The Joy Borne of Seeing as God Sees
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
On the First Sunday in Lent the scriptures invited us to journey into the desert with Jesus to face ourselves, to take stock of our priorities and where necessary to reorder those priorities so that they more closely conform to God’s will for us, namely, “to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”
On the Second Sunday in Lent, in the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, the scriptures raised up for us the metaphor of being “born again” of the Spirit, that we might move from living our lives in fear to living our lives in the freedom from fear that faith in Jesus makes possible.
On the Third Sunday in Lent, in the story of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, Jesus uses the image of “living water”, to speak of the gift of joy, borne of release from shame, that comes as a result of our opening ourselves up to being loved with “a love beyond all telling”.
This morning, on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, the continuing theme of repentance, conversion and renewal is reflected in images of darkness and light, blindness and sight, in the wonderful story of the cure of man born blind. He is unnamed because, in truth, is not his name the same as the one by which each of us is known? Once lost, but now found. Once blind, but now I see.
It would seem that this story told by John, like others in his gospel, has song within it. When I listen to the story, I remember that song, by Johnny Nash, released in in 1972, “I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.”
The words fit pretty well with the scene portrayed in the gospel. We have a man suddenly given sight, rejoicing that he can now see! The song speaks of the “rain” and the “dark clouds” now being gone, the “obstacles” now visible, have thereby becoming “avoidable”. There is the overwhelming feeling that, “It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day!” Doesn’t that song just fit this story?!
Except no one, other than the blind man, wants to celebrate with him. Nobody else seems to see it as a “bright, bright, sunshiny day!” They all, for various reasons, seem to be in a dark, very dark, unhappy place.
First, the neighbors who have always known him as the “blind man” don’t even recognize him. Their response raises the question of how well, how clearly and how deeply they ever really saw him? Did they ever truly see him for who he was, or was he always just the “blind man” identified only by his outward disability? Did they ever see him as a person or only another one of those many beggars? Did they ever see him the way Jesus saw him?
Do we see the other person as God sees them? Do we see the young black man as a criminal-in-waiting or as a victim of white bias and unacknowledged racism? Do we see the refugee in flight for his life as a potential terrorist or as one terrorized by forces of political oppression? Do we see the undocumented immigrant as a murder, rapist or drug dealer or as one injured by both the broken economic system that he has fled for survival, and a broken immigration system that willfully remains incapable of giving him safe harbor?
This week when two undocumented teens in Maryland were accused of raping a fellow High school student, the irresponsible and reprehensible White House sought to take us to that ugly and deceitful place of generalizing to an entire group on the basis of the bad behavior of a few. It sought to manipulate this tragedy so as to once again stoke fear and hatred of all our undocumented neighbors.
Again, do we see the elderly in need of health care as leeches on the common purse or as claimants of a basic human right? Do we see the poor as the lazy slugs that Paul Ryan would have us see them, or as people, who in their day-to-day struggle for survival, are left no choice but to buy food rather than health insurance? Lastly, do we see women as objects to be manipulated and used by men or as subjects of their own power and destiny?
After the blind neighbors, come the blind Pharisees. Their focus is the issue of Jesus working on the Sabbath. They miss the bigger picture because they are preoccupied with obeying the law. And they are blinded by their need to paint Jesus as a lawbreaker and not see Him as an agent of God’s compassion and mercy. Do we assign more value to laws, even patently immoral laws, than to the requirements of justice and mercy?
On Lent 4A Thursday I attended a legal forum at the Woodstock Jewish Center devoted to constitutional and immigration law. Rabbi Jonathan began the evening by teaching us that in the Torah, the divine command to protect the “ger” (translated “resident alien”) is repeated no less than 33 times. This number far exceeds any other command given in the Torah. He advised his audience that to be a faithful Jew one has no option but to protect those without the power to protect them selves. Natural born Jews and gēr/sojourners were to be treated the same under Jewish law. Christians face the very same challenge to their integrity as disciples of Jesus.
Lastly and most astonishing of all are the blind man’s parents. Even they, when faced with the possible condemnation of the powers that be, retreat into the darkness of fear from going to their son’s defense. Their response when asked about him is, “He is of age; ask him.” They throw him under the bus.
Like the others, they are unable to see the awesome thing that has just occurred before their eyes. Do we live from place of fear, parallelized by all the unknowns and what if’s or does our faith allow us to hang out on the edge taking those thoughtful risks that life invites and often requires?
Yes, a miracle happened or as John names it, a “sign” has been given. Yes, a sign that points to something beyond itself, to a truth that we are supposed to see and take in.
Here John seems to be saying that the institutions and people that are supposed to help us see clearly, that are supposed to give us vision, often fail us. That the community, our governing authorities, our religious leaders, even our families, can be stuck in darkness. They can lead us into self-centered ways of being where we ultimately care only about ourselves and are unable to empathize, to understand, to sacrifice or to give of ourselves for others and thereby unable, also, to share in their joy.
Such is the present neo-fascist climate that has been foisted upon us by those who refuse to see the signs of God’s work in this world and choose instead the blindness of their self-deceit and self-interest, and the lies they compulsively tell so as to increase their power and control over others.
In John’s story of the man born blind, like in his story of Jesus turning water into new wine at the wedding in Cana; like his story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus in the dark of night to learn about being born anew; and like his story of the woman of Samaria at the well who learned about the new, living, flowing water that Jesus was able to offer; here again we are given a sign, that, those who have eyes to see, may see.
The truth that John is trying to tell his community, trying to tell us, is that disciples of Jesus have something quite precious to offer the world. That there is a light available to all people and it is known in the person of Jesus.
But sometimes we get wrapped up in things that distract us from our first purpose – which is to witness to a “new way of seeing”. We are not to see as those neighbors in the gospel story, as those Pharisees, and those parents, but to see rather, as God sees.
When we do so, and only when we do so, do we find ourselves transformed and made whole. And we become the first beneficiaries of the miracle we would effect for another. And together with the other, whom we see and love as God sees and loves, we bathe and dance in the light and joy of that bright, bright, sunshiny day.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
The Woman at the Well
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:5-42
Much like last week’s story of the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, so this morning’s story of the meeting and conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, speaks volumes to us, about the character of Jesus, and therefore the nature of God, about ourselves and about how we come to experience intimacy with God.
Before getting into the story some background information can deepen our understanding of this important passage. The scene is Samaria. The well-known and much loved parable of the Good Samaritan gives the place immediate name recognition. The land of Palestine was comprised of three distinct regions from North to South, namely Galilee, Samaria and Judea. The Town of Sychar was at the fork in the road for those traveling north from Judea to Galilee through Samaria.
Sychar was the site of Jacob’s well. This land was bought by Jacob and given to Joseph, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. You know the one of technicolor coat fame. Joseph’s body was brought back from Egypt to this place for burial. Samaria was rich in Jewish memories and history.
The well was deep. It required a bucket for drawing water. It was fed by subterranean ground water and not surface spring water.
Four hundred years earlier, Samaria had been invaded by the Assyrians. The Samaritans were carried off into exile. During their captivity they intermarried with the locals and embraced the cults of foreign gods. They lost both their racial and religious purity.
The Judeans, their neighbors in the region to the south, had also been invaded. The Judeans were carted off to Babylon. But unlike the Samaritans, the Judeans kept both their blood purity and their faith.
When they returned from the Babylonian exile the Judeans built a temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans offered to help them build the temple but their help was refused because the choices they had made in exile had compromised their ethnic identity and their faith. Rebuffed by the Judeans, the Samaritans built a rival temple at Gerizim.
And so the Samaritans and the Judeans were bound together by a mutual hatred. For Judeans to eat Samaritan bread was to eat the flesh of swine. Of course both the Samaritans and the Judeans interpreted their God as supporting their prejudice, their bigotry, their hatreds and their closed hearts.
All of a sudden this ancient story becomes so terribly contemporary. It is every tribe and every nation’s folly to project a self-serving allegiance, on God’s part, to their tribal or national cause, as if God takes sides with one group of his children over and against another group of his children. It may be painful to acknowledge, but every inclination and impulse to paint an “us and them” picture is of the evil one and never of God. That virus is so much in the air these days.
The unnamed Samaritan woman comes to draw water from a well that was located some distance from the town. She comes at high noon. She is clearly an outcast from her own community. For the decent, respectable women of the town come as a group to draw water from the well in the early morning before heat of the day. The woman who encounters Jesus comes by herself.
She is therefore twice an outcaste, first because of her irregular life and second because, as a Samaritan, she was outside the community of the Jews.
As to what the story reveals of the character of Jesus – we come face to face with the reality of His humanity. We see him as one for whom life could be an effort. He was road weary, hot, hungry and thirsty. Yet even as He endures the assault of his own bodily needs, there is warmth in his empathy and depth in his compassion for this woman. He is not a critic but a friend. He was not one who judged but one who understood. The woman would have run away from an orthodox rabbi. But Jesus is a breaker of barriers. He is asking a Samaritan for a drink. He is talking in public with a woman and one of questionable character.
This was truly an amazing experience for the disciples to witness and an amazing story for Jews to hear. The Son of God was tired, weary and thirsty. His own needs for rest and refreshment were obvious and immediate. Yet even in the face of own need He focused His attention on the unspoken needs of this troubled and burdened woman.
In a world in which respectable Rabbis never spoke to women who were not their wives, in this story the holiest of rabbis was listening with understanding to the sorry tale of a Samaritan woman. He was breaking the barriers of nationality, and orthodox Jewish custom, and even law, and affirming the universality of God’s compassion, mercy and love. Rabbi Jesus thereby invites us to learn from his example. In the face of the deeper need of another are we not to set aside our own needs for the sake of compassion, mercy and love?
The story of the conversation with the Samaritan woman follows the same pattern as the story of the conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus makes a statement: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it was that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”
The woman interpreting with crude literalism, misunderstands. “Living water is fresh, running, spring water and this is a well of dead water. Besides you don’t have a bucket. Besides even Jacob could not find living water here”. She refuses to allow living water to be a metaphor for the life of intimacy with God that Jesus is offering her.
Jesus returns to the theme: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but those who drink of the water I shall give them will never thirst; the water that I shall give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman should have begun to understand, given the many references to living water in the scriptures of her people, the references to springs, fountains and rivers of living water. But she persists in being closed and instead makes light of the words of Jesus and jests with contempt about things eternal. She mocks the metaphor that Jesus is using in His effort to break thru her defenses. She has ears but will not hear. She has eyes but will not see.
She says: “Oh sure, give me this water so that I don’t have to keep trekking back to this well”.
Jesus unable to expose God’s gift to her, tries another gambit. He exposes her to herself. Jesus hits her right between those eyes that are refusing to see. “Go get your husband and¸ come back with him.”
The woman suddenly catches sight of herself. She then begins to take this Jew seriously. In her quest for intimacy and in her search for love, she has become a woman who has known too many men, none of whom had been her husband. “Sir, I see you are a prophet. And since you are a prophet tell me where I can find God. On this mountain or in Jerusalem”?
Jesus tells her that God is to be found everywhere. The immortal and invisible God, meets that which is immortal and invisible within each person whenever a human heart desires that loving encounter. Are we open to the metaphors of scripture that ever invite us into the mystery of divine love? Or do we choose to remain dense and defended with ears that will not hear and eyes that will not see?
Once compelled to see herself, to really look at herself, by the one who alone could provide that safe space for her to honestly face herself, she was able to hear, recognize and accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ and as the one who would love her into a new experience of wholeness and life.
Faced with and facing her undeniable brokenness, acknowledging her pitiful emptiness and feeling the pain of being an outcaste, the Samaritan woman was moved to repentance. She let down her guard, became vulnerable before Jesus and said yes to His love from a depth within her that exceeded the depth of the well from which she drew water.
Living water welled up from within her and she knew joy, real joy, joy that the world cannot give and cannot take away, probably for the first time in her life.
Faith followed her seeing her self through the eyes of Jesus and realizing how very much He loved the woman He saw who stood before Him.
She was then moved to share her experience of being seen, heard, understood and loved by Jesus, and to do so without shame. And to do so without shame even with those who had made her to know and feel shame.
Jesus has met each of us at the well. We are each of us that Samaritan woman. If we have left the encounter still thirsty might it not be due to our remaining too frightened to being embraced by God, too closed to being deeply loved or too willful to surrender? It cannot be to a lack of will on God’s part to give us living water.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 19, 2017
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:1-17
I don’t know how closely you were listening to the gospel story? But I do believe that this dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is a very rich biblical moment. It says so much about us, and about God, and about our relationship with God. Let’s unpack it.
Nicodemus was truly a good man who, because of his timidity and yet in spite of this very same lack of courage, came to Jesus from out of the darkness and under the cover of night. He was a good man because, with utmost sincerity, he was both striving to keep the law and also to do the works of compassion and mercy that the law prescribed.
He was a man to whom we might easily apply the words of the prophet Micah. Nicodemus was a man who did justice, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God.
You begin the get the picture of this good man – Nicodemus. A man whom each of us could want, and be so satisfied to have, as a father, a grandfather, an uncle or a mentor. He was doing all he could do to be right with God, right with his neighbor, and presentable and acceptable to the Lord.
Nicodemus was a good man who lived from a place of integrity, but still and in spite of all, he was afraid. He was afraid to approach Jesus in the light of day. For Nicodemus was a Pharisee and as you know the Pharisees looked upon Jesus with distain and disgust. Nicodemus was afraid of what his fellow Pharisees would think if they found him sitting at the feet of Jesus.
Isn’t there a Nicodemus in each one of us? The good, but too often frightened persons, we know ourselves to be. And are we not all struggling with belief?
Nicodemus responded to the signs, wonders and miracles Jesus worked. These drew him to Jesus.
Some see signs and wonders, and maybe, have even seen miracles, and, on the basis of this evidence, they believe.
Some require signs and wonder and even demand miracles, that they might have the evidence upon which to base belief.
Some believe – however when bad things happen to good people, either in the wider world or within the smaller circle of their own lives, the signs seem too few, too small, or too impotent, and belief gets shaken. The ability to believe or, better yet, the will to persist in believing, gets lost. The present hour in which the poor, the socially vulnerable, the desperate and the earth itself face renewed assault poses its own challenge to faith.
Sometimes belief can seem to be hanging on by bare threads. Where there appear to be no signs or wonders and any hint of the miraculous is absolutely obscured by the weight of their near desperation.
And then there are those who would believe but they want, as Nicodemus, to first understand. Asking again and again, “How can this be?” They want all their important questions answered as a precondition to faith. It can be so hard for many of us to learn that understanding is the fruit of faith rather than its source – the fruit of faith rather than its source. We do not understand in order to believe but rather we believe that we might more fully understand.
Like Nicodemus, has not Jesus has caught our own fascination? And He has caught our fascination either tenuously or ardently and maybe even fiercely. To this good man, fascinated by him, and to all of us fascinated by Him, Jesus poses this challenge. He says, “Nicodemus, break out of the box you are living in, let go of the limits of reality as you perceive reality, open your eyes to the deeper reality and to the deepest mysteries.”
“As you were born from a woman, now be born from above. As you were born of the flesh, now be born again of the spirit.”
“And how can I do this? How can anyone do this?” pleads Nicodemus. Now Nicodemus was flesh bound. His mind was flesh bound. Jesus says birth and Nicodemus can only think vaginal canal. “Can a man reenter his mother’s womb and be born again?” asks Nicodemus.
And Jesus says, “You certainly can be born again”. But not simply by faith as the world and the community of Israel have known faith, that is, faith based on signs, wonders and miracles.
“Rather you can only be born again specifically and pointedly by believing in me, by having faith in me.” Jesus puts it out there to Nicodemus. “Will you believe and have faith in me? This and only this surrender will enable you to be born from above, to be born of the spirit, to live in the light of the kingdom of God. Faith in me is your only way out of the deplorable box.”
Don’t look for more proof that you might believe. Rather believe in me and you will see as you have never seen before. You will see a new reality. You will see the most authentic reality there is to be seen. You will enter the divine presence and be so held and transformed by love, that pain and fear will no longer have any power over you at all.
We do not know if there is anything outside the box and the false sense of safety and security that it affords, for which to leave the box. We do not know except by virtue of God’s call as to Abraham and Christ’s invitation as to Nicodemus. We would stay were we are content or discontent as the case may be. The call and the invitation, be they to a promised land, as in the case of Abraham, or to a new reality, as in the case of the fullness of life offered by Jesus, are themselves a grace.
Nicodemus was fascinated but frightened, searching but not yet believing. He wanted intimacy with God but placed the limits of his own reality, or the limits of his own capacity to understand reality, between himself and that intimacy.
To all whom God has called out to a new place, the faith that alone will enable us to get there always involves “surrender”. And our surrender is to a God who requires a new kind of faith. But also to a God who has a new kind of faith in us – a God who believes so very much in our worth that He gave His only begotten Son, not to condemn us but that we might behold within our hearts just how much we are loved. In Jesus we behold the sign of signs, the wonder of wonders, the miracle of miracles.
When we behold the cross, those who have eyes to see will see the ineffable sign of contradiction – the wondrous and miraculous wood of the cross. They will see the cross for what it, indeed, is – the privileged altar of sacrificial love.
They will see the cross as the place where life eternal comes forth from obedient surrender unto even a shameful and ignominious death.
They will see the cross as the perfect paradox. They will see the power of love made perfect in weakness. They will see the gift of undying Love in the face of killing hate.
The cross is, at once, the obstacle to faith for many and the most compelling reason to believe for a few. May we always choose to be numbered among the few, for the world needs those who do not live in fear.
Nicodemus came to believe and was thereby set free from his fear. Remember, at the dark and terrifying moment of crucifixion, when the rest had gone into hiding, it was Nicodemus who came before Pilate, with Joseph of Arimathea, to request the body of Jesus for burial.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
March 12, 2017
First Sunday in Lent
Facing Death – Reviewing Our Priorities
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11
The liturgy of the ashes and the scriptures for the beginning of Lent draw us to the precipice, to the edge, to the inevitability of our own death. In the bible, the mythical story of the origin of sin begins with a temptation by the serpent in the garden, “Eat the fruit of this tree and you will not die.” The entire drama of salvation reaches an epic moment when the serpent tempts Jesus himself with being spared from death, “Caste yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and you will not die.” The Devil promises what he has no power to give: Life without death.
If you have never really looked into the face of a dying person – Lent begins with an invitation to do so. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. You don’t have to go out of your way to visit a terminally ill patient in a hospital ward. It simply takes the will to do so. Either look into the face of the person next to you or, if you have the courage, look into a mirror. Underneath the appearance of life is there not always a dying man or a dying woman?
If we open our eyes, dying is all around us. I remember once seeing a movie entitled The Ice Storm. A number of families are pictured where the relationships are grounded in materialism, consumerism, minimal communication, personal isolation, dishonesty and infidelity. And where children of dying parents are themselves dying in a sea of drugs, sex, rage, violent fantasies and a haunting belief that life is without any real purpose or meaning.
You may be wondering, “What’s your point?” I didn’t come here today for a downer trip. Why would I want to face death and specifically my own death before I really have to, and until I really have no choice, but to? Is there not some real merit in living in denial of death, or, at the very least, pushing it always into the distant future rather than moving it to the front burner? The death-fearing culture in which we live certainly would argue so. The culture would have us do anything even kill our enemies rather then face death. In his book “Iron John” author Robert Bly makes this observation:
“The word ashes contains in it a dark feeling of death; ashes when put on the face whiten it as death does. Job covered himself with ashes to say that the earlier comfortable Job was dead, and that the living Job mourned the dead Job. But for us, how can we get a look at the cinders or ashes side of things when society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death? Disneyland means “no ashes”.”
When I first went to Hong Kong as a missionary in 1972, I was a bit taken back one day. As I walked down a street of shops, I passed a clothing store, a teashop, a jewelry store, a rattan store and, believe it or not, a coffin shop – yes a coffin shop. When was the last time you visited a mall that listed a coffin shop on its directory?
We must face death here in church, because outside the context of faith there is little support in our culture for facing death even though our culture remains so wedded to the art of killing. I wonder if the contemporary practice of cremating the dead, as soon as possible, is simply another indication of our increasing discomfort with facing death. Bodies just disappear.
But unless we face death we remain clueless about life, about it’s meaning and certainly clueless about it’s priorities. And about my life, its meaning, and its priorities. It was only when Ebenezzer Scrooge looked at his own tombstone that the redemptive transformation of his tortured life begin.
A gifted theologian, William Temple, speaking about repentance once observed:
“The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window, into which some mischievous person has gotten during the night, and shifted all the price tags so that the cheap things have the high price tags on them, and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price tags back in the right place.”
In the present order of things, a higher price tag is being placed on the tools of war, while the need of people for affordable health care is being devalued. Profit from fossil fuels is more valued than the well being of the environment. We would be persuaded to believe that our lives are more valuable than the lives of the millions of the undocumented people that we are poised and have begum to discard. When we disown our neighbors we deny their humanity and our own humanity and we deny the most important commandments of Jesus.
You recall that in another well known biblical myth, Noah and his family and all those animals spent forty days in the Ark, as death came to everything outside the Ark. What do you imagine they did for those forty days and nights? Do you think they were playing pinochle? I think their living in and smelling there own you know what for forty days gave them a needed opportunity to review their priorities. These forty days are our opportunity to review our priorities.
In today’s gospel, we are told that Jesus, after his baptism and before the start of his ministry was thrown like a javelin, by the Spirit, into the desert wilderness. In that place of death – Jesus got clear about his priorities – the will of God and the service of God and the way of God before all else. Jesus rejected being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Tempted to greatness, He chose rather to be foolish, humble and weak – to be as the poor who live with daily certitude of their absolute dependence upon God. And is you wonder at times about God’s will for you, the prophet Amos put it very succinctly and Jesus rounded it off. “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God, caring for your neighbor as you care for yourself.”
Lent invites us to spend forty days in the desert so that we might face death and the questions that death raises about our life and its priorities. In baptism, Jesus called us to enter the waters of death with Him, so that we might be raised to the fullness of life with Him. He daily invites us to walk the way of the cross that we might know the joy of an empty tomb. He leads us thru what seems a godforsaken desert to arrive at the land of promise – the place of abundant life.
We are mindful that it is in the desert, where God appears most absent, that He is, in fact, most present and available to us. If we strip away the fluff, the essence of things comes to the surface. Lent is about our destiny – because it is about our priorities. What we desire first, is what we will have at the last.
How can we tell when we are making progress in Lent? The answer, uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, is when we become angry and vehemently deny that we have reversed those price labels. It is when we want to push out of consciousness our guilt over things done and left undone.
But that is when Lent is doing its work. The truth about our selves begins to break through our defenses – threatening our manufactured sense of security and well-being. But the pain of such realization is the very pain of our healing. Only then is our heart torn open. Only then does the awareness of our own sin cry out for God’s grace and love. Only then can we genuinely return to the Lord and begin the process of rebirth.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
5 March 2017
Disturbing the Peace
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:13-20
Ya gotta love those prophets of old. They give shock value to the Word of God. As soon as we would get comfortable with the way things are in our spiritual life, the prophets remind us that while life in the Spirit will certainly bring comfort, life in the Spirit is not about our being comfortable. The peace that is from above, the peace that the world cannot give, is born of doing what is right and more often than not doing what is right puts us in a very uncomfortable position. Doing what is right will often put others in conflict with us and can even evoke a hostile to violent response from them.
The prophets also have this knack of reminding us that life in the Spirit is never to be understood as a life that is disconnected from the realities of this world. And what the prophets drove home with their words, God personally endorsed in taking our nature upon Him Self. The One who created us in His image made a choice to be born in our likeness. It is in the human drama that God lives. It is here that He wills that we seek Him and it is here that He promises that we will find Him.
The faith of Israel and Christian faith do not find their authenticity in a private personal relationship with God, but in a personal relationship with God that is lived in the context of community that takes into account each and every dimension of our shared life. In an incarnational faith there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. There is no area of life that is off limits to Divine involvement, concern, scrutiny and judgment. To spiritualize our faith, to compartmentalize it, such that we attempt to disconnect it from any facet of our shared humanity is always to render it less authentic.
The Prophet Isaiah has a powerful word for us today. Basically he is saying that our religious practice – our worship, our prayers, our observance, our fasting are bankrupt, are empty, are useless and meaningless, if they do not connect us with the pain of this world such that we might minister to it with healing and light.
In the passage, the Lord instructs Isaiah, “Shout out, do not hold back. Lift your voice like a trumpet, and say to the people, ‘You are a nation that does not practice righteousness and yet you want to imagine that you are near to me. You accuse me of not taking notice of your religious observance and yet while you pray and fast, you oppress the powerless.
The fast that I desire is that you:
loose the bonds of injustice,
let the oppressed go free,
break every yoke?
share your bread with the hungry,
bring the homeless poor into your house;
and cover the naked.’”
Do you see what I mean about shock value and about a spiritual life that takes the mystery of the incarnation, God’s becoming flesh, seriously?
Now enter Jesus, the prophets’ Prophet. Continuing the great teaching, the Sermon on the Mount, that began with last Sunday’s Beatitudes, Jesus looks at His disciples, gathered at His feet and drinking in or struggling with every comforting and compelling instruction as directives for their lives, and says to them, “Beloved, you are the salt of the earth. Yes, you are the light of the world.”
Picture the scene. Can you not just see those folks questioning themselves and looking around at each other wondering to whom the Master is speaking? Jesus, appreciating and maybe even amused at their puzzlement, probably had to repeat Him self, “Yes, you, my dear ones, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
Building upon Isaiah’s legacy, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light. Being righteous, being in right relationship with God, has much do with being as salt and light in this world. In addition to enhancing the flavor of food, salt, as the ancients knew and as we know, has genuine medicinal properties. And if darkness serves as a word that identifies evil, light is forever its obvious antidote. Light dispels the darkness and makes a space safe. Isaiah said, “If you remove the yoke of oppression, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, healing shall spring up quickly and light shall rise in the darkness.” Jesus pronounces a great “Amen” upon Isaiah’s prophetic message.
The leadership of the society we call home has taken a hard turn away from the course and direction that Jesus set in His Sermon on the Mount. This is made more and more obvious with each passing day. The new mandates coming forth from the White House all appear to be about self-interest, self-care, self- protection and self-preservation. By distinction, the mandates enshrined in the Sermon on the Mount are about self-giving love and taking the risks involved in loving our neighbors, loving strangers and even loving our enemies as we have been loved by God in Christ. It is not easy but it most certainly is God’s will for us. It is the way of Christians. It is the way of the cross.
What is indeed as unsettling as what appear to be self-involved and self-serving mandates is the support that this new direction would appear to be receiving. Yes, the protests are many and they are indeed large, but far too many, coming from a place of stoked fear and anger, seem to find sense in these very problematic directives. Far too many are willing to embrace “alternative facts” for factual truth. And as a NY Senator noted this past week, “An alternative fact is simply another word for a lie.”
If one insists on using the adjective “huge”, then let it be said that we have a huge number of poor people within our midst, here in the richest country in the world, and throughout the wider world there is a huge number of people who do not share in what God has given for all. I doubt there will be an executive order forthcoming whose aim will be in the direction of addressing the unconscionable disparity in wealth and relieving world hunger. Quite to the contrary, a mandate was signed on Friday giving more license to financial market thieves.
If one wants to talk about terrorist threats, must we not acknowledge just how many good and innocent people have been threatened and terrorized this past week through those mandates relating to deportation and exclusion? Can we allow ourselves to forget that during World War II, the “St. Louis”, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi holocaust was turned away from our shores? A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” Sound familiar? The passengers were returned to Europe and a third of them were gassed to death in concentration camps.
Earlier this week a commander and chief who never put himself in harms way and who in fact secured a medical deferment for bone spurs in his feet, that miraculously disappeared after the end of the Vietnam War, rattled his saber in the direction of Iran. You can be sure that his children are not going to be encouraged to enlist anytime soon. It is our children and grandchildren who will be made fodder for the next war.
In today’s second lesson St. Paul reminds us of what is maybe the most difficult of all the teachings of Jesus. In the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaimed, “Blest are the peacemakers, those who overcome violence and hatred that leads to fighting, war, destruction and death. Blest are the peacemakers.”
For Jesus, making peace was something that had to be done in a very special way. St. Paul says, “I came to proclaim the Good News, but not in terms of human wisdom and power. I came only to preach Christ crucified.” Jesus the Christ gives up power, might and greatness, and reaches out in forgiveness, reconciliation, humility and love. He identifies with the least among us. Power and might are the great deception. They are the lie. Forgiveness, reconciliation, humility and love are the truth.
Even as he’s being executed and tortured, Jesus prays, “Forgive them.” He reaches out in love, and that is how peace is made.
Blest are the peacemakers.
We don’t change our thinking or behavior until we allow God to change our hearts. A sensitive, loving heart, that rejects violence and that has developed the steady beat of attending to the needs of the other before our own real or often imagined needs is a heart that only God can fashion within us, but never without our allowing His doing so.
Jesus wants us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. We are salt and light when we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless poor, clothe the naked, and welcome immigrants and refugees with open arms and hearts.
Jesus invites us to follow Him by becoming peacemakers. Disciples make peace by responding to hatred and violence only ever with love. And we remain mindful that being a peacemaker involves a great deal more than simply investing ourselves in keeping the peace. It sometimes involves disturbing the peace.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
Holy Cross/Santa Cruz
February 6, 2017
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We are here because we believe that Jesus is Lord. We believe that the Son of Mary is the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father. We believe that He is the Light that has come into the world. We believe that He is the Wellspring of Divine Wisdom.
As to the wisdom He offers, among all the words attributed to Jesus there are some that stand out and compel our most considered attention and that invite our deepest response. The Sermon on the Mount, for which this morning gospel of the Beatitudes serves as a preamble, and the famous Parable of the Sheep and the Goats with which Matthew ends his gospel, are most certainly of this order.
Jesus bids us to listen not just with our ears but also with our hearts to these words of wisdom and to let them serve to inform our decisions and contour our lives if we want to be numbered among His disciples. They stand in stark relief against what the gospel identifies as the foolishness of this world.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the humble. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are they who do what is right and willingly suffer for it.” He goes on in His Sermon on the Mount to invite us to love our enemies and to do good to those who would do us harm. And, in that parable of the Last Judgment, at the end of the gospel, they asked the Divine Judge, “Lord when we see you poor, or naked, or hungry, or thirsty, in prison, or a stranger in flight for your life and took care of you”? In response, He answered, “When you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”
This is the heart of the gospel. The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats mirror and bring home in the greatest specificity and the starkest relief the powerful words of the prophet Micah, contained in today’s first lesson. In response to the question, “What does the Lord require?” Micah sums it up by declaring that the Lord requires three things, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” As a society we have moved so very far away from meeting these requirements. Rather injustice, meanness and arrogance are the drumbeat to which we are being summoned to march.
As Jesus is the wellspring of divine wisdom, He is also our source of imperishable hope. While the world can make mince meat of our optimism, it cannot best our hope. Hope is something that we come by through faith. Our hope is in the Lord alone who is always faithful and always delivers on His promise.
There are indeed times when hope can seem harder to discern and sustain, such as in the present moment. In such a time of chaos and crisis, when hope is being challenged and being put to the test, I do believe that the most important resource available to us is the grace of righteous anger. I believe that those who do not allow themselves to own this precious gift as a response to what is going on remain at greater risk of descending into a place of hopeless desperation.
Let me be clear about this anger business. We all grew up being taught to believe that anger was a “bad” emotion. Certainly, scripture contains many more verses warning believers against blowing their cool than verses advocating such behavior. Anger that would bring us to a place of hated or to a response of violence is most certainly not of God.
But scripture does hold up for our considered embrace that anger that Word of God describes as righteous. Righteous anger is a most appropriate emotional response in the face of injustice. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament make space for the expression of holy anger and identify it as the divine energy that allows believers to confront, challenge and take action against all forms of malice, all manifestations of injustice and most especially the exploitation and victimization of the poor and the most vulnerable.
Yes, the words and actions of Jesus reveal to us the wisdom of God and in the face of injustice, righteous anger is that gift and resource that can fuel a holy response.
Righteous anger is the kind of raw emotion Jesus displayed when he fashioned a whip out of rope and lashed out at people who exploited the poor in God’s temple.
It’s hard not to feel holy angry when six out of ten black men report that they have been treated unfairly by police because of their race. It’s hard not to see how unjust it is that no less than 136 unarmed black people have died at the hands of police in 2016 alone. It’s also hard not to cry out in indignation at the deaths of the five police officers that lost their lives while protecting a prayer rally in Dallas.
While forgiveness has long been a cornerstone of Christian theology, can we not see that forgiveness in the context of Black Lives Matter can seem like a form of “appeasement” that dissuades people from confronting the horrors of racism?
To skip over anger, to not allow one’s humanity to have a spiritual encounter with righteous indignation, is to avoid that desperately needed conversation about racism and white privilege. We desperately need this conversation and not more emboldened and aggressive police forces and not a Justice Department run by a white supremacist.
It is hard not to feel holy anger when on a daily basis we are confronted with news about the systematic disposal of people. We need to know we are safe, but not at the price of vilifying, scapegoating, abusing and victimizing groups of people because of they are refugees, immigrants, undocumented or because they understand and worship God differently. How dare we close of borders to human agony and tragedy and throw people out as if they were trash. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, such behaviors and the enactment of the unjust laws that enable and propel them, “Cry to heaven for vengeance.”
Our most effective response to such expressions of inhumanity is to feel that holy outrage that can move us to take whatever actions, even to the point of civil disobedience, that might make a difference in terms of advocacy or protection for those who find themselves under assault in this present hour.
On Friday evening a group of outraged children of God, numbering about 70 strong met in our parish hall to discuss where we go from Kingston’s identifying itself as a Sanctuary City. The atmosphere in the hall was one of deep concern mixed with passion to take action. The meeting brought together members of various faith communities, community action and advocacy groups. During the meeting I mentioned that the idea of identifying Sanctuary Churches within Kingston, that would shelter those threatened with deportation while they made legal appeals, has received a very positive response from churches, Temple Emmanuel and the Kingston mosque. I will keep you informed and will be seeking your involvement and support as this discussion moves forward and, please God, becomes a reality.
We need love. Jesus says, “Love and do not hate your enemy. Return good for evil.” The power of transforming love is the way of Jesus. And don’t we need remember that message today when there are violence and threats to more violence all around us.
But in order to reach that place of transforming love, we also need to confront the systemic oppression of races and the disenfranchisement and dismissal of the most vulnerable among us. And for that, we need righteous anger.
We need, as well, repentance. We need to wrestle with the gift of righteous anger ― and what we can do to turn that anger into love and action.
Can disciples of Jesus find joy and hope at the Dow reaching record heights when the number of poor people in this world has also reached and is ever exceeding record heights and when black people and brown people are being discarded like trash.
The British Prime Minister came to Washington and invited us into a partnership “to rule the world”. Failed empire and the lust for its revival would appear to die hard. Jesus, however, comes into our lives again today to invite us rather into a community to serve the least among us.
Holy outrage and transforming love are the “Jesus Way” forward. May be embrace these with renewed devotion.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna, Ph.D.
Holy Cross/Santa Cruz Episcopal Church
January 29, 2017