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The Benevolent Virus

John 7:14-39 and Ezekiel 47:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Last week I began my Lenten sermon series on “Boosting Our Spiritual Immune Systems” with the comparison of sin to a virus and how we should do our best to make sure we do not become a hospitable host, since that’s how viruses replicate. We get sick when a microorganism like a virus or a bacteria takes up residence in our otherwise healthy cells and turns it into a funhouse. Thanks be to God, our bodies do have a very fine immune system that is designed to detect which entities are “of self,” and which are “not of self” and then eliminate the invaders. In today’s installment of “I’m not a viral immunologist, but I play one in the pulpit,” I want to say a little more about how that search and destroy mission works, and what it might have to say to our spiritual lives this Lent.

Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to have to undergo treatment for cancer or another serious illness, or who have accompanied someone else through it, may be familiar the concept of T-cells, the easier to pronounce way of naming the white blood cells known as “T lymphocytes.” Now, there are two kinds of T-cells, the first of which, the Helper T cells, coordinates the immune response. Some of these Helper cells communicate with other cells, and some stimulate B cells, the kind which help identify viruses and infected cells, to produce more antibodies and still other of these Helper cells attract “cell-eating phagocytes,” which, as the name implies, eat pathogens in the body. Isn’t that a great word? Phagocyte? An interesting side note before we move on is that the Greek word phage, means to eat, and how interesting it is that just a chapter earlier in John, Jesus used that same word, phage, to talk about himself, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat, phage, the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in him.” Anyway, along with the Helper T cells are the Killer T-cells, which target other pathogens, especially viruses, like a cold blooded killer. And once these mighty T cells do their job and eliminate the threats, we can resume our daily labors unimpeded. So there’s your biology lesson for today.

Now, last week, I used the story of Jesus’ brothers encouraging him to reveal himself in Jerusalem as an example of how the body responds to external threats. Jesus is able to recognize threats to his existence, the unbelief, the sin if you will, of his brothers, and take appropriate measures. His spiritual immune system is functioning to protect him, and that’s what we’re all about this Lent. As we go deeper in this section of John, however, I want to kind of flip the script and suggest to you that perhaps it is not Jesus’ brothers, and the Jewish leaders who are viruses in the body of Christ, but that perhaps it is Jesus who is the virus invading the body of first century Judaism. You see, doesn’t all that activity of the Jews, and the crowd, and the people of Jerusalem, and the Chief Priests, and the Pharisees, doesn’t it resemble an immune system organizing itself against a threat? The Helper T cells jump into action and alert all the other kinds of cells to rush to the site of the invasion and check things out. They start asking questions like “How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught?” and “Is this not the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him? Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where he comes from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” These are questions about “of self” and “not of self,” of identifying whether is he with us or against us, malignant or benign? And then those Killer T cells come in to eliminate the threat. “The Pharisees heard the crowd murmuring such things about him, and the Chief Priests and Pharisees sent temple police to arrest him.” Messiah as virus. Hmm.

I do not think the writer of the Fourth Gospel would mind at all describing Jesus as a virus, for it seems clear that he thinks the body is DOA. From the very first chapter where he proclaims, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him,” John has been making the case that what passes for the people of Israel is a shell of its former self, and that Jesus’ mission is to redeem it. It is in the beginning of the Gospel of John that Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the temple and proclaims that that same temple will be torn down and raised up in three days. Jesus asks Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” It is a Samaritan woman who recognizes Jesus before anyone but Jesus’ inner circle. All the signs point to the blindness of the people who should know, and the vision of those who shouldn’t. The body’s immune system is weak, and God sends Jesus to exploit it that something new and better should come of this weakness. But wait! The phagocytes, and the Helper T cells and the Killer T cells do win in the end. The invader is driven out, crucified on a tree like a pariah. The immune system has done its job, banishing the virus from the body. Life can return to normal. That’s the Good Friday story, isn’t it? The elimination of the threat.

We tend to think of viruses as the opposite of health, as something to avoid, to wear a mask to prevent acquiring, as something evil, especially when they take the lives of our loved ones and a half a million of our fellow Americans, and even more of our world citizens. The toll is incalculable, the suffering extreme, the trauma beyond our imagining. Pastor, how can you compare Jesus to a virus? Well, first let me say that we human beings have more in common with viruses than we might like to admit, most notably that we all just want to survive. Viruses aren’t trying to kill us, they just want to make sure they live to see another day, and if that means aggressively attacking another life form, they will do it as quickly as we would to protect our way of life. Viruses are morally neutral. They are just as much part of God’s mysterious creation as we are. But even more than that, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that viruses actually further the cause of evolution and human development, and I don’t mean in some kind of divinely-inspired Darwinian sense. God doesn’t send viruses as punishments for sin or so that human beings can evolve. But viruses have been shown to change us as a human community, and make us more adaptable.

The science behind this is way beyond my pay grade, so I am not even going to try to explain it fully and you can thank me for that later, but here is the word I want you to take away from today: epigenetics. It sounds like a Greek word you might find translated in the Bible, but it actually comes from biology, and epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the DNA sequence, in other words, changes to our very bodies that take place not due to modification of our genetic code, but due to environmental factors. Epigenetically, we change in certain ways from one generation to the next not because we have been exposed to some radiation that has mutated our genes, or to gain some evolutionary advantage, but because our bodies adapt to the context in which they live. Now, epigenetics is usually associated with negative health effects. Many studies have shown how trauma and smoking in particular can have an effect on the children of traumatized people, and people who used to smoke, even if they weren’t being traumatized or smoking when their children were born. The poorer health that these children experience is not due to the physical effects of nicotine or the stress hormone cortisol coursing through their mothers’ bodies during pregnancy, but because while the parents were stressed at some point in their lives, or while they were smoking, and by the way, this is all true for fathers as well, their bodies adapted negatively and passed on these adaptations to their children who suffer the consequences. Sounds a little bit like sin doesn’t it?

What does it say in the book of Exodus? “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.” As I mentioned last week, there are consequences to sin, even when we are not actively sinning. The choices we make have an effect on us and our children long after we’ve stopped behaving in sinful ways. And we are a connected people. Families are bound up tightly with one another. It’s inescapable. How could children and grandchildren possibly escape the effects of what prior generations have done? And what epigenetics is saying is that there are physical, as well as psychological, effects of the environments in which we live, with consequences like obesity, diabetes, and other maladies.

Which brings us back to Jesus as a virus. The environment of Jesus’ time was toxic, beginning with the way the Mosaic law was being interpreted. In our passage today, how does Jesus point up the hypocrisy of those trying to trap him? By pointing to the law they were trying to enforce: “If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the Sabbath?” The law said that a baby boy had to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and hey, sometimes, that just happened to fall on the Sabbath. Now, I’m pretty sure they could all recognize that there was some work that had to be done to complete a surgical procedure like that, so they knew they were breaking the law, but then turning around and criticizing Jesus for telling a man to pick up his mat and walk. Hypocrisy is as toxic as smoke, and it was making people sick, spiritually, and probably even physically. And the Pharisees weren’t the first nor the last hypocrites. The famous Pax Romana, the “peace” of the Roman Empire under which Jesus lived, came hypocritically at the point of a spear. It was a violent time, a suffering time, a soul-sickening time. And in that context, it was just an ever deepening descent into madness and despair culminating in the crucifixion of the Messiah, the apparent victory of the Judean immune system. Until the variant appeared.

Yes, they thought that had disposed of the threat, and for three days, they saw no evidence that it wasn’t dead. But then resurrection happened, the virus returned with a vengeance, and a whole new and positive epigenetic sequence developed. You see, the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of the virus, changed the body, and changed the environment, and changed the course of history. In the excruciatingly small, incremental steps of the centuries since, in large measure due to the teachings of Jesus Christ, shared by his followers, his children so to speak, the world has become a better, healthier place, by almost every indicator. In the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel is the famous passage about the valley of the dry bones. “Mortal, can these bones live?” God asks the prophet. The people have been in exile for decades, their body ravaged by sin and suffering, like nothing but dry bones in a desert, an arid wasteland where nothing grows, there is no life, and no hope. But God has other plans. “Mortal, have you seen this?” God asks that same prophet in chapter forty-seven after he has seen the river of life flowing abundantly, extravagantly from beneath the restored and renewed temple, after he has seen not dry bones but “fish of many kinds,” and trees with leaves that “will not wither, nor their fruit fall, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary.” God promises a new environment, a healthy environment, a new heaven and a new earth, in which we can grow and change in positive ways. But none of it could have happened without a virus.

There’s an old saying within Habitat for Humanity used to describe someone who has become taken with the work of building homes for God’s people in need. When you see someone who’s just really gung ho, really committed, you recognize the signs of the old disease called “infectious habititus.” I had it once, caught it is about 1987, and it changed my life. I even had a t-shirt that said, “Beware, I’ve got infectious habititus!” not to warn people away but to give me the best chance of spreading it, because people would ask about it, and I could tell them all about it. And the families that depend on those Habitat homes depend on that virus spreading, because it gives them a chance to epigenetically alter the spiritual and physical health of the generations to follow, because those families will be in healthier environments.

No metaphor is perfect, I always say. The good news of the Gospel is that we don’t have to get infected with a biological agent to find life, but perhaps we do need to catch a spiritual virus from time to time. When you look back through the history of the church, every so often there seems to be a revival of some kind which renews the church. When they begin, they seem like a crisis to the church’s immune system, but the ones which are divinely inspired survive the body’s attempts to nullify them, and the body changes and adapts in positive ways. This Lent, let me encourage you to go out and expose yourself to the Messiah virus, so that your spirit can change and adapt in those positive ways. There is no cure, but that’s Ok, because you wouldn’t want one anyway. Amen.

Don't Be a Good Host

John 7:1-13 and Deuteronomy 10:12-22
© Stacey Steck

Maybe you are old enough to remember the old phrase, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV,” uttered by the famous soap opera actor Peter Bergman in a TV ad for Vick’s cough syrup. It was a pretty successful ad campaign, but they had to jump through some hoops to make it happen. Apparently there are rules surrounding commercials like that one which are governed by the so-called “white coat rule,” which is a long-standing piece of legislation prohibiting actors from playing doctors in ads for over the counter medical products, or products for which specific medical claims are made. So the famous line was created to make it clear that he not only was not a doctor, and not just an actor playing a doctor, but an actor acknowledging that he was an actor not trying to play a doctor! Well, this morning, the introduction to my Lenten sermon series comes with this disclaimer: I’m not a viral immunologist, but I play one in the pulpit. If my sermons are as successful as those Vick’s commercials, you will safely arrive at Easter with your faith intact, undestroyed by the virus of sin. And none of of ten virologists recommend wearing a mask.

I don’t claim to know a lot about viruses, but I do know something about metaphors and the power they have to capture our imagination and help us along our journey of faith. And so I introduce to you the not completely original, but nevertheless compelling, metaphor of sin as a virus. A year into this pandemic, we probably know more about virology than we ever wanted to know, about coronas and spikes and herd immunity, and RNA versus DNA, and the temperature at which different vaccines need to be kept, all kinds of stuff we’d prefer not to have to know, but maybe the most important things we’ve learned are related to the limits of the immune system, our bodies’ natural protection against outside invaders. God was very clever at creation, giving us not only some innate protection against disease and infection, but also the ability for our bodies to adapt throughout life to the microscopic threats we face, to develop what we call immunity. Our bodies learn to identify threats they’ve faced before and eliminate them before they can do us harm a second time. It’s pretty amazing really. But as remarkable as our bodies may be, they cannot protect us from everything, and they cannot heal us from everything, and hence we need sometimes to prepare for the siege, and call upon the healers once we’ve been infected.

The same, of course, can be said for our spiritual lives and the impact of sin on our lives. Human beings seem innately wired to have a spiritual inclination toward God, a sixth sense about avoiding what is not good for us, and it acts something like the immune system does in the body. And it can learn from its mistakes in the same way our bodies can. Faith is pretty durable actually. It can take its shots and still come out on in one piece. But like even the most resilient human body can be disrupted by disease, even the most durable faith can be disturbed by sin. The consequences of sin have an interesting parallel to the ravages of disease. When infected with a virus, our bodies do not function at full capacity, we walk around with aches and pain, our heads full of congestion, guts all twisted up, and sometimes needing medical attention. When we are infected by sin, our faith does not function at full capacity, we walk around with shame and guilt, our heads filled with doubts, guts all twisted up and sometimes needing spiritual care or guidance. I know that I am not the first to see this parallel. Indeed, one of the prominent Old Testament views of sin is that it is a type of contagion that must be removed before one can stand in the presence of the holy God. That’s what all those purification rituals are all about, those passages of Scripture that detail how if you even accidentally came into contact with a garment or a bed linen of someone who was considered impure, you then had to go and wash, and be out of religious commission for a number of days. We may not think of sin in exactly those same terms but the idea that it is spread from one person to another, like a virus, accidentally, incidentally, occasionally purposefully, is ancient idea that still has something to say about our own condition. And so this Lent, I propose to use our Lectionary passages to say something about how we can build our spiritual immune systems so that we can have our best chance to avoid become spiritually ill, to avoid having a case of the “sin-sick soul,” to recall the words from that old African American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead” and to greet Easter morning with as healthy a mind, body, and spirit as we can.

This morning, I want to say a little something about the conditions needed for a virus to disrupt our bodily or spiritual lives, and how to frustrate the attempts of viruses and sinners to make us sick. The first thing to know about the modus operandi of a virus is that a unhealthy cell can’t do anything to harm you – by itself. Most people have all kinds of nasty cells running around inside their bodies, but they don’t harm us because they aren’t allowed to harm us; the body does its job to keep these threats at bay. Viruses are often harmless because they utterly lack any metabolic machinery of their own and are totally dependent on a host cell for replication. So what happens when we do get sick is that an unhealthy cell occupies a healthy cell and takes over its host, giving it a breeding ground to reproduce itself. Like I said at the beginning, I am not a virologist, and those of you who may have more experience with these kinds of things may be able to find something to quibble with in my explanation, but so be it. The main idea is that the body needs its cells to avoid opening their doors, so to speak, to unhealthy cells that will cause them to lose their integrity. For whatever reason, whether because that cell accidentally left its back door unlocked at night, or opened up when the virus knocked at the front door, the virus enters in and the damage is done, because two things which should not ever be joined together are now living together under the same roof, and the unhealthy cell is like a bad tenant: neither easy to evict nor willing to clean up after itself.

Maybe you can see already some of the spiritual parallels. There’s even a saying by Jesus with that same image! In the twelfth chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” The various parts of our lives – our virtues, our relationships, our thoughts and emotions, our hopes and expectations, all the things that make up who we are – are something like cells that are prone to invasion by sin, and if we open our doors to them, if we allow them to become hospitable to sin, then they invite more trouble and dis-ease, and the next thing you know it, “the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

Believe it or not, I’m getting around to bringing today’s Scripture readings into the conversation. Throughout Lent, we will be reading from the seventh and eighth chapters of the Gospel of John. These are not passages you hear too often in church, because A) they are not part of the Lectionary, and B) they capture a series of brief episodes of the growing dispute between Jesus and the authorities rather than any juicy miracle stories or pithy sayings. However, what they capture is something like an immune system at work against invaders that would bring dis-ease to the body. And today’s passage has to do with the immune system making the body’s cells inhospitable to threats so that sin doesn’t set it. The way this happens is analogous to the way the body’s cells resist becoming hosts: by knowing what is “of self,” and what is “not of self,” who is supposed to live here and who is not. The human body’s immune system does this by detecting proteins that are found on the surface of all cells. And it learns to ignore its own, or self-proteins, at an early stage, which is to say that it develops a good understanding of itself, it knows who “it” is. It has looked in the microbial mirror and seen itself and can then recognize what doesn’t look like it. It is thoroughly versed in what it means to be itself. It knows itself, it has an identity. It can tell the difference.

To this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus has been slowly but surely revealing something about himself and his mission. He’s been healing people on the Sabbath, and making provocative statements, and comparing himself to powerful symbols in the lives of the people around him. “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven,” he’s said, and “whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” calling to mind God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. That kind of stuff is going to push some buttons. And so we get the seventh chapter and Jesus’ brothers start egging him on to go to the big city of Jerusalem from the backwaters of Galilee so that “your disciples may also see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world. (For not even his brothers believed in him.)” Sounds like temptation to me. “If you are so great, Jesus, go and prove it. Let everyone see what you’re up to. You’ll be famous! Or at least shown to be the fraud we think you are.” Sound a little bit like the Scripture reading we usually hear on every first Sunday of Lent, the one about Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil? But just as in the desert stories, Jesus knows what the game is, and declines to take the bait. He stays behind, saying, “Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” There’s sin, knocking on the door, and Jesus is on the other side. A voice from the other side beckons, “Open the door, Jesus, open the door.” But Jesus detects the proteins that are found on the surface of all cells, and he knows that these cells are “not of self,” and that he cannot let them in. He knows who he is, and whose he is, and he refuses to make himself hospitable to those threats, as tempting as they may be. He has an unshakeable identity that allows him to recognize what is “of self” and what is not. “My time has not yet come.”

A millennia or two earlier, Moses faced the challenge of leading his people into the promised land and all the threats associated with that endeavor. The book of Deuteronomy is about what Moses did to prepare his people to avoid catching the spiritual viruses of the Canaanites, into whose land they would enter. And the way he did that, with God’s help, was to drill them, over and over again, about what it meant to be them, to be that people, God’s people, God’s chosen and exclusive people, so that they would know themselves and be able to recognize what was “of self” and what was “not of self.” And our passage this morning is a prime example of those teachings. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.” This is who you are. This is what you do. These are your fundamental characteristics. These are the proteins on the surface of your cells. And then, to make it crystal clear, he uses the metaphor for difference with which they we all most intimately familiar: “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Just look down between your legs, Moses is saying, and see the evidence of just how you are different from the tribes around you. That’s how well-defined you need to be in every part of your life, especially your spiritual lives, when you head off for the promised land.

And this is why you should come to church every Sunday. And read your Bible every day. And pray to God without ceasing. And do good deeds whenever you can. To hear the story. To remember the lessons of old. To immerse yourself in who you are and whose you are. This is what builds up your immune system so that you do not open the door to sin even a crack. Of course, I’m not saying that just by coming to church or reading your Bible you can avoid sin. But I am saying that by participating in the life of this community, this Christian community, you learn what is “of self” and what is “not of self,” you come to know your own proteins so thoroughly that you can just forget about them and are able to easily recognize proteins from viruses that just shouldn’t be there, and avoid them.

Lent is that season when we recognize how weak our immune systems can get if we don’t let God boost them. And we turn to God for that booster shot which reminds us of who we are and how we fight off invaders. May this Lent strengthen you to avoid temptation, and know ever more deeply who you and whose you are. Amen.

So That Nothing Worse Happens to You

John 5:1-18
© Stacey Steck

Don’t you just hate it when you are standing in a long checkout line, muttering under your breath about how incompetent store administration must be to have only one cashier at this time of day, and then they open another lane and the people behind you get to go before you? And when we heard about athletes and celebrities getting multiple COVID tests before they were widely available to the public for even one test, and now reports of people line jumping to get the vaccine before they are eligible? Infuriating! And how about that guy in the Gospel of John who kept getting aced out of his healing by others more able to jump in the pool, despite the fact that he had been there for thirty-eight years? Those people should have lined up by seniority! The longest there, the first into the water. Perhaps it was because Jesus was upset enough about this unjust line jumping business that he went up to that man and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”

Now, there may have been some there that day at the Pool of Beth-Zatha who were angry when they thought that they were being line-jumped by Mr. 38 years, but they were weren’t the ones who got mad at Jesus for his healing of this man. No, the angry people who matter in this story are the Jewish leaders who saw a man walking around carrying his mat on the Sabbath. You see, to do such a thing violated the Sabbath-keeping laws on which much of Jewish religious life depended. It may seem like carrying the mat upon which you have lain for thirty-eight years of suffering shouldn’t be such a big deal, but, if the truth be told, Jesus could have just waited a few more hours until sundown and the whole issue could have been avoided. But, as things were, Mr. 38 Years is probably on his way to look around the city a bit, or to go see his family, when he is confronted with his violation of the Sabbath. And maybe he thought he was going to go from the frying pan to the fire. After all, Sabbath violations could be severely punished. And so, like Adam blaming Eve in the Garden, “The Woman gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate it” – he makes it Jesus’ responsibility, saying, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ ” Yes, I was carrying my mat, but that guy said it was OK.

That shifting of the blame makes it possible to read what Jesus said later to Mr. 38 Years, when he found him in the Temple and said, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you,” as Jesus rebuking the man. “Don’t blame me,” Jesus could be saying. But he’s almost certainly not saying that. Jesus doesn’t usually play that blame and shame game. No, when Jesus says, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you,” he is saying that there just may be worse things that could happen to you then being suspected of blasphemy by your religious leaders. He may be acknowledging that Mr. 38 Years is currently technically sinning by “working” on the Sabbath, -- “Do not sin any more,” he says – not that he really cares, but what he is really pointing out is that now that you have seen the power of God at work, if you continue to sin you will be missing out on the good stuff, the freedom that comes with knowing God is blessing you rather than thinking that God is cursing you. You’ll be missing out on the way of thinking that puts those who have been there the longest in the pool, not those who are the most capable. You’ll start celebrating healing instead of monitoring compliance with the rules. You’ll be able to recognize grace and reject shame. All of that is part of the package when you “sin no more.”

It can be tough sometimes to get a clear picture with the language John uses in his stories but what we need to take from the Gospel of John, is that the sin that really matters is not violating the sabbath, it’s not owning Jesus. The sinners throughout the Gospel of John are those who do not recognize and acknowledge Jesus as the son of God, what is being publicly expressed in this story for the first time in John’s Gospel. And it seems like Mr. 38 Years gets the message because he “went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who made him well.” In fact, the word used here for “to tell” is usually translated as “to announce” is a positive sense, like sharing good news. Maybe he’s just being a tattletale to get the Jewish leaders off his back by naming Jesus as the culprit, but I’d like to believe that he was emboldened by Jesus’ little heart to heart talk and wanted to give credit where it was due. He doesn’t refer to his mat this time, just the fact that he was healed.

All of that is some of what’s going on in this story which, on this Ash Wednesday, and this beginning of Lent, should call our attention to the dynamics of sin, of acknowledging Jesus, of making sure that nothing worse happens to us than being accused of not following the rules. Let me be clear when I say that we don’t get a pass on the way we treat others just because we confess Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord of our lives. No, the rules do matter, and Jesus tells us to follow them. What seems to matter more to him is why we keep them. Are we following them because we are afraid we’ll get punished if we don’t, or because we recognize their value in uplifting our human community? Honoring the Sabbath is important. It affirms God’s creation. It condemns Pharaoh’s slaveholding ways. Honoring the Sabbath honors God. Until it doesn’t. Until it becomes the very burden it seeks to condemn. So let me offer some thoughts on why Lent is a good time to think about not sinning any more.

It is not clear from our story what anyone thought Mr. 38 Year’s sin might have been that left him in his paralyzed or incapacitated state. That, of course, is part of the background to this story, the idea that if you were suffering, it’s because you had sinned and were being punished by God. A later chapter in John explores that dynamic much more fully than this one, but this chapter is useful to think about the consequences of sin that we experience. It doesn’t quite seem consistent with God’s character as revealed in Scripture to suggest that physical infirmities are the result of God actively punishing us for making a mistake. What does seem more comprehensible is that God expects that we will experience the consequences of our sin, because there are consequences. Cause and effect. Pain. Suffering.

Mr. 38 Years’ sin is not what caused him to be physically paralyzed, but you could say that he becomes paralyzed as a result of sin. The man’s physical symptoms – paralysis, or whatever else incapacitated him – are a great metaphor for his psychological or spiritual condition. We get paralyzed by sin, don’t we, whether it’s sin we have committed or sin that has been done to us? We get frozen up, limited, constrained in our ability to live into God’s gifts. We hold ourselves back, we don’t reveal our true selves, we keep secrets, we can’t be honest, when we are sinning. To live in sin is so binding, so paralyzing. Think about a time when you did something that was just plain wrong. It was probably hard to talk about, hard to admit, hard to confess. You probably felt some shame, which didn’t help. You wondered how people might judge you or even shun you. Or think about some sin that was committed against you. It was probably hard to talk about, hard to admit, hard to confess. You probably felt some shame, which didn’t help. You wondered how people might judge you or even shun you. No matter who does the sinning, the consequences are nearly always the same. A binding of the self, a binding of our love, a binding of God’s possibilities. Now that is something worse than being suspected of blasphemy by your religious leaders.

It’s not possible not to sin. But it is possible to try to sin less, to try to follow God more earnestly, and to love neighbor more thoughtfully. And that is really what the season of Lent is all about. It’s about focusing on our dependency on God. It’s about following the rules for the right reasons. It’s about remembering to celebrate that God has healed us when no one else would take us to the water when we couldn’t get there on our own. Lent is not, or at least it shouldn’t be, a burden. Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ call to not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you. Amen.

I Saw the Light

Matthew 8:5-13
© Stacey Steck

According to legend, or at least one supposed eyewitness’s account, on the way home from a gig in a small town named Fort Deposit, Alabama, Hank Williams wrote a famous song: “Mizz [Lilly] Williams, Hank’s mamma, had given me money to hand out circulars at Fort Deposit. Hank was higher than a kite by the time the show was over. She drove home, and he was in the back seat sleepin’ it off. There was a beacon light near Dannelly Field Airport, and Mizz Williams knew it always took time to get Hank awake when he was drunk like that, so she turned around and told him, ‘Hank, wake up, we’re nearly home. I just saw the light.’ Between there and home he wrote the song.” The song he wrote, was, of course, the famous, “I Saw the Light,” the first verse of which go like this: “I’ve wandered so aimless, life filled with sin / I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in / Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” Now, some might call Hank’s early morning songwriting an epiphany, but others call it copyright infringement. There are many who believe that Hank Williams stole not only the melody, but a good portion of the lyrics from another artist named Albert E. Brumley, whose name you might recognize too, seeing as how he wrote “I’ll Fly Away,” and over 800 other Gospel songs. Perhaps Hank Williams would have seen the light one day, and given credit where it was due, but alas, as you might remember, he met his untimely demise in the middle of the night in the back seat of a Cadillac somewhere in West Virginia at the age of thirty, with a wicked cocktail of drugs and alcohol in his system. Whether he really did see the light we’ll never know. I guess Mr. Brumley had the last laugh, dying at the age of seventy-two with his family at his side with more than one Gospel song to his name.

Seeing the light is the great theme of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins with the telling of the story of the star of Bethlehem, and how the Wise Men followed its light until they arrived at the home of the light of the world. The word epiphany means manifestation, or making something known, and so the church has always understood that the wise men “saw the light,” indicating that the Gospel was for the Gentiles too, and not just Jesus’ own people. That’s good news for us Gentiles. The church has also ended the season of Epiphany with a story of light, the Transfiguration, the trip Jesus took up the mountain with Peter and James and John when the three disciples saw Jesus shining like the sun and speaking with Moses and Elijah. At that moment, another revelation is made by a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” What may have been not fully understood before has now been announced with authority. Jesus is the Son of God and y’all better get with the program.

You may have noticed that I did not read the traditional text for Transfiguration Sunday and that because all the true Transfiguration texts are taken up in other years of the Revised Common Lectionary, but year D offers an interesting twist on the function of the story in the Lectionary. In the RCL, the Transfiguration story is used as a bookend to the baptism of Jesus, echoing or amplifying the words in the River Jordan on the mountaintop. But in Year D, what is bookended on Transfiguration Sunday is not the baptism of Jesus, but, as I said, the visit of the Magi. In the Gospel of Matthew, the first appearance by Gentiles in the story comes as those wise men visit Jesus, and Gentiles do not make another appearance in Matthew until our passage today, in which the Roman Centurion exhibits his unsolicited faith, not unlike the unsolicited trip of the Magi. Jesus has not asked for honor from the characters in either of these stories, and yet it comes to him. None of these characters have the history, culture, and background to approach Jesus with the same expectations and baggage that his own people approach. Rather, they instead approach from a different angle. It is an inspired choice of texts.

In the case of the Magi, we might imagine that angle of approach as curiosity, or perhaps diplomacy. We are led to believe they were astronomers interested in meeting the new King of a neighboring country. Their interest in Jesus is not caught up in centuries of prophecies about a Messiah. We don’t know whether they exhibited any faith when they offered their famous gifts, but they did give honor where it was due. The Centurion in our story today also gives honor where it is due, but his angle of approach is different. He seems to come to Jesus not out of curiosity, but out of what appears to be compassion. “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” He’s not asking for himself, but for someone else. Of course, it’s not clear why he comes to Jesus rather than the Roman medical center. Maybe his insurance didn’t cover dependents. But it is clear that he sought Jesus out because he thought he could do something for him. And from the conversation which follows, it is also clear that the Centurion’s faith did not come because his servant was healed, but because he had seen the light before he ever met Jesus. He came to Jesus by reputation, not because he had seen Jesus heal other people. In some ways, that Centurion begins from the same distance away as the Magi, and finds his way to Jesus not by the light of a star, but by the light of his heart.

If the Centurion somehow sounds familiar to some of you, perhaps it’s because you have watched The Mandalorian, the very popular new Star Wars spinoff series. For those of you who may not have seen it, The Mandalorian is a bounty hunter who is charged with capturing a fugitive who turns out to be not only a cute, little, defenseless creature who looks like Yoda, but also a potential Jedi knight with the power of the force. Now, this Mandalorian is a cold blooded killer, armed with highly sophisticated weaponry and with years of experience dealing with the roughest characters in the galaxy. But his heart is strangely warmed by the seemingly helpless baby Yoda and he turns his back on his bounty hunting brethren when he commits himself to getting baby Yoda to safety rather than to the experimental laboratory of the Empire. He makes it his mission to get baby Yoda to his own people, and does whatever it takes to succeed, including humbling himself in the most un-Mandalorian of ways. You see, Mandalorians live under a creed which does not allow them to ever take off their helmet in the presence of another living being, and yet, when faced with the choice to save a life or save his creed, he reveals his face to fulfill his mission.

The Centurion of our story has no need of an itinerant carpenter announcing freedom for captives and giving advice about fasting and almsgiving faithfully. He’s a comparatively powerful man who commands other comparatively powerful men. He’s not the Emperor, but he’s not a slave either. But he is a member of the occupying army, a foreigner charged with keeping the peace. He is the superior officer, not only of his men, but of the people of his jurisdiction. And yet he humbles himself to complete his mission of saving his servant, someone far beneath his own station. He seeks out a crackpot faith healer from a defeated people with an inferior deity, an act of humility that does not go unnoticed by Jesus. And on top of that, he does not even ask Jesus to do the healing in person. A virtual healing will be just fine, all you joining us by Facebook. Just say the word, as the old saying goes, say the word, Jesus, and lo and behold the deed was done.

It is not clear just which of these attributes Jesus recognizes as faith in this Gentile. Is it the compassion? The humility? The recognition of, and respect for, authority? Maybe it was all of these, or none of them. Maybe it was that Jesus saw that this man had seen the light, and responded to it, something that his own people weren’t always able to do. “ ‘Truly, I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the Centurion, Jesus said, ‘Go, let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.”

In the passage just before today’s in Matthew, Jesus’ healing power is framed as his choice. “I do choose” to heal you, Jesus says to a leper who has come to him asking him to do what the man already knows and believes Jesus can do. In our story today, although it does not come with the language of choice, Jesus’ choice of the Gentiles as worthy of compassion is evident. Gentiles were very specifically “unchosen” in the Jewish mindset of the time. Yes, they were acknowledged as worthy of coming and paying homage to God, as in the beginning of the book of Isaiah: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” They may have been welcomed, but they were not seen as equals to the Jews. They were never going to be a part of the “in” crowd in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion. Their posture would be one of defeated people having to humble themselves before a greater power. And yet, in Jesus’ eyes, this Gentile’s faith was superior to those who despised him.

It is noteworthy that nowhere in the Gospels is it said that Jesus healed a person of high standing. No Priests, Scribes, or Pharisees have their infirmities taken care of or their demons driven out of them. The closest you come to that class is Jairus, the leader of a synagogue, whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead. Only the blind, the lame, the broken-hearted, and the Gentiles receive that gift from God.. Maybe that upper class was so righteous that they didn’t have any infirmities or demons. Or maybe they were so self-righteous that they didn’t think someone like Jesus could do anything about it. Maybe they just hadn’t seen the light.
If we take Hank Williams’s view of epiphany, that we are in darkness until Jesus shines the light on us, we are left with a rather passive view of faith. “I’ve wandered so aimless, life filled with sin / I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in / Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night / Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” In that scenario, we are just waiting for Jesus to come and rescue us, and if our situation never changes, if Jesus never comes, than maybe we are not worthy of God’s love, or God’s choice. Maybe that’s what Hank Williams was thinking during his last few hours of life. Maybe that’s what the people who are pondering and completing suicide at a much higher rate are thinking these days. Maybe that’s what those who are turning to alcohol and drugs in greater quantities are thinking these days.

But maybe there is another way to think about epiphany, about seeing the light, that’s a more Alfred E. Brumley way. You see, Alfred Brumley could have sued Hank Williams for copyright infringement when he heard his song attributed to another artist, and most people say he probably would have won, but he chose not to pursue that path, but rather to just continue to write his 800 songs uplifting the hearts of countless people. Brumley chose compassion, humility, and authority over power, wealth, and fame. I’m not suggesting Hank Williams died young because he stole a song, but maybe his life would have turned out differently if he’d have made a different choice.

In a few moments, our music team will be sharing an anthem called “I Choose Love.” We’ve heard it before, but listen to its words again: “In the midst of pain, I choose love. Sorrow falling down like rain, I await the sun again / In the midst of war, I choose peace. Hate and anger, keeping score; I will seek the good once more / When my world falls down, I will rise. Explanations can’t be found; I will climb to holy ground.”

The Centurion likely never knew that Jesus said to a leper, “I do choose. Be made clean.” But he did know that he had to choose and he chose the path of compassion, humility, and respect for authority that Jesus recognized as faith. He did not wait for the light to come to him, but sought it out. May we seek the light, and choose love, and be among those who sit with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Centurion in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

The Work of Our Hands

Psalm 28
© Stacey Steck

As the Psalms go, Psalm 28 does not attract a lot of attention. Sure, it’s got an enviable mix of styles that confound classification by Biblical scholars – a little bit of lament, a little bit of praise and thanksgiving, a little bit of references to the monarchy. Sure, it’s got some great theological buzzwords and phrases like “my rock,” and “the Pit,” and “Blessed be the Lord.” Sure, it’s got the familiar request of God to smite the Psalmist’s enemies. But on the whole, it’s not going to appear on too many people’s top ten lists, and it certainly isn’t written about in very many books about the Psalms. It doesn’t crack the three year Lectionary cycle, and out of pity appears in Year D. So, why are we talking about it today? Well, maybe it’s because Psalm 28 is just like most of us, and our community too: steady if unremarkable, yet worthy of a place on the map, and with more than meets the eye when you sit down to talk to us. So here are a few interesting things about Psalm 28.

Psalm 28 has some interesting parallels to the words from Scripture that we heard at the beginning of the service, the Lord’s prayer from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. If you kind of refigure the psalm, it reads like a slightly more vengeful paraphrase of that famous prayer we say every Sunday. Take a look at the parallels.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
(To you, O Lord, I call; Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.)

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
(Because they do not regard the works of the Lord, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more.)

Give us this day our daily bread.
(Be their shepherd, literally, “feed them,” and carry them forever.)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
(Not so much here, but we’ll call it a work in progress.)

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
(Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil.)

What the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 28 have in common then, is an expression of our dependence on God. We can’t do it alone. We are up against more than we can face alone, or even together sometimes as the human community. We need God’s provision of food, strength, courage, blessing, salvation. We can work our fingers to the bone, but it will never quite be enough. We can try to satisfy all our longings, but it will never quite be enough. In the end, as the Psalmist knows, and as Jesus instructed his disciples, it is only God who can be depended on to meet all our needs. “The Lord is my strength and my shield,” says the Psalmist, “in him my heart trusts.” There is no other worthy of our faith and commitment. And so, if you’re looking for a new prayer that expresses that faith and commitment, look no further than Psalm 28.

And if you are looking for some insight on how to honor the God whom you trust, Psalm 28 has something for you there too. First of all, do not be like the bad guys of the story, the ones who are “workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in the hearts,” the ones who “do not regard the works of the Lord.” Don’t be two-faced, basically. Practice what you preach. Act on Monday what you proclaimed on Sunday. Give God the glory. Have integrity. Put in an honest day’s work. Give credit to those who blazed the trail for you. These are the ways we can show God that our prayers of dependence are more than mere words. These are the ways we show others that our God is worthy of trust. The evildoers of the Psalm are not just damaging their own relationship with God, they are offering a terrible witness about God to others. What kind of God is that guy’s God who condones hypocrisy? If I can’t trust my mischievous neighbor, I’m certainly not going to trust his God.

And the last contribution of Psalm 28 that I’ll share with you this morning is the recurring image of hands. The Psalm begins with an expression of faith that is accompanied with the lifting of the Psalmist’s hands “toward your most holy sanctuary.” The lifting of the hands is a posture of praise. We Presbyterians don’t do this quite so much, but many other Christian traditions make a habit of lifting up hands in worship, pointing to, or grasping for, or welcoming God’s blessing. The lifting of the hands is an expression of offering oneself to God without any tools, or possessions, a sort of take me as I am approach. I really have nothing to offer you, O God, but my reaching out to you and my praise of you. May it be enough, O Lord. What we do with our hands matters.

But what about the hands of the evildoers? “Repay them according to the works of their hands.” The hands of the wicked are not raised up toward God. Those hands are pointing to, or grasping for, or welcoming not the blessing that God gives them, but whatever they can possess from the homes and lives of others, taking blessing they do not deserve, causing suffering that God does not desire. These are greedy hands, dishonorable hands, idle hands that are the devil’s workshop, as the old saying goes. These are the hands of torturers, and lynch mobs, and white collar criminals. These are hands that deny and punish rather than give and bless, hands of clenched fists that hold weapons, hands that are so busy that they push away a child rather than embrace her. What we do with our hands matters.

And then there are the works of the Lord’s hands, the ones which the evildoers of the Psalm “do not regard,” a symbol of their unwillingness to honor their creator. The Lord’s hands, of course, are an anthropomorphism. God does not have actual hands, right? Well, unless we consider what the hands of Jesus accomplished, the healing that they did, the overturning of the tables of the money changers that they did, the washing of feet that they did, and so many other enduring images of what the hands of a righteous person can do. All of this is the contrast that the Psalmist sets up between hands that honor God and hands that do not. What we do with our hands matters.

Back in the fifteenth century, in a tiny village near Nuremberg, lived a family with eighteen children. In order merely to keep food on the table for this mob, the father and head of the household, a goldsmith by profession, worked almost eighteen hours a day at his trade and any other paying chore he could find in the neighborhood.

Despite their seemingly hopeless condition, two of the elder children, Albrecht and Albert, had a dream. They both wanted to pursue their talent for art, but they knew full well that their father would never be financially able to send either of them, much less both of them, to Nuremberg to study at the Academy.

After many long discussions at night in their crowded bed, the two boys finally worked out a pact. They would toss a coin. The loser would go down into the nearby mines and, with his earnings, support his brother while he attended the academy. Then, when that brother who won the toss completed his studies, in four years, he would support the other brother at the academy, either with sales of his artwork or, if necessary, also by laboring in the mines.
They tossed a coin on a Sunday morning after church. Albrecht Durer won the toss and went off to Nuremberg. Albert went down into the dangerous mines and, for the next four years, financed his brother, whose work at the academy was almost an immediate sensation. Albrecht’s etchings, his woodcuts, and his oils were far better than those of most of his professors, and by the time he graduated, he was beginning to earn considerable fees for his commissioned works.

When the young artist returned to his village, the Durer family held a festive dinner on their lawn to celebrate Albrecht’s triumphant homecoming. After a long and memorable meal, filled with much music and laughter, Albrecht rose from his honored position at the head of the table to drink a toast to his beloved brother for the years of sacrifice that had enabled Albrecht to fulfill his ambition. His closing words were, “And now, Albert, blessed brother of mine, now it is your turn. Now you can go to Nuremberg to pursue your dream, and I will take care of you.”
All heads turned in eager expectation to the far end of the table where Albert sat, tears streaming down his face, his head shaking, his voice saying, “No... no... no... no.”

Finally, Albert rose and wiped the tears from his cheeks. He glanced down the long table at the faces he loved, and then, holding his hands close to his cheek, he said softly, “No, brother. I cannot go to Nuremberg. It is too late for me. Look... Look what four years in the mines have done to my hands! The bones in every finger have been smashed at least once, and lately I have been suffering from arthritis so badly in my right hand that I cannot even hold a glass to return your toast, much less make delicate lines on parchment or canvas with a pen or a brush. No, brother... for me it is too late.”

More than 450 years have passed. By now, Albrecht Durer’s hundreds of masterful portraits, pen and silver-point sketches, water colors, charcoals, woodcuts, and copper engravings hang in every great museum in the world, but the odds are great that you, like most people, are familiar with only one of Albrecht Durer’s works. More than merely being familiar with it, you very well may have a reproduction hanging in your home or office.

One day, to pay homage to Albert for all that he had sacrificed, Albrecht Durer painstakingly drew his brother's abused hands with palms together and thin fingers stretched skyward. He called his powerful drawing simply “Hands,” but the entire world almost immediately opened their hearts to his great masterpiece and renamed his tribute of love “The Praying Hands.” The next time you see a copy of that touching creation, or even catch a glance of your own hands, take a second look and remember, what we do with our hands matters. Amen.