Jesus is walking southward with his disciples to Jerusalem, a journey he would have made many times… but probably not on this particular route.[i] On this occasion they are walking from Nazareth – which is up north in the Galilee region – through the region of Samaria to get to Jerusalem. It’s 90 miles straight, following the hypotenuse of the triangle. However most Jews, walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, would set off east on a right angle, crossing over the Jordan River, then following the river southwards until cutting back westward over the river to go up to Jerusalem. This turned the 90-mile direct trek-on-foot into 120 miles; however it avoided Samaria.
Samaria was in the center of Palestine, 40 miles from north to south, and 35 miles from east to west. The Jews hated the Samaritans; the Samaritans hated the Jews. The Samaritans were colonists established by the Assyrians in the territory of Israel. The Samaritans claimed that they, too, were among God’s chosen people. But the Samaritans did not go up to Jerusalem to worship; they went up to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was “bad blood,” sometimes vitriol racism, between these two groups. Samaritans stayed amongst themselves. Jews taking a shortcut through Samaria were easy targets for hatred, sometimes for vindictive robbery.
One day Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee. While they were at table, a woman “who was a sinner” entered the room with an alabaster jar of ointment. She began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet as she poured the costly ointment over them. We are not told who the woman was, or what had earned her the reputation of “a sinner,” or how she knew Jesus, or why she was weeping and anointing his feet. The gospel writer records only her simple act of profound love and devotion.
The Pharisee objected mightily to this woman’s presence in his house. He may have been irritated that she was distracting his guest and ruining his party. But it’s more likely that he objected to her very presence. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” For the Pharisee, that label had clear implications: it dictated how a righteous person would respond to her. Certainly a teacher like Jesus should understand these important social norms. Not only would he not have let her touch him, he would not have interacted with her in any way. To do so would compromise his own holiness.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.
As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
It seems that the end is already present in the beginning.
Jesus commences his public ministry just as John the Baptist is arrested. Before we even perceive this John as the one coming in the spirit of Elijah, his witness to Jesus’ coming hastens his murder by the powers of this world. Now the one whose appearance John foretold is walking among us, proclaiming as he goes, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Mark tells us that Jesus is not simply announcing the time. Rather, it is Jesus himself who fulfills the time, both in his words and in his full humanity. For this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him the coming time is always now—the present.
But how can Mark’s Jesus preach that the time is fulfilled when the world’s history continues with disaster upon disaster, injustice upon injustice, violence upon violence, hatred upon hatred, and greed upon greed? If the time is already fulfilled, then what are we to make of the redemption, much of which is clearly yet to come?
Yet Jesus, who still walks among us, doesn’t set about explaining or making excuses for God. Rather, Jesus calls upon people, using an imperative, to respond to his declaration, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus walks among those of his own day, and continues to walk among us in our own. Jesus invites us to assume our full identity, new each day, even those of us who have begun to experience his call in our lives.
I know this comes three days late, but welcome to Epiphanytide, the season during which we recognize the revelation of God to us through Jesus Christ. As part of our celebration we’re offering this sermon series on following God’s call. It’s called Gifts for the Journey, and over the following weeks, we’ll explore five ways God reveals Godself to us, five gifts we might expect along our spiritual journey in Christ, which as they’re revealed to us in the fullness time help us discern God’s call. Tonight, we’ll be looking at the gift of identity, asking the question “Who am I, really?”
First, we’ll begin with a story. It’s a very ancient story, and I first encountered it as told by Anthony de Mello in his book The Song of the Bird. Once upon a time there lived a doll made from salt. This salt doll, infused with a curious restlessness, searched far and wide for something it couldn’t quite name. It wandered all across the land, for so long it very often forgot it was searching for anything at all. But still, the salt doll went on, travelling far and wide, fueled by this hidden desire.
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”
Isaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22
We sing to God:
You alone are the Holy One.
You alone are the Lord.
You alone are the Most High.
And God sings to us:
“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?
Jane was a member of my congregation when I was a parish priest in England. She was a remarkable woman with great faith, but who had suffered so much over the past years as her husband struggled with cancer. She was brave, courageous, resilient, but it was clear the light had gone out of her life. But I remember, on one New Year’s Day, she came up to me in church and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution – or rather a new year’s prayer.” I remember thinking, O good – maybe she’s going to travel or get a new job. “No, she said, not that. I’m going to ask God for JOY again in my life. I want the gift of JOY.”
I’d never heard anyone say that to me before – but I can honestly say that God did answer her prayer, and as the year went on, I saw her come alive again. God gave her the gift of joy. It was beautiful to see.