Archives for the month of: March, 2017

A sermon preached at the Church of the Epiphany, New York City
Third Sunday of Lent
March 19, 2017
John 4:5-42
I am frequently asked what does the Bible really mean to me? My answer is simple: The Bible has shaped my life. I have found and continue to find my story within “The Story.” I think of the Bible as a family photo album for people of faith, with a complete and complicated cast of characters, some whose stories inspire and others that make us cringe, but all of which are instructive. I understand the Bible to be a mirror that helps us to see how God has worked with our ancestors and is working with us today.

I confess there are some bible stories that are particularly moving for me, and this morning’s gospel account of the Woman at the Well is one of them. This story describes a deep yearning and profound thirst to be welcomed, accepted and loved “just as I am” by both God and another person. It is a story about the beginning of relationship, exemplifying those familiar words of St. Paul, “to see in a mirror face to face; to know and to be fully known.” (1 Cor. 13.12) It is also the story of the beginning of evangelism – the invitation to “come and see.”

In John’s Gospel, both a nameless woman and Jesus are confronted and exposed, accepted and affirmed, nourished and quenched, welcomed and received, known and loved. Through our Lord’s brief encounter with an anonymous, lonely woman, God is revealed as an unbounded and indiscriminate lover and seeker of souls.

Imagine the scene. It is noon at a local well. The well is abandoned, because everybody is at home eating their mid-day meal and hiding from the sun. A woman is there alone – no friends, helpers or companions. She is at the well with her buckets in the mid-day heat because she is not welcome in the cool early morning hours when all the other women and children are gathered.

Jesus was also at the well, tired and resting. He asks the woman for water. She looks up from her labor and responds, “Don’t you know better than to be talking to me, a Samaritan woman.” Without hesitation, Jesus replies, “Why not? If only you knew who you was asking.” Initially, not knowing who he is, Jesus sounds a bit like a flirt, a bully, or a big man on campus. “I want to give you something – water that will quench your thirst forever.”

At first, the woman retorts, “So how are you going to give me water? You don’t even have a bucket or a rope.” And then she asks a deeper question: “Where do you get this living water?” Jesus does not really answer her question, but he tells her more about the water. The woman responds in a reasonable manner: “I want what you have to give. Then I wouldn’t have to come back to this lousy well in the hot, noonday sun.”

This woman appears to misunderstand the water that Jesus is speaking of, but she is sincere and down-to-earth in naming her basic wants and needs. Like so many impoverished women around the world, this woman has to daily carry gallons of water from a common tap, well or river back home to feed and wash her family. It is no wonder that the Samaritan woman saw endless, clean, flowing, living water as a real life-giving gift.

Jesus abruptly changes the subject and dismisses the woman with the command, “Go and get your husband.” The woman responds a bit defensively, “I have no husband.” Jesus, acknowledging this fact says, “That’s right; you’ve had five husbands, and you’re not married to the guy with whom you are now living.” Now, she’s been outed (so to speak). “Sir, you must be a prophet.” (Nice diversion tactic, if only it had worked.) They have a brief exchange about religion, and the woman shares her messianic expectation. And then Jesus catches her off-guard: “Lady, I am the one you’ve been waiting for.” The Samaritan woman at the well probably wonders, “Could this man be for real, or is he just coming on to her?”

At that moment, the disciples (another set of characters in the photo album) return from their grocery shopping in town, and they certainly don’t’ understand Jesus’ encounter with this woman. While they don’t say anything, I can only imagine the looks on their faces. The woman departs from the well, leaving behind her bucket, and returns to her village to tell her family, friends and neighbors of the extraordinary man she encountered at the well.

In John’s Gospel, this unnamed, outcast (a woman who had been married five times and was now “living in sin”) became the first person to proclaim the simple evangelical words of invitation – “come and see.” “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

This woman, usually shunned by her neighbors, took the risk and shared with them the gift of her encounter with Jesus. She could have kept her meeting with Jesus to herself, but no – having received divine love incarnate, she was willing to pass it on. In doing so, she became the first witness to testify, the first evangelist to proclaim, the first apostle to share the good news of Jesus Christ in the Fourth Gospel.

The other villagers (both men and women) actually believed because of her testimony, “He told me everything that I have done.” Jesus penetrated one woman’s soul with words of truth spoken in love, and when she shared her experience with the invitation, “Come and see,” her community followed. They went out to the well and met Jesus. They offered him hospitality; he taught; they followed; and the gospel (good news) spread.

This is a remarkable story about being seen, given what you really need, accepted “just as I am,” coming to see with eyes of faith, and then inviting others to do the same. The 19th century Swiss theologian Alexandre Vinet once said, “Faith doesn’t consist in the belief that we are saved; it consists in the belief that we are loved.” Jesus offered the gift of unconditional love and acceptance, and the Samaritan woman reluctantly but gratefully received it.

My theology professor Dorothee Soelle taught that faith is a two-way street we call grace: a gift freely given and the decision to accept the gift. Jesus spoke truth in love to the Samaritan woman, accepted her life with all its hope, promise and brokenness, and she received this gift of grace. And then she, the outcast, the woman who had been married five times and was presently “living in sin”, became a living sacrament – an outward and visible sign of this inward and invisible grace. Through her simple but direct words, “come and see,” this once-rejected but now-affirmed woman led others to faith. That’s what evangelism is all about – sharing your story about God with friend and neighbor.

At a conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes a number of years ago, former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori shared a story about modern-day evangelism at the well. She told us about a priest who went Starbucks regularly, bought a cup of coffee, and put a tent sign on a table saying: “Tell me your story about God. He then waited for people to sit down with him and talk. If after talking with them, he sensed they might be searching for a spiritual home, he invited them to “come and see” the Episcopal Church. As a newly retired priest, I’ve been thinking about do the same. Can you imagine what might happen if we all spent more time talking about God in coffee shops and restaurants, and on golf carts and park benches?

God’s love made known to us in Jesus is a radical, all–inclusive gift of abundance. It is water that will always quench our thirst and food that will always satisfy us. It is a gift that genuinely keeps on giving to all who are willing to receive it. People are hungry and thirsty for God in their lives, and we need to open the pantry door and turn on the tap.

I received a gift like the account we heard this morning at a McDonald’s on 42nd Street one cold January afternoon. Jesus met me as he did the Samaritan woman, a young woman feeling unworthy and thirsty. I had a similar conversation. He told me all that I had ever done, naming those innermost wounds. He told me who he was, and he instructed me to tell my brothers and sisters, that God is there for each and every one of us. God loves all of us – no strings attached.

That conversation changed my life once and forever. And like the Samaritan woman, I was a new woman eager to return to my community and say to all who would listen, “Come and see whom I’ve met.”

If you’re feeling unloved, why don’t you try meeting Jesus, if not for the first time, then as Marcus Borg used to say, “again for the first time.” If you’re feeling lonely and misunderstood, why don’t you try reaching out to Jesus and asking for some conversation and companionship. And if you’ve met Jesus, maybe you could share that story with others, perhaps over a cup of coffee. If nothing else, invite your friends and neighbors to “come and see.” What do you have to lose? What do they have to gain?

A Sermon preach on the First Sunday of Lent
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Paterson, New Jersey
March 5, 2017

It’s been 17 years since I preached from this pulpit. It was the Last Sunday in Epiphany in the year 2000. We stood on a mountain top and recalled our time together. It wasn’t always easy.  Building our congregation was like climbing Mt. Everest; with all of our diversity and energy, sometimes there was not enough oxygen for everyone to breathe. Building St. Paul’s CDC was like climbing a mountain range; every time we thought we had reached the peak, we realized it was just a plateau.

However, with God’s encouragement, we were determined. Together, we built one of the most diverse congregations in the Episcopal Church – Black, White, Hispanic and Asian; native-born and newcomers from many lands; young, old and in-between; urban and suburban; lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual and transgendered; married and single; rich, poor and middle class; seeker, sojourner, and cradle Episcopalians.

Over the course of our time together, we had some extraordinary mountain top experiences like:

  • Opening the doors between our men’s parish hall shelter and the church
  • Inviting our shelter guests to worship with the congregation
  • Constructing a permanent shelter facility in our undercroft
  • Walking the stations of the cross from the perspective of new immigrants in our community.
  • Making a public witness during the Heresy Trial over gay ordination
    Dedicating 180 Carroll Street, the first of our affordable housing efforts
  • The CityServe Ensemble performances of song and dance
    The Night the Bell fell through the baptistry
    The World AIDS Day Vigil led by our Sisters on the Streets
  • Gathering on the Ash Wednesday after Lawrence Meyers was killed
    Watching the Hale-Bopp Comet pass over our parking lot on Maundy Thursday
  • The Easter morning visit by Bacardi and the Good Friday interruption by Yvonne after her shoes were stolen while she was sleeping
  • The Pentecost Service when we baptized 12 babies and welcomed 30 newcomers with a Dixieland jazz band and the gospel proclaimed in 15 languages
  • The Epiphany pageants and Youth Sundays
    The fiestas, dinner dances, Mardi Gras, Holiday Express Christmas parties, and Super Saturdays
  • The Martin Luther King Day Celebrations
    The 175th Anniversary
    And the list could go on and on…
  • On those mountain tops, we saw the glory of God. But like the Bible tells us, you can’t stay on the mountain forever. Seventeen years ago today, we came down from the mountain together and went our separate ways.

Over the past nearly two decades, a lot has transpired in my life, your lives, and the life of this city and this 200-year old parish. There have been many changes in the Episcopal Church, our nation, and our world. As much as we enjoy the golden age of memory, we can’t live in the past, recalling what we thought were better days. Nor can we live in the future – simply hoping and dreaming for a better tomorrow. We have to live in the wilderness of the present with all of its opportunity, challenge and temptation.

Wilderness and temptation are realities of human existence. Thus, the wilderness-temptation story always stands as a toll booth on our Lenten highway to Easter. Each year, we have to stop and pay homage to it so that this parable about the way of the world vs. the way of God can shed light and truth for our journey.

The first temptation – turning stone into bread – is about fast food, the temptation of convenience. Provide a hungry world with a full dinner pail and the masses will follow you anywhere. Jesus rejected it. He believed that our needs (both physical and spiritual) must be met by God’s way, not our own cheap, selfish and often-unethical ways.

Our Lord also realized that he was called to fill a hunger for justice and human dignity. You know as well I do that it’s easier to hand out loaves of bread, bags of groceries, warm meals, and shallow promises than to actually address the systemic issues of hunger, nutrition and poverty.

Jesus teaches us that there simply are no meaningful shortcuts to substantive change. As President Trump admitted in this past week’s address to Congress, health care reform is far more complicated than he had realized. I pray that he and his advisors will quickly realize this to be true about most public policy, including immigration reform.

The second temptation – worshipping Satan in exchange for rule over all the kingdoms of the world – is about unrestrained power and tremendous wealth that has a tendency to corrupt. Jesus knew that he could not win over the world for God through absolute control.

At first glance, we say, “Of course, Jesus rejected this offer to make a pact with the devil.” However, if we consider the deals we’ve cut for influence or money, the trade-offs we’ve made for advancement, the compromises we’ve agreed upon for the sake of keeping the peace – then it’s not so simple.

But Jesus insists there is another way. It is not by serving two masters – God and Caesar; it is by trusting God and loving God’s creation with integrity and compassion in both good and times. This third way relies on God to promote us and make our boundaries broad and wide.

The temptation of power and wealth is at the heart of American politics today, and we who follow Christ need to get clear and determined about walking Jesus’s third way. We can’t hide from the harsh reality that is facing us; rather, we have to engage the powers and principalities that are conspiring to dismantle American democracy.. That is the task before us, and we must overcome the temptation to run away from it.

The third temptation – jumping off the highest pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and be saved – is about magic and instant acclaim – coercion, conversion and fame through pyrotechnics. It’s the gimmicks, entertainment, and promised miracles of some politics, religion and advertising. It’s the essence of reality television. One minute you’re nobody, and the next minute (or at the end of a season), you have instant fame. While reality t.v. is fairly harmless, the temptation for instant fame, popularity and power, also has reared its ugly head in the public square, as politicians and pundits use fear to win voter confidence while keeping people in their place. Fear mongering encourages us to distrust strangers, scapegoat neighbors, and even act against our own best interest.

Many (if not most of all of us) fall prey to this temptation in our daily lives. If we can’t get our way, we force the situation with an action that gives the other no choice. We demean ourselves to get someone else to say something nice about us and build up our weak egos. We play to the fear and insecurity of the other. We threaten to walk away in order to get others to call us back.

Jesus said no to all of that silliness. He insisted that we should not force the hand of God by putting the Holy One to the test. And if we say we see the face of God in our neighbors, then it follows that we should not force the hand of our neighbor by putting him or her to the test. Rather, Jesus calls us to love our neighbors (nearby and far away), which means standing with them and standing for them when they are facing discrimination, scapegoating and oppression.

In the end, all of the temptations Jesus faced and we face involve taking the easy way out, a form of spiritual laziness and political complicity. Jesus didn’t resist temptation by just saying “no.” Jesus resisted the temptations of convenience, absolute power, and manipulation by digging deep into the roots of his faith, his spiritual ancestors, and his sacred story.

The fact that Jesus was baptized and immediately found himself tempted by the devil is an ever-present reminder that following Jesus is not easy work. It’s hard to be faithful. It’s hard to be a part of the “Jesus Movement.” But, as this text reminds us every year, we are called resist the temptation to look for simple solutions to complex problems, to seek easy answers to complicated questions, or to get our way through fear, shame and manipulation. Rather, we – you and I, each and every one of us, individually and collectively – are called, commissioned and empowered to do the hard work of justice and mercy that will guide us through the wilderness of our time.

Shortly after the presidential election, my former church, Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, hosted an interfaith clergy gathering to talk about the role of the faith community and faith leaders in this new political climate. The guest speaker, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, suggested that we might have to become prophetic like Nathan was to King David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to Hitler and the Third Reich, Martin Luther King was to President Lyndon Johnson, or Desmond Tutu was to the Apartheid government of South Africa. Someone asked what that might look like. Rabbi Rudin responded that it might mean taking courageous action if the line is crossed. One person at the table asked what is the line that can’t be crossed. Rabbi Rudin responded that each of us will have to discern for ourselves what lines that can’t be crossed and what action must be taken. That’s what it means to follow Jesus’ third way.

Friends, I know that this church has experienced some tough time and difficult challenges in recent years. But your mission to proclaim God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation; to live out the good news of God’s kingdom for all people, and to be a healing sign that the things which divide us from each other may be overcome in the oneness of God, is needed now more than ever before.

I’m here today to remind you of your high calling and to encourage you to come together in the name of Christ and begin your third century with renewed dedication and determination to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. May this be your Lenten task.