Telling stories

A sermon on John 9, for the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year A, at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

Tell us some true story, Thou great Author of life; and in your life story let us find our own. Amen.

When Jesus’ disciples see a blind man begging at the side of the road, they are tempted to turn his life story into a theological conundrum for Jesus to answer: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Jesus, true to form, answers a wholly other question, healing the man, and directing the disciples’ attention to the surprising and transgressive grace of God.

This doesn’t go down too well in the neighbourhood. People confront and condemn the man for getting himself healed, because his story contradicts their understanding of how things are supposed to work; and of how God is supposed to work for them.

To be clear, this is not a problem of the Law, nor of the Jews. It happens in every religion and in every human heart: the pull, the temptation, the unblessed security of making God in our own image; in making God’s judgements our own; and the utter rout that is incurred by God’s magnificent refusal to be bound by our imaginations.

That said, I, like the disciples, am going to indulge in a little imagination, a little biblical speculation here, to wonder aloud about the backstory of the man found begging by the side of the road.

He was not alone in the world. Although he lived with a disability, he is not, thank God, portrayed by the evangelist as helpless, meek, or without impressive personal strength and wit. He is a grown man, but he is still in a close and recognized relationship with his parents. He may be a very young man, I think, new to his own authority, because the authorities who question him decide to follow up with his parents, rather than allowing his own answers to stand alone. So perhaps he still lives at home.

The picture of our begging blind man is shifting slightly, colouring in as we speculate, admittedly, and imagine a young man, the age of some our own sons, living at home but just beginning to branch out on his own account. He is not filthy or destitute, but he has an expectation of his village, his community, his people that they have some investment in his economic welfare and continued security of place in their society.

There is then, perhaps, a social contract that allows a young, blind man to become an entrepreneur of sorts, making his living as a beggar at the gates, while he saves up for his parents’ retirement or removal from this mortal coil, for the day when he will be left truly alone, at the mercy of his neighbours. He is training them in habits of generosity towards him.

And what do the neighbours get out of this contract? Well, that is where it begins to get interesting.

There is, of course, ample provision and instruction in the Law for the people of God to provide for those unable by reason of status or stature to provide for themselves. The law of compassion is a good foundational ethic, grounded in the everlasting mercy and steadfast kindness of God. The opportunity for the people to do good by doing right by their neighbour is one aspect of this social contract.

But other, less lofty motivations may be at work, as we discover when the contract is upended by the man’s sudden restoration to sight and to mobility of social status. What is it that his neighbours stand to lose when the beggar receives his sight?

For, to his accusers, this is all wrong. They refuse to celebrate the healing of their son, their neighbour, one of their own. Instead of receiving his healing with joy and the hope of further blessings to follow, they criticize this interruption of their carefully constructed social order, their carefully metred generosity, their cautiously regulated religion.

As long as he remained as a child, kept his place as a beggar, as a sinner, as a boy, they could pretend to love him, scattering pennies in his path. But condescension is not the same as compassion, and as soon as they were invited to confront him as an equal, equally blessed, equally loved, equally justified by God, then they set about to undermine his conversion to one of them.

They questioned his identity. They questioned his parents. They questioned his story. This is not how the world is supposed to work, they say. This is not how healthcare is supposed to work, they mutter. We can all relate to the shock of a miracle, the bewilderment, disorientation, and reorientation that must follow events outside of our understanding. He, stalwart, steadfast, and sassy, answered their doubts until there was only one place left for them to go: it didn’t count anyway, because the God that they knew didn’t work through people like him and his Jesus.

The god that they knew knows his place.

And as soon as we say that, we have entered that prison where God is locked away within our imaginations, restricted by our rules of engagement.

If only they had taken the trouble to open their eyes, their ears, their hearts, to listen to the story that the blind man told, to see his joy and wonder mirrored in their own eyes. If only they had taken a moment, caught their breath, to utter a prayer of praise, of thanksgiving, of celebration for the mystery of God’s unbidden grace.

They were offered a window into the raucous and unkempt, wild and overflowing mercy of God; but they turned their backs, drew down the blinds, and then asked without irony, “What is it that we don’t see?” In their desperation to keep their own story alive, to keep the status quo, they resorted to describing the Son of God as a sinner, so that they would not have to accept the reality of their own blind and deliberate sin.

But we can’t help ourselves, can we? We make judgements all of the time, telling ourselves stories about the people we encounter in the store or on the road, deciding whether or not they deserve good fortune or a good lesson in the realities of life.

This week, in the wake of an awful attack on ordinary people on an ordinary day, in the midst of shock and grief, anger – and gratitude for all of the good that was done to counter such evil intent – in the aftermath, people began making up stories about a snapshot photo of a woman on Westminster Bridge, and reaching some quite stark judgements about her character, her history, her moral value. Others countered with other photos of other people with equally made-up stories. The clamour for categorical judgement, the instinct to assign relative value to our neighbours outweighed any attempt to tell the true story of real, shocked, and hurting human beings.

We can’t help ourselves, telling stories and doling out moralistic endings, telling them out loud to the television news, or posting them online to invite agreement, bolster our sense of self-righteousness.

We doubt with a religious fervour any good intentions of those we view as our enemies, politically or socially, even out of faith; and we make any excuse for our own exercise of condescension and collusion with the creation of that prison for the god of our imaginations. We tell stories about others so that we do not have to confront, much less convert, the stories we dare not tell about ourselves.

What we do much less often is to listen, much less to seek out the stories that others are telling about themselves; or the story that God is telling.

When his disciples asked him what kind of sin had caused the young man to be born blind, Jesus refused to make up a backstory, to justify his suffering or his misfortune, such as it was. Instead, he told the story of a man born to bear witness to the glory of God, the unbridled compassion, the unstoppable stream of God’s grace and mercy.

For this is what Jesus did. Rather than keep things in their proper places, their created categories, Jesus was born as the Incarnate Christ, the Son of God. Not condescending but co-existing with the most human of compassion, he listened to our stories from within. He heard our hearts break as one with a pulse. He loved, he laughed, he caught his breath. He would not allow God to be kept in a compartment, safely locked in heaven and out of harm’s way. He broke the mould. He broke the tomb. He broke his mother’s heart, and then he turned around and came right back home.

He broke open the prison of our imaginations, and revealed the glory of God in the simplest of ways: by treating each person, every blind beggar among us, as one made in God’s image, with the potential to show forth that glory in their own, sacred lives.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

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An open letter on the proposed budget

A letter to my congressional representatives. Please note that this is my personal opinion, and not sent on behalf of any congregation or organization. 

My fellow Americans,

I would like to take a moment of your time to consider the inhuman budget proposal put before our government last week.

Allow me to explain such a stark characterization of its content:

We humans came into being as a product of our environment. We live on a planet with the ideal “Goldilocks” conditions for life. Well-tended and cared for, this earth provides everything that we have needed to survive and thrive. But it is vulnerable to abuse and poison. We owe it to our very humanity to nurture its health, even if only for the sake of our own.

Speaking of health, we humans have developed phenomenal knowledge and artfulness in the practice of healing. We have eradicated some plagues that struck terror into our ancestors. We have pioneered tiny techniques that have saved small lives barely begun, and extended our families’ time together.

It is a mark of our humanity that we have the capacity for empathy, which drives us to seek to ease the suffering and hurt of those whom we see around us. It is that empathy that moves us to feed a hungry child, knowing that the distraction of that gnawing void will keep her otherwise from growing in stature and in knowledge. It is compassion that organizes the delivery of company and a warm meal to an elderly widower.

We communicate not only by means of compassion. We have an almost supernatural and celebrated ability to commune quite universally, through the means of art and music, drama and dance. Surely, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

And we know our history. These United States are a human construct. If we sell our humanity, then we lose it all, and no wall can keep it in, and no army can win it back. “For what will it profit them,” asked one great leader, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26a)

And the same wise one said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 7:21)

In all humility and humanity, I recommend, and as my representatives dare I say that I require, that you reject this budget where it falls short in its humanity; for that is a deficit we simply cannot afford.

Respectfully,

The Reverend Rosalind C Hughes

************************************************

Annotated version, for the biblically inclined:

We humans came into being as a product of our environment. We live on a planet with the ideal “Goldilocks” conditions for life. Well-tended and cared for, this earth provides everything that we have needed to survive and thrive. But it is vulnerable to abuse and poison. We owe it to our very humanity to nurture its health, even if only for the sake of our own.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens … then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food … The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:4b,7-9a,15)

Speaking of health, we humans have developed phenomenal knowledge and artfulness in the practice of healing. We have eradicated some plagues that struck terror into our ancestors. We have pioneered tiny techniques that have saved small lives barely begun, and extended our families’ time together.

For he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men. (Lamentations 3:33)

It is a mark of our humanity that we have the capacity for empathy, which drives us to seek to ease the suffering and hurt of those whom we see around us. It is that empathy that moves us to feed a hungry child, knowing that the distraction of that gnawing void will keep her otherwise from growing in stature and in knowledge. It is compassion that organizes the delivery of company and a warm meal to an elderly widower.

But [Jesus] answered them, “You give them something to eat.” (Mark 6:37a)

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty ad give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)

We communicate not only by means of compassion. We humans have an almost supernatural and celebrated ability to commune quite universally, through the means of art and music, drama and dance. Surely, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

And we know our history. These United States are a human construct. If we sell our humanity, then we lose it all, and no wall can keep it in, and no army can win it back. “For what will it profit them,” asked one great leader, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26a)

And the same wise one said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 7:21)

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Forgiving Jesus

The readings for the third Sunday in Lent include Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well, and Moses’ miraculous striking water from stone.

In the old stories, this encounter beside a well would have ended in marriage. Jacob’s father met his mother beside a well, and he met his beloved Rachel there a generation later. The land on which Jesus and the woman meet was Jacob’s bequest to the sons of his son, Joseph; the firstborn of Rachel, his beloved. There is history, in the ancestral traditions that Jesus and the woman share, of promising strangers meeting women beside the well.

But between Jacob’s time and theirs, another history has intervened. Divided by the exile into Babylon, which left behind the people of the northern kingdom, the people of Samaria pursue their religion differently than do the Jews, and a mutual mistrust has grown into outright enmity, even despite their promising beginnings as children of Abraham, children of the living God together.

There is no huge leap needed to find the parallels between their situation and the mistrust, even the rhetoric of enmity, that divides the children of Abraham, the children of the God of Abraham, from one another. We have seen the horrors to which anti-Semitism can lead; we are rightly wary of our own Islamophobia. We come to the well confused by our shared history of faith and violence, forgiveness and suspicion. We come to the well, wary of one another, and through our veil of protection do we recognize Jesus, when he asks us for a cup of water?

The tension, then, that makes this such a great story in our canon of Jesus is not only the tension between a man and a woman, met as strangers, alone and exposed outside the town. It is not only the tension of history, the ongoing struggle for justification between Jew and Samaritan. The tension that brings this story to life is the struggle between love and enmity, between life and its memory of cruel death, between our good and proper human aspirations to right religious observance and the divine grace of God.

In the old stories, this encounter beside a well should have ended in marriage, or perhaps, alternatively, in war.

I had my own encounter once with God beside a well. I hesitate to tell you all of the details, in case you think me a crazy woman; I have a hunch that my Samaritan ancestor-sister can relate. Anyway, it was noonday, and the well was in the Lake District of north-western England, the country where Beatrix Potter wrote her Peter Rabbit stories and William Wordsworth met his crowd of daffodils. I had just come into the knowledge that I was pregnant for the second time. We never got to meet the first; and that was the tension that thickened the air above the well that noonday. I was grateful, so grateful for this second chance at a new life; and I was bitter, and frightened, and angry that the first had left me bereft.

I found God beside the well, and I had a choice, whether to meet God as a friend, and to bless God joyfully; or whether to turn away, curse God, and follow my own heart back into its hard shell of protectionism, mistrust, and enmity.

Met beside the well, the Samaritan woman and I laughed, without much humour, at the outrageous, flirtatious offers of Jesus. Living water, ever-flowing, clean and refreshing blessings, life without dessication or decay? We knew that this was not the way that the world works; and we wondered whether we were being taken for fools by a sly and manipulative conman. Jew and Samaritan, mortal and immortal; what do we share in common with one another, after all?

We have more in common with the people of Flint, Michigan; one poor public works decision away from disease and ruin. They, in turn, might rally to the cry of the people cursing Moses in the wilderness:

“Did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

Of course, that story ended in a miracle. But I noticed something, reading these tales of living water side by side. In each of them, God does not act alone, but invites the people who would test God, who would question Jesus, who are wary of trusting in God’s grace; God invites even those people to participate themselves in the God’s acts of saving mercy.

The water does not break open by itself, or at the touch of an angel, but only through the medium of Moses. Jesus, coming to the well, first asks the woman, “Will you give me a cup of water?”

It is as though God is doing everything in God’s power to bridge the gulf between our trouble and our expectation, between our history and our hope.

And it turns out that, after all, we share a history with God. We share a history steeped in God’s perennial practice of mercy, love, rescue and redemption. It turned out, too, that day beside the well, that God even shared a history of parental loss, seeing a son suffer on the cross, the very heart of heaven broken by the weight of grief and glory.

The woman ended up trusting Jesus, forgiving him for his place in her family history, because the well of their shared ancestry ran far deeper than their divisions, and their faith in the one God, differing religious practice notwithstanding, was far more likely, in the end, to unite than to divide them.

As she was reconciled to Jesus, an unprecedented accord between Jews and Samaritans ended up with Jesus and his disciples staying for days in the house of their enemies, without fear, without judgement, prejudice, or enmity. In the Samarian wilderness, in the heat of the noonday, a little oasis of the kingdom of God sprouted up in the city of Sychar, rooted in the spirit and in truth.

She would still, after he had moved on towards Jerusalem, need to return to the well to draw water day by day, and to negotiate the complexities of life in a region riddled with strife. Still, there would be days when the water was undrinkable and the children sick, even dying. Still, in the wilderness of Sin, the people gathered around Moses had a long way to go before they could rest their weary complaints and their frightened hearts.

And yet something was born anew that day, some hope, some second chance at new life.

Forgiving Moses, in a rush of generosity lubricated by water from the rock, the Israelites for a moment also forgot to be angry at God. Forgiving Jesus his enemy heritage, the woman found herself open to astonishing new possibilities: could this be the Messiah? She became one of the first to recognize him. Reconciled to God; dare I say, forgiving God? we are opened to deeper possibilities of a partnership with grace, a more profound understanding of the history that we share:

the history that we share with one another, as children of Abraham, as children of the baked earth, intertwined by birth and blood, death and the stories that we tell of those who have gone before us;

the history that we share not only with Moses, and with the woman at the well, and with Jesus; but the history that God has shared with us;

a living stream of grace and mercy whose current runs through to this day.

Forgiving Jesus his history, the woman became one of the first to recognize him as her redeemer. Forgiving God my history, I was able to strike living water even from the bitter well of grief.

In the ancient stories, such an encounter would end with a marriage: the promise of forever, the ever faithful covenant of God.

Amen.

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Well

I do not think
I would invite anyone
to come and meet a man
who told aloud every
thing I’d ever done.

I might, instead,
invite him to lean
deep over the well;
inviting an accident; surely not
one more thing to tell.

This is how you make it
hard for me to linger
long under the noonday
haze; shivering heat
of your penetrating gaze.

Love is a low blow.
Lean in, you say, see,
deep underground living waters flow,
and I fall;
you have brought me low.

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In time

On the way home, an interesting radio piece about time, and our over-scheduled lives. Our relationship with time, the professor indicated, has become too rigid and unforgiving, less enjoyable than it might be, given more flexibility and forgiveness.

I had to smile, because I had just come from a centering prayer meeting, a regularly scheduled time out of time. We had read, as our introduction to our prayer time, from the Preface to Richard Holloway’s A New Heaven, notably this:

Particularly do we want all the moments that transfigure time to continue, to stay their onward rush. It is Time, then, that we wish to be redeemed from; but all our schemes for self-redemption are themselves caught on the wheel of time … That strange, tattered glory, the Christian Church, claims that there is a redemption from the rat-trap of time and successiveness and tragedy. It claims that there is a meaning which enfolds it, but it can only be spoken in riddles and parables and whispered poetry of bread that lives and endures for ever.

Time is my brother,
a fellow creature,
one of the first; for without time
can even God make a beginning?

Time is a bully, relentless,
unconstrained by mercy,
unchained by compassion,
with no respect for rank,

or reason. Jesus said,
Love your enemies, pray
for those who persecute you.
Is there a blessing for time?

These is. It comes
on the heels of one who
fasted in the wilderness
the long days.

It flows through the hours
of sunset, pouring wine
in the garden.

It comes with the slowness of death,
the cold pause of the tomb.

It rises with first light,
creation reborn;
without time, could even
God make such a beginning?

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Fear of falling 

The lectionary lessons for today are about Adam and Eve, the fall, temptation, redemption, resistance …

The devil dared him to be fearless.
The devil dared him to be brazen,
in God’s face;
a son so independent in his own mind,
he would forget who taught him
to fear gravity,
to respect the rules that govern
cause and effect,
who set the spheres in motion.
Do not be afraid, he said;
but his trembling, twitching tail
belied his own fear of falling.

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Hope in the ashes

There is hope in cold ashes.

We do not “do” Lent, we do not approach the fast as those who have no hope, or as though who fear the fire. For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God will remember God’s people, recollect the promises shown to them in the incarnation of the Christ.

There are enough reality shows around these days for all of us to know that, for the survivalist, to awaken and find that the fire has gone out and the ashes are cold strikes fear into the heart. But we are not survivalists. We are mortal, and we owe our lives not to our own skill and cunning but to our Creator, our Redeemer, our God.

Many of us grew up in a religious tradition where guilt was venerated to the point that we were encouraged to make more of it, to supplement those powerful feelings with manufactured dismay; but Jesus encourages us not to make a display of guilt, nor a show of shame. Guilt, we notice, is strangely close to pride: those who parade their penitence really want to show off their own survivalist skills in the most spiritual way possible.
Sometimes we cling so hard to our sin, to our shame and to our burning guilt, as though that is what makes us whole. We define ourselves, even our faithfulness, by the temperature of our guilt, running hot, as though feverish penitence alone could save us. That is when the cold, gritty ashes strike fear into our hearts.

But it is not, after all, our own guilt, or our shame, nor even our penitence that saves us from the fire. It is God. It is only in God that sin is transformed into sorrow, into regret, repentance, renewal. It is only in God that death is transformed into life. It is only in Christ that the cool ashes of the morning are recollected, not so as to return them to the fire, but that they may be refashioned into something new.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of William Wordsworth. Maybe it’s the early advent of the daffodils. I have been remembering his musings about poetry: he has said,

that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.

I think of the tranquillity of the ashes, cool and collected after the flooding fire. There is hope in the ashes.

There is hope in the ashes. Gone is the guilt and the burning shame; nothing is left of the passions that fuelled the fire and fanned its flames. Recollected in tranquillity, in the promise that greets repentance – the promise of new life, second chances, reconciliation; recollected in tranquillity, our sin no longer has the power to burn us up.

These ashes, these symbols of our mortality, these mortal remains of creation are symbols, too, of God’s life working within us.

In the beginning, when the human was made out of the dust of the earth, God’s breath stirred its dusty origins into life, and the human was transformed into something new, and something intimately connected to the life of God.

In his Incarnation, Jesus rekindled this connection. Living dust, he moved among us, he burned with passion, he cooled his body in the tomb. And in the cold light of the early morning, he recollected himself anew, and we have seen his resurrection.

Ashes are not afraid of the fire. They have nothing left to fear from fire. There is hope in the ashes, in their spent energy, their burned-out passion. Reduced to their essence, they know that there is one hope for new life, and it does not consist of going back into the flames. Instead, the ashes find new life dug into the earth, feeding the bulbs and the soil, producing crowds of daffodils. They find new life by feeding new life in those other creatures of the same God.

Deeds of loving kindness, of mercy, of justice, to feed the world with goodness; this is a Lenten fast fit for the ashes.

I invite you to a holy Lent. I invite you to a season in which, cool and collected, we are able to face the ashes of our broken lives. We can sift through their debris without fear of getting burned. And we can get ready for something new; some new thing which God longs to lead us into.

I invite you to a Lenten fast which looks forward to a new day, new life with the resurrected Christ.

Amen.

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