Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-24

As we left off with Elijah last week, he was hiding from the idolatrous King Ahab across the Jordan River. The prophet had arrived unceremoniously on the scene to that a drought was coming – presumably directly related to Ahab’s worship of the Canaanite storm god, Baal. After that, God told Elijah to run, and so for two years he lived by the Wadi Cherith, and drank from the stream, and ravens brought him breakfast and dinner.

It’s a beautiful story of divine provision for someone who stuck his neck out to deliver God’s word, but Elijah has announced a drought, and eventually that drought reaches his own water source as well.

As I said last week, though, all is not lost. This is simply the beginning of Elijah’s next adventure.

When the stream dries up, God tells Elijah to go to a town called Zarephath, which is in Sidon – an interesting fact if we remember that Ahab’s wife Jezebel is a princess of Sidon. Nevertheless, God tells Elijah to go and that he will find a woman there, a widow, who God has appointed to feed him, just like the ravens did by the Wadi Cherith.

So Elijah goes.

As he reaches the town, he sees the woman in question, gathering wood. He calls out to her and asks for a cup of water, and she goes to get some. The story doesn’t say, but considering the general state of things, I wouldn’t be surprised if she has gone to get Elijah some of the last of the water available to her.

As she’s going, Elijah calls out after her, “How about a bite to eat?”

At this the widow turns around and says – and this is paraphrase – “For God’s sake, man, can’t you tell there’s a drought? I don’t have any food for you. No one has food. I’m here gathering sticks so I can make bread from the last flour we have and then my son and I will just wait to die.”

And Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid. Go prepare some food for me first, and then there will be plenty for you and your son as well.”

You can imagine how the widow must be feeling at this point. Here is this random man who’s just showed up telling her that if she just gives him the last she has, everything will be OK. I wouldn’t blame her for telling him to get lost. Elijah must come off here as a sleazy TV preacher, telling her to send in her rent money for the month so that God can bless her through him.

But on the other hand, what does she have to lose?

So she does what he says. And, as promised, the flour doesn’t run out and the oil doesn’t run out and the widow and her son and Elijah eat their fill the whole time that he stays with them.

It’s a wonderful story of God’s abundance, like others we know: it’s the feeding of the five thousand, where a few people give their paltry loaves and fish and the masses eat and twelve baskets of scraps are picked up at the end. It’s the rededication of the Temple, the story of Hanukkah, where the oil that keeps the sacred lamp burning doesn’t run out for eight days.

The author Jana Riess tells a story about a summer she worked at a Christian camp, not making a lot of money, and how as she prepared to return for her senior year of college in Massachusetts, she realized she didn’t have a coat. She had also been promising herself that she was going to take tithing more seriously, but as she sat down to figure out her budget, she realized she could either tithe on her camp stipend or she could buy a coat.

She divided her last $100 between two global mission organizations.

When Jana did find a coat, which cost $85, her mom then said she would pay for it, which was a surprise because Jana had been buying her own clothes for years.

“That’s my one tithing miracle story,” she writes. “I’m sure that many experienced Christians will have a problem with the tidiness of it. I know, I’ve never liked the mentality of ‘if you only give, God will make you prosper,’ or ‘God will pay you back a hundredfold.’ I don’t think that God works that way…except for this one time when God did.”[1]

Look, I’m not telling anyone to give up the last of your rent money or winter coat money to a sleazy TV preacher (or to me.) And I know not everyone has a mom to help out at the last minute. I, also, don’t think God works that way…except that maybe once in a while God does.

However, just when our story has turned from abundance to scarcity to abundance, it turns to scarcity again. After ALL this poor widow has been through, her son gets sick and dies, or depending on how we read the text, at least he is right at death’s door.

The widow says to Elijah, “Man of God, what did I do to you? Why have you brought this upon us? Why have you made God remember my sin?” Never mind that Elijah has kept them in flour and oil since he’s been staying with them; never mind that we don’t have any indication from the text that Elijah has anything to do with this or even that it’s a direct act of God – this woman has been through hell, and she’s grieving, and she’s blaming Elijah, and she’s blaming herself, and none of it needs to make any sense.

Elijah, for his part, could get defensive. He could tell her that this has nothing to do with him, that all he’s done is help. He’s the one who SAVED her son, who was about to starve: he has no interest in killing him. But Elijah doesn’t say that. Instead he says, “Give him to me.” He takes him up to the room where he is staying. And then, before he does anything else, what does he do? He looks up to heaven and says, “God, what are you doing? Why would you let this happen to this poor widow?”

Then he stretches himself out over the boy’s body, and prays for God to restore his life, and God does.

I’m sure that to the widow, waiting downstairs, the important part of this story is that she gets her son back. To the author of the biblical text, the important part of the story is God works through Elijah, that we have confirmation that, as the widow says, “The word of the Lord truly is in your mouth.” To me, though, the important part of the story is instead of fighting back against this widow’s grief and desperation, Elijah takes it to God.

I am no Elijah, with the power to make food multiply or raise people from the dead, but I know that there are times when I am confronted with some sort of terrible pain that is not directly my own. That’s the case sometimes when I read stories in the news of migrant boats capsizing in the Mediterranean or children drowning in the Rio Grande trying to make their way across the border to the US; or when something senselessly tragic happens to a friend, or when someone comes to me for prayer who is suffering in a way that I don’t have any answer or fix for. The truth is that anything I pray in those situations feels kind of paltry, and sometimes all that I have is something along the lines of “God, what are you doing, here?”

I don’t think it’s a very good prayer…except that sometimes, maybe it is. Maybe Elijah’s job is not just to speak God’s word to people but to speak on behalf of people to God. To help God hear their pain and grief, even if God already knows. Isn’t that what Jesus did, when he cried at the death of Lazarus, seeing the pain of Mary and Martha? Isn’t that the same kind of honesty with which he spoke when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane asking God to take this cup from him?

In this story, God responds, and the widow’s son lives. I know that’s not always how it works. I know not all prayers, even prayers lifted by holy people, get the response they seek. But maybe once in a while they do.

But even when that’s not the case, it helps to know that someone is willing to take our pain up to God for us, that someone is willing to advocate for us with the divine, and maybe that can even be where healing begins.

Sometimes, God makes God’s abundance known to us through ravens, divine gifts from heaven. Sometimes God shows us abundance through flour and oil, the basic staples of our lives, that don’t run out even though we fear they will. And sometimes, God shows us abundance even in times of grief and pain and scarcity, through those who are willing to walk and pray and feel and hurt along with us. Sometimes we are called to share that gift with others. And it’s possible – because maybe, just maybe, it works like this – that healing even begins there.

Elijah is on the move and God is at work, with him and through him. He’ll do well to keep these miraculous days in mind as he heads back now to Samaria to face King Ahab once again.

[1] Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor, p. 160-161.

Adventures of Elijah and Elisha: Elijah and the Ravens

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:1-7

Summer is, traditionally, a time for adventures.

I actually don’t know if that’s the case this year. Probably some of us are still being cautious, being slow and intentional about our reentry into human society. Others of us may truly be ready to live it up after 15 months or so of relative isolation. Or maybe last summer we discovered some new adventures closer to home, new hiking trails or uncrowded beaches or other Covid-safe getaways, and we’re looking forward to revisiting some of those this year.

No matter what adventures your summer may or may not hold this year, we’re going to follow two Old Testament prophets, the confusingly-named Elijah and Elisha, on some of theirs.

Elijah and Elisha are more than just guys who tell the future. They are intricately involved in the complicated, dangerous politics of ancient Israel. You may remember from your Hebrew Bible history that after the death of Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms, northern and southern. At this point the Bible begins telling two parallel histories. You probably skipped over a lot of these parts in Sunday School, because it’s a lot of kings (and even a few queens) coming to power and dying and sometimes intermarrying and sometimes going to war with each other, and it’s generally just a lot to keep track of. The Northern Kingdom, especially, has a Game of Thrones kind of vibe with some very bloody stories of would-be kings fighting it out. Of course, it’s worth it to keep in mind that all these stories are told, at least in the form we now have them, from a Southern Kingdom perspective.

It’s into this Northern Kingdom chaos that the prophet Elijah enters the scene, during the reign of a king named Ahab.

Ahab is the son of Omri, who killed the previous king Zimri, who killed the previous king Elah – and he is not remembered fondly in the text of the Bible. He married a foreign princess, Jezebel of Sidon, and he began to build altars to Jezebel’s god, the Canaanite storm god Baal. We read in 1 Kings 16 that Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than anyone who preceded him.”

Elijah slips onto the scene relatively quietly. He doesn’t get a dramatic prophetic call story: no burning bush, no word from the Lord. Instead, the first thing we read about Elijah are his words to Ahab: “As the Lord lives, there will be neither dew nor rain until I say so.”

There’s no explanation, no threat, but we can make an educated guess that this proclamation is related to Ahab’s idolatry, and specifically his worship of a god known for making rain.[1] My guess is that Ahab is capable of making this connection too. But of course, as far as he knows, Elijah is no one. He’s just a cranky constituent. He’s like someone standing alone with a protest sign in front of the White House – there to make a point, but presumably without much power to actually change things.

But ancient Israel is not a democracy, and its kings don’t tend to take kindly to cranky constituents.

Ahab doesn’t even respond before the Lord tells Elijah to run away – confirming for us that Elijah is, in fact, speaking for God here. God tells him to go east and hide in the Wadi Cherith, wadi being like a brook or stream. God says he can drink from the stream and that God has commanded ravens to bring him food. And Elijah does, and they do. This is Elijah’s own manna in the wilderness experience.

Maybe you’ve experienced a time like this, when you’ve been in trouble and God has provided for you and cared for you in unexpected ways. I think of the time I traveled to Korea for the World Methodist Conference – one of my summer adventures years ago. I had just graduated from college and it was my first time traveling alone, let alone to a completely unfamiliar place. It was already growing dark as I got off the plane in Incheon and took a bus to Seoul, and when I got off at my stop, I realized I was totally lost. Most of the shops were boarded up for the night, and if they’d been open I didn’t speak the right language to ask for help anyway, and to make matters worse it was starting to rain.

God didn’t send birds to help, but God did send me the one remaining shopkeeper on that street who hadn’t gone home. I showed her my guidebook and pointed to where I was supposed to be going. And since I couldn’t understand anything she said, she ended up walking with me to my hostel, holding her umbrella over my suitcase as we went.

That is a story of providence that I’m sure was divine, yet I’m not sure it completely captures what is happening for Elijah here. I decided to go on my adventure. But Elijah isn’t on an adventure for adventure’s sake. Instead, Elijah has taken a giant risk in doing what he believes God needed him to do – no matter that we never hear God explicitly telling Elijah to confront Ahab in the first place. This story isn’t just about God sustaining us in the wilderness, but about God giving us what we need when God’s work is hard and risky but we agree to do it anyway.

Maybe you’ve never had ravens serve you bread, but maybe somehow you’ve stepped out in faith before to follow God’s call not sure you were going to make it but somehow you did. Maybe it involved a big life change or a significant financial risk. Maybe it involved opening up your life to someone you believed God put in it when you weren’t sure where that would lead. Maybe, like for Elijah, it involved speaking truth to power, and all the danger that comes along with that.  And then maybe you had enough when you didn’t know if you would have enough, and maybe you were safe when you didn’t know if you would be safe, and maybe God simply gave you strength and people to help along the way.

I think of the disciples, who left their homes and their fishing nets to follow Jesus, who called them unconditionally but also told would-be followers to count the cost before they made any rash decisions. I think of how those disciples went out two by two to share the Gospel and they weren’t even allowed to pack a bag. They didn’t know where they would sleep that night or what was going to be for dinner. It was a risk, but it was God’s risk, and they had enough.

I think of the story of Mother Pollard, which Martin Luther King Jr. told in his speech at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Mother Pollard was an elder at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. King had been the pastor.  When the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, 70-year-old Mother Pollard walked. And she kept walking. At one point someone stopped and asked her, didn’t she want to give up and ride? And she said, “I’m gonna walk just as long as everybody else walks. I’m gonna walk till it’s over.” And they said, “But aren’t your feet tired?” And she said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”[2]

I imagine that’s the way Elijah might have felt there in the Wadi Cherith – tired, lonely, uncertain about the future – but with a soul that was at rest, because he had done what God needed him to do.

I don’t mean to promise that these things always just work out for the best. Surely there are many stories of people who step out in faith to follow God’s call and do pay the ultimate price. Jesus himself, of course, was one of them, and yet God was faithful then too.

Elijah isn’t magically protected from all consequences. He has set a drought in motion, and eventually even his own stream dries up. And yet, even this is not the end of Elijah’s story. The jig is not up! As we’ll hear about next week, this is simply the beginning of Elijah’s next adventure, another opportunity for God to show God’s faithfulness. Because when you step out in faith to do God’s work, not much is promised, except that in one way or another, through ravens or neighbors, full stomachs or rest for weary souls or the promise of life that undefeated by death, God is bound to show up.

[1] Choon-Leong Seow, The First and Second Books of Kings: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections. New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. III, p. 126.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Our God Is Marching On!” Montgomery, AL, March 25, 1965.

Come, Holy Spirit: God Among Us

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

A few years ago – maybe a little more than that by now – some of us sat down over brunch around tables in the Fellowship Hall to come up with our new Arlington Temple UMC mission statement.  We talked about what we do here, and what gifts God has given us, and what are the most crucial aspects of who we are as a community of faith.

Those were the questions we asked as we talked and scribbled our answers on newsprint and whiteboards. But really, the conversation was about something bigger than that: what does it mean to be the church? How about particularly now, and particularly here? And how do we live into that?

You may know the end result of that meeting, or maybe not: The mission of Arlington Temple United Methodist Church, we decided, is to be a welcoming community, called by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and equipped to go out as God’s people in the world. The most familiar part of that for many of you will be the words “go out as God’s people in the world,” which echoes the charge we hear and accept at the end of worship each week, words we were saying and which were already shaping our identity before they were part of any official mission statement.

But I want to go up a line now, because this group of church members and leaders decided that day that one of the most fundamental parts of who we are as a church is that we are a community empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is something we proclaim and believe about ourselves – that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be not just any people, but God’s people – and that to be God’s people in the world is not just something we can decide all on our own.

Today is Pentecost, the day we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire to disciples waiting in Jerusalem for their next instructions. As we read last week on Ascension Sunday, Jesus has just ascended into heaven and he’s told the disciples they will be witnesses – not just in Jerusalem but also in all of Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth. They will be witnesses, but not right away. They need to wait to be “clothed with power from on high.” They can’t just decide to do it all on their own, either.

The story of Pentecost is the story of a group of people who become God’s people. Maybe that sounds strange to say, because after all, they are already created by and beloved of God; they have already been following Jesus; they are already poised and waiting for their next steps; still, it takes the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to both make this group of waiting people into something called the church, and to send them out into the world to begin their mission.

As we’ve talked about the Holy Spirit over these last few weeks we’ve talked about the Holy Spirit as God For Us, our helper and advocate; as God In Us, who challenges us and helps us grow, and as God Around Us, who “incites fresh visions of God’s new world” and brings those visions of love and justice to fruition. And, today, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is God Among Us, who makes people into God’s people, the church.

What will this church do and be? It will worship and pray, and share meals together, and pool its resources so no one has too little and no one has too much. Its leaders will perform signs and wonders, and its people will go out into new places, and they’ll tell and show people who Jesus is, and they’ll get in good trouble (as John Lewis would say), and when they’re at a loss for words the Holy Spirit will give them words to say.

They’ll go to prison and they’ll risk their lives and they’ll meet new people and they’ll reconsider everything they knew about who’s in and who’s out, and in all of it, the Holy Spirit will be at work, calling and strengthening and sending them and reminding them who they are.

Most of the people who do these things are not otherwise impressive or extraordinary people. The vast majority aren’t even named – they’re just the crowds who come and listen and find that what they hear is life-changing, who see the church being the church and know instinctively that this is what it means for God’s kingdom to come on earth. And the ones who are named, the disciples who first received that fire from the Holy Spirit, are the same ones who just seven weeks earlier had run away in the face of danger, who fought over who was the greatest, who just never seemed to quite get it. But armed with the good news of the resurrection and the power of the Spirit, these ordinary people are sent out of the world as God’s people.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel like fire. John has his own, quieter version of Pentecost that he tells in his Gospel. In John, it’s still the day of Easter, and the disciples are not waiting but hiding behind closed doors, not yet believing Jesus is alive and not knowing what happens next. Jesus comes and stands among them, offers them peace, shows them his hands and his side. Then he says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” He breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Sometimes the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel like fire. Sometimes she feels like breath, enlivening tired and worn-out bodies, calming the fears that keep us huddled inside closed doors. But in this story, too, the disciples are sent. Jesus doesn’t say where, and he doesn’t say for what. Maybe that’s because it could be anywhere, and maybe that’s because they know – as the Father sent him, he sends them; everything that he was for them, they are to be for the world. And they are empowered – even to forgive sins. In John’s story, too, the disciples receive the Spirit and become the church.

What does it mean to be the church? It’s worship and prayer, study and growth. It’s sharing life together, around tables in the Fellowship Hall or over Zoom. It’s comforting and helping and challenging each other. It’s feeding our homeless neighbors and loading up baskets with detergent and paper towels for folks moving in up the street. It’s sharing with each other how God is working in our lives and learning how to share that with other people, too, to not be so scared. It’s inviting people in – and, it’s going out, to be God’s people in the world, every day, wherever our lives take us, wherever the wind of the Spirit blows, in Rosslyn and all of Arlington and the DC area and to the ends of the earth.

In the past fourteen months we’ve learned how to be the church in new ways. In the next few years we’ll learn how to be the church in new ways again, as we hopefully move back into our building at some point, adjust to our new post-Covid world, move back out, find a new home base in this community as we prepare for this space to be redeveloped, and discern what God wants us to be for the future. In all of it, we wait for our next instructions. In all of it, we trust that the Spirit will show up, that she will bring us together, remind us who we are, and send us out into the world near and far – making people into God’s people, over and over.

Come, Holy Spirit: God Around Us

Scripture: Ephesians 2:14-22

The past six or so weeks have been a whirlwind journey for Jesus’ disciples: first their teacher was killed, then he rose from the dead; now, 40 days later, it’s time to say goodbye again. This is Ascension Sunday, when the resurrected Jesus returns to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father.

Before he goes, Jesus has some final words for his disciples. He interprets Scripture for them, helping them to understand how everything that has happened fits in to the story God has been telling from the beginning of time. He tells them they are witnesses of these things. And then, he tells them to wait – the time will come for them to go off and do their witnessing, but for now, they should stay in Jerusalem “until they have been clothed with power from on high.”

What they’re waiting for is the Holy Spirit. They’re waiting for God to come and be with them in a new and powerful way now that Jesus is gone in an earthly sense. This 10 days of waiting leads us into Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next week, when the Spirit does come in wind and fire to commission the disciples for their mission as the church.

So far in our series on the Holy Spirit we have talked about the Spirit as God For Us – our helper, comforter, and advocate – and God In Us – the one who gives us new birth and shapes our hearts and lives in the image of God.  The “Power from on high” that the disciples wait for in Jerusalem, though, is not just a power that changes individual hearts and lives. This is a Spirit who is bigger than us, who comes to shake up and transform the world.

You may remember that way back at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went to synagogue, and he got up to read and opened the scroll to Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus’ life and ministry ushered in a new age through this anointing of the Spirit, and now that he is gone, the Spirit is about to usher in a new age again. With this anointing of the Spirit comes liberation, and healing, and radical reversal, and life after death: all things that often seem impossible by human standards.

When I was in seminary, I heard a sermon by Bishop Peter Storey of the Methodist Church of South Africa, who had been part of the anti-apartheid struggle alongside people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I don’t remember a lot about the sermon except that it was at a conference on peace, and he began it by quoting from the classic book Alice in Wonderland. Alice has just met the Queen of Hearts and asked her how old she is. The Queen replies that she is a hundred and five. Alice laughs at that. “One can’t believe impossible things,” she says. “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Bishop Storey preached that peace was, in fact, possible – even when it seems like it’s not. This is the work of the Holy Spirit: making the impossible possible, giving us the potential to imagine, and the courage to proclaim impossible things like release of captives and freedom for the oppressed and resurrection of the dead.

After the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost, Christian communities beginning to form in new places as the disciples go out and witness like Jesus said.  And one of the things that seemed impossible is that this body newly made up of both Jews and Gentiles could ever be one unified group. That’s what we read about in Ephesians, a letter to a Gentile church or churches that struggled to fully understand their place in a Jewish story. Paul writes that Christ has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility” that once divided Jew from Gentile, to make them into one group, and announced the “good news of peace” to both alike.

As Paul writes on he says that this church made up of Jews and Gentiles is being built into a house, resting on the foundation of the apostles and prophets and with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. “Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit,” he says. In other words, the Holy Spirit is at work here, creating something that is bigger than individual holy people: the reconciliation of two ethnic groups brought together by Christ. The Spirit is at work, creating something that otherwise might not have been, something that might never have been envisioned or thought possible – creating peace where there had been hostility.

Daniel Migliore, who wrote my seminary theology textbook, wrote that the Holy Spirit “incites fresh visions of God’s new world.” I always loved that – the Spirit gives us new visions of what might be and is at work bringing those things to fruition. It’s kind of like the prophet Joel writes: In those days God’s Spirit will be poured out upon all people. … Your sons and your daughter shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. When Peter gets up to preach on the day of Pentecost, it’s Joel he quotes; it’s this prophecy he sees coming to pass. It’s not just about speaking in tongues, it’s about the beginning of something new and impossible in this world.

How much do we need the Holy Spirit now, to come and incite fresh visions of God’s new world in us, to create things that we never thought could be.

I’ve been thinking of this lately especially in the wake of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who was convicted of killing George Floyd last summer. It seems like many of us – though of course this is controversial – are coming to an understanding in the wake of incidents like these that policing needs to somehow look different. For some people that means better training and greater accountability – rooting out the few bad apples who show up in the news, and giving the good ones better tools. Others have been talking about defunding the police, and instead paying other professionals to do some of the things that have come to be under the law enforcement umbrella – people like social workers and mental health professionals and trained crisis responders. And some have called for abolishing the police altogether, arguing that the institution of policing in the US has its origins in the purpose of catching runaway slaves, and therefore is inherently and irredeemably racist.[1]

I know we probably have all sorts of views and experiences when it comes to police here, both in this country and elsewhere in the world, and I’m not equipped to advocate any particular policy position today. What I have realized in the midst of all this discussion is that, as a white person who grew up in this country with a certain positive view of police and their role in society, I sometimes find myself getting stuck when it comes to the ability to envision anything different than what is.  I think, “Well, of course we need police to do such-and-such, how else would this get done?” or “Of course we need to be able to call police in such-and-such a situation, how else would I be safe?” I say this as someone who has called on and been helped by police in various situations, including here at Arlington Temple – and as someone who is still learning that not everyone grew up learning that the police were there to help and protect them. I am realizing that something needs to change that is perhaps beyond what I am able to envision, and so one thing that I have been praying for recently is imagination – the holy imagination to believe that things don’t have to be a certain way just because they are now.

This is hardly just a matter of one issue, of course. Can we imagine that things could be different when it comes to climate change, and the parts of our lives and society and infrastructure that play a role in it? Can we imagine that things could be different when it comes to gun violence in our country – that we don’t actually have to accept the status quo of mass shootings every day; that something else is possible? When it comes to the church (not just our church), can we imagine something less beholden to outdated institution, new ways of being that will allow us to take the good news of God’s love into the present and the future?

Do we believe the Holy Spirit can incite fresh visions of God’s new world?

Do we believe that she is already at work transforming and creating it?

Not in a vacuum, of course. The transformation of the world means the transformation of people – and yet it is so much bigger than us, so much bigger than our individual comfort and happiness, so much bigger than our individual purity and holiness.

This is the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us see the possibilities of God’s future in the impossibilities of the present, to give us the power to both believe and proclaim impossible things, and to join the work of the Spirit in bringing them to fruition. God’s Spirit, God’s future, justice, peace, and liberation: so much holy possibility.


Come, Holy Spirit: God In Us

Scripture: Mark 1:9-13; Galatians 5:22-23; John 3:1-8

There’s a page I follow on Facebook – it’s called Unvirtuous Abbey,[1] and it’s a good place for theologically sound yet slightly irreverent Christian humor. One of the things that the people who run this page have done is a series of “Actual photos of the Holy Spirit,” using bird pictures, because one way the Holy Spirit is depicted in the Bible is as a bird, a dove.

For example:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit on Her way to comfort someone in need.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit carrying your burdens for a little while so you can rest.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit telling you not to give up even though She knows it’s really hard right now.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit standing in solidarity with your pandemic hairstyle and fashion.

Some of them are a little harder hitting:

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit wondering why you just said that.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit saying, ‘Oh no you didn’t’ when you just did.

Actual photo of the Holy Spirit. She’s on Her way. You know what you did.

You might remember that last week, we talked about the Holy Spirit as parakletos, our comforter, encourager, and advocate, who I called God For Us. And the Holy Spirit is all of these things. But it’s not the Holy Spirit’s only job to comfort us and affirm us. That sounds nice, to some extent, but also ultimately lacking. Just like a good friend who is always there to listen but you know is also going to tell you the truth, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to be God For Us but also to work in us to challenge, transform, and renew us.

At the beginning of this service we heard the passage from Mark’s Gospel where the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (like a dove), and then – did you catch what happens after that? We read that immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Not gently led him into the wilderness, which is what Matthew and Luke say, but drove him there. The Spirit is driving Jesus into this place where it’s going to be really hard for a while and he’s going to be spiritually prepared for his ministry and all that lies before him. It’s not so warm and fuzzy, but it is, presumably, something Jesus needs to do – something he might not choose to do on his own.

John doesn’t tell us about Jesus in the wilderness – probably from John’s perspective, Jesus is born prepared. But John does tell us a story about a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus under the cover of night. He seems to know there is something special about Jesus, and he wants to be able to figure it out, to try to put his finger on what it is. He says no one can do the things Jesus does unless they are from God.  And even though Nicodemus hasn’t really asked, Jesus tells him that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above – or, depending on your translation, born anew or born again.

Nicodemus says, “How is that possible?” and Jesus says to him, “Truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In other words, this is of course not a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one, one in which the Spirit herself is at work and that is affirmed and ritualized in our baptism.

Some of us may think of spiritual rebirth as like a gentle, meditative, finding-enlightenment kind of process, but I’m going to tell you that if that’s the kind of process we’re talking about, I don’t think “birth” is a good image. You know what’s not a gentle, meditative process? Birth. Birth is, in fact, not only hard and painful but dangerous, both for the one giving it and the one being birthed. AND it’s also the only way for new life to emerge. I see no reason for being born of the Spirit to be different. Not an easy or comfortable process, but a life-giving one.

Sometimes that might mean keeping our mouths shut when we really want to say something – or finding the courage to speak up when we might have remained silent.

Sometimes it might mean going through the pain of giving up on a toxic relationship in order to move forward, or letting go of a long-held grudge and moving toward reconciliation.

Sometimes it might mean repenting, and beginning to walk down a more faithful path.

Some of you may have seen the actor Hank Azaria in the news last month. Hank Azaria was the voice of the character Apu on The Simpsons for thirty years. He’s white, and Apu was the Indian shopkeeper rife formulated largely on racial stereotypes. It was the kind of thing that not many white people thought twice about in the era when The Simpsons was first popular.

In 2017 the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called “The Problem with Apu,” where he talked about the harm that was done through the depiction of this character with his fake accent and stereotypes. Kondabolu had grown up watching The Simpsons, but he was also aware of the effect Apu had on him and how others saw him.

Azaria said that when he first heard about this documentary, he felt “hurt and defensive.” After all, he hadn’t set out to hurt anyone, and it was comedy, right, and maybe the people who were offended were just “17 hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn.”

So Azaria didn’t stop being the voice of Apu. Not right away. But what he did do was start to learn. He talked to Indian people. He learned more about racism. He read. He educated himself and sought opportunities for others to help educate him. And, after several years of doing this work, he stopped voicing Apu, and he started working with an anti-racism group to help educate others. In April, he publicly apologized for the role he played in perpetuating these stereotypes.[2]

I don’t want to make too much of a hero of a white person who realized that he was participating in something racist. Obviously Hari Kondabolu is important to this story, too, and all the other people who helped Azaria understand the harm that had been done.  But I do think there’s a lot we can learn from Hank Azaria, when it comes to racism and beyond. Because it would have been easy to dismiss people who were offended by something he had invested a good part of his career in, to call them snowflakes, to feel like they were attacking his life’s work or even his identity. But instead he recognized his own defensiveness, and went down that hard, uncomfortable path of learning and repentance. And while I have no idea how Azaria would characterize his own spiritual life, I would call that spiritual growth, and that is the kind of work that the Holy Spirit can do in us  – if we let her, and if we work with her.

Paul tells us in Galatians what new life in the Spirit is supposed to look like: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that are born of that process. Not all of them may come naturally to us, certainly not all the time, but all of them are part of the Spirit’s work to reform and reshape and rebirth us into the image of God who is Love.

And in the end, this idea of the Holy Spirit working in us isn’t so different from the Holy Spirit as our helper, encourager, and advocate. In all of it, God is for us. All of it is grace – whether it’s the kind that wraps us in a warm hug or drives us into the wilderness.

As the write Anne Lamott likes to say, “God loves you just the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” Thanks be to God for new life, and for the one who brings that new life into being.



Come, Holy Spirit: God For Us

Scripture: John 14:16-17

When I was a kid, growing up in church, I learned how to pray to God – Our Father who art in heaven – who I learned to picture somewhere along the way as an old white man with long white hair. To be fair, I’m not sure that my church actually presented me with that image directly; that’s one of those things that it’s easy to pick up along the way, even though it’s wrong. I also learned, though, that this God was the one who had made the world and everything in it, that God was love, that this God had sent Jesus to earth to teach us and to die for our sins.

When I was a kid growing up in church, I learned the stories of Jesus, and for this I give special credit to Mrs. Allender, my Sunday School teacher, and to Mrs. Lau, who always gave the children’s sermon. I knew that Jesus healed people who were sick and forgave people’s sins. I knew that he called fishermen to fish for people, and that he calmed storms and told stories and multiplied loaves of bread, and of course I knew that he died on a cross and rose again.

I could tell you about God, our Father, and I could tell you about God’s Son Jesus, and, if you had asked me, as a kid growing up in church, about the Holy Spirit, I could have told you that yes, there was definitely one of those too. I was the kind of kid who paid attention in church, so maybe I could have sung you a line of one hymn or another: Praise the Spirit, Holy Spirit, Alleluia; God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.

And if you had asked me any more than that, I would have been a little harder pressed to answer.

My sense is that I am not alone in that. There are some Christian traditions that talk a lot about the Holy Spirit, but mainline Protestant traditions do not really tend to be among them. We talk about God, by whom we usually mean God the Father, the first person of the Trinity; and we talk about Jesus; and when it comes to the Holy Spirit we’re often left in this place of yes, we know there is one of those, too, but what exactly we mean by that is kind of up in the air.

And, actually, you can hardly blame us, because the Holy Spirit has been a bit of a head-scratcher for Christians almost since the beginning. Listen to this first version of the Nicene Creed adopted in 325 CE:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

Later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, some stuff was added to the end there, to kind of fill things out a little. In this later version of the creed we say that that Holy Spirit is the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. And still, I suspect there’s room for us to say more about just who and what the Holy Spirit really is.

In a few weeks it will be Pentecost, the one Sunday of the year when we do reliably pay attention to the Holy Spirit in mainline Protestant churches, and so in these weeks leading up to Pentecost, we’re going to be talking about just that.

In the Scripture passage we read today, Jesus is in the middle of his farewell speech to his disciples, just before his arrest. He tells them to love one another; he tells them that they will do works even greater than his and he tells them to keep his commandments. And he tells them he is leaving, but that someone else will come to be with them forever.

The word Jesus uses for this new arrival is parakletos, a Greek word that doesn’t just have one good English translation. In the KJV it’s Comforter, in the NRSV it’s Advocate, in the CEB Companion; the World English Bible uses Counselor. We can think of this parakletos as all of these things. The one whose arrival Jesus promises is one who helps, who encourages, who appeals on our behalf. Later in his speech (14:26), Jesus makes it clear that this parakletos is in fact the Holy Spirit – who has not been absent from Scripture up until this point, but will now be present with Jesus’ followers in a new way.

These images take us in some different directions: a friend who wraps us in a comforting hug is different from a lawyer who is literally our advocate or counsel in court, and that’s different from being a high-profile person who advocates for a good cause.  But what all of these senses of the world parakletos have in common is that this is someone who is for us: someone who helps us, strengthens us, guides us in the direction of truth, someone who is on our side. If (at Christmas, especially) we talk about Jesus as “God with us,” maybe then we can talk about the Holy Spirit as God For Us.

Paul fills out this image a little more for us in his letter to the Romans. There in chapter 8 he describes the Spirit not only as the one who gives us assurance of our status as God’s children, but who also prays for us when we don’t have the words. And I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of times that I don’t have the words. I think of when my dad was fighting cancer, and all I wanted, of course, was for him to be well; but at some point it became clear that he wasn’t going to be well in the way that I wanted, and how, anyway, could I claim to know what was good or what he needed. It meant a lot to me during that time to have friends and others who could pray for me when I didn’t really know what to say, and it made a difference too to know that God understood: that all my jumbled emotions were getting translated somehow to the one who I needed to hear them. That, Paul tells us, is the work of the Spirit: God For Us.

I don’t actually mean to talk about Jesus as God With Us and the Spirit as God For Us as if it’s as simple and divisible as that. Here in John Jesus is clear that this is another parakletos who comes to be with the disciples in the way the Jesus has been during his life but won’t be after his death. The Spirit, as Jesus says later in his speech, will both teach the disciples and remind them of all that Jesus has already taught them. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so Jesus and the Spirit are one: Jesus has been and will continue to be God For Us, and the Spirit is and will be God With Us.

Sometimes I do have to stop and wonder what it really means to follow Jesus when Jesus isn’t physically here in front of me. How can I follow someone I can’t see? I may know what Jesus said a long time ago, but how do I know what he would say and think about certain things today? What about when all those things mean doubt gets the better of me?

Well, this is the work of the Holy Spirit: to help us discern what Jesus’ words from so long ago mean for us today; to help us know what following Jesus means in our lives now; to strengthen us when times get tough and stand beside us when we face resistance from ourselves or the world around us along the way. The Holy Spirit makes God the Father and Jesus the Son in heaven real to us here and now.

This coming week, I hope you will have the chance to experience and reflect on how God is present in your life and in the world as the Holy Spirit with us and for us.

We may not understand who or what the Holy Spirit exactly is, and that’s OK. It’s not as important to fully understand as it is to be able to recognize her work in and around us. And when all the theology of it is jumbled in our mind, and we don’t always know the right words to use, we still have a God who knows our joy and our pain, who helps us and teaches us and guides us and strengthens us: a God who in everything is for us.

Looking for the Living Among the Dead

Scripture: Luke 24:1-9

I got my vaccine last weekend, my first shot of Moderna. I know a lot of people who have talked about tearing up when they got theirs, but to be honest, mine was a pretty anticlimactic experience. I spent 35 minutes in the car driving to a CVS in Dale City; traffic was unusually heavy, according to Google Maps; I waited in a short line in the cosmetics aisle, got a prick in my arm that I hardly felt, sat in a folding chair for 15 minutes, and left. I didn’t even get a sticker.

At the same time, I am really, really grateful. The fact that we have this technology feels nothing short of miraculous. There are so many people around the world who will not have access to a vaccine anytime soon. And despite the traffic, the process was easy and painless.

Last year, as we celebrated Easter, we were at the beginning of this pandemic, although I’m not sure we knew it was still the beginning then. The news was filled with death and a lot of us were really on edge and we were still getting used to everything being moved online and it was generally pretty un-Eastery. But of course that first Easter itself started off pretty un-Eastery, as the women walked to the tomb, and so there’s some beauty in that, when you can claim resurrection when everything around you smacks of death.

This year feels different. There is hope on the horizon. Vaccine rollout is ramping up, restrictions are being eased, some of us are getting to see our families again for the first time in a long time. It feels, in some ways, like dawn is already breaking. And maybe that makes resurrection a little easier to believe in this year.

AND, at the same time, it’s been a year. It’s been a year. And a lot of us are tired and stressed and burned out and grieving. And even as vaccines are increasing new cases are again, too, and we’re in a little bit of a race against time, and it’s not quite obvious yet that everything is going to be OK again. And as much as we want to see people again, we’re also kind of dreading the day that we have to wear something other than sweatpants. It’s this weird, messy, precarious, in-between place that we’re in. We’re starting to breathe again – and at the same time we’re holding our breath.

And so this year, it’s in the midst of all the messy, precarious, hopeful weirdness that we gather to proclaim and remind each other of the truth of resurrection. It’s in that place of grief and exhaustion and relief and gratefulness that we hear the story once again of a man who died and some women who came one morning to anoint his body with burial spices and found an empty tomb instead.

The story is itself a jumble of grief, and hope, and fear, and confusion, and amazement. It begins early in the morning, when as far as anyone knows nothing has changed. The cross, and the forces and powers that put Jesus there are, as far as anyone knows, still the end of the story. The women come with burial spices, ready to anoint the dead body they fully expect to find, because obviously, when there’s a dead body on Friday, there’s a dead body on Sunday. These things don’t just change.

Except when they do. Because there is no body in the tomb that morning. The stone seal has been rolled away, and the tomb is empty. If you are these women, what do you do with that?? You don’t just automatically snap right into joy and celebration. You look at each other in confusion and fear and wonder what on earth is going on. But they don’t have long to try to figure it out, because suddenly there are two dazzling men in standing in front of them and it is clear they are about to hear something they have never heard before, and that they will hardly dare to hope is true.

Sometimes, life feels like the grief and despair of Easter morning before the women reach the tomb. And sometimes, life feels like this moment in the story, caught somewhere between death and resurrection. Usually, on average, and not just a year into a pandemic, we are somewhere between the past and the future, somewhere between brokenness and healing. It’s messy and precarious and it’s part of the Easter story.

The story doesn’t leave us there. The good news that Christ is risen will be definitively proclaimed! But, in the Gospel of Luke, at least, that news isn’t just announced straight away. Instead, the dazzling men outside the tomb begin with a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It’s a rebuke, or at least it comes across that way. You’re not going to find him here. The living, breathing, human being you’re looking for is not going to be found in a tomb.

And it’s possible there’s a question for all of us in that. Because, in all of the mix of hope and fear and grief and exhaustion and longing that is our lives, it can be easy to look for life in places we will never find it. How often do we find ourselves looking for life – for meaning, for hope, for redemption – in the accomplishments we can rack up, in the promises of things we can buy, or in the self-righteousness of our own prejudices, which we strongly suspect that Jesus would share, or even in a vaccine, and some promised return to some idealized “normal”?

Can you imagine two dazzling, angelic creatures looking you in the face and saying, “If you’re looking for life here, if you’re looking for Jesus here, you’re in the wrong place for that”?

At the same time the rebuke seems a little unfair to me. Why are they looking for Jesus there? Well, because that’s where they left him on Friday, and again, generally a dead body on Friday is a dead body on Sunday. They haven’t shown up to the tomb looking for the living among the dead, they are very explicitly looking for the dead, burial spices still in hand. But death is not what’s there for them to find.

Unfair or not, it’s this question that stops me in my tracks every time I read this passage. Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Maybe it’s not so much as a rebuke as a challenge. Because, for us, who know the rest of the story, for us, who know the answer to why Jesus’ body isn’t there in that tomb, it seems to me that looking for the living among the dead is exactly what we as Christians should be doing.

We know the rest of the story. We know the tomb is empty because of the angels’ next words: He is not here, he is risen! We know that hate, and fear, and oppression and shame don’t get to have the last word. We know that God’s love and mercy and welcome does. Which means that we actually can show up at the tomb looking for life in the midst of death.

I don’t just mean that we can be optimistic, always look for the silver lining, or that everything is going to work out the way we want it to. That clearly is not the case. Death is real, and all the forces that play into it. For the more than 550 thousand people who have died from Covid since the beginning of the pandemic, death is real. For George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the other Black people who have been killed by police violence, death is real. For the Asian women killed in the Atlanta spa shootings, death is real. For Jesus, death is real.

Death is real and so is sin, and fear, and despair.

But because we know the rest of the story, we know that God is at work creating new life even in all these things.

And the thing is that it’s usually not such a neat story, and we don’t just move instantaneously from death to resurrection. We usually get to spend some time in that messy in-between. It’s the in between of healing grief, and fighting for justice not yet realized, and being faced with the work we need to do on ourselves, and it’s the messiness of forgiveness that isn’t just like flipping a switch, and it’s beginning to take the meds, and it’s that first in-person trip back to your favorite grocery store, and it’s life and death all mixed together. God is at work in the chaos, exhaustion, despair, the messiness of life.

So why do we look for the living among the dead? Because we know Jesus is there.

And where else are we going to find resurrection except in the midst of death?

And where else are we going to find healing if we don’t look in the midst of brokenness?

And where else are we going to find grace, if we don’t look in the places we thought that grace couldn’t reach?

It’s been a year, and in some ways it feels like dawn is breaking, and in some ways it feels like the pull of the tomb is just as strong as ever, and sometimes we’re looking for hope and answers in all the wrong places. But even in that in-between, we know the rest of the story. He is not here. He is risen. Go tell the others. He is risen ideed.

Encounters With Jesus: Pontius Pilate

Scripture: Matthew 27:11-26

The views in this monologue are solely those of Pontius Pilate (as I imagine him)

(not a sympathetic character)

I want you to know that I didn’t want this, for things to go this way.

It was them that wanted him to die, the chief priests and the elders of his people. They were the ones who brought him to me, early in the morning, when it was clear they had tried him under the cover of night. They handed him over on trumped-up charges. King of the Jews, they said, but it was clear that this ragged-looking man was not someone who claimed to be a king. They put him in front of me and demanded that I have him put to death.

I tried to set him free. Passover is their festival of liberation, and it’s tradition for us to release a prisoner for them. A good political move, you know, throw them a bone, keep them happy, so no one gets any big ideas about revolution.  I offered the gathered crowds their so-called king. They demanded Barabbas instead. It was them who yelled at me to crucify him.

But I’m the governor, you say? Only I have the power to decide these things? Well, a governor can’t govern an unruly people. The people were going to riot. I have to choose my battles; I have to give them just enough power. It was them that made me do this. My hands were tied.

* * * *

Oh, but don’t act like he was such a righteous man. This man might not have been a king but it’s no secret that he was trying to start something. Riled people up. It’s the kind of thing that can get dangerous if you let it. You have to keep these sorts of people in line.

He should have answered my questions. If he was truly innocent what did he have to hide? I asked him if he was the King of the Jews and he told me that’s what I said.  I tried to find out more, I tried to do a thorough investigation, but he just stood there, refusing to answer. Infuriating. We have processes for these things, in the Roman Empire. This was obstruction of justice. He could have built a case for himself if he would have just talked. I didn’t have enough to convict him on but I didn’t have enough to let him go, either.

I know what they said about him. I know he liked to test authority. Caused disturbances in their Temple. Blasphemed against their god. Oh, that part’s no concern of mine. But you have to admit: he was no angel.

* * * *

I’d like to see what you would do if you had to make a decision like that. Everyone thinks they know what they would have done in a certain situation, until they’re in it. Even my wife, sending me messages, trying to tell me how to do my job. Something about a dream. Well, fine, if I’m making decisions based on dreams now.

No, I’m charged with maintaining law and order in this godforsaken territory. I promise you, you don’t want my job. The weight of the Empire is on your shoulders. People’s lives are in your hands. Governing well takes a delicate balance of a firm hand and just enough give so the people don’t revolt.

So you think I made the wrong decision? Well, fine. No one’s perfect. You say you would have done things differently, but you don’t know what it’s like to be in this position.

* * * *

I want you to know that this wasn’t about hate. It wasn’t personal. I had nothing against this man.  

This was purely and simply a professional decision. This was about keeping the peace, our famous Pax Romana. This is our Roman way of life: We bring prosperity and opportunity to places that have never known those things. Roads and beautiful buildings, art and literature, philosophy and law. And all that comes with a cost.

Maybe this man was innocent. Maybe he was nothing more than a peddler of snake oil and a low-level troublemaker. But the crowds were about to riot. The leaders made their demands clear. My job was to keep the peace. Sometimes, the end justifies the means.

So don’t tell me this is my fault. They were the ones who wanted this. Not me. They were the ones who brought him to me. They were the ones who shouted crucify. I gave them Barabbas. What more could I do?

* * * *

Excuses, you say? Well, who doesn’t have them?

* * * *

In any case, it’s over. They’ve taken him away. There’s no use dwelling on this any longer. What’s done is done, let’s move on. What’s he going to do, rise from the dead?

* * * *

I told you, I accept no responsibility in this.

(Washing motion) My hands are clean.

Encounters With Jesus: A Tax Collector and a Zealot

Scripture: Luke 5:27-28; 6:12-16

LEVI: My name is Levi, sometimes known as Matthew.

SIMON: My name is Simon.

LEVI: I was a tax collector.

SIMON: They call me a Zealot.

LEVI: I worked for the Roman Empire, collecting money from its subjects.

SIMON: I was a freedom fighter – part of the resistance.

LEVI: I was sitting at my customs booth one day when Jesus walked by. He stopped right in front of my booth and said “Follow me.” And I did. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t ask any questions. It was as if I’d been waiting my whole life for that invitation and I never even knew it. I just got up and went with him.

SIMON: I stopped to listen to him preach one day. I was in town making plans with some of my fellow Zealots, plotting revolution. Our aim was to free Palestine and God’s people from the evil and oppressive grip of the Romans. But something about his preaching captivated me, and when he got up and left, I followed him.

LEVI: He chose me as one of the Twelve.

SIMON: He chose me as one of the Twelve.

LEVI: Jesus’ inner circle of disciples was an eclectic group. A bunch of fishermen, some tradesmen, a few shady characters – and then there was him.

SIMON: And then there was him.

LEVI: I found Simon to be a violent and foolish man. He and his fellow revolutionaries put all of us in danger with their scheming. No one in Palestine loves Rome, not even me. But Rome is a fact of life, and you survive around here by yielding to their power. Violence is not the answer. And the way he looked at me – I never felt safe around him.

SIMON: Levi spent every day of his life opposing everything I worked for in mine. He was in bed with our oppressors. He stole money from our people and gave it to them. If it weren’t for people like Levi who allow themselves to be co-opted for the promise of money, Rome would have no power over us. And if he would work for Rome, who knows what else he might do. I never felt safe around him.

LEVI: I walked away from my tax booth when I left to follow Jesus. He taught me that there’s a higher power than Rome at work in this world.

SIMON: I put down my arms when I left to follow Jesus. He taught me there are other ways to resist.

LEVI: But has he really changed?

SIMON: He still has Roman sympathies. I don’t trust him.

LEVI: He still wants Rome to be overthrown. I don’t trust him.

SIMON: Jesus tells us to love one another the way he loves us.

LEVI: Jesus prays for his followers to be unified.

SIMON: Unity always comes with a cost. Is it possible for me to love Levi and also love the poor, marginalized people of Palestine, the people he exploited and sold out so that he could have a comfortable life?

LEVI: Love is never that simple. Can I love Simon and also love the poor, vulnerable people of Palestine, the people whose lives he endangered with his childish ideas of revolution? Can I love him and still love the Romans he wants to see dead, who Jesus also tells us are children of God?

SIMON: Or is to love him to turn my back on others?

LEVI: Or is to accept him to deny everything I know about right and wrong?

SIMON: I’ve wondered sometimes if it’s enough to love him from a distance. If I don’t actively wish harm on him –

LEVI: If I’d help him if he were really in need –

SIMON: And I don’t get too friendly –

LEVI: And I don’t give any sign of affirming him –

SIMON: Is that love?

LEVI: Or does love have to be more active than that?

SIMON: To love someone, do you have to be willing to live with them?

LEVI: To love someone, do you have to try to appreciate them?

SIMON: To see them the way God sees them?

LEVI: But how is that?

SIMON: Does God see his belovedness –

LEVI: Or his brokenness –

SIMON: Or both?

LEVI: Maybe I could love him if he would repent, if he would say once and for all that violence isn’t the answer and that he’s sorry for the ways he’s used it and supported it in the past.

SIMON: I think I could love him if he’d admit his own complicity in injustice and vow to resist evil and oppression like God calls us to from here on out.

LEVI: But I don’t think he’s going to do that.

SIMON: I don’t think he’s ready to do that.

LEVI: I don’t understand how Jesus called both of us.

SIMON: I don’t really know what to do with that.

LEVI: I don’t know how to reconcile him with who I know Jesus to be.

SIMON: I don’t know how to reconcile him with who Jesus calls us to be.

LEVI: Jesus must have called him for a reason, though.

SIMON: Jesus must have seen something good in him.

LEVI: And I guess I see good in him too. He has a strong sense of justice, and is always ready to stand up for the most vulnerable people among us. His idealism helps him envision what God’s Kingdom might look like. He really believes that the world can be different than it is, and he’s ready to work for it.

SIMON: Levi lives in the real world, and helps me to remember sometimes that I do too. He’ll always stop to help anyone he sees, whether Jew or Roman. He sees humanity in the Romans too, just like Jesus does.

LEVI: It doesn’t mean I agree with him.

SIMON: It doesn’t mean I think he’s right.

LEVI: Violence is still reprehensible.

SIMON: Oppression is still oppression.

LEVI: And yet Jesus tells us to love one another.

SIMON: Even tax collectors and Zealots.

LEVI: Sometimes I wonder if Jesus did this on purpose, choosing both of us, calling us both his disciples.

SIMON: Maybe Jesus meant for us to wrestle with these questions.

LEVI: Maybe he didn’t mean for there to be any easy answers.

SIMON: He said to love our neighbors.

LEVI: He said to love our enemies.

SIMON: It’s not always clear how to do both.

LEVI: Sometimes I wonder if you can really do both.

SIMON: I still want Rome to be overthrown. But Jesus taught me that sometimes resistance means doing little things that no one around you expects. Giving someone your coat when they demand your shirt. Eating with people labeled as sinners. Somehow he thinks that these are the things that will topple empires.

LEVI: I still think Rome is here to stay. But Jesus helped me see that the powers of this world aren’t the ultimate powers, and that I can be part of something new, even if Rome stays the same.

SIMON: So here I am.

LEVI: Here I am.

SIMON: Figuring it out.

LEVI: Doing my best.

SIMON: Not always getting it right.

LEVI: I was a tax collector.

SIMON: They call me a Zealot.

LEVI: I am a disciple of Jesus.

SIMON: I am a disciple of Jesus.

Encounters With Jesus: A Man Born Blind

Scripture: John 9:1-38

Reuben was born a boy with questions. He wondered what was in mud and how yeast made dough rise and why bugs chirped so loud on summer nights. He wondered how the world began and he wondered what God looked like and he wondered what it was like to be one of the prophets whose words he heard read from the scrolls in the synagogue each week. And, mostly, he wondered why he had been born blind. Had he done something, somehow, before he was even born, to merit divine punishment? Was it his parents, instead, who had done something, and if so, why was he the one on whom that punishment was meted out? Or did God not have any say in it at all, and it was nothing more than an accident of fate?

His parents told him to be careful with his questions.

And so, as Reuben grew, he learned to leave certain questions unasked.

Reuben’s world was not an accommodating one for a person who couldn’t see. And so, as his parents grew older, he found that his only choice was to beg. He sat by the side of the road with his hands outstretched in hopes of bringing home enough money to put dinner on the table that night, and as he sat, he wondered what it would be like to see, and why God would allow things to be this way, and why the world had put him in this position. But he never spoke those questions out loud.

It was as he sat by the side of the road one day that he heard a group of people approach, and he stretched out his hands a little farther and prepared to call out to them, and then he heard it, the question he dared not speak:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Reuben closed his mouth and sat stone-faced, making sure not to flinch at this question that was asked about him rather than to him, as if they thought his blindness meant he couldn’t hear. He wondered who “Rabbi” was, and he wondered what he was going to hear next.

“Neither,” the man called Rabbi said. Reuben felt breath on face as the rabbi kneeled down. “He was born blind so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” It was an answer that Reuben had never considered before – though he wondered what it meant, and what this actually said about God’s intentions. “I am the light of the world,” the rabbi said softly to him. Reuben realized with a start that he knew who this man was – the one they called Jesus, the traveling preacher who healed people and made bread multiply. He felt something cool on his eyes as the man touched his face. He hadn’t asked – Reuben guessed he didn’t get a say in whether God’s glory was going to be revealed in him – but when the man told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, Reuben went, and that’s when he realized he could see.

It was disorienting. The world was bright, and it took him a bit to get his bearings, and he wasn’t sure at first that he liked it. He found himself closing his eyes as he walked home, wanting the world to feel familiar again. But on the way he did start to wonder what possibilities life might hold for him now, in a world that could finally make room for him. So when he got home he opened his eyes, and just looked around for a long time, taking it all in.

The boy who was born with questions should have known that his neighbors would have some questions of their own.

“Is that Reuben?” they asked each other, still speaking to each other and not to him. “It is,” said some. “It couldn’t be,” said others.

“It’s me,” he said, and they seemed surprised to hear from him, though it wasn’t like he had never been able to talk.

“Who did this?” they asked.

“The man called Jesus,” he said.

“Where is he now?” they asked.

“I don’t know,” Reuben said.

“How is this possible?” they said. But Reuben didn’t know that either. He was beginning to sense, though, that God’s glory being revealed was not an uncontroversial thing.

They led him to the religious leaders in the synagogue, who continued the barrage.  “Is this your son?” they demanded of his parents. “Wasn’t he blind?” And to Reuben himself: “Don’t you know that this man is a sinner?”

“All I know is this,” said Reuben: “I was blind, and now I see.”

“How did it happen?” they said. “Tell us everything.”

Reuben felt anger bubbling up inside of him. “I’ve told you everything I know,” he said. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples?” He knew as soon as he said it that it was a mistake, but his world had been turned upside down, and he didn’t care anymore.

“We’re Moses’s disciples,” one of them said frostily. “This man, we don’t even know where he comes from.

Reuben had questions too. Oh, did he have questions. But he had dug himself too far in to quit. For the first time in his life, he held their gaze, until they looked away. “Wow,” he said. “You don’t know. And yet here I am, looking at you.”

“Get out,” they snarled.

The next day, Reuben sat in his old place by the side of the road. He heard their questions echoing over and over in his head. Who is this man? How can this be? They sounded afraid. They sounded like they were building a wall, one question at a time, to defend against a reality they weren’t prepared for. They kept their eyes tightly shut against anything that threatened to crack what they knew of the world.

Reuben sat and he wondered. He wondered what the point of it all had been. He could see, and he hardly knew what to do next. His blindness was the thing that had always kept him on the margins, but now his sight put him on the margins too, for how it had come to be. He also wondered if this was all, if it was the end of the story, or if there was more to come.

He sat and he wondered, but he wasn’t afraid, and he wasn’t building a wall. Reuben had always simply sensed that there was more for him to know. Questions were a powerful thing – as his parents had taught him – but it all depended on how you asked. All Reuben had ever wanted was to open his eyes, so to speak, to the world around him.

“I am the light of the world,” Jesus had said.

He was clearly no ordinary rabbi. But who was he? A healer? A prophet? If this was God’s glory revealed in him, then what did that mean?

It was funny, he thought, as he sat there, he had always thought of miracles as instantaneous kinds of things. And it’s true that his life had changed in one unexpected moment, but here he was, still asking questions, still trying to figure out what it all meant.

He heard footsteps approaching and reflexively stretched out his hands.

“Reuben,” the man said, and Reuben recognized the voice. Maybe some of his questions were about to get answered.

Instead, Jesus asked him one himself; “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

Reuben wanted to say yes. He felt like his whole life hinged on saying yes. But there was still so much he didn’t understand. And yet, what was there to understand? He had been blind, and now he could see. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to answer definitively, not yet. So instead, he dared for the first time in a long time to speak one of his questions out loud. “Who is he, sir?” It was, perhaps, the most important question of his life.

“The one who is speaking to you,” Jesus said.

And Reuben whispered, “I believe.”

He still had so many questions. He wondered how it all worked, and he wondered what came next, and he wondered what his life meant now. But he could spend the rest of his life figuring all of that out. For now, it was enough to be able to see – the one that all his questions had always been pointing him to.