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…he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. -John 4:3-4
There are just moments in scripture that make me feel bad for the disciples.
In John’s gospel, the disciples’ call story follows directly on Jesus’ baptism. Those first disciples are present, there at the Jordan, and they take John’s word for who Jesus is, and follow accordingly. From there, more join in, following the word of mouth invitation to “come and see.” And goodness, do they see! Those first experiences with Jesus were exhilarating: the wedding at Cana, where he turned water into wine must have felt like a joyful, easily appreciated sign. And even as Jesus, in Jerusalem for the Passover, drove out the money lenders and vendors from the Temple, it must have been fun to be behind him, watching this moment of purification. It seems like a moment that would be almost as intoxicating as the wine.
If what you knew of your teacher was wisdom, power and wine, it strikes me that it would be pretty easy to follow. And so I wonder if these new disciples didn’t relax a bit, as they traveled Judea and Galilee? I wonder if they didn’t get a bit lulled into ease and abundance?
And then they went home. Back to Galilee.
And Jesus had to go through Samaria.
It seems like a throwaway line in the Gospel; it’s not part of the lectionary text in this story, after all, how important could it be?
Samaria is the land between Judea and Galilee, home to those utterly despised by Judeans and Galileans alike. Contact with a Samaritan would render a Jew ritually unclean; travel through the region was therefore unsafe. Although the direct line to Galilee could go through Samaria, no practicing Jew at time would take that particular route, but would go up the far side of the Jordan, so as to avoid the Samaritans. So as to avoid contamination.
But Jesus had to go through Samaria
I wonder what the disciples thought of this. What did they think, as they approached Sychar and went to buy food from those whom they would have shunned, normally? What did they think, when they arrived back to find Jesus talking with a Samaritan – and not just a Samaritan, but a woman! A woman who had the audacity to look Jesus in the eye, to express her own opinions, to ask theological questions, to push and prod and examine him? We’re only in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, and the honeymoon is already over.
For us, here and now, this scene is not surprising. This is, after all, the Jesus we’ve come to expect: the one who doesn’t abide by social graces but lives in God’s grace, in every interaction. I think sometimes we forget that the disciples didn’t have the full picture. They didn’t know how the story would end. They didn’t entirely know what they had signed up for when they had been invited to “come and see.” They didn’t know the grace, the power, the resurrection, as we do. So they are far more shocked than we are to find Jesus hanging out with a Samaritan woman (not an immoral one, as tradition holds, but still a woman from a despised people). We are not surprised that Jesus’ first illustration of the words he spoke, just one chapter before, “God so loved the world that he sent his son…” should remind us that the world God loves includes Samaria. We are not surprised and how the story develops from there, and chuckle tolerantly at the surprise of the disciples for whom this is a startling development; who might be just starting to question who it is that they have chosen to follow.
We are not surprised when it happens to the original disciples, when it’s told in hindsight, when it’s a story. So why are we surprised when it happens to us?
That Jesus had to go through Samaria was as shocking to the disciples as it would be to us to find that he had to go through Syria, or Iran, or Sudan, or Somalia, or Libya, or Yemen, to find someone who would recognize the presence of God. I feel bad for those early disciples, shocked out of the joyous honeymoon phase, because I am a disciple myself who sometimes wishes that being church was all water into wine and turning the tables of corruption. I feel bad for them, because often enough, I don’t want to go through Samaria.
It’s a hard thing, to see the folks whom we’ve pushed to the margins as being beloved of God, as being part of the world God loves, as being able to make known to us the presence of God in ways we had not yet fully understood. It’s a hard thing, when those we follow call us to walk a path we’ve resisted all our lives, a path that feels unsafe and uncertain. It’s a hard thing, when discipleship calls us to question our assumptions, calls us to love those we have been taught to despise, calls us to choose compassion over sectarianism, calls us to risk our status in polite company – to choose the company of the “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome. It’s a hard thing, when following Jesus takes us to the margins, to the place where we are called to see the humanity of those whom we may have long excluded, whom we have called dangerous, or unworthy, or simply “other.” It’s a hard thing when being the church that follows Jesus makes it feel like the honeymoon is over, and leads us through Samaria.
It was a hard thing for the disciples then, and it is hard for us now. The call into the places we fear and avoid is every bit as hard to discern for us as for the disciples. But we who chuckle at the discomfort of the disciples could learn a bit from them, as well: these people who followed, even when it meant going through Samaria; even when following took them into uncomfortable, unclean spaces. We could learn from those who were taught how to accept hospitality from the “other”, the despised and rejected. We could learn from those who, against all their instincts and learned prejudices, followed Jesus, whom they were still learning to trust.
Even into Samaria.
The Samarias of our world might not look as they did to the disciples, but they will still be the places that we have written off, or the people that we have rejected. Our own walks through Samaria will be the ones that call us to question our assumptions and check our privilege. And they might just make us as confused as the disciples; just as uncertain of our path, and those who lead us along it.
There will be times when we look at our leaders – our pastors and modern-day prophets – and say, “You’re going to make us go through Samaria?” And we will long for the simplicity of wisdom and wine, of sweetness and abundance, of truth spoken to external powers, rather than to our hearts. I hope, that when those moments come, we will remember that sometimes it is only in Samaria that we find the presence of God revealed, that we see the full extent of God’s love for this world.
Because it is when we allow ourselves to be led into Samaria, when we find that we have to walk that path, that the expansiveness of God’s grace is truly revealed. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that God’s love exceeds our human limitations, and includes those whose exclusion we justify. It is in the Samaritan woman that we remember that the Body of Christ, the world that God loves, cannot be contained by human borders or judgments, but that God is present among those on the margins, among those whom we consider irrevocably “other.” It is in the Samaritan woman that we see God as God, rather than as a reflection of ourselves, and we remember why, despite our discomfort, we had to go through Samaria.
My prayer for us all is that we will end up spending a lot of time in Samaria; a lot of time seeking God in places we have not dared to venture for a long time. My prayer is that we will trust in one another, and in the God who is beyond our understanding, and in so doing create anew a church in which grace abounds, in which love abides beyond all that we have experienced to this point, and that you will accept the hospitality to stay in the margins, the unexpected places where God is revealed.
Even if it means going into the places of uncertainty and discomfort.
Even if it means going to places you’d rather avoid.
Even if it means going through Samaria.
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.”
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -Luke 12: 51
This is one of those tough texts… all the more because this is actually Jesus speaking. This talk of fire and division doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and love, however, does it? Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace to the earth – isn’t that what the angels in Bethlehem promised?
It’s hard to hear this angry-sounding Jesus who is talking about something that sounds more like a scorched-earth policy than like grace. Division that doesn’t sound like the call to relationship that we are accustomed to hearing in the Gospels; it doesn’t sound like the mutuality and trust that marks so much of discipleship.
Granted, scriptures like this make a lot of Christian history make sense. Read something like this, and suddenly it’s much easier to understand the bloodshed that has marked the institutional church nearly since its very early years. Crusades, colonialism, dominant culture… we can see where acts like these are rooted, when texts like this come along. Still: it feels pretty horrible, hearing all of this from Jesus himself, as though he would have approved of all the violence of Christian history. It’s disconcerting. Disorienting.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, gave a talk once in which she reminded us that texts like this can not only be used to justify past violence, but can also be actively used to excuse the violence and oppression of the present time; to suggest to those who know oppression that life is just hard, and violence is simply a normal part of human existence. This world is full of trials, says the theology of oppressed communities (in Flunder’s example, the American Black churches). Hardship and oppression is the status quo, the human condition; therefore faithfulness means enduring the terrible things that life gives you, in order to achieve God’s Kingdom in the life to come. Moreover, faithfulness means not fighting back against that which signals the coming realm, for to do so is to work against God, and God’s plan for us; possibly even to forfeit your place in that realm.
Neither interpretation probably feels right, to many of us today. Yet I would argue that it is a failure on the part of progressive Christianity that we cannot easily articulate a more loving and grace-filled vision, even in a text like this one. It says a lot about the progressive church that we are left to our feelings of discomfort and disorientation, when Jesus speaks words like this. It says something about our continued reliance on uncomfortable theology. Yet it says, I think, even more about our failure of imagination when it comes to God’s realm – when it comes to peace or love – than anything else.
For peace is not the absence of conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, whose writing Jesus knew and quoted often, warned against those who preached peace in this way, saying, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly”. For to understand peace simply as the absence of conflict is to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. It is the patch that smooths over but does not mend.
Nor is love complete agreement, as most families would, I think, understand. How many of us are in complete agreement even with those we love most? Rather, we love one another “even though”. Just a couple chapters ago in this same gospel, we read the story of the Good Samaritan – perhaps the prime example of loving-even-though.
That parable, so familiar yet so hard, placed just two chapters back from these disconcerting, disorienting words, serves as a reminder that context matters.
Because we can make the scriptures say a lot of the things we want to hear. We can make the Bible justify our thirst for violence and our acceptance of oppression, even from within… but only if we ignore the larger context. Only if we remove these passages from their place within the larger story, and allow them to speak for themselves, in a way that they were never intended to do.
Here, of course, the immediate context is Luke’s Gospel, which tells story of God’s love; love which gives voice to the voiceless, including women & foreigners. Love which crosses human boundaries, even unto our enemies, even unto Samaritans. Love which provides for all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For just a few verses before this morning’s passage, we hear Jesus remind us that even the sparrows – sold 5 for 2 pennies – are not so insignificant that they are forgotten by God (12:6). We hear how even the ravens, those scavenging omens of evil (12:24); even the flowers and the grass, who have no consciousness, no will of their own (12:27, 28) are fed and clothed and nurtured and known by the God who created all things. Then the Gospel asks, if God so loves these, whom we would consider insignificant, how much more does God love us?
Luke’s Gospel tells story of God’s love: a boundless, uncontainable love, a love that doesn’t make sense in human terms. God’s love is a love that pushes back against empire, against our culture, against our comfort with oppression, and with inequality, and with injustice.
Luke’s Gospel and the portrait of God’s love that it paints, is actually a pretty scary thing, if we take it seriously. And it’s going to cause divisions – it already did, even in Jesus’ time! For giving voice to voiceless means hearing new things, things we have probably not wanted to hear before. Crossing human boundaries means seeing beyond ourselves, thinking as much of others as we think of ourselves. Loving-even-though means reflecting on our prejudices, biases; doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and change.
To live into God’s love is not a choice to be undertaken casually. Christianity is not a half-hearted, feel-good movement, as much as we might wish it to be. Because the world we live in is not entirely the world that God created; it is of our making, and we did not build it on God’s love, but on human brokenness, on our willingness to live in fragments and to love within limits such as shared appearance or experience. To live into God’s love is to push back, hard, against the world. It is to put needs of many ahead of needs of few, even when we’re part of few. It is to listen without defensiveness to those who say they’ve never felt that their lives mattered. It is to grieve those whose despair drives them to senseless acts of violence; it is recognizing our own participation in a violent culture.
To live into God’s love is a counter-cultural act, and, as Jesus knew, a divisive one. For it calls us to reject what those around us – those we love – accept as the status quo, the human condition. It is to reject the systems in which we are told that it is God’s will (!) that some succeed, while some simply endure, and that questioning those systems remove us from God’s favor.
For I will push back, as Bishop Flunder pushed back, against the idea that the oppression of some and power of others might simply be the human condition; that the brokenness of this world is something simply to be endured for the sake of the hereafter. That remains view of those who would simplify love to agreement; that remains the view of the modern-day prophets who cry peace for the sake of making discomfort end, rather than for the sake of bringing justice; for the sake of the quasi-peace that silences dissent and lets wounds fester.
And I think Jesus would push back, too.
Jesus, who here speaks of love beyond divisions. Jesus, who reminds us not to fear. Jesus, who tells us time and again that God’s love is deeper than our divisions, that God’s love sinks all the way in, to root of our cracks, to our deepest fears and our deepest needs, to the stories and experiences that formed us… and there works healing, and peace, in our deepest selves.
That is, itself, a divisive notion indeed, as Jesus knew. It is divisive to commit ourselves to a discipleship that calls us away from this culture’s values and its judgments. It is divisive to live vulnerably, in a world that prizes security. It is divisive to live generously, in a world that prefers to see scarcity. It is divisive to live in the discomfort of self-examination in a world that tells us we’ve earned our comfort. It is divisive, because when we do our own work of self-examination, of justice-seeking, we call into question the choices of those around us – even those in our own families – and we can easily feel burned.
Division doesn’t feel like Good News. It doesn’t feel like grace. But the Good News has never been that discipleship is easy. It is never been that God’s grace enables us to allow harmful systems to persist because hey, we’ll be forgiven, so it’s all cool. The Good News has never been that there is a better life awaiting, once we’ve endured the horrors of this one.
The Good News is that even in the midst of division, even in the scary place of pushing back against the world for the sake of God’s realm, we are not alone; we are seen, and known, and loved. The Good News is that those who cry for justice are beloved, and we who hear those cries, and respond in love – even if it seems to cause division – are bringing God’s realm. The Good News is that, as scary as this work can seem, as much as it might seem like walking through fire, the true work of discipleship is not a patch job on the divisions the world imposes, but rather the deep, systemic work of love that builds enduring bridges and fills in the broken places. And we come through the fires tempered, stronger, made new in God’s love.
The Good News is that the God who knows each sparrow, who feeds the raven, who clothes the grasses of the field in splendor, created each of us, and blessed us so that we, fearful and broken as we might be, are still enough: to change the world, to walk through the fires, to bring God’s realm with life-giving love and enduring peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37
The stories abounded this week.
I was 8 years old, in church, when I was first told we could love the sinner and hate the sin.
I was 22 when a pastor told me I couldn’t join the church until I’d been cured, because even Mary Magdalene couldn’t follow Jesus until he’d cast out her demons.
I was in college when my roommate’s response to my coming out was to ask if she could pray over me, to be healed of my sin.
I was 48 when a church leader interrupted a free community meal to try to perform an exorcism on me.
I was 32 when the church refused to baptize my child because my husband and I “hadn’t renounced Satan.”
I was 27 when I stopped allowing my church to abuse me with the notion that I could “pray away the gay”
I was the age I am now when I last heard I was an abomination.
The stories broke my heart this week. It was hard not to hear them, as I read through Luke text, in preparation to preach. It was hard not to identify, on some level, with the man possessed, locked away, excluded; the man seen as dangerous, unclean, dwelling in death. But it was even harder to know that that identification would be more clearly made, between sexuality and sin, in pulpits around the nation. The very identification that has, indeed, been made,this week and in the years leading up to this week: made in a way that directly blamed the possessed man, that blamed the victim, that made the demons the sin, rather than the exclusion, shaming and rejection that he experienced.
Because this story isn’t really about one man and his demons. It’s not about one person being healed. It’s about the community that chose fear; it’s about the community that chose complacency.
It’s about us.
In each generation, we see certain things as inherently evil; as “incompatible with Christian teaching” to borrow a phrase. We see certain behaviors as the workings of the devil – evil incarnate – in this world. In each generation, we identify this particular man of the Gerasenes, or anyone else in scripture noted for having demons, as representative of our modern views. Yet in so doing, we reinforce the boundaries that we have, ourselves, created between us and the “other”. We reinforce our human boundaries between those whom God loves, and those whom we do not want God to love; those who follow Jesus and those whom we do not want to follow Jesus. We reinforce the boundaries that enable us to talk about them without having to include ourselves, without having to examine ourselves.
The funny thing is that every time we draw a boundary, Jesus ends up on the other side.
It’s easy to suggest that the demon-possessed man totally unlike his neighbors; that they – that we – are not held captive by external forces, the things over which it feels like we have no control. It’s easy to draw the boundary between us and him, to judge him as “other”, because it precludes our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It allows us to say that he needs healing, that he needs Jesus… all while ignoring our own needs for – and fears of – both of these.
It strikes me that it is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; it is whether or not we are comfortable with the demons that inhabit our lives.
It is when our demons begin to sit uncomfortably within us, when we acknowledge that we want no part of them, that we become dangerous. It is then that we are cast aside, shunned by those who are comfortable. It is then that we are demonized, shackled and constrained by the words used to make us “other”, by the confines of “polite society”, by the fearmongering and vitriol that have become all too prevalent around us. It is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; rather, it is when we choose self-examination and self-awareness. It is when we name the demons that live within us, when we reject the demons that fill the world around us. It is when our choice to reject our demons calls those around us to the frightening experience of doing the same uncomfortable work: of naming that which possesses us, the ways we’ve become so comfortable in possession that we internalize it, justify it, participate in it.
It cannot be overlooked that the one we demonize in this text is the one who is the one aware of, and at war with, his demons. The one we demonize in this text is the one who has done the painful work of grappling with the forces that held him, the one who has dwelt among the dead: looked death in the face, and acknowledged his own participation in its culture. The one we demonize in this text is the one who recognizes Jesus, when even the disciples do not; the one who calls him “Son of the Most High God.” The one we demonize in this text is the one who has the wherewithal to approach Jesus, just as he is, unapologetically; his vulnerability made clear in nakedness.
The one we demonize in this text is the one who is able to name his demons, and have them banished.
While the townsfolk, prey to those same external forces, see in Jesus someone more fearful than their demons: someone who could remove from them the demons with whom they’d become comfortable; rip them open to the unimagined possibility that they began to see in the healed man – the possibility of who they might become, in vulnerable relationship with Jesus. Of who they might become in the presence of the love so powerful it can drive out all else. Of who they might become when faced with a God whose only two options are unconditional love and extravagant welcome.
In this moment of healing, of the rejection of demons, the townsfolk see before themselves another way, but one which requires vulnerability and self-examination; the refusal to remain comfortable, complacent, complicit with the demons of this world.
This is really their story, our story, the church’s story. That much becomes more clear, in weeks like this one, when violence collides with stories of demons, and we begin to truly see where we locate ourselves within the story: as those who shun and oppress, shackle and demonize; as those who do the ongoing, often painful work of self-reflection, of choosing to reject the justifications for, and the comfort with, the demons of this world – even as we ourselves are called possessed.
This is our story: the story of being willing to acknowledge our participation in the culture of death, and to spend our time in prayerful repentence among its victims.
For the demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, but the beliefs and fears that do violence on those bases; the ones that fuel the stories that started this sermon, the ones that lead to the violence we have seen this week, the ones that lead to the erasure of the voices and the identities of those who were most directly impacted by violence.
The demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, for those do not keep us separate from the love that Jesus embodies, but recognize the power of standing, in love, on the side the oppressed.
The demons of this world are racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which our culture justifies in the fear-mongering and the hate which have become so pervasive, so subtle that we no longer see them, but accept and even justify them as comfortable. These are demons we are afraid to acknowledge, because grappling with them, recognizing our role in maintaining them, is painful to us, and threatening to those who remain comfortable. And we are afraid of being shackled or ostracized. We are afraid of dwelling among the tombs, among the victims of our hateful demons and our inability to let them go.
And so I hope we will all come to identify with this demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, who grappled with the demons, despite the pain. I hope that we will all identify with this man who recognized Jesus and called out to him, despite the fear; who named his demons, the sins that kept him separate from God’s love: the love that does not call anyone “other.” I hope we will have the courage to see the demons with whom we have become comfortable. I hope that we will find the strength to call them out, no matter who tries to shackle us, to demonize us. I hope we will have courage to tear down the barriersour demons have prodded us to create, so that we might find Jesus standing, as always, on the other side with the queers and the Latinx and the undocumented, beloved and grieving.
I hope we will have the courage to come before Jesus, just as we are, but prepared for the grace that can change us; the grace that can transform us; the grace that can encourage us; the grace that can clothe us in God’s abiding, unconditional love.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John 12:4-6
If your brother were just raised from dead, wouldn’t you throw a party? Mary and Martha sure are, and I’m guessing it was probably pretty crowded. Lazarus himself was there, of course, the man of the hour. Both sisters, of course, as well as Jesus – guest of honor! – and his disciples. This we know from the text. I suspect that many of those who had been present at the tomb were also in attendance: friends, family, the townsfolk of Bethany. The party may well have filled the house, and spilled out into the area around it – an abundance of guests, feasting and rejoicing.
And we know what happens next.
Mary pours an entire flask of perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet, and Judas berates her for the waste of resources. It could have fed so many!
Honestly, I think most of us sort of empathize with Judas in this moment, thief though the story says he is. Should all of our resources go to the poor? Shouldn’t feeding people be our top priority always?
In many ways, Jesus’ response doesn’t help. Not because of what he says, but because of how we hear it. Even those with the text in front of them tend to read the line as “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That first phrase has become part of our collective consciousness, an explanation – even an excuse – for continuing systemic inequalities.
If only that were what Jesus actually said.
In many instances in this Gospel, we find side by side narratives; functioning as illustrations of what it means to be a disciple. In parallel courses, we’ll see stories of those who understand and those who don’t; those who are in relationship with Jesus and those who are not. For in this Gospel, relationship is the marker of true discipleship, true belief, while a lack of relationship becomes the definition of sin. So early on in the text, we have Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee who kept trying to make all of Jesus’ answers fit into his own particular paradigm… followed by the Samaritan woman, who heard Jesus and immediately him to stay in her home: she entered into relationship, expanding her own paradigm in the process.
We see a similar phenomenon here. On the one hand, we have : Judas, who should understand what’s going on – he’s been a disciple for a long time, after all! – who keeps trying to fit Jesus into a nice, neat box, comprehensible and safe. On the other hand, we have Mary of Bethany (n.b.: not Mary of Magdala) who has just really begun to understand, with the resurrection of her brother, what it is that Jesus is really all about.
And we see her understanding in her actions: that it is Lazarus’ resurrection that will mark Jesus for death; that the time of preparation for burial is at hand; that it is still not a time for grief, but for love, and love poured out abundantly.
Judas, who has heard Jesus’ predictions of death several times over; Judas, who should have known what was coming, cannot break out of his own mindset, his own preoccupations. Judas cannot get out of his own way to see what is right before him. Judas needs reminding of his role as a disciple, as one who is in relationship with Jesus.
Judas needs Jesus to speak truth; the same truth, perhaps, that we need to hear: “the poor you have with you always”. Which is, despite how we hear it, not a statement of future certainty, but a terrible condemnation of the present time, in which the poor are present. For this is not Jesus pulling off a mic-drop soundbyte, but reminding us of a truth spoken generations earlier, in the Torah:
There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. -Deuteronomy 15: 4-5
“There will be no one in need, if only you will obey…” Ouch. How’s that going, Judas?
That the poor are always with us is not an acknowledgement of the way of the world, but evidence that we have fallen away from God, and remained out of relationship with Jesus. For there are poor – and hungry, and homeless – in a land that produces abundantly; a land in which we have been blessed… a land in which we have continually kept that blessing for ourselves.
Seems this is another thing that Mary understands better.
Seems that her anointing, her preparation for his burial, is preparation for herself, as well. For Mary is giving of all she has of value – this perfume which cost a year’s wages, made of a rare flower from India – and giving fully, pouring out the entire contents in this one moment. She is participating in an act of relationship, in act of intimacy that echoes the one expressed earlier in this same Gospel, where Jesus dwells at the bosom of God: an image of trusting intimacy, of sustenance, of nurture, of nourishment. Mary makes clear her choice to trust fully in the nurture of God-made-flesh, even as he goes to his death.
While Judas, on the other hand… needs to keep a little back for himself, in case. In case this Jesus moment is just a flash-in-the-pan. In case this God thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It strikes me, from this portrait, that it is Mary – wasteful, prodigal, extravagant Mary – who will obey God in the commandments given. It is Mary who will live into a world in which the poor are not always present; it is Mary who will ensure that no one around her is in need, who will continue to give generously of her abundance.
It is Mary who will remain in relationship with Jesus, rather than those who, like Judas, continually wonder if there shall be enough – who will count every coin, who will micro-manage every transaction, who will dwell more readily in the fear of scarcity than in the blessing of abundance.
Both Mary and Judas have smelled the stink of death close at hand. Lazarus is among them, after all; fresh – or not so much! – from the tomb. And Judas, it seems, wants out already – to get away from away from the stench, to find a reason to condemn the hospitality and leave early. Judas wants to escape the spectre of death, currently sharing a table with him, lest, perhaps, it cling to him as well. But Mary… Mary responds, instead, with a scent that fills the house, that provides an aroma more powerful than death, an odor with which the smell of death cannot compete. Mary’s perfume, poured out as abundantly as the wine at Cana, as the loaves and fishes that fed thousands, as the grace of God upon the world that God loves. It fills every crack, every crevice. It clings to everyone’s hair, everyone’s clothes – even Lazarus’! – and then follows them for hours, if not days. Mary’s perfume becomes the scent, not of death, not even of preparation for death and burial, but of but preparation for the life eternal. It is a preparation for a life in relationship with Jesus, in which there is no one in need, in a land of abundance; in which we can hold God’s feet in our hands; in which we can feel, see, taste God’s grace; in which that grace smells like the costliest perfume, poured out extravagantly.
Judas’ question resonates with us, but this text reminds us that the resonance we hear points us in an unfortunate direction, one that ill-prepares us for the life and discipleship to which we are called. We who prepare ourselves, this Lent, for resurrection would do well to have a good look at how we embody that preparation; to ask ourselves whether we experience the abundance that Mary gives so readily? Do we participate, here and now, in the extravagance of eternal life? or do we participate in the fear that cannot see beyond death? Do we, like Judas, fear to trust in the sustenance of God; in the providence of God to do the impossible: to bless the land so richly that there need be no poor, no hungry, no homeless?
Where do we abide, the descendants of Mary and of Judas: in the incomprehension of Nicodemus? in the slush fund of Judas? in the anger of the authorities at having their world turned upside down?
I hope not.
I hope that we, too, can smell the overpowering scent of rich perfume, can live in the experience of abundant life, can breathe the fragrance of life eternal clinging to our very skin.
I hope that we, too, can live into a resurrection world, celebrate gift of life here in this world: in which there need be no poverty; in which God’s abundance is poured out around us daily.
I hope that we, too, can give of ourselves fearlessly, without counting cost; that we can pour ourselves out abundantly, extravagantly, intimately; so that all may know the sustenance, the nourishment of God in this world.
For ours is not a faith of fear, or of death, and we do well when we prepare ourselves instead for resurrection. We do well when we act in ways that recall that death will never have the last word.
Ours is not a faith that counts the cost; ours is not a faith that puts restrictions on giving, or that debates who is most worthy of our help.
Ours is a faith of Mary, wasteful and extravagant in her certainty that there is enough – more than enough! – for the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be housed, the grieving and despairing to be known, and seen and loved.
Ours is a faith of the God who became flesh and abides among us.
Ours is a faith of resurrection.
May we prepare ourselves as Mary did: in acts of intimate relationship, in acts of extravagant generosity, in acts of abiding love, which cling to us and give fragrance to our world.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ John 2: 3-5
For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.
But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.
This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.
Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.
It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves. Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.
Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.
And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.
This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action. And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.
Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine. Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him. At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing. At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.
The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.
I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities. We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us. We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are, and who we might become. For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.
However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out. Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.
This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.
Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.
Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.
What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.
Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:
My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:
They should have done what they were told.
What can you expect from that generation?
We’ve always done it this way before.
Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.
Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.
But we come after.
The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.
For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.
And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love. We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.
Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.
It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.
And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.
And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer. We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.
Sometimes, God sneaks up on us.
Certainly, we expect to hear God speaking here, where we gather.
We come for just that purpose: to listen, to worship,
and sometimes it is enough.
But sometimes we get hungry;
listening attentively is hard work!
And sometimes the word doesn’t quite cut it,
doesn’t give us enough to chew on,
doesn’t fill the gnawing, empty place within,
but only makes us more aware of feeling
It is tempting to sneak off,
to rush away from the speaking,
to answer a different call than the one that brought us here.
We plot our escape, absently
massaging our empty bellies,
not noticing, at first,
for the taking, not the giving.
The basket, from which we pull, grab,
we fall back, sated, filled, overfilled,
and, finally, aware:
uncomfortably aware of the hungers of others.
Watch, you who gather here,
as all are filled by the God who slipped in;
in Word, yes,
but in the word that spoke the simple word: eat.
And we are joined in satisfied hunger,
feeling together the relief from emptiness,
pulled from ourselves into a greater Body
in the experience of abundance
in the experience of grace.
One Body, taken within our own.
One Body consumed, incorporated,
giving life and sustaining us,
God incarnate abiding, within us and through us,
the Word made our flesh,
devoured, renewed, eternal, enough,
surprising us in bread, in flesh,
in Word, in Body,
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25
This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there. It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular phrase, “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women. It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.
“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain. So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” – and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply, “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.
But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me. Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”
So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?
We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol. But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ. As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death. To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution. It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.
That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke. That was the imagery that Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.
Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation. His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross. Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself. Choose it for yourself. Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness. We must choose, freely and without coercion.
And what happens when we choose the cross? when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”? What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment? What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?
What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.
The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”. The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.” The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all. Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship. I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”. Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.
And it may well cost us.
It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world. It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.
It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love. It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right. Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis. Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.
Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.
May we so choose. May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.
May we so choose.
Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.
Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.
Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.
Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.