Friday, March 31, 2017

the prayer of laughter...

From the time he was born, my grandson and I have been laughing and loving one another in a profound way.
At his first Christmas, at a mere three months old, we discovered a belly-laughing connection that continues to the present moment.
For the next three and a half years, whether good times or bad - in both sickness and in health - I have sensed a shared blessing whenever we can laugh together. That is why while in Brooklyn during our most recent visit, his abiding laughter brought both a sigh of relief for all of us who love him as will as a hint of normalcy once this ordeal is done. 
One of my dearest friends, Martha - my English professor during my first year in college and a source of wisdom in absentia for a decades after - expressed the depth of the love we know in laughter in a prayer she offered for us all earlier in the week:
Holy One of Healing, you have one of your very precious sons in your particular care now. Please hold Louie close and keep his family and friends and nurses and doctors -- all his caregivers -- in your purview. We hold each of them in prayer as each longs for health for this babe in the woods. Remind his mom and dad and his grand grandparents that they are not alone in their worry and wonder over his illness, that they are part of a great circle of prayer. Give them hope. Give them refreshment. Give them succor and release from fretting as they give you their hearts. Thank you, Jesus.
Many other friends, colleagues and church members have likewise been compassionate and prayerful, too.  I spent much of this day going through my pictures of my little man. It was yet another way of holding him close in prayer. And now I hear tell that he did some good walking today. 
Thank you to all who have been a part of my circle of prayer. Thank you to his profoundly dedicated and wise medical team. And thanks be to God for sharing with me the joy of this sacred child.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

all theology is autobiography...

This insight from Frederick Buechner gets it right for me:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once. What happened once may be no more than a child falling sick, a thunderstorm, a dream, and yet it made for the face and inside the face a difference which no theology can ever entirely convey or entirely conceal. But for the theologian, it would seem, what happened once, the experience of flesh and blood that may lie at the root of the idea, never appears substantial enough to verify the idea, or at least by his nature the theologian chooses to set forth the idea in another language and to argue for its validity on another basis, and thus between the idea and the experience a great deal intervenes. But there is another class of men—at their best they are poets, at their worst artful dodgers—for whom the idea and the experience, the idea and the image, remain inseparable, and it is somewhere in this class that I belong. That is to say, I cannot talk about God or sin or grace, for example, without at the same time talking about those parts of my own experience where these ideas became compelling and real.



Over the years I have come to see that Scripture, doctrine and all of the written prayers and songs of the faith are simulacrum: creative and loving attempts to put words to an experience with the Sacred. Some words get it better than others. St. Paul, for instance, honors experience before doctrine when he observes in Romans that: the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. The gospel from St. John for the fifth Sunday of Lent is similarly poetic and evocative about the tears and love Jesus shared with his friends. It is not, however,merely  literal or linear when the story tells us that after "Jesus wept" he raised Lazarus from the grave. Rather, it is about remaining in union with God's loving grace in life, in death and life beyond death. 

Interestingly, the Lord's tears are not loud wails nor torrents of grief. Those self-centered expressed cause Jesus to huff and become frustrated with those around him. No, Christ's tears are prayers both for the agony of his beloved friends and in anticipation of his own suffering. Praying through our tears has been a constant for me of late. Buechner comprehends this truth  when he advises us to:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

The heart of my message this Sunday will be grounded in this listening: as we prepare to enter into the close of a Holy Lent we must all listen to our lives! 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

softly and tenderly...

It is my conviction that we are all born with an organic preference when it comes to prayer. Not necessarily liturgical prayer or even organized religious prayer. Just spontaneously connecting our flesh to that grace that is greater than ourselves. Sometimes it sounds to me like laughter, other times song or music. Some people pray by touch, some clearly pray with their minds and words. And then there are those like me who pray spontaneously with our eyes. 

I am a secular/sacred monk who mostly weeps my prayers. I weep for joy as well as sorrow. I shed tears in ecstasy and agony, in the presence of profound beauty as well as in the reality of brutal oppression and injustice. I cry at "chick flicks" and documentaries, music that moves my soul as well as the pain that wounds those I love. Fr. Ed Hays turned me on to the idea of praying "all ways" not simply always:  with my flesh, my taste, my ears, my heart, my mind as well as my eyes and tears. It doesn't come as a great surprise to me that Jesus wept, too. And while that may be the Bible's shortest sentence, it rings true over and again in my experience.

This weekend has been saturated in tears and prayers as we held precious Louie up to God's love, his doctor's care and his beloved parents' intuitive wisdom and extraordinary compassion. When I first heard of his life-threatening illness on Friday, I couldn't breathe. It felt like my stomach would turn in a second's notice. Over and again I had to tell myself: inhale, man, breathe. Then the tears arrived - not in raging torrents - but in a relentless wave of grief and fear that washed over me without apparent logic. Everything ached. By Saturday, I was so ungrounded that I reached out to my dearest and most trusted friends, family and colleagues to beg for prayer: prayers for Louie's healing, prayers for his parents' strength and prayers for my sanity. I was unhinged and raw.

And oh the prayers my loved ones shared with me. I felt them come in a rush at first and then in a quiet stream of healing throughout the day. There were prayers of beautiful words and prayers of agonizing solidarity. There were simple affirmations of God's love and quiet reminders of the bonds we all shared. And they awakened me - once again - to that great cloud of witnesses here and beyond who intercede for us with sighs too deep for human words. I have known tragedy and crushing sorrow before. But I have never personally experienced the power of prayer like this. Ever. And now Louie appears to be mending. We travel to NYC in the morning to be with him and his parents for a short time. Perhaps we will head back at week's end to help out if that would be useful. 

So often I preach and teach about the power of prayer. I trust it. I often meditate. I study. I pray through music. And I pray for those in my flock - even those I don't really like but lift to God and God's love. Yesterday and today I felt the prayers of those who pray, too. I am humbled and knocked on my ass in gratitude. Indeed, as one of my favorite hymns reminds: "Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home, softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling..." We were given a prayer blanket after worship today to bring to Louie and that too was a prayer - a prayer of presence, a prayer of affirmation and a prayer of encouragement - I can't wait to wrap my little man up in all those prayers tomorrow as the new day dawns.

Friday, March 24, 2017

fearfully and wonderfully made...

In a recent meditation posted on Henri Nouwen's "reflections" site, the late theologian-pastor wrote:

"Know yourself" is good advice. But to know ourselves doesn't mean to analyze ourselves. Sometimes we want to know ourselves as if we were machines that could be taken apart and put back together at will. At certain critical times in our lives it might be helpful to explore in some detail the events that led us to our crises, but we make a mistake when we think that we can ever completely understand ourselves and explain the full meaning of our lives to others. Solitude, silence, and prayer are often the best ways to self-knowledge. Not because they offer solutions for the complexity of our lives but because they bring us in touch with our sacred center, where God dwells. That sacred center may not be analyzed. It is the place of adoration, thanksgiving, and praise.

There is mystery to each of us - beautiful, complicated, challenging and even sometimes troubling mystery - that we can never fully comprehend. Psalm 139 gets it right: I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

In a few moments we are off to feast with loved ones and then take in the mysterious and moving music of Ms. Lisa Fischer and Le Grand Baton. We saw their eclectic blend of world, pop, jazz, rock and gospel music two years ago at the Ottawa Jazz Festival and have been enthralled ever since. Being in their company nourishes part of my soul in ways that are still unnameable even after all these years. Give your soul a treat and take a listen to this transformation of "Gimme Shelter" by the Stones. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

taking brueggemann seriously: listening to the conversations of exile...

"It is abundantly and unmistakably
clear," writes Walter Brueggemann in an essay entitled, "Four Indispensable
"Four Conversations among Exiles" in the anthology Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope that "we are in a deep dislocation in our society that touches every aspect of our lives." This is a time of "deep displacement and perhaps transition" although no one can yet see what will replace the status quo. Such is the curious challenge within the charism of exile: Life must change, new social relations must arise and hearts must be cleansed - yet all we experience is emptiness.

Brueggemann asserts that emptiness is essential for grief - and grief is necessary to receive God's gift of hope in our suffering by the gift of the Spirit - and hope will emerge when the time is right. St. Paul synthesized this wisdom in Romans 5: 3-5: That is why we can boast in our sufferings for we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  Hope is not of our own making, but a gift from beyond - from the Divine - that most of us only recognize when we have been emptied. Brueggemann describes our current emptiness with clarity: 

The old certitudes are less certain; the old privileges are under powerful challenge; the old dominations are increasingly ineffective and we seem not to be so clearly in charge; the old institutions (governmental, educational, judicial, medical) seem less and less to deliver what is intended and long counted upon; and the old social fabrics of neighborliness are eroded into selfishness, fear, anger and greed. It is equally evident that this massive dislocation... touches the church... with great confusion about authority... bewilderment about our mission... and questions of institutional survival and budget anxieties.

This rings true for me whether I am watching hearings concerning acts of collusion with our enemies at the national level or wrestling through an operating budget at church council:  anxiety, fear and confusion have become normative. To which the good professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary suggests a renewal of our "peculiar role and responsibility in the midst of relocation including: paying attention to our memory as God's people, remembering the ancient miracles of our history, speaking with courage in our own cadences rather than accenting everyone else's language, recalling that our old seasons of hurt were never the end of the story, and insisting upon trusting God more than self.

To do this, Brueggemann offers us a contemporary conversation with four voices from ancient Israel's time of exile that all take issue with our current denial and despair.  For those unfamiliar with ancient Israel's exile, he notes:

The community of ancient Israel, by its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of YHWH, and its resolve to act against neighborliness, brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 BCE. In that year:  the beloved temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the cherished city was burned, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and made fugitives, public life came to and end (and this end included) the end of privilege, the end of certitude, the end of domination, the end of viable public institutions and the end of a sustaining social fabric... It was the end of life with God which Israel had taken for granted.

As a result, the best and the brightest found themselves in exile by the waters of Babylon without ways to sing the Lord's song.  A faithful imagination ached to be reborn, but could not without first embracing an emptiness within a critical season of introspection guided by grief. From within this experience, Brueggemann suggests four clues about how we might faithfully respond our own dislocation.

"The first speech practice I mention that the community of loss and hope knows about is the practice of honesty, sadness, rage, anger and loss." We, like our spiritual ancestors, know something about this for "our current cultural loss is immense... shaking the privilege of whites and males and their various entourages." Like ancient Israel, there is enormous rage in our land that is palpable. Think of the so-called "Make America Great Again" campaign, the "school to prison" pipeline, the vitriol over reproductive rights for women, the mean-spirited "Bernie Bro" rants on the Left as well as the terror within the immigrant and LGBTQ communities. There is an anger towards one another in America that is alive in ways we can no longer ignore.

Instead of letting our rage and indignation at loss take us down the path of brutality, however, we might follow Israel's road by addressing our grief and rage to God. The poets of the exile direct their agony and anguish towards God as Psalm 137: 9 shows:  "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks!" God, after all, is a part of this dislocation. God has been directing the exile. So why not give God our rage, fear, tears and shame? 

The bitterness (of exilic poetry) sounds like a litany familiar in our society that continues to indict humanists, Muslims, homosexuals (and people of color) only now it is addressed to the God from whom no secret can be hidden. The utterance is not merely catharsis, though it is that. It is also a practice of prayer that is honest and courageous. These speech practices offer an opportunity for brutalizing loss to be turned into an act of faith that may in turn issue into positive energy... they provide a way to do something with our brutalizing rage at loss so that it does not escalate into antineighborly hurt.

The first conversation turns our legitimate anger and anxiety away from others - especially the most vulnerable or misunderstood - and lays it at the feet of the Lord. In this we de-escalate our inclination towards violence. The second sacred conversation moves towards "order and holiness" as found in the Priestly tradition of ancient Israel. "This language is markedly absent of shrill moralisms (and) insists that in the confusion, when old patterns of meaning are destroyed, one may resort to liturgical construals of ordered holiness."  We 21st century relativists with a post-modern aesthetic, studiously avoid the call to holiness, but ancient Israel's priests "say it right out loud without embarrassment:  I am the Lord your God: sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy..." 

In response to the crisis of displacement, Leviticus advocates stringent notions of holiness. And (while) we likely would not want to follow all of their concreteness about purity and th shunning of defilement... (we could learn something important) from their sacramental imagination that undertook a reordering and recovery of... their communion with God... The beginning point for holiness that recovers and reorders life is indeed Sabbath - holy time - not legalism and blue laws, but also not frantic, feverish, self-indulgent entertainment. The priests envision, in heaven as on earth, a restfulness that makes neighborly communication possible, apart from the impositions of production and consumption. Sacramentalism is a cogent alternative to despair, an awareness that even here and even now, God's demanding and assuring presence pertains.

It is no accident that the opening order of a bountiful creativity in Genesis 1 hails from the exile. There is order and grace, purpose and abundance, all of which culminates in the Sabbath and an important second conversation. "The third speech practice that this community of abuse and selfishness knows about is the practice of imagining a neighborly transformation" of the world. Here, "Deuteronomy emerges as a primary document for exiles."

Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to look out only for number one, to flee the hard places of community formation for the sake of private well-being. One can see that among us; public responsibility is on the wane while even the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate. Against such an inclination, the tradition of Deuteronomy relentless things of society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and conduct and policies that enhance neigjhborliness. 

Not only does the Decalogue now contain language about remembering our own time of suffering and dislocation when we consider how to live with our neighbors, but it offers what Brueggemann calls "the most astonishing commandment in the Bible."  Jubilee:  "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts... do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You shall rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." 

Here is the essence of the upside-down wisdom of gospel:  when our feelings call for hardness, God's love calls us into tenderness. When our desire is for revenge, our heart requires forgiveness. When our resources seem limited and we're inclined to hoard, this is the time when sharing is essential.  And "when we are nervous and anxious, there is a temptation to gouge the neighbor, especially the economically vulnerable neighbor. This core tradition of the Bible, however, sees our dislocation as a time in which to regroup and reorder public policy for the sake of all the members of society." It is our season to cherish vulnerability and oppose social amnesia.  As the health care battle rages on amidst punitive and mean-spirited budget conversation, the way of Deuteronomy and Jubilee cry out for a fresh hearing. 

And the fourth conversation needed at this hour comes from the prophets who sing songs of new life springing up from places of death. Brueggemann correctly celebrates the stunning wisdom of II Isaiah, chapters 40-55 in particular. Here "are the most vigorous, most daring, most imaginative of all the voices of faith in exile, offering in the midst of the suffering and despair of his people a voice for radical new possibility."

In the sixth century, Isaiah says: "You shall go out in joy, you shall come home in peace..." You shall come out from under the lying denial and killing despair of dominant values. And while most refused this offer, some took a chance on the poetry.

And so four conversations that bring perspective and antidote to our current dislocation. I hear this voice in the Reverend Barber in North Carolina and his movement of Moral Mondays. I hear it in the findings of judges who shut down the Muslim ban. I heard it in the Women's March and the Four Freedoms local movement. And I hear it beyond the confines of my own faith tradition. I believe the Sikh prophet, Valarie Kaur, is showing us how to speak to one another in this hour. For she sees this time not as one of death, but rather birth pangs of a new compassion. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

getting serious about Brueggemann...

Last night, after a day of blessing upon blessing, I read this insight in Walter Brueggemann's Truth Speaks to Power: the Countercultural Nature of Scripture.  He is explaining how irony plays an interpretive role in the Bible that helps the reader experience truths greater than the official words. In the stories of Solomon, for example, while popular wisdom and institutional parsing have encouraged a sentimental notion of ancient Israel's king as one guided by God's grace and wisdom, the deeper story is more troubling.  Solomon's rule was actually founded upon acts of deception, waves of violence and collusion with Pharaoh.

We are put on notice at the outset that Solomon's regime will be marked by ambiguity. Early in the story we have it affirmed that "Solomon loved the Lord," that is, that he committed himself to the Torah covenant with YHWH; but we also read that Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter. The later report means that he married into and committed to the mode of exploitative rule and abusive economics that Israel had already experienced from Pharaoh long before. The narrative proceeds without comment but no doubt with full awareness of the fact that Solomon's twin commitments - at the same time to YHWH and the pharaonic rule - are contradictory and mutually exclusive... we may say that the pharaonic marriage is the epitome of power and that love of YHWH is the dimension of truth in his narrative.

In a word, Brother Brueggemann is telling us that we must embrace the whole story in our appreciation of the official histories of ancient Israel lest we miss the irony that speaks truth to power. He continues with what I find to be an essential insight for this moment in the American story:  "Over time Solomon gave himself increasingly to the practice of pharaonic power."

The cry of the pharaonic system, already in Exodus 5, is MORE: more bricks, more labor, more exploitation of labor, all in response to the nightmare of scarcity. Now it appears, Solomon is like his father-in-law and like his pharaonic wife in pursuit of more. Thus the story of Solomon's reign is the story of accumulation, for raw and unrestrained power is always in the service of more, regardless of the political or economic system that is said to prevail. This drive for more is rooted in anxiety.   

It is the polar opposite of the peace that passes understanding. It is the antithesis of Sabbath. It is the enemy of faith (read: trust) that God's love is sufficient. I know that when I am consumed with anxiety personally I become obsessive about work - or love - or acquiring more free time as an antidote to my undefined fears.  It never works, of course, but my default response is to become frantic in pursuit of more boundaries and distractions rather than enter the still, quiet grace of the Lord that is my only true peace.

I see this at work in the larger body politic, too where American anxieties about a changing world and economy are addressed not through careful engagement with others or a focused and studied commitment to strengthening trust between neighbors. But rather by feverishly grabbing for more money for armaments, more taxes for a wall across the Mexican border, more fear-mongering against Muslims and more hyperbole about enemies than wisdom, rest or insight. It is as if the pharaonic curse of Solomon has been reborn in the current administration as our all too anxious citizenry invites its imposition. Now, as in the narrative of ancient Israel, Brueggemann encourages us to let the irony of the text inform our understanding when he asks us to recall that:

... peasants never gloat about the amassed property of their overlord, for they know that such surplus wealth is a product of their own unrewarded labor. It is more likely, for that reason, that what may appear on the surface (of the story) to be gloating over Solomon's success should be taken ironically. Such irony was designed to expose the extravagant self-indulgence of the royal entourage that is quiet inappropriate in the midst of peasant realism. 

After sifting through the campaign propaganda to "make America great again," after acknowledging the bullying of the press by this regime's mean-spirited spin doctors, after factoring in all the lies under oath and fake news stories created to disguise the "Emperor has no clothes," and after comparing the details of the emerging policies of our elected charlatan in chief with his rhetoric - think the replacement of the ACA or a budget outline that shamelessly posits $143 million to maintain one child's private school voucher while dismantling Meals on Wheels, NPR, the National Endowment of the Arts and so much more - I can only conclude that pharaoh has been reincarnated and come home to roost. The only short term good news in this bitter truth is that more and more Americans are coming to the same conclusion:  only 24% of Americans support his health care fiasco and 63% of US citizens support an investigation into his collusion with Russia. (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/donald-trump/)

Consider, therefore, an alternative to pharaonic rule and ideology as expressed in this prayer-poem by Brueggemann:  "On Generosity." We're only approaching Lent IV, I know, but keep this close as we move through the season of the desert on the way to Easter, ok?

On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around

we are going to run short
of money
of love
of grades
of publications
of sex
of beer
of members
of years
of life

we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbours goods
because there is not enough to go around

and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come
you come giving bread in the wilderness
you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles
you come giving futures to the shut down
you come giving easter joy to the dead
you come – fleshed in Jesus.

and we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing

we watch
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbours who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.

It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy
blessing upon blessing.

Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,
without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness….
all things Easter new…..
all around us, toward us and
by us

all things Easter new.

Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

at the close of a sweet and satisfying day...

To everything there is a season, yes? Well, once again, I've sensed it is time to clean up the way this blog site looks:  I want more simplicity and more beauty. There was a time for dark, brooding colors and wild graphics, but now I'm in a different place. I need something with clean lines and less clutter.  This is a decent start - but there is more to come.

My friend Carol from seminary and beyond posted this poem by Mary Oliver today. It rings true.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

worship notes: lent III...

Introduction
Lent invites us into a counter-cultural journey – and way of being – that is
beyond anything we have known or can imagine. It prods and cajoles, lures and challenges us personally and as a faith community to step outside of our well-defined, one dimensional technological certitude so that we may be embraced by the realm of God’s grace. To use the words of Professor Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament master extradinaire, Lent leads us towards the irascible God of the Bible who cannot and will not be controlled, limited, superficially defined or reduced to the lowest common denominator of an increasingly dumbed-down culture. Christians, like ancient Israel facing exile in Babylon, are implored to remember and renew their commitment to live as a peculiar people in the midst of those who have accommodated their hearts and minds and habits to the “normalcy of deathliness.” Bruegge-mann writes that ours is a journey at odds with our culture. The Jewish imagination, which informed the way of Jesus, instructed faithful men and women of the Old Testament in the practice of God’s peculiarity that was always at odds and at risk from the empires of greed and violence. “Over time, Jews devised signals to give shape and form to God’s oddity – Sabbath, kosher, circumcision.”

In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is equally peculiar and particular because Christians are always to be odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations who are always at odd, always at risk, always in the presence of large culture empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling the girls and boys we are different because we have been with Jesus. We are to be forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through both the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday. For we, like Jews, have devised our own signals of oddity: the notice of new life where once only death prevailed, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness – and the neighbor, always the neighbor – who is for us a signal of the love of God.
(Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, pp. 9-10)

The first task of the preacher, therefore, must be the maintenance and nurture of our oddity – and that is always troublesome. As Brueggemann goes on to confess: “In the Christian West the baptized community is now in something like ancient Israel’s exile, a place I characterize as hostile or indifferent to our primal faith claims. We are in our own Babylon… where many find it too complicated and expensive to maintain our peculiar identity.” That is why Christians return once every year to Lent: I’ve been seduced and confused about the ways of the Lord just as you have, too.

To get back to the costly peculiarities of our calling, we practice a Holy Lent. We walk with Jesus from the Mountain of Transfiguration down into the Valley of the Shadow of death on the way to center of power in Jerusalem and the Cross. Each step along this way – each Sunday of this season and the subsequent ordinary days of the week – is designed to help us renew our oddity and return more fully to God’s grace.

The Sunday before Ash Wednesday tells a story about listening to Jesus: at the close of the lesson we hear the words, “This is my Beloved… listen to him.” Ash Wednesday speaks to us of practicing a peculiar form of listening – waiting on the Lord in private and public prayer – from the Old French preir meaning to “ask.” On the third Sunday we heard of Nicodemus who wanted to trust Jesus but was afraid and kept his faith hidden in the shadows of night: that’s sometimes true for us too when we’re confused or troubled and feel like we’ve been trapped in the darkness. But at the end of the story, Nicodemus is given the courage to join others as they bury the Lord with tenderness telling us that night is not forever for a light shines in the darkness that will not be overcome.

Now, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we have the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at the well. This one holds personal joy for me – and I’ll mention the specifics in a moment – but it is also wildly peculiar and liberating in ways that you may find surprising. I know that as I studied this text last week yet another layer of grace was revealed. So, let’s first wrestle with the Gospel through the discipline of Lent and then connect it to how our United Church of Christ confession celebrates that “Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself” helps us reclaim our Christian oddity for this generation. (For those who are counting, that’s two broad points with three amplifications…)

Insights
The three insights about the gospel that I think warrant some conversation
are: first, the significance of Jesus being in conversation with a Samaritan woman; second, that this conversation takes place in day light rather than night; and third, that even though tradition links this woman to some type of sexual sin, there’s no evidence of it in the story. Rather, this is much more about an unlikely person gaining insight than having to repent. It is a story of joy. We start with why Jesus finds himself in Samaria and why this has symbolic value. John’s gospel states that Jesus was headed back to Galilee from Jerusalem (in the south of ancient Israel) and had to travel north through Samaria.

One of the two major roads into Northern Israel forked in the city of Sychor, once known as Schechem, and led directly to Nazareth so it was natural to take this route. Just as we would choose to get to Lee by heading down 7 rather than going first to Great Barrington and cutting back, so too with Jesus. But Sychor was part of Samaria and there was tension between Judeans and Samaritans: what do you remember about the origins this problem? We know from the parable of the Good Samaritan that something outrageous happened, but what do you recall about why?

As you might imagine the origins of the animosity between Jews and Samaritans are contested. In Jewish biblical commentary we’re told that “Samaritans are descendants of two distinct groups: the remnant of the ten tribes associated with the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel who were deported when the North was conquered in 722 BCE, and foreign colonists from Babylonia and Media brought in by the Assyrian conquerors of this region. Tension between the Samaritans and the Jews who returned from their exile in Babylon (200 years later) was created in part by the Samaritans opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.” (The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 165) Christian commentators are less nuanced: both sides mistrusted one another for inter-related reasons. Jews in the south denigrated Samaritans because they had intermarried with non-Jews during the time of their conquest and set up a center for worship on Mt. Gerizim not Jerusalem. Samaritans, in turn, believed that they held some spiritual authenticity over Jews for while they may have intermarried with foreigners and added new rituals to the old ways, some of them had always remained in the Promised Land without being driven into the shame of exile.

Do you grasp the problem? Both peoples are related, both traditions have connections to the land and the faith; both sides were equally compromised yet thought that they alone held a monopoly on virtue while their opponents were riddled with impurity. Think contemporary Palestine and Israel or Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Peace Accords. I heard one of the leaders of the peace movement in Northern Ireland, Padraig O’Tuana of the Corrymeela Community, last week on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” radio program. It has been his life work to bring a just peace to his home and his people – both Catholic and Protestant – without sentimental-izing or demonizing one or the other. He notes that it takes time, patience and proximity for people to find peace with those they have been trained to hate. Not agreement, for even lovers disagree, but rather a careful listening and a cautious trust that refuses to demonize the other. “Peace in the real world,” he observes involves: committed guarantees to the other’s safety.

So that’s the first insight: Jesus is in Samaria – a place riddled with
tensions, history and hatred and seems to be there to make peace. And he does this through a conversation and a drink out in the open with a Samaritan woman: that is the second insight. Some commentators suggest that unrelated men and women in that culture rarely interacted in public; some early Jewish Pharisees even insisted that a Samaritan woman was consigned to perpetual impurity. She wasn’t damned – that would be too strong – just unfit for community life. Yet there’s Jesus sitting by a well, a place usually inhabited by women, and it could even be Jacob’s Well as the Jewish patriarchs once lived in that place, and he’s having a chat with an outsider. What’s more, he asks the woman if he might share her drinking utensil because he is thirsty. Did you get that? Share her drinking cup? It would appear that Jesus is disregarding any traditional division between Jews and Samaritans and wants to share a common cup with like he was part of her family. The gospel is giving us clues and this shared drinking utensil in broad daylight is a biggest one. So what strikes you about this ministry of peace-making through a shared drink?

This story is full of surprises and my favorite is that nowhere does Jesus speak to this woman about sin, adultery or prostitution as so many sermons have proclaimed. Bible scholar, David Lohse, hits a home run when he writes:

This story that has been notoriously misinterpreted, in part because we read it in isolation of the rest of John’s gospel and in part because of the Church’s history of bad treatment of women. I don’t think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I don’t think that she has a shady past and I don’t think Jesus has to forgive her.
Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance, but to life-giving faith – and here’s why. This story stands in contrast to last week’s tale of Nicodemus, who only ventures out in the night, a symbol of disbelief. He wrestles for years with what to do next before responding to God’s love with tender joy. This woman does just the opposite: she listens, she “sees” or believes in the daylight and trusts that Jesus is a prophet going beyond the outmoded boundaries of either Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem. She responds by leaving “behind her ordinary tasks and life (symbolized by her water jar) to share the extraordinary news of the one who sees us truly and deeply (“he told me everything I have done”), who loves us just as we are and commissions us to share this blessing with others.
 (Lohse, Working Preacher)

Now this wouldn’t be obvious if we didn’t already know the other part of the story – hence the role of the preacher – so let me be explicit: Not only does this unnamed Samaritan woman stand in contrast to Nicodemus, but she acts in ways that are consistent with other followers of Jesus: Think of Andrew, who after responding to Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” goes and tells his brother Peter they have found the Messiah (1:39-42). The pattern is repeated in Philip’s invitation to Nathanael to come and see (1:45-46). And this nameless woman not only shares the same insight and activity as Jesus’ principle disciples… (she does them better) because where they each told one other person, she tells all her neighbors! (Lohse, ibid)

Conclusion

In the tradition of the United Church of Christ we like to say – in fact we formally confess in our Statement of Faith – that God has come to us in Jesus Christ and shared our common lot. God has joined our lives as one who knows our pains and joys and realities. God has conquered sin and death so that nothing can separate us from the love of God and one another. And when we know this – when we experience this and trust this – we are compelled to share it. And because I have experienced this blessing from the very core of my being, I find that just like that Samaritan woman at the well, I have been set free for joy by Jesus.

Some of you will remember my story about the first time I went to confession, right? I was in Cleveland as a young urban preacher. I had gone through a complex and messy divorce. And I was wondering what the devil God had in store for me next? After a meeting, a friend of mine said, “Maybe you might want to join me over at Father Jim O’Donnell’s Oasis House on Thursday night for Eucharist? You might like it.” In time, I went – and I did like it – and got to talking with Fr. Jim who also helped me deepen my prayer.

After about two years, I told Jim I’d been moved by a book on retreat about a man who found himself unburdened after years of suffering when he made a confession to an Episcopalian priest. Jim smiled and said, “Maybe it’s time for you to make a confession?” I protested that I was a Protestant and didn’t do that stuff so he said, “Ok, take your time but it is almost Lent and might be useful.” Mostly to appease him, I begrudgingly agreed and made an appointment. But when the day came, it totally slipped my mind and I had to call him and ask for forgiveness. To my horror Jim didn’t scold me, he simply asked for another appointment. I agreed but two weeks later came down with some psycho-somatic, stomach bug and cancelled again. Over the phone, Jim just said, “Lumsden, no problem, just remember: you can run but you can’t hide… I’ll be waiting.”

And wait he did – for another four weeks -- until I finally got the courage to
reschedule and show up. We sat in a small room on the East Side of Cleveland, not far from the King-Kennedy projects. Face-to-face Fr. Jim explained that confession is saying out loud to another person what we need to say to God. It is like the fourth step in AA. AT first, I stammered and putzed around saying some stupid and trivial things until all of a sudden the flood gates opened and all the hurtful, shameful, ugly and vile things I had ever thought or done came pouring out of me like a torrent. I couldn’t look up I was so disgusted with myself. Eventually, in what felt like an hour, I peeked and Jim was still sitting there looking at me through kind eyes. He took my hands and said the sweetest words I have ever heard: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. He made the sign of the Cross on my forehead and I wept again – but this time filled with a lightness that made me want to dance.

In fact, I jumped up ready to go I was so filled gratitude only to hear him say: And now for your penance. “Oh my God,” I gasped, “I’m a Protestant and we don’t DO penance.” “You do now, man,” he said, “and what I ask of you is what Jesus asked of the woman at the well: Go and do likewise.” I didn’t remember the details of that story so Jim told me, “Go and find out.” Which I did, discovering that Jesus hadn’t judged her either – he trusted and loved her and listened to her as she opened her heart to him – and the only thing that was asked in return was that she share the joy she knew with others. That was my gift, my penance, my calling: to share joy. Beloved in Christ, it doesn’t get ANY better than that. For this is the good news for us today and every day. Go and do likewise.

credits:
1) The Samaritan Woman at the Well, He Qi
2) Woman at the Well ii (Hyatt Moore)
3) valeriesjodin.com
4) ... Christ and the Samaritan woman
5) Img_1802_small

Saturday, March 18, 2017

brueggemann, exile and waiting upon the Lord in our generation...

Throughout the past three decades I have heard a soft but growing litany of lament throughout the post-industrial Western society. I have not always grasped what the Spirit has been saying to the world. Yet I've felt its truth whenever our collective pain exploded into popular consciousness: think NWA "Straight Outta Compton" in 1986 or Lou Reed's "New York" three years later on the Left; take another listen to Toby Keith, Ted Nugent or Hank, Jr's "Country Folk Will Survive" from the 90s on the Right. After the initial fury loses its novelty, our collective hurt, confusion, anxiety and anger is carefully ignored with new celebrity scandals or the tragedy of the week on 24-7 cable news. But it has been percolating since Nixon harnessed the fears of the so-called Silent Majority in 1968 and the Reagan Democrats jumped ship twenty years later. Our current reality has been a long time in coming. Indeed, it has been a constant throughout my entire professional ministry.

Enter the challenging insights of Old Testament theologian and scholar,
Walter Brueggemann. In his analysis, ancient Israel's exile is the key to understanding the Hebrew Bible as canon. Their loss of power, tradition, wealth and faith in 587 BCE when Jerusalem was decimated,the First Temple destroyed and the elite taken into captivity in Babylon, defines the message of the Lord.  The covenant with God's chosen was clearly conditional: the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had been a gift that would remain a treasured possession only as long as its people practiced
compassion and neighborliness. 

Over the next week, I want to share some of Brueggemann's arguments re: the parallels between ancient Israel's exile and our current political chaos. This is our season for grieving. This is a time for honest confession, too so that we name and claim our complicity in one another's suffering. It is a time of shared loss into which the Lord may pour a redemptive future.
But only when we are empty enough to hold God's new vision given in God's own time. To shout this is the era when we can make America great again is a lie:  before our new social consensus is born, we must learn to avoid both denial and despair.  Brother Brueggemann puts it brilliantly in his essay, Four Indispensable Conversations among Exiles" in Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope, p. 59-61

It is abundantly and unmistakably clear that we are in a deep dislocation in our society that touches every aspect of our lives. It is in any case a deep displacement and perhaps a transition, though none of us can yet see the completion...

+ The old certitudes are less certain.
+ The old privileges are under powerful challenge.
+ The old dominations are increasingly ineffective and we seem not to be so clearly in charge.
+ The old institutions (governmental, educational, judicial, medical) see less and less to deliver what is intended and long counted upon.
+The old social fabrics of neighborliness are eroded into selfishness, fear, anger and agree...

An Old Testament teacher, when thinking about dislocation, moves by "dynamic analogy" to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Old Testament... Not to overstate, (the exile) was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted... and out of the traditions of this exile, I want to suggest four ways of speech and for dimensions of faithful imagination that the church can offer and practice as antidotes to denial and despair.

I trust that Brueggemann is on to something of value for people of faith at this junction in time.  I hope you will take a few minutes to join me over the coming days - and share your thoughts, insights and reactions. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

long way down...

Dianne has a great ear for new tunes. She is always on the alert for emo, trip-hop and industrial groove songs that cut deep. Last night we heard Tom Odell's "Long Way Down" and it totally grabbed her attention - and thus mine, too.


For the past few years I haven't taken in a lot of new music. Mostly its been wood shedding on the upright bass for me and learning the ways of jazz.  Maybe it has something to do with the dawning of spring - or semi-retirement - or just a new groove. Whatever it is, I find myself yearning for a variety of new songs in my life. I've got to keep up my practice of the standards and I'll always be fascinated by the play of the bebop masters. But I hear Cinematic Orchestra is back out on tour with their electronica meets hip hop sound. And we're taking in Lisa Fischer next Friday with her stellar Grand Baton Band.

Take Gorillaz, for example. It seems I've been doing too much church stuff to get down with these cats - and it is my loss in spades. Check out the fun poppin' on this track.

Same goes for Hugo's remix of Jay Z's "99 Problems."  I'm not a fan or supporter of gratuitous ugly language about women. Like some of the old school hip hop artists say: "these days the industry is filled with dumb 
misogynists talkin' trash as they chase the money." So it is with a ton of qualifications that I find myself enjoying this foray into "gangsta bluegrass" - but I do. (NOTE: For those not taking in the hip hop masters, please know that this is waay less offensive and less challenging than Jay Z's original. Still, to be forewarned is to be forearmed...)


And lest there be any confusion, consider Beyounce's masterpiece: "Lemonade." She gives us a Black, womanist wall of songs in a visual album that is every bit as powerful - and significantly more redemptive - than most her male competitors. If you saw her at this year's Grammy Awards, you saw a staggering Earth Mother of strength, integrity, sensuality and compassion.  

More and more I am convinced that old Walter Brueggemann is right: we are entering into a time of religious, political and cultural exile that holds the possibility of new life. If, of course, we grieve and open our hearts and minds to the sacred imagination. As I listen to the new music all around me I am starting to hear something of the Lord's voice calling us beyond the fear into the beloved community.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

isn't it a pity...

Today was a shambles - and to paraphrase Fr. Thomas Keating, "I had a number of chances to practice being at peace and I blew them all!" Like I've noted before, "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug" and I felt smashed around and smooshed today in spades. It was a wake-up call. Thankfully, by day's end, I was beginning to listen. 

Partially I am grief-stricken over the cruel and blatantly racist words and policies raining down on the world from the throne of 45. Today's budget proposal was insult upon injury for the poor, the vulnerable and the wounded within and among us all. There is a nasty resurgence of some inner demons that need some extra love and prayer these days.  And I am anxious for the well-being of loved one, too. A perfect storm for getting caught up in the no-good, low-down blues... just as our Lenten journey predicts, yes?  Those freakin' temptations of the desert: they're always lurking, aren't they, and never far from the surface?

Well, now it is time to quit shaming myself, take stock of the love that is greater than my hurts and get back to trusting God's grace more than my failures come the morning. Really, twelve hours of a pity party is more than enough for any pilgrim.  B.B. King got it right when he said something like, "Playing the blues when you're feeling the blues is one of the best ways to move beyond the blues God ever created!" And that's the gospel truth. Thank you, Nina Simone, for your wise and healing gift in this cover of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity?" 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

paradox: presence and powerlessness in god's grace...

Today the snow continues to fall - and blow - but with much less ferocity than yesterday. Today there is snow to shovel, music to practice and errands to mind. This break is well-received. I awoke to a Taize chant slowly bringing clarity to my day:  "O Lord, hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer:  when I call, answer me." Then I read the daily Henri Nouwen reflection for the day:

Being with a friend in great pain is not easy. It makes us uncomfortable. We do not know what to do or what to say, and we worry about how to respond to what we hear. Our temptation is to say things that come more out of our own fear than out of our care for the person in pain. Sometimes we say things like "Well, you're doing a lot better than yesterday," or "You will soon be your old self again," or "I'm sure you will get over this." But often we know that what we're saying is not true, and our friends know it too. We do not have to play games with each other. We can simply say: "I am your friend, I am happy to be with you." We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say: "You don't have to talk. Just close your eyes. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you."

During a recent introduction to lay visitation at our church, I mentioned that our newly emerging ministry would be an exercise is powerlessness, presence and tenderness.  The word powerlessness made some uncomfortable. "Our presence carries great power" they suggested, "what we are doing matters." No question that a ministry of presence has real significance.  No doubt that a disciplined commitment to tender listening touches the heart of those in need. And yet I have come to trust that our presence and tenderness have no value if we think we are the gift.  It is God's loving guidance that calls us into this ministry - and it is only God's grace that sustains us. We cannot - and must not - try to do this all on our own steam.  In a word, we are powerless.

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities, observes that without a grounding in God's compassion - and without a reliance on God's presence in those we are loving - a ministry of visitation and presence quickly descends into acts of obligation. He notes the difference in the care people with intellectual and physical challenges receive in an institution versus a community of compassion. The vulnerable often are reduced to problems. They are seen as "other" who must be attended to as quickly and impersonally as possible so that other "problems" can be addressed. That is one concern. The other is that we can convince ourselves of our own nobility in reaching out to those who suffer. But as Cesar Chavez said on so many occasions, unless our destiny is tied to another's, bourgeois "helpers" soon become bored, distracted or exhausted. We are genuinely powerless and dependent on God's guidance and presence if compassion is our goal.

The fascinating and sacred paradox of this powerlessness, however, is that when we own and accept our reliance upon God - and sense God's loving presence in the person we are visiting - then we start to be nourished and fed. We find ourselves getting much more than we give and receiving far more than we share. And this mutuality of trust creates a blessing that can help sustain us in the most trying times. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

blinding snow and freezing fog...

The snow is no longer blinding. Now it is simply relentless. There appears to be about 16" of on the ground and we are currently surrounded by "freezing fog." Lucie is "wild" with anticipation - a true snow hound - as she prances around the house trying to elicit a trip outdoors. Good luck for this is a day to stay inside and stay warm. I have needed to work quietly on various Holy Week details - and some mission outreach follow-up - but all from the comfort of a warm blanket in my own study. Life is good.

Last night, after a productive and upbeat church council meeting, I needed to go to the grocery store. It looked like an out-take from "Walking Dead" as the shelves and produce bins were stripped bare. Clearly, we had been invaded by zombies of ever size, race, age and gender. By the time I had stocked up my supplies, and waited in a line five deep, I looked up to see a bewildered and wearied young clerk. Ahead of me were two surly zombies with tons of coupons and precious little patience or humor. They grunted and barked to no one in particular as our clerk soldiered on as best he could until, breathing an audible sigh of relief, they wandered off into the night. 

He and I briefly exchanged glances before I said, "You look exhausted man... been pretty wild?" All at once, his inner-zombie departed as he smiled saying, "See the end of that frozen food counter? That's how long this line was just an hour ago. And it's been like that all day."

I bagged my own pizza, bread, milk and veggies and heard a soft "Thanks brother." Then I discovered my ATM card had gone AWOL. But there was no way I was going to book and leave him after all this. So I found a credit card and made it right even as I puzzled to myself, "Where the hell did that thing go?" (It is still among the missing!) He smiled again tenderly as I left and said, "Thank you." I hoped he could get home before the blinding snow and freezing fog hit us hard.

Some days I remember that it is NOT all about me - and I am grateful that last night was one of those times.


Monday, March 13, 2017

happy birthday dear daughter...

Today I give thanks to God for the birth of my daughter and her powerful and loving life. Thirty eight years ago, after a San Francisco supper of cheese enchiladas and guacamole, she was born right on time. Two earth-mother midwives assisted us. And as she was entering the world, her sister, our pastor and his spouse arrived at the apartment from a baby shower thrown by our small Haight-Ashbury congregation. After our awe and gratitude, she nursed and went right to sleep. She brings blessings wherever she journeys and that makes today holy. Happy birthday dear daughter... 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

worship notes for lent II...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the second Sunday of Lent 2017. I am reflecting on both the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith as well as the Common Lectionary passages with special attention to St. John 3: 1-7.  After worship we held a "Called to Care" workshop for 15 lay leaders who want to participate in sharing love and compassion throughout the wider congregation. Blessing upon blessings...

Introduction
Reading the Bible out loud in community – and talking about it together – is

how public theology was meant to happen. There is always a place for the scholar’s study and the rabbi’s writing room – a quiet and secluded library for research and reflection is a beautiful gift for those of us called by the Lord to preach and teach – but our personal study and prayer must never trump our shared conversations, yes? The church – you and me and all believers in this realm and the next – are known as the Body of Christ, the community of faith, a diverse, inter- related gathering of unique and broken people sharing assorted gifts, idiosyncrasies, problems and blessings for the cause of Christ in our generation.

As St. Paul instructs: “There is one body, but many parts; one Lord but many gifts.” But let’s be clear that there is never anything romantic or sentimental about being a part of this community called the Body of Christ because most of the time the Church lives as the Crucified and Wounded Body of our Lord Jesus. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, a movement guided by the Sermon on the Mount, lives together with and serves people with intellectual challenges. And what he has learned about community is this: 

Too often contemporary people, who are discontent with the excess of Western individualism, speak of community in ‘endearing’ and even idealistic terms. The truth is much grittier for community is not about trying to live a shared ideal; rather, it is about learning the truth about oneself and others. Contrary to a frequent misreading… we are not an ideal gathering of morally exceptional people doing great things. No, we are ordinary people learning to be with each other and be accepted as who and what we are… and fundamentally this has to do with accepting brokenness and limitation in order to create the freedom of celebrating our differences in the grace of God.

Precisely what Jesus was trying to communicate in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells us that we will encounter the Kingdom of God only when we are “born from above.” Not by our own striving or work, not from our own strength and power, but by the love of God shared with us as a gift. Fred Craddock, the beloved Baptist preacher writes: In this passage, the church overhears Jesus tell a religious leader that the life abundant and eternal is a gift from above and is not attained by achievement, claim, or proof. Nothing could be more appropriate for Lent than a reminder that prayer and fasting do not earn us anything.

Insights
That is why I asked you last week if you could ever get you head around

speaking publically about being a disciple of Jesus rather than emphasizing your profession. We middle class liberals have constructed a strong sense of identity around what we have accomplished in our day – our jobs, our titles, our power and all the rest – without knowing how to connect it all back to Jesus and God’s grace. This is a widely different context and world view than the one of first century Palestine.

In Jesus’ day, you see, there was still power and prestige, there was ego and elitism as well as profound suffering and social stress, but it was not individualized. In that society, social scientists teach, status and honor were related to birth: you were born into your status and it stayed with you until you died. You were born into the ancient priesthood, you were born into the peasantry, you were born into the realm of Cesar and all the rest. 
So, to teach your followers that there could be a second birth – another birth that ascribed heaven’s value to you – was monumental albeit it baffling and incomprehensible. Biblical scholars, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh write: to be born from above” – that is, to be born of the sky, the realm of God – is to belong to that realm:

... to become a veritable child of God. This, of course, is to acquire an honor status of the very highest sort… whatever honor status a person might have in Israelite society, being born "from above" would re-create that person at a whole new level. Additionally, since all children of the same father share that father's honor status, differences in status among "the children of God" obviously disappear, except for the firstborn.

Jesus wants us to know that when God loves us, when God calls us together, it is a gift not the result of something we have created or earned. And, this sacred gift poured into our humanity makes us kin – family – sisters and brothers beyond race, gender, class and education. So let’s take a moment to talk about this together – let’s do some public theology right now – remembering that theology simply means interpreting theo and logos – words about God – into our context with love.

· What is this insight saying to you right now?

· How is this different from the popular description of what it means to be “born again?”

Let me share with you two other thoughts about this Gospel and then go on to ask your wisdom about three other insights in our United Church of Christ “statement of faith,” ok? 

+  First, what do we know about Nicodemus: who does he represent in the story? What does he tell us about God’s call in our lives? And what significance does his coming to Jesus in the dark suggest? Nicodemus is a symbol – as well as a person or character – in this story who realizes that something new is being born from within the ancient. In our tradition we like to say: there is always more light to be revealed than we can comprehend right now. And Nicodemus represents the way that God can change us over time because while he shows up at the start of John’s gospel, do you recall where else he is mentioned in this story? After the crucifixion, Nicodemus – the Pharisee – helps Joseph of Arimathea – another Pharisee – bury Jesus. Joseph is described as a disciple of Jesus albeit a quiet and even secret one which makes me wonder if the same wasn’t true for Nicodemus? My heart suggests that as he watched and listened to Jesus share love, God gave him a measure of grace, too.

+ Second, the word love in this text: “for God so loved the world…” Just as 21st century Western faith has privatized and sentimentalized much of the Gospel, first century Palestine did the opposite. Both love and hatred had social consequences in Christ’s day that were specifically connected to group orientation rather than personal affection. Bible scholars are clear, therefore, that to teach us that God so loved the world has nothing to do with an internal feeling and everything to do with an external commitment to care for, protect and cherish a group of people. John’s gospel is telling us that God has attached God’s self to the world – the whole family of humanity not just Christians or Jews but the entire cosmos as it says in John 3: 17 – for God’s essence has become flesh and intimate. Hatred meant aloof, distant, disconnected.

So what does this suggest to you? How does this shape your identity and connection to the world? Where do you see signs of God’s love or the absence of love, attachment and community? This Lent I have placed two hand-made posters on the wall above my computer in my study at home to guide and focus me on the challenge of God’s enfleshed loved. One comes from Barbara Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest who left parish ministry to become a teacher, and the other hails from Pope Francis. 

+ Taylor writes: What if church invited people to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if it blessed people for what they are doing in the world instead of chastening them for not doing more at church? What if the church's job were to convince people that God needs them working in the world more than God needs them sitting in the pews?

+ And my man Pope Francis writes: Do you want to fast this Lent? Then fast from hurting words and say kind ones. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope. Fast from worries and have trust in God. Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be prayerful. Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Both of these simple and faithful guides are clear that God’s love and

grace come to us as a gift: we cannot earn them and will never be able to purchase them. At the same time, however, we can cultivate the soil of our souls so that when the Spirit blows seeds of renewal and hope over our lives, we might be receptive to bearing fruit born from above. Helping us ready our hearts, minds, souls and lives for the blessings of grace is what our faith tradition strives to accomplish with these three key phrases from our Statement of Faith: 1) God creates people in God’s own image; 2) God judges people and nations by the righteousness shown by prophets and apostles; and 3) God has sent Jesus to us as a crucified and risen Savior to share our common lot.

· When you hear the words, “God creates people in God’s own image” what does that suggest to you about your role in the world? What bubbles up for you in knowing you were created in God’s image? What does that mean? Why does it matter? Can you make any connections with what I’ve shared with you about today’s gospel?

· Think now for a moment about what God’s prophets and apostles have shared with the world: what does that mean? Who were the prophets? The apostles? What did they do and communicate? How does that show us God’s judgment in history?

· And then that Christ Jesus comes to us as a crucified and risen Savior who has shared our common lot?
What does that evoke for you?

Conclusion
There is always much more to say about all of this, but that’s enough for today – with one closing comment – that connects us back to the importance of embracing Lent in community. If you were here last week you might recall that the opening story for Lent involves Jesus fasting and praying in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. When this cleansing was complete, Christ was confronted by three challenges, right? We call them temptations or even tests or trials.

Another of my Lenten buddies this year, the late Henri Nouwen, tells us that for our culture there is value in interpreting these temptations as the lure and seduction of “upward mobility.” Nouwen writes: Satan taunts Jesus with three demands that are all too common place:

· Be relevant: do something the world will praise you for like making bread out of stones. Be spectacular: jump from the tower so that everybody can see you as someone so influential, so important. Be powerful: kneel before me and I will give you dominion over everyone and everything.

· But Jesus said, "No." Because he knew that God's way is not to be relevant, or spectacular, or powerful. God's way is downward. "Blessed are the humble. Blessed are the poor of heart. Blessed are the peacemakers."

Here is a self-portrait of Jesus who is also a reflection of God. In traditional language, Nouwen speaks of God as the Father and quotes Jesus saying: "Who sees me, sees the Father." When we read the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, we are given an image of the face of Jesus, a face that reflects the love of the Lord. Humble. Poor. Meek. Peacemaker. Thirsting for justice and peace. Full of mercy. In this Jesus invites us into the down-ward mobility of God’s grace that sacred love might become flesh within and among us.

Brother Henri closes with a prayer that resonates with me now: Jesus, let me abandon my fear, embrace your love and be transformed by your grace. Amen.

  credits
1. Margueritte Elliott @ https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/for-god-so-loved-the-world-102896
2. Wendy McWilliams @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/328551735297654959/
3. Abstract @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/418623727834170396/
4> Wendy McWilliams @ https://www.pinterest.com/pin/328551735297654959/

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