Nevertheless, She Persisted

(sermon 3/19/17)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” – John 4:5-26 (NRSV)

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It was a bit of an odd meeting, really, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, since the Jews and Samaritans had been at odds for hundreds of years. Ethnically, the Samaritans were a mix of Israelites and the people of surrounding kingdoms, and they worshiped the God of Israel as well as at least four other pagan gods; while the Jews, centered in the region to the south of Samaria, saw themselves as the truly ethnically pure Hebrews, whether that was factually correct or not, and as the keeper of the true faith and worship of the God of Israel. They were really racial and religious cousins, if not sisters, but the Samaritans saw their Jewish siblings as a bunch of stuffy, exclusive, elitist prigs who were allowing religious rigidity to obstruct true worship of God. The Jews saw the Samaritans as Gentiles every bit as unclean as any Roman or other pagan, if not worse, since based on their history, they supposedly should have known better than to live and believe the way they did. The differences weren’t just left at talk, either; there was sporadic violence between the two groups, with the Jews often seeing the Samaritans as dangerous, uncivilized thugs.  

In order to avoid being made ritually unclean by associating with Gentiles, not to mention watching out for the security threat they saw in the Samaritans, the Jews engaged in a first-century version of Jim Crow segregation. They kept separate from the Samaritans; Jews wouldn’t be under the same roof as Samaritans – they wouldn’t eat under the same roof; they wouldn’t sleep under the same roof; they wouldn’t travel in the same settings. In fact, if the Jews had to travel to the north, somewhere beyond Samaria, they’d go miles out of their way, completely around the region in order to avoid mixing with the supposedly inferior and dangerous Samaritans.

And that’s what makes today’s gospel story so striking even before a word of dialogue is spoken. Here’s Jesus, traveling right through the heart of Samaria instead of going around it like he would have been expected to, and mixing with the people there, sitting at a well and speaking with a Samaritan woman. I was as unexpected scene that was as out of place as a white man in 1960 standing in line to drink out of a “Coloreds Only” fountain in Selma. It was shocking.

It shocked the woman he spoke with, too. By the way, you’ve probably noticed how very often, the names of women in the Bible aren’t documented, compared with the men who show up in the stories. Whether intentional or not, that sent, and continues to send, the message that the women just aren’t as important as the men, in the kingdom of God or otherwise. The Eastern Orthodox church has a tradition that this woman’s name was Photina. Who knows what her actual name was, but out of respect for her, and the idea that women’s lives and names matter in the kingdom of God, that’s what I’m going to call her too.

Once Photina got used to the idea that Jesus was really engaging with her, she ran with it, and they had a deep and important and what likely for her was a life-changing conversation.

Last week, Jesus told Nicodemus that God’s love was for the entire world, not just one group of people; and that God’s Spirit moved where God willed it, across all national or racial or religious or any other human categories – stoking embers and kindling fire in the hearts and souls of all manner of people. This week, just a few verses later in John’s gospel, we see Jesus putting those words into practice with Photina, and we can see the Spirit working within her as she’s intrigued by his words. She understands right away that there’s something special about Jesus, even if she doesn’t get the whole picture right away. But she persisted in their conversation, asking him about particular details about worshiping God, and leading into a conversation about the messiah that she’s waiting for to arrive, and with Jesus ultimately telling her that he is the messiah, God’s chosen one.

But this story, Photina’s moment of fame, doesn’t end here, just with her knowledge and belief that Jesus is the messiah. The story continues beyond where we read today. Emboldened by the Spirit of God working within her, Photina persisted, telling the people of the city about her encounter with Jesus, that she’d found the messiah. And because of her persistence, a lot of them went out to meet him, and many of them believed in Jesus, too.

The same Spirit that moved in Photina, and led her to persist in her encounters with Jesus and with the townspeople, is moving in the lives of people today, too. God’s Spirit is present with us today, and moving in our midst, moving in our lives. Some of those times, God is drawing people, leading people, calling people, to particular forms of service in God’s kingdom. We’re recognizing that this morning, as we ordain and install elders to serve and lead the church. Yes, we voted for them, but it really isn’t us who has ordained them, but God, and our voting is really just recognition of what God has already done, calling them to this particular ministry.

Today, we recognize that God is stoking the embers of their faith, and kindling a fire within them just as real as the one that was kindled in Photina.

New elders, you’ve been called to serve and lead this congregation, in all the many ways that we love and serve God and others. In everything that you do as an elder, remember that you haven’t just been voted into something, like joining the Rotary or the athletic boosters club. God has called you to this service. God has placed a hand on your shoulder, and not just called you but equipped you with all the skills, gifts, imagination, and yes, persistence, that you’ll need to do what you’ve been called to. And that isn’t just true with our new elders, but it’s exactly the same with all of us. God has called and equipped each of us here today to some particular form of ministry, too, whatever that ministry might be.

Whether elders or not, I predict that as you carry out your particular ministry, even though you’ve probably known God’s presence in your lives for some time, you’re still going to experience God’s moving within you, guiding you, inspiring and challenging you, in totally new and unexpected ways. I believe that as you follow and serve God, you’ll occasionally feel as surprised by the hand of God in your life, just as Photina was. When that happens, be amazed. Be inspired. And be persistent in being, and doing, what God has called you to. And when you do feel that surprise, and that undeniable knowledge of God’s presence, always be sure to take a moment to recognize it, and to say

Thanks be to God.

Immersed (sermon 1/11/15)

submerged

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   – Mark 1:4-11

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It was one of the worst days of his life. His stomach was in knots; it felt like someone had punched him and he was almost physically ill. He was distraught; he felt a mixture of worry and fear and anger and confusion. And it all started the night before, when his teenaged daughter told him that she was dropping out of her Confirmation class, because she’d looked at the profession of faith that she’d be asked to make at the end of the process, and she couldn’t in good faith make that profession.

He was crushed. He felt like he’d been hit by a tractor-trailer. He was a person of very deep Christian faith, and at least according to his personal theology at the time, this meant that she was choosing to be condemned to eternal hell. This beautiful young girl who he’d watched being born, who he loved more than he loved his own life, was going to be separated from him forever. It was more than he could bear to think about. All he could do was pray. And so, with his head in his hands and tears in his eyes, he poured out his heart to God.

And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, he was experiencing something he never had before; it was an experience that he tried countless times to put into words later on but there were simply no words to really describe it. The closest he ever came to explain it was that he felt as if he was being covered, head to toe, with a warm, all-encompassing feeling of love and compassion and acceptance. Gradually, the feeling covered him completely; every square inch of his body could feel it; even in the webbing between his fingers and toes; eventually he even felt lifted out of his seat, completely surrounded on all sides, completely immersed in what he could only describe as liquid love. And at the same time, he heard in words that weren’t really words but were still words just as real and just as audible as my words that you’re listening to right now, in response to his prayer of fear and distress, “It’s all right. Everything will be fine. I love her, and I love you, absolutely and completely. She will be fine, and so will you.” He had never felt so loved and so completely at peace at any other time in his life. He knew, beyond any doubt, in some way he couldn’t ever explain, that in that moment, he’d been in the very presence of God.

It really only lasted less than a minute, but it felt like it could have been an hour. But in that moment, he was changed. His understanding about God, and God’s relationship with us, and his understanding about faith and salvation, changed forever. At the same time, the experience made him understand much more deeply the words he’d heard so many time in the past, that in our baptism we’re baptized into Christ’s death, and coming out of the waters of baptism we’re given new life. His experience was very much related to his baptism, and he felt in a very real way the new life, the new beginning, that it represented. Through his experience, he gained a new beginning, both in his own understanding of the faith, and also in the way he related to his daughter.

He knew that even if he never had that same experience again, he would never question the existence of God, or his belief in God, again. But in fact, he did have that experience again, two other times since that first one. One of those times was a couple of years later, when he kneeled down in the aisle crossing of his church and was surrounded by ordained ministers and elders, laying their hands on him as he himself was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. In that moment, through God’s Spirit moving through those who had laid hands on him, he felt that same extension of the seal and the call that he’d received in his baptism, and he felt the same all-surrounding, all-encompassing experience of love and acceptance.

That’s something to think about today, Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we think about Jesus’ baptism, but also our own, and the understanding that through it we’re sealed into God’s covenant community of faith – and not just sealed, but called, to some form of ministry that God has in store for us. So today, I’d invite all of you who have been baptized and called this way to think about that again, and I invite you to recommit yourselves to that call, whatever it might be. And I invite all of you who have been ordained in any way to a particular form of ministry, to reconsider that call, and recommit yourselves to it, also. And to those three of you who are being ordained today, I invite you, too. I invite you to recognize that this is a very special for you. This is the day that begins a new way of you engaging in the ministry God has set in front of you. It’s the beginning of a new way that you will live in witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, a new way of living as his disciple. I don’t know if you’ll experience the same feeling that that man did when he was ordained. I hope you do, but if not, I hope you feel it at some time in your lives if you haven’t already. I hope that you understand, whether you feel it today or some other day, that in your baptism, and now extended even further in your ordination, you are absolutely immersed in God’s love and acceptance, and you’ve been equipped for what God has in store for you. But beyond that, if I have any advice, any prayer for you, as you go about your ministry of compassion, both to the members of this congregation and to the people of our community, it would be this: You will indeed be very involved in ministries of social justice, and helping with social needs of people. But recognize that this isn’t just a “job;” it isn’t just being part of a run-of-the-mill social service venture. You will be involved in this form of ministry specifically to witness to Christ in the world, to spread and illustrate his love. That’s my prayer for you this day.

Amen.

zzzzz…

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Yes, I know I haven’t updated the blog lately. It isn’t due to a lack of things going on; quite the contrary, actually. There’s been a lot happening; so much that I haven’t had time to write about –  including my ordination and a trip to one of my favorite places on earth, Montana de Luz, an orphanage in Honduras for children with HIV/AIDS. There have also been a whole lot of other things in the works that I just can’t discuss quite yet.  Actual meaningful blog posts are in the offing, I promise.  Patience, please, while the coffee brews….

Examined by Presbytery

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I’m not even sure how it originated, but sometime shortly after getting back from Chicago, I came to realize that if the church I’m working at would essentially just change my title, without changing anything else about the terms or responsibilities of my part-time employment, I would be eligible to be ordained, where I wasn’t eligible with my current title. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and I suppose it is, but the rules are what they are. So I figured that while I continued to search for the permanent, full-time installed position, I could at very least get this piece of the puzzle put in place. So we went through the bureaucratic process, got Session approval, and sent the whole thing off to the appropriate Presbytery committee to be approved and forwarded to the general Presbytery for a vote. At the same time, the Presbytery would conduct my oral ordination examination. This is the final step, after completing the M.Div., passing all the written ordination exams, and doing the parish field education, as well as a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. The format of the floor exam is this: the candidate has provided a brief autobiographical statement and a statement of faith, which is included in the information packets of all the voting commissioners of the Presbytery. After the candidate offers a brief introductory oral statement/presentation, the floor is then open for any of the 200-some commissioners to stand up and ask the candidate any question at all regarding the candidate’s understanding of theology and polity within the church. After questioning, the amassed Presbytery then votes the candidate up or down.

Of course, this final examination comes after the candidate has been in the process for a number of years, so s/he is a pretty well-known quantity to the commissioners by this time. While this is an important step, it is, to some extent, the candidate doing a bit of a victory lap after completing the long, grueling ordination process. Maybe most significantly, it’s a final validation to the candidate from these gathered individuals and a sign of emotional support.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t nerve-wracking, though. The truth is, you never know what some commissioner is going to come up with. Some floor examinations proceed without a hiccup; others can get contentious. At the end of it all, though, I’ve never seen a single candidate fail this final examination, which is a testament to the rigorous nature of the candidacy/ordination process, and should serve to calm the nerves of anyone about to be examined. Still, I was very nervous while I waited for my turn to be examined – I was the last of four people being examined in the midst of the rest of the Presbytery business last evening.

Everything went fine. I was nervous at first, but even from the beginning of the process, I recognized the large number of people in the room with whom I’d interacted during the whole journey, and how much so many of them meant to me. As I spoke, I could see their support in their faces and body language and felt the warmth that they seemed to be offering me. That energized me, so I just spoke from the heart, answered the questions as best as I could, and just enjoyed the moment. The actual vote was very quick, as they usually are – I barely had time to leave the room for the vote before I was called back in. I can’t tell you what a relief this ordination vote is.

Now, the next step is scheduling and planning the actual ordination service. This close to the Advent/Christmas season, I’m trying to schedule it for January 11, 2014. There are a lot of moving pieces to get aligned, but that date is looking good at the moment. So, how am I feeling tonight?

Here I Stand.3 – A Place at the Table

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Later this week, I’ll be attending Marriage Matters, the annual conference sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. CovNet is an organization made up of congregations and individual members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) committed to working for full inclusivity for LGBTQ persons within the PC(USA). This includes issues related to their ordination as deacons, ruling elders, or ministers; creating more LGBTQ-welcoming and affirming congregations nationwide; and working for the PC(USA) to revise its Book of Order to change the definition of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” Every day, as more and more Christians reach the conclusions that a person’s sexual identity is inherent, and a gift from God – actually, a significant part of their having been created in the imago Dei – and that same-sex marriages are expressions of love every bit as worthy of blessing by God and the Church; and as more and more states are legalizing marriage equality; this becomes a more significant issue for the church. Increasingly, Presbyterian ministers in states where same-sex marriage is legal have to choose either to refuse to officiate at these weddings – often for their own parishioners, friends, and even family members – or, as a matter of freedom of conscience, to break their ordination vow to uphold the requirements of the Book of Order. The way things stand now creates a truly bizarre twist of polity: an ordained minister in the PC(USA) may be openly gay or lesbian. They may be part of a long-term, non-legally recognized same-sex partnership. They may be part of a legal civil union where such unions are legal. They may even be part of a same-sex marriage where they’re legal. But they may not have their marriage officiated by a fellow PC(USA) minister, or held in a Presbyterian church. This makes no sense at all.

My own journey of understanding the issues of LGBTQ inclusivity has been a long one, and one that required a near-seismic shift in my personal theology. I was originally very firmly in the traditionalist camp. Back then, I thought the PC(USA) was moving away from the “true” faith and throwing away the Bible, allowing itself to be poisoned by the whims of the mood of the times. In fact, it was in part through my determined effort to rebut arguments for LGBTQ ordination and marriage equality within the church that I came to realize that those arguments were sound – that they were entirely consistent with our historical understandings of the nature, authority, and interpretive methodologies of the scriptures. I came to realize that for all of these years, the Church had been wrong – and I had been wrong. At the same time as that scriptural study, I came into contact with many gay and lesbian Christians – many of them fellow seminarians, and many of whom I sensed were at least as gifted, if not more so, for the ministry as I am. Through these and a number of other avenues of study, prayer, and personal introspection, I arrived at the theological position that I hold now – that neither being gay, nor acting upon it, are sins. A person’s sexuality is a gift from God, intended in great measure – perhaps the greatest measure – to enable two people to experience and offer love – for that love to help express the love inherent in the very being of the Trinitarian God, in the jointly divine/human nature of Christ, and in the relationship between Christ and us as individuals. Expressing that love within same-sex relationships, if that is a person’s sexual nature, is no sin. To the contrary, to try to repress or obstruct a human being from expressing love in a committed relationship with another is what I view as sinful, and an attempt to obstruct what God intends for them.

As my personal and theological journey progressed, many things happened. Frankly, I lost a number of long-term, good friends. They felt that I was a traitor to the faith, a heretic, an apostate, and clearly unfit for the ministry, of all things. Of course, I also gained new friends, who understood the journey I’d been on and who had been on similar journeys with similar ultimate theological destinations. For a long while after I’d shifted my views, I spent hours and hours explaining to traditionalists how I could believe the way I now did. I wrote literal books’ worth of explanations and arguments. I could, and can, make very lengthy, detailed arguments related to Reformed understandings of the nature of sin and grace, and the nature of scripture and its interpretation. I could, and can, discuss ambiguities in, and likely mistranslations from, the original Greek and Hebrew texts. I could talk about historical context till I’m blue in the face.

But I’ve really almost completely stopped all that. Oh, if someone really wanted to have a true conversation about the issue; if they’re obviously on their own journey of theological discernment the same way I was, I’ll get into all those lengthy discussions. But no more arguing just for argument’s sake. No more simply restating my ground for the umpteenth time in some argument that isn’t going to change anything.

These days, I cut to the chase. I believe that God creates us very good, and in God’s own image, regardless of what our sexual orientation is. Because of that, I don’t believe that either particular sexual orientation, or the physical and emotional expression of that orientation, is sin – rather, oppressing, discriminating against, and excluding people based on sexual orientation is what is sin. I believe that God calls all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to all aspects of life within the church – including all ordained positions and all positions of leadership. This has always been the case, and I believe it’s time for the Church to accept this reality and honor those whom God has so called, by allowing them the space to be open and honest about the fullness of their being, including their sexual orientation. And as part of that, I believe that it’s long past time that the Church recognize the goodness in God’s eyes of same-sex marriages, as a matter of both love and justice. As I encounter more and more LGBTQ people both inside and out of the Church, I’m appalled at how near-universal their stories of oppression, rejection, shunning, and persecution by their home churches are. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has caused irreparable harm to countless millions of LGBTQ people. It’s something that we, the Church will be held accountable for; for which we should truly be ashamed; and for which we should be working aggressively to repent from and to reconcile and make amends wherever and however possible. All of this, I believe, is what is consistent with Christ – God in the flesh – and his teachings.

Thanks be to God, the PC(USA) has already amended its constitution to permit ordination of LGBTQ persons. Now, it needs to become even more welcoming and affirming to all LGBTQ people, those called to ordained positions and otherwise. And it also needs to finally amend its definition of marriage, and to bless same-sex marriages as covenants of love that are seen as good in the eyes of God. In 2012, an overture to redefine marriage as being between “two people” was narrowly defeated at the PC(USA) General Assembly, by a vote of 338-308. I hope that in its next General Assembly in June of 2014, the denomination finally pushes this much-needed correction over the goal line. It’s just the right thing to do. We need to realize that God has a place at the Table for all of us – including our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews; our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and our uncles; and in some cases, even our selves – who have been created by God as LGBTQ, and whom God calls “very good.”