Lent 4: Cannot Unsee

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1 Samuel 16:1-13
John 9:1-41

One image from the readings stuck with me today:

I imagine the old prophet Samuel squinting down on (or up at) each of Jesse’s sons.

“Hmmmm….”

Our Old Testament reading about the selection of David as king of Israel includes God’s famous warning to Samuel: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (v. 7).

And in the Gospel lesson, the formerly blind man tells the religious authorities the only thing he knows: “that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25).

Last week we had water. This week, the metaphor is also as plain as can be: the ability to see clearly, or not see, as the case may be.

Really seeing, especially the ability to really see other people, has been a philosophical topic of conversation ever since there have been philosophical conversations.

Some people, society easily sees correctly. Others, less so.

My pastoral care professor, Dr. Greg Ellison II, literally wrote the book on caring for African-American men in today’s society. This morning’s Gospel reading is about seeing, not seeing, and in the Pharisees’ case a refusal to see. And Dr. Ellison takes us to the ways we refuse to see the marginalized, and the way the blind man himself was seen, in the first paragraph of Ellison’s book, Cut Dead But Still Alive. I imagine the blind man being described thus:

“Spared from the gallows of emptiness and impotent despair, the fortunate human soul finds life and the potential to flourish when noticed favorably by others. However, some living souls endure the woe of being passed over with no account. Like phantoms, they ache to be seen and heard. But, persistent un-acknowledgement takes a toll on their psyches. With shadow-cast faces, they teeter from explosive rage to implosive depression. Locked in an unending nightmare, their future hopes diminish, and the daily existence of facelessness becomes a cruel and fiendish torture. Herein lie the stories of the faceless phantoms, tramping through city streets, suburban corridors, and college campuses, screaming from the shadows to be seen and heard. They are cut dead but still alive.” (1)

Intentionally or unintentionally, we so easily pass over people, in different ways at different times. We hate, fear, and revile some, especially men with brown skin, based on how they look to us, while others, like women or people with disabilities, we simply disregard as if they have nothing meaningful to contribute. The results for those who are feared or passed over from our refusal to really see them can range from emotional pain to death.

When I hear what sounds to me like an indictment of the way I see people, I moan with the Pharisees,

“Surely we are not blind, are we?”

The Gospel talks of seeing and refusing to see. But it begins with Jesus seeing someone who was not seen. Like so many today, this blind man was quite literally cut dead but still alive. He wandered the world a beggar, unable to see, but even worse, a phantom, unable to be seen. Even when his parents are brought into the picture, they refuse, out of fear of the authorities, to even acknowledge that a miracle has happened to their son, who had become so desperate that he was on the streets begging. But Jesus does see him, and because God saw him, he got to see God.

How often do we, intentionally or subconsciously, refuse to see others?

For those of us with sight, this is the blindness that we could use a little healing from here in Lent, because it is the kind of blindness that can be deadly to others. But once we see such truth, once we really see people and their struggles, we cannot not see them.

A common Internet joke, used for good as well as evil, has been the phrase “cannot unsee.” In the Internet culture known as meme culture, which relies on short phrases paired with an image to make a point or a joke, “cannot unsee” usually refers to bad things seared upon one’s memory. But when I re-read the end of today’s Gospel story, saw how Jesus saw the blind man and then the blind man saw, and saw Jesus’ final exchange with the Pharisees — “we are not blind, are we?”, the phrase “cannot unsee” was all that came to mind.

Because Jesus sees the blind man, the blind man sees.

And then all hell, or all heaven, maybe, breaks loose, because a miracle has happened and no one can unsee it, the blind man can’t return to being blind, and people can’t pretend like they don’t know.

After being healed, the formerly blind man is then dragged repeatedly before the authorities as everyone (as my colleague put it this week) proceeds to freak out for thirty verses. Finally, at the end, Jesus goes and finds the man after he finds himself thrown out by the Pharisees for the smart aleck quip: “Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Biblical wisdom: If you’re gonna get thrown out for Jesus, land a good line first.

We know that Jesus went immediately to the blind man once he heard he’d been thrown out, because the Pharisees are still standing around when Jesus finds him. They hear Jesus say that he came into the world so “that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (v. 39).

In what reads to me as almost a rare moment of vulnerability, but may very well have been a cocky sneer, the Pharisees say, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (v. 40).

Jesus responds, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

In other words, you cannot unsee this.

The Pharisees have seen the eyes of the blind opened. They cannot unsee it. It would be different if they didn’t know, if they hadn’t seen it, or if they even claimed to not know why his eyes were opened. But they haven’t done any of that. They’ve thrown people out of the synagogue in spite of it. They claim to understand Jesus: that he’s just some crazy person. They deny the evidence and yet claim to know.

But you cannot unsee this miracle. This is the kind of thing that changes everything.
From tragedies to happy times, we all have things we cannot unsee, images seared into our consciousness forever. These are times when our lives changed forever, when we experienced truth or joy that changed everything. Hopefully, we all know moments like this that are good as well as bad: meeting a soul friend or a spouse for the first time. Or the first time you held a child or grandchild. There are also the bad moments that we cannot unsee: a relative’s face when we first learn of the death of a loved one. Memories of things we have seen: horrific accidents, disease, poverty or violence that changed how we see the world  forever.

Society as a whole has also had these moments. As recently as last year, there was the photo of the dead Syrian boy washed up on the beach, as the world had to come to terms with the violence in Syria and the plight of refugees. The images of the Boston marathon bombings reminded us of the reality of terror and showed us that it can indeed happen here. There are countless others from history: the man who stood down a tank in Tiananmen square. The children running from napalm in Vietnam. The Marines raising a flag over Iwo Jima. Dorothea Lange’s photo of the face of a wearied mother during the Great Depression. With television and the Internet have come videos of violence: from ISIS terror to police violence.

These were images we cannot unsee, seared into our consciousness forever, which opened our collective eyes to what was happening. After that, we could not claim ignorance. We could no longer claim that this sort of thing doesn’t really happen. We saw it.

In this Gospel lesson, being blind is no sin. The blind man is healed. It is claiming to see, but refusing to really see, that is the real sin.

The Pharisees do this with Jesus, and we do it to each other. We allow what we think we know to blind us. Whenever our pre-conceived notions related to gender, race, religion, sexuality, political identity, age, or any other factor cause us to cut others dead or simply dismiss them, they are a problem.

And in some ways, to varying degrees, it happens to all of us. No matter who you are, there is a stereotype of people like you that you deserve to not be defined by. I would know. I’m a white person from Alabama. And though there is certainly good history to be explored, white people from Alabama don’t always have the best track record in history.

Trae Crowder, a self-avowed Southern redneck with progressive views, first pointed it out about himself and the state of California where he’s recently moved, but it’s true of me as well: no one stopped me at the Mason-Dixon line and said, “I’m sorry ma’am, we can’t have your kind up here burning crosses in people’s yards. You understand.”

No matter who you are, there is a stereotype of people like you that you deserve to not be defined by. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Atlanta, but I also noticed that none of you Yankee types have burned down and sacked the parsonage, either. (Civil War joke.)

But the Good News is that “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

This God-vision is what made Jesus stop and heal the blind man. Though the blind man was cut dead by society and by his own parents, it’s Jesus that raises him up to new life, not only allowing him to see, but making him visible.

We often think of God seeing us as a little creepy: as if God is looking over your shoulder to catch you committing a sin.

But we really need to let go of the idea that God is as petty as we are.

We are made in God’s image and seared into God’s mind, and God will not unsee us. The Bible says over and over that God sees, and God hears, and God remembers. God doesn’t see us to hit us with lighting bolts for saying cuss words in traffic. God sees us to heal us.

As imperfect as we are, God sees us to give us a new vision, to open our eyes to new life and new possibilities, for ourselves and others. God restores our vision, so that no one has to be cut dead, but so that all may be clearly seen.

We are raised to new life and new vision, able to see ourselves and each other for what we all are: beloved. And once you see that, your whole life changes, because what the Internet knows actually is true: what has been seen cannot be unseen. Amen.

1. Gregory C. Ellison, II, Cut Dead But Still Alive: Caring for African-American Young Men, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p1.

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Lent 3: On Human Density and Living Water

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Brian “preaches” to the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
John 4:5-42

The Monty Python movie, Life of Brian, came out in 1979 and is, to date, one of the best commentaries on humanity and its relationship to religion that I have ever seen.

What does Monty Python have to do with the story of the woman at the well?

I’ll get there.

Life of Brian is set during Jesus’ life, in the Middle East of the first century. A man named Brian is born on the same night as Jesus in Bethlehem, and the wise men show up to his home instead of Jesus’, until through a series of fumblings, they discover that this is not the foretold child that they are looking for. Despite Brian’s mother’s protestations for them to bring back the expensive gifts, the magi make it to the house where the foretold Messiah actually is, and the scene ends.

Brian’s life continues to go this way. On the streets of Jerusalem in the first century, preachers are everywhere and miracles are often rumored. The Romans are harsh overlords and everyone is looking for the Messiah, someone to lead them — and Brian keeps accidentally and quite comically implicating himself as a would-be Messiah. Once, he falls off a rooftop running from a Roman soldier and knocks a street preacher off his soapbox. Deciding that this might be his best way to escape the soldier, since no one pays attention to these crazy guys anyway, Brian begins to preach about peace and love, but people actually start to stop and listen. Realizing that he’s attracting a lot of attention to himself, Brian grows nervous — then the Roman soldier spots him when he is mid-sentence and he runs away as the people protest: they want to hear the rest!

Brian continues this way, being mistaken for the Messiah. He eventually hides out with his mother, but crowds gather outside. Finally, he comes out and, to cheers, says he has one or two things to say. Brian urges them to follow their own path — and to leave him alone.

“You’re all individuals!” he yells at them.

“Yes! We are all individuals!” they yell back.

“You’re all different!”

“Yes! We’re all different!” One fellow says, “I’m not,” and is quickly smacked.

“You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”

“Yes! We’ve all got to work it out for ourselves!”

Brian, satisfied that they’ve gotten the message, attempts to leave, but he’s stopped by the crowd: “Tell us more!”

Humans, especially when it comes to things that we cannot see, have a hard time. We have this ability to latch onto things and concepts and refuse to let go. We have expectations of what “things foretold” will be like. We don’t want to “work it out for ourselves.” We want someone to work it out for us.

And, above all, we are really, really dense.

In fact, I’m sometimes afraid to go to one of those icon making workshops, because what I really want to paint is an icon of Jesus facepalming. I will have it no other way.

Even the Old Testament reading today gives us the Israelites, who have been led out of Egypt by great miracles, complaining that they have no water — a lack of faith that God will not let them forget. (And that’s what that harsh psalm was about.)

We know that God’s love is evident in God’s love and patience towards sinful humanity.

But I find that God’s love is evident in God’s infinite patience with dense humanity.

Today, we have the woman at the well, who is one of those rare, talented humans who just may get it. Or not. We’re not really sure. Again.

John does this to us a lot.

Last week we had Nicodemus, whose character in John is really hard to figure out. He engages Jesus, calls him Teacher, says he comes from God, asks him questions, defends Jesus and helps bury Jesus. But he also remains a Pharisee, makes a very feeble attempt at defending Jesus, and gives Jesus a rich burial in secret.

And also in the story this week, we have the disciples, who are definitely dense.

Jesus is traveling from Judea to Galilee, and you can almost hear John sigh as he writes, “But he had to go through Samaria.”

Samaritans and Jews, as John tells us, don’t share things in common. By this point, they’ve a centuries-old religious and cultural struggle. I won’t get off into the weeds describing it, but you are welcome to resarch. For our purposes, let’s just say that they had all the fervor you can imagine in a clash of just-similar-enough-to-hate-each-other-in-a-uniquely-informed-way cultures. We’re familiar with such struggles today. Today we might even say that the particularly enthusiastic Trump supporter from Mississippi and the particularly enthusiastic Clinton supporter from New York meet one another by a well. Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common, they did not want to talk, and they had different values. Their cultures were sort of similar, but they also came from different worlds in many ways. That’s where we are today.

And Jesus strikes up a conversation with this woman from another world. He meets her at a well. Now, if you know your Old Testament stories, you’ll know that significant meetings happen by wells. This is particularly true of couples, with the not-so-subtle implication being that the couple who meets at the well will have a fertile marriage.

Well, while these two obviously won’t be a romantic couple, their meeting will be fruitful —  just not with children. John’s Jesus has a way of toying with our expectations.

She, understandably, is baffled by this Jewish man chatting her up, but she continues to engage him. It’s hard to tell if she really gets what he’s saying theologically — I mean, like with Nicodemus, do you? — but she keeps going toe to toe with him in what reads, to me, like the verbal version of two ninjas sparring. Even when she says “You have no bucket and the well is deep,” it’s entirely possible that she’s just using the same metaphor he’s using. I mean, they’re standing by Jacob’s well, and water, as we talked about Wednesday night, is a common spiritual metaphor.

The Samaritan woman not picking up his metaphor it would be a bit like a group of high school students walking with his history teacher on a field trip to a Revolutionary War battleground. One student gets his foot stuck in a hole. The teacher quips, “Ah yes. Many have struggled for freedom here.” The student responds, “Well, they should put up a sign then, if so many people keep getting stuck.”

But the teachers in the room know that this kind of denseness does indeed happen.

The conversation continues, and she finds out that Jesus knows about her personal life without being told. He knows all about her husbands — which, by the way, could mean that she has married and divorced of her own will five times and is now shacking up with a boyfriend. That would certainly be the case today for such a situation. What’s much more probable in her world, however, and therefore her reality (and not ours), is that she has been passed from husband to husband as property, either being divorced or because her husbands died. This would be particularly common if she had married a series of brothers who died without producing an heir.

And who is the man she lives with now? Who knows? A boyfriend? A friend? A stranger kind enough to keep a widow from starving?

The text itself isn’t as concerned with the woman’s romantic life as its interpreters have been. John’s Gospel doesn’t pass a word of judgement on her. It’s just another example of Jesus knowing things without being told (he does the same thing to Nathanael in John 1:47-50).

And then things get real.

She says, “Look man, I see that you know things, so you must be a prophet.” She says she’s looking for the Messiah like the rest of the Samaritans and Jews.

And this is where our translation falls short. Several times in John, Jesus will say “I AM,”  the divine name, but the English translators will render it, “I am he.”

Anyhow, it makes us miss a big moment here.

Jesus literally says, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then, awkwardly enough, the disciples walk up, and unlike the woman, they are as dense as a fencepost about everything. They remind me of the two guys in the movie Rat Race who are frantically searching for the Las Vegas airport. A plane zooms overhead as one of them looks up and says, frustrated, “Where the hell’s the AIRPORT?!”

But by this point, the woman is long gone. John tells us that the woman left her water jar and went into the town.

The symbolism is as clear as a smack on the face: she doesn’t need her water jar anymore. She’s got Living Water. Her jar sits unused by the well as proof.

And she’s going to tell everybody.

The disciples are oblivious to all of this. In all that “fields are ripe” talk that follows, Jesus is basically telling them that they’re about to reap a harvest they didn’t work for, but a woman did. (And here we have Jesus: understanding a woman’s centuries-old struggle.)

Because at that moment, the woman is going and telling the whole town about Jesus, and through her, they’ll come to believe. This meeting by a well would make for a fruitful union indeed.

The reaper’s already receiving wages, bro, and she is awesome at her job.

We never really know for sure if she got her theology right. All she really has are questions: “He can’t be the messiah, can he?” All she can do is tell them about her experience of him — about how he saw her and he knew her. And that was enough for John to make this nameless Samaritan woman into a hero of his Gospel, the one who gets it better than the Teacher of Israel in the chapter before.

Yes indeedy, humanity is dense. But in God’s great mercy, God keeps finding ways for us to find new life and discover the kingdom anyway.

The woman at the well may have gotten it, or she may not. But there was just something about that Jesus guy that made her want to tell the whole town. And even those dense disciples will go on to fulfill Jesus’ mission of being God’s embodied love to the world. Even their dense butts would find redemption and new life, as they just kept telling the story of that Jesus guy who changed their lives.

Most of my generation doesn’t go to church. Most of New England doesn’t either.

But we keep showing up, not because we really get it necessarily, but because there’s just something about this Jesus guy that keeps us coming back.

We laugh about how dense humans can be, especially about religion. But in truth, we worry about it too. We worry a lot about really “getting it,” about having the right theology. But the truth is that we’re all kind of fumbling in the dark as we talk through this, wrestle with the Bible, listen to the Holy Spirit, and try to figure it out. But the good news is that we don’t have to wait to get it figured about before we invite others along.

Just remember: “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?” was once an evangelistic line that brought a whole town on board.

So come, drink of living water; never thirst again.

May your water jars clink to the ground as you leave this place to embody love in the world, as you become a spring of new life. Your theology and your biblical knowledge may or may not be on point, but living water? That’s an experience, not a piece of knowledge.

So let us experience the risen Lord in wine and bread and water and words. And may others experience God through us.

Because Living Water is here for the taking, and there really is just something about that Jesus guy. Amen.

Lent 2: Breaking Binaries

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A representation from Cameroon of Jesus and Nicodemus (Jesus Mafa, 1973). (1)

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Sometimes, there are sermon illustrations that just stick with you forever. I have a few of those, as you might imagine, from my childhood of growing up in moderately fundamentalist Southern Baptist churches. (I say “moderately” because we weren’t cool with, say, women pastors or preachers, but we were totally cool with letting women lead music and Sunday school.) 

I have my own personal name for this story, but since that name is 100% inappropriate for a sermon, I decided to call it for our purposes today, the “poop brownie” story. I was a kid — maybe 10 or 11 — when this happened, so as you might imagine, the image just stuck.

A disclaimer: No actual brownies were harmed in the making of this story. To make it less gross, details have been altered.

Our pastor at the time was frustrated by the logic he was hearing from his children whenever they wanted to watch a movie that wasn’t a Christian movie.

“But Dad,” they would say, “it’s not a bad movie. It’s got a good message. It’s just got a little cussing in it.”

Frustrated to high heaven by this logic, the pastor mentioned this in a sermon, along with the analogy he gave his kids: “If I baked you brownies, and put just a little of something gross, like.. say, dirt, in them, would you eat them?”

“No!” his kids declared, as expected. “That’s disgusting!”

“So why would you be okay with going to see a movie with ‘just a little’ cussing in it?”

Needless to say, that stuck with me. For years, I felt guilty going to see movies that had any cursing or violence or sex in them, convinced I was poisoning my mind with “just a little.” I missed the point of a lot of good movies this way.

Because things in our world were either good or bad. People were either saved or not, good or evil, “one of us” or distinctly not “one of us.” Our world existed in binaries: North vs. South, Alabama vs. Auburn (football rivals), liberal and conservative, black and white (and I mean that both racially and metaphorically). Which choice was the right choice was always clear and doubt was as acceptable as dirt brownies. We had no room for any grey areas. In fact, we were quite convinced that the grey was, by definition, bad. If something — a movie, a person — was contaminated, God could not be in it.

Needless to say, this led to a lot of existential worry on my part. I confessed and re-invited Jesus into my heart no fewer than 25 times a day, convinced that if I happened to die — or if the rapture happened — after I committed an unconfessed sin, I would go to hell.

I had a lot of existential angst for a kid.

It was through literature and story that I learned to experience the grey as a real thing, and to break out of the overly simplistic thinking that I slowly started to realize left all kinds of God’s people in a mess. By the time I discovered the Lutheran idea that we are all simultaneously saint and sinner, that God reaches into our mess to save us and continues to save us of God’s own free will, it resonated so strongly that I wanted to write every theology paper on it.

The Gospel of John gets a bad rap for oversimplifying things into binaries, or groups of two, one good, one bad. Everything seems like it’s about either darkness or light, and in John, people seem to either believe in Jesus or they don’t. Everything seems to be separated into either flesh vs. spirit or world vs. God or darkness vs. light. After all, John’s Gospel is the one that gives us the famous passage, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That was a memory verse when I was growing up.

We certainly loved John’s Gospel for this reason: everything just seemed simple.

And Jesus talked a lot. We liked that too, even if we had trouble fully listening when Jesus pushed us.

Thank God someone saved the Gospel of John for me. I think my faith was saved too.

When I was in seminary I took an entire class on John, where my professor would constantly challenge our assumptions by pointing us back to the Bible: “…but what does the text say?” “How does that line up with the rest of the Gospel?”

I was always taught that the character of Nicodemus just doesn’t understand. He’s a Jewish leader, which we all knew meant that he was probably a bad guy, no matter how well-intentioned. “The Jews” seem to all be bad guys in John, after all. Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus saying that he needed to be born again, which to us obviously meant that he needed to accept Jesus into his heart.

What I would learn later is that Nicodemus shows up not one time, but three, in John’s Gospel. Later, in chapter seven (John 7:45-52), Nicodemus will defend Jesus, though not that strongly. He does it kind of like a politician would, if you go back and read it: essentially, he says, “our law doesn’t judge people without giving them a fair hearing, does it?” He phrases it as a question, not a full out defense. He clearly wants to say something, but he doesn’t seem to want to upset his fellow Pharisees.

Finally, at the end, Nicodemus will help to bury Jesus, although he will do so, it seems, kind of secretly. He will give him a royal burial with a lot of expensive spices, and no one is absolutely sure if he does that because he gets it — that Jesus is God incarnate — or if it means that he really doesn’t understand, because he spends a lot of money on a grave that will only be a grave for three days. (cf. John 19:38-42)

We never get the sense that Nicodemus ever “came out” as a disciple (to borrow a phrase), probably staying with his Pharisaic community for the rest of his life — at least, for all we know.

So is Nicodemus good or bad?

We live in a world of binaries, where we need everything to be simple. You have to identify yourself along party lines, as either this or that. Given our binary way of thinking, “Is Nicodemus a good character or a bad one?” seems like a fair enough question.

I attended a talk once hosted by the bishop who ordained me, Julian Gordy of the Southeastern Synod. The talk was about who can take communion. Ultimately, the bishop let us all come to our own conclusions, as the purpose was just to get the conversation going. However, he cited Luther’s small catechism in his talk: that the one who understands the words “given and shed for you” is well prepared to take the sacrament.

The bishop posed the question: “Does a visitor to your church understand ‘for you’? Does a child understand ‘for you’?”

A bold pastor in the back said, “I don’t know, do you?”

“Shut up,” Bishop Gordy said quickly with a smile, pointing a finger at the smart-aleck pastor, “I’m getting there.” (He did.)

Is Nicodemus good or bad? This whole Jesus thing: does he really get it?

I don’t know, do you?

This is not a call to not have boundaries. It is a call for humility. Humility — something our public discourse desperately needs these days. We want things to be either/or. Simple. But they hardly ever are, especially when it comes to messy human beings — or a holy and infinite God.

The truth, beloved, is that we are all living into God’s holy mystery. We all come curiously to Jesus — whether by night, in quiet corners, or by day here in church. We all come looking for something. And what we find often baffles us, because what we find is an infinite and incomprehensible God who loves us fiercely.

If anything, judging too quickly leads us right into the hands of the devil — if the devil is, as we talked about last week, ha-satan, the adversary, the accuser. That voice that judges us and dismisses us or others all too quickly.

That person is bad. I am good. Or, conversely, that person is good. I am bad. God could never love me.

Abraham in our Old Testament reading today is told to get up and find a new home that God will show to he and Sarah. God tells Abraham that God will make a great nation out of the children that he and Sarah will have.

At that time, mind you, Abraham was a childless seventy-five year old.

Any sane person should’ve told him he was crazy for dropping everything to move and follow God’s call. They were too old to move, much less have kids. No doubt the accuser knocked at Abraham’s door more than once: “You’re too old, Abraham.” 

But Abraham recognized that God was present and God was leading him somewhere. So he showed up. He went.

Years later, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, will flee for his life from his brother’s rage. He’ll find a resting place in the wilderness and put a rock under his head as a pillow. He’ll dream of a ladder, and of God’s promises, and he’ll wake up to declare, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I knew it not” (Genesis 28:16).

Nicodemus’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t have the right theology. It’s that he’s in the presence of God and doesn’t yet recognize it, because, well, it’s not always easy to recognize.

God keeps showing up, whether we know it or not. And that complicates things far beyond our binaries of good or bad, belief and unbelief. Does Nicodemus believe?

I don’t know, do you?

What we do know is that, contrary to what the brownie sermon would have had me believe, God is not afraid of our mess. We are all saint and sinner, imperfect believers like Nicodemus (2). We love Jesus imperfectly and we don’t always recognize it when God is right in front of our faces. The danger is when we get caught up searching for the Bad, for something contaminated — within ourselves, other people, movies, brownies — instead of searching for the holy. Surely the holy is everywhere.

“Surely God is in this place, and we knew it not.”

Christians like to throw Scriptures in John around all the time — from John 3:16 to John 14:6 (“I am the Way, the Truth, the the life”) — in an attempt to point out the contamination in the world and convince others to join us in our correctness. What we don’t consider is that “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” is not meant to affirm us in our right belief but to affirm that it’s Christ who makes the rules, not us. And we don’t consider is scriptures like John 3:17, without which John 3:16 is incomplete (“the Son did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him.”)

Surely God is in this place — this mess, this world — and we knew it not.

God is in this place, in bread, in wine, in us — imperfect us. Nicodemus, I think, would get it eventually. People when faced with God’s direct presence, like Jacob, usually do.

I leave you with the words of Diana Butler Bass that I shared with the Wednesday night supper group this past week: Where is God?
“God is here. And how shall we act upon that? Well, that is up to us” (3). Amen.

1. JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the Lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. Each of the readings were selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by the community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings. Date: 1973.
Source: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-processquery.pl?code=ACT&SortOrder=Title&LectionaryLink=ALent02 
2. Susan Hylen,Imperfect Believers: Ambiguous Characters in the Gospel of John, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
3. 
Diana Butler Bass, Grounded. New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 11.

Lent 1: “Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You”

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Seen in rural Alabama, by the side of I-65.

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

Thanks to Lent, and in the tradition of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening and New England in the eighteenth century, this is a sermon about the devil.

Okay, it’s not in the tradition of the First Great Awakening. There will be no “sinners in the hands of an angry God” and it’s too cold for tent revivals. But they talked a lot about the devil too back then. Anyhow, thanks to the Bible, we have to talk about the devil today.

When I was in college, there was a sign in the middle of nowhere on the side of the interstate which, complete with a red devil and pitchfork, read, “Go to church or the devil will get you.” It was actually on the way to my college from the Birmingham airport, and many a teammate of mine from another country or another part of the country questioned their life choices about where they had moved when passing it. Sometimes the places you move to defy stereotypes. Other times, they don’t.

In another episode about the devil, one of my favorite comedians in the world, Rowan Atkinson, popularly known as Mr. Bean, has one particular sketch that I find relevant today. You know, the devil goes by a few names.

Atkinson begins the sketch with a clipboard, a pair of horns on his head, and a black robe.

He begins:

“Hello, nice to see you all again.

Now, as the more perceptive of you have probably realized by now, this is Hell, and I am the Devil. Good evening. You can call me Toby, if you like – we try and keep things informal here, as well as infernal. That’s just a little joke.

Now, you’re all here for eternity, which I hardly need tell you is a [heck] of a long time, so you’ll get to know everyone pretty well by the end, but for now I’m going to have to split you up into groups. Are there any questions? Yes? [pause]

Um, no, I’m afraid we don’t have any toilets. If you’d read your Bible you would have seen that it was [punishment] without relief. So, if you didn’t go before you came then I’m afraid you’re not going to enjoy yourself very much … but then, I believe that’s the idea.

Right, let’s split you up then.

Can you all hear me still?

CAN YOU HEAR ME AT THE RACK?

All right, off we go …

Murderers, over here. Looters and pillagers – over there please, thieves if you could join them, and bank executives …” (1)

On Wednesday night we faced our mortality, and today, on the first Sunday in Lent, we have the devil appearing just about everywhere. That’s Lent for you, I guess.

When I was first talking through how to lead families through the baptismal process with my pastor back in Atlanta, she was familiarizing me with the Lutheran baptism service and warned me: “There’s a lot of devil talk in there, and that freaks some people out.”

No kidding.

She went on to say, as I now say frequently, that an acknowledgement of sin and Satan are less about archaic religion and exorcisms and a lot more about how the world is not as it should be. Things are broken.

In a poll that was simply titled “Devil and the Demographic Details,” Gallup estimates that, way back in 2001, 68% of Americans believed in the devil, 20% said they didn’t, and 12% said they weren’t sure. Those devil belief numbers have gone down a bit in recent years, but they tend to hover at over half of Americans believing in Satan as a real entity. (2)

Now, you all know that I am a highly practical person, sometimes entirely too into reason and my own mental processes to be very good at being spiritual. It’s weird for a pastor, I know, but here we are, and at least I’m in New England, where overly cerebral, academic personalities are a bit more tolerated than in other places. There’s not much to do in the winter besides read here anyway.

So I admit that I used to be weirded out by devil talk, too. I mean, it seems odd: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead wasn’t too much for my sense of reason, but talk of the devil was just crazy. I suppose the difference was that the resurrection made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but the devil was scary. So there you go.

Then I faced up to the question at the end of seminary six years ago in my very first ordination paperwork. I knew quite well that if I didn’t look further into this, I wouldn’t be given a church in Alabama.

Though the devil reportedly went down to Georgia, Alabama pastors, too, just can’t serve properly without being able to give a good Satan talk.

And so I did what any overly cerebral seminarian would do: I looked at the Hebrew.

In our Genesis text today, we have the serpent tempting, and succeeding, with Eve. He tells her that God wasn’t really serious about that fruit — that it’s totally fine to eat.

Why was fruit so bad? That’s another question for another day. Let’s stick to the devil.

Most of us know the story at least pretty well: the serpent tempts Eve, who eats the fruit. Eve then gives some to Adam, who curiously does not ask enough questions, and he eats some too. When God finds out and asks Adam for an explanation, Adam blames Eve, then Eve blames the serpent, thus beginning the long human tradition of blaming other people for our s… our stuff.

The serpent isn’t named Satan here. Satan, as I said before, has many names. Here, the devil is just called the serpent. The serpent, Beelzebub, the devil, Satan, is understood as a tempter. But Satan, in Hebrew — called “ha-satan” in the book of Job — means “the adversary,” or traditionally, “the accuser.” Far beyond the horns and pitchfork, the devil is the one who accuses us of wrong.

The devil, to me at least, is that voice in your head that says that you are not beloved. That your mistakes are forever. That God could never love you after all you’ve done. That you will never be able to be fully yourself. That your life is over. That there is no hope.

Satan is the force, the voice, that accuses: it says that you are corrupt, and you were not created good.

The devil is a liar.

Even in today’s Gospel reading, we hear the voice of ha-satan, the accuser: there is an accusation in every temptation.

Twice, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” asking Jesus to prove that he is really who he says he is: God’s beloved Son.

Then, for the last grand temptation, the devil takes Jesus up to a high mountain and shows him all the world’s power and says, “I’ll give you all of this if you’ll worship me.”

The implication and hidden accusation being, of course, that Jesus is vulnerable and weak and in need of that kind of power. The devil has all the persuasion of a dealer touting, “Hey! I’ve got what you need.” It’s not about something that’s nice to have, a luxury. It’s about need.

Jesus was facing the world’s most powerful empire in Rome, stirring up trouble. His life was in danger.

In the words of Whoopi Goldberg in the 1990 film Ghost, Jesus, “You in danger, girl.”

Pilate will even tell him at his trial, “What is truth?” with the implication being “What is truth compared to power?”

The devil offers safety through strength. You’re weak, Jesus. You need power.

Ha-Satan, Satan, the adversary and accuser, strikes again.

Call it Satan or call it whatever you like, but we always seem to feel accused. Accused of being weak or dumb, of not being good enough, of not working hard enough, of having the wrong political beliefs, of not having a grip on reality, of being a bad parent or a bad spouse or a bad adult child, of being less than we should be. Sometimes, those voices come from others. But you all also know that sometimes, they come from within.

And we could certainly all stand to improve ourselves (that’s part of the point of Lent, after all). But when the accusation goes beyond what we do and starts to strike at who we are, we have a problem. It is the difference between trying hard to improve and giving up improvement because you feel that something is wrong with you.

When we feel accused, we do exactly what Eve did, and what Adam did. We pass the buck. We don’t like to talk about our own faults.

When we are outraged by something on the news, most of us are more likely to blame someone else, like a religious or ethnic group, a leader or other person, or a corporation, rather than change our own behavior.

This is true across the political divide: we would rather rant at someone else than to look at what we might change in ourselves.

We can all do something to work for peace and justice in our world, but we would rather accuse than repent. In that sense, we’re perfectly capable of being little devils ourselves.

Jesus offers us a better way. When he is accused by the Great Accuser, he remembers who he is. He remains secure. He quotes God’s words.

God’s words over us in baptism are that we are beloved, and we are God’s own. The other voices that tell you that you are not beloved, that you are not good enough, and that you cannot improve, are lies.

The devil is a liar.

Again, that is not to say that we are beyond improvement. Part of the whole point of Lent is figuring out a better way to live, to prepare us to celebrate Easter feeling renewed.

While we all need to make improvements in what we do, who we are is beloved. When you feel inadequate, don’t pass along Satan’s accusations to someone else. This Lent, look at what you can do to make your corner of the world better. And don’t forget to be still and rest in your belovedness, so that when Toby… I mean Satan… comes accusing, you’ll know whose you are. Let us continue to remind each other, right here in church, that we are beloved.

And that, my friends, was my Lenten devil talk:
Go to church, or the devil will get you. Amen.

1. Rowan Atkinson, skit, posted 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91DSNL1BEeY

2. Jennifer Robison, Gallup Corporation, 2001, http://www.gallup.com/poll/7858/devil-demographic-details.aspx.

Ash Wednesday: On Taking the Time to Be Alive

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Emory University Hospital Midtown: the inner city Atlanta hospital where I accompanied people as their lives changed, and I saw my own life change as well.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Matthew 6:1-6, 12-21

“Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sound the alarm on my holy mountain.”

There are moments for all of us when our lives change forever: when someone is born or when someone dies, or when you get injured or have a health episode that threatens your life. These are moments when our own human-ness and mortality are shoved into our faces. When the preciousness and the fragility of human life are undeniable. And I can’t help but notice how often those moments involve hospitals.

And then there are the people who work with people whose lives are changing like that: EMTs, ER doctors and nurses, and, at one time, me. I worked as a hospital chaplain before I came here. I found the hospital to be a sacred place. Even now, when I walk into one, I take a deep breath of what is, almost, relief. I may not know much, but I know how to navigate this kind of space. I have to remind myself, in fact, that most people hate hospitals, mostly because of the things that have happened to them there.

I came to think of the hospital as a holy place pretty early on in my time as a chaplain. Bad things have happened to me in and around hospitals too, which led me to be a little ambivalent at first. But, slowly, I learned to see the holiness. This place was sacred, for it was where people said hello and experienced great joy when their children and grandchildren were born. Whenever a child was born in our hospital, the opening notes to Brahms’s lullaby played.

That was especially meaningful when I was in the hospice wing of the hospital. The hospice nurses would glance at each other and smile when they heard it, knowing that as they helped someone to say goodbye, someone else, in the very same building, was saying hello.

Holy moments.

The hospital was also a place where I watched people heal. They came in, afraid that they might not survive, and they left with a new lease on life and a new way of seeing the world. They no longer wanted to take life for granted. A brush with death — their own mortality — had gotten their attention. We do not have forever to live. We must make the most of the time we have.

For me, as I watched lives change in front of my eyes, my life was slowly changed too. My eyes were opened to my own mortality. I watched people my age fail to wake up because of a heart defect they never knew they had. I got to know people younger than me who would eventually die from cancer. The sometimes sleepy, sometimes overanxious way that I was used to walking through my life changed, at first tentatively, and then permanently. I realized that I was wasting so many good things simply by not paying attention. I wasn’t really enjoying the time I had: the times I could be alone and enjoy my own company, time I could spend in the sun, time I could spend hiking or running, time I could spend with enjoying the company of people I love. All I had was chores to be done, notifications to be attended to, emails to be answered. I wasn’t really cherishing having the ones I love close to me. I enjoyed time with them, sure, but I never considered how quickly they, or I, could be gone.

And I was, through seeing human mortality every day, forced to see the truth now: life is so, so fragile.

The prophet Joel calls to the people in our Old Testament reading to “Blow the trumpet in Zion, to sound the alarm on [God’s] holy mountain.” Kings did this from time to time in ancient days: call for a fast, a time for the whole community to tear their clothing, put ash on their heads, and repent of their sinful ways. But here in Joel, it’s God, not a human leader, who calls for the fast. The whole thing is meant to be a wake up call: you can’t continue as you have been. You can’t go on like this.

Wake up. Pay attention. Things have to change.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of discussing Ash Wednesday, a friend of a friend on Facebook — more than one such person, actually — said something to the degree of, “I’m just not that into Ash Wednesday. I think focusing on sin and feeling sorry is a little bleak for me.”

I can understand not wanting to talk about sin if all we’re talking about is the times that Jesus was looking over your shoulder and heard you say a bad word. If all we’re talking about is relatively trivial offenses (or non-offenses that people think are offenses) committed by individuals, I get it. I still think that most of us have a psychological need to be forgiven when we’ve done wrong, but I can understand not wanting to deal with individual sin.

What I don’t understand is not wanting to deal with communal sin.

Things in the world are not as they should be, my friends, and we can’t keep saying it’s everyone else’s fault but ours.

We live in a world where people around the world flee violence, where some people don’t have clean water or food, and where still others — some within our own nation — live in fear. We live in a world where greed is rampant and we are distracted and acknowledging truth only has to happen if it confirms my pre-conceived feelings and beliefs. We have all contributed to the way that things are. We need to wake up. We need to change.

Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sound the alarm on God’s holy mountain.

It begins by paying attention. We are not here forever. Life is so, so fragile. We all may be — collectively and individually — a lot closer to disaster than we think we are. We’d better watch what we’re doing and enjoy the time we have.

This Lent, I invite you to slow down. We live in a world where we have constant access to information, where our buzzing phones and computers and tablets so often demand our attention. If it’s not a device demanding our attention, it’s probably something else: a job, a person, a project.

Slow down.
Pay attention. Things have to change.

This Lent, we’ll begin on a journey. Every Wednesday, we’ll gather to enjoy each other’s company, to do nothing but slow down, pay attention, and enjoy good food and good people and good conversation. And then we’ll come into this place to sing and pray, turn off our phones, and even sit in silence.

Blow the trumpet in Zion. Sanctify a fast.

Ash Wednesday is here to remind us of what we always know but rarely acknowledge: we are dust, and we will return to dust. We won’t be here forever.

A friend of mine posted this poem by Jane Kenyon, and that’s where I want to end tonight.

“I got out of bed on two strong legs.

It might have been otherwise.

I ate cereal

Sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach.

It might have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill to the birch wood.

All morning I did the work I love.

At noon I lay down with my mate.

It might have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together at a table

With silver candlesticks.

It might have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.”

So let’s wake up. Let’s slow down. Let’s listen more closely to God’s voice in the silence. This could be a moment that changes your life, that calls you to pay attention: one day, things will be otherwise. Let’s at least be able to say that we lived our fullest, and did all the good we could, in the time we had.

From dust you came, to dust you shall return. We are dust, but we are beloved dust, given love and blessing and opportunity to enjoy. So let us pay attention, squeeze our loved ones, listen to God, and pay attention. Amen.