Sermon: April 13th, 2014, “Questions and Encounters: How Can You Say the Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up?”

Questions and Encounters:

How Can You Say the Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up?

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church

On April 13th, 2014

John 12:12-36 

               Today I continue my sermon series on questions and encounters with Jesus by reflecting on the Gospel of John’s version of Palm Sunday—and then what happened right after the Palm Sunday parade in John’s narrative. Andrew and Philip come across some Greek-speakers who are there for the festival of the Passover—and they ask to see Jesus. As you hear the story, and you’ll hear it a little differently today, listen for what happens when Andrew and Philip come and tell him that the Greeks want to see Jesus. As I’ve asked you to do before, listen for the questions that are asked in the reading—and that you yourself might ask of the reading.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!’
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
   sitting on a donkey’s colt!’

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!’


 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.


 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’


After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

               It could be argued that Jesus really missed an opportunity that day. Oh, I know, how could one man with a ragtag bunch of followers be a match for the gathered forces of the Roman occupiers of Palestine or the controlling power of the temple authorities and their lackeys? Both groups in their own way were quite willing to quash those who would oppose them. But Jesus was building up a real head of steam. He was riding a PR juggernaut.   The Palm Sunday parade could have been great launching pad. The Jewish authorities themselves worried that “the whole world has gone after him.”   This could have been the time for him to really make his move, to marshal his forces, as it were, to be a little clearer about things if he were really a man who believed in revolution by any means necessary, even violence, to come out and say it.


               John’s Gospel allows that the disciples were a little confused about the whole Palm Sunday entrance. They did not understand these things at first, John says. Of course they didn’t understand these things. Things like why he came in on a donkey rather than a mighty steed like the Romans would have. I mean, if you’re going to bring in a kingdom, then kick butt and take names. And for God’s sake, find yourself a real horse to ride in on, not a donkey.


               The disciples knew their scriptures, and later after he died, they remembered that passage from Zechariah that said that God’s promised Deliverer would come in on a donkey. And that’s what Jesus did. But why not a horse? If you’re God’s promised deliverer, hey, if you are the embodiment of God’s priorities, God somehow enrobed in human flesh, the Creator of the Universe in human form, why don’t you fix things, like, right now? Why don’t you make everything better? Put an end to the pain and oppression? Put an end to all suffering? And why, for Christ’s sake, would you suffer yourself, if you are God?


               That, by the way, is really the question of this day, which is known as Palm/Passion Sunday.   It’s not just the question of this day, but of this whole Holy Week.


               It’s the question the crowds ask Jesus after he says (to the disciples, in words the gathered multitude apparently overhear) “The hour has come for the son of Man to be glorified. And what should I say, Father save me from this hour?

No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”


               To that last statement, the crowds wonder aloud, “How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?”

                Now there are at least three things you have to understand about that question.

                First, most scholars agree that to be lifted up, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t mean to ascend to heaven in some glorious scene. It means to be nailed to a cross on the ground and to have that cross lifted up into public and humiliating view. There’s something about lifting that cross, John’s Gospel affirms, that will draw all people to Jesus.


                Second, the question uses the term Son of Man, which had become sort of an analog for the Messiah, the Christ, the promised Deliverer sent from God.


               And finally, it uses the word must. Not might be, not could possibly be, not in all likelihood will be, but must be. It is a necessity, not just a distinct possibility that the Son of Man be lifted up.


               How can you say that the Son of Man, the promised deliverer from God, must be lifted up?


               There are a number of ways that people in the Christian tradition have answered that question over the years, and all of them are in their own way, theories of what is known as the atonement, the way Jesus’ death (and resurrection) makes us one with God.


               Some say Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to fulfill a passage from Hebrew scripture that says that a man will be hung on a tree.


               Some say that Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to provide individually issued divine fire insurance for those who believe in their heads and hearts that he died for their personal sins (which ignores the I will draw all people to myself part, but hey).


               Some say that Jesus must be lifted up on a cross to fulfill what frankly amounts to a bit of bloodlust on the part of God. The idea, and to be fair it has scriptural warrant, is that some innocent blood must be shed in sacrifice for the grievous nature of human sinfulness, and once that little detail, based in the Hebrew sacrificial system, is taken care of, then everything is good.


               However, that causes people, rightly, to wrestle with the question—separating out members of the Godhead, which I’m not sure it is wise to do—as to how a truly loving father could send a child to knowingly die a cruel death, even if it is to put an end to something else more horrible still. Before you reject that out of hand, think of the parents over the centuries who watched their young sons or daughters go into war zones in the belief that there was something worth dying for in order to protect, including the freedom and wellbeing of others.


               How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up?


               For my part, I think that the Son of Man had to be lifted up to give us a glimpse into the very beating heart of God. A heart not filled with Old Testament fury at human depravity, the kind of fury that would wipe out the earth in a flood.   But a heart that was willing and able to become flesh in a human being who was willing to die to make the point that Love is stronger than death and who knew that this dying would be the seed of a new way of looking at the meaning of life. It would be a seed that would bear fruit again and again.


               Christian Wiman, the well known poet and the editor of Poetry magazine, is a deeply thoughtful and profoundly spiritual man. His book of meditations on life, suffering, God, and spirituality entitled My Bright Abyss is already a classic in the field.


               Wiman writes with a wisdom that can only come from truly experiencing deep pain, physical and emotional anguish, the pain he’s had to endure as cancer has wracked his body.


               In one of Wiman’s essays, he tells the story of Osip Mandelstam, a Russian poet who was banished to Siberia by Josef Stalin and died there, in 1938, at the age of 47.   In 1934, at a literary gathering, Mandelstam recited a poem in which referred to Stalin with these words:


His grubworm clutch all oil and vile

His deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk.


               Just like that, Mandelstam found himself in Siberia.


               Wiman writes: It was the pure lyric spirit of Mandelstam that Stalin couldn’t abide, the free singing soul that Stalin sensed would always slip free of the state’s nets. People who think poetry has no power have a very limited conception of what power means. Even now, in this corporate country, where presidents do not call up poets on the phone, some little lyric is eating into the fat heart of (greed and consumption).


               Even now some portion of Mandelstam’s quicksilver spirit gleams and lives in the lines he left behind: “You have stolen my ocean, my swiftness, my soar,

Delivered me to the clutch of unrupturing earth. And for what! The mouth still moves though the man cannot.”[i]


               The words, and the power of the ideas, still endure, even though the man has gone to the grave. If the message you are trying to get across, if you are Jesus, is one of love and dignity and respect for all people, all people… If the message you are trying to get across is of our fundamental unity with God and one another… If the message you are trying to get across is one of a call to compassion… then the best way to do that is not through violence of action or speech, it is through radically self-giving love, love which is willing to suffer on behalf of helping another.


               I have another thought. Maybe the death of Jesus, the lifting up of Jesus, also functions to draw people to him by giving us a glimpse into how the Divine knows our pain and is with us in our pain, pain which is not easily dispelled, but can somehow be endured when we understand that we are not alone in it.


               Christian Wiman again. He writes: I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness cries out My God my God why have you forsaken me? The point of that is that he felt human destitution to an absolute degree. The point is that God is with us, not beyond us in our suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ’s compassion makes extreme human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible.   Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human love.[ii]


               God identifies with us not just in our joy, but in our deepest darkest moments of pain.


               Every so often it happens that I find myself feeling a little bit of anxiety about my kids, about the way the world is changing, about how the church is changing or not changing with it.


               I was talking with my Mom last night, and I was sharing just a little anxiety I was feeling about one of my kids. She said, “I know, I’ve been there.” And then she said, “Do you remember Mr. Halsney?”


               Mr. Halsney was a friend of my parents when I was much younger, in elementary school. The story my Mom was relating, and I didn’t remember it, was about how Mr. Halsney was about to have open heart surgery. Open heart surgery was a big deal back then (it is still and always a big deal, but back in the 1970’s it was a lot less commonplace).


               My Mom said she had been very anxious and stressed about Mr. Halsney’s surgery—and that stress had come to my little brother’s attention. He was four years old at the time. He asked my Mom, “What is the matter, Mommy?” She said, “I’m very worried about Mr. Halsney.” My little four year old brother, who is forty-four now, said, “Mom, don’t worry. God’s got this.” He was four.


               In the middle of our pain, our suffering, our anxiety, God not only has this, God is with us in the midst of it.   No matter how the surgery turns out.


               That’s one reason I can say the Son of Man must be lifted up. Praise be to God. Amen.




[i] Christian Wiman My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Straus, Farrar, and Giroux, 2013), pp112-114.

[ii] Ibid. p.155.

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Sermon: Sunday, April 6, 2014, “Questions and Encounters: Can You Believe It?”

Questions and Encounters: Can You Believe It?

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On April 6th, 2014


John 11:1-6, 17-45

           This morning I continue my Lenten sermon series, which I’m calling Questions and Encounters with Jesus, by looking at the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel. That story is only found in John’s Gospel, by the way. There are a number of questions voiced in the passage, including at least three by Jesus, and there are several more raised by the passage. Listen with an ear to the questions this passage raises for you. And pay attention to the questions Jesus asks. We’ll begin with the first six verses, then jump to verse seventeen.


Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus,* ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazaruswas ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.


When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two milesaway, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’


 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’


 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’


 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.


           The comedian Tig Notaro, in one of her shows, has this wonderful little bit in which she takes off on receiving email updates from friends of hers about their children. This is great, Notaro says, but it annoys her how often they throw around the phrase, “Can you believe it?” Like this: “Katelyn is starting kindergarten this year. Can you believe it?” Notaro jokes, “I don’t know. I mean, what is she, about five? That sounds about right. Yeah, I can believe that. But if they were to contact me and say, ‘Katelyn has never grown any bigger since the day she was born. Never spoken a word at all in her life. She graduated from college today. Can you believe it?’ I’d say, ‘O my gosh, no. I can’t believe that. Send more photos.’ But can I believe that Katelyn is following the natural progression of life? Yeah, I can totally wrap my head around that.”


           Can you believe it? And not just can you, but do you, believe it? That’s the question Jesus asks Lazarus’ sister Martha when she comes out to meet him, wracked with grief, all too familiar with the natural progression of life and death.


           Before we go any further, we have to acknowledge that Martha comes to Jesus with a question of her own. She doesn’t really ask it, but it is implied in her statement, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” The question that lies underneath that affirmation (an affirmation her sister Mary also makes) is, “Where were you? Why, when you heard my brother—whom you love—was deathly ill—did you not come at once? Why didn’t you do something about this? Why the delay? Why, for the love of God, Jesus, did you let this happen?” Those are the kinds of questions we may ask, I think, when tragedies and disappointments occur in our lives or in the life of the world.


           Now when somebody we love dies after having lived 8 or 9 decades, we’ve come to expect that. As sad as that is, as much as we grieve those losses, we’ve come to understand that this is the natural progression of life and death. Nobody gets to live forever. Bodies wear out. We grieve those losses, but we’re not utterly surprised by them. We don’t ask the “where were you?” questions about them.


           No, we ask the “where were you?” questions when people we love die young or when they have to face an inordinate amount of pain. We ask them when human inhumanity is at its worst, as it was during the Rwandan genocide which happened twenty years ago this week. We ask them of God and they are based on an affirmation similar to Martha’s (and to Mary’s). If you had been here, my brother would not have died. If Jesus had been here, if this faith stuff were real, if God had really been present, if God really cared, if God really existed, then this or that would not have happened.”


           A couple of years ago, the annual preaching conference I attend took place in Atlanta. While there, I had the chance to reconnect with a high school classmate of mine. Lynne was a freshman when I was a senior. Another friend and I kind of looked at ourselves as her big brother and big sister in the speech and debate club. It was good to be back in touch with Lynne after more than 20 years of not seeing each other. It brought back some powerful memories.


           In January of her freshman year in high school, one morning after she’d left for school, Lynne’s dad went out for a run and dropped dead of a heart attack. They called her and her sisters out of class to tell them. One minute here, the next gone. The shockwaves started in Lynne’s family with her mom and her and her sisters,. Then they spread out to the larger community. For many of us, Lynne’s dad’s death was one of our first encounters with life’s frailty and the issues that that raises about God and God’s goodness. To this day, Lynne is not a believer—and who is to say if I had endured that sort of loss that early in my own life that I would be one. I do know that Lynne is kind, compassionate, a great mom, a very accomplished leader in her company, and an asset to society. Believer or not, she makes a huge difference in her community and in the world.


           I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons Lynne is not a believer is the stock answers, the too-easy responses, the gross oversimplification of the message of Jesus that she no doubt received, some of it coming perhaps from a certain way of reading this passage from John. And I hope to God one of the people who gave her a too simple answer.


           In response to Martha’s unasked “where were you?” question, Jesus poses a question of his own.


           “I am the resurrection and the life,” the Gospel of John has Jesus say, “Those who believe in me even though they die will live and those who live and believe in me will never die. Do you believe this?”


           Can you believe it?


           Well, can you?


           At virtually every funeral or memorial service I have ever conducted, I have read that bold affirmation “Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and those who live and believe in me will never die.” Sometimes it catches in my throat. Sometimes I wonder if I should say it at all, because I wonder how people hear it. Because people who live and place their trust in Jesus do die, just like everyone else. Presumably Lazarus himself, after he was raised, died again. No matter how faithful you and I are, no matter how good and kind and loving, we are, how strong we are, how receptive to God’s leadership, we will die. The question is not if, but when.


           So what to do we do with Jesus words? Do we take the words “those who live and believe in me will never die” literally? Do we hear them as an affirmation of the eternity of the soul that, as the old hymn goes, “on Jesus hath leaned for repose.”? Or do we take them to be a bold statement that death will not get the last word, no matter how we try to make sense of “those who trust in me will never die”?


           However we each answer the question of what to do with Jesus words, I think it’s worth watching how the story unfolds from there.


           Martha states that she believes that he is the Messiah. Mary comes out to greet him, and she brings the same accusation—“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And seeing her pain, and the pain of the other people in the community, Jesus is deeply moved. He weeps. He weeps for the pain of a grieving sister. He weeps for the pain of a community who loved Lazarus so much that they weren’t standing around saying, as they did with the blind man in last week’s gospel lesson, “Who is the sinner here?” There’s no judgment. There’s not blame. There’s just tears. Perhaps Jesus even weeps for his own pain, God’s pain at knowing that not every illness will get healed, though some do. And not every health crisis will get averted, though some are. And that while human beings can be extraordinarily kind and loving, sometimes, and we all know this, they can be cruel and unjust. And that it isn’t just illness that kills people, but genocide, warfare, and domestic violence. And maybe Jesus is weeping, too, because he knows that he himself is going to be facing human cruelty in just a few short days.


           Jesus knows one thing more. It is an important thing. He knows the truth that the Psalmist affirms. That weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the morning.


               Can you believe this? Can you?


           So Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, and Martha tells him, “Don’t bother, it’s smelly in there. He’s been dead for four days.” Then Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The glory of God—glory, as I’ve said before, from a Hebrew word which means weight—w e i g h t—weight. The weighty presence of God:  Look for it, Jesus says, believe in it, Jesus says, believe in me, Jesus says, and you will see that weighty presence.


               And Lazarus comes forth.


           The point of John’s story of the raising of Lazarus is not that if you believe hard enough, deceased people will literally get out of their coffins.


           There was group in North Carolina, not far from the church Judith and I served, and somebody in their congregation passed away. They kept vigil around the body, thinking that if they just prayed hard enough, if they believed hard enough, he would physically come back to life. That’s not the point of John’s Gospel.  


           “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” doesn’t mean that every problem we have will get fixed. It doesn’t mean that we get to avoid death. It just means that death and division and sin and pain and evil really don’t have the last word. How many times can I say that?


           Did you see the New York Times Magazine? There’s a photo essay in it. {What follows is the introduction to that photo essay the NYT Magazine)


Last month, the photographer Pieter Hugo went to southern Rwanda, two decades after nearly a million people were killed during the country’s genocide, and captured a series of unlikely, almost unthinkable tableaus. In one, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. In many of these photos, there is little evident warmth between the pairs, and yet there they are, together. In each photo, the perpetrator is a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.


The people who agreed to be photographed are part of a national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization. In AMI’s program, small groups of Hutus and Tutsis are counseled over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.


The photographs (you can see in this New York Times essay)are a small selection of a larger body on display — outdoors, in large format — starting this month in The Hague. The series was commissioned by Creative Court, an arts organization based there, as part of “Rwanda 20 Years,” a program exploring the theme of forgiveness. The images will eventually be shown at memorials and churches in Rwanda.


               Can you believe it? Can you?


               No. Send pictures.


                                             In Jesus’ name. Amen.



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Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014, “Questions and Encounters: Are We Also Blind?”

Questions and Encounters: Are We Also Blind?

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On March 30th, 2014

John 9:1-41


               Today I continue my Lenten Sermon series I’m calling “Questions and Encounters with Jesus” by focusing on the assigned Gospel reading for today. From John’s Gospel, the 9th chapter, the passage I’m about to read is about a man born blind who is given sight by Jesus. As you hear this story, listen for the questions posed by the various characters in the narrative. There are at least fifteen questions by my count (breathe easy, I won’t have a 15 point sermon!). Also watch for how people react to the man born blind—and to Jesus.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’ But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’

 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

               Albert Einstein, that great scientific genius of the 20th century, wrote: “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

                Einstein, of course, was more a scientist than philosopher or theologian, but there’s something in that idea of raising new questions, regarding old problems from a new angle, that speaks, I think, to the story of the man born blind in John’s gospel.

                And that story, in turn, speaks to us—or at least to me— as we seek to make sense of God’s activity in our lives and in our world. Because what this story does is to show us Jesus inviting his disciples and others around him to raise new and better questions and in so doing it marks a real advance in the theology of his day. However, as always, there were people who wanted to stay stuck in the old questions.

                John’s story begins with a question, an old question, posed by Jesus’ disciples. “As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

                Now notice how John sets the context here. Jesus is the one who sees the man born blind. John says He saw a man. Not they saw a man. The disciples didn’t really see the man, they categorized him. They didn’t see him.  So they ask a question intended to assign blame for the fact that the man can’t see.  “Is he or are his parents at fault, huh, Jesus?”

                It’s an age old question—who sinned? Who is at fault here? The question gets raised in the wake of public and private tragedy, large scale disasters and family and personal crises…. If something bad happens, somebody must be to blame, right? You can always find voices who will say that it is because of somebody’s sin that this or that happened. From a tsunami, to a hurricane, to an earthquake, to a cancer diagnosis to a suicide, from the problem of poverty and homelessness to an act of terrorism.

                Who sinned? Who messed up? Who or what made God angry enough to cause or to allow something like this to happen? Somebody to be born this way? Somebody to wind up this way? That’s what the disciples want to know.

                And lest you think it’s just people like Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps who think that way, you should know that the desire to lay blame runs deep in all of us. To take blame on ourselves, to dish it out onto others. Just let one of your children have difficulty—and see for yourself.  What did I do to cause this? Who’s at fault here? Who is to blame? That question is really based in a particular theology and approach to life that maintains that if you do good, you get good; and if you do bad, you get beat….

                Sure enough, sometimes life works that way. Sometimes people who eat right and exercise and are kind and gracious and hard working and do the right thing (most of the time at least) live long and happy lives and make all the money they want and the lines fall for them in pleasant places. And sometimes people face severe consequences for decisions they make. You smoke a lifetime, you might get cancer. You don’t take exercise and eat right, you might develop diabetes. You play with fire, you might get burned. You cheat and you might get caught.

                But we all know that life does not always work that way. Sometimes bad things happen to basically good people. Sometimes good things happen to people we might consider bad. Now and then hard work doesn’t pay off. Now and then people avoid consequences. And sometimes—if you are lucky, or blessed—you really recognize that so much of how you got to be where you are and to have what you have is because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, born to the right parents under the right star. If you think about that hard enough, you know, you know in your gut, that it really could be otherwise.

                Yet the disciples want to assign blame—“Who sinned?”

                Jesus’ response to the disciples indicates that they are asking the wrong question. The question isn’t “Who sinned? Who is to blame?” He’s got a new question. The question is How is God going to be glorified in the middle of this unfortunate situation? Or, I would say, How is love going to come to bear? How is love going to be shown, here?

                Do you see the contrast? The disciples’ question is not based in compassion for the man. It’s actually based in a desire to judge. That’s what blame is it’s either his fault or his parent’s fault. It’s got to be somebody’s fault. Jesus says, “What is going on here is not about blame. It’s about God’s glory.”  If you want to blame anyone, Jesus might say, blame God. But it’s not finally about blame. It is not finally about why. It’s about what now.

                The quote on the front of the bulletin is from Helen Keller, who although she wasn’t born blind, lost her ability to see and hear by the time she was two years old. An illness robbed her of those faculties. She never regained her sight or her hearing. And yet, through the help of the remarkable teacher Ann Sullivan and others, Helen learned how to communicate extraordinarily well. And through her words and her presence she became an inspiration to millions and millions of people.

                Helen Keller knew the truth of the words she spoke. “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”

               The disciples could see perfectly well. They just didn’t have vision. Neither, apparently, did many of the other characters in today’s lesson.

               As the tale unfolds, Jesus, on a Sabbath day mind you, mixes spit and dirt to make mud and rub it on the blind man’s eyes… Which would have been a dual offense to those who were concerned with being pure. According to the Sabbath laws even something as simple as making mud was work— and making mud out of spit? Well, I have to believe that that would seem just as nasty back then as it does today.

               Then the blind man follows Jesus’ direction to go to the pool of Siloam which John, incidentally, wants us to know means Sent—apostello, the same word from which we get apostle… or “one who is sent out.”

                When he comes back able to see and with a story to tell you might think that this would be a cause for rejoicing in the community, rather than the start of a cross-examination, but the reaction to the man who can now see is decidedly mixed.

                Take the neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, for instance. They can’t believe their eyes. That sort of transformation just doesn’t compute for them. They question whether this newly seeing man can actually be the guy who used to ask for alms from them.  And he keeps insisting that he is. When they ask him how he can see now, he tells them what Jesus has done for him.

                Then there are the Pharisees. The newly sighted man tells them what Jesus has done and that starts a debate among them about Jesus. Now notice. The question they ask is not “How might God be being glorified here? How is love coming to bear here?” It is instead, “How can a sinner, who would dare to heal somebody on the Sabbath, perform such signs?”

                In fact, they don’t believe that he was born blind until they call the man’s parents. His parents don’t want to get involved. They tell the Pharisees that he was indeed born without sight, and that he can now see, but they don’t mention Jesus. To do so would have opened them up for persecution, so they say, “Let him talk for himself.”

                The Pharisees call the man before them again. The guardians of righteousness are still locked in on old questions. Who sinned? Who is to blame? How do we keep the letter of the law? Jesus is making their theology come apart. But they are not going to be content until they label somebody a sinner here. If it’s not the man born blind, it’s got to be Jesus. So they ask the man to relate his experience again, and he says words guaranteed to enrage them and to make people who hear it laugh. So thank you for laughing during the scripture reading.  “Why are you so interested? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

               When our theology—when our thinking about God and life– comes into conflict with our experience of God and life, then something has to give. Either we deny our experience, or we adjust our theology. Either we begin to see the world anew, in the light of God’s compassion and grace which recognizes people for the children of God they are and looks beyond blame to ask the question “How can God’s glory be revealed, How can love be shown here and now while we’ve got the time to show it?” Or we try to hold on to our old way of looking at the world and attempt to ignore or explain away anything that comes in conflict with it

                The man born blind came to see what the Pharisees couldn’t.

                One of my favorite writers is Father Greg Boyle who works with gang members out in Los Angeles. In his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion[i], Boyle tells a marvelous story of a woman named Soledad who loses two of her boys to gang violence. One of whom was never involved in a gang, and one who had escaped the life, but was killed anyway.

                Two of her four children are murdered by a gang in the area. Soledad is inconsolable about this. At one point she tells Father Greg, “You know, I love the two kids that I have. I hurt for the two that are gone. The hurt wins. The hurt wins.”[ii]

               Listen to how Father Greg tells the story of Soledad coming to see.

 Two months later, Soledad is taken to the hospital for an irregular heartbeat and chest pain. I visit her in her room, and she tells me what happened the night she came to the emergency room. They have her on a gurney in White Memorial’s ER. The doctors are tending to her with EKGs and the like, when there is a rush of activity at the entrance. With a flurry of bodies and medical staff moving into their proscribed roles, a teenage gang member is rushed to the vacant space right next to Soledad. The kid is covered in blood from multiple gunshot wounds, and they begin cutting off his clothes. The wounds are too serious to waste time pulling the curtain that separates Soledad from this kid fighting for his life. People are pounding on his chest and inserting IV’s. Soledad turns and sees him. She recognizes him as a kid from the gang that most certainly robbed her of her sons.

 “As I saw this kid,” she told Father Greg, “I just kept thinking of what my friends might say if they were here with me. They’d say, ‘Pray that he dies.’” But she just looked at this tiny kid, struggling to sidestep the fate of her sons, as the doctors work and scream, “WE’RE LOSING HIM. WE’RE LOSING HIM.”

Then, she told Father Greg, “I began to cry as I have never cried before and started to pray the hardest I’ve ever prayed : ‘Please… don’t…let him die. I don’t want his mom to go through what I have.”

And the kid lived. Sometimes it only seems like the hurt wins.[iii]

                Sometimes it only seems like the blindness wins.

               So here are a few final questions:

               Who in your life do you just plain overlook?

               Where does your desire to assign blame keep you from truly helping hurting people?

               And here’s a tough one- How are you, and I, also blind?


[i] Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, (New York: Free Press, 2011),

[ii] Ibid., p. 185.

[iii] Ibid, pp. 185-186.

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Sermon: Sunday, March 23, 2014, “Questions and Encounters: Where Do You Get that Living Water?”

Questions and Encounters: Where Do You Get That Living Water?

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On March 23rd, 2014

John 4:5-42

                Today I’ll be continuing my Lenten series of sermons that I’m calling “Questions and Encounters with Jesus.” In this morning’s text from John’s Gospel we’ll see what happens when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. Picture the scene as it unfolds and listen for the questions that this woman asks Jesus as they interact with one another.

 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’

 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,* can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving* wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’

 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’

                “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” That’s the very first question the woman at the well has for Jesus, right after he takes the initiative to approach her and ask her—actually command her—to give him a drink.

                “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” That’s a good, honest, question. You have to have some basic sense of the cultural norms of that time and place to appreciate just how boundary-breaking it was for Jesus to speak to a Samaritan woman who was at the well at midday for a drink.

                First of all, a good Jew would probably not have been traveling through Samaria in the first place. Oh, passing through Samaria was the quickest, most direct, route between Galilee to the north and Jerusalem to the South, but you could go around it, and many Jews on pilgrimage did, because when you went through Samaria, you were likely to–how can I put this?–run into Samaritans. And Jews and Samaritans, as John puts it, did not share things in common with each other.

                That’s not strictly true, of course. Actually, Jews and Samaritans shared a lot of things in common—They understood themselves to be worshipers of the God of Israel. They read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They understood themselves to be descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They knew that they themselves were human beings and that they themselves were children of God.

                But when John says that Jews and Samaritans didn’t share things in common, he means to say that they focused on their differences, not their similarities. So they didn’t eat together, they didn’t drink together, they didn’t worship together, and they sure as heck didn’t try to understand each other.

                 Yet here was Jesus, a Jewish man, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink.   

                It’s been said that one way to make a friend is to ask them to do a favor for you. I’ll let you judge whether that’s always true, but sometimes it is.

                Regardless, it is true that the only way to make a friend, a deep friend, is to have a conversation, to talk with them and not just at them, to move beyond what makes us different to what we share in common.

                At the Presbytery meeting Tuesday night, our theme was multicultural worship and work. As a member of the theology and worship committee it was my responsibility to coordinate a special communion service at the end of the meeting where we had different pastors in our presbytery lead the liturgy in their own language—Spanish, English, Korean, Taiwanese, and an African language spoken in Ghana, Twi. Let me tell you that gathering all the pastors together for that was like herding cats. Earlier in the meeting, Jacqui Lewis, the dynamic African-American pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, was our preacher.

                Her congregation is truly, I mean truly, multicultural—African-American, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, Anglo, immigrant, straight and GLBT. She shared with us in the course of her sermon that all of us in the room that night and people in her church share more DNA in common than two species of fruit fly—99 percent of our DNA is the same. And yet, all over America, 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, or the worship hour, remains the most segregated hour of the week. Interesting, isn’t it? Particularly in light of this story from John.

                I think it’s because we focus on what makes us different rather than focusing on what unites us.

                One way we focus on what makes us different is through labeling. Labeling can be quite handy when it comes to canned goods. It can help you to sort them, to know what it is inside. I don’t want to accidentally open up a jar of pickles, for instance. Labeling helps you identify what’s in the can, what its expiration date is, and whether it is safe to eat or not.

                When it comes to people, however, labeling is most of the time, less than helpful. Yet we do it all the time. Sort them out. Or in. We figure out who we can associate with and listen to on the basis of labels—which is one thing in middle school, (it’s not good then either, by the way) it’s one thing in middle school, but quite another when it comes to adult interactions. In a world that desperately needs to move towards unity. It’s getting worse. We label each other Liberal or conservative. Progressive or evangelical. Republican or Democrat. Christian or non-Christian. White or black. American or foreigner. Immigrant or long standing resident of the U.S. My side or the other side on whatever issue happens to be before us.

                That is not to say that we don’t have legitimate differences as human beings.   We do. But when the focus is always on what divides rather than what unites us, what we share in common, we miss something essential. We miss the living water. We can pour and pour and pour from an empty pitcher if we don’t understand what we share in common.

                In answer to the Samaritan’s woman’s question as to how it was that he, a Jew asked a drink of her, a woman of Samaria, Jesus replies, “If you knew who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water!”

                The woman, like so many other people who encounter Jesus in John’s gospel (and who have encountered Jesus since), is “metaphorically challenged.” She takes that literally, as if Jesus is talking about physical water.

                So she asks him the next question. “Where do you get that living water? You have no bucket and the well is deep. Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who built this well?”

                Where do you get that living water?  

                As the conversation continues, and Jesus tells her that if she drinks of the living water she’ll never be thirsty, the woman tells him “Give me this water, so that I don’t have to keep coming back here where I’m shamed and humiliated to draw water.”

                Jesus responds by telling her to go get her husband and come back, and in so doing, I think he’s making a masterful point about what that living water he’s talking about really is.

                It has everything to do with intimacy—intimacy with God, with others, and with one’s self. And that requires vulnerability.

                When I do premarital counseling with couples, I always spend some time talking about intimacy, and I break the word down phonetically, woodenly. Intimacy- into me see. Can I let you see into me? And know that you will love what you see? That you accept me for who I am. Can I see into myself? And love, really love what I see?  Like God loves me?

                The wonderful thing about marriage, I tell them, when it is done well—and it’s not always done well, marriages don’t always work. But the wonderful thing about marriage is that it can be

                Sacramental—it can be a visible sign and seal of the way God loves us.

                In answer to Jesus’ command to go get her husband and come back, the woman replies, “I have no husband.” And Jesus says, “You have spoken rightly, because you have had five husbands and the man you are with now, well, he’s not your husband.”

                More than one person has pointed out that we don’t know the back story behind why the woman had five husbands. Maybe each of her husbands died   and so she married five brothers in succession, following the Levirate code for marriage. But my guess is that whatever the reason she had five husbands, the woman would have carried around with her a certain amount of shame about that—a sense of “what’s wrong with me?” A feeling of profound failure and disappointment. The society would have labeled her, there’s no question. But I think that she probably labeled herself, too. This happens, too, the kind of self-labeling I’m talking about.        

                Think about the messages you give to yourself on a regular basis, the labels you apply to yourself… This might not be true for everyone. If any of them boil down to “not enough”, not enough to be loved. Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not in the right career enough, not strong enough because you have to rely on help; I want you to identify those labels and let them go. Because the truth is, the living water of God’s love washes over you just where you are, just as you are. You don’t have to be different to be loved. You just have to be human.

                The living water flows when we move beyond the labels we place on ourselves and each other and we look and see into the core of who we are, human beings, all created in God’s image, all, all, did you get that? All children of God.

                The woman became a little uncomfortable with talking about husbands, how deep the conversation was going with Jesus, so she exercised in a classic maneuver. She introduced a theological debate.

                She said, “You say that people should worship in Jerusalem and we say that we’re supposed to worship here in Samaria on this mountain.”

                Jesus plays her game a little bit, but then he says, “The hour is coming and is now here when true worshipers will worship God in Spirit and in truth.”

                I did a little bit of that kind of worship yesterday. I was at Pleasant Grove church, on Lewinsville Road, it was founded in 1895, by and for African Americans. I was there for an event to celebrate Black History Month with a group of African Americans—and lighter skinned Americans. Black and white, we were there together. I know, Black History month was in February, but snow led to the postponement of the original event.

                I can’t tell you how many times I was moved to tears as we listened to a group called the Voices of Worship sing slave songs and spirituals, South African freedom songs, and the music of Duke Ellington. They sang, and we sang along with them. They presented a tribute to Nelson Mandela, the great South African leader. At the end, John Nields led us all in a Pete Seeger sing-along. Earlier, in a tribute to the music of Porgy and Bess, written by George and Ira Gershwin, Gail Nields talked about how George Gershwin, a Russian Jew, for God’s sake, collaborated with a South Carolina aristocrat white person, named Dubose Heyward. Heyward had written a book, called Porgy, about the Gullah people off of Charleston. And together Gershwin and Heyward created an amazing folk opera, Porgy and Bess.

                I thought of all the boundaries that were crossed in the production of that. I need to confess something. I have always loved the music of Porgy and Bess. But it has never moved me to tears as it did yesterday. It moved me to tears yesterday because the living water was so evident in the music and how it was created.

                Gail shared the story of how the Gershwins approached a professor at Howard, Todd Duncan, to ask him to sing the lead role of Porgy in its debut (he sang Porgy over 1800 times by the way). The Gershwins didn’t want a professor to play the part, but a friend talked them into meeting Duncan. And Duncan didn’t expect much from the Gershwins because he associated them with Tin Pan Alley tunes, and he was thinking he’d not like the music at all.

                When they came, they wanted to just hear him sing a few songs. But it turned into a whole afternoon of singing. Because to try to sell him on playing the role of Porgy, the two of them, George and Ira, sang through the whole play. Duncan said it was some of the most terrible singing he’d ever heard.

               But it moved him to tears, because he heard in the story and the beauty of the music that these two men understood and were able to bring to voice something of the experience of the people the musical is about.

                I think it was because the living water was flowing over them and in them and out of them. 

                So the woman left. She left her water jar behind. She went back to her Samaritan people in her village and she told them about Jesus.

                Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did, she said, the subtext of that is, “Told me everything I ever did and loved me anyway.”

                And she asked, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

                I say, the proof is in the pudding.

                In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Sunday, February 23, 2014, “Grounded in Grace”

 Grounded in Grace

A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 23rd, 2014

Matthew 7:24-29, I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

                Our first passage comes from the very end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life.  Here Jesus has finished telling the disciples that when someone strikes them on one cheek, rather than retaliating, they should turn the other. He’s told them to give more to those who take from them.  He’s told them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, to not draw attention to themselves through their prayers, and to not judge other people, lest they be judged.  He concludes his sermon with this:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

                Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the community of Jesus followers he helped found in the ancient Greek port city of Corinth.  The passage I read and preached on last week spoke of how he called them God’s field, God’s building.  Listen for how he speaks of his work among them.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness’, and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

              Today is a very special day. Any day we get to celebrate a baptism is a very special day. What a delight it is when we get to celebrate the baptism of a baby.  It’s a visible sign and seal of God’s invisible grace. It’s a reminder that God’s love for us as human beings comes before we are ever able to respond to it. It’s an acknowledgement on the part of parents, and family, and friends and a whole community of faith that the God whose love was and is embodied in Jesus Christ— and through the Spirit also in us— has laid a foundation for us on which to build our lives. And Annie did great today, didn’t she?

              Several months ago, Annie’s mom Bizzy was the worship leader here. One Sunday morning she was standing up front, doing what Sallie Casto is doing today, doing a marvelous job, as she always does. When the time came for the offering, Bizzy went down to receive it and handing her the plates were the ushers for that day: John and Janet, her mom and dad.

               A member of Immanuel related to me to this week how deeply touched he was by watching that scene unfold that morning.  “It was like seeing, in a concrete way, how one generation passes the treasure of faith and leadership on to the next—but more than that, it was a testimony to how John and Janet, had laid a foundation on which their daughter was building.

               Of course, that’s part of the task of parenting, is it not? To help lay the foundation for a child on which to build his or her life. To help them learn right from wrong; to teach them kindness and respect and reverence for life and awe at the wonder of creation and a sense that we belong to each other and that there is something beyond us that calls us out of ourselves and into service.

               But here’s a secret.  That’s not a one or two person job.  It takes a village.  Grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and, get this, congregation members and Sunday school teachers. That’s why there are so many people here today for this occasion.  That’s why we all made promises a few minutes ago.

              Whenever we have a baptism, we celebrate the work of laying a foundation. When the Apostle Paul talked about his work among the early Christians at Corinth, a congregation which believed they were very wise indeed, he talked about it in terms of having laid a foundation for them. In fact, he said, “No one can lay a foundation other than the one which has been laid, Jesus Christ.”

              Now we know, in the strictest sense, that this is not true. There are billions of people in the world who are adherents of other religious traditions and some who follow no tradition at all and some who, though they are wonderful, kind, remarkable people, deny the existence of God at all.

              They would not claim to be building their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Yet they are no less a part of the human family, no less loved by God, no less a part of the beloved community than you and I are. They just build their lives on other foundations, or none.

              But baptism, if it is to mean anything, if it is to be anything more than a cute little ritual, means that we are committing to build our lives on the foundation of Jesus of Nazareth, the one called Christ, Messiah. On the stories about him, on his teachings, on his Spirit, on his invitation into loving God and one another— on his living embodiment of the truth that sin and death and fear and evil get a word, but they don’t get the last word, in this life or the next. That foundation has already been laid, but each time we baptize another infant, child, youth, or adult, each time we celebrate another soul under construction (to quote from my sermon from last week), and that we are God’s building, we commit ourselves again in community to remember that.

              You don’t start constructing a building without laying a foundation. Well, maybe you do, but it’s not terribly wise. Without being on solid footing, the building isn’t likely to stand up to the wear and tear of wind and weather. That’s what Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount are meant to point out:  Build on rock, he says, not on sand.

               But what does it mean to build on the foundation of Jesus? What are we committing or recommitting to, today?

              First, to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ is to build on something solid. Something, and someone, upon which you can count, when the winds and rains of life come—not to prevent them from coming, but to hold you fast when they do, like arms wrapped around the stump of your legs.

               The beauty of Christian faith to me is not that it promises that everything will go well in life, that all will be smooth sailing.  The beauty of Christian faith is that it is centered in the message that God cared and cares enough about human beings to get involved in the world, to be made manifest in a love that was and is willing to challenge injustice, that was and is willing to suffer for the sake of another, that was and is willing to endure the worst that life can throw at us and not run and hide or go anywhere.

               One way of reading the story of crucifixion is to say that Jesus hung in there with humanity.  He didn’t bail.  A life based on the foundation of Jesus hangs in there in the midst of suffering—and recognizes that God can be counted on in the middle of it all.

               Friday night I had the opportunity to meet a real hero.  Aaron Alonso is the nephew and cousin of members of my former church in North Carolina.  He is a Marine who had his legs blown off by an IED in Afghanistan earlier this month, February 8th.  I conducted his grandfather’s funeral, years ago, and his cousin’s wedding, but I’m not sure he really remembers me.

               Here’s part of an email I wrote to his Aunt Donna yesterday:

 It was my sincere privilege to be with Aaron, Kimberly, and Debbie for a couple of hours last night at Walter Reed.   (His wife Jess was not around while I was there—resting, I think).   I delivered hugs from you and your family to Debbie (his Mom, Donna’s sister)—Aaron’s not quite in shape to get one right now…    

 Debbie is very strong, but all of this is wearing on her (as you’d imagine).  Kimberly is such a treasure—her tender heart and her obvious love for her big brother shines through so warmly.  Aaron, who was being tended to much of the time I was there, looked meaningfully at me and mouthed thank you.  He also showed me a picture of his daughter Riley on his phone!  What a cutie!  (And Riley, by the way is 5 months old).

It is so clear that Aaron is a good, brave, strong man.   I prayed for him and all of his family and friends with Debbie and Kimberly and I think they felt the Holy Spirit surrounding them with support.  Those prayers will continue.

There is a long road ahead.  There will be setbacks and bumps in that road.  It will be daunting and, I suppose, without any guarantees, but I do know this:  that love—first of all God’s love and, tied to that, all of ours (family, friends, and faith communities)—will carry Aaron and those close to him.  Debbie has my cell phone, and I’ve told her that she can call me any time, that I’m her pastor on the ground here and Immanuel is her congregation here. 

               There are no guarantees for any of us in life, save this:  that Jesus’ life means that God will not abandon us in the storm and that we are called as followers of Jesus to embody that truth for others.

               Second, a life built on the foundation of Jesus is a life based in grace.  The grace of God, grace for others, grace for ourselves.  The kind of grace which can say from a cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And from a mountain, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Anne Lamott never spoke truer words than when she wrote, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.”

               But the world in which we live is not big on teaching grace.  McLean is not the greatest place to learn about grace. Our world thrives more on shame, the sense that we are somehow fundamentally ‘not enough.’  So for many of us, our sense of identity and self-worth is somewhat driven by the approval of others, what we produce, and how we are regarded by others – whether people think we’re smart enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough (God help us from that), or wealthy enough, or at the right station in life.  The question is, do we have the right clothes, the right cars, the right resume?  And we can’t be vulnerable, can’t let our guard down, because we’re always comparing ourselves to others, because we think we’re not enough.  If you don’t have a foundation centered in grace—and the knowledge that God and other people will love you even when you’re not at your best—then you face a big crisis, when you retire from work, or you lose your independence, or you go through middle school for God’s sake, or you don’t get into the school you think you’re supposed to, or you get laid off from a job you thought you’d have forever, or  if you even just have a bad hair day.  If you don’t have a foundation in grace, well then you’re in trouble. 

               I think Marilyn Monroe, that beautiful, talented, and very bright starlet whose life ended too soon, was speaking to something important when she said, “My work is the only ground I’ve ever had to stand on. I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation but I’m working on the foundation.”  Baptism is about laying the foundation now, and learning to build on it, now.

               The final thing about building on the foundation of Jesus is that it empowers us for the work of going outside of ourselves for others and it regularly reminds us of God’s call to that work.  We are shown grace, but it is not a cheap grace.  It is a grace that calls us to go beyond ourselves in care for others.

               That’s what makes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount so challenging and compelling.  He outlines a way of living and then says build your life on this way, these teachings.

               Elouise Chase, one of the wonderful old saints of Immanuel, died this past week in the facility where she was living in Connecticut.  I’ve been in conversation with her niece, and she will be talking with the rest of the family about having a service not just at Arlington Cemetery, but here at Immanuel.  She will be laid to rest alongside her husband John at Arlington.

               Elouise and John, for those of you who didn’t know them, really lived out Christian faith, particularly through their involvement in projects that were meant to serve others—especially our Dreamer Program.  They undeniably built their life on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

               I was telling our confirmation class just this last Sunday night that I’ll never forget what I’d heard about a conversation that took place between two Johns.  John, who was a Rear Admiral, and my predecessor John Sonnenday.  The Admiral, veteran of several wars, told the pastor, “Do you know what is unique about Christianity among world religions?  It’s the call to love your enemy.”   

               Now, I’m not a scholar of world religions, so I don’t know if that is in fact completely correct.  But here’s what I do know.  I know that it is just exactly the kind of thing somebody might say if he built his life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. 

               Welcome aboard, Annie!

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Sermon: Sunday, February 16, 2014, “Living in a Construction Zone”

Living in a Construction Zone

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 16th, 2014

               This morning’s scripture lesson is from the 3rd chapter of the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the church at Corinth, a congregation filled with people who considered themselves quite knowledgeable and wise to the ways of the world.  People, in other words, very much like us.  In the first couple of chapters of his letter, Paul differentiates between human wisdom and divine wisdom, suggesting that the message about the cross—the message of vulnerable love—is foolishness to many.  But it is in fact the divine wisdom, the power of God seen in what many would interpret as weakness.  And the Corinthians were having none of it.

                A colleague of mine writes, provocatively: Paul confronts these would-be wise Corinthians Christians with the executed Christ, who shows that God is not to be seen as the projection of male fantasy about power and control, but as the compassionate one who confronts human foolishness and invites relationship for change.[i]

                In the passage I’m about to read, Paul tells his hearers, who have divided into factions (striving to feel superior to one another due to what they believed or whose leadership they followed), that as long as they are doing that, they still have a lot of growing up to do.  They aren’t even close to getting the message.  Now, let me hasten to say that I don’t think this kind of internal bickering is really a problem at Immanuel, thank God.  Where we disagree we can by and large agree to disagree agreeably.  But, true confession, I can from time to time look at others in the larger body of Christ and think I’m wiser, more theologically astute, more intellectually honest, more socially conscious and more politically correct than they.  It happens on both sides of the aisle.  Maybe you feel that way, too.  If so, then this passage may speak to you.  And listen for what Paul returns again and again to the idea of growth, as if to say, don’t feel you have arrived.  God isn’t finished with you yet.

  And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

  What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

                  Late Wednesday afternoon, after conducting our monthly worship service for the residents at Chesterbrook and sticking around to visit with a few of our Immanuel members who live there, I headed over to Sibley Hospital to meet the newest addition to our Immanuel community, little Laina Victoria Hancock.  She’d been born earlier that day. Her mom Barbara is a frequent attendee of our Immanuel in the Evening services and her grandparents Dan and Barbara Krabill are over the moon with joy at having their first grandchild.

                It’s one of the real perks of pastoring to be able to hold and bless a newborn on the very day they arrive in this world. Looking down at little Laina, as I cradled her in my arms, I couldn’t help but think of doing the same thing with my elder daughter Rebecca, a day short of 21 years before.

                I thought of how quickly those 21 years have passed and how much growing and changing she has done over those years, and the growing and changing that lies ahead for her. I also thought about how much growing and changing Barbara and William— little Laina’s parents— have in store for them, as they become used to being parents. And I thought of my time earlier that afternoon with our Immanuel members over at Chesterbrook and the sorts of growing and changing,  adjusting and adapting to circumstance and challenge, the holding on and letting go they’ve had to go through over the past 90 or so years as they raised children of their own and said goodbye to spouses and homes and coped with aging bodies and minds.

                 At the kick-off event we have every year for our confirmation process I always talk about how the life of faith is a journey, and that confirmation is just one of the earliest steps on that path. God isn’t finished with any one of us yet, I go on to tell them. But what does that mean?

                Well, Paul in today’s passage uses a number of metaphors to get at that question. He compares his hearers to infants who aren’t old enough to be weaned and move to solid food—there are stages to spiritual growth. He likens them to a field of vegetables or grain that is seeded and watered by others, Paul planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but it is God who helps the plants to grow— nurturing is important.

                 And then, at the end, Paul claims that they are God’s building, which calls to mind the idea of being under construction. All of us together, and each of us individually, are being built by God. We are under construction.  Our souls are under construction. Little Laina’s soul, your soul, my soul. Ours, and the souls of the ones we love,  and the souls of the ones we struggle to love, the ones with whom we disagree. That’s what I want to focus on today.

                 The first thing to say about being under construction is that it takes time and persistence.

                 Three mornings a week, I take an early morning exercise class that meets in Tyson’s Corner.  Over the past couple of years, as I’ve come out from the mall to Rt. 123, I’ve seen the Metro Silver Line go up.  I’ve seen the station take shape, and a hotel right on the corner seems to gain a floor every other day. Although it seems like these things have gone up rocket fast, just like my daughter turning twenty-one seems like it happened in no time, in reality, there was a lot of time that went into that construction. To expect it to be finished, fully developed right away with the snap of a finger would be unreasonable.

                 So it is with the spiritual life—our own and others— once we are committed to the idea that we are under construction we can’t think that we’re going to be a finished product right away. It takes time.  Like the seed being planted and the plant being watered. We don’t spring full grown from the ground. There are things I only recently became ready to hear. I am a better husband now than I was. I have a deeper prayer life now than I did.

                Community, church, change in culture, grows that way, too. It doesn’t happen overnight. But day in day out work pays off. Learning the stories, sharing with each other, praying and singing, working together to make a difference in the world, putting in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours[ii], this is what builds a soul.

                I think of the people I know whose lives of faith I most admire and they’ve put in the time in Bible study and support groups, in service to others, in prayer and meditation, in reflection. It takes persistence.

                  David M. Bailey, the singer-songwriter, God rest his soul, who fought a courageous battle to live and to love fully the days he had left after being told he only had six months to live, continues to inspire me.  I was reminded of David this week and a song from one of his earliest albums.  He called it Rome.

 Lisa wanted to become a writer/ Change the world with each stroke of her pen/ After 10 years she still had not been published/ It took everything she had to start again/ I saw her on a curb in New York City/ She said ‘David, there must be a better way’/ I said ‘Come on, let’s go buy you a notebook ‘/Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day

Stuart wanted to become a doctor/ Change the world by making people well/ When he learned he could not fix his broken heart/ He slowly sank into his private hell/He showed up at my door one Sunday morning/  He said ‘David, I need somewhere safe to stay.’/ I said ‘come on in and have a cup of coffee’/ ‘Cause Rome wasn’t built in a day

William wanted to become a singer / Change the world one song at a time/ But the world did not pay attention to his words, melodies, or rhyme/ I saw him in a bar one night last summer/ He said ‘David, I don’t know where I belong.’/ I said ‘you better write that down on your napkin’ / ‘Cause It sounds like a great line for a song…’

…I suppose I should practice what I preach/ But patience has never been my way/ It’s not the same thing as an empire/ But your dreams should be rebuilt every day.[iii]

                 I don’t know whether we have to rebuild our dreams every day. But I do know the soulwork of intentionally viewing ourselves as a house for God, takes time and commitment. To hold on to the vision of a deeper, fuller, more peaceful and compassionate life individually and together as the scaffolding goes up and the project seems to be delayed, to remember that we are under construction and are not complete, this is key.  So we must take heed to what Teilhard de Chardin wrote,  “We must trust in the long, slow work of God.”

                 The second thing to say about being under construction is that it can be messy and inconvenient.  Those of you who have had renovations done in your home, or have watched your home being built from the ground up, know what I mean.  The contractors, the different specialists, etc. But you don’t need to have had work done on your own home. All it takes really, is being around road construction with the orange barrels and cones and trucks and cement dust, and so forth, to understand about messiness and inconvenience. 

                The kind of work God’s Spirit, God’s Love, does on us and in us involves rearranging priorities, installing or instilling values and perspectives, and it takes a certain amount of trial and error.  That is messy and inconvenient.  Love can be messy and inconvenient.

                This is how the children’s author, Lemony Snicket, who wrote the Series of Unfortunate Events books that my kids loved when they were younger, put it in his book Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid.   “Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby.  Awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”[iv]

                You can have a carefully constructed theology, which helps you sort who is in and who is out, but then some real human person comes along and messes everything up.   You can talk about loving your enemy all you want, but then somebody comes along and hurts somebody close to you and all you want to do is get him back, and the process of wrestling with that creates a mess.  You can think you have life all figured out, that your system is working just fine, and then some tragedy happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

                Father Greg Boyle, who works with gang members in Los Angeles, is the founder of Homeboy Industries and the author of Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion.  If anybody knows about how messy and inconvenient God’s construction project is, it is Father Greg Boyle.   He quotes Mother Teresa, who he says diagnosed the world’s problems by saying, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.”  Here’s how Boyle’s speaks of what God is building in him and his community.  After telling the story of how a gang member named P-Nut called him from jail after he heard that he’d been diagnosed with leukemia, Boyle writes:

 No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”  The prophet Habbakuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to its fulfillment and it will not disappoint.  And if it delays, wait for it.”[v]

               I think that’s what Paul was urging on the community of believers at Corinth, and on us as we live and work in a world alongside people with whom we don’t always agree. To trust in the long slow work of God and in the meantime to practice the messy, inconvenient discipline of love for each other and the world.

                And here is the final point.  What God is building in the world and in us is love lived out, not a theoretical framework or an interesting intellectual construct. A member of the Sojourners Community penned these words on Sojonet at the God’s Politics Blog this week:

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I’m sick, and you bring me a meal, I don’t care whether you’re a Calvinist or Arminian.

When I’m poor, and you give me some food and money, I don’t care if you’re pre-millennial or post-millennial.

When I’m in the hospital, and you send me a get-well basket, I don’t care what your church denomination is.

When you visit my grandparents in the nursing home, I don’t care what style of worship music you listen to.

When you’re kind enough to shovel my parent’s driveway, I don’t care what translation of the Bible you read.

When you give my friend a lift when their car breaks down, I don’t care if you’re Baptist or Catholic.

When you help my grandmother carry a heavy load of groceries, I don’t care what you believe about evolution.

When you protect my kids from getting hit by a car when they’re running across the street, I don’t care who your favorite theologian is.

When you’re celebrating my birthday with me, I don’t care about your views related to baptism.

When you grieve alongside me during the death of a family member, I don’t care if you tithe or not.

When you love me in deep and meaningful and authentic ways — nothing else really matters.

But when you idolize belief systems and turn theology into an agenda, it poisons the very idea of selfless love. The gospel message turns into propaganda, friends turn into customers, and your relationship with God turns into a religion.

You may have the most intellectually sound theology, but if it’s not delivered with love, respect, and kindness — it’s worthless.

The practical application of your love is just as important as the theology behind it. Our faith is evidenced by how we treat others. Does the reality of your life reflect the theory behind your spiritual beliefs?[vi]

               What God is building in the world and in us is a messy, inconvenient love lived out.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[i] William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary” Bill Loader’s Home Page.)  You can find the link here:

[ii] This is a reference to an idea advanced in Malcolm Gladwell ‘s book  Outliers. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers. New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc, 2008. Print.

[iii] David M. Bailey, “Rome” from his album Love the Time.  Please go to his website and buy his music!  David, who died several years ago, came to sing at Immanuel in 2006 and his music has touched many of our lives.

[iv] Snicket, Lemony. Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Aviod. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007. Print.

[v] Father Greg Boyle  Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York, Free Press, 2010), p. 190.

[vi] Stephen Mattson, “When Christians Love Theology More Than People”  God’s Politics: a blog by Jim Wallis and Friends (January 22, 2014)   Here is a link to the full article

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Sermon: Sunday, February 9, 2014, “Wisdom, Vulnerability, and Despair”

“Wisdom, Vulnerability, and Despair”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On February 9th, 2014


Isaiah 58:1-9 and I Corinthians 2:1-12

               Our first bit of scripture is the Old Testament lesson for today.  It is from near the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Scholars believe that this particular portion of Isaiah may have been written after the return from Exile, when they had settled into what might be called “the new normal.” Notice how Isaiah decries the way workers are treated and calls for the practice of justice, the end of oppression, the sharing of bread with the hungry, the giving of shelter to the homeless poor and clothing to those who are destitute. You do that, Isaiah says, and God’s light will shine on you. Listen carefully.

Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
   they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

               Our second scripture lesson is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  Corinth was a seaport city, a melting pot, filled with people of various cultures from across the known world, bringing various thoughts and ideas.  Not surprisingly, the church that Paul helped found had its share of tension.  The congregation in Corinth makes every church I’ve ever served, especially this one, look positively harmonious by comparison.  Every time I read about the church at Corinth, I think, “Thank you, God, for sending me to Immanuel!” 

                As we begin in the second chapter, it’s important to hear a couple of verses from the first chapter.  Earlier Paul had written of his message among them in terms of how Christ was God’s wisdom:  we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

               We pick up now in the second chapter.

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

               It has been a tragic and distressing week in this larger community.  Those of us who are attuned to the problems and possibilities of teenagers because we are teens or were teens or know teens—or  because our children are in their teen years or have just finished them or are about to enter them—have been jarred again with a reminder of life’s fragility.  That uncomfortable knowledge has hit some in this congregation even harder because you knew one or both of the young people, seniors at Langley High School, who ended their lives this past week, or because you know their parents, or because you yourself have had the experience of a loved one, a relative, or a friend committing suicide.  Statistically, you’d be surprised at how many people know this pain very close to home.                 

               There is a temptation in the church, when it comes to painful topics like this, to avoid addressing them at all.  The pain is too raw, even years later.  Or it feels too soon.  We know too well how people speaking in God’s name have heaped shame and guilt on families rather than helping them deal with their grief over lives ended too suddenly.  Bringing it up might scrape the scab off of a deep, not fully healed wound.  Or worse, give someone a thought or nudge them in a direction.  Best to leave it under the rug, then.

               But if we can’t talk about something like this in the church, for God’s sake…  If the Gospel of God’s love embodied in this complicated, too often painful, world doesn’t somehow speak to the reality of teen suicide (or for that matter, to the fierce grip of addiction that led a brilliant talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman to die with a needle in his arm), then I’m not sure the church is good for all that much.

               Seven weeks ago, from this pulpit on Christmas Eve, I said “It is okay to admit the darkness tonight as well.  Acknowledging the darkness doesn’t stop the power of the songs we sing.  It just makes them deeper and richer because it lets them rub up against the real world in which we live.”

               Acknowledging the pain in the world, the depths of despair into which people fall, the icy clutch of addiction, the fact that people die too soon, doesn’t nullify the truth of God’s embodied love.  It puts it in real conversation with life.

               Ironically, the first thing to say when it comes to the pain of such loss is that there are really no words.  No words adequate to the sheer depth of pain that close friends and loved ones feel; no words sufficient to plumb the mystery of why.   Although there are always people who ask that question,  “What led them to do something so harmful to themselves? And to others who will carry that pain forward? What led them to foreclose on their future?”

                “Who is to blame?”  That’s what some people want to know.  And why, if there is a God, did God allow them to get to that point and not somehow intervene to try and stop them?

               There is great wisdom in standing mute before that mystery.  We don’t know.  We don’t finally know.  We can’t know.

               Words can be used so carelessly, so unhelpfully, in times like this.  I love what I read somewhere about Job’s comforters, the three friends who sat with him on the ash heap, where he was picking his sores with a potsherd after he lost everything: his cattle, his lands, his house, his children.  Then they started to try to explain why these things happened to him.

               “They were doing just fine,” this commentator said, “Until they opened their mouths.  They should have left their traps shut.  Because until they tried to explain why it all happened, they were doing all right.  They blew it when they opened their mouths, particularly when they tried to explain how it must have been Job’s fault that all of this occurred.”

               There is a place for silence.  But there is also a place for speech.  And the church, I would argue, is not just a place for silence, but for speech.  So let me tell you a few things I do know, a few things I do trust, even in the face of the mystery.

               One is that God was and is present with Timmy and Alex and Philip.  Those individuals may not have been able to access that love in that moment, they may have been too deep in despair to see and to feel it, but God was there.  There is nowhere we can go, is the testimony of scripture,  that God is not present there, whether we feel God or not.  Read Psalm 139 and tell me any different.

               And there are times when people can’t feel it.  If you haven’t read William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, you really should.  It’ll give you a glimpse into how cut off people can feel, if you haven’t felt that cut off yourself.  There are times when we can feel cut off, but God does not give up on us.

               A second thing I know and trust is like unto the first, and that is what William Sloane Coffin said in his sermon on the occasion of his son Alex’s death.  Alex, who’d probably had a few too many cold ones, ran his car off the road and into Boston Harbor one foggy night and drowned.

               In a sermon a few weeks later, Coffin said, “When Alex’s car sunk under the waves, God’s was the first of all of our hearts to break.”  God wants us to live and love fully.  God wants us to move beyond separation and isolation and preoccupation with self into fully embracing life and possibility and others.  And God’s heart breaks, when we don’t, when we give up.  But God does not ever abandon us.

               And the third thing is that God’s embodied love is stronger than death. That is the Gospel message in a nutshell for me. That’s what the cross and resurrection of Jesus is about. God not letting death get the last word, or sin, or hopelessness, or grief, or despair, for that matter. Death has a word, and it is a powerful word, don’t get me wrong.  Somebody after the morning service told me that her high school friend committed suicide 52 years ago and she is still dead.  Oh, death has a word.  But the power of the life that comes from God, the life that is eternal and unshakeable and willing to stand with us and for us, is stronger still than anything death can bring.

               When the Apostle Paul was writing to that conflicted church he helped found in Corinth, he wrote these words, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”      

               It’s not that Paul didn’t know lots of other things.  Disagree with his theology all you want, disagree with his attitudes towards women, his first century view of how relationships should work, all you want, Paul was quite a learned man.  He knew a lot of things.

               But knowledge is different than wisdom.  And the kind of wisdom Paul had access to and calls us to is the divine wisdom that Jesus understood and embodied: the wisdom of vulnerability.  That’s what Paul was talking about when he said he decided “to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

               It is a wisdom that is willing to be vulnerable for the sake of another, willing to stand up bravely for love and life even in the face of great pain, willing not to run from the possibility of pain, or to numb out to avoid it, but to experience it and to live through it.  It is in that sort of vulnerability that hope lies.

               That sort of wisdom involves a choice.

                It is the choice to reach out to the hurting.  It is the choice to look beyond the blinders that we have on us from time to time that keep us from seeing beyond our despair into the hope that comes with a longer view, a view that goes beyond the next moment that seems so impossible to face.  It is the choice to live and to love.

               One of my favorite writers on vulnerability and its power is a woman named Glennon Doyle Melton.  If you aren’t acquainted with her blog Momastery, please, particularly if you are a mother, look it up.  What she writes is so wonderful for all of us of any gender or circumstance.

               Here’s a portion of a letter she wrote to her son as he was beginning to start his first day of third grade[i].  Glennon wrote to him that she wanted to make sure he didn’t make the same mistake that she did, because she had a classmate named Adam to whom she never really reached out.

                She wrote:

               Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.

And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.

I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me?  Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me.

I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.

So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.

Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heartache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heartache. That heartache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion — be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.[ii]

               God trusts you and needs you.  Every single last one of you.

                Hear that, and make me a promise.  Do not forget it.

                 In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


[i] Glennon Doyle Melton, Carry On Warrior: Thoughts on Life Unarmed ,(New York: Scribner, 2013).   You can also read the letter here:  The title of the chapter where she relates her letter to Chase is appropriately called “Brave is a Decision.”

[ii] Ibid.

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