Sunday, September 21, 2014

Offensively More than Fair: A sermon for Humble Walk on Matthew 20:1-16

When Humble Walk came into worship this afternoon, they were greeted with a table full of index cards and markers.  They were invited to fold them in half, write their name, and then fold them into little chairs to push around a paper table.


---

A reading from Matthew chapter 20, verses 1 through 16.

Jesus said,

The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning, around six o’clock, to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the denarius--the usual daily wage--he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing around idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”  So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.

And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”

He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

When evening came, about six o’clock, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.”

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a whole denarius, the wage of a full day’s work.  Now when the first workers came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a single full denarius.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last people worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us -- we who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

But the landowner replied to each one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius each?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

---

I asked for volunteers, both "under-14s" and "over-14s" as Humble Walk knows its children/youth and adults.  I had about seven.  I asked three of them to come forward, joining me next to the altar, and to stand on one leg.  I told them they could switch if they wanted to.

It’s just not fair.

How often do we hear that in a week?  Parents, show of hands?  From the moment we learn the meaning of the word, we start figuring out what in the world is right and wrong based on fairness.  It’s not fair that she gets a bigger piece just because she’s older.  It’s not fair that he gets the same size piece when he’s younger!  It’s not fair that he gets a bigger allowance, that she gets to stay up later, that his bike is newer.

When I was little, I thought things would get increasingly more fair as I got older.  Most of the unfairness was distributed by clearly ignorant adults, but once I was in charge, everything was going to be perfectly fair.  And then I got older and it turns out that the world doesn’t get more fair -- it gets more complicated.

Like:  is it fair that a book at Barnes and Noble, where I work, costs $2.50 more in store than it does online?  Does it matter that stores have to have pretty-looking shelves and light fixtures and free wi-fi and employees who answer your questions?  What’s fair?

And on a larger scale, is it fair what's happened in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, and is it fair what's happening with the Vikings and Adrian Peterson, and what about Ray Rice and the charges of domestic assault, and is it fair that America wants to enter Iraq to fight the Islamic State, and … is it fair that these questions exhaust me and I’d rather not think about them?

In the midst of all this I am at least expecting God to be fair.  You know?  Church is a place that we talk about justice and righteousness.  Which sounds something like fairness.  Something not like a group project where you do all the work and someone else gets the A.  And I would like God to do the heavy lifting on this one.  I would like God to figure out what it is fair, and to dole it out in perfect accordance with our work and our lives and our needs and our wants.  I would like God to be the grownup I always thought I was going to be.

And then Jesus tells this story:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning…”

I asked for two more volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.

God sits right down in the middle of us and tells a story that is vastly unfair.  In the face of a world that is big and confusing, a world that seems like it is always less than fair, it is just maddening that God tells one more story of un-fair-ness.  Of people getting paid way more than they’re worth, while others had to slave under the hot sun to earn the same wage.

Jesus uses money as a metaphor for the kingdom.  This is risky, because money and church can make us very, very tense.  And money isn’t just doled out for fun -- we get paid for chores, and then cupcakes, and then babysitting, and so on down the line.  Money is paid out in proportion to work.  And money is limited -- it doesn’t grow on trees.  If you pay someone for more than they’re worth -- for two hours of babysitting when they only did one -- you have that much less to go around.

So there’s a beautiful danger in using it as a metaphor for the kingdom, because it reveals two things that I sometimes fall into thinking about God's grace:  that it’s deserved, and that it’s scarce.

Much as I will pretend I don’t actually think this way, I know there have been times when I believed that God’s grace was something I deserved.  I have believed in my own power.  Like this grace thing is nice for everyone else but I am actually one of the few people perfectly capable of earning my way into God’s grace.  Which means any time I feel distant from God, or lonely, or hurt, it’s my job to pick myself up off the floor and work my own way back into happiness.

And I have definitely acted like God’s grace is scarce.  And I know there have been times when I have seethed at the thought of one particular person getting any grace.  There are people in my life who I just do not want in “my” church.  Or any church.  Or maybe just existing, at all.  Simply knowing they are somewhere out there eating lunch or checking Facebook or smiling is sickening.  Somehow their joy takes away from mine, like we’re all getting smaller and smaller slices of a limited pie.

Look, it’s simple, I just want God to be fair.

I asked the last couple of volunteers to come forward and stand on one leg.

And here is the stinky, annoying, offensive truth:  God is more than fair.  Grace is not deserved or scarce.  Grace is not a reward for my good work from a limited bag of gold.  There is enough in the landowner’s pockets to pay a line of workers from here to the moon, and he will keep right on doling out those coins not because of our hard work but out of foolish, abundant, ridiculous generosity.  Grace is enough, is so much more than enough, and God will keep on handing it out.

It is so unfair.  And thank God.  Thank God that in a world that is so much less than fair, we have a God that is so much more than.

Grace is doled out in offensive doses, abundant and everpresent.  Nobody earns it, and nobody can lose it.  This is why we talk about dying and rising every single day -- remembering our baptism every time we wash our face in the morning or at night -- because every day we are just as baptized as everyone else.  No more and no less.  No matter what we did the day before, we all receive the same gifts each morning:
- Forgiveness of sins.
- Rescue from death and the Devil.
- Eternal salvation.
Paid out to each of us, a day’s wage for a day’s work, no matter if we put in one hour or ten.  Nobody earns it, and it never runs out.

I hand out, to each one-legged volunteer, a silver foil wrapped chocolate coin.

Rest in that, for a moment.  Rest in the offensive beauty of free grace.

As I had the volunteers return to their seats, I passed out chocolate coins to the remaining Humble Walkers.

There is so much there.  So much love, and hope, and joy in the land of God which is more than fair.

But it comes at a cost.  Well, maybe not a cost -- a challenge.  A nudge.  A little tugging at your heart.

Because if this grace is really free, doled out abundantly and ridiculously by a landowner with pockets that never run out … that’s a challenge to us, isn’t it?  A little nudge to say:  Live like it’s not deserved.  Live like it’s really grace, like it’s free, like there is not one thing you can do to earn it.  

A little nudge to say:  Live like it’s not scarce.  Live like it’s really free to everyone, even the people you don’t like.  Or even the people you hate.  Live like we’re all working in the same vineyard, standing in the same line, receiving the same wage at the end of the day.  That same wage of forgiveness and deliverance and salvation.

That’s the dangerous offer with grace:  there’s that little tugging at your heart saying Live like this table, this communion altar, is a preview of the great big dinner table to come.  Where we sit in the kingdom of God with those who’ve gone before us -- our grandparents, and our pets, and all the saints -- but also with those who drive us bonkers.  There is a place for everyone.

And there is a seat for you.  Not because of anything you did but because God is abundant and more than fair in love.  

God’s table is very, very big.

Have a seat.

Amen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer of Scripture: Jeremiah, whores, and addiction

Episcopal priest friends in Madison are leading a group of young adults in a Bible read-through this summer -- the whole Bible in 90 days.  I joined them from a distance, and although my commitment to the project has varied (I made three videos to introduce the first three books of the Bible, then got caught up looking for work and other such endeavors, got back on track, got off track, read almost the entirety of Isaiah in one day to get back on track...) I am currently on schedule to finish reading the Bible the whole way through by August 31st.

[  It's funny, all things considered, to think of having a Master of Divinity degree, and a bachelor's in religion, and having taught Sunday School since I was 14 and being an intern pastor for 21 months ... I still haven't read the whole of the Bible.  Some parts I know so well they're memorized (most of the gospels that are read in the lectionary, for example).  Some parts I know almost as a joke (like Elisha commanding two she-bears to maul 42 taunting boys in 2 Kings 2).  Some parts I am more aware of because I've read about them.  And some parts have come as -- not quite a surprise, but definitely as something new.  ]

Now, almost two-thirds of the way through (and with time on my hands), I wanted to blog about Jeremiah.

Jeremiah the book full of condemnations against the nation of Israel / Judah; they have turned their back on worshipping God and caring for each other.  
  • "I will utter my judgments against them,
    for all their wickedness in forsaking me;
    they have made offerings to other gods,
    and worshipped the work of their own hands."
    -Jer 1:16
  • "Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem;
    look around and take note!
    Search its squares and see
    if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth."
    -Jer 5:1
Jeremiah the prophet is preaching in the midst of Israel and Judah's takeover by Babylon, which he (and other prophets) interprets as a consequence for the sins of idolatry and injustice.  
  • "For thus says the LORD of hosts:
    Cut down her trees; cast up a siege ramp against Jerusalem.
     This is the city that must be punished;
    there is nothing but oppression within her."
    -Jer 6:6
  • "Because you have not obeyed my words,
    I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the LORD,
    even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, my servant,
    and I will bring them against this land
    and against all these nations around;
    I will utterly destroy them,
    and make them an object of horror of hissing,
    and an everlasting disgrace."
    -Jer 25:8
Things get really, really violent in the book, both against Israel and Judah and against their enemies.  If people generalize that "the Old Testament God is angry and wrathful and hateful," Jeremiah can be the proof-text:
  • "The LORD will roar from on high,
    and from his holy habitation utter his voice;
    he will roar mightily against his fold,
    and shout, like those who tread grapes,
    against all the inhabitants of the earth.
    The clamor will resound to the ends of the earth,
    for the LORD has an indictment against the nations;
    he is entering into judgment with all flesh,
    and the guilty he will put to the sword."
    - Jer 25:30-31
  • "For thus says the LORD:
    Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous.
    There is no one to uphold your cause,
    no medicine for your wound, no healing for you."
     - Jer 30:12-13
  • Babylon doesn't escape judgment in the end, either:
    "Do not spare her young men; utterly destroy her entire army.
    They shall fall down slain in the land of the Chaldeans,
    and wounded in her streets."
    - Jer 51:3-4
I've been through a rough year, and I've been awful to some people, and some people have been awful to me.  So in coming to Jeremiah, I tried to read with my feet in two places:  one, standing in the role of a defied and heartbroken God, who was filled with anger at the lies and mistreatment in the people;  two, in the place of an oppressed and heartbroken people who (like Jeremiah) hated the Israelite perversions that corrupted their worship and the Babylonian invaders who destroyed their home.

I was not really able to do this.

I love the calls for justice in Jeremiah, and there are many:
  • "Let those who boast boast in this,
    that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD;
    I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
    for in these things I delight."
    - Jer 9:24
  • "Are you a king because you compete in cedar?
    Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness?
    Then it was well with him.
    He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well.
    Is not this to know me? says the LORD."
    - Jer 22:15-16
and I love the promises of restoration, and there are many:
  • "But as for you, have no fear, my servant Jacob, says the LORD,
    and do not be dismayed, O Israel;
    for I am going to save you from far away,
    and your offspring from the land of their captivity.
    Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease,
    and no one shall make him afraid."
    - Jer 30:10
  • "Thus says the LORD:
    The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness;
    when Israel sought for rest,
    the LORD appeared to him from far away.
    I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you."
    - Jer 31:2-3
  • "This is the covenant that I will make
    with the house of Israel after those days,
    says the LORD:  I will put my law within them,
    and I will write it on their hearts;
    and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."
    - Jer 31:33
But I could not really get past the destructive anger of God ripping life from people.  And I really could not connect to the adultery, whoredom, and rape language that Jeremiah uses to accuse Israel:
  • "You have played the whore with many lovers;
    and would you return to me? says the LORD.
    Look up to the bare heights, and see!
    Where have you not been lain with?
    By the waysides you have sat
    waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
    You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness."
    - Jer 3:1-2
  • "How can I pardon you?  Your children have forsaken me,
    and have sworn by those who are no gods.
    When I fed them to the full, they committed adultery
    and trooped to the houses of prostitutes.
    They were well-fed lusty stallions,
    each neighing for his neighbor's wife."
    - Jer 5:7-8
  • "If you say in your heart, 'Why have these things come upon me?',
    it is for the greatness of your iniquity
    that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated."
    - Jer 13:22
Yeah.  That last one.  That's in Scripture.  That's in Bibles that we give to our children.

I hate that.

So I wrestled.  That is my hermeneutic:  some Scripture comes to me like the angelic messenger to Jacob at Peniel (Gen 32:22-32), and we wrestle.  And I get my hands full of something stronger than me and I say "I will not let you go until you bless me."  And more often than not I walk away with a limp, but I walk away, and with a blessing.

So I wrestled.

My dear friend Eric, who is one of my favorite people because he calls me on all my bullshit, said to me:  What metaphor would you prefer, to whoredom?

And I said:  Addiction.

I have been in Al-Anon for a year and a half.  Al-Anon is an odd 12-step program; it's for friends and lovers and family members of alcoholics.  We end up all in a room together because of someone else's addiction, and then as we talk we realize that we have developed our own addictions to cope.  We're addicted to control, in one form or another.  We obsess over whether the alcoholic is drinking.  We desperately try to manage appearances so no one else will know.  We manipulate to passive-aggressively get our way.

And then we start to realize that this isn't just with the alcoholic.  The patterns we learned in childhood, in parenting, in our romantic relationship, etc start to spill over into the rest of our lives.  The need to control (or to maintain the illusion of control, anyway) shows up at work, in our new homes, in our friendships, in our relationships.  It moves from controlling the alcoholic to controlling non-alcoholics as well, because if you will just let me do it, it will be fine!

For me, my addiction to control looks like:
  • Craving security in friendships and romantic relationships
  • Desperate to please others
  • Giving up important beliefs and dreams in order to not conflict with my romantic partner
  • Fearing, to the point of paralyzing anxiety, others' opinions of me, my relationships, and my life choices
  • Compulsively lying to close friends and family to avoid the loss of their good opinion
  • Failing to ask for help when needed, so as not to appear weak or needy (even though I am)
...and so on.

It ain't pretty.  And the Al-Anon program directly confronts it.  Each meeting, each reading, each prayer reminds me:  I am not in control.  When I try to be in control, my life is unmanageable and I feel insane.  There is Something greater than me that is actually capable of restoring me to sanity, and it is not me, and I need to give up trying to make it me.

I can't help but see the connection between my addiction and the book of Jeremiah.
Your ways and your doings have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!  It has reached your very heart.
- Jer 4:18
God has led the people through the wilderness, into the promised land, put a king on the throne and promised to keep them forever, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll have a backup plan with man-made idols, false prophets, and manipulative worship.

God has laid down rules for righteousness and justice, for care for the orphans and widows, for avoiding oppression and feeding the hungry, and the people say:  Thanks.  But just to make sure, we'll set up systems, and boundaries, and walls, and hierarchies, just to make sure it all gets distributed "fairly", in accordance with individual and community worthiness.

God makes invitations and promises, and the people say:  Thanks.  But we have a better idea.

This is what the addict does.  I have a better idea.  I can control it.  I can handle it.  I'm in charge.

My inability to accept that God -- the Creator of the Universe, the liberator of Israel, the lover of righteousness and justice and mercy; the Son of God, the preacher of love in the face of power, the giver of grace, the one who overcame death; the fiery Spirit who moved on the face of the waters and drags the reluctant disciples from the upper room to send the good news all over the face of the earth -- my inability to accept that this God has a slightly better grip on my life than I do is sort of cute, in a way, except when it reduces me to a ball of stress and tears and manipulation and brokenness.
Thus says the LORD:  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.
Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
- Jer 17:5, 7
It's not pretty.

And when I remember that I have to let go of control, part of me does have to die.  And part of me feels like I've woken up in an alien land.  It's a metaphor for understanding the exile, and a shabby one at that, but it's true enough that I can breathe it in like oxygen:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. - Jer 32:38

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Midsummer Update

Life update!  I'm still here.  Just blogging less.  Someone asked me recently, "So, since you don't have a call yet, has this summer just been one long Saturday for you?"  Well, yes and no.

Graduation
I graduated from Luther Seminary in May as a Master of Divinity, which is the best superhero moniker I know of.

me with my best bro Austen

hooded!  me, Kim, Jamie, and Ashley in the front

Such regal.  Very education.
Graduation weekend was fantastic, and I am so lucky to be part of the amazing class of 2014.  Watch out, church.


End of internship

I also left Light of the World at the end of May when my 21-month internship was up.  Many, many, many tears were shed.  They are a beautiful people and a beautiful church, and I miss them every day.  I feel so lucky to have been with them and learned from them in the past two years.

Last children's message

Blessing at communion

Covered in bows as a way for the children to say "thank you"

Tears.  Lots of them.  I miss these kids like mad.


Moving

As of June 1st, my lease was up at the seminary, and I didn't have a call or a job.  So I moved from my beloved little apartment ...




... into my car, essentially.  I've been house-hopping since then.  

One week in Northfield, house-sitting for my godson's family while the Cannon River flooded.  Two weeks back with Natalie, who's now living with her girlfriend Katie and who took rent payment in the form of helping begin remodeling her basement:



One week house-sitting for a local pastor & her family, complete with their chicken coop:


She wanted my bread. Cared naught for the eggs.
Now I'm installed in a lovely house in Northeast Minneapolis till call or September 1st, whichever comes first, while its owners are working at Holden Village.  It's full of stained glass and is right near some classic Minnesota bike paths, so I'm happy as a clam.


Summer of Scripture

Along with some Episcopal friends in Madison, Wisc., and some internet friends around the world, I've been trying to read through the whole Bible in the span of 90 days.



It's been a beautiful experience to get this deeply into scripture, and to do it in a community that keeps me accountable, prays with me, wrestles with me, rejoices with me.  I'm currently in Isaiah 40, about a day behind schedule, and hoping to catch up (through Isaiah 66) this evening. 


Hiking & biking

Working out and being outdoors are two things that feed my soul, and they are perfectly combined in the gorgeous Minnesota summers in our parks.  I've been putting an average of 25-50 miles on my bike each week, and I feel fantastic.

Hiking the east side of the Mississippi
Looking up an east side cliff
At my favorite spot, Hidden Falls
Minnehaha Falls

Working at "the ranch"

"The ranch" is the name I have affectionately given the five-bedroom house and quarter-acre yard that my mother maintains.  I go over and help Mom and Dad with house care and other projects at least once a week.

This has included scrubbing, sanding, and priming the garage on three sides...


sundry gardening, weeding, mulching, moving rock and brick, OH and almost being mauled by a mama snapper laying her eggs.

Hi.


Doodling

Doodling!  I've been doing it forever.  No one in the family knows why I started drawing symmetric and geometric shapes, but I was doing it by age six.  Recently I've started playing around with word art as well.







Continuing therapy, medication, and Al-Anon

I hit the one-year mark in Al-Anon in February, and I've continued doing my program work.  I've done my Fourth and Fifth Step -- the personal inventory shared with a trusted person -- and a couple of Ninth Steps -- making amends to people I've hurt.  I've also become a trusted servant in the Al-Anon group on Reddit, which is my way of giving back to the program when I'm moving around so much that it's hard to commit to being a leader or a sponsor in a local situation.

Therapy and medication continue to be a part of my life and I am incredibly grateful for both.

Speaking of gratitude...


Friends

My friends continue to be amazing people who hold me up, cheer me on, feed me delicious food, make me laugh at Dateline till my sides hurt, take me camping, tell me I look amazing in that dress, and help me correctly evaluate if what just happened on that date was absolutely ludicrous.

Austen and Ari keeping me company ... we're all on Tumblr.
Seminary friends hiking from campsite to beach
"Writing prayers" aka drinking wine and sharing stories

Katie and Natalie being so cute it's gross

So .... ?!?!

I'm still waiting on a call, guys.  I promise y'all will be the first to know when I get one!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Story: a sermon on Acts 2:36-47 (and how the end is really the beginning)

This was my sermon on my last day at Light of the World.



Scripture:  Acts 2:36-47

Peter spoke to the people, telling them the story of God and Jesus from the very beginning, concluding, "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

---------------

Sermon

Today we move from the gospels into the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s a part II to Luke’s gospel specifically; the writer introduces both books the same way:  to Theophilus, Greek for “lover of God.”  And Luke begins the book of Acts by explaining that the disciples looked to the risen Christ and said “So you’re going to wipe out all the Romans now, right?  Now that you’re back from the dead?”  And Jesus sort of smiles gently and says “That’s not really why I’ve called you all here.  You are going to receive power from the Holy Spirit, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in the surrounding countries of Judea and Samaria, and you know what -- to all the ends of the earth.”

So the Acts of the Apostles is the book of the Bible that tells the stories of all the disciples becoming apostles, becoming people sent out to the very far corners of the globe to preach the good news of God come to us in Jesus Christ.

In today’s story Peter and all the disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, preaching and teaching about God’s deeds of power through Jesus.  Peter tells the assembled crowd:  “God knew that you would hand Jesus over to death, and you did -- you crucified him.  But our ancestor David, the great king David, whose kingdom was supposed to last forever -- he died, and his kingdom is over, but Jesus his descendent did not stay dead.  This Jesus is Messiah and Lord.”

And the people gathered are cut to the heart, and three thousand of them join the Christian church that day.  They are cut to the heart -- they are pierced all the way down, the Greek says:  katanusso.  It’s the same word for when Jesus’ side is pierced on the cross.  Something about what Peter says gets them right here, pierces them, life-changingly.

And so they join the church.  By their actions they proclaim:  This story is greater than any other story.  Greater than religious ritual that tries to manipulate God; greater than political power that tries to dominate others.  This story of Jesus of Nazareth, who did deeds of power and wonders and signs, who was crucified and died and was buried and rose again -- this story is greater than death.

These people knew death.  In some ways death was closer to them than it is to us.  People died much younger, and at home.  Babies died.  Children were lost.  Many of the common jobs in first-century Judea were dangerous:  fishing in stormy seas, guarding herds of sheep against hungry wolves.  And Peter is speaking to a crowd of Jews -- people who are under the oppression of Rome, people who are not unaccustomed to seeing their hopes destroyed by their ruler’s violent ways of shutting down protests and silencing calls for justice.

Some of us live in that place, too.  Some of us fight cancer diagnoses and sick bodies and broken minds, parts of us that we can’t get away from and make every day feel like a struggle.  We watch our loved ones fight for life.  We pray over babies and we mourn our friends.  This is real and it is scary and I don’t like it.  I don’t like that even two thousand years later life can still be as precarious as it was for a sheep out among wolves.

I like life much better when it’s controllable.  When I can fit it inside my hands, like clay, like marbles.  And I don’t think I’m alone in this; I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to keep things safe.  To make things easy.  And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if when we hold on to things, when we cling to our own security and wealth and power, when we do not want to share, we might be dangerously close to looking at whatever our hands have a white-knuckle grip on and saying “This -- this is life.”

And into all this Peter has come and said No -- this [the cross] is life.

And you know the frustrating thing is that I think he’s right.  Because I have tried, God knows I have tried, to make a life out of the things I can hold.  To say this money, or this job -- or this relationship -- is life, and I will cling to it with everything I have.  Completely ignoring how that clinging turns into a cage.  How whatever I am trying to control soon gets control of me.  How trying to fit my life into something I can grasp often turns into me breaking myself, cutting off the parts of me that can’t fit into my clenched hands.

And Peter says Save yourself from this corrupt generation, from this clinging, this hoarding, this fear, this breaking of yourself down so you can fit into your own tight fist.  Save yourself from that kind of death.  It might look like life, it might move and breathe and talk like life, but this isn’t life.  This [the cross] is life, that God sent Jesus.  This is life, that God knew us, knew that we would try to squeeze down this crazy Jesus message of mercy and hope, that we would try to hold it and when we couldn’t hold it we would seal it up inside a tomb.  This is life, that even death could not hold Jesus.

That’s the story that made three thousand people believers -- that this man Jesus is freedom, is hope, is life, and smallness and fear and even death has no more power.

This is the story that made thousands of people bold enough to sell what they had and share it; to gather every day for worship and prayer; to praise God and care for everyone around them.  

And so over time they became part of the story; this little church of three thousand believers in Jerusalem, who kept growing by tens and hundreds and thousands more, until the day came when one of them whose name was Luke said “We’d better write this down.”  And so the believers came to be a part of the story of Jesus, the story of life that is stronger than death.

So let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a little group of people who were looking for life.  Some of them had looked in church and they hadn’t quite found it there.  Some of them had looked inside their big houses and their large yards and they hadn’t quite found it there, either.  

And they came together, and they heard each other’s stories.  They broke bread in their homes, and in a golf course, and in an elementary school gymnasium.  They met together to pray.  They talked about trusting God in their finances; those who could, gave, and the funds were distributed to those in need.  They painted a house, and marched in parades, and packed food for Feed My Starving Children.  And every Sunday they met, and sang, and praised God, and prayed for one another, and learned together, and broke bread and found Jesus there.  And sometimes they would turn to each other, and make the sign of a cross on the forehead, and say the words they heard at every baptism:  “You are a beloved child of God.”

They told their friends and family.  And they told their friends, and they told theirs, and slowly the church grew.  People came who were hungry for forgiveness, for mercy, for grace, for life.  And they found it, and they became one people, a people called Light of the World, a place where people were fully known and totally welcomed and radically loved.

They survived change.  Some traditions stayed, and some faded.  They moved from building to building as it was needed.  Finances changed, and they went from two pastors to one and full-time staff to half-time.  They had one intern pastor, and then another, and another.  Their founding pastor was called to larger ministry, and on the day she left they laid hands on her, and with great hope and trust they prayed for the future of all.

They knew there was something greater than death here -- something more than a pastor -- something that felt like life, abundant and real.  

An interim pastor came, and guided them through transition.  They talked and discussed and met and voted and became the first Reconciling in Christ church in Dakota County, repeating what they heard every Sunday over the communion table:  All are welcome -- no exceptions.

They called a new pastor.  She came and she stayed, and she brought with her a wonderful partner and a passion for justice.  There was life, new life, new joys and excitement.  And every Sunday they met together to praise God and break bread and remember each others’ stories.  

And today you will lay hands on me, your third intern, and send me forth.  But thinking that the story stops here would be like thinking the story stops in Acts 2.  It doesn’t.  Even if I didn’t know a single word of the Bible past where we ended today, I would know the story doesn’t stop, because two thousand years later here we are.  Two thousand years later we are still devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers.  

The story keeps going.  The marble keeps rolling.  And this promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone to whom God calls.  There is life here -- there is life here, for you, and you, and you, and you.

Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A little dark-haired girl who hated Palm Sunday: a sermon on Matthew 21:1-11

Once upon a time, there was a dark-haired little girl who hated Palm Sunday.  She loved church, and she loved Holy Week best of all, but oh she hated Palm Sunday, and this is why: she hated how her church read the story of Jesus’ passion.

Every year the narrative would be broken into spoken parts, with a Narrator and a Jesus and a Pilate and a Peter, and she always wanted to be one of them; but too many years she was just part of the crowd, the rest of the congregation, that shouted Hosanna! at the beginning and Crucify him! at the end.

She hated it.  Because she wouldn’t have shouted it.  She wouldn’t have given in with everyone to betraying Jesus.  She didn’t want to shout Crucify him.

But as that dark-haired little girl got a little older and learned a little more about life and death and heartbreak, she realized that’s the point, isn’t it -- it isn’t something we want to admit, but it is the truth -- that we can be everyone in the story.

We are the crowd.  We began worship alongside them, with palms in our hands and praises on our lips.  We are the crowd that gathers to meet him on his way into Jerusalem.  There are those among us who whisper:  he’s fulfilling a prophecy!  He’s showing himself to be the rightful king by coming, not glorified and majestic on a stallion, but humble and meek, on a donkey and a colt.

We have heard the stories of this Jesus, the great prophet, the healer, the teacher.  We have passed the story excitedly to friends:  have you heard what God has done?  We cry Hosanna, Blessed, Hosanna -- words from an old psalm that have suddenly taken on new meaning.  We call Jesus the Son of David, meaning that he is the promised Messiah -- one who has come to liberate Israel and the world from the hands of sin.

Too, we are sometimes the owner of this borrowed donkey.  We are bewildered and honored when the followers of Jesus appear, saying that the Lord needs us -- us! -- needs our humble little donkey.  We hurry to brush her, to whisper our pride in her ear, to hand her over.  There are times when we are glad, even honored, to give what we have because we see what it will do.

On Thursday we will hear of the disciples borrowing something else:  a room, furnished and ready with food, for the Passover meal.  And here we are too.  We are the honored hosts of the Passover meal, tripping over our own feet in excitement.  When we see a new family and rush to greet them, to learn their names, to make sure there are enough crayons and bulletins, to invite them to communion and to Spark and to bunco night -- there is pride and excitement in that, an honor in getting to share what has long nourished us.

And of course we are the disciples:  excited, convicted, passionate, and totally confused.  We are walking beside this donkey, amazed at the crowd, the shouts and praises for our master.  When we speak of Jesus, and of the kingdom of God, we are stumbling, we stutter and stammer, we forget things we remember later, and yet when we speak of love and peace there are people who listen.  When we sit across the table at Caribou from someone and listen -- really listen -- sometimes we see hearts opened and eyes filled and minds that wonder at this miracle that is grace.  And we are amazed.

Yet we are also sometimes the scribes and Pharisees.  We challenge Jesus.  We worry about him.  We aren’t sure about this message of compassion and mercy.  It seems -- fuzzy.  Too much grey, this loving-your-neighbor business, when we sometimes long for black-and-white boundaries, for clear-cut rules, for an “us” and a “them” to make things easier.

And we are Judas.  Judas has been by Jesus’ side almost from the beginning, and yet something happens in Jerusalem that changes everything.  He has trusted and hoped and had faith in Jesus and then in the course of just a few days it is all over.  This is the thing that little girl hated: how our expectations can break us.  How the moment that something we thought we fully understood, controlled, had a grip on can fall apart like sand through our fingers.

Some days it is impossible for me to understand how Judas could be so close to Jesus, could be there at the Last Supper and have his feet washed and then walk out, only to return hours later with soldiers in tow.  But every time I’ve had my heart broken or a hope dashed or a dream lost, I’ve understood a little better how easy it is to move from feeling betrayed to becoming a betrayer.

And every time my expectations have fallen through, I understand the crowd a little better.  Today we repeat their cries of praise, shouting Hosanna and waving our palms in celebration and expectation.  They were welcoming their coming Messiah.  But their vision of a Messiah and Jesus’ vision were very, very different.  The crowds pouring into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration though the Messiah would come to throw out the Romans, to break the chains of oppression and persecution, to cast out all the non-Jewish pagans and sit on the throne of David forever.  They were celebrating the coming of a warrior.  And when they see him, in a few days, whipped by Pilate and condemned by their religious leaders, they are heartbroken.  Isn’t this the Messiah?  Shouldn’t he rise up, destroy the Romans who beat him, silence the hypocrites who speak against him?

As a little girl I hated Palm Sunday, because it told the truth about us.  That we can be one of a crowd that turns so easily on something we thought we loved.

That we can be the Roman soldiers, uncaring and unconcerned; that when someone is brought before us with a label of Criminal, of Rebel, of Dangerous, it can be so easy to accept it.

That we can be Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, and every single one of the disciples who denied him and fled.

That we can be the women who watch Jesus’ beating and crucifixion and death only from a distance, transfixed and heartbroken.

Palm Sunday, as it leans into Holy Week, tells the truth about us.

And into all that comes a king, riding on a donkey.  Into the truth about our ability to believe or to reject, to love or to betray, to cheer or to condemn, walks Jesus.

God is not revealed in a tearing of the clouds, a booming voice echoing in every ear, a shout and a demand.  God does not gallop into Jerusalem on a stallion like a conquering king.

God comes as human, sends the only begotten Son, riding on a young colt into our midst.  God comes as human, as Jesus, born in human likeness, humble in the face of our praise, quiet in the face of our anger.

There is a frustration in this:  that when we cry God, fix this, change this, spare me from this, sometimes what we find is not deliverance but companionship.  We do not get a God who protects us perfectly from pain but a Son who walks beside us, in every person we are.  We get a God who became a servant, who washes our feet, who feeds us with his body, who welcomes us home every time we wander.

This is who God is -- that no matter where we are, no matter who we are, no matter which of the many voices in this story of the Passion are ours, God comes for us.  God comes and says:  I am not afraid of your anger, or your pain, or your heartbreak, or your fear, or your betrayal.  I am here for you.  I live among you.  I know who you are and why you are and I love you.  I love you, I love you, I love you.

Hosanna.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Amen.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sermon for March 23, 2014: "You don't know this man" (John 4:5-42)

John 4:5-42 (NRSV)

So Jesus 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 worshiped 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 worshipers 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 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.”

-----Message-----

You don’t know this man.
You don’t know where he’s been or where he’s going.
You just know there’s a man, a Jew, hanging around your village well,
asking you for a drink as if it’s normal,
as if Jews and Samaritans ever share anything,
as if your people and his people haven’t been scowling at each other over holy books for centuries,
as if there aren’t clear boundaries between your towns that no proper person would cross.

You don’t know this man.
You don’t know that back in Jerusalem, the holy city, his holy city,
he’s been debating with the religious elite, challenging their power,
working miracles and teaching about God despite their disapproval.
You don’t know that one of these men, a Pharisee,
snuck out to see this man under cover of night,
snuck out to say “We know that you are sent from God,”
snuck back with his head full of wonder about being born from above, about the invisible untouchable force that changes everything, about the Son of God sent into the world not to judge and condemn but to love.
You don’t know this man, Nicodemus.
And you don’t know this man sitting at your well.

You’ve come at noon, the hottest part of the day, expecting no one.
You don’t come in the morning with the other women.
You are tired of the way they look at you, that spun-up mixture of pity and horror,
of the way their eyes count the five empty spaces that haunt you.
You are tired of being reminded that you have been passed from man to man.
“She’s had five husbands,” their eyes say, as if you had a choice.
As if divorce wasn’t as simple as a certificate, for reasons as wide as bearing no children to a poorly cooked meal.
You’re tired of the way the women’s eyes reflect your empty home, your empty purse, the man who keeps you now but will never marry you.
You’ve come at noon, expecting no one.
Instead there is a man, a Jew, with dirty feet and thirsty tongue,
and some kind of golden fire to his gaze, some sort of eternal light flickering in his eyes.

You don’t know this man.
And you don’t know what he’s talking about, this living water,
something to quench your thirst forever.
You only know you want it.

You don’t know this man,
but he knows you.
His dark eyes call on you and he sees exactly who you are
and everything you’ve ever done.
Somehow the way he looks at you is different from the looks of the other women.
Somehow the way his eyes fall on you sets all your shame on fire, till there’s nothing left of it but ashes.
Something inside you begins to bubble up.
Somehow, when this man looks at you, you no longer feel the boundaries between you --
Samaritan and Jew, woman and man, divorcee and prophet.
You know his people and your people disagree on almost everything.
You know a woman has no right to question a man.
But the words are falling from your lips like water from a tipped jar.
You’ve come at noon, expecting no one,
and now you set aside your water jar
and take up your questions.
The questions you have carried like a weight, the wonderings, that inscrutable want to know and understand -- they are pushing through your long-built dam of quiet.
You don’t know this man, but when he speaks of God
you are hungry in a way that feels unquenchable.
When he says that we will soon worship God in spirit and truth --
not in a place but in person, not in a city but in heart,
not by religion but by relationship --
when you mention the Messiah and this man says I am he --
you leave behind your water jar,
because there is something bubbling up in you
like a spring of living water.
You want to catch the eye of every person you’ve been avoiding and say
Come and see!  Come and see.
There’s something going on here that I can’t explain and you need to see it for yourself.

You don’t know this man, but he knows you, and you want everyone to know it.
He knows you, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been done to you,
and in those dark eyes there is not judgment or pity but kindness and compassion.
This man, this Jew, this prophet, this Messiah has appeared at your well
and talked to you, like you are worthy, like you are wanted,
like you are capable of being a witness
as much as a trained scholar of Jerusalem.
This man wants you.  Not like the men who have married you and left you
but because he sees something in you -- sees your questions, your pain, your joy, your hope
and welcomes them.  Wants them.
Wants to hear what you have to say.
Wants you to be filled so much that something bubbles up inside you
and quenches your longings, something like living water -- something that gets you so excited
that you forget your water jar, your regular work, and you run off to tell everyone you know
that this Messiah wants that much joy in you.
And amazingly enough, they believe you.
They believe you about this Jewish Messiah,
and with you they sit at his feet and learn.

You don’t know this man.
You don’t know that he just left Jerusalem,
that he left a confused Pharisee in the dark about this place called God’s kingdom.
You came at noon, expecting no one,
and in the brightness of the day you’ve found yourself filled.
In the days to come you will still have to come back to the well,
but you will go in the morning, with the other women.
They look at you differently now.
They no longer see the space where a husband ought to be,
but the space a prophet filled,
the place where there is something bubbling up inside you
like a spring of living water.

Come and see.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon on John 3:16: "Love is the lesson that breaks all the rules"

Scripture

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”

“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?

“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again."


Sermon

Nicodemus, and the rest of the Pharisees and the Jewish religious leaders, had a good thing going.  They were the top of the heap, spiritually speaking.  They were the leaders of a people in fear -- people whose ancestors had been hauled off to Babylon in slavery, who had come home and rebuilt their beautiful Temple, who had seen their land taken over by Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans.  The Jewish people lived in fear, and they wanted desperately to know:  how, in the face of our oppression by the Romans, do we please God?  How are we to be righteous when the culture around us is not?  When will the Messiah come and free us from our bondage?  And they turned to the Pharisees for answers.

And a very easy answer was to focus on action.  What they could look at, what they could hear and smell and touch; this was the way to know where you were in God’s standing.  If you could afford the expensive temple sacrifices.  If you prayed a certain way, in a certain place.  If you kept the purity laws perfectly, or close to.  If you didn’t interact with pagans and lepers and sinners.  Then God would bless you, and remember Israel, and send the Messiah to free -- well, at least you and the rest of the righteous.

There is no question that being held accountable for our actions is an essential part of faith.  But when Jesus looked at the way the Jewish leaders cared for the people, he saw that accountability was the only part.  There was no space, no “wiggle room,” no grace for people who could not meet the strict requirements.  And so Jesus shakes his head at Nicodemus and says, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom.”

He says to Nicodemus, The way you lead the people is so narrow, so focused, it’s like you walk with blinders on.  And the kingdom of God is so much bigger.  The kingdom isn’t just how we move and act, it’s what moves in us, what transforms and shapes our very self.  Unless we totally submit, totally give in to this invisible and life-changing power of God, then we’ll never see the wideness of God’s world.

Nicodemus is not sure he buys this.  “What are you saying?  What do you mean?”

And Jesus starts to lose his patience and says “I’m telling you what’s right in front of your face, and you’re procrastinating with questions.”  He says, You are a leader of Israel.  You study the holy books of Scripture day and night.  You read the stories of how God made the whole world, how God led us out of slavery in Egypt, how we crossed the Red Sea on dry land, how we survived forty years in the wilderness, how this invisible God kept loving us and leading us even though we made mistakes at every turn, and I say “there might be something more than meets the eye to God’s kingdom” and you don’t listen.  You are supposed to be a leader of the people, to be their spiritual guide, but when I tell you the truth you already know, that God is a mighty force we cannot see and faith is about more than action, you won’t believe it.

Jesus is impatient because Nicodemus has his feet firmly planted in an old way of thinking, and he is not really willing to budge.  He wants to ask questions.  From Jesus’ response I think we can guess these aren’t scientific questions, practical analysis, drawing up a strategic plan for how to get this “born from above” thing done.  These are more like the questions that drag out bedtime at home and push deadlines at work -- the But Whys and Are You Sures, the kinds of questions our kids and our coworkers and we ask, not because we’re unsure of the answers but because we don’t like them.

Nicodemus is asking questions because he and the rest of the Pharisees have a good thing going -- and this “born from above” business doesn’t quite fit into that plan.

And Jesus looks at him and says, You came to me because you know I’m a teacher straight from God.  I know you wanted clean and easy answers, but that’s not why I came.  I came to make things messy.  I came to be God among you, and you will kill me.  

The Son of Man will have to be lifted up, he says -- meaning on the cross.  The Son of Man will be lifted up so that you see and believe that faith is messier than proper practice and correct rituals, that God is bigger than your blinders -- that love is the lesson that breaks all the rules.

Love has the power to look beyond actions and see the spirit inside.  Love can look beyond ritual and purity and religion and see faith.  Love can take off the blinders and see the other person.

Love is always breaking the rules.  Not holy rules like the commandments, not necessary rules like good meals and bedtimes.  Rules made out of fear.  Rules that separate us from each other.  Rules about who’s in and who’s out, about who’s rich and who’s poor, about how long we can hold a grudge, about what we need to do and say to be considered valuable.

Love can look different at different times.  Sometimes love looks like selflessness -- like helping when we’re exhausted, like sharing when no one is making us.  Sometimes love looks like boundaries -- saying to someone who has hurt us, “I won’t let you do that again, because it doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help me.”

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, in Luke’s gospel, of a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, and how a priest and a scribe will walk by on the other side -- following, perfectly, the rules about not touching blood or a dead body.  And Jesus will say “But there was a Samaritan, who saw him and was moved with compassion.”  This is the lesson where love comes up against all the rules -- and love, in God’s kingdom, always wins.

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, at the end of John’s gospel and at the end of our journey through Lent, when he kneels at the feet of each disciple -- even Judas Iscariot, about to betray him -- and washes their feet.  Jesus will overturn rules about propriety and servanthood and say instead, This is the lesson:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This is the lesson: we can love, because God first loved us.  We can dare to live as people born from above, from out of this world, not living by rules that divide and break down but by the lesson of love that draws us into one God.

Nicodemus doesn’t understand, but Jesus didn’t come to straighten our blinders.  He came to take them off.  He came to help, to put the world right again, and to offer us a whole and lasting life.

Amen.