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.


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.”


"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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

March 9 Sermon

Matthew 4:1-11
4Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The three temptations of Jesus that we have heard this morning are temptations the church still faces in one form or another, and so I would like to center my remarks this morning around this theme: The Church’s Three Temptations. You have heard the hymn The Church’s One Foundation. We are going to talk about the Church’s Three Temptations.
Before we talk about each of these temptations, we should be clear on what we’re talking about. We all experience temptation, but what is it, exactly?
What it is not is just wanting something. That’s not enough for temptation. Nor is it just wanting something that is bad for you. I would like to come into a lot of money, and that desire may come from greed or jealously, but it does not come from temptation. For most people, there is nothing wrong, after all, with the occasional slice of cake, or glass of wine, or what have you. Temptation comes into play when we want the cheap thrill over the sustained goodness. Temptation is about the now versus what could be. If you don’t have a problem with eating too much, then a piece of cake is fine. But if sustained goodness in your life looks like losing weight or getting back on the track to health, then that cake is about a cheap thrill versus the sustained goodness. If you struggle with alcoholism, that drink that may be what you want now is in conflict with the productive future of sobriety that could be.
Do you see the difference? Temptation is much more insidious than just wanting something, because you can legitimate temptation by saying, oh, this is what I want now, I deserve it now, who knows what tomorrow will bring so we should spend today eating, drinking, and being merry.
So it does my heart good to know that Jesus also experienced temptation, and as we seek to be the church in the modern world, as we seek to share God’s gracious Gospel with others and grow in our faith together, it happens to be the case that we face very similar temptations to the ones Jesus faced. In the interest of maintaining the church, which is an important task for us, the church is constantly subject to the three temptations of the devil that Jesus faces, so we must be on constant watch. All right.
The first temptation is this: to turn God into a magician. To turn God into a magician. You sometimes hear me rag on the television preachers who like spectacle more than substance, and here’s a great example of the ways in which the church has been prone to give into the temptation to turn God into a magician. You’ve seen those preachers who put their hands on the heads of poor folks with debilitating diseases or whatever, and they start shaking and fall backward and all of a sudden, pow, they are healed! I hate to break it to you, but that’s magic. It is spectacle. I don’t doubt the power of the Holy Spirit to heal, but that kind of thing is about turning God into a magician, into an illusionist, rather than a gracious presence, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer we understand through the Holy Trinity.
You know, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. After that kind of experience, you’re hungry, you know, you’re weak and you’d almost eat the rocks themselves. And so, the story goes, the devil says to him, “if you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” But Jesus answers, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And perhaps that’s a bit of a strange answer, but he’s quoting scripture, like he sometimes does, and he’s resisting the temptation to fill his belly now by mortgaging his legacy as the Son of God. For everything else he was, Jesus was NOT a magician. He didn’t perform miracles just for the sake of performing miracles. In every miracle, he was pointing to God, which is a nice way to understand miracles in our time, too. If it doesn’t point to God, it’s just magic, just illusion. Miracles point to God.
Why this is not good enough for us, I don’t know. We seem to think that the business of sharing the love of God with others is not enough, so we try to put on a show, as if God were more present in grand theater than in the mundane moments of life. I know that in my life, love has looked a lot more like small moments of grace than over-the-top celebrations. The wedding is nice, of course, but it gives way to the tough slog of true love. And yet somehow we seem to want more, to turn God into a magician, because we doubt that God’s grace is enough on its own. To this, Jesus says no. One does not live by miracles, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
That’s the Church’s First Temptation: To turn God into a magician.
The Church’s Second Temptation is to pretend the Bible stands on its own. Maybe you think that’s a strange thing for the preacher to say, but hear me out. The Bible is the primary way we understand God’s truth, but it cannot be divorced from the interpretive lenses each of us brings to the table. The Bible is not a book, after all, but a series of books, and there are places the Bible contradicts itself, details about who did what when, that sort of thing. I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, and I don’t mean to say that the Bible isn’t the most important source of truth we have, but when you read the Bible without context and interpretation, you are missing out on the richness scripture has to offer.
I mean, just look at the second temptation of Jesus in this morning’s scripture lesson. The devil took Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple, the high point, and said, if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you do not dash your foot against a stone.”
And this one is a tricky, because the devil is actually quoting scripture, Psalm 91, as if merely by using scripture, he can make his case. As if scripture can be read without context and interpretation. I mean, let me say it even more strongly. Quote scripture all you want, but don’t pretend that quoting scripture makes you any better than the devil. The key for us as United Methodists is understand scripture in context, in reading the Bible using our lenses of tradition and reason and experience. This is our legacy as Methodists, and so when somebody tells me that they don’t worry about all that, they just believe the Bible, you understand why I balk at that a little bit. The devil can quote scripture. What we as the church are tasked with is interpreting scripture. You can’t read the Bible without interpreting it using tradition, reason, and experience. Anybody who tells you that they are just teaching the Bible without shining it through the lens of their own context is not telling the whole truth, because the Bible is much richer than one book written by one author. It is inspired, but the genius of the Bible is that until we interpret it, until we as the church come together and with God’s help engage it through the perspective of our humanness, it is just words on a page. And it has been my experience that those who say the Bible speaks for itself frequently mean that THEIR interpretation is the CORRECT interpretation, and oh, that is dangerous ground, friends, for the devil can do sword drills with the best of them. God does not expect us to read the Bible without filtering it through the lenses of experience, reason, and tradition, for God does not expect us to read the Bible as anything less than the human beings we are. This is why we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit: to guide us; to help us understand the complexity of scripture. God is even greater than the Bible, for God helps us to interpret the Bible. This is the church’s second temptation: the pretend that the Bible stands on its own. The devil can quote scripture, too.
The church’s third temptation is the most dangerous, because we’ve been taught it our whole lives. The church’s third temptation is this: staying put, rather than moving forward into God’s future. Accepting things as they are. Believing our best days are behind us. The story goes that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world. All the kingdoms, all the riches, all the power. And the devil said, All this you could have if you will just do one thing. Just fall down and worship me. You can have all of this, all that is, if you will just give up your plan for the world, if you will give up all that could be. After all, you’ve got a sure thing in all that is. Who knows what is around the corner in the realm of what could be? Why bet it all on final Jeopardy when you’ve already won?
I say that this is the most dangerous temptation of all, because it is about mortgaging the future for the present. It is temptations boiled down to its essence: the cheap thrill over the sustained goodness. What is versus what could be. It is about saying, well, things may not get better, so let’s not risk it. It is the most dangerous, most insidious temptation of all, but you knew that already, because it’s bred into us. It’s taught to us as children. A bird in the hand is worth two in the . . . bush. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Bloom where you are planted.
We’re taught to avoid risk, and it’s a temptation, you know, not just worshiping the devil, which I’ve never been tempted to do and I don’t think is the point. The temptation is about saying this is the best it will ever be, and so rather than taking the difficult steps to move forward in my own life, in my own journey, my own walk with God, I’m just going to plant right here.
It’s a problem of trust, really, and I get that. It is hard to trust an invisible God, hard to trust that God has a plan for the world when life can see m so utterly random, so full of death and destruction, hard lives and hardened people. But it is also a failure of imagination, a situation of being stuck in the muck of the way things are and the way we’ve always done things and the disease of trusting our own limitations more than we trust God.
I was listening the other day to this remarkable interview with the vocalist and conductor Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin is a very devout Christian, which I did not know, and he talked about the ways music speaks to the mystery of faith. He says that when he has the opportunity to conduct an orchestra, he hates over-rehearsing, “for the simple reason that [he doesn’t] want to take all the mystery out of the music-making.” If he over-rehearsed the orchestra, they wouldn’t look at him during the performance for direction. They’d rely on the black and white on the page, which gets you only so far, for there is a reason an orchestra needs a conductor. Beauty happens in those gray places, those imaginative places, in-between the notes. So, he says, he would “under-rehearse a little bit, because [he] wanted them to wonder what the music was going to be like.”
The church has suffered for a long time with a failure of imagination, a failure of wonder, and it is in this context, in this time, to the devil and to us, that Jesus speaks this word: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Don’t worship the past, or your own limitations, or some version of God that is so static as to be dead. Worship the God who is far larger than our own limitations, the problems we’ve had in the past, the hurt and pain we’ve had to walk through, because I don’t know about you, but my Bible says that yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, thou art with me. I do not walk alone, for God is greater than my troubles, greater than my past. I know it in my experience, I understand it in my reason, and I hear echoes of that great promise throughout the history of the church.
It is the church’s third and greatest temptation to stay put rather than living into God’s future, to stay on the familiar path. But then, the familiar path has only led you up to this point. The journey of following Jesus is about what is ahead, about traveling through, about taking the next steps to follow the Savior who is always on the move, for you can’t walk through the valley if you are standing still.
So these are the church’s three temptations: to turn God into something God is not, to turn the Bible into something it is not, and to turn the Christian journey into something of a dead end, merely because we’ve been there before and because it feels safe. These are nothing new. Jesus faced these same temptations two thousand years ago, and yet he managed to overcome them by building the movement we’re still involved with today.
Church, if we want to overcome these temptations, if we want to continue that grand movement of Christianity, there’s wisdom for us in this passage, wisdom in following the savior who is always on the move. We’d best get busy, because it is an inescapable truth that you can’t be part of a movement if you aren’t willing to move.

Monday, March 3, 2014

March 2 Sermon

Matthew 17:1-9

17Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, and I must tell you that it is one of the most difficult Sundays of the year to preach, to talk about. Easter is easy, because we know what to do with Easter. Resurrection, we can talk about. And we like Pentecost, the birthday of the church, with its tongues of fire and the Holy Spirit coming like a dove. We even like Lent, which is a funny thing to say, because Lent is a time of sacrifice and repentance, the forty days that come before Easter.

We even like Lent, because though Lent is about sacrifice, at least we know what to say about it. We can get a handle on penitence, we can understand what Lent is about when we come on Ash Wednesday and the pastor scrapes the ashes onto our foreheads and says, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

But Transfiguration Sunday is something altogether different, and so we do not talk all that much about the transfiguration, because we do not know what to say about it. Oh, we have the story, but we do not know what it all means, this New Testament story of the disciples following Jesus up the mountain, and Jesus suddenly bursting into a dazzling white and appearing with the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew does not seem to know what all it means either, which makes me feel a little better about the whole thing. He doesn’t tell us what it means; he just tells us that it happened.

The preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor says that we with this story what we do to all sorts of experiences in life that don’t seem to fit into any of our already-established categories: we “keep handling it,” she says, “until we wear it down to where it feels safe to us. We just keep analyzing it until we can say something intelligent about it.”

This story certainly does not fit into any of my categories, and as much as I want to whittle it down to some kernel of truth, I have to tell you that I am not sure what to say about the transfiguration. I am in good company. The disciples didn’t know. The Gospel writer didn’t know. Nobody knows. If someone tells you what it means, I have to tell you that what I think they mean is that they have handled this story until it is worn and safe and until it has some nugget of wisdom to be described rather than some truth, some truth much larger than the words that contain it that it cannot so much be described as it can be experienced.

This is what we do with religion, and with Jesus, of course. We have somehow changed the notion of God’s majesty into something to be understood, a list of guidelines, ten commandments, or four spiritual laws, or even one movie which professes to hold within it the truth of Christ.

None of this is inherently bad, but it does not do justice to the wideness of God’s mercy, the complexity of God’s love. The reason that we wear down Jesus and religion into a list of things to be understood is that life is complicated, the world is increasingly complex and it is a scary thing, to live in a complex world. It is a scary thing to realize that things are not so cut and dry, that life is not so easily navigated, that the lines that once kept everything in its right place are not so bright anymore.

Embracing complexity is part of growing up, of course. We who have done some manner of growing up know this. The world is not black and white. But it is scary to live in this place, to come of age in a time where things are not so clear.

So we seek a refuge. We want to go back to how things used to be, to a simpler time. We seek a refuge from the complexity of the world, and what better place to take refuge than the church?

Come to me, all ye who are weary and burdened, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.

And thank God. The world is so difficult, so complicated, at least we’ve got the church to keep us safe.

Only, I’m not so sure the church is the safe place, at least in the way we hope for it to be safe. The writer Annie Dillard says that “It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”

The minister James Buchanan tells the story of baptizing a two year old child. At one point in the liturgy, the minister said to the child, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” To which the two-year-old child responded, “Uh oh.”

I’m not sure the church is the safe place we wish it were, but maybe “safe” is not the best word. You will find no safer place, I hope, in terms of people who are willing to love you just as you are. But while the church is a shelter from the storm, it is not a refuge from complexity, from difficult issues, from tension. The world is a complicated place, and we come to church to escape, to get some clarity, and if clarity is what you are seeking, I am afraid that I do not have much to offer you today, because I am not sure what to say about the Transfiguration. If you want a sermon on what the transfiguration means, what it is all about, well, I have about fifty bad sermons I can send you. But they do not do justice to the tensions of the story, to the tensions that are an inherent part of the life of faith, to the tensions that are inherent in the person of Jesus Christ.

Oh, feel free to look to Jesus to get away from the tensions of life, but I don’t think he will be much help. Jesus is as full of tension as anybody. Think of the tension between faith and works, for instance. You cannot simply work your way into Heaven, but you also can’t simply believe your way into Heaven and live as if nothing has changed. There is tension, there is a tension between faith and works, and we are called to live in the tension.

Or think of the tension between grace, which says that God forgives us and loves us no matter what, and law, which says we ought to follow. You come down on one end or the other, and you’re missing the richness faith has to offer. You worry only about grace, without some parameters about how we are to live, and you end up doing whatever you want, whenever you want, and hope like Homer Simpson for an opportunity for a deathbed conversion. But coming down on the side of law is no better, because then the life of faith becomes something not about faith at all, but rather a series of hoops through which you are to jump so that you can make it to Heaven, and that is no way to live. There is a tension there, between grace and law. We are called to live in the tension.

The kingdom that is yet to come versus the kingdom that is here now. The call to serve others versus the call to serve God. The truths we see in the Bible versus the truths we see in reason, tradition, and experience. The Old Testament versus the New Testament. Each side is true, but neither side is fully true. The full truth lies somewhere in the tension.

If we want to get even more obvious about it, think of the tension between Jesus as divine and Jesus as human. Why, we’ve been trying to relax this tension for two thousand years, and we still haven’t figured it out. Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and nobody knows what that means, exactly. Now, if you said Jesus was half human and half divine, if he were split down the middle, 50/50, I could probably wrap my head around that one. But that is not what we say, nor is it what we believe. We believe that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, and my God, there is a tension if there ever was one. We are called to live in that tension, too.

And this is the tension of the Transfiguration. Here, Jesus is walking around on earth, like every other human, and he goes to the mountaintop with Peter and James and John, and suddenly he bursts through the pages of the story, just hops right out of the black and white chapters and verses and is transfigured, and his clothes become dazzling white, such that no one on earth could bleach them.

Fully human, and fully divine. It is a tension.

The big problem with living in tension, of course, is that it is tense. Living in tension is much more difficult than living at one side or the other. It is also much more dangerous. Consider the rubber band. Tension can be dangerous. If you stretch the rubber band out, if you give it some tension and let go, it is liable to pop you! It is a tough place to live, in tension.

But without tension, the rubber band is not good for anything. You put a pen inside it, it just falls out. Our faith is like this. If we refuse tension, our faith will be just fine until we really need it, but once we face a crisis, well, everything will just fall out. If you stretch the rubber band to hold more things, if you increase the tension, it will do what it is designed to do. It will hold what it is designed to hold, and it is designed to hold much more than it seems.

The other problem with tension is that it is hard to speak about. It is much easier to talk about one extreme or the other, and if you don’t believe me just turn on the news. We are as polarized as ever in this country, and living somewhere in the center is seen as somehow bad, as somehow lacking core convictions. If you are not on the extreme, you are somewhere in the murky middle.

But when did we allow this center to be associated with apathy, as if only those on the extremes have claim to the truth? As if only one side or the other has anything to say with any truth behind it?

One of the leading bishops in the United Methodist Church has written a book called United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Cen-ter. Not the extreme sinner—we’ve already got plenty of those—but the Extreme Cen-ter. I like this idea of the extreme center. It reminds me that we live in tension, and though we may be pulled to one side or the other—in actuality we are pulled from all sides, all at once—we are called to live in the extreme center: not the murky center, or the ambivalent center, but the extreme center, a place where there is room for ambiguity, a place where there is room for paradox and tension. A place, perhaps, where there is room for God.

The extreme center is a tough place to be, and it is a hard thing to speak about. Perhaps most of us preachers are like Peter, and we come to this story and we see Jesus transfigured, with his clothing dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah, and we say something meaningless, like “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,” or some such nonsense, as if—though we are terrified and do not know what to say—we feel as if we must say something anyhow.

And yet the faith of Jesus Christ is so much bigger than we can say, so much more complex than even our own modern lives. To be drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ is to recognize that the traditional rules do not apply, that the tensions of life are nothing compared to the tensions of religion, and that this is a good thing. Madeline L’Engle says that these tensions offer “a way for us to see beyond limited fact into the wonder of God's story.” They remind us that God is beyond limited fact, that there is something beyond our own understanding, and it is good for me to remember that the world does not work according to my own biases and presuppositions. God is bigger than my biases and presuppositions.

I wish I could tell you what the Transfiguration means. I wish I could sum it up in a nice sermon, but I am not so sure. It is an instance of God breaking through our limited understandings, breaking into our story even when it seems as if we are not good enough for the wonder of God’s story. It is an instance of God’s entrance into our lives in ways that do not fit into any of our categories, at times when we least expect God to enter. It is a reminder that there is something beyond what we see, here on earth. It is an invitation into the myriad of tensions that comprise our faith. It is all of these things, and it is none of these things, because what we say of God does not do justice to who God is and how much God loves us.

But this is all merely introduction. Here, you thought you were getting a sermon, and all you got was an introduction. For the sermon is what comes after the introduction, when you allow yourself to be stretched in tension, when you allow yourself to be pulled like taffy, aerated with God’s spirit and made into something altogether new. There, in that tension, you will meet the God of the Transfiguration, the God who is bigger than you could have possibly imagined.

I’ve offered you a sermon. Now it is time to write your own. Now it is time to write the story of God in your own life. Rather than staying here and setting up dwellings in this holy place, let’s go down the mountain and embody that which we have seen. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit.