March 20, 2017

From the Well

Jesus loves, ministers to, cares for, welcomes, breaks bread with, and respects the innate dignity of outsiders. The poor, the sick, people with bad reputations, religious and social outcasts—in the New Testament we see Jesus going to people whose neighbors rejected them with gracious Good News of hope, healing, new life, and salvation.

Today’s scripture lesson from John’s 4th chapter illustrates this gospel truth beautifully.

Jesus was on the move. He had entered Samaria, the home to a people who looked like and believed like Jews on almost every point. But as is so often the case in what are essentially family disputes, the few points of contrast between Samaritans and Jews had, in the minds of many, created an impregnable barrier.

Samaritans and Jews weren’t supposed to interact with one another—a social convention that sets the stage for Jesus’ barrier breaking actions. 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.)

The barrier that said Jews couldn’t talk to Samaritans—Jesus tore it down by being honest about his own needs. He was thirsty.

[He] 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 barrier that said God’s grace is only offered to a select few—Jesus tore it down with Good News—“ask, and you will receive living 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.
The barrier that said holy people should judge, shun, and reject people they’ve deemed of questionable moral fiber—Jesus tore it down by inviting the woman to see that in the presence of true holiness we can all be honest about where we’ve been and the things we’ve been through.

Jesus was on the move, and barriers were coming down. One whose gender, religion, and past relationships pushed her to the fringes of acceptable society learned from Jesus that there was still a place for her near to the heart of God.

It’s in that place, created by grace, that we encounter God’s word today.

Jesus comes to us, just as he came to the woman at the well, with Good News of reconciliation and hope in his name.

He comes as one who knows our experiences on the margins, knows our weaknesses and failures.

He comes to move us in a new direction.

Jesus says, “The invitation to grace is for all people,” and people like us—people who have accepted that invitation—find our calling and purpose in this truth.

In his life, death, and resurrection Jesus sets us right with God. Through the living presence of his spirit in our hearts, Jesus empowers us to make things right in our community and with one another.

One of my favorite simple statements to describe the Christian life is “We are blessed to be a blessing.” It’s a statement distilled from God’s call to Abram in Genesis’ 12th chapter. We heard that story last week, but the teaching itself gives shape to the totality of our discipleship.

“We are blessed.”—this simple statement affirms that God has done something significant in our lives.

God has dealt graciously with us.

God loves us.

God is invested in us.

God has blessed us, and blessings produce a calling.

“We are blessed to be a blessing.”—this affirms that a blessing must be shared to be truly received, and while each one of us should consider the unique blessings of God in our lives—your spiritual gifts, talents, treasures, desires—there is a blessing and purpose shared by all people to whom the Christ has come—reconciliation.

We are blessed to be a blessing.

We are reconciled to God to be agents of reconciliation in the world.

God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us…For if while we where enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.
That’s how Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, or, on another occasion, as he encouraged the Corinthians.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view... So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ.
We are blessed to be a blessing—reconciled to be God’s agents and Christ’s ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is the truth about why we Pass the Peace every Sunday morning during worship. In that ritual, we give flesh and action to a sublime thought—the idea that the news of God’s love for us is so liberating, so transformational, so powerful, that it propels us to live peacefully and graciously with one another.

Think about that. Who will have their load lightened this week, who will feel their spirited lifted, who will be blessed because of the Good News you’ve heard here today?

The woman as the well knew the answer.

After she met Jesus, after he showed her that the walls that once surrounded her could no longer hold her, she knew exactly what to do.

She shared her blessing with her community.

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.’
The woman at the well knew that the barriers in her life had come down, and they could come down in her neighbors’ lives, too. She became an ambassador of Good News.

When Jesus sat down at Jacob’s well, he called us to get up and go to our neighbors, as well. As his disciples, therefore, we must live in the light he shines on all people.

We must leave the ways and walls of division behind and work with Jesus for the community he builds—the community where all are welcome, where the spirit and truth invigorate honest worship and humble hearts, where we drink from thirst quenching living waters of grace and invite others to do the same—“for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

March 13, 2017

Leave, Go, Be a Blessing

I vividly remember the first time I ever flew on a plane. I was seventeen years old. It was a hazy, hot, and humid July morning when I said good-bye to my mom and dad, handed the US Airways gate agent my ticket, and boarded a small turbo-prop plane bound from Louisville, Kentucky to O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

I remember the sound of the engines coming to life and the propellers spinning into action. (I remember being freaked out a little bit by those propellers.)

I remember being pressed against my seat as the plane took off and rose up over the Ohio River and southern Indiana.

I remember straining my neck to glimpse Lake Michigan and the skyline through the window as we approached our destination.

And I remember taking my second and third flights the very next day which carried me from Chicago to Dusseldorf, Germany where I began my four-week stay as a youth ambassador for peace through a program sponsored of Rotary International. It was one of the most important journeys I ever took.

That trip remains one of the defining events of my adolescence. As with the best of life’s adventures, though, the clearer my perspective of the event becomes, the better I understand that the physical act of going to a new and foreign place is only a small part, perhaps the least consequential part, of the actual journey I took that year.

Yes, I saw beautiful places—the Alps; Salzburg, Austria; the stunning Cathedral in Cologne.

Yes, I went to parties, and rode in a really fast car on the Autobahn, and talked about music and movies and America with other kids my age.

And, yes, I visited places with my host family that brought to life World War II era pictures from my textbooks—the site of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch; the concentration camp at Dachau.

But as incredible as those sites and experiences were, or was it because they were so incredible, so breathtaking, inspiring, disturbing, and heartbreaking, I have no doubt that going to Germany wasn’t the only journey I took that summer.

I was also making the journey of growing up—of becoming a little bit less like the kid I’d been and a little more like the adult I’d become.

I’m confident that had I not taken that trip, I would not have had the courage to leave my hometown for college in another state the following year.

I’m pretty sure that had I not taken that trip, I wouldn’t have been in a position to hear God calling to me ordained ministry when I did.

And I’m almost positive that I would’ve never been open to moving to New York City had I not taken the trip. On U2’s most recent album, Bono sings about how the music of the Ramones miraculously awakened him from his suburban teenage stupor in the 1970s. This trip did the same thing for me.

Are there journeys in your life about which you can say the same?

Have you had experiences in which the changes and growth taking place within your heart exceeded even the most beautiful or inspiring or challenging sites that your eyes beheld?

A memorable road trip, the first time you visited New York, the first time you left this country, the first time you came to this country—have you ever taken a journey that ultimately changed you, the way you looked at the world, and your understanding of how you fit into it?

This morning, a reading from Genesis introduces us to a man whose journey and subsequent transformation rests at the heart of the biblical narrative. Indeed, it’s fair to say that his was one of the most important and consequential journeys in all of human history. This is the story of Abram.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

This is the beginning of Abram’s story as it is recorded in Genesis chapter 12. Actually, chapter 11 gives us just a little bit of background information that’s worth noting.

From Genesis 11, we learn that Abram’s family came from a placed called Ur—a prosperous city near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Abram grew up in that city with two brothers. A man named Terah was their father. Abram married a woman in Ur named Sarai and one of his brothers died there.

Chapter 11 also tells us that there came a time when Terah decided to leave the city with his family for a distant land called Canaan. Historian Thomas Cahill notes that the people of Ur would have considered this a strange decision, “a migration in the wrong direction,” and maybe Terah had second thoughts about the move, too. The scripture says the family stopped short of Canaan and settled in a place called Haran, where Terah died.

When his father died, Abram’s life was at a crossroad. In one direction lay the life that he’d left behind, his hometown, and his extended family. In the other direction lay the conclusion of the family’s unfinished journey.

And the Lord said, “Go on to the land that you don’t know with faith that I do know it.”

And the Lord said, “Go on to the place where you are a nobody with faith that you are somebody to me.”

And the Lord said, “Go on to be a blessing to others because you have been blessed by me.”

So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and [his nephew] Lot went with him.
Abram would go on to see and experience amazing things. On his journey he would see lives lifted up, lives torn down, and lives spared by God’s merciful intervention.

He and his wife would gain new names—Abraham and Sarah—and they would become parents.

Abraham would do great things.

Abraham would do terrible things.

And Abraham would do holy things that bore witness to his covenant relationship with God.

Abraham went on a journey with God and that journey changed him.

Saint Paul teaches us that that same journey can change us, too.

No, not a journey to a physical place, but a journey of inner transformation, the journey charted by faith in the Living God who calls us by name.

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand that God invites us to go forward in faith on the trail of transformation that Abraham blazed.

“Abraham is the father of all who believe,” writes Paul.

Abraham moved on from the crossroad of his life, not a perfect man, but as a person of faith.

“This happened,” notes Paul, “because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who brings into existence what didn’t exist before.”

Disciples of Jesus Christ understand when we go forward with God we will be forever changed.

You and I are no strangers to crossroads. We face them in our careers, in our families, in moments that test us and challenge us and reveal our most closely held convictions. With my upcoming move to another church and Pastor Stefanie’s appointment here, this spring we even stand at a crossroads together as a congregation.

And being in this situation always increases our anxiety.

Standing at a crossroads always brings to mind the memories of the paths that brought us here and stirs in us questions about how things will be different when we move on in a new direction.

We know what it’s like to stand at the crossroads between what we’ve known and what remains a mystery.

That’s why we receive the Word of God as Good News today.

Wherever you stand this morning, hear this.

“Go on,” says the Lord, “to the future that you don’t know with faith that I do know it.”

“Go on,” says the Lord, “even to the place where you are a nobody with faith that you are somebody to me.”

“Go on,” says the Lord, “to be a blessing to others because you have been blessed by me.”

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

March 9, 2017

Create in Me

Few people capture the imagination of Old Testament readers like King David. When he first came on to the scene, he gave hope to underdogs everywhere by bringing down Goliath, the ultimate one man wreaking crew. Although he was a youngest son, God chose him to be king. And when he ascended to the throne he proved to be an able and faithful ruler.

Under David’s authority, God’s people prospered. Their borders grew. David even redrew the map by establishing Jerusalem by Israel’s capital. And along the way, he wrote and inspired some of the world’s most treasured words of hope and assurance.

Psalm 23—“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 40—“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”

Psalm 103—“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me.”

Psalm 141—“I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.”

David’s life is an inspiration. His importance is undeniable.

Maybe that’s why we’re still talking about his greatest personal failure some three thousand years later.

David and Bathsheba—two lives forever joined by one man’s arrogance.

The 11th chapter of Second Samuel lays out the disturbing story. With his army at war, David was enjoying an afternoon in the sun on the palace roof when he saw Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his generals, bathing nearby.

The king sent for her, he had sex with her, and Bathsheba became pregnant.

And then David used the same creative mind he used to write songs for God, to save himself—regardless of the cost.

As soon as Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he called her husband, Uriah, home from the front line hoping that a baby born nine month after a soldier’s homecoming would raise few eyebrows. But Uriah was so honorable that he refused to sleep under his own roof while his men were fighting. Even after David got Uriah drunk, the general still wouldn’t go home to his wife.

So David had to make a decision. He could come clean about what he had done, or he could simply eliminate the problem. David chose the latter.

He sent Uriah back to the front line. He also sent orders to another general to abandon Uriah once the fighting became most fierce, and Bathsheba’s husband was killed in battle.

The scripture tells us that soon after all this took place God sent the Prophet Nathan to talk with the king. And in that encounter with someone who had been inspired and equipped by God to speak the truth to power, to speak the truth to someone who was waist deep in a bloody conspiracy, David got called out.

He had become the man he did not want to be.

He had turned his back to God.

It’s said that Psalm 51 was David’s first step back toward the light.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.

Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.

Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.

For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.

Confronted with the truth about himself, David chose to face up to reality rather than doubling down on denial. And David’s reality was that of a man who had made a complete mess of his life and caused harm and destruction in the lives of others.

“Blot out the stain of my sin,” he says.

Nathan’s ministry confronted David with the truth about what he had done, but the prophet also centered David in the truth about who God was.

The tension between David’s sin and God’s mercy, therefore, not only gives Psalm 51 its life, but extends to us an invitation to enter the space in which

Good News transforms brokenness to healing and violent division into wholeness and peace. Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow...

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.

As we begin this season of repentance, we’d do well to consider the significance of David’s prayer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

These are the words of one who had seen the futility of giving in to arrogance and pride, of one who had seen that when a heart is consumed by conquest and bending people to its will, rather than being in the will of God, that heart becomes broken, that life, a distortion of its God given potential.

When he heard the Word of God, David recognized that he was not where he needed to be.

It’s a basic building block of Christian faith that the Word of God—the word made flesh in Jesus—still has the power to shine a light into the darkness of our lives and reveal the ways in which we’re still bound by the chains of sin.

The Word also has the power to set us free and point us in the right direction.

That’s exactly what happened in David’s life.

David had any number of vices and pleasures at his fingertips to try and fill the void in his heart. He could have tried to ease his conscience by trusting in his wealth to buy his way to a better life. He could have trusted in his power to make people do what he wanted. He could have lined up sycophants to tell him how great he was. He could have had a lot of sex. Basically, the same voices that clog our inbox’s spam filters were whispering in King David’s ear, but he charted a different course.

He realized that none of these things, that nothing at all in his power could make him right again. David needed God to bring about an inward change, and so do we.

We need to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

You see, every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, the Church—that is the faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before us in worship, in prayer, and in service—every year during Lent, the Church invites us to hear the great invitation of the scripture and to respond to that message with an honest confession of sin and a humble submission to God’s transforming grace.

“Repent—turn around—and prepare the way of the Lord. Get your heart, get your house ready, to receive Jesus in a new and powerful way.”

Every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, we can do one of three things with this invitation.

We can ignore it and continue on our own way. “No, thanks, God. I’ve got this thing called life pretty much taken care of.”

We can accept it, but only on our terms, saying, “Sure, I’ll get my ashes. I’ll give up something, but I’d prefer if you not go digging too deeply into my life, God.”

Or we can say, “Here I am, God, and I know that I am not where I need to be. Change my heart, fill me with something new, move me in a new direction. Draw me closer to you. Make me a better friend, a better spouse, a better disciple. Have mercy on me. Wash me. Restore me….Create in me a clean heart, and let the work begin today!”

I pray that we’ll choose wisely and faithfully.

I pray that God will change our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.