The Jericho Road sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 10:25-37.
This morning I walked into the sanctuary and the Second Sunday Singers were reaching that climactic moment in “Ancient Words,” with the soaring high notes and the harmonies all layered underneath: “Ancient words that are true, changing me, changing you.” And it made me cry and cry, because it was so beautiful and so right: that’s what we come to church to hear, these ancient words of Scripture that are still so true today and that have the power to really change us.
The problem with the ancient words of the Good Samaritan story is that most of us have heard it so many times, we think we know it and we think we know what it’s about. The first time I wrote this sermon several days ago, I struggled a little bit to find a way to approach this parable differently: to make it as real and challenging and squirmy and uncomfortable for you and me as it was for the first people who heard it.
Then, last night, the not-guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was announced. Suddenly, sadly, finding a present-day parallel to preach about was not such a struggle. And I knew I had to rewrite my sermon this morning, because it would be irresponsible not to.
Last night Walter had a terrible night, none of us got any sleep. This morning when I got a hug from my son and wiped the peanut butter from his hands off my dress, it hit me pretty hard. Suddenly I was very aware that, in Florida, one 17-year-old mother’s son is dead, and another mother’s son is alive and free … but free to do what? Free to live, how?
When Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman met, two strangers who should have been neighbors met on the Jericho Road, two people who had all kinds of societal and cultural reasons to fear and distrust each other, much like the injured man and the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable had all kinds of reasons to fear and distrust each other. But Trayvon and George’s story turned out very differently than Jesus’ parable, and we’re feeling the consequences of that meeting on the road this morning, and we’ll be feeling the consequences of that meeting on the road for a long time, I think.
Trayvon Martin’s lawyer said it’s time for us to have a responsible conversation as a nation about how we can get better, how we can move on from this tragedy and learn something from it. We’re going to start that conversation today.
Let’s start by taking a step back from current events, and take another look at the story Jesus tells the lawyer. It’s a story with a lot going on, even more than you and I might pick up on, but the people listening to Jesus would have heard him say “the road from Jerusalem to Jericho” and they’d immediately know he was talking about, they’d have an image in their mind: the notoriously dangerous road from Jericho to Jerusalem, a place where robbers and bandits thrived, a place you really didn’t want to travel alone.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the Jericho Road often, most famously in his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. In that speech he described traveling that road himself on a visit to the Holy Land and realizing it was the perfect spot for an ambush. And it was. In fact, one of common the ambush tactics in Jesus’ day was that one member of the band of robbers would lie by the side of the road and pretend to be hurt. When someone stopped to help, the rest of the gang would jump out: ambushing, attacking and robbing the person who’d stopped to help. So, the people listening to Jesus would have known that the men who didn’t stop to help the injured man—the priest and the Levite—were just being smart. They were taking reasonable precautions to protect their own lives.
The Samaritan didn’t just stop by the side of the road to help a stranger; he stopped by the side of the road to help a stranger in a “bad neighborhood” when the odds were pretty good that stopping and helping would get him killed.
And who was the Samaritan risking his life for? That’s something Jesus’ audience would have immediately picked up on, too. To put it in terms I heard on the news this morning: there are clearly racial implications to this case. Samaritans and Jews did not trust each other, they did not like each other, they didn’t eat together much less risk their lives for each other. They were enemies.
Now, the problem for us when I put the story in those terms is that I think most of us hear the word “enemy” and start to tune out a little bit. Most of us probably don’t keep a list of enemies, and most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as being the kind of people who have enemies. We all like to think that we are basically open minded, basically tolerant, basically willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. We like to think that other people are racist, but we’re not.
And so if you ask a person, “Who is your version of a Samaritan? Who is your enemy? Who are you afraid of just because of the color of their skin, or place they were born, or the way they live their life?” Confronted with that question, we might come up empty, unless we’re really feeling self aware and introspective that day.
But let’s ask the question a little differently. One of my pastor colleagues in Texas, Michael Coffey, wrote this poem, and I think he asks the question in a way that gets us thinking a little differently: his question is, “Would you?”
“Would you in the rush to capitalize on markets
in the anxiety of getting your life aligned just so
would you stop on the cracked roadside shoulder
where flat tire mishaps become robbery and assault
would you stop and nurse and neighbor me
tend the cuts and gashes to my body and mind
pour the wine of compassion on me as antiseptic
smear the oil of mercy on me to bless and heal
or would you drive by and gape in the traffic slowdown
at the scene of a stranger in blood red calamity
let fear keep your own healing power stopped up
let our modern disconnection and despair keep your
oil and wine from ever touching another life
your hands from ever reaching out beyond your cuffs
never knowing you are the other I fear In my need
you are the one who can break us both open to newness”
The whole poem is powerful and challenging and that repeated refrain of “would you?” should make all of us squirm a little bit. It should make all of us reflect honestly on whether or not we would stop and help as the Samaritan did. Pastor Michael asks us: “would you stop on the cracked roadside shoulder where flat tire mishaps become robbery and assault” and suddenly I think we can imagine that Jericho road a little better, how dangerous it was, and how remarkable and almost unthinkable it was that anyone would stop and help.
Even more powerful, though, are the last two lines of Pastor Michael’s poem: “never knowing you are the other I fear In my need/ you are the one who can break us both open to newness.”
You are the other I fear in my need.
If the injured man had been conscious when the Samaritan found him, he might have been unreservedly glad and grateful for the help, but it’s more likely that he would have had a moment of fear. His first thought might not have been “Someone has come to help me!” His first thought was more likely to have been, “Oh no. A Samaritan. Now I’m really in trouble. He’s come to finish me off.”
If you ask me who my enemy is, who my Samaritan is, I’d have trouble telling you. I don’t think I hate anybody. But if you ask me who I might be afraid of in my moment of need … if I were injured by the side of the road, who would I fear? If I were vulnerable, who would I least want to see walking toward me?
I do have an answer to that.
When Sean and I were living in Houston, Texas, Sean had a terrible one-hour long commute, all of it on the highways, which in Houston are 8 to 16 lanes of wall to wall traffic and super dangerous driving conditions. One day Sean went to work and came down with a terrible case of food poisoning. He got in his car, headed home, and when he got home I picked him up from his apartment and took him to the emergency room.
On our way to the emergency room, Sean told me he’d gotten sick on the drive home and had to pull over on an overpass on the highway. He was so sick he fell to his knees, and then suddenly he was lying on the ground. The last thing he saw before he passed out was a day laborer walking on the side of the highway, walking toward him.
Are any of you nervous for Sean at this point in the story?
I was. I was sitting there with Sean in the car, so I knew it turned out OK, but listening to the story I was scared for him, in part because of the highway and the traffic and passing out on an overpass, but also, if I’m being honest, because of the day laborer.
What would a person living in poverty, a person with no rights in our society, no legal status, what would he do when he encountered an unconscious man in a suit lying on the ground with his cell phone and his wallet fallen at his side?
This particular man kept walking toward Sean, and Sean realized he’d passed out only because the man had been a good distance away and then was suddenly there, kneeling right beside him, handing him the cell phone and wallet he’d dropped on the ground, helping him to his feet. They didn’t exchange any words, but the day laborer checked to make sure Sean was OK, and Sean nodded, got in the car, and kept going home, while the day laborer kept walking on the highway.
I’ve never asked Sean if he was afraid on the road, in part because I was ashamed to admit my own fear: fear that was clearly based in racism, in prejudice, in this very basic, very primal fear we have of people who are different, people who are “other.”
But something in my heart broke open a little bit when Sean told me that story. Sure, I felt ashamed of how I’d initially reacted, and embarrassed of my fear and my assumptions, but I also felt like my fear and assumptions had been shaken up and broken through in a really positive way, in a way that was going to change me and make me better, somehow. Pastor Michael’s poem puts it this way: “you are the other I fear In my need/ you are the one who can break us both open to newness.”
Now, not every encounter with Samaritans, or whoever our equivalent of Samaritans might be, not every encounter with the other breaks us open to newness and breaks down our stereotypes. Obviously. When Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman met on the Jericho Road, nothing new or good happened; something terrible happened.
But you don’t even have to look for an example that serious and tragic. Meetings on the Jericho Road that don’t change our way of thinking and being and going and doing … those kinds of meetings happen all the time.
I remember a very progressive friend in college who’d been in a fender bender and come out of the experience really scared and angry about the reaction of the other person involved in the accident. He’d gotten so angry his face turned purple and he starting screaming so incoherently that the only words she could make out were the curse words. “And, of course,” she concluded, “He had one of those Christian fish symbols on his car. So typical.”
Listening to this story I was pretty offended, and couldn’t understand why she didn’t understand that this guy wasn’t a jerk because he was a Christian, he was a Christian who also happened to be a jerk.
But I think that, for the most part, we go through life collecting stories and collecting data that supports the views we already have. We’re not looking to be surprised, we’re not looking to change our worldview, and we usually don’t. It takes something really powerful, really surprising, really different to break us open to newness.
So, what are we supposed to do? Should we intentionally put ourselves into dangerous situations so that people we’re afraid of can surprise us with their compassion? That seems like a bad idea.
But I do think that when Jesus tells the lawyer to “Go and do likewise,” he is telling all of us that we need to be out there. We need to go and we need to do. We need to have an active faith, a faith that brings us into contact with all kinds of people, people who will occasionally surprise us and break open our assumptions and our prejudices.
We may not meet the Good Samaritan every time we venture out onto the Jericho Road, but if we never venture out, we’ll definitely never meet him, and if we don’t meet him, we lose the opportunity to meet Jesus and to be healed and made better in the process.
The responsible conversations about race and violence and everything else we need to be talking about to make us better as a nation and people, to take a terrible, tragic meeting on the Jericho Road and turn it into something that breaks us open to newness, those conversations need to happen on the road, off the road, in our homes, in our churches, in our schools, in our systems of law and government. But, most of all, those breaking open conversations need to happen between people who don’t trust each other, between people who secretly, or not-so-secretly, fear each other.
And we need Jesus to help us. We need Jesus to help us be better neighbors. We need Jesus to help us realize that we’re not good neighbors right now, and we need help.
Imagine if you were in the fender bender with my college friend who thought Christians are all jerks. Could you, would you be the one who changes her view, who begins to break her open to newness, to the awareness of her own prejudice and fear and to the possibility of a different way of relating to and understanding the other?
I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s possible without God’s help.
So let’s pray for that today, and every day:
God, we are afraid of each other in ways we don’t even realize. We are afraid of each other in ways that lead to prejudice, ignorance, and even violence. Teach us not to be afraid. Show us how to look past our fear and see each other as your children. God, we pray for Trayvon Martin’s family, and we pray for George Zimmerman and his family, and we pray for everyone impacted by what happened when they met on the Jericho road. Help us have responsible conversations, help all of us get better and learn, help us be broken open to newness by your surprising, amazing grace. Amen.
Well, here we are again: suddenly right back in the middle of squirming season. Squirming season, as you might remember from earlier this year, is anytime of the church year when we get a bunch of really challenging scripture texts: texts that make us squirm with discomfort as we hear harsh words from our loving Lord, and as we realize all the ways we fall short of Christ’s basic commandment to love and serve God and to love and serve our neighbors. Good times.
For the past handful of Sundays we’ve heard wonderful words about comfort and healing. And now, for the next handful of Sundays, we’re going to hear about discipleship. And anytime Jesus talks about discipleship, he gets a little harsh.
His approach to recruiting and motivating disciples seems a little strange at times, especially in our Gospel reading for today. The reading starts with Jesus rebuking his loyal followers and then sternly turning away three people who seem ready and willing to join him.
The first perspective recruit volunteers himself, saying: “I will follow you wherever you go.” “Yeah, right.” Jesus seems to say. “You have no idea what you’re volunteering for. Even animals have places to take shelter at night. But I am truly homeless. I have no place to rest, no place to call home.” Very inviting, right?
The next prospect is one that Jesus chooses from the crowd, saying to him, “Follow me.” The would-be disciple agrees right away, and says he’ll join Jesus as soon as he’s tended to the burial of his father. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus. What does that even mean? That doesn’t make any sense at all.
Finally, there is one last volunteer, a possible disciple who says he will leave everything to follow Jesus: his home, his family, his livelihood, everything, as soon as he takes a moment to say goodbye to his family. For this man, Jesus has the harshest response of all, saying that looking back and saying goodbye to his life makes him not only unfit to be a disciple, but unfit for the kingdom of God. Ouch. Contrast that with Elijah’s response to Elisha, when the new prophet turns from his plow and asks for permission to kiss his mother and father. “Of course!” Elijah says. “I feel terrible about what I’m asking you to do. Go home, kiss your parents, and feed your neighborhood before you take on this difficult work.”
What I find most upsetting about the Gospel text today is that I can’t imagine myself doing or saying any different than these three rejected disciples. Honestly, I can’t imagine myself volunteering to leave my husband, my children and my work to become a homeless wanderer, much less agreeing to leave without saying goodbye, or without tending to the basic needs of my family.
I believe with all my heart that the love we have for our families comes from God, whether those families be immediate or extended, biological or adopted or chosen, and that love for each other is one of God’s greatest gifts. I saw that love in action this week at Joanne Eddy’s funeral, as we gathered here at Redeemer to remember a beloved mom, grandma, great-grandma and friend, and to commend her to God’s eternal love and care.
We need that. We need to make those connections, to make meaning out of life and death, and to make that meaning in community with people we love. And God knows that about us because God created us to be that way, God created us to need each other, to live in community.
So why would God challenge that sense of community, and why would Jesus want to make it seem like following him means separating ourselves from everything we love?
I think the answer is that Jesus doesn’t want us to get too comfortable. Jesus doesn’t want us to fall into the trap of turning the people we love into our gods. That kind of idolatry is the one I’m most likely to fall into, honestly, and it’s not a good thing. You may think that being devoted to family can’t be that bad a sin … like, here’s murder … here’s loving your family too much … seems like that shouldn’t be weighed equally, right? But worshipping family, putting family in the spot where God should be, that’s not a healthy thing to do. No human relationship can bear the burden and strain of being made into a god. It’s not good for the people you and I love and it’s not good for us, either. So Jesus deliberately makes us uncomfortable to get our attention and to make us question our priorities.
A powerful example of this came up for me this week when the Supreme Court threw out parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, and allowed a lower-court ruling to overturn Proposition 8 in California. Both of these decisions were huge victories for same sex couples in committed relationships, and that makes it victory for me and my family, too.
As you might remember, Walter and I got to go out to my Aunt Jan’s wedding this past November. Jan and her wife Kim were in a committed relationship for 15 years, when a change in New York state law allowed them to make that commitment official as a marriage. Now, Jan and Kim’s marriage will be recognized by federal law, as well, and that’s a big deal for them, and it’s a big deal for all of us who love them.
And I wasn’t sure I should bring it up at all, today, because talking honestly and openly like this about such a personal issue makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it makes some of you uncomfortable, too. I’m uncomfortable talking about it because I know that people I care about and respect disagree with me on this issue, and don’t feel the court’s rulings were a good thing, and that’s uncomfortable for me because it’s fairly impossible for me to separate my personal experience from the issue. Don’t get me wrong, I can give all kinds of arguments to support my views based on reason, Lutheran theology, and Scripture, but when it comes down to it, it’s hard not to think, “If you only knew the people I know, if only you could experience this the way I have.”
And I think that’s true for any major ideological divide. It is possible to have civil, respectful, even meaningful conversations with people we disagree with, but it’s ultimately really uncomfortable when you realize that there’s still this gap, this major difference between you and someone else.
And that’s what Jesus calls us to do. Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, to explore the gaps between you and me, to live into those uncomfortable conversations and even to seek them out, because if we’re only talking to and caring about the people we feel totally comfortable with, we’re not loving and serving God or our neighbors. If we’re only surrounding ourselves with people we agree with, we’re not being disciples.
The fact that Jesus is homeless—the fact that Jesus was born homeless, spent his childhood as an exile and refugee, and spent his ministry choosing to be homeless—that should make us uncomfortable. That should make us question all kinds of things about our comfortable lives and what it would look like to truly offer hospitality to the homeless, to exiles, to immigrants and refugees.
The fact that poverty and homelessness is on the rise in Portage County, and that it disproportionately impacts women, children and youth, that should make us uncomfortable. And, ultimately, it should make us so uncomfortable that we have to act, we have to do something about it. We have to turn our discomfort into discipleship.
This year, the children and youth involved in Vacation Bible School will focus both on water justice and on Project Fresh Start, which is a local effort to provide backpacks and school supplies to children living in poverty in our community. Both projects are a real way for kids to help kids and to make a difference, locally and internationally. But that doesn’t mean that we should get comfortable again and say, “Ok, we’ve helped. We’re done.” That’s not really Redeemer’s style … I’m not really worried about that … but if it ever does happen, if we ever do get complacent, here comes Jesus again: ready to challenge us, to make us squirm, to make us face the truths that make us most uncomfortable, and turn that discomfort into discipleship again and again and again.
This how we know that Jesus is calling us, this is how we know that Jesus is trying to get our attention. If you are uncomfortable, if you’re angry and defensive and confused, you can be sure that Jesus is calling you to be a disciple. It’s not an entirely pleasant recruiting method, but it works, and it’ll take you all kinds of places, and get you talking to all kinds of people way outside your comfort zone. It’ll give you an opportunity to meet God in your neighbor in ways you never could have expected.
So let’s pray: God, make us disciples, even if it means making us uncomfortable. Show us how to love and serve you and our neighbors through that discomfort. Show us how to turn our discomfort into discipleship, and surprise us at every step along the way. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
“Extraordinary and Extravagant” sermon for Sunday, June 16, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 7:36–8:3.
Father’s Day isn’t a church holiday, but like Mother’s Day, it’s a holiday that happens on Sunday, and it was probably on our minds as we came to church this morning. Like Mother’s Day, too, Father’s Day is a day when people experience a whole range of emotions: some are feeling sad and missing fathers, grandfathers and father figures who have died, or children who have died. Others are feeling grateful for fathers, and grateful for being fathers, and maybe even the joy that comes from celebrating your very first Father’s day as a new dad. Some may be feeling angry because of fathers who were absent, or abusive. Some may feel a sense of loss because of not being a dad, or because becoming a dad is proving to be really difficult. And many of us are probably feeling some combination of these and other emotions all at once.
These secular holidays can pack quite an emotional punch, because there’s nothing simple and Hallmark-y, really, about parenthood, and everything involved in having parents or being parents. I say that as a person who has an extraordinarily wonderful dad. Really wonderful, not Hallmark-y wonderful. He’s a real person, and real people are complicated. He’s a real parent, and real parents aren’t perfect.
On Father’s Day, though, I think about what makes my dad extraordinary. And because I’m seven months pregnant, I’ve been thinking about how, last time I was seven months pregnant, I ended up in the hospital, and then on bedrest for a week. Sean was out of town and my dad drove up and took care of me that week. I slept pretty much the whole time, waking up occasionally to eat the food my dad prepared for me. When I woke up and looked around, he’d cleaned the entire house. It was extraordinary care, extravagant care, and way beyond what was merely necessary.
Very early this Saturday morning, my son Walter woke up sad and not feeling very well. His dad, my husband Sean, went down to his room, and over the monitor I listened as Sean gave him some medicine, and then comforted our boy by singing song after song, holding Walter close and rocking him until he relaxed and started to feel better. It was extraordinary care, extravagant care, and way beyond what was merely necessary.
Think of a time someone cared for you that way. Think of a time someone went beyond what was merely necessary and gave you extraordinary, extravagant care.
Maybe it came from your father, or from the father of your children, or from a grandfather, or from someone who was like a father to you.
Maybe it came from someone really unexpected, someone you didn’t think you’d receive care from, someone who shocked you with the depth of their caring.
Jesus received that kind of care from the woman in our Gospel lesson today. She’s not named, and she’s described as a sinner. She comes to the Pharisees house, uninvited, and proceeds to wash Jesus’ feet with her own tears. Then she dries Jesus’ feet with her own hair, and then she anoints his feet, with ointment that probably cost a lot of money and probably felt so, so good on Jesus’ sore feet. And probably smelled nice, too. It was an act of extraordinary, extravagant care, way beyond what was merely necessary.
And it was so extravagant and extraordinary that it shocked and offended Jesus’ host. Here’s this woman, a sinner, making this big scene in his dining room. And Jesus is just letting it happen, he’s letting her touch him. How embarrassing.
When the Pharisee confronts Jesus, Jesus confronts him right back and reminds his host that the hospitality he’d received from him never went beyond the merely necessary. There was nothing extraordinary or extravagant about it. The Pharisee didn’t give extravagantly to Jesus because the Pharisee didn’t expect anything extravagant from Jesus. The Pharisee had no extraordinary need. He was just fine, thank you very much.
Turning his attention back to the woman, Jesus does something extraordinary and extravagant himself. He forgives her sins. Now everyone in the room is shocked. That just wasn’t done, not like that. What right did this man Jesus have to forgive sins? What authority? And why even bother doing something so extraordinary and extravagant when a simple “Thank you” to her would have been sufficient?
The answer and the truth is that God’s love is always extraordinary and extravagant. God’s love is always more than what is merely needed.
That person you thought about earlier who gave you extraordinary and extravagant care, whether that person was a father or not, through that person you experienced the extraordinary, extravagant love of our Father God. You received the gift that Jesus received from the sinful woman who bathed and anointed his feet. You received the gift of grace that Jesus gave that woman when he forgave her sins.
Today you have the opportunity to receive the gift of anointing for healing. This is a practice that comes to us from the earliest days of the church, and it’s rooted in stories like the one we heard today:the anointing of Jesus’ feet, and the healing and forgiveness he gives to the woman. Anointing is an act of extravagant, extraordinary care because oil is expensive and it smells and feels really nice, and you don’t absolutely need it to live. It’s beyond merely necessary. The gentle touch you receive as the sign of the cross is drawn on your forehead, the reminder of your baptism, the simple but beautiful words that are spoken to each person who comes forward, “Receive this oil as a sign of forgiveness and healing in Jesus Christ.” None of this is required, and you certainly aren’t required to receive the anointing today.
But if you are feeling sick in body, mind or spirit, and if you are feeling in need of healing and forgiveness, I invite you come back to where I’ll be standing at the kneeler after you receive communion and either stand or kneel and receive the oil and those simple words of prayer.
The healing you receive will probably not be immediately obvious and dramatic. But I do believe that God is at work to heal each one of us, in extraordinary, real ways. And God extravagantly, shockingly, forgives all of our sins.
May God’s grace, which goes way beyond what is merely needed, fill your body and spirit with healing and peace today. And may God our heavenly Father shock and surprise you with the abundance of his love. Amen.
“Always Being Made New” sermon for Sunday, June 9, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. This sermon followed Dorothy T’s report on the 2013 Synod Assembly and Bishop Hanson’s video message from the assembly (video can be viewed above.) Today’s texts: 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the ELCA and our theme for the year is Always Being Made New. The scripture verse for the theme is 2 Corinthians 5:17 : “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
But I also see echoes of the theme of being made new in the two lessons we heard this morning. Two stories of sons being brought back from death into life.
Stories of Jesus and others bringing people back from the dead always used to bother me, because it made me wonder why God couldn’t bring back the people I love who have died. Why couldn’t God give me back my grandparents, or my cousin, who took his own life when he was so young, or the baby I miscarried before we had Walter. Why can Elijah bring back a widow’s son, and Jesus bring back a widow’s son, but no one today can bring back the sons and daughters of so many mourning parents. Why those sons, and not our sons?
I struggled with these resurrection stories until someone pointed out to me that everyone who gets brought back to life in the Bible—Lazarus, Tabitha, Jairus’ daughter, both of the widow’s sons we read about today—all of those people came back to life and eventually died again. They got sick, or they died suddenly, and their families mourned and missed them. And, just like the rest of us will someday, they rest in peace with God and wait for the last day, their true resurrection day when heaven and earth and everything will be made new, forever.
Realizing this about those widows sons has helped me think of them as people who got an extraordinary second chance at life. A chance to begin again, to be made new, in this life. And when you think of it that way, it’s a little easier for us to relate to. Because we all know people who have been given extraordinary second chances at life.
We know people who have gotten a terrible diagnosis and a prognosis of a very short time to live, and yet, they’ve lived much longer than anyone would have expected, and made the most of that precious gift of unexpected time. (I am a living example of this!)
We know people who we thought were hopeless cases, because they were too far gone with drugs or alcohol or criminal behavior and we thought, “They can never change.” And then they do change, and their lives are made new.
We know that people around the world who are living with HIV, when they have access to basic lifesaving medication, come back to life in a way that can only be described as a resurrection. Flesh comes back to bone, color comes back to skin, breath comes back to their bodies, you can actually see them come back to life and live fully and in good health for many more years.
We know that these extraordinary resurrections are happening every day. And, the more you think about it, the more you realize it’s not just happening to people you know who have remarkable second chance stories, it’s happening to you.
It’s happening to you because you were baptized, and every day you are made new in that baptism, every day is your extraordinary resurrection, your chance to live fully not just in the next life, but in this life. Because you are baptized and set free from sin and death, you can live like those widows sons, you can live like people who have a second chance to live and are going to make the most of every minute of it.
Dorothy asked you today, “Why do you come to church?” I come to church because this is where I feel most made new, and with you is where I feel most resurrected. They say that every Sunday is a little celebration of Easter, and I think that’s true … I know I’m made new in my baptism every day. But it’s on these days when we gather together in community that I am most keenly aware of what a gift it is to be alive, and what a joy it is to spend this life serving God alongside all of you.
I come to church to be resurrected, to be made new. And even on the most ordinary Sunday, it’s an extraordinary thing. May God, who is working in extraordinary ways right now, to give you newness of life and to use you to bring new life to others, bless you and give you energy and hope. Amen.
“Hope Does Not Disappoint Us” sermon for Sunday, May 26, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 7:1-10.
When my husband Sean and I got engaged, lo these many nine years ago, I started trying to learn my way around the Catholic Mass. You might think it would be easy, because our Lutheran worship service is based directly on the Catholic Mass, and isn’t really very different at all. But part of what made it so hard was that it was just different enough so that every time I let down my guard and thought “Hey, I know this prayer!” I’d miss the subtle wording differences and be right back where I started, the obvious outsider.
And, at least in the Catholic churches I’ve visited, outsiders are pretty obvious. We’re the only ones who don’t know everything by memory … the words, the gestures, when to sit and stand and kneel. We’re the only ones trying to fumble our way through the missal, which is impossible to use, frankly, and just makes things worse.
Can you tell that this still frustrates me?
It’s been nine years, and I still get upset when I think about how alienated I felt and honestly, still feel and maybe always will feel when I go to mass with Sean’s family.
If you’ve never felt alienated and angry in church before, I highly recommend it. Like we talked about last week … it’s character building! And it changes the way you think and feel and understand hospitality in worship. You begin to understand what visitors to any church usually feel, including this congregation, the first time they take the brave step of coming to worship and find all these people doing and saying all this strange stuff and everyone knows what to say or do … except them.
It’s not a fun feeling, and you really have to be a committed sort of person to get over that first alienating experience and come back for more. Or, maybe you experience something or someone in worship that is so welcoming that it gives you the courage to try again. Something for us to think about here at Redeemer, to be sure.
I keep trying with the Catholic Mass because I love my husband and because I’m stubborn. And because, truly, the greatest impediment to my learning is my own bad attitude. That bad attitude is rooted in my own sense of hurt and loss every time we get to Holy Communion and I’m not allowed to go up and receive the meal. I stay and sing in the pew, with Sean, and every once and awhile I have the grace and good sense and perspective to remember that Sean’s hurt and loss at that moment is profoundly deeper than my own, because he has lost his access to sharing Communion with his family.
Nine years later, that part hasn’t gotten any easier.
But there is a part of the Catholic Mass, a prayer before Communion that we don’t have at all in our liturgy, which is too bad. That prayer always brings me a sense of peace: the congregation says, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I will be healed.” Actually, that’s what the congregation always said until two years ago, when the wording of the mass changed and that prayer changed to this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
I like the previous version better, mostly because it’s one of the only parts I had memorized, but I appreciate that the new version makes a more direct connection to our Gospel reading today.
Both prayers accomplish the same thing, I think: it reminds the worshiping congregation of our human limitations and also of God’s power to overcome those limitations. Suddenly, with that prayer, we’re all on the same level: the lifelong Catholics and the obvious outsiders united in our desperate need for grace. We are not worthy, we cannot make ourselves worthy on our own. No matter how hard I try to learn the right words, to memorize the gestures, to make every honest effort to be my very best self, I will fail, I will fall short.
But God doesn’t fail. And God can heal me, and you and all of creation … even with just a word, God can make us worthy and whole.
Just a word … only say the word. The power of that statement didn’t hit me until I started trying to think of examples of being healed just by words from my own life and experience. Can you think of any from your life? A time when you were healed just by a word, not by anything else, not by a touch, or an act of kindness, or a comforting presence. Just a word.
I could only think of one, and I spent a lot of time thinking about it. The truth is that words are incredibly powerful but their power is unwieldy. Even people who pride themselves on being good with words find that words fall short at the most crucial times in our lives: when the depth of our joy or our sorrow becomes inarticulate, too much for words to express.
The authors of our Hebrew and Christian scriptures knew that: they had a healthy respect for the power of words and for all the ways humans fall short in harnessing that power. That’s why in the first creation story God creates everything with words: “God said, let there be light, and there was light, and it was good.” God said, let there be … and it was so … and it was good. God creates everything with just words, nothing else. And the Gospel of John picks up on this, beginning with that story of creation, and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God.” The Gospel writer tells us, right from the start, that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s most awesome power: the power to create, to destroy, to heal and to forgive with just a word.
“But only speak the word,” said the centurion, “and let my servant be healed.”
If you’ve ever tried to comfort someone after they’ve experienced a tragic loss, you know that healing with words is hard to do. If you’ve ever sought comfort in words after a loss of your own, you know that words fall short and miss the mark more than often than they help. You can imagine that people in Oklahoma who have been through two tornadoes in less than two weeks are pretty much beyond words, at this point.
But the thing to remember about the Word of God is that the Word of God is Jesus, and the Word of God has the power to do anything, to heal anything to bring comfort and love and forgiveness to anyone and any situation.
Because the Word of God is Jesus, the Word of God is present and active wherever the Body of Christ is, so, wherever we are. You and me with our fumbling for the right words, and sometimes our silence, and often in our need to do something, to offer some kind of practical help when it seems like words just aren’t enough.
So, in a couple of weeks I’ll be worshipping with Sean and his family at the New Jersey shore, at this great Catholic church that, after nine years, almost feels like home-away-from-home. It’s a congregation where people sing, really sing, and really participate in worship, and that always makes me feel like I’ve been in the presence of something holy. And as the time approaches for Holy Communion, I’ll probably get sad and a little angry, and wish that the priest would say, as we do here at Redeemer, that this is the Lord’s table and that means all are truly welcome. One bread, one body, all brothers and sisters in Christ.
But even in that moment where the brokenness of the church meets my own brokenness, my own unworthiness and sinfulness, my own deep need for healing, I’ll be looking forward to saying these words along with the whole congregation: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
May God, who is greater and more powerful than our human limitations and our human need give your body and soul the healing you are longing for, through the Word, through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.