Boarderlands

In the northeast of France there is a small sliver of land known to history as Alsace-Lorraine.  Known for it industrial strength in the latter half of the 19th century, Alsace-Lorraine became a coveted piece of property for the Germans who ultimately took it from France after winning the Franco-Prussian War. For 47 years, from 1871 until 1918, it was a part of the German Empire.  For most of that time, Germany ruled Alsace-Lorraine with great attention, for fear of losing it back to France.  After World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, France reclaimed its territory, but realizing that 47 years and some continued German interest during World War was enough to establish some pretty distinct habits, the French government gives Alsace-Lorraine a lot of autonomy, allowing local law to reign.   Such is the messiness of a borderland.

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While on his way from Galilee, where much of his teaching took place, to Jerusalem, where he would be betrayed, tortured, crucified, and buried, Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the unseemly territory of the Samaritans.  Like Alsace-Lorraine, Samaria was something of a disputed territory.  The Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, but were those who had been left behind in the Babylonian Exile.  They married those outside of Judaism, they adjusted their worship in light of the destruction of the Temple, and because of that, they were resoundingly hated by the Jews.  That this unclean territory existed between Galilee and Judea meant that there was a wide swath of borderland to pass through as one traveled between the two.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus precisely in that messy place; en route to Judea, he is somewhere between Galilee and Samaria.  To make matters worse, and to clarify that he really was in no man’s land, Jesus and his disciples happen upon a leper colony.  In all of history, there might be no more an in-between place than a leper colony on the border between the Jews and the Samaritans.  You might not want to waste as much time as I have on this borderland thing, but the placement of this story geographically is worth noting.  The preacher might want to help her congregation see just how “out there” Jesus is in this moment because while we read this story as being about forgiveness, if we focus on  Jesus, then this story is all about crossing boundaries.

With compassion, Jesus reaches across the boundaries of geography, of politics, of religion, in order to care for those who have been permanently placed in no man’s land.  They have been removed from society.  They no longer have an identity beyond “leper.”  Note that the tenth leper who returns to give thanks isn’t identified as a Samaritan until after his healing takes place.  These lepers weren’t even considered human beings.  And yet, Jesus sees them.  He treats them as worthy of love and care.  In that place of in-betweeness, Jesus heals them, restores their humanity, and makes them whole.

You reap what you sow

It has been a little over month since JCC passed on to larger life.  Throughout the course of his illness and in the 30+ days since his death, his partner and friend VG has commented on many occasions how amazed, even surprised, she is at the care and compassion she’s received from her church family.  I’ll admit that I’m pretty proud at how Saint Paul’s has stepped up to support VG and her family over the past few months, but I’m keenly aware that her case is a special one.  I’d like to think we’d rise up in the same way for everyone, but the reality is that people have been willing to go above and beyond because J and V have spent the last two decades sowing joy and gladness everywhere they went.

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It isn’t just that our church has stepped up, but every community they’ve been a part of from social clubs to doctors offices have reached out in loving support for VG during these difficult days.  J and V sow the Spirit.  They bring with them smiles, laughter, compassion, and the occasional hard truth.  When I was down and out with the flu, it was V and J who dropped chicken soup at my front door.  When I missed V’s 80th birthday party, she wasn’t afraid to let me know of her disappointment.  I had missed an opportunity for community.  When volunteers were needed at Foley Elementary, J went, even as his eyesight failed him more and more each day.

As Paul told the Christians in Galatia, those who sow in the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Even as she mourns, V is experiencing eternal life through the Spirit here on earth.  Paul doesn’t leave us on our own to figure out what sowing the Spirit looks like.  It isn’t dependent upon personality.  You need not be an extrovert to make it happen.  Instead, it is quite simply doing the right thing.

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

They will know we are Christians by our…

One of Jesus’ more famous sayings comes early in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the night before he died.  After washing their feet, he gives them the new commandment that we heard two weeks ago: Love another.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In my context, as an Episcopalian in the Central Gulf Coast, John 13.35 has become larger than life as it is a key song in the Cursillo Community, a strong voice for renewal in my diocese.  While there is quite a bit about Peter Scholtes’ song that is left to be desired, it is a solid reminder that our call as disciples is to love one another.

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Of course, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says his disciples should be know for.  In fact, in the very same speech, some four chapters later, which we will hear on Sunday, Jesus says that the world will come to know the Father through those who are in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ Jesus.  What it means to be “in Christ” is a little ambiguous in the NRSV, but several older translations (King James and Young’s Literal) spell out what it means to be in Christ.

“… as Thou Father art in me, and I in Thee; that they also in us may be one, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me.”

The world will know that we are disciples of Jesus, who was the one sent by God to save the world, by our unity.  If this really is a criteria for God’s successful evangelization of the world, then we are doing a pretty poor job of living up to it.  American Christianity, in particular, seems to have as many flavors as there are ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  How, then, can we live into the ideal that Jesus set for us in his Farewell Discourse?  The key seems to be that we go back to the first test of discipleship: that we have love for one another.

Unity comes from love.  It comes from respecting differences of opinion while honoring the core values we share.  Unity can be found between Southern Baptists, Congregationalists, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in our shared love for Jesus Christ and for one another.  We may disagree on governance, on scriptural interpretation, on the relationship of science and faith, on same-sex marriage, on liturgy, on an educated pastorate, on musical style, and even on the date of Easter, but in the end, our unity can be found in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father.  Would that we could show the world that unity instead of the messiness of our differences that they might come to believe in the one whom God has sent.

The Abiding Place of God

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“In my Father’s house there are many mansions” color woodcut by Irving Amen

John’s Gospel message can be summed up in several different ways.  For many, the heart of the Johannine message is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that any who believe in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”  That’s a good one, and so is the very next one, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”  There are also the seven “I am” statements in which Jesus not-so-subtly declares himself by the unspeakable name of God.  Those are a pretty powerful witness to Jesus as well.  Others might look to Jesus’ statement mission in 10:10, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  All good, I tell you, all good.

However, as I read the first Gospel lesson choice for Sunday, I was struck by another thematic highlight in John’s Gospel, the abiding place of God.  It begins in the Prologue with John’s famous verse, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson says it, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  That verb, to dwell/abide/move in, reappears in noun form twice in the fourteenth chapter.  The first time is in the famous funeral lesson line that is represented in the Irving Amen woodcut above: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”  Other translations say “dwelling places.”

It occurs again in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, as Jesus promised Judas (not Iscariot) and the rest of the disciples that God: Father, Son and (maybe) Holy Spirit will make make God’s abiding place alongside those who love Jesus and follow his commandment to love one another.  So it is that as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples and be enthroned on the cross as the King of kings, he assures them that his death won’t be the end of God’s plan to live in our neighborhood.  In fact, in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, God will make room for more than just the Son to abide among us, but for the fullness of the Triune God to abide with those who strive to be disciples of the Gospel of love.

Peter gets restored?

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In yesterday’s post, I alluded to the fact that I’m 100% convinced that Sunday’s beloved story of the restoration of Peter is really as lovely as we think it is.  It all stems from a conversation of which, I was not a part.

Yesterday morning, my boss and his son had breakfast together.  As they are wont to do, they ended up talking about the Gospel lesson for Sunday: paying particular attention to Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ third attempt at the same question.  While the NRSV tries to sound more modern by having Peter “feel hurt,” most translations have John saying that Peter was “grieved” because Jesus had, for a third time, asked him “do you love me?”  TKT came back from breakfast eager to share with me their conversation and to look up that word in the Greek.  Ultimately, it seems to be a plain old word for “grief” or “mourn,” but the question lingered, what made Peter feel this way?

John says that he grieved because Jesus had asked him this question a third time, which seems reasonable enough, but I can’t help but think that there is something deeper that the English misses out on.  The first time Jesus asks Peter “do you love me,” he uses the word “agape.”  Peter replies, “Yes lord, you know that I love you,” but instead of “agape”, he says “phileo.”  Jesus asks again, “Do you agape me?”  Peter again responds, “You know that I phileo you.”  Finally, Jesus says, “Do you phileo me?”

Peter grieved.

Jesus asks of Peter the deepest sort of love that is possible.  He invited Peter back into a relationship of agape, self-giving love, but Peter can’t make that leap.  Jesus knows that agape exists within Peter.  He knows that he will stand firm in the faith, even to the point of crucifixion himself, but unfortunately, Peter can’t see it yet.  Peter remains unsure.  He’s unsure of the power of the Spirit.  He’s unsure of what this new resurrection life means.  He’s unsure about a kingdom that is not of this world.  And so all Peter can muster is phileo.  Deep down, I think he hopes to hear himself say “agape,” but Jesus seems to let him off the hook.  Peter realizes that Jesus knows he has stopped short of being fully restored into relationship, and it is grievous unto him.

As I ponder all the ways in which I keep God and my neighbor at arm’s length, it is grievous unto me as well.  Through the power of the Spirit, God expects agape love from me, but it is often difficult even to muster up phileo.  It is part of falling short.  It is sin that keeps me from loving the way God loves, and like it was for Peter, it keeps us from being fully restored to right relationship.

The power of nard

One of the things that I love about working with TKT at Saint Paul’s in Foley is his willingness to experiment liturgically.  Sometimes we border on violating the rubrics, and on occasion we’ve smashed right through them, but as low churchmen interested in how the liturgy can work as an evangelistic tool, we’ve also done so having first reflected theologically.  In recent years, we’ve become a little more tame about our wanton flagrance against the rubrics, but the desire to allow our people to experience the liturgy fully remains strong.  As was the case a few years back when TKT decided that on Lent 5, Year C, we would set out some spikenard essential oil so that we could smell what that dining room smelled like the evening that Mary anointed Jesus.  TKT bought a small bottle of nard oil, and poured it into a small dish, and I swear to you, I can still smell that Godawful stink to this day.

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Don’t try this at home kids.

This next sentence has rarely been said by a disciple of Jesus, but here goes.  I agree with Judas, that money would have been better spent on food for the poor.  Such is the power of nard.  But nard has a metaphorical power beyond its overwhelming stench.  Following on the heels of the Gospel lesson for Lent 4C, Mary exemplifies what it looks like to offer the same sort of prodigal love that the Father shows in sending Jesus to live and die as one of us.  Mary is wastefully extravagant in anointing Jesus with pure nard, but she does so out of love, honor, and respect for a man who as taught her what love incarnate looks like.

“You’ll always have the poor with you,” Jesus says, “but you won’t always have me.”  Mary knows this to be true, and so before she misses her chance, she wants to show Jesus what she has learned about the love of God, a love so extravagant that it doesn’t make sense on a human level; a love more extravagant than spikenard is stinky.  I know that I’m not there yet.  I try to love God in the same wastefully extravagant way that God loves me, but I fall short of that ideal.  I try to love my neighbor in the same sort of wastefully extravagant way that God loves me, but I find that to be impossible, people are just so hard to love sometimes.  Still, I know the ideal, shown sacramentally in the power of nard poured out on Jesus over dinner with friends.

The Most Excellent Way – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Every Sunday [at the 10 o’clock service] we sing this song as the children leave for Follow the Word.  For years, I haven’t given this little ditty much thought.  I just enjoy singing it.  It is a cute song that reminds me of the Vacation Bible Schools of my youth, but as I spent this week immersed in the lessons, I found myself reflecting on this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  These are words of comfort and hope.  That the Son of God loves me means that I’m included in those who are his brothers and sisters.  It means that I’m an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.  It means that I’m a part of the people who Jesus was anointed to save.

This week’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of last Sunday’s in which we heard Jesus read words of comfort and hope the from the Prophet Isaiah.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he as anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  The crowd that was gathered in the synagogue was excited at these words.  They heard the promise that God loves them, that God cares for them in their hardship, and that one day, God will restore everything and make the world right side up again.  They stared at Jesus with eager expectation, hoping for a clearer picture of what this could possibly mean for them.  And so Jesus sat down, as preachers did in those days, and uttered his first public words in Luke’s Gospel.  His first sermon is only nine words long, but it would forever change the course of human history. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Today?  As in, right now?  As in, no more boot of Rome on our throats, no more heavy taxes, no more fear?  Today!?!  Luke tells us that the crowd moved beyond excitement to wonder and amazement.  They were thrilled at these words from Jesus and began to murmur among themselves, “Can it be?  Could this really come from Joseph’s son? Can he really be the anointed one who has come to save us?”

But Jesus didn’t stop there either.  He kept talking, opening up their imaginations to a more excellent way.  He invited the crowd to see a world where God’s love isn’t confined to the Sinai Peninsula and the people of Israel, but is available for everyone, everywhere.  Remember the Widow at Zarephath?  She lived in Gentile country, but Elijah ministered to her and her alone in the midst of a famine.  She lived in the wrong town and worshiped the wrong way, but, Jesus says, she is included in the year of the Lord’s favor.  Namaan the Syrian, was an ungrateful leper.  He talked harshly about the waters of Israel, even as he had come to Elisha to be healed.  He was a Gentile and not a very nice one, and Jesus says, he’s included too.  Jesus tells the crowd that it is God’s desire to restore to right relationship everyone on the face of the earth.  This word is too much for the crowd to bear.  Their excitement turns to anger in a split second.  Their rage takes Jesus to the brow of a cliff.

“Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We love that song.  “Jesus loves you, this I know…” is less popular.  That other person might be nice and pleasant, but what if they aren’t?  What if they’re a jerk?  Jesus loves jerks.  I know because I can be one sometimes.  What if they’re Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are a banker on Wall Street or a drug dealer in Aaronville?  Jesus loves them, too.  What if they are my ex-husband or my emotionally distant mother or my annoying neighbor?  Jesus loves them, too.  For the crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach, that was just too much to handle, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is probably too much for us as well.  So what do we do?  How do we come to grips with the reality that God’s favor rest upon many who we consider to be undesirable?

We follow Paul’s more excellent way.  The Christians in Corinth were singing a different version of this song.  “Jesus loves me, this I know because I have the gift of tongues, but I’m not so sure he loves you because you only have the gift of prophecy.”  That pretty awful song threatened to tear the young church apart, and so, in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul took a pause to teach them how to love one another.  From verse four to the first half of verse eight, Paul uses 45 words to describe love.  Sixteen of them are verbs.  Love is something that requires work.  Love is busy.  Love is active.  Love is always finding ways to lift up and care for the other.[1]  Remember that this is being written to a church that was on the verge of divorce.  The Corinthian church was being torn apart by envy and bitterness and to them Paul says:

Love is patient, but it isn’t passively patient.  Love means being slow to avenge when someone does you wrong.  Love isn’t just kind in the polite “hi, how are you” kind of way.  Love is kind even to those who have hurt you.  Love is not being envious of the gifts that someone else has.  Love is not being boastful about the gifts that you have.  Love is not being rude or puffed up with an overinflated sense of self.  Love is the most excellent way because love is the ultimate dream of God for all flesh.  “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will never fail.”[2]

On more than one occasion, I’ve heard the bishop talk about how heaven isn’t some place that is far from here in time and space.  Instead, he says, heaven exists somewhere right here (waves hand at side of face).  When we love one another in the way that Paul suggests the Corinthians should love each other, heaven comes right here.  God is love, and so when we love one another, God is right here.  Jesus Christ came to earth to show us the way of love; the way of self-sacrifice; the way of God’s holy restoration of all creation, and when we follow his example of love, Jesus is right here.  It doesn’t matter what else we might do, if we don’t have love, heaven stays out of view, God remains absent, Jesus is not among us.  But when we love our neighbors as ourselves, we usher in nothing less than the Kingdom of God.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.”  These are words of comfort and hope, but if that is all they are, then they are nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  Because of God’s love for us, we are called to show that love to the rest of the world.  By showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us. With some practice, who knows, one day we might even be comfortable enough to turn to our neighbor and sing, “Jesus loves you, this I know.”  That kind of love will change the world.  Love really is the most excellent way.  Amen.

[1] Brian Peterson – http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734

[2] Ibid.