Sunday, January 28, 2018

1-28-18 “John 3 in Pieces, OR, John in 3 Pieces”

1-28-18  “John 3 in Pieces, OR, John in 3 Pieces”

Part 1 - John 3:1-8

   How confident are you when you’re walking around in the dark? If it’s a familiar place, you’re probably okay, but if it’s a strange place, a new place, or a place that you’re not used to being in during darkness, then your confidence might be nil. I like it to be very dark when I go to sleep at night. 
And some nights I actually wear a sleep mask to make it darker for me if the room is to highly illuminated. In instances like that, I choose darkness.
   At other times, darkness is thrust upon us. I was traveling with a church youth group one time and we explored some caverns in Virginia. The guide took us down into this cavern via an old mining elevator, and as we descended deeper and deeper into what one person described as “the pits of hell,” the light from above grew dimmer. We relied on a single incandescent bulb in the roof of the open slatted elevator to light our way down.  When we got down to the cavern itself, nearly a half mile underground, there were electric lights strung all along our pathways. In one large cavern, they instructed us to find a place to sit - they didn’t want anyone moving around - and they turned off all the lights in the cavern, shrouding us in the deepest, blackest darkness I’ve ever experienced. 

   Being “in the dark” can be both an actual occurrence for us, like being deep in that cavern, as well as a metaphorical state - being ignorant, uninformed, even clueless. For Nicodemus in our story today, I think it was a little of both. John writes that he was a “Jewish leader” and that he came to Jesus “at night.” Why did he come at night? Well, we learn later in John’s gospel that not only was Nicodemus a Jewish leader, but he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership council, and a teacher of Israel. We also learn that at some point he becomes a follower of Jesus. So he comes to Jesus at night, most likely so that he won’t be seen by others. But he comes “in the dark” because, when it comes to God, Jesus tells him he’s pretty clueless.

   And like many people, hemming and hawing in order to avoid asking the actual question that they want to ask, Nic starts with some flattery. “Rabbi, (a title of respect) we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Notice how John even puts the idea of “signs” into Nicodemus’ mouth instead of his just calling them miracles. Signs point toward something. 
   And Jesus’ answer - ignoring the flattery - points to something that goes right over Nicodemus’ head. “I assure you,” Jesus says, “unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” The word translated here as “anew” can also be translated “again,” but can also mean “from above.” Jesus is saying that unless a person is “born from above, it’s impossible for them to see, to recognize, God’s kingdom.” Even when it’s right in front of them. 
   So of course, after this, Nic has questions, which should come as no surprise in a Gospel that contends that signs alone are inadequate for understanding Jesus. “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” Nic doesn’t get it - he’s a literal reader - Jesus’ metaphors are beyond him. He’s descending deeper and deeper into the cavern of his own darkness here. 

   When Jesus says that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, taking his metaphor literally. And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”
   Now, the idea of “flesh” in John doesn’t have the same negative connotations, doesn’t carry the same baggage, as it does in Paul’s writing. To be “born of the flesh,” according to Amy Pauw, “is simply to receive God’s gift of physical life, and to be “born of the Spirit” is to receive God’s gift of eternal life, a transformed mode of life that begins already now.”

   And one of the key characteristics of life in the spirit is an element of freedom. We are not bound by the same concerns of those who live according to the flesh because our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love. “Do not be astonished,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

   And David Lose suggests that “this declaration that the Spirit -- and those born of the Spirit -- blows where it will gives us tremendous freedom when we think about how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities of the age.” And he goes on to suggest that one source of anxiety for people “of the flesh” is that the usual road signs that have guided us in the past, the norms and practices that over the course of our lifetimes have changed, they’re all different now. Sunday mornings, once reserved for church attendance, are now no different from any other day of the week. Guitars and drums have replaced organs in many churches. There’s a growing scarcity of young or younger people in churches. These weren’t just reliable signs that all was right with the world, “they provided reliable  patterns by which to organize our life that provided a clear road map…about what it meant to be the church…When we give these up, however, we feel like we are sailing in uncharted waters or driving down a dark and unfamiliar road…without headlights.
  Except that we are not alone! The Spirit -- which Jesus will later define as his own Spirit -- accompanies and empowers us to face a future that we may feel is uncertain but has been secured by the death and resurrection of Jesus. From this perspective, the anxiety that many of us feel -- there is no roadmap! -- can be transformed into excitement -- there is no roadmap! :) Which means that we’re free -- we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. We can experiment, risk, make mistakes, learn, and grow in ways we’d never imagined. Because the Spirit of Christ will blow us in directions we hadn’t imagined.”


Part 2 - John 3:9-15

   Jesus has blown Nicodemus’ mind. That whole speech about the Holy Spirit was lost on the befuddled Pharisee because he was stuck trying to figure out how an adult human being could be physically birthed a second time. “How are these things possible?” he asks Jesus. To which he replies, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” What happens next is a complete takeover of this story by Jesus - what began as a dialogue between the two now transitions into a monologue by Jesus, and we don’t hear from or about ol’ “Nic at Night” again until much later in the gospel. We might even forget that he’s there.  And despite Nicodemus’ “impressive set of credentials,” Amy Pauw tells us, “The arrangement of John’s gospel invites us to contrast Nicodemus with the next person Jesus engages in conversation, the Samaritan woman in chapter four. The contrast is not flattering to Nicodemus. Unlike Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman is female and unnamed. Even worse, she is a morally disgraced member of a theologically suspect group. She has zero religious capital. Yet she meets Jesus in broad daylight, rather than in the dead of night, and immediately has the courage to give public testimony about him to her own people. Through the mysterious work of the Spirit, she is born from above.”

   So that phrase, “born from above,” or “born again,” from the Greek “anothen,” has for many become a slogan, a badge of honor, even a tool to distinguish who’s on the inside and who’s one the outside - who’s saved and who’s not. Which, ironically, is exactly the opposite message that this passage intends. Popularized by American Evangelicalism with its emphasis on “believer baptism” and the importance of personally accepting Jesus into one’s heart, the language of being “born again” is pretty recognizable and, unfortunately, in some circles has come to represent a litmus test of whether one is “really a Christian.” Jesus doesn’t propose it as a test of fidelity, though. He never asks or demands of his disciples that they be “born again” in order to follow him. 

   No, what Jesus is suggesting to Nicodemus, and to us - and it ties to what we talked about last week when we talked about Jesus’ cleansing of the temple - our acceptance by God is not dependent on what we do or don’t do, it’s not about behavior, it’s not about compliance with rules or laws, it’s about figuring out how to set all those “religious” and “worldly” things aside and accepting the unconditional love that God gives to all of us. In a world that constantly attempts to pit God’s children against one another, defining this group as loved and that other group as hated, one group as saved and another as sinner, Jesus is telling us that the Spirit came that we might all be one. Because God loved the whole world.

End of Part 2

Part 3 - John 3:16-21

   Those people at the football games, the ones in the end zones with the signs who always seem to make it onto TV every time a team kicks a field goal or an extra point - you know who I mean? - those people need bigger signs.  Not because they need to write bigger, but because they need to write more; they’re only sharing half the message. John 3:16 is only half a message. 

   It’s kind of like this: everybody take a big deep breath and hold it. Hold it. Hold it. John 3:16 is like that inhale. It fills you full of life, it expands your lungs, it gets the heart pumping, but you need to exhale. Go ahead, exhale. That exhale is verse 17. You can’t inhale without also exhaling, right? You will exhale, either on your own or when you pass out. Well, you can’t truly understand what Jesus is saying in verse 16 without also hearing verse 17. Jesus is giving us a bigger sign.

   John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” It doesn’t say “For God so loved the church, or the faithful, or the pure, or the Methodists,” it says “the world.” And David Lose reminds us,  “that the Greek word for “world” – kosmos – designates throughout the rest of John’s Gospel an entity that is hostile to God (Jn 15:18-25; 16:8-10, 20, 33; 17:9-16). Which means that we might actually translate these verses, “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” Really – God’s love is just that audacious and unexpected. (Which is why, according to Paul, it probably seems both scandalous and a little crazy – see 1 Cor. 1:18-25.) And that audacious, unexpected, even crazy character of God’s love is probably why it saves!…So it’s not about who’s in and who’s out, but rather about God’s consistent intent to love, save, and bless the whole world.” That, I would add, is God’s plan.

   In this passage, we find a bold declaration that God loves us…and that God loves the whole world. That IS the good news of the gospel! Not that God loves some but not others. Karoline Lewis makes the point that John 3:16 is both the “most well-known Bible verse and yet also one of the most destructive - an assertion of exclusion rather than one of God’s abundant love. A verse that sends people to hell rather than voice God’s extravagant grace.” And she affirms the point I’ve been making to you for nearly five years now - context is everything. Taken out of context, set apart from it’s “exhale,” verse 16 becomes a weapon in the hands of many - a weapon used to fight a battle for salvation that is foreign to John and contradictory to Jesus. In context, however, the breathing in and out of verses 16 and 17 together provide the assurance of the extravagant love that God has for all the world, a love so great that in Jesus, God became one of us.

   God loves the whole world! Yet, how often the world hears a different message! How often the Gospel sounds not like love but like condemnation! How often the church comes across as “holier than thou”! It can seem as though God is eager to divide, to judge and separate, to save some and abandon the rest. Jesus reacts to these misunderstandings: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This missio Dei, the mission of God, is life-giving and life-saving. This is not a rejection mission, it’s a rescue mission. This is the inclusive, expansive, all-encompassing, unmitigated, unconditional love of God. It is life from above for all who are perishing, all who are languishing in the darkness.

   But not all who are perishing want this life or trust the One who offers it. And maybe, just maybe, they don’t want it because they’ve seen the way many churches and many Christians who claim to have it act toward others. When God’s freely-given unconditional love, intended for all, is highjacked and held hostage by some who think they’re supposed to be gatekeepers for God, the nonbelievers are going to grow a bit skeptical, don’t you think? Nevertheless, Jesus says there is a judgment, a dividing line between those who trust the One who comes bearing the love of God and those who cannot place their trust in him. God will not force God’s love upon those who opt out. There is a judgment, says Jesus. There is condemnation, but it’s not what you think - it’s not the judgment of God. God does not damn God’s beloved children. The judgment occurs whenever we choose to hide from the light of God’s sacrificial love. Choosing to stay in the darkness is an act of self-condemnation. It means condemning oneself to more of the same old, same old. And if another chooses the darkness because they don’t experience the true light of Christ in the Christians they encounter, then that’s on us.

   That God loves the world is not a theory for salvation. It is specific. It is particular. As particular as the incarnation itself. God loves a Samaritan woman. God loves a man paralyzed his entire life. God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship. God loves Judas who will betray. God loves you. And God loves me. And this is the good news that we, as Christians, are invited to embrace and in doing so be born from above. And it is this good news that we must both live and share if we are to be Christ’s light in the whole world. Because that love also extends to those fearful of deportation. For our LGBTQ sisters and brothers singled out as sinners, or in some places, criminals even. For those of races other than white. For women who continue to march. For our Jewish brothers and sisters hated once again for their loyalty to the God of Israel, our God. For our Muslim brothers and sisters vilified for devotion and obedience. For the world, the cosmos, that wonders who will protect it.

   But the choice is ours. Sometimes we choose to live without God’s love. We cherish grudges, even as we wish we could let our anger go. We value our independence, even as we wish we cared more for others. We stay in a dark but comfortable corner, even as we wish we lived in the light. Our story, from beginning to end is a mix of selfishness, consequences, repentance, and life. When we don’t have the courage to choose what is best, but act as if our choices don’t matter, we make no progress even on the smoothest path. When we choose courageously, we go forward even on the roughest road.
   From the first choice we make in the morning until we choose to go to sleep at night, we are making the decisions that form our lives. We choose the words we speak or do not speak, the people we love or do not even see, thoughts we entertain or reject, the deeds we do or leave undone. God has chosen to help us choose eternal life.

   God allows us to turn to life in an amazing variety of ways. Feel. Dream. Breathe deeply. Work joyfully. Spend an afternoon with a dear friend. Wear tennis shoes. Go for ice cream. Read Marcus Borg. Read the Gospels. Listen to Adele. Sing along with Frank Sinatra. Ask God to help you feel grace again. Sing loud in worship. Try a new ministry, even though you don’t think you have time. Pray with real gratitude. Pray for peace. Take risks. Give better gifts. Give away more money. Call your mother. Notice small things. Do kind things. Hug someone. Laugh. Listen to the wind. Listen to the wind of the Spirit. We choose to build up or tear down, love or ignore, heal or hurt, bless or curse. Choose life in the Spirit. 
   You see, contrary to how you may have heard it taught before, our passage this week brings not condemnation, but a bold declaration that God loves us…and that God loves the whole world. And in affirming and accepting that love, we find our calling to extend that love to everyone we encounter. 
May it be so with you. Amen. 

End of Part 3

Sunday, January 21, 2018

1-21-18 “Losing My Religion”

1-21-18  “Losing My Religion”


   When I was younger I used to like to build card houses. I would use one, two or even three decks of cards and see how high, how big, how complex a house of cards I could build. I had my own personal way of starting - my initial building block if you will  - that began with 6 cards as the central core of my house.
   However, even with my 6 card starting block, as I worked away from that central core, going wider and higher, the house became increasingly more fragile, more unsteady, more susceptible to collapse from a breeze or too sudden of a movement. The farther we move away from the strong central core, the easier it is for the entire house of cards to come crashing down.

   So,  I want to invite you to ponder some questions: Can you be a Christian without being religious? 
  Or, put another way, does being a member of a religion make you, by default, a religious person? 
Do you have to be part of an organized religion or even a religious person to experience God’s love?
   Do you consider yourself to be a religious person? Think about those things as we move through our discussion of John.

   The first church book study I ever participated in was titled How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious, a study of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, while in youth group in the mid 1970s. And while I remember nothing about the book, the title has intrigued me for over 40 years: How to Be Christian Without Being Religious. Now, when you think about religion in general, what do you think of? Ritual, tradition, rules, laws, doctrine, faith, practice, dogma? One of the most famous collections of rules or laws, either within or outside of organized religion, is the Ten Commandments. And we’ve talked about them before - the first four commandments are about our relationship with God, and the last six, generally, are about our relationship with one another, and that it is from these ten that the 613 rules or laws of the Torah came to be. And among these 613 are those concerned with temple sacrifice - what was and was not allowed. For example, animals offered for sacrifice had to be pure, spotless, and unblemished. Well, good luck with that right? Especially if you, like most people, had to travel to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration to make your sacrifice.
By the first century the Passover had kind of merged with the Festival of Unleavened Bread into a celebration, rooted in the tradition of the exodus from Egypt, of God’s preservation and protection of God’s peoples against all forms of oppression, danger, and evil. It had transitioned from what originally was a localized family ritual into a national pilgrimage festival celebrated in Jerusalem. 

 For many, days of travel made it nearly impossible to bring an animal suitable for sacrifice. But fortunately, they sold pure, spotless, and unblemished animals for sacrifice at the temple! Who knew?! And remember that commandment about having no graven images? Well, the Roman coinage of the day was engraved with the image of Caesar and the words “Son of God” on them. So, the people couldn’t pay their temple tax with THOSE coins, but as it happens, there were money-changers there who could exchange those Roman coins for temple coins that were acceptable for the tax. Cha-ching!
   This was how the Temple system operated, it’s how they had always done it. There was nothing inherently wrong in the selling of the animals or the exchanging of the money - it was a needed service. Rather, it was the systemic corruption built into it, benefitting a few at the expense of the many, that was the issue that led Jesus to condemn the whole lot as a den of thieves, according to the synoptics.
   But John, instead of pointing to corrupt activities within the system as the synoptics do, points to the corruption of the system itself. “Don’t make my Father’s house into a place of business.” That is, don’t make God’s presence, God’s love, a transaction, we might hear. Don’t try to limit God’s presence only to those who play along with this Temple system. Don’t use God as a tool to divide people into insiders and outsiders, us and them. So these are among the temple rules and laws that the people faced - that Jesus encounters in our passage today. And in making his point, we see the only real act of violence by Jesus in the gospels.
   Now, some background. All of the gospels are written sometime after the temple about which they write was destroyed by Rome in the year 70 CE. So, they’re all reflecting back in time when they write. In the synoptic gospels, the gospels that should be “seen together” - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - Jesus spends his entire ministry in Galilee and Judea - away from the big cities and nowhere near Jerusalem. A timeline based on these gospels suggests Jesus’ ministry lasted about one year. John’s gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover three times - a ministry of at least three years. 
   And this is one of the rare stories found in all four gospels. That said, John’s version is very different from the others. First, there is his placement. 
The synoptics place this story in Jesus’ final week, what we call “Holy Week,” and it is this act that results in the authorities having Jesus arrested and eventually crucified. In John, on the other hand, this is the first public act of Jesus’ ministry, following the miraculous changing of water into wine at a private wedding. So for John, this is how Jesus begins his ministry.
   Another way that John’s telling differs is in the words Jesus uses. In the synoptics, Jesus accuses them of having turned the temple into a “den of thieves” or “den of robbers,” depending on which translation you use. 
In John, again depending on the translation, he says they’ve made the temple into a “marketplace” or a “place of business.” There’s no suggestion or accusation of the people being cheated here, Jesus is criticizing how they’ve turned the practice of worship, the ability TO worship, into some sort of transaction. Salvation for sale, if you will. Even more, the money-changers and merchants had filled the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost and largest part of the temple grounds where the most people could gather, so there was no room to gather, no place for them to worship and to pray. 
The trappings of religion, the rules, the laws, even the dogmas, had pushed out God’s people - there was no room for God’s people in God’s house.
   And there’s one other difference. In the synoptics, Jesus sees what is going on and explodes, immediately turning over tables left and right. In John, though, he sees, he stops, he considers, he then finds some good rope and makes a whip - that is, Jesus has a weapon - and then he basically goes berserk on anyone and everyone. John tells a very different version of this story.
   So what is the result of Jesus’ action, the most immediate effect? By dumping the tables and driving out the animals he makes it impossible to offer sacrifices according to the law. Why? Well John the Baptist told us earlier, in a speech found only in the Gospel of John: Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” When Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes, in other words, everything changes. And among the first of these changes is that there is no longer need to sacrifice, as God will interact with God’s people in a whole new way.

   So when we are confronted by this story, and we really are confronted by it because in many ways it can be disturbing to those who like their Jesus “meek and mild,” we find Jesus “cleansing” the temple, as it has come to be known, but cleansing it of what - of animals? of merchants? of money-traders?

 I would suggest that he’s cleansing it of religion; religion in the form of adherence to a strict set of doctrines, rules or laws. Theologian Nibs Stroupe suggests that in this act, Jesus strikes a blow “at the heart of his religious tradition,” and this act should be seen as “a challenge to all religious establishments captured by the powers of the world.” Jesus tells the Temple powers-that-be, when asked for a sign to show by what authority he has created such chaos, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” 
  Unlike the synoptics, the author of John tells us that Jesus meant this metaphorically, speaking of his body, and that his disciples remembered this and came to understand Jesus’ meaning later. “Even as a metaphor,” Stroupe suggests, “Jesus’ answer is a threat to the religious establishment…Jesus is making the claim that his life, death, and resurrection will replace the temple as the location of the dwelling place of God - a bold and outrageous claim indeed. [So] we can see why John places this story at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. While the Synoptics may be historically correct in their placement of the story in Holy Week near the end, John lifts up the foundational meaning of this event by placing it toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ purpose is not just to clean up the temple. His resurrected body will replace the temple. John is emphasizing that the Christ event - his life, death, and resurrection - changes everything, especially long established religious traditions and understandings.” The Word that was with God and is God and now has become flesh making the invisible God known, has come onto the scene precisely to reveal God. As Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman two chapters later, "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (4:21). Why, because God is present in Jesus and Jesus is the central core of the faith.

  This second sign from John - remember a sign functions to point us in the right direction - is pointing to who Jesus really is, and is a dramatic departure from the miracle-induced joy, celebration, and abundance of the wedding in Cana. 
Here, we move to a prophetic tension-filled sign, and as Stroupe alludes,  “This is heavy and dangerous stuff for all institutions and systems. In our modern world, which emphasizes the marketplace and money as the keys to life, this passage should serve as a strong warning about our captivity to the systems of the world. In this story one can almost hear the prophetic power of Amos’ harsh words [that we heard earlier]: “I hate, I despise your festivals…Take away from me the noise of your songs…But let justice roll down like waters.”

  The cleansing of the temple is God’s sign that the Temple religion and laws had been surpassed and that it is in Jesus and his teachings that we find God revealed, confirmed when he said, “I have come to fulfill the laws and the prophets.” To fulfill them means to complete, to move on from, or to replace the system they represent, to bring to an end the temple religion that resulted in, perhaps even intended, people’s being excluded from the worship of or the realm of God. Jesus is saying that the temple had stopped being the house of God when it became an idol of sorts, a symbol of mere religion. “Religion” or “religious practice” had become more important than faith, and teaching, and relationships. Strict adherence to and enforcement of the laws had surpassed the intent of the commandments from which they were derived, especially as Jesus would re-form them and our understanding of them when he responded that the greatest commandment was “to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In Jesus, grace surpasses law as the way of God.

   You see, Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. 
He was never called or considered a Christian; he was certainly not a Christian. Christianity developed as a result of the work of his followers in the post-resurrection period which is described in the Book of Acts and in the various Epistles. No, Jesus was trying to reform the Jewish religion, how it was practiced and understood, while Christianity developed as an offshoot of Judaism. Jesus wasn’t trying to starting a new religion. He never said, “worship me,” only “follow me.”

   Religion is something we build with our hands and our minds - and like that house of cards, it often comes crashing down. Faith, on the other hand, is something that God plants in us and that guides us in how we live our lives. Religion is often about both mental and physical compliance and conformity, while faith is about trust, and about who or what are the guiding forces that we trust in deciding how we live this life as well as with our eternal life.

  In a very striking way, Jesus is “reforming” the church. Like Martin Luther 1500 years later, Jesus is making very clear where he is in disagreement with the ways of religion and how it is practiced at the expense of people, God’s people. Jesus becomes angry, even violent - images that “religion” doesn’t like because if Jesus is seen modeling violence and anger then the adherents 
to the religion might see that and copy it. No, religion likes to keep Jesus meek and mild, and toeing the company line.

   In addition to reforming the church, Jesus is also “re-forming” or remaking the church. His inclusive teachings about “who is my neighbor,” his fellowship with those considered to be unclean and/or sinners, his repudiation of the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees in public, his criticism of the trappings and rituals of their religious practice that excluded the least, the last and the lost, all were attempts to re-form the church, challenges to the status quo. And challenges to the status quo will always be disputed by those empowered by the status quo.

  John, as a gospel writer, displays a a recurring pattern: Jesus speaks, he is misunderstood, and then clarifications follow. When Jesus says the temple will be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days, the religious leaders mistakenly assume he means the Herodian Temple building. That idea that Jesus might rebuild such a temple in 3 days is ludicrous...when misunderstood.
   John’s gospel continually warns us against misunderstanding - thinking we understand Jesus, when the Jesus we think we understand is a Jesus of our own design, created in our own image. And we all have our own preferred ideas of who Jesus is, our favorite way of thinking about what Jesus is like. Here’s an example of just how far-fetched that can get:


   Not only does this clip speak, with humor, to the idea of how we can sometimes create or cling to unrealistic ideas about Jesus, it also points to how our faith can be influenced by money, consumerism, and all the worldly influences.
   But what if there are more to his words than what we are hearing, more to his will than we are doing? We cannot begin to understand Jesus without knowing the whole story.  Even the disciples who were there with him everyday didn’t understand what was happening until after the resurrection. Then this and many other things that mystified them about Jesus became clear. And the message to all of his followers is clear-you can’t understand this man without knowing the entire story. And that part of the story comes during Lent.
  So, while this passage is about Jesus’ attempt to reform, or re-form the church, the season of Lent is about re-forming or reforming ourselves. 
This reforming gives us new identities as followers of Jesus and calls us to do new things. This passage in John today is an attack on accommodation, on accepting the status quo, it’s not about having bake sales in the sanctuary, it’s about the church being seduced by society, being in bed with the powers that be. 
The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, always appearing to be in service to the church and its mission. But soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and moneychangers.

   The Law based religious system of the day had lost its way. Some argue that parts of the church today have also lost their way. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a not so subtle commentary on why and how. 
  What John is really saying is that temple religion (with all its baggage) will be no more - then or now. Instead Jesus, as the central core of our faith, reveals God to us. For John, the community - the church - is to be so centered on Jesus that it cannot help but invite a positive comparison with the temple community. 

   Is the church good news for the poor or does it seek 
to exclude like the temple authorities? John invites the church, and with it its people, to take a good look at itself, and consider whether we are religious people who care more about rules and order, or people of faith in Jesus who desire to model relationship with Jesus in how we live. 

   We, the church, are the body of Christ in the world today. The church, rather than being the place where God lives, is the place where God equips disciples to go out and be church - understanding the word “church” as a verb, and not just as a noun.  The church is not the Temple - the church is the training grounds, the place of preparation. This hour on Sunday morning is more like a weekly pitstop in a race, to equip us, to retool, to refuel, to change our tires if necessary, in order that we might continue to run the race that Christ calls us to. 
   Church is to be a place of safety, where all can come in out of the storms of life for a while and be reminded that God loves us, that God is with us, and that God gives us strength. And it is here, that Christ seeks to reform and “re-form” his disciples and his body the church to care for the least of these.

   We come to church, not because God can be found only here, but because when we worship together as Christ’s beloved community we can hear God's Word proclaimed in a way that helps us see and experience God in all of life. We come to church, not to practice our religion, but to grow in our faith, that when we go out into the world, people might come to know a little bit more about the love of God in us and through us. Ame

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.