Sunday, March 30, 2014

Passion Narrative, Dramatic Form, Gospel of Matthew

I wrote this in 2008. It is designed for fourteen actors and one congregation, though some roles can be played by the same person. And with some creative re-writing, one could even get rid of a few more actors.

It is divided in parts, and we placed a verse or two of a good Good Friday hymn in between each section, or a prayer or other liturgical element. But, there is no reason that it could be played all the way through without a break.

This is the only version of Matthew's narrative that I have done. The last time Matthew came up in the Lectionary, I did John instead, and this year (which would be Matthew again) we are not doing a Passion narrative. But I might rewrite this anyway. It is six years old, and is rather too-wedded to a literal adherence to the text.

Feel free to use, just credit me with it and let me know that you are using it.

This is how the original was done:

People playing one role:

Girl 1
Girl 2
Pilate’s Wife

People playing more than one role:
False Witness 1 AND Centurion

False Witness 2 AND Bystander

The People (played by congregation)

1. Matthew 26:1-25 – Anointing and conspiracy
Narrator, Jesus, Caiaphas, Judas, Peter

Narrator: Gathered on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gave his final teachings to his disciples. When finished, Jesus then said to them:

Jesus: You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.

Narrator: Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.

Caiaphas: But we dare not kill him during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people!

Narrator: Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they said,

Judas and Peter: Why this waste? This ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.

Jesus: Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

Narrator: Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests.

Judas: What will you give me if I betray him to you?

Caiaphas: Here are thirty pieces of silver – deliver him to us.

Judas: I will let you know when and where you may have him.

Narrator: On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus.

Peter and Judas: Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?

Jesus: Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’

Narrator: So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he took his place with the twelve and they ate the Passover meal.

Jesus: Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.

Peter: Surely not I, Lord?

Jesus: The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.

Judas: Surely not I, Rabbi?

Jesus: You have said so. [END Part 1]

2. Matthew 26:26-30 – the new covenant

Narrator, Jesus

Narrator: While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, and gave it to the disciples.

Jesus: Take, eat; this is my body.

Narrator: Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them.

Jesus: Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.

Narrator: When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

[End Part 2]

3. Matthew 26:31-46 – Jesus prays
Jesus, Peter, Narrator

Jesus: You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.

Peter: Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.

Jesus: Truly I tell you, Peter, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.

Peter: Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.

Jesus: Let us go to Gethsemane. Come Peter and you two sons of Zebedee. Sit here while I go over there and pray. I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.


Narrator: And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed,

Jesus: My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.

Narrator: Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping.

Jesus: Peter! Could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Narrator: Again he went away for the second time and prayed,

Jesus: My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.

Narrator: Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples a third time.

Jesus: Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.

[END Part 3]

4. Matthew 26:47-56 – betrayal and arrest
Narrator, Judas

Narrator: While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said,

Judas: Greetings, Rabbi!

Narrator: And Judas kissed Jesus.

Jesus: Friend, do what you are here to do.

Narrator: Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Jesus: Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way? (CHANGE IN TONE) Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.

Narrator: Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

[END Part 4]

5. Matthew 26:57-68 – on trial before Caiaphas

Narrator, Caiaphas, False Witnesses 1 and 2, Jesus, Priest

Narrator: Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.

Caiaphas: We must put him to death, but we have no one who will make testimony against him.

Narrator: Finally, two who were willing to make false testimony came forward.

False Witness 1: This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God’.

False Witness 2: And then he said he could rebuild it in three days!

Caiaphas: Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?

Narrator: But Jesus was silent.

Caiaphas: I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.

Jesus: You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.

Caiaphas: Such blasphemy! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?

Priest: He deserves death.

Narrator: Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, taunting him to prophesy and tell them who it was who struck him.

[END Part 5]

6. Matthew 26:69-75 – Peter’s Denial
Narrator, Peter, Girl 1, Girl 2, Bystander

Narrator: Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him.

Girl 1: You also were with Jesus the Galilean.

Peter: I do not know what you are talking about.

Narrator: When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him.

Girl 2: This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter: I do not know the man.

Narrator: Then a bystander came.

Bystander: Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.

Peter: I do not know the man!

Narrator: And at that moment the cock crowed, and Peter remembered.

Peter: Before the cock crows, he said, I would deny him three times.

Narrator: And he went out and wept bitterly.

[END Part 6]

7. Matthew 27:1-14 – Jesus on trial before Pilate

Narrator, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate

Narrator: When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.

Judas: I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.

Caiaphas: What is that to us? See to it yourself.

Narrator: Judas threw down the pieces of silver in the temple, and went and hanged himself.

Caiaphas: It is not lawful to put this money into the treasury, since it is blood money.

Narrator: So the priests used it to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Narrator: Now Jesus stood before the governor.

Pilate: Are you the King of the Jews?

Jesus: You say so.

Narrator: But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer.

Pilate: Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?

Narrator: But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

[END Part 7]

8. Matthew 27:15-26 – The people demand crucifixion

Narrator, Pilate’s Wife, Pilate, People, Jesus

Narrator: Pilate realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed over Jesus. While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him,

Pilate’s Wife: Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.

Narrator: Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas.

Pilate: Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?

Narrator: The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.

Pilate: Which of the two do you want me to release for you?

People: Barabbas.

Pilate: Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?

People: Let him be crucified!

Pilate: Why, what evil has he done?

People: Let him be crucified! Let him be crucified!

Narrator: So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd.

Pilate: I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.

Narrator: Then the people as a whole answered,

People: His blood be on us and on our children!

Narrator: So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

[END Part 8]

9. Matthew 27:27-51 – Jesus is crucified

Narrator, Jesus, Caiaphas

Narrator: Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Narrator: Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him.

Caiaphas: He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’

Narrator: The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

Narrator: From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,

Jesus: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

Narrator: which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

[END Part 9]

10. Matthew 27:54-66 – Jesus is placed in the tomb
Narrator, Centurion, Caiaphas, Pilate

Narrator: The centurion and those keeping watch over Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, and were terrified and said,

Centurion: Truly this man was God’s Son!

Narrator: Many women were there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. In the evening, a rich man came from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He rolled a great stone to close the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

Narrator: The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate.

Caiaphas: Sir, we remember that while he was still alive that imposter said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead, and the last deception would be worse than the first.

Pilate: You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.

Narrator: So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. [END]

Rules, Shmules. Annoy the Rules Keepers, and Move in the Way of Love

“Rules, Schmules”
Sermon, Year A, Lent 4, March 30, 2014 
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: John 9:1-41

Whenever I read this passage, I think of that age old maxim, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Jesus heals a guy. Gives a guy his sight. And you’d think that he’d killed him, for all the brouhaha that ensues.

It enrages some of these people. He broke the rules! Forget that he healed someone. Forget that he gave someone their sight, someone who had always been blind. What is important here, to some of the people around Jesus, is that Jesus broke a rule. He healed on the Sabbath! A day that you’re not supposed to do work.

No good deed goes unpunished.

And it is easy to become obsessed with rules. With how things are supposed to be. Especially religious ones. Easy to get caught up in. I fall into that trap. I’m sure we all do. I’ve fallen into that trap as a minister, when I have an idea or a situation and I think, “Well, the right thing seems to be this,” I will think, but while thinking that, I’ll have the thought, “But it kind of goes against the rules. What are people going to think? Maybe it goes against tradition. Maybe it will annoy my clergy peers. Maybe they will see this as me going too far out of line. Or violation of some church code.

Even though we aren’t a creedal or doctrinal church, and have no “official” position or things we have to believe, we still are in covenant with other churches. Other UCC churches, certainly, but also other denominations. There is still some unwritten sense that there are rules about what makes a proper baptism, a wedding, a funeral, how to do Communion, lead worship, or be in the world. We want also to be good covenant partners. So we don’t have a set of rules that some churches have. But we still want to adhere to some set of expectations, ideas.

It is easy to get these rules get stuck in the head and its easy to forget about the people who are in need, and think more of the rules. A couple years ago we had a funeral here, and the family wanted the final song, “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life” to Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” during the funeral. If you don’t know the song, I won’t sing it for you since it has swear words in it. In most times, it would be inappropriate in a church. But for the man who died, and that family, it would have made sense to use that song in the funeral. I said “No”, though, because I was worried about the rules of propriety. More worried about that than the needs of the people in front of me. I wish I had allowed it to go on. I did say that they play it at the luncheon meal after the funeral.

I’ve also had times that I get requests to baptize a baby of someone who isn’t a church member. I struggle with what to do. Or weddings. These are kind of dilemmas that ministers fall into. You’re probably not often confronted the dilemma of whether to baptize someone. But I’m sure in your workplaces, in your schools, in your daily life you are confronted at times with these situations of feeling like the right thing to do seems to against church rules or doctrine or something that you’ve been taught at some time. They can trap us. “Can I do this and still be a proper Christian?” is the question that we are faced with.

Can Jesus heal on the Sabbath? Healing is a good thing, but the Sabbath is a day that you’re not supposed to work. It’s a holy day! And so on the Sabbath, no, you can’t heal. Not appropriate. I can see, at some level, from the Pharisees’ point of view – the guy has blind since birth. He can wait another day. Jesus didn’t have to heal him on the Sabbath. What would have been the harm of waiting another day and respecting the sanctity of the Sabbath Day? Waiting until tomorrow isn’t going to hurt him. But we don’t always get to wait until tomorrow. That is not always an option. The needs that are in front of us are, well, in front of us when they are.

So there is that nagging question, “Is this Christian? Is this appropriate?” Or perhaps we can word it as, “Can I do this, and still be a good Christian?” or “Be within continuity of Christianity?”

As I thought of this passage this week, and even thought over the past couple of years about how to be a more relevant church for today, to be the kind of church we need in the 21st century, I’m wondering more and more if the question, “Is this Christian?” is the wrong question. Or the wrong way of coming to the question.

This text, and much of what Jesus says, haunts me because he doesn’t care about rules. He cares about compassion, the ultimate rule. He cares about love, the ultimate commandment. Those ought to be the deciding factors. So maybe the question isn’t, “Is this is a Christian thing to do?” or “Can I do this and be a Christian?” Maybe the question to ask is to spin it a little bit and ask, “Is this in continuity with Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ example? Is it faithful to being a follower of Jesus?”

In my own head, when I consider a question like, “Is this Christian?”, what I get spinning around in my head is questions of orthodoxy and polity: “Would the Division on Church and Ministry accept it? What’s the historical church teaching on this? What do other denominations say about this? What is the official policy of some other denomination? Will it get me in trouble? Is it too unorthodox? How would I defend this if questioned?”

When I ask the question, “Is this Christian”, I get abstract academic stuff in my head. Worries about right and wrong. Does this fall within the rules? Does it fit in that neat tidy box called Christianity?

But if I consider a question the other way, “Is it faithful to being a follower of Jesus?” then the questions that pop into my head are not the academic or abstract questions. The questions that come into my head are, “Is it compassionate? Is it the loving? Does it bring dignity to someone? Does it remove shame or guilt?” If so, then it is worth breaking the rules. Or sometimes, because I can be anti-authoritarian, I might ask, “Will this bother the Rules Police?” and if so, then maybe I ought to do it!

“Is it Christian?” makes the situation to be about me. At least, when I ask that question. It makes it about me. The repercussions to me, about my need to cover my butt, or to protect God (who does not need my protection), or to be a Defender of What is Right And True.

“Is it faithful to Jesus?” makes it about the other person or people – about their needs – or the greater good of the community.

So I don’t want so much to be a Christian, though I will continue to use that word, it’s a good word, but I want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. I want to be a faithful follower. Not that they can’t be one and the same, but it can be easy to think of the faith as a set of intellectual propositions about belief and pious behavior, and less about being like Jesus.

Jesus sees this man who has been blind since birth, and Jesus is driven by compassion, and heals him, even though the rules say “You can’t do that on the sabbath.” Jesus doesn’t care. There is someone blind in front of him, he heals him. What Jesus sees is a blind man. He does not see rules about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.

Beliefs can help, beliefs are good. Our Confirmation class looked at the first drafts of their faith statements this morning. Nothing wrong with having beliefs. A belief structure can help us. The beliefs we share in common have merit, but they can get in the way sometimes. They can get in the way

I grow stronger in my conviction that the church of today and of tomorrow needs to be a church that does know its traditions, that does know its orthodoxy, but isn’t afraid to break them for the sake of compassion and human need in the name of the One – Jesus – whom we claim to follow!

I think that’s what the church needs to be. I think that’s the church that the unchurched, or the anti-church, or the burned-out-on-church, or burned-by-church, have been wanting us to be. Living our mission to serve. They know the words of Jesus. They know Jesus’ words and they want to see us live them. And they might even join in if we’re living them. They may very well want to come along and do good for the world.

I’ve taken communion out on the street ministry, which is a powerful experience! Some might say that’s not proper. Communion outside the context of worship is not a proper thing to do. But the experience of being the church going to where the people are, and to see the looks on the people who have been served Communion. Their thankfulness, their appreciation. Not just that it’s me serving them like I’m some kind of hero, but to see in their faces the recognition that Jesus has come to them saying, “You are worthy, you matter.” To be reminded that they matter to God, which for the homeless, the poor, and others, too often don’t feel that.

I think of some of the baptisms we have done in the past year for some of the members of our congregation on the street. Powerful experiences. We as a community coming together for them, and with them, and them with us. Powerful moments of grace and love. Moments of Jesus’ presence being very real. That’s where Jesus is.

That’s what it’s about.

The man who was born blind sees God’s truth so much better than those who spend all their time studying and talking about God and constructing a Box of Right Belief. He gets it. And some in this story of healing finish the story at the same place they began in the beginning. No change in their lives at all. But the healed man’s life is transformed. That’s what the Church does. It transforms lives. The healed man’s life is transformed and he finds himself a new person in a very different space. A space where Jesus already was and where Jesus already is.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

One Act Play: The Samaritan Woman and Jesus at the Well

This was offered at Plymouth UCC, Eau Claire, WI on March 23, 2014. Based on John 4's story of the Samaritan woman who encounters Jesus at Jacob's Well.

Feel free to use, but please do note that it is copyrighted and I request that you give me attribution and let me know that is being used. 

The Samaritan Woman at the Well
One Act Dramatization for two actors
© 2014 Rev. David J. Huber


WOMAN A nameless Samaritan woman
JESUS Jesus, the guy in the New Testament

At a well, or some other place – be creative.


My name?
[make some kind of gesture like “I don’t know”]
Let’s just keep that between him and me. HE knows my name. He knew it without me even saying it, actually. In fact, he knew a lot about me. Everything about me.

I met him at Jacob’s well. That’s the well that Jacob, son of Isaac and brother of Esau, dug many, many centuries before. It is here in my hometown in Samaria. I was bringing my water jug to fill it. It was about noon, and there he was, sitting by the well. I remember how hot and dirty he looked in the noon sun and heat pounding down on both of us.

Why would I go to the well at such a miserable time of day, you ask? The other women, of course, go in the morning or evening when it’s cooler. But they … I don’t like being near them. I’d rather face a beating from the sun and heat than the beating of their insults and their rolling eyes. They think they know me, they judge me on a few things, but they don’t know me at all.

It’s just safer. Easier on my soul, to go when I can be alone with the only person I can trust.

But that day, there he was! Sitting by the well. He’d clearly walked far. He had nothing to put into the well to draw out water. In fact, he had nothing at all. Never saw that before in a traveler. As I came closer I could see he was a Jew. Definitely not from around here! He had walked a long way. I figured I would be safe at least from insults since a Jewish man wouldn’t dare speak to a Samaritan woman.

But he was... different.

Give me a drink.

[to audience]
Give him a drink? Was he serious?

Give me a drink, please.

But sir, you are a Jew! And a man. You can’t accept water from me or anyone here.

I need water, and you are the only one who can bring it up from the well.

I’m not sure that I...

If you knew who it is who is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked me and I would have given you living water!

You don’t even have a bucket! Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than Jacob, who gave us this well, and who drank from it with his sons, and who watered his flocks from it?

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again. But those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Oh, sir, give me this water! I am so tired of being thirsty, and so soul-weary from having to keep coming here, among these people, to fill my bucket.
[to audience]
I said that to him, but he just looked at me with eyes that seemed to look right through mine and into my soul.

Go, call your husband, and come back.

My husband? I have no husband.

I know.

How did he know that?

You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.

You are a prophet!
[to audience]
And he knew so much more about me. Maybe it was because he knew everything about me, or maybe it was because he said it so matter-of-fact without any hint of judgment on me, but I felt comfortable with him. Known. Comfortable enough to risk asking a question of a Jewish man.
[to Jesus]
Once we were one people, and our ancestors worshiped here, on this mountain. But now we are separated. We still worship here, but your people now say the only place that God may be worshiped is in Jerusalem.

Woman, believe me, soon a time will come when you and I and all God’s people will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, for those are the ones whom God seeks.

I know that the Messiah, the Christ, is coming, and when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us. He will show us and teach us the truth.

I am he, the one who is speaking to you.

[to audience]
“The one who is speaking to you.” Did you hear that? He was actually speaking to me, not as a child or as someone to be humored for a moment and then dismissed, but as an equal. As someone who mattered. This was new. I wanted to talk more to this man who knew who I was, but who knew also that I was so much more than just that woman with the many husbands and a past.

But then his disciples came, and I feared that I would be sent away or dismissed by them. They were clearly astonished that he was speaking with a woman... but not a single one questioned me, “What do you want?” nor did any of them ask their rabbi, “Why are you speaking with her?” What new way was he teaching them that they were so comfortable around woman? They must have women in their circle back home, learning with the men and treated as equals. Could he be the Messiah? I felt it. His compassion, his acceptance of me, the way his disciples his acted, those are the signs of a man who could be the messiah.

I was so excited, that I ran from the well, leaving my water jar behind! I shouted to anyone who would listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Is he the Messiah? I think he is! And he has come to us Samaritans.” Some of the people actually followed me back to him!

As we arrived, his disciples were trying to get him to eat.

I have food to eat that you do not know about. My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’

I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.

Many Samaritans believed in him at first just because of my testimony, when I said to them that he told me everything I have ever done. We asked him to stay with them; and he stayed with us for two days. And many more believed because of his word. And they told me that they came to believe not just because of what I told them, but because they heard Jesus’ words, and they knew – they knew! – that here is truly the Savior of the world. And I was his first evangelist.

My name? My name is not important. Just think of me as... you.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

So Fred Phelps has died. Let us not celebrate, but mourn.

Fred Phelps, the man who heard the words of the man-deity who said "Love your enemies" and "Love your neighbor" and twisted them into a destructive rhetoric of divine hatred against "teh gays", and eventually against America itself because it did not sufficiently rise up in hate against those gays, has died.

I do not fully understand the depth of hurt that he inflicted on the gay community, or on the families of dead soldiers with his constant picketing of their funerals, so I tread lightly here. I imagine many will celebrate the death of such a destructive, inhuman generator of fuming caustic evil. But as with the death of Osama bin Laden, I may feel relieved that he is no longer able to preach his deplorable vision of the Kingdom of Heaven, but I also acknowledge that he was a human being who was also the beloved of the Creator and has/had just as much access to divine gentleness as any of us. As Jesus said in the sermon On the Mount (Matthew 5), "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous."
I can understand the temptation to scream in joy, to run in circles of happiness, and to want to go spit on his grave. But such actions would be no different than what he did. Jesus' continued his above sentences with the following, "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?". Let us not meet evil with evil, but meet evil with love. Love does not imply that we condone the actions of Fred or those whose minds and hearts he warped to follow him. But more hatred, or triumphal celebration, will imply that we condone that his medium was good and holy, even if we felt his message to be anything but. Is the world better off without him? In my opinion, yes. And apparently, even much of his family seem to believe so. Though I wish he could have found a way to repent first. To acknowledge the damage he did to innocent people. To find the center of love in his heart to embrace his neighbors with goodness. To see that the Gospel message is one of love and inclusion, not fear and hatred. I pray that as he meets his Creator, comes to the Lord's outstretched arms, he will find the peace that - so far as I can tell - he never felt on earth.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Don't Worry - God Loves You! (sermon from March 2, 2014)

“Don’t Worry – God Loves You!”
Sermon, Year A Epiphany 8, March 2, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 6:24-34

This is the last week that we will be reading from the Sermon on the Mount and we’re only about halfway through. Jesus is giving many ethical ideas about life here. One thing that Jesus is laying out throughout the whole Sermon on the Mount is this vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. Or call it the Kingdom of God, the Realm of Heaven, the Commonwealth of God (that’s a term I like), the the Realm of God... whichever term you prefer. He’s talking about a vision of that and what it looks like. This concept of Commonwealth of God is what we will be exploring in our Soup and Scripture on Wednesdays during Lent. We’ll discuss a) what do we want to call it from that list I offered? and b) What does it mean? What does it look like? What does it mean to us, today, as followers of Jesus?

One thing that Jesus is laying out in this sermon is this vision of a new Way of living. And in this sermon, in Matthew’s version, it covers chapters 5, 6, and 7. So it happens early in the Gospel. Early in Jesus’ career. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is really the first time we hear Jesus teaching and preaching. There has been mention of Jesus going out and teaching, and Matthew records him saying to “repent”, but this is the first record of what Jesus’ actually said. And what Jesus is doing is laying out is what the Commonwealth of God looks like. He’s saying, “If we live this way, then it (the Commonwealth) will be more fully present and we will be more fully in it by living this way.” And by it being more present, and us being more fully in it, we and God will be more and more in alignment. More and more going the same direction, working toward the same goal, the same end. We will be closer and closer to God.

From last week’s reading to this week’s reading we skipped part of chapter 5, which includes the parts where Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer, talks about not being an obnoxiously public pray-er that draws attention to one’s faithfulness (Jesus says, “Don’t be that guy!”), don’t store up treasures on earth but store up treasures in heaven. Then we get to the passage we read today that begins, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” That can be hard for us to hear sometimes as capitalist Americans. You cannot serve God and wealth. Money is a god that is never satisfied. It is a god that you will never really truly make happy. You can’t make that god fully happy and satisfied, and trying to do so can lead to worry. Wanting to hoard, to keep, to hold on, afraid that you might lose it. You have to lock it up, protect it.

Oddly enough, as a percentage of income, it is the people at the bottom of the economic ladder that give a greater percentage of their income than the wealthy. The wealthy give more in absolute dollars, but as a percentage of income it is the people at the bottom who give more. They do not so tightly hold on to that. Jesus continues to speak, and he doesn’t talk about money after that, but he is talking about the sense of wanting to hoard, keep things for ourselves, to hold on to things, as related to worry about tomorrow, worry about the future. Some of that worry is legitimate: I think of people who went through the Depression or other economic hard times, they know the very real fear of trying to live through hard times and want to protect themselves to their best ability. So I don’t think Jesus is speaking against taking some precautions and being sensible in preparing for the future.

But he is talking about not getting so fixated on that. Not so worried about it that we forget that we live in God’s world.

Today we are celebrating Communion. The last couple days I have been thinking of these two things together. Jesus’ words about “ Don’t worry about tomorrow, look at how God clothes the lilies! Look at how God feeds the birds! They don’t store up, they don’t toil, the food is just there for them.” And if we think of Communion as a ritual of Divine self-sharing – “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you” – God sharing part of God with us. But it is also an act of sharing with one another. We serve one another the bread and the cup. We pass around the trays of bread and wine. Or as we will do on Ash Wednesday, we come up and circle the table and truly serve one another the bread and cup.

It is a sacrament to nourish us for our spiritual journey, but it is also a model of how Jesus imagines that we ought to be living together. Living together in a way in which everyone is invited, everyone is fed. We will be talking about some of the parables of the Commonwealth of God during our Wednesday Lent Soup and Scripture gatherings at noon and 6 pm. Parables that Jesus spoke. But Jesus also gave us physical parables. We can think of what Jesus did at the Last Supper as a parable. Gathered with his disciples at the end to say, in a sense, “This is what it should look like. Feeding one another. This, too, is a parable. Contemplate and meditate on this.”

I don’t think Jesus is talking here so much about God just magically providing bread and clothing for all of us. Though I have heard and read sermons and people talking that way, that say, “Well, if you just have enough faith, God will make sure you have plenty of food and plenty of clothing.” I think all one needs to do is look around or read a newspaper, or go out with us some night on our street ministry, to know that this simply is not true. It is not because they lack faith, it is just the way it is. God is not a magical vending machine and if you have enough faith everything will be provided. I think what Jesus is saying is, “I invite you into this new way that I am imagining. A way in which your brothers and sisters, your neighbors or community, your fellowship, us, will so embody my message of love that they will make sure you don’t go without. They will embody my message and will share. And you, too, will provide for those in need when you have an abundance. So stop fighting each other for resources. Don’t worry about not having enough. There is enough for everyone.”

God does provide in the sense that God makes the plants and animals grow. For all of our wonderful technology, for as powerful as we are, we can’t make food. That comes only from God, through the earth. God provides by making plants and animals grow. Then it is up to us as God’s hands and feet to be the generous ones making sure it goes where it needs to go. So Jesus’ words could be, “Don’t worry so much that you hoard your abundance.” We have an abundance. God has provided an abundance. More than enough food is grown every year to feed the world. The problem is that too few have too much of it. It’s a problem of distribution and sharing, not a problem of production.

So what if Jesus’ words aren’t just a kind of feel-good platitudes to say and then go home to a nice family dinner knowing that most of us don’t worry about whether we will eat tomorrow, but worry more about what we are going to eat.

Some of you know Bryan Sirchio, a musician and minister here in the Wisconsin Conference. He does a lot of mission work in Haiti, and he tells a story of having a conversation with a man there. The man asked Bryan, “Are you rich?” Bryan wasn’t sure how to respond to that question. The man then asked him, “Do you eat every day?” Bryan said that yes, he does eat every day. To which the man said, “Then you are rich.” His definition of being rich was being in a position of not having to worry if you will eat tomorrow.

We come as equals in God’s eyes to enjoy a table that is laden with bread and wine, sufficient for all, equally available to all. Imagine this table encompassing the world, enough for all. If we can feed the clothe, then we can clothe the world, heal the world, and fill the world with Christ’s light and love and be the salt of the earth. We don’t need to worry or fear or be anxious about such things.

Jesus is also saying these words to a people who likely were anxious and worried, and is saying it today to a people who are anxious and who worry. He’s saying it to us. Across two millennia, things have not changed a whole lot. We still worry. We’re still anxious. We are in troubled economic times, there are still wars and poverty and disasters. Jesus is saying to us, “Worrying gains you nothing. You cannot add a day to your life by worrying. In fact, it will cost you some of your life energy. It is not healthy, and it is not helpful. Don’t worry. Don’t worry.”

So let us get our minds off worrisome things and play some tunes. I have a song that I want to play for you, which you may recognize. Perhaps all of you know it already, it’s been played in commercials and shows up every now and again. It is Bobby McFerrin “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. I invite you to close your eyes if you want, listen to the words, enjoy the music. It is a nice toe-tapper to lift the spirits, especially when it’s 30 below outside. A nice way to pretend your somewhere else for a few minutes. Listen to these words.

[We then played “Don’t Worry, BeHappy”]

Don’t worry. I love that line in there, “Here is my phone number, if you worry, give me a call.” Jesus says that to us. If you get worried, give Jesus a call: pray. Offer it up in prayer. Offer it to Jesus, who listens. Don’t worry.

I admit, it is much easier to say “Don’t worry” than to live it. But one way to start is to trust in Jesus. That no matter what happens – and we have no guarantees that nothing bad will ever happen to us – but whatever is happening, whatever is going on, you don’t need to worry about God’s love for you. Whatever happens, we are loved. We are freed from guilt and shame. We are accepted. We are known. We are called “Beloved”. If nothing else, we have that. And in that sense we have nothing to worry about.

Let’s pray: Thank you, God, for providing in this world an abundance and for being with us. For inscribing our names on your palms. For loving us. Accepting us. Knowing us. Inviting us to your table to be fed and nourished. May we always have trust and faith in you and in your providence. That whatever happens in our lives, you are always, always with us. Always present. Always available to listen and to comfort and to love. Amen. 

We Are Alive - Ash Wednesday meditation

“We Are Alive!”
Sermon, Year A, Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

“From ashes you are made, and to ashes you shall return.” So we say on Ash Wednesday night. That’s the cycle. That is the cycle. One that is billions of years old through uncountable circles of birth and death and rebirth and death and rebirth and death and so on and so on. A cycle which I like to think that ends ultimately with rebirth.

“From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return.” But we are not just any old dust. I was thinking about this this morning. Not just any old dust. We are star dust. Star stuff. As Carl Sagan liked to say. We are not made out of nothing. We are made out of that which makes all the cosmos. We are made not out of nothing, but of the cosmos. We are the remnants of stars that gave up their lives after they completed their life cycle unto death, creating the atoms that make us. The atoms that created planets and new stars, lakes and mountains, and trout and cockroaches. All this is. All that is. Including us. We are part of the cosmos. Not just in it, but part of it. We are made of the dust of the stars, and also of the dust of this planet Earth. Made of the dust of this earth to return some day to the ground or perhaps returned to the waters, whichever you may prefer. Then from there to become dust for someone or some thing else. Some other life form, like a plant or a person. Probably many of them, really. Someone else to be born, something else to be created, from our dust. The dust of our bodies, for we are incarnational physical beings as well as spiritual.

It is fun to consider who else or what else might have possessed the atoms of our bodies. Perhaps we have a little bit of George Washington in us. Or King David. Or Roman emperors. Who knows? Or the food that we eat – where else might those atoms have been over the eons? Or the air we breathe, who else might have breathed it? Or the water that we drink that someone else famous has consumed as well?

Lent is the time to remember that we are mortal beings. We are finite. We are limited. We don’t get to live forever. Even stars and galaxies die. Mountains eventually are eroded to nothing. Everything has an end to it. We are reminded in Lent that we are finite and limited impermanent beings. At least our bodies are. Our souls live on. At least as long as God lives on. But our bodies are finite.

And I hope that when we remind ourselves that we will die, and get into the ashes and say the words “From dust you are made and to dust you shall return”, that we are not doing that in a sense of hopelessness or futility. It is not meant to make us feel down, or go into the doldrums. We don’t say these words to depress one another or make us feel awful, bemoan our fragility, or experience lifelessness already. Those words can be taken in ways to make one feel that you’re already dead and so wonder “What is the point?” But that’s not why we do this. It is not make us feel bad and drive us down, it is to remember our mortality – at least it is for me – and find inspiration to live! To know that I don’t get to be this person, this being that I am, forever. I have a limited number of years, so let the words inspire us to life. Because God is the God of Life! God wants us to be alive. Wants us to know the joy and the happiness of being fully alive. Not to be miserable and suffering. To live!

And so all this penitential repentance stuff that we talk about on Ash Wednesday is not meant to make us feel bad, or to hate ourselves, or to kick ourselves for being imperfect. We’re all imperfect. God knows that we’re imperfect, and God accepts that. We are not here being asked to kick ourselves for making mistakes, or remind us what useless terrible lumpen clay we are. But a chance to remember, and to look within through introspection at our lives and our dark places that are not enhancing our lives. Our bad habits, bad attitudes, whatever it is that is keeping us from fully enjoying life, from fully living, or what affects others negatively and keeps them from fullness of life. Lent is a time to look at the dark parts in our life and let Jesus’ light shine into them. To identify, to name it, and say “There it is! There is some darkness.” And then to let it go. Let it go. I’m not going to be that any more. I’m not going to let that bother me any more. I’m not going to do that any more. To name the parts of ourselves we don’t like or that keep us from life or being in relationship with God or our neighbors, and offer them to God. To give them to God. “I don’t want these any more, God. Take them from me.” Give it to God who carries our burdens. Who forgives. Who loves. So that by getting rid of those parts we make room to grow the parts that are life-enhancing. To grow the parts that bring us life. To grow more parts that are life-generating.

That, I think, is the real gift of Lent. It can be, sometimes, that Lent feels like a time that we’re supposed to beat ourselves up and feel awful about ourselves. That we have to give up all the things that make us happy, like chocolate, or meat, or bacon. Whatever it is that makes your life worth living. Feel free to give them up as a spiritual discipline, so long as you do so with the thought of giving them up not to be miserable, but to remind us who we are. Because the gift of Lent is that we know how it ends: it doesn’t end in death, it ends in life. It ends with Easter. Resurrection. Jesus rising from the tomb. New life. So there is nothing to fear, nothing to be afraid of in this time of repentance. That’s not a scary word. “Repent” simply means to turn around. To change direction. To sin means to miss the target, and to repent means, in a sense, “I’m going to aim better from now on. I will try to aim better.” That is all that it is. It is not an awful thing, or a scary thing, or a terrible burden. Lent is a time to look at our compass and look at God’s compass and see how close in alignment they are and try adjust our path to be in more line with God’s.

Realigning ourselves with God however we need to do so with the assurance that is what God wants from us. That God will not only accept, but it’s what God wants us to do! To turn to God. To turn back to God and be closer. God’s not going to say, “Oh, it’s too late for you. You waited too long to turn around. You waited too long, offered too little, to change your life.” God’s not going to say that. God will stand with arms open wide and say, “Welcome back! I’m glad you turned around. This is wonderful news! I was worried about you for a while. I wasn’t sure if you would. I thought you would, but wasn’t really sure, and I am glad that you have. And even if you hadn’t, you know what? I would have kept waiting and hoping and loving you anyway”. That’s who God is. That’s the God of scripture. The God who became Jesus. The God of love who calls us to repentance not so we beat ourselves up or feel miserably guilty, but to turn back to the source of joy and life so we will know more life.

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. A reminder that we will die, yes. There is no way around that. Not yet, anyway. We will die. But the words are far more a reminder that we are now alive. We are alive! Alive in God’s grace. Alive in God’s tender mercies. Alive in God’s relentless love that desires nothing more for us than life with God. To dust we shall return, but today – today! – we are still alive. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to the risen Christ of Easter. Amen.