Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Our End Is Our Beginning (Easter Sermon)

He’s alive!

He’s alive?  Is that possible?  He’s alive?

He is!

Have you ever believed – no, KNOWN, known for sure, that you have reached the end?  Something -- or maybe a series of somethings – has happened in your life that has finished you off.  You’ve lost your home or your job, you’ve received a devastating diagnosis from your doctor, or, worst of all, someone upon whom you’ve centered your entire life has died.  That’s it, you say.  I’m done.  I can’t go on.  I have nothing left, and I’m finished.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples believe that they have come to the end.  Their friend, their teacher, their Lord – gone.  Brutally, publicly, humiliatingly executed on a cross.  His body removed and laid in a tomb.  Their hopes and dreams for a new life, a better world, a different future – extinguished. The journey that started with such promise back in Galilee – here in the holy city of Jerusalem, it’s over. 

In the darkness, Mary Magdalene is still mired in what she believes to have been the ending.  When she returns to the tomb, to the site she believes to be Jesus’s final resting place, she does so as we all do after someone has died.  It’s SO hard to get up in the morning after a most beloved person is gone.  You feel as if your chest is being crushed by the weight of grief, and as if your legs will crumble if you try to stand. We can easily imagine her in those moments before sunrise, can’t we? Blinking to see in the darkness, her body bent, literally weighed down by sorrow, wiping the tears from her face and yet, trying to get herself back to the tomb.  We, too, go to those places in which we can grieve, remember, and remain connected to what came before.  We, too, sink to our knees into what we understand to be the end, wailing our losses and our sorrow. And we, too, when we encounter others at such times, remain wrapped in our own grief, unwilling and even unable to peer into the future.

Mary Magdalene’s first attempts at conversation at the tomb reflect her unwavering attachment to the past.  She sees angels – angels! – but she seems not in the least to find their presence remarkable.  Remember the young Mary, the mother of Jesus, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her?  Curious, astonished, hopeful? This Mary, Mary Magdalene, is none of those things.  She is heartbroken and desperate, and not at all interested in the presence of angels.   She’s not surprised or astonished by their presence; she is grief-stricken and bewildered: Jesus has been taken from the tomb, and she has no idea where to look for him. 

Then she sees Jesus himself, and she presumes him to be the gardener.  She has no context for thinking otherwise.  Whom would you find in a cemetery in the wee hours of the morning, other than a caretaker?  Certainly not a person who has just died and been resurrected!  The living Jesus is the last person she expects to see. And so again, when she speaks, she persists in her original line of thinking: Where have you taken him?  Where is he?  I will handle this matter; just tell me where he is.  You have to admire her determination and resourcefulness. She is going to get this job done.

It’s only when Jesus calls her name that her transformation begins.  I always find that moment to be one of the most moving in the gospels: that gentle greeting on his part, that moment of naming, that moment on her part of being recognized with compassion and called into the future. 

“Mary,” he says.  And what does she do?  She turns.  And we all know what it is to turn: To change direction. To repent of the old brokenness and to move toward new healing.  It is, at bottom, what our whole Christian journey is about.

Back at the beginning of Lent, we reflected together on the words of the prophet Joel: “Turn to me with your whole heart.”  Your whole broken heart, we said. Turn to the living God.  And then we embarked upon a long journey, a journey through a dry and dark wilderness, a journey through thirst and blindness, in order to reach this morning of possibility.  Mary Magdalene has done the same.  She has journeyed over the past three days from the dark horror of the cross to the dawning light of morning, and now she turns at the sound of the voice calling her name.  In turning toward Jesus, she is turning toward an entirely new life.

In this moment of transition, caught for an instant between past and future, she responds with his name, with the name by which he is known to her:  Rabbi.  Teacher.  He sees it, sees that she is poised to go either way, hurling herself back into the arms of the teacher she loves, or running forward into the future to proclaim his resurrection.  And so he continues to teach her, telling her: Don’t hold onto me, but go and tell my brothers about me.

Don’t hold onto me.  Don’t cling to the past.  Don’t clutch at what once was.  You will not find life there.  You will not find me there.

Instead, you must go, and say.  Go and tell what you have seen. 

This is always the story with Jesus: He is alive!  He came to make all things new, and he is doing just that.  And this is always the story with us: to turn toward him, but not so that we can cling to the past.  To turn toward him so that our broken hearts can be mended.  To turn toward him so that we can walk into new life.  To turn toward him so that he can send us into the world.

Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Don’t we all want to hold onto the past?  Don’t we want to hold on to our homes, our neighborhoods, our churches, our traditions and, most of all, to our loved ones? How many times do we say, “I don’t like change” or “But we always used to . . .”?

Mary Magdalene – from what Jesus says to her, she must look like someone who just wants to go back to the way things used to be.  I imagine that the look on her face says it all: You’re here?  You’re alive?  Then let’s go back!  Let’s go back to Galilee, and take long walks and have long conversations over the evening campfires.  Let’s go back to teaching and healing.  Let’s go back to reclaim our lives in the world as we knew it.  It’s only been three days – how hard can it be?

But as the sun rises and warms Mary Magdalene’s face, as she glances back to confirm that the tomb is really empty, as she gazes into the eyes of love, she hears that there will be no going back.  She hears that those three days have changed the world – have changed the universe, have changed all of creation. And she hears herself commissioned to carry this great good news into the world.

Proclaim resurrection!  That’s what Mary Magdalene, and each one of us, is called to do. Proclaim the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth!

What about you? How are you being called to new life?  How are you being called to resurrection life? How are you being called to proclaim the risen Christ?

Let me share three stories of resurrection life with you:

The first is the new story of my dear friend Rosa.  Rosa has served for four years as the founding priest to a fledgling Latino church, a companion church to a long-established Episcopal church in her Florida community.  The juxtaposition of the two congregations has been both joyous and tense.  The new congregation has been a haven for opportunity, especially for children, for opportunity centered in a growing immigrant community.  The older congregation, much wealthier and more traditional, has been challenged and stretched by the needs and the new approaches to ministry fostered by its young partner.  In the past several weeks, it has become apparent that my friend’s ministry could not be sustained there, and that she is called to move on.

At the same time, Rosa’s husband is retiring, and they have decided to create a new life for themselves in his home state of Alabama. Rosa herself has been invited to continue to work with her denomination on a national level, developing new models of being church.   Her new call will require a great deal of travel but, from an office standpoint, she be located anywhere.  Her husband has long desired to return to his quite literal roots, to the earth of the Alabama countryside, and so they have bought a small farm, a piece of earth on which they can grow food and care for a donkey and some goats. A completely new life. 

Mourning the old and anticipating the new, Rosa writes that “I am in an in between place,” in which, as the poet T.S. Eliot says, “in my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning.”

Endings and beginnings.  Good Fridays and Easter Sundays. Deaths and Resurrections.  They fill our lives, if we but look for them and name them. 

Another story: Last week I caught a bit of Dancing with the Stars as I was flipping channels, and discovered that one of the contestants this season is a young woman who lost both of her legs below the knees after a massive illness.  She learned to compete in snowboarding AFTER she lost her legs, and last week she appeared in a pink Cinderella ballgown, gliding across the stage to Disney music.  She has said that her father began dancing with her as part of her recovery, as part of her process of learning to walk again.  Now there is a resurrection story!  Did she and her father, both of them, see in her life journey a terrible ending?  I’m sure they had moments when that’s all they saw.  But they also saw beginning, saw new possibilities for creation.  They saw the hope of resurrection.

And a third story, which I needn’t belabor, because it is all over the news: Tomorrow the Boston Marathon will be run, one year after the bombings which took lives, mangled bodies, and disrupted a city.  If you’ve heard any of the reports or interviews, you know that the phrase “Boston Strong” describes a resurrection city.  A city whose photographs from last year show what look like endings: violent, bloody endings.  And today? A city in which God is making all things new. 

Three stories from contemporary life, plus the original story, in which Mary Magdalene is the first, according to the Gospel of John, to encounter the risen Lord, and the first to be sent into the world to proclaim resurrection.  The story that tells us that when the Lenten journey ends, the Easter journey begins.

And then, of course . . .  there’s one more story.  Your story, and our story.  How are you, how are we, called to proclaim resurrection?  How are we called to turn toward Jesus?  How are we called to walk into new lives? 

There are as many ways of living resurrection lives as there are people to live them.  There are churches to recreate and farms to plant.  There are bodies to heal and cities to rebuild.  There are words to proclaim and people to serve. There is music to sing and prayer to offer.  Resurrection is about thinking that we have come to the end of the journey and discovering that we are just embarking upon a new one.

There is an entire world, an entire universe, to which we are called to attend because Jesus Christ, alive and among us, has inaugurated the new creation of which the prophet Isaiah spoke:  I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.  We are not by any means finished!  We are not at the end!  We are invited to the beginning!

As the theologian N.T. Wright reminds us, "The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that [we’re] now invited to belong to it.

This morning, this glorious Easter morning: Accept the invitation to become an Easter people.  A people of the resurrection.  A people who see new beginnings in the ending of the old.  A people embarking upon a new road, a new journey, to a new future – an Easter future into which we are called as God’s beloved community. Because:

He is risen!  And he calls your name!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ten Years?

Yep, I've been blogging for ten years.

And I think I've about exhausted what I have to say, at least for the time being.

During those ten years, one of my three children finished high school, they all finished college, one died, and two earned graduate degrees.

I've been to Iona and Paris, the Pacific Northwest (multiple times, thanks to a college student), canoeing in Canada, lobbying in Columbus and Washington, D.C., and up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer and broke my ankle.

I completed seminary and a certificate in spiritual direction, was ordained to ministry, taught some college classes, and have served two churches as pastor.

I'm, just back from a much needed week of silence and spiritual direction at Georgetown University, where I stayed in the Jesuit Community's residence, did a disappointingly small bit of exploration (that ankle!), dealt with a car breakdown, and read a lot of Brian Doyle.  (How have I not read all of his books before ???)

Mostly I stretched luxuriously into prayer as my cat stretches across the bed, sinking into a fleece blanket, retracting her claws, and closing her eyes.
At least twice on my retreat, deep into the contemplation of passages of scripture, I related to my spiritual director what seemed to me to be striking insights, and he told me to look into what the early church fathers had to say about them when I got home.
I have nothing original whatever to offer! ~ be it on the church, bereavement, ministry, parenting, suicide, prayer, or any of the other topics which have absorbed me this past decade.
I have concluded that I am in need of much more silence in my life, much more time for listening and reading and absorbing. 
So . . .  if you've been reading, thank you.  If you've been commenting, thank you even more.  I might return, someday ~ but for now, I think that my online presence will be a small and quiet one.


Image: Holy Trinity Church near the Georgetown University Campus.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sight for the Journey (Sermon - John)

(Reading of John 9:1-7)
Don't we so often look for someone to blame when something goes wrong?  Human nature, right?  There must be a reason, and the reason must be that someone is at fault. 
No sooner had that mudslide in Washington occurred last week than reporters were quoting  experts who claimed that people had been warned of the hazards of living on that mountainside.  It must be someone's fault that so many people have been killed.
And when someone gets into trouble?  Especially a teenager?  How often do people say,
"Those parents . . . ". Or, "What's going on in that house?"  There must be a responsible party at fault, right?  If we could just drag all the parents of kids in trouble into juvenile court, we could solve our youth problems.
In the ancient world, illness or disability had to be someone's fault.  The nameless man in our story has been blind from birth, and so, "Who?" ask the neighbors.  "Him?  Or his parents?  Who is at fault?"  When a child is born blind, who is to blame?
We understand this, don't we?  We who think of ourselves as oh, so sophisticated -- we ask
the same questions when something goes horribly wrong.  What did I do wrong?  A natural
disaster – what did I fail to take into account?  A family problem – was I not paying attention? An illness – couldn’t I have prevented this?
What did I fail to see? That’s what we ask ourselves.  Instinctively, we know that literal sight, even if we score 20/20 in the opthamologist’s  office is not enough.  We need to look with  our hearts and minds as well as with our eyes, and we know that we don’t always do so well. And so we stick to the literal, and try to find someone or something to blame.
(Reading of John 1:8-12)
Do we expect the ordinary to be transformative?
Do we expect people to be changed by the ordinary?
Do we expect ourselves to be changed by the ordinary?
It's a strange story, isn't it?  Jesus uses mud, spit, and water to give sight to a blind man.  Jesus has already dismissed the question of whether the man or his parents sinned.  He has said that the man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. 
That might not sit so well with us.  Would God really make a child born blind for the purpose of revealing God’s glory through a miracle later on?  Doesn’t that seem a bit – well, mercurial and unfair and even harsh of God?  What about the years of health that the man missed out on?
Maybe that’s not what Jesus means.  Maybe Jesus doesn’t mean that God sets out to damage some of us in ways that will require God’s intervention for healing to take place.
Maybe what he means is this: That no matter how we are born or how we live, no matter our limitations, or apparent lack of limitations, we are all, every one of us, called into partnership with God so that God’s works, God’s goodness, might be revealed. We all need God’s intervention.  This man is no different from any other man or woman or child: he was born so that God’s works might be revealed through him.
And how are God's works revealed? In this case, and in others? 
Not through a dramatic surgery in a major medical center in Jerusalem.
Not through a miracle breakthrough in medications discovered in a laboratory on Mount Sinai.
Not through the power of a great force of nature -- thunder, lightning, fire.
But through mud, spit, and a bath.
Sight for our earthly journey, which might or might not be literal, physical sight, is given us in and through the ordinary.  Great gifts come in the smallest and most everyday materials and activities of life.
I’ve been reading a novel entitled The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, and at one point the main character, Lucilla, whose life has been fraught with losses and other difficulties, muses that life is very difficult, and that we must learn to see and appreciate the small, everyday wonders if we are going to make it: a newly-blooming flower, the sound of the wind, the warmth of the sun.  In her life, the gift of healing comes through the ordinary.  In our story today, Jesus heals, unexpectedly and surprisingly, through the ordinary.  In our own lives, healing often comes through the daily, the mundane.  Mud, spit, water. 
(Reading of John 9:13-17)\
How do we respond?  When a calamity turns out to be no one’s fault, and then is resolved? When new sight brings new possibilities? When new sight comes to us in unexpected ways at inappropriate times via unfamiliar people? 
Do we respond in joy?  Do we understand that God might be at work?  That a person’s difficulties resolved might be a source of the revelation of God?
Or are we a bit uncomfortable?  Hesitant? Anxious?  Too much unexpected change, too much for us to take in?
The people who know this man?  They don't know what to make of this situation.  A complete healing, a healing by mud and spit, effected by this new rabbi in their midst, and on the Sabbath, no less.  A healing that should not be happening at all, accomplished with the most ordinary of materials, on a day when no work is to be done.
What do they do? They call in the experts.
They call in the Pharisees.
And the Pharisees, it seems, are sighted people of limited vision.  Trapped by their adherence to Sabbath rules and regulations, they are bewildered by this man who ignores the rules upon which they depend and heals in the most unusual of ways on a day on which he should be worshipping in the synagogue. They know how life is supposed to proceed, but what they see now is not at all what they are supposed to be seeing.
What kind of sight do we need, we who profess to follow Jesus?  What kind of sight do we need for our Lenten journey?  Surely sight which limits its range to that which we already know – it’s is not enough. And most definitely sight which overlooks the full range of possibilities inherent in the ordinary – it’s inadequate. 
The experts, those who represent power and authority, do not necessarily exercise the sight we need to acquire in order to see our lives as Jesus sees them.
The man himself?  He knows.  He knows that his life is designed to reveal the goodness of God. He says, simply, that Jesus "is a prophet." 
(Reading of John 9:18-34)
The people, the neighbors and friends of this man, are not been reassured by the Pharisees' indecision.  They conclude that the man is lying!  He must not have been born blind.
And so they try to pull his parents into the discussion, wanting to know whether the man has
always been blind.  The parents have to admit that he has been, but beyond that they will not go.  The Pharisees suffer the limited sight of the rule-bound;  the parents suffer the limited sight of the fearful.  They don't want to be thrown out of their synagogue, and so they say: "Ask our son what happened.  We have nothing to say on the matter."

And we understand those parents, don't we?  Haven't we all been guilty of hiding out, of not wanting to speak up, of hoping that people will forget about us before we have to tell the truth?  We don’t want to lose our place in our community – what if we were asked about something we didn’t want to reveal? We just might say, “Ask someone else.” 

Look at all these people who can’t see what’s happened: neighbors, friends, Pharisees, parents. . .  no wonder this story is so long!  It’s chock full of people who can see, but don’t.  They are so blind that they thrust the healed man from their midst.

Who is the one person wiling to see and to say the truth here?

It's the man himself.  The man who has experienced a literal transformation -- complete healing – by ordinary means, by mud and spit and water. The man who has experienced a spiritual transformation -- enlarged vision -- by an extraordinary encounter, with the Son of God himself.

Transformation breeds confidence -- trust – and awe. That’s why the man is able to speak out where others tremble.  Those characteristics – confidence, and trust, and awe -- are the hallmarks of true vision -- and true vision is the result of genuine sight.  It's that genuine sort of sight that we need to journey onward.  Not merely the sight that will enable us to see the road, to find food, to converse easily others.  But the sight that makes of us people of vision: people confident and trusting and filled with awe when we encounter Jesus --  in the ordinary.

People able to reveal the works of God through our own ordinary lives.  This is what we are designed to do: to reveal the goodness and love of God, however it is that we were born.

We are all blind in some way, all unable to see clearly, until Jesus offers us healing – through ordinary means.  Maybe not with mud and spit, but maybe through the caring of friends, or the satisfactions of work, or the beauty of nature. And when Jesus offers us healing and our sight is restored, we receive the gift of vision.  Vision that enables us to see Jesus among us, and to reveal him to others through our own lives of confident faith and awe-filled reverence. 

(Reading of John 9:35-41)

Of course, change, transformation -- they do not come merely from the ordinary. 

They came from Jesus himself, laboring among the ordinary.

Change and transformation do not come easily to the fearful, to those bound to the past.

They come to those who embrace their experience of God, those who embrace it with
confidence, trust, and awe.

What is the sight we ourselves need?

If we see only as we have in the past, if we allow ourselves to be trapped by what was, we will be blind to the new creation, to the Kingdom of God among us in the form of Jesus Christ.  Our journey will be for naught; we might as well have stayed at home.

But if we are open to the healing of our blindnesses, if we can let our limitations be eroded, if we can allow Jesus to take action in our lives, using the ordinary stuff of which they are made, if we can but let him change us into people who see -- then we may become women and men of vision, those who see the Light of the World offering us a Kingdom.

We may truly become a church on the move, a pilgrim people sent into the world to walk, as our own vision statement says, together in the love of Jesus, sharing the good news of God’s love for all – if we rejoice in the vision Jesus offers. Let’s not get bogged down in the past, in rules, in fearfulness, in limitation.  Our lives are designed to reveal his the love of God, but we need the clear sight and enlarged vision Jesus offers. We are called to embrace the abundance and love of Christ’s healing vision, and to let our lives show it to the world. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Water for the Journey (Sermon: Exodus and John)

(Play the opening of Wade In the Water)
This song, Wade in the Water, has been stirring up my thoughts all week as I’ve pondered our two texts for this morning.  God tells Moses to strike a rock from which water will gush forth for the wandering, thirsty, and complaining Israelites.  Jesus tells the woman at the well that he has water to offer which will gush forth into new life for all peoples.  And this song tells us that “God’s gonna trouble the waters.”
I learned this song, Wade in the Water, at my daughter’s graduation from Willamette University, a small school in Oregon. That year an honorary agree was awarded to Bernice Johnson Reagon, a history professor, social activist, and founded of the African-American women’s a capella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.  In her speech to the graduates, Dr. Reagon urged them to go out into the world and “trouble the waters” -- stir things up, bring their gifts to bear on the many needs of our world.  She also, in the middle of that academic afternoon of long speeches, sang Wade In the Water – and stole the whole show.  By far the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard!
The song makes several references to that great story of Hebrew liberation, the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses. “Looks like the band that Moses led -- God's a-going to trouble the water.”  When we meet them today, the Israelites are in the midst of their long desert sojourn, and they are furious at Moses.  “Why did you bring us out here, to kill us?” they rage at him.  Egypt is looking pretty good at that moment, and they are ready to trade freedom for a roof and a cup of water.  Stuck in the desert, they take their anger out on Moses, who begs God to intervene.  And God does, instructing Moses on how obtain water from the rock.  Where God is, water is often transformed.  Water often becomes a sign of God’s movement among us, and of our movement out into the lives into which we are called.
The woman at the well?  Another story of God’s movement among us, and of God sending us into new lives.  This woman seems to have nothing going for her as the narrative begins.  She’s a Samaritan, a member of a population reviled by the Jews.  She’s had five husbands and has a new companion – a biographical detail that has caused a number of judgmental comments against her – but we have no idea why she’s had five husbands.  Divorce?  Widowhood?  Violence?  Family pressure?  What we do know is that she’s had to start over six times, and that by now she must be disappointed, weary, and worn down by hopes dashed, over and over again.  She’s also alone, isolated from others – by herself at the well in midday instead of part of an early morning communal gathering.
And yet – Jesus engages her.  She’s of the wrong culture and the wrong gender for this conversation – Jews did not interact with Samaritans, and Jewish men did not interact with women to whom they were not married.  He breaks all the rules, and with his words, he changes her understanding of life – changes it so much that she – what does she do? 
Now here I have a confession to make.  This story of is great personal significance to me, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but it’s also a story to which my attention has been drawn in rather humorous circumstances:
You probably know that we Presbyterian pastors are all required to study Hebrew and Greek in seminary. And let me tell you: Greek was not one of my strengths in school!  I really had to work at that language – there is nothing about it that comes naturally to me. 
On our final exam, we were presented with a lengthy passage to translate.  I couldn’t make head nor tail of that passage, so I started looking around for words I recognized.  The first one I came up with was pente.  You would know it, too, once you could read the Greek alphabet, for of course pente means five.  The next word I figured out was andras, which means men.  Hmmm, I thought.  Five men.  Where are there five men in the NT?  Then I remembered that andras can also mean husbands – five husbands! Finally!  I knew what the passage was, and I could go back and figure the rest of it out -- with one exception.
Toward the end of the passage, the woman is so excited that she goes back to town to tell everyone about her encounter with Jesus, but first she does something.  She does something with her water jar – and I could not figure out what that verb was.  What did she do?  The verb [aph-y-e-mi, a mi verb] is one of a series of difficult verbs with many different forms, and as I looked at my test paper, I simply had no idea which one it was.  So I thought: She came to the well to get water; the logical thing for her to have done, then, would be to have picked up her water jar and returned to the city. So that’s what I wrote: “She picked up her jar and returned to the city.
Wrong!   “Robin,” my long-suffering professor groaned after the test, “the verb is left.  Left behind.  She is so excited that she leaves her water jar behind!”
Of course.  How did I not know that?  (And I’ve never forgotten it since!  I don’t remember the Greek verb at all, but I do remember that the woman at the well leaves her jar behind.)  She is so excited by the living water that she does something completely out of character, completely out of her usual routine: she leaves her work and goes off to tell people about her encounter with Jesus.  She wants them to know that the water for the journey of life is here -- and it's not literal water; it's the messiah, the anointed one, the savior of the world whose spirit infiltrates her life.
Why should I have known that? (Even if the vocabulary was beyond me.) 
The story of the woman at the well is one which I see as my own.  Some time ago, I was engaged in a year-long experience of prayer, the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a year in which I spent hours each week meditating on and contemplating many Scriptural passages.  When I reached the story of the woman at the well, it reached out and grabbed me – spoke to me in a way much more intimately personal than many other stories had.  I recognized that woman.  I hadn’t been married five times, but I had experienced many other kinds of disappointments in life, and her tired and frustrated – and mystified – questioning of Jesus rang true to me.
How is it that you ask a drink of me?  Where do you get that living water?  Who are you, anyway?
What I came to understand, after spending a week or so with her story, was something that I often share with you: the story of Scripture becomes our story, and the stories of our lives become the stories of Scripture.    The water that God has to offer the Israelites and the water that Jesus offers the woman at the well -- this is water that expands life.  This is water that enlarges who we are and what we are called to be.  This is the water of the Spirit, water that fills us with energy and hope. This is living water, water that gushes up into new and eternal life. 
No wonder the woman at the well left her jar behind.  News so unexpected, so startling, so filled with possibility and with love – of course she had to run back to town to tell others.
God doesn’t pour water from a rock so that our own thirst might be quenched.  Jesus does not offer a drink of living water merely for our own personal needs.  No – God troubles the waters.  God offers us water so that we might share it with others, splash it around, drench the entire world in God’s love. 
My invitation to you this week is that you ask yourselves: Where in your lives have you sensed a direct encounter with God?  With Jesus?  With the Spirit?
Where has Jesus unexpectedly offered you water?
Where has God troubled the waters of your own life -- sent you out to be someone new, to proclaim God's goodness, through words or through your acts of service to others?
You might have to give this matter some thought.  My guess is that you were not wandering around in the Sinai desert, or sitting at a well in the city of Sychar.  My guess is that the offer of living water has come to you in the form of a conversation, or maybe in a moment in a sacred place.  Maybe in music, in the form of help or encouragement from a friend.
Last week, one of you shared a song with me, a song that she loves, and a story of calling a friend and singing the song to her over the telephone.  That was a woman at the well moment: she was filled with the spirit of God, with the living water that gushes out of God’s love, and needed to tell someone.  She left behind her water jar, the ordinary reticence that might have prevented her even from humming  a tune in the hallway, and burst into song.
What about you?  Are you paying attention?  Are you noticing when Jesus walks into your life to ask for a drink and then turns the encounter around to offer water to you?  Are you paying attention when God troubles the waters of your own life, and invites you to share what you’ve been given with others?
We need water on this Lenten journey of ours, and here it is: the living water of Jesus Christ, the water that quenches thirst forever, the well from which you are invited to drink and the water you are invited to pour all over the place, everywhere you go.  Amen.

Friday, March 21, 2014


I posted this as a Throwback Thursday photo on FB this week, and thought I'd add something here.
My sister Kathy and I think that this was probably an Easter 1963 photo, which would mean that it was taken a month or two after her parents divorced and her mom and my dad, a widower for two years, got married.  Her mother and two youngest brothers moved to Ohio, leaving her and one other younger brother in Florida with their dad.
If we're right, then: across the page we kids are 7, 9, 4, and 9. Plus two turtles and one basset hound.
A friend from those days commented on FB: "Fun times!"
Really, not so much.
We kids did forge a great alliance, eventually.  But I think that that spring we were stunned and reeling in  shock to find our families thus reconfigured.

Trips! (Friday Five)

"Last week and this week, I am driving long distances in Texas, first to Houston and today to Austin from Corpus Christi: both times to meet relatives from Canada flying here. This makes me think of trips taken in my life: vacation, moving, visiting relatives, visiting friends, seeking a new home, going away to school, and probably many more.
For today’s Friday Five, tell about five different trips you have made in your life due to different reasons, modes of travel, or whatever category you choose!
Happy and safe travels!"

So many trips . . .
Five favorites:
My grandmother always wanted to travel.  My grandfather would not board planes or boats.  Eventually, my grandmother found a solution: she would travel with her grandchildren.  As the eldest, I received the first invitation: five days in Williamsburg, when I was in fifth grade, reached by overnight train from Cincinnati.  Over the next several years, she would take me out west and to Europe, my brother to Africa, and various cousins to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  But honestly, much as I love to travel, one of my favorite travel memories involves standing in my grandmother's dining room and opening the elegant envelope which contained her handwritten note requesting the pleasure of my company in Williamsburg!
One or my favorite family trips was our own jaunt out west, to the Tetons and Yellowstone, a near-replica of the journey I had made with my grandmother decades earlier.  We went with another family; the son was Josh's best friend.  Upsides: the scenery, the nights in grand lodges,  the hikes and the horseback riding.  Downside: a couple of days of freezing drizzle, days we spent on horses and in a raft ~ weather which I was assured they had not seen in Yellowstone in August for 25 years!  Great success: I introduced a curious Ben, age 12, to birding.  Today he is finishing his Ph.D. in ecology at Chicago, has traveled the world himself as an ornithologist, and has, with a group of colleagues, published a finding of a new Peruvian species!  I take full credit for his career, which began on a trail on a sunny morning in the Grand Tetons.
In 2000, we took a family trip to Italy.  We thought we might have one international trip in us, and Italy was our children's choice of destination.  Among favorite moments: standing outside the Colosseum in Rome, trying to figure out how to get back to our hotel, and Matt saying, "How can we possibly be lost?  We are standing in one of the best-known places on the globe!"  The entire week was marvelous, but we especially loved the Cinque Terre.  And Pompeii, which had held a major spot in my imagination since the National Geographic article when I was a child, and is the setting for the stories in the kids' middle school Latin textbook.
It turned out that we were to spend another ten family days in Europe ~ Christmas in France when the boys were in 11th grade and Josh spent the year there.  In Rennes, we got to know his French family a bit; in Paris, we made it to a concert of Gregorian chant in Notre Dame.  The joy of that trip was watching Josh, by that time reasonably fluent in conversational French and entirely comfortable with life in a new country.
Only one more?  I think I'll choose Prince Edward Island, where my daughter and I went for her high school graduation trip.  A dream destination: home to Anne of Green Gables, lovely little harbor towns, beautiful beaches and dunes, and a seemingly endless stream of lighthouses.  We quickly developed an affinity for evening drives in search of sunsets over the water.  Best of all, of course, was the uninterrupted time with my beautiful girl, who is an excellent companion in all circumstances.  It was an opportunity to replay my times with my grandmother in reverse!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Night Journey (Sermon ~ John 3)

Several years ago, a group from my home church, Forest Hill, went on pilgrimage to Iona, which is a very small – about three miles long and a mile across – and remote island off the northwest coast of Scotland.  It’s nice to be able to mention Iona during this Lenten season in which we are focusing on the pilgrimage journey, because Iona has been a pilgrimage destination for at least several decades.  It was first inhabited by Christians in the 500s, when St. Columba of Ireland made his way across the sea, landed, and decided to establish a monastery there. Eventually other monks and nuns arrived, and one of the finest libraries in Europe was established on Iona.  It was always a risky sort of place, overrun by Vikings several times and eventually, I am sorry to say, by Protestant reformers, who destroyed the library in the 1500s.  Today Iona is home to a small – very small – village, to farmers and shepherds, and to a restored church which serves as a central gathering place for a worldwide religious community and the home of an extensive summer program.  You know of Iona whether you realize it or not, because we sing songs, such as “The Summons”  (“Will You Come and Follow Me?) which were written by John Bell, a member of the Iona community.
Anyway, a group of us went off to Iona for a week, and one night we went to an evening of Scottish music and dancing. I found that I was more in the mood for solitude than for music and dancing that night, and so after an hour or so I decided to walk back across the island.  It was very late, and very dark – finally!  Iona is so far north that there are few hours of real darkness during the summer months – and as I walked down a road that ran between extensive fields, I heard a raspy, insect-like call: first here, and then there, and then over there a ways.
I knew exactly what was making that call.  The call I heard was the call of a corn crake, a medium sized-quail like bird, a very secretive bird that runs around at night in fields of vegetation high enough to provide it with cover.  We don’t have corn crakes here, but they are common in western Scotland.  I knew that I was unlikely to see one, but I had hoped to hear one on Iona – and there they were, definitely several of them, calling back and forth as they scuttled about the otherwise silent midnight fields. I wish I could replicate their odd raspy call for you, but I’ll spare you – and tell you that if you go to youtube and search the words corn crake, you can see and hear them, for yourselves.
Now, what does a corn crake have to do with anything today?  We are here today to talk about Nicodemus, who most likely never heard a corn crake.  But Nicodemus did make a famous night journey, a journey out to see Jesus in the dark of night. 
What is it about the night that’s significant?
We often hear about Nicodemus in somewhat disparaging terms.  We hear that he was a leader of the Jews – someone in charge, probably well known around town, and with a reputation as a scholar and as an authority in the community – who slipped out in the night to meet Jesus.  He was curious, apparently, and intrigued by this teacher and miracle worker who was new on the scene – but he didn’t want anyone to known that he might be taking Jesus seriously.   So he went out when he was unlikely to run into anyone.  A well-meaning kind of person, but not a bold one.  That’s what we usually hear.
And maybe that’s all true.  But I’d like to suggest to you that there may be another dimension to our friend Nicodemus, another reason for his journey through the night.
Night is a time, isn’t it? -- when we are particularly attentive to our surroundings.  In the dark, we need to look closely as to where we’re going in order that we not stumble.  We tend to listen carefully to the sounds we hear, and often we are out at night with the intention of seeing and doing and hearing things we can’t see and do and hear during the day.   Corn crakes, for instance – the only way you are likely to hear a corn crake is to spend time out in the fields late at night in corn crake country. 
The  song  “The Music of the Night” from the musical The Phantom of the Opera begins with the following words:
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation;
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .

Don’t the words describe precisely what it’s like to be out in the night?
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination . . .
Consider other night journeys:
When I was a little girl, living out in the country, many of the hide-and-seek games my brothers and I played required the dark of night as a setting.  We had several acres in which to make small journeys and secret ourselves from one another, and the darkness certainly heightened our awareness of the sounds of night birds, of the rippling waters of the creek, of the breeze through the trees and tall grasses. 
Far from our ordinary lives in southern Ohio, a famous night journey is found in the Islamic tradition, a journey in which the prophet Muhammed is reputed to have been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to heaven on a large white animal, usually imagined as a horse.  On that journey, the story tells us, he met Adam, Abraham, Moses, and many other figures significant to Judaism, Christianity, and, of course, Islam.  He returned to Mecca to tell his followers of his travels, travels in which it surely seems that “darkness stirred and awakened his imagination.”  His night journey is often celebrated in the Muslim tradition – and surely there is something about the night that adds to the sense of its significance.  Events, conversations, encounters, symbols: they stand out in the night.
Darkness, night, is also a time when struggles seem heightened.  In our ordinary lives, don’t we often find that our questions loom larger, our doubts seem sharper, our worries more confounding, in the dark than in the light of day.  And again, to move onto the broader stage, think of Harriet Tubman, guiding hundreds of slaves north to freedom by the dark of night.  While nighttime was her only choice for adequate concealment, don’t you think that the night must have also “heightened each sensation” for those traveling north?   I imagine that those making that journey must have felt both intense fear about what would happen to them if they were discovered, intense hope for the possibilities that lay ahead, and intense awe at the spread of stars in the sky that served as guideposts for them.
And so: Nicodemus.  What is he doing out at night, looking for Jesus?  Maybe he really did feel that it was important that he remain undetected.  Maybe he was convinced that he would lose his position and influence if his friends and colleagues discovered him in conversation with the rabbi from Nazareth – but his motivation doesn’t alter the reality:
Night journeys are different.
Night journeys have the potential to transform us at least in part because they take place at night, because the darkness and the silence and the absence of our daily companions enable everything we encounter to be thrown into sharp relief.  We see differently at night, and we hear differently at night.  We learn differently at night.
And Nicodemus had a lot to learn.
This interchange, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, is packed with some of the most significant, and also most confusing, claims of our faith.  We could spend weeks on Nicodemus, couldn’t we?  What do all those signs, those miracles Jesus has been performing really mean?  What does it mean to be born from above?  What does it mean to be born of water and the Spirit?  What does it mean that the Spirit blows where it will?
What a struggle this conversation must have been for Nicodemus! In one of her poems in the volume Red Bird, the poet Mary Oliver says,
All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties . . .

“The rough ground of uncertainties.”  That’s where Nicodemus is treading in his conversation with Jesus: all night, his heart makes its way over the tough ground of uncertainties.  The things he is hearing are not the things her has heard before.  They are not the things upon which he has staked his life as a leader among his people. How is he ever going to sort of all this out in the light of day?
But – and here’s what I want you to remember: It’s night.  And in the night we hear things differently.  The final words Nicodemus hears are words many of us have heard again and again and again, words that have even become commonplace to us as banners at football games.  But for this moment, I want you to imagine hearing them for the first time, in the dark of the night, in the midst of all of your struggles and questions, as clear as the call of a corn crake across the fields of Scotland:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
In the dark, in the night, Nicodemus is beginning the journey toward being born from above.  In the dark, in the night, the Spirit is blowing its way into the life of Nicodemus.
Maybe Nicodemus only thinks he is making night journey because he wants to avoid his friends and neighbors.  Maybe he’s really making a night journey because God has drawn him into a time and place in which he will be completely undistracted, in which his attention will be entirely focused on the man whom he seeks, a time and a place in which he will be transformed.
Let’s return to words from The Music of the Night:
Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar
And you'll live as you've never lived before . . .
Let your mind start a journey to a strange new world
Leave all thoughts of the life you knew before . . .

A new world; a new way of living; a new creation: that’s what Jesus is offering, and promising, to Nicodemus and to us.  A creation in which we do not perish, but have eternal life.  A sphere of rich, full joyous life in which we are not condemned but saved, by love and for love.
Sometimes we can’t see any of that in the light of day.  Sometimes we have to journey by night to know with clarity both the call of the corn crake and the love of God.  Sometimes in night’s “rough gound of uncertainties” we find the answer: the Son who came not to turn on us in anger , but to gather us up into love.

And so: if your journey calls you into the dark of night, go forth!  Our psalm today tells us that “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  Rely upon that promise, and upon the knowledge that the night may reveal God’s love in ways invisible in the daylight.