Monday, March 31, 2014

Who Sinned? The Man Born Blind John 9

This is not an easy story. Right in the middle of John’s Gospel account, Jesus has already locked horns with the powers that be. He has moved from private miracles, like the one at the wedding at Cana to more public displays such as the Sabbath day healing at the Beth-zatha pool. He has fed the five thousand. He has been confrontational and abrasive. He is controversial. Our Savior.

Escaping a stoning attempt, Jesus and his disciples see a man who was born blind. “Who sinned?” the disciples want to know. Nothing this dire could happen unless it was in retribution for some sin. Who sinned? The man himself in his mother’s womb? The man’s parents?

Jesus performs a multi-step healing. He spits, he mixes, he spreads, and he bids the man to go to a pond and wash away his blindness. Of course, it is again the Sabbath. Jesus breaks the law by healing, by mixing the earth and by bidding the man to travel to what was probably (scholars aren’t certain) beyond the 1000 yard permitted distance.

Who sinned?

Jesus and the disciples then step away from the narrative and a drama unfolds. Neighbors can hardly believe this is the man who used to beg. They take him to the Pharisees who cross examine him relentlessly about his healing and his healer. The man’s parents become involved and they clearly want no blame for any of this attached to them. 

Do we judge them for distancing themselves from their son, or do we sympathize with them for their inability to share the magnificence of his healing?

Who sinned?

The Pharisees then question the man again, reminding me of a thousand police interrogations that I've seen on TV. “Tell us the what you know. That man is a sinner. We already know everything about him. Your best bet is to turn him in as the sinner that he is and get off with a warning.”

Who sinned?

The man finally stands up for himself and answers the Pharisees as snarkily as I could possibly wish. The Pharisees revert to the original premise and tell him he was born in sin and they don’t need his kind anyway.  Out of the synagogue he is cast.

Who sinned?

Cue the reappearance of Jesus who asks the man for a declaration of faith. The man declares and he is now a part of a new community. Jesus remarks on the difference between seeing and not seeing, of thinking you can see and knowing you can’t. There endeth the reading.

John loves Jesus and makes him the hero of every scene. This is a heavy-handed story in the middle of a heavy-handed Gospel. Even knowing the outcome, it’s impossible not to be nervous about Jesus’ increasingly provocative behavior.

This man was sent out to beg by his parents, we presume, on the first day he was old enough. His life was closed down, dead, dark. Then comes Jesus into his life and suddenly, light dawns. He can see. He has a future. He even finds his voice, his confidence.

Jesus is not going to compromise. His job is to redeem humanity and that is what he will do. He is not shy about announcing himself. There is no “messianic secret” in John’s Gospel account. Jesus is loud and proud. He is so intent on bringing people into the light of his grace that he gladly risks everything in order to make just one more disciple.

John’s Gospel clearly states that this man was born blind so that “God’s works might be revealed in him.” Does this trouble you? This sad story has a happy ending; at least it does from my perspective. He loses his parents and his synagogue but he gains Jesus. No comparison.

But did God give him his blindness just for this story to take place? Are all the good things and bad things in the world purely the means to our various salvations? Could we stand to know that?

Who sinned?

In my life and work I have seen people in very grievous situations. I've seen people in extremely fortunate situations. I've known people with pure hearts and inner happiness, and, of course, I've known people with tormented souls and nothing but rage. Why is this so? Who makes the call? I have no idea.

The only thing I do know is that whatever state we’re in and however deep our joy or profound our sorrow, Jesus is waiting to walk into our life and turn on the lights. He will give us our voice; he will open his arms and the arms of others. He will be waiting for us. And it will be beautiful.

The story of the man born blind is followed immediately by Jesus’ teaching of the Good Shepherd. We don’t hear it in Sunday’s reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. We get the sense of it when we read Psalm 23 and possibly sing “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”. After the harshness of this story, the reassurance of “I know mine and mine know me” is just what we want to hear.

Who sinned? Does it even matter?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Woman at the Well John 4:5-42

Beloved of feminists, dear to the hearts of those who strive for justice and understanding among races and nationalities, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman has long been a great favorite of mine and many other folks as well. Like so many stories about Jesus, there is an unexpected, even inappropriate, encounter which results in a great teaching, a great conversion, and, most of all, a great story.

Twice the Samaritan woman pulls the “race card” on Jesus. Once asking how he dares speak to her and then reminding him that they have different religions, different ideas about proper worship. Twice he bypasses this provocation. Jesus doesn't care about this stuff and neither should we.

Dating to the division of the tribes after the reign of Solomon, the tribes of Judah and that of Ephraim (both named for the most populous tribes in their division) never got along. That is, in fact, putting it mildly. There was deep seated, and multi-generational hatred between the groups. That is why the story of the Samaritan helping the Jew was so startling.

But Jesus approaches this woman nevertheless, asking for a drink of water. He is not bound by tribal loyalties. He is unmindful of gender roles. His agenda is to bring the Kingdom of God to the people, all people. It’s the flesh and spirit lesson all over again.

Last week Jesus told Nicodemus that he would be born of the spirit. This week he claims to have living water, water that forms a spring inside us, continually renewing itself. “Eternal life” is mentioned for the second time in John’s Gospel.

The woman, believing him to be a prophet, reminds him that they have very different forms of worship. It is as if she is saying: no matter how holy you are, we are irrevocably different in faith and I can’t receive your doctrine. Jesus tells her that soon all forms or worship will be relinquished, that the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Then he reveals himself to her as the Messiah. If the Hail Mary Pass had been invented back then, that’s what we’d call it. And it works.

When she leaves to tell her neighbors about this man, wondering aloud if he can really be the Messiah, the disciples return from their trip into town. They have food and urge it on Jesus, but he is too wound up over this stunning exchange to think about food. He says that his work is his food (reminder for fasters in Lent). He then goes on, in his enthusiasm, to use an agricultural metaphor to explain his mission and this surprising success. 

The Gospel accounts never mention Jesus laughing or being happy or dancing around excitedly after a big triumph. But his enthusiasm is palpable in this passage. Who needs food when you have souls to win?

Much has been written and said and preached about flesh vs spirit. Jesus is clearly intent on bringing people to faith in the spirit. First Century Palestine was bogged down in flesh. For one thing many, many people were poor. Moreover, hereditary ties, tribal loyalties, and inherited class status determined a person’s life. Last, but never least, the Law was the mainstay of their connection to God. It was what they had of God. Daily, weekly, seasonally, they enacted their worship through the practice of the Law.

Jesus had to dive into this atmosphere and teach people about the spirit. No wonder he got frustrated so often. No wonder he was so overjoyed by the woman’s belief that he no longer wanted food, or even water. Don’t waste time eating lunch; we have a whole town to save.

The life of the spirit is hard to realize. Hard then. Hard now. Terms like “born again” “bread of life” “living water” are familiar to us. We aren't so hungry any more, or so thirsty, or so tribal. But we are bogged down by possessions, activities, ambitions, worries, responsibilities. The language might be easier for us to hear than it was for our friends from two thousand years ago, but the understanding can be just as hard.

I wish I had an easy answer. I wish Jesus had had an easy answer. But I know there is an answer and I know we glimpse it every now and then – in a prayer, a song, a sight, a touch. 

Let’s look once more at the Samaritan woman. Let’s consider the bucket. First, she wonders how Jesus can offer her any water at all as he has no bucket. Then she leaves her own bucket (OK, her jar) at the well to go and tell her neighbors about Jesus. Probably just a literary flourish from John.  Probably a simple indication that, yes, she does get it now. Surely we can’t be a tougher audience than she was.

Lent is a great time to leave your bucket at the well, just for a while. If you want to be surly, call Jesus’ bluff, remind him how different he is, how irrelevant he is, do so. But listen to the answer you get. It just might make you do the happy dance yourself. 

Monday, March 17, 2014


I have no problem with the over-use of the word “love.’ I love my morning cup of Earl Grey. I love my cats. I love Motown. I love the Episcopal Church. I love the sky. The more things I love the happier I am, the better person I am. But all this love is just a tiny hint of the love that God has for me, for us.

In today’s readings, God makes a promise to Abram. He will make a nation of Abram; he will bless him. More than that, Abram will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. In other words, every man, woman and child on this planet is blessed by Abram (later Abraham). Genesis 12:1-4.

Abram did nothing to deserve this blessing, this promise. He had not yet even been circumcised, so he was nothing at all. Yet God decided for God’s own reasons to build up a family through this one man. At this spectacular attention, we can only shrug our shoulders.

Moving ahead to the time of Christ, after many more promises from God, we arrive at the realization of God’s plan. Matthew takes pains to remind us of Jesus’ genealogy. The first 16 verses of the Gospel according to Matthew are not read in church; they are not part of the Lectionary. They were there to assure early disciples that Christ, indeed, belonged to this long line that started with Abraham and God’s promise.

If Abraham had been another sort of person, he might have wondered what God intended by this great promise. What was the point? 1800+ years later, the product of that promise arrived. God’s work takes time.

Nicodemus, an upright Pharisee, calls on Jesus in the night. In the Gospel according to John, images of night and day, darkness and light are never accidental, so we may assume that Nicodemus is “in the dark” about Jesus. He tells Jesus that “we know you are a teacher who has come from God”. If Nicodemus had a “so” or a “but” ready after this assertion, we never hear it. Jesus seizes on this bit of nascent faith to tell his visitor that he must “be born from above.” John 3:1-17.

Do not underestimate the importance of birthplace and condition in first Century Palestine. It was everything. (See again first 16 verses of Matthew’s Gospel) Being born again or born from above or born of the spirit was a much more startling notion than it is today. In the parlance of our time, organizations, celebrities and we ourselves experience new life/rebirth all the time. We hear the phrase “new birth” in the Sacrament of Baptism. We’re used to it. Nicodemus was not.

Jesus bombards Nicodemus with unfamiliar concepts, bizarre scenarios and a double reference to the Book of Numbers and the Book of Daniel. Poor Nicodemus! All his life spent following the torah is now null and void. His head must have been spinning.

He must be born anew. The spirit will make this happen, unexpectedly, like the wind. A life in the flesh is not like this new life in the spirit.   Jesus is from heaven and must be lifted up like the bronze serpent that healed the dying Israelites in the desert. Numbers 21:5-9.

Did you ever see the episode of The Simpsons when the family were at a huge stadium for some event and someone in the crowd held up a John 3:16 sign? It got a lot of laughs in my house and in many houses, I’m sure. Or this is even better. 

I have a hard time not remembering that and other comic moments around that quote. Such is our modern age. Do I just a little bit judge people who seem to have such a simplistic approach to the Gospel? Do I think they're doing more harm than good?

Perhaps I’m as stymied by the true meaning of “God so loved the world…” as Nicodemus was by the idea of being born from above. But there is nothing so important, so absolutely crucial to a true life in the spirit as grasping that verse.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.

I had to sit with that for a while.

At study group, we stayed with that verse for a while, too. We had to let it lose all its silly, pop culture references, all its false simplicity and pull out its true simplicity. God loves the world. It makes him smile. It gives him joy. He’d do anything for it. He’d run into a burning building to pull it out. He’d wait for a thousand years for one phone call.  He cherishes any wee scrap of love he gets in return. It’s beautiful. He can’t take his eyes off of it.

The promise given to Abraham and the promise made by Jesus are because of that love. 

Monday, March 10, 2014



Each week during Lent, this space will be given to a summary of what the members of my study group from church concluded in our meeting on Sunday afternoon. We’ll be concerning ourselves with the Lectionary readings from each Sunday.

Even the tiniest child knows the story of Adam and Eve. Why are we so keen to tell our kids about this? What does it have to do with Christian belief? Are we simply handing them a warning about disobedience, maybe hoping they’ll take it to heart and go to bed on time?

The Old Testament reading for the first Sunday in Lent (Genesis 2:25-3:17) is paired neatly with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11) in much the way a Cabernet is paired with a hearty beef stew. They complement each other. They reveal each other.

In the desert story, Jesus is in a bare and desolate place and is fasting for 40 days and nights. The Satan wants Jesus to prove himself by changing stones into bread, prove God’s faithfulness by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple, and, finally, take command of the world by worshiping him. The Satan’s clear intention is to derail Jesus’ purpose. Well, it would be, wouldn't it? If Jesus succeeds, the Satan’s rule is over. If the Satan succeeds we aren't redeemed.

Jesus, as we know, doesn't bite. He dismisses the tempter with a quote from scripture (Deuteronomy)  each time. When it’s over, angels come to minister to him.

Contrast this with the scene in the Garden. Adam and Eve are in a lush setting, with everything they could possibly want. They are engaged in work, caring for God’s creation. But it is when Eve is alone that the serpent approaches her.

The Satan’s lure is oddly similar to his effort with Jesus; he promises a way to be like God. Eve attempts to repeat God’s directive about the forbidden fruit, but she gets it wrong. She misquotes God. Is this a big deal? I think it is.

In an oral society where histories and laws are memorized, quoting things exactly has more weight than it does today. We paraphrase all the time; not then. I believe that the first people to hear this story would have been shaking their heads at Eve as soon as she failed to repeat God’s directive exactly. Adam and Eve’s fates were sealed at that moment. The writing was on the wall.

The serpent tells Eve that the fruit will make her like God. Of course, in the desert, The Satan is basically goading Jesus to prove and demonstrate his godliness. What Eve did not grasp was that she and Adam were ALREADY like God. They bore his image. Jesus is, obviously, not fooled into thinking he can be more like God. He knew who he was. Sadly Adam and Eve did not.

In the end the angels ministered to Jesus, but for Adam and Eve, the angels stood at the gates of the Garden with flaming swords.

I was surprised to learn that the story of Adam and Eve, such a mainstay in our church and catechetical life, was barely mentioned throughout the Old Testament. If ever there were a people who repeated their history, it is the Jews. There is a slight reference to Adam in the Book of Job; after that, nothing. The stories the Jews told each other began with Abraham and God’s promise. (More about that next week)

It was Paul who revived this early story and he had his reasons. Paul saw Jesus as the reverse of Adam and Eve. Whereas they had a life of ease and joy, Jesus had a life of pain and want. Whereas they were unsure of their identities as children of God, he knew exactly whose image he bore. Whereas they were disobedient, he was obedient, all the way to the cross. Whereas they stained God’s creation; Jesus restored it.

“As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned -- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.” Romans 5:12-13

It wasn't until I looked at these two temptation stories together that I actually bought into Paul’s premise. Before then, it just seemed like an abstraction, a fanciful construct. Increasingly, I believe that God’s plan for the world is shown in this long, long history.

But what does this mean for us, for our temptations? Are all temptations lures to get us to be what we’re not? Is the big lie that we can be better, grander than we are, when, in fact, we are made in God’s image? Is sin at bottom, simply our refusal to be what we are made to be? Whether it’s pride, lust, dishonesty, greed, meanness, or impatience, is all sin simply this: our refusal to show God to the world and be our true selves?

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Protestant Reformation Part II

One night, I was sitting in a movie theater, watching Jan Troell’s The New Land starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. The new Swedish community was gathered in a barn for a church service. This consisted mainly of an angry preacher berating his flock for actual and potential transgressions. Kristina (Ullman) had to slip out to deal with one of her children who’d had a potty accident. She ducked back in clearly hoping not to have been caught in this irreverent task. Surprisingly, all I could feel during this scene was envy. I envied these people for having a church. Never mind that I would never have stood for this sort of church. It was just church that I needed.

But a Protestant church? Even though my fear of hell had faded away, I still had gnawing doubts that I could find God in that setting, much less that I could ever be "right" with God after years of nothing. Twenty plus years of teaching don't vanish in an instant. Nevertheless, this urge for church was too strong to ignore. 

After many years, I have realized that I am not happy unless I am going to church regularly. There are people who can take church or leave it. There are even some who feel that church actually stifles their relationship with God. I am not one of those people.

A few weeks later, in the middle of February, I took myself to a Thursday night service at St Mary’s Episcopal Church. Eucharist was held in the Lady Chapel (a new concept for me). The service was so beautiful that I think I was numb for most of it. Raised Catholic, I could, of course, follow the prayers without even looking at the book, but the reverence with which the worship was conducted was entirely new to me.

I’d say it was the priest, but it was the people, too. Their devotion was so natural. I went home with my head in the clouds. I returned Sunday after Sunday, Thursday after Thursday.

Deeply in love as I was with the Episcopal Church, I had to come to grips with this matter of Protestantism. I had prejudices, stumbling blocks left over from my upbringing. Familiar as it was, there were some features of my new religion that tripped me up. Here are some of them:

Married Clergy The first time Father Atlee, rector at St Mary’s, referred to his wife, I think I blushed to the roots of my hair. I knew Protestant clergy could marry; I’d read the 39 Articles after all. Still it took a while to get used to. Soon, however, I became very close with the rector’s wife and his daughters, the youngest of whom was our baby sitter.

Words - like Sunday School, fellowship, acolyte (as opposed to altar boy) Scripture. Not unfamiliar words, but not ones I’d ever heard in the Catholic Church.

Scripture” was the Epistle and the Gospel read aloud on Sundays, period. Compared with the magisterium of the church, the Bible has limited authority for Catholics. We did not use Biblical references.  “Bible Study” was a code term for heresy, maybe even anarchy.

Fellowship” sounded a bit touchy feely for me, but as it has found its way into the Baptismal Covenant in the 1978 Prayer Book, I have made my peace with it.

 “Sunday School” was, of course, the most Protestant term of all. A friend at St Mary’s advised me to simply call it “church school.”  It had worked for him.

Psalms played little or no part in Catholic worship. I was naturally suspicions of them, as if they might contain some heretical nuance. Characters reciting the 23rd Psalm on television shows were always Protestants. It’s taken me quite a while to hold the psalms close. I love them now.

The Vestry I could not believe how much power lay people had in the Episcopal Church. How could the unordained decide matters for the ordained? How could the holiness of the rector, by virtue of his (no female clergy yet) celebrating the Eucharist, not trump the lesser holiness of the lay persons? And how could regular parishioners elect Vestry members? It was all so topsy turvy.

Greeting the rector on the way out of church.  Often parishioners even comment on the sermon. This still feels strange to me, to be honest. Catholic clergy did not expose themselves to the congregation with such reckless abandon. I never know what to say. I refuse to compliment a priest on her (plenty of female clergy now) or his sermon. For me a teaching is to be received, not evaluated. When shaking hands, the most I can muster is “thank you, Father.”


I have found real joy in the Episcopal Church. My first parish, St Mary’s in Wayne, Pennsylvania*, was my own beautiful home for not enough years. All the things I thought I’d lost along the way, I found there. But more than that, I grew in grace. I learned to pray, at last. I found out a little bit about life and death and salvation. Father Atlee, patiently guided me through instructions and I was received into the Episcopal Church.

Twenty or so years ago when we moved from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, I was in search of a new Episcopal Church. Churches here are much “lower” (less solemn, less formal) than those back home. I realized that I would have to become even more Protestant than I already was.

Could I do it? Quite honestly, it took some adjustment. I did some grumbling. But realizing that I am that same person who envied Liv Ullmann and company for standing around in a freezing barn being yelled at, making peace with fewer candles, less incense, a guitar or two on odd occasions seemed, in the end, surprisingly easy. I say “Sunday School” now with ease.

I can now attend services in any sort of church without discomfort. I view the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century with awe and gratitude. I see its heroes as great saints and its revolutionary teachings as a massive step forward for humankind. I am proud to wear the badge of Protestant.

God did not use a cookie cutter when he created us. We are unique. The many ways we come to God are unique, beautiful and always successful. In one of the first meetings I had with Father Atlee, he suggested that perhaps God would win out for each of us in the end, that we would all be glorified. Such a shocking thing to say to a Catholic girl! But I wasn't shocked. I was converted. Father Atlee is gone now. I know I'm not the only one whose heart he opened to Christ. His obituary is here.

God was working in my life when I wandered into St Mary’s on that cold night in February. God was also working in my life when I spent those years with no faith, no church, no religion. Far from seeing those years as “sinful” as I‘d been taught, I know they were years of deprivation and of preparation. They led me to receive God’s grace and to know the love of Jesus. 

* The Atlees gave me this print on my last Sunday at St Mary's. Yes, we really were as happy as we look in the picture.