Monday, August 31, 2015

Getting to the Heart of Things (A sermon from James 1:17-27 and Mark 7:1-23)

This story in Mark 7 is a story of how some religious leaders in Jesus’s day, and in Mark’s day, and by extension in our own day get around actually doing the will of God while giving an appearance of holiness and making a claim to be dedicated to God.

This is a story that is easy to misread. Some read this story as if the major contrast is between human traditions and scripture. That is not the contrast at all. I need to say two things about that:

First, tradition is not bad. One of the problems is that many misunderstand the biblical meaning of the word tradition. Tradition in biblical usage simply means “what is handed on.” So scriptures - our sacred texts – are part of our Christian tradition. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). In 2 Thessalonians Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name says, “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The traditions here were the teachings and practices Paul passed on to the churches. And these traditions were not fixed, they were fluid and evolving.

So tradition is not bad. Tradition is necessary. There would be no religious community without tradition. What’s important is how we make use of the traditions, how we make use of our sacred texts and our spiritual practices. Tradition can be employed in unhealthy, negative, life-diminishing ways or tradition can be employed in healthy, positive, life-affirming ways.

Second, the word of God is NOT limited or confined to sacred texts. The word of God is a dynamic reality, not static. It transcends scripture. Our sacred texts, as well as our spiritual practices based on those texts should serve as a medium for the word of God, but the word of God is not literally those texts or practices. When you think about it: a scriptural document/a biblical text represents a particular stage in a faith community’s evolving faith. A biblical text is a developing tradition frozen in time. You can’t freeze in time the word of God. The word of God is God acting in time, which for God is the eternal now.

You see, the word of God is God speaking, revealing, acting, convicting, judging, and engaging our world and our personal lives right now in non-coercive, non-manipulative, and always in life-affirming and life-enhancing ways. The word of God is equivalent to the active presence of God. The word of God is God interacting with the creation.

This is why James says that we are given birth, we are regenerated, given new life “by the word of truth” (1:18). James is not talking about scripture. He is talking about the regenerating activity of the spiritual presence and power of God in our lives. This is what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he says that “the word of God is living and active” (it’s not a written text) and “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” He is not talking about scripture. They had few written texts in their world. Their culture was an oral culture. Both James and Hebrews are talking about the transforming power of God in our lives.

Now, is God’s regenerating power mediated through scripture and our faith traditions? Certainly. Is God’s regenerating power limited and restricted to our scriptures and our faith traditions? Certainly not. God transcends our sacred literature and practices, both of which are part of our tradition.

Unfortunately, the church-at-large has not done a very good job helping people understand this very important distinction. In fact, some of our practices have muddied the waters and left false impressions. For example, a tradition in many churches (especially mainline churches which is interesting I think) is to say after the scripture is read: “The Word of the Lord.” Is it the word of the Lord? Not literally, no. It can be a medium through which the word of the Lord comes to the congregation, but that remains to be seen doesn’t it? That will depend on how the scripture is presented to the congregation – how it is interpreted and proclaimed. And it will depend on the congregation’s readiness and willingness to receive and act on that word. The scripture is a medium for the word of God, but it is not literally the word of God. I cannot emphasize enough how important this distinction is. Because if you don’t make this distinction the likelihood is that you will revere a written text more than the living God who is so much more and greater than the text.

When Jesus charges the religious leaders with making void the word of God, he is not saying that they are nullifying scripture itself. Rather, he is charging them with making void or nullifying the will and purpose of God as it is understood and expressed through scripture. They were interpreting and applying their faith traditions in ways that opposed God’s good will and purpose, thus revealing their hypocrisy and lack of authenticity.

The critical question is not: What is tradition and what is scripture? Scripture itself is part of our tradition. Scripture is part of a faith community’s evolving faith traditions captured in time.

The critical question is: What is behind our interpretations and appropriations of both our scriptures (our sacred texts) and our teachings and practices based on those texts? What motivates, inspires, guides, and directs our interpretations and appropriations of our sacred traditions, which include both our scriptures and our sacred practices based on those scriptures? That’s the heart of it and that’s where real change has to happen - in the heart – as Jesus points out in Mark 7.

The religious leaders that Jesus confronts in Mark 7 were using their sacred traditions to actually subvert what was clearly God’s will. They used their traditions to justify their lack of compassion and greed. They tried to convince others, having already convinced themselves, that what they were actually doing demonstrated how holy and devoted they were. When in reality it showed just the opposite.

Jesus zeros in on where the real problem lies. It’s in the heart. This is where good and evil originate and what is allowed to settle in our hearts greatly impacts how we use our sacred traditions. An unconverted person – I mean someone who has not experienced significant heart change – will use sacred texts and practices in destructive ways.    

Sometimes the way we wear our Christianity does more harm than good. I love the story that the late Fred Craddock tells about the time he and his wife attended a victory party after a University of Georgia football game. They didn’t know anyone there except the couple with whom they were in attendance. It was held in a beautiful home in a suburb of Atlanta – restored Victorian, high ceilings, adorned with expensive furnishings. A lot of people were there, maybe thirty-five or so, mostly in their thirties, forties, and early fifties. They were all decked out in clothing that said, “How about them Dawgs.”

There was an attractive woman present – a little too bejeweled and overdressed according to Fred. And just as Fred and his wife were getting to know folks and getting into the party, this woman suddenly rang out with, “I think we should all sing the Doxology.” And before they could even vote says Fred, she started in. She and a handful of her friends sang with gusto. Others stood around and counted their shoelaces. Some tried to find a place to set their drinks down. There were a few who hummed along. Fred said it was very awkward.

When they finished the woman said, “You can talk all you want about the running of Herschel Walker, but it was Jesus that gave us the victory.” Someone spoke up, “You really believe that?” She said, “Of course I do. Jesus said, ‘Whatever you ask, ask for in my name, and he’ll give it to you.’ So I said, ‘Jesus, I want to win more than anything in the world,’ and we won. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s because of Jesus. I’m not ashamed of the gospel.” And for an exclamation point she added, “I’m not ashamed to just say it anywhere, because Jesus told us to shout it from the housetops.” You to have admit though, that’s a creative use of the Jesus traditions don’t you think?

Fred along with some of the others retreated to the kitchen and tried to refocus on the game. They started to relive the game, talk about the game, when the hostess came into the kitchen carrying a plate of little sandwiches. Things got quiet for few moments. Then one of the men said to Fred, “Do you think that woman was drunk?” Fred said, “Well, I don’t know. We just moved to Georgia last year. I was glad Georgia won, but I’m not feverish about it.” The hostess overheard and broke in to the conversation. She said, “If she doesn’t shut her blankety mouth, she’s going to ruin my party.”

Fred said that it wasn’t like him to speak up, but he did. He asked the hostess, “Are you a Christian?” She said, “Yes, but I don’t believe in just shouting it everywhere.” I don’t know about you, but I get that.

I will confess, I wish some of these NFL quarterbacks would get that too. It kind of gets to me when they shoot at God after thowing a touchdown pass, which is just a way of saying, “Look at me.” Even though I was rooting against the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, I admit that when Russel Wilson, who is known for this sort of thing threw that goal line interception, there was something in me that took some pleasure in that. I don’t claim to have been led by the Spirit at that moment.

The most authentic Christians I know never have to talk about their Christianity. They just live it, though they are not hesitant to talk about it if they need to. They don’t have to shout it from the housetops, because the word of the Lord lives in their hearts and they live it out every day. They are doers of the word, like James talks about.

When you think about it, it is doing of the word that actually changes the heart. The more we act, the more we do, the more we engage in fulfilling what James calls the perfect law of liberty, which is the law of love, the more we are changed on the inside as well as the outside. The more we embody the word, the more our attitudes, perspectives, emotions, thoughts, and intentions come into line with God’s good will for our lives and our communities.

James does not leave us in doubt as to what doing the word looks like. The little book of James does not employ dense logic or heady reasoning or a lot of murky, imprecise theological words the way Paul tends to do in his letters, which can leave your head spinning. James is fairly clear about what it means to appropriate and practice the word of God. James shows us what authentic religion looks like.

Those who practice the word, according to James, are “quick to listen” – they are intentional about tuning in to the feelings and thoughts of others. They are sympathetic and empathetic.

They are “slow to speak,” because they know that words can cut deep and be hurtful. They also know that words can heal and empower. They also know that those who profess to be religious but cannot control their speech – what they say and how they say it – prove that their religion is worthless.

They are “slow to anger” because they know that harbored anger does not promote healthy relationships. They know that when anger is allowed to fester it can be very destructive. So they learn strategies for diffusing their anger.

They cultivate a humility, honesty, trust, and openness that makes them ready to receive the implanted word. This enables the true law of liberty, love for others, to take root in their hearts and flourish.

They engage in acts of mercy and justice on behalf of the “orphans and widows” in their community. They care about and do what they can to help the disadvantaged and vulnerable who are often exploited by those in power. They are ready to defend the powerless and they seek to empower the poor.

It’s sad to hear some of our presidential candidates, and one in particular, use such inflammatory language in talking about undocumented persons and families, most of whom are powerless and vulnerable like orphans and widows, who want a safe place for their families, who are simply trying to survive. It really is disheartening to hear the rhetoric and to witness the complete lack of empathy and compassion. I suppose we should expect such things in society. But it really is disheartening to see that there are so many Christians who support this sort of thing.   

Persons and communities who do the word, according to James, keep themselves unstained from the world. They are careful not to be sucked into the destructive “isms” of this world, like consumerism, materialism, exceptionalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, and militarism. They keep themselves “unstained” by such pollution.

Sisters and brothers, if we will take steps to engage the word – to practice these things, to do and live the word – I have no doubt that we will experience real heart conversion. And when the heart is changed we are truly changed.  

Our good God, forgive us for those times when we use our religious faith, our interpretations and traditions to actually avoid doing what is clearly your will. Give us the will and gumption to be intentional about the kind of lifestyle changes we need to make, the kind of practices we need to engage in, in order for our hearts to be infused and saturated by your love. May your word find a fertile place to grow in our hearts. Amen. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

When Jesus Offends (A sermon from John 6:56-69)

Many folks, I think, regard Jesus as a huge success. Certainly Jesus attracted crowds. He healed people and there were those who were drawn to his teaching as well. But here in our Gospel story today Jesus says some things that result in many of his followers turning away.

Jesus does not appear at all surprised by the loss. This is hard for those of us who buy into the notion that success must inevitably move us toward the bigger and better. As Americans we are so oriented toward material and numerical expansion that it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus teaching in such a way where his intent is to sift and filter out people.

From the opening episode where Jesus feeds the multitude and then refuses to be king on their terms, there is a developing blindness and antagonism toward Jesus. Now this closed heartedness and antagonism spreads to and infects the group of disciples that have been following him.

Jesus invites them to eat his flesh and drink his blood so they might enter into life. He is speaking symbolically and metaphorically of course. He is inviting them to appropriate the grace and truth he himself embodied so that they too will experience the kind of life Jesus experienced.  

Next we read, “When many of his disciples heard it [it’s not just the crowd now; John is talking about people who had been following him on some level – there are degrees and levels of discipleship], they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” This was offensive to them and they began “complaining” or “grumbling,” which recalls the complaining and grumbling of Israel in the desert when they became weary of the manna day after day.  

In response Jesus says, “Then what if you were to see [ to see has rich spiritual meaning in this Gospel] the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” The reference here is to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Death and resurrection is the pattern for all spiritual growth and development. In John 12 John’s Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” This does not apply only to Jesus, but to all his disciples. Jesus goes on to say, “Those who love their life [in this world], lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Dying to ego, dying to the little self, dying to our personal and group idolatries is absolutely necessary in order to experience spiritual life and learn how to love the way Jesus loved.   

Next John’s Jesus says: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe [that is, you do not trust me].”

Here there is a play on the word “flesh.” In John’s Gospel words often have multiple meanings. This word “flesh” has three different meanings in John 6. Earlier Jesus says, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” In that context “flesh” represents the total life of Jesus given for the world, a self-giving that would end in death. Next, Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood and he says that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. In that context Jesus is speaking figuratively about sharing in the foundational stuff that sustains a spiritual life. But in the text today  Jesus says,  “the flesh counts for nothing.” In this context he is not talking about his life that is given up in death.  He is not talking about abiding in his grace and truth. Rather, in this context he is using the word in a negative sense, much the way Paul uses this word when he writes about the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. The Spirit promotes life and love. The flesh, when juxtaposed to Spirit, is the anti-life force that resists and opposes God’s life and love.   

Jesus seems to be saying in this text that those who are taking offense at his words of life are operating in the power of the flesh. That is, they are operating under the influence of this anti-life force, and thus they are not prepared to continue with him and be faithful to him.

It really comes down to the assumptions these disciples have about Jesus and what they are expecting from Jesus. And it’s the same for us today. So much of what we do or do not do can be traced to the assumptions and expectations we have.

Dr. Fred Craddock was for a brief time dean at Phillips Seminary. While acting as dean a woman from the community came to see him. She asked him to come out to the parking lot. This made him a little nervous, but he went. She opened the back door of her automobile, and slumped in the back seat was her brother. He had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma, but had been in a bad car wreck and was in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a schoolteacher to take care of him. All of their resources were exhausted. She opened the door and said, “I would like for you to heal him.” Can you imagine?

Dr. Craddock said, “Well, I can pray for him. And I can pray with you. But I do not have the gift of healing.” She got behind the wheel and said to him, “Then what in the world do you do?” And she drove off. It made for a difficult afternoon. When Dr. Craddock went back into his office he couldn’t get that question out of his mind, “Then what in the world do you do?”

I suspect that there are those who come to Jesus on the basis of assumptions and reasons that simply are not sufficient to keep one going when, in due course, the shallowness and superficiality of these assumptions are exposed.

Some come to Jesus out of fear. Fear that God is going to push the smite button and smite them if they don’t believe or confess certain things or join the church or promise to be more religious (whatever that may mean). But then at some point they may begin to realize that Jesus does not want us to be afraid of God but to love God with the totality of our being and that is much more difficult. It’s much easier to be afraid of God than to really love God.

Others come to Jesus wanting to be healed, just the way so many were drawn to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. They come out of their emptiness and pain and brokenness expecting Jesus to fill a void and heal their wounded souls. Nothing wrong with that at all. But then at some point along the way they realize that they cannot really know and be sustained by the healing power of Christ unless they are willing to become channels for Christ’s healing power to flow to others. At some point they realize that the spiritual life is not just about receiving; it’s about giving and receiving. It’s mutual and reciprocal.

In other words, at some point in our lives as disciples we come to realize that Jesus is not here to just cater to our needs, but to enlist us in a cause that is greater than our little selves. Then we have to decide if we are willing to invest in that larger cause. Discipleship to Jesus involves a life of participation in a greater story that calls us to struggle with principalities and powers, which is more than just dealing with our own sins and addictions. Certainly, discipleship means we have to deal with our personal stuff, but it also means confronting systems and structures of injustice that dominate our culture. It means facing principalities and powers that pervade our economic, political, social, and even religious landscape. This is the kind of thing Paul is talking about in the passage we read earlier from Ephesians 6.

One morning last week I went into the kitchen to fix myself a piece of toast for breakfast – some mornings I have a piece of toast with my boiled egg – though I admit it is tost layered in apple butter. I opened the pantry door and looked in the basket where we keep the bread and it wasn’t there. No bread. So I looked around in the pantry. Couldn’t find it. I opened the cabinet where we keep the cereal. It wasn’t there. So I did what many people do. I blamed someone. I’m thinking, “Ok, where did Melissa stick the bread.”

Well, I cracked my egg and peeled off the shell and then glanced back into the pantry. Guess what? There was the bread. Guess where it was? In the basket where it was supposed to be.

Now, you know the question I am going to ask don’t you? How did I miss it? How was it possible that I was looking right at it and did not see it? Honestly, I don’t know.

The same can be said of spiritual awareness. Why is it we can’t see what is right in front of us? The Spirit of God, of Christ is always with us – among us and in us, and the Spirit expresses the Divine Self and will in any number of diverse ways – not just in our own faith tradition by the way. We have no corner on truth. The living Word is constantly seeking to make itself/himself/herself known (the Divine has no gender). Why are we so unaware? Why can’t we see?

Some Christians never even come to the point where they are faced with a decision of staying or leaving because they have never questioned their assumptions or struggled with their faith beyond a superficial level. There is a lot of Christianity in our world that is about a mile long and about an inch deep. There’s not much to it really. It’s doctrine based or feeling based or ritual based. It’s focus is on private salvation – either in the afterlife or personal success in this life. It’s been Americanized and domesticated. There is no descending and ascending to it, there is no death to ego or the little self, there is no engagement in the larger story which is about the justice and peace issues of our time.  It generally remains on the level of one’s personal happiness. These Christians never see what the real issues really are. They can be right in front of them, but they do not see.

When spiritual masters like Thomas Keating teach centering prayer, or Thomas Merton writes about the true self, or when Christian mystics (and mystics of other faith traditions as well) teach meditation and other spiritual disciplines and practices they are not teaching us these things so that we can feel worthy or earn favor with God or be more righteous than others. They are simply showing us how to open ourselves up to the Divine. They are showing us how to be humble, honest, receptive, and aware. They are trying to help us see what really is. They are giving us the tools to help us see.

And frankly, many Christians have no interest in seeing what really is. To see what really is requires a kind of openness, humility, and honesty that many avoid. To see what really is demands a readiness to relearn things we have been taught and a willingness to explore new horizons of truth. And many people, like those in our Gospel text are not willing to make that journey.

For spiritual growth to occur there is always a descending and ascending, there is always death and resurrection, there is always a letting go. In order to journey to a new place we always have to leave something behind.

Some of us are simply not willing to leave behind our Sunday School version of God. It’s interesting really. Some of us are quite ready to accept evolution and development in other areas of life – in science, sociology, psychology, anthropology and other branches of learning. We adjust and even welcome new advances in technology and medicine, but we still want our old time religion. We get stuck and we can’t see what is right in front of us.

I heard about a little girl who was present one day when all the Christian ministers of their denomination had gathered at their church for a special meeting. She noticed that there were no women in the group of ministers. She asked her mother about it and her mother simply said without any explanation, “We don’t have women ministers in our church.” The little girl asked, “Then why do we go here?” Great question.

When the invitation is given to eat new bread from heaven there are many who simply  close their minds and hearts and cling to the manna of yesteryear.

After most everyone else had left and turned away, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Do you wish to go away? Do you want to leave too?” They say, “Lord, to whom can we go? We trust you. We are committed to you. You have the words that sustain and nurture divine life. God speaks to us through you. Where else would we go?” 

What will we do? Do we dare open our eyes to see what the real issues of life and death are? Or are we content to stumble along with the same old assumptions unwilling to risk anything? Are we willing to follow Jesus into uncharted waters? Do we want to become more than what we are now?

Our good God, I pray that we will face our fears and grow increasingly discontent with any version of faith that keeps us focused on our own personal agenda and interests and that prevents us from seeing the larger issues of justice and peace in our world. I pray that we would be willing to let some things go, that we would be willing to die to our ego, so that we will be able to see what is real and true and good and be part of what you want to do to redeem and heal and bring peace to our world. Amen.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What Twila Paris and C.S. Lewis get wrong.

How does God interact with the world? Does God directly manage and determine the course of global and human events? Many Christians think so.

Several years ago a parishioner who was dying of cancer and had only days left said to me, “I know there must be a reason for this.” She was not asking me what I thought. She was telling me how she made sense of her suffering and impending death. It was not the time to engage her theology. I simply tried to be a pastoral presence in her final days.

Not long ago I inquired about another friend fighting cancer. She informed me it was in remission, which she attributed to the power of prayer. She spoke of a song that meant a lot to her, which she had been listening to and “affirming in her heart.” The song is by Twila Paris and proclaims,
God is in control
We believe that his children will not be forsaken
God is in control
We will choose to remember and never be shaken
There is no power above or beside him, we know
Oh, God is in control, oh God is in control
I beg to differ.

I can affirm that God’s children (which includes all of us) will never be forsaken, but I cannot affirm that God is in control. God is clearly not controlling much of anything. Terrible, tragic things happen every few seconds in our world and God does nothing about them.

Theologians debate the question of theodicy: if God is all-powerful and God is good, then why is there is so much horrible evil and tragedy in the world?

Process theologians question God’s omnipotence and some even postulate the possibility that God may be evolving with the creation. Others argue that for the love of freedom and for the necessity of creation developing on its own God self-limits and self-restricts God’s power. Who knows? What seems to be obvious though is that God micromanages nothing.

In C.S. Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children upon entering Narnia have a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan, the great lion who is the Christ figure. Lucy asks if Aslan is safe. Mr. Beaver says,
Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
According to Lewis, the Christ figure, who embodies the character of God, is good, but he is not safe.

I beg to differ.

The image of God that rings true for me that I trace right back to Jesus is that God is both good and safe. If there is any safe place at all it is surely in the presence of the Divine. I offer this: God is good and God is safe. Life is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but it sure as hell isn’t safe.

William Sloan Coffin’s son, Alex, was killed in a car wreck at age 21 when he drove off a bridge into Boston harbor and drowned. Coffin could not contain his frustration with a parishioner who assumed this was God’s will. After arguing that God had nothing to do with his son’s death he concluded by saying,
My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not God’s will that Alex died – but that when the waves closed in over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all hearts to break.
The Apostle Paul, who has been described by some as a Jewish Christ mystic, frequently refers to disciples as being “in Christ” and Christ being “in” them. In his letter to the Romans Paul says that because God’s children, along with the rest of the creation, are subject to suffering and death, we “groan” for liberation.

Paul then says that while we don’t even know how to pray, the Spirit “helps us in our weakness” and “intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Paul seems to be suggesting that the Spirit (God, Christ, the Divine) groans with us and participates with us in some inexplicable way in our suffering. Paul goes on to proclaim that no matter what happens -- now or later, in this world or the next -- nothing can sever us from God's love,
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword [the bad stuff of life that God does not control]? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?” (Rom. 8:35-39)
I think Paul and Coffin get this right. 

God is a good, safe Presence who in ways that we cannot fully understand or articulate participates with us in the tragic, harmful events and experiences of life, which God cannot control.

This post was first publish at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog titled, "Is God in Control?"

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Growing, Evolving Faith (A sermon from John 6:51-58)

I want to begin by pointing out three things that are extremely important to keep in mind when reading and interpreting the Gospel of John. First, this Gospel talks a lot about believing, but John’s understanding of believing is not the understanding that is reflected in the way many people use the term today. In John’s Gospel, believing redemptively, believing that leads to what John calls eternal life or simply life, always includes the elements of trust and faithfulness. To believe in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines or theology about Jesus. It involves trusting in and being faithful to Jesus in the way he incarnates the grace and truth of God as the living Word or Wisdom of God.

Second, whenever John talks about receiving or appropriating eternal life, never is he  talking only about life in the future, life after physical death. Rather, he is always talking about the life of God that is available and accessible and to be entered into and experienced now. For John, God’s life – eternal life – is experienced in the eternal now. Whatever this life might look like in the future after we die, it will be in some sense be a continuation and development of what begins now. Eternal life is now before it is later. New Testament scholars call this realized eschatology.

Third, if you read John’s Gospel literally you are most certainly going to misread and misappropriate this Gospel. This Gospel is meant to be read spiritually, symbolically, and metaphorically. Really, this is true of all sacred texts, but especially John. The text itself tell us this in a number of different ways.

Out text today begins with John’s Jesus saying that he is the living bread and whoever eats this bread will experience life now and forever. He then identifies the bread as his flesh which he gives for the life of the world.

The crowd doesn’t get it. The crowd could well represent many of John’s readers. They say, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They are thinking literally. Not good.

In response John’s Jesus paints an even more graphic picture. He says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life [now] and I will raise them up on the last day.”

On one level (sacred texts have levels of meaning) John’s church is making a connection to what we call Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper. That, however, I’m sure is not the primary connection or meaning intended.

There is a clear parallel between this statement and one previously made in verse 40 where we read: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life [now]; and I will raise them up on the last day.” These two statements are similar. Seeing and trusting are parallel to eating and drinking.  

A connection has already been made in this passage between the bread that Jesus is and the bread or manna that sustained Israel in the desert. As in the Lord’s prayer where we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” the bread is symbolic. It is symbolic of that which sustains and nourishes our spiritual existence. Bread was staple food in that culture.

In many ancient cultures and particularly the Hebrews, blood was thought to have special power. It was thought to contain the life force of the body and soul. For the Hebrews, the life force of soul and body, of human life was in the blood.

So, in this passage, when John’s Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he is talking about seeing, knowing, experiencing, trusting, appropriating, assimilating the basic stuff, the foundational stuff that can sustain and support a spiritual life. This is the stuff that will grow and nurture an evolving spiritual life.

And what is this stuff? Well, it’s the stuff Jesus embodies in his flesh as the living Word, as the living revelation of God. We can go back to the prologue, the introduction in 1:1-18, which gives us the key to interpreting this Gospel. The prologue is the key to interpreting this Gospel. There we read, “The Word/Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son [or unique son], full of grace and truth.”

The foundational stuff, the basic stuff that will ignite and fuel and feed a spiritual life (what John’s Gospel calls eternal life) is the stuff Jesus embodied, it is the stuff Jesus incarnated in his flesh, it’s the stuff he fleshed out, namely, the grace and truth of God – the love of God, the compassion of God, and the wisdom of God.

This is what we are invited to eat and drink sisters and brothers. This is what we need to see with spiritual eyes and trust in and be faithful to, namely, the love of God, the wisdom of God, the grace and truth of God that Jesus manifested in his words and deeds, and in his actions and conversations.

This is about a growing, evolving, dynamic spiritual relationship – where we mirror the life of God that Jesus mirrored. This is about a divine-human interaction – that is messy, unpredictable, sometimes comforting, but often challenging and provocative. It’s never a straight line. If you try to chart this it would have to be with a line that goes up and down. It’s usually three steps forward and two steps back. There are starts and stops. There’s progression and regression.

In 2014 I participated in a conference at Georgetown College called, “Re-imagining Faith for America and the World. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. The title of her presentation was, “Experimental Faith.” She began by noting that she learned how to be a minister in a university setting at a university church. She said,

Some people see university churches as anomalies, relics of an earlier time, institutions that sit uneasily with the university’s dedication to research and experimentation. But university churches are full of people who are eager to experiment with faith. Some of those people have been engaged in such experimentation their whole lives. But there are also some with no experience of religious faith at all who come to investigate its possibilities; some who have had painful early experiences with religion and are looking for a place to try to cultivate a new kind of religious life; some looking for a religious community in which no questions are off limits; some who aren’t sure what they think of religion but want to offer themselves in service; some who struggle with the whole idea of God but nevertheless long to learn to pray. For these people, the church embodies the university’s dedication to research and experimentation. Just as classrooms give us the opportunity to find out what we might learn through the lens of history or anthropology or mathematics, churches offer opportunities to find out what we might learn through faith, through service, through community, through prayer.

I love her depiction of the church as a safe place to question and seek. “Churches,” she says, “offers opportunities to find out what we might learn through faith, through service, through community, through prayer.”

At the university church where she participated she was mentored by an Episcopal priest named Bernie Brown. He allowed her to apprentice herself to him. She followed him in and out of dorm rooms, soup kitchens, chaplain’s meetings, always watching and learning.

On Sundays, she assisted Bernie in the celebration of the Eucharist (what we call the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion). After a few weeks, when she seemed to get the hang of things, Bernie asked her to take her turn as the celebrant.

Here is how Dr. Paulsell described the conversation, 

I loved what Bernie did at the altar on Sundays—I thought it was beautiful and mysterious—but I had grown up with a very different ritual of communion. In my church, the Lord’s Supper was a meal shared around a table. What Bernie was doing looked more like a sacrifice at an altar. Good graduate student that I was, I knew how important it was to give an intellectually honest account of my beliefs and practices. I wanted to be consistent. I thanked Bernie for the invitation, but said, “I don’t know if I should lead this ritual, because I don’t really know what it means.” 
“Oh,” Bernie said—“we don’t do this because we know what it means. We do it in order to find out what it means.”  

Think about that response for moment. Paulsell says,

I learned a lot of things in graduate school, but nothing more important or transformative than this: that faith was not a linear movement from right thinking to right action. He taught me that we don’t have to wait until we have everything figured out before we join one another around the table, or the altar. He taught me that it is possible to act our way—pray our way, sing our way--into new ways of thinking.  And he taught me that some things can’t be learned until we try them out, experiment with them, turn them over in the light of our experience. Open your arms at the altar, he taught me, and your mind might also open. Open your arms and your mind, and you might change. 

She goes on to say that she is always learning and relearning, and there will always be more to learn. She says, “So I keep going back, sometimes as a celebrant, sometimes as a parishioner, always as a seeker, always hoping to catch another glimpse of what it means.”

Always a seeker, she says, always hoping to catch another glimpse of what it means – of what it means to appropriate the bread of life.

Too many Christians today think being a Christian is about believing things with our heads – with our minds – the way we believe some event of history. If that were true then the mentally challenged would be excluded from faith wouldn’t they?

It’s much more about believing things with our hearts. It’s much more about trusting in and being faithful to the things Jesus embodied – the things Jesus promoted and emphasized and lived out through flesh and blood – like: “love one another so that the world will know that you are my disciples. Like: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is why he tells them to abide in him, so they will learn how to love like him. That’s the really important stuff. That’s the flesh and blood of real life, that’s the bread from heaven, and that’s what Jesus so beautifully mirrors – God’s investment and commitment to relationship. And that’s what we are called to live out with each other.

Our good God, may we not be afraid to question, doubt, seek, and explore the claims and possibilities of faith. May our faith be ever growing, evolving, becoming, expanding in ways that make us channels through which your love and grace can flow. Amen. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Finding the ‘I Am’ Within (Sermon from John 6:35, 41-51)

In the Hebrew story where Moses turns aside to see the burning bush that burns but is not consumed, God speaks to him and calls him to speak to Pharoah on behalf of Israel. Moses asks God, “Who shall I say sent me?” And God says, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” The God who is ever present, who is ever alive and active, the God who lives in the present moment. 

In John’s Gospel Jesus is portrayed as the incarnation of this living Word and Presence. Jesus embodies the Divine “I am.” Images are employed to creatively imagine what this means. In this text John’s Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever trusts in me will never be thirsty.”

What might that mean? There are parallels in the wisdom literature of Judaism. In Proverbs 9:4-5 Lady Wisdom says (wisdom is often personified as a woman, and in the Greek wisdom is feminine – Sophia) – so Sophia says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Then, in the book of Sirach, Lady Wisdom comes to the one who aspires to do God’s will. The text says, “She will feed him with the bread of learning, and give him the water of wisdom to drink” (15:3).

Isaiah makes a similar connection. Isaiah writes in Isa. 55:10-11a: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth.” The word here is the wisdom and revelation of God.

Earlier in this same oracle (passage) the prophet says, “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen [that is, hear and appropriate God’s wisdom and instruction], so that you may live [so that you will experience fullness of life]. And what is this fullness of life? The prophet says, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” Fullness of life is the experience of those who live in a covenant of love, in steadfast loving relationship with God.

Now, what I have discovered by striving to live in a covenant relationship with God rooted in steadfast love is that my deepest fears and angst and worries have been alleviated.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that a relationship with the Divine solves all our problems, answers all our questions, or is the solution to all our doubts, frustrations, disappointments, and feelings of emptiness, restlessness, and disillusionment. It’s not. That’s not how life works on any level.

But when we assimilate the wisdom of God, when we appropriate the deep, abiding love of God – the kind of wisdom and love that we have encountered in Jesus – we become connected to a larger purpose and calling that can be deeply satisfying regardless of the pressures, sufferings, tensions, and losses we may encounter along the way.

None of us are immune to pain and loss and grief. For these things are an inevitable part of our journey. But when we appropriate the wisdom and love of God and learn how to live in relationship with God, we discover the grace needed to face the common challenges of life.

A growing relationship with God means tapping into the divine energy and Spirit that dwells within. Our relationship with God is not a relationship with a God who is out there somewhere, but a God who is right here residing in our deepest, truest self.

You see, sisters and brothers, the oneness that Jesus experienced with God is a oneness that is accessible and available to everyone. This oneness was not limited or exclusive to Jesus. The “I Am” that Jesus identified with and knew intimately lives in us. So the question is: Do we know this and are we living in the reality of it? Do we know how divinely human we are? Do we realize that we are one with God? Do we realize that the “I am” is part of who we are?

Most of us don’t, unfortunately. Most of us feel that God is distant – that God is out there somewhere. And this feeling of God’s distance is reflected in many of the biblical stories, because this is how many people of faith understood the Divine. Just think how often the words “Fear not” appear in scripture. Whenever there is some theophany, some visible, or apparitional manifestation of the divine in the biblical stories, almost always the humans present are struck with fear, and God or the angel has to say, “Fear not.” This seems to be hardwired in us – that God lives out there and whenever God draws near it can’t be good.

Now, it is true that in the Hebrew Bible and in the wisdom literature in particular readers are instructed to fear God. But this is more about reverence and respect, than it is about being afraid. They are telling us that God must not be minimized or relegated to some secondary role in our lives.

Jesus, however, as the incarnation of the wisdom and compassion of God, makes known to us a God who is as close to us as the air we breathe. Jesus calls God “Abba,” which is a warm, endearing term that a child speaks to call out to a loving parent. God, says Jesus, is like a father who runs out to meet his lost son. God is like a woman who searches until she finds the lost coin, or a shepherd who risks losing everything in order to find the one lost sheep. In Jesus we meet a nonviolent God. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not destroy them, because this is how God treats everyone.  

When we probe deep within our true selves, when we are able to strip back our defense mechanisms and shed false images and understandings, this is the God we discover within. You don’t have to be smart, you don’t have to have a seminary degree, you don’t have to know all the rituals or a lot of theology, you just have to be humble, open, and receptive to the “I am” who is an inseparable part of who you are!

The story goes that a villager who went to town every year on the High Holy Days to pray in the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue had a son who was somewhat mentally challenged. He was not able to learn the Hebrew alphabet, much less a single prayer. And because the boy knew nothing, his father never brought him to town for the holidays.

Yet when the boy reached the age of thirteen and became responsible for his deeds, his father decided to take him along on the day of Atonement, lest he stay home and, in his ignorance, eat on the fast day. So they set out together – and the boy, who had a little shepherd’s pipe on which he piped to his sheep, pocketed it unbeknownst to his father.

In the middle of the service, the boy suddenly said, “Father I want to play my pipe!”

The horrified father scolded his son and told him to behave himself. A little later, though, the boy said again, “Father, please let me play my pipe!” Again, the father scolded him, warning him not to dare; yet soon the boy said a third time, “Father, I don’t care what you say, I must play my pipe!”

“Where is it?” asked the father, seeing the boy was uncontrollable.

The boy pointed to the pocket of his jacket. His father seized it quickly and gripped it firmly. And so the service passed with the man holding firmly onto the boy’s pipe until the sun was low in the sky and it was time for the final prayer of the day.

Halfway through the closing prayer, the boy managed to surprise his father and wrench the pipe free from his father’s hands. He quickly put it to his mouth and let out a loud blast that startled the entire congregation. As soon as the Baal Shem Tov heard it, he hurried through the rest of the service as he had never done before.

Afterward, he told the worshipers, “When this young lad played his pipe, all your prayers soared to heaven at once, and there was nothing left for me to do but finish up.”

The boy was able to hear the Divine Voice and was in tune to the Divine Presence in a way that the other worshipers were not. I like what John Shea says about this story. He says, “The prayer of the shepherd’s pipe is not the type of prayer that waits for an answer. It is an answer – an answer to the exuberant presence of God welling up within us.” So the question is: Are we awake to this Presence? Are we tuned in to the inner music? Can we hear the Divine Song?
One of the reasons, I think, so many people are unhappy, Christians included, is because we are not living true to who we really are. We are God’s children – that’s who we are. We can ignore and deny that connection. We can refuse to admit or claim that reality. But that’s who we are. And I don’t believe we will ever have this deeper hunger and thirst satisfied until we live out that reality.

When Jesus invites us to eat the bread that he is, I believe that we need to hear this as an invitation to appropriate his wisdom and listen to the Divine Spirit within? It’s an invitation to follow his path and to open our hearts to this deeper part of us where the “I am” dwells? The question is: Are we ready to listen and dance to the rhythm of divine love and goodness that resounds from our truest and deepest self?

When our text says that no one comes to the Christ unless God draws that one, the text seems to be suggesting that no one can heed the voice of Divine Wisdom and Love apart from the drawing, enticing lure of God. And I believe that. But I do not believe for a minute that God singles out certain ones and ignores others.  

In our early stages of spiritual development we tend to believe that. We tend to think that being special means that others are not special, or that we are more special. Because God loves Israel does not mean that God cannot love the Egyptians too. God loves the Egyptians and all the other peoples of the world as much as God loves Israel or God loves Christians.  

I believe we are all drawn to God, though not in the same way or through the same means. John’s Gospel even says as much. In 12:32 John’s Jesus says, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.” The living Christ can use a variety of means and mediators to draw people into relationship with the great “I am” who is within. The prophets are quoted in this very text as saying, “They shall all be taught by God.” No one is excluded.

And so often it takes a little boy with a shepherd’s pipe, it takes the little ones, the excluded ones, the marginalized ones, the ones who are overlooked by the so-called powerful and prominent to teach us how to pay attention and know God’s love and grace.

And always, as in Jesus, this eternal flow of life, this deep love and grace and goodness, will manifest itself in our flesh, in our works and deeds, in our relationships, in the way we treat and respond to one another. John’s Gospel says that the bread from heaven is no less than Jesus’ flesh that he gives for the life of the world.

Well, of course it is. The eternal life of God is always manifested in the flesh, in our bodies, in our everyday life, in the way we talk and walk, in the way we celebrate and grieve, in the way we suffer and rejoice, in the way we care and love, and in the many tangible ways we express compassion and understanding.

As we share in the bread and cup, as we drink the cup and eat the bread, may this sacred ritual be an expression of our desire and commitment to drink from the well of God’s wisdom and love and eat from the bread of life that is grace and truth.

Our good God, as we share in Holy Communion together, may our eating and drinking be tokens of our surrender and self-giving to your will and purpose in our lives. Show us how to love you and to love one another and may your love nourish us and nurture us that we may have the mind of Christ. Amen. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

It’s Time to Give the Gospel of Thomas Its Due

The spiritual wisdom to be found in the Gospel of Thomas just may be the kind of spiritual wisdom contemporary Christians most need.

The Gospel of Thomas is part of the collection of fifty-two texts (thirteen papyrus books – “codices”) discovered in December of 1945 by an Egyptian peasant digging for fertilizer near the modern city of Nag Hammadi. The Gospel of Thomas is a compilation of wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which parallel sayings in the Synoptic Gospels. It represents the kind of Christianity that flourished in Syria by at least the last part of the first century. It may have even been written as early as the Synoptic Gospels.*

In this Gospel Jesus performs no miracles or healings, there is no link to or claim that Jesus fulfils prophesy, and there is no passion or resurrection narrative. Jesus does not die for sins in the Gospel of Thomas. Salvation is found in the struggle to understand and appropriate the wisdom Jesus taught and embodied.

I find particularly significant that in Thomas there is no announcement of an apocalyptic kingdom that will disrupt the present world order. In Thomas the kingdom of God is here and now.

Thomas, like the Synoptic Gospels, affirms that the kingdom of God was a central focus of Jesus’ teaching, but in the Synoptics the kingdom is referenced in both present and future tenses. Some of the references are simply ambiguous. In Mark 1:15 (also Matt. 4:17) Jesus announces that the kingdom is “at hand” (RSV) or “has come near” (NRSV). This could mean that the kingdom is imminent – that it is soon to break in upon the world, or it could mean that it is already here and is accessible.

Some historical Jesus scholars paint Jesus primarily as an eschatological prophet who believed the kingdom of God would break into the world through divine intervention in apocalyptic fashion bringing an end to the present age. Other Jesus historians believe that Jesus was primarily a Jewish reformer, sage, and mystic. They argue that the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels reflect the faith of Jesus’ early followers who believed that in light of God raising Jesus from the dead the end of the present age was at hand (see 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 7:25-31). In their preaching and teaching they recast their apocalyptic faith back into the story of Jesus. Still others see all these portraits (reformer, sage, mystic, and apocalyptic prophet) as part of the complex person that constitutes the historical Jesus.

The closest thing we get to an apocalyptic saying in the Gospel of Thomas is Logion 113, which actually functions to shift the focus off the future to the present,

His followers said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘Look, there it is.’ Rather, the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” (Trans. from Marvin Meyer, The Gospel of Thomas, 1992)

It is not here or there, it is everywhere. It’s not going to come in the future, it’s already here. It’s spread out over the entire earth. The problem is that most people are not enlightened. They do not see it.

So the spiritual question this evokes is not, “When will the kingdom come?” or “How will it come?” It’s here everywhere right now. So the question is, “Why can’t I see it?” or even better, “What will it take for my eyes to be opened?”

Logion 3 is similar,

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you will dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (Meyer, 1992)

Jesus is poking fun, but also speaking truth. The kingdom is in the sky and in the sea for the kingdom is both “inside” us and “outside” us. But we will never recognize God’s reign/presence in the air or the sea, unless we first recognize it inside us.

When we know ourselves then we are known, because we recognize the divine presence and image within and are enlightened to our true identity as children of God. To know our true selves is to know the One who knows us thoroughly.

When we come to know the God who lives inside us, then we are able to see and sense the divine presence and reality everywhere – in the sky and sea, among fish and fowl, in rain forests and on busy city streets. 

When we come to experience the Really Real in the depths of the human soul, we can find God in suffering as well as pleasure, in sadness and grief as well as joy and celebration, in life and death. When we discover the Beyond Within, we can find God all over the place – in a rock, in a flower, in a dog or cat, and especially and most importantly in our neighbor who is not less than the Christ (Matt. 25:40).

I think it’s time to put the Gospel of Thomas right alongside the canonical Gospels. It contains valuable insights and practical wisdom for modern seekers. Its time has come.   

* The discovery of the full text in Coptic of the Gospel of Thomas confirmed that a previous discovery of three Greek papyri found in a rubbish heap at Oxyrhynchus (modern Bhanasa, Egypt) in 1897 and 1904 were sayings from the Gospel of Thomas. These papyri represent Greek editions and reveal that several editions were in circulation. Since the earliest of these fragments dates around 200 C.E. this means that the Gospel of Thomas may have been written in the late first century or early second century. Also, taking into account the likelihood of a sayings source (“Q”) utilized by both Matthew and Luke in the composition of their gospels, it’s quite possible the Gospel of Thomas was written about that time. Many scholars who engage in comparative analysis of the sayings of Jesus argue that in a number of cases where the sayings in Thomas parallel sayings in the Synoptics the form of the sayings in Thomas may be the closest to the original. 

This post was originally published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Struggle of Faith (A sermon from John 6:24-34)

This story immediately evokes questions. When the crowd that had been following Jesus wakes up the next morning and discovers that Jesus is not around, they take off looking for him.

I have to ask myself and I hope you will ask yourself if you are part of that crowd. Every spiritual journey begins with a quest, a search. Every pilgrim that starts a spiritual path is looking for something.

One may begin a spiritual pilgrimage as the result of an inner restlessness, or angst, or emptiness. Or it may arise out of a desire to experience more or be more. The quest may be prompted by a desire to be a better person or part of something larger than myself.

We can begin this journey at any point or stage in our lives. I was already a Christian and serving as a pastor when I began what I now call my spiritual journey. My journey led me to discover Jesus again as if for the first time.

Let me ask you: Are you looking for God? If you are, why? What is it that you want God to do?

How you respond to these questions may just tell you about the kind of spiritual path you are on? I had served several years as a pastor full of certitudes before my certitudes were shattered and I actually began what I now call my spiritual journey.  

When the crowd finds Jesus, Jesus questions their motives. Jesus seems to intuit what they are after. Jesus says to them, “You are looking for me, not because you perceive that the works I am doing are signs of what God wants to do in your lives and in the world, but because you had your fill of the loaves I gave you.”

So I ask, “What is it that we want Jesus to do for us? Are we wanting the Christ to increase our bank accounts? Supply our needs and our wants? Assure us of heaven when we die? Make us feel good? What do we expect religion to do for us? What do we count on it for?

Jesus tells them not to pursue the food that perishes, but the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will supply.

This should evoke more questions: What is it that can sustain and support the sort of life Jesus embodied and lived among us? What can nourish and nurture the divine flow of God’s love and compassion in us and through us? What can feed and fuel the grace and truth of the living Word in our souls, in our relationships, in our communities? What can I do to open my heart and life to the Divine Wisdom and Love of the Christ, so that Divine Wisdom and Love enlightens me to see what I would otherwise not see and do what I otherwise would not do and to care for that which otherwise I would not care?   

I think it is significant that the One who supplies the food that endures to eternal life, the One who is able to nurture this Divine Love and Wisdom within us is called in our text “he Son of Man.” Why is he called Son of Man? Could it be that Jesus is representative of every man and every woman? Could it be that Jesus is a reflection of what human beings are called and destined to be?

In the movie, Phenomenon, John Travolta plays George Malley. They discover that he has a brain tumor that has spread out like a hand, but instead of destroying brain function it has been stimulating brain function.

Toward the end there is a scene where George is talking to Dr. Willin. He is in the hospital and they want to do brain surgery. Not to try to save his life, because that will not help, but to study him. The surgery will probably shorten his life and there is good chance he will die on the operating table. Dr. Willin tells George that he could be George’s biographer and present him to the world. George says, “That’s not me, that’s just my brain.” And George insists that he might just have something say before his death.

As Dr. Willin persists and as George objects, Dr. Willin tries to tell George that he is not a scholar, but before he can say any more George interjects, “I’ll tell you what I am,” he says. “I am whatever one can be.”

Dr. Willin tries to brush this aside by saying, “Everyone with a malignant, tentacled . .”  but before he can even compete his sentence, George again interjects, “No, no, no – that just helped get me here. I mean anybody can get here. I’m the possibility.”

George says, “You have this desperate grasp on technology and this desperate grasp on science, you don’t have a hand left to grasp what’s important. If I had to choose between a tumor that got me here and some flash of light from an alien craft, I would choose the tumor. I would because it is here, within us. What I’m talking about is the human spirit. That’s the challenge. That’s the voyage. That’s the expedition.”

As human beings we need to see and feel and experience what is possible. And sometimes that scares us, like it scared some of the townsfolk in the movie. They couldn’t fit George Malley into their clearly defined categories. We need a model, an image, an incarnation of the human/divine spirit to show us what is possible. That’s what Jesus gives us as the Son of Man, as the fully human one. Jesus breaks apart our clearly defined categories and definitions of what is possible. Jesus shows us the human potential when energized by the life of God.

Stories about Jesus like this one in our sacred text reflect the faith of the Johannine community. This story expresses the meaning Jesus had for John’s church. They believed that Jesus incarnated the grace and truth of God. They believed that the Christ Spirit that filled Jesus and inspired his works lived in them – in their community and in their personal lives.

Do we believe that? Do we believe that the Spirit that indwelt and empowered Jesus is the same Spirit that lives in us? The Apostle Paul apparently believed this too. He said, “It is no longer I who live [that is, the egocentric I, the little I, the false I] but it is Christ [the cosmic Christ, the Christ Spirit] who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20a).

Perhaps there were those – some maybe within the community, certainly some outside of John’s community that questioned this. Their questioning, as well as ours, is represented by the questioning crowd in this story. They wanted Jesus to perform another sign – as if one more sign would somehow lead to faith. They do not see and they do not believe. And they do not see and do not believe because they do not want to see or believe. Faith is a choice.

What hinders us – what hinders you and me from seeing and believing in the Divine Spirit, the Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Advocate, the Really Real that is within us? What prevents us from realizing the image of God that is our human potential? What blinds us from seeing and prevents us from trusting the innate goodness that dwells within the human spirit and realizing the possibility of living and manifesting that goodness in our souls?  - in our relationships – our marriages, families, friendships? – in our work and the projects that we endeavor to pursue? What prevents us from tapping into this inherent goodness and expressing this goodness.

Faith is a choice. And there’s always an alternative.

The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he was in Israel. He was in Bethlehem and he heard a Jewish man explain the Christmas story. They were standing in the Shepherd’s Field. This was in the lower part of Bethlehem, where a housing project now stands. The man speaking to their group said that on a clear night, if you look up toward the city you can see a bright star and it looks like its standing over the houses. That’s what happened at Christmas.

Craddock comments that he was mixing Matthew and Luke; he wasn’t really an expert in all of this. But he went on to explain to the group that this is how people got confused and thought there was a star over the house where Jesus was. When he finished Craddock said, “Well, that’s one way to look at it.”

Then the man said something very interesting. He said, “I know that’s just one way to look at it. When I was in school, the rabbi explained everything in the Bible two different ways. When he would come to a miracle, he would explain it in two different ways, and his reason was this: If something happens and you can’t explain it another way, then God didn’t do it.”  (I like that!)

Craddock says, “God doesn’t paint you into a corner and say, ‘Now, you weasel, you don’t have a choice,’ so that the weasel will say, ‘I don’t have a choice. I believe.’” Craddock says, “There’s always an alternate route if one chooses not to believe. And some do, of course.” There is always an alternate route. Always. 

Faith is a choice. I have found that we tend to believe what we want to believe. So let me ask you today, “What is it that you want to believe?”

Some would teach that the human spirit is irreparably evil. That we are totally depraved. That we have no choice but to act selfishly, to harbor greed, to be jealous and envious, to undermine and tear down each other.

Do you believe that? Do you want to believe that? You have a choice you know.
I choose to believe in the goodness of the creation and the goodness of the human spirit. And I believe that because I choose to believe that. I choose to believe that the Divine Spirit infuses the human spirit and the human spirit is inseparably bound to the Divine Spirit who gives life to our bodies and animates our souls.

I am not blind, however, to the way the human spirit can be deceived, deluded, and go off track. I am not blind to the evil that humans can do to one another and the rest of creation. I am not blind to the ways my own ego can lead me astray and mar the image of God that I am. But I choose to believe that such waywardness is not who I am, nor is it who you are!

Will you believe? Just because you are a Christian who practices Christianity doesn’t mean you are a believer. I was a pastor before I was a believer in the possibilities of the human spirit.

The unbelievers in our text – in this Gospel story – appeal to their religious tradition and scriptures. They claim Moses who gave their ancestors manna in the wilderness. And yet they are blind to the bread from heaven that is right in front of them, which they refuse to eat.

Sisters and brothers, I believe that the very Life that sustains the world, the very Love and Goodness at the heart of all that is, dwells in you and in me. I believe such Goodness constitutes the heart of the human spirit.

I invite you to believe. I invite you to eat this Bread from heaven. I invite you to practice this goodness and realize the potential for grace and truth, for love and justice, for healing and wholeness that resides in the Son of man, that resides in every man and every woman, in you and in me.

Our gracious God, give us the insight and understanding to know and claim the goodness that is inherent to who we are as human beings created in your image. May we find the courage to trust that through your grace and strength we can realize and fulfill our human potential – that we know God’s grace and truth and express the unconditional love we have come to experience in Christ.