Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lent 3 - Year A

NB: With some exegetical help from Willimon

In some church growth literature, scholars identify what they call the “homogeneity principle.” Simply put, this means that churches attract folks just like themselves. Ethnically, economically, socially, politically, educationally. The theory says that churches need to reach out to folks just like themselves.

So, if you’re a white middle class, professional with a university degree, you should reach out to other white, middle class professionals with university degrees. If you’re a farmer who loves getting his hands dirty, then you should reach out to the same.

It makes sense when you think about it. We like to around people just like us. That’s often how we organize ourselves. Especially as churches.

This church has a Norwegian history. The first time I scanned the church directory I was a little intimidated by the Scandinavian names. Tall and blonde I am not. I didn’t find it all that helpful when it was noted to me that, 30 years ago, this congregation would never have called a pastor named “Kevin George Powell.” A name that conjures up the smell of fish-and-chips and stout, rather than lutefisk, lefsa, and chewy coffee.

So, the history of this congregation proves these theories correct. Or at least it used to. But something happened along the way for you to invite this eastern, Anglo-Saxon to serve as your pastor. Something happened along the way that made you broaden who you welcomed through your doors.

You did something the church growth theorists didn’t think of. I think you read today’s gospel and took it seriously.

Today’s gospel is the story of Jesus and an outsider- a Samaritan woman. She is an outsider on a few counts. For starters, the phrase “Good Samaritan” was an oxymoron. Samaritans were heretics. Dangerous renegades. Outside the realm of respectable religion.

Plus, she’s a woman. No rights under the law. She was her husband’s property. He could do whatever he wanted with her and to her. And from her conversation with Jesus, it was clear he did. A lot of men did.

And since her people rejected her because her husband left her and she was forced to shack up with someone else simply to feed herself and her kids.

She wasn’t “pure” according to someone else’s standards. And she had no way of becoming what was being demanded of her.

That’s why she’s at the well at noon. The hottest part of the day. The other women wouldn’t let her join them on their morning water run.

Or maybe she thought she wasn’t worthy of going with the other women to collect the water. She knew that EVERYONE knew what her life was like. And maybe she just didn’t want be hassled.

So, she had to go when the coast was clear, when she wouldn’t run into her neighbours. She had to get her water at the absolute worst part of the day.

This woman couldn’t worship in the Temple or attend synagogue, even if she wanted to. But after the way she was treated, there’s little wonder why church wasn’t on her radar screen.

She’s the very embodiment of the outsider.

If you were here last week, you met Nicodemus. The ultimate insider. He was smart and well-connected. He had proper credentials and came from the right family. He wasn’t rich but he certainly wasn’t starving. He had a good job. People admired him, or at least his position.

Nicodemus searches Jesus out at night so no one he knows will see him. Jesus goes to the woman at the well when the sun couldn’t be any brighter.

Nicodemus peppers Jesus with questions. At the well, Jesus is the one who does most of the talking.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ends inconclusively. After Jesus is finished with the woman at the well, her life is never the same again, and she runs home to tell everyone about the man “who told me everything I ever did!”

So, what we have these two weeks are two very different encounters with Jesus. One, the ultimate insider, and the other, the definitive outsider.

John likes to stack these kinds of stories. John likes contrasts. John has a black-or-white, us-or-them attitude. John knows that Jesus has better luck with outsiders than insiders. And he likes to tell those stories.

And I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that ALL the gospels are prejudiced toward outsiders. Luke, for example, seems obsessed with poor folks. Matthew can’t stop telling stories about alienated Jews being reconciled with other Jews through Jesus’ ministry. Mark seems to be openly hostile toward anyone with an education. And John just wants to chuck the whole Jewish thing and start something new. At least that what it sounds like.

In all four gospels Jesus got in trouble for talking to the wrong kinds of people. He spent too much time with folks who weren’t members of the church. Who probably were NEVER going to be members. At least not in any traditional way. Folks who were uncommitted, unreliable, uninformed, uneducated. Folks who didn’t have a hope in Hades of becoming respectable church folks. “This man welcomes sinners!” was the great gospel charge against Jesus.

“The Son of Man came to save and seek the lost,” Jesus would reply. And would go about his business.

Heather Veitch started a ministry called “JC’s Girls Girls Girls.” Three guesses who they minister to. Veitch, a former stripper, came to faith in Jesus and she decided that God was calling her to minister to strippers still in the trade. She calls herself “The Pussycat Preacher.”

So, she and a group of other women go into strip clubs and ask for “private dances,” paying the usual fee.

"I don't really want you to dance for me” Veitch tells them in a private area. “We're just here because we love you girls and we want you to know that there's a God out there who loves you, too"

"I can’t believe that girls like you would come to a place like this to tell us about God," one dancer said.

"There's nothing you've ever done that's so bad that God would not forgive you," Veitch replied.

[The dancer’s eyes] instantly welled up with tears, and she said, "Thank you so much. I keep feeling like I want to go into church, but I feel like I'm going to be zapped with a lightening bolt if someone like me tries to go.”

Veitch told her, "Absolutely not. There is nobody in that church who is better than you are. God wants you as much as God wants anybody."

Then Veitch asked if she could pray for her, and the dancer said, "Please, pray for me." They took hands, and prayed that she would remember this moment in time when God came to her right where she was —and that God would protect her, because she's in a dangerous job. That was really it. It was very simple and short—the length of one song. About three minutes.

She figured that Jesus would do the same thing. This is the woman at the well all over.

But she receives flack from fine, upstanding, church people. Nasty emails from pastors and other Christians flood her inbox. But she remains undeterred.

“Most Christians know that Jesus spent time with prostitutes and tax collectors because that is where the Word was needed. But believing the ideal is one thing and living the reality is another,” she admits.

Some people are more interested in being good, respectable, church folks, than living as Christians.

I think that God wants churches to be the SAFEST places on earth, where we share our true selves. Where outsiders are received as family. Where our life together reflects the mercy and grace that we’ve been given.

Our ministries don’t have to be as high-octane as reaching out to sex-trade workers. But God is still calling us to minister to outsiders, wherever they are and wherever you are. It could be the classmate who eats lunch alone. The co-worker whose been given the nasty nickname. The guy who pushes his shopping cart filled with stray bottles and cans by your house every afternoon. We don’t have to look far for outsiders when we have eyes to see them.

I think God is doing something with our church. I’m thinking of all the new and creative ministries that people are dreaming about, the desire for greater hospitality, the expressed need to go deeper in intimacy and fellowship with one another, and bringing more people into our church family, no matter where they come from. These are all hopeful signs that God is active and alive within and among us.

That doesn’t mean we don’t fail or won’t fail from time to time. Over the past few months we’ve dropped the hospitality ball a couple times. We haven’t been as graciously welcoming as we or God want us to be.

But that’s when God picks us up, cleans us off, bandages us up, and sends us back into the game. That’s when Jesus gives us a cup of living water.

So, wherever you find yourself this Sunday morning, whether insider or outsider, we know that today’s gospel is a reminder that Jesus has found you. He calls you. And YOU become US. I think God is helping US to become better Christians – together.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ash Wednesday

“Remember, from dust you came, to dust you will return.”

When you leave here, how long do you keep the ashes on your forehead? Are they gone, washed off with a damp Kleenex as soon as you reach your car? Maybe there’s no milk in the fridge and you have to stop at the Superstore on the way home. The last thing you need is for some well-meaning, but uninitiated cashier whisper earnestly, “Um, excuse me, but you have a little smudge on your forehead.”

How do you answer him? Do you say, “I just came from church, this is what we do on Ash Wednesday.”?

Or do you say, “This isn’t dirt. This is ash. It’s is to remind me that I came from dust, and I will return to dust.”

Such declarations or honest confessions don’t usually walk the aisles of the grocery store. Milk and mortality don’t normally mix in the easy marketplace small talk. It’s simpler just to smile, pay for your groceries, and move on.

If I do my job right, the cashier might notice that the little smudge looks like a plus sign, or an X. Someone might even recognize it as a cross. After all, there is some cultural memory left when Christians – mainly those dour Roman Catholics of ages past – smudged an ashen cross on their forehead and remembered they were dust.

But maybe you’re not going to the grocery store. Maybe you’re heading to the hospital. A co-worker had an operation and you’re just going to pop for a minute to see how she’s doing. But that damp Kleenex doesn’t do the job, and you still have a black smear on your forehead. You think about not going in because the smudge on the top of your head has spread across your brow, and you look like a coal miner who forgot his mirror by the canary cage.

But you’ll be quick – in and out – then home in time for Survivor.
The door to her room is closed. The family has gathered around the bed and they speak in hushed tones. Boxes of opened Kleenex boxes are scattered around the room. Soft, stifled whimpers spill out from between loved ones. And you know something is wrong.

“There was a problem during the operation,” her husband tells you, wiping away a tear. “We don’t know if she’s going to make it.”

You offer your condolences and promise that you’ll keep them in your prayers.

But as you leave, her daughter asks, “What’s that black stain across your forehead?”

What do you say? What CAN you say?

If you say, “This is ash. It’s is to remind me that I came from dust, and I will return to dust,” you might as well be pointing to the bed while you’re saying it. And you know that that is NOT the message this family wants to hear.

They need comfort. That black stain screams death.

They need reassurance. You are a billboard for mortality.

They need hope. Those ashes remind them of the inevitable.

So what DO you say?

Do you explain the ashes away, saying that this is just a church thing, a quiet, meaningless, ritual that begins the Lenten season? Do you deflect the question because you know the answers are simply too real and too raw given that situation?

Or do you let the ashes speak for themselves? A silent proclamation of the faith that’s marked on your body.

Do you let the ashes say: Yes, I will die some day Yes, I will roll around in the dust in an act of repentance and remembering and confidence. Yes, I will be mortal; I will trust God, because I can’t find my own way into eternity.

Do you let the ashes say all that?

That's the hard part, isn’t it? Explaining why we do what we do; remembering that the One who has delivered us from death knows that we are still dust. That the cross inscribed upon us is not just about Ash Wednesday. It points back to the sign marked upon us in our baptism, when we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” when us were drowned out of our first life and reborn into new and everlasting life. And yet we who have been re-born, come here to be marked with the cross that reminds us that we are but dust.

So we will leave this space marked with our own funerals. And yet, this baptized life, this mark of the sign of our own first death, marks us as dying into a life made new- when Jesus hung on that cross.

Open my lips, O Lord, the psalmist cries out,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
but you take no delight in burnt offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Yes, we pray, please Lord, open our lips, because without your help, we would not know how to proclaim your praise. Without your help we would not know how to live with our mortality. Without your help we would not have the promise of salvation. (Elizabeth Huwiler)

These 40 days our troubled spirits, our broken and contrite hearts, are what we offer our God, and we follow our Saviour to Jerusalem, where we die with him as he dies our death.

So try as we might. We can never wash the ashes from our forehead. They stubbornly refuse to be wiped clean. Only though the waters of life given to us in baptism is the stain of death removed.

In the meantime, I think I’ll leave my ashes on my forehead for the world to see. That will be my proclamation. The ashes will point to the one who takes us small handfuls of dust and creates something new and everlasting.