A sermon preached in May 2018
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I say to you, ‘You all must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. If I have told you all about earthly things and you all do not believe, how can you all believe if I tell you all about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is the Word of our Lord.
Can you recall a time when you caused a royal mess of things? Really botched things up? Maybe you didn’t intend for things to fall apart – a business deal that never came to be, maybe you hurt someone you loved and didn’t mean to, maybe it was something more complicated, where it was not your fault, per se, but you also knew you had a role to play in how things turned out . . . with maybe a troubled child or sibling, a broken relationship with a former lover, an ongoing strain with a coworker or neighbor.
Or, maybe you did mean to. Maybe you were angry, hurt, or selfish. Just wanted it to go your way. We’ve all had these moments. Times where – intentionally or not – harm or disarray got the better of us. Where we hurt ourselves, our neighbors, or people we love. It’s the kind of stuff that can keep any one of us up at night, looking and hoping for a way through. Preferably, not the slow, hard, confrontational way.
In trainings I lead, I sometimes ask, what keeps you up at night? What leads you to Jesus in the middle of the night? Hear are some of the answers I get back:
And Jesus, as usual, immediately goes to the personal heart of the matter. Nicodemus, you think you’re in the presence of God, and yet you don’t see the kingdom. [pause] You don’t see the kingdom. And the only way to see the kingdom is to become born again.
Nicodemus is confused, and misses the point. How can anyone become born again, he wonders aloud.
A counselor whom Erik and I greatly respect, once said, “There’s no such thing as confusion. Confusion is just a moment when you either don’t want to or aren’t ready to take in the information before you."
I’m confused, Nicodemus says and, as so many of us do when we’d really rather not face what’s at the heart of the problem, instead he stalls a little more. How could I possibly be born again at this age? Maybe he’s even confessing part of what he’s wrestling with – how maybe he’s not sure could actually help fix things after all.
Jesus takes another tact. Here, look at the effect of the kingdom. It’s like the wind. Though you can’t see it, you can see what it does all around you.
Still, Nicodemus struggles to bring it home.
So Jesus moves the conversation back towards the heart of whatever is keeping Nicodemus up in the night.
You are a teacher of the law of Israel, Nicodemus. You have studied these things extensively. Remember, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness – remember what you’ve studied – so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
Now, not everyone has studied the law – or the Old Testament – like Nicodemus. So you might not recall right off what Jesus referring to here. When did Moses lift up the serpent in the wilderness, you might be asking. Why did he do that?
Let’s go ahead and take a look at the passage Jesus is referring to – Numbers 21:4-9. At this point, the people of Israel have been brought out of slavery in Egypt and are making their way through the wilderness. Starting with verse 4, we read:
They set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom, but the people became impatient on the way. [In their impatience,] the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt [only] to die in the wilderness? There’s no food and no water, and we detest [the miserable food that is here.]” [In immediate response to this proclamation] the Lord sends poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
So, that’s the passage Jesus is referring to when he’s talking to Nicodemus. You may recall a couple months ago when this passage came up in the liturgical calendar and was preached here. That Sunday, your Christian Education Director used a staff that she had made to talk with the kids and help them envision the staff Moses created. She also talked about how there are times, like at recess, when you might bump into someone else and that person gets hurt. Sometimes, you bump into them on purpose. Maybe in your playing, you become frustrated and you mean to hurt them. Sometimes, you’re just racing and its accident. Either way, when you’ve hurt someone, she encouraged the kids, you apologize – whether you meant to do it or not.
The staff and the serpent – which you may also recall seeing in other settings as a sign of medicine and healing – reminds us that mending wounds is not just a physical activity, but a mental, emotional, and spiritual activity. In other words, we don’t just say we’re sorry only when we really intend to be mean or only when someone is physically hurt. We say sorry, or seek to restore a relationship, when someone may be hurt mentally, emotionally, or spiritually and we had some role in that. It’s one of those important lessons we learn in kindergarten that makes a difference our whole life long. Our relationships matter.
Now, we’re still not quite at the heart of what’s going on here with Nicodemus – and the word for us today. We’re almost there. See, there’s an important piece – it’s what links the Numbers, Isaiah, and John passages all together – something that can too easily be missed.
See, Moses doesn’t raise just any serpent. “Poisonous” really is not a helpful English interpretation of the Hebrew here. In fact, it’s really the wrong word. What’s happening with them in this passage has nothing to do with poison. Because the word in Hebrew here says these are seraphim serpents. The same seraphs that Isaiah says he saw in attendance to God, and that John speaks of in his book Revelation. The same seraphs that praise the Lord without ceasing, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.”
It’s seraphim serpents – the very attendants of God’s realm – that came in instant response to the Israelites’ careless, ruthless, thoughtless complaints. And it’s worth pausing and taking that in. The attendants of God’s realm burst onto the scene at a moment when the Israelites are willing to cast it all away without a second glance. In their grievance, they have clearly missed something key. What were they not seeing? What were they missing? Maybe, how fragile life is? How precious, how valuable? How it can be gone in an instant? Might they have been missing the respect and honor of their lives and their relationships with one another and with God? How they could have quality of life, a sense of well-being, even in the wilderness where they found themselves?
Renowned psychologist and survivor of the European Holocaust, Victor Frankl famously demonstrated in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, how some people can have a sense of personal well-being – a sense of the value of life and relationships – no matter the circumstances and even being in a concentration camp. In fact, his book was originally titled: Nevertheless Say Yes to Life.
At one point Frankl recalls an especially grueling time he had in the concentration camp, and he describes how:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment . . . In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way—an honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation . . . achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory…”
(Man's Search for Meaning, Part One, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp", Viktor Frankl, Pocket Books, ISBN 978-0-671-02337-9 pp. 56–57)
It is this, this angel, this messenger lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory, it is that very being that reminds the Israelites they crossed a a critical line of value and honor – of themselves and their relationship with God in all circumstances. It is this being that is lifted up on the rod as a sign and symbol of healing and restoration. No matter what – never the less – you are called to say Yes to Love.
So, Jesus referencing these beings – the seraphim serpents on the rod – with Nicodemus begs the question . . . what’s keeping Nicodemus up at night? What’s keeping him from seeing the kingdom all around him and in him? What about seeing the kingdom will help him with what’s keeping him up at night? Has he, possibly, crossed a line in his heart or with his relationships or with God? Or, might he be standing at that delicate threshold? Are the seraphim right there, just beyond the veil, with bated breath, cheering him on, as they continue to proclaim holy, holy, holy? You can do it Nicodemus! You can move toward love and not away from it. You can do it, beloved siblings. Repent, and become born again, filled and renewed by the Spirit. Amen.
A sermon preached with a congregation that has experienced multiple disasters – both natural and human-caused – over several years.
Lamentations 3:22-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
(there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
and be filled with insults.
For the Lord will not
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
Mark 5:21-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Good morning! What a blessing to be with you. Thanks very much for having me.
I remember once, after a rash of troubling headlines when I was a teenager, admitting to my dad that I didn’t think I would have kids. I say this as we celebrate my son's fifteenth birthday today. At the time, the world seemed too dangerous to bring kids into it. My dad's response? Well, if all you do is look at the destruction, then there’s never been a good time to bring kids into the world. That was just one of countless ways my parents strived to teach my siblings and I the importance of adding good back into a troubled world. And gracious! Is the world ever troubled today. It can be quite a challenge to figure out how best to add good back in. In today’s passages, we are given three examples of people in heartbreaking circumstances – a city in ruin, a woman experiencing untreatable hemorrhaging, and a man fearing for his daughter’s life – where each person, in his or her own way, seeks to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing and recognizing Good at work in the midst of it. Let’s consider these examples some more together.
I wonder, have you ever pleaded with the Lord? Begged God repeatedly, like the little girl’s father does with Jesus? Or, maybe pleaded with God quietly in your heart, as we may presume the woman who suffered from years hemorrhaging may have been doing following treatment after treatment after treatment that did not heal her. How did she keep hope alive through all that suffering? Or, perhaps have you lamented to God, as the author Lamentations does in the first two and a half chapters of the book, sighing great heavy sighs for a community facing devastation? In your own pleading, or searching, do you experience glimmers of hope? Do you experience a sense of trust that, even as great tragedy has occurred, in some way things are going to work out? That tragedy, trauma, devastation are not the end of the story?
As I have prepared to be with you this morning, and spent time with these passages, in each of the three accounts we’ve heard today, I was impressed with what seems like a common element – even amid such very different circumstances – of each person moving toward hopefulness from places of great discouragement and overwhelm. In each case, with the author of Lamentations, the hemorrhaging woman, and the little girl’s father, I note how all of them seem to move toward holding two truths at the same time – the truth of what’s happened and the truth that Good is still at work in the world. This practice seems to be important for not getting lost in despair and being able to move toward new life after tragedy. And it’s important for us to remember, there’s no versions of good, there’s only good. And God alone is purely good. So, when we see and participate in goodness in the world, we are connected with the Holy Spirit.
For example, in the case of the author of Lamentations, the author’s city has fallen into ruin. It’s a shell of it’s former self, with people dying and suffering all around. For the first two and a half chapters of the book, the author names the suffering, names what has been lost, through rich poetic arcs. I encourage you to read those passages, if you have not done so recently. Briefly, though, hear the author of Lamentations as the author writes just before our passage for today: “I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long. God has filled me with bitterness, and has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’ The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”
These days, we do not often practice this kind of lamenting. At least, not publicly. It’s hard to be that bold, that direct, that poetic about what you’re feeling. So often, especially in times of overwhelming devastation, it’s immensely difficult to name not only what has happened but to give language to what reactions feel like in the body. How it feels like teeth grinding on gravel. Arrrgh! Or how devastation can make us even forget what it ever felt like to be happy. In fact, that’s a common experience after trauma – losing the ability to feel joy. Feeling embittered toward everyone around you. Being able to acknowledge not only what happened – a traumatic event that has occurred – but to acknowledge how you reacted and to incorporate that into a regular rhythm of life takes time and nurture.
In trainings I lead, I often encourage people to practice finding words for lament, as this author has done. To try writing about grief, and naming what has been lost – even just to yourself and before God. Sometimes, for example, the pain someone might feel after losing their home, for example, might not be the only aspect of traumatic loss they feel. They may also, for instance, mourn the loss of how meaningful the neighborhood had been, or the loss of feeling safe. It’s these less tangible losses that can sometimes be the hardest to process, and can fester within us for years, partly because they take so much more effort and intention to identify. It takes getting quiet, and asking yourself about what’s been lost, and listening carefully to how your body reacts and what thoughts come to mind. Sometimes, journaling can help. Sometimes, talking with a therapist or a good friend can help. Creating art can help. Sometimes we find we are able to identify what’s missing, what needs to be lamented, when we’re fellowshipping with loved ones. Whatever method is most effective for you, it’s good to practice lamenting what’s been lost – especially when it’s complex and multi-layered.
Unfortunately, sometimes, as Christians, we would rather just jump to Resurrection. We would much rather declare everything will be ok, without doing the work of earning that confidence. Rather than acknowledging what’s happened or how we’ve reacted, we dismiss those feelings in favor of only thinking positively and not dwelling on anything negative. The problem with that practice, sometimes, can be that it actually makes us stuff down a feeling of loss, and, unfortunately, forces it to linger within us rather than get metabolized. Trying to jump straight to health – to will ourselves to resiliency, as if a shortcut might be possible – skips over an important stage that occurs in between loss and health, a stage of uncertainty when we don’t know precisely how things are going to turn out. When all we feel is lost and forsaken. We miss the importance of marking that experience of bewilderment – a stage where, ideally, we recognize God abiding with us even in the midst of our sense of great loss.
We get a glimpse of this step in another passage of the Bible, when Mary Magdalene goes to the Garden after Jesus has died. In John 20, she goes to the tomb and finds two angels there and Jesus is missing. She begins to cry, wondering if his body has been stolen or moved somewhere. The angels ask her why she is crying and she says, They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him. She acknowledges her pain and her sense of bewilderment. She knows what she’s lost. As more and more scholars have studied trauma and healing, their studies show how acknowledging or expressing what’s happened – whether by words or by nonverbal action – is an important step in generating healing.
Sometimes, though, pain is much too hard, complex, or uncomfortable to name. Sometimes there are no words to truly describe what’s happened. Like it may have been for the woman who was hemorrhaging. After years of suffering, of seeking treatment after treatment to no avail, we find her experiencing her pain mostly by herself and not by speaking with others. She does not appear to have any friends or family in the crowd. She does not speak to the disciples or try to get Jesus’ attention. In fact, she’d prefer not to be noticed at all. She’s just going to touch Jesus’ robe, get her healing, and be on her way. After all, according to the Hebrew laws of her time, she should not be interacting so publicly at all, especially while she is bleeding which would have made her unclean. Imagine how isolated she would have been for twelve years. Never allowed to participate in celebrations or go to the Temple. But her she is, risking further ostracizing and punishment, for the possibility of being healed.
This same story appears also in the book of Luke chapter 8. There, when the woman touches his robe, Jesus says he immediately felt power go from him. He asks the disciples who has touched him and looks all around the crowd for the person who stole some healing.
No one knows, except for her. She knows she was instantly healed. Trembling with fear – she’s about to approach a Rabbi and his students within a crowd, knowing she also has not ritually cleansed herself. Still, she cannot help but tell the truth. She speaks both of what she has lost and of what she has gained. And he says, it is her trust in him and in his power that has healed her.
In the third account, a father is desperate to heal his dying daughter. When news comes that his daughter has died, Jesus’ first words are Do not be afraid, just believe. Sometimes, there are no words for what’s happened and no words come. There’s only the experience and going through the motions. In these cases, we acknowledge what’s happened through action, like giving the little girl something to eat . . . which would have been very different from every other time they had ever given her something to eat.
So there is the one truth – what’s happened. What’s been lost? And acknowledging what’s happened – what we’ve lost or suffered – as a part of the steps toward healing and health.
Then, there is the other truth, what’s to be gained. What goodness is at work in the midst of tragedy? The author of Lamentations speaks well to this in chapter 3. How, even amid an entire city in ruin, amid vast collective trauma, Goodness is still at work in the world. The author exclaims: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Trauma and loss are not the end of the story.
But so often, we miss the goodness. We miss those precious breaths of fresh air, fleeting moments of relief amid struggle. When we’re asked what’s happened, after trauma, we often will tell stories that only speak to the negative. Our emotions often blind us to the good. They get in the way of our faith, especially when we hang on to the feelings of pain and heartache. When we let them become, for example, a grudge we hold against God, or the world, or our loved ones. When they keep us from feeling like we can do good things – like when I thought I would never have kids in a world like this. We can become flooded with feelings of irritability, anger, frustration, sorrow, deep sadness, or great fear and anxiety. We stop being able to see Goodness at work. We stop feeling hopeful.
In trainings I lead, after I ask what’s happened, and I usually hear about all the bad. I ask, and when did you feel a moment of relief? And people pause, and remember, oh, yeah, these amazing people came to help, or my sister called right when I needed her to, or a stranger reached out a helping hand, or volunteers brought food and blankets, or in the midst of it all, I looked up and saw the clouds parting and I felt just a bit of peace. It’s important to remind ourselves, remind one another, we Christians are not meant to grieve like those who have no hope. We are not meant to go through sorrow only seeing the sorrow or only seeing Good and positivity. We are called to hold the two truths – of what has actually happened and how that devastation cannot overcome true Goodness.
Sometimes, we get to do that very publicly, like the woman who was healed. Sometimes, we do it privately, like the little girl and her father and their family. I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to follow Jesus’ instruction and to not tell anyone what had happened, but to just know it for themselves. How does having witnessed such robust Goodness at work in the world, and not being able to talk about it, impact how you interact with the world? Do you become people who instead show what you know, without words? It’s something for us to ponder, as people who are called to be God’s witnesses in the world. What might it mean to be God’s witnesses without words? How do we show what we know and believe, or live what we know and believe, without telling people about it? While we are not instructed not tell anyone about God’s activity in ourselves, it can be helpful to think about what it might mean to live that way. It’s something to consider. How might you be if a miracle occurred in your home, and Jesus told you not to tell anyone about it? What would it mean to live more by action than by words? For example, might it mean living with less fearfulness? With less anxiety? With being more kind, more generous, more expressive . . . in other words, with more of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit? With our family, with our friends, with our neighbors, with strangers?
In days with headlines constantly telling us about the pain and suffering in the world right now, it can be easy to forget that people have experienced great forms of suffering for millenia. We met some people today who experienced great pain in their lives. And we have seen how holding two truths was a part of their movements toward healing – the truths of being honest about what’s happened or what’s been lost, and of recognizing how Good is still at work in the world even, and especially, amid great sorrow. And how we can participate in that Goodness. Indeed, we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We do have hope. We know crises, and trauma, and disaster are not the end of the story. We are invited to claim, as the author of Lamentations does, that new mercies come every morning, even after disasters. We are invited to recognize, as the woman who was hemorrhaging does, that God calls us into greater relationship with God and with one another, even, and perhaps especially if all we want to do is get a little healing and move on. And, again and again, throughout the Bible, we are invited, like the little girl’s father, to not be afraid, but instead to believe. To believe that trauma and suffering are not the end. And that the Author of Goodness is at work in the world bringing about a new covenant of love each and every day. We are a part of that good work. Amen.
This sermon was preached in April 2018, four months after a church had experienced a devastating natural disaster.
Please join me in our First Testament reading, Psalm 4
Answer me when I call, O God of my right!
You gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.
When you are disturbed,[a] do not sin;
ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the Lord.
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
This is the Word of our Lord.
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here, and I am always grateful for any opportunity I have to share my passion for healing and health. I was graciously invited me to preach this morning, and I find it a great pleasure to dive in with you into one of the more peculiar passages in Scripture today.
This morning we find ourselves actually still on the first day of the resurrection. And what a weekend and a day it has been! Obviously, a tremendous amount has happened. And these passages related to the first hours and days after Jesus rose from the tomb give us a lot of insight into what it’s like to be ping-ponged between overwhelming events in which worst fears and greatest hopes become reality. Some find these passages haunting, others exhilarating and motivational. Some stake the core of their faith on these passages, while others can’t make heads or tails of them and it’s all they can do to hang on to their little mustard-seed size hope that there might be even a sliver of a chance they are real. Still others find they are just too far from the kind of life they’ve experienced – surely they must be myth or symbolic literature. Indeed, these passages take us right to the heart, right to the feet of God, where we can only go alone. They bring us right to the very essence of faith, and ask what do you believe? What will you bear witness to? Will you follow Jesus’ call to bear witness to these events?
This work is not for the faint of heart, and we do well to enter in with some fear and trepidation. As we look to our New Testament passage for today, on this particular day in Scripture, let’s set some context. A couple of disciples have just walked with Jesus along the Emmaus Road. At first, consumed and in the tunnel vision of their grief, they do not recognize him at all. Later, as they eat together, they suddenly realize who he is and, at that moment, he vanishes. They jump up and immediately return to Jerusalem. They gather other disciples, who also have wild stories to tell about sightings of Jesus. And this is the moment where we find them. Let’s listen in . . .
Luke 24: 36-43, 46-50
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them, saying, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. Even in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering. So he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending you what my Father has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.
This is the Word of our Lord.
It’s fairly safe to say the disciples are traumatized. We’ll unpack this a little more in a minute, but for now, it’s important to point out that a significant sign of trauma – or, the experiences we have immediately following severe loss – is not trusting or accepting what we sense in front of us. What we see, what we hear, what we feel. Just like what’s happening for the disciples here. And it’s one of the greatest challenges of being a witness. Unless you practice presence, any one of our body’s first responses to adversity is in some way to not take it in. To not believe what we see, to not fully hear the information, to not process the information accurately.
Think of significant stories in your own life – or, times you risked the possibility of loss. A close call. Think back on how the information came and went.
I’ll share one example of my own. Years ago, on my daughter’s birthday and when my son was about to turn three, just as we were finishing up dessert, Kaden was in the living room getting off a couch. He mis-stepped and came crashing down, full weight – and he was a little tank of a guy – slammed his forehead on the edge of the oak coffee table. I was by his side in what felt like a millisecond – like I just flew across the room. Instinctively, he had covered his forehead with his little pudgy hand. As I gently lifted his hand away, I was staring straight at that amazing, undeniable color of skull. A flurry of activity commenced, which resulted in a few of us heading to Urgent Care.
I remember walking up to the front desk, and the woman there welcoming me politely and asking me a few initial questions and then for my insurance card. I handed it over. At that was at that moment that I fully saw my arm for the first time, which was covered in blood. I burst into tears.
“It’s ok,” the woman at the desk assured me before I could barely get out, “I . . . I . . . didn’t have a chance to clean up.” “It’s ok,” she said again and took my card.
A lot has been said about Mary Magdalene in the Garden outside the tomb, or the disciples on Emmaus road, or Peter and disciples fishing on the shore, and none of them recognizing Jesus when he appeared to them. People wonder how they ever could have missed something so amazing and so obvious as their beloved Rabbi appearing before them. But it happens all the time, especially after trauma. Our bodies pace our processing, and help us focus in on what is most critical for us. You probably have your own stories of times you could not take it all in, or can’t remember quite how you got from here to there in the midst of it all.
So, here we are, with the disciples in a similar position, unable to take it all in at once. And for good reason. They’ve just been through one of the most tumultuous weekends of their lives. To start, their worst fears happened. The man they believed was going to save them, died. Dead. And they lived with that reality for at least 48 long hours.
Over the centuries, we Christians have conveniently removed ourselves from that part of the story. We often quickly jump from Good Friday to Easter, without a thought given to Friday evening or Holy Saturday. Without any sense of appreciation of what it would have been like for the disciples to really feel utterly forsaken, to really feel like the Messiah was gone and not knowing what comes next.
There’s a remarkable painting that can help Christians today consider what it might have been like for the disciples – another art form that brings viewers right to the feet of God and invites you to come to terms with what you really believe – Holbien’s Dead Christ paining. Personally, I think it’s a painting all Christians should see at some point in their spiritual journey. You can easily google it. Apparently, it haunted Dostoevsky. He’d spend hours staring at it. I don’t mean to be overly morbid. I just hope for you to have a sense of the fact that that’s where the disciples are when we meet them in our Scripture today. They had been facing the dead Christ for the last two days. We do well to try, even a bit, to put ourselves in their shoes.
Then, as this day unfolded for them, crazy rumors began to fly. People are reporting that the body is gone, the tomb is empty. People are wondering whether soldiers have stolen the body, whether zealots of any form have stolen the body, and what to do with the fact that a few trusted people seem to have possibly really gone crazy and are saying they’ve actually seen him and talked to him.
It’s not all processing. Wait, say it again. You’re sure?? They keep talking it through together, trying to make sense of what they are experiencing.
And we know what that’s like. We all have our own stories . . . of births, of deaths, of emergency room visits, of close calls, of heartbreaking loss . . . Wait, what? No. I don’t understand. I’m confused. How is that possible? It doesn’t make any sense. What? I woke up, and for a split second, I forgot it had happened, and then it all came rushing back again. We know these stories. We’ve lived them.
Like us after thoroughly life changing events, the disciples are radically disoriented when we meet them today. And, it’s understandable, that in the midst of this incredible disorientation, Jesus suddenly appears, and they are terrified and believing they are seeing a ghost.
So, what do you do in that moment? Can you help yourself, or help others, come back to your / our senses. To come back online, so to speak, when you feel like you’re going crazy and can’t trust your own sense of things.
Years ago, flight tower attendants received a terrifying message from a packed commercial airplane that had not finished taking off yet. It was mid-take off in New York City, not even a full minute off the ground yet, and the pilot is radioing in to say both engines are down because of a flock of geese and they are needing to land immediately. The attendants struggle to register the information. Wait, what? You can actually hear the exchange online. As I have listened to it, I have wondered whether, at a very guttural level, they did not want to believe a packed commercial airplane might suddenly fall out of the sky in the next moment. Say it again, they tell the pilot. The pilot repeats. Later, the pilot said, he turned to his co-pilot, and he asked, “My plane?” The co-pilot affirmed, “Your plane.” Then the pilot said, he forced calm on the situation. In other words, he forced himself to become immediately present. Within just three minutes, take off to landing, the pilot guided the engineless plane into the Hudson River. Lots has been made of this story, a book, a movie, and extensive investigation and study into exactly what the pilot did and the training that helped him to accomplish this tremendous feat.
Becoming present in an overwhelming situation makes a world of difference, and it’s one of the critical ways we take on the responsibility and calling to be witnesses and agents of healing in this life.
Thankfully, we also do not have to do it all on our own. In this passage, we see Jesus model how to help people who are overwhelmed come to their senses and become present. Being a caring person who helps others become present provides a tremendous gift of healing, and helps people become trustworthy witnesses. Let’s look at what he did.
“Peace be with you,” he starts off. Be calm, take a beat, be content in all circumstances. Peace be with you.
Then, he begins to draw their attention to their senses. Recall the five senses – touch, sound, smell, taste, and sight. He invites them to pay attention to how they feel inside – why are you troubled and have doubts? Trust your senses. What do you see? My hands, my feet. My bones and flesh. You hear my voice. You can even touch me, and know it is me. Then, as he’s commanded their attention in the most relational of ways, he brings his point home. He asks them if they have anything to eat. Over the years, nourishment is one of the most helpful ways I have found to bring someone back to their senses – to bring me back to my senses and sustain me in the work of care. A cool glass of water, a bit of healthy food.
The disciples bring him some broiled fish, hand it to him, and he eats it in their presence.
Now, think about what this last moment would have been like for them. Sure they saw him, they heard him, they touched him. But think about the amount of dreams you’ve had and how very real they have felt. But this, the fish, changed things. There’s no way that can be a dream.
It’s a moment that often reminds me of the scene in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins, when Mr. Banks is interviewing Mary for the position of nanny. Mary brings out a single sheet of paper to read the advertised Qualifications for the position. Item 1, a cheery disposition. “I am never cross,” she assures a suddenly very bewildered Mr. Banks. Item 2, rosy cheeks. “Obviously,” she retorts. And now, Mr. Banks has risen to his feet, crossed the room, and is trying to make sense of what feels utterly impossible. This is not the advertisement he had posted. No, this is literally the advertisement his children had created, and he is quite sure he had ripped it up and thrown it in the fireplace. “Where did you get that paper?” He insists, even as he stops listening to her and goes over to the fireplace where he recalls his actions the night before. He sees how none of the pieces are there any more. He continues to completely ignore Mary, and instead continues in his revelry, even going through the motions of the previous evening, reminding himself how he physically tore the paper and threw it away. “I beg your pardon, are you ill?” Mary inquires with concern. “I hope not,” he says, disconcertedly.
I like to imagine the disciples also were hoping they were not ill. Imagine them watching Jesus eat the fish. Imagine the one or two of them who had held it in their hands and handed it to him, or watched this being done, and it disappearing. Right before their eyes. The very substance they knew for sure was real, was now gone, inside him. I like to imagine his smile growing wider and wider, as their eyes bulged.
Fish play a prominent role in the resurrection passages. For example, Jesus famously makes a breakfast of grilled fish on the beach for the disciples and invites them to share what they have to offer. Despite having read and thought about these passages many times, I admit, I’m a little embarrassed to say how long it took me to connect these passages with the Christian Fish symbol.
I had grown up hearing about the Christian Fish in much more analytic and scholarly terms. Even as a middle school or high schooler in Sunday school and youth group, I was taught about the greek word ichthus for fish, and how it was an acronym to help early Christians remind themselves of who Christ was and to teach others. How they would draw it as a form of greeting, a way to identify one another in a highly intense and harsh political climate, and how they used it to spread the Gospel message. That may be. But I wonder if it’s even more than an acronym, if it is at all. See, in my work with survivors and study of trauma treatment, I find most survivors – myself included – aren’t very pithy or scholarly after trauma. In fact, more often than not, it just seems like there’s no words that really do justice for what I just witnessed or lived through. No words could fully encapsulate those real experiences of terror or the fullness of unimaginable joy.
I find the Passion weekend and the days of Christ walking among the disciples after resurrection to be some of those kinds of experiences.
Right there, in the midst of all this bewilderment, disorientation, and jubilation, Jesus says, you will be my witnesses to these things – how does one even begin to describe what’s just happened? They can barely talk about it among themselves and make sense, let alone tell other people. To which Jesus says, you will not do it alone. You will have the power of the fruit of the Holy Spirit with you as you go.
And that’s wonderful to think about. Being filled with the Holy Spirit. Still, it’s hard to know, what do you do next? What’s the actual next step of bearing witness to all these things? How do you really begin to speak of such immense things like repentance – doing a 180, and going in a completely different direction from anything that in the past has broken your relationships or destroyed your health or the health of your loved ones or neighbors – and in stead, to be For. Giving? To take a stand for giving instead of holding grudges and being vindictive? How do you do this when you yourself are still just barely coming to your senses, just barely becoming present to what all that this means? How do you find your steps forward when the real mess of life is still out there, even after the Resurrection? And that’s the radical counter-cultural part, right? That Jesus did not come and lead a revolutionary army, or a governmental coup. He did not come a Western Hero, all herculean. He came as a baby, and he grew to be a man who loved and never exploited any one. He never used his power to manipulate, to finesse, to make things happen and make people do what he wanted. Instead, he always invited, enabled, empowered, and hosted opportunities for the people he was with to rise, as whole people – mind, body, spirit.
How do we witness to that? How do you witness, in yourself? In your home? In your neighborhood?
Maybe, maybe, for the earliest disciples, it started with one first question and one drawing: Do you believe he ate the fish?
This sermon was preached in September 2017 during a Presbytery meeting focused on establishing a new vision and mission.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”
This is the word of the Lord.
There’s a lot we can talk about here. For today, we’re going to focus on having a vision, blessed by God, and what it takes to achieve that vision. In the vast majority of cases, people who achieve great things will tell you, they had a plan. It may have been one they scratched out on a napkin, or one they just knew by heart, but they had at least a general sense of where they were going, why, and how they were going to get there. That’s why any investor or donor worth their salt always wants to know, what’s the plan? How are you getting to that vision? And not just your mission for getting there, but what are you going to do to achieve that mission and vision? What’s your strategy along the way?
So, today friends, as we consider our vision, mission, and strategy as a Presbytery, and ask God to open our eyes, ears, and hearts anew to what God intends for us, let’s consider one of the great vision’s God already gave and granted. God’s infamous vision for Abraham and Sarah.
We first meet Abraham and Sarah back in Genesis 11, descendants of Noah’s son Shem. We learn there that the couple is childless and unable to conceive. We also learn how they become a nomadic family at this point. Then, immediately, at the beginning of Genesis 12, God gives Abraham a vision. “I will make you a great nation and bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Abraham likes this vision and follows God. The Lord continues describing the vision as they travel, “Your children will have this land.” And Abraham builds an altar to God.
As they travel more, Abraham also is nervous about his safety. He tells Sarah to pretend they are siblings, and not spouses, scared that powerful people might kill him in order to steal his beautiful wife. Of course, this means as they go, powerful people believe she’s single and available to be a wife or a concubine. Thankfully, despite Abraham’s gross recklessness, God protects their union and inflicts diseases on a household which has taken Sarah in. God promises Abraham again, “All the land you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offsping like the dust of the earth” – countless. Abraham builds another altar, and it is in this same place that God comes to visit Abraham and Sarah in chapter 18. But before we get there, God promises Abraham again, in chapter 15, “a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir; look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.”
Abraham can imagine the vastness of his descendants, living out in the promised land, and expanding into all the earth, more numerous than the stars in the sky. And all of them calling him father. He can see it out there. He believes it. And in Genesis 15:6, we hear the Lord say he reckons this faith – this blind faith – as righteousness. What a blessing, for us all. How incredible, that even as Abraham barely knows how to proceed towards this vision, like so many of us in so many seasons of our life, other than to wait for it to just become a reality, God makes a covenant with Abraham, full of grace and abundant blessing.
In fact, Abraham and God both make embodied covenants with one another. They continue to grow in relationship.
But still, Abraham and Sarah wonder how this mystery will be solved. How will they have countless descendants?
Perhaps, Sarah wonders at one point, maybe she is not meant to conceive. After all, this has not been the easiest marriage. She has been hurt and scared at times. Could she ever, really, conceive a baby with Abraham? Perhaps it’s too hard to even think about coming together after so much pain and distance between them.
As we’re probably all familiar, she tries to solve the problem herself. She offers her slave as a surrogate. It seems she believes it is the best option available. Had they ever tried to address what was keeping them apart? The hurt, pain, embarrassment, anger, frustration? The emptiness? The longing? The wish to be closer, but not knowing how to get there. How often had they tried, and failed? How often had they tried, and it only ended with them both even more upset. Sometimes, that chasm between loved ones seems so immensely wide. So impossible to clear.
It would take a real miracle.
So, then, today. . . God shows up. Suddenly appearing near the trees of Mamre. What do you think Abraham was thinking at that first moment? You think he was only thinking about how to honor the Lord and his guests? How to be hospitable for his very special guests?
You think he had maybe a twinge of . . . Oh. My. God.
“Sarah . . . make some cakes.”
I have a friend who likes to repeat the quote, “The longest journey you will ever take is from the head to the heart.” He says this often when he’s teaching what he calls, Fearless Dialogues, where he brings together people from all different walks of life and facilitates conversations between them in which they learn about each other’s backgrounds and experiences and have the opportunity to discover one another’s humanity more closely.
Abraham and Sarah struggled for a long time – decades – to share a sense of humanity with one another, let alone a sense of real pleasure with one another. They maybe could have used a fearless dialogue or two. And perhaps that’s what God is making way for here. Maybe later, after the guests leave, maybe they actually get around to addressing what’s been hurting most. Why there hasn’t been any pleasure, for so long. And not just happiness, but the fullness of life kind of pleasure. The kind of pleasure God intends for spouses, for families, and for intentional loving communities. The kind of pleasure God intends for all God’s children.
I would argue, pleasure is Abraham and Sarah’s mission. A mission they’ve been neglecting for dozens of years, and without which they cannot get to their God-given vision of receiving the tremendous blessing of a large family that in turn becomes a blessing for the world.
In our passage today, the Lord begins by speaking directly to Abraham. “Where is your wife?” God asks. She’s in the tent, Abraham replies. Then, the Lord restates the more explicit promise he had already given to Abraham at their last visit in chapter 17. In several months, Sarah is going to have your son.
Now, I don’t know if any of you like mysteries or who-done-its. If you do, you’ll probably remember how a common question a detective or investigator will ask or will check in phone records, texts, or emails, is what did you do when you found out great news? And the reason they look at this point in a storyline, is because it’s a common impulse across the board and it’s an easy way to check if someone is lying. Because it’s nearly impossible to avoid telling someone you love good news. You might not even love them that much, in most cases you can’t help but tell them. Whether it’s your family member, a best friend, someone you work with – you blurt it out – I got the job! Our kid got into the college of their dreams! We found a donor for the transplant! We’re having a baby!
Those are the expressions, the outreach, we make ordinarily in life, especially within loving relationships. Not even when we’ve waited decades for something special to happen.
But Abraham doesn’t do that. He doesn’t tell Sarah they are going to have a baby. And no wonder hardly anyone preaches on this point. Are there even words for what’s going on here? For what’s keeping them apart? Yet, it’s the stuff we know so well in our own lives. And it’s the stuff we encounter in pastoral counseling. It’s the blockage, the gnarly knot of emotion that keeps us from turning towards each other, and from confronting and resolving our pain.
But God, in God’s way, shines a big spotlight right on the painful knot entrapping Abraham and Sarah. Let’s bring that pain you’ve been harboring for so long out of the shadows. When God says Sarah’s going to have a baby, Sarah makes it abundantly clear she’s still in the dark. In fact, she can’t help but laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all, and says to herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I now have pleasure?”
And here’s the thing about this word pleasure here. It’s about so much more than only having a baby, becoming pregnant, or conceiving a baby. But, too often, we skip right over it, partly because it’s a word that does not translate well into English. Other languages have better words that may work – like, the French word juissance, the fullness of life, or the Danish word, hygge, joy in a cozy environment, or the Japanese word amae – the tender, emotive, and formative character of a nourishing relationship.
This Hebrew word here shows up five times in the Bible, which can give us some hints at what Sarah is expressing here.
Like in Psalm 36:7-8, when David describes, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your ______ (delights).”
Or in 2 Samuel 1:24, after Saul and Jonathon have been slain, and David, in anguish, immediately bursts into a song of lament, saying, “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in ________ (luxurious) crimson, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.”
Or when Jeremiah talks about King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon devouring the inhabitants of Zion, and filling his belly with their _______ (delicacies). (51:34)
We don’t have a word for what’s being expressed in all these places with the same Hebrew word. We don’t operate with an English common sense, a tangible embodied sense of the God-given fullness of life brought about within loving caring relationships. This Hebrew word relates at once to nourishing food, to nourishing drink, to luxurious fabrics and jewelry, to battle, and to coming together with a spouse and conceiving new life. We don’t have an English word for what Sarah is getting at here. After all this time, my husband is going to care for me? Is going to care about my role in bringing about our dream with him? After all this time, I may experience the joy of giving him gifts he’s been longing for? “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, now will I have nourishing, luxurious fullness of life?”
It’s a quintessential question. We miss a huge part of the story if we brush past it.
God asks Abraham, “Why is Sarah laughing?”
So much is in that moment.
And Sarah, out of her own fear, feeling the immense tension in the air even from behind the cloth of the tent, suddenly jumps in with a lie, before Abraham has a chance to face with honesty his own actions and heart. God says, don’t even start. And when he addresses Sarah, I’m not sure he even takes his eyes off of Abraham when he says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” You two! You keep acting individually, and not together, as I have intended.
If Abraham and Sarah’s mission is to experience nourishing, luxurious fullness of life – what the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest in Nashville, TN, and the founder of Thistle Farms calls lavish love – what then is their strategy?
Unfortunately, this isn’t a faery tale. It doesn’t all work out happily ever after in the end . . . yet.
While Abraham and Sarah do come together and find a way to love each other enough to conceive a baby, Abraham in particular continues to struggle to extend lavish love to the people closest to him. He may not know how. But, it seems whatever love Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar, were able to offer their boys, it seems to be what the pediatrician-turned-analyst D. W. Winnicott famously called “good enough parenting.” In a poignant phrase in the Bible, after Abraham dies, his estranged sons both return to bury their father together.
Achieving a great vision is hard. It doesn’t just miraculously happen. A vision is like looking out over a property and imagining the mature orchard that could grow there. To get to a mature orchard, you have to decide you’re going to plant the seedlings (your mission). And tending to your mission takes strategy – someone’s got to prepare the soil, feed and water the trees, and prune them regularly.
Abraham and Sarah had a great vision. Thankfully, God abided with them, graciously teaching them how to develop a mission (to have a baby and raise a child). God then continued to abide with their son and his descendants teaching them how to develop a strategy of nurturing, luxurious, lavish love – a strategy we are still learning how to embody today.
You see visions, missions, and strategies, are not just for businesses or organizations. They’re for families and intentional communities. They’re for all who are ill with various diseases, those who are suffering severe pain of the body / the mind / and the heart, those who are possessed by spirits that fill them with senses of evil, those who have seizures, and those who are paralyzed by disability / fear / or by a silent inability to reach across the chasm between us. These are the ones who Jesus says are blessed. The Abrahams, the Sarahs, the Ishmaels, and Isaacs, the Jakobs, and Esaus. The Rebeccas. The Rachels. The Leahs. Whatever words you want to use for them – visions, missions, and strategies of love are the essence of covenantal relationships.
When we make marriage vows, or ordination vows, or life orders, or commit to intentional communities, we are promising to bring our whole selves to building love together. We are acknowledging that love does not just happen. Babies don’t just happen. Healthy children do not just happen. It takes people coming together. It takes caring villages. It takes loving parents and communities.
And by God’s grace, God keeps showing up to help us connect and reconnect. Even after the dead, God shows up to remind us we praise a scarred Savior. His wounds do not magically disappear, though they are healed. The wounds matter. And they become part of the tremendous story of new life we are invited to bear witness to every day.
This sermon was preached in July 2017. The passages for this sermon included Gen 4:1-10,16,25-26 and Romans 7:7-12,21-25a
Gen 4:1-10, 16, 25-26
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have produced[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
Romans 7:7-12, 21-25a
7 What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God!
Today we're going to talk about and consider how we create and sustain healthy, life-giving love among families and people who are part of a couple. In our passages today, we find lessons in how much time and care that takes – a really important lesson that too often gets skipped over in order to jump to the happy ending we hope for.
I don’t know about you, but while I was growing up, most of the Bible Studies I heard discussing Adam and Eve’s first time out of the Garden, coming together, were pretty romantic. It’s the first bond – the ideal that traditional Western Christian marriage is based upon. In fact, any time Adam and Eve’s union was referenced throughout my childhood and adolescence, I heard it said in very idyllic terms. This is the foundation of the human race, after all. The first marriage. Even after the Fall, how could it not be ah-mazing?!
But here’s the thing. While that’s what I was hearing mostly from youth group and church leaders, that did not correlate with anything else I was hearing about real current couples' “first times.” In fact – and some of you may prove this wrong today – but, to this day, I have yet to hear any person say their first time having sex was the. best. And exactly what they imagined it would be.
While some have said their first time was decent enough, or it wasn’t bad, those statements are few and far between in my circles. Instead, more often than not, people tell me about how nervous they were, how awkward it was, or the many ways it did not live up to their expectations, or how painful it was. Further, most couples who say they eventually were able to experience great sex tend to talk about how getting to that pinnacle took a great deal of humility, care, and practice. The couples who say they consistently are able to have good or great sex usually say it started happening when they took genuine interest in learning how to give and receive pleasure with one another.
Now . . . don’t you wish a few more people were honest about that part of sex when you were a teenager?
Unfortunately, more often than not, most of us had the cards stacked against us. We bought into the lie that if it’s real love, that experience will be amazing and will happen naturally, all the time. The myths around sex go even further and suggest men should have a lot of experience, and women should be especially good at giving men a great experience. Despite an abundance of real experience, still these myths persist, even today.
It is taking sociologists and other scholars to demonstrate the reality of what people are experiencing sexually and how different from the myths those experiences really are. In her research of current teenage sexual practices, Peggy Orenstein finds teenage girls continue to believe they must give sexual favors without receiving pleasure in return. As she surveyed active girls, she asked, "Look, what if every time you were with a guy, he told you to go get him a glass of water from the kitchen and he never offered to get you a glass of water. Or if he did, he'd say, "Ugh, you want me to get you a glass of water?" You would never stand for it!” The girls, Orenstein says, would bust out laughing and say they’d never thought about it that way before. She thought, well, you should definitely think about how being asked repeatedly to give someone a glass of water without reciprocation is more insulting to you than being asked to perform a sexual act over and over without reciprocal pleasure.
Of course, too many women, and men, practice this kind of off-balance behavior as teenagers and then bring those destructive habits into their marriages.
Then, when those early experiences prove less than ideal, many teenagers or young adults feel like in some way they failed or weren’t good enough.
Perhaps the most striking real life experience that counters the perpetual myths, is the fact that most often, for a wide range of reasons, the majority of both Christian and non-Christian teenagers are not having sex. In fact, the current research from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that’s the case more than half of teenagers in the United States today. So, a majority of young people are entering their twenties as virgins, with a whole host of myths about sex all around them – including those that seem biblically-based.
Sadly, precious few of us had people around who made it clear – making love takes work, attention, humility, and a genuine interest in giving and receiving pleasure as a couple. And when we don’t work at making love, pay attention to making love, enjoy a healthy dose of humility in the midst of it, and have a genuine interest in giving and receiving pleasure, then, we’re doing something else – we’re not making love. Instead, we’re allowing pain, insecurity, frustration, grief, or anger to drive the show. And we’ll some good can come out of those experiences, they are far less than ideal. Especially in the aftermath of great loss, feeling left out, or feeling unseen or unacknowledged.
In the case of Adam and Eve, they let their hurt and selfishness drive the show and became boldly possessive. After being exiled from the Garden, our passage says, Adam knew his wife. And here’s where the Bible introduces a pattern that will occur many times throughout its 66 books – where a word or a phrase is repeated but with two different results.
Listen and consider the result of the first time Adam knows his wife. Eve’s response, after she conceives and gives birth to Cain, is, “I made a man.” Now, this could be simply matter of fact. They had sex, she had a baby. But the Hebrew suggests there’s an edge to these words. There’s a bite to them. And that makes sense from a trauma perspective. They’ve been cast out of paradise, as a result of their own actions. They’re sad, they’re ashamed, they’re grieving, they’re angry. In that cauldron of intense emotion, Adam knew his wife and she responded, “I made a man.” They are not together in this. They are co-existing in their pain, and very personal, individual experiences – the way a vast majority of couples do after great losses.
Now, even if I’m reading too much psychology into this sentence, it’s also a big stretch to say this couple made love here. This first sentence is not about giving and receiving pleasure.
In fact, there’s such a strong probability of tension here, that one editor of the Bible could not handle it and added to Eve’s words, “with the help of the Lord.” That phrase was not in the original text, but was added years later. As if the editor could not help himself: Eve, remember, the editor implores, you produced a human with the help of the Lord. Of course, we’ll note today, it was ok for Adam to know his wife all on his own.
I do sometimes wonder what Eve might have said here if she had a daughter first, and not her son Cain. Would she have said, “I made a woman,” and would it have had the same bit of bite or edginess to it?
Either way, Adam and Eve appear to be sparing in this first verse . . . the way couples are prone to do when either or both of them experience significant pain, shame, or heartache. It’s nearly impossible to comfort one another when you’re both full of great sorrow and hurt.
And this is the very nest into which Cain is born. With barely crumbs of care, nurture, or forgiveness, can we blame him for who he becomes? When he wonders, was God’s choice just one more rejection of him? Just one more instance where he didn’t measure up, where he wasn’t good enough, or again where he wasn’t chosen and wasn’t loved. Argh! Can you feel it? Deep in your gut? That insensible, slowly mounting rage, that builds through childhood and adolescence, in search of a moment to billow out. The kind that blinds a person for a terrible instant, the kind that lies and makes a person believe if only . . . If only Abel was gone, everything would be better.
Of course, we know, it won’t. Especially, when we breathe, when allow a breath of fresh air in, into those clenched lungs, the kind fresh air the Holy Spirit rides on. That’s when we can recall how no amount of rage or anger can ever fix the immense pain in our world.
“Be careful, Cain,” God says. “Be careful how sin lies at the threshold when you’re angry.”
Sin – that act of breaking relationships.
And here, God does something, right here at the beginning of the Bible, that, to this day is one of the best things we can do for someone when they’re in pain: to abide with them, and ask, “would you like to tell me about it?”
Recently, a story went viral on the internet when Anthony Breznican, one of the writers of Entertainment Weekly, shared about a time when he was in college and was having a really rough day. He happened to walk through the common room of his dorm, and of all things, Mr. Rogers children’s program was playing on the common TV. In the episode, Mr. Rogers was singing his famous song that asks: “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Breznican said he was mesmerized. Watching the episode felt like “a cool hand on a hot head.” The kind you hope you might get from a family member or close friend when you’re really hurting.
A few days later, in another building, the doors of an elevator opened, and there stood the real Mr. Rogers. Breznican had the wherewithal to say thank you. And Mr. Rogers smiled and asked, “Did you grow up as one of my neighbors?” Breznican said he felt like crying. He then said briefly that the episode had been the right thing on a hard day. And here’s how Mr. Rogers responded: As they got off the elevator, he unwrapped his scarf, walked to a nearby window and motioned for Breznican to join him.
Then, he asked, “Would you like to tell me about what was troubling you?” Breznican went on to explain how his grandfather had just died, and he felt like he had been the only good thing left in his life. He felt adrift and didn’t no how to go forward. Mr. Rogers acknowledged his loss and pointed out how, thankfully, even though the pain of losing loved ones remains, the lessons they teach us can stick with us forever. And that’s a gift we’ll always have.
I wonder if Adam and Eve learned a similar lesson after Abel died and Cain went away. Because, something drew them together again, in a new way. Again, Adam knew his wife. But this knowing was different. This time, Eve responded differently. This time, when she conceived and bore another son, she names him Seth.
We don’t know exactly what Seth means. But, whatever it means, in verse 25, Eve says, “God has seth-ed me another child.” Seth-ed. Granted? Appointed? Gave? Blessed? Some word that means, maybe, the gift of a new normal after great loss? A word that means, maybe, the result of making love after growing up and through tremendous and volatile life experiences, up and through one of the greatest learning curves of your life, individually and as a couple? A word, maybe, that means the result of coming together after being apart. Seth-ed.
More humble. Wiser.
That’s one of the major differences for this family going forward. After Adam knew his wife this time, Seth grew up to build a family that builds relationships. Seth’s family isn’t perfect. But Seth’s family repeatedly turns toward one another, even, and perhaps especially, when they aren’t perfect.
Seth’s family becomes the family line to Jesus. Seth’s family works at making love. Real, good, flourishing love.
And this is God’s law – the act of abiding in love. Each commandment, then, is an act toward being present in love. Being in relationships that exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which begins with love.
Though evil may always be close at hand, so is love. And this one thing Paul struggles to fully understand throughout his life. It was Jesus, and other disciples, like Barnabas, who helped Paul to discover the ways love guards against evil. Especially, when love bestows ruthfulness.
Ruth means to either feel compassion or remorse, depending on the circumstances. Basically, it means to have empathy for the experience of loss – whether we cause that experience in someone else’s life or we appreciate, as a neighbor, how someone is grieving. In either instance, we express ruth. That’s why acts of evil so often are characterized as ruthless – having no compassion or remorse.
Adam and Eve would have done well to give and receive more ruth with each other much earlier on. As is so often the case, they grew up while being parents. They discovered how they could have offered Cain, and Abel, more ruth.
It’s easy to suspect that the one person who may have received the most ruth was Seth. And we can witness the rippling benefits of it throughout the Bible.
There’s a lot to ponder here. This is a rich passage. And, granted, I’m certainly reading between the lines. But these are pregnant phrases that beg careful consideration. We do well to ponder them and pray with them a good deal more, as we continue together to seek after how we all are intended to love God and one another with our whole selves.
This sermon is based on a sermon I preached in 2008.
We sometimes forget how our ancient mothers and fathers of our faith struggled to figure out life and faith, too, like we do. How they didn't have it all together, and things did not just fall into place for them. In fact, quite the opposite. More often than not, they felt unsure they were even heading in the right direction and fumbled to find the right steps toward goodness.
Abram and Sarai are a good example of people and couples in the Bible who struggled. In particular, as it is for so many couples, Abram and Sarai struggled with intimacy. Now, we have to be careful here, to not overlay too much of a Western romanticism approach onto our view of their relationship. Certainly, our western notions of romance are not what I mean here by intimacy.
Mainly, Abram and Sarai struggled to communicate with each other or to have each other's best interests in mind when approaching each other. Even if they were not in love the way we understand romantic love today, they also were not making choices to encourage the advancement of their family line. Despite saying that's what they wanted, their actions did not match up with their expressed hopes.
Partly, this was due to Abram's nearly debilitating fear. He feared losing himself, being hurt, or never seeing his dreams fulfilled. He feared these things so much, he regularly sabotaged opportunities for goodness, and his own and his family's well-being, by putting Sarai at risk whenever they entered a new land.
Despite his fears and consistently poor choices, Abram persisted in hoping for an heir. It seemed he hoped the way so many of us hope - that God might simply give him his heart's desire, without him having to be involved in the process. All that business of being a husband and a father, let alone the head of an entire household, really stretched him to his limits. He would prefer to just have the benefits of a great family line.
Have you ever wanted something without actually knowing how to bring it about or having any sense of how you would get there? Practitioners of visualization often teach the importance of believing, of imaging, yourself in the position you desire to be in. For, they say, if you don't believe you can be in that position, if you cannot actually see yourself there, it is far less likely you actually will achieve it.
As much as Abram wants to beget a family as numerous as the stars in heaven, he also cannot struggles to envision the steps to getting there. Particularly, the steps of love, care, and responsibility that tend to be key ingredients in establishing an extensive family line.
Through a series of seven visits, God gently, over time, encourages Abram to gain a sense of awareness of his own presence in building a life with God, family, and neighbors. These visits reach momentum in Genesis 15 when God promises Abraham he not only will have an heir, but he'll have as many descendants as the stars in the heavens.
Then, in Genesis 17, God visits Abraham again and makes the promise even more explicit. Here God pronounces Abram's name shall change to Abraham, and Sarai's name shall change to Sarah. Also, God declares, Sarah will give birth to a son.
What do you usually do when you receive good news? And not just any good news - but the news you've been waiting most of your life for? The best news? Do you call people? Your parents, siblings? Your best friend? Your spouse? Do you ever keep good news to yourself?
In our passage today, we find God coming to visit Abraham and Sarah, along with two attendants. Some time has passed since God and Abraham's last visit, and since then, Abraham and his entire household, including his thirteen year-old son Ishmael, have been circumcised. Upon seeing God approaching, Abraham immediately invites the guests to visit. They accept, and Abraham instructs the household to prepare a feast.
While the party gathers, the LORD repeats his decree – Sarah shall give birth to a son. She is busy in the tent, preparing the meal, but still overhears this absurdity. She cannot help but giggle, or even balk, at the thought. A woman of her age and her life experience, pregnant after all this time.
Then, something curious happens. Rather than addressing Sarah directly, the LORD looks directly at Abraham and asks, "Why is your wife laughing?"
Can you imagine the look on Abraham's face right then? After all the times God and Abraham have shared up until this moment. The question is for Abraham. God is not questioning or admonishing Sarah's faith in this moment. Instead, it seems God is asking: Why, after all our visits, after all I've told you, after all over our covenanting and promising and believing – why, Abraham, is your wife laughing as if she's never heard the good news? Surely, you have not kept her from knowing the dream you share with her is going to come true?
Embarrassed, ashamed, or maybe feeling the tensions rising outside after hearing her husband's silence, Sarah quickly counters, "I didn't laugh."
"Yes, you laughed," God simply says. Though I'm not sure he ever takes his eyes off of Abraham as he speaks.
Here's the thing – God can bring about miracles. God can even harden or loosen hearts. But God does not participate for you. You matter. You showing up matters. Abraham showing up matters. Constantly putting his wife at risk every time they enter a new town - encouraging her to pretend she was his sister instead of his wife in order to save his own skin - mattered. There's only one reason Sarah doesn't already know she's going to have a son. Abraham hasn't bothered to tell her. Why hasn't Abraham bothered to tell her? We may never fully know.
It's good for us to consider the ways we may be getting in our own way, as Abraham kept getting in his own way. The ways we may stop, limit, or obstruct the very dreams God says may be ours from becoming a reality. Sometimes, God steadily makes the way, even as we actively work against ourselves.
In what ways can we better attend to the blessings God invites us to participate in bringing about? In what ways can we better attend to the relationships in our lives – our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – in building goodness together? How can we better share the good news God grants us with our loved ones?
The founder and director of Fearless Dialogues, Gregory Ellison II, often shares with his audiences a lesson from his grandmother. He calls it the three-foot-challenge. He shares how his grandmother would often point out how he may not be able to change the circumstances he is facing, but he can change the three feet around him. Abraham probably would have benefitted from Dr. Ellison's grandmother's advice. He probably could have changed more of the three feet around him.
Thank goodness, in Abraham's case, God showed up even when Abraham did not. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes, God allows the chips to fall where they may. Just as God invited Abraham to much more - just as God called the disciples out of their fishing boats and onto the shore – God invites us to make a difference. May we all respond.
This sermon was preached on March 19, 2017, at First Presbyterian Church Santa Barbara. You can view a film in an earlier post with another version of a sermon also based on parallel readings of John 4 and Genesis 34 preached at Hesston Mennonite Church.
This past Christmas, my brother gave our youngest the Oregon Trail Board Game. People my age will remember the Oregon Trail computer game many of us played in elementary school. The board game is based on this original game and uses the same digital images on the cards. So, over winter break, we sat down as a family to play. At one point, one of the kids turns over a card and reads it – You died of dysentery. “What?? I died?! But I have medical cards and food cards. How can I just die? This game is weird.”
The concept of dying in a game, without a battle of power or wills, is foreign to many kids in this generation of gaming. We tried to explain, it’s the Oregon Trail. People died along the way. Yes, even without fighting anyone, and no matter how many reserves they had stored up. And then another kid said, “I want to play it again. I want to figure out how to not die.”
Do – overs. Not only is it hard to grasp the possibility death can come occur, it’s also hard for kids today to grasp how life does not always have instantaneous do-overs. Because so much of their life does. You die in a game. Play it again. Do it over. Make a different ending. Because instantaneous do-overs are so abundant in games, it can be hard for many young people to manage well the jolts of real life consequences – consequences that may take a great deal of time to mend.
Today we’re talking about real life do-overs – the kind Jesus is calling us to participate in. We’re talking about taking the time to do things differently, to deliberately change harmful patterns in our lives, and to make a different ending. We’re talking about how we can become born again, in real life. In order to take a good look what it means to become born again, we’re going to recall what Jesus said to Nicodemus in our passage last week, and consider today’s John 4 passage in relation to a passage John wrote it in comparison to – Genesis 34.
Let’s get into it.
Last week, we heard about Nicodemus, a revered scholar of Jewish law. Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the middle of the night and makes a profound statement of faith: “We know you are a teacher from God.” He’s troubled in the middle of the night, troubled in his heart and seeking guidance – maybe over his own personal experiences or anxieties about someone he loves. I wonder if he may be hoping for his own kind of do-over.
Do you ever seek Jesus out in the middle of night, like Nicodemus? Hoping for something radically to change? In trainings I lead, I often ask people, what kinds of things keep you up in night, seeking Jesus? Often, people will say: Finances. Kids. Loved ones addicted to drugs or alcohol. The mounting stresses young people are facing today. Gambling. Pornography. Worrying about work or losing a job. Worrying about their health or the health of their loved one.
These, sometimes, also are the same kinds of things that keep us avoiding people in the day, steering clear of the crowds, like the Samaritan woman who comes right after Nicodemus. Sometimes it feels much easier to just carry the burdens alone. Jesus says to Nicodemus, the answer you’re seeking is becoming born again. And Nicodemus, like many of us, can’t understand it at first. The disciples, too, don’t fully understand it. And, in John 4, Jesus proceeds to show the disciples what he means.
Today, we find the Samaritan woman deliberately approaching the well at a time when she is sure not to meet anyone else. Everyone else would have avoided the heat of the day, and come early in the morning or will be around later in the afternoon.
So, imagine her surprise . . . maybe even fear . . . when she suddenly finds Jesus there.
She could have felt alarmed for a few reasons. She’s alone. Having been with at least six partners in her past, she’s familiar with how she may be treated well and also how she may not be treated well. Also, she no doubt will be familiar with the lore of the well. She would know about fairytale-like marriages transpiring around wells, stories passed down through the generations about her ancestors Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel meeting at wells and marrying. She also would have been familiar with a very tragic meeting that happened near this very well.
She would have known how one day, her ancestor, Jacob purchased this land at the end of Genesis 33. And how, right away, in the first verse of Genesis 34, Jacob’s only daughter Dinah cannot wait to go out and meet the other women of the land. Up until Jacob purchases the land, their familiar are nomadic, moving from place to place. Amid this lifestyle, and as Jacob’s only daughter, among twelve brothers, it’s as if she’s been waiting her whole life for this moment to venture out to meet the women of the land, maybe even make some new friends. What will they be like? Will they like her? Will she like them?
Do you remember what it feels like to go to a new place, the high expectation and anxiety of that? A new home, a new school, a new job, a new church? What will they be like? Will they like me? Will I like them?
Sadly, we never find out. Because on that first day, near this very well, when Dinah ventures out, just as the Samaritan woman meets a stranger, Dinah also meets a stranger. Only, instead of meeting Jesus, or her very own prince charming, Dinah met another kind of prince. Shechem. Shechem is a man who gets what he wants. And on that day, he wanted Dinah. So, he took her – the passage says, he seized her and lay with her by force. Then, he went to his father and demanded, “Get me this girl as a wife.”
So, as the Samaritan woman in our passage today is approaching the well, expecting to be alone, avoiding the crowds, and finds Jesus there instead – a strange man – she will be aware of what has gone on before, both the good and the bad.
Jesus initiates with a demand: “Get me a drink.”
She responds by immediately guarding herself, reminding Jesus they are to remain separated. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” We’re not supposed to interact, remember?
And here’s where the do-over starts to occur. Jesus begins to demonstrate with his words and actions how this encounter is going to be unlike any she’s had before, or any in her family history. They are going to make a new way together. Right here, right now, unlike past situations or what the cultural messages around her tell her, this woman is not threatened, she’s not neglected, and she will not be exploited here. Instead Jesus introduces himself and invites her to, safely, be honest about her own life story. And this may be the first time anyone has ever bore witness to her life experience with her.
It’s important to pause here and point out how hard it is for many women, and men, too, to make this significant shift the woman is making here, to not feel like she is in danger. There are so many messages and real experiences to suggest we should constantly be on guard and hyper-vigilant. It can be hard to even imagine what it might be like to live safely.
This message of threat is so pervasive in our culture, that this past year, in her presidential lecture called “Revolutionary Love,” delivered at the American Academy of Religion, renowned theologian Serene Jones ended by quoting Tony Morrison’s profound dream. Hear Morrison’s words:
I want to imagine not the threat of freedom or its tentative panting fragility, but the concrete thrill of borderlessness – a kind of out of doors safety where "a sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. A hiss-crackle from the side of the road would never scare her because what ever it was that made that sound, it wasn't something creeping up on her. Nothing for miles around thought she was prey. She could stroll as slowly as she liked, thinking of food preparations, of family things, or lift her eyes to stars and think of war or nothing at all. Lampless and without fear she could make her way . . . The woman could decide to go back to her bed then, refreshed and ready to sleep, or she might stay her direction and walk further down the road--on out, beyond, because nothing around or beyond considered her prey.
Too many women, and children, and men, throughout history and throughout our Bible, find it hard to believe in and hope for Morrison’s dream of preylessness. In fact, until Jesus makes it abundantly clear, I don’t think it ever enters the Samaritan woman’s mind that she might not be prey that day. Prey for gossip of the neighbors. Prey for mistreatment and abuse from family and strangers. And potential prey for this stranger at the well.
And, as I said before, this fear is not baseless. It’s in her family history. And she’s aware how sometimes, when things go terribly wrong, there’s no one there to help. For example, in the case of Dinah, when her father Jacob found out what happened, he did not seek her out or help her – even if he may have wanted to. Instead, he froze. On one hand, some of us may be shocked by Jacob’s response – how could a father do nothing in response to his daughter being assaulted? On the other hand, many of us know the many reasons some parents do not help. Shame. Guilt. Denial. Feeling unequipped. In Jacob’s case, it may also have been exhaustion. He had just come through a gauntlet of encounters. He may not have had anything left to give.
At the time, Dinah’s brothers – like the disciples in John 4 – were away. When they return, they are astonished and indignant to hear what had happened to Dinah. But they, too, do not seek her out. Instead, they immediately plot revenge. A revenge that they carry out – murdering all the men of the city, pillaging their homes, and taking the women and children captive.
In John 4, when the twelve disciples return, they too, like Dinah’s brothers, are astonished to find Jesus alone with a woman of ill-repute. What does she want, they wonder. And why is he speaking to her? But, radically differently, than Dinah’s twelve brothers, the twelve disciples hold their tongues. They’re thinking it, but they don’t act on it. They respectfully follow Jesus’ lead. In Genesis 34, Jacob is too overwhelmed to lead. So, his sons recklessly take charge. Very differently, throughout John 4, Jesus speaks directly with the Samaritan woman. Besides making clear she’s in no danger, he also invites her to be honest about her life story. And this experience is transformational for her. It enlivens her and inspires her to reconnect with her community.
What if we’ve gotten this whole becoming-born-again-thing wrong? What if becoming born again and being a witness for Christ has less to do with telling people about Jesus, tallying up new believers, and getting more points in heaven? What if, instead, it has a lot more to do with bearing witness to the truth of our neighbor’s life experience? What if it’s in that exchange of honesty among neighbors . . . the kind of honesty that doesn’t fix things necessarily, doesn’t change the circumstances or change what’s happened, but instead cares that it did happen, values the person, and appreciations that somewhere in that exchange the other person can discover a new sense of agency and a desire to reconnect. What if that is part of what it means to become born again?
Science suggests that’s exactly what Jesus was doing there. Science tells us that in loving homes, through healthy marriages, among best friendships, and through great mentor relationships – we “feel felt”. We feel a connection between what we have personally experienced and what’s going on around us. A bridge of lovingkindness is made in those interactions that in caring ways acknowledge our life experiences. They literally get our agency hormones – like serotonin – going, and literally counteract our fight or flight hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. Just as we see happening in John 4, as the woman leaves her jug of water and returns to town.
Unlike what happens with Dinah in Genesis 34. No one speaks with Dinah. No one invites her to tell the truth of what has happened to her, or what her perspective is. And, as the author Anita Diamant famously points out in her popular book, The Red Tent, Dinah’s experience could possibly have been that it wasn’t all bad. But we will never know, because no one ever bore witness to Dinah’s experience with her. Instead, she loses everything. And, as one of my doctoral thesis advisors pointed out – we, the readers of the Bible, are left to be her witnesses.
Consider, who Dinah was at the beginning of this, on that morning she set out to make friends . . . and who she is at the end. What kind of woman is she now? How does she interact now, with the women of the land, held captive in her new home?
Science tells us today that when we experience horrific events, those experiences change the chemistry of our bodies, and even change the behavior of our genes. Those changes can stay with us and we can pass them down through our families. Those changes – like the ones Dinah, her family, and their captives experienced – can be inherited.
Researchers are working today with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of genocide, holocaust, and slavery survivors, discovering the far-reaching physiological and psychological affects of trauma. And it’s in this important work, they are also finding remarkable signs of hope and healing.
Last week, film actress Jennifer Garner testified about the importance of community programs that support impoverished children. She described what it’s like to go into a home here in the Central Valley, where the trauma of poverty has been passed down through generations, and how silence is what greets you in the home. No adult conversation. No children laughing or babbling. Not even any crying. No reading books. No playing. The fatigue from seemingly insurmountable stress, Garner says, “dulls the senses, saps hope, and destroys the will.”
What’s fascinating, though, she points out, it’s within our reach to change that. It’s through loving our neighbors, through caring interaction, like Jesus demonstrates, that seemingly miraculous development occurs. Right here, the kingdom of God at hand. Garner describes how a facilitator taught the mother of the house how to play with her child, for the first time. As the mother rolls a ball to her child who just a few moments before had been unresponsive, and begins talking with her child, the child’s eyes lit up and the child begins babbling. At one point, the mother tells Garner how no one had ever read her a book in her whole life. Not a parent, not a grandparent, not a school teacher, or a Sunday school teacher. No one. How does someone who has never experience care, offer care?
Garner urged Congress this week – and I would say, this word is for all us – “Give those children one responsive, responsible adult, and you can actually protect them from [severe stress]. That’s how resilient a child’s brain is. It takes so little – and it does so much.”
In fact, that’s exactly what the studies of how trauma gets passed down through generations are showing. It’s only when we gather around, when we make the effort, when we offer care, that we participate in the Holy Spirit creating opportunities for more care to happen. In John 4, the Samaritan woman feels so inspired by the care she’s received – mainly, having experienced a safe person with whom to be honest about the truth of her life – she immediately wants to reconnect with her community and to connect them with the source of this newfound goodness.
While she goes, Jesus turns to his disciples, and says to them, “the fields are ripe for harvesting.” Traditionally, Bible scholars have understood this moment as disconnected from the context of the rest of the chapter. But what if it’s a kind of do-over? Maybe what Jacob could have said to his sons, if he had been in a healthier place. Harvesting has everything to do with the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and temperance. It is attending to what is in front of us. What if Jesus was never only saying, go tell them about me – but, instead, go bear witness to your neighbor’s life story in my name, in a safe way, full of the Holy Spirit? And in doing so, may you both witness the radical work of the Holy Spirit bringing about new life among us.
This sermon originally was preached in 2014.
It is a pleasure to worship with you. Today, we’re exploring a famous passage – one you likely have heard at one time or another, whether you are a Christian or not. It’s not only quoted often, but also has been depicted in various paintings throughout history. It reveals a beautiful, counter-cultural image, where Jesus welcomes children. Children, especially in Jesus’ day, ordinarily were ignored or disregarded in public settings. Most often, people quote this passage out of context apart from its surrounding scenes. When this passage is taken out of context, hearers miss a significant point Jesus is making. While the issues at stake in the Bible have not changed, we may be more apt to receive the fullness of the passage these days as we are paying more and more attention to child development amid a turbulent world.
Let us hear God’s Word for us today, in Matthew 19:13-15.
Then little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.' And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
This is the word of the Lord.
If you have not read the chapter of Matthew 19 in one sitting, I encourage you to do it. In fact, an excellent study sometime is to read the entire book of Matthew and consider how each chapter or section relates to the one before and the one after. Matthew very much is written as a contextual book, where each part feeds into the next and draws on the one before it. Matthew also writes to help hearers connect significant points related to prophetic images expressed in the Hebrew Bible.
Unfortunately, too often, we take this passage and lift it out of its context, almost like a hallmark card of playful puppies, to ooh and ahh over what we imagine is a much more sweet and cuddly statement than more likely was intended. In fact, preachers have avoided the context so often that most people are completely unaware that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” before a crowd that was just arguing over topics of complex social and household relationships.
Do you recall, being a child, what it felt like to hear adults have tense conversations? What did it feel like in your body? Did your stomach clench? Did your head ache? Did you worry or feel scared?
The children in Matthew 19 suddenly find themselves amid a very public argument. Jesus and his disciples are in Judea. Some of the religious leaders begin taunting Jesus, hoping to catch him in the act of discarding the law or heresy. They bring up the challenging topic of divorce. And Jesus replies: When a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. No longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. They taunt him again, reminding him how Moses allowed for divorce. Was Jesus discarding Moses’ teachings? He reminds them how the people had hardened their hearts and begged Moses for leniency. He says the only exception for divorce is when either have been emotionally or physically unfaithful to the other.
Then, Jesus ups the ante. Do they really want to have a conversation about sexuality and romantic relations? Well, then, let’s have the conversation. How about the experiences of eunichs, Jesus asks. Surely, he says, you’ve noticed how not everyone is able to marry because some are born eunichs, some choose to be eunichs, and some are forced to be eunichs by other people. The religious leaders fall silent. This was not the conversation they wanted to have.
It’s at this point that caregivers begin bringing children to Jesus. Perhaps you can resonate with this inclination for refuge when the adult conversation has become so intense. As a child, did you ever seek an adult out for support when conversations heightened, maybe even when adults began fighting with each other? Have you ever had a child seek you out for refuge in those times of great tension?
In these moments, children often pull at their caregiver’s leg, crawl up into their laps, and suck their thumb or rub fabric between their figures – waiting for their quickened heart rates and shallow breathing to settle again. Something’s not right, they intuitively sense, but being close to a loved one will help make it better.
Jesus was safe. Jesus was trustworthy and reliable. Jesus cared about them. He was the best place for them to turn to in a time of heated emotions and big evocative conversation. When we read today’s passage in the context of the whole chapter we are invited to observe how children and their guardians seek after Jesus in tenuous times and how Jesus welcomes children who seek him when adults nearby disregard them and mindlessly argue.
Understandably, most people do not want to discuss divorce or the many complications related to sexual lifestyles when also talking about children – it’s easier and sometimes feels better to separate those out, perhaps especially in church.
In stead, most people like to talk about how “children are so resilient.” How they seem to rally, when the adults around them are still falling apart. Maybe people say that because they wish it were so, even when its not. Mostly, though, I think people say that because it seems that way. Children easily go on playing or focusing on normal aspects of life – their school routines, their friends, playing, eating, sleeping. Maybe you’ve observed children seeming resilient, too, or been on the receiving end of someone telling you how resilient your kids seem after a particularly hard time in your life.
Personally, I don’t agree. Working as a pastoral therapist and having been deployed to numerous disaster sites, I don’t believe children are resilient – at least, if you mean by that unaffected or having little lasting impacts.
Instead, I think children postpone dealing with what has happened until they have more development tools at their disposal and review past events later. I don’t think this is a particularly conscious effort, just what tends to happen developmentally. After all, if we didn’t postpone processing pain in our childhoods, why else would so many of us be in therapy as adults?
We do children no good if we only try to keep them from pain in our world, and we try to separate out or shelter childhood entirely from real pain in the world. In fact, some children develop significant disorders when they are constantly lied to and told what happened in life wasn’t real. Rather, most important for children and young people facing hardships is to have trustworthy and reliable adults in their life who encourage safety amid turbulence. Mr. Rogers famously said that when scary things happened in the community, instead of shielding him from them, his mom would point to the helpers who were there too. She made a point of showing him how and when relief occurs amid the trouble in the world. You are on a fool’s errand if you try to keep children from the truth. Mostly because, children already know. They may not know verbally, yet, but eventually children grow to have the verbal skills to articulate what they sensed early on. For example, children know what a divorced family feels like. They know it evokes all sorts feelings, ranging from relief to heartache, depending on the child and the family. Also, children know what a family riddled with domestic violence, or substance or sexual abuse, feels like. Children know when there are family secrets, even if they don’t know exactly what the secrets are. They can feel the gaps in conversations or the ways parents avoid certain topics. Children also know what it feels like when revered leaders in the community publically argue. They might not be able to explain what exactly is going on, but they can feel the immense tension in the air.
Like the children in our passage today, seeking Jesus out, children today can sense when something is not right – when the conversation is pitching toward harm.
See, a key in our passage today, is not simply that Jesus welcomes children. I know, in an era when children were largely overlooked or ignored, simply that Jesus welcomes them can seem like a huge thing in and of it self.
Amid the complexities of life, one way we help children best is by doing what Jesus did. Being a safe, trustworthy adult who responds to children in their moments of need. Sometimes, children don’t need anything more than a warm smile, a safe hug, or a shoulder to cry on. All of these non-verbal responses acknowledge and value them, and emphasize how even amid adversity there can be safety and goodness. It doesn’t fix the problems, but allowing them to draw near assures them they are cared for even when problems arise.
Countless social science studies have proven, when a child has even just one trustworthy adult in their life who they interact with on a regular basis – it doesn’t even need to be an adult in their own home… it can be an adult at church, at school, or in their neighborhood – that regular interaction of being seen, acknowledged, and valued, can provide them with enough stability to overcome great adversities in their life.
I believe, as Christians, Jesus calls us to be trustworthy agents of good in the world.
I am reminded of a response the famous author, G. K. Chesterton, once had for a mother who wrote him to say she was concerned that fairytales introduced children to gruesome ideas about the world. To paraphrase Chesterton: Fairytales don’t teach children that dragons exist. Children are well aware dragons exist. Fairytales teach children the dragons in their lives can be defeated.
While we should not go around introducing children to horrors in the world, we also need not pretend terrible things do not happen. Rather than denying dangers in the world, instead, we should spend more of our time – as Jesus models for us in our passage today – offering refuge to children when they become worried or uncertain.
We live in a world with great adversity. Whether it's great tragedy and trauma, or the common challenge of developing loving relationships in our own homes, you don’t have to look far to find it. Every day, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus in welcoming children and young people who seek safety and trustworthiness when the dragons in life – and the dragons in our homes – emerge. Rather than "moving on" from these experiences or, worse, pretending they don't exist, instead may we live as people on the watch, ever ready, for ways to affirm real goodness and real helpfulness in our homes and in the world, pointing these out to the children of our community, with joy and fervency.
I originally preached this sermon, titled "Filled and Overflowing," based on John 11, in 2014.
In our passage today, we find the famous biblical sisters – Mary and Martha. They are in a troubled state. Their brother, Lazarus, has died and they know – Jesus could have saved him. But Jesus didn’t come when they summoned him. Jesus, at that time, was keeping clear of Jerusalem. Officials had been on the look out, threatening to arrest or stone him.
When Jesus finally does arrive, he immediately meets both grieving sisters.
Let us read the word of God for us today.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
We have met this family, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in the Bible before, in Luke 10. In that passage, Jesus is visiting; Mary is at his feet, an eager disciple. Martha, busy and worried in the kitchen, comes to Jesus with a demand: Jesus, make her come help me. Jesus responds by saying, “Martha, you are worried about much, but only one thing is needed now. Mary has chosen rightly, and it will not be taken from her.”
I’ll admit, as a former English Literature major in college, it’s hard for me to not be reminded of two other notorious sisters who also epitomize the strident characteristics of Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps, the great author Jane Austen even took some of her cues from Mary and Martha. Martha, the eldest, is a perpetual caregiver, hostess, and likely the family accountant and business leader. She is the one who frets most about the details at hand. Mary is demonstrative and emotive. Whether she kneels before Jesus to wait for his teaching, anoints his feet with her alabaster jar and dries them with her hair, or, in the passage today, is consumed with overwhelming grief, Mary is so full of feeling and impulse she cannot help but express it and cannot be bothered with anyone else’s needs around her.
When I was growing up, there was a popular women’s bible study series that poignantly asked: “Are you a Mary or a Martha?” It referred to the Luke 10 passage. The implication in the study was to discern whether you were a good disciple or, instead, someone who was distracted by details and continued to let matters of hosting and kitchens get in the way of your personal walk with the Lord. Because of this study and sermons with similar interpretations, in my mind, far too many women over the years have worried about whether they truly practice discipleship when they try to attend to household and work details.
Who knows what was in Martha’s heart when she demanded help from Jesus that fateful day? Was she wishing that she too could sit at Jesus’ feet? Was she tired of being in the kitchen? Were her worries and frets well beyond the house that day, and about many other things?
Jesus says to her, one thing is needed. What is that one thing? If it was to be learning at Jesus feet, like Mary, then why didn’t he just say that plainly? The only thing needed now is to be here at my feet listening to my teaching. But that is not what he said. One thing is needed now. I wonder if the one thing was a matter of Martha’s heart at that time. That the one thing needed now is what is in here (in your heart), in relation to Jesus and the life going on around Martha... including recognizing Mary’s needs at that time.
Recently, I heard about another Martha. A Martha who has been a member of her church for decades. She coordinates communion once a month for about 1500 members. One year, she, along with her fellow elders, attended an elder retreat. They prepared for the retreat by doing a spiritual direction study. Then, while on the retreat, each elder shared with each other how the study had gone and something they learned or discovered about themselves. When it came to Martha’s turn, she took a deep breath. And then she began to share.
Before this study, each month I heard from many of you and from deacons about how much it meant to you to serve communion. You told me, sometimes with tears in your eyes, about the ways you felt God’s presence as you shared bread and juice, and how deeply moved you were to be a part of this sacrament. I would hear you, knowing in my heart that I did not feel the same. I worried sometimes about whether I was missing something very important – was I too distracted all these Sunday mornings? But, how could I not be? Someone had to attend to the details. Before this study, I was settled that I may be missing something but I knew of no other way to go about my job. With this study, I realized what was actually happening. Each Saturday before communion, after I double-check the servers for the next morning, I come to church. As volunteers for that week and I prepare the elements, the organist begins to practice. Sometimes, guest musicians or choir soloists are there to practice too. As I fill the cups and cut the bread, with the music all around, I’ve realized that I have always felt the Holy Spirit there with us. I now know, I have felt God all along, in the very preparations, among all the details, God and I have been working together to get ready for the celebration.
This story makes me wonder, if in the past, in Luke, we may have gotten Mary and Martha’s stories wrong. I think today’s passage helps us to see the sisters more fully – less one-dimensional.
While tensions were high before, they appear even higher when we meet the sisters this time around. Their beloved brother Lazarus is very sick and dies. When Jesus finally arrives after the sisters sent for him, the sisters each express the same statement: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet Jesus responds to them differently. Though the sisters’ words are the same, Martha adds a word of faith: "But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask." Mary, on the other hand, is inconsolable in her grief. Her bitterness wells in her, and she defies any of her sister’s attempts at subtly. Instead she publicly attacks Jesus with sobs and accusation. She recklessly calls him out in front of their neighbors, neighbors who they all know stand ready to betray Jesus.
Our English translation puts it nicely, but the Greek here says that Jesus was wells with anger in response to Mary. It's not something we like to talk about or acknowledge. Jesus getting angry with Mary – why would Jesus be angry with Mary? Especially in her time of great grief. Instead, many interpreters prefer to assume Jesus must also be grieving, or feeling great compassion, or becoming angry about death. But the Scripture says, when Jesus saw her weeping and the people who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in his spirit. Mary is the one, after all, who has spent so much time at his feet, who has every reason to trust him, who has every reason to not betray him so publicly and among such dangerous witnesses. She has every reason to not let the storm inside her blind her to all the people and responsibilities around her.
Has grief, or other strong emotions, ever made you blind to the people around you or led you to betray, accidentally or on purpose, someone you love?
How often this kind of betrayal happens between loved ones – between siblings, best friends, or spouses. We know each other so well, we know the buttons, we know just where to send our spiteful daggers. Quicker than we dream, our words or fists fly. We carelessly sentence one another with our own grief or anger.
Even in his anger, though, Jesus does not retaliate. In a tremendous act of grace and selflessness, he holds space for Mary – just as she is. He does not lash out, seek revenge, force her to change, exploit her, admonish her, or to come to him with anything other than what she brings.
Even flooded with his own emotion, he attends to what is possible.
He is for. giving.
In this remarkable exchange, the fecundity of life emerges again – amid those fascinating and transformational encounters where the manure of our lives and the Holy Spirit mingle. Where the garlic and sapphires in the mud, clot the bedded axle-tree.
I have come to read this encounter of grace as an incredibly humbling moment for Mary. After bringing her greatest grief and despair to Jesus, Mary gets exactly what she wanted – her brother, alive. And, at the same time, she, her sister, and the gathered crowd are given the explicit instruction to now “let him go.” Also, Jesus continues to abide there, staying with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, even as some of Mary’s companions already have left to go to the authorities. They go to the authorities to betray Jesus, instead of remaining with Mary and with Lazarus!
Let's just take that in for a moment.
It's weird to think, a man comes back from the dead to what seems to be a rather lackluster reception. A bunch of the crowd has already left.
And as for Mary, as much as I am sure she was joyful to have Lazarus alive again, I also don’t imagine her erupting into great cheers as Lazarus walks out of his tomb. It’s hard to cheer with great humility, the kind of humility that comes with getting exactly what you said you wanted in a way that also shows you how selfish you have been. Instead, I imagine her wide-eyed and silent in the face of tremendous love, grace, and blessing. I imagine her eyes and ears opening, the way they do in times of robust maturing. Possibly she discovers, there in those precious moments of resurrection, a new way through her customary avalanche of feelings into an ability to relate beyond herself. Here, in these moments of revelation, she may be recognizing for the first time the real danger Jesus faces, or how Lazarus is his own person with his own life apart from her, or how much Martha does to keep their home and life together going.
Indeed, a miracle occurs when we bring our most honest selves to Jesus; something grows out of the ground where real tears get shed. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, when she spoke at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara in November 2014, these kinds of miracles emerge when we let streaming tears wash us, cleanse us, and water the ground at our feet. We discover newly an ability to love beyond ourselves, to see and hear and companion alongside the people around us. Rather than being filled to the brim with distractions, self-obsession, or flooding emotions. Instead we become filled and overflowing with God’s love, with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, increasing awareness of the needs around us, and the ability to love our neighbors even amid most dire circumstances. We see with fresh eyes the neighbors, even in our own homes, in the beds and kitchens we share; we see our next-door neighbors and colleagues, the people along our paths; we discover a capacity to love the strangers among us. Not with some idealistic sense of niceties, but a love that doesn’t have all the answers, doesn’t know exactly what to do, other than to show up, tell the truth, and to trust that the Holy Spirit shows up there and makes the way for new life. A new life beyond our wildest dreams.
By receiving us just as we are, even in the robustness of our fully selfish states, Jesus hosts the space for a kind of faithfulness that is not just something to do on Sundays or practice only when we feel like it. It is not something we discard when the stakes are highest – when a loved one dies, when the doctor’s diagnosis is unavoidable, when the job is lost, when the inheritance is gone, when a family member thoroughly betrays us . . . or when the gloves come off.
This gritty faithfulness, this love, this discipleship starts here, within our selves, where the internal storms fester and can blind us to the real life around us, to the real people, the real details and needs around us. It continues in the meeting of our bold honesty and God’s enduring love.
It is where we find grace.
This amazing grace that comes when we are unabashed in meeting God, fuels a faithfulness that we can practice in all circumstances, in times of peace and in the times when the stakes are highest.
According to Luke, after Jesus’ own resurrection, he brings his disciples back to Bethany, back to the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. This is the same ground where Mary fell at Jesus' feet, took her gloves off and called Jesus out – where were you in my grief, when I needed you most?!
On the way to this place, Jesus says to the disciples, “Beginning from Jerusalem, you are witnesses to all of these things. I am sending you the Holy Spirit, the power from on high, to be with you as you go.” And, in Bethany, he raises his hands over them, and blesses them.
I first met Revs. Drs. Laurie Kraus and Bruce Wismer almost ten years ago when they responded to a fatal domestic violence incident at a church I was serving as the Director of Congregational Care. Before meeting them, I only vaguely knew of our denomination's disaster response team as the "hurricane people." Like many pastors, I had little idea that members of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's National Response Team deployed to many other types of incidents, including "un-natural" or "human-caused" disasters. About a year later, I attended a discernment retreat to explore the possibility of joining the team, which is where I met Rev. Dr. David Holyan. He, too, was discerning joining the team, and he too had survived a human-caused disaster when a man shot several people across the street from his church, in front of the local court house. One of the victims was the husband of his church's director for Christian Education.
Over the years, Kraus, Wismer, Holyan and I have worked together to assess congregational impacts of trauma, identify best practices for emotional and spiritual care of individual and corporate bodies, and highlight effective faith-based and community-based collaborations. We continue to work and volunteer with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Bruce also serves as the chair of the board for the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth.
Recently, it was an honor to contribute chapters to this joint project, Recovering from Un-Natural Disaster: a guide for pastors and congregations after violence and trauma. You'll find this hand-held guide to be a very practical and accessible resource, with examples of incidents, tips for caring for children, youth, and adults, personal care tips for faith leaders, and templates for planning worship and community response.
Order your copy here.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.