Saturday, March 31, 2018

“Terror and Amazement” - April 1, 2018 (Easter Sunday)

Mark 16:1-8

            There are ancient copies of the gospel of Mark that finish with an appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene and then to two unnamed disciples and then to the whole group except for, of course, Judas; after which Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles hit the road to the four corners of the earth with the good news, miracles trailing in their wake.  Some of the earliest copies we have of the gospel of Mark, however, end where we did today:

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  [Mark 16:8]
As we gather to remember that day, we do it with flowers and new clothes and candy and organ music and a choir.  We hold egg hunts and there’s a ham in the oven.  The people who were actually there at the tomb were scared and paralyzed, and the rest of the disciples were hiding in a locked room back in Jerusalem, trying to figure out what to do next and if the coast was even clear to get out of town.

            Yes, there was good news.  There was the best kind of good news.  There was unbelievably good news, and it was delivered by no one less than an angel of God.  But the initial announcement didn’t sink in just like that, because they were terrified.  “Terrified”: there’s a word that we separate far too easily from its sister-words “terror”, “terrorist”, and “terrorized”.

The land where those people lived was under the control of a government that ruled by terror.  The Romans killed people on a regular basis just to keep the locals under control.  Crucifixion was popular with the Romans not only because it was simple and painful and slow, but also because it let them leave the bodies up as a warning.  The historian Josephus tells how during a rebellion of the Jews against Rome, the general Titus was allowing the crucifixion of about five hundred people a day.  It may have been an exaggeration, but he says that they had trouble making enough crosses to keep up with demand.[1]

Do you remember a few months back when a picture came out of Syria following one of the bombings, a picture of a little boy who had survived attack after attack that had killed his family?  There was blood running down from his head and he looked more than halfway to starvation, and when someone found him and carried him out of the rubble, all he did was stare straight ahead.  Imagine a nation full of such children.  Imagine a nation where they are supposed to be cared for by adults who have that same look in their eyes: the vacancy, the nothingness, the just-let-me-alone-to-die blankness.  That was Judea not long after Jesus’ own crucifixion. 

Terror wasn’t just the byproduct of the Empire.  It was its method and its goal.  First you fill people with fear.  Then you can make them do whatever you say.  Just ask any other gangster-state.  Ask the Taliban.  Ask the Bolsheviks.  Ask ISIS or the Nazis.  Pol Pot was especially effective at that in Cambodia.

That could never happen here, though.  Right?

How much of our current public life is controlled by fear?  It may or may not be deliberately created, this fear.  Once it is in the air, though, it can be manipulated and used by anybody willing to go down that path.  There is the fear of the other, whoever that might be.  It divides the world into an increasing number of “us”es and “we”s, “they”s and “them”s, “those people” and “the rest of us”.  There’s the fear that if I don’t get my way, you will get your way, and it will be at my expense.  There’s the fear that resources are growing less while need is growing greater, so if I don’t get mine now, you will take it all from me later on.  There’s the sense that whoever is a stranger is by definition dangerous.  Trust is gone.  Security is everything, and security means protection, and protection means weapons.  We cannot even talk to one another when people refer to facts and statistics as “weaponized”.

Good news comes to the disciples and they are so caught up in the terror of their world that they don’t know what to do with it at first. 

“They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16:8]

Eventually, though, it did sink in.  Jesus was alive.  What was that the angel had said?

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.” [Mark 16:6]
The entire Roman system of rule by terror, epitomized by crucifixion, was ineffective and bankrupt.  It didn’t work.  God would not allow that.

“Do not be alarmed.”

Even if you have spent your entire lifetime being alarmed, you don’t have to live that way.  Guess what?  Not everybody is out to get you.  Some folks really are honest.  Kindness isn’t always the bait in a trap.  There really is such a thing as truth. 

Not every situation has to be win-lose, and if it is, it is still possible to be happy for someone else.  There’s an old story (I’m sure you’ve heard it before) of a man who died and was given a tour of the afterlife.  The first stop was hell, where he saw hungry souls sitting around a big pot of the most delicious soup anyone had every smelled.  Each soul had been given a spoon, but every spoon had a long, long handle and when they tried to spin it around to drink the soup would spill off the spoon and they were facing an eternity of both starvation and frustration.  The next stop was heaven, and there was a similar pot of the same soup and a similar crowd of souls and the same utensils.  But these souls were laughing and smiling, because they would lift the soup up for the person across from them, and someone would lift another spoon to their mouths, and everyone had enough, and more than enough.

When Jesus rose, the power of sin was broken.  The cycle of fear and death was disrupted for good, forever.  The crazy stuff out there in the world?  Sure, it’s real.  It has to be faced and it has to be dealt with, and it takes both wisdom and guts to do it, and anybody who tries to make a real difference is going to get hurt in some way at some point – physically or emotionally or economically.  But terrorists only win if they make you live in fear.

I mentioned that someone at some point tacked a longer ending onto the gospel of Mark.  It may have had to do with that, and put the message in somewhat poetic terms (so don’t go picking up any copperheads you see on your lawn during an Easter egg hunt).  It says to serve the Lord without fear.  They killed Jesus, but that didn’t keep him down, and they haven’t been able to hold him back since.

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.  So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” [Mark 16:17-20]

[1] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, V. xi. 1.

Friday, March 30, 2018

“Today You Will Be with Me in Paradise” - March 30, 2018 (Good Friday)

Luke 23:43

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

One thing that really gets me about this detail of the crucifixion is that it ever happened at all.  Two thieves are hanging on crosses beside Jesus.  One of them mocks him.  The second thief tells the first to shut up and not bother Jesus.  He makes his own little comment, though.  He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And with all three of them dying there, I really think he was pouring out some bitterness.  What I hear is incredible regret about his own life.  I hear how hopes and dreams, the sort that anybody would have for himself or herself so often end up cut short, ended, crucified.

It just amazes me that Jesus answers him, that Jesus says anything at all.  He was already half dead – and that’s not just an expression.  You know all that he had been through in the past hours: whipping and a crown of thorns, beatings and torture.  He didn’t have much time left, and what he had was dripping away like blood from an open wound.  What’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt?  His was more severe.

And in the middle of that, he heard what was going on around him.  He heard, and he paid attention.  How could anybody do that?  Pain at that level becomes an all-encompassing experience.  It takes over the mind and the heart.  It is all that somebody knows.  There is just no room in the sufferer for anything else, no way to think or speak.  But Jesus heard this man through the difficulty of his breathing, through the tearing of his muscles, through the dislocation of his shoulders, through the screaming, blinding pain.  He blocked out nothing.  And he heard not just the sound or even the words, but all that was behind them.  How could on a cross still care about a stranger?

But Jesus cared.  To the end he cared.

Push it one step further still.  He cared, and he offered hope.  The bitterness of the thieves could have been his own.  He could have done what Job’s wife told him to do in his suffering, “curse God and die.”  Jesus did no such thing.  He did not let go of God’s promise to the end, and would not let anyone else let go.  He would be in paradise, not oblivion; heaven, not the grave.  Nor would he let anyone else fall without hope into death.  “You will be with me.  In paradise.”

Jesus remembers us, too.  And he has come into his kingdom.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

“Traitors at the Table” - March 29, 2018 (Maundy Thursday)

Mark 14:17-25

Picture the most awkward meal you have ever attended.  It’s the dinner where you know that the host and hostess are talking about divorce.  It’s the child’s birthday party where the father not only is away on business but has forgotten to call and now it’s late wherever he is and you know the call isn’t coming.  It’s the wedding where the mother of the bride, who was never around when she was growing up, has appeared out of nowhere and expects the step-mother who did the hard work of parenting to step aside.  It’s the retirement dinner for the obnoxious department head that everybody just wants to see gone as soon as possible.  It’s the funeral lunch for the driver who died drunk or the addict who finally overdosed.

How about the Passover meal where the host announces that an unnamed guest has sworn out his arrest warrant?

“And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’” [Mark 14:18-21]

Betrayal is an ugly thing.  It’s the abuse of faith.  It’s the conscious, knowing choice to take someone’s trust and turn it to your own advantage at their expense.  When it happens – and it happens constantly – it hurts.

            Christy Thomas, who blogs under the handle “The Thoughtful Pastor”, wrote a Holy Week meditation with the title “It’s Not the Blood: It’s the Betrayal” in which she asks:

“Who has experienced betrayal this year?

Well, Equifax handed over the personal and financial information on over 140,000,000 people to hackers. For years to come, those hackers will sell it to those who will use your information, stored on a system Equifax knew was not safe, to steal your identity, take out credit in your name, and destroy your financial life.

Facebook happily pocketed the profit after selling massive amounts of private information on you and your friends so members of one mega-rich family could use it in any way possible to ensure victory for their preferred candidate.

Elected politicians promised one thing and delivered another; leaders of various entertainment, political, religious and business fields were exposed as sleazy sexual predators; our children became terrified to go to school because they don’t know when the next assault rifle, legal for private citizens ONLY in the USA, would mow them down; banks insisted you buy products you didn’t need and pharmaceutical companies sent prices soaring on essential drugs, costing pennies to manufacture, that manage chronic and debilitating illnesses.

Our friends turned into “frenemies” with their gossip and backstabbing; we fought with our siblings and spouses; our children disappointed us and we disappointed our parents; the weeds just kept coming up. As has the temperature. We betrayed the earth; the earth is betraying us.

Finally, we all betrayed God. From the beginning of recorded history, we’ve shoved a collective fist into the face of God and said, ‘Thanks but no thanks. I’ll go my own way.’”[1]

            Betrayal hurts, and so does the awareness that we are all capable of it.  When Jesus made his announcement and spoiled the party, they didn’t look around and say, “Who is it?   I bet it’s James or John – they’re always claiming to be the greatest.”  “It must be Simon.  He’s a Zealot.”  “Matthew!  That skunk!  A tax collector never changes; he’s been on the Romans’ payroll all along.”  The disciples were close enough to Jesus, and he had taught them enough about human nature that they questioned themselves.  

“They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’” [Mark 14:19]

Judas may have been the one that Jesus had in mind, but as the night went on the disciples’ need to be reassured that they would never fail him got to be almost too much.  They kept pressing him and he finally gave in, but it wasn’t what they wanted to hear:

“And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,

“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep will be scattered.” 

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.”
[Mark 14:27-31]

On some level, the disciples knew what was coming and what they would do.  They just couldn’t bear to admit it.  Not to Jesus.  Not to the others.  Not to themselves.

            I wonder if any of them caught that little throw-away line at that point:

“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” [Mark 14:28]

It must have come back to somebody later.  Or maybe not, because after the resurrection Jesus would appear to them and tell them to go to Galilee and meet him.  That means he was trying to tell them that he wasn’t through with them.  As far as he was concerned, forgiveness was part of the deal.  It has to be.  We cannot live without it.

            An old friend of mine, who has been through a lot in life and has a lot to forgive, wrote to a group last week,

“I'm wondering about forgiveness. Sometimes depression stems from or is worsened by trauma -- especially the kind of trauma when someone does something bad to you or fails to do something for you that they're supposed to. Has anyone here ever forgiven someone for something unforgivable? What did it entail? How did it feel? Did it help?” 

Those are not idle questions.  Those would be worth asking Jesus.  Has he ever forgiven the unforgiveable, like, say, torture and a brutal execution?  What did it entail? 

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?” [Luke 23:34]

How did it feel?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]

Did it help?

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” [John 14:27]

            There’s no denying that forgiveness comes at a tremendous price.  It comes with a cost to the giver and to the receiver.  Someone, at some point, has to say, “Yes, I am ashamed to admit it, but I really am not the wonderful person I want you to think I am.  I have a lot more in common with Peter, and even Judas, than I want to look at, and sometimes I just cannot do that.  I understand how the rest of them, too, ran away.  That’s me at my best, even if I talk a good game.”  And Jesus has to say, and Jesus does say, “Yes.  I know.  If you were perfect, I wouldn’t have had to let myself be broken for you.  But I did it anyway.  And, so you don’t forget, here is a reminder.”


Saturday, March 24, 2018

“The Holy Bracket” - March 25, 2018 (Palm Sunday)

Philippians 2:5-11

Although they were knocked out of the NCAA finals last Sunday, the sixteenth-seeded University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus) Golden Retrievers got there by overturning the first-seeded University of Virginia Cavaliers by twenty points, 74-54.  Depending on your outlook and your loyalties, that can be a sign either of the approach of the kingdom or the start of the apocalypse.  Or maybe it’s just sports.  The success of the underdog, the turning of the tables, though, in matters far more significant than basketball has long been understood as part of what happens when God’s rule over human life is acknowledged and honored.

            It is what Mary longed for and what she celebrated, as Luke tells us, when she learned that God was sending his Son into the world and that she would have a part in that.  Who was she?  She was no princess or queen, not part of the dominant culture of the world in her time, not anybody with connections, not even married.  She was without status or standing, and in the midst of Jesus’ execution, as he was dying by torture, he would have to assign her a new legal guardian, handing her over to his friend John.  (Why not to his own brother James?  We don’t know.  Could it be that they were estranged?  James came around, it seems, but only after the resurrection.)  Mary would probably laugh to see herself portrayed in so many medieval paintings as a queen in a beautiful robe and wearing a crown.  More likely, she may have just kept her hair tied back in a scarf to keep it out of her face while she did the laundry.  So when an angel appeared out of nowhere and told her that God had given her a unique assignment, she was astounded and she expressed her thoughts to her cousin Elizabeth this way:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.”
[Luke 1:46-53]

God’s kingdom turns things upside-down and inside-out.  The life of Jesus, and his death, show it happening over and over.  Even more, his rising again confirms it and the lives of his people are a constant cycle of humility among the powerful and power among the humble.  God brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly.

            For the past couple of years I have enjoyed following an online tournament called “Lent Madness”.  Two Episcopal priests who call themselves “The Supreme Executive Committee” pick a bracket of thirty-two admirable figures from Christian history, some of them from the Bible, some of them well-known, and some of them obscure and with unpronounceable names.  Each day they send out short biographies in the first couple of rounds and then people vote for one or the other to advance to the next round, until eventually only one is left standing and is awarded the Golden Halo.  You can buy a coffee mug or t-shirt of the victor if you want.

            Inevitably, what you find throughout the tournament is stories of God’s upside-down kingdom.  This year, for instance, one contestant was Margaret of Scotland.[1]  Her father was King of England and her husband was the Scottish King Malcolm III, who became a character in MacBeth.  Their children included King Edgar of Scotland; King Alexander of Scotland; King David I of Scotland; Queen Matilda of England; Edmund, Bishop of Dunkeld in Scotland; Mary, Countess of Boulogne in France; and Ethelred, who owned extensive lands on both sides of the Firth of Forth.  Now, with connections like that, how would you spend your time?  Queen Margaret spent her time reading the Bible to her husband, who was illiterate, and establishing schools, hospitals, and orphanages.  The usual round of royal appearances and court life took a secondary role.

                Another contestant in this year’s “Saintly Smackdown” is Martin de Porres.  Martin was born on December 9, 1579 and lived his whole life in Peru. He and his sister were considered illegitimate children—their mother was a freed slave and their father was a Spanish nobleman who abandoned the family when he saw the children’s dark skin. Martin endured a life of bullying and abuse. He aspired to join the Dominican monks, but they ruled that “no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our Order”.  So at fifteen years old he became a donado, a volunteer who lived in the community and carried out menial, unwanted tasks.  Nine years later, after they had seen his faith and his ministry among them and in the community around them, they desegregated and welcomed him as a brother at the age of twenty-four.  Slavery would only end in Peru in 1854, eleven years before it was outlawed in the U.S., so thanks to his holiness of life the Dominicans were 251 years ahead of their time.
                The mighty become servants.  The servant becomes honored.  The ruler cares for the poor.  The poor man leads his community into justice and equality.  All of this is the work of Jesus, carried out among his people at the center of society and on its fringes.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.”
 [Philippians 2:5-11] 

[1] The thumbnail biographies here are adapted from those on the site, written by Neva Rae Fox.  See .

Saturday, March 17, 2018

“Seeds of Life” - March 18, 2018

John 12:24-26

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]
Those are words that I find myself speaking most often standing in a cemetery, conducting a burial service.  In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul wanted to reassure them that when a body is buried in the ground, it is not the end of the person, and that God transforms death into life on absolutely every level.
“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. [I Corinthians 15:42-44]

Before Paul could say that, though, and before any of us could gather around a graveside and talk about something stronger than the natural cycle of birth and death, Jesus confronted his disciples to become his followers, precisely when following him meant to follow him into dying.

            Beware leaders who glorify death.  False messiahs do that all the time, and lead others to destruction.  In 1978, Jim Jones set up a mass suicide/murder situation among the people he led to the jungle in Guyana, and a tape that somehow survived that day has him saying,

"I tell you, I don't care how many screams you hear, I don't care how many anguished cries...death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight."[1]

Jesus would never say any such thing.  Nor would he have had anything in mind like Marshall Applewhite, the unhinged leader of the cult called Heaven’s Gate, who in 1997 convinced thirty-nine people to put on black track suits and Nikes, to eat applesauce laced with barbiturates, wash it down with vodka, put plastic bags over their heads, and then lie down and cover up with a purple cloth – because a comet visible in the sky at the time was hiding a spaceship that was coming to collect their souls.[2]  Nor would he have been like the Branch Davidians in Waco, who held off the FBI for fifty-one days to protect David Koresh from answering charges of child abuse.[3]  Those are only three modern examples; there are many more if you dig around, people who were overcome by their own demons and dragged many others to their deaths with them.

            Jesus never glorified death, and never sought it.  The gospel of Matthew recounts how, in the Garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest,
“he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’”  [Matthew 26:39]
When soldiers arrived to take him, he didn’t ask his disciples to fight to the death, or to fight at all.  Instead, he stepped up and,
“he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’”  [John 18:7-8]
The real Messiah is very different from the false ones.  He gave his life for others, rather than ask others to give their lives to save his.

            Yet in asking for followers, people who walk in his footsteps, he knew that there would be the possibility that those followers would face the same dangers that he faced, even death.  It would never be something to be sought, but neither would it be something to be feared.  It is something to be avoided, but not at all costs.

            Maybe it’s someone like a Liberian man named Foday Gallah who was 37 when ebola broke out in the town where he drove an ambulance, presenting him the choice to stay in the middle of the plague or leave for safety.  He stayed.  Someone asked him about it and he said,

“I was trying to save a little boy, a little child. And he survived. He survived. He is alive and well and doing great. He is somewhere in Kakata. And that was my prayer. That was my wish. Even if I had died of Ebola, I still have family, right? But that little boy lost his family. His mother, his brother, his sister. Wiping away his entire family. But I kept him alive. So all my efforts did not go in vain. I survived, and he survived.

I saw him [in the treatment unit]. I got there two days before he was discharged. He was there. And I stayed there for two weeks. He was my son there. He was always around me. I was very happy to see him. I was very happy. Maybe he gave me the strength to live because all my efforts [to save him] did not go in vain with that child.

I don’t regret picking him up, because I prayed for his life, I wanted his life. And today he has his life. So I think I achieved something: his life. At least that can be a representation of his family. So there is one member of the family who survived.
I am going to go back in full swing. I am not going to be afraid. I am going to walk in to fight Ebola with all of my might. I would have died. A lot of people die. But in there I was treated, and cured, and automatically that is the work of God, and I have built immunity to it, so that is a gift.”[4] 

            This is someone who realized that, should he die, it would not be for nothing.  He did not seek his cross, but his cross found him, and he took it up and followed.  And he was only one of thousands, most of whose stories have gone untold, though God has seen them and, one way or the other, seen them through.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]

Saturday, March 10, 2018

“Not to Condemn, but to Save” - March 11, 2018

John 3:16-17

            One of my favorite writers and preachers was a man named Walter Wangerin, who died a few years ago, way too soon.  For awhile he was pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, a struggling church in a struggling town, but one where the people knew and loved the Lord.  In one of his books, he tells a story about his own struggles.[1] 

            Across from the church lived a woman named Marie who, like most of the neighborhood, fought to make ends meet.  Wangerin felt for her, and also for her young son, but wasn’t quite sure how he could best help her, and she didn’t make it easy on him when she regarded him with a mix of resentment and suspicion.  He later realized that she made her living in the world’s oldest profession.  He began to look askance at her, too.  Then, one night, Wangerin was working late in his study and all the lights were off except the one at his desk, when he heard suspicious sounds outside.  The church had been broken into a couple of times and he got nervous, so he peeked out a window.  He saw Marie filling water jugs at the spigot on the side of the church that was itself having trouble paying its bills.  “Geez!” he wrote,

“the presumption griped me.  She was busy stealing.  She was reaching into the very heart of the building, even to frighten me in the privacy of my study.  I felt very, very vulnerable.

…She’d shut the water off.  When she passed the window, I saw her from the knees down, lugging in each hand two plastic jugs of water, and then I was alone again – and full of anguish.

…I had no idea what to do about Marie’s little theft – or the arrogance of it.  Well, well, well: water isn’t communion ware, after all.  What do you pay for water?  Pennies.  So let it go.  That’s what I said to myself.  Just let it go.  And I thought: if the city has turned off her water, you can bet they’ve turned off her gas and electricity too.  The woman’s without utilities.  And she’s got a kid who needs to drink and wash and use the bathroom.  So calm down and call it charity and let it go.

Yeah, but that kid nagged at my mind.  What was she teaching her child?  That he could take whatever he needed – whatever he wanted, for heaven’s sake.  Any child, I don’t care who or whose it is, deserves better than this poor kid was getting.
And then that’s the next thing that nagged: what is the ethic for supporting a prostitute, even by inaction and non-involvement?  This is a church, after all.  We have a covenant with virtue, after all, a discipline, a duty, a holy purpose, a prophetic presence.  Shouldn’t I talk to the woman?

Precisely at that point all my abstract inquiry skdded against reality.  Talk to the woman?  Why, the woman doesn’t talk!  She stares at you with a moribund stare.  She scorns you with murderous scorn.

… ‘So let it go.’  I said that out loud in the doorway of my study.”

            So far, so good.  But it continued to rankle him.  Then one day, again working late and hearing the tap running, he took action.

“I thrust my face to the window and looked into midnight and squinted to make my eyes adjust.  I saw the figure beneath the street light.  I saw the body bending at our faucet.  Two feet from mine I saw a concentrating face. …who was this drawing water from the bowels of Christendom? One of the prostitute’s johns!”

He saw things getting out of hand, so he ran into the boiler room and shut off the valve. 

I feel okay using this story in a sermon, because so did Wangerin.  It was a situation where it was important to draw the line and to do it in a way that was considerate.He wrote that

“Even so in the end did a cleric and the church prevail, by cunning, not by confrontation, and no one was hurt, and no one’s feelings or reputation was wounded, neither the church’s nor the prostitute’s.  We could coexist on opposite sides of Gum Stree
Most of the people who heard it understood that.  Most.

            At the church door he spoke with Miz Lillian Lander.  “Pastor?”

“Her voice was both soft and civil.  It was the sweetness of it that pierced me.  … ‘You preached today,’ she said, and I thought of our past conversation.  ‘God was in this place,’ she said, keeping my hand in hers.  I almost smiled for pride at the compliment.  But Miz Lil said, ‘He was not smiling.’  Neither was she.  Nor would she let me go.

… ‘Her grandma’s name was Alice Jackson,’ Miz Lil said, staring steadily at me.  ‘Come up from Kentucky and went to school with me, poor Alice did.  She raised her babies, then she had to raise grandbabies too.  She did the best she could by them.  But a body can only do so much.  Pastor,’ said Miz Lil, ‘when you talk about skinny Marie, you think of her grandma.  You think of Alice Jackson by name.  You think to yourself, she died of tiredness – and then you won’t be able to talk except in pity.’”

            Wangerin’s story is a warning to preachers.  It is tempting to thunder against the dark, hoping that lightning will give a moment of clear vision where there is no daylight.  But those bolts do not belong in anyone’s hands but the Lord’s.  What human being would even be certain to aim them at the right target?  Who would not end up sending one straight through their own heart?  But

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world might be saved.” [John 3:17]

It is a warning to all Christians, because in good faith and in truth we may want to follow God’s will, and want to see others do the same.   Only, where do we see God’s will if not in Jesus?  It cost Jesus more than we will ever comprehend to follow through on his mission.  It cost far more than any of us could ever give.  We get a glimpse of it when more is asked of us than we are ready for, especially if it is asked of us again and again and again, and we are ready sometimes to “die of tiredness”.  Even if we do, it is not the whole story.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]

Until then, God grant us all grace to look beyond ourselves and to see people in such a way that we won’t be able to talk except in pity – or to act except in mercy and in love.

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “Miz Lil” in Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).  Quotations here occur from pages 44-48.