Rev. Martha Hubbard

The Rev. Martha Hubbard is the Rector at St. Paul's Church.

Jun 012017
 

AUDIO SERMON

Sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017 – The Seventh Sunday of Easter

 

“As if by silent command they moved from the house and out beyond the village.  When they came to an open area and found others come from Jerusalem, they neither felt nor expressed surprise. They were conscious only of sharing and expectation.  The silence was total, as if this hillside had been isolated from the surrounding world and time.  In the silence he came among them and in touching one another they were aware of touching him and he them.  Suddenly they knew that this hour was both an ending and a beginning both meeting and farewell.  Overcome with emotion, some cried out as if questioning.  But their voices died away into silence.  Some stood holding up their arms looking into the darkening sky.  Then a few suggested that they return to the city and get some rest.  Others began to sing softly.” (from Portrait of a Woman, p. 89, by Herbert O’Driscoll)

          Anglican Priest, Herbert O’Driscoll, wrote those words as a description of what it might have been like on the day we heard about in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples witnessed the resurrected Christ ascending from earth into heaven.  I like what he has done in this description, capturing the uncertainty and wonder of it – the joy and the grief mingled together as the disciples, still reeling from the surprising reality of resurrection, now have their once again living Lord taken from them by cloud and mystery.

          Yet he did not leave them without hope.  As he was being gathered up by divine power, he gave them a mission and promised to send them the power and guidance to fulfill that mission.  His statement of mission to them was “you will be my witnesses”, and his promise was, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”

          “You will be my witnesses”. That is the central mission of the Church Universal.  To be witnesses of our risen Lord Christ Jesus.  Each branch of the church, each denomination, at its best is led in creative and life giving ways to do that.  To embrace the world and share the good news that Christ has destroyed death and lives among us.  This mission should both direct us and correct us.

          When is the church most the church?  Not when it is adding new members and growing, though growth is very important to the carrying out of the mission.  And not when it is taking care of the needs of its members, though that is important too.  The church is most the church when it is witnessing to the amazing and life giving grace of our risen Lord.

          I once heard a bishop say that the church is more like a firehouse than a hospital.  A firehouse and its members exist to go out into the world to serve. Whereas a hospital exists to take people in and isolate them from the germs and diseases of the world in order to take care of their ailments.  Now it is true that the church is a source of comfort, healing and nourishment for us.  We come weekly to be fed, but the purpose of the church does not to end there.  We must not come here to St. Paul’s, just to be fed, but also willing to be led.  Willing to be clothed more and more in the power of the Spirit and go out as a squad of witnesses for Christ.

          A squad of witnesses for Christ!  Yikes!  That might sound just a bit too daring for many of us.  But when you really think about the language, it becomes a little less hair raising.  In his weekly lectionary commentary, The Rev. William Willimon reminds us, “The mission of the witness is simply to stand up there before the court and to truthfully tell what he or she knows – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… Nothing spectacular, nothing complicated…Just tell what you know.” (from Pulpit Resource).  What do you know about Jesus Christ?  Who is he to you?  Share that.

          St. Francis of Assisi is said to have instructed new converts to the faith to “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.”  Maybe that is a useful admonition to us in our noisy, wordy world.  Maybe these days, a picture or an action is worth a thousand words.  It happened to me years ago now, but I will never forget, one day coming home in a tizzy about my overbooked calendar to find that our next door neighbor had taken it upon himself to mow the lawn for me.  That got me out of my tizzy of worry and into a place of feeling understood and supported.  Preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.

          Sometimes words are necessary, but if so, no detailed theological treatise is required.  All we are ever asked to do is share how God in Christ has touched our lives in ways that have mattered.  Just let others in on the genuine presence of Christ in our lives, and make the best accounting of the hope that is in you because of it.  We are given a wonderful example of this in the Gospel of John.  You may remember the passage about the man born blind who is healed by Jesus – we read it on one Sunday this past Lent.  In that passage Jesus’ critics come and try to convince the man that he is mistaken – that it wasn’t really Jesus who had restored his sight.  The man made no deep theological argument, no long speech.  His witness to the power of Christ in his life was simple: “One thing I know. That though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)

          If we know God- and not just by hearsay- and we share our experience of God with someone else by what we do or by what we say, or both, God will be at work in that sharing.  We don’t need to be hung up on the outcomes.  “You will be my witnesses” Jesus says. It’s that simple.  The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.  And indeed it is God who directs us in this, and it is God who will bring about the most gracious outcomes.

          When the disciples left that hillside of the ascension, they returned to Jerusalem, a bit disoriented and unsure of what would come next.  But they dared to have confidence in his promise to give them the power to witness in the world.  And so for 10 days, constant in prayer, they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  The coming of which we will celebrate next Sunday.  By the way, the color of the day is red, so it you have some in your wardrobe it would be great if you could wear it, so we can fill the place with as much red as possible. 

          “You will be my witnesses.”  The mission statement of the church universal.  Our own parish statement of call speaks to how we feel called as a parish to live this out here in our context.  It is printed on the back of your bulletin.  Let’s read it together:

St. Paul’s is a Christian community where people are met and accepted without judgment for who they are and are adopted into a loving a caring family.  Our faith provides a framework within which we explore, honor and celebrate the presence of God in daily experiences, especially in the crises, conflicts and transitions of life, and are thereby equipped to live fully in an increasingly complex and changing world.

We believe we are called to center our life in Jesus Christ through a regular discipline of Eucharistic worship, scripture study and prayer.

We believe our faith leads us to fulfill our mission, which is to share ourselves and our resources with each other, our community and the world.

We believe we are called to discover and affirm our spiritual gifts and be responsible and committed ministers of these gifts in the name of Jesus Christ.

In the coming week, I invite you to pray with me, that God will kindle and rekindle the power of the Spirit among us, that we may continue to live into that call as a community that faithfully witnesses to Christ our Lord.  Amen+

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May 242017
 

 

          This Gospel passage begins with Jesus showing such gentleness thoughtfulness and kindness to his beloved friends, which is a theme that fits so beautifully with our national observance today of Mother’s Day. The context here is their last night together before the crucifixion. At supper Jesus has washed their feet, and then mystically given them his very self in bread and wine.  He has predicted denial by Peter, chief among them, and Judas has already slipped away from them to betray their whereabouts to the authorities. So he knows their heads and hearts are reeling as they begin to take in what he has seen coming for a while.  And he reaches out to them with compassion and tender care – “Do not let your hearts be troubled”- or another translation of the Greek is, “Do not let your hearts be anguished.”

          But he does not cradle them with those words of comfort for long.  He is aware of the urgency of time and he moves on to give them the provisions they will need to understand and survive the events that are bearing down upon them.  He is going, but he will be back.  If they feel lost and off track they should remember he himself is their way, their truth, their, and their life, and he will guide them into the presence of God. 

“No one comes to the Father except through me” He tells them.  This is a statement that has troubled many of us.  But it is important to remember context here.  Jesus is talking to his closest friends about how they will reach the Father.  To use this as a proof text to claim that no other religion besides Christianity is valid is a gross misuse of this statement.  In his beautiful commentary on this passage, Jean Vanier, theologian and founder of the L’Arche communities writes:

“In all cultures, and at all times, people heard in some way the voice of God…Maybe some could not name God, but they sought the light of truth and the origin of all things.  The word of God was the light for many people.  When the word became flesh, Jesus brought to fulfillment all these different paths to God.  He does not destroy them: the Word is in each of these paths.”

(Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, p.256)

Seen in this way, this statement by Jesus that he is the way, the truth and the life is an inclusive affirmation rather than an exclusive line in the sand.

And then Jesus moves on to remind his disciples that they already know the Father because they know Jesus.  He is telling them that there won’t be some new reality they will be experiencing in the Father’s full presence at the end of their earthly journey.  Rather it will just be more so there – more so of what they have experienced in relationship with Jesus, here in this world.  Way back in chapter 1 of John we were told that the word and the Father have always been one and the word came into the world to reveal the Father’s compassion and forgiveness.  Indeed that has been the underlying theme of this whole Gospel and now Jesus reasserts this theme again in his last moments with his friends. 

Building on this theme he takes the next step telling them that when they have faith in what he has revealed of God, they will continue the works that he has done and do even greater works.  Now this reference to “greater works” is not a reference to their works being more spectacular.  Rather it is a reference to the fact that freed from his earthly life, Jesus, alive again through his disciples, will be able to be present in many times and places.  Again I quote Jean Vanier who writes:

“His disciples will continue his mission and his works… to give life, eternal life and to reveal the face and heart of God to people. It is to be the presence of God in the world anywhere there is an absence of God.”

 This week I also read a meditation in the book Jesus Calling, which I think also has something to say about this idea of Jesus disciples “greater works.  The meditation writer hears the voice of Jesus saying:

“Learn to relate to others through My Love rather than yours.  Your human love is ever so limited, full of flaws and manipulation.  My loving Presence, which always enfolds you, is available to bless others as well as you.  Instead of trying harder to help people through your own paltry supplies, become aware of my unlimited supply which is accessible to you continually.  Let my Love envelop your outreach to other people

Many or My precious children have fallen prey to burnout.  A better description of their condition might be ‘drainout’ Countless interactions with needy people have drained them, without their conscious awareness.  You are among these weary ones, who are like wounded soldiers needing R&R.  Take time to rest in the Love-Light of My Presence.  I will gradually restore to you the energy you have lost. ”

(Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p.139)

This resonates so beautifully with what Jesus is promising to his followers that last night, when he speaks about their greater works, which are only possible through the ongoing loving relationship with him in God known as prayer. And Jesus drives that point home then in the climax of this Gospel passage where he makes this commitment to his followers:

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

As a pastor, I have experienced how this statement from Jesus is one of the most difficult for us to comprehend.  At first hearing it can seem so over the top – like a divine blank check.  And, most of us have had the experience of praying to Jesus specifically and ardently for something and not having our prayers answered directly in the way we anticipated. So what are we to make of this?

          The phrase “in my name” which Jesus repeats twice in this statement, is of absolute importance when seeking to understand this commitment Jesus is making to his followers.  To ask something in Jesus’ name does not just mean directing it to him.  Rather asking something in his name is to ask something that is in accordance with the heart of his cause which, as he says in this statement, is to glorify the Father.   So let’s hear that statement of commitment from him again:

“I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

So this is a qualified commitment.  We are not just to pray for anything we want, but rather our prayers must be in line with Jesus cause – to glorify the Father.  When we pray in that way he says, he will be working in concert with us.

The problem for me with this is that I am not always sure what is or is not in accordance with Jesus cause of glorifying the Father.  I can think of a good many times when I have prayed ardently for something to come to pass, believing that it is in line with Jesus cause, convinced that what I am asking is the right thing for the good of many,  and it has not been granted.  Then later, with hindsight, I recognize that what I had so longed for and prayed for would not have been the best thing.

So, this tells me I have to accept that often I don’t and probably can’t know what the right thing to pray for is.  So, that takes some pressure off – I don’t have to figure out what should happen, that is God’s job.  When I have surrendered to that, what I glimpse though this passage is the amazing truth that nothing that can further God’s most gracious purposes is too big for Christ to do for us.  That is why I spend more of my prayer time these days praying for the,”knowledge of God’s will for me, and the power to carry that out” as step eleven of the 12 steps so wisely puts it.  It is not that I don’t ever pray for specific things to come to pass – I do.  But I do so not confident in my perception, but rather confident that if what I am praying for is in line with God’s most loving purposes, they will come to pass in God’s good time and ways. 

And in those times when the things I pray for don’t come to pass in the ways I want or expect, I have the example of Jesus himself,  in the garden, praying that the cup of suffering might pass him by if it be the Father’s will.  There he prays for one kind of salvation, only to have something even more wondrous worked out through him. That example leads me more and more I trust that the energy of my prayers is never wasted.  The love and trust that is the life blood of prayer connects me more deeply to God every time I pray.  And that connection is what allows me to go on through whatever lies ahead, tethered securely to God, come what may. 

          And today our lesson from the book of Acts gives us a fast forward ability, to move from the anguished and frightened circle around the table with Jesus, to see a second generation disciple as a bold and living example of what Jesus is promising here.  It is not an easy story – it is the story of a man, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit who is killed for just those reasons – for giving voice to his Spirit-filled vision of God.  But as he dies he is not abandoned.  The Father and the Son are close at hand, and he is blessed with a vision of that larger reality and with the ability to extend the works and cause of Jesus with his dying breath.  Closely echoing Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”

          Stephen’s is an extreme example of the life of faith to which we are each called.  May the greater works of Christ our Lord continue to abound among and through us.  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

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Mar 272017
 

Audio Sermon for 8 AM

Sermon for Sunday, March 26, 2017 – The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Audio Sermon for 10:15 AM

Sermon for Sunday, March 26, 2017 – The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Text for Sermon at 8am 

          That Gospel reading alone is a sermon unto itself.  So, I decided to take a slightly different slant on this sermon.  This week I invited Vestry members and a few other parish leaders to join me in an exercise to engage with this morning’s scripture readings and to create short poems known as centos. I will say more about that in just a minute, but first there is one homiletic point about our Gospel reading that I feel compelled to make.  It is in regard to term “The Jews” as used in this reading and throughout the Gospel according to John.

It is important to know and remember that all of the characters in this story are Jews.  It seems obvious, but perhaps it cannot be said too many times – Jesus was a Jew.  One of the historical truths about John’s Gospel is that it was written at a time when Christians were being expelled from synagogues and the split between Judaism and Christianity was forming.  There is a hint of that historical reality in this story when we are told the man born blind was expelled from the synagogue for testifying that Jesus came from God.  The writer of John uses the term “The Jews” throughout to refer to hostile Jewish authorities with whom Jesus and his disciples clashed.   We will come upon this phrase “The Jews” again next week in our Gospel and on Palm Sunday in our passion Gospel.  So we need to be mindful of this historical context and not extrapolate that the Gospel condemns Jews – for that is a sad part of Christian history that has contributed to the suffering of legions of our Jewish neighbors. And indeed, Jesus does not condemn even those who sent him to the cross – hanging there he says “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those words are for all of humanity!

          That said I want to turn now to sharing more with you about the cento form of poetry as a way of engaging the lectionary readings that is both fun and quite profound.  I had never heard of this form of poetry until our diocesan Pre-Lenten Clergy Retreat in that Jay and I attended in February. The retreat was led by The Rev. Roger Ferlo who is the Dean of Bexley Hall Seabury Seminary in Ohio, and a friend of our Bishop Alan.  Roger presented us with a fascinating program that got us to use the creative centers of our brain. 

His last exercise with us was to invite us into the process of constructing poems in this form known as cento.  The website poetry.com says this about the cento form:

From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources… Modern centos are often witty, creating irony or humor from the juxtaposition of images and ideas.

Roger Ferlo’s slant on writing centos was specific to scripture.  He had each of us at the retreat read a set of lectionary texts for one of the Sundays in Lent, and then gave us the following directions:

Step 1. Read the four passages slowly, marking words and phrases that catch your eye or ear or in some way rivet your attention.

Step 2. Take a second look at the words or phrases you’ve marked.  Choose one from the Old Testament reading (at random is fine) to start your drafting process.  Keep the phrase short, no more than 8 to 10 syllables, give or take.  It’s OK to work with someone else if that’s easier and more fun (or less scary).

Step 3. Do the same for each successive passage (Psalm, New Testament, Gospel), juxtaposing a phrase from each passage that in some way speaks to (probes, explains, contradicts, supplements, seems to follow upon the thought of) the opening phrase.

  1. You now have the draft of a cento. Read it aloud as a stand-alone poem, just to yourself or to someone else if that helps. What makes sense to you?  What new or unexpected meanings emerge?  You may decide that a line you’ve chosen is inadequate to the task of emerging meaning.  Look for a substitute.  Don’t hesitate to ask for advice. And don’t worry if what emerges doesn’t seem pious.  Heterodoxy (difined as thought not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs) sometimes goes with the territory.  Poets barge in where theologians fear to tread.

(Directions for writing a Cento from The Rev. Roger Ferlo)

          I love that last line, “poets barge in where theologians fear to tread” because it highlights that this is not a process that is meant to bring us to insights that make systematic sense.  Rather it is a spiritual tool that can help us be free to hear what the Spirit is trying to be speak to our heart as we engage with our holy texts.  And that can be fun, soulful, surprising, disconcerting, deeply comforting. 

          You will find these directions for writing scripture centos on an insert to your bulletin so that you can take them with you if you like.  I commend this to you as a tool to use in whatever ways might feed you.  I will end now by sharing 11 centos constructed this week by several 8 am service attendees for me to share with you as part of this sermon.  They are all based on the scripture texts we have shared here today.  I am just going to read them to you in the order I received them, with a slight pause in between each. What I notice is that all together they beautifully form into a larger cento with wonderful repeating of certain lines and many shades of meaning.

          So here they are, St. Paul’s Newburyport  8 am Centos:

1

The Lord looks on the heart.

He revives my soul and guides me

Live as children of light

God’s works might be revealed in me

2

Sanctify yourselves and come

Down in green pastures

Christ will shine on you

And now I see

3

Sanctify yourselves and come

Through the valley of the shadow

Rise from the dead

Who had formerly been blind

4

I will show you what you shall do.

Goodness and mercy shall follow me

Live as children of light.

Give glory to God!

5

Fill your horn with oil and set out

along right pathways

Try to find what is pleasing

Give glory to God.

6

Fill your horn with oil and set out’

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow

Try to find what is pleasing

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this

7

How long will you grieve?

The Lord is my shepherd

now in the Lord you are light

one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.

8

Anoint for me
Goodness and mercy
Exposed by the light
Received my sight

9

The Lord looks on the heart,

and leads me beside still waters.

In the Lord you are the light.

I went and washed and received my sight.

10

The Lord looks on the heart

My cup is running over.

Live as children of light

“Lord, I believe.”

11

Once you were in darkness, but now 

as I am the light of the world,

Sleepers awake!

Live as children of light.

In the name of Christ. Amen+

 

Text for Sermon at 10:15 am

          That Gospel reading alone is a sermon unto itself.  So, I decided to take a slightly different slant on this sermon.  This week I invited Vestry members and a few other parish leaders to join me in an exercise to engage with this morning’s scripture readings and to create short poems known as centos. I will say more about that in just a minute, but first there is one homiletic point about our Gospel reading that I feel compelled to make.  It is in regard to term “The Jews” as used in this reading and throughout the Gospel according to John.

It is important to know and remember that all of the characters in this story are Jews.  It seems obvious, but perhaps it cannot be said too many times – Jesus was a Jew.  One of the historical truths about John’s Gospel is that it was written at a time when Christians were being expelled from synagogues and the split between Judaism and Christianity was forming.  There is a hint of that historical reality in this story when we are told the man born blind was expelled from the synagogue for testifying that Jesus came from God.  The writer of John uses the term “The Jews” throughout to refer to hostile Jewish authorities with whom Jesus and his disciples clashed.   We will come upon this phrase “The Jews” again next week in our Gospel and on Palm Sunday in our passion Gospel.  So we need to be mindful of this historical context and not extrapolate that the Gospel condemns Jews – for that is a sad part of Christian history that has contributed to the suffering of legions of our Jewish neighbors. And indeed, Jesus does not condemn even those who sent him to the cross – hanging there he says “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those words are for all of humanity!

          That said I want to turn now to sharing more with you about the cento form of poetry as a way of engaging the lectionary readings that is both fun and quite profound.  I had never heard of this form of poetry until our diocesan Pre-Lenten Clergy Retreat in that Jay and I attended in February. The retreat was led by The Rev. Roger Ferlo who is the Dean of Bexley Hall Seabury Seminary in Ohio, and a friend of our Bishop Alan.  Roger presented us with a fascinating program that got us to use the creative centers of our brain. 

His last exercise with us was to invite us into the process of constructing poems in this form known as cento.  The website poetry.com says this about the cento form:

From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources… Modern centos are often witty, creating irony or humor from the juxtaposition of images and ideas.

Roger Ferlo’s slant on writing centos was specific to scripture.  He had each of us at the retreat read a set of lectionary texts for one of the Sundays in Lent, and then gave us the following directions:

Step 1. Read the four passages slowly, marking words and phrases that catch your eye or ear or in some way rivet your attention.

Step 2. Take a second look at the words or phrases you’ve marked.  Choose one from the Old Testament reading (at random is fine) to start your drafting process.  Keep the phrase short, no more than 8 to 10 syllables, give or take.  It’s OK to work with someone else if that’s easier and more fun (or less scary).

Step 3. Do the same for each successive passage (Psalm, New Testament, Gospel), juxtaposing a phrase from each passage that in some way speaks to (probes, explains, contradicts, supplements, seems to follow upon the thought of) the opening phrase.

  1. You now have the draft of a cento. Read it aloud as a stand-alone poem, just to yourself or to someone else if that helps. What makes sense to you?  What new or unexpected meanings emerge?  You may decide that a line you’ve chosen is inadequate to the task of emerging meaning.  Look for a substitute.  Don’t hesitate to ask for advice. And don’t worry if what emerges doesn’t seem pious.  Heterodoxy (difined as thought not conforming with accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs) sometimes goes with the territory.  Poets barge in where theologians fear to tread.

(Directions for writing a Cento from The Rev. Roger Ferlo)

          I love that last line, “poets barge in where theologians fear to tread” because it highlights that this is not a process that is meant to bring us to insights that make systematic sense.  Rather it is a spiritual tool that can help us be free to hear what the Spirit is trying to be speak to our heart as we engage with our holy texts.  And that can be fun, soulful, surprising, disconcerting, deeply comforting. 

          You will find these directions for writing scripture centos on an insert to your bulletin so that you can take them with you if you like.  I commend this to you as a tool to use in whatever ways might feed you.  I will end now by sharing 12 centos constructed this week by several 10:15 am service attendees for me to share with you as part of this sermon.  They are all based on the scripture texts we have shared here today.  I am just going to read them to you in the order I received them, with a slight pause in between each. What I notice is that all together they beautifully form into a larger cento with wonderful repeating of certain lines and many shades of meaning.

          So here they are, St. Paul’s Newburyport  10:15 am Centos:

1

Sanctify yourselves and come

Down in green pastures

Christ will shine on you

And now I see

2

Sanctify yourselves and come

Through the valley of the shadow

Rise from the dead

Who had formerly been blind

3

For the Lord does not see as mortals see

He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways…
Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true
One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see

4

Fill your horn with oil and set out

along right pathways

Try to find what is pleasing

Give glory to God.

5

Fill your horn with oil and set out’

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow

Try to find what is pleasing

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this

6

The spirit of the Lord came mightily

I will fear no evil

Children of the light

We are not blind, are we?

7

The Lord does not see as mortals see.

In the Lord you are light;

Born blind so that God’s works might be revealed.

I shall not be in want.

8

Fill your horn with oil and set out;

goodness and mercy shall follow me;

now in the Lord you are light;

I went and washed and received my sight.

9

I will show you what you shall do.

For you are with me.

All that is good and right and true

Lord, I believe.

10

The spirit of the Lord came mightily

Your goodness and mercy shall follow me

In the Lord you are light

He opened my eyes

11

How long will you grieve
I have come to sacrifice
I shall fear no evil
Now in the Lord you are light
Though I was blind, now I see.

12

Here is an astonishing thing!
The spirit of the Lord came mightily.
Light is found in all that is good and right and true.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In the name of Christ. Amen+

 

 

 

 

 

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Mar 222017
 

 

There is a thread that runs through our readings today – thirst for connection with God and the quenching gift of grace.  These readings invite us to find the character we relate to most and join the story to experience it from the inside – so I commend them for your ongoing meditation as we journey toward Easter.

I want to hone in on the Gospel Lesson from John about the woman of Samaria with Jesus at Jacob’s well.  As with all the narratives in the Gospel of John, this story has many layers and is rich with meaning on several levels. For instance some commentators view this story not as a story of an individual Samarian woman meeting and individual Jew at Jacob’s well.  Rather these commentators view the woman and Jesus as representative of the whole Samaritan nation and Jewish nation respectively.  There is literary support for this in the Greek it was originally written in, where the woman and Jesus address each other in the plural that translates as “you people” rather than in Greek terms that would indicated a conversation between two individuals.  This would have been a significant layer of meaning for the first hearers of John’s Gospel – who were of Jewish descent- because the Jews and the Samaritans were long-time rivals. 

The Samaritans were actually an off shoot of the Jewish people.  When Assyria conquered Israel around the year 300 BC, some of the Jews who were deported intermarried with the Assyrians and people of other neighboring nations, and abandoned Jewish purity and worship laws.  They were resettled in the region of Samaria, thus becoming known as Samaritans.  The biggest bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans was the question of where it was proper to worship.  This conflict comes out in this Gospel passage in the woman’s statement to Jesus about worship: “Our Fathers worshiped on this mountain; but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Seeing the passage in this way, with the woman representing all of Samaria, one commentator wrote:

“…whom might the five former husbands then be? Could Jesus be alluding not to her personal life, but to Samaria’s past in which five nations have colonized and intermarried with the Samaritans?  And could ‘the one you have now who is not your husband’ in fact be Rome, a colonial power with whom the Samaritans lived (more intimately than with Judeans) but did not intermarry as much with as with the previous five? (Jim Douglass in Living the Word, p.18)

 

This historical layer of this story is one we would likely miss without the help of scholars and commentators.  But that layer of meaning certainly does not preclude reading the story at the important level of the individual interchange between this woman and Jesus. 

What strikes me so strongly in reading their interchange is how profoundly this woman is affected by the experience of being deeply seen and known by Jesus.  It should be noted here that many traditional biblical commentaries on this passage view Jesus’ words to the woman about her 5 husbands, as a way to unmask the sin of this woman’s life and many preachers have used this to call the woman’s character into question.  But if we really look at the passage and listen closely we will see that this is a misinterpretation.  On this point Episcopal Bishop, Mary Glasspool, notes that there is really nothing in the text to suggest that this woman has sinned with regard to her marriage history.  She writes:

“Most obvious, in the text Jesus does not judge her – any moral judgements are imported into the text by the interpreters.  There are many possible reasons for her marital history other than moral laxity.  She may, for example, be involved in the custom of levirate marriage- the custom that demands that the next available male in a family take the place of a brother who has died, by marrying his widow.  And the last male in the family line could have refused to marry her. Significantly, the reasons for the woman’s marital history have intrigued many commentators- but do not seem to concern Jesus in the least.  This part of the conversation between the woman and Jesus about her life’s situation is a moment of confrontation with truth.  Jesus reveals himself as someone who sees deeply into the very essence, the heart, of people.  And the woman recognizing this truth, declared Jesus to be a prophet.”

Again the scholars come through, and with this deeper understanding of the cultural context of this passage we can move from assuming the worst about this woman’s character, to marveling at Jesus’ ability to encounter people and know them deeply. 

But Jesus does not stop there.  He goes deeper still.  He speaks to her about the future when the animosity between their two peoples – Jews and Samaritans – will be overcome and they will worship God together in spirit and truth. Hearing this, the faith that lives deep within this woman comes to the surface and bubbles out of her like living water – “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” To which Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”  And so, this woman, notably becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals his full identity as the Christ.

This back and forth between Jesus and this woman at the well is such a dance.  It begins with a request for water and ends in Jesus speaking out loud for the first time to another person his identity as the Messiah.  And I am captivated by the idea that as with Nicodemus before her, this woman has played a part in Jesus process of claiming his full identity within the human family.  And this affirms the humanity of Jesus for me.  It says to me that just like the rest of us, Jesus, our human brother, knows himself most fully in his relationships with other people.

For her part, the woman is transformed.  The disciples reappear and the conversation between her and Jesus ends, and she leaves her jar – symbolic of the fact that she is no longer thirsty because living water has bubbled up within her in her interaction with Jesus– and she heads back to her city where she immediately begins telling people about what happened to her at the well. She makes no grand speech; rather she simply tells others about the experience of being known deeply by Jesus – ““Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He could not be the Messiah, could he?” And if we read carefully we will realize that this is the subtle punch line of the story – for while the disciples of Jesus, who have been walking the road with him for a while now are concerning themselves with giving their rabbi enough to eat, the Samaritan woman has run off to do the work of bringing others to Jesus so that they may experience being deeply known and spiritually quenched by him.  And this work she is doing is the very work he points to as he says to the disciples, “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. Metaphoric words for look around and see who you could be bringing into the circle of discipleship.

The passage closes as a crowd follows the woman back to the well, and soon Jews and Samaritans are mingling over the waters of the well of their common ancestor, where they drink deeply together of the living water flowing from Jesus.

For me, the take away of this passage is that being deeply known by God in Jesus is a transforming experience that we are not meant to keep to ourselves.   This Gospel illustrates that to be an evangelist all one has to do is offer an invitation to others that is based in the truth of how your own life has been transformed by knowing Jesus.  It does not take fancy words, but rather authentic words.  A simple “come and see” can be powerfully attractive when there is fire in the eyes of the one that utters that invitation.  And the funny thing about this faith of ours – which is at the heart about knowing God, and being known by God – this faith of ours only grows stronger when we give it away to others. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  We have come to see my friends, and if he has touched us in transformative ways our work now is to bring others. 

In memory of Her and in Christ’s name. Amen+

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 Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 The Third Sunday in Lent  Posted by on Wed, 22-Mar-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 The Third Sunday in Lent
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Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 – The Second Sunday in Lent

 

          This Lent you will notice that we are doing something different with our Gospel readings.  We are reading them in parts.  There is a long standing tradition of reading the passion Gospel on Palm Sunday in parts each year, which came into practice as a way to invite the faithful to step inside that gripping narrative, and to participate in an active way.  It is a long Gospel and so this sort of participation through reading parts also serves the function of keeping us focused on the flow of the story.

In this first year of the three year cycle of our lectionary, our Gospels in this season are long passages from John’s Gospel – with the exception of last week’s reading which was a long reading from Matthew. They are stories of conversations between Jesus and several different individuals and groups which naturally lend themselves to being read in parts.  Coincidentally, our Deacon, Jay,  is having some issues with her vision at the moment – not to worry it is part of the process of some correction to her vision that she is undergoing – but she will not easily read at arm’s length from the Gospel book until after Easter.  So in the meantime, each week she will process the Gospel book and proclaim the opening words,  and we will pick up from there with the Gospel text, and she will then close the Gospel for us.  Our hope is that this experience of greater participation in the proclamation of the Gospel will help us each more deeply enter into the story.

          Last week we enacted the account of Jesus temptations in the wilderness from Matthew’s Gospel, today we entered into the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Next week we will play out Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and the following we will offer up the story of man born blind, his parents and his community.  On the fifth Sunday we will climb into the story of Jesus meeting Martha and Mary and their community at Lazarus’ grave, and on Palm Sunday we will re-enact the Passion Gospel according to Matthew.  All six of these Gospel passages t revolve around the themes of Baptism and Discipleship.  Listen for the connections between them as you help proclaim them, and listen for the connections to your own life.

          A bit about this morning’s passage. Nicodemus was a well-respected member of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day.  He was a Pharisee and while a good number of his fellow Pharisees were highly suspicious of the young rabbi named Jesus, Nicodemus felt differently.  For him the young rabbi held an inexplicable attraction.  True, Jesus broke with traditions Pharisees sought to protect – for instance Jesus spoke of God in the most intimate terms and Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath day – but still, Nicodemus sensed something deeply authentic in Jesus and could not get him out of his mind.

          So Nicodemus, under the cover of darkness, goes alone to see Jesus.  There is an interesting progression to their conversation.  At first they seem to be talking past each other. Nicodemus opens with some words to show he is not there as an enemy –   “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” I almost sense that in the next breath Nicodemus was going to say “But…” and then ask Jesus something about why he had to act in ways that were so provocative and pushed the Pharisaical boundaries so hard.  But Jesus cuts him off and heads the conversation in a completely different direction, speaking about how it is not possible to see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.

This makes me think about the fact that Jesus has experienced this birth from above both in his literal birth into the world as God’s very self in human form, but also along the way at hinge points in his human life – at his baptism when he begins his ministry and on the mount of the transfiguration when he is being preparing for the final chapter.  At both those junctures the spirit descends in dove and shining cloud and his human story is transformed and transfigured.

But Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” And so this experience of being born from above is not just for Jesus, it is for Nicodemus and the rest of us too – or so Jesus’ words seem to suggest. 

Think of the wind we have had these last few weeks – some days it just seems to come up out of nowhere.  The Spirit is like that Jesus suggests.  Like the wind, you can try to predict and control the Spirit through all sorts of religious laws and practices, but the Spirit’s movements are determined by mortals, but from on high. So to be born from above, one must practice being open to the Spirit – being ready to be touched by it by not being too bound to or distracted by the dynamics and concerns of this world.

And so this gospel passage moves us from human perspective to divine perspective.  Jesus is described by Nicodemus at the outset as being a teacher from God, but by the end of this passage we see that he is the Son of God, come not to condemn but rather to reconnect us to God.  The passage starts out on the plane of story – the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus, and as we go, Nicodemus fades and Jesus blends into the voice of the Gospel narrator, and by the end it is as if we are watching what is happening from on above. It is a story designed to draw us from thinking in terms of this human world, to thinking on the plane of the Spirit and God’s eternal realm. In that way it is not unlike the story of the mount of the transfiguration where Jesus is also revealed as the Son of God. 

But in both stories, at the end, life in the human realm goes on, and what was experienced and learned by being touched by the eternal needs to be incorporated into life in this world. So we might wonder what happened to Nicodemus after that night. From the two other places he is mentioned in John’s Gospel, we see that his encounter with Jesus surely began a change in him. In Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel we meet Nicodemus again but this time it is in broad daylight.  The Pharisees are questioning the Temple Guard about why they have not arrested Jesus for stirring up the people with his teachings.  Nicodemus stand in the midst of this discussion and asks, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  It is a bold move.  He would have been much safer to keep quiet.  He is not exactly taking Jesus side, but he is speaking openly against those who would seek to silence Jesus.

And then we meet Nicodemus for the third and last time in John chapter 19.  At this point Jesus has been crucified and his body is hanging lifeless on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asks for permission to take his body down for burial.  But he does not do this alone.  We are told:

“Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing a hundred pounds.  They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews.” (John 19: 39-40)

          That loving, daring and compassionate act is the last we hear of Nicodemus. How he lived out his discipleship from then on we do not know.  And perhaps that leaves us right where we need to be, putting the focus back on us and asking, “Having been touched by the power of the Spirit and given new life in Christ, how am I going to live out my discipleship this week?” May we each pray for the gusts of the Spirit to move us in the right direction as we seek to answer that question, going forth…  In Christ’s name.  Amen+

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 Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 – The Second Sunday in Lent  Posted by on Mon, 13-Mar-17 News, Sermons Comments Off on Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 – The Second Sunday in Lent