It’s that time of year again in Jerusalem – the Passover – that celebration of God freeing the Jewish people generations ago from an Egyptian empire that was enslaving them. It happens every year, and for Roman politicians and police in particular – the current occupiers of the Jewish people during Jesus’ ministry – it’s a time when the Romans have always made sure to bulk up their shows of force to keep the resistance of the people at bay. Wouldn’t want the people they are oppressing remembering TOO much about the natural disasters God brought upon a past military occupier to release God’s people from oppression.
And so, to show the people who’s boss as this resistance celebration unfolds, the Romans conduct a military parade. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it as “a visual panoply of imperial power: calvary on horses, foot soldiers, men on horses, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold; the sounds of marching feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums, the swirling of dust, the eyes of silent onlookers some curious, some awed, some fearful and some resentful.” (Crossan, John Dominic, and Borg, Marcus J. “The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’s Final Week in Jerusalem.” United States, HarperCollins, 2007. Quoted in enfleshed: Bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight – Liturgy that matters, April 5, 2020.)
Jesus, in response to this military parade of intimidation, plans a protest. A direct action that will be a parody, really a mocking of this aggressive display of Roman power. Instead of a war horse to ride on, he tells his fellow organizers to find him a mama donkey, whose baby is still with her. Instead of swords, they’ll encourage the crowd to cut branches to wave in the air. Instead of military banners, they’ll lay their cloaks on the ground before Jesus. Instead of the sound of battle drums, it will be the sound of the people chanting, “Hosanna [which means ‘Save now!’], blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” These are ancient words borrowed from a psalm traditionally used at Passover, the words of their ancestors calling upon their liberator to save them. (The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition – Fully Revised and Expanded, footnote, pg. 49.) Instead of the empire’s visual statement that weapons, violence, and social control keep us safe, Jesus plans this protest, surrounding himself by ordinary people banding together in resistance and solidarity, a counter-statement that we, common people united to care for each other, are the ones who keep us safe.
This Palm Sunday protest parade is one of only a handful of stories found in all four gospels. It happens right before Jesus is executed by the very same military might now on display to intimidate anyone trying to rebel. It feels to me like the last time Jesus and his fellow organizers can together make a clear, public statement about what the Kin-dom of God is all about. As the writers at enfleshed put it, in this direct action, “Jesus unveils what the empire intends to keep hidden – God alone saves, and God is among the people.” (enfleshed: Bringing what matters back to the gospel for justice, liberation, and delight – Liturgy that matters, April 5, 2020.)
To be a Christian – that strange word that means “a little Christ” – is to find our part in Palm Sunday protest parades wherever we go. And there are opportunities all around, every day. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade happening today as folx in our presbytery go through prison security in Gig Harbor after being locked out for over a year to share with our siblings at Hagar’s Community Church the story of a rabbi whose first temple sermon was literally about setting prisoners free. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade every time we stand in solidarity with trans kids who are fighting for the right to be seen and affirmed and safe in their schools. There’s a Palm Sunday protest parade every time we refuse to call 911 for the police to put one of our beloved siblings in a cage and instead commit to building communities where we take care of each other and freely share resources so that everyone has enough.
Friends, who are you in this gathered crowd of people? Which parade will you choose? Maybe this story is in all four gospels to remind the earliest Christian communities – and to remind us – that there is no neutrality in the midst of empire. There are always two parades, one of the systemic violence of military might, force, and social control, and another, marked by humility, solidarity with the poor, and a long line of ancestors who worship a God who literally sets people free. This Palm Sunday parade asks each one of us: “Beloved, who’s side are you on?” Amen.
I want to give a little recap of what has happened in the first 32 verses of this chapter. Jesus was summoned by Martha and Mary because Lazarus, their brother and Jesus’ friend, was dying. However Jesus does not go right away and Lazarus dies in the waiting. Then Jesus finally leaves the safety he has and comes to them, facing the wrath of Rome and the Roman co conspirators. Jesus arrives as the friends and family are mourning Lazarus. Jesus is confronted by Martha and Mary. Martha’s profound profession of faith and Mary’s tears inspire our scripture today. Hear now John 11:33-44.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Last year, our denomination, the PCUSA, voted to divest from five fossil fuel companies because they were not moving fast enough away from the destructive and extractive industry they are in. One company that was not removed was ConocoPhillips because people believed they were doing enough change to make a difference. This name might ring a bell because they are the company behind the Willow Project which was recently approved by President Biden, breaking a campaign promise and creating the largest ever oil drilling on federal lands. This happened even though 5 million people signed a petition asking him not to. This happened even though the native tribe closest to the drilling begged them not to. This happened even though nearly every scientist agrees that we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 not increase them. And this is not the only project approved for extracting on federal lands recently. It is situations like these that cause me so much despair and hopelessness.
So I echo the prophet Ezekiel lamenting and wondering, “Can God raise these dead bones?”
I love this passage from Ezekiel that Jo read for us this morning. “Can God raise these dead bones?” Ezekiel writes to the people of Israel who have faced so much suffering and death. They have been conquered again and again. They have been enslaved. They have had everything ripped from them. Can you imagine being an oppressed people and hearing someone talk about resurrection? Can you imagine hundreds of years of systemic exclusion and thinking about life returning to your bones? Can you imagine what you might be feeling in the face of this much death and hopelessness? You might also ask “Can God raise these dead bones?”
Which is why this John passage is perfect for today and for those feelings. Because before Jesus weeps, which is so famous, Jesus snorts. Yes, you heard me correctly, snorts. In the first sentence of our scripture it says Jesus was deeply moved but this would be way better translated as snorted. Everywhere else in Greek literature this verb is used for horses making that snorting sound. And I could not imagine a better sound from Jesus in the face of impossible hope. Jesus snorts because this situation is unbelievable and hopeless. Jesus snorts because death is an affront to life.
This, to me, is such a relatable feeling. In the face of so much pain and suffering, in the face of so much hate and falsehoods, in the face of systematic barriers, what else can we do? To me it feels like that snort that surprises you because someone just said something so outlandish, so unbelievable that there is no possible way it would ever come true and you snort. The Mariners will win the world series. Racism will be ended in our country. War will cease to exist. Snort. How can we hope? “Can these bones live?”
This is the space that Jesus enters. Jesus returned from a safe space far from the center of power and returned to Jerusalem knowing that there were people searching for him to kill him. Jesus came back despite threats to his safety. Jesus came back to face off with death. All in order to offer us something that we have lost. Hope. Life budding from death, hope. Life having more power than death, hope. Life overcoming hate and violence, hope.
This last week Spring started. Winter is over. Life is coming. You can see the trees start to bud. You can see little green shoots coming up out of the ground. So in the face of hopelessness and death, Jesus snorts. In the face of despair, God has created the perfect reminder so that we never get caught in hopelessness. Our world is designed to not let death win. God created a world that is in tune with this hope. The only question left then, is: will we tune into that hope and live as if it were true?
Liz: Today’s Scripture reading comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 9, verses 1-41. I’ve got some help from Ron, Robert, Kay, and Pastor Dexter today to help this long reading come to life! Let us open to all the Spirit has to say to us today.
As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
2His disciples asked him,
Dexter: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Ron: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
Liz: 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him,
Ron: ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’
Liz: (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,
Dexter: ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’
Liz: 9Some were saying,
Dexter: ‘It is he.’
Liz: Others were saying,
Dexter: ‘No, but it is someone like him.’
Robert: ‘I am the man.’
Liz: 10But they kept asking him,
Dexter: ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’
Robert:‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’
Dexter: ‘Where is he?’
Robert: ‘I do not know.’
Liz: 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them,
Robert: ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’
Liz: 16Some of the Pharisees said,
Dexter: ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’
Liz: But others said,
Dexter: ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’
Liz: And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man,
Dexter: ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’
Robert: ‘He is a prophet.’
Liz: 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them,
Dexter: ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’
Kay: ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’
Liz: 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said,
Kay” ‘He is of age; ask him.’
Liz: 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him,
Dexter: ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’
Robert: ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’
Dexter: ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’
Robert: ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’
Liz: 28Then they reviled him, saying,
Dexter: ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’
Robert: ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’
Dexter: ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’
Liz: And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said,
Ron: ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’
Robert: ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’
Ron: ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’
Robert: ‘Lord, I believe.’
Liz: And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said,
Ron: ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
Liz: 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him,
Dexter: ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’
Ron: ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
So, I learned a bunch of things about this text I had never heard before as I read one of my newer resources – The Jewish Annotated New Testament. In this volume, Jewish scholars give context for the New Testament in solid study about the realities of 1st century Judaism. This way, we don’t build our understandings of texts like the Gospel of John on a bunch of anti-Jewish misinformation that has dominated Christian theology for centuries. Here are some things I learned about problems with how John narrates this story of Jesus giving the man born blind sight.
There is no historical evidence outside the Gospel of John that would suggest that the Pharisees would ever hold court like this on the Sabbath.
There is also no evidence that synagogues would “cast someone out” because of their belief in Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah. For example, in the 130s CE, a man named Simeon Bar Kosiba was thought to be the Messiah by Rabbi Akiva, and no one kicked Rabbi Akiva out of the Jewish community for this belief.
John kind of goes back and forth in how he names those interrogating the man born blind who could now see. He seems to use “the Pharisees” and “the Jews” interchangeably. By doing this, he lumps diverse Jewish communities together, erasing their complexity and nuance. And – he repeats the phrase “the Jews” over 70 times in this Gospel, almost always putting them in opposition to Jesus. This leads us – the reader – to think that Jesus and the Jews were mortal enemies. But Jesus was a Jew! He was part of this theologically diverse, complex tradition, one that had space for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t agree about the resurrection of the body, one that had space for the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who believed some very different things from their Jewish peers. All of them were, together, part of the diverse landscape of 1st century Jewish life, but John does not seem interested in telling that story.
In these ways – and more – John seems hell bent on misrepresenting 1st century Judaism in the way he narrates. And, while he would have had no way of knowing this, that kind of anti-Jewish bias has fueled antisemitism for centuries after his writing. It was common parlance in my faith tradition growing up to hear that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. That’s just one example of how our Jewish siblings have been scapegoated by Christians in power throughout history, leading to horrific acts of violence against them, from the genocide of the Holocuast to white nationalist gunmen who shoot up synagogues to the antisemitic flyers that a far-right group left in driveways in the Old Westside just last month.
Why does John insist on telling this story in this way? As is the case whenever we see someone causing harm, context helps us understand. We don’t know much about the community John was writing to, but one piece of information is notable to me. Scholars believe that John’s community was probably very diverse, inclusive of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. So, John was probably trying to find some way to unite them across their lines of difference, to help them belong to each other as a community of Christians. And I have to wonder if that is why he bends over backwards to give them a common enemy in “the Jews.” Throughout his Gospel, and even in the text this morning, John wants us to see non-Christ-confessing Jews as “the bad ones,” using language like “darkness, flesh, death and the devil” in reference to Jewish folx who won’t follow Jesus, while using words like “light, spirit, life, and God” to talk about Jesus and his followers. (“Children of the Devil (Jn 8.44),” The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition – Fully Revised and Expanded, pg. 194.) John is taking a shortcut to solidarity – rallying his people around who they are against as a way to give them a common identity.
Oh, the harm we do to each other and ourselves when we try to find belonging in a common group of people to hate. People hoarding power and resources know this. It’s why they pit us against one another, making us fight each other over the scraps under the table while they feast on the kind of wealth that – if shared – could feed the world. They know that if they can keep us fighting amongst ourselves, we won’t have energy or clarity to fight the real source of the problem – their greed!
I believe John is seeking – our word for Lent – as he tells this story. John is seeking belonging. And goodness, do I understand that. I am seeking belonging. I imagine you are seeking belonging. It’s a part of being human. We were made to belong to each other. Maybe that’s why the real “healing” in this text doesn’t seem to be about the man born blind. Not only does Jesus resist the premise of the disciples’ question about sin causing someone’s disability, a message able-bodied folx everywhere should hear loud and clear as a call to honor the agency and leadership of disabled folx in creating a truly just and accessible world. But we should also notice that the man born blind being given sight happens at the very beginning of this story, and then the rest of this long narrative is actually about the community wrestling to engage with this man! And after the questionable way John tells that story, I do think we get a little window into a more tender part of him – where his longing lives – in the interaction between Jesus and the man at the end. After John writes about a community divided, wrestling with this man’s experience of receiving sight, talking about him instead of to him, unless they are interrogating him, John tells us that Jesus went to find the man. Instead of talking about him, Jesus speaks directly to him, asking him what he believes, with genuine interest and care. After not even asking the man’s permission to rub spit-made mud on his eyes and then disappearing while the community tore this man apart, maybe Jesus is trying to do better here in this moment, returning to actually listen to what this man has to say and to honor what he says about his own journey. That’s what I think John was seeking this whole time – a community that works through their struggles together to do better, to tune into one another, to listen deeply, to honor another’s experience, to belong to each other. Maybe, after all the pain of fighting with each other and denying the experience of a disabled person that happens in this passage, the real miracle is that a moment of deep solidarity and belonging breaks through.
What would happen if we slowed down with our neighbors and with people in our community to tune into the ways we are all seeking belonging? I wonder if we might get under the surface of the buzzwords and hot-button issues that make us sort people into “the good ones” and “the bad ones”. Maybe we’d get down into the real nitty gritty of our deepest values, the place where longing lives. I suspect we would find more in common there than we would have expected.
I mentioned in the last church newsletter that I just finished The Sum of Us, a book by Heather McGhee. Heather traveled the country documenting the ways wealthy elites worked to make white, Black and brown people into enemies, spreading the lie that “one group’s success would come at the expense of another.” She laments that, “as a result [of buying into this unity around common hate of the other], white people stopped supporting the government programs that enabled their prosperity as soon as access was expanded to Black people.” But what I found so hopeful about her book is that she tells the stories of diverse folx all around this country finding their way back to each other. Like Bridget Hughes, a white fast-food worker in Kansas City, Missouri, who had been told that immigrants were stealing Americans’ jobs, until she attended her first “Fight for $15” [minimum wage] meeting and saw her own story reflected in a Latina mother who was also struggling to raise a family on fast-food wages. (Alana Semuels, ““We’ve Found the Enemy, and It’s Not Each Other.” Heather McGhee’s Quest to End America’s Zero-sum Thinking on Race”, Time, July 23, 2021.)Or the Somali taxi drivers in Maine who organized to drive elderly, homebound Maine residents to the polls to pass a ballot initiative in 2017 to expand Medicaid, despite the lies of their governor at the time to divide them along racial lines. (Evan Pop, Examples from Maine underscore importance of building multiracial coalitions, author says,” Beacon, February 25, 2021.) Because they knew that they and their loved ones would all thrive if they had access to better medical care, regardless of the country they’d been born in. I love how the author of this book, Heather, puts it: “Connecting with someone, or seeing yourself in someone, is the antidote to a phenomenon that is, in some ways, destroying America… We need to shift people to say, ‘We’ve found the enemy, and it’s not each other.’” (Semuels)
Let’s join John in the seeking, and let’s not stop until we find our way back to each other, back to the people we’ve been told are the enemy, back to the place of healing where we go below the surface of our lives to tap into our common longing. Maybe we’ll find that real miracle in those moments where deep solidarity bubbles up and belonging breaks through. Amen.
So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In our gospel reading today, we see Jesus going through Samaria, crossing political, social, and religious boundaries. And it is a hot day. After walking all day, probably for a few days, Jesus sits down and sends his disciples into town to buy some provisions. Jesus is there in the noon day heat, sweating and squinting because of the sun. And here Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and Jesus asks her for a glass of water.
Wait, isn’t this the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, Savior, Messiah, healer, miracle worker? Isn’t it kind of embarrassing that this powerful person is asking for help? Shouldn’t Jesus show more fortitude, strength, and bootstrap mentality? But instead of keeping up the walls of power and privilege, Jesus lets down his guard and does something incredibly human. He is vulnerable and asks for help.
This is something that we try to hide in our world. We hide our vulnerabilities, we hide our insecurities, and we hide our failures or weaknesses. We are taught to have a stiff upper lip, to never cry, to not ask for help, to go it alone. We hide all these parts of ourselves from our friends and family, our community, and even ourselves. Instead of looking at Jesus and realizing that perhaps our vulnerabilities are the way it was meant to be.
We are made to be connected. We are made to be in relationships. It is not good to be alone. We are the body of Christ, many members but one body. Our vulnerability shows us that we inherently need others. We cannot go it alone. We cannot quench our thirst by ourselves. Jesus fully embodies that need that we all have, a need for one another.
And it is from that first vulnerability from Jesus that this woman at the well is transformed. This woman who we have preached on a few times before has many barriers and stigmas in her life and even in her interpreters. She has so many reasons not to engage with Jesus, not to be vulnerable, not to open up. But I believe that because Jesus started by being vulnerable it created a safe space for her to be vulnerable as well. And we see her ask Jesus for living water, trusting fully that this vulnerable and open sojourner would provide.
And while the text is not explicit about Jesus giving this living water, I believe that she did receive it. In opening up, in being vulnerable, in dropping her walls, and by sharing it with others. She tasted that living water and began to experience life again. Life as it was meant to be lived, in community, with others.
If we hide our vulnerabilities, if we hide our weaknesses, if we only show strength, then we will never taste this living water. We will never know the true depths of love and community. If we only ever focus on giving away water, we will never experience the living water. If we only give and never receive, then we have missed Jesus. God has designed this world to be reciprocal and gift giving. We give and we receive. When we cut off half of the equation, we cut off half of ourselves. The question for us this Lent is not who you will give water to, but will you be brave enough to ask for the water that you need?
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Before we dive into this reading today, I want to name a new area of learning for me: the reality that texts like the Gospel of John have been used by Christians for centuries to set up false opposition between Jesus and the Jews. I myself have preached lots of sermons using texts like this one to show that Jesus was unique and superior to all his Jewish colleagues in the time he was alive. Those kinds of interpretations, I have learned, were invented by Christians in power throughout history to support the idea that Christians are superior to Jews, and therefore have the right to oppress them and make them the scapegoats for all of society’s ills. I wrote about this in my pastor’s corner in the March newsletter, and linked some really helpful resources for all of us to engage together. My hope is that we can commit to resisting anti-Jewish rhetoric in our very own Christian tradition as a practice for this Lenten season and beyond. When we know better, we do better – that’s the whole point of repentance, turning around to walk in a new direction. I hope you’ll join me on that journey.
I’m thankful to Rev. Anne Dunlap, who pointed out to me that we cannot understand the gospel of John – and passages like this one – without John chapter 11, verse 48, spoken by some of Jesus’ Jewish colleagues after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: “If we let him [Jesus] go on like this,” that verse says, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
This verse helps us understand that the Jews were not Jesus’ enemies, no matter how many Christian power players have tried to spread that lie to scapegoat the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. The oppressor of both Jesus and his Jewish colleagues was Rome. As Rev. Anne puts it, “Even though some of these leaders [who are scared after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead] are technically Roman-appointed collaborators, we still must take their concern about the threat of Roman violence seriously – if for no other reason than the fact that by the time the author of John’s gospel is crafting this narrative, Rome has done exactly this: destroyed the holy place and the nation. This is our starting place,” Rev. Anne says, “as we begin to re-interpret these texts with our focus on shifting the power analysis back where it belongs: on Rome.” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, SURJ-Faith Coordinator, “Rome Will Destroy Us: Resisting Anti-Judaism in John”, 2.24.20 Webinar for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Content Transcript , pg. 8.)
Now, for this conversation between Jesus and his peer, Nicodemus. In the context of Rome’s violence, let’s imagine this as an earnest conversation between two Jewish folx who are wondering together, “What does it look like to faithfully be God’s people, resisting the empire’s ways of violence and greed, when we know that the lives of our beloveds are at stake?” Maybe Nicodemus is wondering how much he can go along with Rome’s rules while still following in the ways of this teacher Jesus to undermine Rome’s oppressive power. I imagine many of us ask honest questions like these as we seek liberation for our own communities. To what extent should we play America’s game by America’s rules, even though we know this country was founded on violence, resting on the stolen land of our Indigenous neighbors and the stolen labor of our African-descended siblings? Is simply voting according to our values enough? Or are we called beyond this, to challenge every system that values some people over others, that relies on violence to keep what the wealthiest consider to be “peace”? How do we faithfully resist, and what are we risking by joining that resistance?
As we linger in these questions, in this night time encounter between two Jewish leaders, I invite you to join me in some imagining that Rev. Anne has suggested for this passage. Listen to her words. “Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that being “born from above, born anew” could mean realizing we are formed into an oppressive system (aka born of the flesh), and we are “born anew” or in the Spirit when we wake up and commit ourselves to liberation. Let’s imagine that insisting that God loves the world is a way of saying that Rome does not. And that “believing” in “the Son” means not giving allegiance to Caesar but to the One God and one’s community. And that what we need to be saved from is not some generalized personalized “sin” but Rome itself. Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that “not perishing” means that God’s power to generate life is far beyond what any empire can muster, and we are always held by that Divine power. Life generating life, eternally. Let’s imagine,” Rev. Anne says, “that the question is not one of belief in doctrine, but “are you recognizing what is happening in this empire? Are you recognizing who Jesus is, who God is (and who Rome is not?)” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, ibid., pg. 11)
We don’t know exactly what Nicodemus thought or felt about this invitation to be born from above from Jesus. But John, the gospel writer, does give us a couple peeks into Nicodemus’ actions later in the story that give us space to wonder how he might have been changed by this nighttime conversation. We find Nicodemus twice more in John’s Gospel – once a few chapters later when he sticks up for Jesus’ legal rights when people are trying to get him arrested, and then one final time after that, when Jesus has finally been executed by the state. It’s Nicodemus who brings an extravagant amount of myrrh and aloe to help Joseph of Arimathea gently tend to Jesus’ tortured body, to wrap it in linen, and place it in a new tomb in a garden.
So, the Gospel writer doesn’t answer our question about what Nicodemus finally believed about Jesus. And maybe that’s because what Nicodemus believed did not matter as much as what Nicodmeus did with Jesus’ invitation to be born from above. In his actions, I see a man who had his life turned upside down as he went all in with folx most targeted by the violence of the state, advocating alongside them and finally joining them in the grief of what Rome’s violence truly costs. I wonder if the Gospel writer is putting that same question to us today: Will we have the courage to be born from above? Will we release our grip on the systems of oppression we know in order to embrace bold practices that liberate others, even if those new ways of being feel as wild and new to us as the wind of the Spirit? Rome would control the whole world, but God so loved the world. May we believe this not just with our hearts, but with our bodies, our wealth, our choices, and the entirety of our lives. Amen.
Then [after Jesus was baptized] Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In the ancient near east, snakes were seen as symbols of transformation. In their venom, they had the power to poison or to create medicine. This symbol seems to echo the story of human history. We can choose to be poison or medicine. We can choose war or we can choose peace. We can choose to ignore and oppress our neighbor or we can choose to love our neighbor. We can choose death or we can choose life.
In the Genesis scripture, we see the snake say, “God knows that when you eat the fruit, your eyes will be opened.” This is not a lie but as so often happens with a trickster character, this is also not the whole truth. Eve and Adam eat the fruit but they do not die as they thought, at least not physically in that moment. But God had told them the truth as well because a death did occur. The death of their innocence.
Once again, this is the story of humanity. At some point each one of us leave our childhood and become adults. We move out of our family homes and we venture into the world. We start to see things from a different perspective than that of our parents. Sometimes for better and sometimes worse. This is the struggle where we attempt to grow from knowledge to wisdom. Some have said the difference between knowledge and wisdom is the knowledge that a tomato is a fruit (knowledge) but that a tomato should not be added to a fruit salad (wisdom).
This all brings us to our gospel text for today. Jesus, the exemplar of our faith, shows us what this mature and wise life should look like. In this narrative that wants the reader to hear echoes of that first temptation in Genesis as well as the Israelites wandering in the wilderness from Exodus, Jesus faces the accuser head on. Will Jesus choose – comfort and ease over respect for nature, divine rescue over vulnerability, or domination over others instead of justice for all?
As we face similar challenges in our lives and as we struggle toward wisdom outside of the garden of Eden, Jesus teaches us. Jesus refuses to turn stone into bread because he knows his power is to be used for something far greater than his hunger. Jesus refuses to test God because Jesus already trusts God. Jesus refuses the loyalty to worldly authority because he knows power is meant for justice and not domination. Jesus refuses to listen to the words of worldly power and domination and instead keeps trusting in the Word of God that calls us to deeply trust in God and to build relationships of love and justice with our neighbor.
Jesus has learned all this because he has been listening to good teachers about how to hear God the Creator’s voice. Jesus spends time individually seeking out God. Jesus spends time in community at his local temple asking questions and listening for wisdom. Jesus teaches us how to seek out wisdom. It comes from the ability to listen, knowing what God sounds like and what the many other voices sound like that call for our loyalty.
Which brings us to the big question today: what voices are we listening to? Are we listening to the snake or to God? Are we listening to poison or medicine? Are they leading towards less life or more life? Do they separate us from others? Do they tell us to hoard power? Do they tell us to trust them with our futures instead of God’s way? We must question who we are listening to, for the news, for advice, for the future. We receive thousands of messages everyday from our world, messages that tell us we are not worthy, we are not loveable, we are not enough, we cannot make a difference, we are only as good as the work we do… But these messages are all poison.
We must first listen to God’s words which Pastor Liz reminded us of last week, The first words we will ever hear from this voice, that we are God’s beloved, and we can never lose that. And then second that our neighbors, the oppressed, the silenced, the houseless are also God’s beloved. We must develop faithful practices that help us discern God’s voice amongst the noise. As we take this Lenten journey together, consider what voices you are listening to? Make room to listen for God’s still small voice telling you that you are beloved. And then go to the world filled with messages of poison and share that good news of medicine with all our neighbors.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
As we begin this season of Lent, we will be exploring the theme of seeking. We will explore how seeking shows up in scripture and in our lives. Seeking for God, for love, for relationships, for grace, for forgiveness, and many other ways. In our scripture today, the people of God are seeking God but She is not showing up. They wonder, “Why are we fasting, but God does not see us? Why do we humble ourselves, but God does not notice?” The people are doing the tasks that God has asked but not following the heart of God in doing them. They are fasting. They are worshiping. They are tithing. But they are missing something crucial and therefore missing God in the process. God is not showing up.
So finally the prophet Isaiah shares how God responds to these people’s cries. God says, “You are looking in the wrong places – here’s what it looks like when I show up. The bonds of injustice are loosened, the thongs of the yoke are undone, the oppressed go free, bread is shared with the hungry, the homeless poor are brought into your homes, and you clothe the naked. You are doing all the things that look good to others but you are missing out on my heart, my heart is with the oppressed whom you continue to trample on and ignore their pleas. Do these things and you will find me! Then I will enjoy your worship.”
A note of caution: God’s words here are not another list of items to check off to somehow earn closeness to God. We draw closer to God when we do these things because God is love, and as Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.” What we find in this passage is that there is no separation between paying workers fairly and the life giving presence of God. There is no difference between feeding people who are hungry and God showing up in the flesh. There is no difference between making sure everyone is safely housed and us meeting God face to face. There is no difference between dismantling systems that oppress people and God dwelling right here in our midst.
This is not about earning God’s presence. It is about waking up to what God’s presence actually looks like. It is why the prophet casts this vision because when you do the work of justice, then you will call and the Lord will answer, then your light shall rise in the gloom, you will be watered like a garden, and your ancient ruins will be built up. Because when we meet God in the work, we draw close to God and reap the benefits of the beloved community that cares for all of our needs.
So are you ready to seek God this Lenten season? God has told us where to find Her. So when we fast, may it be to move closer to the poor. When we worship, may it be to break down the barriers between us. And when we tithe, may it be to feed the hungry and house the unhoused. This is what God desires for us. A world where all can flourish. And this starts with us. Let us seek after God this season.
17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
God speaks only twice in Matthew’s gospel, both times to Jesus in the hearing of whoever was around him. And both times, God essentially says the same thing: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
Honestly, my first reaction, given everything Jesus has been going through up until this point in the story, is that those words are just not enough to meet this moment. Just 8 verses earlier, Matthew tells us that “from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…” (Matthew 16:21). Jesus knows he has a target on his back for the ways he has been teaching people to resist Rome’s violence. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to those listening: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:41). That sounds a bit innocuous to our modern minds, but I learned this week that, in the words of commentator Warren Carter, “in response to… the labor Rome required from subject people, Jesus commands his followers… to carry the soldier’s pack twice the required distance… thus subverting imperial authority by putting the soldier in danger of being disciplined.” Not so innocuous after all! Jesus was actually teaching his followers methods of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience to resist their oppressors! And – in contrast to the “elite practices in the cities of the Roman Empire… [which involved] distribution of benefits to social-economic inferiors that made them into dependents,” Jesus calls the rich man in Matthew 19 to “divest and distribute his wealth among the poor” as a form of “restitution and justice,” actually changing economic relationships to create equality among the people rather than keeping some in perpetual poverty. Wherever he went, Jesus was challenging any practice that allowed power and wealth to be hoarded at the expense of the people. And we know this kind of ministry of resistance fueled Herod – Rome’s political pawn – to come after Jesus’ cousin John who had been teaching and enacting all the same things… until Herod finally beheaded John.
So now Jesus, who has been trying to get time away from the crowds ever since his cousin was executed, finally gets time on the mountain top to pray, knowing that this violence is coming for him next. And that’s why, to me, God’s words to Jesus feel so disconnected from everything Jesus must have been experiencing – the fear of being executed by the state, the overwhelm at the needs surrounding him all day every day, and the fact that he just couldn’t get his closest friends to understand what was really going on. I found myself wanting God to tell Jesus in this mountain top moment, “OK, here’s what you’ve got to do next” or “Here’s the winning strategy to get through this.” But no. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
As is usually the case, I needed to slow down to really be with these words. And after I did, it occurred to me that these are exactly the words Jesus needed to hear. Because there is actually no separation between Jesus hearing that he is beloved and his ministry of resistance that was about to get him killed. Because at the very root of Jesus’ organizing was the basic belief that each and every one of us are beloved. Before we can do anything to earn it. Before we can show ourselves to be of any practical use to anybody. Before we can produce labor of any kind. What is most true about us is that we are loved by God. Period. Full stop.
And this is the core truth that Rome stood against. In the Roman empire, individuals were objects to be controlled so that a few people could stay on top. Don’t forget that Matthew’s Gospel is where we find Herod murdering all baby boys under the age of 2 when he hears that Jesus has been born, just so he can keep the power Rome had given him to exploit his fellow Jews. And at the root of that violence is the belief that a person can somehow be separated from their inherent belovedness, that some lives are worth more than others. Every interaction Jesus had with those he met was to remind them that their inherent worth could never be taken away. He reminded each and every person that they were deserving of enough to eat and restored health and connection to community. It was this love made flesh that disrupted everything that kept an oppressive empire in place. And the empire would stop at nothing to execute this disruptive love before it could bring the empire to its knees.
Beloveds, to live as those who are firmly rooted in our irrevocable belovedness – and to extend that radical love to others – is to live in direct opposition to the empire of our time. If you were present for this past Wednesday’s community meeting about the affordable housing that Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington is building on the vacant lot next to us, you know this is true. As I stood in this room with the microphone for our neighbors to ask questions and express their feelings about this housing project, my heart was breaking. I heard in so many of those questions and comments evidence of the empire’s impact on our souls, with so many assumptions that there are some human beings who can be separated from their inherent worth, and thus be less deserving of what all of us need to live. And this reminded me that it has never been more important for a faith community like this one to go to the mountain top with Jesus and hear the voice of the Parent say, “This is my child, the Beloved; with them I am well pleased.” Because the forces of empire are getting louder than ever. They are trying to convince us that some lives deserve love and some do not. And so it has never been more urgent to firmly root ourselves in the reality that God’s love for us and for all beings is the kind of love that can never, ever be taken away.
You’ll notice that when God speaks these grounding words of love to Jesus, to us, Matthew tells us that a bright cloud overshadowed all of them. A cloud is moisture – water – suspended in the air. And the word in Greek used here for “cloud” is connected to the cloud that led the Israelietes through the wilderness for 40 years, on their way to the promised land. God’s words of love were accompanied by a cloud of water that can get us through the wilderness. I don’t think there could be any better way for Jesus to be reminded of the last time he heard his Parent speak these words of love to him, which was at his baptism by his now-murdered cousin John in the Jordan River. And I don’t think there’s any better way for us to be reminded of the same baptism that has claimed each and every one of us. For Presbyterians, who baptize anyone of any age, including babies, baptism is a sign that God loves us before we can do anything to earn it. And as we have heard today, living as baptized people who believe this is true about us and every single human being, makes us very dangerous to the empire. Because our baptism drives us to be those who know so deeply that we are loved beyond measure that we cannot help but spend our lives showing every neighbor we meet that the same thing is true about them. That leads us to feed everyone, to provide free healthcare and affordable housing, to make sure everyone has access to a quality education, to make sure every single person can feel in their body that they are loved, they are valued, and that these are the things about them that can never be taken away.
Matthew tells us that, “when the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” Jesus heard that he was loved without limit, and this gave him what he needed to touch his friends, to encourage them to not be afraid, and to start walking back down the mountain to keep on resisting the lies of Rome. We are actually going to take some time right now to remember our baptism with the water of the baptismal font, that sign with water that tells us we are loved beyond measure, and that we are called to show that love to everyone we meet, no matter how the empire might try and stop us. If you’d like to receive the sign of the cross with water on your forehead, you’ll be invited forward during the music to receive, or you can raise your hand and Pastor Dexter will bring the water to your seat. Zoom worshippers, you can use water at home to give yourself or those with you the sign of the cross on your forehead. As we are marked with the sign of the cross in water, we will say, “Know that you are loved. Go share this love with the world.” Let’s take this time to remember the truly radical meaning of our baptism.
Friends, may the cloud of our baptism enshroud us as a reminder that we are loved. If you’ve never been baptized before but would like to be, talk to one of the pastors after church! Grounded in love, may we not be afraid to walk back down the mountain together, so fully aware of our belovedness that the empire knows us to be a threat and ready for the work of resistance that is to come. Amen.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a sibling, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a sibling, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your sibling has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your sibling, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with them, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’m not touching you. I’m not touching you. Okay, so I was technically following the letter of the law. My parents had told me to stop touching my brother. So I followed the law. Like a good son, I did not break my parents’ rules. But somehow my brother was still annoyed and my parents were getting upset at me. What had I done wrong?
It seems like Jesus is dealing with a similar set of problems as my annoying boyish self. Moses had given good and helpful laws to the Jewish people from way back when. Jesus lived his life by these laws saying in just the previous verses to our passage today that not one dot or stroke of the law would be removed. Jesus is not wanting to reject the law as this passage has sometimes been misinterpreted. Instead, Jesus is teaching us about the spirit of the law.
This focus is on the laws of God that help govern and care for our relationships with one another. Jesus is not making more laws. Jesus is trying to install an ethic of love and care for our neighbor, as Jesus clearly highlighted throughout his life.
So first, Jesus looks at the question of murder. Okay, everyone thinks this is wrong for the most part. So when Jesus says that anger could also lead to condemnation this seems a little intense. I want to pause and say that Jesus is not saying that anger is wrong. Jesus clearly gets angry later in the gospel and flips some tables and whips some people taking advantage of the poor. So if it is not anger that is bad, it seems to be how anger shapes our actions. Jesus talks about how anger can lead to insulting others and breaking relationships. So from the most extreme breaking of relationships with murder to the more regular breaking of relationships through our words, Jesus highlights that reconciliation is needed. So much so that Jesus says that reconciliation is more important than worship! This follows in line with the prophets who would decry worship that was done while the worshipers also kept some in poverty and oppression. So Jesus wants us to know that we need to keep an ethic of love and care for our neighbor more than checking off the worship attendance list.
And then Jesus really dives in the deep end. Jesus continues his extrapolation of the law and engages adultery in his context. This one has been really misused in patriarchal societies to trap people into abusive marriages. And that interpretation is harmful and should be discarded. But I think that misses out on the ethic that Jesus is wanting to instill in his disciples. If the ethic is care for other humans, then is Jesus wanting people in abusive relationships to stay? Absolutely not. In fact, Jesus seems to single out men in their treatment of women in his society calling out lust. I believe Jesus continues teaching about his ethic of love of neighbor to condemn the way his society treats women more like property than children of God. This teaching of Jesus reinforces the dignity of women. Jesus’ ethic built on the law requires care and worth for all human beings and calls us to live out those values to make sure all people flourish.
Jesus then moves to the idea of vows. It seems clear that Jesus wants us to keep our word. In Jesus’ day a person’s vow was as important as our paperwork is today. You can’t do anything today without signing something: paying with a credit card needs a signature, moving into a home or apartment has a ton of paperwork, getting a new job has you fill out lots of forms. Back then the community value was on keeping your word. And if you did not keep your word, you would lose credibility in your community, the community you needed to survive. It would break the relational bond between people.
Sometimes when we read these intensifications from Jesus, we might hear them as a checklist to accomplish. But actually they are meant to lead us to flourishing! They are not meant to trap us in a legalistic framework but instead expose us to an ethic of concern for our neighbor. They are not meant to privilege the law, the written words over and above human relationship. Instead they are a path to right relationships with God and neighbor and the earth and even ourselves.
What rules do we live by today? Work 40 hours a week? Make sure to hoard wealth? Call the police when you see something suspicious? Ignore the homeless person on the corner asking for money or help? Avoid the poor neighborhoods in town? Make assumptions based on clothing or language or skin color? Do not ask others for help? What other rules can you think of that might need to be changed, discarded, or intensified? Do these rules lead to the flourishing of life or to the destruction of relationships? This is the ethic that Jesus is calling us to, an ethic that cares for our neighbors flourishing. We must live toward this ethic and not let culture or law or anything else be used as an excuse to stop this loving ethic. Let us go and live this law of love.
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let me set the stage for our passage today with some words of context from my dear friend, the Rev. Anne Dunlap, from a recent podcast she did about this sermon from Jesus to his fellow organizers: “…this is really the first time Jesus sits down with his people and shares some teaching wisdom with them. In the arc of Matthew’s narrative, the Beatitudes [which y’all heard about from Pastor Linda Beattie last week and which come right before our passage today] come after Jesus’s Baptism and the Temptations in the wilderness, Jesus learning his cousin John has been thrown in jail by Herod, and Jesus getting himself to safety in Galilee where he promptly begins to organize by calling leaders. After some time healing folks,” Rev. Anne says, “he starts to gain a big following – and then, he takes his organizers, AKA his disciples up the mountain for some reflection time.” (Rev. Anne Dunlap, The Word Is Resistance Podcast, “Episode 277: Blessed Are Those Who Refuse, 1.29.23” transcript.)
In other words, Jesus and his friends have seen some stuff in the last bit of their journey – overwhelming trauma, state repression of their movement, and so many folx in need of healing care. And we can relate. It isn’t hard to connect to their experience of being surrounded by people in need of healing and support – sometimes it’s us who need it – and feeling overwhelmed by how much needs to be done. It’s devastatingly easy to connect with the experience of the Roman empire throwing Jesus’ cousin John in jail, sending Jesus fleeing for his safety. We don’t need to look further than the murders of beloved ones by the police in the last couple weeks – like land defender Tortuguita (they/them) who was murdered by police in Atlanta for trying to save a forest the city wants to chop down so they can build a fake city where cops can practice military tactics for use in local communities. Or Tyre Nichols, beaten by the Memphis Police Department during a traffic stop as he called out for his mom for help, dying later in the hospital.
I think Jesus knows all of this is too much for any one person to live through without taking time to stop. To breathe. To grieve. To process. Which is why Jesus walks up a mountainside to help himself and his friends physically embody their need to see the big picture before going back down into the thick of it again. After all they have seen in these early days of their ministry, I bet Jesus’ folx were on that hillside wondering, “Am I enough to meet the days ahead?”
And I confess that I often twist these words of Jesus as I read them, making them into a list of “shoulds”. I re-word Jesus’ teaching in my head to say, “Become the salt of the earth” and “Turn yourself into the light of the world.” Oh great – another way I don’t measure up. Thanks, Jesus. But that’s not what Jesus says! “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to these brand new organizers. “You are the light of the world.” In other words, the calling of the disciples is a lot less like venturing far away somewhere to become like someone else and a lot more like coming home to who they have always been. And who is that, exactly? I love what theologian Nichola Torbett has to say about what it means to be salt and light: “Salt is valuable for the way it flavors everything around it…” Nichola writes. “Light is changed by the shadow of everything that passes near it, and it is not more valuable than shadow. To say that we are salt and light is to say that we impact and are impacted by everything around us. We are exquisitely relational. And Jesus comes not to change that – not to make us inflexible and morally superior but to show us how to live in mutual loving relationship.” (Nichola Torbett, Liturgy that Matters: February 5, 2023 – Matthew 5:13-20, “enfleshed: spiritual nourishment for collective liberation.”)
This is also why Jesus tells these new leaders of the resistance movement not to forsake the tradition of their Jewish ancestors, who have a long lineage of challenging powers of domination that have threatened to choke out their community’s ability to live in interdependent relationships of care with one another. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” Jesus says. We get a glimpse into the actual practices of this Jewish law and prophetic tradition that Jesus is referencing in the psalm Darcy read for us today – “It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice,” the psalmist says (Ps. 112:5). The righteous, in this psalm, are those who “have distributed freely, they have given to the poor…” (Ps. 112:9). With their actual material possessions, God’s people have always been those who refuse to hoard wealth and insist on spreading it out so everyone has enough, like salt flavoring and preserving everything it touches, like light illuminating every corner it reaches.
At its very best, I believe this is what church is supposed to be. It’s a place we gather to remember who we really are – beings created to be in relationships of mutual love and care with everything and everyone around us. After all, salt only has saltiness if there’s someone there to taste it. And light is at its very best when it comes into contact with everything around it, making shadows dance and colors refract. So much in American society wants us to do the opposite: To go it alone. To compete. To take more than we need so that others don’t have enough. To pretend we don’t need help when we actually do. To protect and build up our own wealth because we think it will keep us safe. And Jesus knows that the empire will try to program his followers – program us – to believe these lies of rugged individualism and scarcity. That’s what this hillside moment is all about – to remind everyone following Jesus that we are salt that is made to be in relationships that flavor everything and everyone around us for the better. That we are light meant to dance with whoever we meet in this life. That the law and the prophets – the practices of ancestors who walked this very same path before us – are thick with grace that surrounds us, moving us forward in boldness when it is hard to know the way.
Beloveds, you already know how to be salt and light. I see it every day! I see it in how you are building real communities of mutual support with our beloveds who are currently incarcerated or coming home to our community. I see it in a Deacons Fund that keeps redistributing more and more money to support our friends and loved ones with every year that passes. I see it in the Blessing Box donations that overflow every communion Sunday to feed our neighborhood. I see it in the ways you show up for each other in times of celebration and in times of grief. And so my question to you is – how is God calling you to go even deeper into this illuminated and salty life you were made for? If you’ve dipped your toe in that pool, what might it look like for you to go, “all in”? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. This is who God created you to be, and no one, nothing can take that away from you. Amen.