work, and put their prayers – Hosannas – into action? How many would look beyond the immediate situation, beyond themselves?
How many would study, wondering at the warrior in humility, looking like an idiot on a donkey, and search for deeper meaning?
How many would study their own lives in this new lens of love and grace and humility, until they could stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the worst that humanity can inflict upon itself? until they could forgive the cruelty, the mockery, again and again?
And we, who are also waving palm branches today? We, too, cry, Hosanna! Save us! We, too are called to do the work: to follow, even to the unexpected places, to the unexpected results. We, too, are called to a demanding discipleship; perhaps even more than the population of Jerusalem. For we know the results of this week: the promises that only began with this procession.
Will we do the work, delve deeper into those promises, and learn their place in our own lives? Will we be disciples, accepting the cost, setting aside comfort and security to work for God’s kin-dom? Will we work to ensure that the abundance of food that this creation provides will feed all who need, without human judgment attached? Will we work to ensure that adequate housing is not a privilege but a birthright? to view the “other” – the imprisoned, the ill – as ours to care for rather than to shun and punish? to actively remember that we are not the owners but the stewards of this holy creation in which we live?
Will we do the work, and learn to speak the truth – of love, of grace, of justice, of equality – to power?
Will we do the work? will we pray, Hosanna! Save us!, and then put that prayer into action?
For we do have work to do.
Blessed, indeed, is the one who comes in the name of our God; the one who has blessed us and called us, not to the triumph of a King’s arrival, but to the humility and vulnerability of love beyond us; to the demands and the freedom of understanding, and choosing this path. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God, and blessed are we, who set aside our palms, and follow.
“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12
“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9
I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people. The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example. An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.
In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile. The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire. These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land. It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them? Was the covenant broken? How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?
The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps. For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4) Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God. Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment? I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?
I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.
Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face. It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk. The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos. It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?” If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?
Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.
The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly. The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement, “it could happen to you!” Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out. Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.
We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.
Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us. But it is not true. There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago. There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility. The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.* The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime. There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight. But when fear is internalized, where do we flee? We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church. It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them. We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.
Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first. We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security. We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.
On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem. It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with. Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God. After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there. We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless. It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic. And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another. I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope. I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.
There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians. People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.
Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us. We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe. We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another. We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest. We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.
We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us. We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.
We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.
God, who doesn’t play it safe. God, who went to the cross. God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.
God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection. We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word. We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety. Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose. Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility. Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.
We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig. We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.
We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.
We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know we can.
*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Brazos Press, 2007. p.15
“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.'” -John 9:41
I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed. Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many. The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend. They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together. But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life. The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:
My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)
Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized. And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.
That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world. On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have? Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important. We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes. We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.
But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.
Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings. It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not. Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees? Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?
The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins. The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual. If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”. He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.
It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation. The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened. The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings. Both of which were refused. Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity. Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body. God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”. And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.
For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas. Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back. Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence. Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned. The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.
There is something still true in the notion of vision from within. No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)
We still see what we want to see.
What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own? What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?
What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time? What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?
What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?
What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store? the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around? the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?
What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them? And how will we respond? Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God? Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision? Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?
What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful? Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God. Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.
Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel. In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives. It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God. It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized. Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.
Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal. Jesus, unusually, comes back. This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate. Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected. Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith. Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s. Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:
In the broken.
In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.
In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.
Shall we let the blind lead the blind? Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?
Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside? Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?
In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks. Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow. For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.
[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29
Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.
I say that every single week, at both services. It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces. It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.
It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion. For that has never existed. This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.
It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan. There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power. And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins. But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews. Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.
The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy. The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south. But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea). The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.
So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.
But it would not have been an accident.
John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE. It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure. Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables. Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples. To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings. But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun. John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.
So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem. And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket. It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water. Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it. Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways. Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.
So: noon. Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in. Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive. There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her. And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace. She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean? “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem? Am I welcome even as a Samaritan? even as a woman? No, seriously, what’s the catch? What conversion or change is required?” The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.
It takes courage, to achieve such clarity. It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives. We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity. We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible. We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?) And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.
For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else? to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs? Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?
What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill? In the addict? In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?
What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?
Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?
The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too. We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen. We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace. We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.
We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe. We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts. We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts. We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.
We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another. It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing. We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives. We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.
We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.
We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.
God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes. We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else. We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach. And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.
But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday. The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows. The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included. The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome. The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.
Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.
Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome. Grace invites us, even in our fear.
God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God? What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done? We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.
God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.
God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation. God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.