Moses, the Burning Bush, and Hearing God’s Call to Justice

When I read the story of Moses and the burning bush, I wonder what it might have been like to be Moses that day.  The story says that when Moses saw the burning bush, the messenger from God, he was amazed and said to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  I am always struck by this verse, by this little bit of internal dialogue between Moses and himself.  It always feels to me like a doorway. A doorway into the life that Moses was living in this moment, and maybe even a hint at a part of the story that may not seem apparent at first.  We are told at the beginning of the story that Moses was “keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”

The way the story unfolds makes it seem like things are happening quickly.  Moses is out with the sheep, walking in the desert, and suddenly a bush bursts into flame next to him and God begins to speak.  But if we look closely, there might be something more going on than that.  I am struck first by the fact that Moses says to himself that he must “turn aside” in order to see the bush, and then in the following verse, that God only finally calls out to Moses when “the Lord saw that he had turned aside.”  It would seem like things are not really happening as quickly as we might have thought at first.  It seems that, at the very least, this burning bush is not so much popping up right in Moses’ path, but somewhere off to the side, maybe tucked around the corner of one of the mountains edges, or just barely visible through a hole in the rocks.  Thus, Moses must “turn aside” to examine it.  And not only that, but when he does finally turn aside, he starts to walk towards it, as if it is at least some ways away from his path.  And then we learn that God calls out to Moses, only after “the Lord saw that he had turned aside.” Meaning that it was not so much that Moses is reacting to the message from God, but that God is responding to Moses.  God responds, but only when Moses finally notices.

And so I wonder about Moses in this story.  If God appeared with a message for Moses in a burning bush, slightly off the beaten path, waiting for Moses to notice before calling out to him,  I wonder how many times Moses passed by this bush before he finally turned aside.  I wonder how many days he might have spent leading his flock up and down this mountain. How many cool mornings and still evenings he walked this patch of land that he would eventually learn had been holy all along.  I wonder how many minutes and hours and days God spent waiting for Moses to see this miraculous message hiding in plain sight.

And in pondering these things, it is important to remember how Moses came to be here in the first place.  Not just his own journey from member of pharaoh’s house, to wanted murderer, to shepherding son-in-law, but the whole journey of the Hebrew people into Egypt.  Because part of the message God has been waiting so long to tell Moses is that God has heard the cries of the Hebrew people, God knows the suffering of God’s people, and God has come down the mountain of God to lead these people out, but it is worth noting that what God does not do is swoop in and instantaneously rescue the Hebrew people from oppression in Egypt.  God does not strike all the Egyptians dead.  God does not overthrow pharaoh.  God does not magically transport all of the Hebrew people out of Egypt into the promised land. 

No. Instead, God moves through people, God’s saving, liberating, work is done through people. The work of freedom from oppression is done through these pillars of our faith.  God works through the suffering of Joseph to eventually save the Hebrew people from famine.  God works through the courage of the Hebrew midwives and the covert works of salvation they perform in rescuing an entire generation of Hebrew children, God works through the sacrifice and ingenuity of the mother of one of those children, Moses, to deliver him from danger and reunite him with his family, and God now is inviting Moses in this burning bush message to take part in the next phase of God’s liberating work in the lives of the Hebrew people, working through Moses’ fear and anxiety, his reluctance to return to the people from whom he just fled after killing an Egyptian overseer in the defense of one of his fellow enslaved Hebrew people.  And even more amazing than the way God works through people to bring about God’s mission of liberation, is the process by which God appears to do it.  God does not search out Moses for this mission. God does not descend in a cloud on Moses’ flock in the wilderness. 

Instead, God dwells in the burning but not consumed bush on Horeb, the mountain of God, and waits.  Waits patiently, while Moses passes back and forth by this mountain with his flock.  Waits while Moses, the next great liberator, tends his father-in-laws sheep hour by hour and day by day, feeling the distance between himself and his people.  God waits, until Moses finally turns his head one day and recognizes what has been right in from of him for so long, and finally turns aside from the well worn path of his life, and encounters God face to face.  And as he turns, God sees that Moses has finally recognized the bush, the dwelling place of God, and God cries out Moses!  Moses!  Stop.  Do not come any closer.  This is Holy Ground on which you stand, for I am about to deliver to you your vocation, your mission in the world.  I am about to give you a place in this long line of saviors and liberators and justice bringers and repairers of the breach.  I am about to set you up as one of these pillars of the faith.  I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I am about to add your name to that list.  I am the God of those in the past, and I am the God inhabiting what is today, and I am the God of what is to become.  And you have a role to play in this story, and this story, this I am, does not continue without you.  Moses! Moses! Come, receive your mission, and take your place.

I wonder what it was like for Moses to hear God call his name like that.  I wonder if he had ever heard his name spoken like that before.  And I wonder what emotions coursed through his heart, body, and mind when he heard God identify God’s self for the first time.  What it felt like to slide of his sandals and press his bare feet to the holy ground on which he stood.  Excitement, awe, certainly fear, evident in the fact that he turned his face away out of reverence for the divine, and the overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of presence itself. 

What we do know is what Moses said in response to God.  Almost immediately he comes up with reasons why he cannot do what God is asking him to do. No one will believe me, no one will listen to me. What could I say to get them to believe I spoke to you today?  This is all so crazy.  And of course, we can identify with this reaction.  We have felt this same way at times.  Even Jesus experienced this, as we saw in the gospel reading today, of course in a slightly different way, in that the voice of doubt did not come from inside of him, but from one of his closest friends.  Peter, who had just been so bold in proclaiming him the messiah, the son of the living God.  As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus shares with them what he knows to be true of his mission, of what it really means for him to be the messiah, the son of the living God.

Hundreds of years after the burning bush, Jesus, the living legacy of Moses’ vocation and mission, stood with his disciples in the story from Matthew 16 and shared with them what had been revealed to him about his own mission, that he must go to Jerusalem, be arrested, crucified, and resurrected, and thus take his own place in God’s work of liberation, justice, and repair.  He was explaining to them that what Peter had just proclaimed about his identity, that he was the messiah and the son of the living God, meant that he would most certainly be rejected, persecuted, and killed at the hands of those in power. 

In the face of his closest friends, who out of their own fears, their own preconceptions about his identity, and their own opinions about his mission, questioned the very nature of what he felt called to do next, Jesus persisted in his vocation.  Even though it was complicated and painful and uncertain, he marched on.  And his words to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” were not so much a rebuke of the person standing before him, but of the ideas coming out of him.  What is Satan to Jesus?  Satan is the voice that tells you that you are not meant to do what you know you are called to do.  The voice that spouts all the reasons you are not good enough, or well informed enough, or strong enough, or courageous enough, to fulfill your call to participate in God’s mission in the way that you know is yours to do.  Jesus knew what almost certainly lay ahead for him, and what he wanted behind him was not Peter, but the voice that told him he was wrong, that he couldn’t do it, that he was not capable of participation in God’s mission.

Because, like we see in every great leader before him, and after him, Moses, in all his doubt and uncertainty and resistance, will be equipped by God every step of the way with exactly what he needs to do God’s work in the world.  It will not be solely on his shoulders to confront pharaoh, to bring the plagues, to duel the magicians, to part the sea, to lead the people, to feed the people, to write the tablets.  No.  At each step of the journey, Moses just needs to be open, to say yes to God, to wonder, and to participate in God’s movement, so that he becomes a window for God’s power in the world.

And as we see Moses March on, and Jesus march on, we can look around now and see who is participating in God’s liberating mission in the world, who is becoming a window for God’s power to make change in the world.  We can see who is marching, marching in the streets of Kenosha, marching in the streets of Washington, marching to the drumbeat of freedom that has never been drowned out by the persistent hum of oppression in our country.

In these last weeks we have been reminded again how much of God’s work of liberation, and justice, and repair is left to do in our community, our country, and the world.  After months of protest, and discussion, and action, and debate, following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, Jacob Blake, a father, a cousin, a friend, was gunned down by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Days later, thousands of people marked the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, with a march of their own, calling for criminal justice and police reform.  The voices are out there.  They are calling each and every one of us.  Can you hear it?  It is the voice of God calling us by name to take part in the mission of liberation from oppression. 

And it is no less complicated or us that it was for Moses in that moment.  There is no less doubt for us than there was for Moses in that moment.  There are no fewer voices in our heads telling us why we cannot participate than there were for Moses in that moment.  There are no fewer voices around us, even from our closest friends, trying to convince us that our sense of call is misguided and misdirected, than there were for Jesus that day with the disciples.  And yet, like Jesus and Moses before us, there is no less of a call from God to turn our faces toward liberation and justice and to march on.  To march on for freedom.  To march on for change.  To march on with the names of Breonna, and Trayvon, and Freddie, and George, and Ahmaud, and Jacob on our lips.  For the God of Jacob is calling.  The God of Breonna is calling.  The God of Trayvon is calling.  And we must ask ourselves, what is my role to play in this liberating mission of God, and what do I do next.  And when we hear the great I AM call us to action, we must be able to say “I AM HERE TOO.”

We must ask ourselves in this moment, where is the burning bush that I have been passing by for too long as I walk the familiar path of my lives?  What is the message God has been waiting for me to hear?  Where do I hear God calling my name, and am I willing to turn aside when I hear it ?  Where is that holy ground, on which I know I am receiving my vocation?  What is my mission in this moment?  What is my work to do, no matter how big or how so mall?  How am I being called in this place, in this time, in this moment, to take my place in this long line of liberators, justice bearers, and repairers of the breach, following our ancestors, the Hebrew midwives, and Moses’ mother, and pharaoh’s daughter, and today Moses and Jesus, to do God’s liberating work in the world?

“Not Peace, But a Sword”: Jesus’ Call to Have Uncomfortable Conversations About Race

Just one third of the way through Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 10, Jesus sends out his newly gathered disciples and prepares them to go out to the lost sheep of Israel, to their own communities and their own people, and preach the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the first half of this commissioning Jesus spoke to them about where to go, what to bring and not to bring, how to engage in dialogue with different households, and how to move on from dialogue. In the second half Jesus shifts slightly in his instructions to them, and gives them a look at the depth and dynamism of the conversation into which they are entering, the tensions that will certainly be produced from those conversations, and the call for them to persevere through these tense moments of dialogue in order to prophetically witness to the Good News that he has been preaching and they are being called to preach.

Jesus tell his disciples, “have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” In the 10 chapters before this commissioning Jesus has revealed to them, uncovered for them, whispered to them the world altering secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and thus the disconnect between the realities of the world they are living in and the promises of the Kingdom of Heaven to which they are called. To which, Jesus tells them, God desires all of creation to embody.

Like the disciples, we have had this disconnect revealed to us is many ways, and people, and places in these last months, at a rapid and extreme pace. Starting in March, as the reach and intensity of the Coronavirus increased at an exponential rate, the systemic imbalances of our present reality which had previously, though no completely, been covered, were uncovered, specifically the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on communities of color, as well as the underlying realities of education injustice, food injustice, healthcare injustice, housing injustice, and employment injustice.

Then in these last days, an even deeper and more ingrained reality of our systemically oppressive society was revealed in the dark. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, all murdered, all as a product of the violent undercurrent of oppression and racism in our country. But this time has been different. What has been for too long left in the dark, has been brought into the light. What has too often been covered up has been exposed. What has for too long been silenced to a whisper is being proclaimed from the housetops of the capitol, and thus Jesus’ words ring in our ears in a way they never have before:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34, NRSV)

We see the protests, the unrest in the streets, the violent convulsions of a community, a nation, that is simultaneously dealing with a coronavirus that limits people’s ability to breath freely, and a system of violence and oppression against persons of color that has done the same for over 400 years. When we survey the landscape of this upheaval it is easy, especially for those in positions of power, to decry this moment as a disruption of our peace. That these protests and calls for justice have taken away the peace that we, up until now have enjoyed, but Jesus’ words call us back to the reality that this is not an interruption of peace. To the contrary, there was never really any peace to be interrupted. This moment of upheaval, the voices in the streets, the open wound of our nation and our communities, this is not a detour on our way to peace, this is the pathway to peace. Every protest, every fist in the air, every Black Lives Matter sign, every cry for freedom and justice, is a brick laid in the unfolding road to the peace that Jesus proclaims, that which is not “peace, but a sword.”

And this is true not only in our communal and national life, but in our personal lives as well. If we are going to witness to the truth of the kingdom of heaven, we don’t get to keep that unrest, that discomfort, at arms length. We have to be willing to live with that tension in some of our most intimate relationships. There is a reason Jesus doesn’t just stop with “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” As a person of privilege, I can watch this kind of unrest happen out there in the world without it really affecting me and my personal life. But Jesus, like he is so good at doing, makes it very personal:

“For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” 
(Matthew 10:35-37, NRSV)

Jesus asks us, especially those of us who are white, the pointed question, “What is more important to you, your own comfort, or justice?” For those who love father, or mother, or sister more than me, more than my movement, more than the kingdom of heaven, are not worthy of the kingdom of heaven. We are being called into conversations about race with members of our families and our communities that disagree with us, that will lead to tension, that will lead to us being in opposition to one another, but the silence of white people for the sake of there own comfort in these relationships has been the cornerstone on which systems of oppression have been built for over 400 years in our country.

I imagine the disciples looking at one another during this extensive set of instructions, as they realize what Jesus is asking them to do, and whispering in hushed breaths, “But we’re not ready yet. We still don’t know everything we need to know in order to do this. We need more time.” Of course, all of these things are in large measure true, but Jesus invites them to lean into the discomfort of not having all the answers, of having some conversations fall apart, of saying the wrong things, and then shaking the dust off their feet, and moving on to the next conversation, taking with them everything they have learned along the way, and humbly being open to growth in the process.

They have, of course, only been with Jesus for a short time, and they will still have much to learn from Jesus once they return from their mission, but Jesus also knows the greater truth of the kingdom of heaven, that outweighs all of their fears and uncertainties and reservations, that the justice of the kingdom of heaven cannot wait. It cannot wait for those who can make a difference to feel comfortable doing so. It cannot wait until we know everything we think we need to know. It cannot wait until we’ve gotten everyone on the same page. The disciples have learned enough from Jesus to go do the next important step, which is to engage in dialogue with people in their communities about the truths of the kingdom of heaven, about justice and its great urgency. About all those things they learned about in the sermon on the mount. And these truths will not be met kindly, nor will they lead to a great deal of comfort for the disciples, but it will lead them to actually be taking part in the mission of God.

As the realities of racial injustice in America continue to be exposed in greater and greater depth, we have to take these questions from Jesus seriously, and be honest about the fact that we may feel like we are still not ready. That we haven’t learned enough. But at the same time, just like the disciples standing before Jesus that day, we cannot unlearn the truths that we have learned, we cannot unhear the witness of those too long oppressed, we cannot unsee the murders of Philando Castile, Ahmad Arbury, and George Floyd, no matter how ill equipped we feel may to respond. We do, though, have a choice. Will we choose comfort masquerading as peace, or will we choose life that at first glance looks like death?

And so Jesus turns to us, and asks the question of our age, “who is willing to live with the tension and discomfort of talking about race with those you have never met and those you have known your entire lives. Who is ready to be ostracized and critiqued for demanding justice, freedom, and equality? Who is willing to break the white solidarity that has been build up for too long in their closest group of friends, and risk that awkward silence, that sideways glance, that not so subtle roll of the eye, the possible disruption of relationship with friend, and mother, and brother, and father, and father in law, and mother in law, in order to take part in the mission of God, the work of Justice, the global outcry for liberation?”

And so we must ask ourselves today, and every day, are we willing to lose that life to which we have so desperately clung, to find our deepest identity in God, as speakers of truth, bringers of justice, bearers of Christ, as Christians?

What conversations are you having, and what actions are you taking to move toward antiracism? Share in the comments below.

Following the Spirit of Truth in an Age of Distrust

Today it feels harder than ever to wrap our minds around “the truth.” With the constant barrage of “alternative facts,” claims of “fake news,” and a seemingly endless feed of Twitter and Facebook bots filling our screens with misleading claims about both politics and pandemics, its hard to decipher what is true and what is not. In the midst of a global health crisis, when lives are on the line, and fear and uncertainty surround us, and yet at a moments notice every fact seems to be able to become a political football, how are we to proceed. In a very different time and for very different reasons, Jesus once spoke to his disciples about “the truth,” and gave them guidance on how to move forward in similarly uncertain and fearful times.

In the final third of John’s gospel, there is a large chunk of text commonly referred to as the “farewell discourses,” which represent the final words of Jesus to his disciples before he is arrested.  This section of the gospel makes up almost 20% of the chapters in John’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry, encompassing all of chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17.  Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples before he leaves them.  He takes these last moments with them to help them remember everything he has taught them, and also to prepare them for when he is no longer with them.  Jesus, like the writer of John’s gospel, is using this extended dialogue to cast a vision for the disciples about how they are to proceed with his mission when he is no longer with them.  As you can imagine, this is a significant task, as he has been their sole leader and authority for three years, for the entirety of their time together.  Now Jesus is answering the question, “How will we know what to do, who to trust, where to go, once you are gone?” Who can we trust?  From where does our authority come when you are gone.  How will we know the truth?

Only days later, when Jesus has finished his dialogue with the disciples and finally been arrested, will Pilot  sit down opposite him and ask a similarly complicated, though slightly different questions regarding truth, a common theme throughout John’s gospel.  In his examination of Jesus, Pilate ask one of the most well-known questions of the gospel. A question that has resonated throughout history and resonates today more than ever, “What is truth?” A question that seems both foreign and all too familiar. 

Of course Pilate had a very unique perspective that brought him to this question, as he sat in a very powerful seat. One in which his primary concern was the silencing of voices that got too loud, the stomping out of movements that got too strong, and the tamping down of tensions between religious groups that got too out of hand. His security in this precarious position of power within the Roman Empire depended on his ability to stop problems in their tracks before they ever reached the ears of Cesar. To Pilate, the very idea of truth was a problem. In a position where quieting disquieted people was his main task, nothing threatened his job security more than the myriad truth claims that passed before him every day in Jerusalem. Everyone claiming the truth, of God of justice, of land, of rights, of freedom, of liberation, of equality.

To him it became a cacophony of voices claiming so many truths that by the time Jesus sat before him and uttered his truth statement, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Pilate could not help but hang his head, let out a deep sigh, and ask in a tone that did not beg an answer, “What is truth?” A question that was not so much the continuation of the conversation, but the gavel stroke that put and end to it.

Pilates disillusionment with the truth, his descent into the complete relativism that led him to utter this defining question, was born from exhaustion. From sensory overload. From the kind of interior destruction unique to those who have spent their entire lives, and every moment of every day, insuring the security of an empire at the expense of the oppressed and vulnerable. At that moment, sitting with Jesus, Pilate had convinced himself that this truth people talked about, this monolithic truth that provides the one who owns it with the power and authority of the divine did not exist. And he was right. To Pilate truth was either something a person or a group could own, claim themselves, and use as a tool for power and security, or it was nothing at all. Sitting across from him that day, Jesus knew something different about the truth.

Between these two extremes, an absolute truth that someone can own and the relative truth that dissolved into nothing, the teaching of Jesus to his disciples from this weeks gospel opens us up to a new possibility. Jesus, days before his fateful truth conversation with Pilate, sat with his disciples and told them that when he was gone he would send an advocate for them, and this would be “the Spirit of Truth.” Yet Pilate’s questions still reverberates, threatening to hush out the silent but powerful movement of that spirit of truth which Jesus promised his disciples.

The Holy Spirit, the advocate, is the Spirit of Truth. Here Jesus paints a picture of truth far removed from the extreme options of Pilate. If truth is spirit, the Holy Spirit even, then we can only hope to own it as much as we can hope to own the wind, which blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  We need only look to other descriptions of the holy spirit to learn about truth. It is not something that we own, but something by which we are led, something which moves in us and between us. It is unfolding and being revealed. It gives us our identity.  It drives us into the wilderness.  It gives us words when we think we have none.  It testifies on our behalf.  It reveals to us bit by bit the unfolding mystery of God. And as we will celebrate on Pentecost in just two weeks, The spirit of truth lights us on fire, setting within us a burning passion that sends us on our lifelong journey of seeking the truth, seeking justice, seeking the Kingdom of God.

There is only the Spirit of Truth, which can not be grasped and wielded, but only ever gently held. And only revealed, never forced. The spirit of truth invites us into relationship, which will not always be comfortable or exactly what we want to hear, but it will be true. We are not out to claim the one final truth, but on a lifelong journey of following the spirit of truth to deeper and deeper levels of relationship and trust. And part of Jesus call to love one another is to trust one another. To be trusty and to trust. To live into and embody this spirit of truth that dwells in us and between us, that connects us and leads us, and advocates for justice and for the truth to be revealed.

And looking back on that conversation between Pilate and Jesus, it seems now that Pilate did not in the end ask a question the ended the conversation without a response from Jesus.  Instead, we can see now that Jesus responded to the questions, “What is Truth?” with the only response there is.  The only way forward for us.  He responded with silence, with space for the possible, with wordless space for the truth to flow, to blow through the conversation and touch the truth in each of them.  He responded with a quiet reverence for the powerful, ungraspable, uncontrollable spirit of the truth that Pilate so bluntly disregarded altogether.  And this interaction, and Jesus’ words to his disciples today, invite us back to this silent reverence.  Back to one another, back to relationship, where we find the only place that the spirit of truth can truly be revealed.  Pilate is talking about alternative facts.  Conspiracy theories.  Fake news.  Jesus is talking about something more transcendent than that. There are no versions of the truth. There are no alternative truths. There are no optional facts. There is only the spirit of truth, which dwells in us, and moves between us, and connects us all

Paul, in a poignant scene from the book of Acts, models this Spirit of Truth for us in his conversation with those gathered at the Areopagus in Athens, where he does not make those absolute truth claims that you might expect of Paul in his mission to spread the Good News of God.  Instead, Paul takes a two-pronged approach, he invites people into relationship and he invites people into mystery.  He does not tell them that their truth is wrong, he invites people to share their truth, and then he shares his own. Paul, reflecting on an altar he’d seen in Athens dedicated to “the unknown God,” meets mystery with mystery.  He says, 

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

Paul lives into Jesus’ teaching of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, in some amazing ways in this dialogue.  Guided by the spirit of truth into relationship and engagement with the truth of those who share a different perspective and experience of God than him, Paul does two important things.  He says that God in uncontainable, and that God’s hope for us is that we would “search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God – though indeed God is not far from each on of us.”

Jesus’ Spirit of Truth blows through this scene with stunning contrast to our current rhetoric on all levels of discourse in our world.  Paul here shows us a way forward.  He recognizes both that he cannot possibly hope to claim the absolute truth of God, and that he is on a lifelong journey of seeking that truth, one in which God is never out there to be found, but always with us, forever.

So what is our way forward? Can we gently hold room within ourselves to wonder? To trust one another? To hear each other out in our genuine journey of following the spirit of truth. Can we lovingly lay down our defenses to have ears to hear the truth of the person sitting across from us? Can we be trusty in sharing our truth both with ourselves and with others? The way back to one another, the way back to the truth, is through relationship or it is not at all.

Death Is Sweeter Than Miss, It Is Longer Than Gone

The annual celebration of Mother’s Day always brings the experience of death close to my heart. My mother died on November 18, 2008, when I was 20 years old, and I did everything in my power to not feel the pain of her death.  I had developed brilliant coping mechanisms in order to do that, and theology was my primary tool, the very kind of theology we have been exploring over these last two weeks.  On a number of occasions I explained to people why I didn’t need to be sad or to grieve. “If I really believe what I say I believe, if I really believe in the resurrection, then I don’t need to be sad.  In fact, it is selfish to be sad.” I can look back now and lament my unwillingness to feel the pain of my mom’s death, and yet I can’t fault myself for this kind of reaction.  I thought that if I didn’t feel grief or pain or sadness then they weren’t really there, and by theologizing it away I convinced myself that they really weren’t necessary at all.  In the end, though, this sort of theological numbing was not an answer but an escape.  It was not healing but repression, and a repression that did more harm than good.  I had convinced myself that Jesus’ victory over death, his removal of the sting of death, his resurrection had abolished the need for sadness, took away the pain, destroyed the need to grieve, and all that did was make it worse.

These vibrant and foundational phrases, though, like “removed the sting of death,” need not be thrown away or repressed, any more than my grief did.  Instead, how might we understand them anew, in the light of our experience now, in the midst of death and pain and grief? 

Last week, we did this kind of reframing of the “sting of death” as it pertained to the oppressive use of death to control and overpower.  In a similar way, when we move to an exploration of the power of death for our individual spiritual journey of lifelong transformation, we can look at the cross and resurrection as a paradigm shift in how we understand the role of death in our lives. Jesus revealed the impotence of death to be used as a destructive device by those in power against the movement of justice and liberation, and thus extended to each of us a personal invitation to a new relationship with death and its sting. The potency and power of death, though, still remain. Death still counts, death is still important, though not as a tool of oppression, but as a sacred part of our human journey. Rather than destroying death, Jesus redeemed it and revealed its holiness to us. He showed us that death is not the end of the journey, but an important and life-giving part of the journey.

Of course, to say that death is a part of the journey and not the end of it is not to say that death isn’t deserving our grief. This is what I didn’t understand, and couldn’t have understood, when my mom died. Of course, death is still the end of something. Remember, Jesus didn’t simply come back to life and continue on with his ministry as if nothing had happened. He was different, changed, transformed, unrecognizable to those who knew him best. And he did not continue on with those disciples to whom he appeared. Eventually, he left. Death was both the end of something and the beginning of something, born from wounds that did not heal, but opened into new ways of trusting and loving and healing. It was the revelation not that God willed Jesus to die, either to defeat death or in order to forgive our sins, but that in this unfolding of life, in every conceivable way, and even and especially in suffering and death, God is present. We are not alone in our grief, God was not only there on the cross, but is present in every death, and always working to co-create new life with us and within us.

Again, this does not take away death’s sting, it does not delete the grief or it’s power, but reveals to us that our way forward is through the suffering and death, not around it. Engagement with it, rather than avoidance of it. In John chapter 10, before his death and resurrection, Jesus tells his disciples “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (John 10:1, NRSV). Jesus is reminding us of the truth of death and its power in our lives, that to find a depth of life, an abundance of life, for which we yearn, we cannot circumvent the process of feeling its pain, of grieving.  We cannot climb over the walls, because that would be trying to steal what is not ours. That would be moving past death, numbing its pain and avoiding it.  Any sort of abundance we find by moving past grief will always be fleeting, and lacking in depth. It will not really be ours, it won’t be integrated.

Jesus instead tells us that the only way forward, to abundance and depth, is through the gate, through the pain, through death and into new life. We are not called to get over our grief or the death and suffering that causes it, but to integrate these vibrant realities into our lives in order that they may cultivate something new in us from something that is gone. We hold this suffering and grief, knowing that the com-passion of God, the “suffering with” of God, the God-with-us of God, knows no bounds. God is with us everywhere, not as a distant, unmoved observer, but with-us in every way. And the more with ourselves and present to that suffering and death we can be, the more we will feel and recognize God’s presence in it, and the more we will grow in compassion for ourselves and the world.

For our own growth and healing, which leads to the growth and healing of the world, it is important that we preserve the sting of death, that we recognize it and honor it. To deny death its power and sting, would be to keep ourselves stuck, to stand at the gate wondering what might be on the other side. It is not to be escaped or destroyed, but engaged and integrated. In the words of Henri Nouwen, death is not to be feared but befriended. Our grief is messy, and painful, and tumultuous, but to theologize it away, to pretend that it is unnecessary now that Jesus died and was resurrected, is to deny ourselves death and resurrection. It is to deny the real redemption of the cross, the redemption of death as a tool for our healing and life rather than an enemy of it. When it has visited us, and come close to us, and walked beside us, even though uninvited, it somehow becomes like an old friend. We can move from the fear of death, to a quiet reverence for its sacred place in our world, in our humanity, and in our journey. We can taste both its bitterness and sweetness, knowing that God is doing so with us, and will continue to do the same into eternity.

Death is sweeter than miss
It is longer than gone
Smaller than never
More than what if

This is part 3 of a three part series. If you missed the first two, check out the post feed on the homepage.

Death Still Has Power, But Not As A Tool for Oppression

Last week we began exploring what it means in this Easter season, in a world filled with death and its painful fallout on all sides, to say that Jesus “took away the sting of death.” The phrase “the sting of death” comes from Paul at the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth. In a discussion about the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul asks the community in Corinth, “Where, O Death, is your sting?” This word that Paul uses that we translate as “sting” is the word κέντρον (kentron) in Greek, which, in another story featuring Paul is translated as “goad.” When Paul tells of his conversion in the 26th chapter of Acts he describes seeing Jesus in a vision on his way to Damascus and that Jesus said to him, “‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”

This word for sting is most simply something pointy, like the goad a farmer would use to poke an animal in order to make them move in a certain direction. It was a sharp prodding tool that was used for coercion, a tool of violence meant to take power over another and force their actions through threat of pain.

Jesus tells Paul, “It hurts you to kick against the goads,” meaning, “Isn’t it painful to persecute faithful people and ignore God’s movement in your life?” What would it mean to Paul to say that deaths “goad” has been taken away by Jesus’ death and resurrection? It would not mean that death is no longer powerful or painful. Not would it mean that we can no longer die, as if death itself has been erased. Instead, we are invited to see death not as an end, but as a beginning, as an opening into newness, because Jesus’ death at the hands of the state, as a member of an oppressed group fighting for liberation, showed that the movement of liberation cannot be killed. It cannot be squashed by death. “Where, O Death, is your goad?”

The stopping power of death was shown to be an illusion by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just like the state used (and still uses) death as a coercive and oppressive tool, a threat to force acquiescence, Jesus’ resurrection showed the cosmic impotence of this state sponsored “death tool.” Two thousand years after Rome wielded this tool against the liberating mission of Jesus, that spirit of liberation persists, and the empire of Rome does not.

Of course a revelation is not a promise of action.  It is no more a sign of God’s intervention in or controlling of human action than the cross was.  We are still responsible. We still need to respond.  This ending of the cross was certainly an ending, but every end is also an opening to something new.  This revelation is an open-ended invitation to respond differently now, and to re-frame how we both respond to and thus how we understand these powerful forces of oppression and justice in the world. God is not going to take care of our problems for us. God is not going to swoop in and stop the systemic oppression of the most vulnerable.  But we do know that the aim of God, the lure we feel in us, is not toward a power that dominates but one that liberates.  Not toward a power that wields death, but one that responds to death, that uses it by integrating it for our own transformation and the transformation of the world rather than as a tool for manipulating the world toward our own power.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the truth of the resurrection meets us on our way out of town, when we have given up, when the oppressors have won, and opens up to us the truth of God’s aim, God’s promise, that the DNA of the universe is liberation.  Isn’t this what the risen Christ was “opening up” in the scriptures when talking to those retreating disciples?  The history of the world, and of God’s mission in the world, is one of liberation and freedom.  This resurrection, the risen Christ mystery, is always calling us back to participate again, to engage in the struggle for justice, not matter how dire the circumstances, to do the work of justice in the kingdom of heaven. Not even death can stop Jesus from calling us to this kind of co-creation.

In this Easter season where we find suffering and death so close at hand, what if we think about the resurrection of Jesus not as some sort of cosmic shift in the fabric of the universe, but as the revelation of the universal pattern of death and new life that has always existed? A revelation of truth, rather than a change in it. Death is not the enemy, and never has been. Death is powerful, and Jesus has not taken away its power, but revealed in greater and greater depths the truth of that power not as a continued source of oppression but as an unstoppable force for liberation.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection revealed to us the impotence of death as an oppressive tool, we still are left with the question, what power is present in death?  For this answer, we turn from the transformation of the world to the transformation of the self.  Check in next week as we explore deaths power to transform us, and our power to transform the world in response.

This is part two of a three-part series.  Make sure to check back for part three!

Easter Came, and Everything Still Hurts

Did you celebrate Easter last week? I gathered with my church community via live-stream to celebrate Jesus’ “victory over death” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 285) and how his resurrection “took away the sting of death” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 504).

And today, 2,000 more people are going to die from the coronavirus alone, and even more than that from all the other things that people die from each and every day.

That many families and more will grieve. They will feel the loss of a person whose life was not so long ago inextricably linked to their own. Today, thousands of people will lose their jobs while thousands of leaders of hundreds of organizations will weigh the costs of keeping employees or letting them go into the uncertainty of unemployment. Doctors will decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. Thousands of people will make thousands of impossible decisions, and those who have systematically had their freedom to make decisions stripped away over years of both blatant and veiled oppression will look on as their communities are ravaged disproportionately yet again.

Last week I heard that Jesus’ death and resurrection took away the sting of death, and my response is, “for whom?” Ask anyone who has watched a family member die or received an unexpected call that someone they loved is gone. Does it sting any less today than it did a week ago? Was it any more painful the day before Jesus was crucified than three days after? My guess is no. So what are we to make of Easter, the celebration of resurrection and new life, while death and its sting continue to encroach on all sides?

It has been one week since we experienced together Jesus’ final meal with his friends, his agonized prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and trial, his suffering and violent death at the hands of the state, and ultimately his mysterious resurrection in the pre-dawn darkness three days later.  Over the history of the Christian tradition, theologians have tried to make sense of why Jesus died and what it meant for humanity and for God, or even for death itself. Some have said Jesus died in order to take away Satan’s power. Some say it was the necessary sacrifice to God in order to repay the debt caused by human sin. Some say it was in order to defeat death itself.

Let us think back, though, to Maundy Thursday, that night when Jesus, in great fear and trembling about the tensions swirling around him, cried out in agony to ask God to take away the suffering that he saw laying ahead of him in the coming hours and days. He asked first that that “cup” be taken from him, and then finally, in a moment of surrender, came to a new request; “not my will but thine.”

For many this episode in the garden has been understood as Jesus asking God to change God’s will that he die on the cross, with the assumption being that God required Jesus to die on the cross either as a sacrifice for our sins, or in order to be able to forgive humanity. But, if this was all part of the plan, all part of the will of God, and Jesus knew it, why would he, the very next day, cry out those words from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”? How could Jesus believe, after years of telling his disciples that this would happen to him, if this was all part of the plan, that God had forsaken him? Jesus’ own words on the cross seem to indicate something more going on than his obedience to some divine plan which includes this suffering.

Similarly, three days later, when he makes his first resurrection appearance to his disciples in John’s gospel, Jesus’ command to them hints at some deeper ongoing truth of the cross than a one-time cosmic paying of a debt to qualify for God’s forgiveness.  Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  This post-suffering, post-cross, post-resurrection commissioning to forgive would make no sense if there had just been a once-and-for-all act of forgiveness on the cross.  It seems that what Jesus started is not finished.  The cross was not a final requirement for forgiveness, but the spurring forward of a forgiveness momentum that the disciples are next responsible for, and we now with our place in the lineage of that commissioning are responsible for today.

We have been told that Jesus “died for our sins,” that he was sent by God in order to be killed, a necessary sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven.  We have been told that all these events were part of God’s original plan for creation, and that Jesus was simply obeying the command, even to the point of suffering and death.  Which would mean that his cry of anguish in the garden on that night before he was arrested was in vain from the moment it left his lips.  Do we think that it was God’s will that Jesus died on the cross?  Do we think that it was God’s will that he suffered so violently?  Do we think that it was God’s will that a member of an oppressed group be unjustly murdered by the very empire that was oppressing him so that God could finally forgive us? What, in that upper room commissioning from Jesus, seems to be the catalyst for forgiveness, both from one another and from God?  It doesn’t seem to be the cross.  It doesn’t seem to be a blood sacrifice.  Instead, it seems to be the disciples. It seems to be us!

What if Jesus’ suffering and death was never “part of the plan?”  What if there is no “plan” at all? What if we, like Jesus, are just living this all out one moment at a time? If this is the case, then our actions are not predetermined at all but are actually up to us.  We are responsible. Our actions are ours, and they have not only an effect on the people around us, but on all of creation, and even on God. Every terrible, painful, challenging moment of suffering in our lives and the life of the world is then not a pre-processed moment in the plan of God, but instead a novel opportunity for us to respond to suffering, and an equally novel opportunity for God to respond as well.  Might this free us to, rather than acquiesce to what is, respond with the desire bubbling up in us for what could be?  Maybe even what should be? 

Imagine for a moment that the premise for all these theological conclusions is wrong. What if Jesus did not come to die, neither as a sacrifice to buy forgiveness nor as a way to end death?Maybe, instead, Jesus came to change the world and usher in the kingdom of heaven, and somewhere along the way, as his ministry progressed and the tension with those holding authority mounted, it became clear to him that that mission would almost certainly end in his death and assassination.

Martin Luther King, Jr, on the night before he was assassinated, shared with a large crowd in Memphis, Tennessee that he “might not make it to the promised land with them.” Was his assassination God’s will? Part of the plan? By no means! Like Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, the prophet, the Son of Man, the anointed one, the healer and savior of the world, simply walked the steps of his journey, fulfilling his mission, as they unfolded before him.

When we see Jesus on that night in Gethsemane, when the writing was on the wall, and he knew he had been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and he knew the violent powers of the world were closing in, we hear him say, in a genuine prayer, “please God, let this not be the end.” And finally, after hours of prayer in the garden, we hear his resignation to the truth of what lies before him, “I wish it hadn’t come to this. But what is most important is not my salvation, but the salvation of the world. Not my will, but thine”

Like the prophets and liberators that had come before and would come after, Jesus lived every day into a mission and ministry that was bigger than himself and encompassed the whole world, which he referred to as “the Kingdom of God.”

And then on the cross, when all his liberating, saving, healing attempts had landed him finally in these last violent moments on the cross, by the hands of the oppressors, he lifted his voice in anguish and asked, genuinely, “My God, my God, how could the mission you called me into possibly end like this? Why have you forsaken me? Can this, of all things, possibly be used for liberation, for healing, for salvation?” And this question would hang there, in the air, lingering in the ears of all who could hear him for three days, until the answer would finally come early on the third day, at the gaping mouth of an empty tomb, in the astonishment of hushed hopes and whispered possibilities; “Why, of course it can.”

And so here we are, still picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together.  If Jesus’ death was not some cosmic chess move in God’s plan for defeating death, nor a payment of debt, then what are we to make of death that still stings, and even more, what are we to make of Jesus’ death and what it reveals to us in this moment of global suffering and uncertainty? 

Stay tuned for the next two posts as we explore these questions in the coming weeks.

This is part one of a three-part series.  Make sure to check back for parts two and three!

The Divine Dance of Hope and Suffering

The tag line for this blog is “a theology of hope and suffering,” a constant tension that we find weaving its way through scripture, in every episode of hurt and healing, challenge and triumph, death and resurrection. One of these episodes, where we see Jesus stand firmly in this divine tension, is the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus, of Mary and Martha, of Thomas and the disciples, is one that highlights for us an inescapable tension of our current situation.  The tension between hope and suffering.  The tension between the promise of new life and the pain of death.  Both the possibilities and the ends of things.  In this story from today’s gospel we meet Jesus in the middle of his ministry, having been to Jerusalem early on in that ministry, and now feeling called to return so that he can be with the grieving sisters of his friend Lazarus.  His disciples are skeptical.  It doesn’t take a miraculous revelation from God to predict that it would be dangerous to return to the region around Jerusalem, which is where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary reside in the town of Bethany, just down the hill from Jerusalem itself.  The disciples would prefer not to die, and thus not to return.  Jesus seems undeterred.

As the story unfolds, we hear Jesus communicate the hope and possibility that he sees in the suffering and death of Lazarus.  Like he said about the blindness of the man he healed in last week’s gospel, suffering exists so that God’s work can be revealed in it.  It is the canvas on which God paints with the colors of new life, hope, growth, transformation, and possibility.  Suffering, even death, to Jesus is not an end, but the cracking open of the universe for new things to emerge.  The soil that can be cultivated to grow new life.  From afar, Jesus can see the possibilities of God’ s presence in the suffering of Lazarus and his two sisters.  And so he tells his disciples, in the face of their own possible suffering, that they must go, they must respond to the suffering, not by curing it, not by erasing it, but by drawing nearer and nearer to it until, as Martha will warn later, they will be so close that they can even pick up its scent. 

And so they set out towards the place of suffering, into the heart of the unknown, the uncertain, where there exists the potential for both life and death.  In the courageous and faithful words of Thomas, who would later in John’s gospel receive the unearned epithet doubting Thomas, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Filled with hope and the possibilities of how God might be working in this suffering, Jesus approaches the town of Bethany with his disciples.  He sees the crowd gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.  He sees Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha weeping over the death of their brother.  And so, as Jesus draws closer in proximity to this pain and grief, without losing his hope, he enters into the suffering that is right in front of him.  Jesus weeps.  Jesus sheds the tears of sadness that Mary and Martha shed, seemingly while still knowing what is possible for God to do in this situation.  Likely knowing that Lazarus would be raised.  Jesus shows us here, that the possibility of new life in the midst of suffering does not take away its reality, its pain, its existence. 

The one who would raise Lazarus to new life in mere moments still takes the time to weep with those who are grieving over the loss of the very life that Jesus would return to them so soon.  Or maybe Jesus knows that there is something to grieve.  That there is something that has ceased to exist and will never be again.  Maybe he knows that the life into which he will raise Lazarus is not the same life he had before.  Maybe the life that Lazarus left behind in death is gone forever, and Jesus’ grief is real.  Grief over what has been and never will be again, even in the face of what new things may be emerging from the tomb right before everyone’s eyes.  Jesus shows us that hope and suffering are not opposites on a spectrum, but dance partners in the ever evolving wedding banquet that is the kingdom of heaven among us.

And there Jesus stands, weeping, grieving, hoping, physically standing in the tension between life and death, something ending and something new being born, between suffering and hope. Jesus stands in much the same place as his ancestor Ezekiel stood hundreds of years before as chronicled in our reading from Hebrew scripture this morning.  Much like Jesus standing at the tomb, Ezekiel was a prophet among a people who had been destroyed, let down, left to suffer.  They found themselves in a season of their communal life when nothing seemed certain.  They had been displaced from their home. From their place of common worship, driven out of Jerusalem into an exile in Babylon with no promise of return in sight, Where all the vibrancy of life had dried up.  And in that moment God revealed to Ezekiel a vision of the future, maybe the same vision that Jesus held with him on the way to Bethany that day, of a valley full of dry bones.  Bones that had had every bit of their vibrancy and life taken away.  Bones that were as dead as they could get.  They were beyond hope, beyond new life, beyond possibility.  But then God says to Ezekiel,

“Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,”

We find ourselves today, in this moment, with Jesus and Ezekiel.  We stand at the mouth of this gaping cave, smelling the overwhelming stink of death and decay. We look out on a valley filled with dry dry bones, devoid of all hope, vacant of all signs of life.  There is no end in sight, there is no reason for hope, and yet God asks us to prophecy to these dry bones about the hope that is still present in the middle of this desolation.  Jesus asks us to not look away, but to walk toward the suffering.  And both remind us that we do not get to choose between one or the other, but are required to hold one in each hand, living in the tension between both, where new life grows.  

We know that something has died.  Something has ended.  We may return to what we remember as normal.  We may all go back to work.  We may go back to school.  We may return to the schedules we had as of two months ago, but we will never be the same after this.  The grief is real, as is the hope.  Hope that we might find new ways of being the church, hope that when we are brought to the ends of ourselves we will find God there waiting to usher us even deeper than we have ever asked for or imagined we could go, hope that we may find our faith in a new way, learn how to share it with our children and families and friends in new ways, create out of this void something that has never been before communally, liturgically, theologically, culturally.

  And yet, all that hope we feel when we stand at a distance from the suffering must be held next to the truth that things are ending.  People are dying, schools are closing, business are collapsing, people are losing their jobs.  The hope is real, the suffering is real, and there is no way to pull them apart, nor are we called to try.  Instead, we are being called to stand with Jesus outside the tomb, weep with him, hope with him, and as something both old and new emerges slowly into the light from the gaping mouth of the abyss, may we ask ourselves gently and compassionately, what ending am I grieving today? And what newness might be slowly emerging from the darkness of that grief?

“Stay at Home”: Finding Our Deepest Connection, Beyond Physical Proximity

Last night California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide mandate that people stay at home until further notice in a continued attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus over the next weeks and months. As of this morning, the governors of Illinois and New York have issued similar mandates, with potentially more to come. As we move further into this season of ever-deepening isolation and required distancing from one another, how are we meant to respond? As Brené Brown has shown in her research on connection and vulnerability, humans are “hardwired for connection.” So what happens to our connection when we are meant to keep our distance for the safety of others? Is there something deeper that we are being invited to discover?

In chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John there is a story about a woman who meets Jesus alone by a well in the middle of the day as he passed south through Samaria travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem. In this story, it seems that this woman has been isolated from the community that has sustained her for her whole life. She has been told to stay home, to keep her distance, though it was not because of any physical threat of illness, but because of a social and spiritual one.  When we read this story from John’s gospel there is an implied question from the very beginning: Why is this woman alone at the well in the middle of the day?

In that moment in history, it would have been expected that all of the women of the town would travel to this well together in the early morning, before the heat of mid-day set in, to collect water for their households.  The fact that this woman is out by the well all alone in the middle of the day indicates to us that for some reason she has been ostracized.  She has been cast out and isolated.  She has become untouchable.  She is in the middle of an uncertain time, in a place of social disconnection and suffering.  To what will she return when she goes back home that day?  An empty house, a cold shoulder, a judging glance?  Who can know?  Who would possibly be able to tell her when she will feel normal again, whole again, connected again, safe again?  So she sits by the well and draws her water alone, uncertain,  and unsure. 

But on this day, in the midst of this isolation and disconnection she meets Jesus, and she has what begins as a very confusing conversation with him.  He approaches her and asks her for a drink of water from this well, the well that belonged to their ancestor Jacob.  The well that had belonged to one of the last ancestors that they claim as common.  See, for thousands of years the Jewish people and the Samaritans had been one nation and one people: the nation of Israel.  Hundreds of years before this interaction at the well, Israel split into a northern Kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah, and over the next millennium they grew apart, and grew a deep animosity toward one another as they fought and argued over the proper way to observe the rites and ceremonies of their religious lives.  They began worshipping together, in the same place, with one voice, and at this moment they find themselves worshipping apart, in opposition to one another.  And this is where things stand when these two people, this woman and Jesus, meet by the well today, one a Samaritan descended from the northern kingdom, and one a Jewish man descended from the southern kingdom, both of them, though descended from Jacob, the one whose well they both seek to draw water from on this day. 

And in this interaction, where Jesus is crossing lines of isolation that date back hundreds of years, he mentions to her a living water that he can offer her, that is greater than the water she will find in this well, that will bubble up in her to eternal life.  Soon she is intrigued and wanting this living water which she can drink of and never be thirsty again, she asks him for it, and what does he say?  Not yes here you go.  Not let down you bucket one more time into the well and you will find it.  No, instead he makes what seems like a totally irrelevant request.  “Go, call your husband and come back.”  At first glance it appears like Jesus is taking part in a totally different conversation than this woman altogether, but upon further inspection we see the way Jesus works at a deeper level than we were expecting.

Because what has really happened is that Jesus has touched on and engaged her in the very source of pain and suffering that has left her ostracized.  “Sir, I do not have a husband.” She says to him.  And Jesus responds, “you are right, you have had five, and the one you have now is not your husband.”  The non-answer from Jesus in response to the woman’s requests for the living water reveals to us just how Jesus goes about giving this living water.  It is not a transaction, where one asks and the other gives.  Instead, Jesus meets this woman across lines of prejudice and animosity, he meets her in the midst of a season of deep pain and suffering and isolation in her life, and in that moment he touches on her deepest source of pain, the thing that has kept her separated, and in so doing unearths a spring of living water that was already inside of her. He uncovers this deep well of connection and courage and power and freedom that was inside of her all along but had just been covered up by these years of separation and uncertainty. It is not that he needed to put the living water into her, any more than you need to put water into a well.  No, you draw water out of a well from a source that you must dig down deep to find, and once you find it, it is fed from a reservoir that is never ending and constantly refilling. 

This is the living water that Jesus offers this woman at the well, and it is the same living water that he offers us now. This woman, in many ways, is where many of us are today.  Feeling disconnected from our communities, disoriented by the waves of change that have washed over us as we continue to try to respond as best as we can to the realities of global pandemic, and uncertain about what tomorrow will bring.  We are with this woman today, and she is with us.  The distance we have created between ourselves is different than the distance imposed on this woman by her culture.  We stand here in an empty church today not because we are ostracized from one another, but out of a deep desire to protect those most vulnerable in our community.  At the same time, though, we share with this woman at the well the deep desire to be reconnected to the people and places that sustain us.  To our churches, our schools, our jobs, our colleagues, our friends, our families.  We can feel the disconnect.  We feel the distance between us.  We feel the upheaval and fear and frustration and uncertainty of the world around us. The uncertainty of our next paycheck, or our next school day, or our childcare, or our very physical health.  Yet, as this story shows us, we can know that wherever we are in this season of uncertainty and disconnection, Jesus will meet us there.  In our fear and frustration, in our doubt and confusion, in our overpreparedness and underpreparedness.  Jesus met this Samaritan woman in her isolation, when reconnection and normalcy seemed impossible.  Jesus meets her there, far from others, far from her community, in her fear and doubt, and reconnects her to something deeper within herself.

Jesus’ invitation still stands for us today, in challenging times such as these, when we are separated from one another, to take this moment, this time of fear and crisis, this season of desolation and uncertainty, and find what connects us beyond just our physical proximity to one another.  Today we hear Jesus meeting a woman in her deepest suffering and through that suffering helping her unearth the deep reservoir of courage and perseverance and spirit that is within her.  It is a well that bubbles up in her and overflows with life so much so that she cannot help but tell everyone in her community about it.  She cannot help but respond with action, and connection, and relationship.  She is not only reconnected to her community, and to herself, and to God, but standing by this well of their common ancestor, Jesus and this woman, who should not be talking, who should not be together, who should be separate and afraid of one another, find in the depth of their history and tradition a commonality that spans across these boundaries that separate them.

Today, let us recognize that we too have one of these wells in us.  On the surface it looks like we are miles apart.  It looks like we are all separate from one another. Isolated from one another.  But just like the well from which the Samaritan woman drew her water every day, we are all connected to the same source at our greatest depth.  We are all drawing from the same source, from the same depth within us, that connects us all.  This moment, this time, this season, has a weight to it that makes us feel weighed down and stuck, but we can let the weight of this moment draw us down deeper and deeper into this depth of ourselves, the depth of our community, the depth of our common humanity, and find something there that is bigger than any moment.  Deeper than any fear.  More stable than any uncertainty. And we can reconnect to the Countless centuries of people who have persevered before us.  Through times of trial and fear and doubt and pain.

We have the capacity within us for more perseverance and struggle and strength and courage than we think.  We have this overflowing capacity within us to heal the world, to be transformed, to persevere in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

In this season of Lent, when many of us have now given up the last thing we would ever give up as a community, our corporate worship life together, let us ponder the important questions of our faith and our community that these circumstances bring about in us:  What does it mean for me to be a Christian, a disciple, a follower of Jesus in the world today if I can’t gather in that building we call the church?  What does my participation in the mission of God look like if it doesn’t include that important time in our common life?  What is our place today as a community?  How are we called now, in the midst of fear and crisis, to take part in God’s mission in the world?

Rather than overwhelm us, we know that if we can hold these questions, like the woman at the well, they will cultivate in us something more than we could have asked for or imagined.  What are the practices we can cultivate that will help us hold the space for these unanswered questions and reconnect us to our depths?  What are the practices that will sustain us in this time of disruption, disconnection, and suffering?  How can we make space in this discomfort and uncertainty to find Jesus at the well, and dig down to a depth that we didn’t even know we had?  And when it bubbles up to eternal life and healing, who will we tell about it? How will we respond?

A Vision from the Mountaintop: Fulfilling the Dreams of Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the most powerful and mysterious stories from the Gospels is that of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop before three of his disciple; Pete, James, and John. In this story, Jesus leads his three followers up on a mountain and before their eyes his clothes become dazzling white and his face shines and suddenly, standing and conversing on either side of him, appear Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures from Hebrew Scripture.

This story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, which includes the Gospel of Matthew. One important theme throughout the entirety of Matthew’s gospel is a repeated parallelism between the figure of Moses from Hebrew scripture and Jesus.  Matthew, in a number of different ways, is constantly presenting Jesus as a new kind of Moses, putting Jesus in settings and situations that are meant to remind us of the life and ministry of Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, and to the precipice of the promised land across the Jordan river.  The author of Matthew’s gospel begins this parallelism from the very beginning.  As soon as Jesus is born, he and his family flee into Egypt for safety, as the ancient Israelites did starting with Joseph.  They then travel from Egypt back to Nazareth in the region of Galilee, but only after surviving the killing of many children at the hands of Herod, much like the Passover story in Egypt.  When Jesus begins his public ministry, he famously in Matthew chapter 5, goes up on a mountain to expand on the Law to his followers.  The Law that Moses went up on a Mountain in Sinai to receive from God in the book of Exodus as the Israelites were wandering for those forty years in the desert.

It is this continued parallelism that we find in the story of the transfiguration.  Just as we hear in the story from Exodus chapter 24 of Moses going up the mountain to receive the tablets of the ten commandments and the other instructions of the Law from God, we see Jesus going up on a mountain and being transfigured before the three disciples he brought with him, with a shining face and glowing clothing and finally revealing Moses and Elijah with him in conversation.  So, what are we to make of this story, this otherworldly occurrence that is both entirely unique and at the same time flows so naturally from the stories of Moses interacting with God from Hebrew scripture?

These three disciples, Peter, John, and James, three of the first four disciples called all the way back when Jesus first began his ministry along the see of Galilee, follow Jesus up a mountain not quite knowing what to expect.  Clearly, by their terror, they had no idea what was going to happen.  Like Moses in the story from Exodus, they encounter God on the mountaintop, in a thick cloud that descends on them and in a booming voice, and they see the vision of Jesus’ deepest identity, and in return their deepest identity.  They see that Jesus is not just an individual with an individual mission but is deeply rooted in the history and lineage of his tradition.  In Jesus’ identity exists all the law and the prophets, all the hopes and dreams collected over hundreds of years by these generations and generations of Jewish people.  Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of Heaven, for justice and equality and unity and compassion was not his own, it belonged to Elijah before him, and Moses before him, and Joseph before him, and Jacob before him, and Isaac before him, and Abraham before him, and before any of them, it belonged to God.  There is a similarity to the stories of these people, hundreds of years apart, encountering God, because they are all participating in the story of God, in the hopes and dreams of God, in the vision and mission of God in the world.

Moses participated in encountering God first in the burning bush, and then in a pillar of cloud in the desert, and then on the top of Mount Sinai.  He led God’s people out of bondage, through the trials of the desert, through pain and frustration and hopelessness in the face of a promise that seemed as if it would never be fulfilled.  He led them to the precipice of that promised land, and if we remember the story of Moses life, and specifically the end of Moses’ life from the book of Deuteronomy, we remember that for all his participation in this mission of God, he never himself made it to that promised land.  He was brought up to the top of Mount Nebo at the end of his life, just east of the Jordan river from Jericho, and God showed him the vision of the land that he had spent so much time and energy and sweat and tears and years longing for and leading people toward and he never set foot in it.  That is, he never set foot in it until this story of the transfiguration.  The mountain that Jesus ascends in this story with his disciples is most likely Mount Tabor, just southwest of the sea of Galilee and West of the Jordan river in that very promised land that God told Moses he would never enter, and yet there he stands, conversing with Jesus and Elijah, on the other side of the Jordan from where he died. On the other side of the Jordan from the desert where he wandered.  On the other side of the Jordan from where he first encountered God.  On the other side of the Jordan from where he was buried.  He has made it to the promised land, and yet, the mission of God had still not been fulfilled.

Almost two thousand years later, in a church in Memphis Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bore witness to his participation in the mission of God in the world in a speech to sanitation workers who had gone on strike to protest poor working conditions in Memphis.  Martin Luther King, two thousand years after Jesus brought Moses into the promised land, was taking part in that same mission that Jesus undertook to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth, where there is equality, and justice, and compassion, and an undeniable equity.  Martin Luther King shared with the crowd that night in Memphis that if he could choose to have lived in any time in any place in any moment of history in the world, he would choose the very one he was living in.  He knew that there was no time like the present to do the work of the kingdom of Heaven.  He knew that the struggle in modern America for equality and an end to racism is the product of the same struggle that has been going on throughout history since the beginning of time.  The same struggle that Moses encountered, the same struggle Elijah encountered, the same struggle that Jesus encountered.  He knew that he was taking part in a dream that was not just his own, but had been Jesus’ before him, and Elijah’s before him, and Moses’ before him, and before any of them it had been God’s dream.  The dream of the promised land that is not so much a physical territory but a kingdom in which all are equal, and everyone has what they need.  King knew that there was no time to wait to bring this dream about.  As he said that night, “It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” He brought to this time and this place and this crowd a hope for the future in the midst of dire circumstances.  As he said, “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.”

In his final moments on stage that night, as he cast his vision for what America could be, for what the world could be, for what the kingdom of Heaven could still be, he ended his speech like this:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day, April 4th, 1968, at the age of 39, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee.  He, like Moses, had been to the mountaintop.  They had seen the promised land.  They had been shown the vision of what the kingdom of heaven could be.  They had experienced God in “the cloud of the impossible,” the unfathomable, that which could never be, that which is seemingly hopeless, and yet God brings into being anyway.  They had seen it, and they died before they could cross that river.  But Moses’ people did cross that river, and hundreds of years later, his descendant Jesus of Nazareth brought him to the promised land on that mountaintop in front of Peter, and James, and John.

Now we stand here, in the year 2020, fifty-two years after Martin Luther King, Jr. told us he could see the promised land from the mountaintop, and yet, we have not yet crossed the Jordan together.  But we are at a turning point in this journey.  Those of us in positions of power and privilege are finally beginning to recognize that we have not been in the promised land either.  If all of us cannot dwell in the promised land, none of us can dwell in the promised land. Because we would be mistaken to think that King was telling us that white America was in the promised land and that black America was trying to get in. What he was trying to get us to see is that when even one person is left out of the promised land, none of us can dwell there. If one person is oppressed, then no one can be free.  To echo King’s words from Memphis over 50 years ago, our choice is not between equality or non-equality, but between equality and nonexistence.

On the way down the mountain Jesus himself would tell his disciples that he too would not make it to the promised land before this death.  But as we know, in the resurrection even the tortured, wounded, and murdered Jesus would walk again, treading alongside his disciples toward the unfolding Kingdom of Heaven.  For in Christ all the dreams that flow from the dreams of God are fulfilled.  In Christ Moses finally entered the promise land.  In Christ Jesus was brought back into relationship with his disciples. And we can know that in Christ Martin Luther King will someday step foot into the promised land he saw from the mountaintop.  Because in Christ dreams never die with the people that proclaimed them.  They live on as God’s dream for all people.