Monday, April 14, 2014

April 13 Sermon (Palm Sunday)

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 21:1-11
21When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
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I find it funny that just as we have arrived at Palm Sunday, the day on which we celebrate Jesus’s royal entry into Jerusalem, many of my friends have caught a new-found case of royal fever. As I have said before, I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and it turns out that the Times of London is reporting that on May third, 2014 Prince William, Kate Middleton, and little Prince George will be in Memphis next month for the wedding of someone I don’t know very well, but many of my friends do. And so they are all busy freaking out about this wedding, this trip to Memphis which, of course, will involve a trip to Graceland so that the royal couple can pay tribute to The King.
And all of this royal talk has got me thinking about what it must have felt like for the crowds we heard about in the scripture lesson, the ones throwing their cloaks on the ground and waving palm branches and shouting Hosannah, what it must have felt like for them to welcome the savior, this king, this great hope. For as much as my friends are tittering about in advance of the royal visit to Memphis, how much more electric must the air have been as the people welcomed Jesus into town, because while Memphis is not exactly the least corrupt place on earth, at least there is no great subjugation of Memphians. There is no abusive control, no foreign dictator bent on killing those who step out of line, no constant threat of death.
This is what it was like to stand on the sidelines as Jesus rolled into town: an oppressive regime. Rampant, just rampant hunger. Poverty like you would not believe. Foreign control, intimidation, corruption. We clean all that up when we bring the story into the church, wave the palm branches like we’re welcoming any old parade, but the people who lined the streets as Jesus rode into town desperately wanted a messiah, desperately wanted someone to stand up to the oppressive powers that kept them hungry and in fear. We clean it up, but to be there, to watch this, it must have been something.
We miss the fact that what people were so desperate for was a political leader, a king to lead them into battle, into victory over their oppressors, and I mean, you really can’t blame them. In all honesty, that’s kind of what they needed. They needed somebody to pull them from under the thumb of their oppressors. They needed somebody to stop those who would kill just to keep peace.
But that’s not what they got. For as much as this is a story of celebration, it is fundamentally a story of disappointment. Jesus was not the king they were looking for. Some savior: he rides triumphal into town, and ends up being executed, hung on a cross to die so that everybody could see just how powerful he was, so powerful he couldn’t even save himself, let alone anybody else.
You sort of get the sense of what it must have felt like, to be so hopeful, and yet so frustrated. It helps you understand how somebody can parade up the street yelling “Hosanna” one day, and “Crucify Him” the next.
And it is easy to leave it there, I think, to sort of leave this frustrated search for a savior in the past, two thousand years ago and miles away, but we’re not immune from the search. There’s this great line in my favorite movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?, in which the main characters, these three escaped convicts during the Great Depression, are sitting around a campfire eating a gopher they’d just found and roasted, when a huge congregation of people wearing white robes and singing a hymn starts to walk past them, straight into the river to be baptized. And Everett, the main character, sort of smirks as he watches this happen and says, “I guess hard times flush the chumps. Everybody’s looking for answers.”
I don’t know what it is that you come to church, and I hope you understand that I’m including myself in this category, but maybe it really is true that hard times flush the chumps? Maybe it’s true that everybody’s looking for answers. Everybody’s looking for God.
I mean, this is what it means to be the Church: to search together. Religion isn’t about following rules, or about trying to screw up as little as possible so that we can get into Heaven, or even about helping people so that we can feel good about ourselves. Being a Christian, following Jesus is more like what one of my favorite theologians calls a sense and taste for the Infinite. We are journeying together for what which we long for, for that which is beyond the humdrum of our lives, for just a taste of the Infinite, for an experience of the risen God who defeats death and embodies love.
It is no surprise, then, that we are drawn to spectacle, to parade, to big, momentous things, to fireworks, to slick advertising, to huge churches with better looking pastors than the one you’ve got, to money and power and prestige. Here we are just sort of chewing on gopher, just going about the humdrum of our lives, waiting for the next responsibility, the next chore. But we are not robots who thrive on millions of little details, but blessed people made in the image of God, who share a sense and taste for the infinite! It is no surprise that we want something and someone to rescue us from the minutia of being human.
But what if, what if those millions of details and the search for God weren’t really opposites? What if, in the interest of getting beyond the humdrum, mundane aspects of our lives we’re actually standing on the side of the road, waving a branch, waiting for some sort of spectacle, when God has been right under our noses all along—and it turns out that we were just looking for the wrong thing? What if what we thought God was supposed to be was, in fact something else entirely?
I was cooking breakfast the other morning and needed something to distract Emmaline a little bit so that I could get some pancakes made without her, like, drooling in them, so I flipped to the movie, The Sword in the Stone. Do you know that movie? It is a retelling of the story the boyhood of King Arthur, the way in which Arthur came to be king.
And it is a silly movie, with a talking owl named Archimedes and the wizard Merlin and bumbling soldiers and all the rest, but young Arthur is really just a nobody, a kindhearted kid who serves as squire for his older, stronger brother, but who really can’t do anything but get in the way.
And the movie is centered around the death of Uther Pendragon in the sixth Century, and the fact that there was nobody to succeed him as King, so all of England descended into violence. And this monument of a sword stuck in an Anvil appears, with an inscription that says “Who so Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England,” and for years people try and try, but nobody can get the sword out of the stone. So it is basically forgotten, just a monument that sits there, sort of taunting England for having no rightful king. And one day, young Arthur comes along, having forgotten the sword he was supposed to have with him, and without even reading the inscription sort of haphazardly pulls the sword from the stone, and everyone around bows at his feet and hails him as the new, rightful king. Here, they’d spent all this time looking for a warrior, but what they got was a King.
I mention this to you, because it is not such a farfetched story. We come to church, come to religion with so many needs, so many desires, so much that we expect from God: please let these be the winning numbers. Please let me get this promotion. Please save me from this God-awful meeting. Please don’t let my partner die.
We come to God looking for something of a genie to grant our wishes, or a King to free us from oppression, or as hired help to keep us from having to wash the dishes and change the diapers and keep the trains running on time. I don’t know what you heard in the scripture lesson this morning, but if that is the God you are looking for, you’re going to be looking for a long time.
We tend to turn God into something God is not, and so it is no wonder we spend so much time looking for God; the God we think we’re looking for doesn’t exist. I think about this a lot when I hear people who have made their mark as public atheists talk about how silly it is to believe in a God who causes car crashes and changes the weather and that sort of thing. When I hear these arguments, I want to say, “The God you say you don’t believe in is also a God I don’t believe in. I believe in a God who rides a donkey rather than a war horse, who became human rather than just come down to earth to wow everybody, who understands when I suffer, because he suffered, too.”
If you’re looking for a political leader, a King, somebody to give you a life of cupcakes and unicorns, you can lay your cloak down in the center aisle and wave the branch all you want, but don’t be surprised if you soon find yourself so frustrated that rather than shouts of hosanna, all you can muster is a whispered “crucify him.”
But if you are looking for God, if you are really looking for the real God, maybe you shouldn’t disregard those humdrum parts of life. Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time trying to get to the new exciting thing, because if I have learned anything from being married, it’s that love is much less about the wedding reception than it is about the mundane, the everyday moments, the moments of playing with the kids on the dining room floor, the unexpected smile, the gift of the everyday.
Likewise, the message of Palm Sunday is that God’s power isn’t like traditional power. It doesn’t swordfight or rely upon opinion polls. It doesn’t grandstand; it’s not flashy. Rather, it is patient. It is kind. It becomes human, not so that it may impress you, but so that it can understand what it means to be human, so that it may be something you can embody and share with others. It suffers and dies upon a cross, and when it is taunted as too weak to come down from that place of death, it chooses to die as one last witness to the lengths God will go in order to reach God’s people.

It is a power that, in the final analysis, is so strong that it need not ride a horse, or defend itself with violence, or be afraid of death, for it is much stronger than death, and thank God for that. Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2014

April 6 Sermon

John 11:1-45
11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
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Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Wring those words out and you’ll see so much anger dripping from them, it will puddle on the floor. Mary and Martha know that Jesus has the power to heal Lazarus, a man he professes to love, and he just . . . doesn’t. God makes all these grand promises about loving us and providing for us and being enough for us, and when we felt like we needed God more than ever before . . . silence.
Does this story feel familiar to you? I don’t mean, have you heard it? I mean, have you felt it? Have you ever needed God only to find . . . silence?
I remember the week I moved to Atlanta to go to seminary. I drove my old pickup truck; it was huge and smelled bad, but I loved that thing.  I think my parents drove a U-Haul with my bed and tv and dresser and the like, and we came straight to Atlanta from Memphis. We pulled up to my first apartment and got everything unloaded the very first day—my mom was insistent that when we went to go get food, that she stay behind to set up my bookshelves. She wanted to get me set up before they went home, which they did the next morning.
And I came out of the apartment a couple of days later and realized I’d forgotten where I parked. I looked everywhere but I couldn’t find my truck. I thought, maybe I walked home last night? Or maybe I just didn’t see it? But of course, somebody had stolen it.
And it was the very next day, I’ll never forget this, it was the very next day that I got out of the shower to see that I’d missed a number of calls on my cell phone, all from my dad, and when I finally got ahold of him, he said, “Come home. Your mother has had an aneurysm. Her surgery is tomorrow. Hurry.”
And you start to ask questions when that kind of thing happens, you know, about what God is trying to tell you. Here I have uprooted myself to try and dedicate my life to you, O Lord, and if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Mom had a successful surgery, eventually got better, and I bought another vehicle. Life goes on. That kind of visceral suffering doesn’t last forever. But it can feel that way, when the God who we worship and who promises us new life feels as far away as the farthest star.
There’s this story that came out in the months after the moon landing in 1969, that Buzz Aldrin had sort of hidden a little chalice, with a small little vial of wine and a Communion wafer that he’d had his pastor bless before the launch. And in the time between landing on the moon and getting out to go exploring, he took Communion on the surface of the moon, and while I am moved by that act of devotion, it mostly just reminds me of what can feel like on the journey of faith, like Jesus might as well be on the moon, like he’s so concerned with this little thimbleful of wine and this little Communion wafer than he is about my problems, my fears, the evils I see in the world: things like hunger, and war, and slavery. It makes me feel like God isn’t paying attention to me, to those of us down here on earth.
And you know when I feel the most that way? Maybe this will sound weird, but I can feel the most hopeless when I consider the state of the Christian church. Sometimes the people who act the worst are the people who profess to love God the most. I have a friend at a church conference this week who posted this quote on Twitter: the church is the only place where we let the unhealthy people scare off the healthy people. And you’ve heard me say that the church is a hospital for sinners, but a hospital is supposed to be a place that makes you well, not a place where you go for the sole purpose of spreading your disease.
Did you hear about the controversy at World Vision a couple of weeks ago? World Vision is this awesome organization that lets people sponsor children who then are better fed, do better in school, get fewer diseases, and end up being productive members of society. And the whole idea of World Vision is that this is what Jesus calls us to do, which of course it is. God calls us to help the most vulnerable among us, and while we may argue about the responsibility adults have to act right, surely we can agree on children. Surely we can agree that God calls us to help children who are hungry, children who are literally starving to death. And World Vision has taken up this mantle and done it with distinction, across the church, across all sorts of ideological lines, because at least we can agree that God wants us to care for children.
And a couple of weeks ago, World Vision decided that since they were involved with a number of Christian denominations with varying beliefs, they were going to change one small part of their hiring policies that said that they would not employ gay people. That was it. They didn’t change their statement of faith, which said scripture is divinely inspired and infallible. Richard Stearns, who is the World Vision CEO, made it a point to say that they weren’t endorsing same-gender marriage. They were just saying they’d be open to hiring gay people.
I want you to know that in the twenty-four hours after that announcement, World Vision’s donors were so angry that 10,000 of them dropped their sponsorships. Ten thousand children just left in the cold, without food, without clean water, without adequate shelter and schooling. Ten thousand children. It was such a significant number that within 48 hours, World Vision announced that they were changing their policy back. I would have done the same thing. Feeding children is far, far, far more important than the employment issue, though I’d argue that we ought not discriminate in any respect. A few folks called to reinstate their sponsorships, but the majority didn’t. And so I will be honest, when I see that ten thousand children lost sponsorships, because people who profess to follow Jesus decided that an employment policy that allowed for the employment of gay people was more important than feeding ten thousand children, I just wanted to cry. I just wanted to weep. What is wrong with us as humans, that this sort of thing could remotely be all right?
And this is the mood I was in when I came to the scripture this week, like we’ve put all this energy and time and money and love into the institution of the church, and all it takes is one silly HR policy change to undo all that work, to kick ten thousand children back into hunger, back into hopelessness. Lord, if you had been here . . .
Mary and Martha, friends of Jesus, got word to him that their brother, Lazarus, was near death. The only thing that would save him was a visit from Jesus, and of course Jesus would come. He loved Lazarus.
And yet . . . he didn’t. Jesus did not come. In their moment of need, of desperation, Mary and Martha called for Jesus, but he did not come, and Lazarus died.
After Lazarus’s death, Jesus made his way to Bethany, to the home of Mary and Martha, and when Mary heard he was near, she ran to him, weeping, and—I don’t know how you can read this in any tone other than seething anger—Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
And Jesus saw her crying, and he was moved by her grief, and he did something pretty incredible, when you think about it. He cried. He wept. He was so disturbed by the pain she was experiencing that he, himself, felt that pain, and the very savior of the world wept.
It’s revolutionary, and we sometimes just pretend all it is is the shortest verse in the Bible, something to memorize when you have to memorize a Bible verse because it is so short, “Jesus wept.” And yet it’s a reminder to us that when all we can manage to do is to let our cries climb up our throats and out our mouths, when we feel like yelling “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” even then, God is with us. Just when we thought God was on the moon, it turns out Jesus has been sitting alongside us all along, crying with us. What a gift, to be loved that much.
I have a cousin who was crossing the street in college when he was hit by a car. He spent years in physical therapy, going through unbelievable pain towards recovery. And my grandfather used to go see him, used to spend time with him and entertain him, to try to keep his mind off the pain. And a few years later, when my grandfather passed away, my cousin said something so profound I feel like it belongs chiseled right above the cross, right here in church. Our grandfather, he said, was the only person he’d ever met who physically hurt when you hurt. He hurt when you hurt. That’s the message of this passage of scripture: that Jesus hurts when we hurt. It’s the message of the cross.
And lest it sound like all Jesus is good for is joining you for a cry, let me remind you that while we are on a journey towards the cross, the journey does not end there. Resurrection happens. Lazarus may have died. He may have lay in the tomb for days. But he did not stay there.
There may be days in which I am prone to despair at the circumstances of the world, or at the hypocrisy of the church, but then I remember that the worst thing is never the last thing, that Resurrection happens, and I am reminded that while ten thousand children may have lost funding because the church is a mess, I am also reminded that it is not like I was sponsoring a child through World Vision before this fiasco. I can complain all I want about the state of the church, but if I am going to practice Resurrection I’d better be willing to do my part. At least those who canceled their sponsorships had sponsored a child in the first place. So . . . I am repenting this week. I’ve gone to WorldVision.com and Stacey and I are sponsoring a child, Diana, who was born the very same day as Emmaline. Do I like the fact that World Vision discriminates in its hiring practices? No. But hungry children deserve food. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. To feed a child is to make an offering to God. I would invite you to consider doing something like this as well, or some other act of Resurrection in the face of death. This is what we are called to, Church. To follow Jesus. To be Resurrection people in the face of a world that shouts “crucify him” to anyone who steps out of line. To be Resurrection people, even when God seems far away.
I’ll end with this. In a few minutes we will share God’s feast, as we celebrate Communion and experience this Holy Mystery. This meal does not belong to me, or to this church, or to the denomination. The meal belongs to God, and it is given as a gift, so that though we may sometimes feel as if God is as far away as the moon, we are given the chance to experience that grace here, in the sharing of the bread and the cup, here. No matter who you are or what you have done, you are invited.

This meal is God’s gift to us, for it shows us that God loves us, even in the midst of pain. And what a gift, to worship a God who understands our pain, who hurts when we hurt, and who, rather than leaving us there, points to the pain that holds us captive and says, take away the stone. Unbind her, unbind him, and let them go. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 31, 2014

March 30 Sermon

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 9:1-41

9As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.


39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

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An artist and his wife went to a museum. The man was extremely near-sighted and forgot his glasses, but that didn't stop him from critiquing every piece of artwork that he saw.

He stopped at one particular painting and studied it for a minute. Then he stated: "This frame is all wrong. The man in the portrait is ugly and shabbily dressed. I don't know why anyone would want to display such horrible work!"

His wife pulled him aside discreetly and said, "Honey, that's not a painting - that's a mirror."

Well, we’re talking about sight today, and as someone who has worn glasses his whole life, this is a subject matter I’m familiar with. Let me be clear, though, that when I talk about lacking sight, I am not talking about the man born blind. His disability is part of the story, of course, but I don’t mean to talk about him when I talk about being near-sighted. I want us to be careful about the way we talk about people with disabilities, as if they aren’t enough without fully-functioning eyes, or legs, or intellect.

I don’t think the man born blind is even the most interesting character in the story, anyhow, so when I talk about being near-sighted, I’m talking about the Pharisees, these religious leaders, these poor saps who can’t seem to see past the hair on their own noses.

The Pharisees, of course, are frequent foils for Jesus in the Bible. He loves to argue with the Pharisees about religion just as much as I like to argue about which region of the country has the best barbecue—Memphis, of course. And the reason he loves to argue with them is that they are just so consistently near-sighted, just so consistently unable to see the forest for the trees. Here, a man’s sight has been restored and instead of joining him at the party, the Pharisees are all worried about what it means that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath, as if the holiest day of the week is only holy if you don’t show love to your neighbor.

It is silly on its face, but then the Pharisees are these kinds of folks that say, well, there are rules, I didn’t make ‘em, but there are rules, and maybe they don’t make sense, but such is the mystery of God, that you are wrong and I am right.

It is silly on its face, but it’s a common way of doing religion, of being church, to say that if we just follow these three spiritual laws and ten commandments and 613 mitzvot, the 613 laws in the Torah, if we just follow the rules we’ll find ourselves in the presence and favor of God. It’s silly, but it’s common, because it is much easier to spend your time following rules than doing the dirty, messy work of love.

And here Jesus comes and says, go wash in the pool of Siloam, which the man did despite the fact that Jesus had just rubbed mud all in his eyes, and suddenly, the man could see. Jesus did not wait until a more socially acceptable day to heal the man. He just healed him, saw the long view that healing is much more important than the rules, that the long-term is more important than the short term, that even though right this moment might feel totally unbearable, God is at work.

That doesn’t mean that God causes bad things. I wish every person who has told me that God must have wanted another angel when somebody I love died too young could read this passage, because it very clearly says that God does not cause tragedy, that God does not cause blindness or disability. It says that God works through it, but then, that takes some Gospel lenses to see, now doesn’t it? For if all you can see is that which is right in front of you, you come to the logical conclusion that the man’s blindness must have been his fault, or that of his parents, because all you can see are the black and white words on the page. But if you take the long view, you see that God is love, that God does not work this way, that God does not cause bad things but works through all things to bring about good.

It is like the driving instructor told me when I learned to drive: aim high. Look up. Don’t look down, don’t get distracted by all the noise around you. Aim high. Take the long view.

I thought about that advice just after our daughter Emmaline was born, because after the nurse cleaned her up and poked and prodded her—she did not like that, believe me—we noticed that her breathing was not quite right. Not enough to really alarm the nurses, but enough to get her whisked away to the Neonatal ICU within her first hour as a human.

I went with her, of course, and Stacey joined us after a little while, and we spent five nights there, each night thinking we were about to go home, each time only to hear the nurse say that she wasn’t ready; the baby had a breathing problem in the middle of the night, or her oxygen levels weren’t quite right, or she’d not kept down enough food.

It’s funny, you spend nearly ten months growing the thing, and as soon as she’s born, all you want to do is take her home. An extra five minutes seems like an eternity.

And eventually, we went home, and she was fine—just had to get through a condition that affects babies in the hours after being born, which she did—but its funny; those four or five days felt like forever, like we’d live in the hospital, like we’d never get home, like we would have her first birthday in that place, and her only friends would be doctors and nurses.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case. We got home. She’s fine. She was always going to be fine. Here we’d been given this incredible gift, this beautiful child, and rather than celebrate, we spent lots of energy fretting over when we were going to get to go home. But that’s how life works: when you are stuck in the middle of it, it can be hard to take the long view.

This is why I don’t think the man born blind is the most interesting character in the story. He’s just kind of a foil for the Pharisees. They are talking with a man born blind, but it is the Pharisees who do not see, who can’t see past their own noses. It is sort of a little joke that the Gospel writer throws in for us: honey, that’s not a painting. It’s a mirror.

I think it is significant that when the man born blind gets his eyesight back, the Pharisees go on the attack. Do you know anybody like that—people who respond to somebody else’s good news with unbelievable viciousness? That is how the Pharisees acted, and the thing they hold onto is the fact that Jesus broke a rule—he healed on the Sabbath, which was against the rules—and because he fell outside their understand of the rules, they said, he could not possible be from God.

Well, the poor formerly blind man doesn’t know where this guy Jesus came from; he just knows that he can see. And there is this remarkable part of the passage in which he and his parents are basically being grilled by the Pharisees, and you can almost see all three of them sitting across a steel table from the Pharisees with the mirrored glass on the one side of the room and a single flickering light bulb hanging above. And I say it is remarkable because it is the longest passage in the Gospels in which Jesus is absent. The scripture that was read in your hearing has the longest passage without Jesus being present, and it is all about the nearsighted Pharisees unable to see past their narrow understanding of religion to the incredible view right outside the window. They are so concerned with nailing Jesus that they completely ignore the miracle.

Can I bring this home a little bit? There is a spiritual sickness so prevalent that it has infected the church all over the world, and it’s called individual faith, the me-and-Jesus approach. I say that this is a sickness because if it is left untreated it can make you so nearsighted that you will miss that which is right in front of your nose. The Pharisees certainly did. The religious leaders were so stuck on the rules that they missed the miracle, and it was right there! Here they had in their presence someone who had encountered the living God, and all they could think to do was to interrogate him, question his faith, and drive him out.

We’re all a little nearsighted that way, unable to see God at work, but let me share two pieces of good news as we finish. First, while we’re all a little nearsighted, I think it is probably much more likely that you’ve found yourself in the shoes of the man born blind than in the shoes of the Pharisee. You’ve probably found yourself on the defensive more than you ought to have. Maybe you have been accused of breaking the rules. Maybe you’ve felt like you weren’t good enough, like you were born entirely in sin and without any standing to let your light shine. Everyone feels that way now and again, and I say that it is good news, because the message of this remarkable passage in the Gospel of John is that Jesus is right there with you, for he has come to support those who feel unsupported, give sight to those who can’t see past their own noses, a voice to those who feel like they have no voice. This is the good news: that Jesus came for us.

And then there is this, the second piece of good news: if you are looking for a place that errs on the side of love, that falls on the side of grace against judgment, every time, you’ve found it, for while we certainly aren’t perfect, while we don’t have it all together, this place—God’s church here at North Decatur—this is a place full of people who have found themselves standing by the side of the road, blinded by indecision, or pain, or confusion, or feelings of inadequacy, and have had their world illuminated by Jesus, who loves us despite all that. If you are looking for grace, for love, even in brokenness, maybe especially in brokenness, this is a good home base, for even when you find yourself on the side of the road, know that you aren’t alone, that you’re surrounded by all of us who have been there, too, those of us who also don’t have it all together, but who give thanks to God for the man born blind, the patron saint of those who don’t have it all together. Like this nameless saint, may we muster the courage to say, “I may not have all the answers , but one thing I do know: I once was blind and now I see.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 24, 2014

March 23 Sermon

(To hear an audio version of this sermon as preached, click here.)

John 4:5-42
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

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"Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done."

Is there any statement in all of scripture more fraught with emotion, more bound up with the realization that life will never be the same, that the future is full of possibility?

Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. It's brilliant, just brilliant writing, and it belongs up there with I'm going to make him an offer he can't  refuse, and I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, and I love the smell of napalm in the morning, and Frankly, my dear . . .

That's the kind of line it is. Just brilliant narrative, brilliant writing, so evocative of what it feels like to encounter a situation that immediately changes you, that cuts through the clutter of life and has a spirited conversation with your soul.

It’s the kind of line that reminds me of the birth of our daughter. We’ve only got one, but for those of you who have kids, perhaps you recognize this feeling too, all the preparation you go into, all the chaos that fills those days, the showers and the painting and the worry, all of that, and then the mother pushes and pushes and suddenly, there’s a baby, an actual person, and you knew it was going to happen, but you didn’t know it would be like this, so full of possibility. You knew, but you didn’t know this.

Or a wedding. You go through the ritual, you plan and plan and say the I do’s, you dance a little maybe, and then you go about your life together: life, with its money problems and its stresses and its ups and downs, its beginnings and endings, the reality of the tough slog of love. You knew this would happen, but you didn’t know it would be like this, so rich, so deep, like good soil. You knew, but you didn’t know this.

Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. That kind of line doesn’t come to you unless the sum total of the things the man told you are pretty substantial. You don’t utter that kind of line without having done a whole lot of things you aren’t proud of. That kind of beautiful, evocative line comes from the mouth of somebody who has a lot of things to know, but not the kind of things you frame on the wall or put on the refrigerator.

She had a lot of things to know, and maybe that’s the issue. Everybody wants to be known. Everybody longs to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to do as Howard Thurman says, to hear the sound of the genuine in me and see the genuine in you and go down in myself and end up in you. This is what it means to be human, to long to be known.

It is why we so worship at the altar of celebrity, why we now have this whole class of people who are famous for being famous, because there is a part in every person who wishes to be known. Maybe it’s not the biggest part—I mean, I’d just as soon live alone in the woods as be famous—but there’s a part of me, deep down, that would go to great lengths just to be known.

I don’t want to get too ridiculous about it, but I kind of think it is the case that most of the sins we commit all stem from this one desire, this desire to be known. Adultery, of course, is about intimacy more than it’s about thrill; there is a reason that the euphemism for intimacy we see most often in the Bible is to know, to be known. Greed and envy are about needing to be better than, have more than, build bigger than, so that we may be known.

It is pretty incredible the number of things we pile up in order to be known, our own personal Towers of Babel, as if just one more thing, just one more hit, just one more fleeting encounter, just one more thing stacked on top of the rest will make my tower high enough so that I may climb it and glimpse the face of God. We do so many things in order to be known, mold our lives around this idea that we just need a little more, and while it can be overwhelming to face that level of sin, take heart, my friends, for it is certainly not a new trap. Let us remember the unnamed woman in the Gospel of John who met Jesus at the well. Here is someone who was never satisfied in her effort to be known.

There were the marriages, of course. Five husbands, five marriages, five weddings. The point isn’t the number, and it isn’t even really about divorce. Jesus doesn’t take this opportunity to preach about the sanctity of marriage, nor about the heartbreak of divorce. In fact, he doesn’t say much at all at the beginning in this passage, which is unlike him.

It is certainly unusual that Jesus doesn’t take the bait, but what is even more unusual is that he’s talking to a Samaritan woman at all. Jesus does all sorts of unusual things, so that’s not it exactly, but the social convention in first-century Israel was that not only did Jews and Samaritans not interact, but a Jewish man certainly did not interact with a Samaritan woman, and my God, he’d never ask her for a drink of water, and those of us who grew up in the south understand this distinction more than most, because while there were not separate wells for Jews and Samaritans, there might as well have been. I love this parenthetical comment in the Gospel—John says that Jews and Samaritans did not share things in common—which is John being sarcastic, going to great lengths to avoid saying they hated each other. Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk, didn’t wave to each other, didn’t interact at all. It’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan is so powerful.

And yet Jesus sees this woman who, we know, has all these strikes against her. She’s female, for one, and Samaritan, and divorced five times, and now she’s living with a man to whom she isn’t married. Jesus’s whole message could be ruined simply by his association with this woman. John says that when the disciples came and discovered that he was talking to her, at the well, in the middle of the day, where everybody could see, they were astonished. You can’t have that kind of association without people talking. I mean, Jesus might as well associate with murderers and tax collectors and prostitutes, which of course he did. It was as controversial then as it is today.

I saw it happen just this week. There’s a Christian columnist named Jonathan Merritt I read and appreciate, and he made the innocuous statement that Jesus was a friend to sinners. And a number of very influential religious leaders took him to task, arguing that Jesus only befriended those who changed, who believed in him, who shed their sins.

And, I have to tell you, I wonder if those folks have read this story, the story of the woman at the well, because nowhere in the story does she apologize for her five divorces, for her current living situation. Nowhere does she repent. Nowhere, in fact, does Jesus say anything disapproving to her. He does not say, “Go and sin no more.” He does not say, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” He says, “I am the Messiah.”

I think it is notable that having heard this news, the woman sets down her water jar and leaves. I mean, she’s gone to the well to fetch water, and yet she leaves her jar behind, just sets it down in the dust and dirt and goes to share the news of her encounter. And she doesn’t even say “Come meet the one who forgives sin.” Or “Come meet the one who gives new life.” She says “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

It’s an acknowledgement that those things she’s done haven’t gotten her any closer to being known any more than the tower of Babel got the Israelites closer to Heaven. It’s an acknowledgement that everything is different from this moment forward, and in fact everything is so different, she sets down her water jar, turns away from the Messiah she’s just met and the well she needs for water and goes the other direction, just leaves in order that she might tell others of that which she has seen, the man who has told her everything she has ever done.

Just leaves it all behind, the jar, the well, the marriages, everything she’s needed to build her up so that she might be known, just leaves it behind, for she has had an encounter with God. She has been known, and it took nothing but setting the jar down and putting everything else aside.

She just set it down, so let me end with this question: what is in your water jar? What are you holding on to in the interest of being known that you need to drop in order that you might meet Jesus?

Is it money? Are you holding onto that? Is it your pride? Is it anger? I’ve met some of the angriest people I’ve ever met inside the doors of a church, and it’s the case that if anger is controlling your life, you can go to the well every single day and drink your fill, but you won’t find an ounce of the living water that gushes up, fills you and washes you clean.

Is it anger? Is it tradition—some family thing that’s always been done that is standing in the way of meeting God? Traditions are great—don’t get me wrong, I am a very traditional, high-church kind of guy—but when traditions stand in the way of worshiping in spirit and truth, if they keep you from meeting the savior, they are nothing but empty vessels, the kind that hold the wrong kind of water, and you can fill them all you want but you’re going to stay thirsty.

I don’t know why you are here today, but can I just ask one more thing? Can I suggest we consider the idea that being known by God means you need to set down the thing you think you came here for and be filled with the living water, energized to go into town and tell everyone the good news of Jesus Christ, the forgiving God who meets us where we are and—despite our silly attempts to the contrary—offers us the chance to be truly known? Can I suggest that?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the passing of a giant

I've just returned from Bishop Bob Morgan's funeral in Birmingham, AL. I can understand if his passing doesn't mean a lot to you, but it means a lot to me.

Bishop Morgan served a number of churches in Alabama before being elected as a Bishop of the United Methodist Church in 1984. In his 16 years of active service, he served in Mississippi and Kentucky. Before retiring in 2000, he served a term as the President of the World Council of Bishops.

I did not know Bishop Morgan until after he'd already retired. In 2000, he took a position at Birmingham-Southern College (my alma mater) as the Bishop-in-Residence. "The Bish," as we called him, taught a number of classes, helped connect the college and church, and served as a spiritual adviser and surrogate grandfather to students at the college.

I met the Bish near the end of my sophomore year. He was planning to lead a trip to Greece and Italy that coming January, to follow the footsteps of Paul. I had a friend already signed up, and I went to ask him if there was room for me.

There wasn't. Typically for the Bish, the trip filled up almost immediately. People flocked to his classes, not because they were easy (they weren't), but because of the Bishop himself. I've never met a more grounded, kind, self-giving person in all my life.

Rather than sending me away, however, he spent a few minutes talking to me. I was considering ministry, I told him, though I wasn’t sure in what form. I’d felt God’s calling on my life, but I didn’t grow up in church so I did not have any real ministry role models after whom to pattern my life. He encouraged me to sign up for his Pauline Writings course next semester. That course was full already, but he would make an exception just for me. And, he said, though the trip was also full, he would find a way to include me. I was thrilled.

The following semester, I got to know Bishop Morgan better. His Pauline Writings class had to meet in the auditorium of the science building, as he famously made “an exception just for you” to anyone who asked. Before each exam, Bishop Morgan and his wife, Martha, had the whole class over for dinner--and not your standard pizza or tacos. Martha broke out the good china and cooked real food. We were treated as family. I’d never experienced that kind of hospitality from someone who wasn't a blood relative. Over the course of my last two years at BSC, I probably ate with the Bishop and Martha 15 times. We went over before every test, a number of times before our travels in Europe, and more than once afterwards.

I have great memories of that trip. The Bishop was seventy years old, and yet he and Martha hiked up a mountain with us to visit the monastery at Meteora. He delighted in showing us the acropolis, the bema in Corinth, the ruins at Thessalonica. In Berea, I think, the hot water wasn't working, so the Bishop announced to us at breakfast that he was very so very sorry we had to take cold showers, and that as for himself, he’d “sat on a stool and had Martha hose me off.”

While it had been the case that I’d had no role models in ministry before meeting Bishop Morgan, he (knowing that I needed a role model) made sure during that trip to spend time with me, to visit with me, to give me time to ask questions, to gently encourage me to pursue United Methodist ministry. While I can’t say that Bishop Morgan is the only reason I am a United Methodist pastor, I can pretty certainly say I wouldn’t be one without him.

After we returned home, Bishop Morgan continued to spend time with me, encouraging me, mentoring me. Stacey loves to tell the story of our senior year in which we both took a class from Bishop Morgan called The Parables of Jesus. We fell in love while studying together for that class, but the story she most loves is that while taking the map portion of the final exam (with 40 other people in the room), Bishop Morgan walked over to me to look over my shoulder and see how I was doing.

Seeing that I was totally losing it on the map (geography is not my strong suit), Bishop Morgan proceeded to just tell me the answers. In the middle of the exam. You could almost see the ears of the people sitting around me perk up as he said, “no, put there here, put that there.” So I did. I think the map is the only portion of that test I got 100% correct.

I could go on, but I know that this is my story, which is why I find myself so heartbroken at Bishop Morgan’s passing. I do want to make one final point.

Bishop Morgan could have actually retired in 2000 when he “retired” from ministry. I know for a fact that in his final years, the Bish suffered from a number of diseases and health problems that should have kept him out of the classroom; after our trip up the mountains of Meteora, I learned that he’d been in excruciating pain the whole time, having torn a tendon in his left foot. And yet he kept up the mountain, kept teaching, kept doing God’s work.

Stacey and I had the chance to be present in October of 2010 to see Bishop Morgan receive an award from the Candler School of Theology. In his remarks, he called the work of mentoring students the most important of his career. I've learned this week that five active bishops in the UMC count him as a mentor. The number of students from BSC who entered ministry during his tenure must be well over 100; 13 of his former students are in seminary today.

When I learned Sunday of Bishop Morgan's passing, I spent some time thinking about our sporadic contact in recent months, as one tends to do after the passing of a mentor. But rather than feeling guilty about the lack of contact—Bishop Morgan knew what he meant to me—I've realized that to be a mentor is to give up that reciprocal relationship. A mentor does not offer guidance with the expectation of return. A mentor gives with the expectation that the one being mentored will, in turn, mentor. It is a faith in the goodness of God, the goodness of the people made in God's image.

This kind of faith—the kind that gives without an expectation of return—seems awfully rare some days. I've got a feeling Bishop Morgan would want me to spend the rest of my life trying to make it less rare. Whether you are young or “retired,” I hope you’ll join me in trying.

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