Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Psalm 19: 7-10
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
“This is my favorite thing, is like, when someone takes a recipe that works, and then changes everything about it.” This is what chef, teacher, and author Samin Nosrat said to her dear friend and “Homecooking” podcast co-host, Hrishikesh Hirway. “This is my favorite thing, is like, when someone takes a recipe that works, and then changes everything about it.” The recipe they were talking about was Hrishi’s mom’s beloved mango pie recipe. Hirway, who is a producer of several podcasts and a musician by trade, is also an avid home cook. The mango pie recipe is one of their family favorites.
Hrishi’s family immigrated to the United States from Western India. And, like many families, incorporated their favorite ingredients into foods and celebrations in their new home. The mango pie was Hrishi’s mom, Kanta Hirway's, answer to a pumpkin pie. Hrishi speaks of this pie with such reverence: “It was, and still is, the best dessert I’ve ever had.” The recipe includes a graham cracker crust with a little cardamom in it, and a mango custard made with whipped cream, cream cheese, and mango puree, specifically, Alphonso mango puree. The Alphonso mango is a particularly delicious mango. Hrishi argues that his mom’s recipe is superior to all other mango pie recipes because she only used this kind of mango.
So, what’s this business about changing a recipe that works? Hirway’s mother died in 2020 after being ill for many years. With the pandemic, they were not able to gather for her funeral the same way that they usually would. She died just before Thanksgiving, too, and the family just was not up for making the pie without her. But, in 2021, Hrishi and his wife found a way to more safely gather friends for Thanksgiving. He decided to make mango pie. He also decided to try to make it vegan.
I don’t know how many of you have tried to make food that usually uses dairy fat with vegetable fat instead. While there are many vegan recipes that work really well, Hrishi’s first attempt at a vegan mango pie... did not. You might have guessed that when you heard that Samin had commented, in great jest, that she thinks it’s great when people take a good recipe and change everything about it. She knew that the custard part of the pie hadn’t worked at all. In the episode of their podcast, Hrishi shared how the pie filling just hadn’t set at all. It ended up with a consistency more like melted ice cream. It was still delicious... just not exactly pie.
Not one to be daunted by a recipe that didn’t quite work out the first time, Hrishi decided that if the pie that didn’t set kind of remind him of melted ice cream, then maybe his alterations to his mom’s recipe might actually make good ice cream. He started working with an ice cream company called Salt and Straw to create an ice cream inspired by his mom’s recipe. While I have not had the ice cream because 1) I just learned about it, 2) it is not a company that sells much here, and 3) I am allergic to mango, it sounds delicious. They tried to follow her recipe closely, blending mango puree with cream cheese and whipped cream to create a custard like her pie filling. They then swirled something called a caramelized mawa ice cream with the mango custard. I learned from the Salt and Straw website that wawa is a dried evaporated milk often used in Indian sweets. And, lastly, they put crumbled and salted graham cracker dust on the whole thing. This whole thing sounds wonderful and Hrishi was so proud to be able to share his mom’s recipe with the world in one more way.
As I was thinking about today’s scripture, which speaks of the beauty of God’s wisdom, I thought of this story from the Homecooking podcast. I think it takes a lot of wisdom to make something good come out of a failure. It takes a lot of wisdom to be able to look at a result that didn’t turn out the way you expected, and still find the things that did work and are worth building on. Just because the new thing doesn’t work right the first time, doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. Sometimes the thing you’re trying to do doesn’t work the way you want, at least not the first time.
Even Mrs. Hirway’s original recipe came from her tinkering with other mango pie recipes developed by other Indian immigrant cooks, trying to combine the food traditions of their home culture with the food ways of their new home. It sounds like she perfected her recipe through experimentation, only really loving it when she realized that Alphonso mangos, being so delicious, would make a richer pie. It also sounds to me like she helped teach her son how to keep trying new things until you find the most delicious version possible, even if what you make along the way isn’t perfect. While the Psalm says that God’s teachings are perfect, we aren’t God. Our attempts to live out the Wisdom passed on to us will inevitably be imperfect. But, we must remember that you can build on the imperfect. You can’t do anything with the “never tried.”
In Rolf Jacobsen’s commentary on the text, the portion of the Psalm we heard today is described as a teaching who God is and what God wants for our lives. In this scripture, and others, God’s teachings and wisdom wrought from those teachings are the place where we learn what God hopes for our lives. God’s wisdom is to be cherished and pursued. It is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey... maybe even sweeter than mango puree. Wisdom, gleaned from the law, is God’s gift to God’s people, as a parent offers a child rich food to help them grow strong. Or, maybe even more like a parent who teaches her child to build on, play with, make good use of the wisdom she is teaching him.
In their conversation on the podcast, Samin described what happened with Hrishi’s recipe experiment as “Pie failure, but ice cream success.” My hope for this week is that you pursue the wisdom shared with us with the fervor of a kid eating their favorite dessert or a home cook trying to find new ways to share his culture and his family story with friends. And, I hope that even if your attempts to bring this wisdom to life aren’t perfect the first time, you find your own ice cream success as you keep trying to make the recipe anew, even if you have to ask some friends to help you tweak the new recipe you’ve created.
I will finish with these words Hrishi shared about his mom in another article about the ice cream: “My mom, like so many moms, gave me a sense of who I am through food. She brought joy into my life and other people's lives through her cooking. And I'll always be thankful for that.” May we all be so blessed.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
The Homecooking podcast where Hrishi Hirway and Samin Nosrat talk about the mango pie experiment: https://homecooking.show/episodes/17
The Mango Pie recipe: https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1019974-mango-pie
The article about the Mango Pie: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/magazine/mango-pie-indian-american-recipe.html
Another good article by Hrishi about the pie and about the ice cream that was inspired by it: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/giving-thanks-through-the-joy-of-mango-pie/
A description of the ice cream https://saltandstraw.com/blogs/news/thanksgiving-traditions-told-through-ice-cream?_pos=1&_sid=92fe9343b&_ss=r
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-psalm-197-14
1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’, and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Has anyone here ever heard the word “cornerstone” before? Do you know what one is? Yes. That’s right: A block or stone that is set in the corner of a building, often the first corner. It is supposed to be strong and stable, and help set the direction for construction of the rest of the walls.
You might see it laying on the ground, as one of the first parts of construct or a few feet up from the ground, often at the point where a building is shifting from foundation walls to the parts of the building where we live and work. Sometimes buildings have special cornerstones to celebrate when they were built or values that were important to them when they built it.
I asked some pastors I know if they’d be willing to share pictures of cornerstones at their churches. I found another neat picture of one, too. I wanted to show them to you.
This cornerstone is from Ceres Bethel AME Church of Jefferson, Maryland, built in 1870. It has the name of the pastor at the time, too: L. Bensen. You can see where the foundation was made of stones, and this was put in as the last stone before the rest of the building was added. I found this image at: Cornerstone, Ceres Bethel of A.M.E. Church 1870 L. Benson, Pastor, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58592 [retrieved May 11, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceres_Bethel_African_Methodist_Church,_cornerstone_(21604465715).jpg.
Cornerstones come up a lot in the Bible. Sometimes it’s just because they are describing a building or someone being able to build. In Job 38, God is talking to Job about creating the universe, comparing the act of creation to that of constructing a building. God says,
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
And, the prophet Jeremiah talks a little about cornerstones, but only to say that Babylon, the country that had beaten Israel so badly in war, was soon going to have a downfall so spectacular that they wouldn’t even have stones left to build with.
Other times, though, when the Bible is talking about a cornerstone, they are actually talking about a person. Today’s scripture is a day when they are talking about a person. Do you remember who the person is? That’s right, Jesus. I said earlier that one way that Job talked about what God does is comparing the creation to a house God built, laying a cornerstone so the house will have a good foundation. In some cases, what God is building is a community or a country. People would describe a leader as someone who is like a cornerstone, that is, helps create a strong foundation for their country. In Isaiah 28, the prophet describes a leader who hold corrupt religious leaders and rulers to account. That person is called a cornerstone. They will lay a foundation with justice and righteousness. When people were trying to figure out how to explain who Jesus was and when Jesus himself was trying to explain his mission, he and his friends often turned to Isaiah: “See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’”
We’re not sure who wrote the letter that we call 1 Peter. It might be someone called Silvanus who was acting as kind of a scribe for Peter. But, it probably was just someone who appreciated Peter’s teaching and lived a few generations after he did. This person wanted to help members of the church in Rome deal with a difficult situation. This was a time when most people weren’t Christians. And, some people did not trust those who were Christians. According to a scholar named Eugene Boring, they thought Christians were unwelcome and maybe even dangerous. When you go from feeling loved and accepted by society to feeling unwelcome and having people say abusive things to you, it can be really hard. The person who wrote this letter wanted help them manage being untrusted and being treated badly. Because that’s something that our faith is useful for: giving us comfort and also reminding us that Jesus gives us the strength to do what’s right, even when it’s hard and the majority of people don’t want you to.
Even to this day, when so many people are Christians and largely aren’t being persecuted in this country, we know that it can be hard to follow your faith when the broader community is making different choices than you are. As just one example: Right now, when it seems increasingly popular to try to criminalize transgender people and keep them from being able to exist safely in public, we Christians who know that God loves transgender people may feel pressure not to say so out loud because so many people are being cruel to people who they think are trans. Even though we know that our faith in Jesus tells us that transgender people deserve love and care, especially for people who aren’t transgender, it can be tempting to not share that part of our faith aloud. It is tempting to stay silent as a way to protect ourselves.
Our reading today does not tell us to pretend to be less faithful than we are to survive. Instead, it tells us to look to Jesus, our cornerstone, our foundation, and build up a church, like we are building a house, and make it strong enough to withstand the forces that would punish us for daring to live our faith in public. This is what it means to be church: to think of ourselves as stones lain upon the cornerstone of Christ, standing firm together for love and justice.
This week, as you watch the news or think about legislation being passed that you know is harming some of God’s beloved children, I hope you remember this text and feel less alone. We can be a spiritual house together. We can help make each other brave. We can teach each other to advocate. We can care for each other when things are hard and still live our lives faithfully, even when the broader community seems to be lost in suspicion and abuse. I hope you will feel Jesus, a cornerstone under your feet, making clear the path of love and justice before you.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/03/year-the-fifth-sunday-of-easter-may-18.html
The entry on "cornerstone," written by Robert A. Wild in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achetemeier, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)
Shively Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter/commentary-on-1-peter-22-10-3
M. Eugene Boring"s, intro to 1 Peter in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Psalm 23: The Divine Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff-
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
I have told you all this before, but I often think about it when I read this scripture. When I was in elementary school, I did not go to church regularly. My sisters and I occasionally went to Sunday worship with my grandfather. Those of you who attended the Alive and Thrive workshop the Maine Conference held here last weekend heard Marisa talk about how some kids get involved in church because their grandparents take them. I am one of those kids. We nearly always went for vacation Bible School in the summer. And, sometimes we'd make it to the Easter service, primarily because there was an egg hunt after church. But, that's really it.
I am from the South, a region that continues to be one of the most consistently religious and persistently Christian areas of the country. Much of my family and many of my neighbors were active Christians. My great-grandmother was deeply religious and wanted to make sure that I had a good foundation in Christianity. She sang hymns while she pushed me on the swing in her front yard. She made sure that a children's Bible was among the books I could read at her house. She also taught me some Bible verses. While Psalm 23 wasn't the very first passage she taught me, it was one of the ones that she made sure I knew.
My great grandmother wasn't the only reason I knew this passage. I felt like Psalm 23 was all over the place. It seemed like this scripture was on the back of every funeral bulletin. It was printed on little cards that sat next to the cash register in bookstores. It was occasionally on stickers on pick-up trucks and big rigs that roared past us on the local highways. As far as I could tell, most people, even people like me who didn't attend church regularly, knew this passage. And, many of them claimed that it was their favorite passage in the whole Bible. I must admit if you don't know much else in the Bible, this passage does seem like a good one to know.
I think people like this Psalm because it shows them a God who is involved and invested in their life. Through it, people engage with a God who is there, even in the worst times, to bring comfort and support. When people need help, they read it and see that even though they may feel like they are in the shadow of death, in the end, goodness and mercy will follow them. They will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. When times are hard, we need the comfort and protection of God's rod and staff.
While researching this Psalm a while back, I came upon the work of Joel LeMon. He encourages us to remember a few things that might help bring new life into a scripture that many of us know so well. He points out that this Psalm is about a journey. If you have ever met sheep, you know that they aren’t necessarily in the habit of walking in orderly lines towards a destination. They are actually hard to keep track of. If you need to move sheep from one place to another, you hire an experienced shepherd to guide them.
This shepherd in the Psalm guides the sheep by leading them to what is called “paths of righteousness.” LeMon notes that the shepherd is not hacking these paths out of the wilderness. The original Hebrew indicate that these paths are well-worn tracks. They are full of ruts from carts that have traveled this path many times before the current flock. LeMon seems to argue that to move with God is, in some ways, to find the groove that your forbears have made for you, and use this groove to make your own journey easier. You don’t travel this distance alone. Your community has cleared the path for you, and you clear the path for those who will follow.
One of the things that is hard about being a sheep is that a lot of other animals want to eat you. When the Psalmist spoke of being a sheep as a metaphor for a faithful life, that also includes a recognition that a sheeply life is also sometimes a perilous one. Death is, too often, close. But, God, the shepherd, offers protection and safety. The end of the Psalm describes a scene of great comfort. The narrator is given a place at the table, plenty of food and drink. The enemies, the ones who would devour her, watch in hunger. In verse 6, a powerful statement of future hope in God is often translated as "Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." It may have a more powerful meaning. LeMons says that the word that here is translated “follow” is more often translated as "pursue." So the sentence maybe be more like “I will be pursued by goodness and mercy my whole life long.” In this Psalm, faithfulness means that you will not be devoured by evil. Instead, you will be enveloped by good.
As I said earlier, many of us read the last verse as a happy ending: I will live in God's house forever. We read the story as though we are working through a journey with a definite end. We are simply working our way from point A, our lives, to point B, God's house, where we can stop. LeMon suggests another reading of that last verse. He argues that a better translation of the Hebrew doesn't leave us with the house of the Lord as an endpoint where you stop, but, instead, maintains the idea of movement and journey. This word that gets translated as "dwell" maybe better translated as "return”. He suggests the translation, "I will continually return to Yahweh's presence my whole life long." Like sheep who continually move between winter and summer pastures, our life is marked less by movement towards a single destination where we stop, and more by our return to the places where we most closely feel the presence of God. We can seek God down deep in the protected valleys of winter and up high on the windy, green slopes of summer. God is present in the journey, not simply as the destination.
With LeMon’s work in mind, Psalm 23 becomes a more vibrant, active vision of faith. It captures the seasonal nature of life. The ups and downs of our journeys. It keeps us connected not just to God, but to the ones who helped break the paths that God leads us down. It reminds us that we will help make the paths for the ones who follow. And, this part about being pursued by goodness and mercy... what a gift in a time of anxiety to be invited to replace the wolves in our hearts and minds with a good shepherd, following along, keeping us safe and guiding us to the food and drink that nourish us.
I hope you’re finding good paths these days, with ruts that guide you along the way. Even when the journey is difficult, I pray that you feel the presence of a shepherd guiding you to places of respite and through the shadowy valleys. May you feel enveloped by goodness rather than chased down by death. And, may you return and return and return again to the presence of God, the one who tends to your needs all along this journey.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372
Luke 24:13-35 The Walk to Emmaus
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In seven miles, I can buy donuts, stop at the grocery store, stop at the vet, a brew pub, an antiques mall, a country club, buy a tractor, and a lobster roll. I can stop at two pharmacies, two gas stations, two post offices, and two flower nurseries. In about seven miles, I can get to the Monmouth transfer station. In about seven miles, I can hike at Mt. Pisgah. In just over and just under seven miles, depending on my route, I can pick berries at one farm in the spring or apples at an orchard in the fall. I can do a lot in seven miles. The two friends in this story can, too. In seven miles, they can see Jesus.
Imagine yourself on the road to Emmaus. We’ll call it the road to Mt. Pisgah if that helps you get the distance in mind. You and your dear friend have had one of the worst weeks of your life and you are very sad. And, you’ve decided that you need to get out of the city and go to the small town... or, in our case, Mt. Pisgah. And, you walk and talk about what has happened and you meet someone who does not know.... who seems to be coming from the same place you have but has no idea what has gone on. When he asks again, you try to figure out how to tell the story. You’ve got about seven miles to get it right.
If you didn’t know about the resurrection yet, and a stranger asked you about Jesus, what might you tell them? You all should have gotten a slip of paper when you came in. Write down what you might say and put your response in the offering plate. If you’re online, you can put yours in the chat as you think of it. I’ll share the responses later. Here's what the two disciples told the stranger who was walking with them. They said that Jesus was: "a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people." Despite his good deeds and powerful words, community leaders grew threatened by him. Rome killed him like a criminal, torturing him on a cross. In one of the saddest lines in the whole Gospel, these two disciples say that "we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." They thought that their hope was in vain. They didn't understand how redemption could come if he was dead.
They tell the stranger that it has been three days since their hope died alongside Jesus. That very morning, some of the women who also followed Jesus showed up telling a rubbish story about how they saw angels at his tomb who told them he was alive. That’s right. This story took place on the day of the resurrection but these two hadn’t seen Jesus... yet. They tell the stranger that one friend, Peter, went to the tomb to see what the women were talking about. He sure as heck didn't see any angels. He didn’t see Jesus either... not his body or his spirit. Only his burial clothes.
How far into this seven miles do you think the story has taken them? Ted’s Trackside Grill? Charlie’s Chevrolet? Somewhere in the wilds of Monmouth? Maybe just the Circle K? Regardless of how long it took, they were likely surprised when the stranger responded to their sad and harrowing tale with something that sounded an awful lot like a rebuke. Did you hear the part where the stranger called them foolish and slow of heart? He went on to say that they've misunderstood everything about the law. He said that there was more divine, redemptive potential in this whole week and they had missed it. He then started teaching them.
I think it's really interesting that they don't realize that this stranger is Jesus when he begins to teach them. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been teaching them. From his first public mission statement back in chapter 4 through the Sermon on the Plain in chapter 6... through all the healings and exorcisms... through the prayers and parables, and long-lasting dinners, all the way up to the day of his arrest, Jesus had been teaching them. If you had asked me where I would have guessed that these two would have recognized Jesus, I would have said right here, in this moment when he began teaching. How could they not see the one they so loved traveling alongside them when they heard the words of wisdom come out of his mouth?
Where are we now? Somewhere near that farm close to Mt. Pisgah trailhead? The stranger seemed to be ready to keep walking as the disciples reached their destination. Notice that he still hasn’t told them who he is. But, they aren’t ready to be done with his company. I once read a translation that said that they “twisted his arm to get him to stay.” They explained that it was late, with the subtext that it might be dangerous to travel solo at night. They invited the stranger to stay with them, where it was safe. That sure seems like something Jesus would have done.
I have often wondered if their offer of hospitality is what finally lets them see the stranger for who he really is. It’s not the muscle memory of the walk or the familiarity of the teaching, but the welcome and care that began to prepare their hearts for a revelation.
If we were walking about seven miles with them, we’d be near the fire tower now, right? Maybe setting out a blanket and getting the food ready that we brought to share.
The two disciples sat down with the stranger and began a simple meal. It might be familiar to you. There was bread, and the stranger blessed it and broke it and gave it to them. And, immediately it became clear. Familiar movements... a hand raised, bread torn, food shared. They had been fed like this before. The moment they knew who he was... that this was their beloved Jesus, he was gone, leaving them with crumbs in their beards and hope burning in their hearts.
Has your heart burned in recognition of Christ lately? Have you stumbled into Jesus in the midst of following his guidance, as these two disciples once did? Has an act of hospitality turned into an encounter with the divine? What’d you do about it?
Jesus’ friends ran seven miles back to Jerusalem when they realized who they had been walking and eating with. I have never run seven miles in one stretch in my entire life. I might be enticed to do so, even with this achy ankle, if I met Jesus in the midst of a hopeless time. In the terrifying darkness, on the wilderness road, they ran back to make sure the rest of Jesus' followers would know the truth. They confirmed what the women preachers had already told the rest of the disciples. They said that not even death could stop Jesus for long. They had seen him once again at the table. Of course, they met him at the table. Jesus is usually found at the table, tending to the physical and spiritual needs of friends, strangers, and enemies alike.
The disciples had seven miles and one meal to figure out who Jesus was. And, they had seven more miles to figure out how to tell their friends what they had seen. Jesus will show up on our journey, too, and we’ll likely feel him the clearest when we are doing as he taught... caring for the stranger. Feeding the hungry. Offering shelter to those in need of safety. May we recognize the Risen Christ in these moments. And, may you share with others what you have seen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Pulpit Fiction podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/easter3a
Sarah Henrich: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=933
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3234
Marilyn Salman: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1671
Sermon for Easter April 9, 2023: Who Are You Looking For? based upon John 20:1-18
The Resurrection of Jesus
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
When we lived in Illinois, I learned that Good Friday is when you’re supposed to plant potatoes. It was either one of my colleagues in hospice or one of the farmer families we served who told me. Apparently, the Old Timers said you had to get the potatoes in that day and, especially years ago when the farms were still mostly smaller family farms instead of large industrial operations, this was a rule they’d follow most years. I’d never heard of this practice, though it’s apparently common folk wisdom in lots of places. While preparing this sermon, I found articles about planting potatoes in regions as disparate as Northern California, Detroit, Michigan, and Scotland.
I talked with my friend Kristy, back home in Tennessee, and she was getting ready to put out most of her garden on Good Friday, not just potatoes. While this was a practice she learned from the elders in her family, she wasn’t sure where the practice came from. None of the articles I read were either, though they shared some theories, which ranged in plausibility to me. Kristy offered these thoughts about planting. Humans have been putting a lot of energy and care into how we plant for a very long time. And yet, even with modern technology and all our best practices based on years of experience, we can’t control everything. She said, “It’s a gamble no matter when you plant.” With weather patterns the way they are where we grew up, it was simply a safer bet to wait until Good Friday to try. There will always be risk. But, generations of experience has shown us that this time is right more often than not.
When I lived in Illinois, I put my potatoes in the ground on Good Friday. I didn’t want to waste the wisdom shared with me by the people who had been planting for their whole lives. It seemed to me like a meaningful counterbalance to the deep sadness of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death. On that day, with those stories on my heart, I wanted my hands to be in the soil. I wanted to be gambling on new life. Because I knew that, in the fullness of time, that which I needed for nourishment could grow, a product of both my effort and, also forces well beyond my control. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the path to resurrection than by betting that something new could live, and knowing that I must prepare and watch for it.
In our Lenten devotional, the Rev. Sarah Speed shared a poem called “Lost and Found.”
With all of my thinking about gardening, it seemed appropriate to share her words.
Standing in the garden,
Soft dirt under her feet,
Sun still tucked away,
Sleeping under the horizon.
The other disciples left,
but Mary stayed.
tears running down her face.
She said, they have taken my Lord away,
and I don’t know where they put him.
But here’s what Easter taught me:
if you think you’ve lost God,
if it feels like heaven has slipped through the cracks,
if you feel like night will never end,
then know, there is no hide-and-seek with the divine
that doesn’t end in you being found.
God is closer than you think.
You might have noticed, especially if it is your first Easter with us, that the sanctuary looked a little bare when you came in. Those of you who are attending online can’t really see everything, but there were no flowers out or banners up when people arrived today. It wasn’t until we heard alongside Mary, “woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” and realized with her that it was Jesus who was asking her questions and calling out her name. It wasn’t until then that the signs remembering her joy and showing our celebration would be brought out in full.
I don’t ask the deacons and some other volunteers to help make Easter erupt this way just because I like the drama (though, to be fair, I do like the drama). It is because, as Dr. Wil Gafney reminds us in her commentary on this text, the Easter story starts in sorrow, in the dirt, standing next to the stone cover that has been removed to reveal an empty tomb. Mary Magdalene, who had already watched her friend be killed now was afraid that his remains had been taken as well. She was surprised in the most awful way and didn’t know what to do about it.
When we have heard this story a thousand times, like many people in this room have, it is helpful to reintroduce something surprising when we read it again, so that we can remember that this was a shocking and sorrowful morning. It was a morning that Mary Magdalene and the rest of her friends had assumed that their gamble on love... their gamble on Jesus might have been a bad bet. They had put in so much effort right alongside him, had planted so many seeds of love and justice, had allowed the Spirit to grow in their hearts, and yet, forces beyond their control had taken Jesus from them. It was always going to be a gamble to teach and heal alongside him. She was sure that all was lost.
She has gone looking for Jesus to be just the same way that she last saw him. But, these days in dark have changed him, or at least changed her expectation of what she will find when she goes looking. She doesn’t even recognize him at first. He has to say her name, remind her of their relationship, for her to see clearly that the one she has been searching for is there, alive in a brand new way. I know she wants to stay with him. Jesus does, too. But, he gives her a commission, sending her to tell others what she has seen. And, she, like the woman at the well and the man who had been born blind but was healed, goes on to tell what she has seen.
It was a gamble to follow Christ. It still is. Not because Christians are being particularly persecuted at this moment, because we aren’t. The gamble comes from what Danielle Shroyer talks about in her commentary on this text. We may think we know Jesus and see him one way. But, if we really commit to putting our hands in the dirt alongside him, sowing love that we hope to harvest as justice, we might find that he is not where we expect him. I pray that he will find us as he found Mary and show us that there is a kind of new life that we didn’t know was possible. Mary preached so we could hear and follow. May we do the same, passing along her message, “I have seen the Lord,” and plant in our time the next crop of Christ’s love.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Easter Day- Principal Service," Women's Lectionary Year A
Daniell Shroyer's commentary on John 20:1-18 in Seeking: Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith (from Sanctified Art) and her commentary on the First Week of Lent
Sara Speed’s poem, “Lost and Found,” also found in Seeking: Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith from Sanctified Art
This article is an interesting overview of practices around planting on Good Friday: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/good-friday-gardening-folklore-27185
The different articles I found from different regions:
Northern California: https://homeguides.sfgate.com/plant-potatoes-good-friday-55043.html
Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’
He rode into town with two borrowed donkeys. Who here has ever ridden two donkeys? Me, neither. I haven’t even ridden one donkey, just some small ponies. All four gospels tell the story of Jesus entering into Jerusalem this last time. They all have donkeys. This is the only version that has two. The people cheered him on like he is a king or a general who has just won a big battle.
Do you remember the word they shouted when they saw Jesus? That’s right: Hosanna! Does anybody know what that word means? Save us! It means, “Save us!” Jesus wasn’t the only person that people ever yelled “Hosanna” to. But, people also didn’t yell hosanna at just anybody. They usually just yelled it to people who were wealthy and had some power in the government. Jesus was not wealthy. And, his power didn’t come from Rome, but from God. But the people believed that he could help them, so they shouted and sang and made a path for him to come into the city, covering the ground with their own cloaks and branches cut from trees.
Matthew's version of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem says that the city was in “turmoil.” This can mean a few things. It might mean that lots of people were around, doing lots of wild things, maybe even fighting with each other. It also probably means that the city was shaking from all the noise and crowd movement. What’s the loudest place you’ve ever been? … That’s pretty loud. Matthew tells us that this parade into the city was that loud! Imagine watching a slightly dusty man ride two donkeys into town and be greeted like a king. Maybe you can feel it: Something big and strange is happening right in front of you. Maybe you’d even find yourself shouting along with the crowd. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Matthew doesn’t tell us this, but historians know that Jesus wasn't the only one who marched into the city during this festival. Pontius Pilate would have ridden into town, too, from a different gate, with a different agenda. He would not have had to borrow a donkey. His boss would have given him a chariot paid for by money they took from people in taxes. He and the soldiers he commanded would have tried to look tough and scary, because they wanted to intimidate the people in Jerusalem into good behavior during their religious celebration.
Remember, everyone is in the city because it is the time of a major religious holiday: Passover. Passover was a holiday where the people celebrate God helping their ancestors escape Egypt where the Pharaoh, that is the king, was cruel to them. Pontius Pilate, who worked for a different powerful king, knew that sometimes if you hear stories about freedom, you want freedom, too. He’d get worried that the people would try to fight back against Rome. So, to counteract the stories about freedom, he’d show up with his soldiers to remind people that Rome was powerful and could win any fight that was started.
I’ve also read scholars say that people, the same people who cheered for Jesus voluntarily, would be required to show up to welcome Pilate and to sing his praises. Has anybody ever gone to a party they don’t want to be at and had to pretend to be having fun? That could happen to whole cities. If they looked anything less than excited for Pilate to return to the city, they risked making him mad. If he was mad, he might tell his soldiers to do something dangerous. I don't how many people shouted Hosanna at Pilate. Some probably did, because he was powerful enough and might help him. I bet not many people thought Pilate had come in the name of the Lord.
In Matthew, Jesus' entry into Jerusalem shows us something important. It shows us how deeply people connected with his mission of wholeness and liberation. In the middle of a huge religious celebration, enough people heard he was coming, or saw he was coming and were excited about it that they gathered around him. They made a whole parade happen out of nowhere. And, they moved the earth with all their shouts and excitement. Their excitement probably also made some powerful people nervous. They would have seen a crowd gather to celebrate and ask for help from this teacher. They would have seen the crowd treat him like someone who was powerful enough to save them. Powerful people don’t always like it when someone who isn’t them is also seen as powerful. Sometimes powerful people do dangerous things when they think someone will take power from them.
Carolyn Brown once wrote something about this scripture and said that the Palm Sunday Parade shows us how Jesus will use his power differently than Pilate or even Caesar would. While they use their power to scare people and make themselves rich, Jesus won’t worry about being rich. I know we didn’t read about it today, but in the parts of Matthew right after this story, Jesus will use his power to heal sick people. He will teach people, too. But, he won’t hurt anyone. That’s important to remember. Jesus’ power was never used to hurt people, just to ask people to take better care of each other.
What are some things that we can learn from this story? Yes. Those are all good things. I’d like to add a few things, too. One might be, even when things are hard, take time to run towards the things that are good and celebrate them. That is what the people were doing when they made this parade to welcome Jesus. They saw an opportunity to be near to something Holy and they took it. I also think we can learn that what matters most is our welcome, not that we have fancy things to welcome people. The people who welcomed Jesus only had the simple things they had on hand and branches cut from trees, and their voices. They used what they had to make way for Jesus and to celebrate so loudly that the city shook. I hope that when you feel close to Jesus’ spirit, you will celebrate it, too. In your celebration, I hope that you will feel like Jesus can save you, too.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2404
I Love To Tell The Story podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=603
Pulpit Fiction podcast: https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/palmsundaya
Carolyn Brown: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-passionpalm-sunday-april-13-2014.html
The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
The Plot to Kill Jesus
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The scholar Osvaldo Vena calls today’s scripture “the hinge” for the whole Gospel of John. It is the axis on which the Gospel opens, revealing what the Gospel writer thought was most important about Jesus' story. This story, of illness, friendship, mourning, and, ultimately, new life is important enough that it might actually tell us something about how to read everything that came before it and everything that will come after.
Lazarus' resurrection is the final of seven major miracles that the Gospel writer calls “signs” so that the reader "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God" (John 20:30). While the other miracles are important (turning water into wine, healing the sick and blind, feeding the 5,000, walking on water), Lazarus' resurrection is our hinge. It is the final, and most important, public demonstration of who Jesus is, at least until we get to his own resurrection.
What, exactly, does this sign show us? For one, it shows us Jesus deeply invested in his closest relationships. Meda Stamper, in her commentary on this text, notes Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are three of the four specific people in the whole book of John that Jesus is said to love. While he is shown embodying love to many more people, the author says that Jesus loved this family specifically. Of course, they would ask for his help when Lazarus is near death and of course Jesus would go. Strangely, Jesus says that Lazarus' illness would not lead to death. Even more surprisingly, Jesus does not rush to Lazarus' side.
Secondly, this story shows us that Jesus doesn't fear death. He is confident that there is a power within him that can overcome even death. So, he goes right towards death, first the death of his friend, and later, his own death. In his commentary, Vena points out that some scholars describe the first half of John as Jesus going out into the world from God and the second half is Jesus returning to God, but that return goes through the shadow of death. Maybe it’s because Jesus lived in the face of death every day that he lived under Rome. Maybe it’s because his loyalty to his mission mattered more than his safety. For whatever reason, he was not afraid. When he arrived at Mary and Martha's home, he did not shy away from the death he found there. And he did not shy away from the grief. He stood in the midst of the mourning and felt it all.
This story also shows us that deeply felt relationships include accountability and honesty. Martha is very clear with Jesus about how she is feeling. She says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." How did you hear that line when our readers read it aloud today in worship? With anger? With sadness? With resignation? I think each one of those feelings is a valid interpretation of this text. Notice that Jesus is not surprised by her anger and sadness. He doesn't shy away from her pain, either. He listens. He is present. She goes on: "But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." How did you hear that last part? With desperation? With hope? As a demand for Jesus to do what Martha knows he is capable of doing? Maybe all three?
Initially, when Jesus says to Martha that her dead brother will live again, she presumes he means eventually, at the final Resurrection. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis notes that Jesus, his followers, and these dear friends would have believed that the faithful would eventually be resurrected. It makes sense that Martha thinks Jesus is reminding her of the hope already present in their shared faith. But it is clear that he means something more. He goes on to say, "I am the resurrection and the life." He says that his insight in how to follow God will be the key to new life, Lewis says not just in the future, but right now. The ones who can follow him on this path will see a life that they couldn't have imagined without him. He looks her right in the eye and says, "Do you believe that?" She says yes.
I am fascinated by this turn of phrase that Martha uses to describe Jesus: "the one coming into the world." In her book, Karoline Lewis notes that it doesn't say that Jesus came into the world, like it happened once and is over now. It doesn't say will come in the world, putting the hope, once again in the future. It says, "coming into the world," happening right now, still on-going, not yet complete. "You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." The new life that he can show you can happen in the here and now. And, his work is on-going... not yet complete.
Jesus encounters Mary., Lazarus’ other sister. She, too, calls out his tardiness and weeps at his feet. He is deeply moved by her weeping and wants to see where Lazarus is buried. He is taken to his tomb. He weeps. Remember, Jesus’ work is not yet done. This weeping is part of it. Jesus is not set apart from pain, but feels it with the people he loves. Others observe him. They know that Jesus loved Lazarus. They also wonder why he didn't save him.
Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus' tomb. Because his work is not yet done, Jesus assures his friends that God can still be at work in the midst of their grief. And, Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and trusts that long-dead Lazarus will hear him, too. Jesus tells a four-day dead man to get up, and that four-day dead man will. Jesus tells his friends to unbind the man, and the crowd will set Lazarus free. Remember, we need each other to fully live. Jesus affirms this when he asks the crowd to help Lazarus. Maybe this is part of what Jesus was and is right now doing... reminding us of the power we have to unbind those whom he loves and raises from the dead.
Karoline Lewis argues that the power of this story lies in the idea that resurrection, that is new life, isn’t a faraway future hope of divine reconciliation. When Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life,” he means that there is a promise of new life right now. He is still coming into the world, not to push us away from the depths of our humanity, but to settle right down in it with us. To hear our mourning, to face our pain, and to hear the lament when we cry out, "if you had been here, none of this ever would have happened." The life he promises is lived, with him, right now, in the face of all that would wound us. The life he promises stares death in the face, unafraid, and knows that there is the possibility of something greater. That doesn't mean that there will be no pain. It just means that the pain doesn't have to be the end of the story. Our love, and Jesus’ love for us, can instead be the hinge, opening us to great life beyond what now seems possible. Jesus will call each one of us, asking us to come out into new life. Will you be able to rise to greet him? More importantly, will we, the Marys and the Marthas and the people who loved them, be able to unbind all the ones Christ has called out, freeing them into new life, too?
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Osvaldo Vena: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3192
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4847
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=904
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=42
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
John 9:1-7 A Man Born Blind Receives Sight
As he 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.
I’m not sure if I saw it when it first aired, but there is an episode of the tv show Designing Women that has stuck with me for about 35 years. It originally aired in October of 1987, early enough in the AIDS crisis era where there few treatments and so many untimely deaths. Designing Women was a show about a group of women who ran a design firm in Atlanta. In this episode, a young man, who is also a designer and friendly with the women in the firm, comes to this with a sad request: he is dying of AIDS and would like them to help plan his funeral. After some hesitation, as they aren’t a church or funeral home, they agree. After all, he is their friend.
Over the course of the episode, the young man, named Kendall, stops in the office to go over some details of the service. A few things happen that he doesn’t expect. First, the character Charlene shakes his hand. If you remember anything about how people with AIDS were treated in 1987, you might remember that people, including their nurses, were often afraid to touch them. This young man deserved care and the writer of the show wanted to be clear it was safe for Charlene, who was a deeply kind character, to offer him that measure of welcome and respect.
The second thing that happens is less positive. There is a homophobic woman there, another client of the firm, who overhears the conversation about the funeral and decides to say something terrible to Kendall. She says that gay men like him are getting what they deserve: "As far as I'm concerned, this disease has one thing going for it: it's killing all the right people." When I was reading up on this episode, I learned that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator of the show and writer of this episode, had written that line because she heard a nurse say almost the very same thing when Bloodworth-Thomason was visiting her own mother, who was dying of AIDS, in the hospital. Imagine being a nurse and having this much disdain for your patients. Imagine thinking they deserved to suffer this way.
Well, if you know anything about Designing Women, you would know that the women in the firm would not let that hatefulness go unaddressed. Julia scoops her up, dragging her to the door, and tells her off, saying that if God was handing out illness because of sin, “you would be at the free clinic all the time! And so would the rest of us!” And, Suzanne, Julia’s sister, corrects some of Imogene’s misinformation. And, Bernice, a character who is often portrayed as confused, but with a strong moral compass, makes it clear that the homophobe is lacking the compassion it takes to really be a Christian. Julia slams the door on the homophobe, making it clear that she is no longer welcome as a client of Sugarbaker and Associates.
I was somewhere between 7 and 10 years old when I saw this episode for the first time. Obviously, it made an impression. I remembered it when I began to think about today’s scripture, which is the beginning of a longer story about one man who was disabled and his community’s response to his illness and his healing. Turns out that plenty of people believed he must have deserved to be disabled.... that he must have done something wrong to be suffering. But, Jesus made it clear that his blindness was not a punishment, and, showed his disciples, and the broader community, that this man was in need of healing, not condemnation.
Who is to blame? That’s what the disciples are really asking when they see a man who has been born blind and wonder if the blindness is because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The disciples, like a lot of us, assume that people get what they deserve. If someone has had something bad happen to them, that person, or the people they love, must have deserved it. And, they don’t even seem to be talking to the guy. They are just talking about him, while he is in earshot, as though his ailment is simply an object lesson in a theological argument... as though he was an object and not a person who could be talked with or helped as he struggled. In the devotional on this text, Bruce Reye-Chow argues that, in treating this man’s ailment as a thought experiment rather than an opportunity to offer mercy and care, it leads to the disciples asking the wrong question, “who is to blame,” rather than the right question: “how can we reflect God’s love in this moment?” Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, Jesus’ knows how to respond not just to their wrong question, but to the right one as well.
Remember, seeing is believing in John. In her book on John, Karoline Lewis argues that seeing Jesus perform a sign or miracle is a gateway into believing he is the Messiah. Being healed yourself is a gateway, too. The restoration of this man’s sight will become his gateway into a relationship with Jesus. Jesus spits on the ground and takes the mud he created and wipes it on the man's eyes. We all know that healing can be messy sometimes, can’t it? Then, he tells the man to go to a particular pool in the city and wash his face. The man made his way across the city, covered in spit and mud, and washed his face. Suddenly, he was able to see for the first time in his whole life.
Our reading stops at this point, but the story goes on into chapter 10. The short version of the rest of the story is that this man’s neighbors and leaders in his community are suspicious of his healing and of Jesus. They refuse to trust what they see because they’d rather go on believing that people get what they deserve than have to change their minds about illness and healing. The formerly blind man will call Jesus a prophet and say that he believes Jesus to be from God. The ones who don’t agree with him drive him out of the synagogue, his own religious community,
Imagine: seeing someone you’ve known your whole life be healed from a life-limiting condition, and being so afraid and annoyed that you don’t understand how it happened that you would be willing kick that person out of community? Imagine thinking that you should make him suffer isolation because of your own limited understanding.
While Julia Sugarbaker welcomed her friend into community by shutting a door on a bigot, Jesus welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community by opening the door for him to become a disciple. Later in this story, upon hearing that the man was cast out, Jesus goes looking for him and welcomes him with open arms to become part of his disciples. Lewis talks about this as Jesus helping frame belief as a relational category, not an intellectual one. This man believes that Jesus is from God because he can now see because Jesus first saw him and knew he needed care. And, his belief leads him into an on-going relationship with Jesus.
I pray that we may not mistake an opportunity for healing as a place for condemnation. I pray that we seek out the answer to the question “how can we heal and help,” rather than distract ourselves with the search for “who is to blame.” May we march bigots to the door, and welcome the ones whom Jesus has seen and loved with open arms. And, may we always try to see our neighbors with the eyes of Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
A summary of the episode of Designing Women: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_All_the_Right_People
The scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VW5-IErNxuM&t=21s
Karoline Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
So he 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 worshipped 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 worshippers 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 labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
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 for 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 Saviour of the world.’
“Water changes everything.” That’s how Church World Service begins their description of the work they do to help people get access to clean water. Water changes everything. Water is utterly necessary for life. Water builds our bodies and nourishes our crops. With water, we clean ourselves, our food, our clothes, and our homes. There are so many things a living being, human, animal, or plant, can live without. Water is not one of them. This is the reason why Church World Service focuses on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Water changes everything.
Water is not magic. And, its power is sometimes terrifying. We need only look at this week’s footage of flooding in Monterey County, California or remember the toll of last summer’s flooding in Eastern Kentucky and Pakistan, to remember that water is powerful and often beyond our control. Remember when we had leaks in our church roof, and they did so much damage to our ceiling? Water changes everything. That is also true in the Bible.
Last week, we spent some time with the story of Nicodemus, a well-respected leader in the community who felt like he had to go see Jesus in the dark in order to ask him questions in secret. In her book about the Gospel of John, Karoline Lewis says that “There can be no character more opposite Nicodemus than the Samaritan woman at the well.” It is too bad we don’t know her name. Because her story shows us something powerful about Jesus, who was willing to cross lines of difference for important things, and about what it means to ask for and receive help.
In this story, Jesus is traveling through Samaria. He left where he was because his disciples had been baptizing people, garnering the attention of leaders who were suspicious of Jesus. See, water was already changing things. We should remember that Judeans of this era and Samaritans, though they both traced their lineage back through to Abraham and upheld Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as their holy texts, were in deep conflict, especially over where they understood the proper center of religious worship to be: Mount Gerizim or the Temple in Jerusalem.
Judeans, descendants of the Southern Kingdom, like Jesus, and Samaritans, descendants of the Northern Kingdom, did not hang out. And, they didn’t spend a lot of time in each other’s cities, even if there were religiously significant sites, like Jacob’s Well, in those cities. And, yet, Karoline Lewis notes, here in John, where Jesus is said to be the expression of God’s love in the world, it seems appropriate that he would go right through a place and spend time with a people whom his community mistrusted. Lewis puts it this way, “There is nothing in God’s creation that God does not love, not even the least anticipated persons.”
Wells are places where a lot of important men and women of the Bible meet. Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah, and Isaac and Rachel all meet at wells and later marry. Carrying water for a whole family is a difficult chore, often left to the women and girls to complete. This is a job often done in a group, with multiple women and girls, sometimes from more than one household, going out together. It is interesting that this woman has gone to the well alone. I read somewhere (and I don’t remember where) that some scholars wonder if she’s there alone because she is an outsider in her own community, ostracized by other women who refuse to help her. Why else would she be out at the hottest part of the day to get water unless she didn’t want to run into some folks who didn’t like her.
Those details aren’t in the story though. If she is intended to function as kind of counter-example to Nicodemus, a respected Jewish leader who came to see Jesus at night, over course she, a Samaritan stranger, would talk to Jesus during the day, in a casual encounter that grows into an intimate conversation about faith. Also, Jesus’ strikes up a conversation with her, not the other way around. Because he asks for her help first. He asks her for a drink.
It can be challenging to read tone, but I’m inclined to hear her words with some humor or incredulity. “Me? You’re asking me for water?” Yes, this Judean man is asking this Samaritan woman for water. Yes, this rabbi is speaking to this woman about faith? Yes, this single man is speaking to a woman who is not in his family while they both are alone, even though they are in a public place. She is wise to ask for some clarification. Because people like them do not usually hang out, much less share drinking utensils and talk about God.
In her commentary on this text, Jennifer Garcia Bashaw notes that this conversation at the well is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any one person in any of the Gospels. She gently ribs Jesus about not having a bucket and also reminds him of both of their ancestral connections to Jacob, who had built the well to take care of his family. See, water was necessary, even for Jacob. It is also necessary for Jesus the traveler. But, something else is also necessary. His mission, which is spoken of here as “give Living Water of eternal life,” is also necessary.
Because seeing is believing in John, we see Jesus do something that is a little miraculous... he knows something about this woman’s marital history that one wouldn’t necessarily know about a stranger. Remember, wells in the Bible are places where people get betrothed. According to Bashaw, it makes sense that something about marriage would pop up in this story. But, yet again, Jesus turns that expectation on its head. Rather than make a hasty proposal, he asks about her husband, to which she replies that she doesn’t have one. He goes on to say, “you’re right. You’ve had five and you aren’t even married to man you’re seeing now.” There’s no way a stranger would have known that. While their conversation about water and living water laid the groundwork for her belief, it is this miraculous bit of knowledge about her history that convinces the woman that Jesus is special and holy... that he is the Messiah.
Water changes things. Had Jesus not been thirsty, he and this woman may not have met. Had he not been brave enough to reach out to someone he had been raised to avoid, and ask for help, he would have struggled on his journey. Had the woman chosen not to share a drink with this stranger, she would have missed out on a life-changing interaction. John goes on to tell us that she becomes one of the earliest preachers, going about Samaria, telling the people about Jesus who “told her everything she had ever done.” Many Samaritans grew hopeful because of what she had said and sought him out. Then, once they saw him, they heard for themselves and began to believe he was the Messiah. Water changed the Samaritan’s life and the course of Jesus’ ministry. May we, too, be so fortunate to give water to one in need, and in so doing, meet the Christ whom we have been looking for.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
More information about Church World Services work to help people access clean water: https://cwsglobal.org/learn/hunger-and-poverty/water-sanitation-and-hygiene/
Karoline Lewis' John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-45-42-6
John 3:1-17 Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Now 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.
Today’s reading, about a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is only in the book of John. Sometimes the Gospel stories reference old Bible stories to help us understand who Jesus is. I think today’s reading has one of the strangest references to a Hebrew Bible story in any of Gospels. It’s that part about the snake in the wilderness. John 3:16 usually gets all the attention. But, I think 3:14 is pretty important, too. And, that verse has a serpent we need to learn about.
Does anyone remember what time of day Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus? That’s right. He came to see him at night. According to Karoline Smith, who wrote a book about the Gospel of John, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he’s afraid that his fellow Pharisees will not approve of him having friendly conversations with Jesus. So, he went out when it was dark and maybe when other people were asleep, so he could hide from people who might not like what he is doing.
Something we should remember when reading all the Gospels is that they each were written by a person. And, each writer makes choices about how to introduce people to Jesus. Now, all the Gospels show Jesus performing miracles. John is the only one where the writer says that Jesus performs miracles specifically to prove himself to be the Messiah. In the chapter about John in his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman points out that over in chapter 20: 30-31, it says: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you many come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” So, in John, you have to see Jesus to believe in him.
One of the first things Nicodemus says to Jesus is that he saw performing miracles, and seeing those miracles makes him believe that the power Jesus has has come from God. Because of what he has seen, Nicodemus also wants to talk to Jesus and wants to ask him some important questions about faith. It is in their conversation about faith that the snake part of the story shows up. The serpent is a reference to a story in the book of Numbers where Moses lifts up a serpent in the wilderness. When you go read that story in Numbers, it turns out that that story is also about people seeing something that shows them God’s power.
The book of Numbers is a book that is mostly set during the wilderness travels of the Exodus. It is the book where most of Jewish religious law is collected, too. That means it’s a book where people learn what it means to follow God and not the Pharaoh, whom they had ran away from. Part of following God is living with a new kind of freedom as well as responsibility to love God and love neighbor. That is different from what Pharaoh wanted.
The part of the story with the snakes happens in chapter 21. The people 40 years into their journey in the wilderness. Even though God has been taking care of them... providing mana and quails in the desert for decades now, the stress of the journey has been wearing on them. They have started to be afraid that God will not continue to provide for them. They also, not for the first time, have grown impatient. They do what a lot of impatient people do: Complain.
God is kind of cranky in that story, too. After 40 years, God is tired of hearing people complain about the food, and probably a little tired of hearing questions about whether or not God will keep taking care of them. So, God decides to teach the people a lesson. Now, I don’t think God makes people sick on purpose or hurts people on purpose. I do think that sometimes, when people are trying to make sense of something hard they are going through, they will decide that God is doing the hard thing. In this case, somebody decided that God has sent them a plague of poisonous snakes.
If you know anything about snakes, you know that unless you are mouse, they are not going to chase you down. For a snake to bite a person, usually the person has to be making it mad or scaring it. So, this plague of snakes is kind of an accident waiting to happen. The snakes aren’t chasing people down, but there are so many that it’s hard to avoid them. The last time I preached on this text was the Sunday before we closed our building up at the beginning of covid. I think the last three years have shown us how difficult is to have a danger all around, that is technically possible to avoid, but often only with the most cautious, vigilant behavior, and with lots of people being willing to be just as cautious as you are.
In the Bible story, as in real life, when a threat is abundant, people will end up succumbing to it. Enough people were bitten that the people grew afraid, and blamed themselves for what happened. They begged Moses to intervene with God and get rid of the snakes. Moses prayed on their behalf. God decided to help, but not in the way the people expected. God didn’t take away the snakes, but God does give them a way to be healed when they do get bit by a snake. God had them build a bronze snake. When they looked at it, they were healed.
Who here would like a statue that would heal you when you look at it? I think that would be pretty neat. That being said, what does a random statue in the book of Numbers have to do with Jesus? Remember, the book of numbers is about people learning to live a life that showed that they loved God and loved their neighbors. Sometimes they forget to do that and have to learn how to do it all over again. Numbers names some things people did when they forgot how God said they should behave: they would become jealous, start hoarding food, start being mean to each other and to their leaders... start to believe God wouldn’t help them anymore. These behaviors are avoidable, like a snake, but sometimes you need to see a sign to remind you of the danger. The snake statue was that sign. I think the author of John knew that story about that snake statue as a sign in the wilderness and decided that Jesus himself could be a similar kind of sign.
There are ways that Jesus and the snake statue are similar. Jesus heals people who come to see him. People are healed with they look at the snake statue. And, the presence of a healing statue and a healing teacher both show people that God, who created both them, was at work in the world, offering people a way to be healed when something bad has happened. I think the author of John believed that people could practice living in a way that would help them to remember that God would take care of them and that they should take care of each other. Nicodemus is scared, like the people in the desert in Numbers. He needs a sign that God is at work in the world. He sees Jesus, who is that sign, like the snake was a sign to remind the people in Numbers. And, this sign brings healing.
I wish I knew how Nicodemus is changed by his conversation with Jesus. It’s too bad that we don’t hear from him again in John. But, what I hope happened is that what he saw in Jesus that night in the dark healed him of his fear. I hope it helped him begin anew his walk of faith. And, I hope what he does in the daylight reflects the love and eternal life he learned about from Christ in the dark. May we, too, be willing to be open to new beginnings and healing from Christ.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5075
Karoline Lewis: John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014)
Melissa Bane Sevier: https://melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/snakes-on-a-plain/
Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.