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Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 6:26 pm on Sunday, May 28, 2017

Group hugA sermon delivered on May 28th, 2017 – Memorial Day weekend – based upon John 17:11; Acts 1:6-9; 1Peter 5:6-9.

Either explicitly or implicitly, all three of our scripture readings deal with the theme of anxiety.

In that upper room the night before Jesus died, the disciples were anxious about what would happen when Jesus is taken by death and all hell breaks loose.  In the story from Acts, Jesus is taking his leave once more, about to ascend to heaven, and the apostles want to know, “Jesus, are you going to bring your kingdom now, or do we have to continue to live in this broken violent world?”

Anxiety.  All of us struggle with anxiety, and yet there is an “Emperor’s New Clothes” quality to our experience of anxiety.  When we look at the people around us, it often doesn’t appear as though they are struggling with anxiety – they seem calm and collected. We conclude we must be the only ones feeling anxious, which makes the anxiety worse – an indication that there is something wrong with us.  So we share this charade of masking our anxiety.

So to begin, I want to be the little boy who cries, “The Emperor has no clothes!” and confess to you that anxiety is something I deal with a great deal of the time.  To a greater or lesser extent, daily, hourly.

But there is no shame in feeling anxious.  There could be some shame if we never felt anxiety, because scientists tell us the only people who don’t are sociopaths.

To be human is to feel anxiety.  It is part of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and here it is important to distinguish between fear and anxiety.  Like us, animals experience fear, which is located in the present moment.  There is that saber toothed tiger over there who wants to eat me, and my instinctual fear moves me to make an immediate decision to either flee or take up a stick and try to fight the tiger off.

But anxiety is less focused, and it’s not so much about the present as it is about the future.  It is about the threats that might be out there waiting for us in the future.

So we all struggle with anxiety, but there are good and bad ways to deal with it.

Peter is talking about the good way of dealing with anxiety when he says, “Cast all your anxiety on God.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Don’t have anxiety,” because that is impossible.  The question is how we respond to our anxiety.    And before I talk about what the good response would be, let’s talk about our most common response when anxiety arises within us.

One response is to anesthetize ourselves – the way of addiction – whether through alcohol or drugs or shopping overworking, we distract ourselves from addressing the anxiety that doesn’t going away – it simply get pushed down inside us.

But the more basic response to anxiety is to climb up on the bucking bronco of our imaginations, allowing it to take us for a wild ride.   We begin imagining all the possible scenarios of how things could go wrong in the future – running out of money, losing our job, our home – receiving a life-threatening diagnosis from the doctor – some rejection or abandonment – some harm to someone we love.  We obsess about all the worst possibilities.

There is a reason we do this, and it is the misguided notion that if we can anticipate something, then we can somehow head it off and keep it from happening.  In other words, we’re trying to gain a level of control where ultimately we aren’t in control.  Bad things will happen, and some of the worst are the ones we never imagine.   But we try to play God by letting our imagination run wild with our anxieties.  It renders us paralyzed – prisoners of our anxiety.

And two things happen:

First, we lose the present moment.  Lost in the future of “what ifs”, we don’t really live our lives, because life is really only lived in the present.

And second, we pull into ourselves.   We become self-absorbed, isolated.  Our own individual anxieties about the future seem like all we can deal with – there is no space left for others.

It is striking that our scripture lessons don’t say there is no danger out there.  Quite the contrary:  1Peter says, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”  And when Jesus prays for his disciples, he prays that the Father will “protect” them.

The scriptures are realistic about the dangers out there, but they make it clear that we miss the deeper danger.   Yes, we may lose our job, yes we will get sick and eventually die, yes, bad things will happen to people we love.  That is the way of life.   But these are not actually the worst danger.  The worst possibility is that the evil one gets a hold of us on the inside – the possibility that along the way we altogether harden our hearts and lose our capacity to love – which is what it means to lose our souls.

And connected to this is the temptation to try and go it alone.

Note, what it is Jesus specifically prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples:  “Protect them, that they may be one, as we are one.”  He prays that the same loving connection that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit will exist between Jesus’ followers.  He’s praying that we won’t try and go it alone — that we stick together through thick and thin.

So let’s turn now to the advice given by Peter: “Cast all your anxiety on (God), because he cares for you.”

Casting our anxiety on God is an intentional act, which requires that we recognize when anxiety arises within us.  That may seem like a no brainer, but the fact of the matter is that usually when anxiety arises within us, our imaginations take off running, and we never stop to think to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious.  I’m riding that wild horse again.”   We just ride it without thinking.

So Peter continues by write, “Discipline yourselves.  Keep alert.”  Keep alert so you can recognize anxiety when it occurs and name it as such. This requires discipline, which is to say it is a habit that needs to be developed over time through practice.  It means learning to say to ourselves, “I’m feeling anxious now.  How do I want to respond?”

And then comes the intentional act of giving our anxieties – our worries – to God, in prayer. Why?  “because God cares for you.”

When you get down to it, whether or not God cares for us is at the heart of our faith.  Either God exists and cares for us, or God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care for us, and if God doesn’t, we’re wasting our time here.  We gather here each week and say God does care.  But when the rubber hits the road, we are challenged to ask ourselves whether we really believe this or not.

I’m not saying this it is an easy thing to respond “yes” to this question, or that we can establish our confidence in God’s love for us once and for all, ridding ourselves forever of doubt.  What I am saying is that if we want to learn to tame the wild horse of our anxious imagination, reminding ourselves of what we profess to be true is helpful.

If God is for me, I can trust God to see me through whatever may come.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan appropriately regarding the problems we will face in the future, but it does mean we can get off that wild horse of obsessive anxiety knowing that even if we fail to plan properly, which will surely happen, God still has the capacity to see us through whatever will come.

After Peter talks about the evil one being like a roaring lion seeking to devour us, he goes on to write, “Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.”

In other words, we’re in this inherently anxiety-producing existence together.  As the saying goes, everybody you meet is carrying a heavy burden, even when it may not look like it. So don’t try to go it alone.  Quit pretending that the Emperor’s has fine clothes on when he’s stark naked.

Part of what the story of the ascension of Jesus means is that although he has left this world in his individual, bodily form, he hasn’t abandoned it.  He remains close at hand, and one of the primary places Jesus is to be found is in the church – the body of Christ – this motley crew of you and me who gather to share our burdens, encourage one another, and strengthen one another’s faith.

This being Memorial Day weekend, I wanted to finish by talking about Vice Admiral James Stockdale who was shot down over North Vietnam, and ended up spening eight long years as the senior office in the prison camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton”.  He was tortured fifteen times and kept in solitary confinement for four years.  He endured the sort of horror that most of us can’t imagine surviving, but Stockdale and others did survive, and he wrote about it.

At the Annual Conference, the Bishop made reference to Stockdale saying there were three types of prisoners.  First, there were those who began their imprisonment with an unrealistic hope. “Our fellow soldiers know we are here, and any day now they will come rescue us.”

Second, there were those who from the outset were overcome by just how dire the situation was, and gave up hope of ever getting out of there.

These two groups didn’t survive the prison camps.  They lost the will to live.

And finally there some who were realistic about what they were up against and yet who held onto hope.  “This is a very difficult situation.  We won’t be getting out of here soon.  But we will be, eventually.  In the meantime, we have to endure — we have to discipline ourselves.”

Before the Bishop spoke of Stockdale, I had read an account where he described a basic choice that prisoners were confronted with in the prisons: whether to do all they could to stay connected to their fellow Americans, or give up trying. The choice to give up was quite understandable.  In order to break the will of the prisoners, the guards intentionally set out to isolate the prisoners from one another.

Though housed in adjoining prison cells, the prisoners were not allowed to make any attempt to speak or communicate in any way with his fellow prisoners would result in taking them out to be tortured.  Those tortured would be compelled not only to make false statements used by the Vietcong for propaganda purposes.

So to avoid the horror of torture, the choice of for isolation was understandable.

Those who made the choice to stay connected developed an elaborate tapping system – a secret language of taps by which they could communicate with one another between cells.  There were serious dangers involved in participating in the tap code communication network, because if the guards caught them engaged in the tapping, they would be taken out and tortured, forcing them to not only make the false propaganda statements, but also to betray their fellow prisoners in regards to who else was participating in the communications.

This in turn what lead to a heavy load of guilt in regard to betraying their fellow prisoners of war.

What to do?  Stockdale said that for those intent on staying connected, the answer became obvious.  There could be no secrets between them.   Once they were returned to their cells, as soon as possible they would get back on the network, and through taps, confess what they had given up under torture.  And because they each knew first hand the horror of being tortured, absolution for their betrayals was given readily.

Stockdale writes:  “Anybody who has been there knows that a neighbor in the cell block becomes the most precious thing on earth, a soul who deserves your care and cooperation not matter what the risk.”  Asked, “What kept you going?”  The answer was simple:  “The man next door.”

“Protect them,” prayed Jesus, “that they may be one as we are one.”

To walk the way of Jesus is to turn to God and to our brothers and sisters in those times when anxiety arises within us, rather than chose the path of going it alone.  It is to be vulnerable with one another, acknowledging our anxieties and our frailties.  We are the body of Christ together.

When Mothers’ Day Is Hard

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:45 pm on Sunday, May 14, 2017

A sermon preached on May 14th — Mothers’ Day — based on John 14:1-3.


On Mothers’ Day, my usual strategy in my sermon is to make some passing reference to mothers, figuring that’s enough.  Generally I avoid devoting my whole sermon to motherhood, the reason being the subject is actually a very difficult one to address. But this morning I’m going to try to undertake the challenge.

The reason it is so difficult is that although all of us here have in common the fact that we each have a mother our relationships with our mothers vary dramatically.  We all come to Mothers’ Day from different experiences.  And therein lies the challenge.

Some of us have mothers who have been a consistent source of love and encouragement through the course of your lives, and this day what you’re feeling is gratitude for that mother, with plans for some sort of expression of that gratitude.  Some of us here today are mothers with appreciative families, so this is a day to enjoy because of some special treatment you have been — or will be given — before the day is through from children expressing their gratitude.

I could preach a sermon that simply sang the praises of motherhood, and that would probably work for those of you I’ve mentioned, but there are others of us here today who find painful feelings arising within on this day, and a sermon like that might not work for you – in fact it might leave you feeling worse than when you arrived here today.

There are various reasons for these darker feelings.

The first can simply be that for some of us — although we had mothers who loved us — they are no longer here on earth with us, and so while we feel gratitude for having had them in our lives, Mothers’ Day can be a day when our grief over their absence intensifies.

And some of you are mothers who like Mary the mother of Jesus have children who died way too early, and the day brings for you perhaps an even sharper form of grief.

I pray that this day you may hear the words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was getting ready to leave this world, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

All mothers are imperfect – sinners saved by grace, just like the rest of us.  Sometimes, for a whole host of reasons a mother’s capacity to love her children can be seriously broken.  For some of us, Mothers’ Day may be painful because it is a reminder of wounds received because of our mothers’ woundedness.

My mother grew up in Mississippi, the second of her mother’s two children.  Like all mothers, my grandmother is owed a debt of gratitude for undergoing what might be the most severe physical pain possible — that of giving birth – in order to bring my mother into this world, a pain we men, gratefully will never be called upon to endure.  As all mothers who raise their children, my mother’s mother surely expended an incredible amount of energy feeding and clothing her, caring for her when she was sick, teaching her to speak and all the other basics required for surviving in this world. And for all this, gratitude is indeed the appropriate response.

But along with these blessings there were wounds my grandmother inflicted as well.  In my mother’s eyes, her mother often seemed to radiate unhappiness. My mother’s older brother would grow up to be a doctor and in the eyes of their mother he could do no wrong.  But my mother was left constantly feeling as though she was somehow a disappointment to her mother, a cause of her unhappiness. Her mother would dress her up and curl her hair, looking for her to be charming like Shirley Temple — wanting her to “sparkle” is how my mother put it — but my mother, being shy by nature would demure and retreat, and so growing up it never seemed she could be “sparkily” enough to please her mother.

My mother’s father died suddenly while she was away at college.  My mother rushed home to find her mother completely devastated, unable to function, and though my mother was heartbroken herself, she felt she could not allow herself the luxury of grieving, feeling compelled to hold it together for the sake of her mother.

A week after her father’s death my mother returned to college, taking her mother with her.  She moved out of the dorms and rented an apartment off campus so that her grief-stricken mother could live with her and my mother could look after her.   And so for the next several years her mother leaned heavily upon her, and so when seven years after her father’s death my mother received a wedding proposal from my father, she accepted it in large part because it provided a way to distance herself from her mother. (The marriage unfortunately was never really a happy one and would last only eighteen years.)

Although now married, my grandmother continued to hover near, and when my mother gave birth to her first born – my brother – for over a week she was too sick to care for Mark, and so her mother moved in to do so.  During that time a bond formed between my grandmother and my brother that would in some ways undermine my mother’s relationship with her son for the rest of her life.  Looking back, my mother realized she allowed this to happen in part because of the ongoing need she felt to try and make her mother happy.

My mother died five years ago, and I’ve been missing her, for in spite of the wounds she bore, she loved me well, and understood me deeply.  She was a part time writer, and I spent time this week reading some of her poems.    I came across a poem she wrote that is addressed to her mother, who at the time of the writing had long since passed from this world.  It contains this poignant verse of longing:

Did your ears hear the secret song I used to sing when disappointment with me darkened up your face? ‘Oh, Mama, like me.  Say you want me.  Keep me safe.’

But the poem doesn’t end there, and before I get to how it ends, I want to consider a New Testament lesson that was assigned for this morning that I didn’t have Bob read.  It comes from the Book of Acts, and it describes the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

After preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the crowd rose up in anger and proceeded to stone him to death.  But before Stephen died, he gazed up into heaven and received the comfort of seeing Jesus himself and the very glory of God.  In his dying breaths — his life conformed to one for whom he has given his life — Stephen cries, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” referring to those who were taking his life  – words that echo words Jesus himself spoke on the cross,“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

One of the sayings that my wife Sarah often quotes from her mother is this:  “The first thing children need to do is forgive their parents.” Forgive them, because they really didn’t know what they were doing when they raised us.  Nobody gives you a manual to follow when you become a parent, and frankly, it is the hardest job in the world, and though we may set out to be the perfect parent (as I did) we invariably pass on some of our own wounds to our children without even realizing we’re doing it.

To return to my mother’s poem, it began with my mother talking about how when she was little she was terribly afraid of the dark, and when she would return home with her mother at night, she would cling to her mother as they walked from the carport to the house.  The fear of the dark was mixed in my mother’s mind with the fear of death.  And so even as she expressed her longing for her mother’s approval, she also pleas to her: Keep me safe.”

As the poem continues, my mother makes reference to some sort of momentary vision she received later in her life that reminded me a bit of the one given to Stephen.  She writes:

It’s almost half my lifetime since you’ve been gone.

Long since, the angels must have scrubbed that discontent clean off your face.

I glimpsed you once as you looked down on me through golden haze, approving of, delighting in that curled and costumed child who always balked and shrank and broke your heart by never being wonderful.

Since then I’m not so scared to walk in deepest dark, not since I’ve heard your ringing laughter from up there, not since I’ve seen your face shine down on me like God.

In the words Bob read for us, Jesus said to his disciples the night before his death, “Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.” It struck me in the words Jesus goes on to speak to his troubled and frightened disciples, he sounds rather like a mother.“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Preparing a place for someone, especially upon homecoming, is something in my experience that moms do.  Before Bobby comes home from college, Sarah spends significant time fixing up his room, making his bed just so — stuff like that.  Sometimes I say, “Why all the bother?  You know the room will just be a mess within a day.” And she will say, “I just want to make it nice for him.”

She wants him to feel welcomed home — like Jesus, preparing a place for his disciples in the household of God — that ultimate home we commonly refer to as “heaven”.

Because Christianity arose in a patriarchal society, God has traditionally been referred to as a Father.  But when Jesus spoke of God, the images he used were often ones that conveyed tender, nurturing care.   The point is simply that God is like a loving parent, and so God can just as easily be referred to as “Mother”.  Actually, Jesus spoke of calling God “Abba,” which means “Daddy,” so sometimes, when we need to – when we’re feeling afraid of the dark – if it feels right, go ahead and call God “Momma.”

When we move through the passageway that is death, all things are made new.  So we will get our Mommas back, and if our relationships with our mothers were troubled ones, know that these relationships are made new as well.  I think the glimpse given to my mother of her mother looking down on her from heaven was inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The “ringing laughter” she heard coming from what had been her often unhappy mother – the delight on the face of her mother at the sight of the daughter who had sometimes seemed to disappoint her – that was real.

In the end, love is the only thing that is eternal.  Everything else passes away.

Returning to Abundant Life — John 10:1-10

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:17 pm on Monday, May 8, 2017

A sermon preached on May 7th, 2017 – Good Shepherd Sunday – based upon John 10:1-10.


In the original New Testament they were no numbered chapters and verses, so it is easy to overlook the context in which Jesus spoke the words we just heard.  They serve as a commentary on the long healing story that occurs immediately before it in chapter nine.  You may remember this story.  We had fun acting it out about six weeks ago in worship. It involves a man born blind — played by Liz – who gets his eyesight restored by Jesus — played by Sabitha.

The story plays with the metaphor of sight and blindness.  While the man born blind is getting his eyesight back, there are others – the Pharisees – who claim they can see but who are, in fact, spiritually blind. 

In our little play, Greg, Steve and Marissa played these people.  They are so determined to see themselves as right that they have lost the capacity to truly recognize the wonder of what has happened:  a man born blind has been given his sight back, and the natural response would be to celebrate.  But something has gone terribly wrong with these guys, but they just can’t admit it.

In commenting on this story, Jesus say, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”

What does abundant life look like? The man who has been given back his sight is a good example. Not only has he been made whole physically, but in the course of the long story, he becomes spiritually whole as well.

He grows in strength as the story progresses, refusing to succumb to the pressure put on him by his community to deny the truth of what he has experienced — to live out their lie.  He clings to what he knows:  “I was blind, but now I see, and this guy Jesus is the one who made this happen.” And in the end Jesus comes to him, and the man bows down and worships him, standing in awe of Jesus and his great love.

So the character Liz played is an example of abundant life, but a more common place we can look to see what abundant life looks like – a place our eyes are irresistibly drawn to — is at a very young child. We can’t take our eyes off young children because there’s just so much life in them.

We were each created with abundant life – with a natural goodness – “in the image and likeness of God” is how the Bible puts it.  We come into this world with an innate sense of empathy and a capacity to connect — without prejudice, full of wonder and awe.

This is not to say we are all created exactly the same. We all have a unique self given to us by God, and that self is inherently good, and no two selves are precisely the same, but what we all do have in common is a God-given capacity for love and wonder.  We were created out of love, and at the deepest level of our being we are each of us, in our own utterly unique way an expression of God’s love.

But something happens as we grow up.  Over time we lose this “abundant life”.

To a greater or lesser extent, we lose our sense of wonder and we find ourselves often experiencing the miracle that is life as boring, tedious.  We lose our innate compassion and empathy — we take on prejudice and all manner of other things that get in the way of expressing the love that is within us.

In the symbolic story of our origins, we lose the Garden of Eden.  The power of sin and evil takes hold in our lives – the power that moves in the opposite direction of abundant life. It is this power that Jesus was referring to in today’s reading when he speaks of the thief who has come only “to steal and kill and destroy”. Instead of nurturing love, compassion, and wonder the thief promotes lies that do the very opposite.

How does this happen?  There is some mystery to this.  In part, we are given choices to make, and we choose wrongly. But like the serpent in the Garden, the “thief” is at work in this world encouraging us to make wrong choices.

We grow up in a sin-sick world that doesn’t value what God values – a world where human beings aren’t viewed as being of sacred worth, inherently worthy of love — instead placing greater value on success and money and power and status and “stuff” or the importance of being right.  When Jesus healed the man born blind, the sin sick Pharisees are so concerned with being right and morally superior that they can’t stand in awe and rejoice over the fact that this miracle of compassion and healing has occurred. Something is terribly broken inside them but they can’t admit it.

So, we grow up in a world of wounded people whose capacity for love is to some extent blocked, and we absorb their woundedness, becoming wounded ourselves.  We lose the fullness of abundant life that we once knew as little children.

The Road to Emmaus — Finding the Deeper Why

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:36 pm on Sunday, April 30, 2017

A sermon preached on April 30th, 2017 based upon Luke 24:13 – 35

Jeff and kids

The most heart wrenching line of the story we just heard is when the two disciples walking the road to Emmaus say to the stranger who came to walk beside them, “We had hoped…”  For many people, the sense of hopelessness expressed here often characterizes how they experience life these days.  The recent presidential election turned on the hopelessness felt by poor white folks who perceive little in the way of opportunities in the rust belt, which isn’t really much different from the hopelessness felt by poor blacks – especially poor black young men — in the inner city.

But you don’t have to live in the rust belt or the impoverished inner city to feel hopelessness.  Here in the relative comfort of suburban middle class community the stunning number of people dealing with life threatening opiate addictions can be seen as “the canary in the mine” alerting us to an epidemic of despair hidden beneath the surface.  I suspect most of us have, at times, known something of that same hopelessness.  Perhaps some of us feel it now.

A psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl wrote a book in the 1950s entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he challenged the prevailing psychoanalytic theories of Freud and others who came before him that claimed our deepest drives as human beings are for pleasure or for power. No, Frankl argued, our deepest drive is for a sense of meaning to our life.   He quoted the philosopher Nietzsche, “The person who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’.”  A why – a reason to live for, a purpose, a meaning.  Having a ‘why’ is directly related to having hope.  There is something I am living for that involves at least in part some hope for the future.

In the first half of our lives, the why of our life tends to revolve around ourselves.  Our purpose is to establish a place for ourselves in this world – to acquire an education, a vocation, a reputation, money, a home, a family, etc. — to acquire “happiness” in the usual sense of the word.   As time passes, we experience success or failure — or some combination of the two — in achieving our ‘why.’

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, “There are only two tragedies in life:  one is to not getting what one wants; the other is getting it.” The point being, if we manage to get what we set out to achieve early on in life, we discover, strangely, that it isn’t enough.  Like the 1969 Peggy Lee song we ask: “Is that all there is?”  An emptiness arises — the “why” for which we had been living isn’t deep enough to hold up as time passes.

Part of this disillusionment involves our inherent vulnerability in life.  To be human is to be fragile, and stuff inevitably happens along the way that breaks our heart, or scares the living day lights out of us.  In the light of such occurrences, we ask, “What does it matter to have been a success in acquiring the things of this world if experiences like this can rock the very foundation of my very existence?”

We live in a culture that gives little support for the quest for a deeper “why” – the deeper meaning.   The why of life is assumed to be what is usually understood to be the “American dream” – to achieve a greater level of economic prosperity than that of our parents.  When the possibility or even the probability of that occurring seems to be reduced, what then?  A deeper “why” must be found.

So either way, in success or in failure, the quest for a deeper meaning to life arises as times passes, but for some it can occur very early on in life.

It is a bit of a clique to say, “Life is a journey,” but it is true.  In the course of our lives we move somewhere.  Life isn’t stationary, static.  But when we speak of life being a journey, what matters is not where we get to in a geographical sense, or in the end, how successful we are at that first stage of  fulfilling the first “why.”  The thing that matters is 1) What happens inside us along the way.  What kind of person do we become?  Do we become more capable of loving? And 2) the impact that our lives have on other people.  Do we make a positive difference?

So the story this morning lends itself to the “life is a journey” metaphor, because at the start of the story the two disciples are quite literally setting off on a journey.  They are beginning a seven mile hike to a little village known as Emmaus.  At the outset of their journey they find themselves in this place of deep despair and hopelessness.  They don’t seem to have been two of “the twelve”; one is named “Cleopas”, a name we haven’t heard before.  The other, curiously is never named.  It is almost as if Luke is inviting us to place ourselves in the story as Cleopas’ unnamed companion.

There hopelessness has to do with the fact that they thought they had found “the why” to which the rest of their lives would be devoted: to follow Jesus, who they had hoped would redeem Israel, throw off the Roman oppressors, and cast out the corrupt religious authorities.  But instead he got nailed to a cross.

So now they seem to be all about escaping.  We are experts in escapism in this country; an endless assortment of ways to distract our attention.  They want to go off on their own and get away from the place where their hearts were broken.

A stranger comes walking alongside them, and we know the stranger is actually Jesus, but they don’t recognize him.  At first he seems almost irritating:  how could he have been in Jerusalem these past few days and not know what has taken place there?  The stranger listens for a time as they pour out their disappointment to him – how they had thought Jesus was the messiah – the savior — but now it is obvious that he wasn’t. There’s some confusion too:  some of the women had come back from the tomb with a story about a vision of angels, but you know how carried away women can get with their imaginations.

At this point the stranger breaks in with a bit of a rebuke for their failure to pay attention to their Bibles, and he proceeds to teach them the scriptures they thought they knew — how it all pointed to a messiah who would suffer like this.

This part of the story always confused me, because apart from a passage in Isaiah speaking of a “suffering servant,” there isn’t much that explicitly refers to a savior who comes to suffer and die.  A great New Testament scholar named NT Wright helped me here, pointing to the freedom with which God created us.  He suggests Jesus said something like this to the two: “All through the Scriptures God allows God’s people to get into a real mess – slavery, defeat, despair, exile in Babylon in order to do new things.  Isn’t that what the prophets and the psalms were about as well?  Passage after passage in which Israel is promised that God will rescue them from slavery and sin, and sometimes even from death – but first they must go through it enough to get to the other side. Well, supposing that’s what had to happen to the messiah as well?”

Slowly over the course of their walk with this stranger the two begin to consider the possibility that there was a meaning to what has happened after all.  Later they will describe it as “their hearts began to burn within them,” which is to say that the “why” to their lives began to arise once more within them, albeit in a fragile form.    The dark cloud of hopelessness began to lift a bit.

They reach Emmaus and the house in which the two disciples intend to stay the night.  The sun is setting, but the stranger appears quite ready to just keep on heading down the road.  He will continue unless they choose to take some initiative.

Interesting:  they have been blessed by grace in the form of this grace-filled stranger who has come to walk beside them, who through his bible instruction has brought light into their darkness.  They did nothing to orchestrate this visitation of grace.   It just fell in their lap, so to speak.  A gift.  But now the question arises of what will they do in response to this gift?  There is a choice to be made, and to choose not to choose is to choose, which is to say, to let the stranger just head on down the road without considering the possibility that they could invite him in, is, in itself, a choice.

What would have happened if they hadn’t invited him to stay the night with them?  In all likelihood, the possibility arising within their hearts that there was a deeper “why” that made sense of what had happened would have gradually faded away.

Fortunately, they make the right choice – they invite him in, which is not only the right, “hospitable” thing to do but also an expression of gratitude for the grace they have received.

Then, as they sit down to the table to share supper, the guest suddenly takes over the role of host, taking bread which he blesses, breaks and offers them to eat – and the familiarity of this action suddenly opens their eyes, and they recognize Jesus, and then — he vanishes.  He’s gone!  But in that moment the possibility that had been arising within their hearts is permanently confirmed.

The why they now hold as their reason for living  is a very deep one indeed, because it is one that is undeterred by suffering — in fact, suffering is strangely connected to this “why” since the one who they now know to be alive is the very one who suffered in love for them.Recall the words quoted by Viktor Frankl.  “The one who has a why to live can endure any how.” Immediately the two do something that just a few moments earlier would have seemed a very difficult thing to do indeed.  They get up and run seven miles in the dark (where bandits often lay in wait) in order to share what they have experienced to their brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem.

In the “life is a journey” metaphor, the two have come full circle.  They end up where they started, and yet they are all together different inside, and they have made a real difference in the lives of the others to whom they have brought words of great encouragement.

Viktor Frankl’s psycho-analytic theory centered on the belief that a human’s deepest need is for meaning, and that psychotherapy that ignores this quest isn’t getting at the most important thing, would probably have gotten largely ignored, and his book never would have sold millions of copies, except for the story behind the theory.

In 1942 Frankl was a successful, respected young psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria.  He had succeeded in a very big way in the first “why of life.”   His specialty had involved working with people in despair and hopelessness – people who felt an inclination to take their own life — and it was out of this work that he developed his theory about the search for meaning as the centerpiece of psychotherapeutic healing.

And then the Nazis arrested him and his whole family – his parents, wife, and children — and took them to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.   Because he was a bright and physically strong young man he was useful to the Nazis in their brutal labor camp, but his family wasn’t.  So upon arrival at the camp Viktor was separated from his family.  He knew their fate — that they were to be taken to the gas chambers.

Frankl had managed to bring with him his thesis manuscript — the book that represented his life’s work, containing the psychotherapeutic theory he had worked to hard to develop – but now the book was taken from him and burned. — the defining work of his life destroyed.  Everything was taken from him, his family, the identity and profession he had worked so hard to build.  His head was shaved and he was given prison clothes to wear – clothes worn by a previous inmate, recently sent to the gas chamber.

He was at the point of utter despair; how could he go on?  He put his hand in the pocket of the jacket he had been given to wear, and there he found a scrap of paper.  Upon examination he saw that it was a page ripped from a Jewish prayer book, left there by the previous Jew to wear those clothes.  It contained the prayer that is at the very heart of Judaism: “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.”

The scrap of paper in his pocket was a kind of grace that pointed the way to God, the very source of all real meaning.  It was a gift that demanded a response from him — hat he would embrace his life in the concentration camp as an opportunity to live out the truths about which he had written.

At the core of his philosophy was this central affirmation about human freedom:  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It is in embracing this freedom that meaning – the why of life – is found.  He marveled at those few prisoners who, in the harshest of conditions, chose to live a life of service – encouraging his fellow prisoners, sharing their last scrap of bread. They had found a deeper why to live for.  Others, however became all the more self-absorbed.  Frankl wrote, “In the concentration camps, in that living laboratory, we saw some of our comrades behaving like pigs and others behaving like saints. Both alternatives are hidden in a person; and which will be realized depends on decisions and not on conditions”.

He goes on to write, “Our generation is a realistic generation because we have learned what a human being really is. When all is said and done, man is that same creature who invented the gas-chambers of Auschwitz; but he is also that being who walked upright into those chambers with the prayer, “Here O Israel:  The Lord Our God The Lord Is One,” on his lips.

For Frankl, the mysterious discovery of the scrap of prayer left behind from the man who had gone to the gas chambers clinging in his heart to the to what the verse of scripture pointed to, was a gift of grace.  And he chose in his freedom, to respond to that grace.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus also were given such a grace – in the midst of the horror of what human beings are capable – the beloved Leader – nailed to the cross —  a stranger came alongside them, and in interpreting the Scriptures, gave them a new way of seeing their lives, a bit of hope.  And they said yes by inviting him into their homes, and then their hearts.

This is what I would leave you with.  Pay attention to the gifts of grace that fall unexpected in your lap.  They come in a myriad of forms, but however they come, they are a blessing.  And having taken note of this gifts of grace, consciously choose to say yes to this grace – to offer yourselves as an expression of God’s grace in this world to others.

We are about to sing the greatly popular hymn, “In the Garden.”  I have a love/hate relation to this hymn.  I love the tune – how easy it is to give yourself over to it in singing — and I enjoy the rich imagery.  But on the other hand, it has often struck me a little over the top in sentimentality.  I researched a little something about the author of the hymn.  His name is C. Austin Miles, and he was a druggist turned hymn writer from, of all places Pitman, New Jersey.  They hymn arose from a flight of imagination as he put himself back there at the garden of the tomb where Mary Magdalene came in her grief to be astonished by her risen Lord, calling her by name.  His granddaughter wrote that the song was written “in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in Pitman, New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden.”

For me, it is the final verse that redeems this hymn from sentimentality. “But He bids me go; through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” The song acknowledges the powerful voice of woe in this world – the pervasive sense of hopelessness – and yet asserts a voice calling through the woe – the voice of Jesus calling us to follow him, to find our meaning in serving him in every person we meet.

John 20:19 – 31 Holding On with the Help of Others Until We Can See the Big Picture

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:58 pm on Sunday, April 23, 2017

Jeff and Ryan

A sermon preached April 23rd, 2017 — the Second Sunday in Easter — based upon John 20:19 – 31.

I’ve mentioned in the past that one of my favorite authors is a wise old woman named Rachel Naomi Remen.  Rachel overcame a chronic illness — Crohn’s disease — that doctors told her would take her life by the age of  40.  She was determined to become a medical doctor, which she succeeded in becoming, but midway through her career, having become aware of what might be called the spiritual dimension of healing, she shifted her focus to counseling patients with life threatening disease, and working with doctors to recognize the mysterious dimensions of healing that aren’t given much attention in medical school.  She has written two books that are a collection of little stories with reflections that are some of my favorite books, and I want to begin this morning by telling a little story recorded in “Kitchen Table Wisdom” that was shared by a doctor she calls Tim at one of the conferences she holds for medical practitioners.

He said that his father had been diagnosed early on with Alzheimer’s disease, by early I mean when Tim was just a young boy.

Rachel writes, “Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable.  He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child.  As Tim and his brother grew older, they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household.  One Sunday, while she was out doing the shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair.  Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor.  Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong.  His color was gray and his breath uneven and rasping.  Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911.  Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted.  “Don’t call 911, son.  Tell your mother that I love her.  Tell her that I am all right.”  And Tim’s father died.

Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story.  “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly.  “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease.  For many years, I have asked, ‘Who spoke?’  I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook.  I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget.  Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”

I begin with this story because when we speak of the Resurrection, what we are speaking of is a mystery – not something that can be explained, only witnessed.

One of the peculiarities of the story we just heard is the mystery of Jesus’ resurrected body. He has a body that can be touched, and yet it is also a body that is capable, as apparently it did in this morning’s two appearances, of passing through walls.  At certain moments he is easily recognized, at others not so at first, as was the case last week in the story with Mary Magdalene.

In 1Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul speaks of this mystery when he writes of how in this life we possess a physical body, made of dust, subject to decay, but in death, our bodies are like seeds planted in the earth, which God raises up with new, spiritual bodies that are truly whole and can not die.

For the Jews from whom we inherit our faith, there is no true life except for “bodily” life.  The Jews in Jesus’ day seemed to have believed in what are referred to as “ghosts” – disembodied “spirits”— but from their point of view, being a “ghost” was a truly pathetic form of existence.  What kind of life is that?  To be alive is to have a body — one that can experience the goodness of creation.

Even the notion we are familiar with of the “immortal soul” made no sense to the Jews.  The “immortal soul” is a notion from Greek philosophy, not the ancient Hebrew faith.  To be alive, to be a person, was to inhabit a body.

It seems to me that the mysterious story that the doctor told of his father’s death points towards this mystery of what Paul called the “spiritual body.”  The story the doctor tells suggests that as his father came to the moment of his death, he was transitioning from his physical body with it’s decaying brain cells into his spiritual body, and it was his dad who had begun to inhabit his spiritual body that spoke to him — the dad that was finally being made truly whole — expressing his love for their mother, and his assurance that in death he truly was well.

I’ve heard other stories like this – and perhaps some of you could tell similar stories – of people holding vigil at the bedside of someone they love, when suddenly, just before the loved one died, they woke up from what had appeared to be a coma, opened their eyes, and with a lucidity they had not recently possessed spoke clearly, perhaps words expressing their love for you, or words describing what they were seeing from the realm of what we call “heaven”.

If you listen carefully to how John described Jesus’ appearance to those frightened disciples huddled together behind locked doors, there seems to be a moment of stunned silence when the disciples aren’t sure what it is they are seeing as Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”  Is this some kind of ghost?

So John adds this:  “After (Jesus) said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” It was as if Jesus were saying, “look – see — I really do have a body.  It’s really me, not just a ghost.”

One of the striking details of the story is that the marks of the crucifixion remain on the spiritual body of Jesus.  In showing them his hands and his side, he is showing the disciples (and later Thomas) the wounds where the nails pierced his hands, and the wound where the spear pierced his side.

This might seem odd – shouldn’t the resurrection body be whole, with all the wounds taken away?

And yet, in this case, the wounds have now become something beautiful.  Not only are they the proof that this is the same Jesus that they loved before — they are also signs of his love for them – reminders of his willingness to suffer and die on their behalf.

What was once horrific, has now become something beautiful.

So, for whatever reason, the disciple Thomas wasn’t present in that upper room when Jesus first appeared Easter night to his disciples.  The other disciples tell him what they have seen, but he won’t believe them, and who can blame him?

Thomas truly loved Jesus, and he is in the midst of what we might now call post traumatic stress disorder.  The horror of the wounds of Jesus that led to his death are still emblazoned in his mind, and it is going to take more than his friends telling him he no longer needs to be so traumatized for him to move from death to life.

Just a quick observation: there is room in the circle of the disciples’ fellowship for Thomas, even though he won’t believe what they believe.  They don’t tell him, “Oh, you won’t believe what we believe?  Then get out of here!”  No, he is fully welcomed in their fellowship.  They love him exactly where he is.  They don’t require him to be where they are on their journey.

Time passes.  Eight days.  Once more the disciples are together, and this time Thomas is with them.   And mysteriously Jesus appears once more to give Thomas what he needs – to move him from his state of trauma to the peace of faith.

One of my “go to” passages in the Bible is 1Corinthians 13, where the Apostle Paul talks about love being the most important thing — the only thing that never ends.  At the end of that chapter Paul writes these words:  “For we know only in part (that is in the present moment of this journey through life) but when the complete comes (that is, when we reach the end of our life) the partial will come to an end… For now we see in a mirror, dimly…” (In those days, mirrors weren’t what they are today.  They were just a polished piece of metal.  You looked into what they called mirrors and you could see only the dimmest reflection of your face) but then (again, when we reach the end of our lives and stand before God) we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

It is impossible to grasp the full meaning of our lives in any given moment along the way.  We cannot see “the big picture” – how the parts all fit together, like a tapestry of seemingly ill-fitting pieces which, when woven together create something extraordinarily beautiful.

When the other disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the Lord alive again, he isn’t there yet.  He sees not the “big picture,” but only the “smaller picture”, the one that begins and ends with the torture and death of the man he has loved and devoted his life to.

But sometimes in the course of our journey we reach a moment when we look back on where we’ve come from, and see a meaning we couldn’t grasp at the time.

(Another of Rachel’s stories that often refer to is of the middle aged woman who as a teenager had suffered through an eating disorder.  Little was understood in those days regarding this illness, and she remembers thinking that she wished she could meet someone who had gone through what she was suffering and made it to the other side.

She began attending a support group of mostly young, very thin women.  She said very little in the group, only that she had once suffered the same illness.  Mostly she just listened.  She was taken aback when at the end of a meeting a young woman came up to her with tears in her eyes and thanked her for being a part of the group.  She felt embarrassed – she didn’t even know the girl’s name and couldn’t remember having an individual interaction with her.  It was only later, with a profound sense of wonder that she realized:  “I have become the person I needed to meet.”

This past week I was given a moment to grasp something more of the big picture of my life.  I had the opportunity to go back to the place where I spent my first seven years in ministry after I graduated from seminary — two little country churches out in Hunterdon County. I was invited back by the family and the present pastor of a lovely woman named Ethel who had died after 95 years of life to share in the officiating of her funeral.

There had been a part of me that over the 28 years since I had left those churches that had been reluctant to return.  My seven years there were some of the most difficult of my life – not because of my congregations – but because of my own personal inner turmoil. When I arrived I had so wanted to feel like a real grown up, like I had it all together – but I didn’t have it all together, and often I felt like I was play acting – pretending to be what I thought a pastor was supposed to look like.

I’d never lived out in the country, and I arrived there single and quite lonely, and three years into my tenure my loneliness led me to enter an ill-conceived marriage after a courtship of just six month.  The whole community had gathered to pack one of the little country churches to celebrate the wedding.  Nineteen months after the wedding I was blessed by the birth of Andrew, my beloved first-born child, but just eight months after his birth my wife moved out of the parsonage, with the separation eventually leading to a divorce.

My parents had gotten divorced, and with some arrogance I had been determined that I would never do the same.  “Love… is not arrogant,” said the Apostle Paul, and I was humbled in my time out there in the country, and being humbled isn’t fun.

When the possibility arose in my mind that my marriage would end in divorce, the thought that arose alongside was that such an outcome would mean the end of my ministry — that it would expose me as a fraud and envelop me in shame.

For quite some time as my marriage deteriorated I had been quietly withdrawing from people.  But as the separation came to pass, people like Ethel reached out to me with unconditional love, and also practical help and support as I spent a great deal of time parenting my very young son, an exhausting and consuming task in itself.  I opened up to people, and loved in my brokenness, I experienced for the first time the true meaning of grace.

This is who you got 28 years ago when I arrived here.  I was grateful to move on – to start a new chapter so to speak.  And to a large extent I had avoided returning there, because I didn’t want to be reminded of the pain I experienced there.

As the years have passed, doubts I had about my vocation to be a pastor gave way to a deep sense of confidence as I grew into  my calling.  I am no longer a child trying to play a part, but a pastor with frailties easily acknowledged trusting in the power of God’s grace revealed in the crucified and risen Christ to work through my weaknesses.  I have become the pastor I needed when I was trying to play act the role of pastor.

So I spent Tuesday, which if you recall was an exquisitely beautiful day, back in the country community where I spent those painful seven years.  As I took in the beauty of the countryside, I also came to recognize something beautiful in the wounds I had endured in my time there. I saw a bit of the bigger picture of my life – the larger view that was pretty hard to see when I was back in the thick of it.   I sensed that as hard as that time was for me, it was an essential part of my journey; a time of humbling that allowed me to discover the true nature of my calling.

Sabitha interviewed Amy Gripp and I appreciated in the write up how Amy described my ministry.  “Jeff doesn’t preach at us; rather, he walks beside us.”  I like that. I know that my ministry is not based upon my somehow achieving a place above you on some moral ladder.  I am just another sinner, just like you, saved by grace. We’re in this together.

So we all know something of the crucifixion of Jesus in the crosses we are called to bear in this life, and hopefully, if we can hang in there, put one foot in front of another, walking by faith when we can’t see the signs of God’s grace, or letting others have faith for us when our faith seems to falters, we reach a day when we realize that it is the resurrection rather than the crucifixion that is the deeper reality.

John 20:1-19 It is in the Deep Darkness that Resurrection Occurs

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:15 pm on Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jeff and Good NewsA sermon preached on April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday – based upon John 20:1-19.

In the account of the first Easter that you just heard from John’s Gospel, there are three disciples who come to the tomb in the morning.  Mary Magdalene (and yes, Mary Magdalene was a disciple), Peter, and an unnamed third disciple, quote, “the one whom Jesus loved.”

I must admit, I find “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,” a little irritating. Didn’t Jesus love all his disciples?  Of course he did.

John’s Gospel is a truly profound witness to the good news, but even so, there is this favoritism that crops up from time to time regarding the so-called “beloved disciple”.  The reason — which the Gospel writer won’t come right out and say — is that the beloved disciple is John, and this Gospel arose out of the church associated with the Apostle John.  So there is a little PR work mixed in here, as in “we got the best Apostle around!”

This disciple can’t seem to do anything wrong.  He is there at the cross comforting Jesus’ mom when all the other male disciples have fled. In the story you just heard, this disciple comes running with Peter to check out the report of Mary – that the tomb is empty and Jesus’ body is gone — and of course we hear that this guy is a faster runner than Peter, so he gets to the tomb first.   Apparently he is younger than Peter and, out of respect for his elder – even his manners are impeccable! – he doesn’t enter, waiting instead for the older Peter to have the honor of being the first to enter.

Peter goes inside and John tells us what he saw.  Jesus’ body isn’t there, but the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped are, and the cloth that had covered his head is rolled up nicely and placed apart from the rest of the grave clothes.  Peter sees all this but it doesn’t seem to mean anything to him.

The other disciple who is not only Jesus’ favorite and a better runner than Peter (and probably better looking too) apparently is also a better Sherlock Holmes.  He takes one glance at the supposed crime scene and recognizes something odd.  If someone stole the body, why would they go to the trouble of leaving behind the grave clothes?  And why would they bother to roll the head cover up so nicely?

John tells us that this is all it takes for the “other” disciple to “believe.” We aren’t told exactly what he believes, but the impression we’re left with is that the first flowers of faith have begun popping up in the fertile soil of his heart.

Apparently he’s not just Jesus’ favorite – younger, faster, and smarter — but faith comes more easily to him as well.  It’s like he’s the teacher’s pet or something.  He can do no wrong.

There are some of you here today for whom faith comes easily.  You’ve never really been plagued by doubts.  In life, you naturally see the cup half full.  You wake up each morning sensing the presence of God.  You manage to keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side of life, even when it’s cloudy out.

Who knows, you might even be a fast runner.

We are very blessed to have you, because you make this church a lot brighter.

So maybe John is the guy you identify with in the story.

But I am personally grateful that the Gospel writer ultimately takes a lot more time with the other two characters, in large part because faith doesn’t come so easily for them.

There’s old Peter. Frankly, I identify more with Peter.   His frailty is familiar to me. (Earlier this week I had to do a little running in the first Old Guy Softball Game of the season and my legs hurt for three days afterwards.)

Peter’s far from perfect.  He’s so determined that he won’t desert Jesus, but he ends up doing so anyway, denying him three times when fear floods his heart.  (When Jesus got arrested, the “disciple who Jesus loved” fled just like all the rest of the male disciples, but we don’t get fair and balanced reporting on this particular fact.)

Peter has regrets. He knows the voice of self-condemnation.   Unlike, “the beloved disciple,” faith doesn’t seem to come so easily for Peter. We find him later that day in the very same upper room where Jesus had told him he would in fact deny him three times before that terrible night was through.  He’s huddled together with other male disciples, linked together not by a common faith but by mutual fear and self-condemnation, hiding behind locked doors.

We’ll return to Peter and the others in a little while, but first let’s consider the third character, Mary Magdalene.  She’s really the central character in this morning’s story (well, other than Jesus of course.) The Gospel takes some time and care in telling her Easter morning story.

The story begins, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” The other Gospels that tell the story have it begin as the first daylight breaks, but here the story begins in darkness, both literally and symbolically.

The other Gospels have Mary accompanied by other women; here, though she is all alone – again both literally and symbolically.  So alone – in such deep darkness.

And unlike the other Gospels where the women have come to the tomb with a job to do – to anoint the body of Jesus – here Mary seems to be just wandering around in the darkness, just trying to get close to Jesus’ lifeless body.

So Mary somehow arrives at the tomb and all she can really see in the dark is that the big stone that had sealed the tomb shut has been rolled away.  You and I know that this is in fact the first sign of the good news – but for Mary the conclusion she quickly draws is that this even more bad news.  Somebody has stolen Jesus’ body! – just another sign of the cruelty and callousness of this world.

Mary runs to tell the male disciples, which brings Peter and John running, with Mary in a daze, trailing behind.  The sun is up by the time they reach the tomb.  Peter and John go inside to investigate, after which they depart.

Mary is left there outside the tomb, lost, alone, crying — like an abandoned pup sticking close to the last place she saw her master.

For the first time Mary bends down to look inside.  And what does she see?  Two angels sitting there, where once Jesus’ body lay.  You might think that seeing angels would trigger a spark of wonder, at least some tiny bit of hope.

But the sight doesn’t penetrate the darkness at all.

To Mary, it’s like she’s arrived too late to the hospital room of her loved one, and her beloved, having already died — has been taken away — down into the bowels of the hospital, to a morgue somewhere, and the angels are to her nothing more than a couple of hospital orderlies changing the bed sheets.  She is fixated on the hard truth she thinks she knows, and in response to their question of why she is crying, she answers, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

She turns around.  There’s a man standing there.   Again you and I know it’s Jesus.  Shouldn’t this be the moment that the light breaks into the darkness?  He’s standing right there in front of her.

But Mary can’t recognize him, and her weeping does not abate.  She thinks he must be the gardener.  Jesus speaks to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”

Mary knows the sound of Jesus’ voice – she’s heard it many, many times before — shouldn’t this be enough to awaken her from the horrible nightmare she’s living?  No, it isn’t.  The dark abyss is just too deep.

Mary wants this stranger to give her directions to the morgue: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

This is crazy talk.  Even if she could manage to locate the lifeless body of her Lord, does she think she is going to carry him away, all by herself?  And to where, exactly?

John has conjured up a seriously deep darkness — one Mary on her own is helpless to penetrate.

Finally the one word is spoken that breaks through the darkness.  Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!” and in hearing her name spoken by the one who loves her more than any other, Mary steps from death to life.  “Rabbouni!” she cries, claiming her identity as a disciple of the Lord.

Jesus says to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ And so Mary runs off the proclaim the glad tidings, ‘I have seen the Lord!”

Mary, of all people, the one who had dwelt in such deep darkness becomes the first witness to the light of the resurrection – the first to testify the Good News – that Jesus and his love are more powerful that the powers of death and destruction.

It is with Mary that some of us here this morning will most readily identify with in the story.   You have known the deep darkness.  You’ve been there, maybe you’re there now.  This story is for you.

Curiously, it is when darkness returns later that evening, “on the first day of the week”, when Peter and other terrified disciples are huddled behind locked doors in darkness, that Jesus once more appears.  The locked doors can’t hold him out.  Suddenly he stands in the midst of them, saying, “Peace be with you.”

If we find ourselves at times walled in helplessly by a fear and despair we can’t escape, this story is for us.  It speaks of the power of God’s love to come to us in those places we feel powerless to escape.

Unlike our human love, God’s love can get to places we sometimes can’t reach — through locked doors and closed hearts, breathing peace and new life into frightened, paralyzed persons.

But here in the bright light of day – this beautiful Easter morning – let me say a good word about darkness.

We often overlook the fact that in all the Gospel accounts, the actual event is never described, by which I mean the resurrection itself.  We aren’t told of that moment when miraculously, Jesus’ dead body suddenly was filled once more with life – a life that cannot die.  It happens, unseen in the darkness of that tomb.

Consider some other places of darkness where mysteries of creation take place:

*the chrysalis, where the caterpillar retreats into darkness to be transformed into the beauty of a butterfly.

*a seed buried in the earth — one of Jesus’ favorite images – unseen in the darkness, where mysteriously it breaks open to sprout with the beginnings of a great harvest.

*the darkness of a womb – the place where each of us here today slowly grew towards that moment of our birth.

And consider the very first sentence of the Bible describing the first day of the week of creation itself – a sentence the Gospel writer intends to call to mind with his story of resurrection:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The first Creation came forth from darkness, and so does the new creation that is Easter morning.

So if you happen to find yourself in a time of darkness — take heart.  Christ has risen!  God is with you.  Darkness is where God gives birth to new life.

Maundy Thursday: We are Peter, We are Judas, We are Loved.

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 12:56 am on Saturday, April 15, 2017

A sermon given on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 based upon Matthew 26 and 27.

Re-reading the old, old story we will again hear tonight, certain things caught my attention.

The first thing I took notice of was of what directly precedes the words of the passion of Jesus:  his words regarding the dividing of the sheep and the goats — how the sheep are those who have served him in the least of his brothers and sisters – those whose lives are mangled by pain –  the lonely, the hungry, the thirsty the imprisoned.  Jesus meets us in every hurting human being.

The second was the absolute clarity Jesus had of how things will turn out in Jerusalem.  He has spoken of it clearly – at least three times in advance.   He will go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and rise on the third day at the hands of the religious authorities.  Challenge the powers in charge and you will pay a price.

That evil is very real, and we will hear again of evil planned in darkness, behind closed doors by respected upstanding citizens intent on holding on to the status quo.  That is the way of the world.

The world is held captive to evil forces, and yet, this world isn’t irredeemable, but redemption comes with a steep price.  Evil is not overcome with evil, but only with a love that is willing to suffer and die if necessary.  That is why Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

There is horror in this story — the extreme cruelty of those who conspire to have beaten, humiliated and Jesus nailed to the cross.

But the third thing that struck me is how disturbing is the behavior of the disciples in this story.  They who have been blessed to have had Jesus call them to be his disciples, who have had the benefit of two years of his personal tutelage – watching the life he lived, hearing the things he said, being loved by him – will show so clearly they have yet to understand “his way.”  This is so even though he has spoken clearly of the difficulty of his way right from the outset – in the sermon on the mount – when he spells it out.  “Love your enemies,” said Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you,” because God is love and God loves everybody – the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Two years of tutelage, and they still don’t give it.  Just before arriving in Jerusalem, they’re jockeying for position to have the highest seats in his kingdom.  They’re reaching upwards – Jesus is emptying himself, taking the form of a servant, even unto death on a cross.

They are in denial that Jesus really is going to die – tone deaf in the story we will hear of the open-hearted woman they lash out for being impractical – this woman who unlike themselves recognizes what is about to happen and is determined to anoint Jesus for his burial with expensive perfume.

Jesus knew them far better than they knew themselves, and he knows us too.  He announces at the end of the last supper that they will all desert him, and Peter takes this as an opportunity for a perverse kind of boast:  though these other fall desert, I will not desert you. But Jesus knows the frailty of Peter.  He knows our frailty too.

Shortly afterwards he asks them simply to stay awake – to keep him company in the hour of his great torment in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But even this they can’t to.  They fall asleep.    Perhaps we can remember similar times when we have failed to be there for a loved on in their hour of great darkness.

When the arrest comes, one of the disciples takes out a sword and cuts the ear off of some poor underling, the High Priest’s slave.   “Put away the sword,” he demands. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword”  He’s been saying this sort of thing all along, but it was as if they refused to take it in.

And of course there are Peter’s three denials that he ever knew Jesus.  Fear is a powerful thing.  It can make the best of us deny our ideals.  We are Peter.  We are the disciples who have been tutored by Jesus –many of us for years and years – but still his way seems strange to us.

And the fourth thing that struck me was the figure of Judas.  Why did he betray Jesus? We do not know.  He became enraged for some reason – a seething, quiet anger — and who among us has not had anger eclipse our love?   In the moment following our anger seemed so crucially important.  But the anger passes, and the recognition of the love returns, and with it, a deep regret for what we did in anger.

Jesus knows Judas has betrayed him – will betray him — and yet he doesn’t stop loving him.  He doesn’t kick Judas out of the fellowship of the communion table.  He serves Judas the bread that is his broken body — the wine that is his she blood – all for the sake of forgiveness.

Jesus predicts that that the time will come for Judas when it will seem better that he never was born, and sure enough, when Judas realizes what he has done, that he has set things in motion a series of events that will lead to Jesus’ torture and death, he remembers the love he has for the man, and is filled with deep despair – surely in agreement now that it would have been better if he had never been born.  And so utterly alone, filled with self-contempt, Judas takes his own life.

We have known something of such feelings, such darkness, such despair.  We are Judas.

And then this most amazing thing:  in the end, Jesus willingly  enters into the same space that Judas found himself in – utter isolation and abandonment, crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”

He dies for Judas, he dies for Peter, he dies for the authorities conspiring his death, for the soldiers mocking him, beating him, banging the nails into his hands.  He died for you and me, deeply flawed followers though we are. He considers us worthy to die for.

The world is full of evil and suffering, but the world is redeemable, and he invites us to pick ourselves back and try again to follow in his way for the redemption of this world God loves so.

John 11:1-44 Weeping at the Tomb Where Lazarus Was About to be Raised

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:45 pm on Monday, April 3, 2017


As I read this familiar story, there were a couple of peculiar things that caught my attention, and I’m not referring to the most peculiar thing of all, of course, which is that Jesus raised a man to life who had been dead and buried in a tomb for four days.  Let’s briefly review the story.

Jesus receives word from two sisters, Mary and Martha regarding the illness threatening the life of their brother Lazarus:  “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Later we hear that Jesus “loves” Mary and Martha as well.  We are not talking about love-your-neighbor-as-yourself love.  We’re talking about dear friends’ love – the love you feel for people you hold in your heart.

It is then that the first peculiar thing happens.  Jesus intentionally delays two days before beginning the trip to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. In the meantime Lazarus dies. If Jesus loved them so, why did he let Mary and Martha suffer this heart break?  Some have said that he knew the distance was too far for him to get there in time.  But back in chapter four Jesus healed a man’s son from a distance.  So he could have kept Lazarus from dying, and Mary from grieving, but he chose not to.

Finally Jesus arrives in Bethany.  Martha comes out to greet him.  She is broken-hearted, and angry too.  Why didn’t you get here quicker, Lord? Jesus says some comforting words – telling her to trust Him.  Martha goes and gets her sister Mary, who also comes to greet Jesus, and likewise sounds a little accusatorial: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And then this, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and (the others) also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Well, Jesus you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know they were going to grieve if you let their brother die!

But the second peculiar thing is this: “He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’  They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’  Jesus began to weep.” It’s peculiar because Jesus knows what he’s about to do – that he’s going to call out to Lazarus in a mighty voice and Lazarus is going to step forth from the tomb alive again.

John’s Gospel makes it very clear that Jesus is the one who has “come from heaven”, so he knows where Lazarus was before he called him back to life on this earth.  He knows how exquisitely beautiful it is there – how there’s nothing but love there.  So he isn’t doing this for Lazarus’ sake.  He’s doing it for the sake of Mary and Martha and the rest of us – that we might know that his power is stronger than the power of death.

So we are left with two truths that on the surface seem almost contradictory, but which have to be held together:  First, we need not fear death.  In this Gospel, Jesus is breaking death’s strangle hold on us.  The victory over death is being won. The second is this: we should nonetheless cry when someone we love has died.   Jesus wept.  We should too.  It hurts to lose somebody you love.

When someone we care about has their heart broken, we may be tempted to grab hold of the first truth and say, “Don’t cry!  Your loved one is in heaven!  It’s so beautiful there!  You will see her there!” That’s all true except the “Don’t cry” part.  And we shouldn’t say things that might get in the way of letting the tears flow.

If we are going to love the way Jesus loved, then we are going to have to be open to having our hearts broken.  That’s just the way it is.

Our faith revolves around two events:  the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  The second is ultimately triumphant, but in this world there is no getting around the crucifixion and the tears it evokes. We have to walk with Jesus through the darkness that leads to the cross.

Some of you know what I shared this week on the internet, and that was that on Monday as I was doing my first read-through of this passage on my phone – this story where Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” – my reading was suddenly interrupted by an incoming phone call.  It was Ginny Scalia, my across-the-street neighbor of 28 years calling to tell me that her husband Jimmy had died that morning.  I didn’t say much – not much more than the usual “I’m so sorry.”

It was only after I hung up that I made the connection between the passage I had been reading and the message I had just received.  I told Ginny this God-incidence a little later when I saw her and she was comforted by it, but it didn’t stop her tears, nor should it.  When someone we love dies, we should weep, because it hurts.

In the world to come all the tears are wiped away, but in this world our joy is mixed with sorrow, and there’s no getting around this.  The trick is to not miss the joy in the midst of the sorrow, because the joy is a sign of what’s to come.

A year ago this past Monday was Easter Sunday.  We had a glorious worship service celebrating the resurrection.  It was a beautiful day, and afterwards we all spilled out on the front lawn to watch the delight of our little kids searching for the eggs our youth had hidden.  It was then that I heard the heartbreaking news that had been rippling through certain members of our congregation – mostly parents of young children — that a beautiful little third grade girl from our local elementary school had suddenly died in the early morning hours.  A fast moving infection had been misdiagnosed at the emergency room, and unfortunately Ashley had been sent back home with her parents.  And there in the midst of Easter joy, hearts were breaking left and right.

Ashley Cistaro was the little girl’s name, and her parents and her big sister and many others wept many tears, and I’m sure they still do, probably on a daily basis. But they haven’t let their sorrow block out the joy.  They celebrated the joy that Ashley brought into the world by starting a “Love Like Ashley Memorial Fund.” The press release says that the fund will support “local, philanthropic causes that honor Ashley’s all-accepting, selfless, empathic spirit. The Love Like Ashley Memorial Fund exists as a community fund to support local, philanthropic causes that honor Ashley’s all-accepting, selfless, empathetic spirit. In addition, an annual scholarship will be awarded to a graduating high school senior who has overcome personal challenges and has demonstrated the qualities that Ashley possessed.”

The news release describes Ashley this way:  “She welcomed everyone into her circle with open arms… Her heart, mind and soul were filled with kindness, joy, love and so many sparkles. She wasn’t afraid to be herself and never felt the need to follow the crowd. Ashley truly was an angel on earth.”

It goes on to say, “While donations are much appreciated and what will keep this fund going for years to come, the Love Like Ashley Memorial Fund is solely about honoring Ashley’s beautiful spirit in all that we do. Be a friend to someone who needs one. Enjoy the little things in life…Snuggle with your loved ones. Say I love you any chance you get. Be silly and make people laugh. When life gets difficult, keep going and don’t ever give up. Most importantly, spread kindness where it is needed most.”  For more information see:

And recently there has been this joyful news as well.  Ashley’s mom is pregnant.  Another little Cistaro is coming into this world as a gift of joy and an expression of God’s love – a love that is greater than death.

I want have us finish up this morning with a little singing of a couple of verses one of the old favorite hymns.  Sing with me, will you?

Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above.

We share each other’s woes,
our mutual burdens bear;  and often for
each other flows
the sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
it gives us inward pain;  but we shall still
be joined  in heart,
and hope to meet again.

John 9:1 – 41 Gratitude, Awe and Wonder

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:35 pm on Sunday, March 26, 2017

A sermon preached on March 26, 2017 based upon John 9:1 – 41.

Julia and Krista

Underlying this whole story is the question of “who is deserving and who is not?”  Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has gotten a raw deal in life if ever there was one – a man born blind reduced to spending his life begging for survival.   The question is implicitly raised: How did this man come to suffer so? And where is God in all this?  If God is good and has the power to intervene in this world, why is this man allowed to suffer so?

It is a question most of us have probably asked, and if we been so fortunate so as to never have been moved by personal misfortune to ask it, perhaps we need to stretch ourselves a bit to consider the plight of people who truly have been given a raw deal in life, such as in the present moment the Syrian refugees.

The disciples fall back on an answer offered by their tradition:  This man is suffering so because of he is being punished for sin.  It is an idea put forth in the book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere.  Live a good life, obeying God’s laws, and you will be rewarded with good fortune.  Don’t, and you’ll receive the punishment that is due you.

The man presents a challenge in understanding how it is he deserves punishment, since he was born blind.  There are places in the Torah where it speaks of the sins of the Fathers being visited on the second and third generations, so perhaps, the disciples suggest, it wasn’t the man himself who sinned, but his parents.

There is a grain of truth in these ideas.  Live by the golden rule, practice honesty and kindness, and your will likely have such treatment come back to you. Be a jerk to others, well, “what goes around comes around.”    It is also true that certain “sins” — a father abandoning his family for instance — can leave scars that are passed on through many generations.

So there is a grain of truth in the idea, but as an absolute principle, it’s pure rubbish.  You don’t have to look any further than Jesus, the most loving of men, who ended up nailed to a cross.  And when we come to random suffering:  the tornado demolishing your home, the drunk driver taking out your loved one, the misfortune of being born into a family of Syrian refugees, the happenstance of being born with genes that predispose you to cancer – to suggest any of this is punishment for sin is perverse.

Jesus rejects the idea outright.  This man’s suffering isn’t about punishment for sin.  He doesn’t offer an explanation. The sense you get is that the man’s suffering falls in the realm of unexplained mystery.  It reminds us of what Jesus said a couple of chapters back in his conversation with Nicodemus about the mystery of the wind and the Holy Spirit: it blows where it wills, and we can’t control it.

Jesus simply notes that when we encounter such suffering, we are provided opportunity to do the works of light – to be agents of God’s love.

But it is worth pausing to ask about the appeal of a world view that sees suffering as God’s punishment.  There seems to be three possibilities.  First, it let’s God off the hook.  If people who suffer are getting what they deserve for unseen sin, then God’s justice can be easily understood.  It keeps our doubts at bay.

Second, it provides an excuse for not needing to offer a helping a hand.  The concept of Karma in the Hindu religion — which similarly has a grain of truth in it – when taken to the extreme provides justification for not helping the “untouchables” at the bottom of society.  They are getting what they deserve for past life sins, and to help lift them out of their depravation would be to interfere with God’s justice.

But perhaps there is a deeper appeal to the idea, and that is that it allows us to hold on to a belief that we have control over our fates.  If we can just stay on the straight and narrow, we will keep bad things from happening to us.  And maybe in some ways the potential self-loathing that can befall us when things do go badly in our lives can seem preferable to the recognition that we really are at the mercy of forces that are simply out of our control.

It is striking in this story that there is no mention of the blind man having “faith.”  In a lot of other stories in which Jesus heals people, there is mention of the presence in faith in either the suffering person or in the loved one of the suffering person.  Why is the absence of any such mention significant? Well, it is easy for faith to be turned into something which, if we have it, will keep us immune from bad outcomes.  There are scriptures that can be quoted to support this notion:  “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move mountains.”  Perversely, people are sometimes told that the reason they aren’t being healed of their cancer is because their faith isn’t strong enough.  If they had more faith, they would be healed.

So there is no mention of faith, and Jesus just straight out heals the man’s blindness, and suddenly we have another side of the mystery of fates that are undeserved, and that is the mystery of undeserved blessing.

Underlying this story is the idea of “sin.”  Who is a sinner?  Who has committed sin?   At the beginning it is the suggestion by the disciples that either the blind man or his parents have sinned.  Midway through, the Pharisees are accusing first Jesus of being a sinner, and then the man who was given back his sight as having been “born in sin.”

The Pharisees in this story give sin a bad name. (What do you mean, Jeff?  Doesn’t sin, by definition have a “bad name”?)

For the Pharisees, sin is something that gives them the opportunity to point fingers of condemnation at others.  But if you truly understand “sin” in a Christian sense, there is a way in which it is liberating.  Christianity declares that we are all sinners.  We have all fallen short of the glory of God.  We are all saved by grace, not by our ability to refrain from committing sinful acts.  Some sin is obvious; most sin however is hidden away in our hearts – the ways in which we are not truly free to love as Jesus loved.  Since we are all sinners, we don’t have to hide our sin away in shame.   Since we aren’t surrounded by sin-free saints, we are free to acknowledge our sin, and in doing so, perhaps make a little progress in overcoming it.

The Pharisees think of themselves as the only people around who aren’t sinners, but the story reveals their sin.  There is a detail we might overlook that shouts SIN! and that revolves around the fact that a truly wonderful thing has happened – a man blind from birth has been given the gift of sight.  He can see for the first in his life faces, flowers and billowy clouds.  It’s a truly wonderful thing, and anybody who is connected to God would naturally respond to this miracle with rejoicing, awe and wonder.

The Pharisees reveal their brokenness by the fact that that isn’t how they respond.  Instead of joy, wonder and awe they see the man’s great blessing as a problem to solve.  His healing doesn’t fit into their thought system, so they have to find some way to call the reality of the healing into question.  The suggestion is made that the man who now sees is not the same as the man born blind.  They call in the man’s parents hoping they will say, “This ain’t our son.”  When that doesn’t work, they get angry and just start throwing accusations of sin left and right. It irritates them to no end that this miraculous act of healing doesn’t fit their ideas of who is deserving, and who isn’t.

It’s similar to the most famous of parables, that of the prodigal son and the older son.  A party is being thrown for the “undeserving” younger brother, and the elder brother is incensed, and is unable to rejoice in the grace being shown his brother.  But the thing is, the elder brother isn’t really any more deserving than his younger brother.  His sin is simply hidden away in his hardened heart.

So sometimes, perhaps, we get stuck on the mystery of undeserved suffering and overlook the mystery of undeserved grace.  Where we should be reacting to so much of our lives with gratitude, awe and wonder, our attention is captured instead by the perceived injustices we have suffered.

We overlook the simple wonder of being alive.  What did we ever do to deserve that?!  What did we do to deserve having people who love us, and whom we can love?  What did we ever do to deserve the beauty that surrounds us in such a rich variety of forms?

Today is by step-daughter Kate’s 30th birthday.  She is away on a trip to celebrate the occasion, but I’ve been trying to compose some words to express the gratitude of having her in my life, and as I set about doing this, I found myself overcome with a sense of wonder and gratitude:  what did I ever do to have this wonderful, good hearted, flawed yet beautiful daughter in my life for the past 25 years?

And so much of our life is like this.  We don’t respond with the gratitude, awe and wonder that would naturally arise if our hearts were in good working order.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite authors is Rachel Naomi Remen.  She’s in her eighties now.  As a teenager she was diagnosed with a disease that was supposed to take her life before she reached 40.  Nonetheless, she was determined to become a doctor, which she did.  Over the course of her practice she became aware of the more mysterious dimensions of healing that fall beyond the scope of prescribing medicine and conducting surgeries, and midway through her life she shifted her focus to working with doctors and nurses to help them become more attuned to these other dimensions.

There is this you-tube video in which she talks about having been a young intern at the prestigious Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York.  She said that in those days there was no hospice, so patients would come to the hospital for the purpose of dying.

She remembers one such patient, and she remembers his x-rays even better:  his bones were riddled with cancer — like Swiss cheese — with great menaces of tumor in both of his lungs.  He was supposed to die in short order, but over the course of two weeks in the hospital every one of those lesions disappeared.

“Were we in awe?” Rachel asks.  “Certainly not!” she answers. “We were frustrated! This man had been mis-diagnosed!  Someone had made a mistake!  So we sent his x rays to several pathologists around the country, but they concurred that this man had an ‘end stage’ cancer.  And so we held a Grand Rounds, and word got out that we had an unusual case and 350 people showed up — doctors and nurses.  We heard the descriptions of his diagnosis and treatment by his doctors, examined the x-rays, and listened to the man himself.  And I remember the conclusion that was drawn at the end by all these health care professionals: The chemotherapy that had been stopped eleven months earlier had suddenly begun working.”

She goes on to say, “You know, too great a scientific objectivity can actually make you blind.  The embarrassing part of this story is that I never doubted this conclusion for the next fifteen years.  When everyone is thinking inside the box it’s hard to think outside the box.  But often life is outside the box.”

She concludes by saying we need to remember to wonder. “People who wonder rarely burn out.  Maybe we all need to know a little less, and to wonder a little more.”

One of the striking things about the man who is healed by Jesus is that he isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.”  All he knows is that, “Once I was blind, but now I see.”  The Pharisees fail to either push him off what he knows to be true, or to explain the mystery of the wonder that has occurred.

In one of her books, Rachel describes a medical friend of hers who became fascinated by — and began researching — accounts of spontaneous remissions.  He described to her a story of a 19 year old young man who discovered a hard lump in his thigh which led him to his doctor.

“A biopsy had confirmed the doctor’s suspicion of cancer, and he and his parents had been called to a meeting.  Sadly, the doctor told them of his findings and strongly recommended that he have his right leg amputated at the hip.  He was nineteen years old. Despite the urging of several doctors and his parents, he had refused this surgery and had gone home to his parents’ farm without any treatment to live out his life.  Nothing further had been done for him except that the pastor of his church had asked those people who were so moved to pray for him at seven o’clock every night.  Over time, the mass in his thigh had grown smaller and finally disappeared.

“My friend was captivated by this story.  Through his work he had developed a researcher’s healthy skepticism, but the man seemed so genuine and matter-of-fact that he could not get the story out of his mind.  Finally he called to ask a favor.  Would I mind trying to track down the doctor Who had made the original diagnosis and see if he would confirm this story or if he had kept medical records or a biopsy report?  “How long has it been?  I asked.  “Twenty years,” said my friend ruefully.  I started to express my doubts, but my friend interrupted.  “Please try,” he said.  And so I did.

It turned out to be easy.  The doctor, a relatively young man at the time he treated this patient, was listed in his state’s medical association and still in practice.  Encouraged, I called and got him on the phone.  After the usual introductions, I told him that I was calling to see if he had kept the medical records on a former patient.  It was so long ago that I doubted he would remember, and then I told him the man’s Name.  His response was immediate.  “Of course I remember him,” he said with feeling.  “I’ve thought of him many times over the years.  What a senseless tragedy.  Are you calling on behalf of the family?”

“No,” I replied, and told him the man was still alive. “Thank God,” he said.  “Where did he have his surgery?”

“He didn’t have surgery,” I replied. There was a pause.  When he spoke again, I could detect a change in his voice.  “Then what happened?”  So I told him the story as it had been told to me. There was a long silence and then, without another word, he hung up the phone.  I called him several times afterward, but he never returned my calls.

“Most of us encounter a great deal more Mystery than we are willing to experience.  Sometimes knowing life requires us to suspend disbelief, to recognize that all our hard-won knowledge may only be provisional and the world may be quite different that we believe it to be.  This can be very stressful, even frightening.  But if we are not willing to wonder, we may have to hand up the phone on life.”  (My Grandfather’s Blessings, “Knowing Life.”

May the Spirit of God move in our live to awaken us to gratitude, awe and wonder!

John 4:4 – 45 Jesus and the Woman at the Well

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:38 pm on Sunday, March 19, 2017

A sermon preached on March 19, 2017 – the third Sunday in Lent – based upon John 4:4 – 45.


When we read the Gospel of John, we enter an altogether different world from that of the other three Gospels.  It is easy to get lost, in part because there is this pattern of Jesus using metaphors that the people he is talking to miss and take literally, with the result being confusion for the people he speaks with and at times for us as the readers as well.  So we’re going to take our story verse by verse in the hope that I can help keep you from feeling quite so confused.

We are told at the outset of John’s Gospel that Jesus is God incarnate – the Word made flesh. So to meet Jesus is to have encounter with God — though most people in the Gospel miss this fact.

In the chapter preceding the story we’re about to hear Jesus was in Jerusalem where he was visited by cover of night by Nicodemus, a middle aged scholar of the law, a member of the Sandhedrin — the ruling council — a man with power, the ultimate insider. Jesus tells this well-respected, learned man that he must be born from above — born from the Spirit — which leaves Nicodemus, in spite of all his knowledge, confused and virtually speechless.  The meeting was concluded with the famous words of John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world…” – the whole world – not only the Jewish people, but everybody on the planet — that God gave a gift — the gift of his son — that in believing in him — putting one’s trust in Jesus — a person need not perish, but have eternal life.  For John, eternal life is not merely something to be entered into after death — it is a quality of life that can be experienced right now.

The heart of this morning’s story is the longest conversation Jesus has with a single person in any Gospel, so to try and capture the flow of the convesation, Bob will be reading the part of Jesus, Sabitha the part of the woman at the well, and Darryl will be reading the narration, cutting it where it isn’t necessary.

Listen, now for the Word of the Lord.

Narrator:  Now (Jesus) had to go through Samaria.

Jeff:  Jesus was in the southern region of Palestine, the part known as Judea and he wanted to go north to Galilee.  John says Jesus “had to go through Samaria” which was in between the two regions.  But Jesus could have gone around Samaria, which Jews often did, because, you may remember there was this deep animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans had descended from the original twelve tribes of Israel, but they had intermarried with people of other cultures and religions.  In the minds of Jews, the Samaritans were unclean — backsliders — a people now to despise.  But Jesus intentionally passes through their region.  Perhaps Jesus “had to go through Samaria” because his Gospel is of a love for the “whole world”, and the Samaritans symbolize the world beyond the Jewish people.

Narrator:  So (Jesus) came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

Jeff:  In John’s Gospel, while Jesus is fully God, he is also fully human, and at certain points we are reminded of his humanity.  Jesus has been walking for several hours in the heat of the day, and now around noon, he is understandably tired, thirsty, and hungry.

And so he stops to rest by Jacob’s well – Jacob, one of the original patriarchs of the Jewish people, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah.

This isn’t just any well.  This is the well where Jacob met his wife Rachel.  Although “arranged marriages” were the norm in the ancient world, there are several stories in the Old Testament where men and women meet by wells and end up becoming husband and wife.

So in a certain sense the stage is set for romance.  Jesus is a bachelor, and in the ancient world, if a man hung out at a well and waited long enough, a woman was bound to show up, because in those days the hard work of toting water from the well back into town was women’s work.

And sure enough, a woman shows up.  And a kind of romance is kindled by this well, but not the usual kind of romance.

Narrator:  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her,

Jesus:  ‘Will you give me a drink?”

Narrator:  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

Jeff:  By the rules governing their religions and culture, for Jesus to make this request is shocking on several levels.  First, men and women essentially lived in separate worlds.  Men and women did not normally talk to each other out in public, and there is something risqué – almost scandalous — for Jesus to speak to this woman while they are alone.

Not only is she a woman, but she is, as I said, a Samaritan woman, and Jews were required to keep their distance from Samaritans, and in particular, they were not to use the same dishes, for Jews considered Samaritans to be unclean.  Jesus doesn’t have a bucket with him, so he is asking to drink from the woman’s bucket.

On top of all that, the fact that she is making this trip to the well alone in the middle of the day — the hottest part of the day — makes it clear that this is a woman who has been shunned by her community. Typically, the women of the community would make trips together to the well in the early morning and in the late afternoon when it wasn’t quite so hot.  But apparently this woman has been given the clear message that she is not welcomed in their company.  She has been shamed by her community, so here she comes to the well all alone.

In contrast to Nicodemus, the ultimate insider from the previous story, this woman is the ultimate outsider.  And Jesus chooses to engage her in conversation — to make a human connection.

To make any significant human connection requires a certain vulnerability. Jesus is making himself vulnerable with this woman by acknowledging his need: “I am thirsty.  I have no bucket. I need your help.”

On top of that, by interacting alone with this woman with a questionable reputation, who knows what she might claim happened afterwards that could trash his reputation?  (We clergy are routinely warned about the risk of putting ourselves in potentially compromising situations where it could end up our word against another person’s word regarding what transpired behind closed doors.)

The Samaritan woman is appropriately shocked.

Woman:  ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’

Narrator:  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jeff:  In what follows, in a certain sense Jesus treats this woman with more respect than he did Nicodemus, the esteemed Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin.  Once their conversation started, Jesus barely let Nicodemus get a word in edgewise.  Here, however, Jesus engages the woman in a full-fledged conversation, almost as though they were two rabbis debating together in pursuit of truth.

Jesus: ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’

Jeff:  From the outset of John’s Gospel, we know that Jesus himself is the gift of God, the incarnate Word of God that brings salvation to the world.   As is his way in this Gospel, Jesus uses a metaphor to speak about what he is offering.  He speaks of “living water.”  And as is so common in this Gospel, the woman misses the metaphor and takes him literally.  In common usage, “living water” meant clean, flowing water as opposed to stagnant water that might make you sick if you drink it.

Woman:  ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’

Jeff:  Legend had it that on one occasion Jacob was able to compel the water to come bubbling up to the surface so that it could be reached without the need for a bucket.  She challenges Jesus: “Are you capable of the same trick?”

Jesus:  ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Jeff:  So water is a metaphor here, but what is it a metaphor for?  It is a metaphor for all those things we pursue in life thinking that once we attain them, we will find contentment.   As a little kid, we lock onto some wonderful new toy, which, if only we could possess it, we’re certain will give us happiness without end.  Perhaps a teenager thinks, “when I get my braces off, or my driver’s license, then I will be living on easy street.”  As we grow older, perhaps it’s the perfect lover, or the college degree, or new job, or a sudden windfall of money, or a child, or a new house.   The possibilities are endless. The water of which Jesus speaks – the world’s water — is all those things we imagine will bring us perpetual contentment once we finally get a hold of them.

Although acquiring certain things can definitely can definitely improve the quality of our lives, nothing in this world satisfies our deepest longing.  We find ourselves “thirsty again.”  “Our hearts are restless,” said St. Augustine, “until we find our rest in God.”  Jesus has water to offer that won’t leave you thirsty – that soothes the endless restlessness of our souls.

Woman:  ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jeff:  The woman is still thinking of literal water, and who can blame her?  We take easy access to clean water for granted.  But for this woman, access to clean water meant the daily grind of making the long, hard hike to the well all alone in the heat of the day to tote the heavy buckets of water back to her home.  She would be greatly pleased to be done with it.

Jesus:  ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’

Jeff:  Now that sounded like it is came totally out of left field!  But actually, Jesus is inviting the woman to go with him to that place in her life that is most painful.  It’s similar to what I’m inviting us all to do every time Sunday in worship when I pause in the middle of our prayer time and ask Jesus to touch each one of us in the place of our deepest need.

For this woman, it’s more than just the daily grind. It has to do with the fact that she is cut off – utterly isolated from loving relationships.

Woman:  ‘I have no husband.’

Jesus:  ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’

Jeff:  Throughout much of the history of the church, this has often been interpreted as Jesus calling out the woman for being what we might call “a slut.”  “Own your sin, woman!  You sleep around.  You run through husbands like a Hollywood celebrity — falling in love, then falling out of love, discarding each husband in a perpetual search for the perfect lover.”

There are people who do serial marriages this way, but in this woman’s case, we’ve done her wrong when we’ve accused her of this.  This isn’t about something that the woman has done so much as it is about something that has been done unto her.  Men held all the power, so this woman has been repeatedly divorced.  And the most likely explanation for why is that she was barren.   Women were supposed to provide babies, and in particular, male babies, and if she proved incapable of doing this, she got dumped.

To be a woman alone in the culture of the time was to be left destitute.  So maybe there is a man in her life presently that the woman clings to for the sake of survival, but he is unwilling to publicly embrace her by marrying her.

And along the way, the woman has become the object of scorn in her community.  “You can’t keep a husband?  You can’t produce a baby?  God must be punishing you.”

The sin here isn’t so much this woman’s as it is the community’s sin.  Which is to say, she isn’t so much “guilty” as she is full of “shame.”  Guilt and shame are different.  She has internalized the shaming message of the community that she is unlovable — that she has no hope of ever being a part of a loving community.

So, gently, tenderly Jesus is inviting this woman to go with him to the place where shame has her in bondage — the shame that has led her to give up on trying to connect with her community.

This isn’t a story as it has so often been told of Jesus forgiving the woman of her sexual sins.  It is a story of Jesus loving her in such a way that she can begin to be healed of the shame that paralyzes her.

Woman: ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’

Jeff:  The woman’s response is often heard as an attempt to change the subject — to turn the attention away from her shame ridden life story.  Maybe.  But when she says, “Sir, I see you are a prophet,” she is acknowledging that Jesus is speaking the truth about her life.

As we will hear later, the woman is amazed by the apparent supernatural knowledge Jesus has of her life story. What seems to have happened here is that she suddenly realizes that God is somehow present in their conversation, and she’s beginning to fall in love – with God.   Weak kneed, her mind turns to religion and different belief systems — those of the Jews and those of the Samaritans.  She is asking about how to do religion right in order to please God.  Sort of like, who does this right, the Catholics? The Baptists?  The Methodists?

Our heart’s deepest desire isn’t for religion — it is for an experience of the living God.  Religions can be helpful for leading us to such an experience, but they can also be harmful. We can mistake the practices of religion with the real deal:  an encounter with the God in whose presence we experience awe and wonder.

Jesus:  ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

Woman:  ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.

Jesus:  ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Jeff:  This is the first time in this Gospel that Jesus has told someone directly that he is, in fact the messiah.  And he chooses an outcaste, Samaritan woman as the first person with whom to share this truth.

Narrator:  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’

Jeff:  The disciples are shocked, a bit scandalized even when they find Jesus crossing the boundaries they have taken for granted.   But talk about ‘dysfunctional’ – they don’t go directly to him and say, “Hey boss, can you explain what that was all about?”

Narrator:  Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city.

Jeff:  The woman has had a life changing experience – which is what an encounter with the living God always is.  Her water-jar no longer matters in comparison to what she has caught a glimpse of.  Where before she had succumbed to the shaming of her community, crawling into herself, so to speak, now she is emboldened to go directly to her neighbors with the witness she feels compelled to share.

Woman:  ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’

Jeff:  The woman is taking her first baby steps of faith. She isn’t fully convinced of what she has glimpsed, but the change that has begun in her life is unmistakable.  She uses the very same words that back in the first chapter the male disciples used to invite their friends to meet Jesus.  “Come and see.” Now, she, too is a disciple.  Her invitation inspires the people to go check Jesus out for themselves.

Narrator:  They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’

Jeff:  The male disciples think maybe Jesus is acting so bizarrely because he hasn’t eaten anything.  But Jesus isn’t suffering from low blood sugar – he’s experiencing joy, and just as the woman’s water jar had suddenly become insignificant to her, similarly at this moment eating isn’t a priority for Jesus.  He is too busy rejoicing with all the angels in heaven that a lost sheep has been brought back into the fold.

Jesus:  ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’

Narrator:  So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?

Jesus:  ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’

Jeff:  Wake up, Jesus is telling his disciples. The Spirit is at work in this world planting seeds of the Gospel, using unexpected people, such as this woman who, in the eyes of the world is an absolute nobody.  Without fully formed faith, this woman is helping bring people into relationship with God.

Narrator:  Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

Jeff:  So through this woman’s introduction to God’s son walking among them, the people of her town come into an experience of God.  They, too begin to fall in love with God.

Saint Augustine said that at its root, sin is having our loves out of order.  Our first love is owed to God, and when we fall in love with God, all our other loves find their proper place beneath that first, central love.   We are able to create loving relationships and communities, where no one is excluded, and all are valued, where our shame is healed, and our capacity to love freely is strengthened.

I want to end by just putting in the thought in your head that when you come to church, you are not coming here only to hear a pep talk about being a better person – you are coming here in the hope of having an experience of the living God, in the knowledge that such an experience always changes us, freeing us to love others without clinging to them, or rejecting them when they disappoint us.

And as Jesus said to the woman at the well, the time has come to worship God in Spirit and in Truth – you don’t need to go to the Temple or a holy mountain or to this sanctuary to commune with God.  You can abide with Jesus wherever you are.  So I would encourage you, during this season of Lent, to set aside time in the course of your days to spend in the presence of the Great Lover of your soul – to let Jesus heal your shame and set you free to love as he has loved us.

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