Sermon: November 9, 2014, “Stand Fast Therefore: Freedom, Stewardship, and Baptismal Identity”

 “Stand Fast Therefore: Freedom, Stewardship, and Baptismal Identity”

A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On November 9, 2014

 

Exodus 3:1-15, Galatians 5:1, 13-15

Both passages of scripture I’ve chosen to read today are about freedom.  They’re both mentioned in the 9th chapter of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, which some of us in the congregation are reading.

     The first of these passages shows us a bit of Moses’ first encounter with God, who meets him in a burning bush.  Moses had been born as an Israelite slave in Egypt but had been raised in Pharaoh’s house.  Pharaoh’s daughter had drawn him out of the Nile where his mother had floated him in a basket, hoping that this would make him safe from an edict Pharaoh had sent out to kill all the Hebrew babies.  Moses then grew up as a child of Pharaoh’s court, but his real mother—a Hebrew slave—was his nursemaid and probably sang him songs of his people.  As McLaren points out, Moses surely would have had an identity crisis—he would have been defined in many ways by the Egyptian culture in which he’d grown up and come of age, but he was also deeply a Hebrew.  Which of those identities would be more important to him?  When he stood up for a slave who was being mistreated, and killed an Egyptian, Moses had to flee for his life to the wilderness.  It is here that our passage from Exodus begins.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:  This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.

Our second passage was written hundreds and hundreds of years after the story of Moses is reported to have unfolded.  It’s from a letter written by the Apostle Paul, a man who himself had an identity crisis, a choice to make about what ultimately defined him. Was it what made him separate from others—his Jewishness, his special status as a member of a special tribe?  Or was it instead the love of God for all humanity—Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female?  He had been set free from having to prove his worth.  Would he live in the radical freedom of that all-inclusive love, a love which called him into connection with others, or would he instead choose to live to live as a slave to self-interest? That was a question Paul posed not only to himself, not only to his community, but to all generations that followed after him.  Listen now for God’s word to us.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Tuesday morning, a truly marvelous image popped up in my Facebook news feed. It was a photo of little Bryce Gordon McKinney, in a stroller, covered in a blue blanket wrapped up against the morning chill, with a little knit hat on his head, in front of a red sign with a white arrow pointing the way to the polling place.

Bryce’s dad, Ryan, ever the teacher, had posted the photo to his page, underneath a status update proclaiming, “Bryce couldn’t wait to learn about exercising his right to vote.  He scored extra stickers.”

Whether we get stickers or not, whether election results turn out the way we want or not, the freedom and right to vote is something which we should never ever take for granted.  It’s a freedom for which we can, at least in part, thank our veterans, because in one way or another they were willing to place themselves in harm’s way to protect that (and other freedoms) for us.  So tomorrow and on the 11th and today, thank a veteran.

The right to vote, to have our voice heard in the selection of our local, state, and national leaders is an important freedom.  But today, the Sunday we baptized little Bryce, we are gathered to celebrate a different sort of freedom.

Not political freedom, as important as that is, and certainly not freedom to do whatever we want whenever we choose, but spiritual freedom, the sort of freedom the Apostle Paul was talking about. The freedom to rise above self-absorption and self-interest…  The freedom, paradoxically, to be bound to one another…  The freedom to serve one another and the world in love.

Baptism celebrates that freedom.  It marks us for that kind of life.  In so doing, it sets us up for an identity crisis.  Because just as Moses grew up as the child of two cultures—living in Pharaoh’s house but hearing the songs of the Hebrews from his mother who was his nurse—we, too, have our feet in two different ways of life and living.  They are defined by different sorts of values.

There is the larger culture in which we live, which is so driven by acquisition and appearance and approval, grasping for power, and striving for security, a world of busyness, where we are so often in a hurry.

It’s a rat race.  But as my former professor Walter Brueggemann says, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win it, you’re still a rat.” The other problem, of course, is that when we are running it, when we are forgetting our connection to others, especially when we forget our connection to those less well off than we, then we are not really free.

Think about the ways the culture in which we live enslaves us.  Now I hesitate to use the word slavery for what we undergo, because there are people in the world today, still unfortunately, who are really and truly enslaved—those who are trafficked, who are physically held against their will, who are literally in bondage to someone or some group.  To throw the word slavery around is to cheapen it.  I get that.

Be that as it may, far too many of us know what it is to be in bondage to society’s impossible standards of beauty.  How many girls literally starve themselves to try to reach an airbrushed ideal?  That’s got to stop.  How many boys feel inadequate because they don’t look like the movie star?  That’s got to stop.  That is bondage.

Far too many of us know what it is to be held captive to society’s view that even too much is never enough.   So we can’t figure out how much we really need to live on.

Far too many of us know what it is to be in bondage to fear:  fear of disease and death, fear of the other, fear of speaking out and up.

Then there are the addictions to various and sundry things, you can make the list, they can hold us in their sway, too.  We know what it is to be in bondage.

Over against that culture, which as the late David Foster Wallace said in an amazing commencement speech at Kenyon some years ago, is like the water we swim in (and we are the fish who swim in it),  there is another culture, another way of being in the world.

It takes intentionality to embrace that culture.  It doesn’t happen by accident.  You don’t take it in with the air you breathe.  It’s not the water you swim in.  But with it comes real, true, freedom.

That’s why, by the way, it is so vitally important to be meaningfully and regularly connected to a community of faith.   Because in places like this with people like this, we hear stories about and rub shoulders with people who remind us that what ultimately defines us is not the rat race in which we live, it’s not the beauty or success ideals of society, and it’s not the fear which is so much a part of the news cycle we take in.

No, instead, what defines us is our nature as beloved children of God—called to take part in the love of God for the whole world, absolutely no exceptions.  None.  We live in that identity and we are radically free—to be generous, kind, present, hospitable, helpful, and hopeful among other things.   We cultivate and live in that identity and we are reminded that we need not be in bondage to fear.  You live in that identity, you are not thinking about using your freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want.  You are thinking about how you can use your freedom to serve, to be a blessing to others.

When Karl Barth, that great twentieth century Neo-Orthodox theologian, talked about freedom, spiritual freedom, Christian freedom—he talked about it not so much in terms of “freedom from” (from sin, from others telling us what to do), but in terms of “freedom to and for”.  We have freedom, Barth said, to live a life beyond our selfish concerns.  We have the freedom to live for others, to bless others, to be who we were created to be in God’s image.

There are all sorts of ways we can live into our freedom.

In the course of the premarital counseling I do with couples—and by the way, Ryan and Jessie were the first couple I did face to face premarital counseling for here at Immanuel—I always spend a session talking about the things that tends to cause trouble in marriages.  The person who did our premarital counseling said it was three things:  money, sex, and in-laws.   Money, intimacy, in-laws and family, how neat or messy you keep your house, what your religious convictions are, these are things that couples can fight about.

As part of the second session, I talk about how to deal with finances and I hold out John Wesley’s rule for dealing with money as a model.  He lived by and encouraged others to live by the 80-10-10 rule.   If at all possible, and it is almost always more possible than you think, Wesley said, live off of no more than 80 percent of your income, he suggested.  Then save at least 10 percent and give at least 10 percent away (to the church or to other charitable causes).  It wasn’t until just this week that I realized that when I give people that counsel, I’m inviting them into freedom.  I’m helping them to be free from anxiety, free from self-absorption, free to be a blessing.

Saturday morning a week ago, I knocked my phone off the kitchen counter.  The inner screen, the touch screen, broke—that’s a bad thing by the way—and it made my phone unusable.  I’ve never broken my phone before.  That helped me realize how bound I am to that technology and to that sense that I can always be reachable, always available, always connected.  I ordered the replacement phone and it came on Monday afternoon.  Meanwhile, I found myself more present on my walk to Georgetown and back.  I wasn’t trying to capture the blue heron in flight on film, but just taking it in.  I wasn’t surreptitiously checking my email at Fletcher’s Cove, I was just being present to the people with whom I was walking.    There was real freedom in that—and it was not unrelated to the kind of freedom Paul was talking about.

This week I ran across three stories of men and women in their 90’s who are living in freedom.   By the way, Barbara Donnelly had a birthday this week and she is over 90!

For more than 20 years, Arnold Abbott has been feeding the homeless in his hometown of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, through his group Love Thy Neighbor. On Sunday, he was arrested under the city’s controversial new ordinance that bans public feedings and faces up to two months in jail. Let me remind you that Arnold is 90 years old. After his arrest, he said, “These are the poorest of the poor, they have nothing, they don’t have a roof over their heads. How do you turn them away?” Abbott plans to fight the charges, just as he did in when he sued the city — and won — in 1999 when it tried to stop him from feeding the homeless on the beach. “I don’t do things to purposefully aggravate the situation,” said Abbott. “I’m trying to work with the city. Any human has the right to help his fellow man.”[1]

    That is freedom.

     Chester Wenger and his wife have been married for 70 years.  They have a son who is gay.  Chester is a Mennonite missionary and pastor, now retired.  After same-gender marriage became legal in Pennsylvania, Chester officiated at his son’s wedding in Pennsylvania.  After he officiated, he wrote his Mennonite conference and said, essentially, “This is what I’ve done.  I don’t apologize for it.  Because this is the right thing to do.”[2]

That is freedom.

This week I saw a wonderful video from a woman named Jean Veloz’s 90th birthday part.  Everyone that knows her, knows that this 90-year-old woman has one passion and that is dancing.   I watched the video, and let me tell you she danced the socks off of almost all the younger men who took the floor with her.  She’s got better moves than many people I’ve seen.[3]

It occurred to me watching Jean Veloz dance, that she too, knows a little something about freedom.  It also occurred to me that whether or not we can literally dance or not, when we the freedom to live for others, to give generously for the sake of others, our hearts dance, whether our bodies can or not.

[1] Bob Norman, Local10.com, http://www.local10.com/news/police-charge-90yearold-man-2-pastors-with-feeding-the-homeless/29510268 (reported on 11/03/2014)

[2]Charles Wenger, “Opinion”, The Mennonite (online edition), https://themennonite.org/opinion/open-letter-beloved-church/, 11/06/2014

[3]“90-Year-Old Grandma Has The Moves!”, http://cutepuppylove.me/2014/08/21/90-year-old-grandma-has-the-moves/, 08/21/2014

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Sermon: July 20th, 2014, “Dreams, Memories and God’s Presence”

Dreams, Memories and God’s Presence

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA

On July 20th, 2014

 Genesis 28:10-22

Today I continue my sermon series on the stories in the book of Genesis by focusing on the character of Jacob and the dream he has of a ladder of angels coming down from heaven.  Last Sunday, we read the story of how Jacob, the second born twin and his mother’s favorite, convinced his hungry brother Esau to trade him his birthright (Esau’s privilege as firstborn) for a pot of lentil stew.  Between that story and the one we’re about to read, Jacob, with his mother Rebecca’s assistance, also snookered Esau out of a special blessing from his father by covering himself in animal fur and deceiving Isaac, who was old and blind at the time, into thinking that he was Esau.  Needless to say, when Esau showed up and his father told him that the special blessing had already been given, that didn’t go over well.  So as our story for today begins, Jacob, with his mother’s encouragement, is on the run, before his angry brother Esau can catch him—on the run back to the land of his ancestors, Haran—where he will begin a family.

We pick up today with a story of an encounter Jacob has on his way.

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder* set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him* and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed* in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel;* but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’ 

 

Last Sunday, before I read the scripture passage for that day about how Esau sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of stew, I asked you to think about which of the two characters with whom you would most identify: would it be Esau or Jacob?   Then, in a sermon which focused on the meaning of baptism, I talked mostly about how we are too often like Esau—attempting to trade our baptismal birthright as children of God called to responsible living—for the sake of short term appetites:  the easy sarcasm, the satisfying retort, the angry grudge.  All of them satisfying in the moment but engaged in without an eye to the future consequences.   I went on to say that, unlike Esau, we can’t trade away our birthright as children of God—a birthright we all have, baptized or not—even if we live as if that status is unimportant—because that status is based in God’s grace—God’s initiative, not our own.

Today we focus on Jacob.  He is running for his life from a furious Esau because he has stolen both birthright and blessing from his brother, and he’s done it by disguising himself and outright lying to his old blind father, Isaac.  To put it mildly, Jacob is not a sympathetic character.

With the news headlines coming from the southwestern border of the U.S., it is worth noting that Jacob is a refugee, a young man who has been sent away by his mother to avoid violence.  We cannot draw easy parallels between Jacob and the children who are coming across our borders, though, because as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, he is there because of his own actions.   He is in a “limbo of his own making.”  He is not a vulnerable young child.  He has created his own problems.

His mother Rebecca is in a limbo of her own making, too.  After all her attempts to advance Jacob’s standing, to manipulate matters so that he gets dominance, she now has sent him away to protect his life.  Ostensibly, he has gone to Haran, where Rebecca’s people live, to find a wife.  But the truth is plain.  This is Rebecca’s way of getting Jacob away from an enraged Esau.  Jacob needs to get out of Dodge, to be somewhere else for a while, somewhere safe, and it is her hope that this somewhere else can lead to a good and fruitful life for her beloved son.

When I think about Jacob out there in the desert with a rock under his head, lying on the cold, hard ground; when I think of his mother Rebecca starting across the desert with tears in her eyes, hoping that all will be well when Jacob gets to the home of her brother Laban, all I can think of is the old saying, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”

Jacob, on the run between a troubled past and an unknown future, comes upon a “certain place” and finally feels safe to rest for a time.  When the text says, “a certain place” what it means that it is no place at all of any particular significance.  At least not up until that time.  Jacob simply cannot go any further and the sun is setting, so he decides to stay there for the night.  He has left in a hurry so he has nothing to comfort him, no blanket, no tent.  He is all alone in a rocky place, so he gathers some stones to place around his head for protection and he begins a night of fitful sleep.

Jacob does not lie down with prayers.  Up to this point in the narrative, Jacob has given little thought to God.  Oh, he’s had people ask God to bless him.  He’s had blessings pronounced over him.  But in his conversations with his father, Jacob always said, “Your God,” not claiming Isaac’s religion or Isaac’s God or Isaac’s faith as his own.

Jacob is a little like young adults before and after him who have found themselves on their own for the first time and who have questioned whether their parents’ faith is something they can claim or not.  As the story begins, Jacob cannot be called a man of faith, or even a religious seeker.  Up to this point, he’s acted as if he alone is responsible for making things happen—as if there is no larger divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may—as if it is all on him.  So he closes his eyes without a thought, without a prayer.  But God will find Jacob.  As one commentator said, “God is not without experience in handling hard cases.”

Lest we think that this story is just about a young adult coming to faith or his or her own experience of God, it’s worth pondering how people at every stage of life can begin to think that it’s all on us.  The seemingly endless to do list—what of it get done, what doesn’t get done, what happens with the rest?  The battle with an addiction, the daily challenge to be kind and compassionate, the relationship difficulty, the problems at work or at school…   The notion that it’s all on us is an easy one to fall into.

The way God reaches Jacob is through an extraordinary dream that causes him to reflect on all that has been going on in his life.  He has been scheming and struggling his whole life.  And for what?  He has been running.  And to where?  All of this activity, all of this manipulation, and to what end?  He is fearful, anxious, and I’ll bet that he has more than a bit of a guilty conscience.

The dream catches Jacob when he is still, when he is in the vulnerable posture of sleep.  Sleep is a way we let down our guard, whether we want to or not.  That sort of vulnerability is sometimes the only way God can reach us.  The dream Jacob has allows him to see the larger spiritual picture of God’s activity in the world and in him.  In the dream, Jacob sees a ladder or staircase leading up to and down from heaven and on that staircase, divine beings, angels, are in constant motion, going up and down between heaven and earth, carrying out God’s work in the world.

Up until that point, Jacob has assumed that he is all alone in that place -all alone in life, too- but the dream alerts him to the fact that he is not alone.  His resting place, which is of no importance at all in the larger scheme of things, is full of busy angels with a full time job of making the kingdom of earth more like the kingdom of heaven.

Imagine that.  Just imagine it.  Because it is a dream that invites us to imagination.  Imagine, just imagine that God really is at work in the world.  A world where planes get shot down, and children are killed, and families fight, and people are shot.  Imagine that, God at work in the world.

When God pulls back the veil and allows Jacob to see this activity which is going on around him and all of us all the time, it is meant to be a life-changer, it is meant to reach the heart of one who has not yet claimed God as his own.  God means to get Jacob’s attention.

And God does.  And this dream has gotten the attention of God’s people ever since, who have told this story and recalled how God reached out to a schemer, a runaway, a refugee; how God reached out in a place that up to that moment had held no particular importance, and revealed God’s glory in both that place and that person.  Artists and poets have depicted that ladder of angels, that moment of epiphany.  Hymn writers have urged us to climb, “Jacob’s Ladder” and with the runaway unbeliever to draw “Nearer, my God to Thee.”

If we can, for a moment, put ourselves in Jacob’s skin, we find that God seeks Jacob not just with a spectacular and awe-inspiring vision, but also with an intimate and personal assurance.   Jacob, in that hard place, that rocky place, encounters God drawing near to him.  One translation says that God stands beside him and makes this amazing promise.  “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

This promise does two things.  For a young man on the run, a wanderer, the promise says that God is not limited to one place.  God will go with Jacob as he leaves the land where he has grown up, and go with him into the unknown of his future.  With this promise, God also establishes that the covenant relationship continues to a new generation.  Now the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, is also the God of Jacob.

We spend a lot of time in larger church circles thinking about how faith gets passed on to the next generation—and sometimes we wring our hands about what we perceive to be our failures.  Parents and pastors worry about youth and young adults and what happens when growing children are no longer strictly dependent on their parents.  Have we done enough to give them a foundation of faith?  Have we given them what they need when they head out on their way?  Why is it that sometimes faith seems so unimportant to them?

The truth is that many youth and young adults question the faith their parents have handed down to them and that it is only natural that these questions should arise when they are on their own and beginning to think for themselves.

A deeper, more important truth, in this story is that God is still at work in every new generation, seeking, finding, and establishing relationships with those we have nurtured and sent out. God doesn’t wait for them to return, doesn’t give up when their lives take interesting or distressing turns.  God keeps on showing up in unexpected places and seeks them where they are—in dreams and encounters and memories and people.

It has happened for generations, and will continue to happen.  Perhaps it occurs on a mission trip like the one that seven of our youth and two adults are going on today.  Trips like this are the occasion for youth to really see the activity of God as they hammer nails for Habitat or dish out food for the hungry, as they visit with those they help or as they.  A baby is born to a twenty or thirty something and they begin to feel the same sense of responsibility towards that child as their parents felt toward them.  They begin to think, “How can I share my faith?  How can I take my baptismal pledge seriously?”

One of the ways young people encounter God is through other people, ordinary people.  Ordinary people are used all the time as agents of God’s blessing.  Sometimes people are aware of how God is at work in them and through them and sometimes not.  The veil is mostly not drawn back, so we do not see the ladder of angels on a daily basis, but when we get glimpses of it we find so much divine activity in the world that we could never have imagined.  We find that God’s blessing is not limited, not scarce.

That’s one of the messages God had for Jacob when he found him in that rocky place.  See, Jacob had grown up in a family that believed blessing to be in limited supply.  Esau was devastated when Jacob received his father’s blessing, because in that family, there was only one blessing to give.  But here God announces an alternative idea, one that had been said before but never really grasped.  God’s vision is of a world with enough blessing to go around, enough for everyone.  “In you,” God says, “all families of the earth will be blessed.”  Israelis and Palestinians, for instance.

These are challenging words for our generation to hear because we are, like Jacob’s family, people who are afraid that there isn’t enough blessing to go around.  We are graspers, like Jacob, who scramble and scheme to get as much blessing as we can, assuming that if someone else has a blessing, it will come out of our allotment.  We are people who cannot fathom the largeness of the God we worship and know only in part.  If only the veil could be lifted back for each of us, if only for a moment we could see the larger spiritual activity going on all the time for us, around us, and for each person and part of God’s creation.  The heavenly messengers go up and down and are constantly busy with God’s work in the world and all we can imagine is a God who is limited and whose blessings must be hoarded lest we find that a usurper has grabbed what is ours.

Maybe that’s why God keeps reaching out to new generations, and in new ways, so we keep being reminded that our relationship with God is not an exclusive one, and is not limited to a specific religious expression, a specific place, mode of worship, or type of person or lifestyle.  God is God.  God’s glory fills the world and all the people who are in it.  God is active in all times and in all places.  There is not place on the face of the Earth where God is not present.

That’s an epiphany Jacob had in that rocky place.  God is real and in this place… and in every place, he realizes.  “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!  I had no idea!”  Jacob then took to gathering up the stones he had placed around his head and stacking them up, placing the stone where his head lay on top.  And he named that place Bethel, “the house of God.”  A nowhere place came to be called the very house of God.  When have you been a guest at the house of God and did not know it?

Of course, when I think of the house of God, I most often think on houses of worship, be they churches or synagogues, mosques or temples.  Just yesterday, my daughter Rebecca, who is in India for two months, went to visit a couple of temples.  She went to Bahai temple and a Hindu temple and was astounded by the beauty she saw and sense of peace she felt in both places. When I think of the house of God, I think of ornate and beautiful decoration, grand and glorious structures meant to convey the mysterious and holy nature of God.  I have stood in simple white sanctuaries with no stained glass, no ornamentation at all, and in cathedrals with every kind of flag, banner, and ornamentation you can imagine in every corner of the room.  I have preached in high pulpits and stood behind simple wooden podiums.  I have walked into some churches where I’ve felt such a palpable sense of the presence of God that I just wanted to sit there for a while and soak it in.

Then there are the sacred places that are sacred to me because of what happened there.  The church where I was baptized in northern Illinois.  The church where I was confirmed, outside of Houston, Texas.  The church where I was ordained in upstate New York.  This place, which has been a thin space for so many of us, hosting so many holy moments.    Where are your sacred places?

The story reminds us that, for all of our love of these set aside places, we cannot forget that the house of God is anywhere we can be, anywhere God finds us.  This story also reminds us that for all of our striving to be right with God, God in the end will find us right where we are, and God will embrace us even in our brokenness.

This is good news, because you and I will act badly toward other people and there will be times when we will be certain that there is no God, or that if there is a God, God is through with us.  But it will not be true.  You and I will be in rocky places and we will think that God has abandoned us.  But it will not be true.   You and I will run away or deny our culpability, we will try to hide our shame because we believe that we are unacceptable.  But it will not be true.  God will be there in the rocky places.  God will be with us in our running.  God will be with us in and beyond our sense of shame.

Did you notice what is missing in this story?  Where’s the big lecture?  Where is God saying, “Uh-huh.  Got yourself into a real mess, didn’t you?  What did all your trickery and lying get you, Jacob?  You’ve made your bed, now lie in it!”  That was my response, but it’s not God’s response.  God comes to Jacob, not with repercussions, not with judgment and finger-wagging.  God seeks and finds Jacob and comes along right beside him and says, “Know that I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go, and will bring you back into this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”

Imagine that!  Grace!  After everything Jacob has done, God comes with grace, a grace that will go with him and eventually lead him home.  Jacob has many miles to go before that will happen.  His actions and the actions of his mother, Rebecca, are not without consequences.  The stolen blessing results in twenty years of exile for Jacob and Rebecca will never see her favored son again.

That is the tragedy of this story, how grasping for dominance tears a family apart and how big a price each of them pays for their desire to be on top.  In the midst of this tragedy, however, God continues to reach out to Jacob and to let him know that he is not alone.  God also provides for Jacob a kind of base camp there at Bethel, a place he can return to either physically or in his mind to remember that encounter with God, to remember that God is real and that God will be with him.  And it will be a place that his heart cannot forget.

And it will be a place that his heart will not forget.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

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Sermon: May 4th, 2014, “Today You, Tomorrow Me”

“Today You, Tomorrow Me”

A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt

At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, VA

On May 4th, 2014

I Peter 1:17-23

               The lectionary scripture passage I’m choosing to focus on today comes from the First Epistle of Peter. The letter was first written to an early Christian community of Gentile converts, not Jewish Christians, who were facing hostility from friends, associates and relatives and thus felt like they were aliens in their own city, almost as if they were in exile, so to speak. They had left behind old customs (the writer calls them “futile ways inherited from their ancestors”) and taken on some new ones, and the author of this letter wants them to understand that they have gained a new inheritance and that the God who raised Jesus can be trusted. Listen now for God’s word, focusing in particular on the author’s call to have what he calls “genuine mutual love.”   Ponder what this passage says about what really lasts. And when you hear the phrase “live in reverent fear”, I invite you to hear instead “live in holy awe.”

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him, you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.

               If you were here the Wednesday after Easter for the concert that Nerissa and Katryna Nields put on in this sanctuary, you experienced a real treat. Not only did you get to hear their wonderful music and lyrics, not only did you have a chance to sing along with several folk songs that they learned at their father John and mother Gail’s knee, you had an opportunity to witness three generations of that family up here on this chancel singing. For several of the songs, Nerissa and Katryna invited their parents John and Gail to join them—and three of John and Gail’s grandchildren William, Lila, and Johnny— were up here, singing too. It was a holy and beautiful occasion.

               I found myself deeply moved by the scene. And it made me think about how legacies get passed on from one generation to the next. As I watched those three generations join their voices in songs of hope and challenge, I thought of how a legacy of music, and activism, and commitment to justice and peace, and,, yes, a commitment to the church and its message of God’s love embodied in human beings as it was in Jesus, was being passed on. A commitment to church, this congregation, where Nerissa and Katryna and their sister Abigail sang some of those songs that they led us in that Wednesday night in children’s worship.

               There are all sorts of legacies that get handed on from generation to generation, both good and bad, as the author of I Peter points out when he speaks of “the futile ways” his community had “inherited from their ancestors.”

                Two days before the Nields concert, Judith and I made a pilgrimage to Monticello. Every parent of a UVA student needs to go to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate outside of Charlottesville. It was my first trip there, I’m embarrassed to say.

               We watched the film in the Visitor’s Center. We took the house tour, and the garden tour, and the tour which discusses the experience of slavery at Monticello. The film and the tour guides rightly celebrated Jefferson’s accomplishments, which were many and varied. Among those accomplishments were authoring our Declaration of independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founding the University of Virginia, and on, and on.

               Do you know that Jefferson’s tombstone doesn’t even mention that he was a two term President of the United States? I mean, what kind of remarkable person do you have to be for that to not make your tombstone? I turned to Judith at one point early in the tour and said, “He accomplished so much before he ever reached my age that I feel like I’ve frittered away my life!”

               Jefferson accomplished a great many things. But even as I heard his achievements celebrated, a more complex picture of the man began to emerge. Jefferson inherited slaves from both his father and his father in law. He inherited a culture that approved of slavery. Although his lofty words laid the groundwork for liberty, and although in his flowery rhetoric he claimed that slavery was a “deplorable entanglement,” the truth is, Jefferson kept slaves, he regarded them as property, and didn’t set a single one of them free until after his death. And then he only freed five of them.

               Jefferson was also a man who lived well above his means. When he died, he was between one and two million dollars in debt, in modern terms. I learned during my tour of Monticello that his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, spent much of his adult life trying to settle those debts, which led to selling Monticello and its assets, including the slaves, who were regarded as property. The tale of that auction on the lawn of Monticello is a sad and horrifying one.

                Legacies can be complicated, indeed.

                Today is what we have come to call Legacy Sunday here at Immanuel. Our Presbyterian denomination has for at least thirty years designated the first Sunday of May as Wills Emphasis Sunday. This gives congregations and pastors a chance to address the importance of having a will, period. It gives us an opportunity to talk about how our financial resources can continue to impact future generations, and yes, it affords us the opportunity to talk about remembering and providing for the ongoing mission and ministry of our congregations beyond our lives on earth. The decisions we make about how to treat people, about how to spend our time, and about how to use our financial resources (including how to distribute them after we’ve passed on), leave a legacy for the generations that follow us. They show in a concrete way what we think is important.

               Legacy Sunday, heck any Sunday, any Lord’s Day, is an opportunity to remember that Bill Courtney is right. “Our legacies relate to what we do for others, not for ourselves.”

               Courtney, by the way, served a high school football coach in the inner city of Memphis, Tennessee. He was featured in a 2011 documentary called Undefeated, about how he turned the Manassas High School football team of Memphis into a playoff team for the first time in school history. But more important than that to Courtney was the fact that he had 19 seniors on that championship team, 19 inner city African-American seniors, and all 19 of them graduated from high school, and all 19 went to college.

               That wasn’t easy. We know about that here.

               A review of the documentary says:

                At first glance, the story of the white, volunteer coach who helps a rag tag group of football players from an all-black school find success on and off the field seems scripted — and riddled with cliches that would seem to necessitate a syrupy, southern-inflected Sandra Bullock voiceover. But the harsh realities of the Manassas students, the insistent mentorship of Courtney are, for worse and for better, all too genuine. The Tigers’ distance from those first practices under Courtney and his fellow coaches to future success was not nearly as easy to traverse as the title of the eventual documentary (Undefeated) might make it feel.[i]

               It’s not always easy to get from here to there.

                Immediately following the service, we’ll all have an opportunity to hear from Lee Becker who was one of the young architects who worked with George Hartman and representatives of our congregation on the design of this sanctuary in which we are worshipping this morning.

               I encourage you to stay for that. It’ll be a chance to reflect not only on how this space, which has hosted so many holy moments, came to be, but also on what its design is meant to encourage and foster in the people who worship here. This physical space is important to us. It took great care and vision for the future to build it, but this physical space is not just about us.  It’s never been just about us.

               With the leadership of the Planned Giving committee, we’ve made a push to highlight our Endowment for Immanuel, to provide for the future of this special congregation and our outreach to the world around us.

               Very appropriately, our first proceeds from the Endowment, $10,000 dollars, has been earmarked as seed money for what the Session is calling The Next Big Thing. A committee of Immanuelites has already begun meeting to generate ideas for what our next Major Mission Project, involving the congregation together in hands-on service to those in need, will be. We’re particularly looking to tap into the voices and the passions of those of you my age, or near my age, and younger, because just as the generations before us did and do, we have a legacy of love to carry on as well.

               Which brings us back to that long ago letter of First Peter. Writing to a group of new believers who were under threat, Peter, or more likely someone writing in his name, spoke of the futile ways they had inherited from their ancestors. But he also spoke of something enduring and imperishable, something lasting. Not like silver or gold. A hope centered in a risen Christ, a call to genuine mutual love, a challenge to go beyond oneself.

               So let me close with a story. It’s a story about legacies and love and passing it on. When Judith came across this on line, she had to share it with me. She pulled out her phone on the way to Charlottesville and she said, “You have to hear this story!”

               Justin Horner is a graphic designer who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. In a New York Times Magazine article[ii] a few years ago, he related that three times in one year, three times, he found himself in a disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Each time, to make matters worse, he was driving somebody else’s car. Someone who didn’t have the foresight to pack extra fuses or a jack in the car, or to know not to park on an incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

               Anyway, each time Horner found himself broken down car, he was disgusted by the way people just flew by and didn’t stop. In each instance, the people who stopped to help were immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of whom spoke any English.

               One of the times he was stopped, after a tire blow out, he put a big sign in the window of the Jeep he was driving. “Need a Jack. I’ll pay $.”

               Nothing. Cars flew by for what seemed to be hours. Tow trucks flew by.

And then a Mexican immigrant family stopped. The driver of that van hopped out, went over to him with a jack, and they found that the jack was too small.

               So the immigrant, quick as a lick, got a saw out of his van and cut a piece out of a log by the side of the road to prop up the jack. They used the immigrant’s tire iron to try to get the tire off, and if you can believe it, Horner says, the tire iron broke.    The immigrant had his wife go on ahead in the van to purchase a new tire iron and bring it back. They went back to work on the tire and got it changed.

               Here’s where I want to pick up with Horner’s words because they are so beautiful.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl (their daughter, who spoke English) where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

                Here’s how Horner ends his story.

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

               That’s genuine love. That’s a legacy. Today you, tomorrow me. Today me, tomorrow you. God bless us all to be a blessing.

                                                                                          In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

[i] “Bill Courtney Interview: Former Manassas Tigers Coach on ‘Undefeated,’ Winning Players,” Huffington Post Sports, August 29, 2012.   Here’s the link: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/29/bill-courtney-interview-football-manassas-coach_n_1838828.html

[ii] Justin Horner, “The Tire Iron and the Tamale” The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2011. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06lives-t.html?_r=1&

 

 

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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,
‘Hosanna!
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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