Jack Shelley is a parishioner of Christ Church and o member of our church leadership, the vestry.
As we reach the end of Lent, it seems appropriate to look back at what sort of Lent we’ve had and what we might have learned. I have been thinking how the life I lead on a daily basis matches up with the sort of life that God would want me to live. It also occurs to me that we are in a time where living our faith outside of church is more important and more difficult than it has been in a while.
Although I don’t need to tell you this, there currently are a lot of unchristian things happening in the world. The most vulnerable among us, refugees, undocumented immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, Jews, members of minority groups, and the poor are being mistreated:
These people are often suffering because of policies enacted by governments or, more insidiously, by those with political power or media influence to say things suggesting it is OK to treat them poorly.
Jesus calls us to serve people suffering the most in our current social and political climate. I am not a biblical scholar, so I can’t give you chapter and verse, but I know that the Bible commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome strangers. There is clearly a tension between much of the current zeitgeist and what we are called to do as Christians. The question is, what do we do? How do we convert our faith into action? How do we act as Jesus would have to aid those who are being increasingly marginalized?
As individuals and a faith community, we can help in numerous ways. We can donate money and time to organizations that help the homeless or advocate for LGBTQ rights. We can sponsor refugees or stand in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. We can call and write to our elected officials and demand that they serve all Americans and oppose policies that cause harm around the world. These are all good things to do, but they are in some ways the easy things to do. Supporting an organization that shares your beliefs or working with people who think like you do can be rewarding and fulfilling, even if coming up with the time or money can be challenging. Calling or writing your government officials can be done from the comfort of your own home and there’s really no downside to telling people who work for you what you think. The hard part, especially for me, is saying or doing something when you come face-to-face with intolerance, bigotry, or callousness.
It is difficult to stand up to power and swim against the tide of popular opinion. At the same time, if we are looking to model our lives on Jesus’ example, that is exactly what we need to do. The story of Jesus’ life is so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how disruptive he was to the political and religious power structures of his time or how radical it was for him to spend time with and value the marginalized. Where does this leave us if we are not always able to stand up to power or defy public opinion? Would Jesus chastise us for our weaknesses?
Today’s readings answer some of those questions. For the longest time, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus struck me as an odd part of the Passion narrative, but I now see it, in a somewhat roundabout manner, as evidence that Jesus understood what it was to be human.
Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus happened during a time of fear and uncertainty for Jesus’ followers. The full weight of the religious authorities had been brought to bear on Jesus and once he was arrested, his followers were on their own. They no longer had the comfort of Jesus’ physical presence and they knew how things were going to end. Simon Peter had the courage to follow Jesus to the high priest’s house, but when he was asked whether he was a disciple, he lied. He lied for the same reason that any of us might lie in a similar situation. If we feel our lives or our freedom hinge on giving the “right” answer, we’re going to tell our questioner whatever we think they want to hear.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ appreciation of what it is to be human? We have to look a little earlier in the story for the answer. Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus has its origins at the Last Supper. After Jesus tells his disciples he will not be with them much longer, he tells them that they cannot follow where he is going. No one else says anything, but Simon Peter responds to this news by saying “Why can’t I go with you? I’m ready to die for you!” There is no doubt in his mind, he’s a true believer. He’s sure he’ll never waiver.
Jesus says to him. “Are you really ready to die for me? I am telling you the truth: before the rooster crows you will say three times that you do not know me.”
We don’t know what was going on in Jesus’ head at that moment, but I can see him thinking, and not in a mean way, “Giving up my life is going to be unbelievably hard. You’re as ready to die for me as you think you are. I know that when you feel like your life depends on saying that you don’t know me, you will. You’re human and your life and your freedom are precious to you.”
If my interpretation is correct, Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus is not a story of Simon Peter’s failure to keep the faith or stand by his convictions. This is a story of what human beings do when they are scared. Jesus’ prophecy that Simon Peter would deny him three times is not a dig at Simon Peter, it’s Jesus knowing how we value our lives and saying to Simon Peter, “I know that you’re human, you don’t want to die any more than I do and you’re going to do whatever you can to stay alive.”
Keep trying to live as Jesus would want you to. Strive to help those in need and stand up to people and situations that are intolerant, bigoted or callous. Stand up to them even when it is difficult or uncomfortable to do so, but don’t beat yourself up if you fall short. Strive to do better the next time and know that Jesus understands our humanity and loves us because of it. As the reading from Hebrews states, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 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.”
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-15
Rev. Peter Faass
The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE was an apocalyptic event for Israelites. Everything treasured – socially, religiously, culturally – was assaulted and seriously threatened. The oppressive Babylonian empire appeared to purposely destroy the core identity of Hebrews through forced exile and forced co-mingling with foreign nations.
Exiles anguished in despair, lamenting that their bones felt dried up and their hopes perished. They felt utterly cut off from the Promised Land and Jerusalem – and from God himself.
In the midst of this despair, God sends the prophet Ezekiel who experiences a series of oracles. The most famous prophecy is the vision of the valley of dry bones. Just before Ezekiel sees the oracles, God shares his desire to offer the House of Israel a new heart and spirit to revive the Israelites and restore their hope.
God then relayed visions of Israel’s future. In the opening verses Ezekiel proclaims, “I was among the exiles by the river of Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezek. 1:1)
In one vision, Ezekiel is brought to an arid valley of dry bones. It was the site of a former battle, with the unburied bodies of armies left to rot and be eaten by carrion-eaters.
God asked the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”
God tells him to prophesy to the bones. As Ezekiel does, the bones slowly come together; bone-to-bone, sinew binding them, flesh upon them and covered with skin. God then breathed life-giving spirit into these bodies. “And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
God said these resurrected bones were the people of the House of Israel. “I am going to open your graves,” God tells them, “and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . . . O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
It’s an awe inducing vision, nearly impossible to believe. For the as good-as-dead Hebrews in exile, good news was difficult to hear – and even more impossible to visualize.
As he relays his vision, Ezekiel challenges the Israelites to view their dire circumstances past their visions of despair and through God’s eyes.
With human eyes can dry, desiccated bones live? Well, of course not!
But see them through God’s eyes, and suddenly bone comes to bone. As one commentary I read stated, “Watch as ligaments bind them together, flesh blankets them, and skin seals them tight. Watch as God’s spirit, which heals hopelessness, infuses them, so that they rise up – a great army testifying to the power of God . . .
[Through human eyes] can corpses be brought forth from graves and become living beings again? Absurd! But look through God’s eyes, and watch them come up, receive God’s spirit and return home.”
If God can restore the desiccated bones of a hopeless people back to life, then there are absolutely no limits to God’s power to do the same in our lives. If we can see hope through God’s eyes, then there is no limit to the possibilities of hope for our being revived from even the most desperate and hopeless circumstances.
God’s opening the graves of the dead and putting his spirit back into them is exactly what occurs in the story of Lazarus. This miracle occurs in John’s Gospel, which was written by a community of early Christians who had just been exiled (or if you will, excommunicated) from the Jewish faith. At its inception, this community considered itself a Jewish sect. Around the turn of the first century, institutional Judaism determined that Jewish expectations of messiah had not been fulfilled in Jesus, whom the community of John proclaimed as the authentic Messiah. So they were cast out, no longer welcome, even despised. They were considered as good as dead.
This denial caused considerable despair and hopelessness. From the context of this situation, the author of John presented the story of Jesus raising the dead man Lazarus from the grave.
Whether we believe this is an actual bodily resurrection or not misses the point. We are seeing through our own, limited eyes and not God’s. It does not matter if Jesus literally raised a corpse to life or not, although he could have done so.
It mattered for the despairing and entombed Johannine community that Jesus –who of course sees everything through God’s eyes - offered them hope. With that hope, they were raised from the graves of despair. That hope is centered in the statement Jesus makes to Martha when he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
In that theological statement, we find that whether death is literal or metaphorical, God’s powerful love for us and the world defeats death in all its insidious forms if we believe in the way and truth of Jesus. We’ll see as Jesus did, with God’s eyes.
Ezekiel shared God’s vision for the “defeated and as-good-as-dead people, giving them hope. Looking through God’s eyes, it was only a matter of time before Israel was freed from exile and restored to Judea, with the Temple and Jerusalem rebuilt.
Bone came to bone. Sinew, flesh and skin grew, and God breathed onto them. God’s vision of salvation for the people became reality.
In John’s community, the death and entombment of excommunication was transformed by Lazarus’ rising from the grave. Jesus did this because he loved Lazarus, also conveying this love for the despondent Johannine community.
In both instances, God gave dead communities a new heart and spirit. Love is resurrection and life; to love is seeing with God’s eyes.
The entire purpose of Jesus’ life was to teach humanity how to see through God’s eyes – the eyes of love. As the hymn, My Song is Love Unknown states, “love to the loveless show[n] that they might lovely be.”
The incarnate God’s desire is always to give us a new heart and spirit so that when our bones are dead and dry, sealed in the tomb of death, we may find the hope to live. When we see through Jesus’ eyes and see as God sees, we are released from the graves that entomb us. Jesus becomes resurrection and life.
When we feel as if our bones are dried up and our spirits gone, when we feel like the tomb has been closed over us and the stench of death grows ever stronger, I can’t think of a greater life-giving message than this one. This is true for us individually in our own struggles and challenges and corporately, as we encounter social and political shifts that threaten us.
Can we believe that God has power over the course of life and death, that God can raise the driest of bones and the deadest of bodies? Can we envision a way of life that sees our lives and the world around us through God’s eyes, with love? If we do, we will have hope. Hope will propel us to testify to the power of God, and a new resurrected life will be ours.
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.
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Peter Faass
One of my favorite jazz singers is Diana Krall, and her signature song, Temptation, composed by Tom Waits:
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation, I can't resist . . .
My will has disappeared
Now confusion is so clear
Temptation, oh temptation, temptation
I can't resist.”
Imagine these lyrics sung by Eve as the serpent tempts her with the forbidden fruit from one tree in the Garden of Eden:
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” the serpent slyly asks Eve. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden;” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Whew! One bite of this fruit and I will be like God? Temptation, oh temptation, temptation. I can’t resist. Chomp!
We have two scripture stories about temptation this morning. The Genesis story is about the fall of the perfection of creation in the Garden of Eden when Eve and Adam disobey God and eat the fruit the serpent tempts them to consume. By caving in to temptation, they introduced death, the pain of childbearing for women, and hard labor to earn their daily bread. The humans are also expelled from the idyllic world of Eden. For his nefarious roll in their fall from grace, the serpent is condemned to slither on his belly. This intriguing punishment leads one to believe that the serpent walked in some upright fashion prior to this; certainly not an image of snakes that I want to think about too deeply!
Adam and Eve were easy marks for the serpent’s wily temptations. How about us?
As we enter Lent, the temptation in Eden poignantly reminds us of how we resist the seductive call of things we have given up this Lent as part of our self-denial. We are subject to weakening resistance even five days in. I suspect many of us hear the serpent’s voice calling us in the chocolate bar, the cup of coffee or the glass of wine. “If you partake of me, you shall not really break your Lenten fast.”
At this time of year, I frequently am asked if it’s okay to break our Lenten disciplines on Sundays, as Sundays are not officially a part of Lent. This is technically correct. The six Sundays of Lent are not counted in the forty days of the season. While that may be legally correct, breaking one’s Lenten fast on Sundays is suspiciously spiritually barren.
Listening to the wrong voice in your life leads us away from keeping our commitment to God. If you eat that hunk of chocolate or drink that coffee you gave up for Lent on Sundays because it’s “not technically Lent,” inevitably the siren sound of the serpent will grow more seductive and insistent, tempting you to do so again on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, because that’s just how temptation works when it wants you to turn away from God. Temptation, temptation, I can’t resist.
Our second temptation story focuses on Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tempts Jesus after forty days of fasting in the desert. Jesus has already gone the distance with his fast - presumably no Sunday exceptions for him! He’s not eaten, so he’s starving and in a weakened state, which makes him vulnerable.
Taking advantage of Jesus' hunger, the devil tries to entice him by turning stones into multiple loaves of bread. He tempts Jesus to demonstrate his close association with the powerful, proving that God's angels will keep him from injury. The devil also lures him to secure the glory of political leadership by offering him the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world if he would only but cave in to temptation, turn from God, and worship the devil.
Think of how often we have had these temptations proffered to us in different forms. Hey, grab all you can get to ensure your own needs and more. Live by the motto, “I got mine too bad for you,” or, “It’s not what you know it’s who you know. Nepotism is good!”
Make sure you fawn over the rich and powerful despite how they treat people, if you believe doing so will benefit you. Amass as much influence and power as you can to satisfy your own ego and meet your goals, regardless of the means, despite how that may be to the detriment of others.
All of these temptations are held before us like luscious fruits of Eden in the world of commerce, advertising, community life, our professional lives, and maybe most poignantly, in politics. If you thought that chocolate was tempting, wait until unlimited stuff and power and status seduce you.
Temptation, oh temptation. I can’t resist.
Despite his weakened state, Jesus does not cave in to these temptations. He refuses to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger. He will instead feed thousands of hungry people in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish. He makes sure all have what they need, not just himself.
Jesus refuses to take advantage of his relationship with God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple. At the end of his earthly ministry, he endures taunts and scourging, trusting God's power to the end as he hangs on a Roman cross.
Jesus turns down the devil's offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of heaven (the restoration of the fallen Eden) to all those who follow him in the ways of justice and righteousness.
Jesus’ response to temptations becomes the template for his earthly ministry.
Each is replayed in Jesus' encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power to gain benefits for themselves; with people who too easily worry about the world's assessment of their greatness rather than God's assessment of how they are doing with loving one another as they have been loved.
If we take nothing else away from this story of Jesus’ temptation, I pray that we understand that when we are tempted (in ways great and small), God is with us, always. God was with Jesus in the desert and stayed with him throughout his life, even when he hung from the cross.
God is with us when:
God is with us.
God knows our temptations and how seductive they are because God in Jesus experienced them. Because we have an incarnate God who knows our humanity inside-out, we have a God who not only knows and is with us, but who sympathizes with us when we are so tempted as well.
There is no place so desolate, so distant, so tempting or so challenging in human life, where Jesus has not already been. There is no test or temptation so great that Jesus has not already overcome. Because he has been there and done that, he can love us back into right relationship with God, even when we have given in to our temptations.
Whether it’s the seductive call of chocolate, wine or caffeine during Lent, or the tempting voice of evil in the world saying it’s okay to think only of yourself and your own needs to the detriment of others, even when you are tempted by the offer of excessive accumulation, status and power, know Jesus has experienced it. When we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” know that Jesus hears our prayer and he is with us and in his strength, we are strengthened to resist. God’s reign draws ever closer.
Let’s continue to work toward that coming reign as we walk the way of a holy Lent.
Rev. Peter Faass
Why is Ash Wednesday such an anathema to most people? When I promote participation to worship on this day, trying to convince people that the message of this fast day is absolutely necessary to enter into the true meaning of the Christian faith, the look on their faces appears as if I had asked them to go through a root canal without anesthesia.
“Are you kidding me?” the looks on their faces convey.
“All I hear about on Ash Wednesday is ashes, dust and death. What a downer. Life is hard and burdensome enough without having to hear about my mortality and death and on a Wednesday no less, when my favorite programming is on television. No thank you!”
And yet it is a fact (not an alt-fact), a theological fact of our faith that the message of Ash Wednesday is the inverse of this response. Encountering the ashes, dust and death of our mortal being allows us to fully enter the portal of real life. You can’t apprehend the true meaning of Christianity, which is focused on new life, unless you immerse yourself in the topics of human mortality and death that Ash Wednesday addresses.
In today’s Ash Wednesday meditation from the booklet “Living Well Through Lent 2017: Listening With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind,” the writer quotes an anonymous monk who stated, “Wake up before death wakes you up!”
This is a parallel statement to C.S. Lewis’ quote that I frequently use in burial homilies, “Die before you die, there is no chance after.”
These comments convey that life is a precious gift which often gets weighed down with our burdens, distracted by our frenzied activities, jaded by our prejudices, and addicted to our habits so that we squander the whole blessed opportunity that the gift of life affords us.
Lewis sagely advises that we die from those things which kill us in this life before we literally die. Once you are dead, once you have returned to the dust from which you were created, you don’t get another chance to grasp the gift of life and live it fully.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church reminds us of our mortality and of life’s fragility and brevity. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are poignant words that remind us our death is inevitable regardless of our best efforts to prevent it or deny its reality. Accept that reality and use your energies to focus on the here and now of your life and the quality of it, especially as that pertains to your relationship with God and your neighbor.
By reminding us of this reality, the Church also calls us to live the gift of life fully and authentically; dying to those death-giving behaviors and activities that deny us truly living as God desires us to live.
As the Absolution in today’s liturgy states, God “desires not the death of sinners but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” The truth of this desire is undergirded in Jesus’ statement to the disciples that, “I came that [you] may have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10)
God doesn’t want us to live burdened by our addictions, bad behaviors, preoccupations, fears or prejudices, which all are death-inducing things. When we let these things define our lives, we are like Zombies, members of the walking dead. We have not “died” before we die, robbing ourselves of authentic life. That is sinful and wicked.
The movie Manchester by the Sea is a vivid example of what this means to allow this burdensome and wicked way of life to rob us of real life. The protagonist, Lee Chandler, is a man who through selfish, reckless behavior and wanton negligence sets up the circumstances for the tragic death of his three young children in a house fire. His lifestyle, which leads to this horror, is one of self-indulgence, revolving around drugs, alcohol, his desire to play more than work, and the need to have his sexual desires met on demand.
Lee is also living off the fading glory as his hometown’s most famous hockey star from his high school days. He seriously needs to face the realities of his wicked ways. Burdened by addiction, a sense of entitlement, bitterness, resentment, self-pity and lack of counsel, these behaviors prevent him from understanding that life is fragile, brief and precious. He needs to die to these things so that he may truly live life, as God desires him to.
The character comes to know the fragility and preciousness of life as he watches the fire fighters bag and remove the bodies of his three dead children from the ashes of his burned house. His children’s deaths do not become an epiphany for him, turning from his wicked ways as the ashes of those burned bodies mark him. His life continues to spiral further downward into death-inducing behaviors.
By the grace of God (through the love of a nephew for whom he has been named guardian and whose life is similarly precarious), he eventually gains a sense of life’s precious fragility, beauty and inherent worth, including his own. He slowly is transformed, possibly by the ashes that fell on him from that hideous conflagration years before.
He begins to journey the road of healing and wholeness, turning from those wicked ways that made him a walking dead person. We can see the inklings of one coming back to life, being transformed and redeemed. It’s a holy moment.
Such is God’s desire for us; to die to before we die, so that we may truly live. May we fully apprehend that truth as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads today and begin a right relationship with God. May we leave those burdens that prevent us from dying before we die behind at this alter. Let’s offer those burdens to God, so we may have a holy Lent and a holy life. By doing this, we will be resurrected with Christ on Easter; receiving the precious gift of authentic life that God has given every one of us.
Luke 24:1 - 12
Dr. Carol S. Franklin
Dr. Carol Franklin is a retired higher education professional and is a member of Christ Church.
Tonight, we gather to hear the story God’s people as we stand in the shadow of the tomb. In the beginning was God, the father and mother of us all, the wisdom-giver and God the Son and Savior. On this night, the story of God’s people comes full circle as God’s divine power turns the world upside down. After the fear, disbelief and confusion over the crucifixion, the Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James (“the Marys”), discover an empty tomb at dawn the next morning. We, like the Marys, find an impossible, improbable and joyful truth – there is life in the face of death. Tonight, we join them to proclaim that the story did not end at the tomb. For as this night dawns into a new day, we proclaim:
“He is risen! Alleluia! He is risen!”
Is the proclamation that “Out of death there is life” simply a glorious end, or is it just the beginning of a new journey for God’s people?
I believe there is much more to the story and the journey beyond the empty tomb. As I look around, it seems as if the world is stuck in that tomb, buried in the darkness by fear and hopelessness. And the question is why… why do we continue to look for the Son of God in that tomb, among the dead?
Too frequently, we fear what we cannot see, touch, taste or understand. We believe we have been forgotten, marginalized and ignored while others have been lifted up. We see this fear manifested among our sisters and brothers whose religious traditions spring from the same root. We see it in the fear of “the other,” of those whom we believe live differently, love differently and are just not like us. Out of that fear, some set fires seeking to destroy our dwelling places and our peace of mind, while others talk of monitoring neighborhoods, building walls and closing doors.
We get stuck in belief that there is only so much space, time or resources to share. Focused on our own self-interests and needs, we are threatened rather than lifted up by Christ’s message of love. So we wait in darkness, longing for the light, afraid that love is not broad enough or deep enough to shelter us all. We have either forgotten or are just too afraid to believe that God has enough love, compassion and grace to encompass and save us all. Tonight, we learn something new, that we do not need to be afraid – because Jesus, the light of God, goes before us.
Tonight, we know that death is not the end. Christ’s resurrection has shattered the darkness and opens the way to new life. The belief that he lives uplifts me even in these challenging and anxious times. Although I don’t know what comes next, I do know that God is among us. How many of us have stories about those times, and how God’s love and grace put us back together again?
The miracle of this night comes in the midst of a family crisis; when we are lost in our own need; or feel we just cannot go on in that moment. In these moments, God sees us and fully knows us. He knows our gifts, failures and sins. He also knows our life’s promise. God knows and loves us still, carrying us into that new day. On this night, we learn that God will give all and will make us see, hear and know that we matter… and that we are loved.
Tonight, we are called to stand against the darkness, to affirm that God’s love is more powerful than fear, death or evil. The empty tomb is neither the end of the story nor simply a tale of fear or death; it is a story about love and life. The empty tomb is about the courage to believe in and witness the impossible through God’s love, that life is triumphant over death.
We have been called to tell others how to meet Jesus and how to experience the God who is always with us and supporting us. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a New York Times Article, the resurrection is about “…a church and world where there is room for everybody.”
If we follow that thinking, the church is a world in which we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, receive the stranger and care for the sick and dying. Easter Sunday special, because we learn that God is not through with any of us and truly loves us!! Like Christ, we must place all that we are into God’s hands so that we may reflect His light and love.
I will end this homily interweaving my own thanksgivings with some words spoken by my great-grandfather, the Rev. Dr. M.C.B. Mason, from more than 100 years ago. Let us pray:
“Father, we thank thee for…thy Son Jesus Christ…. He came to bring us peace, and deliverance and salvation and eternal life, and we have it; Thank God, we have it. Now help us with renewed energy and enthusiasm to …” meet our brothers and sisters stuck in the tomb and help them find their way into the light of this new day. We are thankful for the breath in our bodies. Let God’s people greet this new day with a resounding “Amen!”
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
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.
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Rev. Peter Faass
The Prodigal Son is one of the two best known parables of Jesus in the scriptures; the other is The Good Samaritan.
The Prodigal Son is also one of the two least liked parables in scripture; the other the The Parable of the Workers in the Field, the story where all the workers are paid the same wage regardless of the amount of time they spent laboring in the field. The Prodigal Son may be so disliked because we don’t like God’s economic system, justice – or radical forgiveness.
Most people who hear these parables immediately identify with a particular character. In The Prodigal Son, the elder son is the good and faithful one who never did anything to disobey his father (yeah right, at least in his own mind!) In Workers in the Field, people identify with those who were hired at dawn and worked hard all day in the fields under grueling conditions.
We seldom see ourselves as the prodigal son – that greedy, reckless party boy who squandered away the family money. None of us has ever been a spendthrift, greedy or reckless, right? Nor do we tend to see ourselves as not applying ourselves fully to doing a day’s labor, because none of us spend time at work on Facebook or Instagram, texting, chatting on the phone or just hanging out at the water cooler, right?
We are hypocrites when we think like this, pretending to be something we are not. The reality is, we’ve all had our moments of dissolute living to some degree. We all have received more compensation for what we have done… or maybe better stated, left undone.
In Henri Nouwen’s famous book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, the author asks the reader to examine each character in the story. According to Nouwen, we are, at various points in our lives, the father, the prodigal, and the elder son. I think that’s right. I would also postulate that of the two sons, the prodigal ends up being spiritually healthier at the end of the story, while the elder son remains spiritually sick.
Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest, writer, and lecturer, states “if there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own.” This is one of the key lessons about The Prodigal Son: recognizing how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. That is why I believe the prodigal son was more spiritually healthy at the end of the parable and the elder son was not. The prodigal had finally come to terms with his own imperfections. The elder son, well, not so much.
Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren writes,
“The fact is, we are all hypocrites to some degree. None of us wants to be known for our worst moments… Sometimes we find that the best way to keep guilt at bay over our own inconsistencies is to pour guilt on others. As we do so, our souls go dark and dangerous.”
McLaren labels people who do this as “pretenders.”
(They are) “false prophets projecting an image by which (they) hope to rack in profits-financial, social, relational, spiritual… We all need to come out of the closet (from being pretenders). We don’t have to hide the real us – the sexual us, the insecure us, the doubtful us, the angry us, the complex, different, tempted, actual us.”
McLaren’s point is that when we hide in the closet, we deny our essential selves, working hard to project a pretense of whom we are rather than being our authentic selves. As a result, we are not spiritually well. The cure for this is self-examination, confession and repentance is closing the gap between the artificial pretender we project and our authentic actual selves.
“Through confession we say, ‘God, I will not hide anything from you. You know already. Pretending in your presence is pure and pathetic insanity. I want to be who I am in your presence.’”
This is the scenario we have in the parable of The Prodigal Son: We have two pretenders working hard to project false images of who they are before God. They are both in the closet about their true identities – and as a result, their souls are dark and dangerous. They are lost souls.
The prodigal son projects a cocky, confident, arrogant and self-reliant image. He says to his father, “I can be the best tender of my own life and resources. Give them to me because I don’t trust you any longer.”
Meanwhile, the elder son projects a small-minded, moralistic image of arrogant superiority derived from his perceived selfless, sacrificial life of service. Both sons believe they are perfect and beyond reproach. They have so artfully constructed their false selves that they end up deluding themselves.
They are pretenders.
How much of these two sons’ personalities do we see in some of the current presidential candidates? How much of this delusional pretending they exhibit is also in their supporters? Like the two sons, the candidates and their followers are truly lost in their relationship with God... They are pretenders.
In the parable, the father desires his sons to authentically be who they are, which is why the father, before he dies, gives the prodigal son his portion of the estate. The father allows his son to go on this Amish Rumspringa adventure with the hope that he will find his authentic self. In the father’s mind that alone is worth the money and all he has.
The prodigal son has to experience a major crisis before he can engage in the self-examination required to get to his real self. He eventually loses all the resources he clearly was unable to manage on his own, finally hitting rock bottom when he has to slop hogs. To understand this, for a nice Jewish boy from a good family, slopping hogs is as low as he could go.
The prodigal son returns to his father humbled. He expresses sorrow for his misdeeds, for not being himself, and for causing so much pain and anxiety. His words are a confession for having projected a false image of who he was – a pretender.
“'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.”
“For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
What the father actually meant was, “this son of mine was a pretender, but he has found his authentic self. In so doing, he has discovered his perfection, his humanity and his holiness.”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?
This is why the prodigal son is spiritually healthier at the end of the parable. He has engaged in the critical process of self-examination. Through his confession, he has bridged the tragic gap between his phony appearance and his actual self. Because he has done so, he is forgiven and restored to fullness of life with God. He is given a life that he never thought was possible.
The elder son is still pretending, his anger inflamed by how easily this miscreant younger brother is forgiven and feted. The elder son whines, judges and condemns, drawing comparisons between his own righteousness and his brother’s sinfulness. Instead of seeing the abundant grace in his brother’s transformation, the elder brother becomes more entrenched in projecting the world as he wants it to be:
The father is anguished by his elder son’s response, pleading his son to relent and join the celebration for his younger brother. The father then states the core truth of our life with God:
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Son, everything I have is yours: the forgiveness, the restorative justice, the abundance, the love. All you have to do is take it. I give it freely to you. The only condition is, you must stop being someone you are not and be authentic… just like your brother has.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
I can’t think of a more critical message at this time of our national aloofness, our national pretending. We all desperately authenticity to save ourselves from ourselves. I mean all of us because we are, all of us – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, voters, non-voters, conservatives, liberals, Tea Party, progressives, religious, non-religious - complicit in getting to where we are today. This is a pretty low place; as low as slopping those hogs.
Do you remember the old merry-go-rounds that used to have brass rings you could touch with each rotation? If you reached out from your horse just far enough, you could grab that brass ring and win a prize. The expression of “grabbing the brass ring” entered the lexicon, and now means striving for the highest prize, or living life to the fullest.
The brass ring is a great metaphor for our life with God, representing the fullness of an authentic life with God, a life that is holy, allowing us to stop pretending and be who we really are. It is the highest prize.
Each day as we ride the merry-go-round of life, we can grab the brass ring. We have to make an effort and lean out with our hands if we are going to grab it. That means we must let go of the superficial images we have of ourselves. We have to stop pretending.
The Prodigal Son is that brass ring for us.
The only thing we can do to redeem our country from the depraved, vile and virulent hatred and demagoguery we are currently witnessing is to lean away from our complacency. If we grasp the symbolic brass ring to be our authentic selves, we can face down this beastly ugliness infecting our nation.
We CAN and we MUST grab that brass ring as both faithful Christians and as proud citizens of the United States of America. When we do, believe me, we’ll roast the fatted calf, the band will play, and we’ll roll the carpets up so we can dance. There will be eating, merriment and great celebration, and God will proclaim, “Once these children of mine were dead and now they are alive again; once they were lost and now they are found!”
Who wouldn’t celebrate?