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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Just One Question

Lent 4A; John 9:1-41; St. Paul’s, Smithfield 3/26/2017
Jim Melnyk: “Just One Question”

Listening to the radio the other day I heard an oldie from the mid-90s – whoever thought we’d call something from that time period an oldie?  Singer Joan Osborne sang the hit song, “One of Us” (Written by Eric Bazilian). I remember being intrigued by it back then, and even using it in some youth classes – even lately.  The refrain is enough to bring us up short.  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us?  Just a stranger on the bus, tryin’ to make his way home?”  I heard the song and it made me think about today’s gospel lesson from John – because isn’t that the very essence of John’s Gospel?  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” the author tells us.

We are here this morning because on at least some level we believe that God has come among us as one of us – that in the mystery of the Incarnation, God has entered into the everydayness of our human lives, and knows and understands our human-ness. It also means that in some way, God has made Godself known to us in and through the person of Jesus.  As we say in today's Eucharistic Prayer: "In your infinite love you made us for yourself...[and] sent...your...Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us... (BCP, 362).

Osborne’s song has a haunting reality for those of us who claim the name Christian – for those of us who are Jesus followers.  The song calls us to examine the struggles we have with our faith – what it means to be faithful in this life – in this place – day after day after day.  What if God was one of us?

To begin with, sometimes that’s just something hard to accept with the amount of anger and violence we see around us in the world every day.  Some days it just doesn’t seem to make much sense – or to have made much of a difference to humanity.  And yet, the foundation of our Christian faith is the Incarnation and the willingness of God to befriend us, and to suffer with us, in the midst of our own brokenness – and not as some kind of superhuman – not as some kind of superhero – but rather like, as Osborne puts it, the poor person we see on the street corner, or the stranger we might meet on a bus, or outside Walmart, or even our grocery store.

There are other questions in Osborne’s song – questions that seem appropriate as we read about a man born blind who suddenly receives his sight.  “If God had a name, what would it be – and would you call it to his face, if you were faced with him and all his glory, what would you ask him if you had just one question?”

Presented with the reality of a man who is blind the disciples have just one question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”  Obviously for them, as for so many in ancient – and not so ancient – times, blindness, illness, or other forms of misfortune were understood as punishment from God.  The disciples, in asking this one particular question, seek to justify the man’s blindness.  It’s got to be somebody’s fault, they figure.  Somebody had to have messed up big time. 

The Pharisees and some of the Judeans involved in the story have a question as well.  Actually, they have several questions, all coming after the man has been healed.  Now, this healing took place on a Sabbath day, and so we know immediately that those who seek strict Sabbath observance are going to be angry.  So their questions come out of their anger at a miraculous healing being done on the Sabbath; but I suspect also out of their mistrust and possibly their fear of Jesus.  “Who is this man?” they ask, trying to debunk the reality staring them right in the face.  And to the man’s parents, “Is this your son who you say was born blind?  How then does he now see?”  They simply couldn’t see the Good News as real.

In Christ, God has broken through the barriers of isolation, fear, recrimination, and prejudice, for one of God’s people, and there is no joy – no celebration – no praise for God from anyone but the one who has just been healed. 

Everyone seems to have questions, and no one seems to want to see the answer right before their very eyes.  As singer Joan Osborne croons, “God is great!” but the disciples, the parents, and the Pharisees seem to miss the point.  And that’s where the final lines from Osborne’s song say so much for me.  “If God had a face, what would it look like?  And would you want to see, if seeing meant that you would have to believe in things like heaven, and in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?”  Would we want to see, if seeing meant we would have to believe – and then live as we believe – with no crossed fingers?

These particular Pharisees, not wanting to believe the power of God in Jesus, ask him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  The answer Jesus offers brings them up short – and it should bring us up short, each time we hear it.  “If you were blind,” says Jesus, “you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘we see,’ your sin remains.”  Here we have men and women who have had the chance to look God right in the face, and I have to wonder if they really want to see at all.  Do they really want to see, if seeing means they would have to believe something new and life-changing about their God, and about how God can and does act in the lives of men and women – in the lives of children and youth?  Do they really want to see, if seeing means having to let go of staunch beliefs – many of which separate them from others and from God?

Asking questions of God – and seeking to look into the face of God – is a dangerous thing, my friends!  It’s dangerous because it just might mean we have to change our minds about a few things.  It’s dangerous because we might just realize how much more compassionate and caring than us the Creator of heaven and earth is – and how much more compassionate and caring God calls us to be than we might feel comfortable being!

It might mean seeing Christ in the unkempt beggar or the iffy-looking stranger on the bus…in the batterer as well as the battered…in the high school dropout or the gang member defending his or her turf…in the migrant workers who help put food on our tables while barely living hand-to-mouth, or the refugee fleeing persecution and possible death from halfway across the globe. 

Asking questions of God, and seeking to look into the face of God, is dangerous because if we actually begin to see Christ in people we would rather avoid, we might just feel called to do something about their plight – and that would mean giving up something of who we are, and what we have.  It would mean our Christianity would have to be more than worship on Sunday mornings.  It would mean a commitment to live out our baptismal promises to proclaim Christ, and to be Christ, in and for this world.

Asking our questions and seeking the face of God can open us to the dream of God if we let it. 
And seeking the face of God might open us up to the important questions of this life and faith: “How, in this world of anger, pain, and death can we show one another the love of God in Christ?  How can we truly come to respect the dignity of every human being?  How can we better seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves?  How can I find the grace to understand that someone else’s different faith in God is not an attack on my faith in God?”  Or perhaps we might simply ask, “God, will you help me to love?”

In response to all this – to the Gospel story and to Osborne’s song – there is a Jewish Midrash – or interpretation of scripture – many of you have heard me mention before.  The writer suggests that before every human being a legion of angels goes forth proclaiming, “Make way! Make way for the Image of God!”  Such an understanding would have allowed the disciples, the Pharisees, and the others in today’s gospel lesson to put away their suspicions, their fears, and their anger; and then allowed them to each rejoice in the wonder of God’s healing and saving love.  Their questions would have been transformed from questions of anger and suspicion to questions of awe and wonder.

How would each of our lives change, if each one of us could see, hear, and believe the cry of those legions of angels that go before each of us – the cry of those legions of angels that go before every person we meet?  Make way!  Make way for the Image of God!

One of Us

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
And yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin' to make his way home?

If God had a face what would it look like?
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
And yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin' to make his way home?

Just tryin' to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone…

(Performed by Joan Osborne, written by Eric Bazilian)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Opening Up Our Inner Well

Lent 3A: Ex. 17:1-7; John 4:5-42 St. Paul’s, Smithfield 3/19/2017
Jim Melnyk: “Opening Up Our Inner Well”

They hadn’t been back to the old farm since their childhood – but memories persisted and they set out one warm, dry spring day to find the old well they remembered coming upon once long ago.  They searched most of the day without any luck.  It had been an especially dry springtime in the area. 

Finally, near the end of the day when they were both hot and tired, they noticed some cows gathered in the one place they hadn’t yet looked.  They shooed the cows away from a corner of the pasture that was both muddy and messy from what cows always leave behind in the pasture.  Digging through the mess – which wasn’t much fun on a warm day – they found a large rock with a depression at its lowest point.  The depression was clogged with mud and rocks and sod. 

Working more purposefully now, they dug the mess away from the depression and suddenly a clear stream of living water sprang up around them.  Out of the ground, surrounded by dirt and rock and cow pies, came cold, clean, water.  It had been there all along – even when there was little or no evidence of its existence – all it took was a little purposeful digging.

Throughout the whole breadth of Scripture there are images of living water sustaining God’s people.  Always it is God who gives the gift of water, which is, in effect, a gift of life. 

Water is one of the very first images we come across in Scripture.  “In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God – or the Spirit of God – swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).  When we look to the heavens for habitable planets, one of the first things we look for is the possibility of water – and perhaps the absolute necessity of water for our lives is the reason water shows up before any forms of life in both of our creation stories.  Water is there from the very beginning.

We come across the need for water in this morning’s passage from Exodus, as those who have been liberated from Egypt quarrel with their leader, Moses.  But we should bear in mind, “The Hebrew people were not chronic whiners complaining about the food service. They were desperate people faced with annihilation. No wonder they asked, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ The slaves thought their liberation from Egypt would immediately plop them down in the Promised Land. But God's first freedom act was deliverance into the severe and harsh wilderness,” perhaps to show these newly freed slaves that their freedom, and their life, comes from God (Nancy Hastings Sehested, Sojourners On-Line, Preaching the Word, 3/19/2017). The Holy One gives them the gift of water from a rock as a sign of the Divine’s ongoing presence with and for them.  The promise of God and the living waters of life are always present for the people of God – the challenge is to trust – something that comes with great difficulty, even for a people who had just been delivered from slavery.

And the prophet Isaiah, speaking to a people anxiously returning from exile, reminds us once again that it is God who gives us the gift of living water.  “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).  God’s promise of living water – of thirst assuaging grace – is from the very beginning.  God’s promise of living waters defies slavery in Egypt and it defies exile in Babylon.  The dream of God is like a well of living water flowing at the heart of creation, and for the heart and life of humanity.

When Jesus comes upon the Samaritan woman at the well and engages her in conversation over a drink of water, he comes with all the history of God’s redeeming work in mind.  Jesus engages the Samaritan woman realizing that such an exchange is more than unusual.  While contrary to some modern day interpretations, it was not out of bounds for a rabbi to speak with a woman, the fact that they are alone and that she is a Samaritan does have bearing.  We may recall from Luke’s story about the Good Samaritan that the first century relationship between Jews and Samaritans is strained at best.  Each saw the other as out of bounds religiously.  The woman is surprised, if not shocked, that Jesus would speak to her, let alone ask her for a drink.

When she replies to Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she is engaging Jesus on a level quite similar to that of Nicodemus from last week. The reality that their conversation takes place in broad daylight makes their exchange bold in comparison to the nighttime setting with Nicodemus.  In fact, the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is the lengthiest dialogue Jesus has with anyone.

And while it does take her a while to fully understand what Jesus is promising her – living water that will assuage her deepest thirst – in the end she gets it – and she even enters into a theological dialogue with Jesus about the proper ways, and proper place, to worship God.  I submit that by the end of their conversation she is already experiencing that inner well of life – those living waters – of which Jesus speaks.  Much like Peter, Andrew, James, and John leaving their nets by the shore and following Jesus, the Samaritan woman leaves her water jug by the well and rushes back to town telling anyone who will listen about her meeting at the well.  As one of my clergy colleagues says, she turns out to be an “Introverted, Anonymous, Spunky and Spirit-Filled” follower of Jesus (The Rev. Lea Slayton).   She becomes an evangelist to the Samaritan people – and a woman who has had a rather sketchy reputation among her own people, leads many to believe the Good News of the coming kingdom of heaven.

Later in the same Gospel Jesus speaks even more clearly about the presence of God’s living waters in our lives.  Speaking to a crowd of listeners Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).  The author of John’s Gospel goes on to tell us that the living water Jesus is talking about is the Holy Spirit of God welling up within us (v. 39). 

But our English translation doesn’t do justice to what Jesus actually says.  More accurately he says, “Out of the believer’s belly – or out of the believer’s bowels – shall flow rivers of living waters.”  The belly or the bowels just doesn’t sound as romantic, as poetic, or nice as the heart, does it? 

We’re right back to the cow pasture and the well – the deep, clear, spring is there, it’s just clogged up with dirt, rocks, sod, and cow dung – and there’s nothing romantic, poetic, or nice about that, is there?  The living waters of God – the Spirit of God – resides in the last place we want to look for it; perhaps in our own forms of slavery or dependence, our own experiences of exile, or at the very heart of the brokenness of our lives – delivering us “from all that binds us, diminishes us, and enslaves us,” (Sehested) moving us to proclaim healing and wholeness for all.

In the end we have the privilege of looking back at these faith stories through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  We have the privilege of looking back at these faith stories through the lens of our baptism into Christ, and the waters we experience in our baptism are symbolic of the living waters of God alive deeply within us, and drawn forth as we open ourselves to God’s promise and presence in our lives.

Remember, the thing about the well in the pasture is that it had been there all along – it just needed to be uncovered.  The living waters of God are alive and well in the deepest places of our lives – we just need uncover them and let them flow.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Where We Have Not Yet Been

Lent 2A; Gen. 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; John 3:1-17 St. Paul’s, Smithfield 3/12/2017
Jim Melnyk: “Going Where We Have Not Yet Been”

Would you be willing to change your life based on three brief sentences you believe you are hearing from God?  Three sentences?  I’m willing to bet there would have to be some pretty explicit guidance going on for most of us to sign on the dotted line. 

Before God calls, Abram and Sarai seem to be doing pretty well as semi-nomads living near Haran, smack in the middle of the Fertile Crescent.  And while it’s true they have no children of their own, they are part of an extended family and they even have their own herd of cattle – meaning they have some wealth.  They're doing okay for themselves.  At seventy-five years of age Abram is probably thinking it’s time to put his feet up and let the younger relatives take on the hard work.  But all that’s about to change – after three brief sentences Abram trusts are coming from God. Suddenly Abram and Sarai are all in on a crazy-sounding venture– and the way will get a bit rocky from time-to-time from that point forward.

As Abram’s and Sarai’s lives are about to change, it is interesting to note that one meaning for the name of the city “Haran” is “crossroads” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W. Gunther Plaut, Union for Reformed Judaism, p. 89).  God comes to Abram and Sarai at a crossroads in their lives.  They have a choice.  They can stay in Haran with Abram’s family – a family that seems to be well established – or they can pack up everything they own, bring along a few close family members, their servants and their herds, and head off into the sunset for a land that God will show them.  Can’t you just hear Abram and Sarai wrestling with the challenge?  Should we stay or should we go?

They step out with only a nudging sense that God is leading them somewhere new – to a land that God will show them – no map, no compass, no GPS – just a promise that somehow they’ll know it when they get there, and that in the end, God will bless them in more ways than they can ever imagine.  It’s actually a good thing they don’t have any kids.  How do you answer “Are we there yet?” for the thousandth time when you don’t even know where you’re going to begin with?

Over a thousand years later Nicodemus comes to his own crossroad.  Intrigued by this guy Jesus, Nicodemus slips through the dark, quiet, night in an attempt to assuage his curiosity.  Perhaps he goes during the night because that’s the only time he is sure to get an audience – there are so many people around Jesus every day.  More likely he goes at night because it’s safer that way.  Nicodemus has some standing among the leaders of Israel, and Jesus already seems to be making waves – having gone a bit ballistic in the temple not long before – turning over tables and chasing merchants from their stalls.  What will happen if any of my colleagues see me with that rabbi?  Is this just a dangerous bout of curiosity, or am I being led by God to seek out this Jesus? Should I stay or should I go?  One brief exchange later and Nicodemus goes all in.  He becomes a follower of Jesus who will later risk his own life to help bury his friend and teacher.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us, “Both the Abraham text and the Nicodemus text entail going where we have not yet been ... into God’s new life. For that reason Psalm 121 is a fitting companion piece. That psalm is about a journey, being safe on the way even if the route is dangerous. Thus we can imagine…,[first of all,] Abraham being one for whom God will “neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4), and [then we find] Nicodemus being invited to be kept by God in his “going out and [his] coming in” [as he comes to know Jesus] (verse 8). The journey is [one into] God’s newness again…” (Walter Brueggemann, Sojourners Online: Preaching the Word, 3/12/2017).

And while Nicodemus certainly knows the promises found in Psalm 121 – he most likely grew up hearing them time and again – Abram and Sarai do not.  They come on the scene centuries before those wonderful promises are first uttered and then penned.  Either way, it is always risky business when God leads us to places where we have not yet been.  And choosing to take that first step can be paralyzing for all too many of us.

A famous philosopher named Yogi Berra once said, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.”  Sometimes the only thing we can do when we reach a crossroad is pick a direction and start out – because if we just stay where we are – paralyzed with indecision – we certainly won’t get anywhere new – nor will we get anywhere old, for that matter.  We’ll just stay stuck.

God is constantly inviting us into the unknown – and perhaps even at times the unfathomable.  God invites us to go to places where we have not yet been – and that can be tough on those of us who belong to a culture which immortalizes the words, “But we’ve never done it that way before.”

As most of you know, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has coined the phrase, “We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”  We even have banners out on our fence voicing that claim.  Using our brother Michael’s analogy, being a part of the Jesus Movement shapes God’s call to each of us – a call which can very well lead us to those places where we have not yet been. 

When asked to paint a picture of what the Jesus Movement looks like, Michael pointed to a moment in our Sunday liturgy that we all just experienced.  When the Gospel is about to be read, we all stand up.  Something important is about to happen and so we stand in anticipation.  We sing hymns of praise as we process – getting ready to tell the story – getting ready to hear the teachings of Jesus.  Everyone gathers turns and reorients themselves toward the reading of the Gospel.  At that moment of reorientation the Church becomes the Jesus Movement: a way of love that seeks the good and the well-being of the other – a way of love that is not self-centered, but other-directed – a way of love that is meant to set all people free.  The Jesus Movement, I contend, is an incarnation of the dream of God made alive in the world, and its purpose is to set us free and change the world.

Perhaps a good Lenten discipline might be to ask “Where can I go from here?”  What are the places where we have not yet been that could bring us closer to one another and closer to God?  Perhaps God is asking each of us, “Where would you like me to go with you?”  Part of our Lenten discipline might be just sitting with those questions for a bit – turning them over in our minds and within our hearts – seeking God’s nudging call.  Where might we go and what might we do if we honest-to-goodness believe God is with us, and will be with us still all along our life’s journey?

It could be something as simple-sounding, but deeply moving, as sitting at the bedside of a sick friend; or taking the time to listen to a grandchild talk about his fears, or her hopes.  It could be as challenging – and yet as rewarding – as volunteering at an elementary school; helping first generation American children become proficient readers.  Admittedly, those are pathways to new places with easily discernible first steps. 

The call of God to places we have not yet been can also be as life-changing as heeding the call of Isaiah which we heard proclaimed in this space on Ash Wednesday: finding a way to help loose the bonds of injustice, ways to share our bread with the hungry, and a willingness to let the oppressed go free.  Admittedly, those things can sound a bit overwhelming.  But if the people of God aren’t willing to seek out ways of speaking for and standing up with those who are sick, friendless, left out, or hungry, who will?

As much as the world might scoff at such a notion, it’s clear throughout Scripture that God loves us and promises to be with us.  It’s clear that God has something special in mind for each of us – something which we may or may not have yet discovered – however exciting, and perhaps however anxiety-provoking at times, that prospect may be!  What will it take for us to go all in for God?  A few sentences?  A brief exchange? A gentle nudge, or a commanding “Go!”?  God in Christ leading us to places we’ve not yet been.  Whatever the catalyst, when we open ourselves to the power of the Jesus Movement in all its wonder, we will find a God who is ready to leap from the pages of history and the pages of Scripture, and take us by the hand.