Monday, February 26, 2018

2-25-18 “Finding Your Breath: Listening to Our Bodies”

2-25-18  “Finding Your Breath: Listening to Our Bodies”

   Breathing is one of those things that our bodies do without our having to think about it. It just happens. Until, of course, we begin thinking about it and then we become aware of every breath we take, we feel as though if we don’t think about it that we won’t breathe, and then we worry about how we’re ever going to get our minds off of breathing so that it can become automatic again and we don’t have to think about it any more….

   We take breathing for granted, until it become difficult. When we battle a cold or flu, or struggle with COPD or emphysema, when we’ve worked our entire lives in a coal mine and develop black lung or some other disease, that which we took for granted is suddenly top of mind for us - each breath becomes a struggle.
   But even as breathing seems like a personal thing, something that happens only within our own body, it is more than that. Breathing is a shared activity in more ways than you may realize. Certainly, we know that we can spread disease, cold and flu germs and other things, through breathing, but it goes beyond that. I shared with you once before an idea about the universality and eternal nature of our breath that I was told by some at the time, many didn’t really understand. So I want to revisit or try to breathe some new life, if you will, into that idea today.

   What I shared in that earlier message is the idea that among the molecules that make up every breath we take in, and every breath that we exhale, is argon. It’s a simple molecule that has been part of every breath ever taken by every person and animal that has ever lived. 
But unlike the oxygen and carbon dioxide in our breath that is lighter in weight and floats up into the atmosphere when we exhale, argon is heavier and stays here at ground level. When we walk around, in fact, we are in effect, wading and sloshing through a swamp of argon molecules. And another interesting thing about argon is that, like many molecules, it doesn’t break down - it doesn’t die. The same argon molecules that are in existence today were around when you were a child. The same argon molecules that hover nearby now were hovering during the American Revolution and the Protestant Reformation. In fact, some of the same argon molecules that you will breathe in during the next inhale you take…..yes, that one…were likely exhaled by Jesus, perhaps even as he sat with a towel around his waist, preparing to wash the feet of his disciples. 
When we think about breath and breathing in that way, then our song “Breathe on Me, Breath of God” assumes a much deeper meaning for us.
   In the Bible, the words translated as Spirit, pneuma in Greek and ruach in Hebrew, also have the dual meaning of breath. Breath and Spirit - the same words in both languages. And we might recognize that Greek root ‘pneuma’ in terms of the word pneumonia, which we know as a disease associated with breathing and with our lungs. So, when we read Scripture and read of the presence or work of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Pneuma, we’re being invited to think about the spirit as breath, as air, as wind. And Scripture supports those images - the Spirit hovered over the waters in the Creation story; God breathed life and Spirit into Adam; Jesus breathed the Spirit onto the Disciples; at Pentecost the Spirit came like a great wind. So, much like the silence that April shared in last week’s message that is necessary to be able to hear God speak to us, an awareness of our breath and our breathing is important to us in experiencing the Spirit of God in our bodies and in our lives. And with each breath that we take in, amidst that timeless and eternal argon that God created in the beginning, is the breath of God, the Spirit of God, that hovered over the waters, that crossed the lips of our Savior, and that fills us with life; eternal life, abundant life.
    In ancient Israel, among some, it was considered blasphemy to speak the name of God. So the name Yahweh came into being to refer to God. Now, you may be aware that the Hebrew language has no vowels, so the letters of the name - in English the consonants YHWH, in Hebrew were Yod, Heh, Vah, Heh. 
Say that with with me: Yod - Heh - Vah - Heh. And if you listen carefully to the sound of those letters, you can hear in them the sound of breath. Yod -Heh - Vah - Heh. The name of God is the sound of breath; the name of God is the sound of Spirit. And so, as we reflect more deeply we realize that with every breath we take, we speak the name of God. And Rob Bell points out that when we are born, the first thing we must do to embrace life is to breathe, that is to speak the name of God. And when the close of our life comes, the last thing we do before we die is to speak the name of God.  Thought of another way, when we can no longer breathe, that is, when we can no longer speak the name of God, life passes from us as that final argon-filled breath exits our lungs. 

   And in a bit irony, Rob Bell also points out that even when we encounter someone who claims to be an atheist, as they sit across the table from us and speak the words, “THERE IS NO GOD,” with each breath they take to say those words, they speak the name of the very God - “Yod - Heh - Vah - Heh” who breathed life into them.

   And so our passage from Romans today says, “in the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness.” 
In the same way, it says. Breathe on me, breath of God. In the breath we take in the midst of our prayer, God “inspires” us, that is, God breathes spirit or life into us, we are filled with God’s Spirit. 
And Paul says, “We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” 
We’ve all probably found ourselves at one time or another, unsure of what to pray, or unable to find or speak the words of prayer that we know are needed. Sometimes it’s because the pain we bear is so excruciating that all that emerges from our core being are groans. Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit is present in those groans that come from deep within us. 
And sometimes, the simplest, most effective prayer we can make is the one expressed in a mere breath. 
Breath prayer is a simple form of prayer that is spoken or thought in two parts, on the inhale and the exhale of a single breath. A common form of breath prayer that many like to use is built around what is called the Jesus prayer, and it’s done in this way: Inhale - Lord, Jesus Christ, Exhale - have mercy on me a sinner.

   Can you try that? Inhale - Lord Jesus Christ - Exhale - have mercy on me a sinner.
   Others find it helpful or comforting to pray or meditate on a line from a hymn in this way:
   Inhale - Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound - Exhale - that saved a wretch like me.
   And still others take a short passage of scripture for us in their breath prayer:
   Inhale - nothing can separate us from God’s love - Exhale - in Jesus Christ our Lord.
   So, I invite you now to take a moment, and let’s each of us just think about a line of scripture or music, or if you prefer, try the Jesus prayer, and let’s quietly speak the name of God in the form of breath prayers for a minute. 

   As he washed the disciples feet, Jesus told them that they didn’t understand what he was doing, but that they would understand later. What Jesus was doing was trying to help them understand that they needed to think differently about what it meant to be his disciple. 
Being a follower of Jesus meant to be a servant, yes, 
but it was about more than that even. 
In this story, Jesus took off his robes. 
That is, he was naked -  totally vulnerable before them. And he wrapped a towel around his waist and he took the position of a servant. And in doing so he attempted to connect with them at an intimate, spiritual level that they had never before experienced. His disciples were not the crown princes of great families, they weren’t priests or business leaders or politicians - they were the working poor. They were the least, the last, and the lost. 
And before them, the Son of God stripped down to nothing and took the position of a servant in order to connect totally, intimately with them. 
And as he did this, as they spoke among themselves and as Peter questioned, on behalf of all of them, what it was Jesus was doing, Jesus - having loved them fully, the passage says - connected with them in body, mind, and spirit in a way that they didn’t yet understand, but that they would later. 
   In Jesus’ message and action, in every breath that he took and with every God-naming word he spoke,  he modeled what Paul would later write, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God…” 
Two thousand years ago, the disciples who gathered around the table with Jesus heard the name of God in every word he spoke, they shared the breath of God in every breath they took. Two thousand years later, with every breath we take in, with every breath we breathe out, the breath of God inspires, that is breathes into us, the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ. When Paul tells us that nothing - neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor present things or future things, nor powers or height or depth - can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, he speaks some of the most profound words of grace and eternal blessing that we find in all of Scripture. 
There is nothing that you can do, nothing you can say, nothing at all that will separate you from the love of God because the love of God, the Spirit of God, is within you. It is in who you are and in how you are made. 
It is in every breath you take and every breath you’ve ever taken. It is in every word you speak; even the angry words, the judgmental words, even the most hate-filled words, are surrounded by the Spirit of God - the Yod - Heh- Vah - Heh - of every breath you speak, because that is who you truly are in the eyes of God, created in the image of God. And with every breath we take God seeks to inspire us to live in the likeness of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
    Nothing, can separate you from the love of God. Nothing. And if we question that, if we somehow doubt that, all I can offer to you are the words of hope that Jesus offered to his disciples - “You don’t understand now, but you will understand later.” 

Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

2-18-18 “Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces”

2-18-18   “Finding Your Cave: Listening Spaces” 

Message written by Rev. Jay Anderson and presented by Rev. April Casperson

   Two Caves - one in which Elijah hides in fear, one out of which Lazarus emerges alive.
   In one, a prophet encounters God directly. In the other, God is encountered through the work of a prophet.
   In the first story, Elijah is running to escape from the evil queen Jezebel. He just defeated and destroyed all of her priests of Baal and she’s not happy about that, so she has threatened to do away with Elijah. So Elijah heads for the hills, seeking refuge in the wilderness. And it is there that God provides food and water for him. And it is there that God is revealed to Elijah through the world around him.
   In the second story, life, or as it were, death has caught up to Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus. Word had come to Jesus that Lazarus was ill, and according to John, Jesus knew that Lazarus would die. That Jesus delays his departure, ensuring that he will arrive too late to prevent this death seems heartless; the pain it causes seems unnecessary. But Jesus knows that it is in showing the power of God over death that God will be revealed to the world around him.
   These two amazing stories help us to better understand how God makes God’s self known to those who seek God out. Like Elijah, we often think that a God as powerful as Yahweh will be revealed in the power of the world around us, or in some great Exodus-like “crossing-the-Red-Sea” miracle. So when an earthquake occurred Elijah assumed the voice of God would be heard in the earthquake, but that didn’t happen. And when a fire appeared Elijah thought that God’s voice would be heard in the midst of the raging conflagration, but that’s not how it worked either. Elijah needed to hear from God, he needed God’s assurance that God would care for him in the midst of this threat to his very survival. 
   Mary and Martha trusted that if Jesus were there, he could save Lazarus - they knew he had that kind of power. But when Jesus didn’t come, when Lazarus died, their faith died with him. 

“If only Jesus had been there…” they lamented, “he could have been saved.” If only, we lament with them, if only. If only I could get that job… If only I had more time… If only he/she loved me…If only I could win the lottery. If only everybody believed  like we believe… If only everybody saw the world the way I do… If only…THEN everything would be okay we pray. If only…

   If you’ve experienced worship in other Protestant churches you might have noticed that, regardless of the worship style, worship services are often pretty noisy. Words and liturgy are sometimes spoken, sometimes sung, prayers in some are shared quietly and in other churches spoken aloud by everyone in worship all at the same time. Music, whether from an organ or praise band, might rock the rafters, or might softly sooth the souls of those seeking peace. During rare moments of silence, we hear muffled coughing, not-so-quiet whispering, paper rustling, and the occasional stray hymnal hitting the floor. Rarely is a moment of pure silence found in most Protestant worship service.

   But silence is essential for the spiritual life. Learning to experience silence is one of the first steps toward a deeper relationship with God. The Desert Fathers were early Christian disciples who sought silence and separation for their faith growth by moving and living in the desert, away from society. There is a story that is told of the Desert Father, Abbot Arsenius, who, when seeking salvation, prayed to the Lord, “Lead me to salvation.” A voice answered him, “Be silent.” Silence is a critical, though often ignored component of contemporary Christian spiritual practice.
   Samantha Tidball shares the story of “a 16-year-old Indian-American, Mukund Venkatakrishnan, created a hearing device that aims to help those with mild to moderate hearing loss and costs only $60. When Mukund visited his grandparents in India, he began setting up appointments for his grandfather who suffered from hearing loss. After his family spent over $2,000 on appointments and hearing aids, Mukund realized hearing was a luxury that most people in developing countries cannot afford. For two years Mukund worked diligently at developing a device that tests a person’s hearing and serves as a hearing aid. It can be used with even the cheapest set of headphones. There are roughly 360 million people around the world who suffer from hearing loss, so Mukund’s device will help many people hear who cannot afford it otherwise.”

   And relaying that story prompted Tidball to ask, “How’s your hearing?” We don’t often think about hearing as a luxury - or at least most of us don’t. If you are one of the 360 million who suffer from some sort of hearing loss, maybe you do. Regardless, thinking of it that way, would, I hope, remind us to appreciate our ability to hear the sounds God has created in the world around us. Our cars are so soundproof any more that the sound of a wailing siren coming up from behind us, that twenty years ago we could hear over our car radios, don’t get our attention until the ambulance or fire truck are right on our tails. So many of us are so busy, so distracted by technology and lost in our personal worries that we don’t take time to listen to what’s going on around us. But God is constantly trying to get our attention. Certainly God could “yell,” as it were, louder, God could be dropping earthquakes and monsoons all over the place to cry out, “Listen to me!” but that would only add to the cacophony of noise that already drowns out God’s still small voice. It’s hard to hear the voice of our Creator when we are never still, or quiet.

   We all go through times of loneliness and despair.  Perhaps it is because of our ill health or due to circumstances that are beyond our control and we think that no one cares or understands what we are enduring.  We may even think that God doesn’t care for us because we have not recognized God around us in a long time. We may think that God only speaks through something dramatic in our lives and expect it to happen in a thunderstorm as the lightning flashes or when the skies are threatening.  Those circumstances could speak to us but more often God speaks to us in the quiet moments of life when we have the time to really listen for God's voice.

   God's voice is often heard in the quiet working out of history such as when the wall of Communism fell in 1989 and suddenly people who had been held captive by an oppressive society experienced personal freedom for the first time in many years.
   God's voice is often heard in the daily lives of ordinary people as we are around them.  People quietly doing their jobs in the world often have something to say that encourages us and lifts our spirits, perhaps in the way they smile at us or say something cheerful to us. 
   God's voice may be heard in the birth of a child or a wedding or even at a funeral.  God is present in joy and in sorrow and there at times that those events make us slow down enough to listen for God to speak to us. 
   God is still speaking, even in the midst of tragedy. In the case of Lazarus, we may wonder, though, to whom God was speaking. See what you think. When Martha questions Jesus about his delayed arrival and Jesus assures her, in turn, that her brother will rise again, Martha answers with an assertion about the resurrection at the last day. And in that, she is absolutely correct.

   But Jesus pushes her to go deeper, to think differently, so that her understanding reaches not only forward into the distant future but backward into the immediate and concrete present. “I am the resurrection,” Jesus says, “and the life.” Not, I “will be’ in the future. The import and consequences of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension have immediate implications.
So also the promises of God we announce are not only about life eternal with God in the sweet by and by, or even about God’s forgiveness at the last day. Rather, the Gospel should make a tangible difference now, make things possible now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future. So in this moment, Mary and Martha must quiet themselves and what they think they know in order to listen to what Jesus is actually saying to them.

   It’s also significant in hearing this story to recognize that after Jesus calls Lazarus by name to come out, and even after Lazarus, a dead man, mind you, does indeed hear Jesus’ voice and come out, this sign is not over. For after commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus then turns and issues a command to the waiting crowd as well: “unbind him and let him go.” The community, in other words, is commanded to participate in God’s action, to bring it to its desired end and outcome, to join in completing God’s redemptive act.
   Isn’t that astounding when you think about it? That the community of faith gathered around Lazarus is invited to participate in God’s redemptive work? Yes, the raising of Lazarus from death to new life is entirely Jesus’ work, and yet Jesus invites the community to participate; that is, to do something, something essential and meaningful and important.

   So in the first story, Elijah must listen in order to hear the voice of God in the silence. In this story, Mary and Martha need to listen to Jesus to understand what he’s talking about. Lazarus, a dead man, must listens to Jesus in order to come out of the cave to literally have new life. The people who witness all of this must also listen to Jesus and engage in the “unbinding” of Lazarus or his resurrection is for nothing.
   Sometimes, we have to go into caves of our own, our listening spaces, in order to be able to hear Jesus calling to us, but he also calls us out of our caves to “unbind” others, even in small ways.
   God chose to speak to people in the Bible in some crazy ways. The Lord spoke through a burning bush, an audible voice from the sky, a talking donkey, written law, the prophets, angels and so on. God still speaks to us today in a variety of ways, but mostly through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit whispers God’s words of truth to our hearts, nudging us towards Christ. God also speaks to us through Scripture, nature, other people, books, sermons, music, poetry, silence, metaphors/analogies and so on. As Christians, it’s important to tune into God’s voice by tuning out other distractions. We need to learn to recognize God’s voice, believe the truth it speaks, and follow God’s direction.
   So, if finding silence in order to hear God speak into our lives is so important, why do we make so little time for corporate silence in worship? And when we do, why do so many struggle with it?
   Sometimes we forget that worship is not about us, it is about God. In our forgetfulness, we tend to fill the silence with our creations, our words, our music, and our needs. Perhaps another reason we do not include the practice of silence in worship is because silence feels much like doing nothing, and we are a culture of “doers.” Like the prophet Elijah, we are unaccustomed to inactivity. In our media-savvy culture, there is increasing pressure for worship to entertain, and silence is sometimes viewed as empty airtime. Nothing could be further from the truth. Silence is pregnant with the living presence of God, but we must be taught to recognize the divine presence.

   Silence is not easy; it is not part of contemporary culture. Attempting to minimize environmental sounds quickly reveals the difficulty of this practice. We live in a world crammed with noise. From mp3 players to airplanes, from elevator music to car stereos that rattle window, our lives are filled to the brim with noise that alienates us from the deep refreshment found in silence. If we are successful at silencing the external sounds, we soon learn how much babble occurs in our minds.

   How can we hear God’s Word to us amidst the noise of our lives? Hearing requires silence. Some of us may be afraid of what we will hear if we become still. Silence has the ability to reveal to us our deeper selves, warts, wrinkles, and all. For this reason we may avoid silence, not wanting to hear our deeper cries and longings. However, it is precisely our deeper selves (our true selves) with whom God desires to be in relationship. God loves us as we are and yearns to relate to us at the core of our being. God waits patiently for us to hear and respond to the invitation to move deeper into relationship with the one who created us. God wants our whole self to show up for worship.
   But how can we expect to hear God speak to us if we don’t listen? How can we dream God’s dreams and live into God’s plans if we don’t quiet ourselves enough to hear God’s still small voice. In little ways and big, God is inviting us to make a difference in this world right here, right now. God, in other words, is beckoning us to claim Christ’s resurrection power now by participating in and completing the fantastic work God is doing all over the place. 

   So what if we spend a few moments looking at the week to come - both the challenges and opportunities -- and think about where we might claim God’s resurrection promise and power now, making a difference in someone’s life now, giving ourselves to a worthy cause or purpose now. It doesn’t have to be huge (though it might be). It doesn’t have to take a long time (although it could). It doesn’t have to be spectacular (though, who knows, maybe it will be). Opportunities to unbind and let go abound, but we need to first listen, and then look for them so that we might hear Jesus calling us by name to make a difference to those around us.

   So I invite you to find the silence of your own cave, that you might hear Jesus calling to you. And then claim your faith as a present-tense invitation to live the promised salvation now. Why? Because Jesus is still talking, God is still talking, and they’re trying to tell us that the resurrection and the life God has promised to give us, is not just more life later on, but life in all its abundance, here and now. Amen..

Thursday, February 15, 2018

2-14-18 Homily Ash Wednesday - “Finding Your Life: Listening Deeply”

2-14-18 Homily Ash Wednesday - “Finding Your Life: Listening Deeply”

   We don’t listen any more… 

   We live in a world of talk and we’ve lost the ability to truly listen… 

   Our lives have become so cluttered with things to do, things to see, or screens to look at that we’ve forgotten how to just listen…

   Our world is full of noise - visual noise, physical noise, emotional noise, audible noise.
   How do we expect to hear the still small voice of God over all that noise?
   Do we even want to hear God over the noise?
   I think sometimes we don’t, fearing God will tell us something we don’t want to hear.

   If we just keep the TV going in the background, if we just keep our earbuds in or our headphones on we can control what gets in and what doesn’t, we can manage what we hear without risking hearing something that might make us think twice, that might make us pause, that might make us change…something…anything

   Jesus warns in this passage that there are what he calls “thieves and outlaws” out there who will try to get us to listen to them. And often we quickly dump into that “thieves and outlaws” category those people we already don’t want to listen to: the people speaking a message that we don’t think we want or need to hear. And in doing that, by putting our proverbial fingers in our ears and singing “la-la-la-la-la” to ourselves rather than opening ourselves to hearing another viewpoint, another position, another theology, we may be turning a deaf ear to God.
   We often stop listening when we’ve heard what we want to hear. We live in a world where many inhabit what are called “echo chambers;” that is, we mostly surround ourselves with people who agree with us. We get our news from sources that reinforce what we already think rather than challenge us to look more broadly. And I think social networking encourages this, aiding and abetting in this conspiracy with algorithms that detect what we like and gives us more of that, while it understands what we don’t like and shields us from that. 

   But we do it in our faith as well. We read the same version of the Bible because it makes us feel good. We read a few select scriptures, if we read them at all, because like getting our news only from Fox News or MSNBC, they reinforce what we already believe. And as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, we’re even selective in how we hear the scripture we do like. In John chapter 3 we tend to stop reading at the end of verse 16 because for many, it reinforces a point of view we like, whereas the next verse pushes back against that view, against what we have been told to think is the “truth” of the Christian faith.

   The same happens in our passage tonight, we tend to listen until we hear verse 9, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” And after that we stop because we feel like we’ve heard all that we need, or want, to hear - namely that only Christians will be saved. Even though Jesus keeps talking we often aren’t listening any more because he said what we came to hear. 
Or we think that’s what he said. (Pause)

   Have you noticed how many of the musical acts of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s are out touring these days? That is the music of the Baby Boomer generation and the marketers and promoters know that it is the Boomer generation that has the disposable income to go out and buy overpriced concert tickets. So they tour around - these 60, 70, and sometimes 80 year old rockers - singing the songs that made them famous decades ago, because they know that’s what the people want to hear. A high school friend posted on Facebook that she was going to see the band “Three Dog Night” at a venue near our hometown next month. I Googled the band and found that only two of the original members of that 9 or 10 member band were still with them - and only one of the three original lead singers -  and that over the nearly fifty years they’ve been together there have been 29 members all together. And that makes me wonder, is that band really “Three Dog Night,” or do they just play the band’s music that the people want to hear?

   When we only hear our favorite parts of Jesus’ message, or to think of it another way, when we stop listening when the band plays their new music rather than the golden oldies we came to hear, are we really listening to Jesus, or are we listening to something else? Because Jesus keeps talking and sometimes he says things, he “plays songs,” to further the metaphor, that some Christians don’t want to hear. Like verse 16, where he says, “I have other sheep that don’t belong to this pen. I must lead them too.” Okay, we begrudgingly think, he means other Christians, like Baptists or Presbyterians - certainly not the Episcopalians or Catholics - shudder at that thought! 

   And you’re right, he didn’t mean the Episcopalians and Catholics. Nor did he mean the Baptists, Presbyterians, or even Methodists. He didn’t even mean Christians, because there were no Christians when Jesus said this. There were people who practiced the Jewish faith, of which Jesus was a part, and there was everyone else - the Gentiles, which included all of the pagan religions of the day. So, when Jesus says he has other flocks other than that one, well…..a lot of Christians start reaching for their earbuds about then.

   I saw a story on the news not long ago about someone who saved a person’s life when they grabbed them out of the way of an oncoming bus they had stepped in front of while walking down the street with their earbuds in and their eyes glued to their phone. I’ve also heard too many times of stories where there wasn’t a Good Samaritan nearby to make that save and persons were killed in that same scenario.
 Sometimes, when we bury ourselves too deeply in our own echo chamber, when we don’t try to listen, we block out what could be a life-saving or life-changing message for us or someone else.

   So do you see how we can get stuck when we only listen for what we want to hear, or when we don’t listen at all? When we drown out the “noise” of the other stuff that Jesus says, that maybe doesn’t go along with what our culture, our politics, or our own hermeneutic tell us we should believe, then we may find ourselves stepping in front of the proverbial bus. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

   Our series for Lent invites us, for 40 days, to be aware of all the things in our life that drown out what God is trying to say to us, what God wants us to hear above the din of daily life. It invites us to listen. Our worship will look different than it usually does in order to help us with that. We’ll explore different prayer styles, spiritual disciplines, and practices that will create opportunities for listening throughout the day for all the ways in which God is trying to connect with us. We’ll begin each worship service in prayer, opening our minds and our ears to the presence of God, not only in our worship space and time, but in our daily lives.

   In addition, through Lent we will continue our exploration of John’s Gospel with Adam Hamilton’s study of John for six Wednesday evenings at 6pm in place of our evening prayer gatherings. Rev. Danny Dahl and I will be working together on this study and I hope you’ll consider being a part of it as well.
   Jesus tells us in this passage that he is the Good Shepherd, the one who gives his life for the sheep. Clearly, we are among the sheep about which he speaks, not the only sheep, but sheep nonetheless. And his call to us as sheep is clear - listen. Listen for his voice, Listen to his call. And then follow where he leads. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

2-11-18 “I See What You Did There!”

2-11-18   “I See What You Did There!”

   This is a story that is just chock-full of marvelous images, amazing insights, and, if we really think about it, and are willing to admit it to ourselves, it frightens us.

   This reading is all about sight, and seeing as a metaphor for believing or trusting. In fact, words for blindness, sight, seeing, and so forth appear 24 times in this 41-verse story. But "seeing" isn't just a metaphor. The man in the story really can't see. 
And when he gains sight for the first time, his life is transformed. And we hear that and we feel good about it because “transformed” is slightly different from “changed,” and we don't like “change.”

   And it’s interesting to compare this man to the man in our earlier story, who had been unable to walk for 38 years.  One study writer, commenting on the conversation between Jesus and that man, suggests that the man was so used to his condition and to just being near the pool but not in it, that maybe he had just accepted his situation and wasn’t really trying to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” 
And how we interpret that question depends on which word we emphasize:
   “Do you want to be healed?” - suggests there might be other options beside healing available to him, doesn’t it?
   “Do you want to be healed?” - as though Jesus is making an offer to the first person who steps up (maybe not “steps” up, but you know what I mean) to heal that person.
   Or, the way one study writer suggests it, “Do you want to be healed?” As in, you’ve been lying here next to this water for 38 years, that’s nearly 14,000 days. Surely you could have fallen into the water at least once in 14,000 days - do you even want to be healed?”

   This man, unlike the man born blind in our second story, claims to have been seeking healing for decades to no avail. Healing means change for him. 
Maybe, just maybe, he’s unwilling to do the work that he knows that change will create for him. 
Maybe he’s so used to living the way he’s living, that the idea of changing it after all these years scares him more than the disability he lives with. Kind of choosing the “devil we know over the devil we don’t know.”
   And if you have ever struggled with diet or exercise, like I have, or with trying to quit smoking or drinking, or anything like that then you know what he’s talking about. Quitting, changing diets and habits, especially fighting addictions, those are difficult things to do - maintaining the status quo seems invariably easier, even when we know the consequences of the status quo might be death or disability.
Transformation is disruptive. Change is disruptive. Always. And disruption rears its ugly head in three particular ways in this story.

   First, after the man born blind receives his sight, even some of his own friends and neighbors don’t recognize him, even as he protests that he is who he says he is! Isn’t that odd, that people who knew him well as a blind man couldn’t recognize him once he’d recovered his sight? As he gains the ability to see them they lose the ability to see him. Or maybe it’s not as odd as we think.
   How often do we define or label those around us in terms of their perceived shortcomings, challenges, or deficits? That woman is unemployed, we may say, or this man is divorced. She’s a single mom; he’s a high school dropout. He’s a failure; she’s an alcoholic. 
She has cancer. He’s depressed. She’s gay. He’s undocumented. 

   As theologian David Lose suggests, “…we don’t just do this to others. We do it to ourselves, too, allowing past setbacks, disappointments, or failures to shape how we see ourselves. We seem to have such a penchant for defining others -- and ourselves -- in terms of problems rather than possibilities that we aren’t sure what to do when the situation changes. And so the friends of the man born blind have defined him -- and their relationships with him -- so fully in terms of his disability that they can’t recognize him when he regains his sight.” 

   When we look at ourselves in the mirror, literally or metaphorically, we tend to define ourselves not in terms of our relationship with God - as beloved Children of God - but rather in terms of our possessions or power, or our perceived disabilities, faults, or shortcomings. 
It’s as though something or somebody is trying to steal our true identity from us. But sometimes the identity thief isn’t something sinister or evil, but rather those much closer to us, and sometimes we ourselves steal, or trade away, our identity as God’s beloved children. Why? 
Well Lose suggests its, “because sometimes it’s easier to live with our defined, even if deformed, sense of ourselves and others than to risk the new identity and abundant life that Jesus offers us. Just as Jesus sought out the man who sees and confirmed him in his healing, new identity, and abundant life, so also will he seek us out, rebuking all those who steal or limit our identity (even when we do it to ourselves!) and invite us to rich and abundant life.”
So that’s the first way disruption shows up in this story.

   Second, when word of the man’s transformation reaches the religious authorities they don’t believe him, so they call his parents, and even the man’s own family distance themselves from him. Now, scholars believe that this part of the passage reflects what may have been going on in John’s community when he wrote this; 
that is, that folks who followed Jesus may have been expelled from the synagogue. In this sense, his parents may be representative of family members of John’s exiled Jewish community who kept silent to protect themselves. Regardless of that, however, it offers a metaphor of how systems react to change.
  • Have you ever felt yourself isolated or abandoned? 
  • How do you think this passage addressed those feelings for John's community? 
  • How might they address our feelings when we feel left out or alone?
   Whether we’re talking about a community, a congregation, or a family, when a system organizes itself around a specific problem it has a difficult time moving toward health. Even unhappy and unhealthy systems tend to prefer a known problem to an unknown solution and have a hard time letting go of the very things that are limiting them. A “problem child” leaves the home and another child begins acting up. A “disruptive member” moves away from a congregation and two others become disruptive. The very systems we live in, when organized around problems, create new problems when the old ones are alleviated because that’s what they’ve become used to solving; we might say “that’s how they’ve always done it.” 
And so the man’s parents, fearful of the consequences of their son’s sight, play it safe by distancing themselves from their son.

   The third disruption, the man who sees (notice how easy it was to label him and this whole story “the man born blind;” that is, in terms of his deficit) is eventually kicked out of the community. Sometimes a move toward healthy change is disruptive to those safely embedded in the status quo, so the move toward healthy change and new identity is often sabotaged. 
   Can you think of some examples of when that might happen or when it happened in a community or group you’re part of?
  • A member of singles group gets married and is no longer “comfortable” for the single friends
  • A co-worker gets promoted to a new department and is excluded from social events with her former co-workers
  • Or in a kinds of self-seclusion, a church member, unhappy with change or lack of change - disengages from the community altogether.
   The ways in which we have adopted alternative identities or labels for ourselves and others rather than the identity we’re given in Jesus may serve us poorly, but at least they’re familiar. With blinders on we’ve learned to cope with our limitations even as we resent them. 
And so out of fear, we often resist, if not flat out reject, those who invite us to a new identity and new possibility. In this story, the cost of acknowledging that this man was cured by Jesus -- that is, acknowledging that Jesus was sent by God -- was simply too great to those in authority.
 So what do they do? They deny that it even happened and, when that fails, they drive out the man who stands as living evidence to his own testimony.

   This passage also challenges our often simplistic understandings of sin. When the disciples voice a common view of the day -- that disability or hardship is the result of sin -- Jesus disagrees. Similarly, when the Pharisees assume that knowledge of and compliance with the law automatically grants righteousness, Jesus counters by saying that precisely because they deny their sin and claim to "see" they are in fact sinning. 
If they were able to admit their blindness, they would not be sinning and would receive sight. In John's Gospel, "sin" at its most basic is not recognizing Jesus as God's messiah, the person through whom God is at work to save the world. 
Q: How do we hear “sin” typically defined? 
  • Violating God’s law
  • Separation from God
  • Anything we disagree with? Are afraid of? 
Q: How might this story broaden our understanding of both sin and grace?

   The turning point of the story may be when the man born blind receives his sight. It may also be, however, when he confesses his faith as a result of his new found sight. Many Christians since -- including John Newton, the slave-trader turned abolitionist and composer of "Amazing Grace" have been inspired by the man's confession, "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see!" 
Q: Where have you felt blind in our lives?
  • In how we view others?
  • In how we think about faith in general and our faith in particular? 
  • How we used to think about something and then our view  changed?
Where have you experienced a sense of new sight, of new life, a new chance to be the person Jesus calls you to be?

   One of the hallmarks of John’s Gospel is that when Jesus arrives on the scene and in our lives, everything changes. Think about that in terms of the stories we've heard so far. Limitation and scarcity thinking fall by the wayside with the one who can transform water into wine. There is no longer any need for sacrifice because the lamb of God who takes away sin is here. 

Divisions (and their corresponding ethnic definitions) between Samaritans and Jews fade away in the presence of the one who offers living water. And the one who can heal even a man born blind is the One who offers not just life, but life in all of its abundance.
   When Jesus comes into our life, things change. 
That sounds good. Until we realize that change is always disruptive. And then we wonder whether the change, the transformation -- even when it promises new life -- is worth it. Transformation is hard, but it’s also life giving. For what Jesus wants for us isn’t just survival, mere subsistence, getting by, or any of the others ways we formulated and excused living half-lives. 
No, what Jesus wants for us is life, full and rich and abundant life. The kind of life that comes from knowing that we have infinite worth in God’s eyes and are and always will be God’s beloved child.

   So my hope is that by engaging in this kind of experience and conversation, maybe this week you’ll keep thinking about this encounter between the man who regains his sight and Jesus, and how it can inform and transform our lives of faith in the world.
   You are more than the labels that others apply to you and more than the labels you apply to yourself. You are more than the sum of your fears and more than the things you possess. Jesus invites us to see and be the people God created us to be - beloved children of the God who loves you more than you can know. 
Because the good news of the gospel, the promise that we share in making this invitation is simply this: 

Jesus still comes to those in need to grant sight, faith, and life to all those who ask. Amen.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

2-4-18 "He Said/She Said"

No transcript today, as this message was totally unscripted, in the form of a conversation. Enjoy!