Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 12, 2017: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5, 13-17  +  John 3:1-17

 

Pádraig

Pádraig Ó Tuama

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” That’s the English translation for an old Irish saying I recently heard on an episode of “OnBeing,” offered by Pádraig Ó Tuama — poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland. Founded in the 1960s to promote peace and reconciliation during “the Troubles,” that period of violent ethnic and religious conflict in Ireland, today Corrymeela continues to welcome guests from around the world who long for reconciliation with neighbors and fellow citizens in moments when such peace seems hopelessly naïve; moments like the one so many of us feel we ourselves are trapped inside as a nation, when it’s not just our feet that are sore from so many marches, but our hearts and our souls.

“You are the place I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” It’s awfully romantic, don’t you think? The kind of sentiment that seems more at home in a do-it-yourself wedding vow than in a sermon on the doctrine of salvation. But let me ask you this: what do you think a sermon on the doctrine of salvation ought to sound like? Should it be terribly complicated? Should there be lots of Greek and Hebrew words rendered into alternate English translations? Should there be rules, clearly laid out; structures of belief to be agreed with (or not)? What were you taught about “salvation,” and how, and who taught you? Is it the reward for a life well lived? Is it conditional, reserved for only a few? Is it a gift bestowed on the righteous, or the product of their efforts? Are there people who are most certainly saved? Are there people who most certainly are not?

 

80cde58671743589089ee6d5e4140419

Study for “Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1899)

 

These questions lead us down late-night roads with no lamp posts. If we follow them too far, we can get lost in the dark and may struggle to find our way back. That seems to have been the case with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night with questions about the new life that comes by water and the spirit in the reign of God. He was a religious person who’d given plenty of thought to questions of who was chosen, who was saved, and what that all meant. Jesus, however, wanted to talk instead about love.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

It’s not hard to see how we worked our way back around to legalism all over again. It’s right there in the text, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” It seems clear: the key to eternal life is belief in Jesus. Slow down though, and keep asking those questions. What is belief? And, what is eternal life? And, if God is not interested in condemning the world, then why such an oddly specific criterion for salvation as belief in a pretty unbelievable story?

Here’s the prerequisite Greek word study, in case that happened to be on your checklist earlier. When we think about salvation, we often get stuck worrying about what we have to believe in order to be saved — because of this very verse and how it’s been explained. But the verb in Greek which we translate into “believe” in English doesn’t mean “to give credence to a belief or an idea.” Instead, it’s the verb form of the noun (pistis) which means, “faith.” English doesn’t have a verb form of the noun “faith.” We can either say “have faith” — which is a problem because it implies that faith is an object we can possess — or we have to find another verb that comes close to the idea of “faith-ing.” So we’ve said “believe,” though we might just as well have said, “trust.”

It makes more sense when you imagine the kind of conversation in which one person might say to another in a moment of tension, or decision, “I need you to believe in me.” What are they saying? That they need you to agree that they exist? Or that they need you to trust them, to remember something about your shared past, your history, your relationship.

This is what Jesus finally tells Nicodemus, who has gotten lost in the dark, in his questions about being “born again.” Jesus points to the evidence of a loving God, a God who is trustworthy, a God who brought the people through the wilderness, a God who stayed faithful through the exodus and the exile, a God who brought them into a new land and worked with them as they fell into each and every trap that comes with the the problem of being a nation. Salvation is not our reward for having the right answers to the wrong questions. Salvation is God’s work, God’s nature, God’s love.

Why doesn’t that ever feel like enough of an answer? Why do we insist on turning God’s love into a prize rather than accepting it as a gift, a birthright even? How would our lives change if we knew in every cell of our bodies that God is for us? That God longs to be the place we stand on the days when our feet are sore, so much so that God created all the soil and all the earth, so that there is no place we can go where we are not standing in God’s presence. Even when God sends us out from the places we have called home, even when God sets before us challenges that call us into moments and relationships that feel alienating. We are always standing in the loving presence of God.

If we are always already in the presence of God, and we believe — we trust — that God’s love for us is real and true, then what else do we need to experience this thing Jesus calls “eternal life”? What is missing from this picture that is so bad it has us all longing for salvation?

The question the Irish had to face wasn’t whether or not God could love the Catholics and the Protestants. The question was, could they love each other? The question is always: can we love each other? Can the left love the center and the right? Can the winners love the losers, and vice versa. Can we love our enemies? Because, where there is no love, we might as well call it hell, wouldn’t you say?

So, as we continue the practice of holding silence after the sermon for reflections, both spoken and silent, I invite you to consider the following questions as starting points for a conversation with your own spirit that may last well beyond this morning’s worship. If you feel so led, you might offer a few words about where these questions are taking you this morning:

How has love saved you?

Or

How could love save us?

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, April 13, 2014: Palm Sunday

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a  +  Philippians 2:5-11  +  John 12:20-43

On a morning when so much has already been different than usual — the earlier start time (ahem!), the blessing of the palm branches, the gathering with our neighbors — I feel obligated to share with you one more way that we’ve departed from the usual this day. Most Christian congregations, at least those that follow the lectionary, have heard a different gospel passage than the one we’ve just heard. They’ve heard the account of Christ’s passion on the cross from Matthew’s gospel, the tale of Jesus’ arrest and trial, suffering on the cross and death, and his burial in the tomb. This tradition of reading the passion story the Sunday before Easter is an old one, and comes from a time in the Protestant churches when our observance of the Three Days of Holy Week was less established. The logic was that in order to understand the meaning of Easter and experience the joy of the resurrection, we needed to witness Jesus’ death on the cross and consider its meaning for each of us and all of us.

Over the last few decades though, as Christians of all backgrounds and denominations have gradually recovered the ancient church’s keeping of the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, the lectionary’s logic has made less sense. The story of the arrest, crucifixion and death of Jesus is told on Good Friday, and many of you began to ask why that story needed to be heard twice in one week. The fact that you were asking the question was an indication of just how fully the traditions of the coming Three Days had taken root. So, at this, the beginning of Holy Week, I want to invite you once again to the discipline of these days. I want to ask you to clear your calendars, to make space in your busy lives, to enter fully into the passion of our Lord as he moves from the hopeful crowds of Palm Sunday to the intimate gathering with his friends on Maundy Thursday, to the agony of the cross on Friday, and then the gathering around fire and water and story and song at the Easter Vigil on Saturday. It’s a lot of church, to be sure, but as with so many things, the more we invest ourselves into the coming week, and one another, the deeper the rewards to our shared faith.

Having made the decision to save the remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death for Good Friday, however, the question of Palm Sunday remained. This is the day when we wave our palm branches and sing our hosannas, welcoming Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem. It is a day full of pageant, in the scriptures and in our own assemblies. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, and in Matthew’s gospel on a colt as well, in order to signal that he is the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s expectation of a messiah that would save them from their oppression. That is, in fact, the meaning of the word that marks this day, “hosanna.” It means “save us” or “rescue us.”

Why did the crowds that greeted Jesus in Jerusalem expect that he could save them? Throughout his ministry, Jesus had taught with authority, healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. As he moved through the countryside, among the people, he was not afraid to name the powers and principalities that held the people captive, that kept them oppressed. For their part, the people had long expected that God would send a messiah, one who would serve as their champion to liberate them from those who occupied God’s promised land. As we wave our branches this morning, we must ask, how are we like those who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus, at last, came to town? Who have we been waiting for? From what powers do we long to be set free?

But his disciples, perhaps, weren’t so happy to see Jesus turn his face toward Jerusalem. Perhaps you remember last week, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill and decided to turn around and head back to Judea.  The disciples were afraid for his safety, saying “Rabbi, the Temple leaders were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Thomas seemed to know precisely what they were headed for, as he goaded the rest of the disciples to follow Jesus saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  They must have wondered, as we do, why Jesus walked willingly toward his own death, toward the cross.

In the passage from John’s gospel we read this morning, Jesus addresses precisely this question. It is full of sayings that have become so familiar, they almost overshadow everything else in the story: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” and “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  These remarkable declarations, however, are in response to something mentioned only briefly at the beginning of the passage, something easy to skim over.

“Now among those who went up to worship,” the passage begins, “were some Greeks.” Jesus, who had met with Pharisees and Samaritans alike, at this late hour in his ministry is now being sought out by Greeks, people whose religious and cultural backgrounds could not have been more foreign. They approach Andrew and Philip, who were among the first to follow Jesus when he spoke to them, saying “come and see” (John 1:39). Now these foreigners declare that they want to see Jesus, carrying echoes of that first meeting with Jesus across the Jordan where John had been baptizing (1:28).

4068603688_94b17a345cIn response to the news that these Greeks want to see him, Jesus offers a cryptic metaphor, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (12:24). This, for the gospel of John, is an image of salvation. When you imagine a stalk of wheat, you can see the staff that bears the kernels at the top, almost woven together by the husk that surrounds them. Each of those kernels, of course, is a seed that carries within it the code, all the information needed for the earth to produce another stalk of wheat which will produce enough seed to multiply the crop again, and again, until the stalk of wheat becomes a wheat field. A grain of wheat is nothing, Jesus reminds us, a field of wheat is everything, it is enough to feed the world, but only if the seed falls to the earth and the cycle of multiplication begins.

For the last six weeks, the adult education forum has been “making sense of the cross,” studying the theories of atonement that Christians have used over the centuries to explain to themselves and one another why Jesus’ death and resurrection makes a difference for the world. Some theories focus on a cosmic struggle between God and Satan in which all of humanity is held ransom. Some theories focus on a sense of debt that must be paid for the weight of human sin. Some theories emphasize the way that Jesus’ life and death provide a model for our own human living. In her commentary on John’s gospel, Professor Gail O’Day suggests that none of these theories of atonement quite matches up with what we find here in these verses from John. She writes,

“It is important to begin by remembering that theologies of atonement are in actuality theologies of reconciliation — that is, they attempt to explain how God and humanity were reconciled to one another in Jesus’ death … Sacrifice is one way of understanding reconciliation, but not the only way. Jesus’ sayings in John 12:23-36 suggest an alternative model of reconciliation, one that is built around the restoration of relationship … Jesus’ death is described as both necessary and life-giving because as a result of it community is formed. The discipleship teachings (vv. 25-26), which in [Matthew, Mark and Luke] define discipleship exclusively as taking up one’s cross, instead define discipleship as serving Jesus and make clear that the goal of such service is restored relationship with God and Jesus. The passion prediction (12:32) also focuses on relationship, that through Jesus’ death all people will be drawn to him … Throughout the Gospel, this new relationship to God and one’s fellow human beings is described in metaphors of new birth and new or eternal life … Jesus’ death has this effect, not because it is a sacrifice that atones for human sin, but because it reveals the power and promise of God and God’s love decisively to the world.”

When I think of atonement, or reconciliation, like this — as an act of love initiated by God, multiplied as it takes root in each of us and grows into lives of loving service to our neighbor that result in more kernels planted, more wheat grown, more bread baked, more lives fed, more love shared, more life lived — then I think I understand better what Jesus means when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  It’s not so much about loving and hating, as clinging to versus releasing. We might hear it as “those who cling to their life lose it, and those who release their life in this world will see it live on forever.”

Earlier this week I was with an ecumenical group of parish pastors, seminary professors, and judicatory leaders (meaning, people who serve the church at the synodical or national level, or their equivalents in other denominations) at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  We were asked to work together to try and define what we mean when we talk about “people of faith,” and to identify what conditions allow these communities to thrive. Our definitions were muddled, I think, shaped as they are by constructs and institutions that are, themselves, dying in so many ways, great and small. Over and over again however, those gathered returned to this idea, that the church need not be afraid of its own dying, of the things that are lost along the way, because we know and have always known that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.” We know, and have always known, that what we cling to, we lose; but what we are willing to release for the sake of the world, we will have forever. Gail O’Day sees in these verses from John a much clearer definition of “people of faith.” She writes,

What is striking about [this passage from John] is that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the believing community is repeatedly stressed. The faith community consists of those who redefine the meaning of life on the basis of Jesus’ death. The faith community is the fruit of Jesus’ death; it is what shows forth Jesus’ love to the world.

In essence, the answer John’s gospel gives to the question of why Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem, why he led his disciples to a place where he knew he would die, why he was greeted by the throng seeking salvation, is us.  Not just us, but all of us.

The answer to the question of why, is that it accomplished what it set out to do. It created a people of faith who each carry within ourselves the seeds of a love that starts and ends with God. Not a cosmic war, not a debt, not a job description, but a love that created the world and everything in it so much that it took on flesh and blood to get closer to us and bring us closer to one another. A love that saves us over and over again.

Look! Here it comes again, riding on a donkey and a foal just as we expected. Let us prepare once again this Holy Week, to be saved by love.

Amen.

Standard
Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

If you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember that I spent a good bit of time in my sermon talking about the backdrop to the Gospel of John, the fact that it’s believed to have been composed near the end of the first century, sixty years or more after the death of Jesus. From what we can put together about that time, the Jesus movement was experiencing conflict as Jewish people who had come to believe and confess that Jesus — whose life, death and resurrection were now facts of history — was the long-awaited messiah. Their confession put them at odds with members of the synagogue community who did not share their faith, and as a result they were being kicked out of their congregation. The disruption was intense and the consequences were devastating. These first century Jews were not living in today’s religious landscape, they couldn’t just join another church with beliefs friendlier to their lived experience down the street. They were being cast out of all they’d known with no assurance that they were being called into something new.

It’s important to understand the story behind the story when reading scripture, so that we can begin to understand the incredible choices each story teller is making to give hope to fearful people, to give courage to a community doing a new thing, to give faith to an assembly gathering outside the boundaries of the known world, a new world, a new creation.

From the start, John’s gospel has been trying to tell us that the world is being made new. “In the beginning,” it says, echoing the words of Genesis, “was the Word…” the familiar proclamation of Christmas morning. After that opening prologue, the very first thing that happens in John’s gospel is an act of testimony, as the Jerusalem establishment heads out to meet John the Baptist across the Jordan where he is baptizing people. They ask him, “who are you?” (John 1:19) and it says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.”

Imagine what these words would have meant to people who were being cast out of the familiar places of community and meaning because of their own confession, their own testimony. The story begins with a baptism, and a confession that will not be denied

From there the story focuses, understandably, on Jesus — until we get to chapter nine, the long passage we just read together. It begins with another echo of Genesis, one that would require us to know and remember that the first human, formed in the garden at the beginning of time, was named Adam, a pun that functions as a moniker. In Hebrew the word for “earth” is adamah, so the first person, formed from the earth, is called Adam.

580510493_5c828c0454_oJesus comes upon a man blind from birth, someone who has never seen him. This man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t plead for Jesus to perform a miracle, he’s just living his life. Jesus’ followers notice the man, and use his blindness as an occasion to start a conversation about sin. The man is different, so they want to know what went wrong. Jesus is uninterested in their preoccupation with sin, and responds to them, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) Again we hear the beginning of this gospel,

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5);

but also, again, Genesis,

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3).

Then Jesus takes some earth, the stuff we’re made of, and rubs it in the man’s eyes, as if to recreate them, and tells him to go wash in a pool of water, to be baptized as it were, and we’re told that the name of the pool, Siloam, means “sent.”

From that point, a series of remarkable things occur. The very first being that Jesus disappears from this story and the focus shifts from Jesus to the man who has now begun to see the world in a new way, for the first time. In fact, the verses that follow mark Jesus’ longest absence from the story in this gospel. Rather than continuing with the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, the story follows a series of exchanges between the man with new sight and the temple establishment.

blindYou can imagine that the original audience, the community for whom this gospel was composed, understood immediately what was happening here. Like the man born blind, they’d never seen Jesus. Only heard of him. Maybe they were the children or grandchildren of people who’d been alive when Jesus had walked the earth, and they grew up hearing other families in the synagogue talk about their differences as if they were sins. Maybe they’d lived their whole life among the assembly, but experienced an epiphany, a conversion they never saw coming that changed everything about how they saw the world. Whatever their particular circumstances, I feel certain that these first century Jews knew that when the storytellers talked about the man born blind, they were talking about them.

The next thing that’s remarkable to watch in this story is the creation, before our eyes, of an evangelist. After spending his life being treated like the subject of other people’s speculation, he begins to find his own voice. It’s tentative, at first, he’s no John the Baptist. His testimony develops and is sharpened, like all of ours, in conversation with others.

His first words are simply to assert his existence to people who’d walked by him every day, but never really saw him. Now that he is different, now that he sees the world differently, they can barely recognize him. “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. Just as Jesus’ disciples wanted to talk about this man, not to him, this man’s neighbors were so busy talking about him they barely heard him when he gave his first testimony: “I am the man.”

“I am the man,” is shorthand for so much being said. I am the man Jesus healed. I am the man you used to walk by. I am the woman you talk about, not to. I exist. I am a subject, not an object. I am one of God’s own creations. I have sacred worth. I matter.

Maybe this is your testimony as well, the word God has given you to say as a part of your own healing, and to be part of the way that God heals others. This first testimony seems so small, but is the basis for everything else we have to say: “I am the one God has made.”

His neighbors aren’t so quick to accept what he has to say however, so they finally stop ignoring him only to begin interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” In response, the man tells the story of his liberation. At this point he doesn’t try to explain how it happened, or to assign greater meaning to what happened. He simply reports the facts, as he experienced them, from his point of view.

This is the second testimony, the powerful story each of us can tell about the power of God at work in our lives, healing us, freeing us, saving us. These testimonies don’t require us to have all the right answers, or to be ready to defend them. They are powerful because they point to reality. “I used to be blind, now I see.” “I used to be afraid to leave, now I am ready to go.” “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, now I am ten years sober.” “I used to look at my body and hate it, now I can tell that this is a body loved by God.” “I used to think there was something irredeemably wrong with me, now I know I am loved.”

“Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (John 9:11)

Now the man’s neighbors begin to repeat the kind of conversation about sin and sinners that Jesus’ own disciples had been having when they came across the blind man. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath. How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Where the man born blind wants only to say what he has experienced in his own life, what has happened to him, the authorities want to talk about him, to try and cram his experience into a set of rules and laws they can understand. Finally, not wanting to own their own questions about Jesus, they project them onto the man with new sight: “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

In response, the man is emboldened to go beyond simply describing what had happened to him, and his begins to make claims about what it means. “He is a prophet,” might just as well be, “He is one of us. He is a part of our community. He is the ethic beneath the laws. He is the teller of truths. He is the voice that will not be silent. He is the past and the future. He is a prophet.”

This courage threatens the powers that be, as well as everyone else who has found a way to get by in the world as it is. Even the man’s very own parents are not ready to stand by him as he claims the truth of his own experience. Now the man is not simply reporting the facts, he is risking his own place in the world. Up until now he could back away from his testimony, sharing the facts of what happened without owning what they mean. But no longer. In a showdown between silence in the face of those who had walked by him without seeing him, and the one who had seen him and given him sight, the newly sighted man is ready to challenge the powers that be.

This is the third testimony, the point at which our story goes beyond conviction to risky words and risky actions. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also what to become his disciples?” Now the man has found his voice, and refuses to be silenced by power, in fact he challenges it directly, proposing a new understanding of life and our place in it that contradicts what had come before:

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one will worship and obey God’s will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

And now he’s said it, he’s moved beyond simply reporting the facts to declaring what they mean. Jesus is from God, and so is the miraculous new perspective he offers, the new sight.

After this testimony the newly sighted man is driven out of the community. Here we must pause and consider all that this means. These Jews were not the center of the Roman Empire, they were at the edge. They were an oppressed and occupied community. Their solidarity with one another was one of the primary ways they survived in a hostile culture. The man born blind was a marginalized man among marginalized people, and what little community he had he’d just lost.

Can you imagine the first audience of this gospel, Jews living decades after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection who had never seen him, but were risking everything by confessing him as Lord. Now there can be no doubt that they knew this newly sighted man represented them in the story.

It’s at this point that Jesus and the newly sighted man finally see one another face to face. Jesus hears that the man he healed has been cast out of the community, and he goes to him, pursues him and finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The man born blind doesn’t know who this is, but he knows that he is ready to believe whatever Jesus tells him. He has been transformed by his testimony, he is committed to the cause. “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:36)

“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

“Lord, I believe.” (John 9:37-38)

This is the fourth testimony. I believe. I have experienced the healing, the freedom, the liberation that comes from God. I have found my voice. I have refused to be silent. I have lost those who could not see the presence of God in my life, but what I have seen I cannot unsee. I am not nameless, I am not sightless, I am not voiceless. I am yours. I am God’s. Lord, I believe.

This story of testimony comes to us just past the midway point in the season of Lent, a season of preparation for baptism; a season, historically, when those who had denied their faith in Christ were offered a way back into the congregation; a season when each of us looks inside to see where we ourselves have capitulated to the powers of this world that try so hard to ignore us, to shame us, to silence us; a season when we look outside ourselves to see where the world groans in anticipation of a new creation.

This Sunday’s story challenges us as much as it challenged the church at the end of the first century. What do we stand to lose when we stand by the truth of our own lives? Who will stand with us, and who will not? What waits for us on the other side of our healing, our liberation?

Jesus does. Now as then, the Jesus we have heard of but never seen becomes more and more real, more and more visible, as each of us finds our voice and shares our testimony. We are God’s people, washed in the pool of sending to share our story with the world.

Giving glory to God,
Amen.

 

Standard