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.  

Encounters With Jesus: Mary and Martha

Scripture: Luke 10:38-42

MARTHA: Mary. We need to talk.

MARY: OK, Martha, what about?

MARTHA: About tonight.

MARY: Can you believe Jesus was right here in our house?

MARTHA: I can. I made him dinner. And his disciples too.

MARY: You were an amazing host as always.

MARTHA: Right. As always. And where were you the whole time?

MARY: I was listening to him teach.

MARTHA: You were listening to him teach. While I cleaned and cooked and ran back and forth filling people’s drinks. I barely even got to eat myself.

MARY: I’m sorry, Martha, I just….really wanted to hear what he had to say. He tells the most beautiful stories about the Kingdom of God.

MARTHA: Maybe *I* wanted to hear.

MARY: You could have sat down.

MARTHA: Someone had to host.

[PAUSE]

MARTHA: The worst part was that when I pointed out to him that you weren’t helping, he said YOU had chosen the better part. Ha. Fine. Next time I won’t cook or clean at all. I hope he likes raw fish. And ants.

MARY: He said that? That I chose the better part?

MARTHA: Yeah.

MARY: No one in my life has ever told me I was better than you. You’ve always been the one who does everything you’re supposed to do and does it perfectly.

MARTHA: You’ve always been off in your own world, doing whatever you want, while I held everything together.

MARY: I wasn’t off in my own world tonight, Martha. I was listening and learning, just like his other disciples. Why should only the men get to do that? Besides, I thought you liked doing that stuff, cooking and hosting and all of that. I thought it was kind of your thing.

MARTHA: Not when no one even appreciates it.

MARY: Your whole life, Martha, everyone has always appreciated you. Martha, the good girl. Martha, the perfect one. It’s exhausting.

MARTHA: See how far that’s gotten me.

[PAUSE]

MARY: What did he actually say to you tonight?

MARTHA: He called me worried and distracted.

MARY: Are you?

MARTHA: Obviously.

MARY: What are you worried and distracted by?

MARTHA: I don’t know. Everything? Life? Whether we’ll have enough when the tax collectors come knocking? The unstoppable advance of death? Whether our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is going to get a hot meal?

MARY: (nodding)

MARTHA: (quietly) And I guess mostly I’m worried that I’m just never going to be enough.

MARY: For what? Or who?

MARTHA: I don’t even know.

MARY: I’m worried about those things too. But the thing is that when I listen to him teach, I’m not. It’s like he puts it all in perspective for me, like there’s something bigger than just my life. You should hear him talk about the lilies of the field, Martha, and the birds, they don’t worry about what may or may not happen tomorrow or whether they’re good enough. They’re just birds, and flowers, the way God made them to be. Why can’t we live like that too?

MARTHA: Well, maybe I could have sat and listened –

MARY: I know, I know. You were making dinner.

MARTHA: I just don’t get it. I tried so hard to make everything perfect for him. I was so excited to have him over and make a wonderful meal. We don’t have a lot, Mary, you know that, but I really put everything I had into tonight. I just wanted it be perfect. And it was like he didn’t appreciate it at all.

MARY: Maybe it didn’t need to be so perfect.

MARTHA: This is how I show love.

MARY: By serving others to the point of resentment?

MARTHA: …Yes.

MARY: Is it about love, or about proving yourself?

MARTHA: I don’t know.

MARY: Do you think he would have loved you less if the fish had burned?

MARTHA: At this point I’m starting to think he would have loved me more.

MARY: So next time just sit.

MARTHA: I’m not going to be you, Mary.

MARY: Why, because I would have burned the fish?

MARTHA: I don’t want to just sit. That’s not who I am. I’m a doer. I do things. I just want to be appreciated for that.

MARY: Well, I’m not going to be you either.

MARTHA: Well, I guess we’ll both be ourselves and Jesus is going to have to be OK with that.

MARY: Maybe he didn’t really mean that I had chosen better than you. Maybe he didn’t mean that you had to be like me. Maybe he just wanted you to take a deep breath and know that you’re enough. You don’t have to be running all the time and trying to make everything perfect. And maybe I don’t have to do all the things that everyone expects of me. Maybe I can do my own thing, just leave it all behind and go with him. And you can do your own thing too, in your way. Just – because you want to, and not because you think you have to earn or prove something.  

MARTHA: Yeah. Maybe.

MARY: It’s like when he said that he came so that we could have life and have it abundantly.

MARTHA: No one’s ever cared whether MY life was abundant before.

MARY: Well, he does. And I do.

MARTHA: I don’t think I know how to live that way.

MARY: Me neither. But I’m learning. Or at least I’m trying to.

[PAUSE]

MARY: Come on, Martha, I’ll help you wash the dishes.

MARTHA: OK. And while we do that maybe you can tell me some of those stories about the Kingdom of God.

MARY: (smiling) The Kingdom of God is like a woman who prepared a feast for visitors.

MARTHA: (smiling) The Kingdom of God is like a woman who abandoned all her duties to sit at her teacher’s feet.

MARY: The Kingdom of God is like two women –

MARTHA: Who set down all their worries and distractions –

MARY: And picked up love.

Encounters With Jesus: The Woman at the Well

Scripture: John 4:1-26

Maybe you think you know my story.

Maybe you’ve heard it before.

I know you’ve heard that I was loose. A scarlet woman. A sinner. How else would a woman end up with five husbands, and then living with a man who wasn’t even her husband? We do make assumptions about these things sometimes, don’t we? But that’s not how this story goes.

This is a story of redemption, but not that kind. Jesus never told me to go and sin no more. That is someone else’s story.[1]

My story is a sad one. It didn’t start out that way. I was sought after when I was young. My parents arranged my marriage to the oldest son of a prominent family in our village outside of Sychar. He was a good man. I was bright-eyed and hopeful about the future. We talked about what life would be like: full of joy, and the laughter of children. But time passed, and there were no children.

He died young, my husband. We never even knew why.

We have a custom, in our society, that when an man dies without children, his brother should marry his wife and have children for him.[2] I didn’t want his brother, but what choice did I have? His brother, meanwhile, didn’t want children that wouldn’t even bear his name. He didn’t need to worry. Eventually, that brother died too.

It was then that people began to whisper.

There was one more brother, one more chance to carry on his family’s line. But at this point you know how the story goes: no children came, and that brother died as well.

People began to say that I was cursed. To be honest, I began to believe them. My husbands’ family shunned me, and I didn’t blame them. My own father wouldn’t take me back.

A widow is worth nothing in our society – especially a childless one. I lived on what charm I had left. I found one man to take me in, and then another. What could I do? My only other option was to beg. My fourth husband left me, and the fifth. The sixth took me in, but wouldn’t marry me at all. Would you have?

People said it was my fault, having so many husbands, but how much choice do you think a woman in my society had? None of this was how my life was supposed to go. But oh yes, we like to think we know someone else’s story. 

But that brings me to that one fateful day at the well.

When I went to get water that day, I intentionally left after most of the village women would have already come and gone. I was tired of the whispers and stares. The ones who didn’t act like they were afraid I’d cast a spell on them looked at me with pity in their eyes instead. I didn’t want any of it.

There he was, sitting there: a man I’d never seen before. He must have been a traveler. I prayed he was just thirsty; the only other reason men came to wells was to meet women, as our father Jacob did, and his father Isaac before him.[3] I did my best to ignore him. I had every intention of avoiding women that day, and I certainly didn’t need to deal with men.

But he didn’t ignore me. Instead, he asked me for a drink. His accent was Galilean. Jewish. I backed away. My people don’t associate with Jews. Oh, we have a lot of shared history, Jews and Samaritans – in fact, according to the Scriptures we share, we used to be one people. But not anymore. They have their Temple, and we have ours, and we are each heretics and idolaters to the other.

“Why are you asking me for water?” I said. The whole thing seemed a little off.

He smiled at me like he had a secret. He leaned in, and he said, “If you knew who I was, you’d be asking me for living water.”

Living water. It sounds fancy in translation, but all it really means is water that flows, like from a spring. Still, there was no spring here, just the well, and besides, from the way he said it – living water – it was clear he meant more than that.  Yep, here was just another man, talking big. Another man, trying to sell me something. I’d heard it all before. I pointed out that he didn’t even have a jug. Was he magic? Was this some sort of magic water?

“Look,” he said, “you get water from this well, you drink it, a few hours later, you’re thirsty again, right?” I nodded.

“Well,” he said, “whoever drinks the water I have will never be thirsty again.”

“Well, then, fine,” I said, as all of my bitterness rose to the surface. “Give me your magic water. I don’t ever want to have to come back to this well, anyway.”

Was I thirsty? Of course I was thirsty. I was thirsty for a life that wasn’t this one. Thirsty for a life with friendship, and intimacy, and community. I was thirsty for a life where I was cared for, and respected. Thirsty for a life where all my bad luck didn’t define me and I didn’t have always come to this well alone, where people knew my story instead of just assuming they did. All of it, I was thirsty for all of it. So yeah, if he had magic water that could do all that, I’d take it.  

He just looked at me for a while. Looked at me like he knew me. He softened somehow, or maybe it was me. He didn’t seem like he was selling something anymore.

“Why don’t you go home and get your husband,” he said quietly.

I felt myself tensing up again. “I’m not married.”

He said, “I know.”

He let that sink in.

“You’ve had five husbands, haven’t you,” he said, “and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband.”

“Look at that,” I said, “a prophet.” But my voice shook a little bit as I said it.

Could he know? Could he know my story?

And if so, could he know all of it? Not just the bad luck, not just the rumors and the whispers, not just the choices I was forced to make, but all of it – all the disappointment and the grief I’d been forced to bear; all the pain of exclusion; the fear that what they said was true; all the sheer force of will that kept me going every day? Could he know that bright-eyed girl I used to be, dreaming of the future?

His eyes said he did. He did. He knew all of it. He knew that I was thirsty for more than water. But then, aren’t we all?

I said this next part shakily, as if testing out a hypothesis. I said, “Sir, our people don’t worship God in the same way as yours. But we both believe the Messiah is coming.” I set those words down and waited.

It was quiet for a moment, and then he said, simply, “I AM.”

And that was the end of our conversation. A group of men – I suppose his disciples – arrived on the scene. They stopped in shock when they saw him talking to me, a Samaritan woman, but he beckoned them forward. But me, I put my jug down and ran. I ran toward the city and the people I usually tried so hard to avoid. I ran toward them to tell the story of the One who knew mine.

And because of me, the Samaritans of Sychar came to have faith in a Jewish Messiah.

And from that day on I told my story differently. Not just a story of brokenness, but a story of hope. Not a story of someone cursed, but of someone chosen. Not just a story of death after death, but a story of new life, for me and everyone who heard my words.

And not the story of a redeemed sinner, but the story of a person fully known.

From that day on I told my story differently, because it was part of a bigger one, and telling it meant telling God’s story too.


[1] Cf. John 8, the woman caught in adultery. The first time I preached on this passage, John 4, I really did think Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. (I set myself straight before I preached it, though.)

[2] Deuteronomy 25:5-6 (the Samaritans also held the Pentateuch as Scripture, by the way, with some minor textual differences); cf. also Matthew 22:23-33. This practice is called levirate marriage.

[3] The well as a place to find a wife: Genesis 24 and 29

Encounters With Jesus: Zacchaeus

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Late one morning in the town of Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus happened to find himself up a tree.

He hadn’t set out that morning planning to climb trees. In fact, it had been a long time since Zacchaeus had climbed a tree, though it brought him back to his childhood, running and playing around the village with the other kids. He wondered briefly what they were up to these days. Zacchaeus had long since left that village for the customs hub of Jericho, and he had rarely looked back.

No, it had started out like any other morning, as Zacchaeus set out to make his collections. He noticed that the main part of town, by the road that led to Jerusalem, was awfully crowded that morning. He stopped to ask a bystander what was going on.

“Jesus of Nazareth is coming through!” the man said. Then the man realized who he was talking to, and his face clouded over.

Zacchaeus was used to that kind of reaction, but to tell you the truth it was getting to him these days. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Actually, he was a chief tax collector, in charge of a bunch of lower-level tax collectors, and that made him relatively unpopular with the masses. It wasn’t just because people liked to grumble about the inefficiency of the public sector. It was because being a tax collector meant collecting money for the Roman Empire, the occupying power.

Sellout, they called him.

In cahoots with the enemy, they said.        

And worse names, too: Cheat. Fraud. They accused him of skimming some off the top for himself. Sometimes they spat the words of the prophets at him, words about trampling the poor under your sandals.

Zacchaeus narrowed his eyes back at the man, then turned around and kicked the trunk of a nearby sycamore tree.

He had heard about this guy Jesus, who was on his way into town.  He had heard he was a healer and that he told stories about the Kingdom of God. People even claimed that when you were with him it was like being in the presence of God Godself. Zacchaeus hadn’t really put much stock in any of it. He was more of a realist than a romantic. You know what was real? Money. Money was real.

Still, if Jesus was coming right through his own town, he figured he might as well stick around.

People were continuing to gather and Zacchaeus pushed his way to the front of the crowd so he could see. It seemed like Zacchaeus spent his whole life fighting his way to the front in one way or another: fighting to prove he was as tough as the tall kids, fighting to leave his village and make something of himself. This time he happened to jostle a woman in the process. She looked over to glare at him and when recognition dawned, she glared harder. “Traitor,” she muttered under her breath.

Zacchaeus felt anger rising up in his chest like a fire. He turned around to storm home. He stopped to kick the sycamore tree again as he went. Then he had an idea.

And that’s how Zacchaeus found himself up a tree that morning.

He felt a little silly at first. But he also breathed a little easier once he was slightly removed from the crush of the crowd. From his perch on a strong branch, he surveyed the scene and felt a wave of bitterness rush through him. There were people talking, laughing, little kids jumping up and down and sitting on their fathers’ shoulders. It was a scene that was familiar to him, one he would have fit right into, once.

But he was poor, then, too.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree and had a fight, in his head, with all the people down on the ground. They wanted to call him a sellout for working for the Romans? Well, who maintained those roads they walked on every day? Who provided security and protection against all the nations around them? Hypocrites, he thought, always complaining when they don’t even know how much they benefit from Roman rule.

Oh, fine, it’s not that the Romans are perfect, he thought, still fighting with the people in his head. But it’s a rough world out there, and a man has to make his way in it somehow. Everyone was jealous, he knew, that Zacchaeus had managed to make a life for himself, that he had found his way out of the poverty they lived in – that he dressed well and could afford to throw a nice dinner party now and then.

Any of them would have done the same if they’d had the opportunity, he said to himself.

And the cheating? Well, Zacchaeus wasn’t saying it was true, but if he demanded extra from his guys, who demanded extra from the people they collected from, it was just because the guy above him demanded extra, too. It’s just the way the system worked, he didn’t make it up. You had to live in the real world.

Zacchaeus sat in that tree, justifying himself.

“I’m a good person,” he finally said aloud, to people who weren’t listening and didn’t care. He heard how it sounded coming out of his mouth, the absurdity of it.

He shook his head and almost went home. Who needed Jesus, anyway. He would probably just judge him like everyone else. The religious ones were always the worst.

But just as he was about to climb down, the crowd erupted in cheers, and Zacchaeus looked up. He could see people running up to someone a ways down the road, trying to lean in and touch his robe. That must be him!  He could see the man on the road leaning down to a hug a child.  He could see him stretch his hand out to bless someone. And for a moment, Zacchaeus allowed himself to get swept up in the excitement, and he felt a strange feeling: maybe hope, if he remembered what that was.

Jesus drew closer and closer until he was almost under the tree where Zacchaeus sat. Zacchaeus shrunk back, seeking safety in the anonymity the branches provided him, and waited for Jesus to pass.

But Jesus didn’t walk past.

Instead he stopped. 

And he looked up.  Right into Zacchaeus’s tree.

Zacchaeus’s eyes inadvertently caught his.  Zacchaeus quickly looked away.

But Jesus didn’t move.  So Zacchaeus looked back, half waiting for Jesus to call him out.  Sellout. Fraud.

But Jesus just stood there for a minute and then he called over the sound of the crowd, “Zacchaeus.”

Zacchaeus suddenly wished that instead of being up high in a tree, he could sink into the ground. He didn’t know how Jesus knew his name, but his reputation must have preceded him. He braced himself for the words to follow. He prepared to fight with Jesus in his head. I’m a good person, he muttered to himself. He felt that fire rising up in him again.

“Zacchaeus,” Jesus said, “come on down from there.  I’m coming to your house.”

Zacchaeus paused, wondering for a moment if he had heard correctly. But Jesus stood there, looking up. And, since he didn’t know what else to do, Zacchaeus climbed down and stood before him.

And, in a complete surprise to himself, he started to cry.

And instead of justifying himself Zacchaeus suddenly wanted to say, no, no Jesus, you can’t come over, because it’s true, what they say, all of it, I’m a sellout and a fraud, a traitor to my people and a disappointment to God.

But Jesus just stood there, and somehow Zacchaeus sensed that Jesus knew. But he wasn’t looking at him with judgment. He didn’t wear that same cloudy expression Zacchaeus was used to everywhere he went.

He knew who Zacchaeus was. And he wanted to come over anyway. 

The crowd seemed to catch on to what was happening. “You can’t go to his house,” came one voice.  “Don’t you know who he is?”  “He’s a sinner!” another voice said.  “Sinner!” came more voices.  The voices echoed and blurred in Zacchaeus’s ears.

And though Jesus had only asked to come to his house, without even thinking, Zacchaeus blurted out the only thing he could think of to make the voices stop: “I’m going to give half of what I own to the poor!”

The crowd got quiet for a minute.  Zacchaeus had surprised even himself again.  For a split second he regretted it.  He wondered if he could take it back.

But then he saw a little smile begin to form on Jesus’ face.

So he didn’t take it back.  Instead, Zacchaeus took a deep breath, and he said, a little shakily this time, but with resolve: “And if I’ve cheated anyone, I’ll pay them back four times over.”

He was surprised to find that it felt good to say it.  He felt lighter, somehow, like possibilities were opening before him, like things could be different, and he didn’t have to fight so hard anymore. He looked Jesus in the eye this time, and laughed. Not because it was funny, but because he was free.

Jesus laughed back.  “Child of God,” he said, “this is what salvation feels like.” 

He put a hand gently on Zacchaeus’s back, and on they walked, down the road to Zacchaeus’s house.

Star Words: Call

Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 4:18-22

“Call” is a word I’ve used a lot since I became a pastor. In fact, if I had a way to go back and tally things up, it might be the Star Word I’ve used the most of all the Star Words on our list. I’ve used it to talk about my own entrance into ministry, and with people discerning whether that is their path too. I often use it in sermons: I pose it as a question – where is God calling us? – or as an answer: This is what God calls us to. Sometimes I use it in conversation with you all: how are you feeling called to serve?

I think that before I was a pastor, or at least before I was in the process toward becoming one, I didn’t use the word call very much. And that does make me wonder if it’s another one of those words we throw around in church without necessarily stopping to talk about what it means.

It’s not that the word or concept of call or calling is entirely absent from our secular world. It is a word we use sometimes, not just in the sense of a conversation on the phone but in the sense of fulfilling a higher purpose: so-and-so has found their calling. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Disney movie Moana – it came out about 5 years ago but I had never seen it until this fall when Moana became suddenly very popular in our house. Moana is Disney’s Polynesian princess, the daughter of a chief who sets out to help her island in a time of need. She stands at the brink of the sea and knows she is supposed to cross it, just like her ancestors once did. “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me,” she sings in the song “How Far I’ll Go.” So we do hear and understand these things, both inside church and out.

What I don’t know is whether we mean the same thing. What does it mean to be called by God? And maybe the most important question: how do we know?

If you think about those stories in the Bible that we sometimes call “call stories,” there is seldom any room to doubt just what is happening and what’s supposed to happen next. Moses encounters a burning bush in the wilderness and hears a voice telling him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. The prophet Isaiah sees smoke filling the temple and the threshold shakes as he hears “Whom shall I send?” For Jonah it takes being swallowed up by a giant fish to convince him to go proclaim God’s grace to his enemies in Nineveh. Mary has a face-to-face conversation with an angel who tells her she is going to be the mother of Jesus. And later, when that baby boy grows up, fishermen drop their nets at the sound of his voice, and follow.

I used to think that call stories should happen like that – the proverbial flash of lightning, the one, clear answer or direction for your life, that when God made it known, you knew. And I know people now, with stories like that. But for most people, I think, that’s not how it works.

I know that for me, call was something I awakened to gradually. I read books by faith leaders who inspired me with their work and sacrifice for justice. I learned to read the Bible in a new way and fell in love with God’s story. I met people and had the growing realization that these were God’s people, in all their varying colors and backgrounds and abilities and stories.  The more I learned about the Kingdom of God, this vision of divine reality here on earth, where all are loved and all are valued and all are welcome, the more I wanted to invite other people to be part of that vision with me. And I prayed and I asked questions and I talked to people and they said things like, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and “We’ve always seen something of that in you.”

I didn’t go to college thinking that I was headed to seminary when I graduated. But somewhere along the way it was a thought that crossed my mind, and came and went for a while, until eventually it didn’t go away anymore.

Like most pastors I know, I’ve told my call story a lot of times by now, from my interviews with the Board of Ordained Ministry to the random conversation in line at 7-11, and I think one of the mistakes we make in church is assuming that call stories are only for pastors, because we’re the ones that tell them. But they’re not. God calls all sorts of people to all sorts of different things: to teaching, to science, to caregiving, to politics, to art. These are vocations that are every bit as crucial to the Kingdom of God, to God’s intended reality here on earth, as standing up to preach every Sunday (or sitting down, as the case may be) and each of those journeys, I know, has its own holy story.

And that story might even change over time, as new chapters are added. I used to think that “call” was when you knew the one thing you were meant to do with your life, even if it might have been any number of things. I don’t necessarily believe that now. I used to hear people in ministry say a lot that you shouldn’t be a pastor if you could imagine yourself doing anything else. I don’t know if that’s a thing they say in other professions, but I think it misses the mark. I could see myself doing lots of things. This one, I believe, on most days, is the best way I can use my gifts and passions and skills for the glory of God. I prefer that quote by Frederick Buechner – “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Note that “calling” is not synonymous with “career.” Not all of us will find our deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger doing the thing that pays us money. Some of us have to put food on the table; not everyone has the luxury of being choosy. Some of us may be unable to work at a job; others may be past that point in their life. Still, some people answer their God-given call by volunteering with kids on the weekends, or serving in church leadership; some people answer their call less by doing a certain thing and more by doing whatever it is they do in a certain way: by making sure their employees are treated fairly, by making choices with integrity, by bringing joy to their neighbors, or by always looking for a chance to help. Maybe the problem is that sometimes, we make the idea of “call” too fancy. We think we have to be the chosen one; when really, we can be called on any given day to make the hard choice, to welcome someone new, to forgive someone, to march or sit or ride a bus, or to pick up the phone and let someone know they’re loved. Sometimes, God called people, like Moses, to a lifelong position; sometimes God called people, like Jonah, to a particular task. Sometimes, when Jesus tells us to drop our nets, he means for the rest of our lives; sometimes, maybe, he means for today – and nets or no nets, we follow him.

I love the story the author Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a hard decision she once had to make.  She prayed and prayed, hoping God would reveal to her which path God wanted her to take. Eventually, she said, the answer she got was this: “Do whatever pleases you, and belong to me.”[1]

In the end, our ultimate, unchanging call is this: to be God’s people in the world. In the end, our call is this: to follow Jesus in whatever circumstances we find ourselves; to love God and our neighbor with everything God has given us. And might God sometimes have a more specific task or purpose for us? Sure. And if we are living every day with the intention of giving what we have for the God’s glory, then I suspect we won’t miss that call when it comes. And if we do? There will be other chances.

You may never see the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, or meet an angelic messenger face to face, or hear a voice booming from heaven. But we follow one who called fishermen and tax collectors, overlooked women and Pharisees, and he calls us too, to live and love as God intended, and to use our gifts for the Kingdom of God.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

Star Words: Salvation

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10; Ephesians 2:4-10

Maybe you’ve heard of a man named Zacchaeus. You may remember him best as the man who climbed a tree to see Jesus. He worked as a tax collector, a low-level agent of the Roman Empire whose job it was to extract tribute from its unwilling subjects. The advantage of being a tax-collector, of course, was that you also got to demand a little extra on the side, and one could apparently make quite the living that way.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as Jesus traveled through Jericho to Jerusalem. The crowds were big and Zacchaeus was, as they say, a wee little man, so he climbed a nearby tree to see better. Imagine his surprise when Jesus stopped right in front of that tree, shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked up, and said, “Go home and start the coffee, Zacchaeus, I’m coming over.”

He didn’t say anything about Zacchaeus’s unpopular profession. He didn’t say anything about repentance. And yet as Zacchaeus climbed down he said “I promise, Lord, I’ll give half my possessions to the poor – and if I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll pay them back four times what I took!” And Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Salvation – that ultimate churchy word. It is in some sense the reason most of us are here, because we want it for ourselves. And yet we might not all understand that word in the same way, and there may be those of us who aren’t quite sure what it’s really getting at at all. That’s why salvation is our next Star Word, on our list of words we use in church sometimes without really stopping to define them.

I know that when I hear a word like “saved,” I often think of those signs you sometimes see on the side of the highway: If you died tonight, where would you go? One side of the sign usually depicts heaven, with some majestic clouds and angelic light, and the other side depicts the flames of hell. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it promises, and the answer can be different. Sometimes there is a number to call.

I do not happen to personally appreciate this form of evangelism, but I do think the sign expresses something of the way many of us have been taught to understand salvation: that first, it’s about what happens when you die, and second, it’s a big ol’ either-or.  

I don’t think that what happens after we die is irrelevant. And I don’t doubt that along the way there is a choice to be made. I do suspect that if we treat salvation as just a yes or no question, there’s a lot there that we’re missing. 

After all, what did Jesus mean when he said of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house”? Did he mean that as of that moment, a switch flipped, and Zacchaeus was destined for heaven instead of hell? Zacchaeus made no formal statement of faith in Jesus, though he clearly saw something in him he wanted. Jesus recognizes that a shift has occurred – but he doesn’t talk explicitly about life after death.

A few weeks ago you heard me talk about the word grace, and how John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, saw grace at work in our lives. What Wesley believed was this: that we are all created in the image of God. Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that God also has two arms and some legs and a nose. It means that we are created for love – to love and be loved. Something, however, has gone wrong, because we don’t love God and each other like we are made to. That is sin, that thing we talked about a few weeks ago that is in us and bigger than us. Because of sin, we have lost something of that divine image.[1]

When I thought I was going to be doing this from church this morning, I had a bowl to show you. (You’re going to have to use your imagination with me here.) It’s a pretty pottery bowl, and I accidentally broke it one Christmas Eve when I used it to hold some candles and it fell off the piano, and ever since it’s been my go-to illustration for brokenness and wholeness. It is both beautifully made and broken. You can still see its beauty and goodness. You can still see what it was created for. It even still holds things. But it can’t completely fulfill its purpose.

Wesley believed that God’s prevenient grace is still at work in our lives from the beginning to draw our broken selves back to God. He believed that when we are ready to say no to sin and the forces of evil and yes to God and God’s love, God’s justifying grace reconciles us to God. And God’s sanctifying grace continues to work on us for our whole lives (as we let it) – helping us love better, and restoring us fully in the image of God.[2] The bowl goes back together. Did you hear that verse of the first hymn we sang today? Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.[3]

What’s more, Wesley believed that that whole process was salvation – that salvation is a journey, and not a destination. He said, in fact, in a sermon on the topic: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness…It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death…The salvation which is here spoken of may be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul until it is consummated in glory.”[4]

When Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’s house that day, this is what I imagine he means: that Zacchaeus has recognized and accepted God’s unconditional love for him, that he will live differently in light of that from this day forward. And probably he’ll mess up, and try again, and figure it out and learn and grow, but in all of that, life for Zacchaeus will never be the same again.

I preached something along these lines a few years back and one of the comments I got afterwards was: well, that’s nice, but I’m trying to get into heaven here. And I get it, right? That is, perhaps, the ultimate question, at least as far as it relates to our own individual destinies, and may seem especially urgent if the here and now isn’t really cutting it. In Sunday Bible study the question that came up multiple times as we made our way through the New Testament last year was what about people who are good people but who aren’t Christian, who don’t profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior – what happens to them, after? OK, maybe salvation isn’t just about getting into heaven – but at the same time, we’d really like to know the requirements for that.

It is by grace you have been saved through faith, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians (2:8).

I of course don’t know for sure exactly what happens after this life. People may claim to know how it all works, but I would be skeptical of that. You’re welcome to come explore with us what the Bible has to say about some of these big questions further after worship today in Bible study. What I can say is that by faith, I know a God whose grace is bigger than I could ever imagine, who will search us out when we’re hiding, up in a tree somewhere, who calls us down and wants to come over, even though we’re sinners, who is the creator of new possibilities in us and for us. And I can’t believe that that grace ends with death, and I have to believe that somehow, when all is said and done, the wideness of God’s mercy will be known.

When Paul writes to the Ephesians he is writing to people who didn’t know God – until they met God in Jesus. And who didn’t have reason to count themselves among God’s people – until they did. That was God’s grace; that was their leap of faith; that, to them, was salvation. And it meant that they could no longer live life in the same way as before. Kind of like our friend Zacchaeus.

Salvation: not a box to be checked, or a number to call; not just a yes or a no: but new life, there for the living, now.

Someday, the dead will be raised. Someday, God’s Kingdom will come. But in the meantime, I believe, as we allow our hearts to be shaped in love like God’s own, we can begin to experience it here together. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.[5]


[1] John Wesley, “The Image of God” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 13-21.

[2] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 371-380.

[3] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384

[4] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 372.

[5] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384.

Star Words: Grace

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-10

Every once in a while someone asks you a question that you think you know the answer to, until you actually try to put your answer into words. That’s what happened to me a couple weeks ago when the question “What is grace” came up in Sunday Bible study. As I told you last week, that question was the prompt for this series we’re doing on words we throw around in church a lot without always knowing what they mean.  What is grace? It’s…grace. It just is.

That, of course, is not really a good answer, and it’s an even worse sermon.

I thought a bit about how we use the word grace, not just in church but in life. There but for the grace of God go I, we might say when we see a friend or neighbor going through a rough time – which reminds us that we are not better than them just because things are going better for us, but also might raise some questions about why God’s grace is apparently so selective. Another one I’ve heard a lot these days, largely from women who are trying to hold down full-time jobs and maybe homeschool kids and care for their families and themselves. Give yourself grace: it is a way of reminding each other that imperfection is allowed. Each of those phrases might give us some glimpse into what grace is; neither really encapsulates it.

The most common way I’ve heard grace defined is unmerited favor. And, in fact, every church or denomination in Western Christianity seems to use some version of this definition. Our United Methodist Book of Disciple puts it this way: grace is the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.[1] In other words, at its most basic level, grace is simply God’s goodness present and at work in our lives. It is the gift of waking up to a new day, the view of the sunrise out your window and the song of the birds as you sip your morning coffee; it’s the help of friends and neighbors when times are tough; it’s the strength you somehow find in yourself in the midst of adversity and real forgiveness in the face of real wrong; it’s the promise of hope when everything around you is hopeless.

None of those, things that we earn; none of those, things we can buy (except, I guess, the coffee); none of those, things we deserve; all, gifts freely given by a God who loves us.

I suppose that’s why grace is hard to define, because it’s all of those things, and more.

But Methodists also have a pretty distinctive understanding of God’s grace works in a life of faith. I told you last week, when we talked about the word sin, that we had to start there before we could get to grace. That’s not because sin precedes grace; God’s grace is present in creation itself. But to fully understand grace, we have to know that sin is a problem. And we have to know that it’s our problem. We are all created in the image of God, to love and be loved, but we also all have to reckon with the fact that there is this thing in us and outside us and bigger than us that has tarnished that image.

John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement, believed that God’s grace – that unmerited goodness – is present in our lives even so. He called this prevenient grace. This is grace that goes before us and meets us wherever we go. It’s God’s grace that is always with you, no matter what, before you know it, whether or not you believe in God at all.

When I baptize a baby, for example, we’re testifying to prevenient grace at work. That baby doesn’t know what’s going on. She isn’t able to say that she’s sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He isn’t able to make a commitment to a new way of life in following Jesus. But we baptize babies and children anyway because we believe that God is already at work in their lives, hopefully with our help, bringing them to the point where they will be able to make that decision for themselves.

Prevenient grace is grace that allows us to finally say yes.

But at some point we do have to say yes, and that brings us to justifying grace.

We could say that it’s the grace that wakes us up. It’s when we suddenly look around and realize we’ve been surrounded by prevenient grace the whole time, and what’s more, we needed it, because we are in fact broken, and we do not want to be. But then we also realize that we are forgiven, and accepted, and that God loves us anyway. In other words, we are justified: through the life, death, and rising of Jesus.

Last week, when I talked about sin, I described it using the example of the sin of racism – how it’s a matter of personal choices made on a day-to-day basis, but also a matter of heart and the unconscious prejudice we often hold there, as well as a matter of forces that are bigger than us. Every preacher knows that to end a sermon on some good news, but I struggled with that last week. It’s easy to talk about grace when it’s forgiveness for something little, a one-time action in the past. But racism isn’t past. What does grace look like when we talk about the sin of racism? Surely it can’t be just a pat on the back for white people, God saying, it’s OK, you mean well, while Black people continued to be murdered in their homes by misinformed police and polling sites are closed and an armed mob storms the Capitol waving Confederate flags and wearing Nazi shirts? That would be what the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call cheap grace, grace that makes us feel good but demands nothing from us.

In the last week and a half, whenever I’ve heard pleas for national healing and unity and moving forward, that’s the term that comes to mind: cheap grace. Because we haven’t reckoned with the things that divide us, and there is still no justice for those who are still marginalized in our society.

The same goes for me: how can I ask for grace when I know that I still haven’t fully reckoned with the privilege that comes from generations of whiteness?

But justifying grace isn’t cheap grace. It’s grace found in repentance: not just feeling sorry, but turning away. I am loved, no matter what. And I don’t have to be perfect. But I do have to keep turning.

It’s God’s justifying grace that allows something new to begin. This is the grace of which we sing: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

In some traditions, this might have been the end of the story, but not for Wesley. In fact, something that Wesley struggled with is the fact that people who called themselves Christian just didn’t seem to be actually better or nicer or more loving than anyone else. Have you heard the quote, “Christians aren’t better people, they’re just forgiven?” Well, Wesley would have hated that quote. Grace, for Wesley, isn’t just a one-time thing; it continues to unfold through the course of our lives helping us grow in love and holiness. He called this sanctifying grace: grace that doesn’t stop at forgiving us, but can actually change us. This is the grace, for example, that allows me to keep doing the work of examining my own privilege and prejudice and to begin saying no; to become someone who embodies justice and reconciliation instead. Not a one-time event, but a lifelong process of allowing myself to be shaped into the person God created me to be.[2]

And maybe that’s a lot. So maybe I’ll go back to the beginning: grace is God’s goodness at work in our lives, in ways we can never earn or buy or deserve. Sometimes it looks like a sunrise and a helping hand from a friend. Sometimes it looks like mercy: God’s unconditional love and complete forgiveness of a wretch like me. Sometimes it looks like growth: God giving me what I need to love my neighbor better, whether that’s a word from the Bible, or the opportunity for ongoing confession, or the experience of God’s presence in bread and wine at communion.

Maybe you’ve heard of a guy named Paul. He was fervent in his beliefs, steadfast in his commitment, clear in his understanding of right and wrong. He went after early followers of Christ. He tracked them down and turned them in and, when one of them was stoned for blasphemy, he held the coats of those who did the stoning. And then one day he saw a bright light and heard a voice from heaven, and nothing was ever the same again.

We heard his words just before I began speaking. “I am what I am by the grace of God,” he said.

And from then on, Paul was God’s person, devoted to God’s work: to sharing the message with others, that they are loved, they are included, they are forgiven, that they can be God’s people, too. That is, he says, not me, but the grace of God working in me. God’s free gift, not one he ever deserved, but one that continued working and unfolding in his life to the very end.

What is grace? It’s God loving you into creation, calling you back when you went astray, calling you God’s own; it’s God forgiving you and calling you into new life and forgiving you again. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. It is by grace that we go out to be God’s people in the world.


[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016, p. 51.

[2] John Wesley, The Scripture Way of Salvation. http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-43-the-scripture-way-of-salvation/