Gut Theology

(sermon 7/14/19)

Bones and Spock

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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A week or two ago, an old friend that I grew up with made a post on Facebook that too many Christians were supposedly making a mistake of letting their feelings and emotions guide their actions, instead of using their heads – and that that led them into bad theology and sin. What he wrote was really just a reflection of a dispute that’s older than Christianity, or religion at all, and that goes all the way back to our earliest human origins – the question of the relationship and relative importance of intellect versus emotion; of thinking versus feeling – Of Spock versus Bones; or in the verbal shorthand of our culture, of head versus heart. In our western society, we’ve tended to strongly favor head over heart, holding that intellect is superior to emotions – that intellect is based on data and logic; it’s supposedly objective; you can put it on a spreadsheet and write formulas for it; where emotions are supposedly soft, ambiguous, fuzzy; they’re unpredictable and therefore, inferior. They aren’t, my old friend would say, a reliable way to understand the reality of a situation, or specifically, a reliable way to understand God, or to understand what God wishes might be in a given situation.

You can see the head-versus-heart debate in the scriptures and in the early church in the debate over what was more important – professing the right things, or doing the right things; or as the theologians would say, the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Paul and James contribute a lot to that debate in the scriptures, and so do many of the ancient prophets, and Jesus certainly jumps into the debate with both feet. And when you look at what Jesus and the majority of those others had to say about the subject, you’ll see that they believed that both our intellects and our emotions are equally important parts of our having been created in God’s image. They’re both important kinds of intelligence. They’re both based on data inputs; different kinds of data to be sure, but important data nonetheless. And frankly, when you look at Jesus’ words and the totality of the scriptural witness, as much as it might upset our Western, supposedly objective, head-based sensibilities, if Jesus and the others did favor any one of the two over the other, it was generally the heart knowledge, the emotional intelligence, that took precedence over the head.

We see that in today’s gospel text, the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man had questioned Jesus about how to inherit eternal life. When pushed by Jesus to try to answer his own question about what it would take, the man rattled off the Law, the scriptural commandments that he’d learned in Sunday School when he was small that he was supposed to believe, and he’d apparently taken them to heart. But then Jesus pushed him further, saying it wasn’t enough to just say he believed these things were correct; he had to actually let his emotions kick in and put those intellectual propositions into actual practice.

In this parable that Jesus offered to explain his point, the first two people who walked by the beaten and suffering man, one of their own countrymen, both were upstanding religious men who professed all those same commandments as the man who had questioned Jesus – they could have rattled off the same list of commandments from the Torah, the Law.

We’ve all seen and heard of the horrible situation on our southern border right now, with refugees, asylum-seekers; men, women, and children; being detained in vastly overcrowded facilities and often being denied the basic essentials of health and hygiene. We’ve all heard about the obscene policy of forcibly separating children, even infants, from their parents. Recently, during a television segment discussing those situations, a well-known commentator on a national news network said that well, yes, it’s a sad situation and all, but actually, you know, those aren’t our children. This was the mindset of those first two men who walked past the beaten men in the parable and did nothing. It was a shame, to be sure, but it really wasn’t any real concern of theirs. He wasn’t their problem.

These two men couldn’t make the connection that the religious Law that they professed and said they believed in was really a call to act with compassion – with their feelings and emotions – and that sometimes, the right practice of the intent of the Law might require them to act contrary to the letter of that Law.

Jesus tells us that the third man to come along was a Samaritan – a foreigner, part of a group who were despised by the Jews, and vice versa. The Samaritan wasn’t a part of the Jewish religious tradition; for all we know, he may not have been an adherent of any religion at all. And he knew that on any other day, the man he saw lying in a pool of blood along the side of the road could very possibly have been a serious threat to him. He’d probably have hurt the Samaritan, thrown a rock at him, or worse, if they’d met on the street. Still, whether he was an adherent of the Jewish faith or not, the Samaritan had the same Law within him that was professed by the others who’d come along, but in his case, it was written on his heart instead of his head.

Our Bible translation says that the Samaritan felt “pity” for the beaten man. That’s an unfortunate translation that doesn’t really capture the full meaning of the word being translated, and it implies that the Samaritan felt a sense of superiority, and was looking down on the beaten man. But this word being translated actually means that he felt deep, extreme compassion for him. Today, we’d say that our heart ached for the man, or that our heart went out to him, or was broken for him. In Jesus’ time they’d have conveyed the same idea by talking about their inner organs, their intestines – their guts. In fact, that’s actually what this Greek word literally refers to; it means that the Samaritan felt a deep compassion to the core of his intestines, his guts, for the suffering man, his would-be enemy. The Samaritan allowed his emotions, his gut, to rule the day, to write his theology, and not his head. And this, of all the possible stories Jesus could weave, was the illustration that he used to teach what’s most important to God, and what eternal life is all about. Head theology is good and important, but only in so far as it’s interpreted and converted into “Gut Theology.”

It’s gut theology that we celebrate today, as we recognize and commission all those in this congregation who will be living out their faith by working with Habitat for Humanity this year. If you’re one of those workers, realize that you are all gut theologians. Realize that in God’s eyes, every one of you who frames a wall in the name of God’s love is as important a theologian as St. Augustine; every one of you who hangs a window or paints a ceiling is as important a theologian as John Calvin; every one of you who makes and distributes lunches is as important a theologian as Karl Barth.

This week our Puerto Rico mission trip workers – our Puerto Rico gut theologians – have come back safe and sound, and now, we’re commissioning another group of people to go out from here to put right belief into right practice. In several weeks, we’re gong to host an event to highlight some of the many ways that all of us can be gut theologians, and a number of the sermons between now and then will highlight some of those ways, too. It’s important that in some way or another, each one of us finds a way to convert right belief into the more important right practice – to become a gut theologians ourselves. Out of gratitude for the grace and the love that God has poured upon all of us, we need to hear the wisdom of our heads, but to act based on the wisdom of our feelings. To do anything less would be… well, illogical.

Thanks be to God.

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Coming and Going

(sermon 7/7/19 – Immigration Sunday)

go away doormat
Elisha’s doormat

2 Kings 5:1-14

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”

So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

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Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

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The prophet Elisha may not be the strangest person in the Bible, but he certainly ranks up there, which is impressive given just how relatively little the scriptures tell us about him. Unlike his mentor Elijah, who never seemed to be at a loss for words, Elisha actually didn’t say much. Most of the scriptural record of him focuses on supernatural miracles he performed – making oil mysteriously not run out, raising a boy from the dead, making an axe head float in water – usually without much conversation from him surrounding it. In one case, Elisha wanted to say something to a woman who’s been offering him hospitality in her home for years, so he has his personal assistant Gehazi bring the woman to him – in her own home – and while she’s standing there right in front of him, Elisha tells Gehazi, “Tell the woman…” what he wants to say, refusing to speak directly to her while she was standing right in front of him and must have been thinking “Well what am I, chopped liver?”

Another time, in maybe the most bizarre of Elisha stories, Elisha is being hounded by a large crowd of young boys who are teasing Elisha because he’s bald, so he summons two bears to come down out of the woods and maul 42 of the boys, indicating that Elisha had anger management issues, to put it mildly.

That’s all a long-winded way of making it clear that Elisha was not by any stretch of the imagination a people-person, and that sets the stage for the story we heard about him this morning. Naaman, a powerful, highly decorated, well respected five-star general in the army of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, hears that this odd little man of God in the Samaria – this backwater, the armpit of the universe by Naaman’s estimation, might be able to cure him of this ailment that he’s been suffering from for so long. So at least for a little while, he pushes down his substantial ego and goes to get an audience with  Elisha.

Of course, we heard that isn’t exactly how things played out. When Naaman and his entourage arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha wouldn’t even agree to see this foreign bigshot in person. He sends out some unnamed lackey to tell Naaman to go jump in the lake, almost literally. Elisha instructed the lackey to tell Naaman to just go bathe in the Jordan River nearby, which in that location was likely muddy, and brackish, and hardly more than a large creek, something that looked like if you tried to bathe in it you’d probably come out dirtier than when you’d gone in. This was too much for Naaman’s ego, and he decides to go home, unhealed, until some of his people talk some sense into him. Finally, Naaman gives in, and does what he’s been told, and he ends up heading home healed and humbled, and all without Elisha ever having to debase himself by actually meeting Naaman.

There’s a bit of a reversal of this situation in today’s gospel reading. There, Jesus sends his disciples out to engage directly with people throughout the countryside, to heal the suffering and proclaim God’s good news, rather than waiting for them to come to them, as Naaman came to Elisha, to receive God’s blessings. When the disciples did this, and they return, they’re joyful as they tell Jesus all about what had happened, and their experiences. You can imagine the excitement in their voices. Clearly, this was a transformative experience for them, and you can almost hear them tell Jesus that most  often-heard comment made by people coming back from a mission trip, that they know they helped others, but they’d received so much more than what they’d given. I’m sure that when our group in Puerto Rico gets home, many of them will say the same thing.

That seems to be an important way that God works within us. We’re called to be compassionate toward others, to proclaim God’s good news of love for them, to be the face; the heart, hands, and feet of Christ to them – but at the same time, we experience God, we learn about God, we’re transformed by God, largely by coming into contact and relationship with them.  They have things to teach us – about them, about God, about ourselves. That act of being open to and receiving others seems, in fact, to possibly be the most important way that we grown in our faith and see God in the world.

So let’s think back, then, to that story of Elisha and Naaman. There are all sorts of things that a person could draw out of this story, but I suspect that more often than not, it’s told as a morality play in which the moral of the story is “Don’t be a Naaman” – don’t let our pride and ego get in the way of God working goodness in our lives. And that’s a good enough point, I guess, but today I want to suggest seeing the story from a different angle, one where the moral of the story might be “Don’t be an Elisha.” I imagine Elisha, sitting in his house after this encounter, feeling all smug and superior for having basically just phoned in Naaman’s healing, without ever having any actual personal contact with him. And in the midst of that feeling of superiority, I imagine Elisha passing by a mirror in his house, and stopping for a moment to look at himself in it; and as he’s looking into his own eyes he hears the voice of God saying “Really, Elisha? Do you know what you just missed? Do you really know everything about why I sent that man to meet you? Do you realy think you couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from him? Do you know what I’d had in mind for you, what I wanted you to learn through him, how I wanted to make you a better servant of mine, by meeting and talking with him? Really, Elisha?” And I imagine Elisha realizing what an opportunity he’d just missed, how he’d frustrated God’s good intentions for him, by not opening himself up to this other person, and suddenly, he couldn’t look into his own eyes anymore, and he quietly walked away.

This past week, we’ve been celebrating our American ideal of independence. This coming week, let’s also try to recognize and celebrate the interdependence that God has created us for, and designed us for, and continually is drawing us toward. Let’s be thankful for the good news that God loves us. And God loves and all the people that Jesus’ disciples helped. And God loves the Elishas of the world, and all the Naamans of the world. Let’s remember and be grateful for the truth that just as God uses us to transform the lives of others, God also uses those others, however we go to them or however they come to us, to transform us, too.

So whose life will you transform this week? And who will you allow to transform your own?

Thanks be to God.

Seeing God in Ward 5B

(sermon 6/23/19)

aids quilt

View of approximately half of the National Mall in Washington DC, displaying the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Currently weighing over 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Each panel measures 3’x6′ and is made by loved ones of the victim. It currently occupies 1.3 million square feet, and can no longer be displayed in its entirety on the entire National Mall. It consists of more than 48,000 panels honoring more than 94,000 individuals. This is 14% of the total number of people who have died from AIDS in the United States alone.

1 Kings 19:1-15

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return; and on your way, go by way of the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

 

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Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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Maybe you could think of today’s sermon as a play in four acts, with each act dealing with finding and experiencing God in surprising and unexpected circumstances. The first act was our reading from the First Book of Kings. There, we see the prophet Elijah, who’s on the run. He’s just publicly humiliated the prophets of the god Baal – the god worshiped by the evil queen, Jezebel. As if publicly humiliating these prophets wasn’t enough, Elijah also killed them all, which would seem to be a bit excessive to anyone, and it was certainly seen as excessive to Jezebel, who swore to capture Elijah and give him a taste of his own medicine. So Elijah did what any reasonable person would do if their life was in danger in their own country – he fled across the border. Feeling that the whole world was against him, he trekked all the way to Mt. Horeb – which most of us probably know better as Mt. Sinai, where Elijah knew God had appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Elijah knows the story: God appeared to Moses in a cloud, with thunder and lightning and wind and a loud booming voice – really, you know this; I know you’ve seen the movie. And Elijah has seen the movie, too, and so in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Elijah wanted to have a meeting with the boss now, too, as it were. He wanted to offer God a list of grievances and get some advice, and he figures this is the best place to find God. Well, as we heard, Elijah definitely got the big theatrics – wind, earthquake, fire – but ultimately, Elijah encounters God in a completely unexpected way – in the quiet. In the small, still voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” along with the implied “Now quit complaining and get back to work.” Elijah encountered God in the way and place he least expected.

The second act in this play is our reading from Luke. Here, Jesus had gone to Capernaum, a favorite place of his and one that he knew well. On this particular trip, he got a request for help from a centurion in the Roman army. This man is essentially part of the muscle of the Roman Empire, imposing the Roman thumb on top of the local residents, keeping them in line and quiet and, most importantly, paying their taxes. By any measure, a Roman centurion wouldn’t ordinarily be seen as a friend of the townspeople, but apparently, this one was at least a bit different, having helped the people build a synagogue. So when the centurion seeks out Jesus’ help to heal a beloved slave who was near death, the townspeople told Jesus “Well, yes, he’s a Roman, but as Romans go he’s a decent one; you really should help him.” Of course, we heard about the centurion’s faith, the trust he placed in Jesus, telling Jesus he doesn’t even need to bother himself with coming all the way to the house. He trusted in Jesus’ power and authority such that he could just will the slave’s healing from wherever he was. And just as Elijah was shocked and surprised at how he experienced God’s presence, now Jesus was similarly shocked, seeing the presence of God so powerfully, and faith exhibited so strongly, and by a Gentile, a Roman occupier of all people. Incredible!

Scene three of this play takes place in much more recent times. Since today the Presbyterian Church recognizes World AIDS Awareness Sunday, this scene takes place in the mid-1980s, in and around Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first hospital ward dedicated to treating AIDS patients, even before it was even called AIDS, at the very beginning of the epidemic when very little was understood about the disease and when people were terrified, panicked. Into this scene, enter Ronnie. Ronnie was a gay man living in the Castro District of San Francisco. He had a slight build, and he dressed flamboyantly, and talked with a lisp and he had a limp wrist and his hips swished when he walked. Ronnie was basically a walking catalogue of all of the stereotypes that the general public had negatively held, assuming all gay people were like. Add to that the fact that Ronnie could be really nasty, catty, cynical, and frankly, even bitter – which was understandable, given the physical and emotional abuse that people had heaped upon him all his life. Unlike many gay men who could blend, who could pass as straight, passing was never an option for Ronnie. He couldn’t hide who he was, and he’d paid a heavy price for it. And Ronnie’s real hot button was religion. Mention God, or Jesus, or the Church to Ronnie and he would unload a barrage of profanity and obscenity on you like you’d never heard before, and he might even physically throw something at you. That was the result of being told his entire life by people inside the church that he was a terrible person, sinful pervert who was going to hell.

And then came AIDS. Ronnie started to see his friends and acquaintances getting sick – first just a couple, and then more, and then even more. It was maybe just a few dark blotches on their skin at first, but then they’d start losing weight, and a lot of weight, fast. They’d become gaunt, and weak, and over time blotches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma would cover their bodies, and still, no one really understood what was happening. At first, “gt was just called the “gay plague,” since it was predominantly, not exclusively but predominantly, appearing in the gay community. No one really knew what to do for them. A lot of people didn’t want to do anything for them, out of fear it was contagious and they’d get “it.” And frankly, a lot of other people didn’t want to help them simply because they were supposedly just a bunch of perverts who deserved to die anyway. It was God’s punishment and condemnation, according to Jerry Falwell and others.

Ronnie started to visit his sick friends and acquaintances in their homes – especially those whose families had long ago disowned them and even whose friends had now abandoned them; the ones who had no one else. Ronnie knew what it was like to be friendless and abandoned. Some of them he didn’t know well, if at all. Still, he helped them take their medications. He helped them eat, and get dressed, and get to the doctor’s. He bathed them, and he cleaned up after them after they’d lost control of their bodily functions. And when things got worse, and they always got worse, and they were admitted to Ward 5B, Ronnie spent hours visiting them there, too. He would bring them their trays when hospital orderlies refused to deliver food into the rooms, and he’d feed them when their skeletal arms were too weak to allow them to feed themselves. He listened to them when they could talk, even when their dementia caused them to speak nonsense, and he talked to them when he wasn’t even sure they could hear him. Ronnie actually had a remarkable singing voice, and sometimes he sang to them – maybe a Top 40 hit, or a disco favorite, or maybe a showtune. On a few occasions, when they’d asked him to, Ronnie even momentarily put aside his own hostility and sang some comforting old religious hymn that they’d both remembered from being in church as kids. Just as importantly as all that, Ronnie gave them the incredible gift of simple human touch. When others wouldn’t even come in the room, he held their hands, and stroked their cheeks, and brushed their hair, and in general let them know that someone cared. That they mattered. That even if everyone else in the world had abandoned them, there was still someone who loved them.

And when they died, and they always died – they always died, thirty or forty of his friends every single year – it was Ronnie who came up with the extra money the orderlies demanded just to their bodies; and it was him who fought and argued with funeral directors who refused to take the bodies, or who wanted to charge three or four or five times their normal fee to do so. And it was often Ronnie who ultimately got their box of ashes, too, because no one else would come to claim them. And it was him who spread their ashes out over someplace that had been special in their memories: out over a mountaintop, or into the sea, deep in a lush forest, and even a few times into the parking lot of their favorite dance club. And then, after that, he went back to Ward 5B and did it all over again.

Sometimes, you see the existence and the power and the holiness of God in the most surprising of people and situations. Even though he would have sworn at you if he’d heard you say it at the time, Ronnie was the very presence of God on Ward 5B.

Both of our Lectionary texts are reminders to us to always try to see the presence of God in the world. To be prepared to see the face of God in others, sometimes even in the people you might least expect it. In the Roman centurions of the world. In the Ronnies of the world

And that brings us to the fourth act. What is the fourth act of this play? Honestly, I don’t know yet. It’s up to you and me to write it, by way of our words and actionsover the course of this coming week, and all the weeks to follow – because you see, God doesn’t want us to just see God in unexpected places; we’re called to *be* God in unexpected places. Out of gratitude for the love that God has surrounded us with, to be the face of God, the face of Christ, to someone you encounter this week. Maybe someone completely different than you are, maybe someone you don’t even know well, or maybe someone you do know and frankly, you don’t even like, and you might think wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture. We live in very trying times, as you know, and we all need to see God’s presence in more of it. So this week, find some way to be the surprising encounter with God that *they* have this week. Elijah, and Jesus, and now even Ronnie, who is now enjoying the eternal reward that God had prepared for him before he was even born, would agree.

Thanks be to God.

Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

Can You Only Imagine?

(sermon 6/9/19 – Pentecost Sunday)

pentecost-painting2

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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This morning, we remember an event that changed the world forever. Today, Pentecost Sunday, we remember the day that Jesus’ first followers made a radical shift in their mindset, going from people still often hiding behind locked doors, and when not doing that, at very least trying to not draw attention to themselves – not even the resurrection, and seeing the risen Jesus had changed that – to now being people who were literally out in the street, speaking all these languages, and proclaiming the same message that Jesus had proclaimed, the same message that had gotten him killed.

So what was it that caused such a dramatic, and dangerous, change in direction? Well, since we’ve all heard this story so many times, we know the easy answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that’s true, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that before the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the disciples first had to have time to come to terms with what all had happened, and what it all really meant. Over the better part of two months, they gradually came to understand the significance of Jesus having been killed by the powers that be. Long before anyone ever considered the idea that Jesus had to die in order to pay some debt that we owed for our sins that God demanded and we couldn’t pay ourselves – long before any medieval theologians wrote about that, even long before the apostle Paul  talked about Jesus’ death in those terms – what these first believers focused on wasn’t the idea that Jesus’ death was necessary for some cosmic business transaction with God, but rather, that Jesus’ death was the direct result of what he’d said, and taught, and done during his life. Those in positions of power, and the people who benefited from that power, saw Jesus’ message as a direct challenge to their places of power and comfort – and they were right.

So when the Spirit did come, these disciples had had the time to process all of this, and then, having been emboldened by the Spirit, they went out into the streets telling the people gathered there that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s validation of what he had proclaimed and done – that even though his opponents had tried to silence him, his message was too big and too true for even death to keep him. As he spoke to that crowd, in this part that we read today and as it continues beyond where we stopped, Peter framed the significance of Jesus’ death precisely in the context of his life – and how his message had been one of God’s love and favor for all people, especially those who were being treated unjustly by those in places of power and privilege – the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the forgotten or ignored – a message that was completely at odds with what Peter called “this corrupt generation,” and it was that, he told them, that they needed to repent for and be saved from.

So to summarize, in the time from the resurrection to Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples had had sufficient time to consider and start to understand the meaning of it all, and then the Spirit gave them the ability and the desire and the courage to catch God’s vision and run with it.

Two thousand years later, with every new person and every new generation, we’re continually re-learning and re-catching the vision that God has for us, and we’re running with it, too. And yes, honestly, sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes it takes us a long time – sometimes a very long time – to back up and get it right. But the fact remains that God is speaking into all of our hearts, giving us time to discern and understand, and giving us the Spirit to dwell within us just as was the case with those first disciples, enabling us to catch God’s vision for us, and in our own time and place, and run with it, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately within the context of our own congregation – how this congregation has grown and changed from its origins, when the congregation was mostly made up of potato farmers who primarily decided to build their own church here just so they wouldn’t have to use the toll road to get to church on Sunday mornings. We’re so much different from that now. In fact, we’re different now than we were even just 20 years ago. We’re more involved in mission initiatives than we were in the past, we’re involved in social justice work, our involvement with immigrants and refugees has expanded. We’re building houses with Habitat, we’re working for creation care and decreasing our own congregational carbon footprint, and yes, you called a pastor who even ten years ago, you would never have even considered. Later this week, members of our congregation will go downtown and be part of a protest march led by the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to protest the unjust cash bail system and call for its elimination, and just a couple days later, members of Springdale, for the third year in a row, will show that we’re a welcoming and affirming church by taking part in the Gay Pride parade. Can you imagine that?

The truth is, we’re doing so many things that I don’t have time to mention this morning, and each of them are ways that we offer witness to, and work to advance, that gospel proclaimed by Jesus that was too big and too true for death to silence it. In all likelihood, in the next few weeks we’ll sign on as part of the denomination’s “Matthew 25” initiative, which asks congregations to focus over the coming year on at least one way of working in the world to either “1.) build congregational vitality; 2.) dismantle structural racism; or 3.) eradicate systemic poverty.” And then, at the end of the year, to submit a brief report about our experiences. If anything, our biggest challenge here will be deciding which one of the many things we do to report about.

There’s no question that our congregation has caught God’s vision. Can you only imagine where that vision will take us in even just the next five years?

And beyond the idea of our congregation catching the vision – can you only imagine where God will lead you, personally, in that same timeframe? Pentecost is a great time to think about that – to carve out some time in your busy schedule to think about what Jesus’ life, his message, his teachings, really means in your own life. How does that change how you’d be living otherwise?

And most importantly – where do you see God’s Spirit leading you? What is God’s vision for you now? Where, and what, is God drawing you toward, and realize that in all likelihood, that be a very different direction from where it was just a handful of years ago.

Can you only imagine – what amazing, and yes, sometimes scary, but always wonderful things, does God have in store for you, and you, and you, and me, tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Whatever it is, and wherever it leads, you can rest assured that God will always be walking that journey with us, leading us, comforting us, challenging us, inspiring us, and emboldening us, and all of that coming out of the unimaginable, unending love that God has for us. And that’s good news, whatever language you hear it in.

Gracias a Dios.

“And She Prevailed upon Us”

(sermon 5/26/19)

trust women

Acts 16:9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

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The town of Celebration, Florida was established in 1994. it was the brainchild of the Disney corporation, who used some of the country’s most well-known planners and architects to create a new community, based on the principles of “New Urbanism” – which, in a way, was actually “old urbanism.” Its design features small yards, houses built close together, and all within easy walking distance to shops, businesses, schools, library, and so on. It was designed to combat the typical suburban sprawl of most developments  and minimize our dependence on cars, and to encourage walking and biking and neighborliness and community. The buildings are all of one traditional style or another; comfortable front porches to sit on and interact with neighbors are the norm on the houses. It was meant to be a showcase, a model of all the best that small-town life can be. Norton Commons, in fact, is a smaller local example of New Urbanist planning and design that follows a lot of the thinking behind Celebration. Twenty-five years into that grand experiment, there are a few cracks showing around the edges of the grand experiment; things didn’t always turn out as well as hoped, but by and large, Celebration has been relatively successful in accomplishing its goals, and it’s a very nice place to live.

In the time of the apostles, the city of Philippi was in a way the same kind of thing. It was located in Macedonia, in what’s now the northeastern portion of modern-day Greece. It was built by the Roman Empire as a colony settled mostly by veteran Roman soldiers and was a model city showcasing all the best of Roman life and culture, featuring a large Roman amphitheater and other cultural elements that you would have found in Rome.

It’s here, in Philippi, that the apostle Paul finds himself in today’s reading from Acts. Here, he meets up with a group of Jewish women who have gathered to pray and worship God along the river. One of them is a woman named Lydia. Lydia wasn’t a Jew; she was what the New Testament writers called a “God-worshiper” – a Gentile who for one reason or another never converted to Judaism, but who still worshiped the Jews’ God, and who followed most of the Jewish moral and ethical teachings. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, which is a very expensive luxury – only the wealthiest, the “one percenters” of the day, could afford it. Just the fact that Lydia was successfully running any business, and was the head of a household, a homeowner, and apparently owned a  house large enough to accommodate her own household as well as Paul and his fellow travelers, was impressive enough – and based on the nature of her business, she must have traveled in some pretty well-connected circles. She would have had to be careful practicing her non-Roman, non-sanctioned religion; it could have been bad for business, and she would have been taking an even greater risk to be associated with this new Jewish cult that these men, these foreigners, these outside agitators who had come to stir the pot and promote this new Jewish sub-cult here, in this very Roman city. Still, she did offer her hospitality to them, and she apparently laid out a very reasoned, logical, and apparently, a very persuasive argument to Paul – who we know from the writings attributed to him,  had, at best, some relatively ambiguous thoughts about women in positions of power or leadership. But as the passage says, she succeeded in “prevailing upon” them to stay with her. Lydia must have really impressed Paul and the others with her words and actions; when they left the city, they left her in charge of the newly-formed church, which, we read later in this chapter of Acts,  continued to meet in Lydia’s house.

The truth is that women had played a huge role in the beginnings of our faith. Of course, Mary was the first person God told about Jesus’ impending arrival. Later, when Jesus was a man, it was the Syrophoenician woman he met who helped him to understand that he’d been sent to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Mary Magdalen was the first person to encounter the risen Jesus, and the first to report to the others that he’d risen. And here, in today’s story, Lydia becomes an important leader in the early church.

In each of these instances, the men in the story had a hard time believing the women, trusting them, accepting the truth in what they were saying. And honestly, things don’t seem to be a whole lot better today. Sadly, even now we men often have trouble hearing and accepting the wisdom in the words of female voices. We men have still been raised in a culture that in ways spoken and unspoken teach us to accept the big lie that men just know better. That when it comes to certain things, women just don’t understand, so we have to explain things to them, and to make some decisions for them, supposedly for their own good.

Well pardon me, but from the standpoint of our Christian faith – from the standpoint of the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus Christ – that’s just stupid, and in  my opinion, sinful. We profess a faith that was, as I just pointed out, largely founded on the voices and experiences of women. We profess a faith that claims that all of us, male and female, are created in God’s image, including our intellectual abilities, and all having equal human dignity and value. We profess to be members of the kingdom of God, where according to scripture we are so equal that “there is no longer male and female.” So for us men to continue to not listen to the voices, the wisdom, the experiences of women – to not listen to the Lydias of our own time – when they try to prevail upon us about something, is simply not in accord with the faith that we profess.

Right now, there are millions of Lydias trying to get our attention, as in multiple states, laws are being enacted to all but eliminate, and in some cases to even criminalize, a woman’s right to choose for herself whether having an abortion is the right thing or not. Millions of women in this country – and to be clear, most of them Christians – are speaking out against these laws, trying to prevail upon us with the reality of their own wisdom and God-given right to make that decision for themselves; trying to prevail upon us that frankly, such a decision isn’t anyone else’s business but theirs.

I’m not going to tell anyone what they should believe about whether abortion is right or wrong. There are plenty of preachers in plenty of pulpits who want to do that; that’s not what I’m doing here today.  I’m not here to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t believe for themselves. I will point out, though, that it’s the position of the Presbyterian Church  that abortion is never the ideal, and a decision to have one is a choice that shouldn’t be made casually – but that it might still be the best of all possible choices for  woman. That it is still a potentially moral choice for a woman based upon her own circumstances, her own situation, her own beliefs, and her own conscience. And that it is improper for anyone else to force their own beliefs on them, and to deny them the God-given human dignity of making such a choice for themselves.

Most importantly, what I want to suggest today is that we all might best live out the principles of our faith – the gospel as lived and taught by Jesus – if we truly listened to the truth and wisdom that today’s Lydias are trying to tell us – and frankly, whether about these new laws, or any other aspects of their being treated unequally in our society. Women know their own situation and conscience better than any man can ever know for them, so whatever anyone personally believes about abortion, we should respect women’s God-given right to freedom of conscience, and to make their own choices based on that conscience. And I say that as a man who was conceived when his parents were high school students, who dropped out of school to get married and raise me, and eventually, my two brothers. I know full well that if abortion had been a legal choice back then, I might not even be here today. Still, I’m convinced that the position most consistent with our faith is to not interfere with a women’s right to make such a decision for herself.

The women in those examples from scripture that I’d mentioned earlier did eventually prevail upon the men who didn’t originally accept what they were saying, and the women were ultimately proven to be right. I truly believe we’d all be living more faithfully if we’d follow those men’s lead, and to let our modern-day Lydias prevail upon us as well.

Thanks be to God.

But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.