Becoming Sanctuary. 3/19/2023
In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”
I think sanctuary—which is defined as a place set apart, a holy place, for protection, for refuge– sanctuary is wherever you are safe to be yourself and to become your self. Your best self: God’s creation, the Beloved
These past three Sundays we have heard stories of individuals who encounter Holy Love, the One we call Jesus. Each one of these folx hears Jesus, sees Jesus, experiences Jesus. And each story ends with the individual waking up to a changed understanding of how to be in the world, a changed understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.
Two weeks ago it was Nicodemus: a Pharisee–a member of the religious establishment and authority—who comes to Jesus in the night because the establishment is threatened by Jesus. After all, this wandering prophet, who some think to be the Messiah, is presenting a different God than the One they sell; he’s offering a different way to understand the Torah, the law, that leads to the status quo not having all the power and knowledge, and so the authorities, the status quo, are having none of it. So Nicodemus comes in secret at night and Jesus tells him God can’t really be put into a box, clean and tidy with a bow on top. This God loves the world. All of it. Even the messy, unholy bits, and Nicodemus’ establishment-empowered little mind is blown wide open. God’s love is life-changing.
Last week we heard the encounter between the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus. This woman on the edges of society hears the hope Jesus says can be found in living life as God would have us live it; she sees new possibilities. And her experience of Love-in-the-flesh compels her to share this story, to share this possible way of living, of loving, with her community. And her witness is so inspiring and irresistible that her neighbors come to check out Jesus for themselves. And they hear Jesus, see Jesus, experience Jesus—and they are captivated—they decide to turn to this new way of living. God’s love is liberating.
And now, today, we have the encounter between Jesus and this blind man by the side of the road. Left to beg because society deemed difference and disability as a moral judgment by God, so folks who fell short of the norms were literally left by the side of the road and thrown the scraps of life on which to survive. Unfortunately, Beloved, I am not so sure that we have traveled very far from this pitiful, sinful way of being as a society. Today, this blind man hears Jesus first. He hears Jesus upending this sinful way of understanding how God works that the disciples are spouting. They ask Jesus if the man is blind because he himself sinned, or perhaps his parents? So, obviously, they think, God punished the man for his or his parents' sins by making him blind. And Jesus says: NO. That is not how God works. You can almost hear Jesus’ deep sigh of disappointment as he pauses to realign his followers, yet again.
And then Jesus goes to this blind man sitting on the ground; Jesus spits onto the dirt–using everyday elements of creation to make some mud–and smears that mud on the blind eyes. Jesus tells the man to go to the healing pool at Siloam. And the man obeys. This man who has heard Jesus, and now at his healing touch, experienced Jesus; this man obeys. And then he sees. God’s love is life-changing; God’s love is liberating.
And if these three stories are any indication; God’s love is mysterious. It cannot be fully explained.We can not part and parcel it out to our complete satisfaction. But, oh Beloved, this love can be heard. It can be seen. It can be experienced. And that, my friends, is the work of the church. We are to host gatherings, opportunities, places and spaces for God’s love to be seen, heard, and experienced. But God is not limited to church buildings, church gatherings, or even, church people. God’s love is a fire that burns wherever there is oxygen to feed it.
These three stories reveal that the Jesus movement of the first century was a wildfire that spread far and wide—even in the ancient world with no social media or printing press—but it spread not because of an authorized, official religious institution. It spread in spite of it. It spread due to individual encounters and personal stories; it spread neighborly act by neighborly act.
Like Laundry Love this past week, where several individuals were met by loving neighbors from the Beloved Community who provided them the means and the opportunity to wash their clothes. Where human hearts had a chance to encounter one another. Where love was seen, heard, experienced.
Or last week when our littles went off for their learning circles and our youth went to their As One Youth gathering during our Sunday gathering. Building community–and sanctuary—one gathering at a time.
And like this gathering—each week we come together for an experiential encounter: with smells, and sounds, and sights, and tastes; we touch Love as we share the Peace, as we hug hello or good-bye, as we take the bread into our hands—making Love a sensory rendezvous right here in this space.
This past week I visited one of our older, wiser parishioners, and she shared some stories of when life had been really tough for, when she had been brought to scary edges and she said to me: Jesus was there. With me. Every time. She didn’t always recognize it in the moment, but as she looked back, she knew she had seen or heard or experienced this One who is Love. Jesus was there. Every time.
Church as sanctuary—a refuge of Love for every wandering and wondering soul who encounters it. Continually each week, sporadically or randomly–our own healing pool of Siloam. Jesus says: Go and wash.
Beloved, in two weeks we begin Holy Week. A week full of these encounters when we have several opportunities to see, hear and experience Jesus; to see, hear, and experience Love. This Holy week when we immerse ourselves in our story, the love story we are to know by heart, know in our hearts—this story that liberates us, changes our lives, this Love story that models how to lay down our lives for others. Because each life that saturates itself in this love is a life that re-stitches the unraveling that has been cast upon this world by hate, violence, blindness, ignorance, apathy and despair. Redeeming and repairing Creation by loving the world as God loves.
In her book, How to Live, Judith Valente tells this story:
“There is a beautiful scene in a film from the 1980s called The Year of Living Dangerously. Actor Mel Gibson plays an Australian journalist named Guy Hamiliton sent to cover the political turmoil in 1960s Indonesia. He is befriended by a sensitive, almost mystical photographer named Billy Kwan, played brilliantly by the actress Linda Hunt. Billy offers to serve as the young journalist’s guide. He takes him one evening on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Guy has never seen such intense poverty.
‘Walking through the slums of Moscow, Tolstoy had a similar reaction,’ Billy tells Guy. ‘Tolstoy went home, collected the money he could find, and returned to give it to the poor.’
“Yes, but that would be a drop in the ocean,” Guy says.
“That’s what Tolstoy concluded,” Billy says. “Do you want to know what I think? I say you do what you can about the misery right in front of you. And by doing so, add your light to the sum of light.”
Beloved: may we be ones who add our light to the sum of light, and thereby, bit by bit, change the world in which we live. And all God’s people say: Amen
What Makes You Believe?
What makes us believe? Why does anyone believe?
Last week we heard about Nicodemus; he believed. Believed in Jesus. Even though the Institution that granted him power and status didn’t believe. Even though the education he had received didn’t believe. So he came at night; maybe so there would be less distractions, but also probably so no one need know he believed. In the midst of dark and night, Nicodemus came to see Jesus….because he believed.
Nicodemus believed because of what he had seen—lives that had been changed by this One known as Jesus. Nicodemus had seen and heard of life-changing events that can only come from the Source of all life. These stories of lives changing for the better, they brought Nicodemus hope and belief and made him brave enough to go and see and ask.
What made the woman from Samaria in our Gospel today believe? She has no power, no status, no education—-she isn’t even given a name in our story. She is the opposite of last week’s visitor to Jesus. Instead of in darkness, she meets Jesus in the heat of the day. Now, she may have secrecy in common with Nicodemus, well, not so much secrecy as the avoidance of others. After all, most women come to the well for household water in the morning, before it gets too hot. But she is here when the other women are not—in the heat of the day. Alone.
This woman has nothing that should make her feel brave enough, nothing to make her feel worthy enough, to question this Hebrew, this Jew. But she does anyway. She is audacious. Maybe her thirst is even greater than Jesus’ thirst; after all, he never does get his cup of water. And in their common thirst—Jesus sees her. He sees her. He listens; And he answers her. Always drawn to the outsider, the outlier, the one kept to the edges is this Jesus.
He answers her and offers a long drink of hope. Even though she is one who society has deemed practically without value. This society where a woman without a husband has no home, no security; she has no children, so no future. It isn’t her poor character that is revealed by her succession of husbands. It is the society’s injustice toward women Jesus exposes. 5 husbands? If divorce is in her past it is because men could get a writ of divorce for a variety of reasons, and there wasn’t anything a woman could do to prevent it. If a husband’s death is in her past, the woman would have to remarry. Marriage is what provided her a home. Homes belonged to men, so women had to live with a husband or her father or another male family member. There are very few women who had any capacity to be able to live as an independent woman outside of marriage. Society would cast a long sideways glance at this unlucky woman for whom 5 husbands have failed to provide her security or a future. Like all women, her life is not in her own hands.
And in the heat of the day she comes for water. And meets the Christ. Who looks her straight on and sees her; He sees her; he knows her. And he gives this audacious woman answers. Answers that quench her thirst.
Is that why she believes? Because she is seen; she is known. She is accepted as who she is; the injustice that shackles her is named. She is accepted. Acknowledged. Seen. The conversation Jesus has with her is longer than any other conversation Jesus has in Scripture. She engages him more than any other leader, ruler, stakeholder, follower in the histories we have of Jesus’s life.That alone speaks to the mission of Jesus.
And then something happens. In my experience and in the stories from Scripture, something always happens when we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Jesus—who is Messiah, who is the Christ, the Anointed One. Love in the flesh.
This unnamed woman walks away from her Love Encounter Changed. Changed in such a way that she must go and give witness, give witness to Love: the Love offered, the Love taken, the Love that is possible. And here’s the amazing thing—this unnamed woman with no status, power, or education; this one who comes alone because her society has failed to see her value: she is believed. By the society that has not known what to do with her. She is believed. Think of how compelling this woman must have been. She must have been lit up from the inside out. Metaphorically Glowing somehow.
Her witness to love is so compelling that others go. She has used Jesus’ very own words: Come and see. And they do. The folx go and see and hear for themselves. They stand close to Love and the presence of Love changes them. And They believe! Authentic Love is that powerful. Raw love is hard to ignore, hard to look away from once you see it. Can you imagine this scene? Can you imagine yourself in this story? Have you known this thirst?
Or maybe you identify more with our Hebrew siblings in today’s story from Exodus? These ones who have been liberated, have been freed, and yet are still shackled. Their request is a simple one: We are thirsty; give us water. A basic human need. First level on Maslow’s hierarchy of human need. A need that cannot be ignored if we expect these people to continue. But Moses is annoyed. Please notice that it’s not God who is annoyed with the request for water. Moses is the one who feels he has been quarreled with and who claims they are testing God. Moses wants them to completely trust and get with the program already. After all, God opened a sea so you could walk through to your safety, people, just trust and believe already!
But, Beloved, let’s remember: Moses doesn’t completely share his fellow Hebrews’ history. He is a Hebrew son of a Pharaoh. He hasn’t known what his siblings know. He didn’t live what they lived. Enslaved. Oppressed. Shackled. For generations.
Oppression leeches into our hearts, our minds, our spirits. Often leaving physical scars, but oppression leaves psychological scars as well. Our Hebrew siblings in today’s story want to believe; they have believed, but when they are experiencing hardship— life-threatening thirst—they are brought right back to the generations of oppression. Wiping out hope. Drying up belief.
And let’s remember Beloved, many of our neighbors have experienced oppression. Maybe even some of us in this room. Poverty oppresses; prejudice oppresses; abuse oppresses; misogyny and the patriarchy oppresses. Human beings cannot move or change or grow if their basic human needs are not met. We cannot expect people to alter their expectations of life, their expectations for their own lives, when their basic needs are not a certainty they can count on; thirst comes in many forms.
But God is patient. 40 years of wandering in the wilderness patient. God doesn’t chastise them or shame them for the inability to believe in this time of life-threatening thirst. God meets them in their thirst and provides water from unexpected places and sources. Through human intervention, the disgruntled Moses.
Hmmm….maybe that’s a key to belief. Human intervention. A human intercessor. Moses, Jesus, this audacious unnamed woman who has been seen.
The power of the presence of Love in the flesh. This is what can change everything. Or, at least, create enough change to stir up hope, to foment belief.
Beloved: what makes you believe……?
Here’s the problem with God. We all want God to be OUR God. We want God to think like us, act like us, look like us. We are continuously making God in our own image.
Even in our reading from Exodus today, we try to have God behave as we would: Those who bless you, I will bless. And those who curse you, I will curse.”
Wait a minute, Jane…..are you saying God didn’t say that? It’s in the Bible. THE BIble. B-I-B-L-E….that’s the book for me.
What I am saying is that those who first told this story and then, eventually wrote it down, were telling their story of how they knew, understood, and experienced God. This is a story probably first told 5 or 6 centuries before Jesus.
Theologian Richard Rohr once tweeted (and as a theologian he is not alone in this belief ): Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.
We have made Jesus into a transaction. This is how the transaction goes:
God’s mad at humanity because we are naughty and full of original sin, so Jesus came to pay a price we couldn’t pay, and Jesus died so we don’t have to, so now we are good (well, if we confess Jesus is our Lord and we do x,y, and z and believe the right things, then we are good). Excellent! Thank you Jesus.
But Beloved, what if: Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.
God’s mind doesn’t need to change about us. From the beginning, from Creation’s Genesis, God loves us. All of us. Just as we are: incomplete and imperfect. And nothing, NOTHING, can change that. For God so loves the world.
Jesus came to show us this truth; Jesus came to show us what God in the flesh looks like. What it looks like to love a world that is bleeding and broken. What it looks like to love a world that betrays, that is violent, that is unrepentant. A world that doesn’t actually believe it is loved.
Now, you don’t have to agree with me, I might be completely wrong, but let’s ponder something together.
I don’t think God curses anyone or anything. I don’t buy it. And here’s why:
First, Jesus. Jesus had every reason under the sun to curse those who said they believed in him and then betrayed him and ditched him, but he didn’t. Instead he forgave them. Jesus could have cursed the Romans who captured him, jailed him, beat him and killed him. But he didn’t.
So, if we really want to believe in this Jesus story, then maybe the takeaway isn’t that God curses us because of our bad behavior or when we fall short, but that God does allow curses to exist in our world. That’s just undeniable.
And just what is a curse? Well, the dictionary says it is a great harm, injury or evil. So then to curse someone, as a verb, is to bring about great harm, injury or evil on another person.
It is clear that before Jesus (and frankly, even after Jesus), people believed that this is how God behaved. We have several stories with that as an explanation. Many stories that explain God is unhappy with people so God curses them or people don’t live up to God’s expectation so God curses them.
If those stories accurately portray God as God works in the world, then what do we do with Jesus?
Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God.
In the life and ministry of Jesus, no one is cursed, no one is condemned, no one is excluded, no one is declared exempt. No one. Not the Romans who were unjust or the tax collectors who were cheats or the thieves who failed to earn their keep. Not the woman at the well or the woman who was to be stoned or the woman who was bleeding and deemed unclean by society. Not Peter who betrayed. Or Judas who gave the killing kiss or the soldiers who taunted or the ones who just ignored the whole entire thing.
For every one of them, for each one of them, for every one of us, for each one of us, Jesus lived. And loved. And Jesus emptied his life—-not so that we won’t have to. But so that we will. So that we will do the very same thing. That we might so love the world.
What if all the blessings and curses were already here? Just a part of this thing we call life. And yes, as Creator, God has something to do with that. Maybe because we only grow if there are both: blessings and curses. We only change and adapt if there are both. The World only changes and adapts if there are both. But what if God’s job isn’t to bless or curse us as a response to our behavior—as a reaction to our goodness or badness. What if the blessings and curses are all just here—built into the system.
What if God’s job is just one thing: to love us. When we are blessed. To love us. When we are cursed. To love us through it all. For God so loves the world.
Beloved, there are many people—for good reason, and all too often that reason is the church—who do not believe God loves the world. Women who have been silenced and told to make themselves smaller by the church; folx in the LGBTQ community who have been dehumanized; the addicted and mentally ill who have been made to believe that their disease or condition is a moral failure. The young women who find themselves pregnant and labeled slut; those who have been imprisoned in a correctional system that has no intent of rehabilitation and who casts them out into a society who affords no second chances. People of color who have been denied authority, privilege, power, and basic human rights. The impoverished who have been deemed lazy so they probably don’t deserve shelter, healthcare, anything more if it means they don’t earn it themselves. For many of our siblings, it is mighty hard to believe that God so loves the world. It is mighty hard to even hope it could be true.
And that’s where we come in. This is the truth we gotta live. The truth we gotta tell. With our lives. With our choices. With our inclusion. With our equity. With our justice. With our sacrifices. When we share stories, as we build relationships and knit together community. God loves the world. The whole entire world. Every thing and every one in it. Not as an abstract or a religious thesis. But as a living, breathing reality. God so loves the world. One curse at a time. One blessing at a time. One person at a time. God so loves the world. With our hands, our feet, our voices, our bodies. God so loves the world.
Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.