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.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Questions in the wilderness (A sermon from Matthew 4:1-11)

I may have told you about the minister’s wife who was shopping one afternoon and a dress caught her eye. They were on a fairly tight budget and it was quite a bit more than she could afford, but she bought it anyway. She told her husband that she had no intention of buying it, but when she tried it on, it looked and felt so good that she could not resist the temptation. Her husband said, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Satan’ get behind me.” She said, “I did. And he said it looks even better from that angle.”

Some of you may remember Flip Wilson of “Laugh in” fame popularizing the old saying, “The devil made me do it.” We poke fun at the Devil, but in scripture the Devil is the symbol for that which is deceptive and manipulative and adversarial to the kin-dom of God. Our text today says that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted or tested by the Devil. The “wilderness” is a common scriptural theme and reference to Jesus fasting forty days and forty nights recalls the story of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The symbolism shows the continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus. And while the wilderness is a hard place and a dangerous place, it is also a place where character is formed and courage is forged. The text says that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. It is necessary. Wilderness experiences play an important role in our spiritual formation. In the little book of James the writer commends his readers to count it joy when they fall into various kinds of trials – wilderness experiences – because, as James describes it the testing of our faith produces endurance, and when endurance has its full effect, we stand mature, complete, lacking nothing. Without some wilderness experiences there can be little spiritual growth and development.

I would like to suggest that these three temptations raise three questions. The first question raised by the first temptation is: What makes me who I am? What makes you who you are? The tempter says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Keep in mind that the wilderness testing comes right after the revelation given to Jesus as his baptism, where the divine voiced affirmed: “You are beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.” The tempter calls into question that affirmation: “Are you really God’s beloved son? If you are, then prove it.” And so the question: What makes me what I am? What makes you who you are?

Sisters and brothers as long as we are swayed by group think, as long as we play the world’s game of meritocracy based on comparisons and competition, as long as we judge our worth and value by the world’s standards of success, we will always feel like we have to prove ourselves, that we have to earn our worth. Why can’t we rest in grace? Why can’t we accept that we don’t earn anything from God? All of life, everything, is a gift. I am a child of God, you are a child of God by grace. It’s not because of what you believe, or what you do – it’s simply who you are. If you have to believe certain things or do certain things in order to be a child of God, then it’s not grace.

In the movie Ironweed there is a scene where the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Street, two vagrants, stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. A bit smashed themselves they debate what to do. “Is she drunk or a bum,” asks Nicholson. “Just a bum. Been one all her life.” “And before that?” “She was a whore in Alaska.” “She hasn’t been a whore all her life. Before that?” “I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess.” “Well, a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Listen sisters and brothers, everyone is something. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone bears God’s image no matter how marred that image may be. If the truth were known, many of us who are critical of the poor or those addicted to drugs or involved in crime, if the truth were known we would be in the same state if we inherited the circumstances in life they inherited. Now, not everyone can admit that. Many are too proud to admit that. But the one who has experienced God’s grace firsthand knows that it is true. I love the way the evangelical writer Philip Yancey defines grace. He says divine grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – nothing. We are the beloved sons and daughters of God by grace. This is the true bread, a living word, that sustains us against all the slander, disrespect, judgmentalism, and condemnation we might receive from the world caught up in the folly of competing and comparing. Now, we have to choose to live like it. It takes a life of commitment and faithfulness to follow Jesus and become who we are. It take human effort to live out our connection to God and become who we are. But we are who we are by grace.

In the second temptation Jesus is tempted to do something spectacular, namely, to dazzle the crowd with a miraculous deliverance. The question this raises is: Why do I need the applause of others? And along with that question a second one: What will I do to acquire the applause of others, to get others to respect me, like me, and honor me? If the first temptation is about proving our worth to ourselves, this temptation is about proving our worth to others. It appeals to our ego. It appeals to our desire to be special, to be a step above the rest, to be honored and recognized above our peers.

Jesus did not seek popularity or honor; in fact, he seems to have intentionally avoided it. When the crowds became too much, he would withdraw in solitude to some desolate place. Jesus seems to have known intuitively how popularity and praise can ensnare the ego and become an obstacle to the kin-dom of God.

Samir Selmanovic has written a very good book titled, It’s Really All About God. It’s largely an account of his own spiritual journey. He says that when he first came to New York City as a minister he came to make it as a pastor. He says he did not serve the city, but rather used the city, and the city used him. For six months he had not taken a day off, and one morning he found himself in the emergency room with his heart pounding, a severe headache, and dizziness. The doctors could not tell him anything other than to slow down or perish from the stress. That night as he and his wife were lying in bed Semir rattled off to his wife an impressive set of reasons why he had been ignoring her pleas to slow down and take time off. He went on and on, but she was not moved. When he finally exhausted his list of excuses she said to him point blank, “It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

When we are driven by a need to prove ourselves, to be popular and important, then we have allowed the ego to take over. It becomes all about us, and not the kingdom of God and God’s restorative justice. How do we resist this temptation? We resist by resting in God’s grace and by finding our identity in God. And the more we do that, the more we are able to let go of any need to be applauded by others. This is part of what Jesus mean when he talks about losing life in order to find life and when he tells us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. The more we experience and live in light of God’s grace, the more we realize that it’s not about us. That we are part of a much larger story.   

In the third temptation Jesus is led to a high mountain and given a glimpse of all the kingdoms of the world. They will be his if he will worship and serve the Devil. The Devil symbolizes a false god, the god of power. The question that I think this last temptation raises is: What kind of power do I seek? This temptation speaks to the ego’s need to control.

Consider the way religious people often yield to this temptation. This temptation often comes to us in the form of needing to be right. There is a certain power and authority that comes with being right, of being God’s favorites, of having exclusive access to God –that is, one can only get to God through our way, our mediator, our faith. For many religious people this means limiting access to God to our religious faith, our group, our church, our people.

I love the story the late Fred Craddock tells about his encounter Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an amazing man. He had several earned doctorates. He was a renowned theological scholar, a concert pianist, and a medical doctor. The second half of his career was devoted to serving a medical mission in Lambarene, Africa. He could not get missionary support because his theology was suspect so he performed concerts in order to raise money to support his work. In the first half of his career as a theological scholar he wrote several books, one of which launched a major theological movement that has now went through several phases. The title of the book describes the movement, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. And that quest continues

When Craddock first read that book he was in his early twenties, just getting started in his theological career. He thought Schweitzer’s Christology was woefully lacking. He marked up the book, wrote in the margins, and raised questions of all kinds. Craddock read in the news that Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio to give a concert at a church dedicating a new organ. The article reported that there would be refreshments afterward in the Fellowship Hall and that Schweitzer would be around for conversation.

Even though Craddock was working in Knoxville, he bought a greyhound bus ticket and went all the way to Cleveland, hoping to have an opportunity to ask him some questions. He laid out his questions on the trip. He was going to go after Schweitzer on his doctrine of Christ and set him straight. After the concert Craddock was one of the first persons to get a seat in the Fellowship Hall. He plopped down in the first row armed with his questions. After a little while Schweitzer came in, shaggy white hair, big white mustache, sort of stooped over, with a cup of tea and some refreshments. Craddock was eager for his chance to have at him.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everyone: “You’ve been very warm and hospitable to me, and I thank you for that. I wish I could stay longer, but I must get back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because many of my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene.” Then he said, “If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me.”

Craddock said that he looked down at his questions and realized that they were absolutely stupid. Craddock says: “I learned, again, what it means to be a Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

I love the way Bro. David Steindl-Rast defines God as “Almighty.” He says that it is only in the context of God’s fatherly and motherly love that we can call God almighty, for nothing is omnipotent except love. Only love can impart lasting meaning and hope. Only love can impart new life. And love is expressed not in control or power over others, but in service to others. When we pursue power over others we worship a false god, the god of power, and we are not free at all. We are in bondage to ambition. Our need for power has power over us and it corrupts us. And we have certainly seen how destructively this can play out internationally and nationally. God’s power, the power of love, the power of Spirit, is not expressed in power over others, rather, it is expressed in the power to be with and for others, to suffer with others and advocate for others.

The story ends with the Devil leaving Jesus. But the Devil didn’t leave for good. Luke’s version says, “he left until an opportune time.” Jesus would encounter these temptations all through his short life, and we can expect to face them all through our lives as well. And we need to be aware that these temptations can be very subtle and deceptive. Think how much good I could do if I were popular and powerful. This becomes a cover for the ego. The ego is a cunning creature. It can conjure up alternative facts that are very believable. So, we can never let up and let down our guard. We have to choose the power of love over everything else every day.

The three temptations raise three question: First, what makes me who I am? Divine grace. Grace is everything. And the same grace given to me is the same grace given to you and everyone else who are all God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Second, why do I need the applause and approval of others? I don’t. You don’t. All we need is to be rooted in God’s love and grace. We don’t need to dazzle anyone. We don’t need to impress anyone

And third, what sort of power do I seek? The only power I need and you need is the power of love – the power to be with and for those who suffer. We don’t need to be right. We don’t need to be in control. And we certainly don’t need to win. All we need to do is love and serve one another.

Our good God, help us to be awake every day to the many subtle ways these temptations seek to draw us into our little selves, our false selves. Our egos can be so fragile and defensive. Help us to find our identity in you. May we know in the depths of our soul that we are loved with an eternal love, so that we will not need the applause and approval of others. May the only power we seek be the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of love that embraces everyone. Help us to become who we already are. Amen.