Sunday, April 23, 2017

Encountering Christ (a sermon from John 20:19-29)

I love the story of the little girl who woke up during a thunderstorm and was afraid. After a bright flash of lightning and loud roar of thunder she threw off the covers and scampered into her parents room. Her mother awoke as she came through the door and immediately asked her what was wrong. She told her mother that she was afraid. Her mother said, “You don’t have to be afraid, sweetie, God is with you.” Very astutely her daughter responded, “I know, mom, but I want someone with skin on her face.”

That’s what we get in John’s Gospel. Interpreters have described John’s Gospel in various ways. It’s been called a spiritual Gospel and a mystical Gospel, but the description I like best is Incarnational Gospel. Incarnation is perhaps the most dominant theme beginning in the prologue with the Word becoming flesh. In John, Jesus is presented as being at one with God; God’s unique Son who is completely obedient to God’s cause and will. As such Jesus incarnates, embodies in flesh and blood, manifests visibly through his life, through his words and deeds, what God is like. 

The figure who really stands out in our text today is Thomas, sometimes called doubting Thomas. We tend to use that phrase negatively do we not? Do you want to be known as a doubting Thomas? No one wants to be a doubting Thomas. And yet Thomas in his doubt meets the living Christ and is led by Christ through his doubt to give us the most highly exalted Christological confession in the Gospel. He exclaims of Christ, “My Lord and my God.” What is important about this confession that we need to understand is this: Thomas is not making a confession of some particular belief about Jesus. He is rather expressing his trust in and commitment to Jesus.

Faith as doctrine, faith as belief in propositional statements comes later. The creeds come later. Some historians argue that the primary purpose and function of the first creeds was to give cohesion and unity to the Roman Empire. Undoubtedly this was behind Constantine’s decision to make Christianity the official religion of Rome. The formulation of the creeds was a convenient way to keep Christians from fighting and squabbling over doctrine. They helped to solidify the empire. Once the creed was set, any deviation was called heresy, and we all know what happened to heretics don’t we. It was politically motivated. Of course, a unity based on coerced uniformity is a false unity. But practically it worked to unify the Holy Roman Empire.

In the days before Constantine, in the days when this Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor. “Son of God,” and as “God manifest” were also titles given the emperor. We know this from public inscriptions on buildings and coins that have been unearthed by archeologists. When the early followers of Jesus confessed Jesus as Lord they were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus, that is, to the virtues he embodied and the values he lived by. They were declaring that their first loyalty and commitment was to God’s kingdom, not Rome – the kingdom that Jesus embodied and proclaimed. What would it mean for us to say that our first commitment is to the kingdom of God – not America, not civil religion, not political party, but the kingdom of God?

Our doubts need not keep us from God. Christ meets us where we are – doubts and all. If our doubts lead us to real God experience, to authentic spiritual experience that helps us to become more loving, compassionate, courageous persons and communities, then our doubts may be our salvation. 

When I pastored in Maryland, I had a member who worked as a police chief at the capital. I was invited to give a prayer at the installation of some new officers, and while there my friend was able to arrange a visit with the Senate chaplain, Lloyd Ogilvie. I asked him: What do you think is the greatest spiritual need in our country? He said, without much hesitation: For religious people to know God.

What he meant, of course, was to know God in relationship, to have authentic God experience. If all we have are beliefs handed down to us, which we have accepted without effort or struggle, without questions or doubts, then all we really have is a second-hand faith. Some might say a second hand faith is better than no faith. I’m not so sure. A second-hand faith can serve as a substitute for and an immunization against any real God experience, any real encounter with divine grace, truth, and love.

Religious people without any real God experience have information about God, but they don’t really know God. Religious people without genuine God experience can be terribly mean and vicious, ready to inflict pain and retribution, in order to protect their particular definition of God or their particular version of faith. Rather than being transformed by divine love through real God experience, religious faith becomes simply a way to show one-upmanship, to control and divide the world between “us” and “them.” For religious people who have never been changed by divine compassion and love, religion may be nothing more than a way to promote themselves and their group.  Religious faith becomes a source of pride and condemnation of others. If our doubts can lead us to genuine encounter with the living Christ like Thomas had, then I say bring on the doubts.

In the movie, Doubt, at a Catholic elementary school Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that Father Flynn is having an inappropriate relationship with a student in the school. The younger Sister James was the one who originally suspected something, but later her fears dissipated and she came to the conclusion that Father Flynn was just concerned about the boy, who was the only African-American in the school. Sister Aloysius, however, went after Father Flynn with a passion. She was able to get Father Flynn to resign by telling him that she called a nun in his previous parish and had found out about his prior history of infringements. She lied; she really didn’t do it, but somehow she convinced herself that lying here was okay. Sister James is out of town when Father Flynn resigns. When she returns Sister Aloysius tells her that the Bishop made Father Flynn pastor of the Saint Jerome church and school, basically giving him a promotion. She tells Sister James that she told the Bishop, but the Bishop didn’t believe her.

Here is part of the conversation between between the two sisters: Sister James says, “Father Flynn is gone / Yes,” says Sister Aloysius. / “So you did it, you got him out.” / Yes. / Donald Miller is heart broken (that was the boy Father Flynn spent time with) / Sister Aloysius says, “That can’t be helped. It’s just till June” / Sister James says, “I didn’t think Father Flynn did anything wrong.” / “No. He convinced you?” / “Yes, he did.”
Sister James asks, “Did you ever prove it?” / “To whom?” responds Sister Aloysius / “Anyone but yourself.” / “No.” / “But you were sure?” / “Yes.” / Sister James says, “I wish I could be like you.” / “Why?” / “Because I can’t sleep anymore.” / “Maybe we are not suppose to sleep so well.”

After Sister Aloysius admits to Sister James that she lied to force Father Flynn’s resignation we see a side of Sister Aloysius that we haven’t seen before. There is pause in the conversation. She begins to break down. She says, “Oh, Sister James.” Sister James draws close, “What is it, Sister?” Sister Aloysius says, “I have doubts.” And she begins to weep.

Some would see the ending of that story as a tragedy. I see it as a break in the darkness, a ray of light, a ray of hope. Until this moment Sister Aloysius had shown no misgivings, no struggle, no doubt. She was zealous and even arrogant in her certitude. I suspect much like Paul or Saul of Tarsus before his encounter with the living Christ. She justified her lie to get Father Flynn to resign. But here, finally, in her confession to Sister James, Sister Aloysius expresses doubt and in doing so she expresses some humility. I see this as hopeful because her admission of doubt to Sister James might just be the first step toward her redemption.

When Jesus says to Thomas in our Gospel story, “Do not doubt,” or a better translation would be, “Stop doubting,” Jesus is really saying, “Don’t let your doubts keep you from trusting in me and living for the kingdom of God.” Our doubts can lead us to real change. Our doubts can be the path that leads to personal and communal growth, healing, and redemption.

After Thomas’ confession Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” I do not read that as some kind of indictment against Thomas because he doubted. I read it as an affirmation that all are blessed, that all are capable of experiencing God’s love and grace no matter what their history or experience. To “see” is to experience. We have diverse experiences in life and not all of us have the same opportunities and advantages. That is how life works. God does not micromanage the world, so this is not about God blessing some and not others. Life can be very unfair. But whatever our experience, whatever our history or place in the world God is always wooing, drawing, inviting us into relationship – to claim our belonging in God’s family and to take an active role in our becoming the person God has called us to be.

Christ meets us where we are, doubts and all, to lead us to a better place. That’s the first thing. Now, the second thing is that the better place where Christ wants to lead us is a place he knows all about. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And when he says to the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit” he is assuring them that the Spirit that empowered him will also empower them. They will be able to love the way he loved. They will be able to serve the way he served. They will have the moral resolve and courage and compassion that he had, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He is telling them and us that the Spirit that filled him can fill us and lead us to larger place – out of our little, ego driven selves into a greater love and compassion. The Spirit prompts us to let go of our little selves, so that we can participate in a larger story and a bigger love and a greater purpose.

And at the heart of this greater story and love is the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
It’s interesting that forgiveness is highlighted in the sending out of Jesus’ followers to be agents of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What does this mean? Jesus is telling us that the privilege and responsibility of forgiveness, the gift and obligation of forgiveness resides with us. It does not reside in the Temple liturgy of sacrifice or with religious leaders who would like to use it as a means of control and management to determine who is “in” or “out.” It rests with us. It is given to all. And of all people, disciples of Jesus must be practitioners of forgiveness and dispensers of grace. And if that is not a priority, then we have no right to claim to be followers of Jesus.

As we live out the grace of God through giving and receiving forgiveness in our families and communities we reflect who God is and what God is like, and we point the way toward God’s ideal beloved community. Forgiveness may be the most important work we do. Living a life of grace and compassion is far more important than confessing a belief in a creed or squabbling over doctrine. We don’t touch the heart of God by professing belief in some doctrine. We touch the heart of God when we love the way God loves.

Paul says that we are saved by grace – not just grace received, but grace dispensed, grace extended others through acceptance and forgiveness. Our practice of forgiveness is as essential for our own salvation as it is for the salvation of others. Forgiveness is the grace of God flowing in us and through us that brings healing to our relationships and to our own souls.

Jean Vanier says: “To forgive is to break down the walls of hostility that separate us, and to bring each other out the anguish of loneliness, fear, and chaos into communion and oneness.” It’s no wonder Jesus spoke of the giving and receiving of forgiveness in the model prayer as a central part of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s central to God’s will and vision for the world.

So then, the living Christ meets us where we are – with all our doubts and struggles. He shows us how our doubts are not bad things, but an important part of the process of becoming persons who incarnate God’s grace and truth like Jesus. The living Christ calls us to be his agents and ambassadors of grace in the world – dispensing blessings, working for peace and justice, and practicing forgiveness.

Our good God, let us not be fearful of admitting our questions and doubts. Give us the will to face them and the faith to trust in your love most of all. Let us be open to your Spirit that we might embody your grace and forgiveness and help bring about your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Setting Loose the Power of Life (a sermon from John 20:1-18)

The last two weeks in my Sunday School class we reflected on Jesus’ death in general and his cry of forsakenness on the cross in particular. No one in my class thought that God had actually forsaken Jesus, but we all concurred that Jesus felt forsaken and was expressing his sense or feeling of God’s absence in echoing the cry of the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When I asked, “Why do you believe that God did not actually forsake Jesus,” someone said, “Because God raised him up.” And that response, I think, gets to the heart of what the resurrection is about.

Actually, you wouldn’t need a resurrection to believe in an afterlife. I used to treat the resurrection of Jesus as if it was the great proof that there is life after death. But that is not really what it is. It may indeed be a sign, a foretaste of what is to come, but we don’t need the resurrection of Jesus to believe in an afterlife. There are non-Christian traditions that believe in immortality. The key meaning in the Gospels of Jesus’ resurrection, of Jesus appearing alive after his death, is vindication. When Jesus appeared to the disciples alive, when the first disciples became convinced that God had raised up Jesus, the one who was crucified by the powers that be is now proclaimed as Lord. While the powers that be said “No” to Jesus, God said “yes.” Jesus didn’t raise himself. God raised Jesus. That was the message the first disciples preached. And when God raised Jesus God said “yes” to the message he proclaimed, the life he lived, and the way in which he went about his death.

It’s in the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus that the early followers assign redemptive significance to Jesus’ death. This is why Paul can say, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.” God was right there with Jesus. The suffering Jesus endured – his physical suffering, his humiliation and rejection, the desertion of his own friends and followers, the betrayal, and his sense of the injustice and evil of humanity coming to a climax on the cross – all of that darkness formed a cloud around his consciousness closing out in any sense or feeling or awareness of the divine presence. But God was as near and close to Jesus as God always was. And God’s vindication of Jesus shows us that.

What does that mean for me and you? It means that we are never alone, we are never separated from God and God’s love, even though we might feel like we are. Just because we do not sense God’s presence or cannot feel God’s presence, does not mean God is not present. It also means that God enters into our plight. It means that God shares in, participates in our suffering. The God who was in Christ is also in you and me. This is what Paul means when he says that the Holy Spirit or the living Christ indwells in our bodies and souls individually and in the church corporately and in the creation universally. This is what Paul means when he says, “Christ in you, your hope of glory.” Jesus told the woman of Samaria, “God is Spirit.” God as Spirit inhabits our lives. God as Spirit is actively engaged in the human condition. Apart from the divine Spirit we would not be alive. So God experiences what we experience. Our suffering is God’s suffering too. Such is the vulnerability of God.

In his novel Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave (that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by miraculous power). If he had, says Berry, he would be the absolute tyrant of the world and we his slaves. For if he had, then “even those who hated him and hated one another and hated their own souls would have to believe in him then. From that moment,” writes Berry, “the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry argues that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures” and in this “groaning and travailing beautiful world.” Berry writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds still are bleeding”

God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing in our pain and loss. The living Christ is our brother in suffering. God in Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. So we need not let our disappointments and discouragements, our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection separate us from God, but rather we should let them draw us into fellowship with a God who suffers with us.

God’s vindication of Jesus in raising Jesus up was not just about Jesus. It is God’s vindication of what Jesus lived for and stood for. It’s vindication of the message Jesus proclaimed about the kingdom of God and the way he incarnated the kingdom of God in his life and work. And the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. It’s about right relationships – putting relationships right in our families, our communities, our societies. It’s about justice. Not justice in the sense of retribution and getting what you deserve. But restorative justice, social justice, gracious justice, justice immersed in grace and mercy, justice the liberates and uplifts and empowers the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the downtrodden. It’s about loving God and loving neighbor. It’s about doing unto others what we would have them do unto us. It’s about the power of love and life at loose in the world – a power that transform us and puts us right with God, each other, and all creation.

This power of love and life can take many forms and be expressed in diverse ways. When Mary first encounters Jesus she does not recognize Jesus. She mistakes him for the gardener. What is different about Jesus? This lack of initial recognition occurs also in the appearance story of the two disciples headed to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. In John the disciples do not recognize Jesus when he stands by the lakeside. That there is something different about Jesus is subtly suggested in the other appearance stories in John where Jesus has to show the disciples his scars in his hands and side. So we might ask: What is John trying to tell us? I believe, John is helping us transition from the historical Jesus who incarnated bodily the grace and truth of God to the living Christ who is Spirit, and who resides in all of us and who speaks to us and guides us in many, many different ways.

In the story Mary clings to Jesus and Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Mary wants to cling to her relationship to Jesus as it was before his death and resurrection, but that is not possible. Nor is that possible for us. God is ever moving us forward, changing us and transforming us in God’s love to be more loving people. We can’t go back and take up old negative patterns again. We have to let go of our hate and negativity, and allow the Spirit of love and life to set us free and set us loose to love freely, consistently, and unconditionally. 

Author and pastor Philip Gulley shared a letter he received from a reader. The reader thanked Gulley for his book, “If the Church Were Christian.” He tells Philip about being very active in church when he was a teenager and into his early 20’s. Then he came out as a gay man and he knew what would happen. He writes,

“The fear, anguish and worry about what would happen if I came out moved me to almost take my own life. Thankfully I did not. I prayed, I wept, and in that moment of darkness, had the first real spiritual experience of my life, an experience that let me know that God was okay with me exactly as I was.” (You know, so often it takes an experience of God’s love . . . And here is what I find amazing about the Power of Life, the Power of Love at loose in the world, namely, that it can break through layers of bad teaching, socialization, and tradition.)

He continues, “I was kicked out of the church. I was disowned by my family. I was shunned by every friend, every person I had ever known. I found myself alone in the world. Truly, completely, utterly alone. I was 23 years old, young, scared and bruised.
Amazingly I found faith again. Most people who are raised as I am never find faith again after they are shunned. Many become atheists or agnostics, totally rejecting any thoughts of God. I’m thankful I was able to re-form my faith. I had to start from scratch. I asked all the hard questions I had never been encouraged to ask, and now have a more vibrant, joyful and expansive vision of God, the world, and faith. He concludes by saying: “I thank God for holding me in the light, and keeping me close. I thank God for my life.”

That, sisters and brothers, is the power of the resurrection, that is the power of love and liberation at loose in the world. Like Mary we resist this power. We want to hold on to life as it was. We cling to our fears and insecurities. We replay our complaints and painful grievance stories. We hold onto negative attitudes and habits. We cling to our old ways of thinking (“stinking thinking”) and toxic ways of handling problems and struggles. And so we resist and quench the power of life, the power of the divine Spirit, the power of love and liberation at loose in the world. We resist the love that can heal us and transform us.

God’s vindication of Jesus is God’s vindication of love. The power of love will prevail. Love will win. Not by using the means and methods of the world. Not by repaying evil for evil. Not through violence and force. But by turning enemies into friends.

Martin Luther King Jr preached a wonderful and challenging sermon titled, “Loving your enemies.” He mentions how hate is just as injurious to the person who hates as to the one hated. It “scars the soul and distorts the personality.” Why did Jesus command us to love our enemies? King says it’s because “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” By its very nature, says King, “hate destroys and tears down”; whereas love “creates and builds up.” Love, he says, “transforms with redemptive power.”

People will say, says King, that this is not practical, but the practical way has lead us deeper into confusion and chaos. King says that with every ounce of energy we must continue to fight injustice, but, he says, “we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and obligation to love. While “abhorring segregation,” says King, “we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.”

I believe God will create the beloved community, and I believe the resurrection is God’s promise that love will win. Win, not by force, not by using the violence of the world, not by returning blow for blow, but by turning enemies into friends. The NT reading from the epistles for Passion Sunday was Philippians 2:5-11. I think it may be even better suited as an Easter reading. Paul admonishes the church to put on the mindset of Christ, to model the humility and self-giving attitude and lifestyle of Christ. (By the way, this is what the writer means in Colossians 3 when he instructs us the church to set their minds on things above). After Paul instructs them to put on the mindset of Christ, then he quotes an early Christ hymn that says that the Christ emptied himself and humbled himself  and was obedient to the will and love of God even to the point of death on a cross. Then the hymn proclaims: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth [that about covers everyone doesn’t it?] and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

I remember hearing that interpreted years ago to mean that God will make everyone in heaven and in hell bow down to Jesus. God will have to force some people but they will bow down. But that is not what the text says at all. To confess Jesus as Lord was a confession early followers of Jesus made at the time of their baptism. It was a redemptive confession signifying that they were committing their lives to live by the love of Christ. This early Christ hymn that predates Paul envisions a day when all God’s enemies will be turned into friends. That’s how love wins sisters and brothers.

God’s resurrection of Jesus is vindication that love will win. I don’t know how or when that will happen. It may be in this world or it may be in a different world. I don’t know. But I believe it to be so. I believe in the love of Jesus as the most transforming power in the world. And that gives me hope. And it can give you hope too.

I know I have told this little story a number of times before but it’s such a beautiful parable about the hope that the love of Christ brings to us. There once was a painting that hung in a gallery of Foust playing chess with the Devil for his soul. It appears that the Devil has Foust checkmated. The Devil is hovering over the chess board with a delightful glee, while on the face of Foust there is a look of bitter desperation.

Some people in the gallery would inevitably gravitate toward this painting. If they were going through a difficult time, a time of great disappointment and grief, or if, perhaps, they were living on the brink of despair, the painting spoke to them. The painting seemed to capture the sense of hopelessness they were experiencing.

One day a chess master entered the gallery and for the longest time simply stared at the painting. Then suddenly, out of the quietness of that place, came a loud shout, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” exclaimed the chess master, “the knight and the king still have moves left.”

Because God raised Jesus from the dead, because love is the greatest power in the universe, because the love of Christ brings life out of death, we still have moves left. You still have moves left. All is not lost. Love is going to win.

Our good God, may your magnanimous and unconditional love for us, embodied in Jesus’ life, poured out in his death, and vindicated in his resurrection, reach us in our spirits, in our awareness, in our consciousness today regardless of where we are on life’s journey. Help us to see that no matter where we are today, life is not hopeless. We have moves left. And that no matter what befalls us, or what burdens we may have to carry, you will be with us bearing them too. Give us the faith to believe that you suffer with us and share our stories. Give us the faith to trust in your love and grace. Give us the faith to be faithful ambassadors and practitioners of the love shown us in Christ our Lord.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Seeing is believing (A sermon from John 9:1-41)

In 1972 songwriter and singer Johnny Nash, made it to number one on the pop chart singing: I can see clearly now the rain is gone. / I can see all the obstacles in my way. / Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. / It’s gonna be a bright, bright sun-shiny-day. Rarely though, do we see so clearly. Rarely do we see all the obstacles in our way or all our blind spots that prevent us from seeing. Paul says in his beautiful poem on love in First Corinthians: “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” The Gospel of John equates seeing with believing, and believing, as I have said so often, is about trusting and serving and loving. Believing is about being faithful to the way of Jesus. So seeing is trusting, seeing is loving, seeing is serving. Our capacity to see greatly impacts our capacity to trust God, and love and serve others.

Our Gospel text today says that as Jesus went along he “saw” a man blind from birth. What did Jesus see? Jesus sees a man who is very vulnerable and at a great disadvantage. John puts his own spin on it when he says that this man was born blind  so God could reveal his healing power, but clearly when Jesus looks upon this man he does so with compassion and love. The disciples, however, see something else. They ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” I do not sense any  compassion do you? Their question reflects a theological assumption – a very bad theological assumption – namely, this man is getting what he deserves. This is God’s punishment. Bad theology that makes for bad religion.

But we can’t be too hard on them, unless we are equally hard on ourselves. The disciples are echoing what they were taught. They are expressing popular beliefs that were prevalent in their culture. Beliefs that perhaps up until now they had never questioned. How many of us have beliefs that we were taught and have never questioned? Or never questioned until we had an experience in life that compelled us to question and explore other possibilities? And that experience could be many things. It could be our own personal suffering or the suffering of someone we deeply care about, or it could be a relationship, or a college class – it could be any number of things. But something or someone moved us past our certitudes and insecurities and fears to explore other possibilities.

The man whose sight is restored by Jesus undergoes a series of interrogations. First, he is grilled by his neighbors who do not act very neighborly. His neighbors hand him over to the Pharisees who are upset because Jesus did this good work on the Sabbath day. They care more about protocol and convention, more about Jesus violating Sabbath law, than the healing of a man born blind. So after they question the man, and not hearing from him what they want to hear, they turn to his parents.  

The parents are afraid of what the consequences might be if they side with their son. They are afraid of being put out of the synagogue, which means being cut off from the social and religious life of their community. They are afraid of being “shunned.” And I think we all understand that fear. I know some Christians and you probably do too who are afraid to question their faith because they don’t want to incur the wrath of their family or church. I know Christians who will not ask or explore thoughtful questions because they are afraid of where their questions might take them – out of their comfort zone and the safety of their group. And here, clearly, the parents are not going to sacrifice their security. They are not going to jeopardize their place in their religious and social community, so they say to their interrogators, “We don’t know, ask him.” That’s a safe response. How many people today refuse to side with the marginalized because they don’t want to get involved, maybe afraid of what friends and family will say.
So the religious leaders turn back to the man who was healed. This time the man says, “Why do you want me to tell you this again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” Clearly, this man has no interest in playing up to the Pharisees. That response sent them right up to the edge. They retort, “We are disciples of Moses. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t where this Jesus gets his authority.” The man says, “Now this is remarkable. Jesus opened my eyes so I can see, and you don’t know where his power and authority comes from. If this man were not from God, he could not do these kinds of works.” Well, his first response brought them to the edge, this one sent them over. They cry out, “You are steeped in sin, how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him, and his church out of the Southern Baptist convention. They expelled him from the religious and social life of the synagogue.

In a short story by Lynna Williams called “Personal Testimony,” a twelve year old girl, who is the daughter of an evangelistic preacher, is sent every summer to a fundamentalist Bible camp for children in Oklahoma for two weeks. During the day this camp is similar to all the other camps with hiking, softball, arts and crafts, and so forth. But at night they had a kind of “revival meeting” where kids are pressed to surrender their lives to Jesus. The unwritten expectation is that at some time during the camp every camper will come forward and give a moving personal testimony.

The problem is that these campers are kids, most of them very normal kids, and so most of them don’t’ have personal testimonies to give. That’s where the twelve year old preacher’s daughter comes in. She figured she could make a little money on the side as a ghostwriter for Jesus, writing personal testimonies for the other campers. For five dollars she wrote a wonderful personal testimony for a kid named Michael, about how in his old life he used to be very bad and would take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. But now that Jesus had come into his heart, his mouth is pure as a crystal spring. Her best piece of work was written for Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was so empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in an almost fatal, and utterly fictitious, pickup truck accident, a near catastrophe in which Jesus himself seized the steering wheel and averted disaster. She charged twenty five dollars for that story. All these stories followed a pattern: My life was a wreck, I was headed for disaster, but I found Jesus and now, it’s all good, as my son used to tell me.

It is indeed a wonderful thing that a blind man can now see. But that doesn’t mean “it’s all good.” The man in our story begins a new chapter of his life by being ostracized and shunned by his community. When Jesus called disciples he didn’t promise any one a “happy” life; he didn’t say, “All your problems will be resolved.” In fact, he braced them for a whole new set of problems. He told them that the powers that rejected him would reject them as well.

Now, when Jesus spits on the ground and forms some mud and anoints the man’s eyes there are echoes here of the creation story where God forms the human creature out of mud, out of the earth and then breathes into the human one God’s own Spirit, because it is the Spirit that imparts life. The allusion here to the creation story points to something creative and new coming into existence. This man who is given physical sight begins to see on a different level. And as the conflict between the man and the religious leaders escalates so does the man’s growing understanding and spiritual awareness.

When he is finally kicked out of the synagogue, the text says that Jesus finds him and leads him to an even greater awareness and faith in who Jesus is and what he is about. The more we grow in spiritual wisdom and awareness, the more trouble we will have living with the way things are. The more we participate in God’s new creation, God just world, the more trouble we have in living in the old creation, in the world as it is. I love this quote by Thomas Long that I have included in your worship bulletin: “The more we are drawn into the light of Jesus . . . The more we have our eyes opened by the gospel, the more things we see, the more we see how the old world is captive to the powers of darkness and the forces of death . . . and the less we can feel at ease in the world as it is. To be given sight by Jesus is to participate in the collision of moral worlds.”

And that collision is played out in many different ways and takes many forms and expressions. At the entrance to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City stands a magnificent Romanesque arch. For years homeless sought refuge on the porch under that arch. Members of the church had to step over them to get into evening services and night meetings. Then, several years ago, the eyes of that congregation were opened. They began to see the people on the church steps.  

The first thing the church did was to apply to the city for the right to establish a night shelter. The city allowed them to have ten beds. So they built ten beds, but realized that there were more than ten homeless. So, they tried to get them into other shelters, but they discovered that the people on their front porch were what social workers sometimes calls “service resistant” homeless. They are people who are fearful of institutions and leery of authority. They don’t want to be placed in a shelter; they like it on the porch of the church. So, with eyes wide open, the church said, “Okay, we will make this porch a place of hospitality. Everyone who sleeps here, we will know by name. We will try to get to know the story of everyone who comes within the boundaries of our church.” They made a commitment to get to know them and protect them as best they could and to offer them hot coffee and a shower in the morning if they wanted it.

That’s when the trouble started. That’s when there was a collision of moral worlds. Guess what the neighbors said. They said, “Are you the church that used to be blind.” The church said, “Yes, but now we can see.” The neighbors said, “We liked you better when you were blind.” Then, the authorities got involved. On a cold, rainy night in December, the NYC Police department came with billy clubs and knocked down the cardboard shelters and drove the homeless off the church porch. The church responded in outrage and protest to the city.

The city said they were running an illegal shelter and couldn’t do it. The church took the city to court. The city said, “Your charter is a house of worship, and this is not your mission.” And the church said, “You ask Isaiah, you ask Jesus about our mission.” The judge ruled for the church. The city appealed, four times in all the city appealed, and the church won all four times. A collision of moral worlds. And this is what we have going on right now in our country.

On the fourth occasion when the church was vindicated by the court, members of the church gathered under the stone arch with their homeless guests for a service of thanksgiving. After a prayer of thanksgiving, one of the homeless began to spontaneously sing, “Amazing Grace.” Of course, you know that one of the lines in Amazing Grace is: “I was blind, but now I see.”

When the hymn was over, one of the members of the church gasped, “Look up,” she said. When they looked up they saw in the roof of the arch something that they had apparently not noticed before. There was this beautiful mosaic of the angels of God and the eye of God keeping watch over them. The members of that church had walked under that arch a thousand times and had never seen it before. Or maybe they saw it, but they really didn’t “see” it. One of the homeless people said, “Yeah, we see it every night when we are flat on our backs.” (This story was originally told by Thomas Long in Preaching John’s Gospel from Chalice Press)

Maybe sometimes that’s what it takes for some of us to see, to be flat on our backs. I don’t know. Maybe the light has to blind us first, like Paul, and someone has to lead us by the hand to a new place before we can be filled with light. I cannot explain how it works, but it does seem to me, that until we realize that we cannot see, we will remain blind.  

At the end of the story John attributes to Jesus this saying, “I have come into the world to offer this judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” What does he mean? Well it becomes more obvious in his final words to the Pharisees who sensed Jesus was talking about them. Jesus says to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” What’s keeping the Pharisees entrapped in the old world? What prevents them from seeing? Their pride, their egotism, their claims of superiority, their need to manage and control and determine who’s in and out? Maybe all of the above. The bottom line is this: Their claim to see was proof that they could not see; it was the evidence that they were blind. Before we can see, we must acknowledge our blindness.

And we all have blind spots. I know I do. What keeps us blind? Is it fear of what Thomas Long calls the collision of moral worlds? Are we afraid of what that collision will do to us? Are we afraid of being kicked out of the synagogue? Are we afraid of what our family and friends might think? Are we afraid of being looked down up?

What keeps us blind to our own faults and weaknesses? Our ego? Our pride? Our unwillingness to let go of place or power or position? Is it our need to control? What is it?
And what keeps us blind to what God wills for the world? What blinds us with regard to God’s kingdom, God’s new creation? What blinds us with regard to social justice and fairness and equality? Is it our fear? Our prejudice? Our dislike or even contempt for those who are different than us?

What keeps us from loving others as we love ourselves? What keeps us from loving and welcoming and accepting folks the way Jesus did? What keeps us from feeling compassion toward those who are broken and hurting? What keeps us from standing with and for the most vulnerable? Why are we blind to their needs? Notice I said “we” not “you”; I am preaching as much to me as to you. What keeps “us” blind?

Maybe it’s different for each of us, I don’t know. But what I do know is that the only path to spiritual understanding and enlightenment, the only path that leads to real personal growth and communal growth, the only way forward in our own personal transformation and in our transformation as a church or as a society, the only path leading to healing and wholeness and liberation takes us through our own blindness and sin. And to do that – to face and admit our blindness and sin takes some honesty and some humility and a willingness to change.

Gracious God, help us to realize that we all have blind spots, that we all have areas in our life we are blind to, where we need to change and grow. May we be open to your Spirit and invite you to reveal and expose our blind spots so that we can become more than we are, so that we can evolve and grow and change and become more like Jesus. Give us the courage to face the collision of worlds that growth and transformation brings. Give us the will to do your will, to share your love and compassion for all people.  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Living Water for the Thirsty (a sermon from John 4:5-42)

Last week a prominent Jewish religious leader had a meeting with Jesus where Jesus talked about wind and Spirit and eternal life. Nicodemus approached Jesus from a place of theological and religious privilege. Jesus told him in no uncertain terms that his privileged religious heritage did not make him any better than anyone else – he still needed a spiritual awakening, he needed the Divine Spirit to touch his human spirit in a way that would lead him into participation in God’s life and love, which is what this Gospel calls eternal life.

This week we read about another person who has a conversation with Jesus about spiritual reality who is, for the most part, the opposite of Nicodemus. Jesus’ conversation partner today is a woman. From the perspective of most Jewish males in Jesus’ day that alone would have disqualified her from receiving religious instruction from a rabbi, just as in a number of Christian circles today being female disqualifies one from certain types of ministry. Not here of course, but certainly in many churches. She is also a Samaritan and would have been considered by most Jews of that day outside the loop of God’s blessing and redemption. In evangelical Christian language she would have been designated as “lost” or “unsaved.” But Jesus, as we see in the story, is no respecter of societal and religious conventions and norms. From Jesus’ vantage point this Samaritan woman was not any more lost or any more in need of spiritual awakening than Nicodemus, the Pharisee. So, by bringing these two stories together the Gospel writer shows Jesus breaking down the wall of separation between the so-called “chosen” people and the so-called “rejected” people, as well as the conventional barriers of “gender” and “race.” Now, if we aspire to follow Jesus we too will be in the business of crossing borders and barriers to meet people where they are, rather than constructing them. Nicodemus’ religious privilege made him no better and this woman’s lack thereof made her no worse. Both are in the same boat. They are equally children of God and equally in need of divine grace. Both are in need of an awakening generated by God’s Spirit and both in need of the intimacy that comes with God’s fellowship and friendship. Jesus meets both the Jewish religious leader and the Samaritan woman in the same place – no one is any better or worse. The need that Jesus speaks to is a universal human need.

Last Tuesday I attended the program on immigrants and refugees sponsored by the Kentucky Council of Churches in the Capital annex. Did you know that Kentucky Refugee Ministries is doing some great work and that since opening its doors in 1990 has resettled over 15,000 refugees, representing 50 nationalities and ethnic groups? The state of Kentucky is 14th in the nation in annual refugee arrivals. Did you know that the application and screening process takes an average of 18 to 24 months and that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals to enter the US? After one year they can apply for permanent residency and after 5 years can become naturalized citizens. I am hoping that our church will be able in some way to participate in this ministry in the future, though most all of the refugees are resettled in Louisville or Lexington. Right now, however, there are no new refugee arrivals. Our president has put a ban on all refugees entering our country for four months and that includes all nations, not just certain Muslim nations. However, last week the court struck down that ban just the way they did the first one, so we will have to see how this plays out. But even if the ban is allowed to remain, it will not remain forever. The political landscape will change because of the outcry from peace and justice loving people.

At the meeting I heard from Zena, a Muslim refugee from Iraq who is here in Kentucky with her husband and two children. She proudly informed us that both her children have a 4.0 grade average in school. She was a computer engineer in Iraq and she worked with people of other religious faiths and nationalities. Well, a terrorist group in Iraq decided to target her and those who worked with her. Two of her friends were killed. And she likely would have been too if she remained in the country. A reminder that refugee bans result in people being killed. Her and her family found refuge here in the US. She pointed out in her talk that Muslim radicals/terrorists target peace loving Muslims just as they do any other group. Muslim terrorists are no more authentically Muslim than Christian KKK members are authentically Christian (and I hope you get that because a lot of Christians don’t). She believes as we believe that the heart of true religion is love your neighbor as yourself and she pointed to our common humanity as the basis for such love. We are sisters and brothers. She had to be careful with her words but I suspect she also would say that not only do we share a common humanity, we share a common connection to and identity in God, even though we may go about nurturing that connection in some very different ways.

Nicodemus the Jew and this woman, a Samaritan, share a common humanity and a common connection to the Divine that transcends gender, race, and religion. Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and people of diverse faiths and good people of no faith have much to teach and offer one another. We can learn from them and they can learn from us.

Not long ago I shared a story that Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. It’s a story worth sharing again. Several summers ago Philip and rabbi Nahum were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. They usually co-taught the same class, but here they were teaching different classes. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on the passage in John’s gospel where Mary comes to the tomb and sees Jesus and tries to hold on to him. As Philip reflected on that passage with his group, he thought about how Christianity has tried to “hold on” to Jesus and make him exclusively ours. He decided to share this theological observation with Rabbi Nahum. Philip sat with Nahum at lunch and as he shared this observation he began to inexplicably weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Dr. Newell writes, “Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?”

In this story from John 4 some of the Samaritans in the village are deeply impacted by the woman’s testimony and decide to meet Jesus for themselves. After experiencing Jesus themselves they conclude that truly he is the Savior of the world. If Jesus is in indeed in some sense the savior of the world then he cannot be simply the savior of Christians. If Jesus is the savior of the world then he is not exclusively ours. This also means that mediators, prophets, mystics, teachers, and reformers in other religious traditions are not exclusive theirs. We have much to learn from one another and teach one another.

There is a point in the conversation between Jesus and the woman where the topic of worship comes up. In that interchange Jesus makes clear, it seems to me, that what matters most is not place or form of worship, not religious creed or ritual. What matters most is our common need to be awakened, led, and filled with the Divine Spirit who is everywhere and in everyone. God is Spirit says Jesus. And our great need is to experience the Spirit – to know, connect with, and be filled with Spirit. The Spirit is living water. God is living water – Spirit is just another image of God, another way of talking about God. The Spirit bestows and generates life.

Now, we Christians partake of the living water by following Jesus. Jesus is our gateway into the experience of living water. Not exclusively so, but preeminently so, primarily so. When we trust God the way Jesus trusted God and when we love others the way Jesus loved others, then we too like Jesus become wells for living water to gush forth. Our lives become a source of life and blessing to others.

Now, it seems to me that if any of us are to become wells of living water, if we are to become fountains that shower blessing on others, then we must thirst for it, we must nurture an interest in and acquire a passion for the living water, for life in God.  We are not going to drink if we do not thirst. True religion is not about keeping rules and believing doctrines, it’s about falling in love with God. It’s about becoming a fountain for the divine love and life to flow out. So, a critical question is this: What is it that makes a person thirsty for living water? How is this thirst for living water nurtured? I wish I could tell you. There’s a lot of mystery here.

I can understand, though, why some people have not acquired a thirst. One reason, I think, is because of our tendency to equate the spiritual life with organized religion. Organized religion can be good or bad. Healthy religion guides people into life. Bad religion turns people away. Bad religion doesn’t quench spiritual thirst, it crushes it. As I have said many times, religion can be the best thing in the world, but it can also be the worst thing.

I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about being at a church ministering when a young lady, maybe 15 or 16 approached him after the service with a question. What she asked was this: “Will I go to hell for not wanting to go to heaven.” He said, “Why in the world are you asking that?”  She said, “Well, my mother’s real suspicious.  Every time I go out I hear ‘Where are you going? Who are you going with?  What are you going to do?  Or when I come in I get, ‘Who were you with? What’d you do? Where have you been?’ All the time suspicious.  And the way she tries to get at me is: ‘If you do this or if you don’t do this then you won’t go to heaven!’ That’s what she tells me, ‘You won’t go to heaven.’” Fred didn’t know what to say; he was kind of at a loss. He had said to his son several times, “You are grounded,” but he never meant it in any ultimate sense. But for this young lady, if heaven meant living with Christians like her mother then she didn’t want to go.

I can understand why some folks have never acquired a thirst for living water, because the so called living water that was offered to them was not living water at all – it was more like ditch water. It was contaminated water. The living water of the Spirit spreads grace and gratitude and fullness of life wherever it flows. It’s life-giving and life-affirming, not life-diminishing or condemning. I wish I knew what to tell you to do to stimulate your thirst for living water. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or single sure-fire prescription that fits all.

In my own life I didn’t acquire this deeper thirst until I was several years into vocational ministry. I came to a place where I started to question my calling. I began to wonder if any of what I had been taught was really true. Then, quite by happenchance really I came across two books that made all the difference for me. One was by Dallas Willard, an evangelical who was a philosophy professor by trade. It is titled, The Divine Conspiracy. The other was a book was by Jesus scholar Marcus Borg. It is titled, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. And then too, not long after that I discovered the writings and teachings of Richard Rohr. I began to see through the help of these teachers the beauty and power of the very human life of Jesus of Nazareth and the actual possibility of entering into that life to some degree. I still knew that I would never be like Jesus, but I could now envision the human possibility. And somehow I stepped into the flow of divine life. I wish I could somehow reproduce what I experienced so you would experience it too, but I can’t. You might read the same books that I read and not have the experience I had at all. In fact, your experience, your awakening may not come through books at all. That’s the mystery of the wind and flowing water of the Spirit. We can’t control it. But, and this is important, we are not helpless. There are some things we can do that God cannot and will not do for us. Let me give you two things you can do.

One thing all of us can do is ask and seek. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find.” The Greek tense implies continuous or repeated action. Ask and keep on asking. Seek and keep on seeking. This is something we all can do. We can repeatedly ask and seek. And by the way, this is where a healthy faith community is important. Remember, I said organized religion can be the worst or the best thing in the world. A vibrant, healthy community of faith helps us nurture this deeper thirst. Another thing we can do: We can persistently work at being a blessing to others. We can intentionally strive to be a blessing to others by bestowing blessings on others. We can put ourselves in the direction of the flow of the Spirit. The Spirit is all about mercy and justice. So just start doing mercy and justice. Go about trying to be a blessing to others and you will quite naturally step into the flow of divine life.

We can do these two things. We can ask God to stimulate our thirst, and we can intentionally seek to be a blessing to others. And just maybe, out of our lives will spring forth fountains of living water.

Gracious God, create in us a thirst for life that is life indeed. Let us acquire a thirst for the living water that is deeply satisfying and life producing, rather than keep grasping after things that do not refresh or restore or enhance life at all, but just leave us and those around us feeling empty. May our lives become wells from which your living water can gush forth. Amen. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Mysterious as the Wind (a sermon from John 3:1-17)

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In this Gospel most everything has some symbolic significance. Words have multiple meanings. Nicodemus coming by night points to where he is in his own spiritual journey. He is in the dark, but he is drawn to the light. He clearly recognizes something real and authentic in Jesus: No one can do the things you are doing, Jesus, unless God is with us. Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is of God, that he connected to God.

We know this, says Nicodemus. But what Jesus knows is that there’s a lot that Nicodemus does not yet know. What Jesus knows is that Nicodemus, who stands in the text as a representative of so many religious and secular people today, has a major obstacle to overcome in his quest for the truth. And what Nicodemus needs is what so many Christian and non-Christian people need today, namely, a birth from above or a new birth (the Greek word can mean either above or anew). Many Christians, I believe, miss the intent of this story because they literalize this image. It’s just an image, a symbol – as is all religious language. What Jesus is saying that Nicodemus needs, as well as so many of us need, is a spiritual awakening. What we need is spiritual illumination that opens us up to the larger world of the kingdom of God, to the larger world of life in the Spirit.

Jesus says to Nicodemus and to us: “Your physical birth, your birth of flesh, your birth by water does not automatically mean that you will experience life in God’s world.” You see, sisters and brothers, our physical birth, our very existence is by grace and we all have access to God. We are children of God – all of us – by grace whether we know it or not. However, it takes some spiritual illumination and awareness to be able to claim and live out who we are as children of God. And one key to that I’m convinced is our capacity to move beyond confining, limiting, and sometimes diminishing religious beliefs and practices. Unhealthy religion keeps us in the dark. Keep in mind Nicodemus is a Pharisee; he is a religious teacher. Jesus is saying to him: Your physical birth into the covenant people of God does not automatically qualify you to see, to know, to experience life in God’s world. Just because you are a child of God doesn’t mean you are spiritually enlightened or in tune with God’s will.

You see, Nicodemus is approaching Jesus from a place of theological and spiritual privilege – or so he thought. He felt that because he was born into the right people he automatically was right with God, that he automatically was enlightened. Many Christians feel the same way. They think that because they have said the sinner’s prayer, trusted in Jesus for forgiveness of sins, confessed their faith publicly, joined a particular Christian church, or whatever else they have been taught is essential, that having done those things they are right with God. Why change if you are already a Christian and a member of God’s chosen people? Who needs conversion? Like Nicodemus, so many of us today have reduced being right with God to being right – believing the right things, making the right confession, being a member of the right church, and so on.

Nicodemus responds: How can one enter a second time into their mother’s womb and be born? I don’t think as some do that Nicodemus totally misunderstands Jesus. I think he understands what Jesus is saying, and is offended just the way so many of us are offended when we are told that we are not all that, that we are not God’s favorites after all, that we do not have this special or exclusive access to God that others don’t have. There are Christians who get offended at that, because they want to believe that they are God’s chosen. We can’t all be chosen they say.

And just like Nicodemus, when we think that God is exclusive to our group (our church, our faith, our religion, our nation) this becomes a block, a hindrance, an obstacle to our own spiritual transformation. This can keep us from entering more fully into the eternal life of God. And by the way, it’s really important to understand that eternal life in this Gospel is not a reward for believing or doing the right things. It’s a present reality as well as a future reality. Eternal life is life in the Spirit, life in God that we enter into now. It is both now and later. Or we could say, it’s now before it is later.

And what Nicodemus and all of us need to realize is that eternal life, life in the Spirit, life in God is far more wondrous and mysterious than so many of us grasp. Our tendency is to put God in a box, so we can control and manage God, and thus control and manage who God loves and blesses. But we should know that we can’t control God because God is like the wind. God is Spirit (and by the way in the Greek the word for wind and Spirit is the same word). God is like the wind. We cannot control or manage the wind of God, the Spirit of God.

If we think we have all the answers, like the sales lady who tried to sale me an answer Bible – a Bible with all the answers – then our answers become a hindrance to experiencing life in the Spirit. Because God is so much larger and bigger than the box we tend to put God in. Most of us who think we have all the answers are not even asking the right questions.

In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis there is scene where a group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable. In reality, however, they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Aslan, the Christ figure, is present with them, but they are not able to see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When Aslan offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them, but to no avail. Finally, frustrated, she cries out, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they see is pitch blackness.

Why are the Dwarfs so blind? Why can’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs, their incessant cry is: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. Christians are for the Christians. Americans are for the Americans. Our group idolatry, which we mistake as simply being a loyal Christian or American or Democrat or Republican or you name the group, our group idolatry can keep us from seeing the beauty and wonder of God that is right here right now. Our group idolatry which we mistake for group loyalty keeps us from experiencing life in the Spirit.

Nicodemus says, “How can these things be? How is this possible?” He wasn’t taught this in Sunday School. This was not part of his religious training. Jesus gently rebukes him: “You are a highly respected religious teacher and don’t know this? Then you don’t know diddly (my paraphrase). If you don’t understand how God’s Spirit works in the world, on this earth and in human lives, how will you know anything having to do with God’s Spirit?”

And then what follows are two spiritual riddles, two spiritual paradoxes. Jesus says, we don’t grasp spiritual reality by traveling to a different world. We do not need to be transported to a different world. We do not need to go into heaven to understand heavenly, spiritual things. We just need to open our eyes in this world. God is present in human life. And we who follow Jesus should know as well as anyone, because we see in Jesus a definitive model and illustration of what a human being filled with Spirit looks like. Jesus as son of man, as son of humanity, embodies on this earth, in human flesh, what a human being connected to Spirit is like, and this gives a glimpse into the heart and nature of God.

And even in his death, life springs forth. That’s the second riddle – the second paradox. The first disciples discovered that the Messiah’s death somehow carried redemptive and transformative power. This is what the text is referring to when referencing the serpent in the wilderness. In that story in the book of Numbers poisonous serpents invaded the camp of Israel and many were bitten and grew sick unto death. Moses interceded to God and God instructed him to make an image of the serpent, the very instrument of death, mount it on a pole and hold it up before the people. All who looked on the image of the serpent were healed. Like that serpent on a pole, Jesus was lifted up on a cross. And somehow the very instrument of death, becomes the instrument of life. Those who look upon Jesus’ death with spiritual eyes find in it healing and hope.

We have seen this work in our own time in the deaths of MLK, Gandhi, and Oscar Romero. Their deaths ignited and fueled movements of life, movements toward the kind of restorative justice that brings healing and redemption. For followers of Jesus, his death is a death that imparts life. His willingness to die for God’s cause and our good ignites and fuels the healing and redemptive power of God.

What John’s Gospel calls eternal life Luke, in the book of Acts, call “the way.” Eternal life is simply walking in the way of Jesus. And what is the way of Jesus? It is the way of love. For God so loves the world. Now, according to John, the way we Christians participate in the flow of the eternal love and life of God is by believing in Jesus whom God sent. (Keep in mind this is a Christian text written to Christians; it does not address how people of other faiths enter into the flow of divine love.) I believe it is critical in our day and time that we develop a more inclusive understanding of what it means to believe in Jesus. As I have already said this is not about believing the right doctrines or confessing the right words or performing the right rituals. It’s not about being right. To believe in is to trust in and be faithful to. And to trust in and be faithful to Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way he lived, the values he embodied, and the instructions he gave. There is nothing magical in the name of Jesus; the name of Jesus simply represents the life he lived and the love he expressed. For us to claim some kind of superiority over other religions is, I believe, to actually distort the basic character of God. God’s love is an inclusive, expansive, universal love. Anyone can enter into the flow of God’s love by trusting in love the way Jesus did and by being faithful to love the way Jesus was. This is what brings new life, namely, loving like Jesus. This is why Jesus says later in John 13 that this is how the world will know that we are his disciples – by our love for one another. Not by faith, but by our love.

Spiritual teacher and writer John Shea says that he knows a man who was born twice from the same woman. One day this man was driving his mother to a funeral. She had been to many funerals – her husband’s, her brother’s, and most of her friends. She was out-surviving everyone she knew. But not without pain and grief. She had lost most of her money, suffered a heart attack, and went through bouts of uncontrollable crying. As they drove along, she was calmly talking about her own wake and funeral. She wanted it done a certain way. Then, quite suddenly (the wind blows where it will) as if this were a decision she just then made, she said to her son, “I’m giving up on fear.” She said it without a lot of emotion. She said it in a matter-of-fact kind of way. Her son let his foot off the gas pedal and looked over at his mother. This was a deeper conversation than he was used to having.

She continued, “Everybody dies. Nothing is left. I’m giving up on fear.” Her son said, “It’s not easy to do. I’ve tried.” What he really was thinking is that it’s impossible to do. He had been haunted by fears – fear of sickness and death, fear of the future, fear of losing his job and his money. In a moment of insight he saw, maybe for the first time, just how fear completely structured his life. He looked again at his mother. She was beaming. He was incredulous.

They never talked about this again, but his mother began to change. She was not afraid to speak her opinion on any topic. Yet she did so without anger or a sense of self-righteousness or grandiosity. Her words were wise and came from the heart. She grew more patient and tolerant of human weakness. Her words and presence were gentle and yet strong. People wanted to be around her. And if you asked them they probably couldn’t tell you what they took away, and yet they left richer than when they arrived. Her son also came around more, not out of obligation but because she had become a fountain and he was a thirsty man.  And slowly, it took a little more than nine months this time, but slowly she gave birth to his spirit. Though long ago she brought forth his existence, now she brought forth a new spirit in him. He was born twice from the same woman.

And that is one version of what it looks like to rest and trust in love enough to face our mortality and let go of our fears, our insecurities, our guilt and worries, so that we are free to step into the flow of Divine Love, which is the eternal life of God present in the world right now.

This is what can happen when we trust in and are faithful to the way of love. We can’t control it or manage it. There is much mystery and wonder to the working of the Spirit. But we can be open and receptive to the Spirit, to the way of love, by letting go of our biases, our fears, our claims of superiority, our selfish ambitions, and anything else that would keep us entrapped in our little selves.

You know sisters and brothers, it’s not just that we need to be born again, we need to be born again and again and again and again. We need to be spiritually awakened to the reality of divine love over and over again. As we share in the bread and cup right now in remembrance of Jesus’ death may our hearts be open to receiving a fresh revelation of God’s love to us.

O, God open our hearts and minds to your love. May your Spirit bring awakening to our spirits so that we can see how much you love each one of us, but not just each one of us, but the whole world.