Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 3: Is There Enough?

Sermon for March 19, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

Here we are in week 3 of this sermon series on “Five Questions We Ask in the Dark.”  Last Sunday, we considered God’s very existence: Is God really there?  In the midst of our sleepless nights, that question rises fairly easily, I think, especially when what we hear in response to our prayers is, literally and figuratively, crickets in the dark.  Today, we come to another insomnia-inducing question: Is there enough?  Does God give us enough? 
In the prayer Jesus taught us, he tried to guide us toward humble expectations about enough: “Give us this day our daily bread.”  That’s what we ask in the Lord’s Prayer.  The Biblical text is actually something closer to, “Give us today our bread for tomorrow” (Matthew 6:11, NRSV).  I think offering that prayer is a good way to form our hearts, as well as to set our expectations.  When I say that line in my own prayers, I often follow it up like this: “Give us this day our daily bread.  Help me to see that all I have comes from you and that what you give me is sufficient, and abundant, and extraordinarily generous.”
I tack on that line about daily bread being enough because I’m a lot like the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness, as we heard in the reading from Exodus today.  In the section just before today’s reading, we hear about the people complaining against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, for failing to provide food in the desert. God hears the people’s fear as well as their hunger, and God provides manna – quite literally their “bread for tomorrow” and nothing more.  Each morning, the people find it on the ground and collect it.  And no matter how much or how little each one gathers, they all have the same amount in their baskets, and it lasts only one day before it breeds worms and turns foul.  So they couldn’t store it up.  They had to trust that God would send their “bread for tomorrow” … tomorrow.
Now, no sooner had God solved the food problem than the people found a new focus for their fear about having enough – water, which is a reasonable worry in the desert.  They find no water where Moses tells them to camp, so the people quarrel with Moses and with God: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt?  To kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).  The irony is that, as they’re eating the bread of angels, they’re afraid God won’t set the table with a cool drink of water, too.  So God tells Moses to “strike the rock at Horeb,” also known as Mt. Sinai – the place where God called Moses from the burning bush and where God will give Moses the Law later in the story.  “Strike the rock,” God says, “and water will come out of it” (17:6) – what people of the day called “living water,” the best kind of water, water flowing clear in a stream rather than sitting green and murky in a cistern.  “I will be standing there with you,” God tells Moses.  “You can trust me not just for your daily bread but for the water of life, too.”
So here’s perhaps more of a window than you want into the questions I ask in the dark.  I am right there with the people of Israel in the wilderness, my prayers too often degenerating into, “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”  It’s why that add-on to the Lord’s Prayer about daily bread matters to me – because it’s so easy to become fearful about having enough.
My fears about enough don’t usually swirl around money or things.  I have different afflictions.  My fears about enough usually involve the Church – both St. Andrew’s and the Church with a capital C.  Will the Church be around in 30 years?  For most of us here, most of the time, we’d say, “Sure, of course it will.”  But this is a challenging time for mainline Christian denominations.  In the Episcopal Church, we’ve seen Sunday attendance drop by 26 percent in the past 10 years, and it’s currently decreasing by about 3.5 percent per year.1  With our tiny total Episcopal population of 1.8 million, we don’t have folks to spare.  In these tough times, St. Andrew’s membership is holding steady, but our attendance dipped slightly last year.  Now, we are addressing the scarcity we fear: We’re searching for a new assistant rector to lead ministry with younger adults and families, both people within the congregation and people we want to bring into it.  We’re seeking to draw more people into St. Andrew’s orbit through traditional church programs and services and through points of connection like community classes, neighborhood events, receptions, kids’ programs, and pastoral presence with people around us.  That’s all good.  But, to build the beloved community Jesus wants the Church to be, we need to connect with people more effectively and invite them into this family – which is why we now have a full-time engagement coordinator on staff, Mike McKinne.  But, of course, one staff member can’t do that work alone.  So it raises the really big question about “enough” in the Church: Do we have enough willing hearts?  Do we have enough people willing to connect with others, willing to invite them into something and walk alongside them to help them find a home here?  Does our parish family have enough of a culture of evangelism?  We can think up evangelistic programs; we can offer (and we have offered) different styles of worship; but by itself, that’s not enough.  A culture of invitation, a culture of connection, a culture of evangelism – that has to be here, too.
So, into my late-night fears about “enough” steps an unlikely character: a nameless woman at a well, the woman in today’s Gospel.  She is about as much of a nobody as somebody can be, from a Jewish perspective in Scripture.  First of all, she’s a Samaritan.  The Samaritans and the Jews had been feuding for centuries, feuding the way only siblings can.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before the Exile, and the Jews were the descendants of the Southern Kingdom of Judah before the Exile.  They worshiped the same God but in slightly different ways and in different places – so of course their brotherhood became deep division.  So, this woman at the well is a Samaritan; and as the Gospel tell us, “Jews [did] not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  The second strike against this woman is that she is a person of literally no social standing.  That’s likely the meaning behind the exchange about how she’s had five husbands, and how the man she’s with is not her husband.  From centuries of interpretation biased against women, we may hear that statement as impugning her moral character.  It’s much more likely saying that five past husbands have ditched her, leaving her powerless and alone; and she’s doing the best she can to survive in a society where a woman’s value was measured in terms of being a man’s property. 
But this Samaritan woman at the well engages Jesus in a way no one would have expected.  Like Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel reading, she interrogates Jesus; and he recognizes her inherent value by taking her questions seriously.  As in last week’s reading, Jesus doesn’t give the woman easy answers.  He makes her keep digging, keep plumbing the depths of that well that leads to living water.  Finally, she gets it (unlike the learned Nicodemus last week), and she recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the one “who will proclaim all things to us” (4:25). 
What we’ve just heard is this woman’s call story.  Think about other stories of Jesus calling disciples, stories that might be more familiar.  Think of Peter, Andrew, James, and John out there on the lake in Matthew’s Gospel, enduring yet another fisherman’s workday, casting and mending their nets.  Jesus comes to them – regular guys in the midst of their regular lives – and he says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19).  Something similar is happening in this story, but the Samaritan woman at the well doesn’t even need the invitation.  After her interrogation of Jesus, she leaves behind her water jar, a vital possession for a woman in that time and place; and just as surely, she leaves behind her old life, too.  This social outcast, not even anyone’s wife, goes back to the city of Samaria, finds her voice, and says to the people she meets, “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done!” (4:29).  Come and see the one we’ve been waiting for.  And, remarkably, the people follow her to find the messiah.  Of course, to Jesus, it’s no surprise:  “Look around you,” he says to the disciples, “and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting” (4:35).
In the wee, small hours, I would do well to remember the Samaritan woman – as well as the Lord who gives us living water when we least expect it.  When I find myself worrying about where the church will be next year, or in five years, or in 30; when I find myself worrying that I can never do enough or be enough or meet all the expectations people lay before me; when I worry whether we have enough of what it takes build a culture of evangelism at St. Andrew’s and in the Episcopal Church – in those wee, small hours, I need to remember the Samaritan woman at the well. 
Do we have enough of what it takes to be evangelists?  The answer is, “Yes” – and I can prove it.  Look at the word.  What does that supposedly scary word, “evangelism,” mean?  Does it mean quoting Scripture?  Does it mean telling people that Jesus Christ is your personal Lord and Savior?  Does it mean going door to door to invite people to St. Andrew’s.  Well, yes, maybe eventually … but not necessarily, and certainly not right off the bat.  It would be like kissing someone you just met.  That scary word, evangelism, comes from a Greek word that simply means “good news.”  If you can share good news, you are, by definition, an evangelist.  If you can gossip about something good, you are, by definition, an evangelist. 
And what is that Good News?  You can say it many ways, but here’s the simplest way I can frame it.  For somebody out there, someone you meet or know, the Good News is this: that you take this person seriously enough to have a conversation and offer hope about what matters in his or her life.  And here’s why that’s Good News: Because the fact that you take the person that seriously shows that God does, too.  Especially in our world, where authenticity is rarer than living water in the desert, I would argue that the best news any of us can hear is that we are worth someone’s investment to build a relationship with us, a relationship that points us toward hope. 
At the end of the day, that’s what the Church is for.  The Church is God’s community of relationship-building.  Each of the promises of the baptismal covenant is about relationship.  And when it comes to the project of building relationships, God equips us with an amazing and counter-intuitive capacity for blessing.  If you can build a relationship that points to God’s unlimited love, then you have enough to be an evangelist. 
So, remember today’s Gospel math lesson.  You didn’t know you were coming for a math lesson this morning, but here you go:  How many Episcopalians does it take to speak about love they don’t have to earn?  How many Episcopalians does it take to build a relationship that points toward hope?  How many Episcopalians does it take to gossip good news?  The answer is, one.  One is enough.  One is enough – as long as that one is you. 

1.       The Episcopal Church.  “Episcopal Church Fast Facts Trends 2011-2015.”  Available at: Accessed March 16, 2017.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, Part 2: Does God Exist?

Sermon from Sunday, March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

I have to say: Our Old Testament reading today kind of drives me crazy.  More specifically, it kind of makes me feel inadequate.  This is the first time we meet one of the central figures of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions – Abram, eventually to be renamed Abraham.  This account we heard today sounds like it just comes out of nowhere, and that’s nearly true.  The verses before it simply introduce Abram and his wife, Sarai, as part of Abram’s extended family living in what’s now southern Iraq.  Abram’s father takes his household on the road, intending to move them to Canaan, which is modern Israel and Palestine.  But they only go part of the way, hiking up the Fertile Crescent and settling in what’s now southern Turkey.  That’s where we pick up the short reading we heard this morning, when God spoke to Abram and said, “Go from your father’s country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…” (Genesis 12:1-2).  That’s pretty much all Abram got.  But based on this simple call, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (12:4)
Now, from this story, we know nothing about what kind of a person Abram was.  But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t much like me, maybe not much like you, either.  Whatever else might have been true about him, Abram was willing – willing to walk into the darkness with his eyes wide open.  I can only imagine how much grief he must have gotten from his family and the workers in his household.  “You’ve got to be kidding, Abram.  God has told you to leave everything you know and wander to a foreign land?  Really?  You don’t even know the destination God has in mind.”  Abram is rightly held up as the Scriptural exemplar of trust, staking his life on God’s direction.  I know I don’t measure up to that.
But then we have the Gospel reading, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night for a conversation as deep as conversations get.  Nicodemus … now here’s someone I can identify with.  He’s a religious elder, a Pharisee, a teacher, a leader of the people – someone who’s supposed to have his stuff together.  Nicodemus is the man with all the answers.  But this night, Nicodemus is the man with all the questions.  He comes to Jesus secretly and addresses him as “Rabbi,” teacher.  He knows about Jesus’ signs; he understands that Jesus is channeling God’s power.  But how?  What’s going on here?  Jesus tells him no one can see God’s kingdom without being born anew, born from above; and Nicodemus wants to know, “What does that mean?  How can you be born a second time?”  Well, Jesus waxes poetic about being born of both matter and spirit; he says the wind blows where it will without you knowing where it comes from or where it’s going, but still it happens.  “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8) – as if that explains anything.  And Nicodemus is just as much in the dark as he was before: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9)  It’s tough to be the man with all the answers when all you’ve got is questions.
But the night is a good time for questions like this.  I don’t know about you, but I find myself lying awake in the wee small hours sometimes, trying to hear a voice that doesn’t seem to have much to say.  I can name a few times when God has given me wonderfully direct messages, promising to stand by me and guide me if I’ll take a journey sort of like Abram’s.  That does happen – but it’s the 1 percent of prayer.  The other 99 percent is asking questions in the dark; and, if you’re blessed enough to get an answer, chances are it doesn’t make much sense.  But chances are even greater, in any given moment, that there’s no response at all.  And that’s scary.  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is frightening because it forces us to admit that we’re simply not in control.  And it’s all the more frightening when we can’t sense God’s presence in it either.  As she puts it, “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.”1
Ahhh, there it is … the question that lies beneath all the others, the question we face in the dark but rarely ask out loud.  Does God exist?  Is God really there?  When I pray, am I just having a nice conversation with myself?  Plenty of people, past and present, would say that’s exactly what I’m doing.  Skeptical people sometimes look at people of faith and wonder, “How in the world could you really buy into a relationship with an invisible friend?”  That’s not the question Nicodemus raises with Jesus, but I think Nicodemus has much in common with our skeptical hearts.  Like Nicodemus, our skeptical hearts actually want nothing more than to believe in something deeply.  The interrogation Nicodemus gives Jesus comes from longing, not a desire to play “gotcha.”  Nicodemus wants to believe, and he’s looking to Jesus to help him understand: “How can these things be?”  Jesus’ own mother, Mary, asked the same question of the angel who told her she would be the mother of God.  “How can this be?” asks the skeptic today who sees his marriage failing, and who sees children across town going hungry, and who sees women trafficked as slaves on American highways, and who sees thousands of God’s children warehoused in prisons, and who feels under siege by bitterness and intolerance both inside and outside our nation.  And our own skeptical hearts join the chorus: “How can you believe your invisible friend is really there?”
In a few days, our friend Fr. Marcus will be walking in Abram’s footsteps.  Today is his last Sunday with us, after three and a half years as part of this parish family.  It’s fitting that we’re in this sermon series as he concludes his time with us, because Fr. Marcus has asked questions we likely wouldn’t have considered otherwise, questions we tend to leave in the dark.  He’s also built relationships with newcomers, and prayed with kids on ski slopes, and told holy stories in Children’s Chapel, and retrained himself from swinging incense every Sunday of the year.  Now, Fr. Marcus is heeding God’s call to the frozen north, a distant land far from his “country and [his] kindred and [his] father’s house.”  Unlike Abram, at least Marcus has an address; but he doesn’t really know much of anything about what life will be like in this new land that God will show him.  And still he goes, with our blessing and into the blessing God has in store – both for him and through him for the people God loves.
But you know, Fr. Marcus isn’t the only one walking in Abram’s footsteps.  So is Mtr. Anne.  Later this summer, she will journey on sabbatical and return to us a different role.  Another one walking in Abram’s footsteps is the priest whom God will bring here to minister with younger adults, families, and the community around us.  This summer, God willing, he or she will come into this parish family, having left another land and kindred behind.  And honestly, so am I walking in Abram’s footsteps.  A church’s life is always changing, right out from under you it sometimes seems; and this summer, we’ll be taking down HJ’s and putting a newer, more efficient building in its place to support ministries we’re now building and continuing to grow. 
The truth is, we’re all Abram’s children.  None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, much less the years to come.  We spend our days planning for that which we imagine but cannot see.  Eighteen years ago, I went to seminary with a little savings in my pocket and a pretty decent plan:  My wife, Ann, would work full time to support us and our two little kids.  But I left seminary with a wife who’d nearly died of lupus and was disabled and on chemotherapy.  Oh, yeah, we also left with a mountain of debt.  Nice work by that invisible friend, I hear the skeptic say. 
Here’s the thing:  I know God is there.  Ann is healthier now than she’s ever been since the fall she nearly died.  That mountain of debt is a thing of the past.  I find myself in this beautiful place with you beautiful and broken people, striving to hear and follow God’s call together as best we can.  Many of us could tell a story like that.  So here’s how I came to know that God is there:  Because after asking all the questions, after stumbling in the dark, after feeling sorry for myself, after demanding to know the destination – at the end of it all, I took the risk to trust. 
When we hear that story of Abram setting out for an unknown land, and when St. Paul writes about Abram’s faith, we’re not hearing about someone who just believes something.  The answers that come in the dark are not verifications of intellectual propositions.  The final answer that comes in the dark is to trust – to make the choice to stake our hope and our lives on “the assurance of things not seen,” as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it (11:1).  We begin as Nicodemus, interrogating Jesus to make sense of God’s ways.  We stand there with Nicodemus, trying to fit vast truth into our intellectual boxes.  We hear Jesus mumbling mystery; and with Nicodemus, we cry in the dark, “How can these things be?!” (John 3:9). 
But you know, at the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus again.  This time, he’s not asking questions.  This time, he’s putting his own life on the line in the darkest moment of them all, as Jesus’ dead body is taken down from the cross.  Nicodemus shows up, with Joseph of Arimathea, to take the body away for burial, despite the risk that the Romans might kill him, too.  And to prepare the body, Nicodemus brings with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) – tremendously more ointment and burial spice than he needs to do the job.  Now, maybe Nicodemus was just trying to ensure that his failed leader’s body didn’t stink.  But I choose a different interpretation.  I see Nicodemus investing everything he’s got in something even less reliable than an invisible friend.  I see Nicodemus investing all his trust in the man lying dead before him and the divine Spirit that will blow through that body three days later.  For, as the apostle Paul writes, God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). 
On the world’s terms, this is no way to live.  But for Abram, for Marcus, for Anne, for our next priest, for me, for you – it’s the only way to live.  As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up.  To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life.”2  So, to Fr. Marcus, and to Mtr. Anne, and to all of us who invest our hearts in whispers we hear in the shadows, let me say:  Keep staking your life on the presence and power of the living God – the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  For glorious things await us as we walk in the dark.

1.   Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark (p. 135). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
2.  Taylor, (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.