Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Death Dies Hard

Propers: The Fifth Sunday in Lent, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you want to terrify the entire world, raise a man from the dead. That’ll do it.

Death is the limit of all human ambition. It’s the period at the end of our every sentence. We plan our lives looking to the horizon of mortality. We eat what we eat, and work how we work, and take the risks that we take, all in mind of death. The healthcare, the pills, the food labeling, the gym memberships, the career paths, it’s all to keep us upright and breathing. We work hard for a living, so that we don’t end up homeless and broke and hungry and sick and cold—so that we don’t die on the street! The whole rat race is run because we’re born with death nipping at our heels. It is the one sure, strong constant in our lives: death and taxes.

Death is our master; it has enslaved us; it’s all we know! And if we didn’t die—well, if we didn’t die, how we would even know how to be human? What would human even mean?

And so when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, everything we think we know—about our limitations, about our humanity, about life itself—all that dies. And we are terrified not because we stare into an abyss but because we are blinded by the impossible intensity of the Light. Little wonder, then, that raising Lazarus is what gets Jesus killed.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we are coming to the climax of Jesus’ ministry. For three-and-a-half years He has traveled throughout Judea and the Galilee, working wonders, healing the sick, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. And as His reputation and His following have grown, so has the likelihood that He would end up on a Roman cross. You see, the Messiah—the Anointed One, whom God would send to save His people—had been expected for hundreds of years. All the Prophets pointed to Him. All of them promised the return of the King.

One of the prophets, Daniel, had even started a countdown. Religious authorities broadly agreed that Daniel had laid out a clear timeline for the arrival of the Messiah, replete with signs and predictions, all of which pointed to the year 30 A.D. And so, as the year 30 drew near, the whole of Judea was abuzz with messianic expectation. Any day now, they were certain, the Messiah would arrive—the Christ who would free God’s people Israel from servitude to pagan Rome.

The funny thing is that the Romans agreed. Their Sibyls—the seers and prophetesses of ancient Rome—spoke clearly of a coming ruler of the world, a Savior who would arise from Judea, “to whom men must do homage in order to be saved.” And so in the year 30, as we would reckon time, both the Jews and the Romans were feverishly searching for the Christ: the Judeans to follow Him, the Romans to get rid of Him. And they were pretty good at it too.

By the time of Jesus, several wild-eyed rabbis had come claiming to be the Messiah. Generally they gathered a hopeful following out in the desert, or some other convenient kill zone, and once they’d caused enough fuss the Romans would come along to nail them all to crosses. Such was the way of would-be messiahs.

Then along comes Jesus, who seems a pretty good candidate for the Christ. Wonder and terror have followed Him from His earliest days. And around age 30, He is baptized in the River Jordan by His kinsman John, right on time. From that point on stories abound, of miracles and healings, of angels and devils. He confounds the authorities and lifts up the lowly and forgives people their sins—which only God can do. But He is wily and unpredictable, eluding entrapment by those who oppose Him, while often confounding those who would follow Him.

Every time He says something so outrageous that His disciples might well abandon Him, it is accompanied by some astonishing sign affirming that God is with Him—or that God is Him. His reputation grows, as do the ranks of His enemies. But so far He has managed to avoid doing anything that would give Rome or her collaborators the needed excuse to bring the hammer down. Even so, it’s all coming to a head. Everyone knows it. If Jesus keeps this up, He will die.

Now, even in the best years, the Passover is a particularly volatile time in Roman Judea. Religiously observant Jews from the world over gather to celebrate this holiest of days in Jerusalem, the City of David and Temple of Solomon. And as we well know, a Middle Eastern city swollen with pilgrims is ripe for bloody insurrection. But after three years of very public ministry, Jesus makes it clear that this particular Passover is going to be His last here on earth. His Apostles are flummoxed; they know that at this point Jesus riding into Jerusalem would be suicide; the place is a powder keg. To their credit, they go along to die with Him. But first He makes a stop at the house of a friend.

Lazarus and his two sisters own a home in Bethany, two miles east of Jerusalem. It’s basically a wealthy suburb. They are people of significant means; they can afford what few others can. They are also friends and followers of Jesus. Though we don’t know this for certain, it’s quite possible that Lazarus’ sister Mary is in fact Mary Magdalene, meaning that this family probably knew Jesus back home in the Galilee. Whenever Jesus comes to Jerusalem, this is where He stays. The only problem is that this time—this last time—Lazarus is dead.

A sudden illness, it seems: one fast enough that they knew it to be fatal, yet slow enough that they had time to send for Jesus. He does not make it. By the time He arrives with His disciples, Lazarus has been dead in the tomb for four long days; in the Mediterranean heat, putrefaction has set in with a vengeance. The whole town, it seems, has come out for the funeral, not just from Bethany but many from Jerusalem as well. Lazarus was a well-beloved member of his community. And Jesus weeps, and Jesus mourns, and Jesus tells them to trust in the Resurrection. And then Jesus tells Lazarus to get up.

This is not the first time that Jesus has raised someone from the dead. There are other accounts in the Gospels. But never before has Jesus raised someone this dead—someone really most sincerely dead—so that there can be no mistake; this is not some last-minute healing or sudden resuscitation. Lazarus was dead and rotten. This is also the first time that Jesus has done something like this so publically, worked such an astonishing wonder openly before a crowd of scores or hundreds. Multiplying loaves, casting out demons, is all well and good. But openly raising the dead? My God. Who is He, who can bring a man back from the dead?

The same Voice that called light into being and stayed Abraham’s hand, the same Voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush and pronounced the Ten Commandments to Israel, this same Voice now calls out to the dead—to a corpse!—“Come forth!” And the dead man gets up. Because it doesn’t matter where you are—another planet, another century, another universe away, even down into the depths of hell itself—when Jesus calls, you get up. Ain’t no grave can hold you down.

And that tears it. That’s the end of all things. If He can defy death, He can defy anything, everything! Gods and devils and heavens and hells all cower before the One who can tear us from their talons with but a Word. Death is dead! Nothing could be more wonderful! Nothing could be more terrifying. We’ll have to kill Him now. We don’t know any other way to live.

Next week is Palm Sunday. Holy Week. If you’ve ever wondered why all of Jerusalem was in such an uproar upon seeing Jesus ride in to Jerusalem on a donkey, shouting hosanna, laying palm branches before Him, well, now you know. We had just seen Him pull Lazarus up from the dead. And the sad news, brothers and sisters, is that we are going to react this bone-shaking miracle as we would to anything terrifying and new: we’re doing to throw death at it. Because death is the strongest and the surest thing that we have ever known.

The Good News is that it’ll barely slow Him down.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Word and Water

Lenten Vespers, Week Four

Reading: Matthew 3:13-17


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In all religious traditions, water contains deep spiritual significance. It is the element of life and of death, of chaos and creation. We are born in the waters of the womb; we drown in the waters of the Flood. Water brings life to the earth, fruit to the field, fish to the net. But it also brings storms and waves and monsters from the deep. Little wonder that ancient myths portrayed water as a dragon.

In the Old Testament, water represents cleansing, bathing, washing. Ritual ablutions prepared an Israelite to stand before the presence of God in the Temple. For some groups, immersion in running water marked entry into the Jewish community. For others, baptism was a daily ritual, a constant cleansing, washing away impurities and sin. John the Baptist offered a baptism of repentance in the Jordan River, turning hearts to prepare for the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom.

For Christians, Baptism is all this and more: it is our entry into the community of God’s promise; it is the turning of our hearts toward His Kingdom; and it is the Font of forgiveness to which we may daily return for Confession and Absolution. But Christian Baptism is not primarily a bath. It is, in fact, a drowning.

When our Lord came to the Jordan to be baptized by John, it wasn’t the waters that changed Jesus; it was Jesus who changed the waters. Our Gospel accounts report the rending of the heavens, the voice of the Almighty Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove. In other words, the entire Trinity, the very Being of God, meets us in those baptismal waters, and we are joined to God in Christ.

Baptism doesn’t just wash away our sins. It drowns us in our sins and raises us up to new life in Christ! We are baptized into Christ’s own death, already died for us, and into Christ’s own eternal life, already begun! The old creature, the old Adam, our old fallen humanity, dies in those waters. And the New Creation, the New Adam, the Risen Christ, rises up from them—so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Baptism is death and Resurrection; it is the waters of the Flood and of new birth. What a mystery is here unto us revealed!

The word “sacrament” means mystery, and indeed Baptism is a Sacrament, one of the Holy Mysteries of the Church. But what do we mean by that? Ask a Catholic and he will tell you that a Sacrament is a sign containing the very thing that it signifies: Baptism signifies drowning and rising, and it really is our drowning and rising; Baptism signifies the cleansing of sin, and it really is the forgiveness of our sins.

A Lutheran will give you a somewhat longer answer. For us, a Sacrament must have three components: (1) the promise of grace; (2) some physical element; (3) and Jesus’ command to go and do likewise. In this case, we are promised that Baptism grants us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life; the physical element would be the water, of course, but also the words of the promise added unto it; and we are commanded in the Scriptures to go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Three for three.

I think both the Catholic and the Lutheran definitions are good and true. But I have an even simpler definition: a Sacrament is a promise made solid.

As Christians, we believe that God Himself became flesh, became one of us, in Jesus Christ. He walked beside us, working, sweating, healing, preaching, teaching, forgiving, suffering, mourning, laughing, rejoicing. And then He poured out for us the Holy Spirit, the very life and breath of God, so that we might not just know Jesus but actually become one with Jesus, one in His Spirit, one in His Body and Blood.

Likewise, the promises of God are so strong, so sure, so powerful to save, that God has made them into physical things, promises that we can see and touch and taste and hold. How do we know that Baptism forgives us our sins and raises us to life and makes us one in Christ Jesus? Well, is the water wet? Then the Word is true! If you have been baptized, then you have been claimed by God and bought with a price—no doubts, no wonders, no questioning as to whether or not God loves and chooses you. God met you in the Word and water, period. God has claimed you for His own, period. And as sure as that water is wet, the promise of God is true.

Chaos and Creation, Flood and Fountain, Crucifixion and Resurrection—that is what awaits us whenever we turn to the promise of God made thick in Baptism. For God has promised to meet us in these waters. And God does not break promises.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Bad Things

Propers: Laetare, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

That’s the question, isn’t it? And not just for religion. This is a universal question, one that goes right to the heart of all human experience.

One of the things that make us uniquely human is our ability to differentiate between the way things are and the way things ought to be. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it. We look at the world and we know that something’s wrong, that reality is not the way it should be, the way it was meant to be. We see injustice and suffering and evil, and we know we can do better, that we should do better. How do we know that? Against what standard are we measuring the entire world?

We appear to be the only animal that possesses this mixed blessing. Beasts suffer, yes. They mourn, yes. But your dog, for example, is not overcome with existential dread at the apparent unfairness of the world. He’s pretty happy just being a dog. Yet you and I can see that the world is broken, can’t we? that it’s all gone wrong. And the reason we can see it, when we bother to pay attention, is because we’re the ones who broke it. We ate that fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. And so we are condemned to see the world both as God made it and as we’ve made it.

In our rather lengthy Gospel reading this morning, Jesus’ disciples see a blind man, and they ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They want to know why bad things happen to good people. In a perfectly just world, good things would always happen to good people, and bad things would only ever happen to bad people. So clearly somebody screwed up. Who is at fault when the world goes wrong?

Now, there have been many attempts to answer this question, perhaps the most famous being karma. Karma is this notion that everything balances out, that you get what you deserve. Do good, get good; do bad, get bad. Simple, elegant, sensible. If a man goes blind, it must be because he deserved it. Clearly he did something wrong, and with karma what goes around comes around. Hence, a bad man goes blind.

Of course, a man born blind complicates things a bit. What could a baby have done to deserve such punishment, be a bad fetus? In such a case as this, perhaps it was his parents who screwed up, and this is really their fault. Or perhaps the baby just did something particularly naughty in a previous life, should you happen to believe in such things.

One can see the appeal of karma. It tells us that injustice is an illusion, and that the world, far from having gone wrong, in fact balances out in the end. All our worries were for naught. The nasty side of this, however, is the implicit urge to blame the victim. If someone is poor, if someone is lame, if someone is blind or injured or abused or raped or murdered—well, they had it coming. But if someone is rich and prosperous and lives a life of conspicuous consumption—they’re only enjoying their just desserts. Such moral calculus keeps the strong on top, the weak underfoot, and the suffering in despair.

Yet to this day, people honestly seem to think that this is how God works. That if you get cancer, or lose a child, or your house burns down, somehow that’s justice. It’s all part of God’s inscrutable plan! What did I do, we ask, to deserve this? The answer, of course, is nothing. You didn’t do anything to deserve this. Bad things do not happen to good people because God put His thumb on the scale. Bad things happen to good people because this is a broken world, a fallen world, a world that does not function the way that God intends.

I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard of people who’ve lost children, and the preacher or some other well-meaning fool tells the grieving parents that God must’ve had a reason for taking their beloved son or daughter. Shut up! What, God kills babies now? Did I miss something? Did we just skip over the parts of the Bible where it flat-out says, “God did not create death,” “It is not the will of My Father that even one of these little ones be lost,” “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life”? Death is not God’s game. We can talk about David and Moses some other time.

Bad things happen because it’s a broken world, period. And yes, it is broken by our sin, but that doesn’t work out on a one-to-one basis. When one of us sins, the consequences are not limited to oneself. We’re all too interconnected for that. Jesus has come into the world not to condemn the world but to save it—to forgive us our sins and heal our wounds and raise our dead! When bad things happen, we want to know why God doesn’t get up off His heavenly throne and do something about it. We want Him to batter this world back into submission, to force it right again, to make us be good. Because that’s what we would do, if we were God. Right?

But God doesn’t work that way. Love doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t tyrannize, doesn’t force. Instead, God does what we least expect Him to do. He sets aside all His power and glory to come down here, as one of us. He responds to our sufferings by sharing them. He responds to our brokenness by entering it. He responds to our death by taking it all upon Himself. When Lazarus died, Jesus didn’t say, “He had it coming!” or “It’s all part of the plan!” No. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept. And then He pulled his sorry carcass right out of that tomb and raised him to new life with but a word.

God doesn’t want the man to be born blind. God doesn’t want the child to die. Don’t preach to me about the sovereignty of God if it turns Him into some cruel despot. But such is His goodness and His power that He can take these terrible things, these tragedies that seemingly can never be set right in this world, and He miraculously extracts good out from them—strength from weakness, glory from shame, life from death! In the end God wins not through violence or fiat but through undying, immortal love.

Look, it’s true that virtue and wisdom will often result in a better life for ourselves and for all those around us. And it’s also true that people who do terrible things often reap their just rewards. But not always. It’s still a broken world. And when things get personal—when it’s us who suffer, us who receive that horrible diagnosis, us who lose the ones we love—no amount of theological theory or pious pontificating will suffice. We want to know where God is when horrible things happen, and we want to know what the heck He’s doing to make it right.

The answer, of course, is that God is right where He’s always been: beside us, above us, within us; not alien but intimate; not distant and uncaring, but with us in our sufferings. And He is still promising to us that impossible promise, the one we could never hope to believe were it not for the Holy Spirit burning inside us the fire of faith: the promise that we are forgiven, and beloved, redeemed; that the day is surely coming when Christ shall dry every tear, and heal every wound, and raise every mother’s son from the loamy earth of the grave. Then shall God be all in all, and the world at last set right.

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus said of the man born blind. “He was born so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lord's Prayer

Lenten Vespers, Week Three


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer rather speaks for itself, I think. When asked by His Apostles how one ought properly to pray, Jesus gives to them, and thus to us, seven succinct petitions, which somehow manage to be both brief yet also comprehensive.

He starts off strong. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” That right there’s an interesting bit. Notice how God is simultaneously transcendent—beyond us, exalted in the Heaven above the heavens—yet in the same breath intimate, caring, loving: our Father, closer to us than our own jugular.

“Hallowed be Thy Name.” Hallowed, of course, means set apart, holy. And surely God’s Name is holy regardless of how we pray. But here we are praying that God’s Name be hallowed in and through us.

“Thy Kingdom come.” And come it shall. Indeed, it has been inaugurated in the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of our Lord. But we want this Kingdom to dwell within us, within our very souls, and so we pray that the Holy Spirit grant us the grace to believe in God’s holy Word and to live godly lives both here and in the world to come.

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” Again, God’s will shall triumph in the end, with or without us. God is sovereign and powerful to save; He will set Creation right at the last. But here we pray that God’s will be done in us, that we be part of God’s healing, rather than resisting the inevitability of glory.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Now, God gives abundantly to all peoples the necessities of daily life: not just food and drink, but also clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like. Truly, God gives these to the just and the unjust alike.

And if it is true, as it surely is, that we see many go without these necessities, it is no failing of God’s. He has given to us all superabundantly. Rather, the failing is in us, who have been called to be God’s stewards and sub-creators, caring for our neighbor. Give us today, Lord, our daily bread, but moreover, guide and empower us to give to our neighbor his daily bread as well. And be merciful to us when we fail.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God does forgive us, brothers and sisters. He forgives us daily, over and again, sealing up the chasm torn by sin, ever calling us home and running to meet His prodigal sons and daughters along the way. All this is done from pure grace, pure love, pure mercy. And all that we are asked in return is to share this superabundance with our neighbor—to forgive as we ourselves are constantly forgiven.

I don’t think I need to tell you that this is far from easy. Some wounds are too painful to forgive; some we wouldn’t want to forgive even if we could. We must stand for truth and for human dignity, after all, if there is to be any proper healing, any proper justice, any proper redemption in this world. In such cases we pray that God empower us to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us: to forgive the unforgivable. For human beings it is impossible. But for God all things are possible.

“Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” God, mind you, is our Creator and Savior and Redeemer, not our tempter. Here we pray that God would rescue us from the devil, the world, and the flesh—that is, all the things beyond us, around us, and within us that would lead us away from the life and love of God. We are tried not as a defendant before the judge, but as metal within the refiner’s fire. Nobody ever promised that life would be easy in this vale of tears. But we are promised that in the end life shall triumph over death, mercy over condemnation, and Christ over all. God does not will brokenness and sin, but in His Wisdom conquers them by extracting good from them.

“For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen!”—which is an extended way of saying, yes, yes, I trust in God to fulfill all these promises and infinitely more.

Truly this is the Lord’s Prayer, not just because He teaches it to us, but because He is the one praying it on our behalf. This is the prayer of the eternal Son to His eternal Father, the loving prayer of God, through God, to God, for us. When we pray this prayer we must know that Jesus is praying it with us, in words bold and strong; lifting them up in the Holy Spirit who likewise intercedes for us; trusting completely in the love and mercy of the Almighty Father to pour out upon His children all that we could ever want or need.

To hear this prayer is to hear the very dialogue of love eternally sung within the holy Trinity. To pray this prayer is to be lifted up into the very Being of God Himself.

It is not the only prayer we have. It is not the only prayer we pray. But surely it is the only prayer we need.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Her True Husband

Propers: The Third Sunday in Lent, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Of all the teaching encounters Jesus has with people throughout the Gospel accounts, today’s has to be one of my favorites. His interaction with the woman at the well is filled with allusion and double meaning, deep historical resonance, and what might even be a bit of flirtation, believe it or not. But in order to get all this out of the text, we must first speak a bit about Samaritans.

What we have here is a very ancient family feud. Genesis tells us that God chose the family of Abraham through which to save the world. Abraham had a son, Isaac; Isaac had a son, Jacob; and Jacob would be given a new name by God—Israel—so that Jacob’s twelve sons would go on to become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But brothers rarely get along, especially in the Bible. And the tribes had a falling out. The northern tribes broke away from the southern tribes, splitting the nation of Israel in half. The upper half was called Ephraim after the largest tribe in that territory, and the lower half became known as Judah after the largest tribe down south.

The people of God were divided. Irrevocably so, it seemed. Sometimes they fought alongside each other; sometimes they fought against each other. Each side preferred to view itself as the true inheritor of Israel, and to view its wayward brothers as corrupted or misguided. Eventually the northern tribes were conquered by the Assyrians—an empire with a particularly nasty reputation—and much of their population was deported to foreign lands. The Assyrians were no fools: they liked to mix up conquered people, move them about, blend them together, so that they were less likely to band together and rise up against their conquerors.

The Assyrians brought in other defeated nations to resettle the north, five of them, to be precise. And each of these brought with them their tribal god. These gods became known as the five Baals, meaning the lords, or husbands, of the north. The resulting mishmash of peoples—Assyrian, Israelite, pagan, Greek, and everything in between—became known as the Samaritans, after their capital city of Samaria. For Judeans in the south, the Samaritans became a cautionary tale, a diseased branch of the family tree, the black sheep of Israel. Good Jews avoided Samaritans like the plague—which is why it proved so scandalous for Jesus to speak of a Good Samaritan, who proved more neighborly than the pious priests of Judah. All of which brings us to today’s Gospel reading.

In our story this morning, Jesus and His disciples are traveling through Samaria on their way back home from Judah to the Galilee. Jesus had not received a particularly warm welcome from the authorities in Jerusalem. And tired out from His journey, Jesus understandably takes a break from the noonday heat by a well that Jacob himself had given to Joseph, his favorite son and progenitor of the northern tribes. It’s here at the well that Jesus does the unthinkable: he asks a strange Samaritan woman for a drink.

This should set off alarm bells for a couple reasons: first because by the time of Jesus the division between Jews and Samaritans is at least a thousand years old; but also because wells are very suggestive places in the Bible. You only speak to a strange woman at a well if you’re looking to find a wife. When Abraham wanted a wife for his son Isaac, he sent his men to find Rebekah at a well. When Isaac’s son Jacob met his beloved wife Rachel, it was at a well. Moses the Lawgiver chose a wife from the daughters of Jethro, whom he defended at a well. There’s a reason that we still call singles bars watering holes, and it’s not just because of the drinks.

It is in some ways very forward of Jesus to ask a strange woman at a well for a drink, and a Samaritan woman at that! And she, for her part, understands this, and is taken aback. “How is it that You, a Jew,” she responds, “ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

The banter has begun. “If you knew the gift of God,” He says to her, “and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

The woman comes across as confident and clever. “You don’t even have a bucket,” she tells Him, “and this well is deep. How exactly are You going to give me a drink?” You can see how this is almost flirty. She’s not putting up with any nonsense, but she wants to see where this strange Jew is going with all this.

“Those who drink of the water that I will give to them will never be thirsty,” He says enigmatically. “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Fair enough. “Sir, give me this water,” she retorts, “so that I may never have to keep coming here to this well to draw water again.” (So that I don’t have to come to the well again. Hmm.)

“Go and get your husband,” Jesus says. “Sir, I have no husband,” she replies, sounding rather coy. This might even be going somewhere. But then He says something she does not expect to hear: “You are right to say you have no husband. In fact, you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you’ve said is true.”

Now, it’s not at all clear whether or not Jesus is being literal here. We hear this story and think, “Wow, how does a woman this young go through five-and-a-half husbands?” But of course the word for husband is Baal, Lord. And indeed the Samaritans have five Baals, five foreign tribal gods who were brought into the land by forced deportation centuries ago—none of which are the northern tribes’ true Lord. Their real Baal, their real Lord, their real Husband is the Lord God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And that God has come now in the flesh, sitting by the well of Jacob, searching for His lost wife. All throughout the Bible, the relationship between God and His people Israel is spoken of as the loving relationship between husband and wife. This continues in the New Testament, as we speak of Christ the Bridegroom and of His holy bride, the Church. Marriage is always a religious image in the Scriptures.

The whole wordplay, the whole encounter, all the flirtatious banter has led up to this one great revelation: that God has come; that the Lord has descended to earth as He promised through the prophets from of old; and He has come to claim His wife, His people, His beloved Samaritans who abandoned Him a thousand years ago to chase after gods who were not their true Husband. A thousand years of enmity and conflict and strife are here proclaimed done, the division of God’s people is annulled, and all the children of Abraham, North and South, are called to give witness to the fulfilment of the promises given to their ancestors so many long ages past!

And by God, she gets it! The woman at the well gets it! She realizes that this Man before her might actually be—no, that in fact He is—the Messiah, the Anointed One, the promised Christ who is none other than God in the flesh calling her home, calling all her people home! And she runs and tells the Samaritans, and they come to see for themselves, and they proclaim to her and to all the world, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world!”

The woman at the well is, in effect, Christ’s Apostle to the Samaritans. And all of Samaria rejoices that the mercies of God have come to dwell amongst them. And the whole time, Jesus’ Twelve Apostles are utterly clueless and befuddled as to what just happened here in this half-breed hick town. I love it.

We know from the book of Acts that the Samaritans go on to become enthusiastic converts to Christianity, and that Justin Martyr, one of the truly great early Fathers of the Church, was a Samaritan by birth. But this tale of reconciliation and redemption goes beyond the story of any one particular people. This Gospel speaks to the very heart of who and what God is, of His inexhaustible patience with those who go astray, of His ceaseless love for all His children, no matter how wayward or fallen, no matter how faithless or divided, so that even a thousand years of bitter division and blood feud are as nothing before the fountain of mercies poured out for the world in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s why I love the story of the woman at the well. For she did find her true husband at the watering hole that day, and she led all of her people to the truth as well. Thanks be to God that He is ever waiting for us to return to the waters of our Baptism, the waters of eternal life, ever ready to forgive us, ever eager to welcome us home.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 13, 2017


Lenten Vespers, Week Two


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Probably the first creed was some out-of-breath soul, running up over the hillside, crying out excitedly to the world, “He is Risen! He is Risen!”

And some bystander asked by way of reply, “Who is Risen?”

“Jesus!” proclaimed the first fellow. “Jesus is Risen!”

“Well, who is Jesus?”

“Jesus is the Messiah!”

“What’s a Messiah?”

And so on from there.

The word creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe,” and so a creed is quite simply a statement of belief. The Christian Creeds—Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian—expound the common teachings to which all Christians adhere, be it implicitly or explicitly, throughout space and time. We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. We believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. And so on.

The oldest of these is the Apostles’ Creed. This Creed, or something very like it, was in use throughout the Christian churches by the time of Irenaeus, only one generation removed from the Apostles. It has defined the boundaries of orthodoxy from our earliest days. It is in many ways a “big tent” statement. Take the First Article, for example: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth. Note that it doesn’t say anything about the specifics of Creation, only that we all hold God to be our Creator. Plenty can be said within the broad freedoms of interpretation. But beyond these bounds—denying God as Creator—puts us outside the faith of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

While the later Nicene Creed, which builds upon the Apostles’ Creed, is a public statement of communal faith—each article stating “we believe”—the Apostles’ Creed has for nearly 2000 years been upheld as a baptismal creed, the profession of one seeking new life in Christ by affirming the truth of the Gospel: “I believe.” Baptized into Christ’s death already died for us, and into Christ’s own eternal life already begun, we are thereby baptized into His Body the Church. And so we, of one accord, speaking with the single voice of the Church, together with all the saints of every age and race, are made bold to proclaim, Credo: I believe.

The structure of the Creed is expressed in three Articles, one each for God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, with the entire edifice centered firmly upon Jesus Christ. This is no accident. The Creed is deeply, foundationally Incarnational, and it is deeply, foundationally Trinitarian. These two always go together: we can know God because He has become one of us in Jesus Christ; and through Jesus we are drawn into relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God created us, and we went astray. But He never gave up on His children. When we could not claw our way back up to Him, God came down here into the mud and the blood, reconciling Creation to her Creator in the person of Jesus Christ. Then Jesus poured out upon us His own Holy Spirit, the very life and breath of God, that we might be made one in Him, a single Body united by a single Spirit. That’s the real scandal of the Incarnation: not just that God became Man in Jesus, but that at Pentecost He then made all of us into Jesus: one in His Body and Blood, one in His Word and His Spirit.

We encounter the Trinity backwards, as it were. “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the Body, and the life everlasting.” Note that these are all the ways by which the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us and make us one in Christ. Thus united in Jesus, loving the God made visible, we are drawn to love the God whom we cannot see. And so we come to know God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as our own: our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

The eternal dance of the Trinity consists of the Father ever pouring out His love into His beloved Son; and the Son eternally offering all that He has, all that He is, back up to His Father. It is perfect, infinite self-giving. And the love that flows between them, the bond that makes them perfectly One, is the Holy Spirit Himself. By being made one in Jesus’ Body, by being graced with the unspeakable honor of His Holy Spirit dwelling within us, choosing our bodies as His temples, we are drawn into the dance of the Trinity, into the very relationship of love that is God: Three and yet One; infinite yet knowable; utterly transcendent yet unspeakably intimate.

This is what we believe. This is our Creed: that by the miracle of the Incarnation—God made Man in Jesus Christ—we are drawn by grace into God’s own self, forgiven, resurrected, sanctified, deified, raised up to eternal life and joy. It is a promise of such brobdingnagian superabundance that we could never hope to believe it, were it not for God the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, believing the unbelievable for us, bringing us to faith in the promise of Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the faith of the Church. This is the promise we all affirm. This is the Word that brings life to the world. Credo. I believe.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Patient Zero

Propers: The Second Sunday in Lent, A.D. 2017 A


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Bible speaks of sin as though it were a disease, a brokenness that spreads from one person to another, rather like a virus or the plague.

And this is not merely imagery. We know all too well how mental imbalances can affect not just our inner life but all those around us. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. Our world is like an intricate symphony, a series of harmonies interlocking in delicate balance, and when just one aspect of life is thrown off—mental, emotional, spiritual or social—the whole system starts to spiral out of whack.

No matter what the sin—pride, avarice, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, gluttony—it starts a cascading chain reaction, ripples reaching out to affect the farthest shore. That’s what makes sin so overwhelming, so hard to defeat. It’s like standing on the roof of your house and tearing open pillows to scatter their contents to the wind—and then trying to gather all those feathers back up again. It’s hard to get that genie back in the bottle. Once there’s even a little bit of injustice in the system, the whole world can never quite run the same way again.

A human being might be tempted to trash the whole thing and start over. If the patient is terminal, we might as well move on to the next. But that’s not how God works. It would be easy enough, I think, for Him to snap His fingers and delete the world. Wipe it out, like it never happened, and start all over again, with a new heaven and earth, a new Adam and Eve, a new Lucifer who might not prove so prone to fall.

But God is not like us. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. God never gives up on His Creation, never abandons His children. It’s simply not His nature. Instead, God seems determined to fight fire with fire—or in this case, to fight a bad infection with a good infection.

He starts out small, you see. He looks at this fallen, broken world, so deeply defiled by sin, and picks out a single man. Just one man: God likes tiny beginnings. And this man God picks, he isn’t a king or a hero or some young buck with his whole life ahead of him. No, God picks an old man “as good as dead,” a man with no family, no future, no great destiny to call his own. And God says to this wizened old soul:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Wow. What utter madness. Abraham’s already pushing 80, and this is in the Middle East of more than 4000 years ago. “As good as dead” indeed. But as St Paul writes while recounting Abraham’s story, ours is the God who gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist. He’d rather have to be for this.

Abraham, for his part, reacts to this crazy promise in an even crazier way: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now who could believe such a promise? “Get up from your deathbed; it’s time for life to begin”? Yet Abraham does. Perhaps he was getting a bit senile. Perhaps he figured he had nothing left to lose. Or perhaps he was simply a far stronger and wiser man than we have any right to suppose. Regardless, a little faith is all it takes to begin the world anew.

Abraham is the seed, the tiny, dried-up kernel from which an entire harvest may sprout. And he’s chosen not because he’s young and strong, not because he’s rich and mighty, but precisely because he is small and old and forgotten. He does not earn the grace and love and promise of God. It is freely given to one who has nothing to offer in return. Abraham is patient zero, if you will. He is the first man to receive this outlandish promise in the midst of a sin-sick world. And from him the promise will grow and spread and infect all those around him.

It spreads to his sons and to his sons’ sons. It spreads to his nephew and his servants and his neighbors. It spreads as Abraham and Sarah become a family, and their family becomes a people, and that people becomes a nation, and that nation is destined by the promise of God to become a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” In Abraham, God marks a new creation, a new beginning. He is in many ways a new Adam, and his wife the new Eve. But this is not a new creation in the sense that it is utterly new, having no connection with what went before. Rather, this is the old creation made new, given a second birth, a second chance at life.

This promise of grace and mercy spreads from soul to soul, from people to people, infecting sin the same way that sin infected the world. The promise is God’s bacteriophage, the virus that fights disease. And it comes to fruition when Abraham’s children, the people of the promise, produce one perfect Man: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, who is Himself immune to sin. Jesus will forgive and heal, bringing new hope and new life, until we in the death throes of our terminal disease nail Him to a Cross to murder Him.

But even this won’t stop Him. Why, it barely slows Him down. From that Cross, Jesus pours out the very life of God for the world: the water of Baptism, the Blood of the New Covenant. The promise given to Abraham is now lavished not simply on those who share Abraham’s blood but upon all those who share Abraham’s faith. And just as the blood of one who is immune holds the cure for all, so we, when we share in the Word and Spirit, in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, are inoculated against sin and death and hell, made one in the Risen Christ who cannot die again.

And like Nicodemus in the Gospel we are amazed at what we see, and we ask our Lord, “How can these things be?” And Jesus replies with His undying Word:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that all who believe in Him may not perish, but 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.

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.