Based upon John 5:1-9
For those who haven’t kept up, yesterday morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, worshippers gathered at the Tree of Life Synagogue to celebrate a bris – a ceremonial circumcision of an 8 day old infant boy. They were reading from the section of Genesis where Abraham welcomes total strangers into his home – when 46 year old Robert Bowers, a white supremacist, stormed into the service with an AR-15, a Glock, and two handguns, shouting “All Jews must die!” as he opened fire for the next 20 minutes. As Bowers tried to leave, he was confronted by police whom he also fired at, and then fled back inside the synagogue where he barricaded himself. Bowers was eventually apprehended with gunshot wounds, and taken to the hospital for treatment. But 11 members of the Tree of Life Synagogue celebrated their last Shabbat service here on earth. In addition to, 2 police officers, 2 SWAT officers, and 2 other people were also injured. The event is the deadliest anti-Semitic shooting in American history.
But somehow that didn’t bother me the most. Mass shootings feel like such an everyday occurrence that I just felt numb when I read it. Instead, the thing that disturbed me enough to stay up all night to re-work the entire worship service, came from the highest office in our nation. When asked about the shooting, the president responded: “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly.” I find this statement deeply disturbing, totally lacking in compassion, and beneath the office of president. Such a statement implies that the victims are responsible for their murder at the hands of an anti-Semitic mass shooter.
And what I struggle with the most as a religious leader is the sub-text of the president’s statement also reinforces a rhetoric that the only way to solve the problem of gun violence is by having more guns. Now before anyone blows my words out of proportion, I will tell you that I strongly support the second amendment. If it wasn’t for my father having guns to go hunting, my family would have gone hungry many a winter. But I do also recognize that the second amendment itself uses the word “regulated,” yet our lawmakers keep loosening gun regulations so that anyone can have any gun they want – even those charged with domestic abuse, those with severe mental health issues, and even those listed on the FBI’s terrorist no-fly watch list.
As a pastor, I also struggle with the paradox of bringing weapons into a church where the Messiah we worship, says: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Or in a 21st century context, “Those who live by the gun will die by the gun.” I worry that we have developed a disturbing idolatry of guns as a nation. So much so that a car recently passed me on I-55 with a giant sticker in the windshield that said, “In guns we trust.” with a cross made out of rifles. If that’s not idolatry, then I need to leave the ministry. Why this obsession with guns? And then I look at our text today, and I see the reason why.
Jesus meets a man at the pool of Bethesda who has been ill for over 38 years. The pool of Bethesda was famous for healing. It’s believed that angels come and stir the waters of the pool with their wings and anyone who climbs into the pool first is healed of whatever ails them. And this man’s been sitting there for 38 years, desiring to be healed in the pool of Bethesda. And even though nothing changes for 38 years, he still desires the pool. So this man keeps doing the same thing, day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year for 38 years. Seeking no other avenues to alleviate his suffering. And so his situation only feels more and more hopeless.
I imagine that many helpers came by over the years with advice on how to solve his health issue – “You should take action and climb into the pool and get better.” To which the man replies, “Yes but, I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool when the water is stirred.” So another helper replies, “We can give you the support to take action and get into the pool.” To which the man readily replies, “Yes but, while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Feeling defeated, the helpers respond, “Well, I guess all we can do is keep you in our thoughts and prayers.” And the helpers depart, feeling satisfied that they are at least praying for the man. And the man feels vindicated that his hopeless situation simply has no other solution but to keep doing the same thing, over and over again.
But then Jesus shows up and addresses NOT the man’s outer issues, but the man’s inner issues. And so when Jesus asks him: “Do you WANT to get well?” the man doesn’t even know how to answer. So he goes to his regular responses, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.” But that doesn’t answer Jesus’ question. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be well. If he wants to be free of this experience of living death and experience real life? But the man can’t answer his question because his desire for the “magical solution” of the pool of Bethesda over the last 38 years has numbed his suffering just enough that he never has to confront the deeper issue within himself. Even though this desire for the pool of Bethesda drags out his misery, after 38 years of the same thing, the familiarity of his misery it is less frightening than the mystery of what might change if he makes it into the pool. As one of my seminary professors used to say, "people prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know."
But Jesus won’t allow this man to continue this living-death, and so Jesus’ heals him. Jesus shows him how meaningless the pool of Bethesda is, how powerless this idol is to save him. That the pool has no “magical powers.” Jesus unveils the illusion of the idol that can’t give him the true salvation that he needs. And so Jesus gives him true salvation by healing him from the inside out. Jesus commands him “Stand up. Take your bedroll. Start walking.” And the man obeys. Nothing really changes about what he believes. But he does begin to change how he lives his life. Because that’s what Jesus actually calls him to do. Not to change what he believes, but to change how he lives.
And we know this because Greek words have surface meanings and deeper meanings – something that the author of John uses in the text. And so, Jesus’ command, “Stand up. Take your bedroll. Start walking.” has a deeper meaning in Greek. Because the Greek word for “Stand up!” also means “to wake up!” or “to stop a line of thinking.” And the Greek word for “Start walking.” also means “to conduct your life in a new way.” And so you could also translate what Jesus is saying as, “Wake up to reality! Take your stuff. Go change your life!” And the real miracle here is NOT that the man is healed, but that the man responds to Jesus’ command. Because miracles happen when the living are raised to where life is no longer experienced as death. That’s what Jesus means by “eternal life”, by “life to the fullest” – not some promise of escaping to heaven after death, but living true life in the here and now, on earth.
And the question our nation needs to hear from Jesus is NOT, “Do you believe in me?” BUT “Do you WANT to be well?” And do we? Do we want to be free from all this violence? From all this hatred and prejudice? Or do we want to sit by for the next 38 years hoping that our stirring pool of guns will save us? Hoping that the idol of “thoughts and prayers” will save us? And most days, I’m not sure that we do want to be well as a country. Because seeking wellness means that you have to take action. That you have to change something about how you live. And people prefer the misery they know to the mystery they don’t know.
At same time, we have to face the reality that the gospel of the “good guy with a gun” isn’t going to bring about our salvation either – only the gospel of Jesus Christ will. This hard reality isn’t based upon political opinions, it’s based upon objective, unbiased data. For example, school districts trying to arm teachers are finding that their insurance companies will NOT cover them because their actuaries – who simply use objective, statistical data, pure numbers – have mathematically determined that having armed teachers creates a statistically higher risk. Churches have been met with the same data and told told that their premiums will go up significantly or that they won’t be covered at all because of the increased risk that having armed parishioners poses – including our own insurance company. Following the church shooting in Sandy Springs, Texas the Session formed a safety team who spoke to a church security expert on how to keep us safer here at Grace. And this expert – who was a former police officer and Joyce Meyer’s personal body guard – told us that the first thing is NOT to arm parishioners because 1) they are more likely to hurt another church member than stop a shooter and 2) when the cops do show up, they will shoot anyone with a gun, including the “good guy.” Finally, a study of New York City police officers conducted over eight years found that the average hit ratio for officers involved in a shooting where the subject does NOT fire back is 30%. And when the subject IS firing back, it drops to only 18%. So even highly trained officers of the law only hit an active shooter 18% of the time. Yet we believe so strongly in the “good guy with a gun gospel” that we are deaf to the facts. And we are deaf to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so we have to do more than just say what we believe, we have to demonstrate how we believe it. And while I spent until three this morning re-working this worship service and sermon so that we can have an experience of peace, hope, and healing in the face of yet another gun violence tragedy – we also have to accept the reality that this service is just another Bethesda pool. That “thoughts and prayers,” worship services, and bible studies can only give us temporary comfort, but they are not going to heal us, to save us. Only a deep faith in God can help us to hear the hard reality of Jesus’ words when he says to us, “Wake up to reality! Get your stuff together! And go make the world a better place!” Until we do that, until we have a deep enough faith in God to actually follow Jesus with not only our hearts and minds but also with our bodies and souls, we are going to be stuck in this pattern of violence for a lot longer than 38 years.
And so what was to be a service of healing and wholeness today has become a Service After a Violent Event so that we can get out our initial sorrow, anxiety, and despair. But when this service is over, we have to take action. We have to work to make sure that we do things that will secure the safety of our children, our houses of worship, and our communities. And do we must do these actions in a way that are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not the gospel of guns. A gospel that promotes peace, love, and grace to all people. And only you can listen to how the Spirit is leading you to take that action, but action has to be taken. Write your lawmakers. Get out and vote on November 6. Work with community organizations that promote peace and non-violence. Just so something. Otherwise, “Do you even want to be well?” AMEN.
To understand our scripture today, we need to know a bit about first century Israelite culture. First, funerals practices were nothing like we are used to today. The deceased were typically buried within 24 hours of death because 1) contact with a dead body or anything it touched made one to be ritually unclean and 2) the hot weather of the middle east would cause the body to decompose quickly. So the young man would not have been dead very long. His body would have been washed, anointed with fragrant oils, wrapped in linen, and then carried to the burial site – often a cave or a shallow ditch – on a funeral bier or a litter, not a coffin.
Secondly, we have to understand the economic situation of the widow who is burying her only son. The fact that Luke states, “and with her was large crowd from the town” is an indication that she is a woman of great wealth and prominence. And such families would not only have family and friends, but business associates in the community, as well as hired mourners to accompany the funeral procession as an indication of their high socio-economic status.
At the same time, the loss of her only son puts the widow in an economic crisis. The patriarchal culture of ancient Israel dictated that a widow shall not inherit her deceased husband’s estate. The entire estate is to be passed on to the son – who is to provide for his widowed mother. (Hence the commandment to “Honor thy father and mother.”) If the son later dies, then the entire estate goes back to the deceased husband’s family – leaving the widow with nothing to support herself financially or emotionally. Without a man, a widow is reduced to a poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, nobody by society. She will scrape by through begging or resorting to other, less socially acceptable ways of making money to survive – because this is the system that the male-dominated society put in place for women. And so, this widow not only grieves the loss of her child, she also grieves the loss of her entire livelihood. And so the text says, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”
And this is an important distinction to notice. The focus of Jesus’ compassion is the widow NOT the son. And Jesus’s compassion for the widow is NOT because her son is dead, but because without her son, she will die – socially, emotionally, spiritually, and – eventually – physically. And so Jesus has compassion – which in Greek is splanchnizomai – and is derived from the word for entrails or guts. The Greeks believed that the seat of the emotions was not your heart or your head but your gut. And so for Jesus to experience splanchnizomai is more than "to feel sorry for her.” It’s an emotional response so deep that Jesus physically feels it in the pit of his stomach. This feeling of another’s emotion is what we call “empathy” – to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to see, feel, and understand things from their point of view. Jesus feels sick to his stomach upon seeing the widow’s grief due to the unjust economic system of this patriarchal society. Jesus could care less about the son. And despite our constant American Christian concern about getting into heaven, Jesus is more concerned about the widow’s life in the here and now than her son’s life in the hereafter.
And so Jesus breaks all the social norms and biblical regulations concerning funeral rites. He interrupts the woman’s grief, saying, “Do not weep.” And then touches the funeral bier – making himself ritually impure according to the scriptures – and commands the young man to rise. When the young man sits up and begins speaking, Jesus gives him to his mother – giving her back the hope that she needs to live once again.
And this is where the Good News of this text, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, should shake many us to our core. This is why the scripture says about the crowd of the wealthy and prominent attending the funeral that, “Fear seized them all.” The crowd is seized by fear because they realize that there is no escape from the biblically and prophetically mandated responsibility to care for poor among them – not even in death. If anything, Jesus actually tears the son away from the peace and comfort of heaven he already has – where there are no more responsibilities or religious regulations concerning the care of “widows and orphans” – and brings the son back into the physical world where he must continue to hold up his responsibilities as a son and as a member of the privileged class. The comfort of the poor, hungry, weeping and excluded widow is the responsibility of the one who holds the position of privilege. Even death is no escape from the responsibility. Jesus gives the son to his mother so that his privilege might experience the same empathy that Jesus has for the widow. And in experiencing empathy, the widow receives hope of survival once again.
Now you can argue, “But it’s not the son’s fault. He died. The culture, the society is the one who made these rules that kept the widow from having any means to care for herself after her husband and son died. Why should the son be held responsible? Why should the son be denied his right to eternal peace because of the ways of the culture in which he lived?”
And I would agree with you on that to a point. What responsibility does one of greater means have to those of lesser means? And if that’s just the way your world, your culture, your society is, then why is it your responsibility to make sure the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded – all those that Jesus calls “blessed” in the Sermon on the Plain in the previous chapter – why are you responsible for making sure these “blessed” people are cared for?
And those are questions asked by those who struggle with empathy for people in those situations. But if you do not sow empathy within yourself, then you’ll never be able to reap the true hope of Christ. It all goes back to the meaning of the word splanchizomai. Because while for the Greeks, it refers to the guts as the seat of the emotions, for first century Jews, splanchizomai was also understood as a “characteristic of the messiah” – something that indicated the messiah’s presence. And in all the gospels, the word is only used to describe Jesus’ feelings of empathy and compassion. The only other places it is used is in parables of “The Unforgiving Servant”, “The Prodigal Son”, and “The Good Samaritan” and in each case Jesus applies splanchizomai to human figures in order to reflect “the totality of divine mercy to which human compassion is a proper response.”
And since this word is a characteristic of the messiah, NOT a description of human emotion, then you can only experience splanchizomai, you can only experience empathy if Christ is within you. That your own experience of empathy toward another only happens because Christ himself is within you experiencing the same empathy towards the same person. And if you do not feel empathy for those who struggle on the margins, then Christ is not in you, no matter what you confess to believe. It is perfectly possible to say “I believe in Christ” with your mouth while simultaneously denying that belief through your inactions towards the poor, hungry, weeping, and excluded. By denying your responsibility to show them care and compassion. By asking God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And if you cannot sow empathy within yourself, then you can never reap the true hope of Christ. We think we can because, throughout the ages, the church has constructed this false idea of hope for the purpose of comforting and maintaining the status quo. As theologian Peter Rollins puts it, “Religious conceptions of hope approach it as something safe and secure – as a hope in something that will come to pass and thus doesn’t require our active involvement. It is a hope that encourages passivity, a hope that allows us to accept our current conditions in the belief that something better is galloping over the horizon” (The Divine Magician, 100-101). But hope isn’t passive. Hope is active. And so Rollins goes on to say: “To hope is to head a call – a call to act…To hope is to plant our efforts in a field of risk. It involves committing ourselves to the idea that better is possible, and opening ourselves up to the very real possibility of disappointment and depression…This type of hope isn’t safe” (101-102).
This type of hope may not be safe, may not be secure, may not be comforting, but this is the hope of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospel. This is the hope that transforms lives.
And just as the large crowd responds to Jesus’ active hope with fear, they also respond with praise. That is how you know the Gospel is being proclaimed AND believed: First the Gospel strikes you with fear because it calls you to turn your entire world upside down in order to follow Jesus. To die to yourself. To take up your cross and follow. And only the truly faithful respond to that fear, by praising God. By giving thanks to God for the opportunity to live a fuller and richer life in the here and now, NOT in the hereafter, because of the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. A life where you not only say that you believe in Christ as your Lord and Savior, but where you also live as though Christ is your Lord and Savior. And when you not only believe but also live your faith – you become an agent of active hope – taking responsibility for the promotion of God’s Kingdom in your community because now you have the empathy to see the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded as blessed, just as Jesus proclaimed them to be.
Here are Grace, we are being transformed by our experience of God’s grace in our lives. We are experiencing the presence of Christ within us in ways we never have before. Church is becoming less of a building we go to or something we do on Sundays and is transforming into something that “we are” as a people. We are admitting to our flaws, faults, and failures so that we can be transformed into agents of active hope here in the community. And we can do this because our church’s values define hope as, “Like the Kingdom of God, we know that the best is yet to come and that the best is also here now.” This means that we don’t have to sit back and passively hope for Jesus to bring about God’s Kingdom in the hereafter. We have the time, we have the talent, we have the treasure here and now, already among us. Time, talent, and treasure that God has blessed us with for the purpose of sharing the Reign of God and serving the mission of God right here, right now, in this community.
And over the past year, we have reaped an increasing harvest of hope. As a result, we are growing as a congregation. And congregational growth in the 21st century cannot be measured by worship attendance alone – because the church is so much more than one hour of worship a week. The Church – our church – is also about sharing and serving the other 167 hours of the week. And in 2018 we saw tremendous growth in both our sharing and our serving.
We saw growth in the sharing of our treasure – with 15 new pledges and 21 additional increases to pledges, resulting in an overall growth of over $37,000 for serving God’s mission here at Grace. Remember, stewardship is a spiritual practice – just like prayer, worship, and bible study – and it is the most revealing spiritual practice when it comes to exposing just how much hope one actially has in God to provide. The more active your hope in God’s abundance, the more generous you are in sharing the treasure that God made you responsible for stewarding.
The work of the Seasonal Teams also reveals an increase in the stewardship of our time as a congregation. In just the last year, we went from having three committees of around 16 active members to having 8 seasonal teams with around 63 active members – that’s nearly a 400% increase in members actively serving in the mission and ministry of the church. This dramatic increase in sharing of our time shows just how committed this congregation is to the new mission, the new direction, and the new future hope of this church.
That’s not to say that everything was successful. That’s not to say that everything was easy. There were times where we failed miserably. And all growth come with growing pains – as long time friends quietly made the decision to worship elsewhere. We mourned as we let go of beloved programs in order to make room for new traditions to grow and evolve. And while these things were not easy, it wouldn’t be true Christian hope if there was no risk involved. It wouldn’t be true transformation, true growth, if there were no growing pains. It wouldn’t be a hopeful future if we continued to hold onto the past. As one of our elders put it so hopefully during our last Session retreat – “Today’s changes are tomorrow’s memories.”
I am so proud of the hopeful risks this congregation has taken this past year. I’m proud of the spiritual discernment of the Session as they made hard decisions in order to be faithful to God’s will for this congregation despite the growing pains. I’m proud of the Deacons as they’ve grown in their pastoral skills and worked hard to care for the congregation – especially as we’ve had many members who have been very ill. The Deacons have checked in on people after medical procedures, helped with basic needs, and provided a listening ear and a prayerful heart. I’m proud of the Seasonal Teams and the risks they’ve taken to bring wonderful new and creative ways for us to worship, share, and serve together – new ways for us to experience God’s grace so that we offer grace to others in return.
And I believe that all of this started, because, like Jesus, we shifted our focus away from our own hereafter and towards the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the excluded in the here and now. And in seeing them, we experienced splanchnizomai – empathy for them. And as we started sowing empathy within ourselves, we ALL began reaping hope. Not the comforting, lukewarm, false hope of the status quo, but the risky, dangerous, true hope of Jesus Christ. It was terrifying at first – and some of us are still responding out fear and grief – but the Holy Spirit is moving us towards praise as a congregation as we give thanks to God who called us to act upon this hope – not for our sake, but for God’s sake.
Thanks and praise be to God for the hard work of sowing empathy and the blessing of reaping hope!
I spent a couple of years teaching at a school for gifted and talented students. Many of these students came to the school because they were bullied at their previous schools. One such student was Brandon. Brandon was a 5th grader who had left his previous school because not only was he bullied by the other students – he was also bullied by teachers. Teachers who were threatened by Brandon’s intelligence. Because Brandon would correct a teacher if they were legitimately wrong. Brandon meant no disrespect by correcting the teacher, yet his teachers took it so personally, they retaliated. Embarrassing Brandon whenever he made a mistake – “I guess the smart guy isn’t so smart after all.” Even looking the other way when the kids bullied him for making the top score in the class. By the time Brandon arrived in my classroom, he walked around with his head down and hardly ever spoke – having lost all sense of self-worth.
After a few months Brandon started to improve in his self-confidence. He started to hold his head up again. He started talking to people and making friends with the other kids at the school who were much like him. Then things started to change. Brandon started to bully people. Teasing them for the slightest imperfections. The littlest mistakes. He even got physically violent. I knew that there was more going on than simply a “mean kid.” So I took Brandon aside and spoke to him about what was going on. About why he was hurting others. About how he thought they felt being bullied. He shrugged his shoulders. So I asked him, “Do you remember how it felt when the kids and teachers would bully you at your old school?” He immediately broke down into tears. He was still holding on to all that anger and pain. The rage was absorbing him, draining his heart of compassion, clouding his eyes of their humanity. Brandon was becoming his enemy because he had not learned how to let go. He had not learned how to show mercy.
In 2 Kings, God tells the Prophet Elisha the battle plans of the Aramean king, which Elisha passes on to the King of Israel. The King of Aram is enraged that his plans keep getting thwarted. He is sure there is a spy among his advisors. However, his officers inform him that Elisha the Prophet is the one who is sharing his secret plans. So the King of Aram reacts by sending an army to Dothan to capture Elisha in retaliation. But when the army attacks, Elisha strikes them blind and then uses a Jedi mind-trick on them, saying “Not that way! Not this city!
Follow me and I’ll lead you to the man you’re looking for.” (“These are not the droids you are looking for.”) And so Elisha leads the blind and disoriented Aramean army on an 11 mile hike from Dothan to Samaria – the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Once inside the city gates the Arameans regain their sight and find themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. They are done for. The King of Israel says to Elisha, “Father, shall I massacre the lot?” But Elisha chooses mercy over violence and tells the king –
“Not on your life!... You didn’t lift a hand to capture them, and now you’re going to kill them? No sir, make a feast for them and send them back to their master.”
And so the King of Israel gave the army of his enemy a great feast. And no longer did the Arameans raid the land of Israel.
But why does Elisha do this? Why does Elisha forgive the Arameans? The people who were sent to capture him – even kill him? Why does Elisha show them mercy? Why does he force the King of Israel to show them mercy? After all, they were enemies of Israel! Wouldn’t it have been a better idea to enact vengeance upon them? To slaughter them all and show the King of Aram that you can’t mess with God’s anointed prophet? I mean, the King of Aram reacted out of violence because he wasn’t getting his way – because his secrets were being shared – and so he tries to get rid of Elisha. So why does Elisha choose to show mercy? Why does Elisha choose to forgive?
One of my favorite pastors and preachers is Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber – the founding pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO. She shares the importance of forgiveness – of showing mercy – in a recent video entitled “Forgive Assholes.” In the video, Pastor Nadia makes a powerful statement about how forgiveness isn’t, “an act of niceness. It’s not about being a doormat,” but instead, forgiveness is saying that what the other person did was so NOT okay “that I refuse to be connected to it anymore”… that “forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter” – fighting the chains of resentment that enslave you to that event. That forgiveness is “an act of fidelity to an evil combating campaign.” Because retaliation and revenge only feeds evil instead of fighting it. And as such, just might turn you into your enemy – just as Brandon became the bullies that once hurt him. Brandon could not break free from the chains of resentment. Blinded by revenge, his heart hungry for retaliation, Brandon could not choose mercy. Because only clear eyes and a full heart can chose mercy.
When was the last time you were blinded by revenge towards someone else? When was the last time you were so angry with someone that you couldn’t see straight? When was the last time that you were so hurt by someone that you felt in your heart was a desire for retaliation? What did you do? How did you chose to react?
When you look at them is rage and revenge all that you see? Did you respond to what they did to you through physical, social, emotional, or even spiritual vengeance? Or, like Elisha, did you choose another way?
Did you ever stop and ask, “Where is God in all this?” Instead of retaliating, did you try reflecting – even pray – so that God’s presence could be revealed? Perhaps maybe even pray for God to help you see the pain your enemy is experiencing? The pain that they are taking out on you? This happens all the time. If they don’t find a way to heal from their pain – hurting people hurt other people. Like an injured animal who bites the hand of someone trying to help it. And so often what happens is, a hurt person finds something or someone else to be upset about, to be the object of their pain – because the actual cause of their pain is too great bear.
Pastors talk about this all the time. The common phrase we use is, “The issue is never the issue.” In other words, when people are upset about something, especially something that seems trivial to you, it’s often a reflection of something else more painful in their lives. And you’ll never be able to resolve the presenting issue – no solution will ever be good enough – until you get to the bottom of the underlying issue. And in order to do that, you have to approach the person with clear eyes and a full heart. Eyes that see, not through revenge, but through Jesus. And a heart that is full of the presence of Christ, not retaliation, so that you can offer Christ’s mercy, love, and grace.
It is through the eyes of Christ that God sees us as beloved children instead of eternal enemies. To see the struggles, suffering, and sorrow behind our sinfulness. It is through the broken heart of Christ that God’s mercy freely flows to us instead of God’s wrath. And Christ’s clear eyes and full heart gives us the ability to see our enemies with clear eyes and full hearts – so that we can offer mercy and reconciliation instead of judgment and vengeance – which belong to God alone.
Even when we ask God to “smite” our enemies – God doesn’t do that. Instead, God puts us in a position to confront our enemies, drawing us closer to them – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – even bringing us around the same table to feast together as an act of reconciliation. A place where the violence our enemy inflicts upon us is no longer that which connects us to one another. To where that violence no longer defines us – because if we remain connected through that harm, if we remain defined by that violence – we will become the one who causes harm, who causes violence. We become our enemy, and the cycle of violence perpetuates, generation after generation.
Elisha broke the cycle of violence between Israel and Aram NOT because he wanted something from the Arameans, but because he wanted something better for the Arameans and for the Israelites. Elisha broke this cycle of violence through an act of mercy and a feast of reconciliation. And Jesus Christ does the same for us through a feast of reconciliation that reminds us of his act of mercy every time we partake of it.
Today we participate in World Communion Sunday. We share in this meal of reconciliation with our siblings in Christ all around the world. However, if you come to the table of mercy without mercy in your heart, you can’t be part of that communion. I’m NOT saying I’m going to ban you from the table. I’m saying that you ban yourself from communion when you choose not to be merciful. That you can’t see the presence of Christ in the communion moment when your eyes are clouded with revenge. That you can’t filled by Christ if your heart is full of retaliation. That we, as the church, can’t be the one Body of Christ, if we are divided by anger towards one another. So before you come to this table today, search your heart. Search your soul. What is it that fills that space? Is it Christ and his mercy? Or is it anger and a desire for vengeance?
Choosing mercy over revenge isn’t simple. It’s always easier to respond to violence with violence, but as Christians we are called to a better way. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King taught us,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
May Christ grant us clear eyes and full hearts, so that mercy becomes the way in which we live together. AMEN.
Scripture Texts: Luke 18:1-8 & Luke 24:10-11
So, this is one of those weeks where everything suddenly changes. Where the Holy Spirit says, “Not this week Josh. You’re preaching this instead.” Where I sat up last until 2:00 am writing a new sermon. Where I send the kids out of the sanctuary. Which means this is going to be one of those sermons – so put on your seat belts and crash helmets – because the Gospel is about to get painfully real. The sermon I finished on Friday morning was all about showing mercy to your enemies. How important it is to show them compassion just like the Prophet Elisha did to the Aramean army that tried to capture him. And then I got home late on Friday night and I went on Facebook to catchup with the day’s events. I had been away from contact with the outside world for most of the day. And what I read late Friday night caused my heart to sink.
What I found was a litany of stories of sexual assaults by the majority of women across my Facebook feed. The stories were flooding social media in response to the Judge Kavanagh hearings. The testimony of Dr. Christine Ford was triggering many women to relive their own sexual assault all over again. Even more painful for them was hearing members of congress either question the validity of Dr. Ford’s testimony or even worse, knowing that they believe her, but don’t even care – because politics come first. And so story after story after story filled by Facebook feed. Women I’ve known my entire life revealing their stories. Many of them graphically shocking. And some of them happening in connection to the Church.
Now, I’m not even going to get into the debate about Kavanagh and Dr. Ford, regardless of my personal and/or political beliefs. What I couldn’t stop thinking about as a pastor looking towards Sunday was how many women in this congregation have experienced sexual assault and/or rape, and had their own testimonies questioned. By friends. By family. By law enforcement officials. Even by the church. How many women in this church had an experience like my seminary classmate, who wrote, “When my parents told the church leadership, they told my parents to forgive rather than press charges.” Or how many women in this church had an experience like a student in my World Religions class who was sexually assaulted by a Deacon in her church. And even when she and her mother reported it to church leadership, the girl – who was 14 years old at the time – was accused of tempting this 35 year old married man. And that they need to say nothing because it might ruin his marriage. And that’s just one of MANY stories I learn about each year in my World Religions class. And so in the face of this hearing, of so many people reliving their own assaults, and of the event feeling so raw and real for so many, for me to preach a sermon about showing mercy to your enemies would not only be insensitive and untimely – it would also be unchristian and immoral. It’s not time for mercy and forgiveness just yet. It’s time for speaking up, for listening, and for believing.
As I scrolled through all these storied I prayed, “Why God? Why is this happening? Where the hell were you when all this was happening? When are you going do something about this?” I wondered how many women prayed the same thing? How many women prayed this when they reported their assault – yet their perpetrator walked free – as 99% of all perpetrators of sexual violence do. (Yes…you heard that right. Between victims being afraid to press charges, to hospitals charging victims between $400 to $1,000 for rape kit testing, to a judicial system that often makes the perpetrator a victim, 99% of perpetrators of sexual violence will walk free.)
Then I thought about the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I thought about how she was NOT going to let this go! “Grant me justice against my opponent!” she cried out. That phrase in Greek can be translated a number of ways: “My rights are being violated! Protect me! Vindicate me! Pay me what I’m owed! Hear my case! even, Recognize my humanity!” This judge, whom the parable says neither fears God nor respects people, does everything he can to ignore her. But nevertheless, she persisted. And the unjust judge grants her the justice she deserves. And that’s when I realized that this parable isn’t so much about God answering prayer by making some miracle for us. This parable is about God making us the miracle that is the answer to our prayers. And if this judge in this parable – described as a godless, misanthropic, self-centered jerk can give a woman the justice she deserves, what does it say about Christians who can’t do the same? Who question women when they finally gain the courage to speak up against their abuser?
I wondered how many women in our congregation have never spoken about their assault because they felt shame – because of decades of unhealthy and unbiblical sexual purity culture in the church. How many women blamed themselves because of images of the “Proverbs 31 woman” that were taken completely out of context? Or how many women thought that no one – not even their own pastors and religious leaders – would believe them. And why would women feel shame, blame themselves, or think no one would believe them? Because of the rape culture in our country.
Rape culture constantly excuses and downplays sexual assault by saying things like: “boys will be boys” or “Well she asked for it.” Or – the one that I actually heard said at the barber shop last Tuesday, in reference to Bill Cosby’s recent conviction, “Well, I blame these women too. I mean, what do they expect to happen when you go to the hotel room of a black comedian at two in the morning?” (I guess he justified his misogyny with his racism.) I wondered if he would have said that in front of his wife and her friends?
But what’s worse, is the fact that not only did none of the men say anything, but I also said nothing when I heard it. I confess before you all today that I sinned against God and against all women by saying NOTHING when I heard such a disgusting statement that reinforces a culture that allows this crap to keep happening. And I said nothing because I froze when I heard it. Because I too have been raised in a rape culture where men are taught to tolerate and even accept “locker room talk” as normal. Even when it makes us uncomfortable. Even when we know that it is wrong. Even when we know it propagates a culture in which victims are blamed instead of believed. We men say nothing. Men are taught from a very young age that you don’t call out other men when they say these things or you’ll be ostracized for being “too sensitive” or “easily offended” or “such a girl.” At best you say nothing – like myself. At worst you laugh along or even make some comment back.
And we men, like to talk a big game when we do find out about these sexual assaults happening. We say things like, “I’ll kill that (insert expletive)!” “I’ll cut off his _____.” And so on and so forth. We say that out of one end of our mouth, but then participate in locker room talk out the other end. Talk that makes the perpetrators think that they have every right to do what they do. So men, we are not cleansed of this sin until we actually repent – which does NOT mean “to say you’re sorry” but means actually means, “to turn your life around.” Because if you say you’re sorry, but keep doing it – then you were never repentant. You’re just trying to make yourself feel better.
But God knows better. God knows it’s sin. And so I confess my complicity in the sin of our rape culture, ask your forgiveness, and seek repentance, so that the next time this happens, and there will be a next time, I will say something. And it might damn well get me into trouble – and I might even have to find another barber shop – but I can’t even call myself a Christian, much more a pastor, if I allow people to get away with saying things that propagates the rape culture behind the statistic that 1 in 5 women will be victims of rape. 1 in 5. Do you realize that statistic means that every person in this church either is or knows somebody who is a victim of rape? If you know at least 5 women, then you know at least one victim of rape. Statistics that say 1 in 3 women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. 1 in 3. Meaning, if you have a wife and two daughters, you can almost guarantee that one of them will or has already experienced sexual violence. That between the ages of 16 to 19, a woman is FOUR TIMES more likely to be a victim of rape or sexual assault. And that the risk of sexual assault among female college students between the ages of 18-25 is THREE TIMES HIGHER than the general population.
You may say, “Nobody ever told me they were raped!” And that’s because rape victims only tell the people they trust the most. Only tell people that they trust NOT to use rape culture’s victim-blaming language against them, like “Well what were you wearing?” or “Why were you over there talking to him?” or “What did you do to provoke him?” or “What were you doing out that late at night?” or “What were you doing on that side of town?” or “Well did you try to fight back?” Rape is never the victim’s fault. And if you think it is, I pray that you are never raped or sexually assaulted and have to deal with the backlash that happens when you talk about it.
Men – if you later discover that there is a woman in your life who never told you about her rape, it’s because she probably did trust you to actually believe her! And the only person to blame for that is you. You have set yourself up as a person unworthy of that level of trust. And it’s probably because at some point she’s heard you doubt some other woman’s story – and she learned real quick to keep her mouth shut around you. If any woman in your life – your daughter or granddaughter – heard you make some remark about doubting Dr. Ford’s testimony against Kavanagh, you’ve have just set yourself up to not be trusted by that woman if she is ever raped or assaulted. I just hope you can live with that reality.
The church is not innocent in this. It’s a culture that’s been a part of the church from the very beginning. The church has always doubted women’s testimonies – even about the resurrection. In Luke’s account of the resurrection we read, “10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
“NO!” Peter thinks. “That can’t be. Jesus wouldn’t have told a bunch of women that he resurrected before me. I’m part of his inner-circle. I’m his boy. These women are just making things up. You know how hysterical they get. They’re always so emotional. That’s why we can’t put them in charge. They can’t control their emotions. I have to check this out myself and then go and mansplain to these women what they actually saw.”
During the Middle Ages, Christian theologians were actually debating whether or not women even had souls. That’s how the church saw women for centuries. As these soulless bodies whose only purpose was for either seducing/tempting men to sin or having babies. And those ideas about the worthlessness of women continues even today. Look at the way women ministers are treated compared to male ministers – even by other women. We pay them significantly less. We rarely give them major leadership roles – like Senior Pastor positions. And women pastors are harassed and assaulted in ways that men rarely are. One such account comes from Rev. Amy Butler – a woman who managed to break the stained-glass ceiling and become Senior Pastor of the famous Riverside Church in New York City. A church known for its progressive stance on justice issues. Yet when Rev. Butler was harassed by a male lay leader, she tried to move past it until she saw the same lay leader harassing other female staff. It was at that point that she said, “…I was suddenly aware that the lessons I had learned my whole life – lessons of “just get used to it” and “experiences like this are part of being a woman in leadership” – those should not be the posture we assume in a community that claims to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.”
These are things that women learn from this rape culture. That you just accept it. That’s just what it means. Don’t talk about it. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Because when you do, when you draw attention to yourself in a male dominated world, you’re going to suffer the consequences.
One of the stories I read this week came from our neighbor in seminary. Now a talented, ordained, PCUSA, board certified, hospital chaplain, she told the following story:
(I hope this isn’t triggering for anyone, but it’s the one that was the least graphic.)
5 years ago I was assaulted in my senior year of college. I was ridiculed and threatened. I was emailed from fake accounts, and told my acceptance to Princeton would be revoked when they found out what a "slut" I was. My well-being, my life, was threatened......
And I was sexually assaulted for getting accepted to Princeton to become a Female pastor.
I didn't tell anyone except for 1 friend, and when word got out, I was pulled from class and school security talked to me. They asked me what I was wearing and if I was unhappy with my fiancee..... As if that was worth my assault and violation...... I was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt doing laundry in my dorm when it happened. I was told I deserved it and to be submissive while 2 Timothy was quoted during my ordeal.
(Using scripture as a means of justifying sexually assault. I don’t believe in Hell, but if I did, I think there would be a special place for people who bastardize the Word of God that way.)
So what do we do? What do we do when we see such god-forsaken sin running rampant – not only in the culture, but even in the Church? Because not only is there a #metoo movement, there is also a #churchtoo movement to give voice to all the women who have been raped, assaulted, and harassed within the church – the last place this should ever happen.
The persistent widow tells us that we should never be quiet about this. That men and women should keep talking about it until it changes. Men should especially break out of our comfort zones and say something when we hear other men saying things that only perpetuate violence towards women. And we all need to listen and believe. It will be extremely uncomfortable – because rape culture has been the status quo for so long. And upsetting the status quo is painfully uncomfortable – but I’m sure it’s a lot less uncomfortable than being sexually assaulted.
And the resurrection event points out to us how important it is that we believe women. Even though we want to think that Peter was being a chauvinist jerk in not believing the women, he was just a product of his misogynistic culture. Women were not regarded as credible witness to any event. There had to be a man present to verify their testimony. So something else is going on here.
Think about it like a first century Christian. If you want your religion to have any credibility in a world that barely sees women as human, why would you tell a story whose credibility hinges on the witness of women? That’s terrible marketing! No one’s going to remember that. So why would Jesus choose women to be the first people to proclaim the Gospel? Why would the writers of ALL FOUR GOSPELS keep that detail in there when it could completely undermine the growth of the Jesus movement! They could have easily edited out the women in their version of the story. Unless, then again, the women actually were there! And Jesus DID use women as the first witnesses because Jesus is saying something about the importance and worth of women. Something that was incredibly progressive for that time, and something we need to be reminded of today.
Perhaps Jesus wanted people to start to believe women. To believe their witness and testimony. To give them value and credibility and equality that they never had before in other culture or religion in the area. To give them a freedom in the Christian faith that they didn’t experience in any other culture or religion. Jesus already knows how important women are to making his movement happen because, as I told the Session at the retreat this weekend, “Women get stuff done!” The women finance and physically support the whole ministry while Jesus tries to train his bumbling disciples – who keep getting it wrong over and over again. The women are the only ones with the chutzpah to actually stay with Jesus while the Romans nail him to a cross. Meanwhile Peter and the rest of the Disciples run like the cowards they are. And Jesus already knows that it will be women who would make great things happen in his movement, even if the church created in his name will discredit them, discriminate against them, and dismiss them for almost 2000 years. And so Jesus made women the first people to ever proclaim the gospel. Men will never be able to claim that. Because Jesus knew that to choose welcome is to choose belief over blame. And like Jesus, we have to start believing women and stop blaming them. Because the question Jesus asks all of us is, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Well? Will he? AMEN.
Women of Grace Presbyterian Church. You are the main reason why Grace Presbyterian Church is still here today. You make up 75% of the membership. You make up 90% of volunteers for church events. And you make up 80% of our leadership on Deacons, Session, Committees, and Seasonal Team. You are valued, loved, and appreciated more than you can ever know. And I just want you to know, that I believe you. This place is safe. And you are welcome here.
|Grace is for you!||