Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Snakes and Salvation

A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen’s, Newton 3/11/18
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Sometimes I have to sit a while with a text because it bothers me. Our first reading today
bothered me. I found myself turning to commentaries only to find they were moving quickly
past the question that was on my mind.

In our first text today, the people of Israel speak against God as they often did on their forty
year wander in the wilderness. They were well into their journey. Miriam and Aaron, Moses’
sister and brother were both dead, and Moses was leading people who were growing older
and crankier with the arrangement. And in return, the LORD got cranky with the Israelites.
Or so it seemed. The texts says that the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people.
Some commentators say the word should be fiery, one even imagining that these were
winged seraphs, flying fiery snakes in the sky. I’m not sure I would go that far, but the imagery
is striking.

The whole story of God bringing snakes to kill God’s own people makes me uncomfortable.
It bothers me. And it’s in line with stories that are equally disturbing, Noah building an ark so
the world can be destroyed, the LORD bringing plagues upon Pharaoh's household after
hardening Pharaoh’s heart, eventually killing people’s children, the list compiles as the books
unfold. I can see where people get the idea of a scary Old Testament God who needed to
sacrifice his own kid as some ultimate release of anger against humanity.

But what if we could view this with a different lens? What if we allow the text to be more
human than divinely scripted? What if it were a text written by people trying to figure God out?
People trying to find their place worshipping one God in a world that had both good and
trickster gods, ones that created both joy and woe? What if they were building their
relationship with God and didn’t have it all figured out just yet? What if the whole book is an
exploration of the divine by humanity, holy not because it is always right, but because it allows
us to be both bothered and blessed, helping us critically examine our faith and our life,
connecting us with our ultimate source of life in new and profound ways?

I officially became an Episcopalian five years ago. I had come to seminary searching, and
found a community that just did things differently. Ultimately it was the Book of Common
Prayer that won my heart, weaving scripture and prayer together in ways that are both
ancient and profound. That weaving, that subtle movement between prayer and scripture,
especially in the daily offices, which are Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer
and Compline, my relationship with the Bible changed. I had always studied it, but never
really prayed with it. Maybe the Psalms, but certainly never a book like Numbers. But I found
that in weaving scripture and prayer together, reading scripture in a prayerful state, I could
encounter God in a new and exciting way. I could examine the Bible in a historical critical way,
but I could also ask questions of the scripture as questions to God, expecting to find some
response in the working of the Holy Spirit. I have begun to explore the Bible as the Ultimate
Prayer Book, a book about people asking questions of God, sharing their stories as they seek
to figure out how they relate to the Holy Spirit, how God is moving through them. Sometimes
they get it wrong, but a lot of the time they find a beauty that is beyond all imagining, worth
sharing with the world. It is strange and sometimes very weird, but ultimately exhilarating to
experience the Bible in this way. It allows me to move through passages that pain in a way
that expresses that pain back to God and lets me sit with it, not as pain inflicted by God but
pain that has changed people’s experiences and perceptions of God.

I still don’t have a fully fleshed out explanation for why God appears to do bad or petty things
in the Bible. But I find myself comforted in the fact that God never just leaves God’s people
there to suffer. There is a turn, an act of profound grace. I personally don’t buy that God
actually sent snakes to God’s people, but I do believe that God would send healing, even in
something as bizarre as a statue of a bronze snake.

We have the Gospel of John to thank for helping us wrestle with these snakes, this weird tale
from the ages of wilderness wandering. Without it, the tale might be glossed over, something
to read with bemusement.

But Jesus uses it as an illustration. Our gospel lesson today begins in the middle of Jesus’
famous talk with Nicodemus, where Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews comes to Jesus at night,
where Jesus engages him in a conversation about being born again.

Jesus states: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of
Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the
world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but
may have eternal life.”

The odd ancient story about Moses erecting a bronze statue to save people against snakes
is used to show how Jesus will be lifted up to save people from evil and sin. Even those who
constantly complain against God, never satisfied with miracles like bread from heaven and
water gushing forth from a rock, who moan that it was truly better in their imagined “good old
days”, even they are given access to complete healing and transformation. And that is truly
good news, because I don’t know about you, but I am much better at complaining than I am
about giving gratitude to God.

We are just given one simple task, we have to look up. We have to see the weird bronze
snake statue against the blue sky. As we stare at the statue it becomes a cross, an ancient
horrific murder device that somehow is transfigured into the greatest story of redemption and
transformation ever told. As we stare, we have to trust that something can happen. We have
to put ourselves into God’s hands.

It’s painful coming to this truth, coming to this light. It’s easier to live with our heads down.
With our heads down, we don’t have to recognize how much of the world is not in our control.
We don’t have to see each other’s pain and recognize that what harms one harms us all. We
don’t have to find ourselves in a web of inter-dependence, relying on not just our own selves,
but on our neighbors, our planet, and our God. We struggle to create our own self-sufficient
lives, never recognizing how much connection plays a role in who has and who has not. We
live in a world of suffering, but we put on our blinders so we don’t see it.

But when we look up, we find God taking on that suffering for us. We are opened to seeing all
that is wrong, which is terrifying, but we can also see where God desires the world to be. We
find God’s dream, a reality we call the Kingdom of God. It is a bright shining light, giving hope
in the face of our deepest despairs. Because despite what the world seems to tell us, God’s
truth is that everything can be healed. All sorrows can cease. Every tear can be dried. We just
have to reconcile to one another, helping one another find healing in this broken world. It’s
hard. It’s pretty darn impossible if we think about it in purely human terms. There are a lot of
barriers I put between me and you. We have different wants and desires, different ambitions,
but if we look at the web of connection, if we stare into the dream of the divine, we find that
our wants and desires are good and noble gifts. They help us create a bright colorful tapestry,
God’s ultimate quilt of humanity, beautiful and rich. We’re supposed to be different, and we’re
supposed to also recognize the belovedness that each one of us holds as a child of God. We
have to give up our own desires for control in order to give the world to God’s control. In
return, God helps us grow, parenting us into amazing roles in building the kingdom. The quilt
grows brighter as it lives and moves and grows into fully alive people living in a fully alive world.

But we have to look up. We have to see the light. The light of God’s beloved child, taking on all
sorrow and suffering, lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent, ready to both help us see all that is
wrong and also empowering us to be our full and true selves, helping to make the world right.
We are allowed to live and grow into this selfhood, looking for the Spirit and seeking answers
to the hard questions. We are given death and resurrection, continually seeking to die to the
self that wants to look down and growing into the person unafraid to look up to a God who
suffers with and for us that the world may have eternal life.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

From Virginia to Iowa: A Reflection on the Violence in Charlottesville

The images and news coming from Charlottesville Virginia is haunting. What can you say about a bunch of angry white men carrying torches to intimidate and incite violence? The ugly head of white supremacy moves along the streets and has even inflicted murder on counter-protestors. It is chilling.

But it's also really easy for me to see this as a problem way over there in Virginia, in a city that I had personally never heard the name of before, and had originally gotten confused with Charlotte, South Carolina. That whole swath of the country is someplace I've never been. I spent three years living in Atlanta, but other than spending a week once in Washington, D.C., everything on the east coast above Georgia is a mystery to me. I simply haven't been there.

The places I know the best are Iowa and Nebraska. I grew up in Iowa and have been a frequent traveler to Nebraska all my life, getting my undergraduate degree there as well. I moved back to this place after seminary in Atlanta because the rich black soil called to me. The Midwest is home. But here we also have a white problem. It's more subtle than states with greater racial diversity, but it's here. It runs in our state narratives. We tell ourselves that we are just super white places. But I am mad that I never heard of the rich African American history in the city of Omaha, even when I lived in the state. I'm mad that Iowa and its cities are on lists of the worst places for black people to live, citing income disparity, incarceration rates, and the quality of education available in predominately black neighborhoods. We don't talk about it much, but we are there and we have to face the truth.

When I was young, my father showed me a KKK relic. It was something he kept to remind others that the KKK was still active and still dangerous. He wanted us to know that they weren't just in our history books, they were living and breathing people who organized themselves to this day. We lived for two years in the same small town as the KKK Grand Dragon of Iowa. It's here and it's real. Now we have a variety of similar groups joining with them. They no longer  wear masks, but they still carry the fire of intimidation, used to threaten anyone who stands in their way.

More than anything, I think Charlottesville calls us to see what is around us. It calls us to see our disparities. It calls us to recognize the diversity we, especially those of us in predominately white states, often ignore. It calls us to recognize real threats, real hate groups, living among us. It calls us to be real.

It's hard to sit with this discomfort. We want to sugar-coat it or say that it's happening over there instead of right here as well. But I have learned that the only way to resurrection, to total transformation of the self, is to go through crucifixion moments. Right now, that's what I think we need  more than ever. We need to allow this to crucify our nation and our states. We need to lament what is happening, to mourn, to weep, to sit in the ash heaps. Only then do I believe that something amazing can happen. I believe that the Holy  Spirit can sweep through us and bring an utter transformation of heart, of soul, of community. I believe we can turn things around. I believe that the torches of intimidation can be vanquished and the fires of love can burn so deeply that we can transform unjust systems. And as someone who has pussy-footed around these issues, who has felt lost in trying to figure it all out, who and can't stand my own internal racism that pokes its head through my consciousness, I believe that even someone like me can help and make a difference for those around them. I believe that crucifixion can bring even me to resurrection, and if it can bring me there, I believe it can bring our communities, our states, and our nation there too.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Discipline of Poverty

I have been thinking a lot over the past two years about poverty. Now, I must say that we are not deeply impoverished. We have pets. We rent a house. We have two cars. We have enough money to get through the month. But as a whole, that's where our money ends. And for nine months after we first moved to Des Moines, it didn't even make it that far. I am lucky to have amazingly supportive parents who have the means to give to us financially. My middle class upbringing saved us from some hard times and hard decisions. I've been given space until I could become a big budget person, trying to eek out all the money we can and reduce wasteful spending. I've also become the guy who can't figure out what things we can do for fun because I simply don't want to spend the funds or the money doesn't exist. I'm learning balance. But I'm also learning about the discipline of poverty.

The discipline of poverty is simply this: learning to embrace yourself as a child of the divine even when there isn't much to your name. And that's hard. Even before the myth of the self-made man and the idea that everyone somehow has bootstraps to pull themselves up by, there has always been a fear of the impoverished. I think it's hard for us to face how fragile we are, how easily everything could be taken away. If we didn't have support, if we didn't have a community that gave to us, we would not be where we are today. And those without support, when hard times hit, they aren't able to stay where they are. We tend to try to analyze what made their times hard. We chide them for taking lower paying jobs, for not spending more time at work. We demonize mental health crises and substance abuse problems. We try to make them "not us". But the more I learn the discipline of poverty, the more I find the fabric of life weaving us all together, even when I'd much rather not be "like them". In those moments, I find Jesus the itinerant preacher, moving from place to place, picking heads of wheat from the fields with his disciples as they head along their journey, always finding a new home to eat meals in. I begin to see this discipline in practice. They lived into poverty, not because there is something ultimately holy about not having or barely having enough, but because they sought to rely on community. We as well need to ask what it looks like to rely on community, because it is only by the strength of love given by those around us that we are able to survive. There is no other way.

I'm still not good at this discipline. I'd much rather not live it. Often I find our world getting smaller as we simply choose to stay home instead of going out. There are a number of reasons besides our budget why you often won't see us away from home that much (Did I mention the pets?) but I've also found ways to share in community that are beautiful. I've seen people coming together to support one another, to do meaningful things together with very little money being exchanged at all. I've found flexible ways to do what I desire. I've found community lifting up one another.

And as I think about the future of the Church, the future of ministry and life together, I wonder if this discipline is what parishes are beginning to learn. There are always the big donors in the parish, but more and more, many in the community are being stretched. They are being drawn into lower classes and wondering if they are doing something wrong in their lives. It's hard to be cash poor and not feel guilty about it. I struggle with that. Communities struggle with that. Churches struggle with that. But what if we leaned into this discipline? What could we learn as we focus more on community than budget? It would completely break apart current models of full time ministers and staff, tearing apart church pension funds and the structures of denominations themselves. It's a really scary prospect and there's a lot to lose. We might start to feel really insular and stay home a lot. We may not know exactly how to find balance. We may decide not to do anything fun or exciting because we don't want to spend the money or there simply isn't money in the coffers. We may look at the homeless in our midst and wonder if we will soon be without homes too. But in the midst of the scary and threatening things, the kind of stuff that keeps you up at night and fuels anxiety, there is a man moving through the fields with his motley crew. Sometimes he calms storms, sometimes he makes an abundant feast with simple loaves and fishes. Always he relies on the gifts of the people around him, entrusting himself to community. He casts his gaze towards the poor, the outcast, those whom appear to be left behind by their communities, and he heals, he restores, he brings them into relationship with those around them. He shows us that community is ultimately what we need, not money in the bank. He loves us into better ways of being together.

“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith? Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’  Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:25-34, CEB

Saturday, February 11, 2017

I Come For the Eucharist

This is a piece I wrote after my first meeting with a spiritual director, where he saw me light up about the Eucharist. It was something I promptly wrote, sent in for the church newsletter, and then set aside. It wasn't until this week, in conversation with people who have done and explored ministry development teams, that raise up local people for ordination into different roles in the community, and those who don't have weekly access to the sacrament, that I realized how vital it is to bring access to the Eucharist for everyone, regardless of their ability to hire clergy. It brought me back to this piece, which reappeared to me in the church newsletter that was delivered to my door today. This is the reason why I believe Eucharist matters. This is why I consider myself to be Anglo-Catholic, but also am comfortable doing Eucharist in what some may deem a "low church" way, in a bar, park or wherever. Because in the end, I love smells and bells, I love ritual, and order, but it all pales in comparison with the Eucharist. 

I grew up in a tradition where we had communion once a month. Some months it was powerful, some months it was perfunctory, but every month, I tried to make it. I noticed as I grew up, I felt when I had missed communion Sunday. It mattered.
As I considered ministry, I found myself going to multiple churches on the weekend. I was searching for something. I was connected to a community, but I also felt an absence. And as I entered seminary, I realized what it was. I was searching for Eucharist. I started having it multiple times a week, and as I became Episcopalian I found joy in having it as part of my Sunday morning worship. Some Sundays I’m tired, I’m not feeling particularly sociable, I’d really like one more jolt of caffeine, but I come. I come for this.
The Eucharist to me is more than a prayer, bread, and wine. In it, Jesus dwells among us. Jesus becomes incarnate, made flesh, in us. The bread and wine take on the Spirit, and the Spirit is ingested, moving throughout our bodies, bringing nourishment and life. Our cells are given a jolt of Spirit. We are literally taking on a new life. It doesn’t come all at once. It comes little by little, piece by piece. Week by week we get just a little bit more. We, the body of Christ, take sustenance from Jesus’ body, becoming like him.

I also find that as we, who are a diverse group of many people, take in the one body, we all become interconnected, into one body. I can no longer hold grudges and divisiveness in my heart against one of you. We all share in Christ. Similarly, I can’t hold hatred against any Christian. We are all connected. And as the circles of connectedness, of people who are all one in this body, are drawn wider, from the service, to the congregation, to the diocese, to the nation, to the world, I find that being part of this interconnected and living Christ, I cannot find hatred for people of other religions and no religion. I can’t find hatred at all. We all share in a big, beautiful, diverse body. Some do not believe in Christ, some don’t take the Eucharist, but we all eat. We all drink. We all require nourishment. While the Eucharist is particularly holy, blessed elements that bring the divine Christ, all food sustains life. All food allows individual spirits to be uplifted. All food connects us. And so, the simple table, the wafer, the wine, brings this cosmic interconnectedness in which I can only find love and care for those around me. And so I come. I take in the Spirit, and I find life anew with all of creation. I find myself drawn deeper into the love that is without boundaries.  Amen. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Delving into the Story

The other day I found myself at a reception for an ordination in the church basement. And I gravitated, as I often do towards the clergy. The bishop and his wife joined us. During the conversation, his wife, a talented actress and dancer, asked me about my discernment. I shared a bit about my team and my mix of joy and frustration about taking a long time to process my call and my journey towards who knows what kind of ministry (my discernment team members know my frustration and joy well, and I consider it to be a holy mix, ripe for the Spirit). And after I had given my little bit, she said, "What I meant was that I'm the only one at this table who is not clergy minded." And I agreed and there was an all together too brief conversation before I left. 

Today, I am going to go see her in her element, as a theater minded individual, someone who finds her spot comfortably on the stage, and I've been thinking about this interaction between theater and the Church, especially because she is not the only amazingly talented performer married to a bishop that I know. And it is the interaction between performer and cleric that interests me. I think there is something deep there. At the heart of it, they are both individuals invested in sharing stories. They both have a desire, a passion for delving into stories, for becoming part of the story. The actress literally takes on her character, leaving herself behind as she embodies a key part of the play. The clergy person delves into the story of Christ, and embodies to the best of their ability the character of Christ.  The actress uplifts people by helping people become engrossed in a tale that can shape their perspective. The clergy person tries to do the same, helping people embody Christ in their lives. 

To try to probe too deep into the similarities between acting and clergy work would cheapen both, but their investment in stories is something to hold onto and ponder. Because ultimately, our God's nature is shared to us in story. We learn who we were created to be through a story of God calling creation good. We learn about what lengths God is willing to go for us through the story of the Moses leading the people out of Israel and in the crucifixion of Christ. We find new life through resurrection tales, through manna in the wilderness and Mary Magdalene discovering that the man who she thought was the gardener was actually the risen Lord.  We find the pull towards newness of life, towards a life that truly is life, through the repentance of David and the scales falling off Paul's eyes. We learn Christ through sharing in the story, through being enveloped in the story.

And this season, we ponder the biggest story. The story of Christmas is not any more about Jesus' birthday than it is about Santa Claus. It's about incarnation, about God choosing to be among us, to be with us in a new and radical way. In a human way. And that humanity came to the earth in the deepest of poverty. He was not a rich prince, not a middle class white American. He was someone who had no control over his government, who ultimately killed him when he threatened their authority. He was born to a couple who couldn't even find a room at a hotel for him to be born. He was born to parents who had to flee to another country, become refugees, to keep him safe so he could grow up. And his mother's song at the proclamation of his upcoming birth shares God's deepest desires for humanity. God looks on us with favor and calls us blessed. God shows mercy and justice, and casts down those who are too powerful, not through military intervention, but through a way that always holds those whom the powerful oppress in their view, calling them to do better. God fills the hungry and helps them, through a multiplicity of ways that all require us. God remembers the promise made to us, that we would be God's and God would be with us. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise and hope. And if we, as Christians, little Christs, start living into this story, taking it on, acting it out, we find our world changed. We find that Christ comes again and again, not as one particular human, but as God among us. That is the Christmas story. It is not about a baby, it is about God coming among us in a new and radical way. 

May we become like the actress, embodying this key incarnated character. May we become like the clergy person, not just taking Christ on for a time, but working every day to try to live into this character in our own unique ways, sharing our particular gifts. May we ever be in awe of this story, this sacred scripture, written not to share facts but to give our lives a story that is truer than truth. Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dear United Methodist Siblings: A Letter as You Head to General Conference

Dear United Methodist Siblings,

It feels strange for me to write to you, because I am not one of you anymore, but I have come to the conclusion that I will always be connected to you. Through my family, my work, and my history, we will always be linked. I will always find myself talking with someone about your politics, your structures, and your struggles. We are still siblings.

And as you move into this time, you are starting to talk a lot about a deep part of me, my queer identity, part of what made it hard for me to be one of you, part of why I found myself walking away. But I am not writing to tell you to change your policies. I agree that would be fantastic, but more than that, I am writing asking you to not draw battle lines. I remember observing annual conferences and being a part of them, and I liked it until the sexuality battle lines were drawn, because you have been talking about this since before I can remember. One person stands up and asks for inclusion, another stands up and angrily quotes Bible verses, and it gets heated from there. People walk away certain that they were right and stood up for their beliefs and nothing changes. The trenches just get dug a little deeper for the next year when  you will have the conversation all over again, and the next year, and the next year.

United Methodist friends, I have felt for a long time like you just keep digging your trenches, drawing your battle lines, firm in your rightness. And I do have a side, I do have a strongly held belief about this too. But I'm convinced that Jesus did not draw battle lines. He got into heated conversations, but he still shared meals with everyone, Pharisee, Samaritan, whomever. He was able to hold his deep beliefs and reach out and share life with those whom he did not agree with. He didn't build trenches. And it's hard when someone else has a battle line and you want to cross it in love. There's a lot of uncertainty in how to do that. But more than anything, that's what I want General Conference to be for you. That's what I pray you experience. And some will walk away with their trenches dug. No matter what happens, your denomination will lose members after this Conference. It's inevitable. But my prayer is for you that if you attend, you are able to find someone you disagree with readily and build a relationship with them. I pray that you may truly relish in the diversity of beliefs and opinions within your denomination, the wide diversity of people and practices. And as you share in the body and blood of our Lord, may the Holy Spirit envelop your gathering and lead you into a new life together. Amen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Do You Want to Be Made Well?" A Reflection by the Pool of Beth-Zatha

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City on May 1, 2016

Gospel text: John 5:1-9

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?

               Take a moment to imagine the turmoil of this man at the pool of Beth-zatha. Everyday this man crawls toward the pool that has the power to heal him, only to be blocked, day after day, week after week, year after year. For 38 years this man crawled toward the pool, only to be pushed aside before he could touch the water that promised new life, living in torment. Every day, he hoped and believed that something would happen, that he would make it. That he would be healed.  
            Then Jesus enters the scene and asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The man vents to Jesus. Of course he wants to be made well. His whole life has been consumed by this one task. Each day he works his way toward new life, and each day he is thwarted. There appears to be no release, no end to this suffering. But Jesus sets him free. Jesus allows him to move on. No longer condemned to this endless loop of crawling toward this pool, of being pushed aside and having to start all over again, this man is free to start a new life. He can walk away from where he had been and begin life again. His life was transformed by the power of Christ.
            Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that this man’s burden, this man’s struggle was being unable to walk. He couldn’t do it before Jesus came on the scene and he could after Jesus talked with him. I think it is a very able bodied way of thinking, one that assumes that there is a correct type of body and an incorrect one. And I’m not convinced that there is a right or wrong type of body, but there are certainly societal expectations and condemnations attached to each type. This man appears to be condemned by his society for inhabiting his body. He either doesn’t have any family or friends, or he isn’t connected to them. Because he doesn’t have anyone to help him, he has been living this life, crawling toward a pool that he believes contains everything he needs, only to be pushed aside by those who are connected, those who have resources, those who have people who accept them. If he can reach it, he gains resources, not least of which is the ability to walk and gain better means of supporting himself. Without the use of his legs, he will continue to be pushed aside, with the use of his legs, he has a means to support and take care of himself. He has a better place in this world.
            His world is much like our own. We think of some bodies as inherently better than others. We give them deference and honor. White able bodied cis men are given the most deference and honor. They have the “right” body, the archetypical body that all others are compared to. But is there a right body, or are there just more societally acceptable bodies? Does Jesus heal his legs to give him the right body, or does Jesus heal his legs to help him leave a place of torment and find new and better ways of interacting with the world? I believe this is the way that Jesus truly sets him free.
            Jesus finds this man, in a sea of people trying to reach this pool, a large crowd that has the ability to constantly push this man back to his starting point, Jesus sees him. Jesus calls out to him. Jesus sets him free. His societal condemnation, his disconnectedness, his isolation was recognized, and Jesus brings him a new hope and a new sense of connection. Feelings of condemnation are turned into joy and suddenly there is someone who actually sees and cares about him. He has been given a new life.
            Friends, every day our society puts people into situations similar to this man. Those who hit hard times, but have connections tend to do okay. Those without resources feel condemned to live lives of relative isolation and condemnation. A person moves to a city trying to build better life and instead finds themselves alone and homeless. Another finds that illness has stripped them of their connections as healthcare both depletes them of time and money. Someone comes out to their family and friends, only to find themselves losing them all.
            And we are called to notice. We are called to care. But in doing so, we need to ask ourselves what our definition of wellness is. What does it mean to be made whole? What does resurrection look like in the face of crucifixion? These are the questions that keep me engaged with the Gospel. This is the challenge of the Christian life.
            Within the challenge, we aren’t called to get it all right. I don’t know what wellness or wholeness looks like in every situation. I’m not always sure what resurrection means. But I know when I have felt resurrection power. I have felt resurrection power learning more about my beautifully diverse trans community, fighting alongside others for things that many take for granted, like being able to go to the bathroom when you need to, and being able to find a job. It’s in community gatherings and Facebook communities where people can ask questions and support each other throughout their journeys, coming together to help people pay for surgeries, answering questions about shots and pills, and it’s also in accepting that some people need gender affirming medical help and others don’t. We come together as community and we share with each other and we allow ourselves to grow, asking each other, “How can I help you feel well and whole? What does wellness look like for you?”
            I find resurrection power in being able to help people grow into allies, supporting each other and learning from one another. One of my favorite people who is still learning how to be an ally is my friend Jerry. Jerry is a navy veteran, and went to get his Master of Theology degree after retirement. For the first two years of my Master’s program, Jerry was a consistent presence in my life. After hearing that I was transgender, he told me that he supported me and was always curious about how things were going in my life. I had come out as transgender my last semester of undergrad and went directly to seminary, so it was an interesting journey for all of us. He was curious about my experiences as I began taking testosterone after my first semester and he paid more attention to news about people in the Trans community.  Our usual conversations went something like this: Jerry would come up to me while I was studying or after chapel and would say, “I have been thinking about you recently” and then ask a question that was either off the wall or slightly inappropriate. One time he very seriously told me about a story he had heard about a man who had become a woman in his 70’s. (His words, not mine), and asked, “Why would he do that? Couldn’t he just be him?” And I had to tell Jerry, “Maybe for the first time, she was just being herself.” And I thought of the torment, the anxiety, the fear, that comes with trying to live day after day, month after month, year after year, as someone you aren’t comfortable being. Of hearing the wrong pronouns, of dreaming of wearing certain clothing, but feeling too afraid. And this woman broke free from the fear and embraced herself after over 70 years. I can see Jesus walking up to her as she inched toward that pool of wholeness every day only to be pushed back by others or herself, and finally she hears the question, “Do you want to be made well?”  And she is granted permission to be herself, to strip off the mask of manhood and embrace the person inside. She found herself transformed into her truest self.
 Friends, Christ has the power to transform us all. We can all become whole people, living examples of resurrection power. Christ transformed my life by allowing me to come out as a transgender person, finding wholeness through this life changing journey. Christ transformed Jerry through his curiosity and willingness to learn about different ways of being human in this world.  Christ transformed the man at the well’s life by allowing him to step away from his daily struggle, from the all-consuming journey toward a pool he could not get to, releasing him from his burden.  How is Christ transforming you? What resurrection stories do you have to tell to the world? How is Christ using resurrection power through this community, bringing transformation to the world?
Let us pray: Christ, you have called us to not only be a community that follows you, but to be people who take your body into our body, to become wholly yours, people who are made well and transformed by your resurrection power. Lord, help us to see where resurrection needs to happen in our lives and in the world. Call us into the places of crucifixion.  And give us your strength to step through those burdens and struggles, those fears and real persecutions that hold us back from wholeness into new life. Amen.