Special Guest Sermon
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Rev. K. Dean Myers
Last week, a Facebook friend shared a post that about a Christian minister in Uganda who felt he was so holy that he would not let himself be contaminated by the church floor. He demanded his parishioners to lie on that floor so he could walk into the church on their backs. The story was accompanied by a picture of a man in a suit being balanced by men on either side of him as he made his way across a sea of human backs. Probably a lot of like how it feels to lumberjacks when they traverse logs floating on water, rolling a few, I suspect along the way.
Was this story real news or fake news? Anymore, who knows? But my immediate reaction, as a retired minister, was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Then I caught myself, and thought, “How awful; I never did that, or anything like it.”
And then I caught myself again: “Or did I?”
Real news or fake, the story is an example of the old saw, “It’s true, whether it happened or not.”
Pastors can, and sometimes do, walk all over the backs of the people they are called to serve. Though not at Christ Church, of course!
Clearly, that African pastor was unfamiliar with 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, as well as with a whole slew of similar texts in the New Testament.
Paul, the author of this morning’s epistle reading, was not officially the pastor or priest of the church in Thessalonica, of course. There were no such formalized clerical offices in the very beginning. But he was the first century church’s premier evangelist, and apostle to the world. He was certainly an authority figure to many of the churches around the Mediterranean Sea. And Paul, who could have employed the power he had received from Christ in all kinds of negative and dehumanizing ways, reminds the church at Thessalonica that he came to them with one purpose on his heart: to declare the good news of God in Jesus Christ. That is, he came to preach the news of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of each of person, of the church as a body, and of the world itself.
Paul articulates the personal implications of this news in his behavior and in his relationship with that church. He did not come out of deceit or impure motives or trickery; he did not speak to please folks with flattery or pretext for greed; he did not seek their praise. He may have made some demands, he confesses, but there’s no evidence that walking on their backs was one of them. No, Paul and his companions, Silvanus, and Timothy, “were gentle (literally, infants) among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” (Mixed metaphor there!) He writes that they shared not only the gospel, but also themselves. The Thessalonicans had become very dear to them. They’d never abuse their mutual relationship.
Why was it so important to Paul to make a big deal about how modestly and humbly he had worked in Thessalonica? In the opening of this letter, which we heard read last Sunday, he celebrates the power of example as crucial to Christian witness. First, Paul followed the example set by Jesus himself. Then, the Thessalonicans followed his good example, and thus they became a good example to the entire Greek peninsula. If Christians not only believe in Christ, but act like him, their actions will speak in ways their verbal professions of faith do not. And, who knows, the world itself beyond the church might take notice and change the way it acts.
The good news does not allow anyone, even Paul, to walk on anyone else’s back, either literally or figuratively. We are all equally and wholly loved just as we are, and just as we shall always be. So, before God we stand together as brothers and sisters, clergy, lay, all of us. The good news is as true for today as it was in the first Christian century. And living by that good news is desperately needed today, perhaps as never before in our lifetimes.
There was a time, a time I somewhat remember, when people joined churches to improve their social status. In order to be respected in a community, you had better be a church member. It would help your business or profession. Moreover, it mattered which church you were associated with. Some churches had more important members than did others, perhaps people who were potential business contacts, who belonged to the economic status to which you aspired, who were members of the right country club.
Fortunately, that time is mostly gone. Church members may feel that certain churches have more or less status than theirs does, but to the world outside the church itself, that hardly matters. Few outsiders know or care about the differences between denominations, or much at all about individual congregations. You do not need church membership to shore up your business or career goals, or to have status in a community. While members of a congregation may enjoy relationships that lead to some kind of gain on the part of one or the other of them, seeking material benefit is no longer a common reason for being part of a church. In fact, many think they do better in the world without the baggage of being known as a church-goer.
I am quite sure this change is the work of the Holy Spirit. The search for personal gain was never a good reason for being a church member or leader, and it certainly is not a good reason for being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Getting ahead materially or socially in this world has nothing to do with living out the good news.
We can easily cite examples of the worst excesses of using the church for personal gain. USA Today last week reported that a Mississippi minister stole some $330,000 from the church he was serving. The horrifying scandal of child abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church still has repercussions, even though the church has tried to address the problem. Not to mention walking on others’ backs! These and other less spectacular stories involving both clergy and laypeople happen too easily and too often in churches in part because churches are regarded as places of trust and safety, and no one wants to break an unwritten code of silence: it’s not polite to question another church person’s actions or motives.
Then there are the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” churches and preachers. Such ministries thrive in places such as Africa where poverty and need are rampant. But they also have found a home in this country. People who have perhaps unsuccessfully tried all other avenues of material success hear their gospel as one more chance to make it in this world.
Unfortunately for this distortion of the gospel, there are too many people of strong and vital faith who never really “get ahead” in this life, often for reasons far beyond their control. Such people are often the most-compelling examples of real faith at work. As to totally-unfaithful and unethical people amassing large fortunes…well, it happens. I think the only folks who generally prosper from the Prosperity Gospel are those who proclaim it. And they seem to prosper very well indeed. Paul would be horrified!
In the “day-to-dayness” of ordinary church life, we are most tempted to play the kind of one-upmanship games that ultimately do harm. These games can be played in terms of faith, knowledge, giving, attendance, participation, leadership. They are often unconsciously contrived as proof of our high rank, or of our low place on the congregational totem pole. My faith is stronger than Joe’s. We give more than the Smith’s give. The Jones family’s kids always act up in church. I’m not as smart as Sally, so you don’t expect me to lead that discussion, do you?
Appropriate to this most wonderful season of stewardship, we may let ourselves off the hook with something like, “My gift can’t make any difference, so it doesn’t matter.”
It does matter . . . to the church, and to you. It matters to you because you matter to God, and yourself.
Most churches employ some ordering of people for purposes of providing leadership. It is for carrying out responsibilities, not for bestowing privilege, nor for proving that God loves some of us more than others. Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention within the context of the enormous power and prestige of the Papacy because he has retained the humanity that is common among us all. We may not agree with him on everything, but he comes across a serving in the very way Paul sought to serve the early church.
Believing and living as a follower of Jesus can help us order life in productive ways, and focus on important habits that may lead to financial or other material gain. But no earthly guarantees may be attached to the effort. The most important hard and fast promise God consistently makes in Scripture is to be “with us” in all our times. It is the promise fulfilled completely in Emanuel – that is, in “God-with-us,” in Jesus Christ.
This morning, we gave Bibles to our first-graders. It is always a happy time. Even though we know few of them are now able to read and understand it, we trust that this gift will begin a relationship between them and Scripture that will last a lifetime and lead to faithful understanding and discipleship. The gift of a Bible to ones so young is a testimony to scripture’s place in nurturing faith.
Scripture’s centrality to the Christian life was one of the main themes of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. Today, many Protestants are celebrating what we call “Reformation Sunday.” The Sunday before October 30, All Saints’ Eve, is celebrated annually. On All Saints’ Eve in 1517 (exactly 500 years ago tomorrow), Martin Luther struck the spark that triggered the Reformation. The whole history of the church, Europe, and ultimately of the world, took a sharp turn from which it never turned back.
Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of his people, because he believed that without a personal knowledge of the Bible, believers could be led into all sorts of mistakes and abuse. They could be fooled and used by people who could take advantage of their ignorance to line their own pockets, to promote their own interests, or just to make themselves feel good at their expense.
Luther wanted people to read for themselves the words of Paul in Romans that finally brought him peace and hope, “Those who are righteous are righteous by faith.” By faith in our faithful Savior, we are liberated to live the lives God gave us. It’s the good news Paul preached and lived, that your pastors preach and live, and that I hope you have heard today.
I trust that those children, and we ourselves, are moved to living faith by all the words of grace in the Good Book. Then, none of us will ever need to walk over anyone else to know our worth in Jesus’s saving love. All of us will stand together in the bright light of his grace. And perhaps the world will take note of us and our example, and give God the praise.
When Jesus Knows All
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.