When John Sanford was a boy, he spent a month every summer in a rustic farmhouse in New Hampshire. The house was already 150 years old when his family bought it, with no appreciable modernization, and since Sanford’s dad was the minister of a modest-sized parish and always short of money, improvements did not materialize for years. For a long time they lived in the house quite simply, without plumbing or electricity, so their water supply was an old well that stood just outside the front door. Sanford remembers the water from that well as “unusually cold and pure and a joy to drink” and never running dry. Even in the most severe summer droughts, when other families were forced to draw from the lake to drink, their old well faithfully yielded up its cool, clear water.
At a certain point the family’s fortunes improved enough to make some changes in the old house. Electricity replaced kerosene lamps, a new stove was carted into the kitchen, and modern plumbing with running water was installed. This final change required a new water source, so a deep artesian well was drilled a few hundred feet from the house. No longer needed, the old one near the front door was sealed over and kept in reserve, in case there was ever a run on water that would outstrip the capacity of the artesian well.
Things stood this way for several years until one day, moved by curiosity and old loyalties, Sanford determined to uncover the old well and inspect its condition. As he removed the cover, he expected to see the same dark, cool depths he had known as a boy, but the well was bone dry. Why? As it turns out, a well of this kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seeps a constant supply of water, but their continued flow depends on regular use. Their dependable old friend which had run without failing for so many years was dry, not because there was nothing to nourish its springs, but because those sources of water had not been tapped for a while.
That phenomenon happens with people, as well.
Sabbaticals are an integral part of balanced ministry, according to Bishop Eugene Sutton. Taking three months every six years to step away from parish work, to reflect and restore and renew, is a custom that full-time employees responsible for program, ordained associates, and rectors should routinely practice. With this in mind, Caroline will take a sabbatical from May 22 – August 14. Caroline began her path toward ordination 17 years ago, and she has worked without a significant break for the last 12. Much of that time she has devoted to the people of Redeemer, so it is fitting that we support this time away for her now. Because the time that Caroline will take falls mainly in the quieter part of the program year, Cristina and I will be able to embrace the pastoral and program needs of the parish while Caroline is “observing Sabbath.”
Bless you Caroline, as you take a much deserved drink of cool water.
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. 3 John 1:5
Do you remember times when you as a parent heard from a teacher what a good job your child had done or perhaps from another parent how well behaved your child was and the subsequent warm fuzzy feeling that you experienced? Or maybe you heard something similar from the vet about how cooperative your pet had been and again, how positive that made you feel. Well, as one of your clergy I want to let you know, as a result of a cluster of similar positive remarks I have heard about you during the last couple of weeks, I have that same warm, fuzzy feeling!
Redeemer is in the midst of increased activity that includes both worship offerings, adult educational opportunities, and use of our facility by community groups. The wonderful consequence of the amplified exposure is the significant number of ‘new’ people that are coming across our threshold. This is such great news for our community!! But what is equally exciting is how you, the members of Redeemer, are welcoming them. I am hearing over and over from our newcomers how they are feeling such a warmth and hospitality from this church. They are coming and returning because you are making an effort to reach out, to introduce yourselves, to invite them to coffee hour, to join you in a small group. This beautiful cycle of kindness is the ongoing theme of their impression of our church. And, it is a reminder of the value of continuing our habit of wearing the name tags!
I want to give you a specific example from this past week. Saturday night we welcomed 400 people for a book signing event we co-sponsored with The Ivy Bookstore. Most attendees were not connected with our parish but each one was welcomed with gracious hospitality as they came through the doors into our sanctuary. Sunday morning 3 ‘strangers’ from the night before came back to worship with us and have now completed their newcomer card.
So, dear parish, during this unexpectedly frigid week, it seems appropriate to take this opportunity to thank you for your warmth. David and Cristina join me in recognizing your genuine interest in welcoming the stranger. It reflects that passage from John that speaks to both the welcome of the ‘stranger’ along with the testimony from those ‘strangers’. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. (3 John 1:5)
I conclude with a beautiful reflection from Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, mystic and theologian:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
How do we discover who we are?
On summer evenings to escape the heat, my family carried iced tea and cigarettes to the back porch and told stories. The adults mostly talked and the kids mostly listened, while insight and humor and regret were traded like baseball cards. We sat in the dark to keep the bugs down and to help us think we were cooler than we were. “Do you remember when Uncle Clen broke the kitchen table with his science project?” “What about the time I ran up three flights of stairs with an armload of books, skidded to a stop at the door of my sophomore English class, and my petticoat fell out of my dress in a heap on the floor!” “How long was it after Jimmy died that Louise found his gun and shot herself?” Sometimes old hurts raised their voices as we reminisced, or sorrows surfaced, or anger flashed through us again. Sometimes we got so tickled my dad couldn’t breathe. Sometimes the punchlines changed, and no one worried if a good one was repeated.
I learned more than storytelling on my family’s porch, and on the other ones which hung off the apartments and houses where friends lived. How do you know what you value? How do you figure out what you stand for or against? How do you learn what to give your time to or heart to or money to? How does the still, small voice within you reveal itself? Family stories get us started and then most of us spend the rest of our lives deciding what to keep and what to shed from that earliest system of influence. Friendship stories and romantic stories and work stories play their part as we mature. Literature helps. Stories of struggle and faith offer solace along the way.
How do we discover who we are? We listen for stories that tell us honestly who we are as human beings and who we might one day be, and then we stretch to embody the best of them.
Start with the people closest by—family if you’ve got them, friends if you don’t. Listen to the narrative they use to make sense of life and themselves. Ask about the lessons they’ve learned. Ask about their heroes. Ask them where it hurts. You’ll hear about lost opportunities and lost keys, misplaced glasses and priorities, heartaches and headaches, things done and left undone. You’ll be witnessing a life in this telling, and at some point, you’ll begin to give voice to yours. Connect what you think to what you feel, and see if you can locate the genesis of your abiding passions. What makes you really mad? What makes you deliriously happy? What happened to shape within you such strong convictions? What are you most afraid of? What do you have to lose?
Laura Wexler, co-founder of Baltimore’s Stoop Stories, told a full south transept last night that an engaging oral narrative is at once foreign and familiar. “A person tells her own unique story, and though her context and background may be entirely different from yours, you find common ground, if the story teller is authentic. ‘I’ve felt like that,’ you’re surprised to admit. ‘I’ve struggled like that. I’ve thought about that too.’” Mostly we don’t resonate with stories of triumph, Wexler reported. “We identify with other people’s losses because we’ve had them ourselves.” And if the world doesn’t feel safer to hear about someone else’s mishap, it does feel smaller, and maybe that’s what we long for most.
Learn your own story, and your city’s story, your country’s story and the beautiful, worrisome story of humankind, and you are more likely to have what you need to act and make a difference now in a world that’s too small for anything but truth. The scripture has a story to tell, too.
Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Ruth and Jesus all begin to find themselves at the moment when they feel most lost and most alone: striking out on their own, away from home for the first time, at odds with fathers and brothers, mothers and wives, pharaohs and potentates, not sure what their work or alliances should be. Their discovery was to know their family system story well enough to keep what they needed, to drop the rest, and to let the test of the wilderness be its blessing.
Our most meaningful struggles show us what we’re made of and reveal this truth: we are each other’s business.
Standing in front of Starbucks on a Wednesday morning in a long black robe, offering ashes and prayers, provides for some memorable interactions with some beautiful people – beautiful in their humanity, honesty and vulnerability.
There was a mom who wished to pray for her teenage daughter, and another mom who is adjusting to being an empty-nester.
There was a man who declined prayers on his way in, and who, on his way out, smiled and informed me he’d been praying for me as he sat inside drinking his coffee.
There were several who prayed for a sense of calm. A sense of peace. A sense of stillness.
And there was a woman who stopped mid-stride and teared up, when she heard my invitation. She turned around and said, “But I haven’t been to church in years.”
I smiled and extended my invitation again, asking if she wished to receive ashes and/or to pray together. She hesitated, then nodded through her tears and came over.
God’s love and mercy extend beyond church walls and coffee shops.
God’s embrace is wider than what we humans can get our arms around.
We are Beloved despite our best efforts to be or to believe otherwise, and so is “the other”.
I wonder, if she believed me?
I wonder, do we believe this ourselves? (Sometimes yes, sometimes no …)
This season of Lent is an invitation to believe, once again. To rend our hearts and not our garments. To do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. There are a myriad of ways and opportunities at Redeemer, for us to believe and to be love, together. We can’t do them all. We can do some.
Stop. Turn around. Listen.
What is God’s invitation to you, this Lenten season?
(The Rev. David J. Ware’s sermon from 2/19/17)
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ inaugural address, one of the most revolutionary statements ever uttered, and the portion (5:38-48) distills three full chapters of Matthew to their essence.
Let’s go step by step. The traditional interpretation of “do not resist an evildoer” has been non-resistance to evil, which is an odd conclusion, since on all other occasions Jesus resisted evil with every fiber of his being. The Greek word translated here as “resist” literally means “to stand against,” and it is most often used as a technical term for warfare: it describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. There on the battlefield, they would “take a stand,” which is to say they would begin fighting. By using this idiom, Jesus clearly has resistance in mind, so how did readers come to interpret this as an invitation to non-resistance?
You’ll love this: the translators working for the King of England on what came to be known as the King James Bible were following orders, and the king did not want his subjects to think they had any recourse against his or any other sovereign’s power. James commissioned a new translation, because he held to the divinity of kingship, and he regarded as “seditious, dangerous, and traitorous” tendencies recorded in the Geneva Bible (James quoted in The Greatest English Classic), which endorsed the right of disobedience against a miscreant leader.
(The Geneva Bible was published 51 years prior to the King James Version and was written by a group of dissenters who had fled England and the sovereign and settled in Switzerland. The Geneva Bible was the one used by Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell and John Donne.) So since the Geneva Bible authorized the right to disobey a tyrant, King James pointedly asked his editors to endorse the right of kings. According to Walter Wink, “the public had to be made to believe that there are two responses (to violence) and only two: fight or flight.” (Jesus’ Third Way) So in the King James Version, Jesus is made to command us to not take a stand, to not resist, to submit. In this choice of words, Jesus appears to authorize the absolute right of the one in power; according to these translators, submission is the will of God.
That shift is still recorded in “do not resist an evildoer,” and not only is it confusing when laid alongside the other teachings of Jesus, it has been used to horrible effect, admonishing battered women to stay in abusive relationships, factory workers to cease from organizing, African-Americans to put up with their mistreatment, children to be seen but not heard.
But Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil here–to “not resist an evildoer” per se. He is saying to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms. The point is “we are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. Jesus is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet non-violent.” (Wink) A better translation of “do not resist an evil doer” would be, “Do not repay evil for evil.”
The examples that follow in the text confirm this reading. To understand the admonition, “turn the other cheek,” it is essential to note that the response follows a blow to the right cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist, you have to use the left hand, but that gesture would be unlikely in Jesus’ culture, not only because most people are right-handed, but also because the left hand was used for unclean tasks. So, to hit the other’s right cheek with the likely hand, the only feasible blow is a backhand, and a backhand is used not to injure, but to insult or humiliate or degrade. You don’t hit an equal with a backhand, but an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves in that culture, as well as husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The point of the backhand blow is to put someone back into his place.
Jesus’ audience was used to being degraded, so he is saying, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” But how? He must have acted this out for them, because it really only makes sense when you see it. “By turning the other cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way… And the left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist. But only equals fought with fists, so the servant has “won”: the last thing the master wants to do is treat his underling as a peer.” (Wink, Transforming Bible Study) By turning the other cheek, the inferior is saying, “I am a human being just like you, and I refuse to be humiliated. I am a child of God and your equal. I won’t take it anymore.” Without resorting to violence, without sinking to the enemy’s level, the would-be victim wins.
And when large numbers begin behaving this way, and Jesus is speaking to a crowd here, you have a movement on your hands. The people have found their voice over against a power-hungry monarch. Is it any surprise that the patriots in America appealed to scriptures of this kind in their Boston tea party? Gandhi, too, taught that “the first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” (Gandhi on Nonviolence, Thomas Merton)
Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.” The scene here is a creditor who has taken a poor person to court over an unpaid loan, and only the poorest of the poor were subjected to this kind of treatment. Jewish law provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer coat, but the law went on to say that the coat had to be returned each evening so that one would have something in which to sleep. The cloak in this reading is the poor person’s underwear. So why does Jesus counsel him to give over even his undergarments?
When you see that the picture here is of the man stripping off all of his clothing and marching out of court stark naked, you begin to realize that again Jesus is counseling a clever non-violent response. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and importantly, shame fell less on the naked party than on the person who views or causes the nakedness. So by stripping in this way at an unfair demand, the debtor, the poorest of the poor, has brought shame on the greedy creditor.
The third example requires remembering that the gospels take place in a setting of military occupation, (Israel is a vassal state of Rome), and knowing the practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced labor a Roman soldier could levy on a subject. Anyone found on the street could be coerced into this kind of service, as was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to his crucifixion. In this context of occupation, Jesus suggests that you’ll throw the oppressor off balance if you offer to do more than expected. “Hey soldier… Thanks for asking me to carry your 100 pound pack for you. No Problem. Now I’ll just carry it another mile.” Surely the audience was chuckling to itself at this picture: imagine a seemingly invincible Roman soldier pleading with a scruffy Jewish peasant to give him back his pack.
To those whose pattern had been to cringe before a tyrant, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves. There was no reason to wait until Rome had fallen, until peasants had land, or until slaves were freed. Jesus’ first followers could claim their dignity and recover their humanity, and we can do the same thing now. The kingdom of God is breaking into the old order, not as an imposition from on high, but as leaven slowly causing the dough to rise. The little ones can do something big…the poor in fact and the poor in spirit can be literally subversive, using words from below to redefine power altogether. And those who have been denied a voice or those who stand with the silenced don’t have to perpetuate the problem: We can resist the enemy without becoming like him, if we will turn from hate and fear. Pogo looked in the mirror 50 years ago and said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” and Jesus says “So is your neighbor. Now love them both.” A third way, neither fighting nor fleeing, but engaging as equals, ennobling ourselves and the other, maybe one day embracing, allows both sides to win.
In Rumours of Another World, Philip Yancey tells this story from South Africa. In one of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, organized by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, a policeman named Van de Broek recounted for the commission how he, together with other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, and then burned his body to destroy the evidence. The policeman went on to describe how eight years later, he returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as he likewise killed her husband.
The judge asked, “What do you want from this man,” and the courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman responded. “I want him to go to the place where my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.” The policeman nodded in assent. After a silence the woman continued, “Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me, so I can be a mother to him. (For him to turn out like he did, he must not have had the mothering that he needs.) And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him now so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
That is redefining power. We don’t love our enemies because they deserve it. We love them because they are our sisters and brothers. We love them because God loves us, wounded and vengeful and scruffy as we are. Jesus said, “You are familiar with the old written rule, ‘Love your neighbor’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I am challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.”