We pick up this morning with John’s gospel narrative. Seven weeks ago on the 4th Sunday of Lent, we read all of John 9 about the man who had been born blind whom Jesus heals. You may recall that Jesus, after telling his disciples that the blindness had nothing to do with sin, spat into some dirt, made mud and rubbed into the man’s eyes. He then told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He did and he miraculously received sight. But the religious authorities got mad because Jesus had done this on the Sabbath. After an inquisition, they tossed the man out of the synagogue—his place of worship for a long time. He came to Jesus, expressed his belief and worshipped Jesus as Lord. Jesus declares, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see and those who do see may become blind.” The religious types overhear this and their feathers get ruffled. “Surely, we’re not blind, are we?” To which Jesus says, “Absolutely. And not only that, but you’re the ones with sin.”
And then he says the words we just read, about the sheep pen and the gate leading into it. How the shepherd comes in by the gate but the others who sneakily try to climb over the walls are nothing more than thieves and bandits. That sheep will only follow the shepherd because they know his voice, while the voice of a stranger calling for them will only cause them to scatter.
But the Pharisees are still hooked by his previous comment that they can’t see. They don’t get Jesus’ figure of speech or parable at all. They seem to be both blind and thick. Here’s the formerly blind man in front of them who has decided to follow Jesus since they have run him out of the synagogue. And Jesus tells them that sheep will only follow a true shepherd because they know his voice. The now-seeing man follows Jesus.
Nothing doing. So he tries again. This time more plainly. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Every year on this Second Sunday of Easter we read this account from John’s Gospel. The disciples have chosen not to believe Mary and the other women when they tell what happened early that morning at the tomb. Instead of rejoicing and proclaiming alleluias, the disciples have holed up and double bolted the door fearing for their lives.
And then somehow, Jesus appeared. While he’s been resurrected in bodily form, he’s been changed as well. “He came and stood among them,” in spite of the locks, St. John the Evangelist writes. Jesus then said, “Peace be with you,” and showed them his hands and his side, and it’s at that point—after seeing his scars—they knew it was really him and they rejoiced. He wishes for them peace again, and then sends them out just as God had sent him into the world, breathing on them so that they could receive God’s Spirit.
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.” The others try to tell him later that they saw Jesus, but he responds the same as they had to the women. Nope. Not gonna believe it. Not unless he sees with his own eyes. It’s the very thing, of course, that the other disciples needed to believe themselves. They saw Jesus’ hands and his side first, and then they rejoiced.
Just as the sun is coming up on that Sunday morning, two women named Mary make their way to Jesus’ tomb. They’re coming for no other reason than to see it, to grieve at this place where he’d been buried. Suddenly, Matthew writes, the ground begins to shake because a messenger from the Living God has come to roll away the massive stone placed at the entrance to the cave. He looked like lightening, his garments blazing white. And the guards nearby shook and fell over, seized by terror.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says to the Marys. “I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised just as said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” The women immediately leave the tomb overcome with both terror and ecstatic joy. As they run to give this message, Jesus meets them. “Greetings!” he says, and they go to him and grab hold of his feet to worship him. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, echoing the angel. “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.
At times I remember the people who have done great harm to me in this life. Thankfully, I’ve not been inflicted with much real physical harm. Most of the venom directed at me has come through words and actions and occasionally through outright hatred. Often this came in spite of the fact that I had been doing my absolute best to engage with others and find neutral ground in the midst of conflict, in trying to do what I thought was right.
These memories are hard, of course. While I’ve mostly gotten past the point of vindictively wishing harm on them for what they did to me, I still want to make them see my way of thinking or to ask them why. I want to make meaning, to understand what I could have possibly done to make them respond so spitefully, and, most of all, to hear them ask for my forgiveness.
Those words have not come. They will probably never come. Wrongs have been done and life has gone on as time marches forward.
Remember, God says to the Israelites. Remember this day as you hurriedly eat with your cloak wrapped around you, your sandals fastened and your staff in your hand. Remember that you cannot even wait for the leaven in the bread to rise, for on this night you will be delivered from the bondage of slavery in Egypt and set out for the Promised Land.
Don’t forget this day, these stories and the rituals that go with them. Keep the story alive in your descendants so that they too may know that it is God who delivers them from their oppressors. Let it live on each year as you remember.
Jesus and his disciples were in that frame of mind as the story we heard tonight unfolds. Jesus’ story of deliverance merges into the foundational Exodus story for faithful Jews to remember that God is a God who delivers people from oppression.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for a very long time. Scripture tells us that a Pharaoh arose who did not remember that God worked through Joseph and saved the Egyptians from a crushing drought. Joseph had long since died while the Israelites stayed in Egypt and flourished. This new Pharaoh saw them merely as free labor in order to complete his building projects. He violently oppressed them. And God heard their cries for mercy, and eventually delivered them.
They had watched it all destroyed. Their beloved city lay in ruins and their temple to their God torn down. Many lives had been lost before they finally gave up and were taken into captivity. The Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar had overpowered the Israelites and led most of the people who had survived back to the land of Babylon.
They lived in exile, away from the comforts of home and the land the grew up in and the smells of food they recognized being cooked for dinner. All of it taken from them and they lived without hope.
And Ezekiel the prophet was among the ones living in Babylon. One day, the hand of the Lord came on him and took him in a vision to a valley in the desert filled with bones. Ezekiel calls it “the valley,” so it must be familiar to him, and possibly the valley where one of the final confrontations took place before Jerusalem fell. The bones had been in the sun a long time and were now bleached white.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks him as they walk around the valley past femurs and skulls and hip bones. He waits a bit, Ezekiel does, before he finally gives his answer. “O Lord God, you know,” he replies, but we aren’t aided by his body language or inflection. Was it “O Lord God, you know”? Or maybe, “O, Lord God, …. you know?” Whichever way he said it, it came out right and God told him to prophesy to the bones, to speak God’s words to these dried up skeletons.
So he begins to speak and the bones started rumbling all around and soon found their right parts and began connecting one to another, rattling as they moved. Once formed together like a plastic model skeleton in biology class, sinews and tendons appeared, and then muscles and finally skin. But, Ezekiel writes, there was no breath in them.
Breath in Hebrew is ruach, also meaning wind and spirit. God instructs Ezekiel to once again prophesy so that the breath, the spirit of God, might enter into these lifeless bodies. So he does, and God’s spirit comes and they begin breathing once more.
And then the most interesting thing happens. God looks over this valley now filled with the living and declares 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.’” Did you catch that? These aren’t the ones who had already died when Babylon swept in and devastated Jerusalem years before. No, these bones that come together and have new life breathed into them are the living ones, the house of Israel living in Babylon along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. They hadn’t died. They had just given up hope.
We’re in the season of deserts as we continue our Lenten journey. Jesus had been out in the wilderness 40 days after his baptism from John. Deserts make us face our fears, our self-worth, to see if who we think God wants us to be is really who we are. Dry times in our lives emerge sometimes out of our own making, but often they are thrust upon us and we don’t know what to do or how to react.
Often, in the desert, we give up hope. We imagine that we’ll never experience life again, that the way it had been for us before—whatever that before is—won’t ever happen again. We imagine that our lives are as good as gone, and despair creeps in all around us. We see nothing but dried up old bones.
Yet, while our inclination is to get on to the good part of this story, the Easter part, when the Spirit of God comes in and breathes new life, maybe, as Professor Katherine Amos puts it, “Maybe God’s question to us this Lent is, ‘What can your spiritual dry bones teach you? What can you learn about yourself and your relationship with the world from the painful difficult paths you are called to walk?’” Those are hard questions to consider, but they embody the questions of Lent.
While I’m as keen on the next person to move as quickly from the pain of life into the restoration of it, I know that life rarely works on our timetables. We see the dry bones of a lost relationship or a painful job situation, or the illness of a loved one or any number of other things, and we want to get through it as quickly as possible. I know that’s true for me when I’ve hit those long dry spells. I wanted it to be over, to move on and find new life. But I couldn’t force it to happen.
So we must walk in the desert. But, and this is the key thing from our text, we must do so without losing hope. We must trust that at some point, in some way, God will send a message of prophecy and the dry bones will rattle and shake and the breath of God will come again and we will be restored.
What brings us consolation in the desert times? How do we maintain our connection to God as we journey in the wilderness? Is it intentionally praying the Jesus prayer (“Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner”) throughout the day? Or journaling our thoughts? Or maybe looking for the signs of life in the desert by doing the Daily Examen? Perhaps it’s not losing connections with friends—something many of us do when hard times hit. Instead of pulling back, we instead should try to invest more in those relationships trusting on the support of those we love.
Or maybe it’s just reading small snatches of Scripture and remembering that God does not leave us alone forever. “Do not fear,” we hear over and over in Scripture. It is hard to keep that in mind when we feel so lost and are needing hope, but I can say with certainty that God keeps God’s promise if we can hold on to hope.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” And God does know; listen to what God says. “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,” says the Lord.” May it be so for us as well. Amen.
 Katherine E. Amos, “Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-4: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Westminster John Knox, 2010. Pg.124.
I’ve read a number of comments and posts and news stories about Fred Phelps who died this week. He’s the angry guy from Westboro (KS) Baptist Church. It wasn’t really a church at all, but an angry hate filled group that picketed outside funerals, schools and churches (including the church I served in Colorado, albeit before I arrived there). He couldn’t see people as children of God, but rather as things.
I’m sad on two counts: 1) For the pain he caused so many and 2) For the narrow life he lived due to his hate. I don’t mention Mr. Phelps here in my sermon, there’s not much to say really except that I hope he finds true mercy and love in the age to come. But this idea of seeing or not seeing others plays a central role.
A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent —Based on John 4
Way back in Mrs. Rumohr’s 11th grade English class which she called “man’s search for identity,” I remember learning about one of the great themes of literature: Appearance verses reality. We read Death of Salesman and talked about how poor Willy Loman couldn’t face the reality of what life had become for both him and his sons Happy and Biff, so lived in a fantasy world he concocted. We read many other books as well, and each time Mrs. Rumohr would remind us to look at the way the author described reality and whether the protagonist or other characters saw that experience in the same way.
In short the question became what is seen and what is not seen? Do the characters really see? Do they get it? Or are they so blinded by their circumstances that they cannot see the truth?
John’s gospel picks up just as Jesus has finished his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus. We heard one of the most famous passages of scripture last week in that exchange, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” And then, John writes, Jesus leaves Judea and the area around Jerusalem in order to head north back to his hometown region of Galilee. “But,” John pens, “he had to go through Samaria.”
This is not at all what it seems. First, let me remind you that good Jews avoided Samaria like the plague. Samaritans were half Jews, “half-bloods” if you’re using terminology from the Harry Potter series. Because of this, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, dodging contact with each other at every turn. Good Jews would circumvent contact when they had to travel north from Jerusalem, often taking the longer road to the east into the desert rather than going straight north on the shorter road which took one directly into Samaria. But, John writes, Jesus had to go through Samaria. He had to.
And once he draws near to the city of Sychar, Jesus rests at Jacob’s Well while his disciples head off to find food since it was lunch time. At this point, a Samaritan woman appears walking from the city in order to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink and an interesting dialogue follows.
She’s a bit taken aback by his boldness as a Jewish man asking her a Samaritan woman for a drink. Spoken and unspoken taboos about gender and nationality pop up all over in this setting, and the alarm bells ring inside the head of this nameless woman. She asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” And our Gospeler, not wanting us to miss the intricacies of what takes place, adds an aside “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Sharing a cup would have been out of the question.
But Jesus then tells her that if she knew who he is, she’d be the one requesting a drink. He had living water to give. Thinking he’s still talking about the physical wet H2O, she comments on the reality that he has no bucket, and the well goes down a long way before you get to the water. He again claims to have water that would quench every thirst, and she finally asks him for this living water. Jesus requests that she go call her husband, and she replies that she doesn’t have one. Jesus, in a moment of knowing the inner workings of her life, tells her she’s right, because although she has had five husbands in the past, the man she’s with now is not technically a husband.
At this point, I’ve heard a number of sermons go off the rails (and probably some of my own too), making a case that this woman had to be a sinner. Certainly she’s engaged in serial flings—much like an Elizabeth Taylor type—that don’t last long before she gets unsettled and moves on again. Of course, this logic continues, the fact that she comes out to draw water at high noon, in the heat of the day, shows her status as a societal outcast; women would be out there in the morning or late in the evening after the heat had subsided. And then there’s the dodgy way she responds, turning the topic from water to religion in a matter of seconds. Surely she’s not wanting Jesus to delve any deeper into her soul so she puts up a smoke screen about both religion and politics.
But that’s not what the text says. Jesus never says to her—as he does to many others—“Go and sin no more.” He doesn’t indicate in any way that she has done anything wrong. (Now, what these men have done, that may have been a sin, especially this last one who refuses to marry her.) A number of things could be going on: she was the wife of a number of brothers, each marrying her in turn while not producing any children, with the last refusing to marry. Or it could be that she was married and cast off by these men who could easily divorce her without cause, and since women had no standing and no way to earn money, she had to find another man to support her. And this kept happening, her being cast off, no longer loved, and her need for support and protection has lead her to this relationship now which has no legal standing. She’s almost certainly lonely, with little to no self-concept and certainly no standing.
And Jesus converses with her. He offers her living water to quench all her thirsts. He sees deep inside her, recognizing that which she needs most of all, and he asks if she wants this water. Upon recognizing that he is a prophet, she asks Jesus a burning question, not in order to change the subject, but to learn more, to ask if the Samaritans would always be outsiders according to the Jews because of where they worshipped the living God. “Believe me,” Jesus tells her, “that the time is coming when you’ll neither worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem, but in all places which will become sacred simply because God cannot be contained. God is a spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.” Put another way, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to bring eternal life.” God loved the world. All of it. All of us. Not bringing judgmental eyes about who’s in or out, who’s worthy or not. Jesus sees our thirst, our deep longings, and offers us water.
Ten days ago our family spent time at the Mall in Washington DC, visiting some of the Smithsonian Museums. We all had been at the National Air and Space Museum when Melissa and Olivia had gone ahead to see Dorothy’s shoes and the First Ladies’ gowns at the National History Museum while Noah and I got one last exhibit in. As Noah and I walked on that cold bright day to meet them, we passed a homeless man with a sign sitting in front of one of the galleries. After going maybe 30 yards, Noah leaned over and said to me that he wanted to give the man some money to help him. Frankly, when I saw him, I put my head down and held Noah’s hand a bit tighter, and kept going. I looked at Noah and saw the tenderness and concern in his eyes, so I took out my wallet and give him two bucks.
I watched as he doubled back and put the money in the man’s outstretched cup. After a moment with words being passed, Noah came and joined me again, and we started walking once more. “What did he say,” I asked. “God bless you.” And then Noah, without missing a beat, said, “I hope he gets enough money so he can rent a place soon.”
No such thought had ever crossed my mind. I figured he just wanted money for a vice or two or maybe for a cheap meal. I had judged him unworthy of receiving my help. I hadn’t seen him for what he is, a child of God.
The reality clearly is that we are all so very thirsty and needing the living water of Jesus. The Samaritan woman ran off at this point to share the good news about Jesus. “This couldn’t be the Messiah, could it?” she asks the others in the town. All the while the disciples come back and try to force Jesus to eat something. “I have food to eat that you know nothing about,” which makes them wonder if they missed the pizza delivery guy somehow, although there’s no box nearby. They don’t get that there are hungers deeper than a rumbling tummy. But the woman does. She’s able to convince the rest of the town to come and see what Jesus is all about.
And he, a Jewish man, stays with them, “abides with them” in the Greek, for a couple of days, even though they’re Samaritans. He gives them water and food that sustains them. Jesus sees them as beloved of God, and he, the savior of the world, the great I am, feeds them. They come to believe his words, and their lives are changed, forever. He didn’t judge them, nor ignore them. He didn’t walk by them while they sat by the sidewalk. He stopped, and treated them with dignity and respect and offered them his true living water. “For God so loved the world.” All of it. Every single human being that has walked, is walking and will walk the face of this planet. God loves them, loves us, and offers us nourishment in order to satiate the deep yearnings within our souls. We only need to see, truly see, that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Amen.
St. Paul rocks out the building metaphor in writing to the Corinthian church. He wants them to know that Jesus is the foundation and not any teacher or other person. And then we need to build on that foundation.
I grew up working in the family business. My dad, after his time in military service as a tank mechanic, used the skills he learned to wire large machinery. After a few years and upon earning his Master Electrician’s license, he struck out on his own founding LaBelle Electric. I learned the basics of the trade and got instilled with a good work ethic. I can look at a blueprint and imagine how something comes together from paper into reality. I’ve been on construction sites throughout the entirety of my life, and when I head to a Habitat build or see some of the work my brother does when I travel back to Michigan, it’s very familiar.
So when Paul begins talking about buildings and foundations, it’s right up my alley. The metaphor works for me. Partly this is because electricians are on a construction site right from the beginning, laying underground pipe when the foundation is being poured, and they are one of the last trades to leave needing to wait for the painters to finish before putting on outlet covers or finishing touches on lighting. Paul tells us that there’s a construction project happening, and that project is us.
Paul describes himself as a master builder—for those who have seen the new Lego movie, this is easy to envision. He’s worked hard in setting up the Corinthian church, in laying a foundation for them. And that foundation, he tells them quite simply, is Jesus Christ .
No before we start imaging Jesus getting squashed by a building or poured over by cement—easy to do if you have a child’s imagination that runs wild sometimes or are a kids yourself, and if that isn’t you, well, you know have that image in your head (You’re welcome)—Paul really means the teachings of Jesus. The way Jesus lived his life. The things that embodied Jesus’ ministry, the love he showed, his own sacrificial death and especially his resurrection. Those become the makings of this foundation. Jesus, his love, his compassion, his suffering and his conquering of death.
And now those who work on the construction site, the electricians and carpenters and plumbers and roofers and heating and cooling specialists, they all come in and build on that foundation. Paul talks about this in detail in the next verses, but our lectionary committee in their great wisdom decided to leave the specifics out. Hear these words from verses 12-15 that were omitted from our reading today:
“Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”
Paul is clueing us in on what sort of material we should use. While we can use anything that is nearby, Paul subtly tells us to use the things that will last like gold and silver and other gems, those that will remain after a testing by fire and not to use much wood, hay or straw that will turn into ash and float away. Before I move into talking about what will last, let me point out something straightaway. Paul doesn’t say that we will be lost when the testing fires come, rather only the things we used to build with. Putting it another way, Paul declares that while we will face testing (he doesn’t say any of us are exempt from this), that we will not only survive but find true salvation and be purified, we will not be utterly lost; good news to be sure.
So it comes down to the materials we use and the work we do. Any DIYer knows this. When you’re at Home Depot looking at materials you can use, you first think about your budget, then you try to get the best you can. When it comes to issues that could lead to harm, you call in reinforcements. Many of you might feel comfortable replacing a light switch, but changing a service panel would be out of your league (and mine too, for what it’s worth).
So it comes down to the basics of Jesus. Pope Francis, in a recent off the cuff video taken with an iPhone by a Pentecostal pastor the pope had befriended while he lived in Argentina, addresses a large gathering of American Pentecostal Christians about Christian unity (I’ll let that sink in for a moment). He begins speaking in English to them, asking pardon since he’s not very fluent, then switches to Italian but declares he speaks neither English or Italian but the language of the heart. He says, “This language of the heart has a [particular] language and grammar. A simple grammar. Love God above all, and love the Other [the neighbor], because he is your Brother and Sister. With these two rules we can go ahead.”
First love God above all. Take time each day to pray, even if only for a few minutes. Give God thanks for the good things you have, for your breath, the opportunities of this new day. Be grateful in all circumstances for God’s abiding presence. God’s deep love. A simple prayer of Wow or Thanks or Help, as Anne Lamont puts it, can go a long long way. Simply pausing, if nothing else, to recognize God in your life.
Read scripture. Even just a few verses. It’ll help you learn and remember the stories of our faith, and encourage and remind you that God has worked in the past and God continues to work even today. Scripture can inspire you when you face difficulty, guide you when you fall off track and help you when you seek to find the way forward. We can offer two things that may help you. First, there is a pamphlet in our Bell Tower Entrance called Forward Day by Day. These are small devotionals with a reading, small meditation and prayer. We get these every few months, and I encourage you to pick one up. Second, for families, we have subscribed to a Daily Devo sent each day to your email. The format is similar to Day by Day, and it includes a photo or video about the topic. If you are interested, let me know and I can add your email to the distribution list. These small things can go a long way to building up your faith.
Second, love others. We promise to respect the dignity of every human being and to work for justice and peace. As our world grows ever smaller with the advancement of technology and information, who our neighbor is continues to expand. Sometimes just giving monetary support can change someone’s life. When we hosted our international potluck here at St. Mark’s nearly three years ago, Melissa and I, like others of you, sponsored a child. We became connected to Evelyne a young girl from Burandi. We send in our monthly support, and each Christmas we send a larger gift for her. This week we received a letter of thanks for that Christmas gift. Evelyne writes, “I thank you very much for the attachment you have proven to me, and for the financial support granted to me.” She tells us that the gift we sent, $100, was exchanged for a large sum in their local currency. She continues, “With that amount, we bought different need items of the family: clothes and shoes for me, clothes for mum—with them we will be well dressed and look smart on Christmas while going to church. Some food products like rice and palm oil to improve our diet, soaps to improve hygiene, a goat for farming and iron sheets to rehabilitate the roof of our house and with them the rain will not longer be harm[ful] for us.” With the letter she sent a photo, with Evelyne and her mom holding a couple new clothing items, a small sack of rice is in the foreground, three large metal sheets are behind them leaning against their modest hom, and off to the side is a young goat. $100 goes a long way in the poorest country of the world, and I think it’s some of the best money we’ve ever spent.
Love others. Focus on relationships and spending time with the ones you love. Open yourself up to new friendships. Share your stories. Be kind to those different from you. Don’t look down on others because of their circumstances. Be present when trouble comes, and allow others to be present to you. Find connections either locally like Southborough’s Food Pantry or Project Just Because, or around the globe either through organizations like Compassion and World Vision that invite sponsorships of children like Evelyne, or those working for justice like Love146, our February partner. Don’t make it all about you. Love.
That’s the stuff of gold and silver and precious stones. That’s the building materials we should reach for again and again. And notice the building that we are constructing. It isn’t our own individual places not our own lives, but rather a temple for God. And more than that, the you Paul uses when we writes, “You are God’s temple,” isn’t a singular you, but a plural. “Don’t all you all know that you are God’s temple,” he asks. Together. In community. The work we do in creating this wonderful home for God takes all of us together. The Christian faith is never lived alone; it is always in community. And God calls all of us, each and every one of us from the youngest to the oldest, to do our part, to share the language of the heart and to construct a dwelling place for the Almighty. May we do so with enthusiasm, commitment and joy. Amen.
A sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23 for the Second Sunday After Christmas Day.
A couple of years ago I received a Christmas card with this image on the front. It may look familiar to you. It’s called “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and it’s a painting by French artist Luc Olivier Merson finished in 1879. It resides permanently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This isn’t the typical scene for a Christmas card, of course, and the person knew me well because, if she hadn’t, I would have received a nice Hallmark card with angels or a cleaned up scene of the manger or the like. If you know the biblical backstory, this scene—certainly a Christmas one or we wouldn’t have read it this morning on the Second Sunday after Christmas—reminds us of the darkness in the story. Of Herod’s intense anger. Of fear.
Melissa and I were married 18 years ago this past week. Even though we weren’t Episcopalians or at a liturgical church at the time, we wanted readings from Scripture that reflected the Christmas season, and in working with the minister who presided at our wedding, Harold Bussell, we selected this text. Our dear friend who was to read it asked us a few times if she had the correct verses. Were we sure we wanted this lesson—including the bit about what Herod did to the baby boys back in Bethlehem that was conveniently left out by our lectionary committee—to be read on such a happy occasion? We simply assured her that we did.
We got a fabulous sermon on our wedding from Harold, assuring us that even though weddings brought great joy like Christmas, we would not escape difficult times. The vows we made on that day would mean that we would be in it together no matter what came, that we would be with one another. While I wish I could say that we’ve only had Hallmark card experiences during these past many years, I would simply be lying to you and also to myself. We’ve been to Egypt and back on more than one occasion, but we’ve been with each other through it all. And God has been with us too.
So this painting draws me in when I see it. It holds my gaze and I remember my wedding and the years since that time and the true meaning of Christmas. Writer, Kate Benedict, reflecting on this painting penned these words:
“The child Jesus gives off the painting’s only light, and the eye finds that light automatically, following it, finally, to the blind, uplifted head of the sphinx itself. Stark, modern, terrifying, it is an extreme image, suggesting the dark night of the soul. They are experienced by anyone who quests, the dark nights when something vital in you sleeps, something feral in you starves.
“Yet the implication of the painting is a hopeful one. Merson shows us that the divine child shines whether one’s eyes are closed or open. In the depths of the dark night lies the promise of morning when, having rested, the Holy Family will wake and move on, leaving the blind sphinx of an old order behind in the dust. However unendurably a dark night plagues us, however much it keeps us from our urgent endeavors, still it may be the vital interlude when the divine child of inspiration makes itself manifest.”
I mentioned those three left out verses rather obliquely. Someone at a desk somewhere decided that they’re a bit too painful to hear during Christmas because it’s not what we want Christmastide to be about so he cut them out, but they are a part of the biblical narrative. St. Matthew writes, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”
Joseph, Mary and Jesus escape under the cover of night having been warned in a dream to flee. These other families face unspeakable horrors. Where was God? Why couldn’t God do something for them too? Certainly warning them so they could band together to fight off the Romans would have been something God could have done for them. We want the cleaned up version of this scene too. We want the Hallmark version of the Bible.
This week a mentor sent me a link to an amazing sermon from the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, former Dean of Chapel at Duke and current Vicar of St. Martin’s-in-the-Field, London. In it he describes how much we want God to do things for us.
But, he writes, “’for’ is not the way God relates to us. God does not simply set the world straight for us. God does not simply shower us with good things. God does not mount up blessings upon us and then get miserable and stroppy when we open them all up and fail to be sufficiently excited or surprised or grateful. “For” is not the heart of God.
“In some ways we wish it was. We would love God to make everything happy and surround us with perfect things. When we get cross with God, it is easy to feel that God is not keeping the divine side of the bargain—to do things “for” us now and forever.
“But God shows us something else. God speaks a rather different word. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get the summary statement of what the Christian faith means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” It is an unprepossessing little word, but this is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas and at the heart of the Christian faith. The word is “with.” And that word, he suggests, is the most important word of the Bible. With. We celebrate the birth of Emmanuel. God with us.
In the bleak mid-winter, I wish I could say that God will solve all your problems. Or that your loved ones won’t suffer. Or that the trouble you are facing financially or with your teen or with your parents can simply disappear if you have enough faith. But I need only look at that painting and recognize that even Jesus’ own family faced challenges and anxiety too. Yes, they escaped death when they made it into Egypt, but that meant living as exiles, as refugees for a few years in a place completely foreign to them with a different language and culture and foods and certainly away from friends. (Remember, in Matthew’s gospel the Magi don’t come to Bethlehem until Jesus is a toddler and he’s now at a house. Surely Mary and Joseph made connections with others there.) And those friends may well have lost a child in Herod’s rampage. And they have to keep changing their plans due to this trouble—they intended to return to Bethlehem yet they are sent to Nazareth instead.
But God is with us. In Egypt. And back in Bethlehem. And in Framingham and Marlborough and Southborough, too. And we are called to be with people too. Not to try and fix all their problems—we can’t—or to hope that a donation will change everything for them—it won’t. Rather we live into Christmas by being with them, by working with others, so that they are not isolated in this life, even and especially if it means simply being present with them.
I close with a poem by civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman titled, “The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
 Kate Benedict, “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” http://www.katebenedict.com/RestOnTheFlight.htm Accessed 1/2/14.
 Samuel Wells, “Rethinking Service.” http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html Accessed on January 2, 2014.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And so begins the Nativity story from St. Luke, reminding us of the powerful people at the time of Jesus’ birth. Augustus and Quirinius and others just like them called the shots in that area of Palestine, or so they thought. With the sound of their voices and a stroke of the pen, they could make thousands of people move about like pawns on a chessboard. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary did as they were commanded, traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem because of Joseph’s heritage.
None of the powerful ones asked if it inconvenienced Joseph or Mary to make the 80 mile journey or so. It didn’t even cross their minds, or if it did, it would have been with evil delight. So traveled they did, and arrived in Bethlehem to find it full up. No guest rooms could be found even among the relatives. Finally someone offered them space by the animals—we’re not told if it happened to be a stable or a barn or even a cave. Simply that the manger would double as a bassinet after Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Which she did, of course. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.”
The action moves immediately to an angel messenger. But, as Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee put it, Luke’s narrative turns completely away from the powerful. While you’d expect a heavenly messenger to by-pass the officials of the Empire, you might expect the angel to go and find the clergy. But “the angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes not to the Temple but to shepherds living in the fields.”
Shepherds were not trustworthy people and had little to no standing in the community. Their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court, and due to the constant moving of their herds, lived a vagrant life. But the messenger of the almighty appears to them in the fields of Bethlehem rather than going to the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem a mere 5 miles away.
Which makes good Bishop Satterlee suggest this: “If we want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Jesus is being born where people need him most.”
Now before we start saying this is exactly the reason we’re Episcopalians and not Lutherans, let me unpack that a bit. On this most holy of nights, we pull out all the stops. We get dressed up in our fancy clothes and light all the candles in this church and decorate this place with dozens of poinsettias. We’ll hear exquisite music and will kneel once again to sing “Silent Night” as the lights are dimmed. And we do all this to celebrate Christ’s nativity together. This place is wonderfully resplendent and I am very grateful for all of this and the hours it took to make this festival Eucharist so memorable.
And yet I cannot help but think of the other places I’ve been this Advent season with parishioners. I’ve had the privilege of serving turkey soup to some three hundred homeless people in Boston at the St. Francis Center. I took communion to parishioners who are unable to get past the four walls of their homes due to their physical health. A group of us visited with seven young men in the lock up in Westborough who desperately want to be anywhere other than where they are at and long to have a mother’s home cooked meal. This past Sunday a band of carolers and saxophonists made their way to a nursing home to bring joy to the elderly who need to live in a 24 hour care facility due to their poor mental or physical help.
In all of those places, Jesus is so desperately needed.
As I stand before you in splendid array tonight, I know I’ll spend a mere 3 minutes outside in the cold as I return to my cozy home. Before bed, I’ll look excitedly at our glorious tree which has more than enough presents underneath it and give thanks for all my blessings. And I know with certainty that if Christ chose to be born once more on this night, my house would not make the short list of places for the angel to visit. I live in Jerusalem and work at the temple. The angel would head to Worcester or Lawrence or to the family just barely scrapping by or the houseful of immigrants or the nursing home or the prison or to the guys sleeping under the overpass just trying to make it one more night.
I’ve been watching Christmas films as an Advent practice this year. What has interested me most of all is if Hollywood gets it, if the true message of Christmas can be found in feature length Christmas films (and yes, I’ve found that to be the case more often than not). I started out the weekend of Thanksgiving with “The Bishop’s Wife,” an old classic staring Carey Grant as an angel named Dudley sent to answer the prayers of a new episcopal bishop and his wife. As a friend once said, if you’re going to have an angel show up to answer your prayers, who wouldn’t want him to look like Carey Grant.
The bishop is in the thick of a capital campaign, trying to raise millions in order to build a new cathedral. He is constantly seen in despair as he loses his very soul over the project, in addition to losing his connection with his wife and daughter who are being sacrificed on the altar of his work. Dudley attempts to lead him toward peace, but as the bishop gets closer and closer to Christmas Eve, he feels it all slipping away.
As the good bishop walks up to the pulpit on that Christmas Eve, he find not the sermon he wrote, but one that Dudley crafted for him. Listen to his words:
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer, and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled – all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most, and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
In just a few hours, some 50 kids will be opening up gifts given by all of you even though you’ve never met them. Extravagant gifts of love and joy bought after you chose a gift card from our giving tree. Games and stuffed monkeys and winter coats and gloves. Pajamas and graphic tees. The gift of Christ will be visited upon those homes. And in a few months, a village somewhere in the Third World will get clean water in the first time in God knows how long due to our Sunday open plate offerings. And those boys in lockup will be visited again in February, and a meal will be served to the homeless at St. Francis House this coming Sunday. And we’ll reach out to those whose lives are turned upside down. All of it is spreading the message of Christmas to those who need it so profoundly.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad place to be on Christmas Eve after all, as we too need the overwhelming love of the Christ child. On this most holy and silent of nights, the cry of newborn can be heard and with it comes good news for all people. The news is carried on the wings of angels who fan out to the most unlikely of places. We need this message of hope in the desolate places of our hearts, the places we rarely go for fear of what we might find there. The good news can penetrate even the darkest places of our own lives, flooding us with the magnificent light of God’s love shown in the humble birth of Jesus the Christ.
May these 12 days bring you peace, and with it goodwill to all, as you share the love of Christ with those who live in the desolate places of our world and those who live in the desolate places of their own lives. May Christ’s light pierce the darkness so that all people may know the joy of Christmas, and may God use us as holy messengers to share that joy. Merry Christmas! Amen.