Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014, Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: John 4:5-42.
or right-click to download the MP3.
There are these very short, very popular quizzes all over facebook. They come from sites like buzzfeed. If you’re on facebook, you’ve seen them and probably taken at least one of them. Some of the ones I’ve taken, you could sort of maybe argue they’re related to my job: which of Jesus’ disciples are you, which medieval theologian are you, which woman of the Bible are you. There are other more general ones like: where should you live, what should your career be, what decade do you really belong in. I like the more obscure ones, like which Star Trek the Next Generation Character are you, which Muppet are you, or which classic Liz Lemon favorite food are you.
For the record, I am a cupcake sandwich.
Some people don’t like these quizzes because they are silly and totally unscientific and a waste of time. To them I say, yes. Exactly. Sometimes a person needs a brain break, and the sillier and less edifying, the better.
Facebook make taking and sharing these silly quizzes very easy, and it’s fun to see what friends get and compare their results to yours. For example, E. H. and I are both tubas who really belong in the 1950’s, but for which US President are you we parted ways.
People frequently comment on their own results by saying, “Yes!” “Exactly.” “This is totally me.” “This is true.” Or … “well, that’s a surprise.” Or, “this isn’t me at all.” Or, “I think this quiz is malfunctioning.”
I think the appeal of these quizzes is clear. It’s a silly waste of time, it’s pure fun and entertainment with no other value whatsoever. The quizzes are fast paced and funny and over so quickly and you get the immediate gratification of a result.
And I don’t want to make too much out of a silly thing, but I think there is something else going on, something else that explains the how popular these things are, and that is that these quizzes speak to and feed into our human desire to be known.
We want people to know who we are. We want people to know who we really are. We want people to know who we really are and to like us for it.
There’s something thrilling about answering a set of seemingly random questions and getting a result that seems to fit so perfectly, that seems like a perfect little representation of me. It affirms the stories we tell about ourselves, and when we share it we’re seeking further affirmation from our friends and family that yes, this is true, this is who you are. You are like Time News Roman Font—classy and timeless. You belong in Paris because you’re a romantic who loves art and fresh bread. You get the idea.
Even if you’ve never taken one of these quizzes … even if you’ve never checked your horoscope on the placemat of the Chinese restaurant … even if you’ve never taken the Myers Briggs and have no idea what I’m talking about when I say I’m an INFJ. Even if you don’t go in for this kind of silliness at all, I am guessing that you, too, have experienced some of that human need to be known, really known, for who you really are, and to be liked, to be loved, for who you really are.
I believe that human need is at the heart of the story H. brought to life for us this morning. A woman goes to the well during the hottest part of the day, hoping not to meet anyone who might be there to gossip about her. She meets a Jewish man who does the very odd thing of talking to her and asking for a drink of water. She’s curious and a little suspicious … who is this guy? Doesn’t he know the rules?
And then he reveals that he knows her. He already knows her story. He knows that she’s been married five times and is currently living with a man outside of marriage. He knows who she is and why she’s at the well in the noon day heat. He knows all about her, and he talks to her anyway. More than that, he offers her living water, a taste of eternal life and redemption and forgiveness.
When I was younger I never understood why the woman was so excited about Jesus knowing about her husband situation. I mean, here he is, offering her salvation, and her big takeaway message is, “Come and meet the man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” You know, a good fortune teller could do that, too. A good online quiz can do that. This is JESUS we’re talking about, the Messiah. Is it really that important that he knows her romantic history? Isn’t that kind of a shallow thing for her to focus on?
We’ll, it is and isn’t. Our obsession with ourselves and our need to be known can manifest itself in shallow, self-indulgent ways, to be sure. But the human desire to be known runs deep. And the human desire to be loved is real. And that’s the form that the living water takes for this Samaritan woman.
Jesus saves her by showing her that he knows her and her story, all of it, and loves her anyway. He’s not offering her salvation because he doesn’t know any better. He’s offering her salvation because he knows who she is, who she really is, and that promise of salvation is for her.
On our congregation prayer list this week is a member of the congregation, B., who had a really bad fall and will have a long and painful recovery ahead of him. I went to visit him at the hospital on Thursday we had this awesome conversation about the nature of religion, life, the universe, everything. And he asked me, “Pastor, what was your eureka moment. Your eureka faith moment?”
And it didn’t even take me a moment to know what it was. It was the Good Friday service after my grandma died. I was 11 years old. I stood in the middle of the congregation I grew up in and we sang “Were you There” a cappella, without any musical instruments, in complete and total darkness. I listened to the voices of my congregation and started picking out individual voices from the whole … There was the voice of one of the pillars of the church, he was bossy and I don’t think he liked me very much. There was the voice of my Sunday School teacher, who was such a mentor to me. There was my mom’s confident soprano and my dad’s quieter, but still very beautiful baritone. There were people who always stopped me and asked me how school was going. And older ladies who told me I should be a pastor when I grew up because I did such a nice job reading the lessons. There were people I knew by name and people I only knew in passing, people who had known me for years and others I’d just met, people who thought I was wonderful and people who thought I was kind of a precocious little pain-in-the-neck.
But what I heard as I was listening to the voice of my congregation that night were the voices of people who knew me and loved me anyway. The collective voice of my congregation that night was the voice of God, and it was saying, “I know everything you’ve ever done. I know the real you. Come, this living water is for you. Salvation, and love, and forgiveness, this is for you. Just as you are.”
You’ve heard me preach this before, this idea that God knows who we really are and loves us anyway. And it may seem kind of obvious, and not like such a stretch to believe because, as flawed as we are, it’s not so hard to imagine God loving us. And maybe you can imagine God loving the Samaritan woman at the well: the outcast, the adulterer, the woman living in sin.
But can you imagine God loving Fred Phelps?
Fred Phelps died this past week. He was the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, and his church’s entire focus and mission was to get as much publicity as possible for their message, and their message was that God hates homosexuals. They started out by carrying hate-filled signs and protesting at the funerals of gay men and women, but when that didn’t get them very much media attention they switched tactics and started protesting at the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat. That got them attention.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Fred Phelps’ ministry of hate made him one of the most hated people in the world. In the days leading up to and now following his death I’ve seen a lot of pretty amazing responses from the people Phelps targeted. Gay people and their families, the families of the deceased service members, so many people sharing the same kind of response, but not the response you might expect, given all the hurt he caused.
They are sharing prayers of love. They are sharing prayers of grace. They are sharing prayers of forgiveness. “God, welcome Fred into your loving arms and give him the peace he never found in life.” “God, be with Fred’s family and his church as they try to heal.” “God, show this man of hate that you are a God of love.” “God, you know who Fred Phelps is. And we know you love him, anyway. Just like you love all of us.”
Actor and gay rights activist George Takei wrote, “Today, Mr. Phelps may have learned that God, in fact, hates no one. Vicious and hate-filled as he was, may his soul find the kind of peace through death that was so plainly elusive during his life.”
Another gay rights activist named Josh Kilmer-Purcell wrote an amazing article for the Huffington Post about his long-time friendship with Fred’s daughter, Shirley. Shirley started a correspondence with Josh in response to an article he wrote about her family. It was not a positive article, and by all rights the two of them should never have become friends. But they found they had some things in common. Both of them were married to men named Brent. Both of them loved the natural world. Shirley shared her deep love of her children, and Josh shared his deep love of family and of farming, and they appreciated each other for that.
Neither of them changed their views on any issues. Josh continued to be a gay rights activist, and Shirley continued to shout hate-filled messages against gays at the funerals of dead soldiers. So, nothing changed, right?
But they got to know each other. And they even got to care for each other. So, when Josh heard that Shirley’s father had died, he decided to send a casserole. “Casseroles are what my religion does when someone we know is grieving,” he writes. “Death defies words. Which is why in my church, we send a casserole.”
Is it a superficial response to something profound? Is it like being offered living water and only being able to say, “Hey, this guy knows everything I’ve ever done?”
I think the offering of a casserole in this case is about as profound as it gets. It’s one human being saying to another, “I know you, who you really are, and I love you anyway.” It’s God speaking through the grace of one person to the grief of another person, and saying: “Drink this, and you will never be thirsty again. I already know who you are. I already know your whole story. And this water of grace and love and forgiveness is for you.” Amen.
After we heard the Gospel lesson for the day, we listened to a story that aired on National Public Radio on December 19: “11, 420 Children Dead in Syria’s Civil War, So Far.”
When I heard this npr story 10 days ago I knew I had to play it for you today, the day we hear the story of the death of the holy innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt.
It’s easy enough to hear the Gospel lesson and not really hear it, or to dismiss it as just a story: something that may or may not have happened a long time ago. But whether or not Matthew got the facts right, it’s clear that the story he tells is true, and sadly, timeless: a ruthless dictator orders the deaths of children. Children are killed, not by mistake, but on purpose, as the actual targets of violence. To protect their children from that violence, families are forced to leave their homes and become refugees. To save their lives, children are exposed to even more violent upheaval and uncertainty. The survivors keep their lives but lose their childhoods.
We don’t have a clear picture, really, of what’s going on right now in Syria, in part because conditions are so bad that accurate reporting isn’t possible. But what is clear is that right now, in Syria, there is a war on children, and a war on childhood. The story of the holy innocents and the flight to Egypt is real, and it’s going on right now.
Like I said before, when I heard this story I knew I had to share it with you today. But I wasn’t sure what to say about it, other than “this is happening, and it’s terrible.” And maybe that’s all we really can say.
I don’t like feeling helpless. I’m guessing most of you don’t like that feeling, either. Sometimes I think we are so afraid of confronting our own helplessness that we jump too quickly to try and force a solution, a resolution, a happy ending of some kind. In my sermons I never want to leave you feeling hopeless, because you and I both know and need to hear every week, maybe even every day, that God IS hope, and that we can always have hope, no matter what.
Today’s sermon will be no different; there is always Good News to tell. But when we go from bad news to Good News in the space a few minutes, it’s going to sound easy, when in reality, getting to the Good News and finding the hope in the face of such terrible violence and loss is not easy at all.
In the story from Matthew we heard today, we get hear these poetic, sad words:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’
Some of you know that I worked as a hospital chaplain before becoming a pastor here at Redeemer. During that time I accompanied many families through the deaths of their children. Every time was different, every time was heartbreaking, and every time we prayed together, we prayed using those words:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more’
I don’t know exactly what makes those words so comforting, but they are. These words about a woman whose grief refuses to be consoled have provided consolation to more families than I can count. I think it might be the power of shared experience, of knowing that all of us who have experienced such a loss, we are all so different, but we are also all Rachel.
Whether it in a war or a school shooting or a car accident or a still birth … Rachel weeps for her children. Through the centuries, in every time and place, she weeps.
Even if you have not faced the tragic loss of a child, if you love children, you have probably felt helpless. Helplessness is one of the defining experiences of parenthood. You love them so much and you can’t control them and you can’t control what happens to them.
God is not helpless. God is never helpless. But through the life and death of Jesus, God experienced helplessness.
That’s what our first lesson was about today. God doesn’t just have sympathy for our loss and suffering; God has empathy. Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, whatever is going on right here in your life or in the lives of people in Syria or anywhere else, God has been there, God knows what it’s like, and God is with you. God is with the children and the parents and all the people of Syria.
That’s where our hope begins. And our hope continues because, when we allow ourselves to feel hopeless and to realize how helpless we are, we also allow ourselves to realize that we need God. And that God is at work and bringing hope and peace and even joy in ways we can’t see and can’t even imagine.
I want to play a video for you now that I found on the ELCA youtube channel. It’s called Song of Syria.
What I find remarkable about this video is the archbishop’s insistence that even in the midst of this most terrible situation, he has hope, and the people he serves have hope. You don’t get to see or hear the person who is interviewing him, but it’s clear that the interviewer asks the archbishop: “What can we do?” We always want to do something to help, and the more active the doing, the better we feel. Part of what’s so frustrating about this situation and many others where children are at risk is that we can’t just hop in a plane and go over and fix things for people. But what we can do is pray, and as, Archbishop Kawak notes, use our voices to advocate for peace in whatever way we can.
Praying often doesn’t feel very active; it feels like something we do when we can’t do anything else. But that’s how I felt about those snowflakes we sent to Sandy Hook Elementary School last January. I wondered if they were something anyone actually wanted, if they’d really get to the people they were intended for, and I wondered how such a small thing could make a difference in the aftermath of such a terrible tragedy. But it’s clear from the thank you letter I read during the children’s message that the snowflakes we sent and that people around the world sent were received. And with the snowflakes the messages we sent, messages of love and comfort and hope.
When we pray, it might feel like putting a paper snowflake in the mail and never hearing anything about it again. But those messages are received. And it does make a difference. God hears our prayers. And any messages of love and comfort and peace and hope we send toward the people of Syria will be received and will make a difference.
The Geneva II peace talks are scheduled to begin January 22. It looks like all the key players in Syria are planning to be at the negotiating table. As we get closer to the date of the talks, the violence in Syria has increased. The violence is getting worse because all sides want to show how strong they are before sitting down together to negotiate for peace. If things in Syria are going to get better, and I pray they will, chances are still that it’s going to get worse, first.
So I’d like to ask you to join me in praying every day, once a day, for 22 days, between January 1 and 22nd, for peace in Syria.
When the Geneva II peace talks begin we should obviously keep praying, but the time between now and then is especially critical. I’m going to post prayers on our facebook page and on twitter using #prayforsyria, which is already a widely-used hashtag around the world, and I’d invite you to do the same.
If social media isn’t your thing, I’d invite you to pray at the same time every day, maybe at dinner time, or when you first wake up in the morning. I’m going to say a prayer when I’m nursing Sally before she falls asleep each night. It’s the most peaceful time of my day, and a time when I feel deeply connected to my baby daughter, and when I pray during that time I feel connected to mothers all around the world: to their fears and helplessness and peace and joy and connection to their children.
I will pray for hope and consolation for grieving parents in Syria, and for the safety of Syrian children, and that refugees may live in safety, and most of all, that there might be an end to the conflict, and peace.
There’s not a lot that we can do, but we can pray, and that’s actually doing a lot. God hears our prayers, and the prayers of the whole world, and God does what we can’t do: God brings hope to the hopeless and help to the helpless, and consolation to hearts that cannot be consoled. Amen.
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. Rev. Anne Edison-Albright preaching. Today’s text: Luke 2: 1-20
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Before there was a zombie craze, or a vampire craze, way back in the mid-1990’s there was an angel craze. Angels were everywhere: on TV, in movies. They were being guardians and helping people out with day to day problems or they were falling in love with humans and causing all kinds of problems of their own. Usually, they were played by very attractive actors and were pleasant … not only to look at, but pleasant in general. You wanted to be touched by angel, because these angels were lovely and kind.
My favorite angel depiction from that time period was in the movie Dogma. I would show you a clip, but there’s some bad language involved. And the reason for the bad language is what makes it, I think, a more biblically accurate depiction of an angel sighting.
It’s late at night, the main character is asleep in bed. She hears a rustling in her room and wakes up, slowly reaching for a baseball bat from under her bed, ready to defend herself against an intruder. Suddenly, at the foot of her bed is a pillar of flame and bright white light, and a loud, stern voice proclaims: “Behold the Metatron, herald of the almighty and voice of the one true God.” Then the main character scrambles for a fire extinguisher, which she points at the flames to reveal a coughing, pale, very grumpy Alan Rickman, who then proceeds to yell at her.
That’s an angel.
In the Bible, angels come in the middle of the night. They wake you up and terrify you with their brightness and their glory and their choirs of singing supernatural beings. They give you orders and leave you with very little choice but to comply: breathless, shocked, and even though they tell you not to be, afraid. Very very afraid.
The shepherds were terrified. Sure, it was good news of great joy for all people, but it was also scary. The word angel comes from a Greek word that means messenger. And I think that, even if it doesn’t take the form of a flaming pillar of light, messages from God are often frightening, and messengers from God often take the form we’d least expect and shock us, surprise us, and knock us off balance with the good news they bring.
Another good moment in the movie Dogma is an off-handed comment that Alan Rickman as the Metatron makes. He says, “In the Bible, if someone is talking to God, they’re talking to me. Or they’re talking to themselves.” Which brings up a good question: How do you know if God is talking to you, or if you’re just talking to yourself?
I believe with all my heart that God is still speaking, still sending messages and messengers, angels with words of good news and great joy for all people. But how do we know? How do we know the message is from God?
Knowing for sure might be impossible, but I think that if the message is consistent with the messages we hear from God in the Bible, and if the message and messengers surprise us, we can be pretty sure it’s a word from God we’re receiving.
Messengers can take many forms: it doesn’t have to be a fire-y angel screaming at you in the middle of the night. In fact, the messenger might be very quiet, and, because messengers from God are unexpected and you’re not looking for them, you might almost miss the messenger and the message entirely.
Fortunately, God is persistent. And God will keep talking to you, maybe even over the course of years, until that message is received.
In the Bible, messages from God take many forms: everything from the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that accompanied God’s messages to Moses to the sound of pure silence that God used to speak to Elijah. In all cases, though, the messengers were unexpected; they frightened, startled and surprised the people they were sent to speak to.
If you receive a message, maybe from another person, or from a still, small voice in your mind in the middle of the night, one of the ways to tell that it comes from God is if the messenger and the message take you by surprise, maybe even scare you a little bit. Or a lot.
But, and this is important, while the form of the messenger and the message may scare you, the content of the message should be consistent with the Gospel and the Word of God that we already know in our hearts and hear in the Bible.
That doesn’t mean that the content can’t be surprising. The message could very well be something that you already know, but forgot, somehow, or something that you knew with your head but not with your heart.
When my cousin Jason took his own life six years ago, I was in seminary, taking classes in pastoral care. I knew all of the “right” answers, all of the things to say and not to say to someone who’s loved one had committed suicide. But even though I knew all the words and messages of comfort, even though I knew that Jason was never abandoned by God, and was resting in God’s loving arms, still, I needed to hear it from someone else. God needed to send me that message in a different way, in a way that would surprise me, and knock me out of my numbness and into a different kind of grief, a grief that knew the grace and the love of God on a much more profound level than I ever could have known on my own.
In that situation, God directed me to read the story of Hagar and the well, a story from the Old Testament about despair, but also about hope that seems to come out of nowhere, but was actually there, right there in front of us, with us all along.
And that’s how you know that the message is coming from God. Not that the message comes directly in the form of Bible verses, necessarily, but that it’s consistent with the messages of God’s grace and love that we hear in the Bible.
Here are some examples of messages that angels bring in the Bible:
God has heard your prayers.
God is with you.
God is calling you to do something difficult, but God will not abandon you.
God is bringing you good news of great joy, and the good news is for ALL people.
If you receive a message that is in any way contrary to these messages, it doesn’t come from God.
If you get a message that contradicts in any way the Gospel truth that all of your sins and the sins of all people are entirely forgiven, then that message isn’t from God.
We get messages all the time from society and the media and our culture and even, sadly, from people we love that tell us we are unlove-able, or that tell us we aren’t good enough.
Those messages aren’t from God.
Messages from God will always be consistent with the truth that God loves you … and not just you, but all of creation: completely, unconditionally, and without any regard to whether we are good enough, or whether we deserve it, or not.
That’s the surest way to know that you have been in communication with an angel. That’s how you know that God has sent a messenger with words that are just for you, just what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it the most.
God’s angels, God’s messengers, will surprise you and shock you and even scare you, but they will always tell you this:
Do not be afraid.
I’m bringing you good news of great joy.
Jesus Christ was born for you.
Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again for you.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s love for you.
And that love is yours, today and every day, no matter what.