Archive for March, 2011

It’s now what you know, but who you know

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

John 4
Steve Hammond
March 27, 2011

There Jesus was. In Samaria. Talking to a woman. Drinking from her cup. From the disciples point of view it couldn’t get much worse than that.

First of all, the Samaritans and Jews did not get along at all. It was the worst kind of feud, a family one. There had been a civil war in Israel back about 7 centuries before Jesus’ time and neither side had never gotten over it. Both claimed they were the true heirs of Abraham and Moses, and both had set up places of worship. That’s why the woman was talking about who was supposed to worship where.

Most Jews, when traveling between Galilee, where Jesus and the gang lived, refused to even set foot in Galilee. It would be like traveling from Cleveland to Cincinnati without going through Columbus or Franklin County. They despised the Samaritans so much they didn’t even want the dust of Samaria on the souls of their sandals.

The Samaritans had similar feelings about the Jews. Remember that story when the disciples were traveling with Jesus another time through Samaria. They were hungry and went to a local village to get food. But nobody would sell them any food because they were Jews headed toward Jerusalem. So the disciples asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire and brimstone on the villagers. Jesus said, “We could do that, or how about we just go to another village.”

So the disciples knew it was already a scandal that they were in Samaria in the first place. But here Jesus was in the middle of broad daylight, where anybody walking by could see him, talking to some Samaritan woman, and drinking out of her cup. It was enough to give any God fearing Jew a heart attack. And they weren’t having an idle chat. This was serious theological conversation going on. With a Samaritan woman!?

And then there were the Samaritans. I can imagine what they were thinking now when that woman came back into the village to tell them about this most amazing conversation she had just had with Jesus.
“He knew everything about me.” “Well, who doesn’t. And is anybody surprised she spent all that time out there at the well with some strange man, a Jew no less?”

She didn’t care anymore about what her neighbors thought, though, than Jesus did about what the disciples were thinking. Something profound, something life changing had just taken place for this woman that broke down all the walls between Jews and Samaritans, men and women, the respectable and not so respectable. He told her about living water that he offers, water that gushes into eternal life. That’s a powerful metaphor for any of us, but think what it must mean for a person who lives in a desert.

She didn’t understand everything he was saying. The living water, worshiping being about the Spirit, rather than the place. But she didn’t have to understand everything, she understood enough.

He knew everything about her, including the five husbands and current boyfriend. But it didn’t turn him away. He just kept talking to her about living water and worshiping in Spirit and in truth.

What a difference that was. The woman went to the well in the middle of the hot desert day to fetch water. Think about that for a minute. The other women went in the morning. It was a big social time for them. They would be busy the rest of the day. But in the relative cool of the morning they could catch up with each other, see how each other was doing, gossip and commiserate. But she went when she knew they wouldn’t be there. Maybe the whispers got to her. Or the naked ostracism. She had, after all, the reputation no mother wants her daughter to have. The five husbands and current boyfriend sure meant something to them. Maybe it was easier for everyone if she just waited until later in the day to go to the well.

Jesus didn’t ignore her. He didn’t turn against her. He didn’t shame her. He offered her living water and the chance to worship in Spirit and in truth.

Mary’s sermon last week was about Nicodemus, whose story is right before this one. Jesus and Nicodemus had serious theological conversation, as well. But a much more respectable one. I don’t think it’s an accident these stories come one after the other. Notice how we pick up on the dualism that is throughout John’s gospel. Nicodemus comes by night, Jesus encounters the woman in broad daylight. Man and woman. Jew and Samaritan. Religious leader and religious outcast.

But they both find their way to Jesus. The woman immediately catches on. It takes Nicodemus longer. At first he is cautious, approaching Jesus in the cover of night. But by the end, he is defending Jesus before the Council, and is there to take the body of Jesus to the tomb. You couldn’t get much more public than that.

Two such different people, with such different circumstances in life, but both come to Jesus in their own way and time. Both found the living water.

We all come to Jesus in such different ways. My story is not your story, but we all have a story. Some of us are more like Nicodemus, others like the woman. But I do think that like that woman, we can say he knows everything about us, the five husbands and all, or our equivalent, and it’s okay.

We don’t have to know everything about Jesus, to be able to pass some kind of Jesus exam before we can tell our stories. The villagers came out to see Jesus for themselves, not because the woman had him all figured out, but because they perceived he had made such an impact on her life she even though she had just met him and he was talking pretty weird stuff.

It bothers me that we know Nicodemus’s name, but not the woman’s. But maybe that’s the point. Few of us come to Jesus with the spiritual and religious credentials, financial resources and social standing of a person like Nicodemus. Most of us are like the woman.. We’re just trying to haul enough water to get us through the day. And then there is that five husbands thing.

But we’ve tasted the water. Jesus has sat with us at the well and drank from our cups. We know there is life in Jesus even if we don’t have it all figured out. We don’t have to tell someone else’s story, ours is good enough.
Because it’s not what we know, but who we know.

Nic at Night

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

John 3:1-21, 7:45-52, 19:38-42
March 20, 2011
Mary Hammond

A visitor who stopped by at our house this week commented, “It seems like the world is having a nervous breakdown.” Japan, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan, Palestine…the list goes on and on, filled with Disasters that strike at the speed of light and Slow Disasters that creep along, relentlessly, day after day, year after year.

These are times for compassion, conviction, and courage. This very day, many are paying dearly as they challenge the prevailing narratives of Empire, Power, and privilege in varied social contexts around the world. These are times for people of the Way of Christ to stand alongside the powerless as blessing, voice, and shelter, providing firm ground to stand on within a chaotic, changing world.

Nicodemus offers us one way to face our doubt, fear, and uncertainty, and come out doing the right thing. A learned Pharisee and respected religious leader among the Jews, he is uneasy with the prevailing narrative of his first century socio-religious context. While it is politically and theologically ‘incorrect’ for him to take a stand with Jesus, his conscience is unprepared to take a stand against him. Many of his colleagues have no trouble vociferously opposing Jesus.

Have you ever faced a dilemma like this, waffling between your conscience and the implications of heeding it? Nicodemus eases his way through this inner ocnflict, taking a first step by seeking Jesus in the cover of night. He’s ready to make a small, furtive move, but not a public one.

“No one could do what you do unless God is with him,” Nicodemus tells Jesus (John 3:2). I’ve read this story numerous times over 40 years, but this confession never stood out to me before like it did this past week. Do we realize what a big deal it is for Nicodemus, a respected Pharisee, to admit this? He’s essentially affirming that he sees God in Jesus and he sees Jesus in God.

Throughout the Gospels, many religious leaders attribute Jesus’ acts to Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15). They call Jesus a blasphemer (Matthew 9:3, Luke 5:21, John 10:33). They criticize the company he keeps, his sabbath day healings, and his lax approach to Jewish law (Luke 5:30, Matthew 9:34, Mark 2:23-24, Luke 6:2). But Nicodemus faces honest doubts about this ‘party line’ of many Pharisees.

The rest of the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus is deeply theological, as Jesus explains the man’s need to be “born again” or “born from above.” In his book, Twelve Months of Sundays, New Testament scholar, NT Wright says, “‘New birth,’ in Jewish ears, meant a new family; leaving the old, cleaving to something new. Abraham’s family redefined…” (p. 43). In ancient society, the family was the primary unit of production and community on which all else was built, so being ‘born again’ was a radical re-orientation. Nicodemus doesn’t get this concept at all, approaching it literally while Jesus speaks metaphorically.

Jesus gets a little impatient. “Are you a religious leader, and yet you don’t understand these things?” Jesus asks (John 3:10). This initial encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus provides no immediate resolution for the conflicted Pharisee. But it’s a start, a step taken, a seed planted. It’s movement.

We meet Nicodemus twice more in the Gospel of John—once when he stands up for Jesus among his religious peers who are eager for the Temple Police to arrest Jesus (John 7:45-52). He’s interrupted and ignored. We meet Nicodemus again when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in retrieving and burying Jesus after the crucifixion (John 19:38-42). The male disciples who spent three years traveling with Jesus retreat in fear after Jesus’ crucifixion. Not so Nicodemus. His bold actions speak louder than a thousand words.

In these troubled times, Nicodemus’ example inspires me. It may take him awhile, but in the long run, Nicodemus walks into the light and publicly casts his lot with Jesus. Like him, we too must face our inner conflicts and questions and wrestle with our consciences. Like him, we are called by Jesus to be “born again,” or “born from above.”

Jesus invites us to make our home within the Beloved Community, the Workshop of the Spirit. We are called to open ourselves to the Wind of God and become family with those who follow the Way of Christ. Drenched, immersed, filled from above, we glimpse the world through the eyes of the God who loves all creation with an everlasting, enduring love––a love enfleshed in Jesus, the One who set his face toward Jerusalem and did not turn back. Amen.

Lead us Not into Temptation

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Genesis 2&3, Matthew 4
Steve Hammond
March 13, 2011

The story of the Temptation of Jesus in the desert is the classic story used at the start off the season of Lent. But, it’s only the second most famous temptation story in the Bible. The story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit gets a lot more press. Adam and Eve, of course, surrendered to temptation, Jesus didn’t. We know the devastating consequences of Adam and Eve’s yielding to temptation. Sin and death enter the world. And theologians and preachers have carried to ball of original sin way too far.

We don’t stop enough to think, though, how much more devastating it would have been if Jesus had failed his test, too. However humanity got into the predicament it’s in, whether you blame it on original sin or not, Jesus showed us the way out. That, to me, is way more important than assigning blame, especially when, as is often said, there is plenty of blame to go around.

I think it’s good to look at these temptation stories together because they seem to be both getting at the same thing. At the heart of both the temptation offered to Adam and Eve, and those offered to Jesus, is the temptation to mistrust God.

The talking serpent tells Adam and Eve that there is something God is not telling them. “Is this the God you really want to trust? What’s with that tree thing? Everything in the garden is yours to enjoy except that luscious fruit hanging from that gorgeous tree? What’s up with that? God knows you’re not going to die if you eat that fruit. Sure, God has given you a lot, but there’s something God wants that you’re not supposed to have. So go ahead. Don’t settle for anything less than the whole loaf.”

The temptation, or one of the temptations, anyway, is to be self-sufficient, for Adam and Eve to not find their identity in being made in God’s image, and trusting all that means, but finding an identity that doesn’t depend on God.

It turns out that the same temptations about trusting God and identity are at play when Jesus was tempted. “So you think you are the Son of God, that God’s got something special for you to do? You are putting a lot on the line here. Don’t you want to be sure? How about a little trick? If you are who God says you are you should be able to turn these stones into bread. How hard can that be for the Son of God? And besides think about how many people you could feed? Like everybody.

“You won’t go for that? You are a tough one. But how tough? You have all these claims about what God wants for this world. You and a hundred other would be messiahs running around. Why would people believe you? They all say God has sent them. But you could show them. How about a little swan dive off the temple. If you really are the Son of God won’t the angels lower you gently to the ground? That should get you quite a following. And it’s right in those priest’s backyard. You know they are going after you, and that Rome will help them. You think God will really deal with them? A pre-emptive strike will make things a whole lot easier for you.

“If sticking it to the religious establishment doesn’t do it for you, let’s go for the whole ball of wax. You know, Jesus, God promises a lot, but I can deliver. This empire is ruining everything for everybody. If you join my side we can put an end to Rome. And think how grateful people would be to have you for Caesar rather than what they have had.”

None of it worked, and from that day Jesus went about trying to help everybody, not just himself, find their identity in God. But the temptation lingers. We hear it every day. “Do you think God really wants us to love our enemies? That’s kind of risky. Don’t regard other people’s bodies as simply a source for our pleasure? Why not? Love God with everything we’ve got. And all those people we’re not supposed to even like, or care about, much less love? Who really does that? Trust what Jesus said about God’s love? Eternal life? All that stuff? Don’t you think he maybe was a bit off the deep end? Maybe we need to make it up for ourselves, find our own spirituality. Something that makes sense to us.

I’m intrigued about the settings or locations of these two temptations stories. Where were Adam and Eve, where was Jesus at the time of tempting? Adam and Eve were in the Garden. Eden. Paradise. Jesus was in the place where they ended up. The wilderness. Jesus began his ministry right where Adam took us. In this wilderness where you sometimes have to struggle so hard to get it to give you so little.

Jesus, knew, though where he was going. We talk about all kinds of ways to describe this thing we call the Kingdom or realm of God. I call it the Culture of God. People call it the Commonwealth of God. In study group the other night Mike was talking about some of the ways he has heard folk talk about it, like the economy of God.

Maybe Paradise, or Eden, or the Garden is another way of saying it. “The Garden of Eden is in your midst.” “You are not far from Paradise.” The Garden of Eden was a powerful metaphor for early Christians. Here’s a whole fat book about it.

The Lenten Journey doesn’t end on Good Friday, but Easter morning. Where did they find Jesus that morning? In the garden. I don’t even need a power point slide for this. Adam and Eve start in the Garden and end up dying in the wilderness. Jesus starts in the wilderness and ends up alive in the Garden. The biblical writers aren’t even being subtle here. Garden to wilderness to garden. It’s no wonder the Apostle Pual referred to Jesus as the second Adam. But we still miss it.

If we are going to get back to the Garden, if Jesus is going to really take us there, we are going to experience the same temptation the Jesus and Adam and Eve did. Are we going to trust what God said? Are we going to trust that we are created in God’s image and, as we talked about at the Study Group, created to not only seek God’s Realm, God’s Culture, the Garden, or however you say it, but help build it?

Did God really say…? How often and in how many ways do we keep hearing that? Our response takes us closer or farther away from the Garden.

You all know that part of the prayer, “and lead us not into temptation?” Thinking about Jesus and Adam and Eve gets me looking at that in a more intentional way. I’m not into Lenten disciplines, but contemplating how tempted I am to not believe God might do me some good.

Jesus knew something about temptation. He knew where it can lead us. So far from the Garden. So far from that place where we stand naked and unashamed before God and each other and ourselves.

These are two pretty well known temptation stories, we’ve talked about today. But the only one that really matters is ours.

Radiance Unbidden

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

Matthew 17:1-9
Mary Hammond
March 6, 2011

The word “transfiguration” is really a religious word that we don’t use in our everyday speech. When is the last time you have used this word? Its Greek counterpart, literally, is metamorphoomai, akin to our English word, “metamorphosis.” We can relate to that word much better.

Most of us have learned about metamorphosis in school, the process whereby a cocoon becomes a butterfly. Transformation, we understand. But “transfiguration”? Hm. It sounds like transformation to the n’th degree, just more profound, more mysterious, harder to pin down, beyond the meager power of words to describe.

Today we remember Jesus’ mountaintop experience that the Church has come to call “The Transfiguration.” We have reached the last Sunday of Epiphany, the Season of Light/the Season of Appearing. Epiphany is book-ended by two profound moments in the life of Jesus–his baptism in the river, and his Transfiguration on the mountain. Both times, a Voice from Heaven cries out, “This is my beloved Son.”

Both events precede periods of great danger for Jesus. His baptism is quickly followed by 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. His Transfiguration precedes the arduous trip to Jerusalem, where conflict, betrayal, sorrow, and execution await him. The 40 days of Lent are crowding in on us.

There is a principle at work here in these stories. While Jesus embodies the very nature of God, He is also the Human One. Human beings need support. We need strength for the long journey. We need intimations of the Divine when the going gets rough, or is about to get a whole lot rougher.

A wise preacher once cautioned his audience to “be careful what you ask for.” So many clamor for signs from God. In this preacher’s experience, the greater the clarity of God’s presence, the greater the challenges to follow. These “epiphanies,” these “appearings,” these unforgettable events that come unbidden, sear our soul, and pass. They then do their long work, strengthening us for the times when God seems absent, when decisions are murky, when temptations arise out of nowhere.

What might James, John, and Peter have been expecting when they walked up that lonely mountain with Jesus? Quiet conversations? Extended periods of prayer? A chance to get away from the pressing crowds? A strategy session for defeating the Roman occupation? An anointing as Jesus’ “top disciples,” his “right and left hand” men? Explanations for the crazy things Jesus had been saying lately about sacrifice, dying, and glory?

This story is not a scientific, rational story. It is replete with mystery, depth, and power. The brief appearance of Moses and Elijah places Jesus within the solid tradition of the Law and Prophets. Peter’s first reaction is eminently practical. He leaps into action, “Let’s do something! Let’s build booths for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. Let’s memorialize this moment.” A Voice from Beyond, ending with the stark admonition, “Listen to [Jesus]” interrupts Peter’s hastily made plans. The heart, eye, and ear can receive but a small portion of this dazzling revelation. The blinding Light and shining Radiance recall memories of ancient saints, sages, and prophets undone by the Glory of God revealed. The disciples fall prostrate on the ground.

Jesus touches them, inviting them up again by saying, “Be not afraid.” These are the same words an angel once spoke to Mary, the mother of Jesus, long ago when she learned of her pregnancy. “Be not afraid” –words that echo into the days to come, but barely make it past the outer ears of these three as events unfold in rapid succession.

History informs us that James, John, and Peter eventually become leaders in the nascent Church. In due time, James is killed by the sword of Herod’s henchmen (Acts 12:1-2). Tradition tells us that Peter is crucified upside-down, counting himself unworthy to be crucified in the manner of Jesus, because he denied the Lord. And what happens with John depends, in part, on which John he actually is, a question about which scholars over the centuries have disagreed. Nevertheless, the journey ahead for these three men who become privy to this mystery of Transfiguration is no easy road, even if at the time they are rather thick-headed and clueless.

Jesus well knows that the day will come when these three start putting the pieces of their experience with him together. He knows that metamorphoomai will infect their spirits, energize their hearts, and change their way of seeing and being.

Again and again God comes at us sideways, when we are least expecting it. Pray for a moment like this, ask for a moment like this, look for a moment like this, and it will never happen that particular way. The Pharisees and Sadducees ask for a sign and receive none. The disciples follow along, in their own bumbling but persistent way, and God nearly knocks their sandals off when they least expect it.

This Wednesday, the 40 day journey that culminates in a wooden cross and Empty Tomb begins. As with his followers long ago, Jesus touches our trembling bodies, addressing our anxious hearts with the words, “Be not afraid.” He invites us to rise, head down the mountain, and join him on the road to Jerusalem. Amen.