Doubt and Wounds and Overlooked Things

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

I have a tendency sometimes to overlook very important things because I’m focused on other important things…or even, sometimes, not so important things.  I think we all do that to one degree or another.

Last year, for example, there were a lot of important events:  the US/China trade war, Brexit, tensions with North Korea, tensions with Iran, the migrant exodus from Central America, the burning of Notre Dame, fires in the Amazon, wildfires in Australia, and, of course, the impeachment of President Trump.

But here are some important things that also happened last year that seem to have got lost in the shuffle.  Humpback whales in the South Atlantic came back from the brink of extinction and now number almost 25,000.  Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac for the first time since the 1880s.  100 seal pups were born on the shores of the Thames 60 years after the river was declared “biologically dead.”  Millions of Ethiopians working together planted 353 million trees in 12 hours.  The Netherlands became the first country in the world to eliminate all stray dogs—not by euthanasia, but through education, free veterinary care and pet adoption.  In Kenya, poaching rates dropped by 85%.  In Mozambique, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves went an entire year without losing a single elephant.  Malaria infections dropped by 76% in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam and deaths fell by 95%.  Algeria and Argentina officially eliminated Malaria altogether.   The WHO announced that not one single case of H1N1 Bird Flu had been reported worldwide since 2017.  The CDC announced that cigarette smoking among US adults was at an all-time low of 13.7%.  Type 3 polio was declared officially eliminated—now only type 1 remains and it can only be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [1]

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, in this familiar story about Thomas being absent when the risen Jesus appears to the other disciples, I think there are some important things that we tend to overlook.  So let’s adjust our focus for a minute.

First of all, let’s not call it the story of Doubting Thomas.  For one thing, it’s not at all fair to Thomas.  Remember in chapter 11 of this same gospel, when the other disciples tried to tell Jesus not to go back toward Jerusalem because certain people were trying to kill him, Thomas is the one who said, “Well we might as well go with him so we can die with him, too.”  So maybe we could call him Brave Thomas.  Or Stalwart Thomas.  Or even Fatalist Thomas if you’re feeling cynical. But Doubting Thomas?  Let’s put that name aside because it slants how we read or hear the story.  But maybe we should take our eyes of Thomas altogether for a moment.

This chapter, chapter 20, was where the Gospel of John originally ended.  Someone other than the original author later added chapter 21 as an epilogue, but John’s gospel originally ended at the end of chapter 20.  That being the case, I would think that the things Jesus says and does in this concluding chapter are particularly important.  I have to wonder if focusing on Thomas hasn’t distracted us from what Jesus is saying and doing here.  Make no mistake, Thomas is important here, but is he really supposed to be the central character?

I think maybe we’ve made him the focal point of the story because his “doubt,” his original disbelief of the news that Jesus has appeared to the others, resonates with the doubts and disbelief we all feel sometimes if we’re honest with ourselves.  That’s normal.  That’s human. As Frederick Buechner said, “If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Doubt is an important thing for us to think about and to come to terms with, and it seems pretty clear that belief and disbelief are among the themes in this story.  But again, are we missing something else that’s at least as important because we’ve focused so much on Thomas and his skepticism?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.  It’s the first day of the week.  The doors of the house are locked because the disciples are afraid.  So right off the bat we see something important.  Fear locks doors.  Fear locks us into small places in our hearts, in our minds, in our thinking, in our lives.  Even physically.  As we are all sheltering in place with stay at home orders right now during the pandemic, I think we can sympathize.  Fear locks us down.  It might be a very sensible, reasonable fear—theirs was.  Ours certainly is during this pandemic.  Staying behind closed or even locked doors might be the safest, most right thing to do.  But the fact remains that behind all that sensibility is fear.  In our case with the Covid pandemic I’d like to think the fear is tempered by love—we stay home not just because we’re afraid of catching the disease but to avoid spreading it to others.  But the lesson here is that fear locks doors.

But look what happens next.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus comes into the locked down places in our lives and speaks peace.  Jesus speaks peace to our hearts, to our minds, to our anxieties, to our fears.  Jesus speaks Shalom, that word of wholeness and well-being and blessing that bleeds all the strength and energy out of our fears.  Peace.

Our dog, Tramp, is a brave little guy, but for some reason our smoke alarms scare the feisty right out of him.  If one so much as chirps from a low battery he panics.  He tries to be brave and stay close to us but I think that’s mostly because he can’t find a place to get away from the sound.  He tucks his tail between his legs trembles and quivers until Meri wraps him in a blanket and speaks gently to him to tell him everything’s okay while I change the battery on the alarm.  She speaks peace to him until he calms down.  She goes into the locked down place in his little canine psyche and speaks peace until he can stop trembling and come back to normal.  That’s what Jesus did for his disciples in that locked house.  That’s what he does for us when we’re locked in our anxieties.  Shalom.

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

 Jesus, risen and eternal, still has his wounds.  That alone is worth thinking about.  What does it mean that, resurrected from death, Jesus still has the wounds from the cross?  Don’t rush to an answer.  That’s one of those questions that’s better to sit with than to answer.  And there’s also this to wonder about: the disciples don’t seem to fully recognize him until they see his wounds.  His wounds authenticate him.

They see his wounds, they recognize him and, the Greek text says, they are filled with joy.

I wonder.  I think I would feel a lot of things.  Joy would certainly be in the mix, but looking at those wounds on the body of someone whom I knew had been dead, even if he had predicted his resurrection… hearing that voice… Yes, there would be joy, but also fear and wonder and hesitation and a whole confusing cocktail of wrestling emotions.  Which is probably why Jesus had to say a second time, “Peace be with you,”  just to get their attention, because the next three things he said were really important.

As the Father sent me, so I send you.  In saying this they went from being disciples to being apostles.  Messengers.  Evangelists.  Ambassadors for the Resurrection and the Love of Christ.  They now had a mission: they were being sent into the world to proclaim Jesus as the Christ and announce that the Reign of God had begun.

When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  He empowered them for the mission he had given them.  With his own breath he breathed the breath of life into their ministries.  This is not the rambunctious, noisy and fiery Day of Pentecost described in Acts.  This is the personal and intimate trinitarian empowerment for a life of service.  This is the Word who became flesh breathing into them and us the Breath of the Creator who hovered over the waters of creation, breathing into them and into us the Spirit of creation for the work of re-creation.  And then…

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  Jesus authorizes them and us to unlock the closed doors in the human heart and soul.  If a person is to become a new creation, as St. Paul so beautifully described it, there has to be an end to the old business that keeps people locked in destructive patterns and thinking.  There has to be a way to let in the light and fresh air.  Forgiveness unlocks transformation and Jesus empowered them and us to pronounce forgiveness.  Or not.  It’s a tremendous responsibility.

And now back to Thomas.  When Thomas finally does get to see the risen Jesus, note that he doesn’t berate Thomas.  Again, the first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.”  Shalom.  And then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds, a deeper more intimate encounter than merely just showing his wounds.  Then Jesus says to him, I like to think gently, “Do not doubt, but believe.”

 Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.”

Dorothy Sayers, writing about this moment, said, “It is unexpected, but extraordinarily convincing, that the one absolutely unequivocal statement in the whole gospel of the Divinity of Jesus should come from Doubting Thomas. It is the only place where the word God is used without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous form of words. And he does not say it ecstatically, or with a cry of astonishment but with flat conviction, as of one acknowledging irrefutable evidence that 2 + 2 = 4, that the sun is in the sky. Thomas says, you are my Lord and my God!”[2]

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ spontaneous confession of faith is meant, I think, more for us as it was meant for him: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have experienced the living Christ.  It’s the living Christ who moves our eyes past what we expect to see so that we notice the other important things we might otherwise have overlooked.  It’s the living Christ who moves past our locked doors to breathe the fresh air of the Spirit into our lives so that we can be transformed and empowered.  It’s the living Christ who sends us out as apostles, ambassadors of God’s love, with a message of forgiveness.  It’s the living Christ who eternally shows us his wounds to show us the authenticity and depth of God’s love and forbearance.

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have been shown the living Christ, and by the breath and Spirit, we show the living Christ to the world and carry the renewing breath of the Spirit out to restore the world.

[1] FutureCrunch, Angus Hervey

[2] Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Dramatic Readings on the Life of Christ, BBC, 1943

Unexpected Easter

This is such a strange Easter.  An Unexpected Easter.  No happy greetings in the narthex or the aisles.  No families squeezing together in the pews.  No lilies adorning the sanctuary and the cross.  No choir.  No organ.  No procession.  No acolytes.  No paschal candle.  If someone had told any of us on Christmas Eve that on Easter Sunday morning the sanctuary would be empty and dark and we would all be sequestered in our own homes, if they had told us that on Easter Sunday morning we would be fussing with our computers and laptops and tablets and phones so we could connect together electronically for worship we would have thought that person was delusional.  But here we are.  You in your home, I in mine and it doesn’t look or feel like any Easter we’ve ever celebrated before.

So no.  This year we don’t have the organ or the lilies or the acolytes or the choir.  This year we can’t light the paschal candle in our sanctuary.  But maybe there’s a silver lining.  Maybe since we don’t have all those things that look like Easter and feel like Easter we can focus on what is Easter.

We still have the main thing, the central thing, the most important thing.

We have the good news that the tomb is empty.  We have the good news that Jesus has been resurrected to new life.

Still, when you’re isolated from everyone, when you can’t hug the people you love or even see them face to face, when everyone is wearing masks for safety, when sickness or even death are only one careless touch away, the world can seem pretty dark.

But remember, resurrection happens in darkness.  The gospel accounts differ significantly on several details, but that’s one thing they all agree on.  The resurrection happened in darkness.  Before dawn.  In the closed tomb.  God’s most astonishing work happens in the dark.

There’s a disarming honesty in the confusion in the Bible’s accounts of the resurrection.  But it’s really not surprising that so many details differ when you consider that the earliest gospel, Mark, was written about 30 years after the events it was describing.  Twenty years or so after that, Luke and Matthew, using Mark as a template, each added their own material based on what they had heard handed down.  And then John, written as much as 70 years after the resurrection in a community far removed from Jerusalem told the story as it had been passed down in that community.  Through all that time, these communities of faith had been telling and retelling the story of the resurrection.  Many of those believers, the Apostle Paul, for instance, would tell you that they, themselves had encountered the risen Jesus.  Writing to the Corinthians he said this:

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.  (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)

Those who had encountered the risen Christ told others.  Despite ridicule, persecution, and dispersion, they told others.  They told others because the resurrection of Jesus transformed them.  Peter, who had denied even knowing Jesus, after encountering the risen Jesus, came out of hiding to proclaim Christ’s resurrection on the steps of the temple.  Saul, who had persecuted the followers of Jesus, was confronted by the risen Christ, then changed his name to Paul and dedicated his life to telling others about his resurrected Lord.  They quite literally and immediately had new life in Christ.  They were braver, they were bolder, they were stronger.  They were no longer afraid.  So they shared the news with others.

We have the good news that the tomb is empty.  We have the good news that Jesus has been resurrected to new life.  If your Corona virus isolation has begun to feel a little bit like a tomb, I can’t think of more welcome news.  As St. Paul says in Romans, because Christ was raised, we too will walk in newness of life.

Yes, this is a very different Easter than what we’re used to.  An unexpected Easter.  All that remains to be seen is how this unexpected Easter will transform us.

Yes, right now the world looks a little dark.  But remember, God’s most astonishing work happens in the dark.  And Christ is risen.

A Promise in the Dark

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. –Jeremiah 29:11-13

I’ve been thinking a lot about these verses from Jeremiah.  This was the passage Pastor George Johnson gave to me as my Confirmation Verse when I was fourteen years old.  I had to memorize it and recite it before the congregation at my Confirmation.  I’ve kept it close to my heart over the years—almost 53 years now since I was confirmed—and thought about it often, especially when times were difficult or uncertain.

As you may imagine, these three verses have been particularly dear to me.  When I was younger I often thought of them as mine, as if God had given them just to me, personally.  But that, of course, is not the case.  God did not give them just to me.  For that matter, God did not give them just to Jeremiah almost 2700 years ago.  These verses were spoken to all the people of Judah during a very, very dark time in a series of dark times.

During the 6th century BCE, Judah had become a political and economic football, caught between Assyria, Babylon and Egypt.  No sooner had the Assyrian empire fallen in Babylon’s rebellion than Egypt swept in and took control of Jerusalem.  That didn’t last long.  Egypt was defeated by Babylon and Jerusalem was part of the spoils.  The Babylonians set up Zedekiah as a vassal king, but in 589 BCE, Zedekiah rebelled and the Babylonians laid siege to the city.  Following two years of extreme deprivation and starvation, the Babylonians broke through the weakened defenses.  In 587 BCE, much of Jerusalem was destroyed, including the temple, and the Babylonians started taking captives back to Babylon.  The deportation started with the ruling elite—government officials and priests—who were taken so they wouldn’t stir up another rebellion at home and so they could be put to administrative use in Babylon, but it soon expanded to include laborers taken to work as slaves in building Nebuchadnezzar’s great capitol.

This was a time that seemed dark and hopeless to the people of Judah.  They felt that God had abandoned them.  It was hard to imagine that God had any plans for them beyond their dispersal and destruction.  It was nearly impossible to imagine any future at all for their nation, much less a “future with hope.”  And this is when God spoke to them through Jeremiah.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you…”

It’s interesting that in the verse just before this, God set a limit on Babylon’s time.  “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.” –Jeremiah 29:10  That 70 year prediction turned out to be just about right.  Babylon fell to the Persians and the Medes.  The people of Judah came home.  The temple was rebuilt.  Life got back to normal.

These are trying times for all of us, more trying for some than for others, but not easy for any of us.  It is still early days for us in dealing with Covid-19, early days of self-imposed quarantine and isolation, early days of figuring out how and when to get groceries, early days of figuring out how to stay connected and how to be church with only electronic media and phone calls and maybe the US Mail service.  It’s too soon to be too optimistic and it’s soul-crushing to be too pessimistic.  But it is always the right time to have a clear-eyed trust that God is with us, that God knows and loves us and that God is at work in the midst of all this.  “You shall seek me and you shall find me when you search for me with all your heart.”  Word of wisdom, word of life.

Eventually, probably after a longer time than any of us would like, this thing will run its course.  Life will get back to something closer to normal, although I think we will probably have a new normal with new understandings of a great many things, not the least of which is how precious we are to each other.

In the meantime, stay safe.  Wash your hands.  Keep good social distance when and if you find a need to go out—but mostly don’t go out.  Pray for each other.  Pray for the church.  Pray for me, please.  Pray for the world.  Pray for a cure.   May God bless and keep you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God Who Weeps

John 11:1-45

The raising of Lazarus is a familiar story for most of us.  We hear it often, or at least parts of it, at funerals and memorial services, usually with special emphasis on verse 25 where Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

But through all the rich symbolism and open questions in this familiar story,  there are two things that really resonate with me as I come back to it in this time of pandemic when we’re all quarantined in our homes as the world tries to contain the Corona virus.  The first that strikes me is how much isolation there is in this story.  The second is that Jesus weeps.

The isolation in this story might not be something you notice at first glance, but it’s there.  No one is physically isolated unless you count Lazarus who is sealed in his tomb, a foreshadowing of where Jesus, himself, will be a week later.  But there is a good deal of spiritual, psychological, and emotional isolation in this story.

This chapter perhaps more than any other in the Gospel of John portrays the humanity of Jesus.  We see him dealing with intense moods and deep feelings, yet he still seems to stand apart and slightly above everyone else.  While it’s clear from the beginning of the story that he knows what he is going to do, it’s also clear that he is paying an emotional price in doing it.  And who is going to minister to Jesus?  And so he is by his very nature isolated from his friends and disciples. He stands apart.

Jesus isn’t the only one who stands apart.  Thomas, the only disciple who is named in this chapter, stands apart from the other disciples when he is brave enough to goad them into going with Jesus to Bethany even though in the very act of nudging them into making the journey he restates how dangerous the trip could be for them.  After the resurrection Thomas will be isolated from the others once again when the risen Christ appears to the disciples in the upper room, but when his turn comes to see the risen Christ, he will also be the first to call Jesus “my Lord and my God.”

The grieving sisters, Mary and Martha, seem to be emotionally isolated from each other and the other mourners gathered around them.  They go out to meet Jesus separately, not together.  The only words that pass between them are when Martha goes back to tell Mary that Jesus wants to see her.  Neither one of them wastes any time getting away from the other mourners. And I think we can sympathize.   Grief is an isolating, lonely business.  Even if you know that someone you love dearly, someone right next to you is grieving just as deeply as you are, you also know that they can’t feel your feelings and you can’t feel theirs.  And that’s part of what makes grief so hard to endure.  It isolates us from each other.

I know a lot of us during this time of pandemic and quarantine have been feeling a kind of restless uneasiness, a feeling that’s been hard to name or pin down.  In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Dr. David Kessler affirmed that this feeling many of us have been experiencing is, in fact, a particular kind of grief.  He calls it Anticipatory Grief.  Here’s what he said in the interview:

“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”[1]

While Mary and Martha are obviously experiencing the grief of losing their brother, Lazarus, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus isn’t experiencing some anticipatory grief, even though he seems to know what lies ahead.

And where there is grief, there are tears.

There are only two places in the gospels where Jesus weeps and both instances happen just before he enters Jerusalem for the last time.  One of those passages is Luke 19:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.  (Luke 19:41-42)

The other instance, of course, is in this gospel lesson, just before he raises Lazarus.  Jesus wept.  Or as the NRSV translates it, “Jesus began to weep.”  But for the real emotional impact of the Greek, I think the William Mounce translation captures it best: “Jesus burst into tears.”

In so many ways, that’s an uncomfortable picture, and yet I can’t remember a time when those words meant more to me.  Jesus weeps.  As I sit here working from home day after day with all the rhythms of normal life disrupted, trying to deal with my own anticipatory grief, I find more comfort than I would have imagined in knowing that Jesus weeps.

Yes, I believe in the resurrection.  Yes, I believe that life is eternal and love is immortal.  Yes, I believe in the power of God to overcome and to heal.  Yes, I believe that Jesus conquered death.  But as we sit here in the midst of a quarantined life, isolated together—such an odd truth of life for us now—isolated together, wondering if our friends and family will be safe, wondering if we might lose someone we love to this virus, wondering if we, ourselves might accidentally become infected through some moment of carelessness, maybe not even our own carelessness, it’s not the triumphalism of resurrection or eternal life or God’s ultimate power that I find most comforting, it’s the tears of Jesus standing by the tomb of his friend.  Yes, the book of Revelation tells us that God will wipe every tear from our eyes, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  Someday.  But when I have tears welling in my eyes, when I’m mourning and crying and in pain, it’s the tears of Jesus that comfort me.

Jesus weeps with Mary and Martha.  Jesus weeps for Lazarus.  Jesus weeps for his own all-too-brief life.  Jesus weeps with us.  Sorrow and grief are part of the fullness of human life and Jesus is totally immersed in it.  Jesus knows sorrow and grief, too.  Lament is part of the human experience, and Jesus shares that experience.

Jesus weeping by the side of his friends saves us from the shallowness of triumphalism.  The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us experienced every part of our reality just as we do.  And tears are part of our reality.  When we are up to our necks in pain or confusion it’s right and just and fair to take a moment to feel the depths of that pain and confusion.  There’s nothing particularly faithful or pious about leaping to an announcement of victory even if you truly believe that victory is coming, especially when you know you still have to walk through the valley of shadow to get to it.  Jesus wept.

The tears of Jesus show that he understands the tides of faith.  He is patient with Mary and Martha when they chide him with “If you had been here.”  He understands their frustration, their disappointment, their anger.  He doesn’t expect false piety when emotions are raw.  That, too, is part of reality, and the tears of Jesus honor that reality.

Finally, the tears of Jesus show that he understands the power of death and uncertainty as we experience them.  They show his deep empathy with those around him and his pain at what they were experiencing, what we all experience.  Perhaps he also weeps for his own mortality, knowing that his time with his friends is short.

And maybe he weeps for a world where even good deeds of the most powerful kind can have unwanted consequences, knowing that raising Lazarus will lead directly to his own crucifixion.

During this last week of Lent as we continue to make our way through this time of isolation together, may the tears of Jesus remind us to be gentle with each other, to be compassionate, to listen to each other.  May the tears of Jesus bring us comfort and remind us that Christ is not only with us, but that Jesus knows our fears, our grief, our anxiety.  May the tears of Jesus keep us from rushing too quickly or ill-advisedly to declarations of victory when we’re still deep in the battle.  Yes, the day will come when God will wipe every tear from our eyes.  But first let’s take time to see what our tears and the tears of Jesus have to teach us.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Harvard Business Review, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,  Scott Berinato; March 23, 2020

To Open Our Eyes

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020

John 9:1-41

Today’s gospel text is another long one from the Gospel of John—John 9:1-41.  It’s the story of Jesus healing a man born blind and the reaction that the Pharisees have to that healing.  Like last week, with the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, rather than read the text then give you a sermon,  I think it will be a better use of our time together to take the text in pieces with commentary in between.

So first, a bit of background about the Gospel of John.  John’s gospel is layered with symbolism and themes that repeat.  One of those themes is light.  We see this theme played out sometimes in subtle ways.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in darkness.  He’s afraid of being seen by his fellow Pharisees.  Also, even though he is a religious teacher, he’s not very quick to pick up what Jesus is trying to teach.  He’s in the dark.  In contrast to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well meets Jesus in the broad light of day.  She’s open and honest in her conversation.  She doesn’t care who sees her talking with him.  She is quick to discern that there is something unique about him and quick to invite others to “come and see.”

Light is also used in John specifically to describe Jesus as the light of creation, the light of the cosmos, the light of the world.   For instance in John 1 in that beautiful, poetic prologue we read:

John 1.4

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  [Another way to translate did not overcome it is has not understood it.]

Time and again in the Gospel of John religious leaders and authorities fail to understand Jesus.  They’re standing in the presence of the light but they’re in the dark.

As the light of the world, Jesus does two things.  First, he shines as the light of judgment.  He, himself, becomes the standard that separates good from evil.

John 3.19

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

The second thing Jesus does as the light of the world is that he enables those who believe in him and who receive the Holy Spirit to seeSeeing is another theme in John’s gospel, and it’s only natural that it is so directly tied to Jesus as the light.  But seeing as it is used in this gospel is not merely seeing as we do in everyday life, but seeing with a deeper insight and, more specifically, seeing the Reign or Sovereignty of God not just as a future promise, but as a present reality when Christ is present.  To put it another way, when Jesus, the light of the world is with us, the Kingdom of God is with us, and we can see it!  It’s happening now!  But to see it and experience it, you need the presence of Christ and the presence of the Spirit which make you a new creation.  As Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3,

 “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And then there is yet another way that seeing is used in this gospel, and that is to see others as Jesus sees them.  Jesus sees and notices things and persons that others overlook or he sees them before others see them.  And that is where today’s gospel begins.  John, chapter 9, verse 1:

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 

It’s Jesus that sees him first.  And this is a man who is probably accustomed to being overlooked.  He was a beggar.  He was used to being ignored.  But Jesus notices him.  And because Jesus notices him, the disciples notice him, too.

2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Isn’t it interesting that for the disciples this man becomes not as person in need of assistance or even a person to simply get to know, but a fulcrum for theological debate.  And isn’t it so very human to want to fix blame for things like this?  Who sinned?  Why did this happen?  Who’s to blame?  What went wrong?  Clearly, in their thinking, he’s being punished by God, so why?

I’ve done a little, not retranslating, exactly, but I’ve changed the punctuation in the next part because there is no punctuation in the Greek text.  The NRSV reads 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” The words “he was born blind” are not in the Greek, so I’m not sure why the NRSV translators put them in there.  And the implication of that translation is that God arranged for the man the man to be born blind so that Jesus could come along years later and fix him. But if you take out that phrase that’s not in the Greek and change the punctuation it reads very differently.

John 9:3-5  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.  Night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Do you hear the difference?  Jesus is saying, “Nobody sinned.  He’s not being punished.  His parents aren’t being punished.  Stuff happens.  Let’s stop wasting time with that nonsense and let’s get on with the work God sent us to do while we have time to do it!  Daylight’s a wastin’!  Night is coming!  I’m here.  I’m the light of the world.  Let’s get rid of this little bit of darkness.”

6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,  7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 

So the man was healed.  His eyes were opened and he could see.  That was his physical healing.  But can you imagine how much his spirit, his heart, his soul were healed when he heard Jesus say, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”  Can you imagine what it meant to him to hear those words?

8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”  10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

 13  They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.  17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now here’s the thing.  It’s not really a violation of the Sabbath laws to heal someone on the Sabbath even though Jesus repeatedly gets in hot water for doing so.  It just feels like work the Pharisees, so they don’t like it.  But in this particular instance they have something of a case.  A little bit of one, because Jesus made a paste of mud, and that looks like kneading, as in kneading dough. And that, according to the Mishnah Shabbat is one of the 39 tasks forbidden on the Sabbath.

18  The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;  21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

Isn’t it interesting what fear and anxiety does to people.  Here are these parents who have seen their son healed, their son who has been blind his whole life, but they’re not celebrating.  They’re not looking for Jesus so they can thank him.  They’re nervous.  They don’t want their status changed.  They don’t want their lives changed.  They don’t want to be put out of the synagogue.  They don’t want to be noticed.  They don’t want to be seen.

24  So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”  25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”  28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”  30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

I love how the Formerly Blind Man answers the Pharisees.  Sometimes we think we have to figure out everything about God and what God is doing and be able to answer all the hard questions.  He doesn’t fall into that trap.  And he doesn’t let them control the dialogue.  He just tells them what he does know.  And I like to think that when he says, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” he is asking the question in earnest—an invitation to grace in the face of hostility.

35  Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

In the chapter before this story, in chapter 8 verse 12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

In this time of Corona virus and self-quarantine, it’s easy to feel like we’re all in the dark, like we’re all flying a little bit blind.  But we have the light of life to help us see that God is still at work in the world and in our lives.  So here’s mud in your eye—the kind that heals.  May the light of Christ shine on you and in you and through you so that not only you can see, but so that others can see by the light that shines through you.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Let's Call Her Grace

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020

John 4:5-42

We’re going to do things a little differently this morning.  Instead of reading the gospel lesson then preaching a sermon, today will be something a little more like a Bible study/sermon.  For one thing, it’s a very long gospel reading, in fact it includes the single longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the gospels.  So it makes some sense to combine the sermon or teaching with the reading.

If you were a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian, almost everything that happens in today’s gospel would be unexpected.  It’s a story full of surprises.  So I would invite you to try to hear it that way—as a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian—and I’ll begin by filling in some background to help you do that.

The first thing that’s unexpected in today’s gospel is that Jesus breaks a social distancing barrier.  He decides to go through Samaria to get back to Galilee from Jerusalem.  True, it’s the shortest way, but Judean and Galilean Jews would almost always take the longer way along the Jordan to avoid going through Samaria because, quite simply, Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews.  I’ll explain why in a minute.  So, it’s unexpected that Jesus decides to go through Samaria. 

The second thing that’s unexpected comes when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well.  If you’re a 1st century Jew or Samaritan, you heard stories all your life about men meeting women at a well.  Moses meets Zipporah at a well… and they end up getting married.  Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac and he finds Rebecca drawing water at a well.  Jacob meets Rachel at a well… and they get married, eventually.  So when you hear a story about a man meeting a woman at a well, your expectation is that it’s going to end with a wedding.  But this one, it turns out, is not—although marriage gets discussed in the dialogue– so if you’re a 1st century Jewish Christian hearing this story told for the first time, when Jesus says, “Go get your husband,” and the woman says, “I have no husband,” you might think it’s going to go that way.

The third thing that’s unexpected if you’re a 1st century Jewish or Samaritan Christian is that this conversation Jesus has at the well at Sychar, the single longest conversation Jesus has in all the gospels, a conversation that touches on history, worship, and theology, is not only with a woman, but with a Samaritan woman. 

My friend and colleague, Pastor Kirsten Moore pointed out to me the other day that social distancing is an important element in this story.  That’s a thing we’ve heard a lot about lately.  Social distancing.  Mostly we’re hearing about it in the context of the Corona virus and how it’s important to allow adequate space between yourself and any persons near you if you’re in a public place.  But there are all kinds of social distancing.  Racism is a kind of social distancing.  Homophobia is a kind of social distancing.  Hatred of or fear of or dislike of other people for superficial reasons like skin color or sexuality or religion or country of origin is a kind of social distancing.  It comes in lots of forms.

Remember, Jews don’t like Samaritans and Samaritans don’t like Jews and the reasons are buried in their history.  There’s a Grand Canyon of social distance between them.  And here’s why.

Under King David and King Solomon, Israel’s territory reached from deep into the Sinai Peninsula in the south all the way up to the Euphrates River in the north in what is now Syria.  It was Israel’s golden age.  When Solomon died, sometime around 930 BCE and his son, Rehoboam became king, leaders of the northern tribes led by Jeroboam broke away from the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin in brief civil war.  They resented centralized government in Jerusalem, but they also resented centralized worship and sacrifice only being allowed at the temple in Jerusalem.  The end result of that civil war was a divided nation and a divided religion:  The Kingdom of Judah in the south with its worship center at the temple in Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Israel in the north with worship centers at Shiloh, Bethel, Shechem, and elsewhere.

In 720 BCE the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians.  

  • The Assyrians resettled other conquered peoples in Israel’s territory and carted off the Israelites to resettle other conquered lands as slaves laborers
  • Later, when Assyria had fallen, Israelite returnees often intermarried with the people who had been resettled in their lands
  • That’s why Judeans called them “the people with 5 fathers”

Then in 600 BCE the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians.

  • In 597 – the first Judean people were first deported to Babylon in captivity
  • When Babylon fell to Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede and the Judeans were allowed to return to Jerusalem, Ezra – ordered Judean men who had stayed behind in Judah to “put aside” their non-Jewish wives and children
  • When Ezra and Nehemiah began to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans opposed and interfered with its reconstruction
  • Judeans had Torah, prophets, writings and were expecting a Messiah who would be prophetic but primarily a military leader.
  • Samaritans – their own version of Torah – no prophets, no writings.  Expecting a Messiah who would be a prophet like Moses.
  • Each side believed that they had preserved the “true religion”
  • Each side blamed the other for not being there when the enemy came.

So all of this is in the background when Jesus sits down beside Jacob’s well after a long morning of walking on the dusty road.  

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7  A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  

8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  

  • It’s interesting that “Give me a drink” is imperative

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  

  • “living water”=running water  but she seems to grasp the hint that he may be talking about something more
  • This text, by the way, stands in contrast with Nicodemus from last week’s lesson
    • Nicodemus comes at night and did not want to be seen– this woman meets Jesus in the middle of the day and doesn’t care who sees her.  Nicodemus, a teacher, is not quick to grasp what Jesus is talking about.  This Samaritan woman catches on pretty quickly.

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  14 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.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 

  • “to draw water” – there is a double meaning here.  She’s thirsty for meaningful conversation.

16  Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’;  18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”  

  • Too often because of the “five husbands” comment this woman has been painted in commentaries and sermons as something of a loose woman with disreputable moral character, but there is nothing in the text to actually indicate that.  There are all kinds of reasons she isn’t necessarily a “loose woman”—
    • Her husbands could have simply died.  Life expectancy for men was about 35 yrs.  Life was hard and simple infections could be deadly.
      • If her husband died, she may have been required to enter into a Leverate marriage, the Levitical requirement that if her husband died she had to marry his brother and if he died she had to marry the next brother, and so on.  The Sadducees actually posed a hypothetical situation to Jesus in Mark 12 where a woman ended up married to 7 brothers because they kept dying. 
    • Divorce was easy for men.  All a man had to do was issue a certificate and say, “I divorce you.” So it’s not hard to imagine multiple marriages base on that alone.
    • The word translated as “husband” is andra – It can mean husband but its more basic meaning is simply “man” – she could be living with a male relative and might have lived with other male relatives.

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

  • She moves to one of the primary tension points –What is the proper place for worship?  This is a theological discussion, showing keen intellect and curiosity.
  • Jesus essentially says, the time is coming when that will be a moot point
    • The Gospel of John was written well after the destruction of the temple
      • BUT this story is remembered from before that
  • You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know
    • Jesus could be saying, “You’ve had Torah, we’ve had the prophets to fill in and interpret Torah.”
      • “for salvation is from the Judeans” – Prophets had said Messiah would come from the line of David, a Judean line from the tribe of Benjamin;  Samaritans, having an oral tradition of Messiah but only Torah and no prophetic tradition had no more concrete information.  Jesus is defending the Judean tradition even as he says that much of it is coming to a close.
  • Those who worship must worship in Spirit and Truth
    • As I stand here today in an all-but-empty church and you watch at home and we worship by way of electronic media, this is so important to remember. God doesn’t care as much about where we are as about the state of our hearts and minds.  Lord God may we always worship in Spirit and Truth—even when it is by unusual means and in unexpected places.

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

  • We don’t get her immediate reaction to his statement.  But…
  • “Messiah will proclaim all things to us.”  Keep that in mind.

They get interrupted.

27  Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”

28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,  29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  30 They left the city and were on their way to him. 

  • Do you see the connection between “He will proclaim all things to us” and  “He told me everything I have ever done!”?  For her this is the proof that he is the prophetic Messiah promised to their people.
  • Base on that, she becomes the first evangelist – she goes and tells others and they come to meet Jesus for themselves.

31  Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 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.  36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 

  • There’s a whole sermon in those 7 verses.  But it boils down to this:
    • There is strength and sustenance in doing God’s will
    • There is a world waiting to hear about Christ
    • So how do we do that in this time of Covid-19?

39  Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This amazing woman who met Jesus at the well is never named, but let’s call her Grace, after all, there is so much grace in this story.

It’s a story about what can happen when we dare to cross boundaries—to build a bridge across our social distancing–with grace and courtesy and curiosity, with open hearts and open minds.

In spite of the historic hatred between their two peoples, they speak to each other with courtesy and grace… and they listen to each other.

He doesn’t pigeonhole her, she doesn’t stereotype him.

They reach across the distance of accidental geography and sad history, arbitrary cultural restrictions and hide-bound traditions to have a conversation that changed the lives of people around them and, if we will listen carefully, can still change our lives today.

So don’t be shy.  Talk to that other person, those other people who are so very much not you or your kind.  You may be Christ to them.  They may be Christ to you.  You won’t know until you talk to them.

And be willing to listen.  Listen to the truth of your own life without being defensive.  Open your eyes to who it is speaking to you.  Take the living water that Christ is pouring out for you.  Worship in Spirit and Truth.  Feed on doing the work of God.  Go and tell others. 

In Spirit and Truth, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Problem With Creeds

Here we are almost at the end of the season of Epiphany and I can’t help but think of the epiphanies I’ve experienced.  I’ve had my share of “aha!” moments, but most of my epiphanies roll out slowly with the cover peeled back a bit at a time until I realize that I’m seeing or understanding things differently than before. What are your epiphanies like? How do they happen?  What new light of understanding illuminates your world so that you see something differently than you did a month ago, a year ago, a decade ago, a generation ago?  

God won’t be boxed in.

God is almost entirely unpredictable.  I say almost entirely because the one thing we can predict is that regardless of circumstances, God loves us.  God will love us in, with, under and through all things, but trying to predict what that love will look like, what shape it will take, how it will work?  That’s crazy-making.  God won’t be boxed in.  

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein, which is about the fascinating theological and political battle surrounding the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in which the first prototype of the Nicene Creed was formulated.  The Emperor Constantine called the Council to settle a raging theological dispute that pivoted around several theological questions:  Was Jesus divine?  What did that mean, exactly?  What was Jesus’ relationship to the Father?  And the Spirit?  Was Jesus subordinate to the Father?  Was Jesus co-eternal with the Father or was he created? 

These questions had simmered in the background since the very beginning of Christianity but most Christians were more or less content to live with differing opinions on these matters.  But when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, stopped the persecutions, and made the religion legal, suddenly it seemed important to find official answers and establish doctrine.   

The Council of Nicaea was supposed to settle these matters once and for all, but, even though the Trinitarians “won” the debate and formulated most of the language of the Creed, the Arians continued to push for their interpretation of the faith for more than a century and often were in the majority.  They believed that Jesus was created by the Father and was not co-eternal, that he had a kindof divinity as the son of God, but was not equal to the Father, was instead subordinate to the Father. And so on.  So while the Creed gave language to the first official doctrine of the Church, in practice it really failed to unify the Church in any meaningful way.

Creeds can be useful.  Up to a point.  They are useful to help clarify what we think.  They draw lines that determine the boundaries of what we understand about God and our relationship with God, and help us identify ideas that don’t seem consistent with what we’ve known and experienced of God.  They tell us who’s in and who’s out—who agrees with the official line and who does not. But that’s also part of their limitation.  God is bigger, deeper, wider and more innovative than any boundaries we draw.  God is not a cat.  God does not want to curl up inside our box.  

Another problem with creeds is that they emphasize some aspects of our faith over others, sometimes even ignoring things that are vitally important.  In both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed, for instance, more and more Christian thinkers are calling attention to what’s being called The Great Comma.

“But have you ever noticed the huge leap the creed makes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? A single comma connects the two statements, and falling into that yawning gap, as if it were a mere detail, is everything Jesus said and did between his birth and his death! Called the “Great Comma,” the gap certainly invites some serious questions. Did all the things Jesus said and did in those years not count for much? Were they nothing to “believe” in? Was it only his birth and death that mattered? Does the gap in some way explain Christianity’s often dismal record of imitating Jesus’ life and teaching?” –Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Perhaps the greatest problem with our creeds, though, is that they focus on what we think about God and not what we’re doing to live out our relationship with God.  There is nothing in their language about service. There’s nothing about love. There is nothing about hope.  There is nothing in them about helping “the least of these brothers and sisters”, or life together in a family of faith.  Forgiveness of sins is mentioned but there is no actual call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. The creeds are, instead, a historical snapshot of what the men who formulated them (and they were all men) understood to be the most important philosophical premises of their faith. And to be clear, these were the statements formulated by those who won the battles—battles that were sometimes physical and not just philosophical.  One can’t help but wonder how Jesus felt about that…or feels now, for that matter.

Yes, we do believe.  But more importantly, we are called to follow Christ and to live as the Body of Christ.  I wonder… what would a creed look like that focused on that?  What language would move our statement of faith out of our heads and into our hearts and hands and feet?

Waiting

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

waiting“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.”–Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready. It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate. Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratusin the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”–Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”

Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

A Two-Edged Sword

If you want to do violence in the world, you will always find the weapons.  If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.  With Scripture, we’ve been entrusted with some of the most powerful stories ever told.  How we harness that power, whether for good or evil, oppression or liberation, changes everything.–Rachel Held Evans

“All scripture,” we read in 2 Timothy 3:16, “is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient.”  That’s how it appears in the NRSV.  The problem is, that’s not exactly what it says in the original Greek.  There are, in fact, some missing words in the Greek and, of course the syntax is different. The original, literally translated, would read, “Every writing God-breathed and useful for teaching for reproof for correction for training in righteousness…”  That’s rather confusing, even in the Greek, and you can see that how this gets translated depends in part on making your best guess at some missing words, deciding where to put them, and making a few punctuation decisions. There are also some important word translation choices.  Writings, for instance, became scripture in most translations, a much more weighted word with implications that shift the meaning of the whole passage.  The great Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore, translated this passage this way: “Every writing that is divinely inspired is also useful for…”  Right at the beginning of the sentence is an enormous difference in meaning between the two translations.

This is a pivotal passage because Christians of almost every stripe will refer to the Bible as The Word of God and will appeal to its authority. We call it the Word of God but we often mean very different things when we say that.  We all have different hermeneutics—the lenses through which we read and interpret the Bible.  We read a text through the filter of our own life experience and a host of presumptions about the Bible on the whole and the text itself.  The same thing happens when we use a biblical text “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” or, far too often, to bolster our position in some dispute.  We often fall into the habit of eisegesis, interpreting and using a text according to our own agenda, bias, or presuppositions instead of using it in a way that is faithful to its context and faithful to our faith.  When that happens, we are abusing one of the great gifts God has given us—and that the Church historically gave itself.

Recently, for example, Romans 13:1-7 was cited by our US Attorney General as a way to counter some of the significant opposition he and the administration have been facing in their policy that has separated immigrant children from their families.  “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  That seems pretty clear and straightforward.  Except, like so many things in the Bible, it’s simply not as cut and dried as it looks on first glance.

Remember, this was written by St. Paul, a man who had spent significant time in jail for disturbing the peace and for civil disobedience, so clearly he believed that conscience trumped the legal system. He was also a man who frequently relied on the “get out of jail free” card of his Roman citizenship.  He could afford to encourage obedience to the law because, as a Roman citizen, he could appeal to have his case heard and re-heard all the way up to the Emperor if necessary.  Not everyone who read his letter had that option—nor do they today. Remember, too, that he’s writing to people who had been involved in tumultuous riots not too many years before (c.49), riots so disruptive that Emperor Claudius expelled all Christians and Jews from Rome for a time.  So he’s basically telling them to keep calm and stay under the radar because “the governing authorities” are still looking for an excuse to nail you.  Don’t give it to them.

But ignoring all that, even if you take Romans 13:1-7 strictly at face value, when it’s pulled out of its context and used as a blanket instruction to always obey all authority then you’re missing the point of the chapter and, indeed, of the entire letter to the Romans.  “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Clearly Paul has a higher ethic in mind than simple blind obedience to human law. Love can do no wrong to a neighbor. If you find yourself stuck between law and love, go with love.  It might break human law, but it’s the heart of the law and ethic of Christ.

This is not the only problematic verse in the Bible that can have powerful and dangerous consequences when misused, but it is one that has been abused most frequently.  In our own history it has been used in numerous unsavory ways, most notably in the subjugation of native peoples and in perpetuating slavery.  The Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary has this to say about this passage: “The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “be subject to the governing authorities” on the grounds that “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” has caused much needless suffering and much misery even in the 20th century. This passage seems to lend support to any existing government, regardless of how tyrannical or how corrupt, and any governmental policy, however repressive or unjust. This passage has been invoked by Christians to put down revolt, support war, and justify genocide. In fact, many Christians in Hitler’s Germany appealed to this text as the decisive biblical warrant for obedience to the Nazi regime. And it has been regret over the Church’s alignment with the Nazi regime that has forced a reconsideration of these verses, particularly by German biblical scholars.

            “Again, a careful reading of the text along with an awareness of the historical context is essential for understanding this problem passage. It must be noted that Paul does not say “obey” or “disobey” governing authorities. He instead speaks of “being subject”, which can include disobedience.” (©1992, Anchor/Yale Bible Dictionary, p. 288)

 We all may mean something different when we say that the Bible is the Word of God, but what we mean when we say it will determine how we use these sacred texts—for good or for evil. We should remember that the Bible, itself, says that Jesus is the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1)  For those of us who call ourselves Christians, Jesus should be our hermeneutic, our lens for reading, interpreting and understanding the words of scripture.  And he was executed for challenging authority.