“I Am the Gate”

(sermon 5/7/17)

*Mar 24 - 00:05*

[Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”

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Back in the day in Presbyterian history, churches didn’t always serve Communion very often. In some cases, they only did it once a year, sometimes in big gatherings like this:

presbyterian communion outdoors

 And many times, before you could take part in Communion, you had to be examined by the Pastor and Session, and questioned about your beliefs and actions, and judged to be sufficiently theologically sound and morally pure to be worthy of participating in the sacrament. If you passed muster with them, they gave you one of these:

scottish communion token

This is a Communion token. These were little coins; sometimes they were round, other times they were rectangular, or oval, made out of lead or pewter or sometimes copper. As for size, the oval ones were about the same size as an elongated penny. Presbyterian churches used these, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, but also in England, Canada, some in the U.S., and even some in Australia and New Zealand, in the early- to mid- 1800s, although some churches continued to use them into the early 1900s. On Communion Sunday, you’d show up with your Communion token and present it to a person at the door; if you didn’t have a token, well, no Communion for you.

Could you imagine if we still did that? Could you picture Eddie R______ standing at the door taking tokens, and chasing away people without them? Or maybe now, in the 21st century, everything would be electronic. Maybe we’d all have cards like a TARC pass with a bar code, or a Metro Card for the New York subway system with a magnetic strip, or maybe something like an EZ-Pass transponder or an app for your phone. And on Communion Sunday, you just swiped your card or scanned your phone to get through a turnstile at the sanctuary door. And when your worthiness credits were running low, you could recharge it – maybe go to the church website and take an online quiz about your faith and practices, and get a few more credits added to your account. Making sure you’ve got enough in your account before Holy Week, when you’ll be doing Communion a lot.

Well, all kidding aside, the whole idea of restricting Communion to that degree, having some kind of wall around any aspect of participating in the full life of the church and having some kind of checkpoint, some kind of gate imposed upon it, and requiring Communion tokens and all that, was a quaint bit of Presbyterian history; in my opinion, not one that we should be particularly proud of. But I think there’s something about that weird little part of our history that relates to the gospel reading that we heard today.

This reading is actually a part of a story that had started in the chapter before this. Just before this passage, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. That sounds like a good thing, even a wonderful thing. But there was a problem with this particular healing, because Jesus happened to heal the man on the Sabbath. No one was supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and according to the religious leaders, healing someone met the definition of work. So they criticized Jesus, even hinting pretty strongly that he’d been sent by Satan, and not God, because surely no one from God would violate the Sabbath.

For his part, Jesus fired back at them, telling them that they were sinning by using their authority as religious leaders by setting up all these restrictions and rulings and limitations, like the one that would prevent doing good deeds on the Sabbath, that aren’t God’s intention at all, and imposing those burdens on others. They’d set up their own gate, with themselves as the gatekeeper, judging who was righteous, who was worthy of getting through the wall they’d built around God. Based on their beliefs, even the blind man that Jesus had healed was a sinner because he’d been born that way. According to them, if a person was blind, or had some other illness or infirmity, it was because God was punishing them for some sin in their lives; they weren’t living good lives, and their illness was evidence of that. It was an erroneous, mistaken belief in Jesus’ time, and unbelievably, some people still make that kind of claim today, when it’s even more erroneous and disappointing because now we know better, or at least we should.

In this part of Jesus’ answer to those religious leaders that we heard today, he rejects all those other ways of defining who’s worthy of being considered God’s own. He rejects all those restrictions and limitations and additional requirements that people would use to set themselves up as the judge of who’s worthy of God’s love and acceptance. He compares people who do that to thieves and bandits trying to climb over the wall and steal the sheep, the people, that rightly belong to God, the shepherd. Jesus says that he himself is the gate, not them. He is the one who provides access between the shepherd and the sheep; God, and the people of God. It’s through him, the gate, that God comes to us, and that we come to see and recognize God. It’s through him, the gate, that we and God can move outward, together.

What does that mean, though, that Jesus is the gate – the access point, the conduit, to seeing, and knowing, and following God? How does that work? How do we get through that gate – or more appropriately, how does God get through that gate to us?

Based on Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, I think that it boils down to a pretty simple set of things:

When you look at Jesus’ life and teaching, do you see what God must be like? When you look at Jesus’ actions, do you see what God’s will is? Do you understand more clearly how God wants us to treat one another? When you look at Jesus, does the good news that God loves us and is with us become clearer to you?

I believe that that’s what Jesus means when he says he’s the gate. Through him, we come to know God, and be able to follow God, better. Nothing less, and nothing more. I believe that when we try to add more than that to Jesus’ claim of being the gate, when we try to limit or restrict access to that gate, when we try to add things that a person has to believe or do in order to have access to that gate and the God who is accessed through it, then we fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, and so many other religious leaders right up until the present.

We human beings are very good at devising complex theologies, ways of understanding God, and we have a lot of different theologies regarding how Jesus acts as this gate that creates access between us and God. Some of those theories are good; others not so good. Some of those theories, in my opinion, are downright harmful. We have Confession after Confession after Catechism after Catechism, many of which were the source of the questions that had to be answered by those poor, sweating Presbyterians who just wanted a Communion token. Now there’s nothing wrong with theology and theological discourse; I love it, and it’s important for us to consider our faith in depth. Still, the great theologian Karl Barth, who himself wrote volume after volume after volume of brilliant, but incredibly dense and complicated theology – including a lot that dealt with this issue of Jesus being the gate – was asked near the end of his life if he could sum up the single most important theological conclusion he’d come to understand, and he answered simply, “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think the way Jesus is the gate between us and God is something equally simple – in looking at Jesus, can we see God more easily? In looking at Jesus, can God be present with us more deeply? Despite all of our efforts to make it more complicated, it really is that simple. I think it’s really remarkably easy – even easier than EZ-Pass.

Thanks be to God.

 

Where the Wind Blows

(sermon 3/12/17)

glowing embers

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  – Genesis 12:1-4

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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”  – John 3:1-17

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He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.

Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.

He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?

In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.

Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?

Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?

He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?

As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him 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.”

During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?

For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.

Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?

Thanks be to God.

What Do You See? (sermon 12/15/13)

Image

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. – Matthew 11:2-11 (NRSV)

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There’s a beat-up old desk that sits in the library of Pittsburgh Theological seminary. The finish is half worn off, and the veneer is missing in places. Along the back edge of its top, there’s a console full of little pigeonholes and drawers and recesses to hold all sorts of accessories. There’s really nothing very remarkable about the desk at all; under different circumstances, it would have been carted off to the dump years ago But what makes this desk so special is that it used to be the writing desk of the great theologian Karl Barth, who lived and worked in Germany in the years leading up to World War II – and who was arguably the most important theologian of the 20th century. This ratty old desk has become a kind of a shrine, with people sometimes traveling for miles just to see it and get their picture taken with it. This was the desk that Barth used to write volume after volume of deep, profound books. And his essays denouncing Hitler and calling for the church to stand up against the Nazis. And the amazing confession of faith that’s part of our own Book of Confessions, the Barmen Declaration. All these works that changed the landscape of modern Christianity were written on the leather-padded top of this old desk. You can just imagine Barth, and his younger protégé, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, sitting around this desk, their glasses of beer leaving water stains on its top, while they discussed deep matters of the faith. For my own part, when I was attending seminary there in Pittsburgh as a commuting evening student, I’d drive into town, and if I had a little time before classes began, I’d try to catch a nap in the library. There was a little loveseat that actually sat right up against the desk, and I’d usually grab it to catch a few Zs. But the loveseat was too short for my 6-foot frame to stretch out on, so sometimes, if no one else was around, I’d actually stretch my legs out and prop my feet up on the desktop. I suppose if any of the staff had caught me doing that, they’d have expelled me, or maybe even dragged me out into the quad and burned me at the stake.

Well, not far from where my feet rested, propped up on top of the desk, was a painting. This painting used to hang on the wall in Karl Barth’s study, overtop of the desk, and he sometimes made reference to the painting in his writing. It’s a picture of the crucifixion; a really grotesque image of an ugly, beat up Jesus nailed to the cross, the weight of his body hanging down. Even the crossbar of the cross is drooping down, reflecting the pull of his body. To the left of the picture, we see Mary and the apostle John, and at the right, we see John the Baptist. He’s looking at Jesus, and his arm is stretched out and his finger is pointing at Jesus hanging on the cross, as if he’s telling us “Pay attention to this. Focus on this. This is what matters – him, and only him.”

Our gospel text today deals with John the Baptist. Brash, loudmouthed, socially unacceptable John the Baptist. He’s spent his life calling people to repentance, and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is about to be unleashed on the world. He’s heard with his own ears God blessing Jesus at his baptism; he’s seen with his own eyes the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Surely, if there were anyone who could be certain, and have no doubts that Jesus was God’s specially chosen one, the Messiah, it would be John the Baptist. But that wasn’t the case, according to this story. During this ministry, John had been kind of a first-century rock star; throngs of people came out to hear him. But now, he’d been thrown into prison because he’d spoken out against the moral shortcomings of King Herod. How could something like this happen if Jesus was really the Messiah? And as far as he could tell, none of the stuff he’d expected a Messiah would do, were happening. The Romans were still in power. The religious leaders were still making a mockery of the religion.

So John sat in his dark, cramped prison cell, frustrated, confused, probably angry, and definitely full of doubt and fear. His mind wandered as he asked himself, over and over again: Had this all been some kind of cruel joke? Had it all been a waste of time? Had he been deluded about Jesus? So he sent word to Jesus, asking for a clear, no BS answer: cut to the chase – are you the Messiah or not?

Maybe it seems a little odd to have a Lectionary passage like this stuck into the advent and Christmas season. We’re looking forward to the birth of Christ, and the hope and joy that his birth brought into the world. We’re all wrapped up in the whirlwind of holiday activities, and continually being reminded of the happiness that the season is supposed to be all about. So why, then, do we look at a gospel passage that focuses on doubt, and confusion, and fear?

Well, maybe it isn’t so odd after all, if you think about it. Even though we’re supposed to be focusing on the joy of the season, every year there’s a measurable increase in people’s feelings of dread, and doubt, and fear in this season. There are more bouts with depression and requests for counseling, and even an increase in suicides. It’s like all the talk of hope and happiness and joy just magnifies the problems that we really have. Most of us have probably felt that way one time or another. We wonder why unexpected negative things happen in our personal lives. Or maybe the life of the church. Or maybe the world in general. And that translates into spiritual doubts and fears. Let’s face it, we’re all modern, scientifically-savvy people. And all this talk about mysterious, magical-sounding events – virgin births, and angels and other heavenly creatures dropping out of the sky singing and scaring the crap out of the shepherds in the fields, and strange stars that move through the sky and then hover overtop a single house – it makes us wonder, like John the Baptist – is this faith for real? Is Jesus the real item? Is it really worth our time and trouble to try to live out our faith? Or have we all just been suckered into believing some fairy tale made up by a bunch of unsophisticated ancient people who were taken in by just one of many would-be messiahs? The time and the setting are different, but in some ways, some days, we can sit in our own prison cell made out of doubt and fear, and feel just as disappointed and cheated as John must have felt while he sat in jail. And, maybe especially at this time of year, our hearts can ask the same question John the Baptist asked Jesus: Are you for real? Are you the Messiah?

But instead of giving John the kind of black and white answer he’d hoped for, Jesus said, “What do you see? The lame walk. The blind see. All manner of the poor and the suffering have received God’s good news and blessings.”

Jesus’ point was that the kingdom of God had actually already begun to enter the world, through him. It was the entry point of hope, and healing, and God’s acceptance of all the weakest and most doubting and fearful and suffering in the world. The message was that God was here, with them and for them and sustaining them through whatever happened to them. That showed that the kingdom of God was at hand, and that he was indeed the Messiah who was ushering it in.

That was the good news that Jesus had for John – that his life’s work and efforts hadn’t been in vain. And it’s good news for us, too. The good news that as we go through this life, and as we deal with its scars and bruises, its setbacks and uncertainties, its discomforts and disagreements and divisions, that God is in the midst of all those situations, walking the path with us, lifting us up, giving us hope, speaking love and support to our hearts.

When we find ourselves asking the same question John asked, Jesus answers us the same way: What do you see? What do you hear? Look at God at work in the lives of my followers, and in the life of the church. The hungry are being fed. The naked are being clothed. The homeless are being sheltered, the sick are being treated, and the persecuted, oppressed, and discriminated against are all being lifted up and welcomed into God’s unconditional love. All this is confirmation to us that no matter how difficult things may look or feel, God is truly at work in this world. And God is with us through all of our difficulties. This isn’t some fairy tale; it’s real – and Jesus is at the center of it all.

So when we wonder, in the midst of our toughest times, if we’re just kidding ourselves, or if Jesus is truly God’s chosen one, the one worthy of our faith and loyalty – we can look to John the Baptist for advice. The fiery prophet, the take-no-prisoners preacher, the great martyr of the faith – who, even himself, faced these same kinds of doubts. We can look to him, pictured there in that painting over Karl Barth’s desk, and we can follow his bony finger, stretched out and point straight at ugly Jesus on the cross, and him saying “Look to him. Always look to him. What do you see? What do you hear?”

Thanks be to God.