Jesus, Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well

6 04 2016

The following is a reflection on the Gospel of John, Chapters 3 and 4, shared with the Anglican Dominicans and members of All Souls Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on April 3, 2016, when I made Oblation promises to the Order.

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When Sr Elena first told us that our homilies today would be drawn from the Gospel of John Chs. 3 and 4, there were admittedly equal parts joy as well as fear and trembling.  Joy, because I have been blessed to preach on these texts before, and fear and trembling because these were so familiar, what could I possibly have to say that would speak to a group of men and women who study the Bible and preach it as a central part of our vocation!

For one thing, in John 3 we find one of the first verses that we memorize during our years at Sunday School, it is a staple of themes that occur during Vacation Bible School, and often times it is used as a shorthand version of the Christian faith. We see it everywhere, on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and in recent years we have even seen it stenciled under the eyes of a certain football player.

If we look at John 4, we find the familiar story of Jesus meeting a woman at Jacob’s Well.  Jesus was tired and needed to rest, so his disciples went on ahead into town for food while he recovered from the journey.  We can surmise that this woman is fairly low on the social ladder in town, for people normally went out to draw the day’s water early in the morning, and it was also quite a social time to catch up with neighbors.  But no one would go out in the heat of the day.  Think about it.  Would you start a back breaking project around lunch time in August?  Of course not! For myself, when I lived in Key West, I was hard pressed to carry my laundry three blocks to the Laundromat at any other time except right when they opened at 7am!  So something must be going on for this woman to avoid the rest of town while she went to the well for the day’s water.

It is also appropriate here to do a very quick study in contrasts between Jesus meeting the woman at the well and Jesus meeting Nicodemus in Chapter 3.  Nicodemus was a man, a Pharisee, well respected, and part of the religious establishment.  He had it all going for him.  But when he came to talk to Jesus, he felt the need to do so under the cover of darkness so he wouldn’t be found out. He used flowery and flattering language to even butter Jesus up.  The woman, on the other hand, does not even have a name.  She was also a Samaritan and an outsider among her community of outcasts.  In short, she was a nobody.  Not fit for polite society.  Someone to be avoided.  When she goes to draw water at noon it is because the heat of the sun is easier to bear than the shame of her embarrassment.  But Jesus meets her.  He engages with her, and they have this wholly remarkable conversation.  It cannot be understated all the social conventions that just went out the window.  Not only was Jesus a Jew and the woman a Samaritan, but men and women simply did not speak to one another except within the context of family settings.  But as we have seen before, Jesus has no qualms about breaking all the usual rules.  Whereas Jesus brushes off Nicodemus’ questions and poo-poohs them as if to say, “You should know better than to ask questions like that!” he takes this woman seriously.  She MATTERS.

And as they talk, Jesus speaks to her of living water that comes from a well that never runs dry.  He names the source of her shame that she has had five husbands over the years and the man she is with now is not her husband at all.  She realizes there is more to this man than meets the eye and calls him a prophet.  Then they start to talk about God, and it is here where Jesus reveals himself, who he REALLY is by saying two of the words that God used to reveal to Moses exactly who he was and what kind of God He is: “I AM.”

The Gospel of John is famous for, among other things, several “I am” sayings that Jesus uses to describe who he is.  “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  It appears for the first time here in the most direct terms possible.  He doesn’t reveal himself to a learned man of polite society like Nicodemus.  He reveals himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, to someone polite society considers to be a nobody.  He reveals to her that he knows exactly why she is living on the margins of her community and still he accepts her.  He respects her.  He loves her, just as God so loved the world.

As for Nicodemus, Jesus patiently begins by comparing his mission to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Israelites would not die when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. The serpents that assault us today are no less deadly for they come in the forms of our own vices and shortcomings. These serpents may not only be the internal things we struggle with, but plenty of outside forces which seem to hem us in on every turn from which there may be no escape. But, as Moses fashioned the bronze serpent to show to the Israelites in the wilderness, God sends his Son to be lifted up on the cross for the salvation of the entire human race and all of Creation.

“God so loved the world.”

If we look at the Greek, we know that when the Bible says “God so loved the world” the word that is used is agape, which is the term for God’s unconditional love.  Hebrew, like Greek, has several words for love, and one of those words is chesed, which is usually translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness” or “covenantal loyalty,” but in context in which chesed is used, those don’t quite seem to do it justice.  In her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal Priest and Spiritual Director calls chesed God’s fierce, burning love.  It is an abiding love that is reserved to express the commitment and love that God has for his people.  It is not a mere feeling but an all-pervasive force like gravity.

For all of his power, his good works and compassion, at the end in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus relied and trusted on nothing but Gods’ chesed.  It is no accident that we say that his final words from the Cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  The Gospel of Matthew sums up Jesus’ own recognition of the need to rely on God alone and not his own power when he said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

But in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus is also pointing to the resurrection where Jesus is lifted from the grave by the power and love of God, a love that is stronger than death itself. Because of our faith in what God has done in his Son, because we trust that God loves us, we inherit that promise, the gift of eternal life.  This is echoed in our Eucharist prayer when it is said “By his death, he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.”

As Anglican Dominicans, we commit ourselves to daily prayer, daily study of the Scriptures and proclamation through preaching.  At Seminary, I’m surrounded by some very smart people who are as every bit as brainy and Academic as we Dominicans have a reputation for being.  We can sit around and argue the finer points of doctrine and the underlying meaning behind every smallest act of liturgy. Sometimes we seminarians need reminding at the end of all our study, at the end of all of our book knowledge and learning ultimately stands Jesus.  At the end of the day, all we can do is fall on God’s chesed and agape, his fierce abiding burning love for us just as Jesus did in Gethsemane … and that will be what carries us through.  It is because of the life changing power of the love of God that we can say that we no longer live just for ourselves, but for him, in him and through him who died and rose again.

Every time I get bogged down in trying to answer these questions, I recall a Charlie Brown comic strip where Peppermint Patty and Marcy are discussing about how a faucet works. Marci goes into the basics of plumbing and water pressure. Peppermint Patty looks thoughtfully at the faucet with the running water and says to her friend, “I don’t care how it works. I’m just glad it works.” And it works because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It works because Jesus meets the woman and the well and offers her living water which cools her shame when society tells her she is a nobody and quenches the deepest thirst for community and communion with God.  It’s like that old Southern Gospel Song with the Chorus that says “I cannot tell you how, and I cannot tell you why, but He’ll tell us all about it in the by and by.”

Amen.

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What are you Looking For

20 01 2014

Text:  John 1: 29-34; Isaiah 49:1-7

Any time someone steps in a new pulpit, you cannot help but feel humbled.  I am especially honored by Father Hooper and especially by you, the first Episcopal congregation in the state of Florida to be here today.  I pray the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart ne not only acceptable to God, but may edify you as well.

I speak in the Name of God … Father, Son and Holy and Spirit.

Like many people in this age of the internet, I regularly follow a few websites and blogs, and one of those is called “Beauty Tips for Ministers.”  Beauty Tips for Ministers is maintained by Unitarian clergy named Victoria Weinstein, and the tagline for this site is “Because you are in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”  As you may expect, this blog has more than a few tongue-in-cheek moments such as looking to someone right here in Key West (female impersonator Randy Roberts no less!) for make-up inspiration.  Now while Beauty Tips for Ministers is geared mostly towards female members of the clergy, men should not fear for she will on occasion list some sage advice for us to follow, such as “Jesus will not judge you” if we use things like eye gel or moisturizer.  Alongside of this, Victoria has a few common sense insights into things like how to tell if your suit fits well or what kind of shoes are appropriate for a given occasion.  But what I think makes this blog particularly special is that she tries to show how all of us as Christians, not just pastors, priests and ministers, can be an Incarnational presence to the world through an intentional practice of self-care.  In this season of Epiphany, we journey with Jesus as he performs many signs and wonders and teaches us how we are to show to the world the love of God so that we may point to him as the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.  In other words, in this season, we see how Jesus really lives into one his titles, Emmanuel, which of course is “God is with us.”  And that brings us to our Gospel lesson for the day …

This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany and the lesson always comes from the Gospel of John.  Now, the Gospel of John is very different than Matthew, Mark and Luke because he does not simply tell a narrative of Jesus’ miracles interwoven with his sayings and other events in his life.  John tries to explain why Jesus does what he does and to paints Jesus in a more divine light than his counterparts by the use of signs and wonders.  In Epiphany, we celebrate God manifesting himself in human form, the enfleshment of God we call the Incarnation. So, you see it makes sense that we start the journey through this season with this Gospel so we are grounded in this idea and can view the rest of our lessons on the following Sundays in this light.

Today we get John’s account of Jesus baptism and the calling of the very first disciples.  The baptism itself is not described, but John the Baptist retells what he experienced by focusing on the signs and wonders and using them to point to Jesus as the Son of God.  This had such a tremendous impact on him that any time Jesus enters the scene, John the Baptist stops what he’s doing and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  Eventually we see John’s disciples begin to peel off and follow Jesus, just as Jesus begins to attracts followers in his own right.  John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as ranking ahead of him, so to speak, so in a way he is giving his disciples permission to leave and to move on.

I am sure all of us are familiar with the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign which among other things sparked a great and profitable merchandising and branding opportunity (though that is an entire sermon in and of itself!), but the point of it on its face was to invite reflection and self-examination on what to do when you are faced with a moral dilemma.  Perhaps a better question may be “What Would John the Baptist Do?”  All John the Baptist does is point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Part of our calling, our vocation as disciples of Christ is how we present ourselves and how we reach out the world pointing to Jesus and saying, “Look!  God is here!  God is in our midst and at work!  Working through us, in us, in SPITE of us, and standing here with us!  Behold the Lamb of God!”  And maybe … that is enough.  But notice that Jesus, in turn, as he is calling the first of the disciples is asking an even better question:  “What are you looking for?”

“What are you looking for?”

Now there is something for self-examination and reflection if there ever was.  It is not enough to say that you want to follow Christ, even though that is quite a very good start and at the end of the day, I am sure God will take it, but it also begs the question, “Why?”  What does it mean to say we are disciples of Christ?  Is it enough to say we believe in Him?  That we are in church most if not every Sunday?  That we tithe? That we adhere to a certain set of rules and doctrines?  We can argue that many of those things are part of it, but they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  First we must answer the question, “What are you looking for?” and respond to Jesus’ call to “Come, and see.”

Some times it is difficult to hear that call.  Many times in the middle of all our busy lives when we are confronted with something bigger than ourselves, we can be oblivious to God’s call and even God’s presence.  And sometimes … we mess up.  I am as guilty as anyone of not my best foot forward, holding off things until the last minute, and saying exactly the most insensitive and offensive thing at the absolute worst time.  But, there is Good News.  God is faithful.  Our Old Testament lesson covers one of the Servant Songs of Isaiah, which are usually attributed to being about Jesus, but they really could apply to any of us as individuals or as a community.  Isaiah shows how the servant acknowledges his own shortcomings and failures to live up to the person God is calling him to be.  Then, in spite of that failure, the servant holds to hope and remembers God’s call; then, wonder of wonders what does God do?  God doesn’t put the servant off in the penalty box to “abhor himself and repent in dust and ashes.”  God enlarges the scope of the servant’s mission.  No longer will the servant be a light to just one nation, but to the entire world.

You see, because of the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus, being a disciple is now a two-way street.  It is about a relationship, not a set of rules.  It is us walking, talking and listening to God just as God walks, talks and listens to us.  The story of our faith is not so much about how mankind went off and searched for God, but how God became a man and went searching for us.  It reminds me of that passage later in the Gospel of John where Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not think you chose me, but I chose you and called you.”

Just over 100 years ago, the Flagler Railroad was finished and connected the Florida Keys to the mainland.  It was a long trip and sometimes it could be very difficult just like our own walk with Jesus can be.  There will be many times when our own journey is hard and difficult and there will be times when we want to give up.  We are afraid we just won’t get it right or we will say the wrong thing or act foolish, but the Good News of following Christ is that Jesus doesn’t require us to be right all the time … just to be faithful.  To keep at it even when we do want to give up.  Because of the Incarnation, we do not just follow a God who asks us to sit back and say, “Don’t worry about it … I’ve got this.”  The Good News I have for you today is because of the Incarnation, when we cry out to God, he says to us, “It’s ok … I get it.”

So when we get anxious, when we feel like a failure or we start to worry about any number of things going on in our lives and we say, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t pay my rent, I’ve lost contact with my family and friends, I can’t find a good job, I feel so lonely, depressed and discouraged and sometimes I feel as dead as a corpse.”  The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible you will find that every time that Jesus meets a corpse that dead person gets up and walks.  We just need to remember to keep walking with Jesus because we can rest assured he is walking with us.

He gets it.

He gets all the joy and the triumph, the pain and the sorrow.

Being a disciple is like being on a train.  It runs in two directions … to God and then back again.  You can’t help but be reminded of the lyrics to the song, “There ain’t but one train upon this track, it runs to heaven and it runs right back.”  Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that as long as we are faithful in our walk with Jesus, this Great Gospel Train is bound for nothing short of glory.

So when Jesus asks us, “What are you looking for?” our response may be, “Actually … I think I’ve been looking for you.”  And then Jesus will respond in turn and say, “You know what?  I’ve been looking for you, too.”

God has come in the flesh and has come looking for us.  He gets what it means to be us.  And that just might be one of the greatest signs and wonders of them all.

 

Amen.





George Jefferson and the Good Samaritan

7 08 2013

Text:  Luke 10: 25-37

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus asks, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Does anyone remember the TV show, “The Jeffersons?” For those of you who may not know, this was a sit-com which focused on the lives of a George and Louise Jefferson, an African-American couple from Queens who have made it big and have moved into a nice mostly white Upper East Side apartment building along with their son Lionel.  While thinking of this parable there is one episode which came to mind.  One of the Jefferson’s neighbors Tom, who is white, was robbed near the building and decided to arrange a tenants meeting.  It turns out that there was already a meeting nearby by a group of folks who were concerned about the wrong kind of people coming into the neighborhood and Tom was invited to attend.  Tom asked if he could bring some of his friends along and the organizers said, “Sure!”  Tom brought along some other tenants in the building including George, who as I mentioned earlier is black.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when it turns out the meeting was organized by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Needless to say, this proved to be rather tense for everyone and almost reaches to the level of violence when the leader of the Klan meeting started to have a heart attack.  George, in an act of compassion and mercy, ceases arguing with the Klansman and performs CPR on their leader and saves his life.  When the leader of the group revived and learned that his life had been saved by a black man, someone he despised with every inch of his life, he remained ungrateful and even told his son, “You should have let me die.”  But the son was so moved by the sight of someone he had been raised to hate and fear and call an enemy saving the life of his father that his heart was changed, and he renounced his membership with the Klan.

The story of the Good Samaritan is one that just about everyone knows, even if they are not a Christian.  It would not be so far-fetched to say that this parable contains the essence of what it means to be and act like a Christian.  It is so familiar, that when it comes up as the sermon topic for day, if you are sitting in the pews it is very tempting to settle back, tune out and wait for the invitation to rehearse the Creed.  If you are the preacher, it is very tempting to dust off a previous sermon on a timeless classic, update it a bit, and put yourself on autopilot.  The challenge with this and every familiar story that we hear is to listen to it with fresh ears.

Before we get into the parable itself, we find out the reason why it was told in the first place.  A lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life.  A better word for lawyer here might be scribe, or a lawyer whose realm of expertise was biblical law.  Both Jesus and the lawyer agree that everything hinges on loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength … all that you are … and also in loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  The lawyer though, requests further clarification, as lawyers often do.  He asks, “Who do you mean exactly? Tell me about this neighbor of whom you speak?”  And then Jesus launches into his story.

A man on a journey is waylaid by robbers and is left to die in a ditch.  Respectable members of the community pass by but do nothing.  Maybe they feel there is nothing they can do.  He might be already dead or even worse this might even be a trap playing on people’s sense of compassion.  The one who does finally offer help is one who is an outcast, a rival.

It is very difficult to convey the distaste, the revulsion, or even hatred that the Jews of the day felt towards the Samaritans.  These were two peoples who had nothing to do with each other.  I suppose a similar comparison might be a member of the Hatfield family coming to the rescue of one of the McCoys.  Or a member of the Palestinian group Hamas saving the life of an Israeli. The Samaritans were despised so much by the Jews that at the end of the story when Jesus asks the lawyer “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can only reply by saying what the Samaritan did and making a point to NOT identify him by nationality or race.  In short, the Samaritan was the enemy.

But it is in this antagonism, in the mutual distrust between these two peoples that we get what this parable is about.  Many who read this parable will take out of it some “feel-good” lessons on the importance of random acts of kindness, charity to travelers or even helping out someone who is down on their luck.  It is in this parable that we start to get a sense of what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemies” and what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The lawyer, in his questioning, wants to define who deserves his love, but the parable says that love knows no boundaries.  To understand what it means to love your neighbor means a willingness to see an enemy as a benefactor, an agent of the Kingdom of God.  It means a willingness to help someone whom you would rather have nothing to do with.  When the Spirit of God moves us to act with compassion on one whom we might normally think does not deserve it … or when someone with whom we are at odds lends us a hand when we need it the most, there is no longer such a thing as an Enemy.

In that act of compassion and mercy, we find it is nothing less than an encounter with Jesus himself.  We look around to discover we are no longer in a ditch on the road to Jericho, but we find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  Laying aside our burdens of fear, contempt and mistrust, we find that we are transformed and we get a taste of what eternal life is all about.  When we engage in acts of compassion and mercy that becomes a way for the Kingdom of God to break into the world.

The son of a Klansman was able to let go of his fear and hate because George Jefferson was moved to save the life of his father … and that act caused everyone there to know what it means to have eternal life for fear and loathing were replaced by love.  Suddenly everyone wonders what all the fuss was about and why they were about to come to blows not even two minutes before.

The Good News I have for you today is that Salvation is found in loving your enemies, in knowing that your neighbor includes the person whose name you cannot bring yourself to mention.  In performing acts of compassion and mercy we not only bring the Gospel to the one we act upon but to ourselves and the entire human race.  We will then look at ourselves and wonder what all the fighting was about, and then keep on about the business of “movin’ on up” and loving each other.

Jesus asks, “Which of these men, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Amen.





The Paradox of Jesus’ Baptism

17 04 2013

Life, especially life in Key West, is full of contradictions and paradoxes.  Consider our sister parish, St. Paul’s.  It is home to the first Episcopal parish in all of Florida.  People go in and out every day for some peace, a chance to meditate or pray or just even to marvel at the stained glass windows.  One block away, there is a three story bar which has a roof deck ironically (or appropriately, depending on your point of view) called “The Garden of Eden.”  Across the street from that is a mansion which has been turned into apartments with a wine bar on the first floor, but 150 years ago it was the home of a doctor whose life’s work was to treat and hopefully cure those dying of yellow fever.  Looking a little closer to home, we are here in the heart of town with a beautiful space in our own rights, but I hear a rumour that there is a crack house a few blocks away.

Many who live here call it paradise.  Just as many call it something else.  For as many who call this island home and would never think of leaving, there are just as many lost souls who feel trapped, abandoned and alone.

Jesus was no stranger to paradox or contradiction.  In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we see the authors tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam.  We see his ancestors are full of people he can brag about, and also lots of people he probably would like to forget; people whose lives are full of tragic choices and flaws, as well as joyous triumphs.  Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not come on a big white horse or as a conquering hero.  In fact, this holiest of men was accused of  being illegitimate, and the people he decided to hand around with were generally not considered polite society.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also a portrait of paradox.  Jesus gets baptized by his cousin, John.  This begs the question, “Why?  Why does he do this?”  At its heart, baptism is an act of repentance, of turning away from the things of this world and a commitment to a way of life where the focus is the things of God, especially of loving each other.  It could be argued that it was unnecessary for Jesus because it is taught that Jesus was sinless and blameless and that he had nothing to repent of.  It is even all the more remarkable because John the Baptist’s ministry has centered on preparing people for the coming Messiah by repenting and being baptized.  Not only that, up to this point the Gospel of Luke has focused on just how special and holy a person Jesus was.

The answer, I think, of why a sinless and blameless person lines up with everyone else in an act of repentance can be found in the mystery of the Incarnation.  If you even take a cursory reading of the Old and New Testament you will see there is a big difference in how God deals with humanity.  In the Incarnation, God decides to come here, to earth and to live just like we do.  God decides to face the choices and temptations we all must confront on this journey we call life.

Jesus was born into a fallen world, just like we were.  Jesus knows what it’s like to face all the choices we make, so his baptism is an act of solidarity with us again the powers of Sin and Death.  But notice how he does it!  he simply gets in line with everyone else.  In the Gospel of Luke, there is no big ceremony, no crowds parting for him as he approaches.  He simply shows up and stands alongside all the downtrodden, the sick, the broken, the lost.  Jesus is standing with those who have no where else to go, those who have given up on themselves and joins them.

In his baptism, Jesus is identifying with a damaged and broken people who need God.  It is a first step on the Cross, the first act of ministry which ends with the phrase, “It is finished.”

After his Baptism, Jesus goes off to pray.  even the Son of God realizes that he cannot do anything on his own, so he reaches out to the Father, the Source of Everything, and then the Holy Spirit comes to be with him, to give him the strength to keep on loving us for all of our failures and to be faithful even when we are not.  Remember, this is the One who created the world.  As it says in the Gospel of John, “Through Him all things were made,” and yet he decides that we are people worth loving and ultimately worth dying for.  That love will ultimately prove to be stronger than Death itself.

If we return to our first reading in Isaiah, we find his words written for a nation in exile still resonate today.  We see a God who is both Creator and Redeemer before we even leave the first verse. “He who created you, who has formed you, now has redeemed you.”  Not only that, Isaiah goes on to say, “I have called you by name and you are mine.  I will be with you.”  Of course, one of the names that we have for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Even in the middle of exile, of occupation, God calls Israel precious in his sigh.  The choices we make and our own shortcomings do not prompt God to stop loving us or claiming us as his own, even if it is a mess we create for ourselves.  Because God lived and dwelt among us, the Good News I have for you today is that God Himself knows everything you are going through because God Himself has experienced it.  The Good News I have for you today is because of our own Baptism we are marked as “Christ’s own forever” and nothing can separate us from his love and grace.

We don’t have to worry about being respectable or cleaning up our act.  In our Baptism, we ARE made clean.  The same Holy Spirit that was with Jesus is with us today, guiding us along as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.

In a moment, we will renew our Baptismal Vows.  As we do so, and we reply to each other, “I will with God’s help,” let that be a prayer so we will have the necessary strength and endurance to show God’s love to a hurt, broken and lost world just like Jesus did.

“We thank you Father for the waters of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  We thank you that by water and Holy Spirit you have bestowed on us your servants the forgiveness of sin and have raised us to a new life of grace.  Sustain us, O Lord, giving us an inquiring and discerning heart; the courage and will to persevere; a spirit to know and to love you; and the gift of joy and wonder of all your works.”

Amen





Easter is not for the Past

16 04 2013

Text:  John 21

There are quite a few times in our lives when we may experience a case emotional or sensory overload. In fact, in today’s day in age when we are constantly bombarded by television, radio, magazines, and not to mention everything that comes with the internet such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube … add all that to what it means just to get through our day, we may throw our hands up to heaven and say, “STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF!!”  Some people have professional and work lives that are so stressed that they make sure they find some kind of solace at home.  Others’ home lives are so filled with turmoil they throw themselves into their work.  And yet there are still others, like a colleague of mine who confided in me just this week, that there have been dramatic changes at home and at work that he has no idea where to turn and he is just trying to keep afloat. He tries to find peace and sanity in the mundane ordinary things just to give his life a sense of normalcy.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find the disciples in a place where they have just come through the most emotional and hair-raising experiences of their lives.  From their point of view, it was not two weeks ago that they saw Jesus enter Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna as he rode into the city on a donkey.  It was not two weeks ago that they had the most extraordinary Passover meal.  They witnessed their teacher, their friend, whom they had lived with for a few years, betrayed by one of their own, arrested, given a mockery of a trial and then executed like a common criminal.   He was then given a decent burial only by the generosity of one his secret followers.  And then three days later, they met him … Jesus had risen.  Back from the dead.  Not as a ghost, but in the flesh.  And he keeps showing up.  Showing up and proving that not even locked doors could keep the risen Christ away as we heard last week in the story of Thomas.  From the earth-shattering lows of the crucifixion, to the extreme highs of the empty tomb and the resurrection, it is no small wonder that they needed some time alone to process it all, to get their head around what they had just gone through and let the enormity of what they had witnessed just sink in.

Like many of us when we go through times of emotional stress, and like my colleague at work, we try to do things which bring a sense of normalcy, to find a way to be grounded by doing the mundane things that we always do.  So … Peter, a fisherman by trade, speaks up … and says … “I’m going fishing.”  But … like everyone else who has an encounter with the Risen Christ, Peter and the disciples find out that it’s not so easy just to slip away.  They find that once you meet Jesus, your life is never the same.

Now, there is a lot to unpack here, so please bear with me if I jump around a bit.  The disciples find Jesus on the shore of Galilee after having spent the night catching fish to no avail.  The nets are empty.  Jesus calls to them and asks if they were successful during the night and their reply was a disappointed “no.”  But notice that they don’t recognize him even though they have met him at least twice before.  But then Jesus says, “Try it my way.  Cast your nets to the other side and see what happens.” And wonder of wonders, they have the most amazing catch of fish, enough to feed themselves several times over.  At this point, one of the disciples recognizes him.  Peter then is overcome with joy and rushes towards Jesus without any thought to the fact that he left his clothes in the boat. The disciple who first recognized Jesus is the one they call “the Beloved Disciple” or “the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.”  This is the one who, during the Last Supper, spent the evening reclining at Jesus’ breast.  Perhaps if we, too, spent more time reclining with Jesus, in quiet time with God in prayer and meditation, in finding our rest in him instead of trying finding our own ways of escape what the world throws our way, we might better be able to recognize when Jesus shows up in our own lives.

The abundance of their breakfast after a long night when it seemed they might not have anything to eat at all recalls to our mind the feeding of the multitude on the Sea of Galilee … the same sea where they currently went fishing.  It reminds the disciples … and US … that the abundance of generosity of God’s grace does not belong to the past, but to the present.  How often we lament how wonderful things used to be when we were children, when we first fell in love, or even how great things were even two or three years ago; but we must never forget the blessings of the past are only foreshadows of the promises of the future.  The Easter Story; the encounter with the flesh and blood Risen Christ is not a one-time event.  It is something we carry with us today; it is a part of who we are as People of God; and we are reminded of that when we least expect it.  It is a reminder that no matter how hard they try to make things work or to make ends meet, the disciples cannot do anything on their own without the help of Jesus.

Our story now turns to Peter.  Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him which reminds us of how Peter denied Jesus three times.  The entire scene with Peter is like a reversal and restoration of all the damage that has been done, not just in the denial of Christ, but in how much we hurt each other, ourselves, our city.  It shows how the Grace and Forgiveness of God is so much more powerful than anything we can ever do.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he was sorry for what he did, even if he felt bad for what he did or understood what he did.  Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; and at the end of all of our struggles, the end of all of our history; that is what matters.  Peter was so overjoyed to see Jesus he raced to be with him as fast as could even though he was naked.  It is as if the Adam’s shame at being naked in the presence of God had been taken away as if it never were.

Our story shows that God is willing to entrust ministry and the Gospel message to a group of people whose lives are marked by impetuousness, denial, betrayal, vanity and doubt. Like all of the stories in the Bible, the overarching theme is not about how mankind went looking for God, but how God came and found us.    In our darkest moments, in our hunger, in our failures, in our poverty and in our desperation just to hang on, we can recall to mind that at the beginning of the story in the Gospel of John, we read that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

We cannot reduce the stories of Jesus and the wonders of his ministry and miracles to things that happened in the past or metaphors to talk about over tea.  The Good News that I have for you today is that the Easter Proclamation that Christ is Risen does not belong to a time long ago or a place far away.  It belongs to us in the here and now.





Be Careful What You Wish For — A Sermon for St. Peter’s, Key West

2 05 2011

Text:  John 20:19-31

Easter brings with it many news articles, books and documentaries which talk about the Christian faith. For example, the Evangelical pastor Rob Bell recently came out with a book entitled, Love Wins. Love Wins makes the claim that what happened on the cross is so powerful, and that God’s love is so strong, that there just might not really be a hell. As you can imagine, this caused quite a stir. In fact, it even led New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to write about it on April 25, Easter Monday no less. On television, The History Channel was showing a documentary of sorts on the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus using material not only from the Gospels, but from the Gnostic writings as well. For all of the talk of us becoming a country that is “spiritual but not religious” and that there are an increasing number of people who profess a belief in God but do not adhere to a particular faith, the story of the Resurrection of Christ and all that it could possibly mean never ceases to grab attention.

“Is there really something to all of this?” they ask. Sometimes we might even ask that question ourselves. “Are we crazy? How can we be sure this is true? What if those who say that the Resurrection is a hoax are right?” Indeed, we read in St. Paul’s epistles that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, we’re all just wasting our breath and we may as well sleep in on Sunday morning and watch “Meet the Press.” These are all very valid questions, and these questions lead us to the place of the disciple, Thomas.

We’ve all heard the phrase “Doubting Thomas” and Thomas’ story is always read the Sunday after Easter. Thomas’ friends are telling him that Jesus is back from the dead and he demands proof before he can believe it himself. If we look through the earlier parts of the Gospel of John, we see that Thomas isn’t so much a man of little faith, but a rather complex individual. He is capable of great courage as is shown when he is willing to go with Jesus to Bethany at the news of Lazarus’ death, even though it may mean his arrest. Later, he understandably shows great anxiety on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. Personally, I always thought Thomas got a bum rap as we actually owe him a great deal. When his friends say to him “We have seen the Lord!” he’s not taking their claim at face value, and remember, this is a group of people he’s lived with for the past three years or so. If he should be willing to believe anyone, it’s this group.

But, he says,”Now hold on a minute! YOU are trying to tell ME that Jesus, who was executed in front of us and for all the world to see is now alive? We saw him crucified, we saw him dead, we saw him buried. Surely you’ve all seen a ghost or even more likely hallucinating. I tell you, unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in those marks and in the wound in his side, I am simply not buying it.

Now, in all honesty, who can blame Thomas? He’s saying that he needs to experience what the others did before he will believe it. He is also trying to give everyone a reality check here. In this scene, Thomas is being a voice for those of us here in the 21st century. We are to be grateful to Thomas because here we see that the intersection of doubt and faith are very much part and parcel of the Easter experience. Thomas is demanding answers for all the questions that come up around this time of year. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could provide clear evidence that no, Jesus body wasn’t stolen; no, Jesus’ body wasn’t given to the dogs; and no, we certainly are not crazy.”

It is important to remember that Thomas is not the only doubter here. Mary Magdalene didn’t belive Jesus had risen until Jesus spoke her name in the garden by the tomb. The other disciples didn’t believe Jesus had risen until he appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Belief and faith in the Resurrection cannot be arrived at by simple physical evidence, but by trust and Jesus revealing himself to us, and this is what happens with Thomas. It is Thomas, and not the others, who is given the reality check when Jesus appears again. Jesus gives Thomas exactly what he wishes for: an invitation to touch the wounded hands and side. Thomas doesn’t get an encounter with a ghost, but with the flesh and blood risen Lord. When he is presented with the reality of the Resurrected Christ, he actually does not go to touch the wounds, but he only cries out, “My Lord and my God.”

This little scene is actually quite powerful. Jesus does not criticize Thomas of belittle him for his doubt, but he gives an invitation to “Come and See.” Jesus handles our questions and doubts the same way. He handles our doubt by being in the business of meeting people where they are and giving them what they need. After all, everyone has different life experiences and outlooks on life. Jesus met Mary in her moment of deepest sorrow. He met the other disciples when they were hiding in the darkness in their moments of deepest fear. And he met Thomas in his doubt. Jesus does not appear in a big flash of power and light, but he simply … shows up, he calls out your name ad he offers you peace. This isn’t the peace that world offers which says that if you try just a little harder, if you put your back into it, everything will turn out all right. The peace that Jesus offers is the peace that passes all understanding, a peace you have to do nothing to earn and is a gift from God.

It is the assurance that the One who was crucified, dead and buried is now alive forevermore. This is the One who heralds the Reign of God, the Reign that says swords are beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, liberty is proclaimed to the captives and the oppressed are set free. This is the One who has the wounds and scars to show that God’s grace and love triumphs over all in the face of the deepest tragedy, injustice and humiliation that humanity can inflict on someone.

We cannot actually prove the Resurrection happened. Faith doesn’t exactly work on proof, for faith and belief are matters of the heart and matters of trust. Such things don’t completely answer questions which demand physical evidence. One reason we can believe the Bible gives a true revelation of God is because it shows how God stepped into human history and deals with us, warts and all. It shows us at our very best and our very worst. It shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things because God stepped into their lives and met them even in their doubt. We can trust that this is the same God who moved spiritual giants like St. Paul, St. Peter, Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We may even know personally some who were moved to do remarkable things because of their faith in the Risen Christ. It is because of that trust we can gather together during the Fifty Days of Easter and say “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”

The disciples began the Easter story in doubt, but their lives were changed forever by an encounter with the Living God, a God who continues to meet God’s people every day and every moment. We have to remember that when we question or doubt, that’s perfectly fine. God would not be much of a God if he couldn’t stand up to some scrutiny. We cannot, however, be afraid of the answers to those questions, because those questions are responded with invitations to an encounter with Christ, and who knows where he might show up? On the street, on a park bench, where you work, in a bar, in a guest house, or at the communion rail.

There is a saying we have which says, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” If what you are wishing for is an encounter with Jesus, that’s all the more reason to be careful. I can’t tell you where he’ll show up, or when he will call out your name, but I can tell you this much. The Good News I have for you today is that when it happens … you won’t ever be the same again.

Amen.





What is this Repentance Business Anyway?

10 12 2010

Text:  Matthew 3:1-12

 

So, our holiday cheer and our hopes of the Reign of God have been interrupted by what looks like a wild man calling us out of our comfort zones and day dreams onto a journey into the wilderness.  It is John the Baptist, wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey.  The season of Advent does something similar.  It calls us away from all of the holiday festivities to the wilderness in order for something new to be born.  And you know what?  People did come from far and wide to hear what John the Baptist had to say, his message of getting ready for God is about to do something new!  Even the religious leaders of the day came to hear what this guy was talking about, but they didn’t quite get the reception they were hoping for.

John preached about the dangers of unbridled power and wealth as well as religious hypocrisy.  Why, when the Pharisees and Sadduccees came to hear him, he went absolutely ballistic.  They wanted to make a public display of their righteousness and John wasn’t going to have any of it.  “Now, hold on a minute,” they tell him.  “Don’t you know who we are?  We’re the big shots here, and we also got an ‘in’ to the Almighty for WE are Abraham’s descendants.   So don’t start with all your repentance business with us.”  What John realized when he saw them coming was their claim of being sons of Abraham led them to an arrogance that they were God’s best friends and favoured servants.  John tells them in not so many words that their lineage is unimportant, but rather how they live their lives.  Ethics matters!  How you treat others and how you conduct yourself is far more important than where you came from, your means or even your vocation.

The first two Sundays of Advent have a way of unsettling us and are out of place in a world that is in full party mode.  Last week, we talked about judgment and today we hear a message of repentance.  Repentance is one of those concepts that are easy to oversimplify if we’re not careful.  Is it just feeling sorry for our mistakes?  Is it striving to learn from those mistakes and therefore trying harder to be a good person?  But then again, if Christ has conquered sin and death, and we’re looking forward to the Reign of God, why do we even have to bother with it anyway?

This is where we miss the point.  Is it easy to forget that repentance is a one way street, where the onus is completely on us. God has a part in repentance too.  Repentance is not so much about our own standards of worthiness or what we perceive to be God’s standards, but it is more about God’s desire to transform us to be more like Christ.  It is, in part, a confession, a realization that we were doing things we ought not to have done or not doing things we ought to have done.  But it is also part of God working through Jesus to purify us and bring us closer to the person God created us to be.

A symbol of this purification is baptism, which was a central part of John’s ministry.  He baptizes people as they confess their sins as a sign of their repentance, but it also points forward to Jesus, who he says will baptize us not with water, but with the Spirit of God.  The baptism by water is but a foreshadowing of God acting to clean us up and dust us off for a new life in Christ.

Often time we beat ourselves up for failing to live up to our standards and trying to ‘get right with God.’  Often times our attempts at repentance are full of remorse, so full in fact that we forget that repentance is not just done by us.  Human efforts are usually always marred by our own self-interests, and this type of repentance is no different.  It is easy to forget that repentance, the turning away from the old to the new life in Christ, is only completed by the power and love of God which brings us closer and teaches us to trust.

In the wilderness on the way to promised land, Israel sinned and rebelled many times over, but they still followed God even though at times they feared God was going to let them die.  But God’s faithfulness taught them that they even though THEY weren’t faithful, God’s love was something they could count on, so when they eventually did reach the promised land, they were ready.

So repentance, then, is part of the way God continues to work in us to bring about that Reign of God we talked about.  It is Jesus through the Holy Spirit that is purifying us, teaching us to trust and giving us hope for the coming of God’s justice and mercy upon the entire world and the whole human race.