Sunday, March 19, 2017

Christ in the Face of the Stranger [Lent 3A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
John 4:5-42

Christ in the Face of the Stranger

More than four decades ago, Henri Nouwen wrote: “In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women, and obligatory for Christians, to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”1

Jesus and his followers had entered a city of strangers – or perhaps better said, a city where they were strangers. It was hostile territory. In the verse immediately preceding our reading from John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus had to go through Samaritan territory in the verse before today's reading. And while it was on a pretty direct route between Judea and Galilee, they did not have to go through Samaritan territory. It seems the disciples would have preferred not to; but they did.

There were ways to circumvent the area; that’s what most Jews would have done – like taking the freeway to avoid the inner city. It happens now; it happened then. But Jesus, a Jew, walked right into this Samaritan city – a city of strangers – and sat down by their well.

At this time in history, Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies – so much so that the woman at the well asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is surprised that Jesus would even ask her for a favor, ask her to do something for him. The animosity was deep-seeded. Descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, the Samaritans were considered by Jews, not sisters and brothers, but an impure distortion – their blood and their religious practices polluted by heathens, an unwelcome abomination. The hostility even at times became violent. In about 300 BCE, the Samaritans built a shrine on their holy mountain, Mount Gerizim, to compete with the Jewish Temple. Less than 200 years later Jewish troops tore the Samaritan shrine to the ground. And then, not long after Jesus' time, some Jewish pilgrims making the same journey as Jesus and his disciples were victims of a violent riot.2 Despite their common roots, Jews and Samaritans were enemies; they disagreed on religious practice and theology; they had a violent history; and they did not mix. The suspicion and hostility simmered, ready to boil over at any time. A careful Jew, a shrewd Jew, would have taken the bypass.

And yet, here he is: Jesus begging hospitality in a hostile environment. A thirsty, exhausted Jewish man without a water jar. This story begins with a basic human need – thirst: the desire for water. Jesus was thirsty. And this woman has a bucket. And a well. And the well is deep and full of water.

Disregarding her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps disregarding his own ethnicity and gender, Jesus asks for a drink. And in that moment, the woman – unnamed in this story – is very much aware of her ethnicity and gender, or perhaps is very much aware of his ethnicity and gender. And the history. And the risk.

Why are you speaking with her?” That is what they want to ask Jesus. They don't, but they want to. The disciples were in the city buying lunch. No one stayed to babysit Jesus – which turns out to be a mistake. Because when they return they see him talking with this woman – worse than that other people see him talking with this woman. She'll probably tell people too. It's embarrassing when it's your leader, your role model, who is engaged in such inappropriate, risky behavior. It really reflects poorly on the entire company. Was he this thirsty, thirsty enough to lower himself so?

Despite everything, she engaged Jesus in conversation. I mean, rather than just giving him some water and walking away. Or perhaps more appropriately, just ignoring him and walking away. Really she challenges Jesus – this man who dared come into her neighborhood and violate the social norms. And then the dance begins – back and forth. The conversation, on the surface, does not seem entirely successful – more like a collection of somewhat related statements. Two unlikely partners talking politics and religion – gender issues and racial tension hanging over the entire interaction. Very inappropriate.

And what begins with Jesus' desire for water, arouses something deep in this woman, something soul deep: a desire that longed to be filled. Until this stranger broke into her life, she did not realize it, but now she recognizes that she too is dying of thirst. And she longs for that spring of water, gushing up in her barren life, in a barren land. A well to which she did not have to travel in the heat of the day. “Give me this water, so that I may never have to be thirsty.”

It is easy to look at this passage and think that the woman just didn't get it. She seems to be talking literally; Jesus seems to be talking spiritually. But before we sell her short, keep reading. Because she does get it. She finds her Savior in the face of this stranger. So she gets it; she gets what she most desires. The one who aroused, awakened, the desire also fulfills it. She gets the water for which she thirsts and she becomes a conduit through which living water flows into other desolate lives.

This is an unlikely salvation story. And it probably should have never happened. Because Jesus should have taken the bypass. And the Samaritan woman should have said no to her enemy's request. And he, a Jewish rabbi, should not have engaged her, a Samaritan woman, in a conversation about religion and politics in a public place. And two strangers should not have made this beautiful, vulnerable space in their lives for each other. Because this world is dangerous and full of dangerous people. And the walls that divide us keep us safely apart. And if people let down their guard or break down the walls or transgress the boundaries or open their vulnerable hearts, life will no longer be safe and they might get hurt.

Or we might find that our salvation story is written in that space where hostility becomes hospitality. We might find, like the disciples, that Jesus settles into that open space between us and those we believe to be our enemies. We might find that when we dare to see the humanity in the stranger, the stranger can see our humanity too.

Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm. But still – [this] is our vocation: to convert the...enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.”

Our world is broken and divided. It is suffocating in a thick smog of fear and anxiety. Hatred and mistrust: spreading like a plague. Our brothers and sisters, each and every one created in the image of God, are cast as the monsters in the horror stories we tell each other. It is not what God wants for us. We can no longer live like this. It must break God's heart.

In these fearful, defensive, aggressive times, the safe bet is to stay home, lock our doors, guard our precious stuff, play it safe. But the Jesus we follow keeps wandering into the wrong places, strange places full of strangers. And he leaves the door open behind him, luring us to risk our vulnerable hearts in a dangerous world. Daring us to find our salvation behind those enemy lines. Daring to see the face of Christ in the face of the stranger. 

1Reaching Out, 65-6.
2Twelve Months of Sundays, N.T. Wright, 44.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Starve It [Lent 1A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 4:1-11

Starve It

I guess you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And for Jesus, who remember was as much human as he was God, it took him forty days and forty nights. Probably felt like forever.

In that wilderness, Jesus wasn't starving his body. Sure, he was fasting; he was physically famished. But the desert days were not a weight loss plan; this wilderness time was not a spa retreat. Jesus, you see, wasn't prone to obsess over his trim figure in the Gospels – as his opponents will later point out, calling him a glutton and a drunk. Jesus was in that wilderness because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it. And it had to go. Jesus was out there to starve his ego – that piece of us that longs to be great, to be right, to be in control – that thing in us that longs to be God. Because he understood that the temptations would only intensify beyond the wilderness. Each healing, each adoring crowd, each dedicated disciple would make it easier to buy into the hype, would make it easier to trade God's mission for something a little more glamorous.

The devil came to Jesus as a tempter – just a purveyor of possibility. And if this is what the devil looks like, looks like the character who found Jesus in the wilderness, well, we've all run into this devil. There's no pitchfork, no red pointy tail, no bad language or nasty jokes. This devil just wants to make Jesus great. He just wants Jesus to fulfill his considerable potential. He wants Jesus to realize that maybe God and God's plan is holding him back. This devil's not mean; he just wants Jesus to be successful: rich and famous and powerful. What's so bad about that?

It all starts innocently enough. How 'bout some bread for a hungry guy, a guy who just survived a fast that should have killed him twice over? Certainly Jesus was hungry; there's nothing wrong with a food. And if he has the gift, why not put it to good use?

Undoubtedly, at some point during that excruciating fast, Jesus saw those rocks turn into bread. We know how hunger works; we've all seen cartoons. But making one loaf of bread in the middle of nowhere is nothing special. If a stone turns to bread and no one sees it, did it really happen? I mean Jesus is hungry, but it's more than that. If the temptation was strictly physical, the devil could have packed Jesus a picnic lunch.

But that's not the temptation. This is an appeal not to Jesus' belly but to Jesus' ego. Turning one rock into one loaf of bread in the middle of the wilderness is nothing. But what if Jesus could turn stones into bread? And not just here in the wilderness, but in the towns and the villages and the cities? What if this was a business plan? Now we're talking. Money and power and fame would certainly follow. In a world plagued by food insecurity, in a land of stones aplenty, this little trick would make Jesus great – no, the greatest. He would be like a god.

See, what's so bad about that? The devil just handed Jesus the perfect idea, the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme. Or if Jesus is not into money, he could give the bread away and become the most popular guy in the Empire. And the most popular guy in the Empire doesn't die on a cross.

But Jesus does not take the bait. And so the devil, he can read a room, backs off from the bread plan and pitches Jesus something else; there is more than one way to become great.

Maybe a trick, but not just any trick, a death-defying feat that would amaze and impress the crowds. Maybe it's not about the money. Maybe Jesus needs a title. Maybe he's one of those guys. What better title for a young, Jewish man than Messiah?

This is it. Jesus: the Jewish Messiah. And of course the Jewish Messiah would need to throw his coming out party at the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the Jewish religion, the hub of the community, the house of God. Imagine how the crowds would react if God's angels caught Jesus right before he hit the ground below. Then they would get it; then they would all know who Jesus really was. They would have to believe in him; they would fall at his feet. The angels would remove all doubt – from the crowds, perhaps from even his own mind. He would be loved, adored, accepted. He would be great. The people would watch as the heavenly beings cradled his body. He would be like a god.

What's so bad about that? The devil is working with Jesus. I mean, Jesus is already the Messiah, the Son of God. But the Messianic plan has holes. There is a lot of suffering, and not a lot of glory, in God's plan. The devil's plan is much more attractive. In the devil's plan Jesus' strong, healthy body is held by angels before an adoring crowd. In the other plan, Jesus' dead body is held by his mother as passers-by taunt and insult his corpse. In the devil's plan Jesus is beloved. In the other plan Jesus is berated.

And yet, Jesus continues to hold his ground. The devil apparently thinks Jesus is negotiating, and so he takes one more shot.

This is his final offer – and it is a good one. It's an offer no one, and the devil's been around for a while, so he knows, no one can refuse. It's a feast for the ego. All the money. All the fame. All the power. And it's yours. You will be the greatest. The world will fall at your feet. Can you even imagine?

There was just one condition. And it was pretty simple. All Jesus had to do was fall down and worship the devil. And that sounds like a terrible thing to do to our ears because most of us lived through the Satanism scare of the 1980's – with the bloody pentagrams and the secret messages hidden on vinyl records. But the devil is not asking Jesus to join a new religion or become a member of a cult. For the amazing prize of all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, Jesus just needs to alter his allegiances. Folks have traded in God for much, much less.

And, again, it's not as if the devil is being a bad guy here. He just knows that Jesus will never be great following God's will for his life. And everybody wants to be great, right?

It should have worked, the devil's plan. I mean, it usually does. It has since the very beginning. The very first recorded temptation, the one we heard this morning, coming to us from the Garden of Eden, is the old standard; every temptation throughout history a variation on the same theme: you will be like God. The tempter always aims for the ego. Money, power, and fame. You can be great. You can be adored. You can have it all.

Adam and Eve took the bait. They ate the fruit. Because they were told that that fruit would make them great – great like God. They fed their egos. And so did their children and their children's children – generation after generation after generation. A feeding frenzy. Until Jesus walked into that wilderness and went on a hunger strike. He knew his ego was the one thing that could blow the whole plan – for us and for our salvation. He also knew, you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.

We always begin the Lenten season in the barren wilderness with Jesus. We start there because our relationship with God depends on it. It is there we learn that God does not care if we are successful – just faithful. Which really just proves once again that God doesn't get it. The devil in today's gospel gets it; this is how the world works: the people who grab the most money and power and fame are the ones who matter. And you don't get those things by taking up your cross and following Jesus.

We're human. And God knows that the temptations are strong. Of course we want to be great; we want people to think we are smart and successful and in control. We need to be affirmed – and we will tweet clever statements until our genius is acknowledged with the appropriate number of hearts and retweets. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that we'll do just about anything to get it. Our ego longs so desperately for human acceptance that it causes us to forget that we are passionately and infinitely and eternally loved by the God of the Universe – even if everyone you know thinks you're a failure.

We are all saddled with these hungry egos – and the world is offering a buffet of choices – choices that are so much more appealing than the cross that Jesus offers us.

Which is why we drag our egos into this season of Lent. Because this season, unlike any other in the Church, drives us into the wilderness – where we learn to live for something, and someone, bigger than ourselves, where we are called to a season of self-examination and repentance, where we are called to a season of prayer, self-denial, and, of course, fasting. Because you gotta starve it, if you want to kill it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Free Ashes [Ash Wednesday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Free Ashes

Back when I was involved in campus ministry, I was told repeatedly that to draw the people in, I needed to give things away. People generally, college students specifically, I was advised, love free stuff. And so, we would buy drinks at the campus coffee shop or offer pizza or give away color-changing cups inscribed with the ministry's information. And it is true: people do love free stuff. I mean, I get it: I love free stuff.

And as I look out at this assembly, it seems that you do as well. And apparently, when the price is free, we can offer just about anything. Today we are giving away free face ashes and here you are, ready to get some. And, let's be honest, ashes are not your typical giveaway for a reason; they are not nearly as fancy or flashy as, let's say, a color-changing cup.

And yet, here you are, foreheads ready, to receive your free gift. And I gotta be honest: I wonder why. I understand why folks show up here to celebrate Easter and Christmas. Those are exciting, happy days: the music is great, the mood is upbeat, there is even some comforting nostalgia hanging in the air. People leave on those days feeling good.

But this liturgy, it is not happy. The mood is solemn, heavy. The rituals strange. The lessons from Scripture are severe. The words are too honest. You will not leave here today with warm fuzzies; there will be no motivational speeches; you will leave here marked as mortal, confronted with your inevitable fate. And your free gift, those ashes, will remind you, every time you look in the mirror today, of your shortcomings and your impending death.

And so I wonder why you are here today. I wonder why you have chosen to spend your [morning, lunch hour, evening] in this building acknowledging, as our collect sharply states, your “wretchedness.” I wonder what compels you to silently stand before your priest as he looks into your eyes and tells what you already know, but maybe wish you didn't: that you are dust, and to dust you shall one day return.

And how do you explain today – to your curious co-workers, to your friends, to your clients, to the folks in your life who might think your black cross weird? In a culture that obsesses over beauty and perfection, you want your face smudged with the ashen remains of old palm branches. Doesn't that seem strange? In an age of excess, you are called to a season of voluntary fasting and self-denial – practices that are not fun. In a nation in which hubris is currently running rampant, truth is a victim of partisan politics, and remorse considered a weakness, what you are doing today is shockingly counter-cultural. Did you realize that?

Today you will leave this place wearing your free ashes on your face, moving through the remainder of your day as a living, breathing billboard for... something. People will gawk at you; they will ask you questions; they will wonder if your cross is simply cosmetic or something more. And then, before bed, you will wash your face and the ashes will circle the drain and disappear from your life. Gone. Just like that.

Will the impact of this day outlast your ashes? That is always the question of Ash Wednesday. Are the ashes simply a souvenir, something to check off the to-do list, an easy way to impress your pious pals?

Or will you let them brand you soul, wear them like a scarlet letter? Will you be marked as different?

These ashes say something profound about the life you are choosing to live. They expose you. If you've been wondering if coming here for ashes, to be reminded of your mortality and wretchedness, to fall on your knees in lamentation and repentance makes you strange, well the answer is: it does.

These ashes expose everything in you that normal people try to hide. They expose you as a broken, dying, selfish, envious, dishonest, imperfect, complicit, sinful mortal. That little black cross: it exposes, for the world to see, the darkness in your soul and the great cost of your salvation. Everybody wants to be strong and you are weak. Everybody wants to be right and you are wrong. Everybody wants to be great and you are wretched. Everybody wants to rule the world and you are a beggar in the house of God. Everybody wants to be a winner and you are a loser.

That is what these ashes say. They expose you. They give you away. So yeah, the ashes are free. But cost of living up to them is much, much higher.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid [Last Epiphany A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 17:1-9

Do not be afraid

It started out as a normal day in first century Palestine. The disciples were shooting the breeze, maybe arguing about rank and order, maybe retelling the stories of feeding miracles and amazing healings. Everyone in the crew had mostly forgotten about the uncomfortable incident from six days earlier – or at least they were pretending to have forgotten. It is embarrassing still for Peter, so I won't get into it, except to say that no one likes being called “Satan” – especially by Jesus.

But the thing about Jesus is: even a serious rebuke is colored with love. And so on this perfectly ordinary day, when Jesus felt like a hike, he personally invited Peter, along with James and John. It seemed like a good day for a hike and so the guys strapped on their boots, grabbed their water, I don't know, satchel, pouch, probably not bottle, and hit the trail. They followed Jesus up the mountain. I mean, up the high mountain; that is an important detail that I suspect was added in later re-tellings by the disciple who had the most difficult time keeping up. Four guys, hiking up a mountain, a high mountain. A good way to get some exercise and some fresh air, sure, but otherwise, it was a pretty normal day.

Until Jesus stopped climbing. And then everything stopped being normal.

It makes for a nice, interesting story, this Gospel story: strange, but nice. But to actually be there, to witness this event, would be terrifying. This is some crazy stuff, unprecedented, anything but normal. Let's revisit what actually occurred on that mountain, that high mountain. Well, the hike ended when Jesus stopped and his face turned into the Sun. Terrifying. And then his clothes, I'm not sure what color they were before, probably brown-ish, turned dazzling white – without bleach, without a washing machine – just spontaneously. And then the ghosts appear. Moses, who dies in the Torah, is standing right in front of them. Terrifying. And then Elijah, who was once carried into the sky by a fiery chariot, shows up too. He's either a ghost like Moses. Or, since the Bible suggests he left Earth without dying, maybe he is just hundreds of years old and able to materialize at will. So all of that is also terrifying.

No reason to stop the scary there. Why not add the audible voice of God? The very intonation that created the stars and separated the light from the darkness, that shook the earth, and makes the mountains as though they were not. They hear that voice. Sun faced Jesus. Two holy apparitions. The voice of the Creator splitting their ear drums. By the time the sudden cloud dissipates, the disciples are face down in that high mountain dirt trembling in fear. Obviously.

Oh, and this is all before Jesus lays this one on them: he is going to be killed and rise from the dead. Trying processing that information.

In this midst of what is no longer a normal day, Jesus looks at his three disciples, dusty and distressed, and says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Which, by the way, is easy for him to say; he hasn't yet looked in the mirror at his glowing face.

The disciples were, our text tells us, “overcome by fear.” They were frozen, paralyzed, unable to move, like dead men. And every last bit of that fear was justified. Of course they were overcome. Of course they were afraid.

The disciples: faces hidden in the sand. And Jesus touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Throughout Jesus' ministry in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus heals many people. The healings are achieved through some combination of word and touch. And so when Jesus heals the leper in chapter eight, he first touches the man and then says, “Be made clean!”

When Jesus sees his frightened disciples lying on the ground in fear, he touches them first and then says to them, “Get up and do not be afraid.” Except when Jesus says, “Get up” he uses, in the Greek, the same words the angel says at the tomb on Easter morning. And so, we might consider that what Jesus says to his disciples is more like “Be raised up” or “Be resurrected.” I am tempted to think that by touch and word, by word and touch, Jesus is doing more than making a suggestion to his disciples; he is making a miracle in their lives.

In the Gospels “do not be afraid” is like a refrain. We hear it over and over again. From the mouths of angels. From the mouth of Jesus. “Do not be afraid.” But the events of the Transfiguration story, today's Gospel story, are scary. And being told by an angel that you will be a pregnant, unwed teen: that's scary. Watching someone walk across the surface of a lake toward your boat: that's scary. Finding an angel in an empty tomb that was supposed hold the body of your Savior: that's scary.

And so is this crazy world. The news presses down on us with scary stories: of environmental disasters, cyber attacks, the threat of global terrorism, horrible tales of sex trafficking, the heartbreaking aftermath of yet another heroin-related death, and what feels like an endless string of mass shootings. Tension and division and violence and war: this is a scary world. And the problems feel overwhelming.

And Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” But fear seems justified. And so why would Jesus keep saying “Do not be afraid”? Especially to the disciples who will follow him down that mountain on a path that ends at the cross. Especially to us who are told constantly that fear and anxiety should be our default mode.

And where does Jesus get the strength anyway? He is staring down a terrible, brutal, tortuous death and telling us to not be afraid. Jesus knows fear devours our ability to trust God. And the path Jesus walked, the path to which he calls us, cannot be walked with a deep trust that the God who sends us also sticks with us through even the most terrifying moments.

The problem with fear is that it prevents us from moving forward into the future God wants for us. Fear's goal is to drive us into the ground, to bunker us down. Fear's goal is to keep us from heading back down the mountain, into the world, with Jesus. Fear's goal is to close us in, to close our mouths, to close our arms, to close our hearts. Fear is a disease that paralyzes our souls.

And that is why Jesus touches his disciples, a healing touch, and that is why he speaks to them, lying on the ground like dead men, a word of life: Be raised up, be resurrected. Fear is not the end of the road.

Fear is the enemy of the Gospel in this world. Yes, of course, sometimes you will be afraid, you will encounter something terrifying. And your first instinct might be to just close up shop. But don't. Don't let fear control you. Don't let fear prevent you from becoming the person, the minister of the Gospel, God is calling you to be.

There is plenty to fear in the world. But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear's goal is to close us in, to convince us to hide. Don't do it. Walk into this dark and dangerous world and let your light shine. Fear's goal is to close your mouth. Don't do it. Speak the truth in a world of spin. Fear's goal is to close your arms, to cause you to look at your sisters and brothers with suspicion and hatred, to cause you to look at other beloved children of God and see enemies. Don't do it. Open your arms so wide that your love leaves you vulnerable. Fear's goal is to close your heart. Don't do it. Leave your heart so exposed that it is broken open wide over and over again; let your love spill our extravagantly, spill it everywhere you go because perfect love casts out fear.

There is a lot to fear in this world. Fear is a big business. And you will be reminded of that every day – by politicians, and reporters, and marketers, and by your friends and family on social media. You will be reminded so much and so often, in fact, that you might be tempted to hide your face in the ground.

But Jesus is with you. And he's not content to leave your there in the dirt. “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Third Way [Epiphany 7A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:38-48

The Third Way

What is happening here? Seriously, what is happening? Turn the other cheek? Give your cloak as well? Go the second mile? What kind of advice is this?

Given the options of fight or flight, it seems that Jesus is casting a strong vote for flight – just flight a little too late. Were one to follow this advice they would fly away with tired legs, a pummeled face, and no clothes. Generally, you want to do the flight, if that is the option you choose, before you are hit in the face.

What is happening here? Seriously. This is a dangerous passage. One might even be so bold to suggest that Jesus' advice to an impressionable crowd is irresponsible. Do you have any idea how many people – mostly women and children – throughout history have been abused under these instructions? Told to turn the other cheek. Told not to resist their abusers. Instructed in the name of Jesus to quietly and passively absorb endless violence – as if that was some sanctified behavior. Do you have any idea how many pastors have advised battered women to take their beatings, citing chapter and verse: Matthew 5:39?

What is happening here? In a sense understanding the Bible is always us trying to look back in time. The challenge of that of course is that, so goes the L. P. Hartley quote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And so often the Bible is read divorced of its historical context, as if there is no interpretation required, as if Jesus and his crowds existed solely in some timeless vacuum. Studying the Bible is hard work; it is a whole lot easier to simply read the red letters and twist and turn them to support all of one's biases and bad behaviors. Like we do with the news.

It's stunning to think about how long and how often this passage has been used to justify abuse and oppression and violence, how often Jesus' plea for creative non-violent resistance has been misused and misappropriated. Because that is what this is: Jesus is presenting, in the Sermon on the Mount, a third way. It is definitely not fight. But it is also not some passive flight. This is not avoidance or cowardice. Jesus is giving his crowd of occupied, oppressed, abused followers a third way: a way of non-violence that condemns our fight; a way of resistance that challenges our passive silence in the face of injustice. Jesus challenges his listeners, present company included, to have the guts to choose another way: the way of creative non-violent resistance.

But the truth is: without understanding something of Jesus' context, it is almost impossible to get that from this text some two-thousand years later and some seven-thousand miles away. But without taking that journey, this text can easily be used to justify horrors that are in direct opposition to Jesus' original intention.

So what is happening here? Well, let's take for example Jesus' command: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. This has become something of a generic motivational catchphrase - “go the extra mile.” But there is, of course, much more to it. In the Roman Empire, the Empire in which Jesus and his audience lived, a Roman soldier was permitted to force an occupied person, in this case a Jew, once again Jesus and his audience, to carry his pack for one mile. The soldier was permitted to do this because, well, the Jews were less important than Roman soldiers and important people tell less important people what to do. That is how this world most often works.

To the Roman soldier, and to the Empire, that Jew might as well have been an animal, a donkey, a beast of burden – not a really person. This was a way to publicly humiliate, to belittle, to dehumanize, to strip another person of their dignity. It was like a white person sending a black person to the back of the bus. It was a way that the one with power could use that privilege to make another person feel less than human – to embarrass and belittle them. It was one of those small ways that the one with power keeps that power.

So of course, the Jews listening to Jesus would hate the practice and despise the soldiers who exploited them. It was a practice that promoted dehumanization by all the involved parties – both oppressor and oppressed were dehumanized in the process, seen, on the one hand, as monsters or, on the other, as animals. And yet Jesus tells his followers to keep carrying the pack – to continue to voluntarily do something humiliating, something dehumanizing. Now why would Jesus do this? Well, there was a limitation to what the soldier could require. A soldier could only require one mile of one person; to do otherwise might earn the soldier a punishment. And so carrying the extra mile was a form of non-violent resistance. It was clever and subversive in a way that did not require one to take up arms or passively accept abuse.

But in the context of Jesus' sermon, I think there is more to it. Because Jesus doesn't command his followers to shame their enemies. Jesus requires his followers to love their enemies.

By choosing to carry the pack an extra mile, the one being humiliated asserts his or her humanity – denies the oppressor's attempt to dehumanize – stubbornly claims dignity in the face of indignity. Walter Wink says, “[Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”1 It is a powerful action; it is the subversive work of love; the enemy's salvation depends on his ability to recognize their common humanity. That can only happen in the second mile – when the walk becomes a choice – an act of defiant and unexpected kindness. In that extra mile, both the oppressor and the oppressed become more human by the power of love – love showed to an enemy. Only by the power of perfect love can one look into the face of the “enemy” and see a human being – equally in need of, and worthy of, God's grace.

That doesn't happen when the only choices are fight or flight. It only happens through creative non-violent resistance – the third way, the way of Jesus, the way of love. And Jesus did not just talk it; he lived it. Touching the unclean clean. Raising the dead. Freeing the tortured. Eating with the despised. His ministry challenged, resisted all of the ways in which people are denied their human dignity. He was not violent; but he was not passive. And when Jesus was confronted with the cross, again he didn't fight or flight. When Jesus was on the cross what he chose was love: Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. From his cross, he looked at those who mocked him, who drove the nails through his wrists and rather than see enemies, he saw the image of God. Even on the cross, Jesus chose the way of love.

It was the only way to break the cycle of violence, the only way to defend the image of God. Non-violent resistance, soaked through with love, is the most courageous and most difficult action one can take in this violent world – foolishness to the violent, radical to the resigned.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived his life and ministry out of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Guns can't do that. Bombs can't do that. Force can't do that. Love is an amazing miracle – a miracle we so often take for granted. And it changes both the giver and the receiver. In an encounter with love nothing stays the same. When I love another human being – when I see in that other the face of God – that other person becomes more human – more human because they are loved. When I love another human being – when I risk my heart for another person – I am transformed as well. I become more like my Heavenly Parent – a little closer to the perfection to which Jesus calls us in today's Gospel.

So, what is happening here? Jesus is calling us to imagine a world beyond fight or flight, to have the courage to choose the third way, the way of love, to as Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, to “Be human in this most inhuman of ages; [to] guard the image of humanity for it is the image of God.”


Sunday, February 5, 2017

No Cheat Code [Epiphany 5A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 58:1-12

No Cheat Code

The key is finding the shortcut, the cheat code. UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, Start. And...Heaven. Hacking God: that's the holy grail.

We all want to know how much is truly required. I mean, what'll do it? Communion every Sunday? You're in? Seven Daily Hail Marys? In? Say the Sinner's Prayer? Jackpot? DVR all of Joel Osteen's, let's call them “motivational sermons”? Well, let's not push it. The question is: what is the least that I can do and still sneak into Paradise? Is there a minimum threshold to achieve maximum eternal rewards?

It's an old question. In fact, it shows up in our reading from Isaiah today. The pious folks in the Old Testament lesson are pretty sure they have cracked the code. It's the fasting. Fasting is not that fun so it makes a pretty convincing shortcut. And when you are fasting it does feel like God should be impressed – especially around lunch time. And, like, it's easier than loosing the bonds of injustice (which sounds like a lot of work) or letting the homeless into your house (which sounds kind of risky and wacky) but it's still uncomfortable. So, that must be it. Surely fasting impresses God.

And they do it well. Not only are they fasting, they are, as they point out to God, being very humble about their fast. They were the most humble fasters. Much more humble, it seems, than God could really understand. And the sackcloth. Did I mention the sackcloth? The sackcloth is the extra mile of humble fasting. You're welcome, God.

See the thing about finding the divine skeleton key for the pearly gates, why it is so exciting, why we long to get that key, is that once you find it you don't have to worry so much about getting the rest of it right. Like if you read enough Bible maybe you don't have to love your annoying brother-in-law. Or maybe if you cross your self correctly you get to say a few racist things every once and a while. Or if you vote for pro-life candidates you can ignore refugee children. Or like in the Isaiah passage, if you fast like a pro you earn the OK to oppress your workers and punch people.

It is much easier to go through the motions on a Sunday morning than it is to live and love in this messy, messy world. It is easier to follow the rubrics than to follow Jesus.

That's why we say “I will, with God's help” after every baptismal promise. That's why we say that same confession every week. I mean Jesus only gave us two commandments – but they are hard ones. Fasting every now and again is much easier. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Because those two things are hard. It is hard to live like Jesus beyond these walls. Isaiah is not confronting villains in today's text. He is confronting humans. Humans who want to impress God, who want some kind of guarantee, who think they have discovered the cheat code.

The great thing about a cheat code is that once you get right, it always works and always in the same way. We have control issues and God is out of control. We want a predictable God – a God that we can figure out, a God that follows the rules of cause and effect. We press the button; God gives us a treat. And so we develop in our minds, and in our religious communities, these ways to get God on our side. So we do some good and pious things. We hope that God will notice and in return maybe give us a pass on some of our actions, words, thoughts, attitudes that are less than righteous. And then, when all is said and done, God will count up the number of hours we spent in this building and will be super impressed and will reward with a big heavenly mansion. No conversion necessary. No change of heart. No messy, vulnerable love. Just press the button and get the treat.

As a result, our relationship with God becomes very self-centered, all about us; we lose sight of not only God but also of all of those neighbors God expects us to love. Rather than the dynamic, loving relationship God longs for, it becomes a cost-benefit analysis. It's as if we are trying to convert God to us.

But the thing is: God is already sold on you. God loves us. God loves us – even if we are not that good at fasting. God even loves us with our rough edges and half-hearted devotion and our ungodly attitudes. God loves us enough to convert us to God.

Worship is not the cheat code. Worship is a chance to encounter the God who cares enough about us to change us into the likeness of Christ. Worship is a deep dive into the Holy Spirit, intended to light us on fire.

Our goal here is not to impress God with our beautiful music or with a few bucks in the offering plate. Our goal is not to earn some credit towards a heavenly abode. We're here to experience God. Our goal is to be together in the presence of God and to be changed in that presence. We gather not to earn God's love but to experience God's love – in so many ways: in the faces of our sisters and brothers and in the bread of heaven and in the cup of salvation and in the proclaim of the Gospel. God is meeting us here not because we deserve that but because God desires that.

And in that encounter, as we see, touch, taste the living Christ we are transformed. We are sent back into the world looking a little more like Jesus. Better prepared to love and serve the Lord. Sent out these doors, not to impress God or secure some reward, but because we are what we eat: the Body of Christ.

And as the Body of Christ in this world, we are sent out to share the good news, to continue Jesus' work in this world. We are lit here to be lights for the dark places. We go through these doors glowing – lit up by the light of Christ. We go through these doors strengthened in all goodness. We go through these doors full of hope, inspired by God's dream for this broken world. We go through these doors as world changers – ready to answer the violence and hatred we encounter with peace and love.

There is no cheat code. Nothing you will do here today will earn you anything. Nothing you do out there tomorrow will earn you anything. God already loves you because God loves you and there is nothing you can do to change that. That is good news, life changing news, world changing news. Good news that a world of frustrated, hurting, lonely people need to hear. People need to hear that they are loved – perfectly and unconditionally loved.

God is present in this place and in that encounter we are changed, changed for a reason: to tell this story, to share God's love. Changed people ready to change the world. 


Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Song of the Resistance [Epiphany 4A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 5:1-12

The Song of the Resistance

He lived in polarized times. And as he ascended the mountain, he knew the crowd was waiting for his endorsement – because that's how things go in polarized times. Both sides want your allegiance; everyone needs to know if you are one of them. One side was the Empire, the most powerful nation on the planet – a war machine with a superior economy – all led by a jealous, insecure Emperor who lined the streets with the bodies of those who stepped out of line, his perceived enemies. On the other side were his people, an occupied people longing for freedom and power, and they were looking for a Messiah to lead the revolution, a king to lead them to victory; their swords were sharpened; they just needed their new King David. And they had their eyes on him, on this Jesus. Both sides wanted his allegiance; both wanted his heart and his soul.

And so the crowds gathered as he climbed the hill. And he cleared his throat and sang the song that no one wanted to hear; he sang the song of the resistance. In a world of black and white he chose colors. There were two choices, two clear options and he chose a third. It was between the kingdom of the Emperor and the kingdom of David and he chose the Kingdom of God instead. He sang the song of the resistance – and he invited them to sing along.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

In a world of desperate grasping: for money, for power, for position, for fame, for respect, for recognition. The lucky ones, Jesus says, are the ones who come up empty-handed. Poor. Despised. Belittled. Mocked. Or maybe even worse: unknown. But the kingdom of God is coming to displace this realm with its power games and its political spin and its golden gods. And when the kingdom comes it will be the poor in spirit who are empty-handed enough to embrace God's dream. Those with nothing have nothing to lose – theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

If you are paying attention this world will break your heart. Because there is not enough love. There is not enough mercy. There is not enough justice or kindness. There are swastikas on garage doors and shootings in our elementary schools and desperate families begging at our borders. Our economy runs on addictions and vices. If you pay attention it will break your heart. But you don't have to pay attention. Because we are perfecting the art of distraction – luxury goods and manufactured rage. So that it is easy to trade in your mourning, to forget your broken heart, to just be numb. But if you can stick with it, if you can hold that broken heart, and mourn what should be mourned, and then place it in the hands of God, God will wipe away your tears – you will be comforted, not sedated, comforted.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

But that's not true, is it? Meek does not make one the president or a CEO or a hedge-fund manager. No one in charge of anything in this country, or on this planet, that matters is meek. The only way the meek inherit the earth is that they are trampled into the earth by the go-getters, by the successful, by the winners. Those who want to own this planet, have to earn it or take it. But the meek don't earn it; they don't take it; they inherit it. The kingdom come will be good news for the meek – but not for everyone; the meek will inherit the earth.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

They hunger and thirst because righteousness is human conduct expected by God; it is living like Jesus. And we are living in a desert. And every time someone decides to really live, speak, dream the kingdom of God into this world, they shake things up. Kingdom living destabilizes the system; it challenges the priorities; it threatens the powerful on their thrones. The resistance is not welcome. Just ask Jesus. But the time is coming. Those who hunger and thirst will be filled.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Sometimes the spiritual life feels esoteric, difficult to grasp. Sometimes we hear these scriptures, read theological texts, and everything sounds good but the practical application part is lacking. But this one is pretty straightforward. Be merciful. Is mercy good politics? I don't know and I don't care. Because it doesn't matter. Because Jesus expects his followers to be merciful; Jesus commands his followers to be merciful. And yes that means that folks will get more than they deserve, people will be treated better than they should. You will have to love those who do not deserve love. You will have to fight for life in the face of death. And it will be unfair because mercy is unfair. But one day, when you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, he will show you mercy; he will love you more than you deserve.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

This is our prayer: to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart. This is our mandate: to seek first the kingdom of God. In a world of polarities and partisanship, Jesus asks us to devote ourselves to the third way – the only movement that matters: the Jesus movement. This is about our priorities. When push comes to shove, who do you love? There are a lot of things in this world vying for our allegiance. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are those who love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart, for they will see God.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Children tend to look like their parents, they inherit their traits. Those who work for peace in this conflicted time, those who work for peace amidst the violence, those who work for peace in this broken world, will be called children of God. Because those who engage the work of peace, begin resembling more and more their heavenly Parent; you can see Jesus in their eyes.

This is the song of the resistance: Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Persecution is not the virtue here. There are many ways in this social media age to be slandered, attacked, persecuted. Persecution is easy; it often feels like justification; there are folks who run on that stuff. The virtue here is commitment. Those who are fully committed to the resistance, who have pledged their sole allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, rather than the kings and kingdoms of this world, suffer consequences.

Those who stand somewhere between the Empire and the Revolution, will become the collateral damage. When the lines are drawn and the sides selected, you are called to choose the third option, to see the world not as it is or as you think it should be but as God wants it to be. You are called to be the empty-handed, the broken-hearted, the merciful, the peacemaker. You are called to be a minister of reconciliation in world that runs on division. You are called to be the color poured out on a black and white world.

This is not the path of success. In fact, these are the eight habits of highly frustrating people. This is the path of resistance. This is the path of Jesus, who defied the Empire and challenged the Rebellion, who lived, spoke, and dreamed the kingdom of God all the way to the cross.

On the mountain, before a curious crowd, Jesus cleared his voice and sang the song of resistance. A song that defied the impulse of his age – with all its greedy demands and false dichotomies and stubborn allegiances, polarized parties that want your heart and soul.

But your heart and soul are spoken for. Kings and kingdom rise and fall. Movements wax and wane. But the resistance carries on – in the hearts of women and men who dare to take their cues from a simple peasant from a backwoods village with a wooden cross on his horizon – who just so happened to be the voice of God. This is our song, Jesus' words in our mouths. And we're meant to sing along – even when the audience heckles.

It's true, and Jesus warned us: those who sing the song, like the prophets who were before us, they always seem to lose – marginalized, ignored, crushed, or crucified. But the kingdom of God is coming. The resistance is building. The whisper will one day soon become a roar. So clear your voice and keep singing.