I’ve been getting more traffic on this post (sermon actually), which I wrote last year for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Evidently there are a number of folks who would rather have Palm Sunday be only Palm Sunday and forgo the reading of the Passion Gospel on this day in favor of another occasion (logically, Good Friday, when we read it again) because, in addition to the comments on last year’s post, someone got to my blog today by searching:
“omit passion narrative on palm sunday episcopal” and others (?) by searching:
“passion gospel palm sunday or good friday?”
“rubrics reading of the passion story”
Interesting… I hope some folks will be encouraged to leave comments about why they’re looking to see if the rubrics allow the omission
Many of you are probably familiar with the hymn, written in the 1930’s, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” I’ve been considering the lyrics as I reflected on the Gospel lesson for this third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5-42).
I want to walk as a child of the light. / I want to follow Jesus. / God set the stars to give light to the world. / The star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all. / The night and the day are both alike. / The Lamb is the light of the city of God. / Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably taken these words to be talking about Jesus’s sinlessness, his changeless and perfect divine character. But there’s something else there–or at least more there–because these are the words that came to mind as I read the selection from John’s Gospel, which we just heard, about Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
Jesus is near the Samaritan city of Sychar, remarkable for a holy man in itself. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews because they were viewed as a living witness to apostasy from the Law. Jews were not to marry outside their faith/people, yet the Samaritans existed as a people because Israelite males from the Northern Kingdom had done precisely that, and intermarried with foreigners who had been resettled in the area by the Assyrians. The hatred and distrust went farther back than that, because the Northern Kingdom had rejected the worship of the Jerusalem Temple and instead had built their own temple on Mt. Gerazim, near their early capital of Shechem, called Sychar in John (they later moved their capital, but the temple remained on Mt. Gerazim). Not only did the Samaritans have their own temple, they had their own version of the Torah.
Needless to say, the Samaritans weren’t well liked by the Jewish people and the feeling was mutual: they were so close to each other in belief, yet they hated each other for their differences, seeing them as blasphemous–a classic example of odium theologicum.
It is interesting that Jesus chose to travel through Samaritan territory because–despite the fact that it was the most expedient route–many religious Jews would avoid the area completely, taking the extra time to travel around Sychar/Shechem so as to avoid contact with any “unclean” Samaritans. Not so with Jesus.
Jesus comes to the area of Jacob’s well, and it’s around noon, the hottest part of the day, and he’s tired from traveling, hungry and thirsty. The disciples have gone to buy food when a Samaritan woman shows up to draw water from the well. There are several things going on simultaneously in this passage. The first is related to the place. It was a common theme in the Old Testament for a man to meet his wife at a well. It makes sense considering the social function of “watering holes.” So the fact that Jesus would talk with a woman is scandalous enough, then there’s the fact that he’s talking to her at a well–not the sort of association a well-respected religious leader would want people making (hence the astonishment of the disciples when they do return).
But beyond this, there’s an issue with the time of day. There’s a reason that Jesus, who is traveling, and this particular Samaritan woman are at the well alone. It’s noon. The hottest part of the day. Most people would do their work, such as gathering water, in the cool of the morning or the evening, and gathering water or doing washing would be a time for socializing. Not so with the woman Jesus encounters. She’s an outcast; someone with whom the other Samaritans don’t want to socialize.
Jesus encounter’s her in the midst of her ostracism and her alienation. He knows what she’s done and how she’s lived, drawing the details out:
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!” (John 4:16-18).
Jesus is able, in his conversation with her, to meet her where she is, recognize the difficulties she’s facing and the poor and sinful choices she’s made and yet present Good News to her rather than heaping more judgment and more condemnation upon her. She goes away from her conversation with Jesus, not chastised, not feeling worse about herself and her situation. She goes way from that conversation with Christ energized, more confident. The woman that had to go alone to draw water goes back to her city saying “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” and when the people hear what she has to say and the way she says it ‘They left the city and were on their way to him.”
Somehow Jesus is able to discuss religion (salvation is from the Jews, he says), politics and sex, and leave the woman in a better place, and in a state of belief. How many of us are able to say the same?
This is why the song was stuck in my head. I do want to walk as a child of the light, and I do want to follow Jesus. But in Jesus there is no darkness at all. I can’t say the same about myself. This is John 3:17 in action:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The problem that we face is that we fall into two extremes and both are fraught with judgmentalism, just of different varieties. As Archbishop Rowan Williams puts is:
We use God to bless crusades for this or that, for sexual liberation or sexual repression, for the free market or social ownership. If God is value and power, in short, we need him badly. To allay the anxiety that we might not have the kind of value and power that matters, we invent all sorts of ways in which we can be sure of having him with us, echoing what we say. And the God we thus capture and display as our ally is most emphatically a God who is there to condemn: thank goodness I, or my particular group, have avoided condemnation by getting on the right side of him, and now he can turn his wrath elsewhere, on my behalf (Rowan Williams, “Not to Condemn the World” in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections, p. 27).
In other words, we can fall into the extreme of being judgmental conservatives or judgmental liberals. We can judge and condemn people because of their sins (as we percieve them) or because of they are benighted. Either way we are condemning and aren’t doing the work of Christ, who came not to condemn but save.
This Lenten season I pray we learn the lesson that we are to follow God, not claim that God somehow follows us. We all need to be reminded from time to time, of the lesson that the ancient Israelites learned: “Israel could not possess God because God possesses Israel” (Hauerwas, Naming God)
The Church today must relearn that we cannot possess God, because God possesses us, and somehow find a way to imitate Christ in speaking to one another, to our families friends and neighbors about God, about sin, about the Good News, in such a way that we can go forth from that conversation proclaiming the goodness of God.
After the encounter with the Samaritan woman, when the disciples urged Jesus to eat, he responded by telling them “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (John 4:34). In other words, Jesus gets satisfaction from doing the will of the Father, and the will of the Father is that everyone, even the ostracized of the ostracized, the alienated of the alienated, the blasphemers of the blasphemers and the most sinful of humanity–even you and me–come to know the salvation he offers, the love he has for us, and the peace we have in Christ. Jesus gives hope to the hopeless.
I want to see the brightness of God. / I want to look at Jesus. / Clear sun of righteousness, shine on my path, / and show me the way to the Father.
I’m looking for the coming of Christ. / I want to be with Jesus. / When we have run with patience the race, / we shall know the joy of Jesus.
It’s hard to believe we’re so far along in the advance of the Lent, already preparing for the third Sunday of the season. Time is flying by in some ways, and in others, it seems to be creeping along. That seems to be the way life goes. In some areas we just never seem to have enough time, while in others we wait and wait for events or seasons to pass. Anna and I have been in one of those strange seasons of not-enough-time and waiting-for-what-seems-like-eternity. The expectation we feel with the upcoming birth of our first child is hard to put into words (though many of you have experienced it yourselves). For so many reasons we’re ready for Eli’s birth–Anna especially at this point, being past the 8-month mark of the pregnancy–but at the same time, we find ourselves discovering more and more that needs to be taken care of. In many ways this waiting and this preparation is as involved a Lenten discipline as I’ve every experienced. And there’s a sense in which it serves as a reminder of exactly how little we control in our lives. We give ourselves over to the illusion of control, and lull ourselves into a sense of security with our plans, our schedules, our routines. But none of them are really set. Illness shows us that, tragedy shows us that, and the birth of a child can show us that, as they come when the time is right for them, not for our plans. So this Lenten season is one of preparation in a new way for me as I prepare to welcome my son, and prepare in all the ways necessary to do that well, and to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible at St. Joseph’s, even though there can be no script and no anticipation other than the twin realities that Lent is moving on toward Holy Week and Easter approaches on April 24 and that sometime during that same period Eli Joseph Howard will, by God’s grace, make Anna’s and my life stand still.
This is a good lesson for Lent. In the midst of all the penitence, the self-examination, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative ways that our scarce control is revealed–but it’s helpful to remember that Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the time of rebirth. And like the rebirth of spring, when we give ourselves over to God and his grace, we can discover that being out of control can be a means of blessing by revealing to us where we should focus our efforts: in prayer rather than planning, in thanksgiving rather than frustration and in blessing rather than cursing.
As we go about our lenten disciplines of prayer, introspection and self-control, we should be drawn to the words of scripture, especially as found in the Daily Office, as well as to the words of Christians who have come before. Reflecting on such wisdom is one thing that we can control, and, strangely enough, this is a sort of control that can prepare us for those things that we cannot control.
Below is the full text of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IV, a portion of which was included on the cover of our Ash Wednesday and Lent I bulletins. I encourage you to consider his words this week, and to reflect upon the love of Christ, whose red blood dyes our souls white.
Holy Sonnet IV
By John Donne
O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death’s herald and champion;
Thou’rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d from prison,
But damn’d and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:5).
In the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (Year A)1, Jesus is hard at work confusing people. Specifically, he’s confusing a man that shouldn’t have had much difficulty understanding Jesus’ teachings if understanding were a simple function of knowledge.
Nicodemus we’re told, was a teacher and a ruler of Israel. A member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body of the Jewish people at that time, and a pharisee, a Rabbi, a teacher of the Law. Indeed, some commentators suggest that the fact that Nicodemus comes to Christ by night may not have been completely attributable to fear of being associated with him, but because he was a true student of the Torah. 2 As such, coming to Jesus in the darkness would’ve simply indicated that he was seeking knowledge of God at all times.
Nicodemus was earnestly seeking the truth, and he recognized the truth in Christ’s teachings. So much so, in fact, that he shows great respect for Jesus as he addresses him as Rabbi (despite the fact that Jesus’ lack of rabbinic training was well known) saying:
“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” (John 3:2).
Jesus takes advantage of Nicodemus’ openness to push him just a little bit further along the road of understanding, telling him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus, not understanding what Jesus means, falls back on the debating tactic of taking a term at it’s most literal when responding to a statement so as to tease out a more exact meaning from the person one was dialoguing with.3 He asks Jesus how a person can return again to his mother’s womb and be born a second time.
In Christ’s first statement, that a person must be born from above/anew to see the Kingdom of Heaven, he used a term that could be seen as indicating something along a horizontal axis (temporal), in being born again/anew, as well as being interpreted on a vertical axis, in being born from above. In response to Nicodemus’ questioning, Christ expands upon this theme in saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). In speaking of being born of water, Jesus could be making references to several different things–indeed, I believe that he is–namely, to the waters of physical birth & the waters of Baptism (having in the background the purifying waters mention in such places as Ezekiel 36:25-27). The reference to the Spirit is more clear cut, as it makes the Spirit the agent of rebirth.
This rebirth is something that Nicodemus–and to be fair, the disciples–cannot grasp. In Nicodemus’ case, it seems clear that his lack of understanding is not despite his position has a teacher of Israel–in spite of Jesus’ jibe in vs. 10–but because he’s a teacher of Israel. He has too many ingrained ways of seeing the world to understand at this point what Jesus is talking about. And ironically, what Jesus is talking about is in part, precisely about shedding those ingrained ways of seeing things. Part of being born anew is seeing things in a new way, it’s becoming Childlike. Some commentators see the discussion of being born from above as a parallel to the exhortation in Matthew (Matt 18:3) to become “like a little child,” in order to enter the Kingdom of God. In any case, being born again means setting aside our old ways of doing things, our old ways of thinking and allowing our hearts to be filled with God, with his way of seeing the world.
The disciplines of Lent are a good way to go about cleaning our spiritual house, with the hope being, that we will truly be able to become, every day, more and more a new creation in Christ, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. As this happens, we too can hope to truly see the Kingdom, with the eyes of faith.
In the end, we need the reminders, no matter how advanced we are in our professions, no matter how much learning we have and no matter how great our desire to be right–that God wants us to participate in his child-like joy in creation and salvation. God wants us to become childlike–to see the world in a new way–because God wants us to become like him, and he is childlike. God desires us to be pure, because he is pure. This is the truth at the heart of being born again: God wants to make us like God, in order to bring us to God. And he does this by becoming like us, and showing us how we can see the world as God sees it.
The great author George MacDonald talks about this in a beautiful way, saying:
Our Lord became flesh, but he did not become man. He took on him the form of man: he was man already. And he was, is, and ever shall be divinely childlike. He could never have been a child if he would ever have ceased to be a child, for in him the transient found nothing. Childhood belongs to the divine nature. […]
In this, then, is God like the child: that he is simply and altogether our friend, our father–our more than friend, father and mother–our infinite love-perfect God. […] With him all is simplicity of purpose and meaning and effort and end–namely, that we should be as he is, think the same thoughts, mean the same things, possess the same blessedness. It is so plain that anyone may see it, everyone ought to see it, everyone shall see it. It must be so. He is utterly true and good to us, nor shall anything withstand his will. Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, III (Greek: Epea Aptera), p. 22-23
“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things” Jesus asks Nicodemus before proclaiming that the Son of Man must be lifted up. Jesus knows that Nicodemus isn’t there yet, that he can’t quite see the kingdom through the knowledge in his head. But he doesn’t give up on him. And he doesn’t give up on us. God pursues us, to transform us, to give us new life. And as we are being made new, we can give thanks that God sent his son “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.
One of my favorite bands, The Avett Brothers–from my home state of North Carolina–have a wonderfully evocative song entitled Ill with Want on their major label debutI and Love and You. I’m a fan of many of the Avett’s lyrics, but I’m especially fond of this song because it seems to capture an aspect of wanting, of desiring things that isn’t often touched on in our society, even among those who chastise us for “consumerism.”
When we are challenged for our consumerist tendencies, it most often seems to be based upon several things, some of them religiously motivated, some not. For example, some lament the consumerism and waste of our society because of the ramifications for our environment. Others condemn greed because they believe that there are finite resources and taking more than our share inherently means we are depriving others in some way. All of these criticisms may be true, and all of them may be motivated by other ethical or religious concerns. But one rarely hears another concern raised amid these criticisms: the effect that having too much and wanting too much can have on us personally. This is why I love this song. It’s captured in the phrase from which the title is taken: Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed.
Greed is a poison. It is a poison because it is, like other idols–or addictions, to use a modern term to convey a similar idea–destructive. The “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) because it tricks us into believing that we have control, but that control is illusory and results in destruction.
One of the most ardent critics of wealth in the history of Christianity was probably St. John Chrysostom (349–407 A.D.), Patriarch of Constantinople. Chrysostom was infuriated by and impassioned about the inequality he saw between the wealthy elite of the imperial capital and the poor who lined the streets. Chrysostom colorfully describes the physical ills associated with over consumption:
Riches are vain, when they are squandered for luxury. But they are not vain, when they are dispersed for the poor (cf. Ps. 112:9). But when you squander them for luxury, we see what sort of end they have: fatness of body, belchings, panting, abundance of excrement, heavy-headedness, weakness of flesh, fever, and faintness. For as someone who draws water into a cup with a whole in it acts in vain, so also the one who lives in luxury draws water into a leaky cup. (“Silver Chamber Pots and Other Goods Which Are Not Good” inHaving: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, p. 105)
The physical and the spiritual can never be completely separated, and the physical effects of over-consumption are finally symptomatic of a spiritual disease, one which leads to precisely the sort of thing described in the song:
I am sick with wanting and it’s evil and it’s daunting How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame
Of course, few people actually set out to over-consume or to be greedy (fictional and real-life Gordon Gekkos aside). Instead, people are looking for safety, assurance, control–all of which wealth promises to provide.
In the end though, wealth–or Mammon–is finally, like other idols, lifeless. Because it is lifeless, attempts to bring life from it are doomed to failure and destruction.
In the end the Avetts (channeling Augustine) are right:
Free is not your right to choose // It’s answering what’s asked of you // To give the love you find until it’s gone
I can almost see the Golden-mouthed one nodding in agreement…