John 4: 5-42
The Rev. K. Dean Myers
I begin this morning by taking care of two tasks: first, to thank Fr. Peter for inviting me to preach; and second, to introduce myself briefly to you. Both to answer the question most of you are no doubt asking: Who is this other tall guy, and why is he in front of us now?
I am an ordained, but happily retired Presbyterian minister. Yes, I am a little nervous, but not because my Scot Presbyterian spiritual ancestors and your Church of England spiritual ancestors experienced some unhappy moments a couple of centuries ago. We are pretty much over all that, but I am still confused by all the titles bestowed upon your clerics and your lay leaders, and more than a little in awe of everything that transpires up here during worship. Someday I may get a chanted Psalm right!
I am a product of small-town, rural Iowa, a baptized-in-infancy Presbyterian, a graduate of Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Since my ordination in 1968, I have served churches from the west coast to the east, picking up a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Pittsburgh Seminary along the way. I have been retiring in stages for five or six years.
My wife, Maxine, is a Pittsburgh native and unrepentant Steelers fan. We've been married for over 40 years, and have two daughters. Elizabeth, her husband, and their two elementary school daughters live in Oneonta, NY. Rebecca lives in Philadelphia, PA.
Our family moved to Northeast Ohio in 1989 so I could accept the call of the Church of the Western Reserve (CWR) in Pepper Pike to serve as its pastor. Maxine and I live in Orange Village. In 2003, I left CWR and then served as Interim Pastor in four churches, leaving the last one in 2012. Since full retirement, I preach when invited, serve in our Presbytery, and just enjoy being retired.
I write. I’ve tried my hand at short stories, personal essays, creative nonfiction, and political commentaries that often make their way to a blog I have. Music, particularly classical, is a great passion of mine. Maxine and I like to travel, and have been to every corner of this country and to several overseas lands as well. We enjoy being outdoors, both in our small garden and in what's left of the more natural world. We both like to sing, she in the Western Reserve Chorale (with Sara Schiller), me in the Singers' Club of Cleveland, and both of us in the choir of Christ Episcopal Church.
Singing is what brought us to Christ Church in the first place. We have known Jeanette Davis Ostrander and her family since before William was born. For several years, Jeanette was the Church of the Western Reserve's organist and director. Technically, I was her “boss,” but working with her was more like sharing than bossing. When Maxine and I learned that Jeanette was serving here, we knew that Christ Church's music program was in great hands. Since “here” wasn't too far from “there” in Orange Village, we visited one Sunday last spring. We've pretty much been here ever since, joining the choir in the fall.
Christ Church has welcomed us in a way no other church we've visited has. The choir quickly counted us as one of its own, and we've begun to know other members and friends of this congregation as well. We value and look forward to nurturing our relationship with this congregation, where meaningful worship, challenging preaching, good music, significant outreach, and warm relationships abound.
Now you've noticed I have successfully used up a good chunk of my allotted time. I notice it, too. Maybe I've done that because today's texts are so overwhelming, so rich, and so full of preaching possibilities, that it's easier to do almost anything other than speak to and about them.
Introducing myself to you resonates in me with the way Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well encountered and learned about one another.
Their dialogue begins at a very simple level (“Give me a drink,” Jesus asks), and quickly transitions to more complexity. The text transitions to more personal and probing levels of knowing one another, substantial and upsetting pushes and pulls as they explore each other's religious traditions, culminating in Jesus suggesting that true religion goes well beyond both traditions. The Samaritan woman successfully testifies about Jesus to her fellow Samaritans.
These stories parallel how the best of relationships develop in churches such as Christ Church. We start at sharing basic information, then explore more profound needs and hopes, telling others just how good it is to be part of this community!
The starting point for most thinking about this passage emphasizes two great walls between people that this dialogue wants to overcome: A wall between men and women, and a wall between Jews and Samaritans.
In a male-dominated culture, a man talking with a woman in public was troubling, but I don't need to explore that in much detail today. Other, often more subtle, but equally irrelevant manifestations of male hierarchy and privilege persist in our time and place.
There were also high walls between Jews (Jesus) and Samaritans (this unnamed woman). How do we tell the reasons simply and somewhat accurately? It's pretty murky at best, as such histories often are.
Samaritans were the descendants of the people of Israel who'd been left home during the exile to Babylon (587 B.C. and later). After sacking Jerusalem, the Babylonians hauled most of the population to their homeland, including Israel’s best and brightest, among them religious leaders, whom the Babylonians apparently felt would be useful. The Samaritan woman's ancestors had been among those left behind, without the established leadership. They intermarried with other peoples in the area, and mixed some of the local, non-Israelite, religious practices with Israel's traditional religious practices. When the exiles, who felt they'd kept the historic faith pure, returned home a half-century or so later, they were appalled by how those who'd stayed behind had corrupted the purity of the nation and of its religion. A huge, forbidding wall was raised between the two groups.
The division between Jews and Samaritans was deep and wide because it was constructed from distrust and disdain between members of one family. It was one thing to have to deal with, say, Romans whose religion was all wrong because they never were Jews in the first place. Lamentable, but understandable. It was quite another thing to have to deal with Samaritans, who had been raised in the same household and should have known better. “How can my brother, my sister, so dishonor our parents? You cannot expect me to understand or to forgive that, can you?”
Against all rules, Jesus (the Jew) asks a Samaritan woman to give him a drink, and that request sets in motion a conversation of twists and turns and uncharted layers of meaning. For example, when Jesus starts talking about “living water,” the woman doesn't get it. Lest we be tempted to attribute her denseness to her being a Samaritan woman, you may recall that last Sunday, good male Jew Nicodemus didn't get it when Jesus started talking about being “born again” or “born anew.” They suffered equally from terminal literalism. “You mean I have to re-enter my mother's womb?” Nicodemus asked.
“Sir, give me this (living) water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the woman demands of Jesus.
Amazingly, Jesus pushes through the misunderstanding to significant issues of religious faith and practice. We could spend far more time than we have exploring what to make of the five husbands Jesus claims to know the woman has had, not to mention the man he says she is living with who is not her husband. How does he know all that? Some hear the number five as symbolic, but that interpretation is controversial. What’s symbolic and what’s literal? What does Jesus mean by worshipping the Father in spirit and truth?
Whatever is happening with this dialogue, we are stopped short and can only stand amazed when this woman (probably not formally educated and a second class citizen of a despised minority) suddenly takes a leap of faith toward the truth: “I know the Messiah is coming,” she offers, as if testing the (living) water. We wonder if she is actually thinking that this man who is talking with her might be the Messiah, the coming savior for both Jews and Samaritans. She dares not say it. Jesus, however, is not at all reticent: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
She knows who he is because he has told her! It's a wonderful, wall-shattering moment of meeting, acknowledgement, recognition, breaking down and breaking through - until Jesus' disciples arrived, astonished that he was speaking with a woman. They didn't voice their astonishment, but it is so obvious that it drove the woman away. Leaving her water jar, she returned to the city and said to her Samaritan neighbors: “Come see this guy. He told me everything (five husbands, etc.) I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”
She saves the nearly-lost moment with her witness, testimony and her search for the truth about Jesus. The Samaritans then leave their city and go to find Jesus themselves. She who has left her water jar entices them to leave their city!
The story that began with a single Samaritan woman concludes with “many Samaritans” believing in Jesus because of her testimony. They even ask Jesus to stay with them, and he does - for two whole days! More Samaritans believe because “we have heard for ourselves, and... know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Savior of the world God so loved, and loves still. These Samaritans are recorded in John as the first community to realize that Jesus is who he is for the world. Review the previous chapters of John: only John the Baptist seems clear about who Jesus is for. Of all people, the hated, loathed Samaritans, understand, because Jesus knew a woman better than anyone else before knew her. Jesus welcomed her to trust, believe in, and follow him anyway!
If Jesus came for Samaritans, he surely was on the scene for the world. If he could allow himself to know and to be known by those alienated, blaspheming, and loathed brothers and sisters of God's supposed chosen people, he could choose anybody.
Despite knowing everything about us and our communities and cultures, Jesus has chosen us all to follow him. He has chosen to love and use us for holy purposes. He also chooses that person, that outsider, despite all you and I may think we know about them and their community and culture, to follow him with us. He loves and chooses us all, flawed in body and spirit as deeply as we are. As Paul wrote to the Church in Rome long ago, “…while we were sinners Christ died for us”…out of love, out of desire for us, he died.
That is very good news for this world and all of us Samaritans…for all who share life on our little home planet.
Rev. Peter Faass
At this past week’s Wednesday morning Bible Study, Mark Biggerman reminded me that when I previously preached this particular gospel passage, I held up a sign that read, “John 3:16.” That was six years ago.
You’re familiar with this sign, right? It’s almost impossible to watch a professional football game without spotting at least one of these being held up by a fan in the stands. The verse referred to is the one we heard just a moment ago:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 is one of the most well-known Bible verses and simultaneously one of the most destructive. Right wing Christians (those holding those placards at sporting events and concerts) define this passage to assert exclusion rather than inclusion to God’s abundant love. These folks say, “If you don’t believe in Jesus exactly as I do, then you are not saved. If you’re not saved, well, get used to a lot of relentless fire and brimstone in the hereafter.”
This use of John 3:16 shows you can’t cherry-pick scripture and use it out of context without rendering great harm. We need to put this verse back into its context. Verse 3:17 follows, stating, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus came to save the world not to condemn it. Yet, the claim that right wing evangelical Christians make of John 3:16 being a litmus test for religious purity while ignoring John 3:17 and other verses that follow it, allows them to justify damnation for many. Disregarding 3:17’s message that God desires to be in relationship with all people, 3:16 has become a bludgeon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for a theology of salvation that is foreign to John’s Gospel and to the Jesus of the Gospels.
Yes, God will save you, but only if you believe in my right wing, evangelical-dogma Jesus. All the rest of us folks, Christian and otherwise, are, to quote a local evangelical pastor, “dangerous and deluded.” Read between the lines: this means going to hell.
Statements calling others “dangerous and deluded” or condemning people to hell portray a God alien to Jesus’ message. These statements are also alien to John’s assertion that Jesus did not come to condemn the world. The certainties about salvation that these folks proclaim come from claims about God that do not reflect the God we know in Jesus.
The assertion in John 3:16 that God loves the world is not some theory for salvation that can be parsed: God loves the world . . . except those people I don’t like and who I want to condemn.
God loves the world is specific, not ambiguous. God loves the entire world.
When we are told God loves the world, we are called to do likewise. We do so by striving to emulate Jesus’ behavior in our lives. This entails radical love and hospitality offered through the care and compassion for the least among us, companionship with all God’s children, and loving one another as we have been loved.
When we read John 3:16, we should understand it as saying this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him and loves other as Jesus loved them will not perish but have eternal life.”
To love as Jesus loved means that we can never look at any human being and place them in a “God doesn’t love them” category because such a category does not exist except in the minds of severely misguided people. Yet, we still have this great divide between the Jesus of the Gospels and the Jesus created by right-wing evangelicals.
Polls consistently reveal what social scientists have known for a long time: White, conservative, evangelical Christians are least likely to support politicians and policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It is a dumbfounding irony. Conservative evangelical Christians, who most fiercely proclaim to have a personal relationship with Jesus, are the very people who are most likely to reject his teachings and despise his radical message of love. This is why we have a federal government waging an all-out assault on the lives of so many vulnerable, marginalized, unloved people in our society.
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness, cardinal virtues of the Christian faith.
Jesus proclaimed the slavish pursuit of wealth is contrary to the Kingdom of God . . . and that to be a follower of Him means to give generously of one's money to the poor.
Right wing Christians loath any policy that they think is "socialism," even though socialism is essentially what Jesus preached. They despise food stamp programs, support for struggling schools, job training - anything that might dare to help out those in need, even though helping those in need was exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.
This group loathes Obamacare even though it provides essential medical coverage to millions of poor people. They supported politicians who pledged to repeal it, until they discovered that the Affordable Care Act is the same thing - and repealing it would deny themselves health insurance.
You can’t claim to follow Jesus if these are your values.
Why do I tell you this? Well, I believe that everything I hold of value as a human being and as a Christian is under assault today. I tell you this because I want us to hear Jesus’ voice over and against the forces that lead this assault on authentic Christian values. I want that voice to propel us to action.
I want us to raise our voices for:
I tell you this because recognizing our common humanity with all these peoples, and the earth we share as our home, compels us to understand the sacredness of our being made in the image of a loving God. I tell you this because I believe following the way and the truth of Jesus gives life itself. All this compels me to protect all that is sacred, holy and beautiful in this world. Most importantly, I tell you this because I want you to understand what it truly means when we are told that God loved the world so much he gave us Jesus and his love.
The next time we see someone holding a placard that reads John 3:16, remember John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That is the way, the truth and the life of Jesus. Now let’s live it ourselves.
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35
Rev. Peter Faass
The book of Acts is a history of the early Church and offers some of the Bible’s most vivid stories. In Acts, Peter’s vision of a four-cornered sheet coming down from heaven (filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air”) is the among the most fascinating. We might wonder what overly spicy meal Peter dined on prior to his dream.
While we may view this story as a tad bizarre, within it is the Gospel’s essential core message: A heavenly voice tells Peter to eat what he sees on the sheet. The revelation is so profound for Peter that it causes a radical paradigm shift in the theology of the early Church proclaiming God’s love – a love that Jesus proclaimed through his words and actions during his earthly ministry.
Peter was at Simon the Tanner’s home in the city of Joppa, just south of modern day Tel Aviv, when he had his vision. “ ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat,’” the voice told Peter. Peter calls the voice “Lord,” indicating that it is Jesus speaking.
“But I replied, `By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.' But a second time the voice answered from heaven, `What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'”
As we read about this exchange, remember that the early Church was comprised almost exclusively of Jews who recognized that Jesus as Messiah was a fulfillment to their Judaism. These Jewish Christians observed the Law of Moses, which included kosher laws about food, and male circumcision, an outward symbol of the Abrahamic Covenant. Early Church leaders felt that it was also necessary for Gentile converts to adhere to the Mosaic Law. The early Church essentially considered itself a Jewish sect. Keeping kosher law that was not a terribly difficult task. Sure, no more pork roast or cheeseburgers, but hey, the brisket and the noodle kugel were nice compensation. But when it came to adult males being circumcised, that posed a significantly more challenging obstacle.
We know this was a significant obstacle because of a group of people called God-fearers who are frequently mentioned in the Christian Testament. God-fearers were Gentiles who honored the monotheistic God of the Hebrews, attended synagogue services, and even financially supported Jewish life. Ultimately, they couldn’t bring themselves to fully convert to Judaism because of the circumcision requirement.
It is the home of the God-fearer and Roman Centurion named Cornelius that the Spirit compels Peter to go to after his vision of the critter-filled sheet. In Acts (chapter 10, verse 22), Cornelius is “an up-right and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.” So while he was a Gentile and Roman solider, he was also seen as a mensch – a person of integrity and honor - in the Jewish community.
Peter goes to Cornelius’ house to baptize the Roman and have a meal with his family. This is big news, as it doesn’t say Cornelius was also to be circumcised. By dining with and baptizing Cornelius, Peter has violated the two major tenants of the early Jewish Christian church:
Peter is roundly criticized for these behaviors by “the circumcised.” These are the core members of the Church, who by their circumcision are Jews before being Christian. Under fire, Peter uses his vision of the descending, critter-filled sheet to explain the circumcision-less baptism of Cornelius and to justify his table sharing with Gentiles.
Does baptism erase those distinctions between Jew and Gentile? Does it replace the adherence to the Law? The answer is clearly no.
In the vision, God annuls those distinctions prior to baptism. Even though the Lord/Jesus told Peter to eat the food before him, Peter responded that he could not since the Law prohibited such cuisine. Based on God’s original creative authority and acts, God trumps tradition and Torah instruction: The voice reminds Peter that we cannot make profane or unclean what God has created clean. This refers to the Genesis Creation story where at the end of each day we are told, “And God saw that it was good.” Therefore, it was all good before the law and institutional religion made it bad.
Peter understands God’s disruption of his sleep and his biased thinking as the Spirit teaching him not to make distinctions “between us and them.” As he explains to those infuriated by his behaviors at Cornelius’ home, “The Spirit told me to go . . . and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
With this phrase, we understand this vision goes beyond dietary laws; it is about human relationships. In this vision, God is correcting our faulty theological anthropology; our pernicious human tendency of putting our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric above God and His will for Creation.
This is why this story contains the core message of the Gospel. It distills the message of Jesus in John’s Gospel “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
As we sing in that wonderful hymn, “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no north or south” there is also no more “them and us.” In him there is just us, all together. We are children created in the image of a loving God and bound together into one body; the body of One God sent into the world so that we might live and live abundantly.
Of course there is reality. When it comes to our “them and us” bias, behaviors, stereotypes, and rhetoric today. I think Charles Dickens captures our era well:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
We have made significant progress in our efforts to eradicate “them and us” in our society: an African-American president, marriage equality, women justices on the Supreme Court. But we also find that with each step we take toward erasing those distinctions, the more others in opposition rise to resist and reinforce those distinctions. That is why it is the best and the worst of times. Evil is so bewildered and terrified by the message of the Gospel coming to fruition that it is fighting back with all it has in its power – and it’s pretty ugly stuff.
Witness the current controversy over transgendered access to public restrooms in North Carolina. Legislators who passed this pernicious law requiring people to use restrooms based on their birth gender are people who see the “thems” of the world as “unclean” based on perceived differences. It also signifies a belief in their own superiority. They are passionate that if the “us” and “them” get too close, live too close, or interact too much, they risk becoming contaminated and “unclean.” Their belief is constructed upon differentiating themselves from others, instead of upon who we are in God.
Witness a fear of “them” so insidious in segments of our society that Southwest Airlines saw fit to eject a man from a flight a few weeks ago because he was speaking Arabic!
These are only two examples in a society rife with them. Notice the tenor of our current political campaign and the racism, misogyny, Islamaphobia and homophobia oozing from many segments. Sisters and brothers, the Gospel calls us to a different standard.
An “us and them” mentality should haunt our human sensibilities if we want to experience and benefit from our common humanity. We need to always be on alert to check our biases and stereotypes. God says it is imperative that we engage with others different from ourselves at a deeper level. This will not happen when “us” compels we keep our distance from “them.”
The only way we end making distinctions between “them” and “us” is by learning to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, white privilege and other biased behaviors and thinking are not Godly; they are motivated by fear of the other – not love. God shows no favoritism for one human being other another.
Let us never forget: We are all good in God’s eyes despite the fact that laws and institutional religion have made so many of us in “thems” who are unclean, and therefore bad.
Hearing the Spirit’s voice, let us passionately “make no distinction between them and us” and recognize the goodness of every person from every family, language, race and nation.
Katie Ong-Landini is Project Director for the new Retreat Center in Wakeman, Ohio, a property acquired and being developed by and for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Ms. Ong-Landini is also a member of Christ Episcopal Church.
Do not be far from me,
We have come to a hard place, a place of death, desolation and defeat in this story. We read John’s account of Christ’s passion every Good Friday, so we know it well. Like many stories, we often view it from a distance so we can easily step outside and observe. Sitting here this evening, we are at a distance looking at what is happening, but taking no part. We might empathize with the pain and suffering, but, ultimately, it is difficult for us to understand how the characters in this story are feeling.
One part of this tale has caught my attention as never before, and to me, it has challenged my own sense of connection to the drama and my own vocation as a Christian. I am referring to the story of the Denial of Peter, and I think it lies at the heart of the passion story to those of us who follow Jesus.
This message is as relevant today as it was when the gospels were written.
Peter and another disciple followed Jesus from his arrest in the garden, to the Kidron Valley, back to the City of Jerusalem and the court of the high priest, Caiaphas. If we really think about it, this act is considerably brave. The rest of the disciples scattered since they were fearful of getting arrested themselves. Although Peter and the other unnamed disciple were probably also afraid of getting arrested, they stayed close by to determine what was happening to their friend and teacher.
Despite Peter’s attempts to blend into the crowd, other people recognized and challenged him about his identity, where he is put on the spot. In fear for his own safety, Peter’s gut reaction meant denying to whom he belonged. Peter denied Jesus three times. In the Bible, the number three denotes a perfect completion; so Peter’s denial of his relationship to Jesus was absolute. It is as if Peter was washing his hands of Jesus and all that he had done and taught. This is what Jesus predicted would happen: When the going got tough, Peter would abandon Jesus, too.
As I have been contemplating this passage from John, I feel a greater kinship to Peter than I ever had before. I empathize with Peter in his denial of Jesus, because it is something that I also do. I am acutely aware of this, due to my participation in a series of activities throughout Lent:
First, I have been participating in the diocesan-wide Lenten discipline, “Growing a Rule of Life;” so, like many of you, I have been thinking about the various ways I need to cultivate a daily and seasonal rhythm that connects me more consciously to God’s presence in my life. For the past six weeks, I have been intensely contemplating how my life does not truly reflect a strong relationship with God, and I fail in many ways to live a life that shows I am a follower of Jesus. I am good at managing the easy stuff, but, too often, I do not focus on some of the harder internal work that is necessary to live out my Christian vocation. Like Peter, I also deny to whom I belong.
Second, I have been participating in the book study group, led by our own George Richards, and we have recently read two books that deal with our country’s criminal justice system. Both books, “The New Jim Crow” and “Just Mercy,” have profoundly affected my understanding of race relations in the United States, and I realize how ignorant I have been about policing, the court system, and mass incarceration over the past 20 to 30 years. I have been too focused on issues that directly affect my life; so I have not paid attention to the profound injustices that are now the law of the land. I might have taken the opportunity to do something about these changes before they became entrenched. In my willful ignorance, I have denied to whom I belong.
Third, like the rest of you, I have been acutely aware of an especially contentious political climate, and the news media has focused largely on the negative and divisive rhetoric of people who are attempting to appeal to our basest fears and anger – and mostly for their own political gain. For the most part, I have tuned out what is happening and what people are saying. And yet, by tuning it out and not engaging in a constructive way, I have denied to whom I belong.
It is in these experiences that I have come to Good Friday, with a new understanding of “Peter’s Denial.” I have said before that the character of Peter is a literacy archetype: He is the Everyman. He represents us, the average people who try to live honorably, do good works and help others. Those of us who are faithful followers should really relate to Peter. Look around! Here we are attending church on Good Friday! Some of us have been here every day this week! We are just like Peter. Trying to figure out what is going on, trying to find some meaning to what is happening. We are brave enough to show up and say that we are Christians.
But like Peter, when really pressed, we often deny what Jesus is calling us to do:
Bryan Stevenson, a public affairs attorney and author of "Just Mercy," notes these sobering statistics at end of the book [page 317]:
For the most part, the people connected to the criminal justice system are unable to vote, get access to public housing and other government assistance, and secure many types of employment. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Third, we deny our common humanity through our own prejudice – by treating people who do not look like us, live like us or share our views or life experiences as “other,” as something to fear or to look down upon. This week, the attack in Brussels exacerbated negative opinions about Muslims and immigrants. We continue to demonize people who hold different views, and we often feed our own fears and prejudices, rather than attempt reconciliation. Where is our Christian voice in this?
Yet, this is the point where we need to turn back to the story of the Gospel, because it guides us how to move forward. At the end of today’s reading, Peter didn’t not know what would happen – but we do.
In "Just Mercy," Bryan Stevenson writes:
"We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent…But our shared brokenness connected us.
'But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion." (pg. 289)
So, here is the message of Peter’s Denial. We are the faithful, and all of us stumble. We also know that even when we are fearful or angry and deny our role as Christians, we have God with us to fix the brokenness of the world. That is why we put the “Good” in “Good Friday.” This day reminds us that we, as people of the Jesus Movement, are never alone in promoting God’s distributive justice.
The Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes this point:
"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (*Hebrews 4:16)
*Psalm 22 states:
3 Yet you are the Holy One,
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
4 Our forefathers put their trust in you;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 They cried out to you and were delivered;
they trusted in you and were not put to shame.
And the prophet Isaiah proclaims:
See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high. (*Isaiah 52:13)
Before I end, I invite you to join me at Wednesday morning Bible Study, or at our monthly book study group on the third Thursday of each month, or at coffee hour after Sunday services – or any time to figure out how we become advocates for change that impacts those people we most marginalize. I am serious about wanting to address these issues, and I wonder how we can work on this together. So, please let me know if you are interested in doing something. I hope that you feel as ready as I am to own up to our relationship with Jesus Christ and get out there and make a difference.
As we live into Good Friday, go ahead and embrace your own pain and brokenness, your own fear and anger, your own denial of Jesus. But do so in light of knowing how the story ends, knowing that the resurrection is almost upon us, knowing that God’s Kingdom of love and distributive justice will prevail. Knowing that our God is with us, we can proclaim boldly that we belong to Jesus. Amen!
*Note: All Bible references refer to the New Revised Standard Version, also known as NRSV.
John 12: 1-8
Rev. Peter Faass
We are a week away from Holy Week, the most sacred time of the liturgical year, when we will once again “walk” with Jesus through those last days of his life and celebrate his triumph over the power of death on Resurrection Sunday.
Holy Week is multi-layered in the richness of its theology, offering parallels to our own lives on how to deal with every possible human experience:
Holy Week is a gift from God through Jesus to us, his followers. But Holy Week has a component that makes me a little anxious – the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. Holy Week is somewhat “foot-centric,” and truth be told, I don’t like having my feet touched. I have some pretty big feet, providing more surface area for touching (not a good thing!).
Today’s Gospel story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair reminds me that foot washing season is right around the bend. So, I am steeling myself in anticipation of whomever will wash and dry my feet that night. Clearly, Jesus had much more resilient feet than I do.
Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet parallels the Maundy Thursday/Last Supper foot washing event, which (based on this event occurring “six days before the Passover”) is only a week away. At the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an expression of humble love. “As I have done for you,” he tells them, “you should do for others.”
He then gives them the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love one another…” became a hallmark of the church and discipleship, which is why we re-enact foot washing yearly despite the squeamishness we have surrounding our feet. By anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary fulfills this love commandment before Jesus even asks it. She boldly gives herself in this radically humble act of service and love. It is an eschatological moment, when God’s reign is made palpable.
While Mary’s humble loving act foreshadows the commandment to love one another and is an inbreaking moment of God’s reign, it is because of who performed this act as much as it was done. We must not underestimate that who did the foot washing matters.
To state the obvious, but Mary was a woman. Now that may not be so earth-shattering to 21st century Americans, but in first century Palestine? Oy! It was scandalous for a woman to engage in what she did! In that culture Jewish woman did not under any circumstances touch men in public. Additionally, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, which is still true in some segments of Orthodox Judaism or conservative Islam today.
Also recall this is the same Mary who sat at Jesus feet to study, learn, and be educated… LIKE A MAN! This was also taboo. Women were not considered worthy of learning in that culture.
Remember the movie Yentl, with Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin? Set in 19th century Poland, Jewish women were forbidden to study religious scripture. But Streisand’s character yearned to study the Talmud like males did. She is so passionate to learn that she disguises herself as a man so she can attend shul. Although this is now almost two centuries ago, 19th century Poland was chronologically much closer to us than it was to the 1st century. Old attitudes die hard.
Jesus’ interactions with Mary remind me of a story in Luke: When seeing Jesus, a woman in a crowd exclaimed “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Highly complimentary words, right? Mary the mother of Jesus must have felt good about them.
Jesus was bold in his response to her: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28). In other words, yes, child bearing and rearing are a good thing, but relationship with God is better. Being in right relationship with God is better than everything, because everything good in human life springs out of that relationship.
These stories convey that for Jesus, women are more than sexual objects and child-rearing machines. That’s why Jesus did not have a problem with being touched by women; seeing them with their hair down; with women talking to men; or being active with their bodies and alive in their senses. He did not see women as chattel or second class. Jesus believed women to be equal at the intellectual level, salary level… and at all levels. There are no glass ceilings in God’s reign.
Jesus’ empowerment of and high regard for women is underlined yet again when Mary anointed him with the costly fragrant nard. “Messiah” is the Hebrew word translated as “anointed.” Jesus as Messiah is the “Anointed One.” With this understanding, Mary “anointed the Anointed” as king. In this singular act, John’s Gospel offered a radical view of the power that women hold in God’s reign.
In biblical times and much of Western history, women did not anoint anyone. Men anointed men. The prophet Samuel anointed David as King. The pope (a man) crowned kings, (also men) throughout much of European history, and vice versa. The Archbishop of Canterbury still crowns the monarch in Great Britain. We Anglicans have a bit better history with anointing women as monarchs, if not as Archbishops. Heaven knows, we would not be here as a Church were it not for the brilliance of Elizabeth I!
It is earth-shattering that Jesus was anointed and given power by a woman. It is no coincidence that when he enters Jerusalem the next day, crowds hailed him with palm fronds, shouts of “Hosanna” and acclamations of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” A woman anoints him king!
March 8 was International Women’s Day. This annual event was founded in 1908 to celebrate the economic, political, and social achievements of women and to continue the fight for equal rights in all aspects of life. This year’s theme, the “Pledge for Parity,” recognizes that while we are better than we used to be in giving women their equal status in all of human life, we also have a long way to go.
International Women’s Day finds its authentic genesis in Mary and the foundational principles of God’s reign as expressed through Jesus’ love. Mary was a first century Jewish woman who:
Mary, for all intents and purposes, founded International Women’s Day. Because of that, it is in God’s reign International Women’s Day finds its fulfillment.
The scripture prior to today’s story centers on raising Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ tomb, Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is in a time period before embalming was used, and Palestine is a pretty warm climate, so dead things get stinky pretty fast. When Jesus ordered the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.”
Now parallel that stench of death at Lazarus’ tomb with Mary’s act of anointing Jesus with nard. The text tells us, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The story conveys that the stench of death has been replaced by the fragrance of love.
That’s what Jesus does; he replaces the stench of death in our lives with the fragrance of love. It is what we mean when we say in the third Eucharistic Prayer in Enriching Our Worship that, “he proclaimed the coming of God’s holy reign by giving himself for us, a fragrant offering.”
That’s what happens when we love others as he loved us. The stench of deathly human behaviors and attitudes is replaced by the fragrance of God’s love and inclusivity for women, the marginalized, refugees, the poor, the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, and for all of us – today and forever.
Isaiah 62:1-5;Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
As we celebrate the life and witness of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s easy to talk about “King the dreamer” or “King the drum major for peace and justice,” but there was another side to King. As Randall Kennedy wrote in a forum article in the Plain Dealer some years ago, King was a boat rocker with a “. . . discomforting willingness to challenge Americans’ accepted ways of life. …” Making them “…profoundly uncomfortable… “
As I read snippets from his speeches and other reflections on his life, I was struck by the fact (and more tellingly that more than 50 years since his death) that we are still a deeply divided nation and a world that needs to be challenged – that needs to be reminded about who we are and what we are called to do.
2016 is vastly different and yet so unchanged from the world Martin walked. Poverty, inequality, hatred and fear still stalk our streets and the death of all hope in the extinguished lives of children is a daily, if not hourly, occurrence. Like me, I think he would be at a loss to find God (or at least a God recognizable to him in what passes for legitimate sociopolitical debate). In all the noise, the one thing I hear clearly (and which I think would sadden and perhaps frighten him deeply) is this sense of a world still badly divided in which there is not enough:
It’s easy in such a world for some to believe they must get theirs first and leave the dregs for the rest and they willingly use their gifts and talents, power and politics to get their way. In such a world, what would Martin say and most importantly what would Martin do?
First he’d cry and then he’d raise his eyes to God for his marching orders. Martin would likely make us uncomfortable as he’d challenge us to find and be our better selves. Toward the end of his life, many saw the Prophet Martin’s powerful oratory and even more powerful witness as way too political. Which begs the question - what’s this thing about the Church and being too political anyway? And yes, I know about the separation of Church and State. But let’s get real, at every turn, Christ spoke truth to power, challenged the status quo, turned the money changers out and taught that the last and the least of us would be first. He was a rabble-rouser and boat rocker and if that ain’t political, I don’t know what is.
King’s witness to and engagement in the world reflected his belief in a gospel grounded in the life of an activist Christ. Shaped by such faith, Martin didn’t mince words. One of King’s most controversial speeches was his eulogy for the four young African American girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963. King in essence called out faith communities everywhere for their silence and inactivity in the face of such martyrdom stating that:
“…these girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and spoiled meat of racism … they have something to say to each of us black and while alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
Our fear of being seen as too political makes it too easy to allow caution to silence our prophetic voices, leaving us with, as Dr. King said, “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” The Prophet Martin would challenge us by asking what is political about the cry for justice and the yearning for peace. He’d want to know what’s wrong with wanting to earn the same wages for the same work or being treated with dignity and respect.
Dr. King would affirm that the achievement of all of these things are a reflection of the beloved community, of what God’s kingdom in the here and now would and should look like. Just as he spoke such heartfelt truth in that eulogy, he would bluntly tell us that prayer, while needed, is not enough. If we can’t, don’t or won’t advocate for such things, we cannot assert that we are a faith community professing Christ as Lord. If we walk with Christ, we must be Christ’s voice and Christ’s hands in the world. As such, we must not be afraid to speak truth to power and set our hands to work for peace.
Thankfully I don’t think that “…an uncertain sound” is a problem in this place, given the diversity of voices reflecting on the intersection of scripture and our journey in the world. I am sure, given some of the topics God has laid on my heart, that some might say that I am sometimes too political or too focused on African American themes in my sermons. All I can do is own both of those things – as I am an African American women raised during the last half of the 20th century (and all that means). As a deeply faithful woman, I see the African American journey as a reflection of the journeys all of us share on this planet.
Clearly, the African American journey, deeply-rooted in issues of faith and power, is the well from which Martin drew his prophetic vision and voice. I also see the strong link between scriptures’ call for us to bear witness – and what I believe was the call to speak truth to power that Martin heard and acted upon. He didn’t stop there, as his vision led him to give voice to issues many saw as beyond the scope of a black preacher from Georgia. He saw that amidst the challenges that shape our various lives, our concerns are no different as we seek to live in peace; make a living wage; be accorded dignity and respect in our engagements with others; and finally, to leave the world a better place than we found it for our children and our children’s children.
What would Martin do? He would say “cry if you must, pray because you must and then lift your eyes to God for your marching orders.”
He would push us to move beyond our red doors and embrace the message at the heart of our scriptures today, which run counter to that narrative of a glass-half-empty, telling us that there is abundance in God’s kingdom and economy. As Paul tells us, God has chosen and equipped us with the gifts necessary to be his voice and hands in the world. We are witnesses to Christ and the good news revealed at the wedding feast of what the world would and should be like when God is among us - none will go without and the best is yet to come.
Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9 or Isaiah 25; 6 - 9; Psalm 24; Revelations 21: 1 – 6a; John 11:32-44
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
Given the lessons appointed for this day on which we celebrate the lives of the saints all I can say is WOW!! First up was Revelations and the image of a new heaven and a new earth and of all things made new and of God, God himself coming to dwell among us. The Gospel of John then reminds us that if we believe, we will see the glory of God. That vision of a New Jerusalem and of God among us speaks to the heart of me – a heart too frequently broken recently by the realities of our world:
Who among us in this world does not cry out for the hope and promise that death is not the end? You know that oft-repeated phrase, “…for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that all that believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
There’s that thing called love again which has been the focus of my latest homilies. Love and life center on hope and God’s promise. God loves us:
Our lessons affirm that because He loves us, God and good will triumph over evil and bring to fruition a world transformed. In this world, and earth are knit together in one communion and fellowship.
When I think of the kingdom of heaven and that vision of a New Jerusalem, I know that it cannot be described in terms of geography or even anthropology. Instead, Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom is based on the transformation of human hearts.
The image of Jesus, of God made flesh weeping for us, speaks to the heart, turning our traditional ways of thinking upside down. It is a sign that God is concerned about the things that break our hearts and is moved by the tears of his children. Such a concept breaks all the rules for us in this very materialistic world. The imagery of our lessons today calls for us to embrace new attitudes that conflict with the usual ways we tend to approach life. (The lessons) call for a new discipline which believes that God is not through with us or this world through regeneration and renewal, transformation and change, and a world remade by God’s love.
But it’s not just the world that changes. If God is not through with us, it means each of us must go through the process of renewal as well. And there is the rub: If we are honest, none of us really like change because it takes work on ourselves and in our relationship with others.
When we add the element of the spiritual to the mix, what does such change or transformation mean for each of our lives? In the book Spiritual Transformation and Healing, psychologist Kenneth Pargament states "at its heart, spiritual transformation refers to a fundamental change in the . . . character of the sacred in the life of the individual. …." (p. 18).
When I think of transformation, I remember a period of great change in my life when the only thing that kept me from losing it was my firm belief that God was not through with me yet. He had more for me to do.
God had a plan for me which I couldn’t fathom at the time. Though I did not know it at the time, I was experiencing the work of the sacred, of God’s love in my life. I stepped out in faith and relied on God’s amazing grace to see me through. In my heart, I knew then and joyously affirm now that God was making good on his promise to me and each of us to make all things new.
When we often think of saints, we think of perfection. But saintliness is really about transformation, how we grow into the gift God has given us and become what God has called us to be.
We are clay in God’s hands and in faith we must allow him to shape our lives, our faith and our service. That is the life in Christ we are called to. Yes, we are works in progress, but it is through God’s amazing and loving grace that we can grow beyond what we think is possible in our lives and this place.
As we end the Feast of All Saints, let us pause and give thinks for God’s bounty. As individuals and a faith community, may we be open to God as he seeks to transform the world and ourselves, and our witness to His love and saving grace. May we always celebrate God’s gift of life and the communal spirit that pervades this place.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.