Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sermon, "Of Sheep and Shepherds," John 10:1-10

Sermon 5/14/17
John 10:1-10

Of Sheep and Shepherds

Theologian C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are some of my very favorite books. You might be most familiar with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, the first book in the series, but the whole series of seven stories is really wonderful. In the sixth book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew, you learn about the creation of the land of Narnia by Aslan, the lion, the Christ-figure in the books. As a result of a complicated series of events, Aslan sends a little boy named Diggory on a mission to retrieve a fruit from a special tree in a gated garden. The fruit will become a tree which will protect Narnia. But an evil witch is also in the new land of Narnia. When Diggory arrives at the garden, which is surrounded by a wall, he sees the witch climbing over the walls to steal and eat the fruit of the tree Aslan has sent him to find. Only, the gate to the garden isn’t locked – Diggory can walk right in. The witch could have too, but she chose to enter instead in the way of a thief. When Diggory enters the garden himself, he sees a sign at the entrance that reads, “Come in by the gold gates or not at all, Take of my fruit for others or forebear, for those who steal or those who climb my wall shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.”
Diggory can take fruit because he came in through the gate, and because the fruit is not for himself, but to bring back to Aslan. The witch doesn’t drop dead or become physically ill, or anything like that. In fact, the fruit she eats gives her unnaturally long life. But her greed and longing for power corrupts her life until she destroys it entirely. If her motives had been selfless instead of self-serving, if she had just gone in through the gate…
            Our gospel lesson today brings us another story about gates and who enters by the gate, and who chooses to climb over walls. Our text from John takes place after Jesus had healed the man born blind. We talked about this passage very briefly during Lent. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. But rather than being happy about this turn of events, the religious leaders call the man in for questioning, and want to find someone to blame, rather than someone to celebrate. The passage ends with Jesus saying that it is the religious leaders, not the man who was healed, who are truly blind.
            We move straight from those words from Jesus to this passage, John 10, where Jesus describes a sheepfold in some detail. At focus in this long metaphor is who is in charge of the sheep, who really has the best interest of the flock at heart. Jesus says, “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” In contrast, the shepherd is known to the sheep, known to the gatekeeper. The shepherd knows the sheep, calls them by name, and the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd, and follow where the shepherd leads. Jesus says that the sheep won’t follow the voice of a stranger.
            We read that Jesus’s audience doesn’t get what he’s saying, and so he continues, describing himself as the gate for the sheep. Again, Jesus says, others who try to call to the sheep are thieves and bandits, but through Jesus, through his voice, there is salvation, pasture. Jesus lays out a clear contrast: The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. “I came,” Jesus says, “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s my favorite verse in the Bible: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The text continues on after the close of our passage, with Jesus mixing his metaphors a bit, describing himself as the Good Shepherd, one willing to lay down his life for the sheep in the flock, one who knows his sheep, and is known by the sheep, but the themes are similar. When he’s done speaking, we read that his audience was “divided” because of his words, and eventually, some try to stone Jesus before he makes an escape.
            One helpful book in my ministry has been a book by Tom Berling and Lovett Weems called Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. Your purpose, they argue, should answer the “so that” question. Anything you do in the life of the church or in your own individual life should have a corresponding so that purpose to it. Here’s what they mean: think of something you spend your time doing, and then think about why you do it. You might say, “I go running regularly so that I keep my heart healthy and strong.” Everything after the words so that is your purpose. Although other things might happen when you run, the so that is the fruit you are seeking after. And if your running isn’t helping to keep your heart healthy and strong, and that’s the main purpose of why you were running, you need to come up with another plan of action. Berlin and Weems want churches to be clear about their so that statements. They want us to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how what we’re doing helps to support our true purpose. In The United Methodist Church, for example, our official mission statement states that our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” So we might be doing a lot of great things as a congregation, but if those things aren’t helping us to grow as disciples, and they aren’t helping others to become disciples, we might start to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing.
            Our gospel lesson today contains an implied so that statement. Jesus is pretty clear throughout the scriptures about what his purpose is, and we have a great example here: I came so that people might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus’s desire for us is to be full up of life, overflowing with life, experience wholeness, salvation, abundance. Jesus wants for us to experience deep joy, deep love, abundant life. Are we? I wonder, if a primary purpose and mission of Jesus is for us to experience abundant life, how is it that so many people, and in fact so many of us, seem empty, rather than full?
            I think back to the story of Diggory, the witch, and the garden. I wonder: why does anyone climb in over the walls, instead of coming in through the gate? And how is it that the sheep, who know the voice of the shepherd, end up in the arms of the thief, the bandit, instead of following the Good Shepherd? How do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life?
David Lose writes, “I think that as stark as that contrast seems [between the thief who comes to kill and Jesus who comes to give life], it gets really blurry really fast. Do you know what I mean? Take email as a rather small example: I still remember when email was hailed as a time-saver – “we won’t have to play phone-tag anymore!” And, indeed, email is incredibly convenient and helpful. But it also sucks more of my week than I want to admit even to myself. So is it giving life or taking it?
“Or consider work. I’ve been blessed to have been given several jobs over the course of my life that I absolutely love. Yet from time to time, I lose myself in my work and suddenly find myself so tired and haggard that it’s hard to remember what I was working at or why…and notice the toll it’s taken on those around me. So, life giving or life taking?
“Or our kids. There is absolutely nothing in the world I love more than my children and have for that reason happily sacrificed time, energy, and money to give them many things I did not have. But as they approach adulthood I sometimes wonder if they’ve always been as well-served as I would like to think by these good intentions and so wonder whether I’ve spent too much time worshiping at the altar of “giving our children as much as we can.” … Life giving or life taking?
“Money. So many great things money can do…for us, our families, congregations, neighbors, all those in need. But goodness how easy it is for money to shift from a means to an end, from a gift to be used to a god to be worshiped. Life giving or life taking?
“Church ... So many wonderful, incredibly wonderful things about our congregations and our life together in the church, and yet I’ve also seen congregations do awful things to each other and fall far short of being the body of Christ in the world … So…life giving or life taking?” (1) I ask again, how do we end up consumed by things that are taking our lives, rather than giving us life? And how do we fix it?
            Repeatedly in the text, Jesus talks about how the sheep listen to his voice. Are we listening to Jesus’ voice? Amid the cacophony of other voices clamoring for our attention, how do we hear Jesus calling to us? “And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” As I was reading over our text, my mind kept flashing back to a favorite movie from my childhood, Annie. In the movie, orphan Annie rescues a stray dog from a group of bullying boys, and gets ready to sneak it back to the orphanage with her. A dogcatcher from the pound wants to take Sandy in, but    gives Annie a chance to convince him that the dog should belong to her. He’ll let Annie take the dog if Annie can get Sandy to come when she calls. Annie and another passerby both try to call to the dog, but Sandy is smart enough to know the voice of the one who has protected him already, and he goes with Annie.
            How will we know Jesus’ voice? Thankfully, we already belong to Jesus, and Jesus knows our name. In the midst of many voices, listen for the voice of the one who really knows you. We can follow some of the advice I gave to the children today: we can study, learn about Jesus, learn about what he teaches us, so that it is even easier to hear what he has to say, because we know his teachings so well. We can be as smart as Sandy was with Annie: Sandy only knew Annie for a few minutes, but already Sandy knew to go with the one who was protecting him. The good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. A thief won’t do that. Notice who is willing to lay down their life for you, contrasted with all the voices who are looking, instead, to take life from you. Ask yourself: which voice is drawing me closer to God, and which voice is leading me farther away? Which voice is setting my heart on fire, and which voices are leaving me burned up and burned out? And whose voice is calling us to live our lives with purpose, rather than leaving us wondering why we’re bothering to do what we do?
            Friends, Jesus wants us – all of us – to experience abundant life. And thankfully, we just have to follow the voice of this good shepherd who knows us by name, who calls out for us, whose voice we know. “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” Let’s follow that voice. Amen.    


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon, "Finding God at Camp/Holy Ground," Exodus 3:1-15

Sermon 5/7/17
Exodus 3:1-15

Finding God at Camp/Holy Ground

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Today we’re celebrating Camp Sunday. We’ve heard from some folks in our congregation about the impact of camp on their lives, spanning through the generations. I want to tell you about some of my experiences at camp too. I suspect, in fact, that if you surveyed pastors, you’d find that a lot of us could point to an experience at church camp as part of our call story, part of how we came to understand that God was calling us into pastoral ministry. But I want us to start today with our scripture text, and reflecting together on this phrase that comes up in our reading from Exodus: holy ground.
Through a series of events that unfolds in the Book of Genesis, the Israelites ended up living as slaves in Egypt. And, for a variety of reasons that would make another good sermon series, God chooses Moses to be the person who will lead the Israelites to freedom, into their own home, their own land, promised by God. But before Moses can lead the Israelites, he has to meet God and be convinced of God’s plans. That’s where we enter the story today.
            Moses is minding his own business, doing the everyday duty of keeping the flock of sheep for his father-in-law. And then, God breaks into the scene, and Moses sees a bush that is burning with fire, but the bush doesn’t seem to be consumed or burned up. Moses decides to take a closer look, wanting to investigate the strange sight. And as he draws closer, God’s voice is heard in the bush coming from a messenger. God speaks to Moses, calling him by name. Moses answers, “Here I am.” God says, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” God proceeds to remind Moses of the relationship that has gone on for generations between God and Moses’ forbearers. God has heard the cry of the Israelites and now God is sending Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses questions God’s plan. “Me?” he says. “Who am I that the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, would listen to me?” God responds, “I will be with you. Isn’t that enough? I’ll give you signs, you’ll know for sure.” But still Moses raises objections. “Who shall I say sent me? Telling them that it is our ancestors’ God won’t be enough.” God, perhaps, has had enough. “I AM WHO I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.” Apparently Moses does not find this answer helpful or impressive, because he continues to complain and doubt and ask questions for another chapter and a half. But our passage today closes here, leaving us to dwell in this mystery of God, I am who I am.
With some regularity, people ask me a question that’s a variation of this: why doesn’t God speak to us today the way God spoke to people in the Bible? In the Bible, God seems to show up in the presence of angels, messengers from God, or speaking in a voice that seems clear and conversational, or in a pillar of cloud and fire, or seen in miracles like the Red Sea parting, or water changed into wine. Why doesn’t God talk to us that way, people will ask? Today’s text is another good example. Moses sees a bush that seems to be on fire and yet is not consumed. This happens while he’s just out doing his regular everyday thing – he’s a shepherd, and he’s out leading his sheep. And I think many of us think, “Well sure, we’d know God was talking to us if God showed up to us like that!”
I wonder, though, if this is really true of us. Maybe some people would respond well to a vision of God that came in this way, but I’m pretty sure if someone came up to me claiming to be a messenger from God, or if someone told me they could change water into wine, or if I saw a bush that was on fire, but not being burned up, and I started hearing voices coming from it, well… I think God has an amazing way of speaking to us in ways that will get our attention, make us stop and listen, rather than make us think we need to get a checkup. I think God is speaking to us, calling us all the time, but I think sometimes when we’re a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable, in the right place, at the right time perhaps, we’re a little more aware that we’re in God’s presence, a little more receptive to God’s voice than we might be normally. That’s what I think of when I think of holy ground – I think of places we encounter in our lives – literally and metaphorically – where we’re a bit more open, a bit more responsive to God speaking to us.   
For me, camp has long been a holy ground place in my life. I think I’ve told you before that one of the things that really shaped me growing up was that my mom really emphasized to me and my brothers that God calls all of us, and that our task is to figure out what God’s call is for us in particular. We’re all called to some kind of ministry – be it what we do for a living or the passion that we work on outside of our working hours. Our job is to listen for God’s voice as we figure out what that is. So I grew up with an expectation that God would be calling me for something. The first time I felt like I was hearing God calling to me was at Camp Aldersgate.
When I was little, too young to go to camp, when you had to be going into 4th grade to go to any of the camps, I would go with my parents to take my brother and cousin to camp. I remember how long the hour drive seemed to get there, I remember knowing we were close when the trees changed and the air started to smell, well, like camp. I couldn’t explain it more clearly than that. I couldn’t wait for my turn to go to camp. To my dismay, the year I was finally old enough to go, they actually lowered the age by a year – suddenly, kids going into 3rd grade could go to camp too, which was obviously very unfair. Also, my mother was nervous that I wouldn’t like being away for a whole week, and she made me go to mini-camp, shorter than the full week that was possible. Despite these injustices, finally, I was able to go to camp myself, and I loved it even more than I had always dreamed and known I would. Sometimes things we build up in our mind don’t live up to our expectations, but fortunately, camp wasn’t like that. I loved camp so much I would anxiously await the arrival of the camp brochure in the mail, which was better than when the Sears Christmas catalog came out, and I would imagine scenarios in which I could afford to go to three or four weeks of camp, instead of just one, and I would start packing more than a month in advance of my departure date, even if it meant I constantly had to unpack again to get things that it turned out I still needed in the meantime.
For me, camp was a place I could be myself. In the midst of the angst of my tween and teen years, I never felt much pressure to be someone I wasn’t at camp. Sure, there were still “cool kids” at camp, but even the cool kids were friendly. It was a place where it was ok, even expected that you would hug each other, care for each other, do kind things for each other. It was ok to talk about God, to learn about Jesus together at camp. I adored everything about camp. I couldn’t wait to be on staff myself. And I was pretty sure, by the time I was in junior high, that I wanted to run my own camp someday.
See, I had never felt the presence of God so clearly as when I was at camp. I found God in the hikes and canoe trips we took, in early morning devotions at the cross by the lake, as we sang a quiet song by the campfire before bedtime, as we heard the scriptures come to life in the form of stories and skits, as we formed tightknit communities in just 6 or 7 days – l felt God so deeply, and I wanted that all the time. It took me a long time to realize that God wasn’t calling me to run a camp. I got a bit confused, because camp was one of the holy ground places where I could hear God calling me in ways I couldn’t in the business of the rest of my life. And so for a while, I mistook the place I heard God calling me for the work God was calling me to do.
Eventually, I heard God’s call more clearly, but camp has remained for me a holy ground place. I did eventually work on summer staff, and I volunteered as a counselor and office worker and chaplain once I became a pastor. I still choose one of our conference camps as the location for my spiritual renewal time each year, and I think I wrote the majority of my doctoral project while on retreat at camp. I know it is place I can go when I needed to be grounded in God’s presence, in the presence of the holy, when I need to let myself be a bit more vulnerable, listening for God. What are your holy ground places? Where do you go, physically, or mentally, when you’re trying to tune in to God’s voice?
Of course, our reading today doesn’t end with holy ground. The “holy ground” part of the text only gets us to verse 5, and then we’ve got 10 more verses still to consider. So what about the rest of the passage? What happens, then, when we find ourselves on holy ground? When we’re vulnerable enough to hear God speaking to us, then what? Well, I think Moses would have liked for his experience to end at verse 5 as well. Sure, it was his fault. He’d been curious and come closer to that burning bush. He’d gotten to see God, which was great, but now I think he wished very much that he could just get back to his flock and go home. God has other ideas, though, and soon it seems that Moses has somehow been selected for a very big important mission, even though he’s ready to make it clear to God why this is a bad idea, even though he has a brother who is better suited to what God is asking, even though what God is asking will put Moses in a most dangerous position. Moses must, for the moment, regret that he’d ever happened upon this place of holy ground, that he’d answered God, “Here I am!” Still, though his task was tough, demanding his all, I doubt Moses would have done anything differently, since he journeyed through life with a deeply personal, intimate relationship with God.
I think we are like Moses sometimes. We’ve stepped onto holy ground – maybe we were seeking a holy ground place where we could hear God, or maybe we sort of stumbled upon it. Either way, we’ve been drawn into places that are holy in our lives, holy settings, and holy situations, only to find God there, wanting to ask something of us. And suddenly we have excuses on our lips, and wonder if we can just leave God there in that holy place, on the mountain, at camp, and head back to our homes. I think sometimes we treat holy ground like a place that we happen upon, and happen to find God there, or a place that we must retreat to, go to in order to find God. Like God was just waiting for me to come to Camp Aldersgate, but couldn’t get to me until I came arrived in the summer. But, as it turns out, God is a lot more talented than that. I think God is always trying to speak to us, call to us. When we recognize God’s presence, we recognize the holy ground upon which we are in fact always standing. Holy ground is just waiting for us to recognize its presence, just as God is waiting for us to answer when God calls. So God will speak to us at church if we’ll listen while we’re here, but God will also show us holy ground in the supermarket or on vacation or when we’re just feeling open and vulnerable, if that’s what it takes. So the truth is, Moses wasn’t able to say no to God – how can you ‘un-see’ holy ground once you’ve found it? Even if you try, God will just break onto the scene in some other way, and suddenly Moses would have found himself to be on holy ground in his house, or in the fields, until Moses was able to understand what God was saying.
Holy ground asks for a response from us. Holy ground wants us to have something to show for having been there. For me and camp, I can say that my experiences led me to become a pastor, even if indirectly. I can’t imagine that I’d have ended up as a pastor had I not spent all that time at Aldersgate, getting to know God, learning to hear God’s voice. When you think about the holy ground you’ve been on, what do you have to show for your journey? How did you let God change you? If you can’t think of an answer, I’d start watching out for the shrubs around your home, because they just might start bursting into flame, trying to get your attention. Our God is the creator of all we see and know, of everyone we meet – and that means that we have a lot of potential holy ground that surrounds us. Our aim is to start recognizing God’s holy ground when we see it. And when God calls, we can be ready to respond, “Here I am.” So take off your shoes – this place is holy ground, and I AM WHO I AM has a message for you. Amen.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year, "With Fear and Great Joy," Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon 4/16/17
Matthew 28:1-10

With Fear and Great Joy

Each one of the four gospels gives a slightly different account of the first Easter morning. Each author wants to draw our attention to something slightly different. Luke talks about remembering and the words of Jesus throughout his final gospel chapter. Mark is, as usual, the most abrupt, telling us the bare minimum he thinks we need to know, and in the fewest number of words he can manage it. John brings us into more intimate encounters, showing Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a one-on-one encounter, and then Jesus in a meaningful encounter with Thomas, then Peter. And in each gospel, these nuances are what draws my attention, because in those unique qualities of each resurrection account, we can find the message the gospel-writer is trying to convey to us. So what shows up in Matthew’s gospel that doesn’t show up in other resurrection accounts?
Let’s look at Matthew’s account. We find Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” heading to the tomb. This other Mary could be Mary the mother of Jesus, or another woman so named, as it was a common name. As they arrive at the tomb, there is a great earthquake, mirroring the earthquake Matthew describes taking place at Jesus’ crucifixion. An angel, a messenger from God, whose appearance is “like lightning” rolls back the stone of the tomb, and sits down. There are guards posted at the tomb, and they are so overwhelmed with fear at the sight of God’s messenger that they shake and become “like dead men” – I’m assuming Matthew means they’ve fainted, since they don’t contribute to the rest of the conversation. To the women, though, the messenger speaks. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. But he isn’t here. He’s been raised. Come and look, see for yourselves. And then go, quickly, and tell the disciples: Jesus has been raised, and he’s going on ahead of you, and you’ll see him in Galilee.” The women don’t respond – at least not that Matthew tells us – but they do what the messenger instructed. They head to find the disciples, and Matthew tells us that they go “with fear and great joy.” Somewhere along the way – where is not quite clear – Jesus suddenly meets them, saying, “Greetings!” At the sight of him, the women fall at his feet, holding on to them, worshiping him, clearly overwhelmed. And Jesus repeats to them the words of the messenger: “Do not be afraid – go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee and there they will see me.” After our text ends, we find the guards and the chief priests conspiring to undermine any story about Jesus being raised, and Matthew’s account closes with a brief meeting of Jesus with his disciples, and Jesus promising to be with them always, even as he sends them out into the world to call others to become his followers.
So what stands out in Matthew’s gospel? What’s unique about his telling? I’m struck that “fear” is mentioned four times in these short ten verses. In Matthew’s account, the women witness an earthquake, an angel appearing, and the stone being rolled away, all before the messenger even speaks to them. I don’t blame them for being frightened. We can read about these events calmly, but I can only imagine that fear was the natural response. The guards, in fact, are so frightened by what’s happening that they faint away. The first words out of the mouth of both the messenger, and of Jesus himself are this: “Do not be afraid.” The women, well – the text tells us they are still afraid, at least still afraid by before they encounter Jesus himself. But Matthew says that they leave the tomb quickly, “with fear and great joy.” I love that phrase. Maybe they don’t quite reach the “not afraid” that the messenger and Jesus are leading them toward – but they seem to take strength and comfort in the fact that what’s happening is meant to fill them with joy, not fear, and so while they’re still afraid, they lean into and take action on the joy. And the joy keeps them moving, ready to share this amazing news: Jesus is not dead. The tomb was not the final word after all. Death has not won. Death did not end this story. Jesus is alive, and he’s going to meet you again, soon. 
“Do not be afraid.” “So they left … quickly, with fear and great joy.” I’ve been thinking about fear this week, about the things that make us afraid. This week, the United States dropped something literally named “The Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan. This week, as North Korea celebrated with an annual military parade, the country showed off several missiles that appeared to be capable of striking nations far away – like in Europe, or the US. Bombs and missiles, and our human tendency to try to problem solve with weapons – that makes me afraid.
What are you afraid of? Some of you know that I have a real phobia of flying. You can share with me any number of statistics about how it is safer to fly in an airplane than it is to drive in a car, but in my experience, logic and rational thinking isn’t often able to touch on our fears. I used to be able to fly without a problem, but overtime, I found myself getting more and more anxious every time I was on a plane. Now, I’ll drive almost any distance to avoid getting on an airplane. I’ve flown when I had to, but I will admit there are some opportunities I’ve let pass me by so that I didn’t have to get on an airplane.
What are you afraid of? Sometimes, I’m afraid of conflict, and of people getting mad at me. I’d prefer – who wouldn’t? – if everyone thought I was great, and got along with me, and liked all of my plans. Being afraid of conflict and anger isn’t always a helpful quality when you’re a pastor of a congregation with a lot of wonderfully unique people, and when you want to forge ahead with the vision God has, even when not everyone is on board though. I’ve had to work hard over the years of my ministry to face conflict head on, to stay fixed on my purpose, on God’s purpose. Otherwise, what paths that God is leading me to will I bypass, in my striving to make sure everyone likes me? What are you afraid of? And what are the consequences of your fears?  
Earlier during Lent I was meeting with our worship team to talk about our plans for Holy Week and the Season of Easter. I started with a devotional time, and usually I pick a scripture text that’s related to worship, music, and praise. But I’ve been using a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann called A Way other than Our Own this Lent, and the passage for the day really spoke to me, and so I shared it with our team. Brueggemann reflects on Isaiah 43:1, my mother’s favorite Bible verse, which says, “Thus says the Lord, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel, ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’” Brueggemann writes,    “Being unafraid is an odd vocation; but it is the vocation of all those who have been baptized. We are different when baptized. The Acts account of the early church says that the Spirit of God came upon Jesus in baptism …. What the Spirit does is visit our lives … with the freedom of God, so that we are unafraid in the world, able to live differently, not needing to control, not needing to dominate, not needing to accumulate, not driven by anxiety.” The disciples, he says, were “known, named, and unafraid people,” who “turned the world upside down.” “Or better to say, they turned the world right side up.” He continues: “The truth is that frightened people will never turn the world, because they use too much energy on protection of self. It is the vocation of the baptized, the known and named and unafraid, to make the world whole:
            The unafraid are open to the neighbor, while the frightened are defending themselves from the neighbor.
            The unafraid, are generous in the community, while the frightened, in their anxiety, must keep and store and accumulate, to make themselves safe.
            The unafraid commit acts of compassion and mercy, while the frightened do not notice those in need.
            The unafraid pray in the morning, care through the day, and rejoice at the night in thanks and praise, while the frightened are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.” (60-61)
            I don’t know about you, but I want to be unafraid. I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want fear to be the guiding force in my life. And I can tell you this: that’s not what God wants for us either. From one end of the scriptures to the other, the Bible is filled with this repeated message: “Do not be afraid.” Well over one hundred times. From the voice of God. From God’s prophets and messengers. From Jesus himself: Do not be afraid. What would your life be like if you weren’t afraid? What would you be doing differently than you are right now? “Do not be afraid!”
            The women, these Marys are still afraid. The scripture is honest with us – even though the messenger tells them not to be, even though Jesus tells them not to be, they are afraid. But it isn’t all they are. They are joyful. Something so wonderful has happened, so wonderful that their fear wasn’t the most important thing anymore. Their fear wasn’t making the decisions. “With fear and great joy.” David Lose writes, “I think it’s striking that the announcement of resurrection doesn’t take away all their fear. Rather, it enables them to keep faith amid their fears, to do their duty and share their good news in spite of their anxiety. This is the very definition of courage. And, I would argue, courage is precisely what Easter is about … There is, indeed, much to fear in our mortal lives. And yet the resurrection of Christ creates the possibility for joy and hope and courage and so much more. Why? Because it changes everything. In the resurrection, you see, we have God’s promise that life is stronger than death, that love is greater than hate, that mercy overcomes judgment, and that all the sufferings and difficulties of this life are transient -- real and palpable and sometimes painful, for sure, but they do not have the last word and do not represent the final reality.” (1)
            Mercy overcomes judgment. Love is greater than hate. Life is stronger than death. These women, and the disciples with whom they’ll share the news don’t snap from fear to no fear in an instant. But they make room for the joy, and they commit to a journey of learning to be unafraid in the world, and day by day, the joy of living the abundant life that Jesus gives them overwhelms the fear that once drove them. And so Easter doesn’t end for us at the empty tomb. After all, we, like the women, are looking for Jesus, and he isn’t in the tomb anymore. He’s not in this place where death has the last word and fear will knock you off your feet. He’s going on ahead. And he’s inviting us to come with him. Let’s go: maybe with some fear. But with great joy that’s transforming fear into courage.

“Do Not Be Afraid”

We should be afraid, of course,
to be so near to God.

We should be startled by the glory of God
and the disruption of angels.

We should be freaked. out. that God even blinks
in our direction, let alone that God dares us
to walk a new path just to see what
God can do with life.

“Do not be afraid; have a child.”
“Do not be afraid; leave your home.”
“Do not be afraid; give up your reputation.”
“Do not be afraid; press on through hardship.”
“Do not be afraid; face a powerful enemy.”

be afraid.
Be totally overwhelmed.
Be stunned and terrified, in fact,
but here’s the critical part:

be near to God

(1) Lose, David, Working Preacher,
(2) Rachel Hackenberg, Rachel G Hackenberg.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha," John 11:1-45

Sermon 4/2/17
John 11:1-45

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Martha

Today, on our last Sunday in Lent before Holy Week begins, we encounter a strange scripture text. I call it strange not because of the story itself so much – after all, Jesus is always doing incredible things in the gospels – but strange, at least at first glance, because this text shows up for us as a Lenten reading. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday. We’ll celebrate Jesus’s victory over death with irrepressible life. And yet, in our text for today, we seem to get an early start on resurrection, with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Even some of the musical suggestions for the day in worship planning guides seem confused, with lists of hymns that fit with the text choosing some traditional Easter favorites that we won’t be singing for another two weeks. What’s with this resurrection before The Resurrection?
As with some of our other Lenten texts, there’s a lot to think about in these 45 verses. But it is Jesus’s encounter with Martha that catches my attention in this text. Our text from the gospel of John is another story that appears only in John’s gospel, although the players, the main figures, are somewhat known to us. John starts by telling us that a man named Lazarus, who lives in Bethany, is ill. His sisters are Martha and Mary. Mary had once anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, and wiped them with her hair. We talked about Mary and Martha way back over the summer, when Jesus was having dinner at their home, and Martha was upset because she seemed to be doing all the work of the household, while Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus, a phrase used to describe a disciple.
            Now, their brother Lazarus is ill, and since Jesus seems to be friends with their family, they contact him to let him know. They tell Jesus via message, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Their words reflect the closeness Jesus shares with this family. When Jesus gets the message, he says, “This illness doesn’t lead to death. In fact, it is going to be a way that God’s glory can be revealed.” So, John tells us, even though Jesus loves the siblings, he stays where he is for two more days. The word gives a sense of “lingering.” There is a decided lack of haste in Jesus’ actions.
            Finally, Jesus sets out to see Lazarus. He tells his disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and they take him literally, but Jesus explains that no, Lazarus has in fact died. Jesus says he’s glad he wasn’t there, so that through Lazarus’ death, the disciples will come to believe. Thomas says, “Let us go too – that we may die with him.” We usually think of Thomas only for his moments of doubt later in John’s gospel, but here, he shows himself a faithful friend.
            By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha hears that Jesus has arrived, and immediately comes to greet Jesus, but Mary stays at home. Once again, Martha has a chance to tell Jesus what’s on her mind. But where last time, Martha was filled with hostility toward her sister, this time, in this encounter, even in the midst of her grief, things are different. Martha confronts Jesus right away, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Ouch. She doesn’t pull any punches. But she doesn’t stop there. Instead, she says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” It’s hard to say exactly what Martha means by this. Although we know what happens next, Martha certainly doesn’t suspect or think she can ask Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. In some ways, then, her statement is all the more remarkable. She’s in the midst of grief, in those first days of loss that are a blur of pain and sadness. She wishes Jesus had come sooner, to heal Lazarus. But even though he didn’t, she trusts him, and knows that God can do anything through Jesus that God wants to do. She may not have seen clearly before, but she’s changed.
            Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha response, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus’ words aren’t particularly comforting to Martha in the moment. It’s all very well that she might see her brother again someday at the end of the world, but that doesn’t dull her grief right now. But that’s not what Jesus means. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” And though Martha might not know why Jesus is saying these things now, Martha again shows that her faith is deep, that she’s changed, that she has learned who Jesus is. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I love that last part – “the one coming into the world.” The way Martha phrases it, it isn’t a one-time event, Jesus arriving in the world. It is ongoing – Jesus is continually breaking into the world, continually arriving among us.
            After this encounter between Jesus and Martha, Martha goes to get her sister Mary. When Mary comes to Jesus, she shares the same words as her sister: “Jesus, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.” Unlike Martha, though, Mary doesn’t move beyond those words. Jesus sees her crying, and sees all the others who are weeping for Lazarus, and he’s deeply troubled. He too begins to weep. He knows what he intends to do, but he’s not untouched by the suffering he sees. He comes to Lazarus’s tomb, a cave with a stone in front of it. He orders the stone rolled away. Martha warns that Lazarus has been dead for four days – this will not be pleasant. But Jesus says, “I told you – if you believe, you will witness the glory of God.” Jesus offers a prayer to God, and then cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus, still bound up in the burial cloths covering his body and face, emerges from the tomb. Jesus orders some bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go.” After this, many who were present come to believe in Jesus. After our passage concludes, others, like the religious leaders, find Jesus’ raising of Lazarus to be so troubling that they determine Jesus must be put to death. We don’t hear from Mary, or Martha, or Lazarus though. How must they have reacted to this incredible miracle? We can only imagine. How about us? How do we react?
            I think of these three siblings, Mary, Lazarus, Martha, and I wonder if we can learn something in the way each of them responds to the events that unfold in this passage. Mary is so mired in grief, it doesn’t even occur to her to try to see anything else, to wonder about Jesus’ presence, to look for God at work even in her pain. I don’t blame her – her reaction is pretty natural! But I’m surprised too – Mary has sat at the feet of Jesus. She seemed to “get” it. But here, she hits a wall in her faith journey. Has that happened to you? Have you come to God saying, “God, if you had intervened, this bad thing wouldn't have happened to me!” Mary’s anger blinds her from hope for new life, at least at first.
            For once, for a change from the typical pattern of the scriptures, we hear from the two women in this story, but not a word from their brother. We don’t hear from him in his illness, and of course not in his death, but we hear nothing from him after he is raised from death either. What we do get are some pretty vivid mental pictures. Jesus calls out to Lazarus who has been lying dead in a tomb for days, and when he emerges, he doesn’t just spring back to it. No, he’s still bound up in grave clothes, wrapped in the linens that prepared him for the tomb. He’s been resurrected, but he still needs to be unbound. I think I find myself even more likely to end up in Lazarus’ shoes than Mary’s. The promise of new life and resurrection put right into my hands, but I’m getting too caught up in the things I’ve wrapped myself up in to take hold of it. Out of what caves do you need Jesus to call you? What still needs to happen for you to claim the gift of new life Jesus offers? Have you been resurrected, but you’re still bound up in grave clothes, not yet living the new life God has given you?
            Or maybe, maybe, we can be like Martha, who clearly listened to Jesus when he urged her to choose a better way the last time we saw them interact. She, like Mary, is immersed in her grief – but she trusts in God, trusts in Jesus, even if he didn’t do what she had hoped he would do. When Jesus says he is resurrection and life right now, Martha responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Jesus is offering new life, and Martha says Yes as emphatically as she can.
            As strange as it is for us to encounter this new life story right in the midst of Lent, it is also exactly right that we do so. Because the amazing news is this: We don’t even have to wait until Easter to experience resurrection and life, because Jesus just is those things – is resurrection and life all the time. And so even as we journey through the darkness and pain of Holy Week, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we grieve at the cross, we have the gift of resurrection already. Even as we wait for the light of Easter Day to shine, we are already Easter people, resurrection people, new life people. Jesus was already, is already, will already be at work raising us from death to new life. He’s already transforming us, so that our lives become like nothing we could recognize from before. That is resurrection, isn't it? It’s ours, now, from the one who is coming into the world, always. Jesus is resurrection. He is life. He is continually coming into the world to encounter us. Let our mourning be turned to gladness. Let’s tear away the bindings, discard the grave clothes. Let’s step out of the cave into the light. Jesus is ever-coming into the world, offering life. Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and The Woman at the Well," John 4:5-42

Sermon 3/19/17
John 4:5-42

Encounter with Jesus: The Woman at the Well

            I came upon this video of The Woman at the Well many years ago, and it has remained one of my favorite reflections on this passage of scripture. “For to be known is to be loved, And to be loved is to be known. Otherwise what’s the point in doing either one of them in the first place? I WANT TO BE KNOWN. I want someone to look at my face And not just see two eyes, a nose, a mouth and two ears; But to see all that I am, and could be.”
            The gospel of John is the only gospel where we find this passage, and it marks the single longest conversation Jesus has with any individual in the scriptures. Jesus is travelling from place to place and his destination causes him to travel through a Samaritan city. The Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get along. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. They considered each other enemies, Jews and Samaritans. They had shared religious ancestry, but over the centuries they had divided and come to have deeply different religious beliefs. When John says Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common, he’s understating. But, Jesus travels through this Samaritan town, and stops at a well.
A Samaritan woman, unnamed like so many women in the Bible, comes to the well, and Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink. She’s surprised he would address her, an unknown woman, a Samaritan. But Jesus tells her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is [that is talking to you], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is naturally confused by Jesus’ strange talk. How can he get water without a bucket, she wonders? Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman responds, even if not understanding fully, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus goes on to tell the woman all about herself. He asks her to bring her husband to the well, and she says that she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus responds, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” The woman responds to this saying only, “Sir, I see you are a prophet.” They debate a bit, about their different religious views. Jesus tells her, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.” The woman says she knows that the Messiah is coming. Jesus says he is the Messiah.
The disciples show up, and Jesus’ one-on-one encounter with the woman comes to an end, but the story doesn’t stop there. The woman leaves her jar at the well, perhaps a sign that she is ready for a more lasting kind of water, and goes to the city, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” Because of her witness, many Samaritans come to be followers of Jesus, and Jesus stays in town longer than planned to be with them.
There are so many parts of this long passage we could focus on, and still just be skimming the surface of this text. It’s hard to process the whole thing. But I found myself this time particularly drawn to the woman’s response to Jesus telling her about her life. Jesus says she has had five husbands, and that the man she is with currently is not her husband. So many interpretations of this text focus on The Woman at the Well as a sexually immoral woman. What kind of woman, especially in the time of Jesus, would have had five spouses? Still, Jesus doesn’t say anything condemning. There doesn’t seem to be any judgment in his words. He’s very direct. He states the truth about her. And yet, somehow, in his words, Jesus says enough for her to feel transformed. When she goes and tells the other in her city about Jesus, she doesn’t tell them about the rest of their long conversation. She just says, “This man told me everything about my life.” Surely, the fact that she was married five times, and living with yet another man would have been common knowledge. Clearly, the woman hears more in Jesus’ words than just the words themselves. Jesus sees her and knows her.
What about us? Does Jesus see us? Know us? For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sorting through all of my photographs – the ones that I actually have printed out, from the pre-digital era. You see, I bought a certificate that will allow me to get 1000 photos scanned by a service that will then put them all on a disc, so I can have them in a digital format, and share them online, and send them to friends, and do all the other things we like to do with our photos these days. As I was sorting and sorting, I was struck by the change in photography over the years. Of course, there’s the improvement in the quality of our cameras. Today’s images are crisp and sharp, and I have so many piles of pictures that would have been great images if they weren’t dark and blurry. But you know what else is different? So many of my old photos include images where someone’s eyes are closed, or where the shot isn’t centered quite in the right way, or someone’s thumb is in the photo a bit, or you’ve caught someone in an awkward pose or making a funny face or otherwise messing up the perfect photo. Today, I can easily take a dozen photos if I’m trying to capture a moment, and I can delete the eleven versions that aren’t quite right, so that the only one I’ll share is the one that looks perfect. No more eyes closed. No more hairs out of place. No more someone looking the wrong way, at least not with a little extra effort. But I wonder about all the real life we’re deleting in those other photos that never see the light of day. Of course, I want to look my best. But I wonder what it says when we only want to show each other these perfect versions of our lives.
Does God see us? Know us? The non-perfect version of us? Do we want God to see us and know us? I think of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Along with some influence from the serpent, Adam and Eve disobey God’s commands, and they eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And once they eat of it, they become aware that they are naked, and they’re ashamed, and they hide from God. They become acutely aware that God can see them – really see them. And they’re ashamed and scared because of it.
Do we want God to see us and know us? At one of my churches, we studied together the classic work by Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline. In the book, Foster examines several spiritual disciplines, like prayer, worship, solitude, and fasting, and invites readers to try engaging in each practice. My class members did fine – until we got to the chapter on confession. In the chapter, Foster talks about the meaningful impact confessing his sins – not just privately to God – but confessing them to a friend in Christ – has had on his faith journey. He writes, “Confession is a difficult Discipline for us because we all too often view the believing community as a fellowship of saints before we see it as a fellowship of sinners. We feel that everyone else has advanced so far into holiness that we are isolated and alone in our sin. We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. We imagine that we are the only ones who have not stepped onto the high road to heaven. Therefore, we hide ourselves from one another and live in veiled lies and hypocrisy. (145) Foster shares about writing his sins out, one by one, on a sheet of paper, and reading them to a trusted friend and guide. When he was done, he went to put the paper with his confessions back into his briefcase, but his friend took the paper from his hands, ripped it into a hundred tiny pieces, and threw the pieces into the trash can. In this fact, Foster felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of forgiveness. He writes, “We do not have to make God willing to forgive. In fact, it is God who is working to make us willing to seek … forgiveness.” (153)
We do not have to make God willing to forgive us. Do you know that? Believe that? Do you know that God is working to make you ready to seek and receive God’s forgiveness? You do not have to make God willing to forgive you. This is the truth: Jesus already knows you. Jesus can already tell you everything about yourself, even what you’d rather keep hidden. God already knows you. In fact, God created you – every part of you. God knows you inside and out, and love you entirely. Listen to the words of Psalm 139: “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” God already knows you. Or there are the words from 1 Corinthians – I’ve already told you that they’re some of my favorite: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God knows us, and knowing us, loves us.
Jesus really saw the woman at the well, and he really knew her. And she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t hide. I think she was relieved, overjoyed that someone finally really knew her. Even thousands of years later, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves we know her story. Married five times! Well, at least we would never do that. Do we stop to ask ourselves why she’d been married so many times? A woman in Jesus’ day could only initiate a divorce in extremely limited circumstances. Or was she widowed? Did she lose more than one spouse to death? Was she considered barren? Did she keep getting offers of water to drink that weren’t the living water of which Jesus spoke? Maybe she was looking for someone who would come to know her fully and still want her, still love her, even after all they knew. Jesus knew this woman, and she was relieved. He didn’t speak with judgment. He told her the truth. He actually took time to speak with her, to spend time with her, to treat her as someone of worth. She was so moved by this, she couldn’t wait to tell others. “He told me everything I have ever done,” she says. And her unspoken words are: “And he still wanted to talk to me.” Jesus saw her, knew her, loved her. She didn’t hide from it, being known. Instead, she let it change her life.
Friends, God already knows you. There is nothing, nothing that you have to hide from God. You don’t have to convince God to forgive you. God is already longing for, working for a deeper relationship with you. What would our lives be like if we let ourselves believe that? What if we remembered, when we are ready to stand in judgment of each other, that God knows that person already too, loves them too. Come and see, friends. Come and see this Jesus, come and see God who knows all about me, and all about you. Amen.  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus," John 3:1-17

Sermon 3/12/17
John 3:1-17

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus

            When I was little, the small country church I went to in Westernville had a big emphasis in Sunday School on memorizing Bible verses. Every week we’d spend some time going over verses, and in the older classes, we’d actually get 5 cents for every verse we could memorize. I was certainly inspired by promise of such riches, and could memorize quite a lot of verses! Today we don’t focus so much on memorizing verses, which has some pros and cons – a single verse taken out of context doesn’t always do you much good, and in fact, can lead you to wrong conclusions when you don’t know the rest of what’s happened in a passage. Remember, just last week we read about Satan quoting scripture verses to Jesus, which didn’t mean a lot to Jesus taken out of context. Well, you may not know many Bible verses by heart, but if you know any, John 3:16 is probably on your list. You might even know it in the way you learned it as a child – in the King James Version. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Yet, even though we know that verse so well, here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about – do you know the context? How do we hear these words? What happens before and after they’re said?
            Today, we’re listening in on an encounter between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, an interpreter and scholar of the Law of Moses. And not just a Pharisee, but Nicodemus was a leader among the Pharisees. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was kind of a Supreme Court, a group of high-ranking judges. So, Nicodemus is a person of some stature in the community. John’s gospel tells us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John uses themes of light and dark a lot in his gospel, so the time of day here is significant. Nicodemus perhaps doesn’t want anyone to know what he is doing. Jesus and the Pharisees were often at odds with each other over how to interpret and implement the words of scripture, and increasingly, leaders among the Pharisees view Jesus as a threat. Nicodemus wants to talk to Jesus himself, but he’s not ready to be out in the open about it.
            Nicodemus address Jesus as a teacher, a sign of respecting his authority. “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus’s admissions are significant. He and his colleagues know who Jesus is, he says. They believe he is from God. They’ve seen evidence in the signs Jesus has done that have convinced them that Jesus is from God. Nicodemus doesn’t ask Jesus any questions, but Jesus responds as if he had nonetheless. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says. Nicodemus and other leaders might recognize that Jesus is from God, has God’s presence with him, but that’s not the same as experiencing the kingdom of God, God’s reign, God’s vision for the earth coming to fruition, which is the focus of Jesus’ ministry. Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying though. He takes his words too literally “How can someone be born after growing old?” he asks. “Can someone enter their mother’s womb again to be born anew?” He doesn’t get what Jesus is saying. So Jesus elaborates, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He continues, saying: Don’t be astonished that I said that you have to be born from above. The Spirit is like the wind: you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but you hear it, and feel it moving. The Spirit works in the same way. That’s what it means to be born from above, born of water and Spirit. Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. “How can these things be?” he wonders. In turn, Jesus wonders that one who is meant to be a teacher and interpreter of the law can’t understand what he’s saying. Jesus concludes, “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 he 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.”
So, what’s this Jesus mentions about Moses lifting up the serpent? His words are strange if you don’t know the context. Jesus is talking about something we can find in the book of Numbers, chapter 21, this story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites were still wandering in the desert, on their forty year journey to the Promised Land. They were complaining again to God and Moses about food and water. This is something that happens repeatedly on their journey from slavery to freedom. These passages are known as the “murmurings,” although I wonder if “mutterings” would be a more apt description. The Israelites are on their way to the land God has promised, and they’re on their way from a terrible life of slavery and oppression. God has been coming through on every promise God has made to them. And yet, whenever things get difficult, they complain, muttering and murmuring about their plight. 
This particular time when they start complaining, poisonous snakes are sent among the people. The snakes would bite the people, and the people would die. The people understood these snakes to be a punishment on them from God. So finally, they come to Moses and confess their sinfulness, and ask Moses for help. Moses prays for the people, and he hears God’s voice, telling him to create a serpent out of bronze that would be fixed to a pole. The passage concludes, “Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” I find this story kind of bizarre. Making a bronze snake seems like a strange solution, a strange cure for these snake bites. But this strange sequence of events makes them look their fear and sin and mutterings right in the face. The snake has become a symbol of their turning away from God, and they have to look that right in the face in order to experience healing. The Israelites need to believe and trust in their relationship with God and God’s promises to them, and as they look their sin in the face, they experience reconciliation and life.
That brings us back to Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus says, “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.” In the Greek, the word “lifted up” is actually the same as the word “crucified.” Just as the Israelites looked their sin in the face in order to live, so too we look at Jesus, face to face, raised up in offering his life for ours, and so too we look our sin in the face, our turning away from God, that we might live. And that’s what Jesus wants for us: that we might live, that we might have eternal life – that we might live completely in God’s kingdom, that we might experience God’s vision for us in all its fullness, that we might be born anew in the full potential that God wants for us and for our world. Nicodemus knows that Jesus is a teacher, and knows that he’s from God, that God’s presence is in Jesus. But does he “get” the heart of what Jesus is trying to tell him?
I was always a good student throughout school. I wasn’t always a vegan, or even vegetarian, but even still, I didn’t want to take biology and dissect animals, and so in tenth grade, when most of my peers were taking biology, I signed up for physics. Most of the rest of the tenth graders who chose the physics over biology wanted to become engineers and were trying to get a jump start on the classes they’d need so they could get an AP physics class in before we graduated. For me, physics was the most math-centric, something I liked, so I thought I would enjoy it. Indeed, I did get good grades in physics, mostly because of the math. Math always made sense to me. You follow rule one and rule two and you get the right answer. At one point, my teacher even called my parents to suggest to them that I should consider a career in the sciences. But I knew better. Yes, I could get the right answers because I could memorize the formulas and I could apply the formula in the right situation to get the right answer. But physics made me feel in a way that I hadn’t in any other class that I really didn’t understand the why of what we were talking about. I could get the right answer, but I didn’t really understand why thing work like they do. The concepts didn’t really make sense to me. And even if I didn’t understand the concepts, I did know that really being a scientist would mean knowing more than how to get the right answer.
            Sometimes, when it comes to our journey of discipleship, we can get hung up on believing and knowing in ways that miss the mark a bit. We can believe an awful lot of things about Jesus, about God, about the Bible, about faith. We can know a lot of things about Jesus. We could recite some creeds, or share some facts, or affirm, “I believe Jesus is my Savior.” Those things are important and have their place, just like knowing the formula is important in physics. But it won’t get you very far if that’s all you have. We need to shift our focus from “believing in Jesus” to “believing Jesus,” from “knowing about Jesus” to “knowing Jesus.” Nicodemus knew about Jesus. But he hadn’t yet come to know Jesus. He was a scholar, and yet his faith was immature, because his life hadn’t yet been transformed by his relationship with God, by his encounter with Jesus. I think of him, and then I think of the disciples: they weren’t scholars. They didn’t know what Nicodemus did. But they knew Jesus, and they left everything to follow him.
            Nicodemus sort of fades out from this encounter with Jesus. We don’t how Nicodemus responds, at least immediately, to what he hears from Jesus. Clearly Jesus’ words have overwhelmed him, and the scriptures record no response. What we do see in the gospels is Nicodemus appearing later – first when the Pharisees are urging action against Jesus, and Nicodemus reminds them that the law doesn’t condemn people without giving them a trial first. And then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. So we know that Nicodemus doesn’t immediately drop his nets, so to speak, to follow Jesus. But it seems like something might be sinking in by degrees. I hope eventually Nicodemus let himself know Jesus, and know new, transforming life in the Spirit, in God’s kingdom.
            What about us, friends? What conversations do we bring to Jesus by night? What do we see in Jesus, as he is raised up, and we look at him face to face? And what does Jesus see in us? I pray that we will let Jesus draw is into the light, that we might not just know about him, but know him, and be known by him, as our lives become new creations, transformed by God’s love. Amen.      

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year A, "Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Satan," Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon 3/5/17
Matthew 4:1-11

Encounter with Jesus: Jesus and Satan

            This Lent, our theme is Encounter with Jesus. Each week, we’ll be looking at some one-on-one conversations that Jesus has with folks – Nicodemus, the woman at the well, Martha of Bethany – and even, today, Satan. And as we listen in on each of these conversations, we’ll have a chance to put ourselves into the conversation. When we encounter Jesus, what does he have to say to us? What do we have to say to him? What is he calling us to do? Or maybe an even more basic question: Do we encounter Jesus? If not, why aren’t we meeting him?
            Today we start by listening in on a conversation between Jesus and Satan. In the lectionary, the three year cycle of scripture texts for the church year, Lent always begins with what is known as “the temptation of Jesus.” The scene from Matthew takes place immediately after the baptism of Jesus. We read about Jesus’ baptism together in January. Remember, Jesus is baptized by John, and as he emerges from the Jordan, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We move directly from Jesus’ baptism to Jesus’ time in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan. The text says that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for forty days and nights, and that at the end of this period he was unsurprisingly famished. I always pictured the wilderness as a kind of wild forest place, but actually the word means desert. Jesus is alone in a desert place, a desolate place, for forty days. Scholars have sometimes disagreed about whether or not Jesus was literally in the wilderness for forty days, and they’ve debated over whether he was truly and completely fasting from food or water that whole time, something that would surely be impossible for any mere human, but I think those questions are missing the point. The number forty in the scriptures is laden with meaning. The flood lasted forty day and nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness with Moses, seeking the Promised Land for forty years. Jesus is in the desert for forty days and nights. It means he was there a long time. And so our season of Lent is also shaped around forty days. Lent is a way we commit to walking with Jesus, trying to join him in this wilderness place and in his longer journey of heading resolutely to Jerusalem and the cross. We begin Lent with this text so that we can begin our walk with Jesus.
            Matthew tells us that the Spirit – the Spirit that just marked Jesus at his baptism – the Spirit leads him to the wilderness to be tempted. This experience, this encounter with Satan, is as much a part of his preparation for his public ministry as his baptism was. Not until after these forty days apart will Jesus begin preaching and teaching. After the forty days, when I can only imagine he is exhausted, physically drained, and emotionally raw and vulnerable, Satan comes to him. The text doesn’t describe Satan, and the Bible as a whole offers a lot of different interpretations of Satan. Whatever form comes to your mind, Satan’s purpose is to separate us from God. I’m suspicious of any time we try to use a concept of Satan to remove the responsibility for our sins from ourselves to something else, as in “the Devil made me do it.” But I certainly believe that there are many forces that seek to separate us from God, both within us and around us. Again, focusing too much on the form of Satan misses the point. The point is that Jesus experiences in this encounter three temptations, three opportunities to turn away from the path he’s about to travel.
First, Satan encourages a famished Jesus to turn stones into bread to eat. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says, and you can almost hear the heavy emphasis on the if, the doubt laced into the words. Jesus responds with scripture: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and tells him to throw himself down “if you are the Son of God,” “for it is written,” he says, “’He will command his angels concerning you.’” Satan quotes scripture right back at Jesus, taking words out of context, using them to cause harm. Jesus is not taken in. “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he responds. Finally, Satan takes him to a high mountain, overlooking the kingdoms of the world, promising them all to Jesus if Jesus will worship him. Jesus rebukes him: “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God; serve only God.’” Defeated, Satan leaves Jesus alone at last.
            What is the meaning of these tests that Jesus faces? Satan urges Jesus to believe that he can’t depend on God, that God won’t give him enough, that Jesus needs more, and has to take it when he can get it. He tries to convince Jesus to test God, to believe that he can’t trust God or God’s love. He tempts Jesus with power, to believe that he needs power of a particular kind – earthly power, power over others, power that comes from being in charge of everything. And yet, I don’t know why any of these things would be particularly tempting for Jesus. Jesus seems to so easily knock down what Satan throws his way. Is he really tempted to say otherwise? To take him up on any of these offers? I can read this passage and almost think, “Gosh, I could have avoided those temptations too!” It seems so easy to see through the motivations of the devil. It seems so clear that Jesus must and will refuse these sham offers of fame and glory and fortune. Did this “temptation” really cost Jesus, or stress him, or push him, or bring him great pain? Was he teetering on the brink of giving in? I don’t see it. I’m skeptical. And yet, for the gospel writers, the passage is clearly important. What are we missing?
Satan doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything that it is outside of his power to do already. The devil encourages Jesus to turn stones into bread for food. Well, we witness in the scriptures Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus feeding crowds of thousands. The devil tells Jesus that he will give Jesus glory and authority over the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships the devil. But Jesus speaks occasionally of knowing that if God had chosen, Jesus could have been an earthly king with kingdoms to rule – he wouldn’t need this power from the devil. And the devil tells Jesus to test God’s love and care for him, but Jesus has just come from hearing God say directly at his baptism that Jesus was God’s beloved son, that God was well-pleased with him.
So these temptations aren’t tempting because Jesus can’t do them without the devil’s help. They are tempting to Jesus in a different, deeper way. Remember, I said that Satan is what or who tries to separate us from God. And remember that repeated phrase that Satan speaks to Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Satan wants to separate Jesus from who he belongs to, and he tries to do it by making Jesus have an identity crisis. What the devil offers is what Jesus already has and already can do, but in a short-cut way that corrupts and twists. What the devil asks Jesus to do is to forget who he is, what he is called to do, whose child he is, what his purpose is. Jesus knows what he’s come for – but the devil is trying to convince him that he can get the same things in a supposedly easier way. Satan is trying to convince Jesus that there’s an easier path to power and glory than the path God has him on. After all, the path Jesus is on includes being abandoned, denied and betrayed by his closest friends, being beaten and tried, and being put to death. Shouldn’t Jesus choose his own path, his plan, instead of God’s? And that is tempting. Satan wants to cut Jesus off from his source, from his true identity, from the grounding he has in his parent, in God who has set him on this difficult path. Thankfully, Jesus knows better. He knows who he is, whose he is. He belongs to God. He is beloved. He is God’s child. And he will follow God’s path.
What about us? Are we tempted to forget our identity? Can we be separated from God, forgetting whose we are? Here is a temptation that seems very real, very hard, ever present. There are so many things that seek to separate us from who we belong to. David Lose writes, “I would argue that temptation is not so often temptation toward something … but rather is usually the temptation away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship ... On one level, we experience specific temptations very concretely, but on another they are all the same, as they seek to shift our allegiance, trust, and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a more secure identity … Consider the media barrage of advertising to which most of us are so regularly subjected. Nine times out of ten the goal of such ads is to create in us a sense of lack and inadequacy, followed by the implicit promise that purchasing the advertised product will relieve our insecurity … People are under assault every single day by tempting messages that seek to draw their allegiance from the God who created and redeemed them toward some meager substitute.” (1)
Lose writes, “You only know who you are when you realize whose you are …Our identity comes from the people with whom we hang out and is always received, rather than created. It comes, that is, always as a gift and a promise. And that’s why it’s so important to [remember] that you only know who you are when you realize whose you are.” (2) Who we are, dear friends, are God’s beloved children. That’s who we are. Don’t be tempted to let anything get in between you and that knowledge.
            I’ve been encouraging folks to make a special effort to attend worship and to attend some of the “extra” experiences of worship and community that Lent brings because remembering who and whose we are is easier when we ground ourselves in our faith, ground ourselves in our relationship with God, ground ourselves in the community of faith that is supporting us, encouraging us, trying to walk with Jesus too, like we are. The best thing we can do to resist the lure of separating ourselves from God, forgetting our own identity, is to make sure we stay firmly rooted in God, so that whenever something tries to separate us from God, we’ll be far too secure in God’s promises to be drawn away. Jesus knew who he was and whose he was. Let’s make sure we know too. Amen.

(1) David Lose,

(2) Emphasis added. Lose, David,