Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 29, 2014
First Christian Church
Ernie is someone you just can’t forget.
Ernie is a man in his mid60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the community of First Christian in Minneapolis. Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church. He seems to always have a smile on face.
But Ernie can be a handful. For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice. This means when he talks, everyone hears. Which meant you might not want to share you deep dark secrets with him. Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing. But you see, Ernie also talks like this in worship. Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice. When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service. There are a host of other things I could share about Ernie that would exasperate me.
Sometimes sitting next to Ernie was Kevin, a man in his 50s. Kevin is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on this side of sanity. It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.
After a while we learned something about Kevin. He was a budding artist. He drew fantastic drawings in black and white and also in color. Most of his works had a science fiction feel to them, a vision of what a futuristic city looks like.
What is wonderful to see is that both Ernie and Kevin are considered full participants in the community. In the five years I was a pastor at First, no one ever complained about Ernie or Kevin’s antics at time. People learned to roll with the punches with these two. I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Ernie and Kevin and were not embarrassed by them.
Churches always say that they are welcoming. But no matter how much this is true or not, churches are always tested. It might be the teenager with autism that sometimes starts yelling in the middle of service while his parents have a mixture of embarrassment and concern. It might be the transgendered person that stays in the homeless shelter for women at the church. It could be the sex offender that has done his time in prison and tries to reconnect in the community. Time and time again, our faith communities are tested. How do we really welcome everyone? Do we understand what welcoming everyone means?
In today’s text; Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before they are sent on their mission. Jesus is tells them straight up that they have to put Christ and God’s kingdom first before family. I always love the translation of the text found in the Message Bible and this time it does not disappoint. “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy,” the passage begins. Following Jesus was going to be hard and it would test our relationships with our family and friends. People would not understand that you are putting Jesus first, so be prepared. Jesus says, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”
When Jesus calls us like he called the disciples, Jesus is telling us to learn from him. This process of learning how to be Christlike has name-discipleship.
That word has always confused me. When I do think of it, I think of people reading their Bibles at 5AM or people who are known by what they don’t do: don’t drink, don’t smoke and so on. Nothing is wrong with reading our Bibles or trying to live a chaste life. It’s just that discipleship can seem so hard, so impossible. How can any of us emulate Jesus? Wasn’t he perfect? While I hate to admit my weaknesses, I’m sure that I am not perfect and neither are any of you.
But here’s the thing, we might be called at times to do difficult things, like those who took part in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, all the while facing angry mobs of people. But most of the time, it involves doing a small thing. This is why Jesus talked about how great an act was of giving someone a cup of water. Jesus didn’t say you need to go live in a yurt in Mongolia. Jesus said give someone a cup of water. We will face the more challenging aspects of discipleship, but we start right here with some H2O in a styrofoam cup. When we do something like welcoming the Ernies and Kevins of the world we are doing more than just being nice. We are representing who God is, a God that loves us all, good and bad, straight and gay, Democrat and Republican and so on. When we start with cold water, don’t be surprised if you start doing other things. Once we learn to welcome people, it can be hard to stop.
My full-time job during the week is working as the IT guy at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist in Minneapolis. At one end of the church building, there is a small chapel named Border Chapel. Across from the doors to the chapel is a display. You learn that the chapel was named after a church Border Methodist Church in Minneapolis. Border was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown. At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway. This could have been where the story ends; the church closes. However, it doesn’t. A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church. Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers at Border. Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin. What was the big deal of this invite? This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated. Whites went to one church, blacks to others. What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal. Things like this just weren’t done.
The display has articles from the New York Times about this event. This was huge. There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display. On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused. As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members. A cup of cold water made the difference.
This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today. The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray. As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”
I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon. Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay. It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God. A cup of cold water makes all the difference.
Jesus calls us to be disciples. God doesn’t start by telling us to go to seminary and learn Greek. No, God starts by calling us to do simple things; like welcoming a person with developmental disability, or a person dealing with mental illness, or people of a different race or ethnic group or someone who is gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender. If we can welcome one these children of God, then we are well on our way as faithful disciples of Jesus.
A cup of cold water can make all the difference. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 24, 2014
First Christian Church
I’ve always had an interest in superheroes. Which is kind of odd, because I tend not to buy comic books or as they are now called, graphic novels. I know friends that have boxes of comics from years past, but that’s not me. No, the way that I found out about superheroes was through TV, specifically, the SuperFriends- a light-hearted take on the Justice League which ran on ABC at various times in the 1970s starting in 1973. Then it was watching the live-action series “Wonder Woman” and the “Incredible Hulk.”
In the years following college, I would catch an animated version of the X-Men and during the seminary I was loved watching Batman Beyond, a futuristic take on on the Dark Knight. And yes, I still watch superheroes in the movies and on television. I watch shows like “Arrow” which is a take on the comic book hero, the Green Arrow; Young Justice which focuses on the sidekicks of famous heroes, and well, there are more, but I think that’s enough for you all to know for now.
I think that I am fascinated by superheroes because the stories can sometimes take on things that are taking place in the wider culture. I like the X-Men because the story makes these superheroes are not treated like superheroes by the wider culture. In fact, they are seen as threats hence why they are referred to as mutants. Since I was coming out during that time period, I could see X-men as an allegory to how LGBT persons are accepted in society- or not. Comics can also allude to the changing demographics of a society. Earlier this month, Marvel Comics announced that the next Captain America was going to be African American. The character is currently one of the current Captain America’s superhero associates, Falcon. Falcon was considered one of Marvel’s first black heroes when he was introduced in the late 1960s and assume the identity of superhero that embodies the American ideal represents the changes take place in the United States.
Superheroes tend to have aliases. Sometimes they want to keep their other identity a secret. Batman was actually billionaire Bruce Wayne. When Superman wasn’t saving the world, he was Clark Kent, a journalist. Very few people around them actually know of their secret identities. I think comic books and television use a ton of suspended disbelief in thinking that a mask around people eyes will prevent them from knowing who they are, but for some reason people buy it.
Because these heroes didn’t tell people who they were, people became curious. Who are these people? Is it someone they know? What was it that people said after meeting the Lone Ranger: who was that masked man? Regular folk just want to meet their hero and find out about them. There are some that see them as a threat to society and they want to expose them before they cause more trouble.
Superheroes can remind people of how we relate to God: a mysterious powerful creature that seems to want the best for us. Some just want to meet God and learn more about God, while others see God as a threat to their way of living. Continue reading “Sermon: Let Jesus Be Jesus”
Genesis 45:1-15 and Matthew 15:10-28
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 17, 2014
First Christian Church
You could answer that in two ways. The first way is probably literal. How are you doing healthwise? Are you eating right? Are you getting enough sleep?
As a society, we are obsessed with health, even when we don’t act like we care. We are told we are to heavy need to go to the gym. We are told we eat poorly and try the latest fad to get to health. We’ve quit smoking. We are doing everything we can to keep our hearts healthy. I try to go to the gym twice a week, and try to walk as much as a I can daily. I’ve also gained all the weight I lost a year ago, but I still do what I can to keep my heart healthy.
But heart can also talk about our whole being, not just the muscle in the center of our chest. And looking at the news from the past week, humanity’s heart is not doing so well. Events like the shooting of Michael Brown, an African American man from Ferguson, a Saint Louis suburb by the local police have shocked us. Islamic extremist have taken one of the world’s great faiths and turned into a murderous ideology that kills anyone from a different faith or who don’t follow Islam in the same way they do. And then there was the tragic death of actor Robin Williams. A funny man that we learned took his own life after battling depression for years.
In Matthew’s gospel we see Jesus first talking the crowd. He calls out the Pharisees for their concern of rules like ritual handwashing, but very little concern about what really defiles a person. There was no concern for the inner life of a person. Continue reading “Sermon: Things Fall Apart”
“Fit for a Dog”
Matthew 15: 10-28
August 17, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
During my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I was on the cross country team. I enjoyed distance running, but I wasn’t the best at it. God might have graced me with perserverance, but God didn’t give me the gift of swiftness. In many of the smaller meets, I was usually bringing up the rear.
One day during my freshman year, we my high school had a meeting with another high school in the suburbs. We went out to a local golf course to run the race. As usual, I was in last place, steady running along the rolling hills of the golf course.
At some point, I started hearing voices. At first I think I thought it was someone cheering me on, despite being last. But the voices weren’t friendly, instead they were very menacing voices. At the edge of a cul de sac were several youths, maybe at the most a few years old than I was. They were hurling racial slurs at me, calling me names that I can’t say in a family setting.
I was shocked by the slurs, but kept on running. It made no sense to let them get to me, so I kept the legs pumping, while they kept heaping insult upon insult. At some point, another member of my high school’s cross country team, who also was African American, ran to my aid. He had already finished the race and swiftly ran to confront the teens. From what I was told, all he did was simply look at them, which must have been enough to call off their racial slurs. Continue reading “Sermon: “Fit For A Dog””
Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, Romans 8:1-11, Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13
July 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
When I was growing up in Michigan, I would always see these commercials on TV that made no sense to me. As most of you know, my hometown in Flint, Michigan, a small city known for its many auto plants. Flint is smack dab in the middle of two important parts of the state. To our south is the Detroit Metro Area, and we get a lot of the Detroit stations as well as the TV station from nearby Windsor, Ontario. To our north, are three small cities known as the Tri Cities and the agricultural region of the state. Flint also picked up those stations as well. It was during a certain time of the year, when I was watching some program on that particular station, that I would see it: an ad for Roundup.
I had no idea what this was. What did they mean that this product would give better yields? What was quackgrass?
For those of you who come from rural areas, you know that Roundup is a herbicide that farmers use to keep weeds from damaging their crops. But to a city kid like me, this meant nothing. For farmers, this was important, since a bad weed or a bug, could wipe out their crop and hence their income for the year.
Today’s Gospel text is a parable. Through the Gospels, the name we give for the first four books of the New Testament, we see Jesus using stories of everyday people doing everyday things as a clue to what God’s kingdom is about. Too often, though we tend to look at these parables, if not the entire Bible as a book of morals, a guide to show us how to live. Some people use the Bible in this way to lash out against those who don’t follow what they think is a moral way. Others see the Bible as a way to gain wisdom and to lead a good life. However, both assumptions are wrong. The Bible is not here to tell us how to live. Instead, it tells us about who God is, and what God’s kingdom is all about. If we become godly people because of this, great, but that isn’t the main point of the Bible.
Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.
Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.
You would be wrong.
The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.
So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?
That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.
This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.
We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”
But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.
My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.
But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.
And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.
Years ago, the chemical manufactuer Dupont, used to have a slogan that went “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I propose that as followers of Christ, we enter a life of “Better Living Through Grace.” God’s grace is abundant, and we need to enter into that reality-one where scarcity doesn’t exist. Amen.
This is the sermon I wrote for this Sunday back in 2008.
“Better Churches and Gardens”
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 13, 2008
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Last Thursday night, I decided to do something that I haven’t done in a long, long time.
Long before I could drive.
Long before I graduated from high school.
I played kickball.
Yes, I played that simple game where we tried to kick a plain, red ball and run around bases. It was fun, but I was reminded of something. I know that many of you are “more mature” than I am, but I can say that playing kickball at 38 is a lot different than playing it at 13. When I was 13, I could play kickball forever. These days, not so much. And my muscles feel it the next morning.
I was doing this all for a reason. I am part of a group young church folk, ordained and not ordained in the United Church of Christ and the Disciples that were looking for ways to get young adults in their 20s and 30s who were not really connected with a congregation involved in the life of the church. We’ve called the group Come Thirsty and to start things, we are meeting every Thursday in July at a local park in Minneapolis for a game of kickball and then going to the nearby Bryant Lake Bowl for fellowship and maybe a game of bowling.
There is very little that makes it seem like a church event, with the exception that we start things off with prayer. Other than that, it looks like a normal gathering of 20 and 30-somethings.
To some, it might not seem like much is going on to further God’s work in the world. What does kickball have to do with Jesus? Well, maybe everything.
In today’s gospel, Jesus decides to tell a story about the kingdom of God. Now, I love the parables and have since I was a child. But I have not really like the parable of the sower, the first parable. It reminds me of my time in college when the campus pastor would use this sermon to talk about our spiritual lives. The message is that we need to be really good and have open hearts to recieve God’s message. This story had been turned into a moralistic tale and it seemed to lose its mystery and power.
But these days, I have a different understanding of the parable. I’ve said this before, but parables are not really morality tales, but peeks into what the kingdom of God is like. That is what is going on here.
Jesus tells a tale of a sower who throws the seeds here, there and everywhere. Now, I don’t have a green thumb, but I know well enough that any farmer or backyard gardener, is very careful where the seeds go. They take care to plant then in the right place and in the right soil. Seeds are precious and have to used with great care.
But this sower is not that careful. In fact, he is not careful. This person just throws seeds anywhere, even though there is good reason that such a process isn’t going to be that fruitful. And it looks like such a prophecy is becoming true, because the seeds get eaten up birds, choked by thorns or simply die on the rocks. As if by luck, some of those seeds fall on good soil and they produce a bumper crop beyond anyone’s imaginations.
So, what is going on here? Well, let’s imagine that the sower is God or Christ. God decides to just spread God’s seed, or God’s word anywhere, not caring if it produces fruit or not. This is a wonderful example of grace. God’s love is extravagant, it is wasteful. God is hardly stingy when it comes to sharing love with creation. In some cases that love will be shared and not returned. In others, it will produce and abundant harvest that will seed another generation. God is willing to take the risk and flings seeds far and wide.
What you don’t see here is the message that we normally hear: that if we work hard and are dilligent, things will work out. I am not saying that we should ignore that message. What I am saying is that in God’s economy this rule doesn’t apply as much.
When Jesus was on the earth, he was always sharing his life with others. Some took that message and ran with it, becoming faithful disciples. Others refused to hear the message. Now matter what, Jesus still shared, like a sower sowing seeds every which way.
As Christ followers, we are called to do the same. Churches are called to share God’s love in word and deed. Now sometimes, that will be warmly recieved, and other times it will not. But like God, we just keep on doing what we are doing.
As this congregation readies itself for a new pastor, we are reminded in this parable that we are to go out and start planting seeds. We don’t have to wait for a pastor to do that. We are called to do that NOW. We are called to share God’s love in word and deed to the world outside the doors of this church. When we gather to pack food packets for the hungry, when we gather weekly for prayer, when we show concern with our sisters and brothers in our workplaces, we are planting seeds. The sower went out to plant seeds. So did Jesus. And so are we. The church is not a club, there to serve only the needs of each other, but a staging ground where we prepare to go out into the world.
We will encounter problems. Some of those seeds will fall on hard soil or deaf ears, some will fall on those who worry about everything, some will be taken by the birds or get concerned other things. But we still plant away because in the end, the harvest is going to be plentiful. Lives will be changed.
So back to that game of kickball. To some it might seem like a waste of time. But I have to believe we are planting seeds in the lives of young adults who might not have thought about church before. Our work is having an effect in that local congregations are starting their own groups, some after a long dormancy. I believe seeds are being sown, here and there, and some of it will not take root. But some of it will. But it really doesn’t matter; because we place our trust in God who will produce a bountiful harvest, far beyond our imaginations.
I preached this on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in 2008, which is also called Good Shepherd Sunday.
Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10
April 13, 2008 (Good Shepherd Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I’ll admit it; I’m a geek.
Some of you know I wrote the main article in this month’s church newsletter. It’s called “Church 2.0.” I talked about how my job as a communications specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area has used my knowledge of blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace has changed how we communicate with each other.
I’ve been working with blogs and social networking sites for several years and they have helped me create new relationships that would have been impossible in the past. I’ve made true friendships over the Internet with people from across the nation. Heck, I even met my partner Daniel through an online dating service.
What I find interesting is how this information revolution is changing society and what clues it has for the church, especially the mainline church and specifically, Lake Harriet. As I just said, this brave new world of blogs, podcasts and interactive web pages, is forming relationships where none might have ever existed. I am reminded that Tammy Rottschafer the Associate Pastor here at Lake Harriet has reminded me over and over that being church is about relationships. God may just well be calling us as a faith community to be more of an “interactive church,” a place that connects and relates with each other, with the outside world, and with God.
In the Second chapter of Acts, we are given a brief description of the nacsent church. It was just after the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as flames of fire. Peter testified about Jesus and the scripture says 3,000 joined this new community that day. The passage that was read today, is about the day-to-day life of the church after that day. It’s a short passage, but I think it packs a wallop. The devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, they held all things in common and helped those in need, the broke bread together, had glad and generous hearts and praised God. The result of all this is that their community grew daily.
While this all happened long ago, I see a lot of today in this passage. This is a church that is interactive. Like working on a weblog, there are people relating to each other. This passage isn’t telling us that we need to be exactly like this church, but it does describe what the church should be about.
The church is called to be a place where we are devoted to learn to be a follower of Christ. The church is a place where we have fellowship with each other, where we care and love each other. The church is a place where we realize that our material possessions are not the goal in our lives, but to use what we have to help those in need, especially those in our community, but also those outside of it. The church is a place where we come together and break bread in table fellowship together, realizing that it is Christ that calls us to the table regardless of who we are. The church is a place where we are happy in Christ and are generous to friends and strangers.
Notice it doesn’t say that a church needs to have a pastor that will bring in more people, or have an awesome sound system, or a brand spanking new building. What IS needed is a visible faith community living in the light of Christ.
You know, as compact as this passage is: being a journalist by training, I could sum this up in about five words: “the church is about hospitality.”
If you read this passage over and over, what becomes apparent is that this new church was a place where people where caring to each other and to strangers. They fellowshipped, they broke bread together, they helped each other. They were caring with each other and people noticed. That’s why their community grew and grew.
As many of you know, I was the pastor of a new church for several years. It ended up closing or as I like to say, it was shelved for the time being. For a long time, I was lead to believe that to be a growing church, you needed to do things that would attract people. So, we had these innovative services that were supposed to pack them in and it didn’t. I remember wondering what I had done wrong. We were an open and affirming community, meaning we were openly welcoming of gays and lesbians, and yet that didn’t do a lot to bring people in.
What I learned from that experience is that I failed to really have relationships with people. For many people who had been burned by the church because of their sexual orientation, it didn’t really matter if we were Open and Affirming if we didn’t have relationships and chats over coffee with gay and lesbians and be Christ to them.
This church is going through change and getting ready to start a new journey as a church. I don’t know if I am in a position to offer words of advice, but I will any way. Remember that being church is not about having some hotshot pastor or big programs. It’s about relationships, it’s about hospitality. It’s about what we do during prayer time here and on Wednesday evenings, when we pray for our friends here in church and around the world. It’s when we give flowers on the table to someone in the hospital or a stranger as a sign of friendship. It’s when we pack food packets that go to feed the hungry. It’s when we welcome people regardless of sexual orientation even if we don’t understand it all. It’s about developing relationships with those who cross our path and showing them Christ in our lives, not to convert them (the Holy Spirit does that), but to be a living witness of who Christ is.
Today is what has generally been called Good Shepherd Sunday. We read from John 10 where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. We read from Psalm 23 which talks about God being our Shepherd that is always with us. In the past, I always looked at this passage as being about God being the shepherd and that we sheep are to be good followers. But I now see it as God in relation with God’s church. God cares for us and looks after us in ways we can’t imagine, because God is in love with us; God has a relationship with us. As a community that is loved by the God of the universe, we are called to care for one another- not because it’s something we have to do, but because it’s who we are. And when people see us living as a Christ-led, hospitable community, they will take notice.
The response we sang during the call to worship is by the hymnwriter, Marty Haugen. The song is called “Shepherd Me, O God.” The refrain says, “Shepherd me, O God; beyond my faults, beyond my needs, from death into life.”
Lake Harriet has some experience with death, with dying to old ways and to what we once were. In fact, many might even feel like we are dying now. But this song should be our prayer: that God will lead us, beyond our faults and needs from death into being the Easter people that we are.
Take heart, my friends. Know that God is with you, raising us up from death into life. And along the way, make friends, be hospitable and welcome everyone, everyone to this Table. Thanks be to God. Amen.
I put together a Bible Study for the folks at church each week. I usually include a relfection on the lectionary verse as well. I’ve been meaning to put these online; and here they are on my lectionary blog, Come Sunday. Click on the link below to read the reflection for this Sunday.
Like the woman at the well, I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy.
And then I heard my Savior speaking—
“Draw from My well that never shall run dry.”Fill my cup, Lord;
I lift it up Lord;
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.
We are going to be singing the song “Fill My Cup,Lord” (the song above) in church on Sunday. It comes from the story in John 4 about the Woman at the Well. It happens to be one of my favorite stories in Scripture. When I went to China fifteen years ago, I got three wall hangings of the work of He Qi, the Chinese artist who depicts religious stories in paintings. The three I bought were based on stories I love, the Good Samaritan, the Road to Emmaus and the Woman at the Well.
I love this story because it is a story of Jesus breaking boundaries left and right. But I really love it because it is about grace and about Jesus being the friend of sinners.
I will be preaching on the text Sunday, but as this Sunday grew near I felt a bit of hesitation. You see, over the years it seems to get harder to preach this story. Over the years, I’ve heard people reflecting on the story and well, challenging one aspect of it: the role of the woman.
This woman (who is unnamed) comes to draw water in the middle of the day. In very warm climates, you would not be out when the sun is at its hightest. No, you would draw your water in the early morning or the evening when it is cooler. The fact that this woman comes at noon indicates that she is some sort of outcast. During the conversation with Jesus, he asks her to go and fetch her husband. When she says she has no husband, Jesus replies that she is correct. She has had five husbands and the man that she lives with now is not her husband. Now, traditionally people have thought that she might have been doing something that was considered sinful. However, another story has come forward in recent years that rejects seeing the woman as a sinner, but more as a victim of some sort. The Bible never really tells us what this woman has done, if anything. The passage raises question about this women and what has led her to be an outcast, but we are never told what happened.
What I loved about this story is that God can work through someone deemed a sinner. The kingdom of God is for this person as well. Friend of sinners indeed.
But that view is starting to fall out of favor at least in mainline circles for this newer viewpoint. There is no mention of sin. There is no repentance. They argue that the traditional understanding of the woman at the well is full of misogyny and moralism. Here is what David Lose said in a Huffington Post article in 2011:
She is not a prostitute. She doesn’t have a shady past. Yet when millions of Christians listen to her story this coming Sunday in church, they are likely to hear their preachers describe her in just those terms.
Her story is told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to John. She is a Samaritan woman who Jesus encounters by a well. Jews and Samaritans don’t get along, and women and men in this culture generally keep a safe social distance from each other. So she is doubly surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink. When she makes a remark to that effect, he offers her living water. Confused, but intrigued, she asks about this miraculous water. He eventually invites her to call her husband, and when she replies that she has no husband, he agrees: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (4:18).
And that’s it. That’s the sentence that has branded her a prostitute. Conservative preacher John Piper’s treatment is characteristic. In a sermon on this passage, he describes her as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria,” and at another point in the sermon calls her a “whore.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as a prostitute, but I guess I could see people thinking that. So if this isn’t the correct interpretation, then why is it being used? The continued oppression of women:
So if this seems at least as probable an interpretation as the more routine one, why do so many preachers assume the worst of her? I would suggest two reasons. First, there is a long history of misogyny in Christian theology that stands in sharp contrast to the important role women play in the gospels themselves. Women, the four evangelists testify, supported Jesus’ ministry. They were present at the tomb when their male companions fled. And they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Yet from asserting that Eve was the one who succumbed to temptation (conveniently ignoring that the author of Genesis says Adam was right there with her — Gen. 3:6) to assuming this Samaritan woman must be a prostitute, there is the ugly taint of chauvinism present in too much Christian preaching, perhaps particularly so in those traditions that refuse to recognize the equality of women to preach and teach with the same authority as men.
A second reason preachers cast this woman in the role of prostitute is that it plays into the belief that Christianity, and religion generally, is chiefly about morality. Treating the Bible as one long, if peculiar, Goofus & Gallant cartoon, we read every story we find in terms of sin and forgiveness, moral depravity and repentance. But this story is not about immorality; it’s about identity. In the previous scene, Jesus was encountered by a male Jewish religious authority who could not comprehend who or what Jesus was. In this scene, he encounters the polar opposite, and perhaps precisely because she is at the other end of the power spectrum, she recognizes not just who Jesus is but what he offers — dignity. Jesus invites her to not be defined by her circumstances and offers her an identity that lifts her above her tragedy. And she accepts, playing a unique role in Jesus’ ministry as she is the first character in John’s gospel to seek out others to tell them about Jesus.
I can understand why the traditional view can be so unsettleing. Christian leaders have used scripture to belittle women. I definitely would not call the woman a whore with the certainty that John Piper seems show. We really don’t know what she has done, if anything. So , we need to be careful in thinking we know the woman’s “sin” if there even is one. Plus as Lose and other Bible scholars have noted, she might have been involved in a Levirate marriage.
That said, Lose’s alternative understand of this story, one where the woman is offered an identity and dignity seems to be weak tea for me. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Jesus treats woman with dignity matters. The gospels present a Jesus that felt women had a role in his kingdom and it was more than cleaning tables.
But there is something missing in Lose’s interpretation. Maybe the problem is that this is the kind of stuff I would expect to hear from nice, tolerant liberals. It has nice words to say about inclusion and about treating women with respect. But do people need to go to church to hear this? Inclusivity is important, but I can learn that from a Coke ad. I don’t need the church for that.
I agree that the woman does get to be a missionary to her people, which is groundbreaking. All of this is good, I just don’t know if it really says anything about the love of God or what this all means for the church.
As I said before, we don’t know if this woman had sinned. What we do know is that she was viewed a sinner by the townsfolk- which is why we see her getting water at noon instead of the morning or evening. Whatever happened, we know that she is an outcast and outcasts are normally made to feel like sinners even if they’ve done nothing wrong.
I think it matters if this woman appeared to be a sinner (note that I said appear. I did not say she was a sinner.) If that’s the case, then the story changes. This is then not about offering dignity but it is about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the one who is willing to impugn his own reputation to love the sinner and the outcast. THAT is what makes this story so amazing. Regardless if this woman was a sinner or not, Jesus radically loves this woman, even to the point of causing people to talk.
We all love to talk about Jesus being a friend to sinners, but we get a little nervous when Jesus in the Bible or Christians today, actually try to be friends…to sinners.
Lutheran pastor Delmer Chilton recounts a story that place right after his ordination; one where the newly minted minister ends up in the midst of some “working girls:”
I was ordained many years ago in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in a church not far from Fort Bragg. An old college friend drove several hours to be there. After the service that evening, he gave me a ride to the house where I was staying with another friend during the clergy conference that was to begin the next day. Our route took us through a part of town where “working girls” offered their services to GIs. We came to a stoplight, and they spotted me sitting there in his open-bodied Jeep. I was wearing a black suit and clergy shirt. Several of them came over to the car and began talking while we waited for the light to change to green. I said to my friend, “Get me out of here or this might be the shortest clerical career on record.”
He laughed as we drove away and then he said, “Well Delmer, I’m just a lowly English teacher, and you know I don’t go to church very much, but the way I read the Bible – aren’t those the very people you’re supposed to hanging out with?” I’ve known the man a long time and I still hate it when he’s right.
The reason the Woman at the Well resonates with me is that Jesus was willing to be seen talking with someone that at the very least was an outcast and still loves her. Because of that radical love, this woman was able to witness to her neighbors and they too saw Jesus as the Messiah.
In the end, this story really isn’t about the Samaritan woman. She does factor in and is important to the story, but the story is really about a God that is willing to love someone, anyone so radically that one might think God is off God’s rocker. If God is a friend to outcasts and sinners, then God is surely a friend to me. We can rest in the hope that we have a God that passionately loves each one of us.
Hmmm…I think I might have written my sermon for this Sunday….
JESUS MAFA. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48282 [retrieved March 21, 2014].