Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Context of the Meal

 Matthew 14:13-21

Besides the Resurrection, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels; it’s a super important story for the early church and clearly meant to give us a glimpse of who Jesus is and what God is up to. And as bible stories go, it’s fairly tame and unassuming, so we love to tell it to children. It’s not scandalous or disturbing, and it has a happy ending too! What's not to like?


But like most things in life there is more going on than we see on the surface. The context matters. When we tell this story on its own, we don’t realize that in Matthew’s telling in a single 24-hour day, a bunch of big things happen that maybe have something to do with each other. And maybe it’s not as meek and mild as we think. 


Our story begins early in the morning with the words, “Now when Jesus heard this...”  Heard what?  When Jesus heard that John the Baptist, who had been in prison, had just been beheaded, and his head delivered to Herod on a platter in the middle of an extravagant and vulgar dinner party. John’s disciples had picked up his body from the palace and buried it, and gone immediately to tell Jesus what had happened. 


When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place. 


 And who wouldn’t?  What else in the world is there to do?  

John is gone, his cousin, his friend, the one who knew who Jesus was better than anyone -  from before he was born, even – leaping in recognition in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of pregnant Mary’s voice, the one who proclaimed in the wilderness that the Messiah is coming, and plunged God incarnate under the waters of baptism, the one whose whole life was telling that God’s kingdom is coming and announcing that Jesus had arrived, this John has just died a pointless, disgusting, inexplicable death, as a pawn in a gluttonous game of revenge and power. 


When Jesus hears this he withdraws in a boat to a deserted place.  

But the crowds seek him out. 


On foot they go around, ahead, and I have always imagined them like clingy toddlers flooding his alone place and his apart time with their need and their clamoring, their sheer mass, the overwhelming sound, smell, the hungry obligation of them.  And I’ve felt defensive of him, as perhaps, his disciples were too. He has every right to absolutely lose it. To tell them all to go away. To tell the disciples to make them leave him alone.  To practice self-care and turn the boat around and float alone in the waves for hours until he regains his composure, until he finds some peace and quiet.


But when Jesus sees the crowd, it says, he has compassion on them, and cures their sick.  He brings the boat ashore and goes to them and stays there with them. 

Vulnerable, grieving, reckoning with the horror and consequences of evil, mourning the death of his beloved friend, Jesus embraces the vulnerable, the grieving, the sick and despairing.  


And I don’t think it was a “nevertheless” kind of thing, being with them. I don’t think it was “even though” he was sad he embraced them “anyway” sort of deal. I think it was an “alongside,” “with and for” kind of thing. I think it was sorrow meeting sorrow, a pretense stripped away, no games being played, hearts connecting scenario. 


I guess until now I have always seen the crowds as almost predatory, like relentless zombies following him around, grabby and demanding and needy. Why can’t they just leave him alone?   


But this time I saw something different. I had to read it three times: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When confronted with the news of his friend’s death Jesus went to hide in his sorrow. But when the crowds heard the news that they knew would devastate Jesus, they went to find him.  And not to give every person there a noble and altruistic motive, but perhaps, without overthinking it, the drive to be together in suffering is a way human beings return to our humanity, which is also to say, a way we seek and share in the presence of God. Perhaps that’s the way God designed us.  When someone we care about suffers a great loss, the reflex is to be with them, to share the pain.  


A few weeks ago a friend texted me from a meeting of exhausted teachers, education assistants and therapists in a program for children with extreme trauma, to tell me that a therapist had just said, (and I paraphrase to remove the swear word), “Self-care is hogwash. When something happens we don’t take care of ourselves, we take care of each other.” This is not to say we should not have good boundaries, or cultivate healthy habits, or that we should give and give when we are tapped out. This is to say: in crisis we do not take care of ourselves; we take care of each other. We belong to each other.


So perhaps, as much as all those people needed Jesus, Jesus needed them too.  Maybe he needed to feel his belonging to each other and God, and that was not something he could have done on his own in the moment. 

Being with them connected him to the bigger context, the deeper story, the wider belonging. In his own need and dependence on God, Jesus was moved with compassion for the people, and he welcomed them, listened, touched, and healed their sick. In his own vulnerability Jesus reached out to theirs.  And I wonder how God-with-us being with us with them on that day–the Great I Am coming in weakness alongside weakness with healing and hope—how this may have fed Jesus himself in that moment. 


As the day stretches toward evening the disciples, who, let’s face it, must have been freaking out all day at this impromptu gigantic event they were apparently hosting in the wilderness without a port-o-potty or vendor stand for miles around tell Jesus that maybe he should send the crowds away so they can find food for themselves in the villages.  But Jesus answers, They need not go away - you feed them. An impossible and ridiculous instruction.


But impossibility is God’s favorite canvas. And now a meal is about to take place that will upend the meal that preceded it. 

The first meal happened among sycophants in the seat of power. Full of insecurity and hungry for esteem, a cruel leader fed his own ego in a vicious power play of political manipulation and demonstrable control, killing a person in a mighty flex of fear and dominance. 

The second meal is happening here among ordinary people in the middle of nowhere. Full of sorrow and hungry for gentleness, a brokenhearted healer is feeding thousands with a single child’s handful of bread and fish, in a compassionate outpouring of inconceivable abundance and demonstrable unity, nourishing all these people in a colossal expression of love and solidarity.  


And the people, out there in the deserted place, far from the center of commerce and empire, are sitting down on the ground like one enormous picnicking family, dining on manna, until all, every single one of them, to the last man, woman, and child is full, and there are leftovers galore. And the power that brought the world into being, is here, among them, healing the sick, providing their daily bread and receiving their love and gratitude, and together, all of them are connected and held in a power greater than death, a force greater than evil, that is moving the world toward love. This power is not encountered by the strong but the vulnerable, and it comes not through coercion or control but through compassion and companionship.  


In a few minutes we will share a meal that seems almost silly, really. Without the context it could feel tame and unassuming, a nice tradition, a lesson to remember. But real violence rages in our world, rampant corruption and evil, power is wielded to selfish ends and lives are lost for pointless reasons, and own lives from time to time threaten to brim over with despair. 

In this context we will eat bread and drink grape juice and claim that God is with us right here and now and it means something important and powerful.  Because God is, and does; Jesus himself was broken for us, taking into God’s own heart the heartbrokenness of us all. 


We are gathered today in our shared need and vulnerability, with whatever we bring and however we’re struggling, and Jesus meets us here, joining us with all those gone before, including those that one evening in that deserted place who ended that sad day side by side with a sister who was just healed, and a neighbor who just found hope, and thousands of siblings in this world God is creating anew. 

In receiving the bread, taking it and pass it to one another as they did, we are connected held in a power greater than death, a force greater than evil, that is moving the world toward love.


And, just to wrap up the day, because, believe it or not, there are still a few hours remaining: after the feast Jesus releases the disciples and disperses the crowd and finally gets away to a quiet place. He rests. And stops. And makes space for his grief to breathe.  But he does so now not as one thrown into isolation by his pain, but as one who has been held in solidarity in the love and care of others, as having experienced the power of God moving through him to them and through them to him and the love of God holding them all as they all shared that day together, that meal together. Now, grounded in his belonging to God and each other, Jesus finds the solitude, solace, and silence he needs. 


But just in case we don’t yet get how big it all is, just before dawn breaks on this long, full day, we meet back up with the disciples, who left that epic experience to find themselves all night long battling raging winds and torrential rains in their precariously rocking boat. And just as he did for the crowds, Jesus meets them right where they are, which means that as the vulnerable and terrified disciples squint through the storm, they see Jesus calmly walking to them on the water.  



Sunday, May 7, 2023

Always Toward Life

Luke 8:40-56 

Yesterday morning, a couple blocks from my house, a neighborhood dad of two stepped outside his front door to confront a person trying to get into his car. He was shot dead in his own front yard. His sons began the day with a dad and ended it without one.

There is a fragility to life that we mostly forget about, else how would we go anywhere or do anything at all? How would we send our kids off to camp, or school, for that matter? How would we go to the doctor’s office, or the grocery store, or the mall, or pick up our siblings from a friend’s house? How would we eat anything or drink anything or get into any kind of vehicle?  Life is risky and scary and bad things happen, and even when they don’t, just being alive is a guarantee of death.  


So when we come to a story like this one, where a miracle is interrupted with a miracle, where Jesus heals a woman who has suffered for years, and brings a dead child back to life, what are we meant to take from it? 


This week a young person in the congregation and I had a wonderful theological conversation about how, often, the bible is used like some kind of weird unambiguous how-to book. Or maybe we tell these stories like they’re a superhero movie: look at the Amazing Jesus’ awesome powers! Or maybe we read them like they’re trying to get us to think a certain thing, or believe a certain thing, and if we do that, somehow we will be deemed a good person, or we will crack the formula for escaping suffering or death like these people did, (though, spoiler, eventually they died too). We also talked about how strange and hard it is to even try to understand something written in an entirely different culture, language and part of the world, thousands of years ago, to pre-modern people, about a way of life we can only begin to imagine.


So, to guide us, let’s step back and remember the question that is never not helpful when approaching scripture : Who is this God, and what is God up to here?


The story begins with Jesus returning from somewhere. If we looked just before this, we would see that he was across the sea of Galilee in Gentile country, where he had just cast demons out of a man who had been afflicted since he was young and sent them into a herd of pigs who ran over a cliff to their death. Dramatic stuff. Also, eyebrow-raising on multiple fronts. As a good Jewish teacher, what was he doing with Gentiles? Who did he think he was addressing demons? What was he doing around pigs, for that matter? A cesspool of impurity, all of it, if you’re keeping track of that sort of thing.


So, he returns and the crowds press in on him, hundreds of people cramming in around him- eager for more of this holy man’s intriguing teaching and marvelous works.  And then comes the temple leader, Jairus, whose own beloved child lay sick and dying. Perhaps the crowd parts to let him through because of his status. And they watch as he begs Jesus to come heal his daughter, and Jesus heads toward his house. But the journey is interrupted by a woman who for twelve years has been bleeding. 


Every culture has purity taboos. We, for example, would never invite people over to eat dinner on our bathroom floors. Purity rules in ancient Judaism were not about sin, they were about proximity to either life, as God intended it in Eden, or to death and decay. What is dying or showing signs of decay is not to be in the presence of the Creator and sustainer of life. So there were laws around what was pure and what was impure and how to restore purity to something, to bring it from an impure, deathly state back to a clean state of life. By practicing purity laws, the Israelites were always conscious of life and death, aware of their own morality. 


A woman’s period then – while inside her is a life-giving force. But when the life-force is leaving her body it becomes a symbol of death. While she is unclean she is to separate herself and not to be touched for seven days, then, after a ritual bath she resumes normal life. If someone touches her, they too become impure or unclean until the end of day.  


Now we meet a woman who has been bleeding – without end- for twelve years. Besides the fear and worry medically, spending everything she had on doctors and getting no help, the constant physical discomfort and exhaustion is all compounded by the isolation, and the understanding that she is closer to death than life. Not just for seven days, but every day for twelve years. She is separated, her sense of belonging must feel permanently severed, her purpose and place in this life shut down. There is no way for her to become pure again, no way out of the death-stamped existence. It’s like she living in Sheol – the underbelly of the earth, where they believed dead souls floated around aimlessly contributing nothing. 


So when she gets close enough to Jesus to touch his cloak, saying to herself, if I can only just touch the very edge of his garment, I will be healed, she is also protecting him from her uncleanness.  And though she just brushes against the hem of his clothing, Jesus asks who has touched him. 

His disciples are incredulous, “What do you mean who touched me? You’re pressed in on every side by people!” But Jesus has been touched; someone’s personhood has reached out in longing and trust from the grip of death toward the source of life, and he has responded with healing, even before he knew what was happening.  


And then, the scripture says, “When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden…” For twelve years she has been hidden, hiding, outcast, and she sought to sneak a miracle, to secretly skulk her way back to life. But she will not remain hidden; in this moment she will be seen.  When Jesus asks who it was that received his healing power she comes forward and trembling, she tells everyone what she has suffered, and what has just happened to her. Jesus praises her faith, and declares in front of everyone, that she has been made well. Go in peace. And with his words, he welcomes her back to the act of living.


Then the interruption is interrupted again by messengers from the Jairus’ house, letting him know it’s too late; his daughter has died. Don’t waste any more of the teacher’s time. But Jesus responds with the repeated refrain of messengers of God throughout scripture, the most used phrase in all of scripture – Don’t be afraid.  Then, only believe and she will be saved. But what were they to make of that? It’s over. We know what the final period is on the end of all our sentences; it’s death. Death is the winner. And death has struck here. So what could he possibly mean that she will be saved? And what is there to believe at this point?


When Jesus arrives, he sends away all the mourners and brings just Peter, James and John and the girl’s parents into the room and closes the door. Then he reaches out his hand and grasps onto the child’s hand.


There is nothing more impure, unclean, than a dead body. Proximity to a dead person is as close to death as you can get, unless, of course, you yourself are the dead person. If you were even under the same roof, you were unclean. If you touched a dead body, you were unclean for seven days, and would need to separate yourself from others, and then after a ritual bath you could resume normal life.  


Jesus reaches out and touches the hand of the dead child. And at his touch, her spirit returns to her. She is restored to the living, brought back into life, given back to those to whom she belonged.  And Jesus tells them to give her something to eat – to feed her body and spirit with care and nourishment, to welcome her again to the act of living. 


Here is what all these stories in a row tell me today about who God is and what God is doing: There is nowhere Jesus will not go, no boundary he does not cross, to restore people’s humanity, to claim into God’s belonging and love every single person.  Gentiles? Demons? Pigs? Impurities of every kind? Not even the final fearful boundary, death itself, stops the embodied love of God from touching us and being touched by us.  Our human divisions and rules? Our mighty attempts to do it all right and be worthy and good? When they get in the way of our belonging to God and each other, the one who made it all comes into it all and tears down those walls, crosses enemy lines right into death’s hostile territory, because no power is greater than the love of God, and no claim on us is more authoritative or final than God’s claim that, no matter what and always, we are a beloved child of God.


I have sorrow over neighbors who woke up today, if they slept at all, steeped in suffering for the senseless loss of their dad yesterday. And if I were to read this story and think that somehow I am supposed to think that trusting Jesus means terrible things don’t happen to us, I would be delusional. Life is filled with suffering.  And death will come for us all. And every one of us, from time to time, find ourselves living closer to death than life. And there is no shame in our mourning – for lost dreams and lost lives, for the loss of things that will never be, and the loss of things that we thought made us who we are, and the senselessness of violence and the fragility of being human.


But there is a greater story that holds us all: this world, and everyone in it, belongs to God. And when healing happens through the touch of the embodied God-with-us, in these stories and in our own lives, it reveals that the perimeters we think are impermeable are not the final word.  


And we have a place too in these stories, to go where Jesus is and join him there. To go to the places of death and sorrow, the places where belonging seems severed, and purpose is shut down. We will not allow shame, or fear, or judgment, keep people hidden. We will see each other and recognize healing and extend peace, and feed bodies and spirits with care and nourishment, and welcome one another, again and always, to the act of living.  Because our dead and risen Savior is bringing all things – especially in death – toward life.  And I, for one, want to be in the room when it happens.



Sunday, April 9, 2023

Why We Celebrate Easter


John 20:1-18

On Wednesday evening, a few young kids from the congregation and I created a beautiful butterfly collage hanging in the sanctuary for the big celebration. But before we did, we had an important conversation about Easter. 

What is Easter? Why do we celebrate it? I asked. They shrugged at me and one of them said, Hmm. I don’t really know!


In order to understand Easter, I told them, we first have to talk about death

So we buckled in and got down to it.

What dies? I asked. Can you tell me some things that die?

Plants die, one said. 

Dogs die, said another. 

Elephants die when they are poached for their ivory, said the third. 

People die too, one added. 

Then we shared about some people we love who have died.  We talked about how sad and terrible death is, and how we don’t like that things and people die.

Is there anything that doesn’t die? I asked.  There was some debate about some specific unusual creature that I’d never heard of that can regenerate, but we ultimately concluded that eventually even that thing dies. Everything that is alive dies.


What about God? I asked.

God doesn’t die! They answered. God doesn’t have to die.

So, now I am going to tell you why we celebrate Easter, I told them.

God doesn’t have to die, but God chose to die.  When God came to be with us in this life as Jesus, God decided to share everything we go through, to be born and grow up with all the sad and hard things, all the fun and amazing things, whatever it means to be human, Jesus lived that too. And Jesus died.  We talked about Jesus’ death on the cross. But then we talked about what happened when Jesus died. How the sky went dark, and the whole earth shook, and the heavy temple curtain that separated people from God was torn in two from top to bottom because something very huge was happening, and people were afraid and confused because they didn’t understand it. 


Jesus didn’t stay dead.  Jesus came back to life, and God made it so death isn’t the end any more. Death doesn’t get to separate us forever from each other or God. God broke the power of death and made it so life keeps going, even after we die!  This is a something to celebrate! 


Then we thought about our butterfly project.  And we thought how butterflies are not born as butterflies. They start out as caterpillars.  And we imagined if we were caterpillars, and we saw our caterpillar friend make a cocoon and disappear and stop being alive with us and how we would miss them and think that they were gone for good.  And they would never come back as a caterpillar again, so they are gone; their caterpillar life is over.  

But what happens after a caterpillar makes a cocoon?  I asked.

They become a butterfly! They shouted.

And now they are not trapped on the ground like a caterpillar, they are alive and free, and even though their caterpillar friends can’t be with them in the same way, the butterflies can still see their caterpillar friends and they know that one day they too will be transformed into butterflies. 


A butterfly is a symbol for Easter because it’s a picture of transformation.  It reminds us that because Jesus died and rose from the dead, we have new life, and death does not get to be the biggest strongest thing any more.  Love is stronger, and life is stronger. 


Death still happens, I said, and people and dogs and elephants and plants still dieAnd we feel really sad when people we love die, and we really, really miss them. It will be a long, long time before we see them again. But they are not ended; their life keeps going. And one day, after we die, our life will keep going too, in the love of God, in life that doesn’t get sick, or sad or scared; life inside God’s love that lasts forever.


It's so important that we celebrate Easter every year, we decided, because it’s so easy to forget, and we need to remember that God’s love is stronger and death doesn’t get to win, ever again. 


A few minutes ago the kids gave us all some butterfly sun glasses, inviting us to take on this Resurrection perspective, to see this world, each other, and our own lives through the lens of resurrection. Christ has died, Christ has risen. Alleluia!  We can trust God with our lives, and each other and this whole earth. 


But in order to understand Easter, we have to start with death.  Resurrection comes to us in death.  It begins there. It can come no other way. The risen Lord meets us in our places of death. The caterpillar inside the cocoon turns to ugly, decaying mush. Entombed in darkness, it disintegrates. And then it is transformed.  The tomb is the place of transformation.


When Mary comes to the tomb on Easter morning she comes to cry for the person she loves who has died. She is there to be sad about death and to get used to missing Jesus. And what she finds is an empty tomb. And we act like an empty tomb is a great thing, but there is no hope in an empty tomb. The absence of death is not the same as new life. An empty grave is just more loss.


But while Mary is standing there, entombed in the darkness of her own cocoon, turned to mush in her grief, feeling nothing but emptiness and despair, seeing death as the biggest, strongest thing, Jesus comes to Mary, alive. And she doesn’t recognize him.  Trapped inside her dark cocoon, she can’t see a butterfly; she thinks Jesus is the gardener.


Please, Mary begs him; please sir, tell me where his body is.  But then Jesus says her name, Mary.  And  suddenly her cocoon breaks open. When the Risen Jesus calls her name, Mary is resurrected. She’s transformed. Her life begins anew. Now she has life that’s been through death to the other side. 


Mary responds, Teacher! And she tries to grab onto him like he’s still a caterpillar. We try to grab on to Jesus too. But a risen Savior is not like a strongly held belief, a positive example to follow, or a religion to shape your life around. A risen savior can’t be held onto or pinned down.  Jesus is alive, bringing new life in the all the dead places in our world, meeting us when we don’t expect it, and most need it, don’t even know how to look for him. 


When Mary is transformed, she gets her butterfly glasses. To be clear – our faith is not about just seeing the world differently, but once we’ve been met by the risen Christ in our places of death, we will see the world differently. We don’t put our faith in recovery, repair, renovation, recuperation, or even renewal, things that we can do ourselves. Ours is a faith of resurrection, something only God can do. 


Sometimes it feels like the whole world is a decaying cocoon. We assume we’ll see decay; we’re not expecting transformation. And the promise of Easter is not that there are no more cocoons. The promise is that God is particularly at work in cocoons and tombs, Jesus has already been there. When we are in death, and in loss, when all seems over, God promises to be here, bringing transformation. In our impossibility, when we are turning to mush inside our tombs, the Holy Spirit who raised Christ from the dead comes into our deadness, and God brings new life.


So we wait, here, in our tombs of choices that can’t be unmade, words that can’t be unsaid, lives that can’t be brought back, conflicts that can’t be solved, loved ones we can’t rescue, and all the hopeless, helpless places of horror, loss and tragedy in our world and in ourselves.


And then, when we are decomposing in deep darkness, suddenly a light shines. An unexpected person stands with you, supporting you in your upheaval or sorrow. Forgiveness takes hold and releases you from your prison of resentment. Your despair gives way to healing, different than you ever could have imagined. When you’re feeling lost and alone, another person sees you, and you realize you are loved and known. When who you thought you were is gone, you discover that who you are is just waking up.  This is the sound of the Risen One calling your name. This is the feel of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work. This is what it looks like when the God of resurrection brings life that’s been through death to the other side.


This whole world, and everyone who has gone before us, and you and I too, are held in the love of God, who is bringing new life into our tombs and cocoons, and Jesus is alive, meeting us when we don’t expect it, and most need it.  This is why we celebrate Easter. Today we put on our butterfly glasses, so that when we look at death we know what God will do there. 


Sunday, March 19, 2023

How Jesus Encounters Us

 Who is this God?  And what is God up to?   

We’re journeying through Lent with three guides, well, five if you count the siblings.  Mary and Martha with their anger and grief, Lazarus with his pesky deadness, Nicodemus with his questions and fear; today this woman who doesn’t get named, with her baggage and her boldness, and actually, the disciples too in this one, all of these faith relatives of ours have their worlds blown open and their imaginations completely rewired for who God actually is and what God might actually be up to.

So let’s jump in with today’s guide, The Samaritan Woman.

I suspect the reason she’s not named is because the division and tension between Judeans and Samaritans before and beyond this story crept into the telling too. What’s most important to know is what’s most shocking and hardest to get over: she’s a Samaritan. Woman.  

Judeans and Samaritans were all Jews, they had the same ancestors- but they had different practices, different scriptures, different worship.  

Each one was right; each one knew the other was wrong. With so much scorn and disdain, they avoided each other whenever possible. Which was often possible. This meant that despite the shortest route from Judea to Galilee being through Samaria, it wasn’t often used by Judeans.  And if Jesus had taken the regular route, this conversation its consequences would never happened.  Jesus and the Samaritan Woman might never have met.  

But God so loved the world.  And Jesus went through Samaria.  

So the conversation happened.


The writer of this story wants us to infer a few things about her right away from details we might not pick up being 21st century readers: she is coming to the well at the hottest time of day, when nobody comes to the well, and she is coming alone. Probably she has stopped trying to come in the early morning with the other women and children, when nobody really talked to her anyway, and it was too painful to see them surrounded by their big, loud families, discussing their sons, and husbands, while she trudged along behind them with her water jug on her shoulders, no one to share her load. So even though it’s a miserable, scorching walk in the middle of the day, it’s easier to come alone.


But today there is someone at the well.  A man. Judean, clearly not Samaritan.  She ignores him and goes about her business, until he clears his throat and addresses her, Excuse me, can I have a drink of that water?


And the conversation begins.   

Encountering God, seeing Jesus, this life of faith and following, is not about answers handed down from heaven, not about good behavior or earned right or accumulated knowledge or perfect piety.  It’s a conversation– it’s a back and forth with doubt and insight, frustration and challenge, with breakthroughs and mysteries that remain unsolved. And most often, we meets Jesus in places of need -  sometimes our own, sometimes someone else’s. God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.  


Here, encounter with God looks like two people from opposite sides of the fence, one with sweaty, dusty thirst, the other, a lonely, isolated person with a complicated living situation doing an arduous daily task with no support or companionship. Their religions forbid men and women from interacting, forbid Judeans and Samaritans from interacting and yet, in the glaring differences and walls that separate absolutely, a moment of connection happens anyway, and astonishingly, in their shared need there is dignity, generosity and humanity.


So the conversation happens. Jesus and Samaritan Woman. 

He knows all about her tragedy.  She has no people; five times she’s been divorced, abandoned, or widowed.  A man could cast off a woman for nearly any reason, and if a husband dies and she has no sons, she has no protection, security, food or home. So she survives however she can, and probably has come to see herself the way the world sees her. She’s the disposable person, belonging to nobody. That’s her identity; that’s her lot; that’s her role.


But the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone, is with her. He sees her.   He engages her like an equal, addresses her intelligence, listens to her, recognizes the totality of her story – the painful parts and the parts before and beyond those. He treats her like she already belongs, and in so doing, he gives her a new role and identity. 


When Jesus offers the woman living water, springing up from within; water of life as they are sitting here in this barren place where lack of water means sure and certain death, here at the ancient well of their shared ancestor, the place of God’s provision and protection, the well that sustains them, to which the whole village must arduously trek and laboriously draw water to stay alive, she is mystified, and feels the yearning within her rise up, and at the same time as she feels the tamped down longing come to live she is right at this moment being quenched, being giving this living water he speaks of. 


Jesus doesn’t see her as a tragedy or a reputation or a burden or a cipher. When he sees her personhood the life within her so long dead, like Lazarus, wakes up. He treats her like she participates and so she does. 


She recognizes him as a prophet, poses to him the question that divides their people, right out in the open, she names it. Just like Nicodemus great teacher of the law, who wrestled and pushed back with his questions, just like Martha and Martha who confronted him and demanded an answer, she lays the difficulty right at his feet.  Your people, say the temple in Jerusalem is where God is found and only if you worship there are you truly seeking God. Our people say this mountain before us is where God meets people. Which is it then?


And he responds with those words we’ve just heard in a previous conversation – spirit and truth – trust me, he answers, the time is coming when it won’t matter where people worship. Those who seek God do so in spirit and truth. God will meet people in that place. 


And like Nicodemus, she ventures a statement loaded with question, I know the Messiah is coming…. 

And he responds with the timeless words of Yahweh, when the voice of God from the burning bush declared to their shared ancestor Moses, “I AM.”


And the whole world cracks open.

She leaves her jar.  Like James and John left their nets to follow, she walks away from the thing that had brought her there to begin with, and leaves behind who she was at the well beside him. And she runs. Free, fast, unencumbered. She runs back to her town and tells everyone – Come and see!   Come and see this man who knows everything about me.  He can’t be the Messiah, can he?


And they come. 

They listened to her.  And why wouldn’t they?  

Can you imagine what they saw when she flew back into town without her water jug? Confident, luminous, upright and unflinching?  She undoubtedly looked completely different than she did when she skulked out of town in the midday heat. She left an empty shadow of a person, and returned radiant, filled with passion and purpose, her shoulders high, her head, raised, her voice firm and eyes lit up, her face looking straight into the faces of others instead of down at the ground in front of them.  How could they not take in what she was saying?  

The living water he promised, the water she’d so desperately craved when he offered it, they felt it bubbling right up out of her and spilling onto them, drawing them back to the source of the water themselves, and then the whole town encountered Jesus.

 Imagine being the unsuspecting disciples, who left to buy lunch, and returned to a different evangelism strategy? The poor disciples are upset and confused and a little pouty about whether someone else brought him food when that was their job.

Not only is this unnamed Samaritan woman with a sketchy social standing the first person to whom Jesus reveals that he is Messiah, but she is legitimately the first preacher in Christianity. Before the disciples even, she is the first evangelist, and she’s effective! Her whole town signs on quick, and this stop wasn’t even on the tour schedule!  


But Jesus tells them they are part of something that started before them and continues after them – their part is important but this isn’t their show.  The work they do now was begun by others, and these people they dismiss without a thought are the ones who Jesus will be staying with for the next few nights, so just sit back and let it unfold – for God so loves the whole wide world.


And the disciples now must bear witness to the reality that Jesus will always be found in the world, for the whole world, and will not stay confined to our plans or spaces or ideas or tribes. Nobody gets a corner on God, and as soon as we’ve labeled ourselves ‘the temple people,’ or ‘the mountain people,’ or ‘the true followers’ with ‘the correct beliefs,’ we’re about to be surprised by Jesus hanging out with the ones we’ve despised and dismissed.  And then we must ask again, Who is this God and what is God up to? 


I wonder what the first preacher would ask us if she were here? 

Maybe she’d ask about our conversations with Jesus.  

When have we felt seen and known, in the back-and-forth honesty with God? 

When have our ideas of the world or ourselves been overthrown, and instead we’ve found ourselves deeply connected to something we’d been missing and hadn’t even known we needed?  

Have we ever had a moment of ditching our own water jugs, or nets, or tombs, and finding a new identity and purpose inside the love and purposes of God?


Have we tasted the living water? Unexpectedly felt the thrill of coming alive? 

Something in us touching something outside of us and discovered quite unpredictably that life we did not make happen bubbled up within us and end up blessing others? 

When have we felt the life within us joining miraculously in the life in the world? 

When have we found, in our need or in someone else’s need, the presence of God meeting us in the giving and receiving? 

God comes to us in the real stuff of life, when we’re open and available to be encountered.  

 Like the Samaritan Woman, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, the whole town of Samaritans and the baffled disciples, Jesus encounters us in the ways we’re least suspecting and most needing. 






Monday, March 6, 2023

Born Again (and again and again...)


The Deposition, by Michaelangelo, 1550. Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, removing Jesus from the cross. Michaelangelo was carving it for his own tomb. His face is the face of Nicodemus. Unfinished. In frustration he destroyed part of it, and was never able to complete it.
(read more HERE)

John 3:1-17

There is no bible passage more recognized, memorized, beloved, despised and exhausted than John 3:16, known as “the gospel in a nutshell.”It used to be when I heard this story what I heard was John 3:16. And I had all sorts of opinions and experiences related to this bite-sized good news – from the scary teenagers that tried to evangelize me with it in a pizza place when I was 12, to the first time I saw it on the bottom of an In-and-Out Burger cup. It’s a little American shorthand instructional for how to have a good life, or at least, how not go to hell. Believe in Jesus and you’ll have eternal life! Easy-peasy! 

But life changes things; it changes us. And this time what utterly stood me still was a verse I didn’t even know came from this same conversation, something that for most of a lifetime of being a Christian has meant nothing to me, but now, unexpectedly, does. It is this line: The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’


That’s because for nearly a year and a half, a few of us, one with terminal cancer, gathered online for morning and evening prayer, and once a week we read these words aloud together as part of our evening prayer. And every Monday, when we would get to these words, they irritated me. (I even admitted this to the others once). Because I didn’t get it. And I still don’t. How are people like wind you hear but don’t know where or how or why?  What does that even mean?  What is this “being born of Spirit" business? Why does it all have to be vague and confusing and difficult? Why can’t it be a simple formula, pray this prayer, take these steps, be saved from death; believe in Jesus and everything will work out?

And so, I first want to say, I feel you, Nicodemus.  

Nicodemus is our second guide through Lent. First we had Lazarus, who dies and comes back to life, both through no fault or accomplishment of his own, by the way.  In love, the love between Lazarus, his sisters, and Jesus, they all feel their way through death and resurrection, and life after resurrection.


Now we have Nicodemus, dear Nicodemus, this wise leader, respected teacher, sneaking out of his house hoping his neighbors don’t see him slink off into the darkness, searching out a slightly suspect, intriguing and dangerous, radical street-preacher, Jesus, about whom the rumors are swirling and whose words won’t leave Nicodemus alone. 


I imagine him moving through the shadows, driven by a yearning he can’t understand or articulate. Feeling his way through the darkness, with that tangled ball of question pressing in on his heart, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real. 


And when he does get to Jesus, (the one John has introduced to us as the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no darkness can extinguish), he can’t even form a question. His questions and longings built up under the surface, he says, “Some of us think that you are from God...” hoping Jesus will pick it up from there. Jesus does, but infuriatingly, by introducing more confusing concepts, when he answers, No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

So now Nicodemus can ask outright, What does that mean?? How is that even possible?


Speaking as though God’s kingdom is so foreign it cannot be recognized by us as we are, in this world as it is, and also as though God’s kingdom is somehow happening right here and now and when something happens to us that we don’t control, we can actually glimpse it and experience it, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a strange time way back when the people were wandering in the wilderness, waiting for God’s deliverance and they were dying from snake bites. God saved them in a weird and inexplicable way-  they needed only to look on a snake God had told Moses to create from bronze and lift before them, and they would live.

And then Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish...”


But we are perishing, actually.  All the time. Anxiety and hidden sadness plague us. Injustice and cruelty prevail. Marriages disintegrate; friendships break down, our dreams fall apart, our bodies fall apart. Catastrophes strike, inconveniences disrupt, sorrow and terror have their way all the time, and we feel life slipping away: in the words we cannot take back, and the choices we cannot have back, and the clock we cannot turn back.  We know all about perishing.  And we are quite accustomed to doing things, saying things, buying things, and sacrificing things, striving in the frantic attempt to keep from perishing. We’ve even turned the very words of Jesus in this story into one our strategies! Because what would be better than a religion that gave us a simple one, two, three steps to guaranteed eternal salvation and earthly happiness! 


But instead of clarity, answers and tactics, Jesus talks of wind and water and spirit and not knowing where things come from or where they are going. He describes unpredictable, unimaginable realities that require we give up our security and control. And then he talks not of what we should do, but of what God does, what God did, what God is already and always doing. For God so deeply and fully loves this perishing world that God gave the only son…and whoever relaxes their being into the being of God will know real and abiding life.


In John, remember, believing is trusting. It’s not accepting a set of facts you can argue with or slapping an admissions-paid entrance sticker on your chest.  Believing in Christ means opening up and leaning your whole self in, Trust in me and you will find life indestructible, Jesus says.

He isn’t giving Nicodemus a foolproof, comprehensible approach to cheating death. He is inviting him into a life so pervasive it encompasses even death.


God so loves this world that God came into this world and is saving it. God Is bringing life out of death, and hope from despair, and joy from sorrow, and healing from brokenness, and leading everything toward a time when perishing itself will perish. This is wind-you-hear-but-can’t-grab-hold-of, born-not-of-logic-and-understanding-but-of-water-and-spirit, mystery-and-firmament, God-breathed, word-spoken life-out-of the-void-of-nothingness, resurrection-from-death’s-finality, Holy Spirit-transformation, unquenchable-light-shining-in darkness, sit-back-and-take-it-in-because-you-didn’t-make-any-of-it-happen kind of salvation. 


Being born at all was not our doing, how silly of us to toss around “born again” like it's something we achieve!  How dare we use belief in Jesus as a label, a guarantee of our eternal destination that we individually acquire by following some back of the box directions?


Maybe we should let ourselves be with Nicodemus on this one. Admit we can’t grab hold of this, can’t make this make sense. Because maybe that’s Jesus’ point. The Kingdom of God is not something we grab hold of; it grabs hold of us. It’s invading the whole world, and we don’t get to decide how that happens. We can be caught up in it, swept up in the transformation of the whole cosmos, or we can be oblivious to it. We can trust in it, or we can miss it.  But we don’t control it.  We don’t make it happen. We don’t avoid pain or perishing by applying some eternal life conversion formula. We listen for the sound of the thing we can’t explain. We let it move through us and take us where it will.  


The teacher must let go everything he thinks he knows to be brought into the world—this tired old, wounded world, this gorgeous, poignant, precious world—all over again, like a vulnerable newborn, ready to receive the mystery and be swept up like the wind. He must be born from above, born anew. And Jesus has implied back to him that the reason he’s there at all, with his questions and his longing, is because he has been. He’s glimpsing the Kingdom of God.


We are all feeling our way through the darkness, with our own tangled balls of questions pressing in on our hearts, pondering the realities of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real. And so, we are invited, especially during Lent, to ponder, How might I be being “born again”? What competence or sureness am I letting go of to receive God’s care, and to trust I am held like an infant? What keeps me from experiencing the uncontrollable salvation of God in the world?  


Nicodemus disappears back into the shadows after this encounter, and we will briefly see him just twice more in the gospel of John and in no other gospel. The next time we see him he is subtly advocating for Jesus to the council by reminding them that the law gives people a chance to defend themselves against charges.  And the last time is after Jesus has died.  

John 19:39-42 says, “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came,” (implied is in broad daylight, where he could be seen by any and all) “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation [for the Sabbath to begin that evening], and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”


So we never really know what Nicodemus thought about what Jesus said, where it took him or what it did inside him.  But that’s not ours to know – not of him or of each other, or even, perhaps, of ourselves. God knows what God is doing – in us, in the world. God knows where it is going and how it will get there. For our part, we get to ‘assume the stance of least resistance’ to being swept up in the love and salvation of God. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. May we continue being born anew.


Sunday, January 15, 2023

Ordinary Miracles and Ongoing Epiphany


Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, c. 1495-1505.

When Epiphany dawns, the swaddling clothes have long been packed away in the attic of the peaceful little home, with room for a workshop that Joseph had rented them in Bethlehem, not too far from THE stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table. 

And to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, life has been kind of quiet. Mary and Joseph are far from the people and place they’d call home, no grandparents pitching in or aunties around offering advice through Jesus’ first fever, first tooth, first words, first steps. Leaning on their new community for connection and support.  This was not how they imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.  Other than that one time Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah came to visit, commiserating over sleepless nights and nursing woes while the babies gurgled together on a blanket on the floor, it has mostly been just the three of them, mama, dada and Jesus, getting to know each other, gently becoming a family.  Week to week, season to season, it’s an ordinary life. 


Until the pagans show up and call their kid the king of the Jews.  


Just when the story begins to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia starts to descend and the lens begins to soften, when this baby has begun to feel like he is theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, scientist mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.  

Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story generational anticipation of a Messiah, or claim to Yahweh’s promises to the people claimed by Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh involves next. Their arrival bursts the domestic bubble and exposes the light to all the world.  


Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha!  When the scene is illuminated what was familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next, often because you suddenly see things with a broader perspective, or through the eyes of another. 

The Christmas moment speaks God WITH US, Epiphany says GOD with us.  

Attention! Sweet and cuddly though he is, folks, this isn’t your own private Messiah.  He belongs to the whole earth! And all who live upon it belong to this little one who has settled himself contentedly here in your lap.  You are recipients of this miracle as much as the next person, of course, but with just as little sense of what it all means as the rest of us, maybe even less, actually, than these astonishing strangers who have arrived on your doorstep seem to grasp.


After this great entourage of exotic travelers that have flooded this quiet, provincial town exchange greetings with his parents and bestow their gifts on the child (and there were certainly many of them, of course; what a silly modern assumption that there were just three, because one gift a piece), after the camels have been tended to and bedded down, the tents erected and the strangers washed up and unpacked, I love the crazy, cozy image of lamps lit, table set, Mary and Joseph and their surprise visitors all crowded around an unexpected potluck of fragrant dishes. Wall to wall humans, who look different and smell different and wear different clothing and speak different languages, and whose paths never, ever should have crossed on this planet in any conceivable way, breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to. Perhaps tomorrow they’ll invite the shepherds back over for breakfast.


These travelers, who have journeyed over desert and mountains, through seasons and struggles, countless freezing nights and endless scortching day, driven by a quest through unknown to arrive at the very source. And then, from the moment they lay eyes on the child, and Mary and Joseph lay eyes on them, the cosmic cat is out of the bag, so to speak.


The ego-maniacal King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy and strangers from a strange land are visiting that nice couple down the street, normal as you please.  And it’s as though that one lone star now shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.


Of course they stayed a while, these unexpected guests.  After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there, they’re not just spending one night and leaving.  So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?  Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness? 

How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who threw bawling toddler tantrums when he needed a nap, smeared hummus on the dog, and belly-laughed when daddy tickled him with his beard?  

Because here’s a truth, miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be.  


What was it like for Mary and the strangers from the East to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a cellular level, sharing in a reality nobody else on earth yet sees, representing to each other by their presence that this really is realGod has really come; the world is being redeemed.  This wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the people gathered around Jesus wondering together who God is, and watching together what ,God is up to. But also, maybe, getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?


And then after the long visit, and the dreamt warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem to return home by another road - (Oh, wasn’t Herod steaming mad when then never swung back by the palace! Didn’t he pace on his balcony with his eyes on the horizon day after day, the realization slowing dawning after one week, two, three, that they were NOT coming back, and there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it!) - Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turns back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might return to normal: normal is redefined again. 

Epiphany keeps going, you see.  It doesn’t actually let you turn back. 

By its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.


The new road is revealed when, three years after the one who told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams, saying, Take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.  And it’s your turn, Joseph, to be the strangers from a foreign land.

God-with-us, who was born in a stable is now transient and homeless, and you along with him, foreigners in a foreign land.  


Some traditions hold that the little family settled in Egypt with the Ishmaelites, that they were received warmly by the way other side of the family tree, way back before Egypt became the land of captivity, the place from which Yahweh delivered the Israelites from slavery, back from the time when it was all the same trunk, the roots, the beginning. Father Abraham - father of us all, descendants as numerous as the stars.


It’s like baby God is on a sightseeing tour of the greatest hits. 

I have been at this project for quite some time, you see…


So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are all part of the whole great story anyway, while back home among the children of Israel, the so-called “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear ordered the deaths of all male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.


Then it was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’


And I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us, coming as a homeless, transient peasant child, whose identity is revealed to nameless sheep-herders and pagan foreigners and NOT to the powers that be, no matter how loudly they rattle their sabers and fiercely they demand to be in on the secret, and also that as sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project. And while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily, and every single day God-with-us is with us, transforming our shared life, bringing belonging and hope, redemptive kindness and healing care, and continuing to break through the darkness with light, every moment of every day.

After Herod’s death the little family finally journeys to Galilee, where they settle down at home amid grandparents and lifelong neighbors, to raise their first-grader in Nazareth, where he will run through the same streets, swim in the same streams, sit in the same school and participate in the same synagogue they did, in the tiny familiar world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.  


How was little Jesus shaped by those early wanderings, I wonder? 

What did he absorb from the Magi and the Egyptians, from the journeys and the dreams, and then from those who shaped his sense of home?  How did Epiphany bend his path?


And what about those Magi? The journeyers, soul friends and miracle sharers who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves?  What became of their lives after their encounter with the light of the world? How were they drawn into a lifetime of attunement to epiphany?


Epiphany keeps going, friends. The light of the world shimmers in our very own lives. And nobody gets to own this story – this story holds us all. It can’t be domesticated. What God is doing is always bigger, always more, always beyond us, and also right here next to us, in the minutia of our very ordinary lives. It pierces the darkness, the horrors, the loneliness, the wandering. It shares the awkward and unknown, the familiar and the comforting, the strange and the new, the death and the life, drawing us out into worlds we can’t imagine, bringing us home by roads we can’t foresee. 


Today we get star words. They are not magic. But they are a chance to lift our heads and look beyond ourselves with hearts open to however Christ might encounter us, attentive to wherever God might lead us this year. God is with us, transforming the world. 

So, arise, shine, beloved, your light has come. 

Happy Epiphany.



The Context of the Meal

  Matthew 14:13-21 Besides the Resurrection, the Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle that appears in all four gospels; it’s a s...