Originally published on Barefoot Theology.
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
This is perhaps the most authentic Easter morning the church has experienced in a very long time.
After all, despite our predilection for big choirs, glorious music, and sprays of flowers the original Easter morning was an altogether private affair.
Mary woke up before dawn, or maybe she never fell asleep, eyes gritty and hot with tears. Perhaps she was stiff and sore from standing at the foot of the cross, from huddling in the garden watching Jesus be buried, from crying tears that seemed to have no end.
There were no angel choirs this morning. I had never thought about it before but how odd. One of our birth narratives tells us that heaven couldn’t help but sing at Jesus’ birth, angel choirs serenading shepherds in their fields. But the only choir on Easter morning is a few sleepy sparrows calling to one another in the streets, a songbird or two in the tree outside the tomb.
Easter morning is quiet. Mary goes to the tomb alone. And when nightmare piles atop nightmare and she finds Jesus’ body missing no one can help her. The other disciples are useless, despondent, not even willing to stay with her in that moment of ultimate loss.
Instead she stands weeping, lonely and stubborn, refusing to leave.
And that is Easter morning.
When Jesus approaches her there in the garden of her loneliness she doesn’t recognize him. How much love and compassion must he have had for her, begging him to tell her where his own body has been taken.
And he says the only thing she could hear in that moment: her name. And her hearts knows him.
That too is Easter morning.
This Easter feels especially poignant to me. Disease has stripped away the pomp and circumstance, even from our simple church. We are left with nothing but Easter itself. We are left with nothing but good news in a garden, revealed at the sound of our name. The truth of Easter is so simple, so intimate that maybe it is no surprise we’ve gilded it, and layered on trumpets and grand organ pieces, and golden vestments, and overflowing bouquets of flowers.
Because Easter itself is almost embarrassingly intimate.
Easter is good news that we can cling to, good news that knows us. That walks into our personal grief, and fear. Easter is good news that embraces us and puts our pieces back together again.
But never forget that if Mary had walked away when Peter and the other disciple did there would be no story. There is Easter because she stayed with the grief, loss, and confusion. Because she gritted her teeth and refused to give in to despair, refused to give up, refused to let go.
Because she stayed in that empty garden, by the frighteningly empty tomb she heard her name, she met her beloved friend and teacher, she saw the resurrection with her own eyes.
If this Easter is solitary, if it is quiet, if it is painfully simple, remember Mary alone in a garden.
And remember that God came looking for her, found her, called her name so that she would know she was never alone at all.
Don’t give up, and don’t leave the tomb.
Stay with it, stay in your sorrow, loneliness, anger, or confusion.
Keep demanding the one you love. Keep searching for Jesus among the ashes, for God in the darkness.
Until you hear your name, in that impossible voice of love, in the quiet of your own soul.
Until you feel your heart swell with gladness and God is laughing with you, dancing with you, teasing you gently because of course God was going to come, and find you, and call your name, and sweep you up into loving arms like a lost child.
Because this is Easter and there is no power in heaven, or on earth that can stop the love of God, that can stop the resurrection. Though it might be different, and foreign, and strange.
We stand at the tomb with Mary, eyes still gritty from crying and we proclaim:
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Originally published on Barefoot Theology.
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
3/22/2020, Lent 4A
Just when it feels like the waters of terror are closing over our head this Sunday’s Psalm unrolls green fields in our hearts. For many of us this psalm has been undeniably linked with funerals but leaving it there would be doing it, and ourselves, a deep disservice.
This is a love song to God.
A reminder to the poet, a mantra in times of trouble.
I think about my beloved horse, Bear when I read the first lines of this psalm this week. Bear you see, is not at all afraid to show affection. So when I walk up to his stall in the morning and call his name he leaves his hay, or his nap, shoves his face into my hands for scratches and begins to groom my jacket, or shoulder, or hair. It is a ritual of companionship.
We think of shepherds and their sheep as rather distant, business partners perhaps. The shepherd makes the sheep go where they need to and the sheep do it because an annoying dog makes them. But shepherds and their sheep, like people and all the rest of our domestic animals, when they live closely together, tend to know and love one another deeply.
If the Lord is our shepherd then God is the one whose voice makes us leap for joy, up from our food or our daydreams. Pushing our face into her hands to have all the itchy places scratched. Though maybe not drooling all over her as Bear does me, but you know, she’s probably fine with it if you do.
This is a song about loneliness, and fear, and the One who is with us in all those things.
It is a song for today. We live in the valley of the shadow of death, invisible disease hangs heavy over the heads of the elderly, the ill. Even the young are beginning to feel the nips of fear at their ankles, and as we withdraw into our homes to try to slow this thing that valley of the shadow of death can become a frighteningly lonely place.
Into that place comes a Divine presence who will not leave us alone. In good times we might be fooled into thinking that God is in our holy places. As those sanctuaries stand empty and dark we need to know that God has always been in our homes, on our couch, at our sink, beside our sick bed.
God has always been in our back garden, and our pantry. In every part of our lives, and always will be. As I have been working from my living room rocking chair I’ve had to make a sort of ottoman because our corgi, Basil, refuses to be separated from me. He has to be touching me at all times.
God is curled up like a cat in your lap, and God is happy for you to curl up like a cat in God’s lap, to rest there to dump your fears and your tears and your loneliness into a lap that can fit the whole world and is shaped just for you.
God, our wise Grandmother, our doting Father, our careful shepherd is with us, scattered though we are throughout our county, our country, our world. And we are all her family, his flock no matter how far apart we might be physically, in God our we are together.
Fear will come, but neither fear, nor death, no anger, no loneliness, nor anything else in this world (or any world) can separate us from God, from the one who loves us beyond reason. Amen.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Today’s readings are all loaded with evocative imagery and topics, but the Gospel lesson really has to be one of the most complex and perplexing pieces of narrative anywhere in the New Testament. The confrontation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is a story that shows up only in the Gospel of John, and it’s loaded with so many layers of implication that it’s probably impossible to plumb it to its core.
Part of it is just because it’s really rather weird and disjointed. I know there’s a tendency to think, “Well, sure. Old text. Things have shaken a little bit loose in transmission, so not all the pieces can be expected to dovetail and make perfect sense.” There’s a tendency also to blame ourselves for our own perplexity, and to assume that none of it is going to make perfect sense, because we just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the cultural idiom; maybe it’s some native incapacity. From the point of view of twenty-first century America, though, this conversation seems more than a little bit jagged.
I have students whose approach to other ancient texts is similar: they can produce a translation of a passage — I don’t know how — without ever questioning the fact that it doesn’t really seem to make sense in context. Don’t do that. It does make sense — and you have to be more confident in your own ability to recognize what sense looks like. In the Gospel of Mark, there are certainly a few junctures that look like they’ve been put together with a staple gun and chewing gum. But the Gospel of John is quite different. If you read it extensively, all at once, it normally flows pretty smoothly. In that context, just how jarring and strange this conversation is becomes more obvious.
We’ve all heard the story before; familiarity may dull our sense for just how manic and bizarre it is. Of course the more or less obvious take-away from the story as a whole is the fact that Jesus, in the course of a fairly long conversation (as scriptural accounts of such things go) extends the offer of salvation and eternal life to a non-Jew. The Samaritans were not wholly separate from the Jews: they traced their ancestry, as the story relates, back to Jacob and Joseph; they believed in the same Lord, and observed at least some of the Law. One of the main points at issue between them was the question of where the Lord ought to be worshiped. The Samaritans kept their traditional “high places”, while the Jews held to the primacy of Jerusalem and the temple there. Like the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, they’ve split over what is in some ways a less-than-critical administrative detail, rather than any essential doctrine. But — it’s just human nature, I guess — they reserve a special contempt for each other. The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was in some ways greater than that between Jews and out-and-out pagans.
But if, rather than just trying to distill the story into a single propositional point, you take a look at the way the narrative unfolds, it’s very strange. It’s a kind of verbal sparring-match between the two, fraught with a whole range of social and cultural awkwardnesses. A certain amount of background will help, though much of it is supplied by the story. The woman herself has, in the cultural terms of the day, three strikes against her.
First of all, of course, she was a Samaritan. In the NRSV reading you heard today, John tells us that the Jews and the Samaritans don’t share things with each other. To say that they don’t “share things in common” is remarkably bland, really, and probably misses the point more than it gets it. Without an object, as it is here, the Greek verb συγχρῶνται (though it means something like “use together”) is likelier to mean something more like “associate”. John’s point is not, I think, that they don’t share eating utensils or cookware in order to preserve a strict Kosher kitchen: the force of the phrase here is more like “the Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans”. While she is still a believer in the Lord, and in fact (as we learn) is looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, the Samaritans are pariahs to the Jews. Even talking to them is enough to suggest a kind of ritual uncleanness for a strictly observant Jew. Sharing a water-jug with a Samaritan would be out of the question.
Second, she’s a woman. Even if she’d been a Jewish woman, this would have been problematic. For an unaccompanied man even to speak with an unaccompanied woman was a violation of conventional common decency. Of course nothing untoward happened between them — and there probably weren’t laws against just talking to one another. They were, after all, apparently in a public location, though we aren’t told that anyone else is around when the conversation starts; I think we have to understand a certain amount of privacy. But for Jesus to initiate a conversation with a single or unaccompanied woman was at the very least daring. It was not the done thing, and it would probably have been considered an insult to her had she been an entirely respectable woman.
Third, however, as it eventually emerges, she apparently wasn’t an entirely respectable woman. Here we need to read between the lines; the implications are not spelled out in detail. In writing about this, Frank Spina points out that she might well have been widowed five times in her life; that’s at least theoretically possible, and remarriage after being widowed was not itself frowned upon. It’s possible that one or more of her marriages ended in divorce; though Jesus speaks strongly against divorce himself, it was also at least legal under the Jewish law. Divorce, moreover, was typically initiated by the husband, so if it was a fault, it probably wouldn’t have been hers. For a woman to be divorced or widowed virtually compelled her to remarry, or, if that was not a possibility, to enter into other relationships. Marriage was largely about producing children; the abandoned woman was unlikely, after her childbearing years, ever to find another husband. Her position was economically on the edge all the time, and it was the cruel reality that many such women became prostitutes because they were just out of options. Still, by the end of this process, she is apparently living in a relationship that is not marriage. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have mentioned it, or that John would have mentioned it, or that the woman would have talked about it even obliquely to others, if it had been merely a housing arrangement. Accordingly, associating with her was dicey for Jesus. It suggested morally dubious intentions.
Despite all these things, Jesus strikes up a conversation with the woman. Its beginnings give no real indication of where it’s headed. At least it seems like a entirely pragmatic line. He’s thirsty, and he wants some water. He asks her to draw some for him. It seems obvious, and almost innocuous. After all, she has the jug; he doesn’t have one. That this is an echo of certain Old Testament betrothal narratives (hearkening back to Jacob, in fact) is an interesting byway that we don’t have time for here. But check it out if you’re interested.
The conversation unfolds from there very oddly indeed. After Jesus makes the first advance, the woman replies by falling back on conventional formalities of proper behavior. “How is it that you’re asking this of me? I’m a Samaritan and I’m a woman.” She doesn’t mention her marital status. Perhaps she wants to seem more respectable than she really is. Her response isn’t strictly an answer to his request, but it makes sense in context.
Then Jesus makes a completely unanticipated turn. He doesn’t answer her challenge at all, either, but he does something that’s even more transgressive: he turns it around on her and says, “Well, if you had any idea who I was, you’d be asking me for water.” What? How did we get there? Does he want some actual literal water or not? Then he goes on to explain that if she had asked, he would have given her living water. Exactly what qualifies as living water is not at this point entirely clear.
I don’t know about you, but if someone I’ve never met opens a conversation with a completely conventional comment or request, and then follows it up with a loopy zinger like that, I’m usually looking around for the nearest exit. I figure I’m being played by some kind of charlatan, or else just a nut case. I want to disengage.
She’s clearly flummoxed, but continues to try to control the situation, if only by imposing some kind of rationality on it. She tries to relate what he’s saying to the practical reality of the situation. He’s sitting there, having asked for water; she points out, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.” In any conventional sense, it’s pretty obvious that he’s in no position to be offering her water. Living water, she doesn’t know. But the well’s right there. She’s going to try to redeem the situation without getting too rude.
Then, however, she does a kind of double-take, as if what he had said had just sunk in, a few beats too late. Her line of questioning changes: “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?” Clearly she’s become aware that this is no longer about his ability to hoist up a bucket of regular H2O. She’s not sure what it is, but she’s reaching back to the foundations of her own faith. She’s betting on the fact that water they had gotten from their ancestor Jacob and Joseph was going to be as good as any other water he might be able to offer.
So what does Jesus do now? He starts deprecating the water he’s just asked for. What? “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.”
Certainly he now seems a few notches shy of sane. He’s gotten her attention, though. It’s not clear whether she’s sold on the whole thing,, or whether she is merely trying to call his bluff. After all, he said that if she asked for it, he’d give it to her. So, fine. She’ll ask. “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She still thinks that this is about normal water: but, whatever it is, having it will mean that she won’t have to come back to the well to draw more every day. She isn’t too clear on how this all works, but if it means she can scratch a regular and probably tiring activity off her daily schedule, that’s worth a shot, isn’t it?
At this point, though, Jesus pulls yet another change of direction. He doesn’t apparently give her anything. He tells her to go fetch her husband. Well, okay — but that doesn’t look very much like a gift of water either, does it? Why that? When she says that she doesn’t have a husband, Jesus comes out with a recital of what might be considered an account of her unchastity. And yet he doesn’t offer it as an accusation, as such. He doesn’t scold her, and he doesn’t stop talking to her. This strikes her like a thunderbolt. For her, it’s apparently less about the fact that she is or isn’t unchaste, and more about the fact that he knows it. I think it’s probably important also to add that he apparently already knew it before he struck up this conversation in the first place. He knew what kind of woman he was talking to.
This is what really boggles her, and she identifies Jesus as a prophet. She sketches the conventional difference between Jewish and Samaritan worship, making no reference to her marital status. She’s definitely hooked now: If his responses have been a little (or a lot) disjointed, well, this would explain it. Prophets are allowed to be a little weird — it kind of goes with the territory.
But it’s precisely here that he stops leaping about from pillar to post. The conversation zeroes in on what he really wants to talk to her about, but he’s also now established his credentials. What he has to say is equally astounding. All that stuff about Jerusalem and the Samaritan high places will ultimately be cancelled as irrelevant. And, in fact, “ultimately” is right now. “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.”
The woman replies with an appeal to the Messiah. It’s not clear why she is moved to bring him up, but I think it’s perhaps an outgrowth of what he’s said about the coming order. Certainly there’s a sense that the promised Messiah bridges the gap between the two peoples. All these petty quibbles will be set right, the truth will be known, and the differences in worship style will be resolved.
And then Jesus lands his real zinger, “That would be me. You’re talking to him.” Well. This is a remarkable statement at any time, but this is another one worth seeing in context. Claimants to the title of Messiah actually popped up fairly routinely. So it’s not a title that nobody would claim for himself. It’s just not proven to be true in most cases. Preposterous claims aren’t that uncommon. To some extent, their frequency makes even the valid one suspect. I mean, I suppose it’s possible that some wealthy Nigerian wants to send me twenty million dollars, but I honestly don’t tend to pay attention to those emails any more. But what if it were true?
The eccentric flow of the conversation, it’s worth noting, has already established Jesus’ credentials as at least a genuine prophet by the time he arrives here. The other thing that validates what he says is precisely the curious inappropriateness of the person he’s addressing. Nigerian scammers don’t selectively send their email only to destitute people living on the street. Messianic claimants who want to be taken seriously surely aren’t going to lodge their claim with those in absolutely no position to promote their cause. He’s telling a woman? A Samaritan? A possible prostitute? What in the world is he thinking?
Of course, God seems to have this regular way of working through the least probable — the weak, the marginalized, and the disinherited. At this point in his career, if our chronologies are correct, Jesus has not made this claim to any of the Jews, even his own disciples. He has mostly kept his identity under wraps up to this point. Commentators talk about the Messianic Secret in Mark. But even in John, he’s not carrying calling cards identifying him as the Messiah. Looking at the gospel narrative in dramatic terms, this is what the Hollywood types call the Big Reveal — like that point where the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro discloses who he really is. The fact that he made this revelation first to someone outside the chosen inner circle is remarkable for its brazenness; it also says a great deal about the direction he is going overall.
If that were all there was, this would be a remarkable story. But it continues. Up to this point, we’re given to understand that the conversation has been private, possibly unobserved altogether. But then the disciples show up en masse. They’re apparently kind of appalled, or at least perplexed, to find Jesus, the pillar of righteousness, carrying on an apparently intimate conversation with this questionable woman — a Samaritan, no less. John tells us that they didn’t challenge him on it, but the fact that he mentions it argues that it was going through someone’s mind. But neither does either Jesus or the woman tell them what he has told her about himself.
In due course, she also becomes something of a model of what the true convinced evangelist can be. She, whose only credentials were a sinful life and a place among a marginal tribe of dubious believers, goes out and starts getting people to come see Jesus for themselves. In a stroke of naturalistic detail, we’re told that she leaves her water-jar behind. I’m sure there’s a high-powered interpretive explanation of the significance of that: I tend personally to take it just as corroborative detail. She was pretty fired up about this.
In the midst of this narrative there is another one inserted that is almost a mirror image of Jesus’ conversation with the woman; his disciples are urging him to eat, but he tells them that he has food they don’t know about. They entirely fail to get the point.
What shall we make of all this, then? I’m not sure there’s a single overriding point to take from it. As so often in scripture and even in literature, the point is in the narrative itself, not in a distillation or a moral. What we see is Jesus’s interaction with a sinful woman — sinful as we are. His angles of approach are occasionally bewildering — and I for one am often bewildered by them too. Ultimately he touches a nerve and turns her whole universe upside down. The challenge, I think, is for us to let him do so for us too. But don’t trade the story in for these reductions. It’s worth clinging to and re-examining over and over again for what it is itself.
Originally published at Barefoot Theology
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
First Sunday in Lent (A), Mar 1 2020
Oh the crafty serpent. Oh that foolish woman! Or, maybe not…
Rabbis have been expanding on scripture, musing and arguing about it for generations and part of that musing is about this story in Genesis. We generally read it this way: God makes a perfect creation, the snake comes along working against God (sometimes conflated with a devil character), the evil woman ruins EVERYTHING and here we are.
Rabbi friends introduced me to a different way to view this tale, not as literal history (it clearly isn’t), but as an allegory. Humans in the garden are like babes in a cradle, they are safe and cared for. But they aren’t meant to stay there forever, that would be silly and stunting.
The garden is the infancy of our species, when we eat and grow and are cared for in every way by our parent.
Along comes the snake, that’s curiosity and wonder, the first differentiation between child and parent (think the terrible twos). And Eve takes the first step out of the cradle, she drags Adam (who is perfectly comfortable being bottle fed apparently) with her out of the nursery and into our species’ next step.
In this way of looking at the story God always intended for us to eat from the tree and leave the nursery of the garden, its just that we were impatient and did it before God felt we were ready. (Which any parent will tell you is pretty much how raising children goes.)
And I think that understanding shines new light on Jesus’ “temptation” in the wilderness.
(The serpent is never named as satan, but the two are often conflated, keep that in mind.) Jesus meets Satan, who remember works for God. Satan is the court attorney, he is responsible for accusing mortals of crimes, trying cases, doing all the things we’d expect of an attorney. And here he comes to cross examine Jesus. He comes to find out if Jesus is really ready.
Jesus has been baptized, he’s heard that he is the Son of God, that God is pleased with him. (God’s pleasure comes before he’s done anything, or proved anything, also worth noting.) But God is perhaps a slightly more experienced parent by now.
And so, before he can begin his active ministry Jesus’ maturity gets tested. Is he still a spiritual and emotional toddler? Or does he have the maturity that the next few years will require?
We’re here of course, because he does.
If God’s original intention was to raise children to maturity then Jesus gives us a glimpse of what God is hoping for. Jesus rejects immediate gratification (though he will later create miraculous bread to feed others, making food miraculously isn’t the problem). He refuses to coerce God. And he is not swayed by an opportunity to gain coercive power and control over his fellow beings.
There are many ways of understanding Jesus’ ministry of course but this Sunday I am most curious about Jesus as big brother, Jesus as the one we are to look up to, emulate, and follow his example.
If Eden was our nursery, we are now what? Children perhaps, as a race. Still painting lines down the middle of our rooms, still hoarding toys and fighting over free gifts.
I remember when I was in college the Episcopal priest back home seemed to flame out constantly. He spent all his time fighting with the congregation, he ruined his marriage, had an affair with a parishioner, he burned all his bridges. I was flabbergasted by his behavior, but my Mother replied: “Just because we get older, doesn’t mean we grow up.”
I would like to suggest that our job, as individuals and as a species, is to grow up.
To grow more and more into God’s dream for us, into our full humanity. For Christians that image is Jesus. Lent is our own wilderness time, 40 days to look within, to test ourselves and maybe to find those places where we wouldn’t pass the Divine Court’s Maturity Test.
May we have Eve’s curiosity this Lent, utterly unwilling to stay as we are.
May we have the grace of God as we examine our lives. That we might see ourselves with God’s generous eyes, and forgive ourselves with God’s generous love.
May we have the bravery of Mary singing her song of hope and change.
May we be as creative and hope filled as Mary Magdalene and the other apostles.
And may our Lent be a time of holy growing up.
Originally published on Barefoot Theology
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
All Saints, Bellevue
Ash Wednesday, Feb 26 2020
Putting a record on our turntable takes me back to my child hood. Back to our cozy basement family room, sitting on the warm wool carpet that came from Grandma’s house, looking up, up, up at my Father. He was choosing our music, you see.
While the snow howled outside, and the dark pressed in, he trailed his finger down the shelf of LPs, then slid out a cardboard sleeve, covered in bright colorful artwork. His hands moved like a conductor, drawing the paper sleeved disk out of its cardboard shell.
Each layer of protective wrap set aside gently, finally the record itself tipped ever so smoothly out of the creamy wrapper to balance like a disk against the callused palm of his hand. My father’s two strong, rough hands held flat, the edges of the record held between them so no oil ever touched the playing surface.
With a twist of his wrist the disk spun, as if magically, between his palms and flat, as he lowered it down onto the platter.
Then out came the brushes, the disk cleaning fluid that smelled magically technical to my nose. The turntable spun silently, round and round, while my father carefully, reverently let its turning motion clean the flat black surface of the record against his soft brushes.
And then, the most important part, the needle was carefully lined up, just over that blank edge of the spinning disk, and lowered down to kiss the surface and the speakers, set up near the ceiling, overflowed with a tapestry of music.
Watching my father I understood instinctively that the records that gave us beautiful music were precious. What I did not know, as a child, was that they were mortal.
Every time the needle touched our favorite Scottish pipe bad LP, or Dad’s Bruce Springsteen, or Mom’s Billy Joel they gave the gift of their music and turned, a little more, to dust. Like, if you will, us; slowly wearing out, giving away our gifts, turning to dust.
There are two responses to this tender knowledge. There were (still are) folks who bought those records, and played them once, to record them to a tape and then never played them again.
And then there are the folks like my Dad. Who know what the gift costs, but would never think of trying to hoard it forever. Who treat the fragile beauty of life with reverence, even worship; but play it anyway, loud and beautiful.
And Ash Wednesday reminds us, that we too are wearing out. It is inevitable.
Even the records that were never played are not what they were, and someday, unplayed they too will crumble to dust in their sleeves. And that, I think, is the greater tragedy. All the beauty that turns to rust, to dust, unused, hoarded against tomorrow, when it was meant to be shared.
So, beloveds, remember: we are dust. The question is not how do we keep from crumbling; but will we share the beauty we have been given in the time that we have?
Originally published on Barefoot Theology.
The cliff notes version of today’s lessons could be summed up by: God cares about justice, mercy, love for neighbor and stranger, and the building of peaceful just communities among humans. God cares much less about sacrifices, or worship, or fancy ceremonies.
Done. We can all go home!
Maybe not, because right about there we start getting a little uncomfortable. If you’ve spent any time around religious people at all (just about any religion) then you’ve probably gotten the idea that worship is seriously important. Muslims pray five times a day as an obligation to God. Christians come together at least weekly to break bread and participate in the mystical feast of Jesus’ body and blood. Jews gather to worship God and read the Torah on a weekly basis as part of their required Shabbat celebration. And that’s just three of the thousands of faiths on earth.
Early on in my seminary education one of my colleagues was really, really upset by something that happened in worship, we’d changed something, or a mistake got made I don’t even remember what it was now. But one of our professors sort of blinked at us in that owl like way all professors develop and said “why are you upset, we aren’t doing this for God, God doesn’t care.” Or something to that effect.
If you know anything about baby priests in training you can guess that a number of us got really worked up about that: of course God cares! God wants us to say the creed and do Eucharist and… Nope. This is where seminary will really mess with the religion you were raised with and will say things like: read scripture, God does not care if we worship God. Any God that needs our worship isn’t worthy of it.
And because we’re human beings one of us said (but we were all thinking) “then why the hell are we even here??? Why are we in church on Sunday if none of this matters???”
“Because,” Professor Jennings said very quietly, “we are the ones who need worship.”
The people Isaiah is addressing were fasting and praying to get God’s attention, to be seen by God as righteous, to be seen by one another as righteous.
The people Jesus has been talking to in this sermon on the Mount fell into two camps: those that wanted to fight the Romans with swords and clubs (the Sadducees) in order to usher in God’s Kingdom on earth, and those who wanted to make religion something personal and private that defined your private life (the Pharisees) until God instituted God’s Kingdom on Earth.
There are Christians today who want to make our planet uninhabitable and start wars to begin the Last Days. And just as unhelpfully there are Christians who want to turn faith into a personal and private choice with no impact on our public life. Jesus and Isaiah both point out that both those groups have it wrong. (Then, and now.)
We don’t worship God for God’s sake, and religion is not a personal and private matter. Worship, my professor went on to say, is practice for our lives in the world. The Eucharist is a dress rehearsal for what we must do out there. Worship isn’t something we do to make God happy, it is something God has given us to change who we are.
I’ve told the story before of a rabbi friend who has a congregant who likes to, anytime she addresses our common life together in her sermon comment: well rabbi, you’ve gone to meddling!
He means it as a criticism, she takes it as an indication she is being faithful to her tradition. Because here’s what we were lucky enough to inherit from our Jewish roots: the idea that what God cares about most is the way we humans order our lives together (with each other, and with the world entrusted to us.)
The Torah, the law we Christians sometimes mock isn’t a frivolous, out dated thing, the majority of it is about ordering our common life toward a just society one that reflects God’s hopes for us and the whole created world.
May we listen to the wisdom of our ancestors. May we be shaped and changed at our core by our worship and our community life. Every week we are offered once again the chance to become something new, to become a little more the dream God has for us.
And every week we are given our marching orders, by our deacon, out those doors and into the broken world, not to conquer it, and not to withdraw from it: but to share with it the Kingdom of God that God is building right here and right now.
Originally published on Barefoot Theology
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
Feb 2 2020, Feast of the Presentation, Luke 2:22-40
The Church is a very anxious place right now. Not All Saints, we’re pretty chill, I mean the Big C Church.
Spend any time in a clergy group in person or on whatever social media platform you like and the anxiety will be running all over the place like spilled mercury. There will be endless conversations about budgets, and deferred maintenance, and what percent of churches have no children in them and endless discussions of how we lure those kids back.
So this is where I have to confess that even as a kid I preferred the company of the altar guild ladies over the youth group. And I have way more fun with you all than I do teaching Godly Play.
And I absolutely adore Anna and Simeon.
Our culture is obsessed with youth. Actresses are old and washed up by the time they are 40. Billions of dollars is spent every year on “anti-aging” skincare. And you only have to spend about 10 seconds on any website to see some ad promising to turn back the clock.
The feast of the Presentation is a welcome corrective to all that obsession over youth.
Simeon and Anna have the privilege of age. They are in a unique position to devote themselves to God in a way their younger relatives (who are still working, and raising children) cannot. They have both been freed from the expectations of their society by their age. Even Anna is freed of the cloistered life of women in her day by her status as a widow.
And without these two how different perhaps might Jesus’ life have been?
Despite all that has led up to this moment Mary and Joseph are still surprised when Simeon and Anna take Jesus into their arms and utter prophecies about this tiny baby (who is probably keeping them awake at night and wearing them ragged).
The truth is that Jesus’ life and mission wasn’t a solitary endeavor. God worked with and through more people than we will ever know. Not just Mary’s yes, but Joseph’s leap of faith, and the wisdom and dedication of two elderly people who were maybe a little invisible to everyone around them.
But Anna and Simeon don’t just change the lives of Mary and Joseph, Anna shares her wisdom with everyone who comes to the temple, with all the people who come seeking hope and news of God’s work in the world. Y’all this has always been the role of elders, we moderns have simply forgotten.
Here in one story we have the whole arch of the human experience. We have the infant or child, dependent on those around them for care, safety, and love. We have the tired, striving young parents in the midst of surviving, caring for their children, working and just trying to keep their heads above water.
And we have Simeon and Anna, who have raised their families and done the daily grind and moved on to what Richard Rohr calls the second half of life. A time when the work of a human being is to turn inward, to go deep, to encounter God and to bring the wisdom of that inner work to their community.
This is what Simeon and Anna do for Jesus’ family and the people in their community in Jerusalem.
In this time of anxiety, the church desperately needs Simeons and Annas. While we are all hyper focused on kids and youth the church (and the kids and youth) needs those with the time, the experience, the maturity to go within, to wrestle with God, to read the world around them and to bring us (the Church) the news of the new things God is doing in the world.
I don’t mean to put you all under any pressure but most of All Saints is poised to be a Simeon or an Anna (and we all will be eventually.) So, the church needs you.
This year one of my goals is to help each of us deepen our spiritual lives, to help us each grow and mature in our faith. To do some of that work that Richard Rohr describes in Falling Upward (no matter our age).
Simeon and Anna remind us to have hope. Though we have waited for so long, God is moving in the world.
And keep alert, my friends, for at any time Jesus might be brought into the temple and we, we must be awake enough to recognize him.
Originally published on Barefoot Theology
The Rev. Josephine Robertson
1/26/2020, Matthew 4:12-23
I vastly prefer “mountain tops” to the ordinary valleys of everyday life, how about you all?
Our spiritual mountain tops can be wildly varied. Mine tend to be mystical. There is the time an altar vibrated like a drum beneath my hands, or the day I stood outside the ring of Stonehenge and felt the stones humming. There was the time my heart was broken open and remade the first time I witnessed a woman preside at the Eucharist, the day I spent a whole morning flirting with God in the Michigan woods, chasing the beauty of a snowfall that somehow was also prayer through the lens of my camera.
I could go on.
But today isn’t a day for mountain top experiences. We are firmly and squarely back in what the church calls “ordinary time” and while the word ordinary is actually about counting this time is, truly ordinary. We are not in one of the great seasons of preparation (Advent or Lent) nor in one of the seasons of festival (Christmas and Easter).
And this reminded me of the oft repeated advice of spiritual mentors down through the years, remember, they would say: we don’t live on the mountain tops, our lives are lived on the slopes and valleys.
It is a little like what I tell couples preparing for marriage: careful, I say, right now all this laser focus is on your wedding but that is just one day. It is all the ordinary days of your marriage that really deserve your attention; those are what count.
And today’s gospel is, in some ways, the most ordinary of things.
There are Simon and Andrew, at work, like you do. Going through the routines of ordinary life; when Jesus waltzes in and calls out “follow me!”
And a little later we find James and John, those famous “sons of thunder.” They too are at work, doing what they’ve done every day when Jesus appears and calls out “follow me!”
These aren’t extraordinary experiences. Unlike the call story we heard last week where a thunderous prophet (John) names Jesus as the preverbal “It” and his followers all head over to see what’s shaking, here our heroes (such as they are) are just at work. It is an ordinary day and they are just ordinary folk doing ordinary things to make ends meet.
The setting could be our office, classroom, or kitchen table. All the places you have lived your everyday life. And in walks Jesus, without a by-your-leave, and with a shout and a wave calls out: follow me!
And this is the truth of ordinary time: Christmas and Easter are brief wonderful interludes. But the majority of our life is about following Jesus in the midst of the ordinary, even mundane moments of our lives. Jesus’ disciples are just folk. Like you, like me. Regular men and women with families, jobs, and zero fame.
They aren’t brilliant (I mean Simon’s nickname is blockhead, or rock head if you want to be nice). They aren’t special the way we’re used to identifying special. And their lives, though filled with mountain tops and valleys will continue to be fairly ordinary, day to day.
So what, then, do we take away from this odd little story of very ordinary prophecy fulfillment and absent fishermen?
For me Matthew’s call story is a reminder that the stuff of faith is the stuff of our everyday lives. That what feeds and sustains us is not the mountain tops (nice as they are) but the day to day effort to respond to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”
This is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road. For me it serves as a reminder that the place where following Jesus matters isn’t here on a Sunday morning, or while I’m reading my Bible, or writing my sermon, or planning liturgy.
Where following Jesus matters is when, in the midst of my ordinary day I am given an option: heed the call to discipleship or keep casting my nets. There’s no miracle here, just an ordinary moment that calls for four ordinary guys to do something odd, different, maybe even subversive.
They leave their families, their obligations, and they follow Jesus.
Our call moments probably won’t be so dramatic. But we will, in the midst of going about our days hear (if we’re listening) Jesus’ call, we will hear: the kingdom has come near you and the next choice we make will be the choice that matters most.
Last week one of our members, who can identify themselves if they chose, approached me about an idea to help our unhoused neighbors. It might have seemed a very ordinary idea, a bag to keep in the car with things someone living on the street might need. But this idea was a little different. You see this person wanted us to put these tools in gift bags not ugly plastic bags. This person wanted to make sure that with the tooth brush, and protein, there was a gift card so our neighbor could choose for themselves what they wanted to eat.
Y’all that’s answering Jesus’ call to “follow me.” Jesus who treated everyone he met as a gift, who always acknowledged the agency the choice of the people who came to him for help (what do you want?).
In the midst of ordinary life, the choice to see and treat as fully human someone who is often invisible, and less than.
Will we live as if the kingdom really is near? Will we be the friend to the poor, outcast, sick, stranger? Will we follow Jesus’ steps, model our choices on his?
This is the question, here in the ordinary days of our lives.