Sunday, May 28, 2017

Resisting and Loving the World (a sermon from John 17:1, 6-19)

Did you notice how often the word “world” appears in this passage?

v. 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.”
v. 9: “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world.”
v. 11: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. . . . protect them in your name that you have given me”
v. 14: “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.”
v. 15: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
v. 16: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
v. 18: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

That last statement is the one I want to focus on today. Luke says the Holy Spirit will turn Jesus’ followers into witnesses. Here in John we are told that as the Father sent Jesus on a mission to the world, so the Christ sends us to continue his work.  

I have said on a number of occasions that words and phrases and stories in the Gospel of John are multi-layered and often convey several different meanings. “World” is a key word in this Gospel that has both positive and negative meanings. John says that God sent Jesus into the world to save the world – that is, to heal and liberate the world, to restore and transform the world. God so loves the world and that includes the people who make up the world and the systems that operate in the world.

What do I mean by “systems?” A system is a collective and corporate network of individuals and organizations that are formed for some purpose. We are part of numerous systems – business systems, educational systems, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, and various other types of social systems. A system becomes more than just the individuals that are part of it. A system takes on a persona of its own. And no system is absolute. A predominately good or just system has some corruption, and a predominantly evil or unjust system has some good. For example, even in the pervasively evil system of Nazi Germany there were some good people who secretly tried to save lives.

In his award winning book, Engaging the Powers, the late Walter Wink describes how blacks struggling against apartheid in South Africa realized that freedom could not be gained simply by replacing the white leaders with black leaders without changing the system. They named the evil and injustice at work in their society “the System.” So when the police, who were instruments of the unjust authorities, were at the door, those on the inside would warn, “The System” is here. When they watched the evil propaganda on television they would say, “The System is lying again.” Walter wink calls this “the domination system.”

Now, what I am about to say is important so please hear me. Regardless of whether we are talking about individuals in the world or the systems that make up the world, God wants to save the world. God wants to heal and transform individuals who live in the world and make up the systems of the world, and God wants to heal and redeem the systems themselves. God cares about the systems that operate in the world as well as the individuals who make up these systems.

So how does God do that? How does God go about saving the world? God calls out a people to be Gods ambassadors and agents of redemption and reconciliation. Jesus says, “As the Father sent me so I send you.” God sent Jesus to save the world and now the living Christ sends us. This is why Paul calls us Christ’s body. We are called to be the body of Christ whom God speaks through and works through to save the world.  Paul clearly understood the implications of this when he wrote to the Corinthians and said, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:19, 21-23). Are you hearing what he says: “that I might save some.” He didn’t say, “So God might save some.” No, he says, “So that I might save some.” Now, I know Paul can seem a bit-over-the top and sometimes he is. He was over-the-top religious even before he met Christ. He was over-the-top in a destructive way. And it may sound a bit arrogant for Paul to claim to be some kind of savior. But I think Paul clearly understood that if God was going to save anyone, if God was going to heal and restore and transform anyone, God would have to do that through human agency. This is why he calls the church the body of Christ. Paul understood his role. Do we?

We are called to save the world – to heal and redeem the world. I know that’s pretty heavy stuff but there is no getting around it really. Jesus left and the Holy Spirit is sent to empower us to be his witnesses – to do the work of Jesus and be the body of Christ. So how do we function as Jesus? How do we serve as God’s prophets, God’s teachers, God’s reformers, and (Are you ready for this?) God’s saviors? How do we go about saving the world?

The biblical tradition emphasizes two major approaches. First, as representatives of Jesus we engage in works of mercy like Jesus. Sisters and brothers, I think that for the most part you do that as well as any church I know. You work in the soup kitchen. You volunteer to build habitat homes. You volunteer and donate to the women’s shelter. You work in the food pantry. You care for and help neighbors in your community who need assistance. We have a great reputation in our community for engaging in works of mercy.

But, did you know that we also engage in works of mercy when we help people discover who they are in God and in Christ and when we help them become who they are through their discipleship to Christ. We are doing works of mercy when we invite people to become connected and committed to Christ through our church community. A lot of Christians call this evangelism, but I simply call it a work of mercy. And we could stand some improvement here couldn’t we? I am preaching to myself as well as you as I always do. We all could be better at inviting others into discipleship.

Now, why is this a work of mercy? When a person is connected and committed to a healthy faith community like ours that person is more apt “to experience and express God’s unconditional love” which, according to our vision statement, is what we are all about. When a person is connected and committed to a church family like ours in discipleship to Jesus that person is more apt to move beyond his or her little self and become part of a larger story and work, which Jesus called the kingdom of God.

The late Fred Craddock told how his mother was the one who took him to church, and how his father wouldn’t go. His father complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the pastor would call, and his father would say, “I know what the church wants.  The church doesn’t care about me.  The church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge.”  That’s what he would always say. Sometimes they would have a revival.  The pastor would bring the guest preacher to visit and sic him on his father.  His father would say the same thing, “The church doesn’t care about me; it just wants another name and another pledge.”  Fred said he must have heard that a thousand times.

But then there was the time when his father became seriously ill. He was in the veteran’s hospital and was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat and said, “It’s too late.”  They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. Fred flew in to see him. His father couldn’t speak and couldn’t eat. Fred looked around the room. There were potted plants and cut flowers on the windowsills, and a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. Even his food tray had a flower on it.  And all the flowers and cards were from the folks from the church—the very church of which his father use to say, “They don’t care about me; they just want another name and another pledge.”

Fred read one of the cards. His father couldn’t speak, so his father took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side a line from Shakespeare.  He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”  Fred said, “What is your story, Daddy?”  His father wrote, “I was wrong.” We are called and sent to engage the world in works of mercy in order to heal the world, redeem the world, and liberate the world, in other words, save the world.

That’s the first thing. That’s one side of the coin. We engage in works of mercy, because works of mercy are works of Christ. But there is another side to the coin. And this second type of engagement and involvement with the world is just as important as works of mercy. We represent Christ in working to save the world by engaging in works of mercy and we represent Christ in working to save the world by doing works of justice. By justice here I mean restorative justice, redemptive justice, social justice, not retributive or punitive justice. I think it’s very clear from the biblical tradition (and many others have pointed this out as well) that doing works of justice involves three primary tasks.

The first task is to resist the domination system. Resistance is the first task. Resisting evil. Resisting conformity to unjust systems. Paul told the church at Rome: “Do not let the world, the domination system, the unjust systems of the world, squeeze you into its mold.” Even though every one of us is part of the system and to some degree complicit in the system, we are called to resist the system when the system is characterized by injustice and evil. This can take many forms.

We might joint an action group. We can march. We can write letters and make phone calls. We can write a letter to the editor. And something that all of us can and should do is be  informed about political candidates so that our vote is a vote for justice.

Resistance can be as simple as refusing to allow the system to name us and tells us who we are. The late William Sloan Coffin in his book Letters to a Young Doubter, says that when he was chaplain at Yale it was natural that seniors bound for graduate school would come to him for letters of recommendation to such highfalutin schools as the Harvard Law School or the Columbia Medical School. He might write something like: “In all likelihood, this candidate will be in the bottom quarter of your class. But surely you will agree with me that the bottom quarter should be as carefully selected as the top. And for what should you be looking in the bottom quarter if not a candidate who will seek the common good rather than personal gain; who will strive to be valuable rather than successful, and to make a difference, not money?  As this candidate embodies these virtues, I consider him or her eminently qualified for admission to your outstanding school. Do take her/him?”

Coffin says that invariably when he would show this letter to the student the student’s feelings would be hurt? The student would say, “How do you know I’m going to be in the bottom of the class.” Coffin would say, “Well, all the evidence is in isn’t it?” And the student would say, “Yes, but you didn’t ‘have to tell them.” 

Coffin writes, “You see what was going on? Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate in the ninety-eighth. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.” Then he says this – the clincher: “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!” That is the power of the system to tell us who we are and to control our lives. The system can be a college or school, a political party, or a religious group, or some professional agency, or even a club or organization. Who are we listening to? Who is telling us who we are?

So the first task of engaging the world with works of justice is to resist the domination system. The second task which is inseparably connected to the first task is to confront and challenge the domination system. Clearly these two tasks go hand-in-hand. In the era of civil rights led by Dr. King resistance and confrontation took the form of nonviolent civil disobedience. And those who engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience were prepared to suffer for their resistance, and often did. This work can be dangerous

The Hebrew prophets often spoke truth to power. Remember Nathan confronting David, “you are the man.” Sometimes the prophets even performed dramatic symbolic acts to challenge the powers that be. Did you know that Isaiah walked naked and barefoot through the streets of Jerusalem for three years preaching against entering into military alliance with Egypt. He warned that Assyria would conquer Egypt and carry them off barefoot and naked as prisoners of war. Jeremiah shattered a clay jug in the presence of the leaders of Jerusalem warning them what lie ahead if they continue their present course. On another occasion he wore a wooden yoke around his neck warning Israel not to join a military alliance against Babylon. When Jesus cursed the fig tree Jesus was performing a dramatic symbolic act warning Israel of what was to come from the powers that be.

Jesus was, among other things a prophet in the Hebrew tradition. He was more than a prophet, but he was clearly a prophet. He confronted and challenged the falsities and untruths of the powers that be. His many healings were certainly works of mercy, but when he did these works of mercy on the Sabbath they also became works of justice. By healing on the Sabbath Jesus challenged Sabbath law and a religious system that favored rules over mercy. When Jesus led a rag-tag bunch of his followers into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was in essence leading a peace march. This was no spontaneous happening. If you remember, when he sent his disciples after the donkey he would ride into Jerusalem he gave them very specific directions where to go to find it and what to say. This was all pre-arranged and planned. This was a staged peaceful procession into Jerusalem intentionally coinciding with a very different kind of procession entering from the opposite side of Jerusalem. At the very time Jesus led his peace march into Jerusalem Pilot would have been leading a pompous and powerful march of Roman soldiers into Jerusalem to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount in order to curtail any thought of uprising or insurrection during the Jewish festivities. What a contrast. Jesus was declaring God’s kingdom to be a kingdom of peace, not violence – a different kind of kingdom.

And then, of course, when Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, an act, which according to Mark’s Gospel, sealed his death, Jesus was protesting Temple religion. Scholars debate exactly what about the Temple religion Jesus was protesting, but no Jesus scholar doubts that it was a planned protest, not a spontaneous expression of anger. Jesus clearly confronted and challenged the domination system of Judaism, and in more subtle ways, the domination system of Rome.

This brings me to the final task in doing works of justice, which the first two tasks of resisting and confronting point to. The third task is to heal and redeem the unjust systems of the world which we are part of. This is important. Because it’s not just about resisting. And it’s not just about confronting and challenging. The resisting and confronting is for the overriding, overarching purpose of saving. Deconstruction prepares the way for reconstruction. We don’t overcome the world by destroying the world. God doesn’t overcome the world by sending the world to hell. God overcomes the world by saving the world, by healing the world, by redeeming the world. God overcomes the world by redeeming the world from the “hells” we have created. God doesn’t create hell, we do – by our lust for power and position, by our pride and ego, by our prejudice and violence. We create the hells, God saves us from them by means of human saviors, human agents and ambassadors. As Dr. King said, we don’t want to destroy our enemies, we want to turn our enemies into our friends. This is what God wants and God sends us out to do it. Let that sink in for a second or two. For whatever reason, we are God’s plan to save the world. Can you believe that? What was God thinking? In light of everything I can see, it’s a pretty pitiful plan. But that’s it. There is no other.

When Jesus said to Pilot, “My kingdom is not from this world” he was not saying that his kingdom is in heaven and not on this earth. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Heaven is doing great. Here on earth is where we must pray and work to see God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come. What Jesus was saying to Pilot is that his kingdom, God’s kingdom does not partake of the violence and greed and lust for power that characterizes earthly kingdoms like the one Pilot was part of. God’s kingdom is a kin-dom pervaded by mercy and justice.

So then, are we up to it? Did you realize that when you joined the church you were joining an effort to save the world? Probably not. If the world is going to be saved, we will have to do it. Certainly with the grace and love and compassion of God. Certainly with the Spirit of Christ. But the works of mercy and the works of justice required to save the world has to be done by you and me.

Our good God, we are not up to it – this extraordinary thing you have asked us to do. In fact, if we are honest and courageous enough to face our own demons, we have to confess that we ourselves still need saving in so many ways. We need a Christ size vision and a Christ like compassion and love. We are going to need a lot of courage and hope and inner resolve. Fill us with the grace and truth of the Christ that we may be his voice and his body in the world. Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What the world needs now (A sermon from John 14:15-21 and Acts 17:22-31)

It’s a refrain we all know: “What the world needs now / Is love sweet love / It’s the only thing / there’s just too little of.” It’s not the only thing there is too little of, but it’s the most important thing there is too little of. I think all of us would agree that we could stand for some more love – of the kind that is healthy, honest, redemptive, restorative, and transformative.

In John 13 Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

In his book, If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley tells about accepting a call to be the pastor of a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis when he was beginning his ministry. The small congregation was deeply loving and compassionate, primarily due to Lyman and Harriet Combs, who had helped to start the congregation years before. Both were retired from their secular vocations when Gulley came as pastor.

Lyman volunteered almost daily at a homeless shelter, and Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so with such transparent joy and good humor that to be in her presence was a healing and redemptive experience. And over the years the fellowship took on their demeanor. The church was incredibly generous and because of its close proximity to several resources for the homeless, was often visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home in their church.

As gracious as the people were it frustrated Gulley that for the most part they seemed to be indifferent when it came to reaching more people in their community. On one occasion, frustrated that they weren’t gaining new people, Gulley asked Harriet why that was. She said, “Well, I guess that was never our goal. Gulley responded, “Then why are we here?” Harriet smiled and said, “To love.” That’s why we are here: To love.

Other things are important. I don’t think we should downplay the importance or need to incorporate new people into the life of our congregation. But it is true that everything else takes a back seat to the primary objective, which is: To love.

And that’s because love is the essence and core of who God is and what God is about. “So,” says John, “we have known and believe [that is, we trust in and are committed to] the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 3:16-17).To abide in love is to abide in God, because love is the essence of who God is. Wherever love is God is, and that’s true whether people realize it or not. When a person expresses love to someone else, even though that person may not consciously connect the love he or she feels and expresses with God, nevertheless, it is God within them who is loving through them. Healthy religion will always help us connect love with God. Richard Rohr likes to say that transformative religion is about falling in love with God. There have been times in dialogue with others I have asked: Is the God you believe in a God you can love with all your heart? If not, then maybe it’s time reimagine God.

In our Gospel text Jesus tells them that when he leaves the Father will send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth whose primary work is to convince us that we belong and that we are loved with an eternal love. In the passage Jesus says, “On that day [any day really, any day God’s love is revealed to us] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Then he says, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” What this text is saying is that “We all belong. We all belong to God and to one another. And the Spirit of Truth will help us to see this, to know this, to claim this, and to experience this oneness and belonging.”

Maybe the greatest need for some folks who have been hurt and broken by life is to know first of all that they are loved. Michael Yaconelli shares a story about a lady we will call Margaret who lived with the memory of one soul scaring day in the one room schoolhouse she attended as a child. From the first day Margaret came to class, she and Ms. Garner, didn’t get along. Her teacher was unusually bitter and harsh towards her and the animosity between them grew until one day it spilled over into an experience that altered Margaret’s life from then on. Ms. Garner spurned Margaret for being late for class one morning and Margaret made some spiteful comment.  The teacher made Margaret come to the front and face the class as she told the class what a bad girl Margaret was. “So we must teach her a lesson,” said Ms. Garner.  She said to the class: “I want each of you to come to the front of the room, take a piece of chalk, and write something bad about Margaret on the blackboard. Maybe this will help Margaret become a better person.” 

Margaret stood frozen and one by one, the students came to the blackboard and wrote things like, “Margaret is stupid,” “Margaret is ugly,” “Margaret is selfish,” and on and on it went.  Twenty-five sentences that became indelibly written on Margaret’s soul. Forty years later, slumped in the chair in the psychologist’s office, Margaret is still living in the shadow of that nightmarish experience. With the help of a caring psychologist, a loving church family, and a growing relationship with God, Margaret is healing and is ready to move on. Her psychologist is also her spiritual director and is helping Margaret find resources in her faith. She tells Margaret that it is necessary to go back and relive this tragic experience one more time. She trusts her counselor, so she does; she can hardly bear it. Then her counselor tells Margaret to imagine another person in the room. He’s walking to the blackboard and he erases everyone of those ugly sentences the students wrote. She says to Margaret, “Now, he’s turning and looking at you. See his eyes. Look at his eyes.  They are full of compassion. It is Jesus. And now he is writing on the blackboard, new sentences—“Margaret is loved”; “Margaret is beautiful”; “Margaret is kind”; “Margaret is a child of God.”

You know sisters and brothers, maybe the greatest thing we can do for someone else is help that person discover how loved and valued he or she really is. And we do that, not be preaching at them, but by showing them through our words and deeds, through our caring and helping, through our encouragement and support that they are loved. We love them and thus reflect God’s love. This is why the passage that I quoted earlier in First John concludes by saying, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars.” Why is that so? Because we all belong. We are one family and one people in God. And if we are not loving others then we are not loving God. We may claim to love God. We may be very religious. We may participate in numerous religious activities. But if we are not loving others we are not loving God no matter how religious we appear to be.

This passage begins with Jesus saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (10:15) The passage ends with Jesus saying, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (10:21). Jesus clearly equates the experience of divine love with keeping his commandments. And what are his commandments? The premier commandment which is the foundational commandment, the well-spring from which all other commandments arise is the new commandment he gives to his followers: That we love one another as Jesus has loved us (13:34). All Jesus’ other commandments are expressions of this one essential and central commandment.

In John 13 Jesus picks up a water bowl and towel and washes the feet of the disciples, then he commands “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). He commands them and us to serve one another in simplicity and humility. This command to serve in humility is simply an expression of the foundational command to love others the way Christ has loved us. We experience divine love – the love of God and Jesus, by loving others the way God loves us.

There are no exclusions or exceptions in terms of who we are to love. We don’t get to pick and choose. We don’t get to carefully define our group and the people we will love. We don’t get to condemn or exclude or marginalize the folks who don’t see life or God the way we do. In fact, since we all belong we should be looking for some common ground where we can work together to effect positive change.

In Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers in Athens of the God they worship in ignorance. Paul found among their objects of veneration an alter with the inscription: “To an unknown god.” Paul starts here and then proclaims to them the Christ, who Paul believed and we believe is the definitive expression and revelation of who God is like. Even though they had not heard of Jesus, Paul calls them “God’s offspring” and  proclaims that the God of Jesus is the Spirit who pervades and sustains our lives. He says that “in him [the God we all belong to] we live and move and have our existence.” In other words, to use the language of John’s Gospel, we are in God and God is in us, even though we may not consciously be aware of it like the philosophers in Athens.

This is why we must love one another no matter what. Because we are one family, one people; we all belong to one another. We are all God’s offspring. We are all God’s daughters and sons. We all are alive due to our connection to God – physically as well as spiritually. We are physically alive because God is in us and we are in God. The divine Spirit gives us life and breath; the Divine Spirit animates and gives life to the human spirit. This truth is conveyed in the creation story where God breathes into the human creature and the human creature becomes a living being created in the image of God. We live in God and God lives in us. The challenge we face is to live out this reality in ways where we experience and express our oneness and belonging to one another and to God.

What if we allowed these truths to inform the way we treat one another? What if we actually allowed them to guide our civic policies and responsibilities? What if we took seriously Jesus’ commandments to love others in the way we form immigration policy or our tax system. What if we allowed them to guide the way we operate our criminal justice system? What if they informed the way we go about caring for and empowering the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable in our society? What if we allowed these commandments to sustain all our relationships and guide the way we treat one another – at home, at work, in the church, and in all the groups and organizations we are part of.

We don’t like thinking about this because it’s so challenging? Loving others is hard work. Think of how Jesus loved and responded to the ones who orchestrated his death. He bore their hatred and animosity without returning it. Forgiving those who have offended or hurt us is also at the heart of diving love, and that can be a real struggle and challenge.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” Now the very fact that she is able to recognize this and acknowledge her struggle says quite a bit about this young woman doesn’t it?

What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she was caught up in a world of hate and depression.

Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. Even though she had experienced such hate and terror, she decided to love. And I would bet that to the degree she is able to love, she will have some peace of mind and heart.
Are we willing to take that first step? Are we ready to acknowledge that while we are special to God we are “no more special to God” than anyone else. We are all God’s offspring. We all live and move and have our existence in God. If we are to actually live as one family, someone has to say, “I forgive.” No more hate. No more killing. No more vengeance. Let’s learn to live in peace.”

What the world needs now is for you and me, and everyone else to love one another the way God loves each of us. And by following Jesus we learn how to do that. This is why we invite people to be disciples of Jesus. It’s not because there is no other way one can know God or they are going to hell if they don’t. It’s because we have come to know God’s love through our relationship with and discipleship to the Christ. It’s because we have learned from Jesus and continue to learn from the living Christ how to love one another with the love of God.

Our good God, may we learn from Jesus and from one another how to allow your love to flow through us – what we might be healed and changed by your love and that your love flowing through us might heal and change others. Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way of Love (A sermon from John 14:1-14)

Our passage begins with Jesus telling the disciples to not be troubled. That is much easier said than done. In fact, three times in John’s Gospel the writer tells us that Jesus was troubled. He was troubled over the death of Lazarus. He was troubled at least on one occasion when he contemplated his own death. And he was troubled when he realized that his own disciples would desert him in his final hour. So, let’s not assume then that being troubled is somehow a lack of faith or a sign of spiritual immaturity. I doubt if any of us are willing to say that Jesus lacked faith or spiritual maturity and yet clearly he was troubled on occasion. Being troubled is a common human experience. The challenge for us is not to allow those disturbing feelings and alarming emotions to rule our hearts and wills and lead us into despondency or despair.

We can understand why the disciples would be troubled. Jesus just told them that he is going away. Toward the end of chapter 13 Jesus says to the disciples that he will be with them just a little longer. He tells them that he is leaving them and where he is going they will not be able to follow. They had left everything to follow Jesus. They had put their trust in Jesus. And now he says he is leaving them. Wouldn’t you be troubled?

He is calling them to continue to trust in God and to trust in him. Because even though he is going away, he will still be with them – only in a very different way. We often read Jesus’ promise here to be a promise of Jesus coming to one at the time of death and that is certainly a legitimate way to read it. But it’s not the only way to read it and probably is not the primary way we should read it. Sayings in John often have multiple meanings. Certainly it is a legitimate reading of this passage to apply this to Jesus’ coming to a loved one in death. But’s it’s also a promise of Jesus’ coming to the living who are troubled and filled with grief. Throughout this Upper Room teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of sending the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will be Christ to them.

This passage is saying that nothing is going to sever the relationship we have with the Christ, even though it is a spiritual relationship. It’s a relationship rooted in trust. We can be assured that when a loved one dies, that loved one is safe, that our loved one is in a welcoming place. And we can be assured that we are too. Right now, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.

The lack of understanding on the part of the disciples leads to Thomas’ question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If you were here last week you will remember that I referenced this passage in talking about the text where Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I mentioned the Jewish rabbi who said he believed this passage about Jesus being the way and truth and the life. When he was asked how a Jewish rabbi could believe this he said, “Because I believe Jesus is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” It’s not Jesus exclusively, it’s Jesus inclusively  – it’s what his life represents, the virtues he incarnated, the values he embodied, the love he expressed

In John 13, just after Jesus tells the disciples he is going away and they would not be able to go with him he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” We might ask, “How is this new?” In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus references the command to love in the Torah and says that the whole law and prophets are fulfilled in the love commands of loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. The command to love was at the heart of the law and the prophets. So how is the command to love a new commandment? Well Jesus says next, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples. If you love one another” (13:34-35).  It’s new in the sense that we are instructed to love like Jesus. Jesus becomes for us the definitive revelation of God’s love.

You see, sisters and brothers, it’s all about love. Everything else is secondary. Anything that usurps the place of love in our lives – be it our religion, our politics, our social life, anything – is a false god. Our beliefs about God and our beliefs about Jesus can become a false god. Anything that keeps us from loving the way Jesus loved becomes a false god – because God is love.

Ann Howard who at one time was the director of the “The Beatitude Society” recalls how these words from John 14 bothered her when she was a child. When she was about 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of the U.S. Several families hosted them, and her family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday. She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled Ann. She asked her mother about it. As a ten year old girl she says to her mother, “Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus. He doesn’t even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?” Her mother replied, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

That’s good but I would say that a little bit differently today. I would say, “It’s not a club. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we love.” By this, says Jesus, others will know you are my disciples – by your love for one another. This is why Paul said, “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

When Jesus says, “Trust in God, trust also in me” what he is saying is, “Trust in the love of God that I have shown you. You don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to be insecure. You don’t need to be overly anxious. Because God’s love will never let you go. In God’s house everyone has a place. There are many rooms. Everyone is welcome.”

I wish I had heard that when I was ten years old. (And by the way, I don’t blame anyone for that. My parents taught me what they had been taught. So did my religious instructors. No one encouraged them to explore or question. In fact, questioning what one was taught was looked down upon. So I don’t blame anyone. But I so wish more Christians knew this and would teach this to their children and grandchildren).

Next up in the story is Philip who says, “Show us the Father and that will be enough.” Philip’s lack of understanding and blindness is reflective and expressive of our own blindness and lack of understanding. Jesus says, “I have already shown you, Philip. Can’t you see? Open your eyes. Open your heart. I have shown you the nature of God. I have revealed to you what God is like. If you have taken notice of how I have loved you and loved the world then you would know how God loves you and how God so loves the world. You would know that nothing can separate you from God’s love and my love.” I so wish more people could understand that – especially Christians, because so few Christians today understand that.

Jesus says I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I am in God and God is in me. And that’s true for all of us. As Jesus teaches throughout the Upper Room discourse here in John’s Gospel: We are in God and God is in us. When we allow the Divine Love that filled Jesus to fill our hearts and lives then we like Jesus just know that we dwell in God and God dwells in us. And you don’t need a Bible verse or a preacher like me to tell you – you just know. It’s like what the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” God is in you and you are in God – just like Jesus.

So Jesus calls his disciples to trust in the God of love as they face the challenges of life. He also calls them to participate with him in his works of love. Being in relationship brings responsibility. This passage says that those who trust Jesus will also engage in the works of love that Jesus did. Jesus even promises that those who trust in and participate in his works of love will do “greater works” because he is going to the Father.

In John’s theology Jesus’ physical departure means his spiritual presence. It means the Spirit of Christ will be at work in the world and in their lives, and the Spirit of Christ, the Cosmic Christ doesn’t have human limitations. It is through the power of the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of Love, that his disciples multiply his works.

Think of the works he did. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he liberated the oppressed, he welcomed the outcasts, he stood with the marginalized, he challenged the status quo, he confronted the untruth of the religious and social establishment, he served all people – the religious and irreligious, the poor and the wealthy, women, men and children, and in perhaps his greatest work of all, he bore the sins and the wrath of the powers that be without returning that wrath. These are the works of love we are called to multiply in the world. They will be “greater” not in quality, but in quantity, as many of Jesus’ followers do the works he did. So knowing God, knowing Christ carries with it the assignment of making God known. Abiding in Christ means doing what Jesus did. Living in communion with Christ means engaging in the works of love that Jesus engaged in.

Now, I’m not sure it’s possible to do such works or at least to sustain such works over time unless we nurture an inner spiritual life – a life of communion and connection with the Source of life.  I find in my own experience that a life of contemplation, a life of prayer is necessary to continue in the way of love and to sustain works of love. This is why, I think, this passage ends with a call to prayer. Prayer is what sustains our participation in works of love.

Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name. . . . If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The invitation to ask anything in his name has to be understood in the context of engaging in these greater works of love. It’s not anything, it’s anything that pertains to the works of love. That’s the context here. Christ’s love will motivate us, empower us, sustain us, and strengthen us in doing the works of love if we open our lives to receive God’s love, if we nurture a life of communion with the God of love so that God’s love can flow through us.

John Philip Newell tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his openly gay relationship with his Buddhist partner and his unorthodox views and ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then as they do each Sunday they moved into the celebration of communion.

The little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, but when the service of Holy Communion got underway the little children were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t noticed this soon enough. So there little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on.   Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize who was being referred to but he stopped the liturgy of communion to speak publicly to the woman. He said, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but the congregation, observed Newell, didn’t look worried. It was a family fight.

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Seeing fire in his eyes, Father David’s Buddhist partner jumped up and tried to stop him from proceeding down the aisle. Claudia, as Dr. Newell later discovered, had been one of Father David’s earliest and staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. The family fight was over.

Dr. Newell writes, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” And it’s true. We all battle these demons. Each one of us is a kind of living paradox. And in a few instances, even Jesus was. This is part of being human.

If we are going to share in the works of love, if we are going to multiply the works of Jesus in the world, I believe we will need to sustain an inner life, we will need to nurture a life of communion with God, so that we like Father David are quick to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness.

When the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of love is allowed to fill our lives, when our relationship with and experience of Diving Love is cultivated through a life of prayer then we are humbled by our failures, we are open to confession and correction, we are ready to give and receive forgiveness, and we refuse to allow the ego to rule our lives.  

To do the works of Christ is to engage in works of love. To live in communion with God, to live in communion with Christ is to be motivated, inspired, sustained, and empowered by God’s love. The way of God, the way of Christ, the way of the Spirit is the way of love. Let’s commit ourselves anew to this way of love as we celebrate communion together. 

Entering into Life (A sermon from John 10:1-18)

I little introduction to the reading today. It doesn’t take a seminary or religious degree to notice that the way Jesus teaches in the Synoptics – Mark, Luke, and Matthew – is very different than the way Jesus teaches in John. The style, language, vocabulary, imagery, and structure is very different. The consensus of mainline biblical scholarship is that the Synoptics give us a more reliable historical picture of how Jesus actually taught. The discourses of Jesus in John, they say, are more reflective of the interpretations and understandings of John’s church. In other words, these discourses in John by Jesus are most likely expositions of short sayings of Jesus by the author of this Gospel and the community from which it came and to whom it was written. That doesn’t mean these discourses in John are any less important or meaningful than the teachings in the Synoptic Gospels; it just means these are not the actual words of the historical Jesus. They are meditations, expositions, and proclamations by John’s church as John’s community sought wisdom and guidance and inspiration from the living Christ. Many of the teachings of John’s Gospel expound the same themes as the Synoptic Gospels – they just go about it in very different way.

In the reading today the lectionary has it ending at 10:10, which doesn’t quite make sense to me, so I extended it through 10:18. What we have, it seems, are two discourses combined around the imagery of shepherding. In 10:1-3a the imagery of Jesus as the gate is introduced, which is developed in more detail in 10:7-10. In 10:3b-6 the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is present, which is developed in more detail in 10:11-18. So let’s read the text. . . . . 

The text begins with Jesus as the gate, so let’s start there. Jesus is the gate through which we enter into life. Life here is God’s life, often called eternal life in this Gospel. Here it is simply called life which enables those who receive it to live more fully and abundantly.  

What does John mean by life or eternal life? John is not specifically talking about the afterlife or life in heaven, though certainly whatever life after this life involves that is  included. Eternal life is eternal. But that is not the focus. In this Gospel eternal life is as much a present reality as a future reality.

And another thing, it’s important not to import modern views of what makes life complete or full or meaningful into the abundant life or fullness of life this passage is talking about. This writer is clearly not talking about material prosperity, vocational success or fulfillment, physical health, and certainly not the American dream. The life or eternal life John’s Gospel is talking about is God’s life. Eternal is emphasized not because it’s forever. Obviously it is forever or it wouldn’t be eternal. But the point here is that the life we share in is the life of the Eternal One. Eternal life is God’s life. To possess life or eternal life is to experience and share in God’s life, God’s world, God’s will. In John’s Gospel the symbolic meaning of eternal life is very similar, not quite the same, but similar to the meaning of “kingdom of God” that is employed so frequently in the other Gospels.

So what does it mean to share God’s life? And what does it mean to enter into God’s life through the gate that is Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” In verse 9 he says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out [of the sheepfold] and find pasture.” The sheep go in and out of the gate to rest and find pasture – to experience fullness of life as a sheep. What John is saying here is that we experience fullness of life in God, we experience God’s kind of life, we share in God’s will and God’s work in the world by entering through the gate of Jesus. And this is how we are saved – that is, this is how we are healed, this is how we are restored, this is how we are made whole, this is how we are liberated and set free from our little self with all its fears, worries, insecurities, and negativity. We enter into this salvation, we enter into the experience of God’s life through the gate.

Now what does that mean? How do we enter through the gate of Jesus and is that the only way one can enter into this life? An American rabbi was once asked what he thought about the words in John 14:6 where John’s Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi said, “Oh, I agree with these words.” The one who asked that question was a bit taken back by the reply. He asked, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” This gracious and wise rabbi said, “Because I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” I agree with the rabbi.

In the prologue of John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus as the Word made flesh is full of grace and truth. The way to God, the way we enter into the life and will of God is by trusting in and being faithful to the grace and truth that Jesus embodied. Which is just another way of saying we enter through love. Just think about this for a minute. Do you think God really cares that much about what we believe with our brains about Jesus? Or do you think God cares more about how we live like Jesus? How we express the grace and truth of Jesus? How we love like Jesus? What we believe about Jesus is important to the degree that it inspires us to actually live like Jesus.

Author, poet, scholar, and spiritual guide John Philip Newell will sometimes share stories about his son Cameron who has some special needs. He says there is little pretense with his son, Cameron. He speaks with an honest, open heart. One morning at breakfast the conversation turned toward the wisdom of Jesus. Cameron said to his father very candidly, “No offense to Jesus, Dad, but I don’t think about him very much.” Philip told his son that this was the greatness of Jesus, namely, that Jesus did not think about himself very much and Jesus would not be offended at all. Philip says that Jesus showed us that we truly find ourselves and discover who we are in God by letting go of our ego and loving the other as ourself. Philip said to Cameron that if Jesus had thought about himself all that much we would have forgotten Jesus long ago. He told his son this, “It is a good think to think about Jesus, but not because Jesus needs us to be thinking about him. It is because Jesus shows us the way of love.”

God doesn’t need us to believe certain things – doctrines – about Jesus. Of course we all do. I’m sure we all do. We have beliefs about Jesus, and many Christians don’t agree. And that’s okay. We don’t have to agree, because that is not the important thing. What God wants out of our lives is for us to live like Jesus, for us to love like Jesus, for us to express the grace and live out the truth like Jesus.

You know sisters and brothers, I so wish I could help more Christians see that all our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. I so wish I could help more Christians who have turned their belief system into an idol realize that even when our beliefs are right what we believe about God only captures a little fraction of what God is really like and who God really is. God is always so much more.

Jesus is the gate because Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus is the gate because Jesus shows us how to serve and love one another. Jesus shows us how to live in the truth of who we really are in God and how to speak truth and live truth in the midst of a bunch of falsehood. (And the falsehood is widespread. It pervades our culture. It dominates our political and economic systems.) Jesus shows us how to forgive and express grace and thus he shows us how to live in a healthy and redemptive relationship with God and one another.

I think this more inclusive interpretation is suggested in our passage when Jesus says, “I have other sheep not of this fold (I read that to mean, Christian fold). I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Jesus speaks the language of love and when one is truly listening and responding to the voice of love, that one is entering through the gate of Jesus, whether he or she knows it or not. In the epistle of First John the writer says that God is love and wherever love is God is.  

To have faith in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way of love embodied by Jesus, and this is the way that leads to truth and life, this is the gate that leads to fullness of life in God.

Jesus is also the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The power of life that enabled Jesus be the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, is the power we share in as Jesus’ disciples. We too are called to be good shepherds. We are called to be gates and we are called to be good shepherds like Jesus. The Psalmist speaks of God as the shepherd who leads us into fullness of life. Isaiah (40:11) speaks of God as a God who feeds his flock like a shepherd and gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom. Shepherding is about caring for those who are vulnerable. It’s about tending to those who need direction and hope and have lost their way.

Now, the passage here that speaks of the love and care of the good shepherd for the sheep also speaks of false shepherds who use the sheep for their own selfish ends and hired hands who flee at the first sign of danger and leave the sheep at risk. Here’s what Ezekiel says in his indictment against the false shepherd in Israel in Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds have been feeding yourselves. You eat the fat, you cloth yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.”

This is a reminder that not all religion is healthy and healing. Not all expressions of Christianity are redemptive and transformative. Healthy religion, healthy Christianity nurtures us in the skill of shepherding – of caring for one another – and empowers us to be self-giving and self-sacrificing in equipping and empowering others, rather than self-serving and self-indulging. There are many folks who will not walk into a church community because they have had such negative experiences with Christians.

Philip Gulley tells about having lunch one day with a man in his community who identified himself as an agnostic. Philip had walked into the local diner but there were no tables and so just as he turned to leave this man invited Philip to join him, so he did. The man had a reputation in the community of being outspoken, but also being capable of much kindness. In the course of their conversation he told Philip that he didn’t believe in God and then he asked Philip, “Would I be welcome in your church?” Philip assured him he would be welcome. Then he asked, “Would I have to eventually believe in God in order to stay there?” Philip admitted that there might be a few people who would try to get him to believe in God and maybe a few who would get upset if he didn’t. But Philip assured him as the pastor that he would be welcome to stay there. Philip told his new friend that he cares about beliefs to the extent that our beliefs make us more loving persons. (And I agree. I like to talk about healthy beliefs and unhealthy beliefs, rather than correct or incorrect beliefs. Do our beliefs make us more loving persons?) Philip told his new friend that he preferred a congregation of kind atheists to a congregation of hateful Christians. (Really, when you think about it, the expression hateful Christians should be an oxymoron.) Well, they talked some more and when they finished their meal and were about to leave he said to Philip, “You know pastor, I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.”

Well, I can understand that can’t you? And even the most caring of churches are not perfect. None of us who aspire to be gates and good shepherds like Jesus are without fault or sin are we? We will not love or care for others perfectly.

The passage that Lisa read earlier in the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of a really caring, gracious, generous, and healthy community. They even pooled their resources so they could care for the poor and vulnerable in their midst. I know we are not going to love that much. We are not going to care that much. We are not going to be that counter-cultural. Let’s be honest. We are never going to model the church depicted in Acts 2 are we? You know that and I know that. The Acts passage presents an ideal portrait of community/church that we will never attain.  But, certainly there are ways we can encourage, care for, tend to, and empower one another, so that we can give others a taste and a glimpse of what a loving Christian community is like. No, we are not perfect and we will falter and fail, but if we walk in the love of Jesus we can present to our world a picture (though be it an imperfect picture) of what a loving Christian community can be.

I suspect there are any number of people out there who feel lonely and lost in this materialistic and consumeristic society of ours. They may just be fed up and frustrated enough that they are ready and looking for someone to guide them into a good and gracious and flourishing life that liberates them from their little selves and helps them find meaning and connection to a larger purpose and story. Maybe you could be or maybe I could be a gate. Maybe you or I could be a good shepherd that leads someone into the experience of God’s love and help them to find a greater purpose and meaning.

Our good God, help us to be more loving and caring like Jesus. Help us to be good shepherds that are willing to give of ourselves to encourage and empower others. Help us to enter more fully into your life – the life of love expressed in Jesus – so that we might be able to lead others through this gate that leads to life. elpHAmen.