3 Lent: Sermon from the Back Room

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You know me,
I almost never wear a clerical collar
except on Sundays and special events –
like weddings, funerals, and of course,
visiting the hospital.

But one day
in downtown Buffalo
when I worked there, I had the collar on at lunch.
I was at a restaurant with a friend
having an interesting theological conversation
when the waiter arrived at the table.

“How’s it going?” I asked, but not really wanting to know.

“Terrible,” he replied.

Now this was a waiter I knew, sort of —
not by name actually,
but by frequency of visits.

We knew each other’s faces.
When asked, he always replied, “terrible.”
My lunch pal and I laughed
and bantered with him a little.
Then he responded tersely with tears in his eyes, “No I mean it.”
He grimaced and walked away muttering
under his breath.

After a fair amount of time
our waiter returned
but was just barely composed.
He was taking our drink orders
when he stopped cold.

“You’re a priest?”

“Yes,” I smiled.

“I didn’t know you were a priest!”
He seems shocked.

“Sure you did, you must have,” I replied.

“No I didn’t,” he said with certainty.

“I can’t believe all the things I have told you
all the times you have been coming in here” and then added with indignation,
“and you’re a priest.”

He walked off.

I look at my lunch-mate and wondered, what things?
I tried to think of anything I knew about him
from whatever he had said over the years?
I couldn’t think of anything incriminating.

He brought our drinks, tears
streaming down his face.

“I need to talk to you. I can’t believe you walked in here today. I have to talk to you.”

“Okay,” I reply, “after we’re done with lunch,

“So am I going to go to Hell?”

“Let me get this right. You are afraid you are going to go to Hell for being Gay?” I ask.

“Yes.  It is who I am.  Am I going to Hell?”

“Being Gay is who you are?” I confirm.

“Yes,” he said, still crying.

Now this was not a young man.
He had lived some years, some hard years I would say – maybe in his forties.

“Why are you thinking about death?” I ask.

Then he told me about three members of his family
who all died at around his age
from a variety of ailments — heart attack and stroke.

“So, you are Gay and that is who you are?

And you want to know if God loves
who you are
or rejects who you are?” I restate.

“Yes, am I going to Hell?” he asks again,
staring at me across the table through reddened eyes.

If you were here last week
you heard a story about
how a man named Nicodemus,
a hoity-toity religious authority,
went by cover of night
to meet Jesus in person.

It is often construed
that Nicodemus, as a religious authority
didn’t want his colleagues to see him
hanging out with a renegade preacher.
But the conversation didn’t go very well
and Nicodemus left confused
if not disappointed.

He simply did not “get” Jesus.
I believe the author of the Gospel of John
who told that story, as well as the one today,
wanted us to make a connection between

Nicodemus and the woman at the well.
The Samaritan woman,
as far as most of Jesus’ peers were concerned –
whether his disciples,
or interested by-standers — was filth.
She was dirt.

To Jews from Judea and Galilee
Samaritans were untouchables.

Never mind why
because you and I have enough prejudices of our own
to know such things exist.

But trust me, Samaritans
were considered to be on the other side
of anything good.

In contrast to Nicodemus,
who was the epitome of moral rectitude,
the Samaritan woman
encountered Jesus at high noon — in the light.

When she did, she “got” him –
she understood who
and what
he was all about —
almost immediately.

If that wasn’t contrast enough,
she then went and told her family and friends
all about Jesus.
The contrast could not be any more blatant.

It is just one more Gospel example
that those who are considered
good and wise
must sneak around in the dark
in search of the light,
while those considered wretched,
stupid, and immoral
seek out the light
where it shines.

I don’t know if this is true or not,
but it is a Gospel Truth:
The socially acceptable and publicly esteemed
have greater difficulty
comprehending God,
but those who are socially marginal
and most often discounted
are capable of great clarity about God.

The contrast between Nicodemus
and the woman at the well
reinforced the gospel perspective
that those who should know about Jesus
are blinded, while those
who are expected to be blind
somehow seem most open to Jesus.

Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman
occupied polar opposite ends
of the social and religious spectrum.

His name has been preserved
and we never knew hers.

So one of the things
we need to ask
when we hear a story like this,
is why was it told?

Why was the story of the Samaritan woman told?
What does it tell us
and what does it explain
that someone living back then
might have been asking?

One clue might be in the way
Jesus’ best and brightest students
were flabbergasted
by his boundary dancing with a stranger
whose ethnicity and gender made her untouchable —
literally, “do not touch.”

It makes me wonder if perhaps,
just maybe, there were some Samaritans
who were part of Jesus’ crowd of followers.

Maybe people wanted to know
how it came to pass
that Jesus had Samaritan followers.

Or even, that long after his death,
when John was writing his little book about Jesus,
that maybe there were still Jewish-Christians
who could remember why Samaritans
were supposed to be untouchable.

Seeing them in the crowd at church
they might have asked out loud, why Samaritans
were allowed to eat at their table?

So maybe the story of the woman at the well
explains how it came to be
that Jesus had Samaritan followers.

It was because, they would have told people,
she went out with great excitement and passion,
and told her friends
all about what she had encountered.

Then in turn they invited Jesus to hang out.

Surely some of those Samaritans
left with Jesus after that visit
because Jesus
seems to have picked up people that way.

But there is another dimension to this story
we need to pay attention to.
John is a pretty lengthy Gospel
and he could have placed his Woman at the Well
anywhere in the Gospel he wanted to.
But he put her next to Nicodemus.
John wants us to know something.
John wants us to know
that Jesus was not in the Purity business.

Jesus didn’t give a damn
about religious purity
and he was as in-their-faces about it
as he could get.

The problem of course,
is that the Church
became a Purity business
just like the temple Jesus was trying to reform.

Christianity became a Purity religion
just like the religion
Jesus was trying to reform.

So let’s ask ourselves
why would Jesus take the risk
of alienating so many of his own peers
and colleagues
by living among
and sharing table with Samaritans?

Why would Jesus be so willing to alienate
so many of the very people
he was struggling to influence and reform?

It seems pretty clear to me:
because this radical hospitality
that Jesus enacted
was not a sideline.
It was the main event.

This radical hospitality
that Jesus offered
was not an incidental footnote
to a bigger and greater theological Truth.

This radical hospitality
that Jesus embodied
was the very substance of his witness.

Christianity should not be focused
on who is having sex with whom.

Christianity should not be focused
on whether or not
we get to choose our gender.
Christianity should not be focused on
preventing and punishing immigrants.

Christianity should not be focused on
defeating Islam, or proving that we have the truth
and all other religions do not.

Christianity should not be focused on
how many times
and in how many ways
we are born.

Christianity should not be focused
on moral and theological purity of any kind.

Rather, Christianity should be focused on inclusion –
not as a sideline,
not as an afterthought,
not as an incidental element of the mission
but as THE mission.

So there we sat,
me and the waiter whose name I didn’t know —
in the shadows in an unfamiliar
back room of a restaurant,
perched on a painful question.

I knew in my heart of hearts,
that it did not matter what I thought.
It only mattered what he thought.

In the end, what I happen to think
about heaven or hell or anything else,
could not change the man’s pain.

I try to tell younger clergy
and especially new preachers
that we have no authority any more.

No one thinks priests know
something they don’t know,
and if they do, they will only go along with it
so far as it reinforces
what they wanted to hear in the first place.

So I knew that no matter what I said,
this poor man was going to have to find his own way
back across the border of untouchable.
In his own heart
and through hearing the voice of God
in his own mind.

“Am I going to Hell for who I am?” he insisted on knowing.

“No,” I said, as if I was used to speaking for God.

“If being Gay is who you are, then why would God reject you
for who you are?

As I understand it, our task is to become more and more
who we actually are rather than less and less.”

So sitting there,
looking him in the eyes,
I did something a little strange.
I apologized to him for the Church.
I apologized to him as if I had the authority to do so,
for the whole history of religious bigotry
toward homosexuals.

I apologized to him for the Church’s moral failure
and our dragging Jesus and the Gospels
through the mud of bigotry
instead of the light and love of God.

I assured him he wasn’t going to Hell
but also told him he had work to do.
He needed to get comfortable
with the idea of death,
and that, in the end,
his toughest issue was whether he was going to
TRUST God or not.

It all comes down, I said,
to whether we are going
to trust God to love us or not.

This is what I say now, today:
nobody can tell us
a dang thing of value
about God
if we do not first
trust God ourselves.

Whatever else we think
about life or death
or right or wrong
or good or bad —
whatever else we think we know,
either we trust God
to love us just as we are
or we live as untouchables
and among ourselves.

Jesus wants us at the table: all of us, all of who we are.