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And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him… And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. –Mark 1: 10, 12-13

This story hits three major points in just a few verses: Jesus’ baptism, the wilderness and temptation, and the testimony that calls for repentance. Even in just 8 verses of Mark’s gospel, these still seem to be discreet stories; three separate movements of Jesus’ ministry. But together, these three provide a necessary schema: a paradigm for us all to follow in our own lived discipleship. In baptism, we remember that God knows us. In witnessing, we show that we know God. But that middle step, that wilderness time; that is crucial, for in it we come to know ourselves: the selves that God knows, and loves. Through that knowledge, we come to  know better the God to whom we are called to witness.

2048px-Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom

Edward Hicks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If we were to go directly from God’s powerful love out into public, out into testimony, we would go without fully understanding who or what it truly is that God loves enough to tear apart the firmament, to reach down through the heavens. We need to understand the full power of God’s grace before we try to bear witness to its impact on our lives and on the world around us.

Mark tells us little, here; this gospel writer takes a couple sentences to tell the stories that other gospel writers spend paragraphs on. We are used to hearing more narrative around this wilderness time – details that Matthew and Luke provide in abundance. But I wonder if we don’t need Mark’s brevity, his lack of detail, in order to make this story resonate more clearly in our own lives? I wonder if it isn’t good for us, to be left wanting more, if the lack of detail doesn’t push us to imagine for ourselves  what the temptation might have looked like? Does Mark’s bare narrative encourage us to imagine what it would be like to experience that solitude, that wilderness among the angels and the beasts; the love that the fears that inhabit us all?

When we are alone, when we are in wilderness times – when we are thrown into vulnerability and uncertainty – what prowls around, seeking to feed on us? What sustains us in nurture? And what are the temptations that pull at our hearts?

This week, as happens all too often, we are thrown again into the wilderness, into the desolation of despair as seventeen more lives were lost on a day when we as Christians were called to contemplate our own return to dust and ash. This week, we, too were placed among the wild beasts. We were placed as prey among predators: those who would pull us apart one little bite at a time. We were placed, all of us raw and wounded, before a prowling pack, and we found ourselves staring at the curved claws of anger, at the pointed teeth of violence, at the strong jaws of fear. We looked directly into the predatory eyes of  a culture built on anger, and self-interest; on power and weaponized violence.  And even we, who know ourselves beloved; even we, who understand God’s love and God’s grace for all of creation, felt the tempting pull of the fictitious safety that human power and weaponry promise. We felt the tempting pull of repaying violence with violence; of dehumanizing, of demonizing those of God’s beloved who commit acts of violence, those of God’s beloved whose response to the wilderness is not ours. Even we, who profess God’s love poured out upon us all feel, in times like this, the tempting pull of turning away from love in the name of individual freedom and security.

This week, as happens all too often, we who are God’s beloved have been put into this story of wilderness and temptation. We have found ourselves among beasts and angels. We have been face to face with the tempter, and in our responses, we have borne witness to the gods that we worship.

Jesus, cast out into the wilds beyond the Jordan – beyond even the wilderness where John was baptizing the people of Judea – came face to face with his own beasts: his own temptations about how to respond in the face of fear, in the face of possible violence. Jesus, in vulnerable solitude, likely heard the same tempting whispers that we ourselves have come to know: the ones that urged the security of the preemptive strike, the ones that suggested the safety of being the most powerful. Jesus, as human as any one of us, stood alone among the beasts, tempted. It is a story we find familiar, this week especially.

But Jesus saw what we so often neglect: the angels. Literally, these are the messengers of God, of the gospel – not necessarily the winged humans of renaissance paintings, but the presence of love, of grace, of humility, of compassion made tangible before him. Or before us.

We don’t know, from Mark’s account, what happened in that wilderness encounter when Jesus stood alone between the predators and the Good News of God. We don’t really know what Jesus saw, looking into the eyes of the beasts. We don’t really know what the temptations were, or about the specific nurture of God’s messengers in that moment. All we know is the response to that wilderness time was the witness to the imminence of God’s kin-dom, and the call to repent: to turn our hearts to the God whose love endures even wilderness predators.

What does our witness say of us? we, who are confronted with beasts; we, who hear the whispers of the tempter; we, who know the nurture of angels? What is our witness, as we emerge from this wilderness time, from our latest confrontation with violence, from our temptations to fear and human forms of security?

What is our witness as those who have been fully known, as those who have been called God’s beloved, as those who have been guided and kept by God’s Holy Spirit? What is our witness, to our friends and our families, on email and facebook and twitter?  What is our witness to our senators and representatives? What is our witness, to our communities, to our teachers, to our children? Is it our acquiescence to the power of the predators? Is it the temptation of dominance, of fighting violence with violence, death with death?

Or shall we emerge from the wilderness sustained by angels, testifying and bearing witness to the good news that the kin-dom of God is near, if we but turn our hearts. The kin-dom of God is near, where predators will lose their power and prey their fear, where 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 seventeen children shall finally lead us.

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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.

 

Not a sermon, not as theological as usual, but still a Christian issue. First do no harm, second, love your neighbor as yourself. Neither happened yesterday; here is my response.

Dear Senator Ayotte,

I just wanted to express how incredibly disappointed I am in your decision vote No on yesterday’s gun control legislation. Not only did you not represent the people of New Hampshire, who overwhelmingly support background checks, but you did so for the most spurious and flimsy of reasons.

None of what was submitted to the US Senate yesterday would have in any way impacted the Second Amendment; to say that it did is a bold-faced and outright lie. There are restrictions in place already on gun ownership and sales – restrictions that the vast majority of NRA members approve of and that those very same members would like to see applied without exception. How can you possibly suggest that closing the loopholes in the current legislation is somehow detrimental to the Second Amendment? How can you suggest that restricting military-style weapon to the military and law enforcement infringes upon my right to keep and bear arms? The holes in your argument are larger than the holes in background check legislation, and far more dangerous: that you believe these claims, and are willing to espouse them as your own, can only be damaging to our trust in you as our Senator.

It is clear to me, Senator Ayotte, that you place the interest of lobbyists ahead of the lives of the children of our state. It is clear to me that you care more about your campaign coffers and your re-election bid than you do about keeping the citizens of this country safe. I wonder that you are able to sleep at night; I wonder how you will live with yourself, when the next, preventable, shooting rampage occurs? Will you look into the faces of the victims’ families, knowing that you could have acted to prevent the deaths that they grieve?

To be a Senator is not only a privilege, it is a great responsibility. You bear the weight of our voices, of our hearts. You bear the weight of our very lives, and the lives of our children, in the votes you take. We trusted you, and you threw that trust away for the desire to retain your privileged office. You chose the cowardly, rather than the loving choice. I am disappointed.

Please know, Senator Ayotte, that not only have you lost my vote for your re-election, but that I will work hard for anyone, Democrat or Republican, who will seek to implement the laws this country so desperately needs to keep its children safe.

Yours most sincerely,
Rev. Eliza