Monday, January 15, 2018

1-14-18 “What Are You Looking For?”

1-14-18  “What Are You Looking For?”  

   They say getting older isn’t for sissies - and I guess that’s true. The various aches and pains that I have now that I didn’t have 10 years or more ago are no fun. I don’t mind that my hair is grayer - I was prematurely gray anyway so that was no big deal. The places hair grows now where it didn’t before, that’s kind of a pain. But what is really the most difficult to deal with are memory issues; struggling with names, places, dates, and with losing things in plain sight, you know. Like, I just had this “thing,” whatever it is, and I turn around and now I can’t find it. Now, I haven’t gotten so bad that I lose my glasses when they’re propped up on my head yet, but that’s only because I NEVER prop them on my head - I can’t see a lick without them. But it seems like I’m always looking for something that I just had my hands on.

   More broadly though, we’re all looking for something aren’t we? As humans we’re looking for answers in a world of questions, we’re looking for certainty in a world of change, maybe we’re looking for love, as the song said, in all the wrong places. And it’s no different in our scripture passages for today. 
   After his very ethereal, mystical introductory passage that April shared with you last week, John gets more concrete this week. After his “In the beginning…” beginning, he introduces us to John the Baptist, even though this gospel includes no baptism story. And John the Baptizer is confronted by Pharisees wanting to know who he is, what he’s doing, etc. John makes clear that he’s not the Messiah (thinking they might be trying to trap him) but that the Messiah is coming. Then when Jesus appears on the scene the following day, John points him out to his followers, identifying him as “the Lamb of God,” and “God’s Son.”
   In today’s reading, then, it is the following day, and again, Jesus comes on the scene, and again, John calls him “the Lamb of God,” after which, two of John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus. And when Jesus sees that these two are following him, he turns to them and asks one of the most profound questions in all of scripture, in all of life: “What are you looking for?” 

   “What are you looking for?” asked by anyone else is a simple question. We might be looking for those lost keys, that favorite hat, the address of a friend. 
But coming from the mouth of Jesus the question has a more existential tone. 
   What are they looking for? According to Joseph Clifford, 
“…they were looking for redemption; they were looking for the Messiah. What did they want from the Messiah? Maybe they were looking for adventure, for new experiences, to see the world beyond the sleepy little village where they’d spent their lives. Maybe they were looking to make a difference, to be part of a movement to resist the Roman occupation and the corrupt leadership of Judea. Maybe they were looking for meaning and purpose in their otherwise aimless lives. Perhaps they were looking to “find themselves,” so they joined the cult of John the Baptist with visions of utopia dancing in their heads. …It’s possible,” Clifford suggests, “they were looking for the same things twenty-first century churchgoers seek.” And Jesus’ question carries great power, then and now, he says,  “because everyone is looking for something.” 
   Frederich Schleiermacher, an 18th century German theologian said that humanity seeks something beyond itself, calling the object of their desire “a taste of the infinite.” 20th century theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as “the ground of our being,” and the subject of “life’s ultimate concern.” John Wesley considered this quest to be a grace from God, a seed planted within us that seeks God - what he considered part of the prevenient grace of God that seeks us out before we are even consciously aware of God. And Father Richard Rohr, talking about the Creation story’s teaching that humanity was created in the “image and likeness of God,” suggests that the “image of God” in us is what seeks out God - God seeking God - while our “likeness” to God reflects how we actually do or don’t live into that image. The bottom line of all of these great thinkers of the faith is simple: human beings long for something beyond themselves. We’re all looking for something.
   And as Clifford points out,  “People long for identity, meaning, for healing, redemption, for love, for life.  And the world is ready and willing to offer endless potential solutions. The problem is that every human solution misses the life and purpose for which human beings were made. Until it is recognized that the human heart longs for the ground of our being, the ultimate concern, for a life lived in relation to God and God’s will, the heart will never find what it is looking for.”

   “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks. Beyond the obvious, the material, the immediate, this question invites existential reflection upon the human condition.

   “Humanity,” Clifford suggests, “is looking for purpose and meaning…it’s looking for permanence in an ever shifting world. Permanence for the writer of John is expressed in metaphors throughout the Gospel. 
For example, we are looking for bread to eat so as never to be hungry again (6:50-51), for water to drink that will forever quench our thirst (6:35), for words of eternal life (chap 6), and a house with many rooms (chap 14), to name but a few of the metaphors. Humanity is looking for the presence of God in a real, tangible, “fleshly” way; for the author of John, coming to know and understand this presence in the here and now is to find eternal life.

   I’ve shared with you before my great affection for the music of the band U2. Arguably the greatest rock band of the last three decades, they’re music, while firmly planted on and within the rock and pop charts and genres, is very clearly influenced and guided by their Christian beliefs. Many of their songs are blatantly faith-oriented rock versions of the Psalms, of Jesus’ teachings, or of theological ideas or concepts. One of their songs, though, speaks directly to the the question Jesus poses in our passage today. In “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the singer, Bono, cries out the lengths he’s gone to, the battles he’s waged, the temptations he’s faced, searching for the ultimate, that which is beyond ourselves, in all the ways that the world tries to provide answers to Jesus’ question.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
I have run 
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
Only to be with you
I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire
I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven't found what I'm looking for…

   The song speaks of the search inherent in the human condition and of belief in the coming of God’s kingdom. Ultimately it expresses an experience that seems to be universal: finding what we’re really looking for is an elusive quest. The world offers many possibilities - wealth, power, material possessions, the list goes on and on - but they are all ultimately found wanting, because they’re all dead idols. They cannot fulfill what the human heart ultimately seeks.

   So we have all of this in that seemingly simple question, “What are you looking for?” Maybe these would-be disciples sense that, maybe they don’t. Their response, “Where are you staying? certainly doesn’t answer his question. It’s almost like they didn’t realize he saw them following and were fumbling for words when he turned to question them. Regardless, knowing how John’s gospel will unfold, we can see the author playing with words. To stay, to dwell, to abide - all of these have to do with the divine presence. Where and what is Jesus abiding and dwelling are all issues John will address in chapter 15. 
Whatever their intent with this question, Jesus responds, “Come and see.” 
   And as Buran Phillips points out,  “More than a general statement, it is an invitation to discipleship. “Come and see,” first of all, is an invitation to experience the gospel in order to understand. For John, to “see” or to “believe” is not merely an intellectual assent to certain propositions; it involves the totality of the self. This does not mean that faith is “non-rational,” rather, it means that faith is not attained at the end of an argument.” That is, faith is not something to be convinced of, it’s something to be experienced. 
   “Come and see” also reflects John’s emphasis on developing one’s vision for discipleship. 
According to John,  disciples are those who have come to believe though the gift of faith and then, by their witness and good works, enable others to come and see as well. 
   We discover our identity, we come to recognize our birthright as a beloved child made in the image of God, when we come to see who Christ is. And further, we learn to see the divine presence both in him and wherever creation itself is hallowed. And to that end, John points through his gospel to all the ways we are invited to “come and see.”

   In the passage that follows in chapter 2, which takes place “on the third day,” we have what, on the surface, seems like an ordinary event in human life - a wedding.
  We don’t know why Jesus is there, we don’t know who’s getting married. So, while it all seems ordinary it is, on the contrary, a very important story, set in the midst of ordinariness. John points to its significance at the end, when he tells us that, in what he calls the first sign - changing water into wine - Jesus “revealed his glory.
   So Jesus and his followers are at this wedding celebration - which, by the way, could go on for a week in that culture - when his mother (who’s never called by name in John’s gospel) approaches him and tells him “they don’t have any wine.” Running out of wine at the reception is a sure-fire way to kill the party, but that’s not the issue here. Mary isn’t concerned about the party pooping out. 
   “What does that have to do with me?” Jesus asks. 
‘It’s not my problem,’ his response suggests. But then he follows with, “My time has not yet come.” His mom isn’t going to spoil his messiah-coming-out party over some doofus who didn’t buy enough wine for his guests is she? Nevertheless, Mary turns to the servants and says, “Just do whatever he tells you.”
   Whoever this party is for, somehow Mary has a level of authority over the servants that when she speaks, they obey. So Jesus, not wanting to upset his mother - good advice for anyone - looks around to see what he has to work with and spies six stone water jugs that are used for purification rituals. Note there are six, one less than the perfect seven, one less than the ideal situation, each of which would hold 20-30 gallons of water. So Jesus tells these curious servants to fill the jugs full of water, then to pour some and take it to the headwaiter to taste, which they do. They take the sample of wine to the headwaiter who tastes it and is amazed that the bridegroom has saved the good wine for the end, when most people would have provided the good stuff first and then brought out the Boone’s Farm after everyone was toasted, so to speak. And this, John said, was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Galilee.

   Now, before we go forward with this story, let’s step back to the earlier passage for a second. Remember how Nathanael was so skeptical of Jesus in the earlier reading? “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” he asked. His question sounds sarcastic, 
even bigoted, not unlike what we’ve heard in the news this week. However, if we compare this passage with Old Testament passages about the Messiah, we find that Nazareth is never even mentioned in the Old Testament. Nathanael seems to be asking an honest question about what the expectations were of the coming messiah. How could Jesus be the promised one, the son of David, if his town is not even mentioned in scripture?

   But then, Jesus promises Nathanael that he “will see great things,” and the passage records “the first of Jesus’ signs…that revealed his glory.” That Jesus in John performs signs, not miracles, is not mere semantics or wordplay. 
The signs often signify and illustrate some aspect of Jesus’ identity that John wants to reinforce. Jesus raises Lazarus and claims, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); he heals the man born blind and claims, “I am the light of the world.” (9:5); he feeds the five thousand and claims, “I am the bread of life (6:35, 48)

   So in this story of a wedding in Cana, Jesus provides an answer to his own question, “What are you looking for?” as well as giving them something to “Come and see.” And in doing so he reveals his glory, as Neal Hansen suggests,  “as he honors ordinary people, quietly, wondrously tending to them. Jesus honors the bridegroom whom he saves form social disgrace. If the wine were allowed to fail, people would notice. He would hear about it at every holiday dinner for the rest of his life. Jesus honors the otherwise easily ignored servants whom he makes the only real witnesses to the miracle. Jesus even honors the creation, doing his miraculous work with the most basic of elements: jars made of stone and water. Glory shines when the presence of the Word turns the basic into the sublime…John shows Jesus’ own character…Jesus is earthy, humble, and generous. God in the flesh is ready to care for others, both up close and at a distance.”

   So, Jesus asks, “what are YOU looking for?” 
People come to church looking for something. 
Some are just looking to get out of church early enough to beat the Baptists to Bob Evans. Some are looking for community, for a place to belong, to connect with other people, and connect more with God in the process. 
Some are looking for a foundation upon which to build their lives; others for a connection with the Divine; others for a connection with the past, with what life was like when they were growing up. Some are looking for the healing of body or soul or both. Some are seeking redemption, new life on the other side of mistakes made or opportunities missed. People come to church looking for many things. 
   Raquel St. Clair Lettsome cautions though, that in this reading, “Nobody looked for Jesus until the old wine was gone. Old wine was still wine, even if it was not new wine…Sometimes it is the old, not the empty, that gets in the way of somebody seeking the Lord - old attitudes and actions, old habits and hurts, old insecurities or old information, old rituals and rules that coalesce to create old, dry religion.”
   “There are many people who do not seek Jesus until something runs out. Prayer and congregational worship often increase when finances, jobs, health, relationships, and solutions to life’s problems run out.”
   “The issue is not being empty. The issue is not being depleted. The issue is not even running out. The issue is whether or not we will go to Jesus to be filled. When the wine ran out, Mary went to find Jesus. Mary’s parting words are important for us all. 
They remind us that if we want the Lord to move in our lives, we must be prepared to do what he says.”
   “Jesus takes an empty and inadequate situation and makes the best out of it. He takes the water they have and makes the wine they need. This story encourages us to quit looking at what we have lost or do not have and look to Jesus, putting what we have into his hands.”

   But it also challenges us to do more. In the first passage, in spite of Nathanael’s skepticism, he follows Philip because of their relationship, because of the community building that had already taken place. He is friends with Philip, and while Philip may be wrong about Jesus, Nathanael honors their relationship and comes to check Jesus out. 
   But Philip’s response, also, should cause us to consider how often we refuse to share the good news with someone because we think it means we have to answer their every question. It begs the question of how many people’s faith journey has ended at the point of curiosity, how many potential followers of Christ turned away instead, because we received their questions as a threat or as a refusal to believe. Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious, the people whom life has emptied. Everybody is looking for something. As followers of Jesus, our job is not think for people. Nor are we expected to have all the answers. No, our job is only to invite them. We listen, we build relationship, and we invite. Like Christ, we invite them to come and see what it is, who it is, that we have found in our faith. Because ultimately, that answer to the existential questions that Christ offers is what we’re all looking for. Amen.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

12-31-17 Sermon - “On Years Ending & Beginning”

   Christmas is a season filled with tradition. 
Whether it’s where we go at Christmas, what we eat, when we eat, who we’re with, who opens the first gift, the order in which we open gifts, Christmas is largely tied to tradition at many levels.
   But when we say “tradition,” just what exactly do we mean? Merriam-Webster defines tradition first as, “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom.)” And when we think about it that way, it makes sense. The church is full of tradition, the liturgical calendar that guides us through the church year, unlike the solar calendar we use on a day-to-day basis, is one largely built on tradition as opposed to the movement or timing of celestial bodies or events. For example, Christmas is always December 25th, Epiphany is always January 6th, but Lent and Easter move from year to year. Some major liturgical dates or events are date specific while others fall in relationship to something else. And over the centuries, we in the church at least, have grown accustomed to what appears to others as a random ordering or dating of events.
   A second meaning that Merriam-Webster ascribes to “tradition” is “a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” From American history we might think of the oft-referenced story of the boy George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and then when asked about it tells his father, “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree.” It’s a great story that supports the legend and image of George Washington as a person of honesty and integrity, but there is no historical verification that this event actually too place. It’s tradition. 
   Our story today of the visit of the magi is one that is also bathed in tradition. The writer of Matthew - another bit of tradition, since we really don’t know who wrote each of the gospel accounts - is the only one of the four gospels to include this story. And while the gospel refers to them, in most all translations as magi or wisemen, understood to be astrologers or something similar, the King James Version refers to them as kings, based on one of the Psalms that says “all the kings of the world will bow down to the messiah.” So when we sing, we sing “We three kings,” even though the scripture never says how many magi there were, only that there three gifts. Some eastern Christian tradition holds that there were up to twelve magi present. 
   But tradition doesn’t stop there - Western Christian tradition even supplies names for these three travelers: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. In contrast, many Syrian Christians name the magi Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In the tradition of Ethiopian Christianity, the names are Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while Armenian Catholic tradition names them Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma. And so it is that we come to understand that tradition is also contextual, and that even people who share a faith tradition, have traditions within that tradition that are, well, non-traditional compared to others of that same faith.
   Many of us, as part of our Christmas tradition, place a nativity scene in our home depicting the birth of Jesus and all of those whom scripture describes as being present. So we have Jesus and Mary and Joseph at the center, and then there are Luke’s shepherds with some animals, and Matthew’s wise men with some camels, even though no passage of scripture includes all of them together, right? In fact, some believe that the magi didn’t appear on the scene for up to two year after the birth of Jesus for two reasons: one, the scripture says the magi entered “the house” to see Jesus, not a stable or anything like it, and two, because Herod, in order to try to kill Jesus, ordered all the young boys up to the age of two to be slaughtered. Still, it is our tradition to put the shepherds and magi side by side in the nativity.
   And that’s okay, because tradition is not intended to be a history lesson, tradition is a way of remembering what’s important about a time, or a place, or an event. Tradition reminds us of who we are, and how we are, and sometimes even why we are what we are. And there are at least two particular aspects of this story and the tradition that has developed around it that are of importance to us today. First, tradition tied to this passage suggests that the three magi were from Arabia, India, and Persia - what would literally have been the ends of the earth to a middle-eastern people of that time. That suggests to us that these sojourners from the east recognized, even from the vantage point of their own religious traditions, that God was doing something special in this child, and they wanted to honor that. 
Nowhere does it say that they changed religions or denounced their traditions, it says they came to honor this child, this king.

   And the second aspect that we would be good to understand is in how the passage concludes, saying that having been warned in a dream about Herod, the magi returned to their country by another route. They went home another way. That is, they changed things up. They took the road less traveled, we might say. We might also understand it to mean that, having experienced this God-Christ event, THEY were changed. Other translations say they went home another way, not by another route. Maybe the writer of Matthew is saying that this experience changed them, transformed or enlightened them in some way. Maybe this journey somehow gave them permission to do things differently, to try something new, to look at the world in a different way than “the way they’ve always done it.”

   The calendar gives us permission to start over each year, to do things differently. We might formalize those desires in resolutions but we don’t have to do that. Just turning the calendar from December to January, from 2017 to 2018, is permission-giving enough to say, I’m going to be different this year, I’m going to do something different this year, I’m going to try a new way of being, of acting, of whatever. I’m going to open myself up to new things, create new traditions even within my old traditions. This tradition-filled season of the year, where within one single week we celebrate the birth of the Savior who changed the world and then seven days later - God’s perfect number representing wholeness and completeness - seven days later we celebrate a new beginning in a new year where we can turn away from whatever we need to leave behind from the old year and do something new in a new year. It’s an annual repentance - a turning away from our old way of being and embracing a new way of being. 

   A Methodist pastor I know in Denver, Colorado found a new way of following an old Methodist tradition of taking the gospel to the people. Instead of offering new things or programs and expecting people to come to a church building, he took the church out to where they were. He started a worship service in a bar. In several bars, as a matter of fact. After Hours Denver is a worship community that rotates from week to week to different bars in and around Denver where people hear the word, sing together, and drink adult beverages while they worship. Their motto is “Love more, laugh more, judge less.” And while some would respond by poo-pooing that idea as sacrilege, or heresy, or cite the old Methodist attachment to the 19th and early 20th century anti-drinking temperance movement in order to denounce it, they forget, or never knew, that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism often preached in bars and on street corners, and that many of our traditional Methodist hymns were in fact drinking songs before Charles Wesley got his hands on them and put new words to those familiar tunes so that people could remember them. Think: religious words to “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
“A hundred bottles of beer on the wall,
a hundred bottles of beer,
take one down, pass it around,
ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
was blind but now I see.”

   After Hours Denver took the Methodist tradition of small groups out into the places where people who weren’t going to connect to a church otherwise were located, and introduced the gospel in a new way, becoming more like a church in how people acted and served. It evolved next into these groups, performing “service” within their worship service, making sack lunches that folks then took out into the city parks to give to the homeless community, along with sharing communion in the park as well. 
   Taking communion and lunches to the park led to providing long underwear and coats for homeless people and others who needed them. All of this grew and evolved, one year at a time, until it got to the point that this year this ministry, begun in a handful of Denver area bars by people who didn’t go to church, at their now annual tradition of Christmas in the Park, distributed over 500 coats, over 700 sleeping bags, cared for the needs of over 700 people, and served over 1200 fresh grilled hamburgers to those who gathered, all this by the over 600 After Hours Servants who gathered to be the hands and feet of Christ in Denver. It may be different, it may not be traditional in the most traditional sense, but that is certainly what it means to be church, and what Jesus said it meant to be his follower and not a Christian in name only.

   Brian McLaren, a writer, theologian, and former pastor that I  know some of you have read, offers this about what he calls the “Great Migration” happening in the church,
   “I’ve come to see that what matters most is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. . . . [Religion] is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth as individuals and in our cultural evolution as a species. 
Unfortunately, religion often becomes more of a cage than a guide, holding us back rather than summoning us onward, a buffer to constructive change rather than a catalyst for it. In times of rapid and ambiguous change, such a regressive turn in religion may be understandable, but it is even more tragic: when a culture needs wise spiritual guidance the most, all it gets from religious leaders is anxious condemnation and critique, along with a big dose of nostalgia for the lost golden age of the good old days.”

   And I would offer that when we think about it in that way, we begin to understand why so many people are moving away from traditional religion entirely, into secularism or into experimental forms of spirituality unattached to traditional religion. 

   And Fr. Richard Rohr says about this movement, 
   “But at this pivotal moment, something else is happening. Within each tradition, unsettling but needed voices are arising—prophetic voices, we might call them, voices of change, hope, imagination, and new beginnings. They say there’s an alternative to static or rigid religion on the one hand and religion-free secularism on the other. They claim that the Spirit is calling us, not to dig in our heels, but rather to pack up our tents and get moving again.”
   In all of the tradition that we embrace in our practice of the Christian faith, we sometimes forget that the one we follow, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth, was a leader in breaking with tradition when its effect was to separate or exclude people from God’s love and from worship. Jesus surrounded himself with, served, healed, preached to, and loved people who, if they walked in the door of most churches, would never be welcomed and would certainly never be accepted. Jesus broke with tradition in how he taught and people understood his teachings as having authority. Jesus broke the sabbath traditions and the religious authorities cried out “blasphemy” while the homeless, helpless, and hungry cried out “Hosanna!”
   The world needs the church to return to being more like Jesus in how it deals with the issues and the people in the world. The world needs the church to repent of trying to be like General Motors or IBM and to become more like the church described in the Book of Acts. Our scripture today calls us to come see Christ - to meet Christ - to know Christ - to follow Christ - and then to go home a different way, a new way. Jesus Christ calls us, from the manger and the cross, to leave behind the traditions that imprison us to old ways of thinking about and of being the church, that we might embrace the new thing Christ wants to do, needs us to do, in the world today. 

   So in the new year we’ll be trying some new things, doing some new things, starting some new things. And some of them will be easy and others will be harder. And some of them you’ll like and others you might not. Some of them you’ve probably tried before and they didn’t work, but we’ll try them again because the first time just might not have been the right time. Remember, it took Thomas Edison 10,000 tries to get the light bulb right and this could be only our 2nd or 3rd attempt at something. But we’re going to try because that’s what we’re called to do. We grow in our faith by trying new things. All the traditions that we have come to love came about by somebody trying some new thing, by going in a new way. New music has become favorite music over the centuries because somebody tried it the first time - every traditional hymn in our hymnal was new at one time or another, and what will eventually be seen as some of the greatest songs of the Christian faith… haven’t even been written yet. 
   And as we go these new ways, and as we try these news things, reaching out to and welcoming new people in new places, we remember that scripture tells us in Revelation 21, “You, O God, make all things new.” 

Happy New Year, Happy New You! Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

12-24-17 “I Believe, Even When”

12-24-17 “I Believe, Even When”

   John 1 isn’t the passage we expect to hear at Christmas. We’re accustomed to stories of proclamations to shepherds in their fields. We’ve heard of angelic visitations to Zechariah, and Mary, and Joseph, so now we’re ready for something concrete, we want a baby - give us the baby! And our reading from Luke obliges - we have a baby, born in a manger  - and the crafters of our Christmas Carols are given a marvelous story about which to wax poetic.
   But there’s still John. Like Mark before him, John doesn’t bother himself with including a birth story, heralding angels, or watching shepherds. Nor is there a genealogy with all of those begats and strange-sounding names. There’s no tale of a star or wise men; not even a drummer boy to play rum-pa-pa-pum. 
   No, John begins in his gospel “in the beginning.” Literally. Not concerned with the details of how this earthly birth came about, John is enamored with    looking at the bigger picture of what it all means. That’s how John is - less concerned with how things happened and more concerned with their meaning, with what Jesus means. We can learn from John in that regard.

   The opening verses of John’s gospel remind us that God refashions chaos into order. The word translated from the Greek as “the Word” in John’s gospel is “Logos.” And it has a much deeper, much broader meaning than what we think of when hear it spoken as “the Word.” When we hear the Word, with a capital “w,” our minds interpret that as “word,” lower case “w” which is what we think of as printed on the page, which leads us to thinking of the Bible as God’s word and in doing that we completely misunderstand what it is John is trying to tell us. The Logos, in the Greek philosophy that John pulls from here has a deep resonance, representing the principle or power that is the glue of the universe. The Logos of God, the Word of God is not to be understood as ink printed on the page, it is that force which holds all things in the universe together. The Logos is not a book and it is not a being, but it is being itself. Logos is the wisdom, the power, the love of God that creates all things and is in all things, and in which all things are in God! How do we even begin to wrap our heads around this existential idea with which John begins his gospel? 

   John does it by framing this unimaginable meaning within the story of Creation. “In the beginning…” - those words echoing the opening words of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the first words of Holy Scripture. 
“In the beginning was the Word,” the Logos, the power, the will, the love, the being, the intent, the plan, the glue, the force, the love of God. Before the Big Bang of God’s first revelation, before the first iota of star dust or dark matter or anything else material, there was the Logos…in the beginning.
   John reminds us that, as in the beginning God brought order out of chaos, in the person who was coming, the Son, the Logos of God in flesh, Jesus would bring God’s logos to earth, would again bring order to the chaos that Creation had become. And not a minute too soon, we might add.

   Because things are chaotic out there right now, aren’t they? Things are chaotic on many levels. There’s chaos on a global scale, there’s disorder on a national scale, there’s disarray on a local scale. The Advent and Christmas seasons - marked by the prophetic words Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace - are mired in confusion and chaos as the pagan gods of consumerism, commercialism, and materialism seek to replace those prophetic words with their own pathetic mantras - SALE, SPECIAL, BUY, and SAVE! 
   And amidst all of that, having traveled that unholy gauntlet for these past weeks and months we come to this passage today in a culture that theologian Cornelius Platinga describes as having a “deep societal suspicion that life is ultimately no more than what we make it…that in the prevailing wind of human self-achievement, God is not the source of new beginnings or new life, we are.”

   If that is true - if we are the source of new beginnings and new life, then it is no wonder there is so much disorder, disarray, and chaos in the world. John, however, would differ with that understanding, and offers us a different story, a life-giving story, a story that has the power to transform into new life not only that which is at best, chaotic within and around us, but also that which is dead within and around us. 

   Our series for Advent explored the larger Christmas story through the lens of “I Believe, Even When…” suggesting that God calls us to trust and to faith, 
even when all around us seems mired in messiness, drowned in depression, or lost in loneliness. We explored the traditional stories of Mary’s willingness to let it be with her as God said as well as with Joseph’s change of heart when the will of God was made known to him by an angel. Last week we explored Mark’s gospel, which as we said, like John’s gospel includes no birth story, but about which we suggested that the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus Christ, could be likened to an invasion of God into the world. John, though, goes back - way back, back before the birth, back before the prophets, back before the Creation - to the beginning, the very beginning, to let us know that even then, when nothing else was, God was. 
Long before Mary was even a gleam in her mother’s eye, eons before Bethlehem was even a speck on a map, back to when there was nothing but chaos - as the world appears to many of us now - John tells the story of order (Logos) emerging out of chaos and darkness. There is no more important Christmas story that we can tell than the one John offers in these verses: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (v. 9)

   Christmas in our society is often associated with “belief,” in particular with belief in Santa Claus. Regardless of whether, or how, that belief carries on for you in later years, John invites us to reclaim Christmas as a season of belief for people of all ages. Not belief in a jolly old elf who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, who knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake - although that is, unfortunately, how many people have come to think of God. And not belief as we often think of it as being simply agreeing with an idea about someone or something - like whether you believe in ghosts, or UFOs -  but belief as trust in someone or something. To trust in someone or something is a much bigger commitment than belief as mere agreement with an idea. John, in his gospel, would have us believe or trust in the “Logos” of God who is made flesh, incarnated, in Jesus the Christ, who will speak and water will become wine to remind us that we have our life in his life; who will speak in a man disabled for nearly four decades and who will stand up on his own, reminding us that God will overcome whatever holds us down if we will but trust; who will speak to the hungry and those who have nothing to eat will be filled, with more of God’s abundance left over. 

   John’s prologue is a perfect, if not predictable, text for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, not because it shares the old, old stories that we long to hear, but because it assures us that we can trust in the One who is the source of our Christmas joy. The only question for us is whether or not we will place our trust in the good news of this life-giving, new-beginning, ever-creating “logos” that is God made flesh in the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate today. 

   So on this remarkable day, may the true light that enlightens everyone, who comes into the world this day, come into you and your life as well, that the light that is the logos of God will dispel the darkness and chaos within and around you, that you might once again share in the Hope, the Joy, the Love, and the Peace that is the Love of God in Jesus Christ for all the world. Amen. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

12-17-17 - “I Believe in God” from the “I Believe, Even When” Series

12-17-17 - “I Believe in God” from the “I Believe, Even When” Series

   For the past two years I’ve been working my way through a massive three volume history of WWII in Africa and Europe. In this collection, called The Liberation Trilogy, author Rick Atkinson uses thousands of sources from all sides of the conflict in order to understand the planning, preparation, power struggles, and perseverance that shaped the battle against fascism and Naziism in the middle of the last century.

   The third and final volume of this epic Pulitzer Prize winning series begins with preparations for D-Day, the largest military invasions every carried out.
And quoting from the book jacket, “D-Day marked the commencement of the European war’s final campaign. The brutal fight in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the disaster that was MARKET GARDEN, the horrific Battle of the Bulge, and finally the thrust into the heart of the Third Reich…Atkinson tells the tale from the perspective of participants at every level, from presidents and generals to war-weary lieutenants and terrified teenage riflemen. When Germany at last surrenders, we understand anew both the devastating cost of this global conflagration and the enormous effort required to win the Allied victory.”

   The Liberation Trilogy. Three volumes about the liberation of Africa and Europe from the forces of wickedness and evil that was Hitler’s Third Reich. 
Three volumes that detail the overarching presence of leaders called from different places around the world to come together to fight against a common foe, a shared evil. Three volumes that relate the sacrifice of so many millions of Allied soldiers and innocent civilians, some willing and some unwilling but caught up in battles, attacks, counter-attacks, and invasions that were planned by the gods of war who were the political and military leaders of the time. 

   From a theological point of view, Liberation theology looks at the story of God’s liberation of God’s people throughout Scripture in much the same way, albeit apart from the idea of military conquest and massive loss of life for the sake of lines drawn on maps. In fact, theologian Richard Boyce likens Mark’s Gospel to the announcement of an invasion writing,  “Mark is the story of an invasion, an invasion of this world by God and God’s reign. Most human invasions involve some preparation - planning out the route, softening up the resistance, spreading some propaganda regarding the invaders. In some very basic ways, John the Baptist serves this purpose. However, in Mark, even John’s work seems perfunctory, and rushed, and orchestrated somewhere offstage. This is an invasion that is going forward without any invitation. This is an invasion that neither expects nor requires any real receptivity on the part of those for whom the invasion is planned...This is an invasion that only begins in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, because it is an invasion that is still going on.” 

   In fact, this invasion of God into the world, as imagined by Boyce in the Gospel of Mark, is perhaps less like the storming of the beaches at Normandy than it is H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds, where the alien invaders simply appeared out of nowhere, with no warning, and like nothing that had ever before been seen. Unlike the invasion of June 1944, there was no preemptive artillery barrage to soften up the enemy, there were no propaganda leaflets dropped to encourage the oppressed and terrify the oppressors. None of that happens in this invasion. Oh, there had been prophetic voices that warned of the coming intervention, but nobody listens to prophets until it’s too late. No, there are simply the words with which Mark begins his good news, his gospel: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

   As Mark Yurs points out, “Mark’s first word, arche’, can mean ‘beginning, source, and/or norm.’ English has no single word with all three connotations; here it has overtones of all three English words. There were many versions of the Christian message in Mark’s day, as in ours. Not all were equally valid…The author of Mark wants to provide direction for how the gospel can be authentically proclaimed. He does this not by stating a creed or a list of principles [or doctrines] to which the Christian message should conform, but by claiming that the narrative to follow is the beginning, the source, and norm for the church’s proclamation of the gospel” - the good news. 

   Mark, the first of the gospels to be written - and I remind you that the word gospel in that time had not taken on the meaning it now has as a book or writing about the life of Jesus; it simply meant good news - begins not with angelic proclamations or genealogies, but with a bold pronouncement: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. No quiet build up; no ethereal comparisons as in John. Just a bold shot across the bow of any who might doubt. And there is no mistaking who Mark claims Jesus to be.  As Boyce puts it, 
   “This is not a story of a people crying out and God coming down (as in Exodus). This is not a story of God infiltrating the world through the righteousness of Joseph (Matthew) or the obedience of Mary (Luke). 
No, this is the story of a God who will bring [God’s] reign, come hell or high water. Ready or not, here God comes!”

   Then, to further solidify the point he makes,  Mark wraps his proclamation in the words and writings of Israel’s history. It is said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. There is a concept called the “tyranny of the latest” that suggests that those who don’t study history make the assumption that their situation, their times, are certainly the most difficult ever experienced. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, historian David McCullough, responding to what he saw as a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that period as the worst in American history, wrote his epic 1776, about the period surrounding the American Revolution, and suggested that, no, in fact that period in time was much more destructive and divisive to our country and the fabric of our national being than were the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Other historians have written similarly about the period of the U.S. Civil War, and how that period in our history was so much more traumatic for our collective well-being than any other. The “tyranny of the latest” aside, 
Mark anchors his story in the history found in the scriptures, in Exodus, Malachi and Isaiah, because as Yurs suggests, “stability can come when we see that the faith we profess has seen people through all kinds of circumstances, and there is no reason to believe it will be undone by those we face today.”

   And he says that’s an important lesson for us today because, “Today there is a particular hunger for ‘good news’ from religion. Religion has become associated for so many with bad news, harsh attitudes, and caustic spirits. 
The treatment of women, of children, of [LBGTQ folks,] of people of color [or differing race or nationality,] is something that comes down hard on people. 
The more negatively religion is perceived, the less appealing the life of faith appears.” And it is that very association that Mark seeks to counter.

   Theologian Leah McKell Horton reminds us that, “Mark doesn’t begin his narrative in the ‘churches’ of Jesus’ day or even among the religious people of the time. Instead, it is John, a man living on the fringes of society, far from the halls of power, who first points to God’s coming grace. From the wilderness, he calls out to the people, offering them forgiveness for their sins. They are, says Mark, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.” That is, John calls to the people on the fringes, the outside, those who really need the good news of a God invasion in their lives, not to those who lay claim to God’s message of “comfort, comfort, my people” while being comfortably housed, clothed, and fed in the worship of materialism, consumerism, and capitalism. God’s good news invasion doesn’t come in an “Onward Christian Soldiers” militaristic way, but arrives first in the guise of a smelly, bug-eating, animal skin-wearing prophet, and then, in the one that prophet points to: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

   I don’t know about you, but when I think about Mark, I don’t imagine the usual image of a holy man, scribe, or apostle. No, my mind always gravitates toward an image of a first-century version of a 1950s era Beat poet, in a dank underground club with “cool” jazz providing a soundtrack, wearing a black sweater, a black beret, smoke haloing around his head from the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trying to be confrontational or to set a different tone, create a different vibe with his latest avant-garde creation at a poetry slam. 
   You see, Mark is unconventional. Matthew and Luke, they took what Mark wrote and added to it, cleaned it up, dressed it up, put some lipstick on it, and in effect tried to tame it.  But Mark wasn’t hung up on form and completeness. The urgency of his gospel invades our senses as much as it proclaims God’s presence. Mark, as they say, marched to the beat of a different drummer. 
Much of the time Christians today experience the story of Jesus Christ as ancient history, as something that happened once but ended. Mark’s declaration of Jesus Christ as the invasion of God into the world, though, says “not so fast.” As Horton reminds us,  “Mark does not offer a conventional conclusion to his narrative, where things are wrapped up neatly, as we find in the other Gospels. Instead, his Gospel actually end in 16:8 with an empty tomb.”
“The unfinished nature of his testimony, juxtaposed to this strong, affirmative opening statement, suggests that for Mark, the life, ministry, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ are not the end of the story. They are, instead, the events that set the gospel in motion. The ‘good news’ story of Jesus Christ, Son of God, is an ongoing one, continuing into the story of the church’s birth and expansion, and into the lives of those who meet the living Christ today.”

  So why do we need to hear this message of good news? And why now? Because many who claim to be Christians have fallen away from Christ and his teachings, embracing the world, the power structures, the comfort, and idolatry that Jesus warned us would come between us and God. And often we’re either too blind to see it or too complicit to acknowledge it. We also need the good news of a God invasion because many of us carry guilt with us like the proverbial albatross around our necks or a ball and chain that that keep us locked down and that threatens to hold us on the bottom while the relentless tide of life rises over our heads. What guilt, you ask? Guilt over broken relationships or broken vows. Guilt over not spending enough time with family or too much time at work. Guilt over words left unspoken until it was too late or caustic words spoken in anger that can never be unheard. Guilt over choices made or not made. There is plenty in this life that brings guilt down on our heads, some of it well-deserved and other of it only intended to market some “guilt-free” solution to us. 
   What Marks’ gospel - from beginning to end - challenges us to do is to, like Christ, enter into a “wilderness,” if you will, as the way by which God provides for us to confront our guilt, confess our sins, change our lives, embrace the good news, and then come out the other side as disciples of Jesus Christ.

   Mark’s challenge for us is twofold. First, it challenges us to consider “what could it mean for a congregation, any congregation, THIS congregation, to believe that we are, here today, part of this ongoing story of good news,” as Horton put it,  “this ongoing invasion of God,” as Boyce phrased it, and “that the end of the story has not yet been written?”
   And second, who are the ones on the outside, on the fringes, in the streets and in the shelters, in the hospitals and in the prisons, that God points us to? 
Who are the ones God wants us to share the good news with? Who are the fringe people that God’s invasion is intended to liberate? 
   The good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is not for our private consumption to be kept from those we might consider unworthy. It’s a message burned on the heart of every disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we must bear witness to in our lives and with our words, in our living and in our giving. God’s invasion is coming, a liberation trilogy, or trinity, that has already landed on the beaches. 

   I believe in God, even when the world drowns out God’s message of love with the propaganda of hate. 
I believe in God, even when God’s story isn’t neatly packaged with a bow but is left open and unfinished, 
as with Mark. And I believe in God, even when God seems silent, because God’s still small voice is still speaking, in those who resist hate, those who reject war, and those who embrace grace. 

That’s the God Mark boldly and brashly proclaims as good news and that we hear on this third Sunday in Advent. Amen.