Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.
Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.
But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.
Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept
And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.
But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.
I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.
Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”
But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.
And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.
Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.
So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?
And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.
But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.
When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.
But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.
Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.
And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.
I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.
And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water
Life begins in water.
and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.
Life begins in the dark.
It feels a little like Christmas to me right now.
Maybe it’s the candles. Maybe it is the story we heard from Luke this morning, this story of the baby Jesus. Because we really only encounter baby Jesus at Christmastime.
We even have on white stoles and there is white on the altar. It is a feast day and we hear this wonderful story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
And one of the reasons I love that we are celebrating the presentation, Candlemas, on this Sunday (and as I mentioned in the parish hall this feast day always falls on February 2 but rarely on a Sunday) is because we get to encounter the baby Jesus again, outside of Christmas. And we get to hear a story that we do not often get to hear together in this place.
And this makes sense because most of the stories we have of Jesus, most of the stories in the Gospels, are of his ministry. Most of the stories begin when he is about 30 and he is baptized and he is out preaching and teaching and healing and liberating.
We do not have many stories of Jesus as a baby, or as a child, at least not in our canon, the scriptures as we received them. There are other stories written about Jesus as a child that we do not accept as canonical but that are really great stories. Stories of Jesus being quite a handful as a young person. One of my favorite stories is of Jesus as a 4 or 5 year old, who went out to play in the mud, and who fashioned with his hands out of mud these little birds and he brought them to life and they flew off into the sky.
And I think, because we only spend time with an adult Jesus we can default to seeing him as a kind of social justice warrior type, or that is a trap we can fall into. That Jesus is important because of these things he does and that Jesus is important because of these things he says. But today’s story reminds us that Jesus is important because of who Jesus was and who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.
And Simeon had been waiting for the messiah, for a long time it seems.
Simeon was tired.
Simeon was old.
He’d had enough of this life, it seems.
But he held on to a promise whispered to him in a dream, perhaps. Whispered to him as a prayer. Whispered to him by the Holy Spirit which, today’s passage from Luke tells us, ‘rested on him.’
What a beautiful turn of phrase, right? The Holy Spirit ‘rested on him.’ I imagine the Holy Spirit like a cat curled up in his lap, like an infant sprawled out and snoring on his chest, like a prayer shawl gathered around his shoulders keeping you warm and safe.
And that day had come it seems. No angels proclaimed this baby Jesus, no heavenly chorus pointing this way like we saw in the earlier part of Luke in the account of baby Jesus. Just a whisper and a nudge, perhaps. So Simeon moved his ancient, stiff, aching bones and arrived at the Temple, perhaps as he did every day, to look for the one who was promised to him in a whisper.
I wonder what turned Simeon’s head that day. Because, honestly, there was not much to look at, in this little family weaving their way through the crowds in the Temple of Jerusalem. Just another devout Jewish mother presenting herself for ritual purification, 40 days after giving birth. Just another devout Jewish family ritually pledging their first born son, like Hannah did with Samuel, to the Temple in thanksgiving and praise to God. There was nothing noteworthy about this family, they were poor (the text tells us that by describing their offering, 2 pigeons, the least expensive, most basic offering allowed) and from the country, likely overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the Temple that day.
But something caught Simeon’s eye, something about this unremarkable family, and he picked that baby up and he began to sing. This is one of the church’s most treasured pieces of scripture, this song of Simeon’s, also known as the “Nunc Dimmitis” which is the Latin translation of the beginning of this song, “now you dismiss” your servant in peace.
And he sang. He sang in joy. And I also wonder if he sang in surprise because I am not sure this is what he expected to find. I wonder if this is what Simeon expected to see, what Simeon thought God’s promise might look like, this Messiah he had staved off death to see. I wonder if Simeon had expected to see a king, or at least a show of wealth or power or strength. And this makes a whole lot of sense, given the kind of messiah a devout Jew would have been looking for in the 1st Century, someone who would have returned exiled Jews to their land in Israel, who would have ended poverty, war, disease, and empire, and who heralded the resurrection of the dead. I suspect he did not expect to see an infant, or at least this kind of infant, one from a poor and unremarkable family.
And I wonder if he is singing out of joy, and out of surprise. A lot of people seem surprised in this text. The Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were ‘astonished’ by what they heard from Simeon that day, which is weird because they have heard the same thing from Gabriel and shepherds and wise men all proclaiming their son Messiah.
But they were astonished. And maybe they are surprised because of what Simeon goes on to say next after he sang his song. He starts to prophesy. And this prophecy, it is hard. It tells of people rising and falling, of Jesus being opposed, of people’s inner most thoughts being revealed, and of a sword piercing the soul of Mary. I am not sure that is what Mary expected to hear.
I think sometimes God does not show up like we expect, and sometimes when God does show up God brings hard truths to us, and so we turn our head the other way, we close our eyes, so we do not notice God, do not notice Jesus. So instead we think God is not showing up at all.
Since coming to Grace I have spent some time with the youth on Friday evenings. The rhythm of the evening is often the same: we gather, we laugh, we eat, we check in about the highs and lows of our weeks, and we also share if we have had any ‘God sightings.’ When have we seen God in our lives this week?
There has been great conversation about what this expression, God sighting, actually means. Does it mean we are stopped in our tracks and hear a heavenly chorus above our heads like the shepherds in the fields did earlier in the Gospel of Luke and the world starts to glow and we realize yes, yes, this is God?
And maybe some of y’all have had that experience, and if you have I totally want to to hear that story, but we have shared that God sightings are often much quieter than that, much more fleeting, more ordinary than that. They are, as the theologian Frederick Buechner described, more as if an angel beats their wings over our head and we say “Wow, I wonder where I got the courage to do that?” or “God, what a gorgeous day to be alive.”
The young people in youth group share God sightings like that, and man are they wonderful. Their God sightings include having a realization that their dog is getting older and may die soon and feeling sad about that but knowing deep in their hearts that everything is going to be ok. Their God sightings include realizing that someone they follow on social media because they are funny and dark is also a human being who just lost a parent and they feel sad about that. Their God sightings include someone being kind to them in class or realizing their parents might be having a hard time. Their God sightings include a really, really, really good burrito.
This kind of God sighting requires us to slow down, to notice the little things in our lives, This is kind of God sighting requires close attention, requires patience. And I think there is something interesting that in today’s Gospel and these stories of the youth that the people who are most tuned in to these kind of God sightings are people at the first part and the latter part of their lives. I think there is some awareness about being those ages, maybe it is about going a little slower, maybe at those ages we just spend more time thinking about what this life is about and what God is all about..
But I think we are all capable of those kind of God sightings, if we slow down, if we look around us, we start to notice that God is everywhere my friends.
One of the things that I love about this story of the Presentation is that Jesus holds the baby Jesus, brings the baby Jesus close to him, rests the baby Jesus on him as the Holy Spirit rested on him and then he begins to sing.
I think that tells us something. I think that tells us that we have to gather God close to us, that we have to lean in, we have to pick God up with our very arms and rest God on ourselves in order to encounter God sometimes.
And so, my friends, my invitation to you this morning is to slow down, to notice, to gather Christ in your arms and pull Christ close to your heart. And to sing.
I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”
I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.
One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.
Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.
Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.
During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.
Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.
And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.
Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.
When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.
But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.
And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.
And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.
Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.
God speaks to us through wine.
God speaks to us through bread.
God speaks to us through oil.
God speaks to us through water.
God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
When our first child, Gwen, had just turned 4, I asked her to take her plate to the sink after dinner. We have this built in nook in our kitchen with a bench, and she stood up on the upholstered green cushion with her plate in her hand. As she reached the edge of the bench she dropped her plate and it broke on the floor and somehow, I did not see it happen, she fell on top of her broken plate and sliced open her hand. She was screaming and there was blood everywhere and we wrapped her hand up in a towel and scooped her younger brother up and rushed to Providence emergency room. It was January and all these folks were sick with the flu in the waiting room and Seth kept picking up things off the floor and sticking them in his mouth. We waited for hours and, when we finally saw a team, they all ran around anxiously when they saw how deep the cut was and scheduled her for surgery first thing in the morning. The plate had gone through through the fleshy part of her hand almost to the bone.
When our youngest, Tess, was about 14 months old she grabbed her sister’s sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, and started smearing it all over her face. It was dinner time and I think the pasta was boiling over or something so I ran to the stove and when I turned around again there were red welts starting to raise up on her face and chest where the peanut butter had touched her skin. I called 911 and they told me to give her some benadryl and I did and the angry skin calmed down and she seemed to be breathing ok. We took her to the doctor the next day and she explained, if this happened again and she had trouble breathing or her lips and tongue swelled, how we should inject the epi-pen into the fleshy part of her thigh.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…..And the Word became flesh and lived among us
What an extraordinary claim.
What a crazy thing to do.
These bodies of ours, our flesh, are wondrously complex and incomparably beautiful. Yet the are also so vulnerable, so easily broken open by the sharp edge of a broken dish, so quickly sent into a cascading and life-threatening spiral by a simple legume.
We don’t have sharp spines or bony plates to protect our soft parts. We are almost entirely composed of soft parts. And yet….
God took part of God’s own self, the Word, the complete and ultimate essence of God, God’s self and God’s child both at the same time (which is also an extraordinary claim, but that is for another sermon), and clothed it in this beautiful and paper thin body of blood and bone and flesh and sent him, Jesus, to us.
Which is, I will say again, pretty crazy. I mean, this is God right? Couldn’t God have, liked, amped up the design or the defenses a bit for Jesus? Couldn’t Jesus have had like stronger skin or plates like a dinosaur or super strength or some sort of superpower to keep God safe?
And the Word became flesh and lived among us….
The Greek is literally translated “And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us….” Part of that choice of language is very specific and intentional by the Gospel writer. It hearkens back to the stories of Exodus and to God who takes up residence in the tabernacle, a tent, and moves with the people as they travel in the wilderness in search of a home. The Gospel writer is making a deliberate connection between God in Christ and the God of the Hebrew scriptures.
The word for this tent, in Hebrew, is shekinah. In Exodus God resides in time and space in a physical structure. The Gospel takes this idea, this image, and extends and transforms it. Human flesh becomes the tent, the tabernacle; our bodies are the holy place of God. Our bodies become the shekinah.
We have been taught most of our lives that our bodies are bad, or at least not good enough. We have been taught that our bodies are the place of sin and far from God. That message seems almost universal. It is a hard one to resist. (Our bodies are vulnerable and creaturely and react in pain and desire and that is scary because our bodies are a reminder that we, too, are creatures. Our bodies are a reminder that we are vulnerable. Our bodies are a reminder that we are not in control. Our bodies are )
This prologue to the Gospel of John is a clear call to resist that message, whether we hear it at the gym or in a magazine or in the pulpit. Because our bodies are perfect, our bodies are sacred, our bodies are holy.
So we are called to not only resist this message that our bodies are somehow less, but to embrace our body in all its messiness and crankiness and creaturliness and fleshiness. We can know God in our bodies in a way that is different than in our minds. Trust those goosebumps and sudden tears and things that take your breath away….they often point to an encounter with the holy. As John O’ Donohue writes: Your mind can deceive you and put all kinds of barriers between you and your nature; but your body does not lie.
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known, the Gospel writer tells us.
And God in Jesus got a arms and legs and a belly for a tent and camped with us for a while and helped us see, the scripture tells us, the face of God which can never be gazed upon but that was, for a time at least – a face with beautiful brown skin with the most kind eyes you have ever seen.
So this nativity story of John with its nine short words “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” is about as scandalous a theological claim as exists in the Bible.
And about as glorious a theological claim as exists in the Bible.
God created these bodies and God became a body.
What an act of love.
We have been hearing Jesus in a lot of arguments these past few weeks, but this one feels different somehow. There is no back and forth between Jesus and the questioner, no probing questions from Jesus in response, no mysterious parable offered.
Jesus seems simply to have no time for this question because, I think, the question itself presupposes only death. It is death upon death upon death…7 times in fact. And the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God that called to Moses in the desert to free God’s people from bondage and slavery into freedom and justice and new life, has no patience with a worldview that starts and ends only in death.
Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive Jesus says.
Furthermore, the Sadducees riddle posits an afterlife which is pretty unimaginative. I mean, not only is the woman in this hypothetical viewed only in relationship to men in both life and death, and thus still subject in the afterlife to the same oppressive power structures Jesus’ whole ministry is in opposition to, but the resurrection described simply replicates the way life works here and now. This world, its relationships and problems and ways of living and interacting are simply transferred from this life to the next.
This is not how God works, Jesus says. In God we find a qualitatively different kind of life, and a qualitatively different kind of death. In God systems and relationships and structures which are not life-giving have no place. Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.
Jesus offers no details or description of what resurrection looks like. And much like I wish he would explicitly call out the patriarchal assumptions of the Sadducees, I also wish he provide more detail of how resurrection works….but that is not what we get.
What we do get is a clear response that life in God, resurrected life, is completely different than the life we live without God. The systems and ways we interact with one another are fundamentally changed in a resurrected life…are transformed in the love of God.
What is posited by the question in today’s Gospel is a transactional understanding of life and death. But Jesus says, hold up, that is not how God works. God is the God of the living. Life in God is not a series of transactions from birth to marriage to children to death. Life in God, even death in God, is transformed by the love of God which is always generative and creative.
And we are called to participate in that life of love.
We are all here, I think, because this is a place, this is a community of followers of Christ, where we find life. And that means, I think, as Jesus is teaching us in today’s Gospel, that this is a place where God creates new life and where the transactional patterns of the world are transformed into the life-giving love of the kingdom of God.
And one place where that contrast between transaction and transformation is clear is when it comes to money. The world tries to tell us that spending our money will lead to a new life…..but that’s a lie. Buying a new phone or new shoes or whatever can feel good for a bit, trust my friends I have a closet full of shoes to prove that….but it is ultimately deeply unsatisfying because it is only a transaction. I give someone my credit card and they give me something in return and that thing gets old or breaks or the novelty wears off and I am right where I started.
But sharing my money in this place, giving toward the life-giving work of God that is happening here….that is transformative. A few weeks ago Martin shared that he and Phoebe tithe, they give 10% of their money away. Since I started here with you good people, I have also pledged 10% of my salary from Grace to Grace.
Which from a transactional view seems kind of silly, right? I mean wouldn’t it make more sense to just say I will work for 10% less rather than go through the motions of you all paying me and then me returning the money back to Grace?
But something happens in that process…in that circle. In the process of Grace giving me a stipend, in the process of you all in this room paying me, I am incorporated into the life and family of this place. And then when I pledge it back to Grace, it becomes so much more than simply a few hundred dollars per month. It is transformed, in and through God’s life-giving Spirit and the good work and people of this place, into something greater than it was……
And that is not to say that only money does that. It certainly does not. But just as resurrection is the promise that our whole selves, our entire being from the tops of our heads to the tips of our toes, will ultimately find new life in God, when we give of our whole selves to this place….our time, our talent, and yes, our treasure, we are fully participating in the life-giving kingdom of God.
God takes our offerings, our money and talents, our bread and wine, and transforms them into something life-giving. The experience of being in this place is far more than the sum of its parts….I mean we have to pay for the heat to be on and the lights to be lit and the space to be clean and the clergy to be here…but those transactions are transformed in and through and with God into a community of Sunday morning worship of song and praise, into a parish hall full of Phame students drumming along with We Will Rock You, into classrooms full of children making art and friendships every summer at Grace Art Camp, and into tables full of hot and delicious food for those who join us here every Friday night. Just as God transforms everything, even death, into new life, so does God transform all we give to Grace into life and hope and love.
(For 10 am…. In a few minutes, right before the Peace, we will be taking some time to prayerfully consider our financial commitment to Grace for the upcoming year, fill out our pledge cards, and bring them up to the altar. I love that we do this together, as an act of worship and praise and community to be blessed and celebrated together. Thank you for all you are and all you do and all you bring to this place.).
Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.
From the moment we enter this world we are quantified.
Newborns are whisked away from their parents and weighed and measured. They are scored 1 minute after birth and then again at 5 minutes on this scale called the Apgar scale, which from 1 to 10 rates how healthy they are when they are first born.
And this comes from a very good place, I think. This comes from an intention to protect something so vulnerable and new in the world.
But it keeps going, doesn’t it?
I remember as a new parent going anxiously to the pediatrician, at 3 months at 6 months, and given graphs showing where my child fell on the growth curve. I was given scores every 3 or 6 months of how well they were measuring up against the developmental milestones they were expected to be achieving every 3 or 6 months.
And this keeps going and going. When they enter school they have to know a certain number of sight words by the end of kindergarten and are ranked in their reading level compared to their peers in their grade. Assessments are given, standardized tests, college rankings, what major you should choose based on what you will earn…on and on and on. Our lives are quantified by mathematical formulas.
And I think this comes from the same place as it does at the beginning of our lives: to protect us from being a human being in this world, and unpredictable and scary world where we are so vulnerable. And so we hold onto these things we can quantify, these solid numbers that tell us “yes, our children are going to be ok, yes, we are ok.”
And so in this morning’s Gospel when we hear the Pharisee go to the temple and begin to pray to God (and perhaps to those who are surrounding him) and share how he is measuring up in his life of prayer, in his righteousness, in his justification before God. He prays “I fast twice a week when only once is expected, I give 10% of my income.” I suspect that this impulse in the Pharisee is coming from a similar place, an attempt to guarantee his righteousness and holiness in front of God.
And before I go on I just want to make a quick note about the Pharisees, because it is easy, especially when we spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke, to kind of equate Pharisee with hypocrite or corrupt official. And that has more to do with the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the context in which he was writing than it does with the tradition of Pharasaical Judaism which is a rich, important and valuable tradition in the Jewish faith. In fact, there are many scholars who believe that Jesus himself was raised up within the Pharisee tradition. So just a sort of caveat as I go on in this sermon and any time we talk about the Pharisees, please know this is Jesus offering a parable, a character and not something we should use to judge this entire tradition within Judaism.
All that being said, Jesus is very, very critical of this Pharisee in today’s parable. He is critical of the way the Pharisee is attempting to quantify his righteousness and prove himself to be justified in front of God. But perhaps even more so Jesus is critical of this Pharisee when, in temple, when he is praying and the Pharisee looks across and sees a tax collector also there, praying, obviously deeply hurt and in pain, beating his breast, the Pharisee’s reaction is “Thank God, I am not like him.”
That image of the tax collector beating his breast is quite an arresting one, it is almost as if in the presence of God he is trying to break his own heart open, and present it to the Lord.
The academic and sociologist, Parker Palmer, suggests that there are two images we can keep in our mind’s eye when we think about a heart being broken. The first is imagining the heart as a brittle and fragile thing, that when it breaks it breaks like a wine glass dropped on the hard kitchen floor, smashing into thousands of pieces, shards flying everywhere, never to be made whole again.
The other image he suggests we use for a broken heart is that of a fist. A fist in the middle of our chest that when it is broken opens up like a hand, fingers splayed wide, to hold our own hurt but also to hold the hurt of the world in the palm of our hand.
I would suggest today that the tax collector in today’s Gospel, when the Pharisee saw him, was trying to do that very thing, to break open his heart like a hand to recognize in that moment that whatever hurt or anguish or pain had brought him to that place that day, he was ultimately and completely at God’s mercy, vulnerable before God reliant entirely on God’s grace and love.
What’s also interesting about this image, this gesture that the tax collector uses in the temple that morning, this gesture that Jesus refers to in describing him, this beating your breast or chest is one reserved for women in this culture that Jesus lived in. And more specifically women who were grieving a deep and painful loss.
There is perhaps no more powerful emotion in our human experience than that of grief. And perhaps within that spectrum of grief nothing more overwhelming and painful than a parent’s grief at losing a child. The image I imagine for this kind of grief is that it is like being dropped into a dark ocean, angry and stormy, with nothing to hold onto and no land in sight, trying desperately to keep your head above water.
I have some friends, Mary and Dustin, who I think are in this deep abyss of grief right now. I don’t know if y’all had heard of this story by there was a young man, named Owen Klinger, who went missing a couple of weeks ago and his parents were searching for him along with a lot of us as well. Owen was in kindergarten with my daughter and we have known Owen, and Owen’s parents, since those early school days. We did not know Owen well, I do remember Owen as a joyous, athletic, funny, musical kid who was always there. He was really a beautiful boy.
And so last week on Tuesday, at the University of Portland where Owen was in his first year, the community there had a mass to come together and grieve the loss of Owen who, after being missing for two weeks, his body was discovered in the Willamette River. It was clear that the deepest fears of his parents and those who knew him had come true, that he had died.
And this community gathered in the chapel of the University of Portland and mourned the loss of their friend, of their brother, of their son. And after that service Mary and Dustin went out to the press that had gathered in front of the chapel and spoke to them.
And in that moment Mary, most especially, embodied a heart which has been broken, not like glass on the kitchen floor but like a hand put forward to the world. She shared that when she had dropped Owen off at college a couple of months before, she had said to him “Owen, I want you to make a difference, I want you to impact this community.” She said she had wondered whether he was listening to her. But she said that morning just leaving from a service grieving her son, she said she realized that he had been listening to her. She said that even in his death he had made an impact on this community, that he had brought people together from all over the city who had looked for him, who had cared for him, who had prayed for him and who held him in prayer and love.
In that moment, her heart was broken open like a hand and she was saying, I think, that the value of his life could not be quantified in the too few years he had spent on this earth but in fact in the love and spirit he had embodied when he was alive and he continued to have in his death. In that moment, God held Mary’s heart and God held Owen’s as well.
I think, sometimes, we think of Christ’s divinity primarily in Christ’s strength, in the miraculous strength it took to overcome death and the power of the resurrection, in the joy we find on Easter morning. And my friends, that is real and there is true joy in the world and there is power in that image.
But I would also suggest that Christ’s divinity is found in his deep vulnerability, perhaps no more than when he was on the cross when he cried out in pain and anguish “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”. In that moment Christ is at his most human and most divine. And the good news is that even in that awful place, that there is no pain so deep, no grief so wide that Jesus or overwhelming that we human beings experience that Jesus is not there with us and always will be.
And we know that, I think, because every Sunday we gather at this altar and we remember Christ’s body broken and the blood poured out for us. And we offer up our hands and a piece of Christ’s heart is put in them and we take that piece of Christ and we bring it into ourselves. And we are called, my friends, to be brokenhearted people and sent out into the world, a world that desperately needs more broke hearts. Hearts broken open in sadness and grief, but also hearts broken open in joy and love.
I would like to leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver:
Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
I was about 5 or 6 years old when I got my first pair of glasses. Everyone in my immediate family, my parents and my siblings, they all had perfect vision. So no one thought I might need some help seeing. Until, I think, in kindergarten or first grade the teacher reported to my parents that I seemed to be squinting a lot at the board, sometimes actually getting out of my chair and walking up to it to see what was written there. So my teacher told this to my parents and they hurried me off to the opthalmologist, I got my eyes tested, and about two weeks later I got my first pair of glasses.
And I do not really remember this experience but my mom did tell me about that first ride home from the eye doctor. She said she could hear my voice coming from the back seat, exclaiming in wonder and awe at the things I could now see in the world.
“Look! Look at the leaves on the tree!”
“Look, there is a dog walking down the sidewalk, not just some blob.”
“Look at the flowers and the birds….aren’t they beautiful?”
As a child I did not know that world looked that way until I got those glasses. And sometimes I have that same experience when I encounter certain passages of scripture, like the parable we hear Jesus sharing this morning.
Certain passages of scripture bring a clarity, a crispness to my vision of the world and help me see, perhaps, a glimpse of how God sees the world.
And we can see this even in the way this parable is written. There is a tremendous amount of detail in these few short lines. As a reminder this is one of a series of parables, of stories, that Jesus is telling the people that the writer of Luke/Acts describes as “Pharisees and sinners and tax collectors.”
And Jesus, I think, starts kind of gently with these parables. We get these lovely, sort of warm and fuzzy stories of lost sheep and lost coins. And then I think he starts to get a little more pointed as he goes along, we hear the parable of the prodigal son, the parable of where to sit at the wedding banquet, and then the dishonest manager.
And then we land on this parable, the only parable in the Gospels in which two of the characters are named. And the details with which Jesus tells this story are very precise. He describes the clothes that the rich man is wearing, fine linen and a purple cloak. These clothes that, at the time Jesus would have been sharing this story, were reserved only for priests and kings. In fact there is a story in history that the emperor Caligula, a little bit after Jesus’ life, had a visiting foregn king (who was the grandson of Cleopatra and Marc Antony) murdered for having the temerity of wearing a purple cloak when he came to visit Rome.
And then we get this image of Lazarus at the gate, brought every day there by his friends, covered with sores, filthy and hungry, yearning for just a few crumbs. The only kindness he encounters is from the dogs who come and sit by his side.
There is such clarity of vision and detail in this story and I think the clarity parallels, perhaps, or gives us a sense of what Jesus is calling the people who were listening to him that day and calling us to hear in this story.
I’ll just say up front, my friends, that I do not think this is a parable that is meant to be a blueprint for us of what happens after we die, a sneak peek at the afterlife. Rather I think this is a blueprint of how we are called to live, a vision of how God sees the world.
And we see this in the sort of contrasting visions of what the world thinks is important and the way God thinks about the kingdom and how we are called to live.
We have the story of the rich man who builds a gate around his house so he does not have to see people like Lazarus near his windows. Building gates and doors to keep out people so he can enjoy the safety and comfort of his home away from the world. But in the context of this parable, in the context of the vision of God, that gate becomes a chasm, a chasm over which the rich man is looking and can barely glimpse God. It becomes a chasm that separates him from the kingdom of heaven.
We have a vision of the feasts the rich man enjoys in this world, sumptuously eating with his friends. But in the vision of God that feast becomes meager food indeed when compared to the heavenly banquet that Lazarus enjoys with Abraham and all the saints.
And the frustrating thing about this parable is that the rich man still does not get it. Right? He’s in hell, he’s being tormented and still he’s trying to act in the way he acted in the world. He’s ordering Abraham around, asking him to send Lazarus down to serve him. The rich man can not lose that vision of the way the world has told him things are supposed to work and open himself up into the vision of the kingdom of God.
And I do not think this is unique to the first century, indeed I know it is not. When I was reading this parable I was reminded of sociological study I read about conducted by some scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. And in it they had subjects come in and play Monopoly. But the Monopoly game was rigged so that certain subjects, certain players, were given advantages in the game. They either collected double the money when they passed Go or they were given more properties to begin with. And the scientists observed how these players, who had the advantages, interacted with the players who were subject to the regular rules of the game.
And the scientists observed that about 15 minutes into the game, the people who had been given the advantage in the system began to behave differently. They began to move their pieces around the board very aggressively. The began to eat more pretzels. In fact one player who was given advantages in the game was observed telling the other player all the great skill he had brought to the game and that was why he was winning.
The system, the way the world works, the way the world tells us we are to find safety in wealth and privilege, in success, that way of the world is in direct opposition to the vision that God has for the kingdom.
And it hard to strip away the world tells us to see and see with the eyes of God, but I think my friends, that in this place we are sometimes given a glimpse of the way God sees the world.
My first full Holy Week was spent in this place. I participated in catechumenate with Mother Esme, with a few folks who are here now. And I remember that as a group we were encouraged to come to all three services of the Triduum during Holy Week. And we came and ate an agape meal that I think Yetunde cooked and we came and washed each others feet and we had our feet washed.
And I remember coming to my first Good Friday service ever here in this sanctuary. And I was moved and I was stunned and I was confused by what I saw. And I remember leaving and it was dark outside and I got home and I did not really have a sense of what was happening. And there were so many feelings and ideas running through my head and I just kind of collapsed into bed.
And then I woke up the next morning and I looked across the room at the clock and for the very first time in my life I could read the clock. And for about 30 seconds I was overwhelmed by this idea and I thought “Oh my God, what I experienced as healed me, God has healed me! And I can see! I no longer have this astigmatism and I can see without my glasses.” And then I realized, no I had gone to sleep with my contact lenses in.
But my friends, I think what might not have been literally true that morning was metaphorically and spiritually true for me. My experience in this place, my experience of encountering God in those ancient stories told, the stories of Moses and the prophets that Jesus talks about in today’s parable, those stories shifted something in me. And I no longer saw the world in the same way.
And I think that is something we are given the opportunity to encounter every time we come together in this place.
When we look through the lens of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become a feast of unending life, a heavenly banquet where all are welcomed.
When we look through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection we can see that death is no longer the end but the beginning of new and unending life in God.
And when we look through the lens of love we can see perhaps the kingdom, the world, perhaps as God sees it. Everyone, everything, infused with the Holy Spirit and beloved of God.