Defined by Love

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Between the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the unnamed man’s blindness, sin and shame bounce around, defining these people. The woman was pushed to the margins of her community either by her neighbors or by her own inclination to avoid explanations. The man also was marginalized because his blindness was thought to be a punishment for sin, his or his parents’. They were set apart from the rest of their communities, not for holiness, but as the result of perceived sin and the shame associated with it.

I have a vivid memory of myself at 16 sitting on a hospital bed in Boston Children’s Hospital’s adolescent psych unit. Something had happened and I was upset to the point of tears which was unusual for me at that time. The mental health worker talking with me tried to tell me that things would work out. I would have none of it. I said, “No! You don’t understand! This is going to be all anyone knows about me forever!” The funny part is, I have no idea what that was about. I simply don’t remember. But in that moment, whatever thing had happened, I was sure it was going to be a part of my identity for the rest of my life.

Of course, this is not atypical thinking for an adolescent. But it is deeper than that, too. Shame often has a powerful voice in our lives. There have been many times when I’ve felt compelled to keep things in my life a secret, partly from shame and partly to avoid judgement. At 16 I thought I’d be defined by having an eating disorder or something related. At 19 when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I felt the same way; it would define me forever. Then again when I was raped by someone I knew, I didn’t want to tell anyone (and didn’t for several years) because I didn’t want to be known as the “girl who’d been raped.” When I got divorced, I was sure that people would only think about me being the pastor who was divorced. Later, when I came out, I felt like that was all anyone would ever think about me when they found out. And the list goes on. But never on this list of “defining attributes” was there a single positive thing.

Why is that? The Samaritan woman could have been a fabulous cook or a healer or a mother or someone’s best friend or a singer. Instead she was known as the woman who had had five husbands and one more who wasn’t her husband; she was a sinner through and through. The man who had been born blind could have been a musician or a poet or a father or a brother or a mentor. Instead he was known as the blind man who sat begging in a particular place every day; he was marked by sin. I wonder how they thought of themselves. Did they hold the judgments of society against themselves? Were they burdened by shame?

As for myself, I have been the recipient of social judgments. I’ve heard the whispers and the not so quiet voices naming me as undesirable because I’ve been divorced twice. Because I’m a woman who is an ordained minister. Because I am bisexual. Because I have a history that includes treatment for an eating disorder and depression. I’ve been ignored and dismissed because of who I am and where I’ve come from. It’s painful and it’s ugly. As a result, I so identify with the marginalized folks of scripture – the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, especially.

I can easily get lost in the powerful grip of shame that has dominated my sense of self in the past. However, there’s more to these stories. We can’t forget that sin wasn’t the point. We can’t forget that Jesus met these people in the midst of their sin and shame. Not only did he meet them right where they were, he redefined them. The Samaritan woman went from outcast to evangelist as Living Water restored her. The man born blind went from blind beggar to sighted worshiper as he washed away the mud Jesus used to open his eyes. Both moved from the margins of society into the center of community. No shame can hide from the light of Christ and sin doesn’t stand a chance when Living Water is drawn up out of the well.

When I think of my own brokenness in the context of these stories I can’t help but see the transformation Christ has worked in my life. These things that I felt shame over, that I feared defined me in my own eyes or in the eyes of others, haven’t had power in my life for a long time. I’ve gone from a shy, fearful child into an outspoken, fearless adult. While I still struggle from time to time with the wounds from my childhood, they do not define me. On good days, I believe the Love that qualities-795865_1920transformed the Samaritan woman and the man born blind, flows through me. On hard days, I ask God to meet me where I am and let Love be evident in my life. I know I am not the only one who has encountered Christ and been changed.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we stop defining ourselves and each other by sin and shame and the judgement of others and started defining ourselves and everyone else by Love? Maybe then we would see with the eyes of Christ…

RCL – Year A – Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2017
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Top Photo: CC0 image by John Hain
Bottom Photo: CC0 image by John Hain

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A Time, a Place, a Lesson

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I’d like to say that my mother taught me to cook. She didn’t really, I learned by watching her in the kitchen. Later, when I was living on my own in the days before Google, I would call her and ask how to make one dish or another. By the time I was in my late twenties, I had collected most of my favorite recipes from my mother. I cooked them the way she did, often without questioning her methods because I liked the results.

One day I made her red sauce with the only change being that I exchanged beef products for poultry products. I made meatballs, added in sweat and spicy sausage and chicken thighs. I also made braciolle (with chicken breast instead of steak). All this effort was for a man I was dating who happened to be Italian. I was confident in my choice because the sauce recipe had come from my mother’s best friend who was also Italian.

Everything was great when my date arrived. He commented on the wonderful smell and followed me into the kitchen. When the water for the spaghetti reached boiling, I grabbed a handful of the pasta and proceeded to break it in half and drop it into the water. My date was horrified. Why would anyone break spaghetti? Where had I learned such sacrilege? He acted like I had ruined the meal by breaking the noodles.

As you might guess, the next day I call my mother and asked her if she realized that spaghetti noodles didn’t have to be broken in half before cooking. Of course she knew that. She broke them because she seldom had the patience to let the larger pot of water boil. She used the smaller pot and just broke the noodles to hasten the cooking process. That, and with younger children, shorter spaghetti was a plus. I remember being irritated. Why hadn’t she told me this thing about the pasta?

Of course, by this time  I had learned that there was much in the world different from what I had been taught. The spaghetti incident, though, was a concrete lesson for me. I should never make assumptions about what people do and why. There are reasons people do what they do and some of them make sense and some of them don’t. But when you take them out of context, they could become absurd, or as in the eyes of my date, sacrilegious.

Many of us come to the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well with a lot of assumptions about the conversation that took place that day. We assume the woman was some kind of prostitute. Who else would have had five husbands plus one more? Why else would she be drawing water at noon when all sensible women were inside where it was cool? We don’t know her story. We don’t know what happened to her husbands. If she had had five husbands and they all died, why would she want to marry again? Or maybe these were symbolic of the five regions of Samaria? Or maybe she kept marrying men who divorced her for their own reasons?

So if she wasn’t a prostitute, why would she be at the well at noon? She was an outcast by her choosing or by the behavior of the other women. She could very well have chosen to come to the well on her own to avoid having to listen to other women judge her or to avoid having to explain herself. Maybe she was the woman that they all came to when they had secrets that needed sharing or medicine that was frowned upon by the powers that be. Maybe going to the well at noon just made her life a little easier. We’ll never really know.

What we do know is that she was smart and she had some local authority. She listened to Jesus and heard what he was offering her, even if she didn’t fully understand. She recognized Messiah where Jesus’ own disciples did not. Moreover, other Samaritans believed on her say so, and went to see Jesus because of what she told them. If she were truly on the outside of everything in the village, who would have listened to her? Outcast to whatever extent she may have been, she became an evangelist extraordinaire. We would do well to follow her lead.

Imagine how different things would have been if Jesus treated people the way I cooked when I was young. What would have been missed if he treated Samaritans the way he had been taught and never had the conversation with a woman at Jacob’s Well. We might all be missing out on some living water and a chance to go to a well that is always restorative. Shouldn’t we be doing the same with our faith? Too many of us are still breaking the pasta the way we were taught without giving it a second thought. Jesus took each person, each situation as it came, and gave it his full and careful attention. As a result, lives were transformed one after another. Isn’t it time we do the same?

RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Lent – March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Photo: CC0 image by Jan Vasek

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Under the Cover of Night

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When I was a child, I firmly believed in monsters under the bed that came alive in the dark. I dreaded dark places where spiders and snakes and monsters lived. I always made sure I curled up away from the edges of the bed so my hands and feet would not stray into monster territory. This fear of things that came alive at night persisted well beyond the age when I knew better. Night was a time when nothing good happened and I wasn’t a fan of the dark for many, many years.

Night, however, was a good time for Nicodemus to approach Jesus. He’d be away from the prying eyes of his colleagues who would maybe not understand his desire to talk with Jesus. No one would be there to see that he was risking his power and position to talk with the rabbi who could stir things up so well. Maybe Nicodemus could also keep some of his own denial in place if there were no witnesses. Night provided safety and a blanket of protection for a Pharisee who was drawn to the problematic Jesus.

I love this idea that night – solitude and darkness –  was good for Nicodemus. Usually, we think of the darkness of night as something to be avoided. The childish fear often persists and seldom do we think of nighttime darkness as being good. Maybe it was a good time for Jesus, too. He could say some important things without crowds around him. He changed Nicodemus in ways that would take some time to unfold, but the changes took root that night, nonetheless. After all, it was Nicodemus who advocated for Jesus with the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51) and who helped prepare Jesus for burial (John 19:39-43). His encounter with Jesus under the cover of night must have meant something because the risks to Nicodemus’ power and position were just as great when he later stepped into the light of day.

However, on the night in question, Nicodemus sought Jesus out. Perhaps he had a question. Perhaps he just wanted to get closer to Jesus and see for himself what all the fuss was about. Perhaps he was drawn by a yearning he could not contain. Who knows? Yet, there he was talking to Jesus. I would like to believe that the cover of night allowed Jesus to say things he might not have said in another time and place when distractions were more numerous.

Of course, Nicodemus had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Be born again, from above, anew? How? What could that possibly mean? And that stuff about the Spirit blowing where it wills? Poor Nicodemus. He was probably grateful for the darkness to hide his confusion and his shame of not fully understanding. Jesus let his frustration be known, too. How could Nicodemus not understand?

All these words spoken quietly in the dark… Nicodemus didn’t grasp them. We don’t grasp them either. Not really. We want to make these words about salvation and surety. We want to know that we are included in the ones who will have eternal life and not have to worry. Maybe these words were spoken in the dark because the edges of their truth are softer than bright noonday sun could tolerate.

God’s love for the whole of Creation is so strong, so persistent, that this Love became Incarnate to lead people to abundant life. God’s purpose was not to condemn the world but to save it from all that humans do to bring destruction, devastation, and death. Who could hear these words with all the distractions of daytime life? But in the night, in the quiet, in the solitude, these words could crawl into our fearful souls and plant seeds of hope and courage and faith.

If these words were powerful enough to lead Nicodemus away from the power and privilege of being a Pharisee and into the risks of advocating and caring for Jesus, what can they do for us? When we sit wrapped in the blanket of night, and hear words of God’s love for the whole of Creation, words that whisper of life and not death, of belonging and not being lost, think of what might become possible. We might be willing to risk letting go of our places of power and privilege to advocate and care for the vulnerable in our midst.

Good things can happen in the night even if we think we are hiding from monsters, from ourselves, or from God. God will meet us there and speak quiet words of a greater truth, and transformation will continue.

RCL – Year A – Second Sunday of Lent – March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0 image by LN

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Temptation, Again

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Lent has begun and we’re all left wondering where those “extra” weeks of Epiphany went to (Epiphany was 4 weeks longer this year than last year). Since my wife and I moved from an apartment to a house last week, I’m feeling the appropriate sense of journeying through the chaotic, wild, untamed places as we begin this season. Since I am on sensory overload, I’m sharing with you a poem appropriate for the day. It is from my book, Barefoot Theologypage 153-154. If you are looking for sermon help, you might want to try here.

Temptation

The Tempter showed up in the wilderness
hoping Jesus would forsake his God
     to eat and be satisfied
     to prove his power beyond argument
     to receive the world without effort
Jesus turned down all offers even after days of fasting
He knew what he would lose—
     himself and his God
          the relationship would be destroyed
          and the world would lose all hope

Consequently we can be reminded that Jesus
withstood the pain of facing the Tempter
He is acquainted with how seductive
     appetites can be
          avenues of escape
          promises of satiation
          false idols of fulfillment
He knows the enticement
     of great power
          illusions of control
          appearances of respect
          a mirage of being more worthy than others
He recognizes the dazzle
     of tremendous wealth
          a life of endless possibilities
          a way to fulfill every desire
          an implausible way to widen the needle’s eye

The next time the Tempter pays a visit
talk to the Christ who has resisted
and can show us how to turn away
from all that would cost
more than we can afford to pay

Let us not forget that when the Tempter wins
Christ stands with the tormented soul
watching, waiting for a moment
to step in and open the door
to wholeness, forgiveness, and grace

RCL – Year A – First Sunday of Lent – March 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Photo: CC0 image by Denis Doukhan

 

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You Know, That Mountain Top Thing

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I have come to love Transfiguration Sunday in spite of the complexity of the texts, partly because I get to anoint people with glitter to remind them that the Holy Spirit lies within us all and waits for those moments when it shines brightly for all the world to see. This year the day seems to take on a deeper, more hopeful meaning than it has before. When I read Matthew’s account of what happened on that long-ago mountain top, I understand it to be a culmination of all that has come before and all that could be.

During this Epiphany season the texts have been full of directives and declarations. Everything from “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” to “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Epiphany this year has been a call to action, a call to bring Christ into the world by loving our neighbors as ourselves. I suppose that even my understanding of these texts has been heavily influenced by the political climate here in the U.S. However, I do believe this call echoing through this season is real for all of us.

And Transfiguration is the culmination of this call. If we go out and actually do justice, love kindness, and walk with humility, then extraordinary things become possible. We might just find ourselves in an out of the way place witnessing the intense and overwhelming glory of God. The brilliance of the Holy Spirit might sharpen our vision and cause our hearts to beat a bit faster. We might even hear God affirming that the neighbors and strangers for whom we are seeking justice are, in fact, God’s beloved children. It’s possible that radical shifts in perspective happen when we respond to God’s call.

Maybe you haven’t had such an experience as you’ve worked for justice and you assume that this story is just metaphor, pointing toward some mystery of faith. Perhaps you’ve missed an experience of transfiguration because you were the one transfigured. If you have been working for justice for your neighbors or creation, it’s possible that someone has caught a glimpse of the Holy in you, and you were completely unaware. It’s possible that you were in the right place at just the moment when someone needed Light and they saw it in you. And they were like Peter, James, and John – grateful, fearful, amazed, and humbled. We just never know.

It doesn’t matter which side of transfiguration you’ve been on, really. Because it’s engaging in the work of justice that really matters. It’s responding to God’s call to love one another that makes the difference. When we work together to embody Christ, to be Church, then that Holy Light shines to remind us that we are not alone in the struggle to overcome suffering and oppression for all God’s people.

RCL – Year A – February 26, 2017
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2 or Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Photo: CC0 image by Demitri Vetsikas

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Perfection Really is Overrated

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If there is one thing I have always yearned for, it is musical talent. I have none. Now before all you music teachers out there rush to tell me that anyone can sing or anyone can learn to play an instrument, I assure that I have tried. I spent my childhood singing in church and school choirs. I took flute, piano, and guitar lessons. I sing along to the car radio when I’m alone in the car and I sing only so God can hear me when I’m in church. The honest truth is that I cannot sing well enough to make anything other than a joyful noise and I will never be able to play an instrument since I cannot keep a beat to save my life. It’s just the way it is no matter how much I wish otherwise.

While in seminary I lamented this lack of musical ability often enough. It seemed to me that the vast majority of seminarians had musical talent. And there I was with my specialty in youth ministry without capacity to sing or play guitar. Unheard of in those days. How could anyone be a youth pastor and not be able to lead songs around a campfire or at youth group devotions time? I was cured of this lamentation when a friend asked me what talent I would give up in order to be able to sing. I could think of nothing I would give up. I was being greedy. I wanted to be the perfect seminarian, the perfect youth pastor, and the perfect Christian, but I’d learn to let go of my musical yearnings and be content with the gifts I had.

It was the desire to be perfect that was my personal demon. If I’m honest, it still is on occasion. During my teen years, I was so enamored with the idea of perfection that I nearly traded my life for it. I was driven by the idea that if I were perfect, then I would not feel pain and I would be loved. While I was quite good at a lot of things, I didn’t stand out. I was a good student, but not the best. I had some artistic capacity, but I was not the best. I wrote poetry and stories, but they were the fancies of an adolescent. You see where I’m going. I was good at a lot of things, but I wasn’t perfect at any of them. And I really believed I needed to be perfect at something. Even God expected perfection, or so I thought.

My mixed up understanding of perfection was all about performance and appearance. I became obsessed with the number 100. It was the only acceptable score, the amount of calories I could eat in a day, the number of repetitions for any exercise, and it was my desired weight. I utterly failed to grasp that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, holy unto itself. In my desperate attempts to alleviate my own pain, I did not hear the message of love in Jesus words, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

This does not mean that we have to match the perfection of God at all. It does not mean that we have to perfect our performance or appearance. It means that we have to seek the fullest, most complete love, love that is mature and unconditional. Jesus was calling us to live into God’s gift of agape. We are called to embody this unconditional, unlimited love for self, for neighbor, for creation, and for God. Of course, we cannot do this alone; this kind of love is only truly possible in community. This is how we are church – we love without condition and without limit.

The kind of perfection I sought in my adolescence was anything but this. It was not life-giving in any way. The perfection I thought I wanted and needed was life-destroying. It is the ultimate in human foolishness when we think we need to be perfect in order to earn God’s love or anyone else’s. God’s love is freely given. We can’t earn it or lose it, for that matter. We can be unable to see it or accept it and we can deny it. We can also refuse to live into the fullness of our abilities. All these things are sinful in one way or another as they hinder relationship to self, neighbor, creation, or Creator.

The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to live into the limitless love God has for us, to use all that we have and all that we are to bring God’s realm into the now. It is a call to embody divine love to those who are most vulnerable. In these days of uncertainty and public displays of racism, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and so many other fear-informed bigotries, focusing on perfection is foolish; not one human being is perfect nor will any ever be. However, we can be agents of God’s grace. We can commit to loving to the fullness of our capacity, using all of our gifts to ensure that there is light and salt enough for all.

Teach me, O God, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.
Give me understanding,that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.

RCL – Year A – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Photo: CC0 image by Michelle Maria

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Jeans, a Bridge, and a Choice

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When I was in ninth grade, designer jeans were newly popular. Everyone I knew had at least one pair, or at least that’s what I thought. Those jeans were also quite pricey at $80.00 or more a pair. In the early 1980s that was a lot of money and more than I could afford. I remember asking for a pair of Calvin Klein jeans for Christmas. I knew the jeans were too expensive for anything other than a Christmas gift. I also knew my parents both had a tendency to get gifts similar to what I asked for, but not quite the thing I wanted. I remember the conversation I had with my mother when I told her I was going to ask my father to buy the jeans for me for Christmas.

“I’m going to ask Dad to get me Calvin Klein’s for Christmas.” I announced.

My mother looked at me and said, “Why do you want them? The jeans you have a perfectly fine.” Of course, she was right. The jeans I had were perfectly fine.

“Everyone has them. And I want a pair of Calvin Klein’s because Brooke Shields is their model.” Remember, I was 14 and always felt outside of things. Also, as a young teen I looked very much like Brooke Shields and was once mistaken for her during summer tourist season.

My mother told me I was “better than Brooke Shields” and didn’t need any fancy jeans. Then she continued with her version of some infamous parental words, “If all your friends were jumping off the Bourne Bridge (this is a 135 foot high bridge over the Cape Cod Canal), would you want to do it, too?”

Oddly enough, I did get those jeans for Christmas that year and they did not change my life in the way I had hoped. It turned out to be one of those life lessons I didn’t really pay attention to for a few more years. I thought wearing those specific jeans would somehow make me different. I would have more confidence, more friends, and my life would be like everyone else’s (whatever that might mean). None of that happened. Nothing I could wear or own was going to change the difficulties I would face in the months and years still ahead of me.

God puts before us the ways of life and death as is made clear in Deuteronomy as well as other places in the Bible. According to Sirach, if we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice. The choice to go along with the crowd or go along with Christ is entirely ours. In the current U.S. political climate we would do well to remember that we can choose how we will act, what we will do, and what we will say. It would be easy enough to fall into a pattern of judgement and condemnation that serves no one. However, we are called to something else.

From years of working as a therapist and as a chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, I modified my mother’s question about jumping off the Bourne Bridge. When people tell me that they got into difficulty because “everyone was doing it” or that the other person “started it,” my response was that we should not allow other people’s behavior to determine our own. It’s easier said than done, of course. However, if we are seeking to follow the ways of life rather than the ways of death, not allowing ourselves to be pulled into the angry, fearful, controlling ways of the crowd around us is a good idea.

Remembering that the people of God have a long history of straying from God’s desires for us, of choosing pretty much everything other than the ways of life, can shift our perspective on what is happening now. God never abandoned God’s people in the past, no matter what choices they made or how dire the consequences. Instead, there was always a call to repentance and repentance would lead to rebuilding and restoration. It’s hard to repent when we are busy matching anger for anger or fear for fear. It’s much easier to repent and begin again when we remember that God’s love is ever before us. We have the choice to live in that love and embody hope or to remain a part of the crowd as it pushes and pulls along destructive paths.

Doing what everyone else seems to be doing will not get us to the place where we can make necessary changes. Now is not the time to blend in and go along, hoping life will get better. Now is the time to act faithfully, risk standing out, and embrace those ways of life God continuously sets before us.

RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 or
Sirach 15:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Photo: CC0 image by Pexels

 

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