Relationship Status

(sermon 2/12/17)

relationship-status

[Jesus said,] “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

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Well. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel like I’ve been taken to the woodshed after hearing this gospel text today. This is the third week that we’ve heard part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it’s pretty obvious that we’ve moved past the feel-good “Blessed are you”s of the Beatitudes. Now, we’re starting to feel some sting in Jesus’ words. I mean, of course we aren’t supposed to murder, but now you’re telling me that even if we’ve ever just gotten angry at a person we’re facing God’s judgment? Even if we’ve ever just insulted someone, or if we’ve ever called someone foolish, we’re bound for the fires of hell? If that’s the case, then there’s no hope for any of us. It’s simply impossible for anyone to interact with other people and not get angry, or to think or speak about someone in an unflattering way. It just can’t be done.

And then Jesus continues by discussing marriage and divorce. If you get divorced, and especially if someone gets remarried, then in one way or another you’re engaging in adultery. I don’t want to get into a detailed consideration of Jesus’ views on marriage here today; that’s another day’s sermon, but still, this is a very sobering teaching for a lot of us – since, statistically speaking, more than half of all marriages end in divorce, and something like half of those divorces end up resulting in a remarriage; and this statistic is at least as true for us in the church as it is for the general public.

Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text can cause us to feel fear and guilt, maybe even tremendous fear and guilt. Every time I read this particular passage, it reminds me of a parishioner I once knew. She was a very deeply devoted Christian, and very active in the life of the church. She’d been raised in another church tradition before becoming a Presbyterian as an adult. When she was a young woman, she’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage that, thanks be to God, she got out of. A few years after that, she met a wonderful man. They eventually got married, and at the time I knew them, they’d been happily married for decades. But over time I noticed that whenever we served the Lord’s Supper, she never participated. Finally, I asked her why, and she told me that it was because of her childhood teaching in that other tradition – that it was sinful for her to have ended her first marriage, even as abusive a it was, and when she got remarried, she put herself in the position of living constantly, irretrievably, in a state of adultery – and that no matter how much of a Presbyterian she was now, deep down in her heart she still held onto what she’d been told as a child. She couldn’t’ shake the feeling that she was living in a dirty, sinful, adulterous lifestyle, and that made her unworthy to participate in Communion. Can you imagine living with that burden of guilt on your shoulders your entire life?

Well as I said, this isn’t a marriage and divorce sermon. But before moving on, I’ve got to say that I don’t think that Jesus’ primary point here – or anywhere else, for that matter – is to make anyone live with that lifelong kind of guilt and shame. To be even more blunt, I think that to interpret Jesus’ words here, or anywhere else in the gospels for that matter, in a way that harms someone in the way it did that parishioner, in a way that causes someone a lifetime of unshakeable pain, is a form of ecclesiastical malpractice, negligence.

Now having said that, I don’t mean to take all the teeth away from what Jesus is saying here, either. These issues are obviously very important to him; it’s only when he’s talking about something very important that he veers into this strong kind of language – pluck out an eye, cut off a hand. What I think is important about all of these things is that they all deal with the issue of human relationships, and potential harm to those relationships.

The issue of being in right, healthy relationships is of the absolute highest  importance to God, and anything that would harm or break those healthy relationships is a very, very serious matter in God’s eyes. Simply put, we were created in order to be in relationship. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that being in healthy relationships with one another is a necessity for us to be fully, truly human.

And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is one of the most important reasons that Christ established the Church. One of the most important things that we’re called to do is to offer an alternative way of being, a way different than what’s typically seen in the world. We’re supposed to model just how people can live in healthy relationships, relationships that honor God and complete our own humanity. It’s easy to find too many examples of the harmful behaviors that Jesus mentioned in this passage – allowing anger and insult to rule the day, harming and even breaking, destroying relationships, whether they’re marital relationships or other kinds. We seem intent on setting up different categories of people in order to justify not engaging in positive, constructive relationships with them. We see it done all the time; divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation – all these sorts of classifications and categories really boil down to being attempts to set up different tribes among us, and then to justify getting angry at them, or insulting them, or considering them foolish, or completely breaking relationship with them – in short, they’re attempts to justify not loving them.

The fact that being in healthy, right relationships with one another is so important to God is why harming those relationships earns some of Jesus’ strongest language. And we, the church, are called to model these kinds of relationships – not artificially, by ignoring the legitimate differences that we have within our midst, or pretending they don’t exist; but by loving one another even while acknowledging them. By seeking God’s help to allow us to find positive, authentic ways of living, and serving, and worshipping, together, forbearing one another – loving one another – without falling victim to any kind of actions or ways of being the church would separate us, divide us, tribalize us, and lead us into ways that break our relationships. We’re called to love one another when it’s easy. We’re called to love one another when it’s hard. But even when it’s hard, we can have hope, and confidence, because God has promised to walk this journey along with us. And if God has called us to that way of living, and has promised to lead us and strengthen us as we try to live that out, is there anything that we could possibly be worried or afraid of?

Thanks be to God.

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Bifocal Lents (sermon 2/22/15)

bifocals

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” – Genesis 9:8-17

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” – Mark 1:9-15

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 We’ve been talking about Lent any number of ways lately. We’ve written newsletter articles about it, and blog posts, and Facebook updates and newspaper articles, and we’ve designed a new series of Wednesday worship services for it. Now we’re in the midst of it, beginning this past week with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, and now this, the first Sunday in Lent. These forty days of reflection, solitude, and penitence are symbolically connected to the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism, which itself is symbolically connected to the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness after they left Egypt, which also symbolically connected to the forty days of rain during the story of Noah and the flood. Each of these things has embedded within it a sense of being separated out; affording, maybe even demanding, a time of self-reflection, and especially causing an amplified focus and reliance on God.

The idea of observing Lent can be a hard sell for us today, for a number of reasons. To turn away from the distractions of our daily lives is a hard thing to do. It’s hard for us to stay focused on something for forty minutes, let alone forty days. Our lives move so much more quickly today than when people first thought about setting aside forty days for introspection and refocus. One of the things that was nice when I first went to Honduras about twelve years ago was that where we were going, there was no internet connection available. There was no cellphone coverage. To go to that orphanage meant that you were going to have to give up all the instant technology that you’d gotten so dependent upon, and I know that a number of us felt a kind of withdrawal for the first couple of days that we were there. But after getting through that, we began to really focus on what was really in front of us, and all around us. Getting to know and love the kids, the natural beauty, the very different culture. Coming to see the reality of corruption and civil unrest, and of poverty on a level never seen before. Letting these experiences speak to our hearts, and to change our hearts. We got to be in that experience, that “zone,” for less than a week, before heading back to the States, and our phones came back to life, and we were resubmerged in our own constantly on, constantly live, ultimately dispersed lives. Finding one’s self in that zone of intense focus, without the normal distractions, has been truly life-changing for hundreds of people who have gone through it, and that was just to experience it for less than a week. Imagine how a life could be transformed by truly experiencing it for forty days.

It is hard to consider sticking with a regimen of introspection and humbly turning ourselves over to God even more deeply for the whole period of Lent. But there’s another aspect of it that I think is even more significant.

When I was first studying preaching, we were supposed to prepare a sermon on a particular passage, and the most obvious message to draw out of the words, at least for most of us in the class, was that we need to be more giving of ourselves – we need to be less selfish and more emptying of ourselves to serve others, just as Christ emptied himself for us. That was all well and good, the instructor said, and maybe it’s a very relevant and important message that a lot of people need to hear. But if the person hearing your message is someone whose issue wasn’t too strong a sense of self, but rather, was too *weak* a one; if your message is heard by someone who’s given of themselves to others so much that there doesn’t seem to be any of her or him self actually surviving, then it’s a wrong and even dangerous message to encourage even more self-emptying and self-destruction in the name of serving others.

The instructor made a valid point. And Lent can face a similar problem. What Lent should mean to each of us can be very different, based on where we’re approaching it from. Yes, it’s probably true that for many, if not most of us, the struggle we need to deal with as we come into Lent is that of humbling ourselves in order to come into God’s presence and to hear God’s word for us, and to recommit our lives to God. We Americans don’t generally do “humble” well; in fact, humility is often held up as a sign of weakness or even moral failing. Whether we look at what our society tells us about what our personal lives, or our national and international posture should look like, being humble and not pressing ourselves onto others rarely rates very high on the charts. So if we find ourselves in that location, it’s good and important to see Lent through the lens of needing to humble ourselves in order to find God in this time.

But there are a lot of people in the world, in the country, in this city, in this congregation, who likely have another frame of reference. There are many people who don’t have any shortage of humility; who don’t think too highly of themselves. In fact, they think too little of themselves. Our communities and our families are full of people whose self-image, whose sense of self-worth has been completely battered to the point that it can be almost non-existent. That’s the point where humility becomes humiliation. They’re told in countless ways that they aren’t smart enough, or successful enough, or good-looking enough, or enough like the way society says they should be, and they live lives filled with the quiet despair of feeling they don’t measure up, feeling worthless, or at least worth little, and certainly less than God would ever want to love.

And if that’s the place you’re standing in, then the worst possible thing you can hear, especially from a pulpit, is that you need to humble yourself even further. To be told that you’ve got to humble and debase yourself even further is a distorted, fatiguing, and even harmful message to get out of Lent. If that’s your vantage point, then you need to see Lent through a different lens. Understand that the humility that’s called for during Lent isn’t an end to itself, but rather, it’s meant to help you truly come into God’s presence and to feel God’s love. And it’s hard to hear God speaking into your heart if you believe that God wouldn’t speak to you at all.

We aren’t going through this season in some sort of masochistic love of beating ourselves up and wallowing in suffering for its own sake, as if suffering itself reconciles us with God. The main purpose of Lent is to feel and experience God’s love for us – especially as we see it illustrated through Jesus’ life and his journey to the cross and beyond. In order to be able to reflect on that love more deeply, some of us need to humble ourselves. But some of us will need to actually lift ourselves up. Some of us will need to allow ourselves to accept that we are good, and lovable, and worthy of God’s embrace, before we can hear God’s voice this season. All of us need to recognize that what’s important about Lent isn’t the details of how we get to the end point, but rather, that we actually get to it. And the end point is this: Just as we heard in our first reading, in the story of the flood, God loves us so much as to establish an everlasting covenant of love with us – one that completely overarches us and covers over us, just like the rainbow in the story that God said is a symbol of that covenant. And for the record: if, by chance, you find yourself in a place where you think you’re so worthless, you’re such flawed, damaged goods that your failings and shortcomings are too great to stay covered over by that covenant of love; that you’re going to poke through that protective rainbow, as it were – know that if you break through that one, that just like in our window, there’s another one just beyond it ready to cover over you and keep you within God’s love and care. And beyond that one is another one. And another one. And another one. You can’t ever exceed or escape God’s love and compassion for you. That’s the ultimate message behind meditating on Jesus and the cross during Lent, regardless of where you start your journey, regardless of your vantage point, regardless of what lens you need to see it through.

Thanks be to God.

Jonah Sedaris (sermon 1/25/15)

The boy eats a zephyr

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth… When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

         – Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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The author David Sedaris once wrote a short essay about his family moving from small-town upstate New York to small-town North Carolina when he was a young boy. In the essay, he talks about a neighbor family who was just a little bit different from his family and the surrounding neighbors, because they didn’t have a television – not because they couldn’t afford one, but just because they didn’t “believe in it,” as the father would say. Sedaris says that he felt sorry for the family’s two children because of all the cultural literacy that they were being deprived of without the benefit of TV. And while he didn’t really do anything concrete to be their friend, he said he got some sense of fulfillment, or a sense of goodness or pleasure just out of thinking nicely about them in a kind of superior way, as though they were benefiting from some unspoken favor he was doing for them.

Apparently, their strangeness went beyond just the TV issue though. One year, Halloween fell on a Saturday and the family was out of town that weekend, but rather than miss trick-or-treating, the kids just dressed in their costumes and went door to door on the following Monday evening. Sedaris said that was just odd, and too much of a stretch for him to accept. Making things all the worse, of course, the family didn’t actually have any Halloween candy to give to them, so his mother made him go to his room and get some of his own Halloween candy just to solve the embarrassing situation. He wrote that he’d gotten a lot of chocolate bars, which he didn’t even really like – in fact, they made him sick – but he still knew that people considered chocolate bars to be the cream of the crop when it came to Halloween candy. So rather than allow them to be given to the neighbor kids, and in a sense, rewarding their weirdness, he started cramming all the chocolate bars into his mouth and eating them, just to spite the neighbors, to keep them from benefiting. He wrote that in that moment, he’d decided that from then on instead of getting pleasure from feeling kindly toward them, he’d get pleasure out of hating them.

At that young age, he’d veered into a great truth. We can get great personal pleasure out of hating someone else. The reality is that hatred is kind of like a narcotic, making us feel good in the moment but ultimately harming us – but that’s easy to disregard when it feels so good to wallow in the hatred at the moment.

The prophet Jonah understood this same truth. That’s why he reacted the way he did when God told him to go to Nineveh and to speak God’s word to the Assyrians living there. The Assyrians were the people who all the Israelites loved to hate. The Assyrians had overrun and wiped out two-thirds of their country; they were the Israelites’ sworn enemies, and Nineveh was their capital city. Everybody hated the Assyrians; you were supposed to hate the Assyrians; it was pretty much your patriotic duty to hate them.

So on the surface, Jonah should have been happy to give them God’s message of “Forty Days, and your city will be no more!” But we learn in the story that Jonah doesn’t want any part of it, which is why he tries to run away from God, to ignore God’s call to him. But like so many people who’d come before him, and so many who came afterward, Jonah learned that there really wasn’t any future in trying to run away from something God is calling you to.

In today’s passage, we heard that when Jonah relays this message to the despised Assyrians, unbelievably, miraculously, they actually repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And as a result, the story says, God changed his mind and didn’t destroy them.

And that was Jonah’s whole problem. In the verses immediately following what we read today, Jonah shakes his bony finger at God and says, “I knew you were going to do this! That’s why I didn’t want to do this in the first place! I knew that you were a God of love and mercy and forgiveness, and that you wouldn’t really wipe them out. You’re a flip-flopper! You’re all love and mercy and not enough justice! You’ll let them off without getting what they deserve, and I’ll end up looking like a fool!” And while he’s mad at God, he tells God to just kill him now, so he wouldn’t have to see these people he hates be shown God’s love and acceptance. Jonah wants to wallow in the mud of his comfortable and familiar hatred, cramming his face with chocolate bars that will make him sick just to keep the goodies from his enemies.

The Book of Jonah was originally written shortly after the Jews had returned home from their time of slavery and captivity in Babylon. As they were trying to rebuild their kingdom and their culture, there was a major push for religious, racial, and ethnic purity in their land. If you ever read the Old Testament Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you’ll read about the kinds of things that were going on then. It even went so far that if a man had married a non-Jewish woman, he would be forced to divorce her and have her deported to her own country.

The story of Jonah was written at this same time, as a rejection of that extremist kind of hatred and exclusion. It was meant to be a strong witness to the message that God loves even those we consider our worst enemies.

Is there a message in there for us? Of course there is, when, whether it’s in the realm of global politics or our own personal lives, so often we’re being taught to fear and hate the “other” – and the funny thing is, we never seem to run out of “others.” Have you ever noticed that? As soon as one “other” disappears, we find another other to hate. And oddly, just like with Jonah and young David Sedaris, we know that what we’re doing is really hurting ourselves – we *know* it! But we still don’t want to accept it, because hating those others makes us feel so good.

So much of the way we think and talk about the gospel deals with our salvation in the sense of getting into heaven; a kind of golden ticket to the ultimate chocolate factory of all eternity. But I think a more immediate part of the gospel is salvation in the sense of the healing of our own souls in the here and now, and in a way that’s every bit as real as if we’d been healed from blindness or some dreadful disease. It’s a healing of the heart, made possible for us when we really grasp Christ’s message of the healing power of love, forgiveness, and acceptance – even for those who have hurt us deeply. There’s an incredible lightening of our souls, the removal of an incredible burden sitting on our shoulders when we just let all those hatreds and hurts go. When we stop eating the chocolate bars, and we allow ourselves to accept that degree of love that God has for all of us that’s all but impossible for us to even comprehend.

Yes, we learn from Jonah that it’s really impossible to run away or hide from God, or to try to ignore a call from God when you hear it, even if you don’t like where you know it’s going to lead. But I think this other message, about learning just how loving and merciful God really is, and how willing to forgive even the worst of people, is even more important. So this week, let’s ask ourselves what judgmentalism, what bias, what hatred we’re holding onto that we could ask God to help us let go of. Let’s ask God to help us learn the lesson of getting pleasure from loving people, rather than from hating them.

Thanks be to God.

Doodah Parade (Sermon, Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014)

https://i2.wp.com/www.shortnorth.com/DooDah1.jpg

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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Whether we’ve grown up being in church since we were in diapers, or whether we grew up with our only religious exposure being Hollywood movies and television shows, we’ve probably all seen representations, and have our own mental images, of this story that we just heard – Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover feast, and his crucifixion and resurrection. But what must this event really have been like? Do you suppose it was really like the Sunday School pictures, or the movie portrayals? What would the average man on the street – what would Joshua Six-Pack have seen and thought if he happened to see this scene unfolding? 

To give a little perspective, it might help to visualize that in Jesus’ time, Jerusalem had a population under normal circumstances of maybe 40,000 people – just slightly larger than Gahanna. But it had a smaller physical footprint than Gahanna, so while it wasn’t huge, it was still a pretty densely populated place. But during major religious festivals like the Passover, Jewish religious pilgrims flowed into Jerusalem from all around the ancient Mediterranean world, ballooning the population of the city to at least a quarter of a million – making an almost overnight change from a city the size of Gahanna to one about the size of Toledo, full of people speaking dozens of languages, and all of them trying to find a place to eat, and sleep, and go to the bathroom; and all of them trying to get the same picture next to the Roman centurion standing guard, or taking videos of the priests making sacrifices at the Temple and uploading them to youTube; and just trying to make their way through the ten-foot-wide streets making the city just a big hot mess and the whole thing was as chaotic and exciting as Times Square at midday. And every year, as part of this, the Romans would stage a big, impressive parade full of pomp and circumstance, and music and flags and war horses and shields and daggers, all as a welcome to the religious pilgrims pouring into the city to worship and celebrate and spend their money – but more importantly, as a show of force, and as a warning to tourist and resident alike to stay in line – to not to make trouble, or the Roman hammer would come down hard. 

But this year, this particular day, on the other side of town, there was another parade going on – Jesus’ entry into the city. On this day, here comes one average looking man riding into town not on a fancy horse like the Roman generals across town, but on a humble little donkey. He’s just ridden in from this little village out on the Mount of Olives – just about the distance between here and the Bob Evans at Crosswoods – and a bunch of the villagers are flocked around him, shouting out religious praises and waving tree branches and throwing their clothing into the street, and as far as the average bystander can see, basically acting like a bunch of crazy people, making as much of an impression as the annual Doodah parade, if even that. And now they’re pushing into the crowd of the city, getting in the way of tourists trying to get across the street to buy a three-pack of cashmere scarves and postcards from the Holy Land. And some tourist asks who this man on the donkey is, and what the demonstration is all about, and one of the country bumpkins says that this is Jesus, the Messiah who’s going to kick out the whole Roman army and establish God’s rule over all the world. And for a moment, the tourist looks at Jesus, and looks at the people around him. And then he nods his head, and pushes his way past them into the postcard shop, noticing the little hubbub in the street, and then forgetting it before they get to the next intersection.

Maybe that isn’t quite the way we tend to picture this event in our minds, but I’ll bet that to the average bystander in Jerusalem that day, it must have been something very much like that. Something whose point was largely missed in the moment. Something that offered a completely different, alternative message to the big show going on all around them. On this day, Jesus enters Jerusalem, and God speaks to humanity, in a way completely different from conventional wisdom and religious hierarchy and the power and might of the government. 

And that’s the way God usually seem to reach out and speak to us, too. We want to hear God, and get answers to the questions in our lives, clearly, in writing, with bells and whistles, and maybe even fireworks if there’s time to schedule them. But God reaches out to us and speaks to us in different ways. Maybe we’re at some crisis point in our life, feeling unloved and unwanted and unimportant to anyone, and maybe the world would be better off without us. And in that moment, God comes to us as a little girl who reaches up and tugs on our shirtsleeve, and at just the right moment, looks into our eyes and smiles and says “I love you” and gives you a big awkward hug around your knees. 

He was having trouble taking some risky step out in faith that he’d been wrestling with, and he wanted some clear-cut, doubt-free direction from God, but what he got as he sat down at the bar at the Old Bag of Nails was a damp, wrinkled cocktail napkin sitting in front of him that the bartender hadn’t scooped up, and someone had scribbled a note on it that said “Do you trust me?” and it was just signed with the letter G. 

She sat at the kitchen table overwhelmed with worry and fear over two dozen stressful situations she was dealing with, and worrying about how she and her husband, and their kids, were going to get through it. As she sat there, she pushed aside a big pile of unpaid bills, just enough to prop her elbows on the tabletop and without even thinking about it she blurted out “Oh God, what am I going to do?” And suddenly, without warning, and in some way she’s never really been able to describe, she felt a complete, overwhelming sense of peace, and she felt love almost as a physical thing cascading over her like a wave, and she heard a voice that somehow, she just knew was God saying, “It’s OK; everything is going to be all right; I love you.” 

We want steel-reinforced concrete from God, but what we get is the Doodah Parade. What we get are these alternative, counterintuitive ways of reaching into our existence. These things that the great Presbyterian minister and author, Frederick Buechner, called certain uncertainties, dim half-miracles, oddly relevant sermons at just the right moment, things like that. Things that just might be coincidence, and that’s what many people would write them off as, but that for some reason you just can’t. It’s more than coincidence. For better or worse, it’s that alternative way that God uses to cut through the clutter and the crap and the background noise of our lives to let us know that what we see in the life, death, and resurrection of the man riding into town on the donkey, riding into the chaos of the Old City and the chaos of our lives, is the love, and the way, and the very face, of God. And that no matter what we go through, God will be with us, and see us through anything that life, and all the power and might represented in that other parade might dump on us. In all these little, ambiguous ways, God calls us to come join in the alternative parade on the other side of town; to the alternative way of understanding life and the world – to the reverse logic of the kingdom of God. 

So today, you get to write your own ending to the sermon. Just what did Joshua Six-Pack do when he bumped into this little alternative parade? Did he pass by and forget it? Or did he fall in with the crowd? Did it change his life? 

What did he do? What will we do? 

Thanks be to God.

Repent! (Sermon 3/30/14)

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John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

*****

I don’t know for sure, but this might be the longest Lectionary text in the whole three-year cycle. Maybe it isn’t, but it sure seems like it. It’s really tempting to cut it short, and just highlight one snip of it or another. But I usually try not to do that, because really, the whole thing is such a great story. I mean, there’s a little bit of everything in there – a miracle, drama, intrigue, family dysfunction, people covering their own butts, powerful people behaving badly, and there’s even a little humor thrown in as the healed man tweaks the noses of the religious leaders, just as icing on the cake. It really is a great story – but it’s more than a story, too; it’s full of enough theological issues and questions to stir up more than a month’s worth of sermons. Does God really give people ailments or problems to punish them for their sins, or the sins of their parents, as the disciples think? Would God really make someone suffer a lifetime of being blind just to make some point some day when he’s an adult? Couldn’t God figure out a more humane way to make the same point? Why did Jesus need to make mud with his spit to heal the man? Besides the fact that it’s just gross, he seems to have been perfectly able to heal other people without any special props or theatrics. And what about the blind man himself? In other gospel passages, Jesus isn’t able to work any miracles because the people don’t have enough faith, but this poor guy doesn’t exhibit any faith at all. He just seems to be sitting around begging, minding his own business until Jesus comes along and heals him. It isn’t until the very end of the story, after everything else plays out, that Jesus seeks the man out again and he actually expresses any faith in Jesus.

Since repentance is today’s theme on our “Cross-bound” Lenten journey, I tried to consider where repentance might show up in this story. I suppose we could assume that the blind man decides to repent from the sinful aspects of his life, as part of his believing in Jesus and worshiping him. But really, repentance just doesn’t seem to be a big thing in the blind man’s story. Maybe his story is a better reflection of how God comes to us seeks us out, before we ever seek God, or ask God to come to us or help us, before we can even see God. Maybe Jesus’ healing of the blind man is a way for us to understand why we baptize infants and small children, like we’ll do in the 10:00 service today – that baptism is a sign of God’s coming to us, and making a covenant with us, not the other way around – that baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing, but what God has already done.

Still, as I continued to think about this story, I the idea of repentance does come into play, but in a reverse way, a negative way – it shows up in the repentance that doesn’t happen, on the part of the religious leaders in the story.

So what’s going on with them? We’ve heard this story and others like it so many times, we’ve been trained to automatically understand the religious leaders, the Pharisees, the scribes, of Jesus’ time as the bad guys. As soon as you hear them mentioned, you can almost hear ominous music in the background. Picture Jews in black cowboy hats or something. But if we take ourselves out of our normal frame of reference for just a minute – if we take off our “Jesus glasses, if we look at the story without imagining these religious leaders on one side, and the healed man and Jesus on the other side, and knowing that we know we’re always supposed to be on Jesus’ side, what were these religious leaders saying? What were they doing? All they were doing was trying to uphold the standards of the faith that had been handed down to them. All they were doing was trying to maintain the sanctity of the Sabbath, and to honor the clear content of the scriptures. Jesus healing this man on the Sabbath was a violation of the multiple, clear-cut prohibition of working on the Sabbath. This was one of the primary moral rules of the faith, so if Jesus didn’t uphold it, how could he possibly be of God? Surely he had to be opposed, in order to stand up for the holy lifestyle that God calls us to in the scriptures.

These religious leaders weren’t really bad people. They were actually what most of us would consider good people – honorable, religious people who thought that what they were doing was right in the eyes of God, that they were upholding an important moral standard in the name of God. But no matter the fact that they had good intentions, Jesus still ultimately criticized them, and called their actions blind, and sin.

It’s easy for us to read this story and understand with perfect hindsight that Jesus was telling them that they were missing the point; that by paying such rigorous attention to the letter of the Law in the scriptures, that they were blinding themselves to God’s actual purpose behind it all – that of God’s love and mercy, and extending that love and mercy to others. In this miracle, and others as well, Jesus made the point that love and mercy and grace the real goal, even when that meant bending what was so clear-cut in the black and white of the written scriptures. Jesus’ point in this story is that they needed to repent from their rigid and counterproductive ways, in order to see God’s real intent.

It’s easy for us to see that in this story. But the truth is that this same story has played out time and time again throughout the history of our faith. Time and time again, we, both as individuals and as the church, have had to learn the same lesson that these well-intentioned religious leaders in Jesus’ time had to learn. Time and time again, we’ve had to repent for our clinging to form over substance, to Law over Gospel. And the closer it gets to our own time, and our own lives, here and now, the harder it can be to see.

There’s a Christian charitable organization called World Vision, which does wonderful good works for the poorest, neediest of children around the globe. World Vision found themselves in the news this past week when they announced that even though as an organization they were very conservative theologically themselves, they had decided to change their hiring policies to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian employees, even those who might be part of a legally performed same-sex marriage. In their announcement, they said that while they maintained their scriptural interpretation that these potential employees were living in sinful ways, they realized that not all Christians agreed with that traditional interpretation. And that, in fact, in some way or another, we were all living in sinful ways. And they wanted to show the spirit of Christian unity even within the broad diversity of the faith, to show that very different people can come together in this faith to share Christ’s love with others.

Unfortunately, that new policy didn’t sit well with a lot of World Vision’s financial supporters – people who had signed on to help sponsor the care of a needy child somewhere in the world. They accused World Vision of throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, of not upholding the clear moral teachings of the faith. Some of them even went so far as to say that based on this decision, they weren’t even really Christian anymore. And in their moral indignation, in order to take a stand for what they saw as God’s standards, these supporters decided to pull their funding. They chose to stop supporting the children they’d made a commitment to, to stop supporting the good work of a good organization, because in their eyes, the charity was violating the clear teaching of scripture. The blowback was so intense that within just one day of their announcement, World Vision announced that it had changed its mind, and in order to make its critics happy, it would continue in its discriminatory hiring practices.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

As we continue through the Lenten season, this Sunday we think about repentance. Repentance within ourselves as individuals, when we make the same mistake as the religious leaders in this story, paying more attention to Law than to Gospel. And repentance when we do the same thing collectively as the church. This Lenten season, let’s pray that where we’re blind, that Jesus would heal us, and be the light of the world for us, and give us vision just as he did with the blind man in this story. And let’s pray that the vision we would have for the world would be Jesus’ world vision, and not someone else’s.

Thanks be to God.