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Take notes! There will be questions later.
I am about to undertake something unprecedented in my arguably limited preaching history. Over the course of the next three weeks, both Janet and I will be offering complementary reflections on the relationship between the Church and secular state which I have entitled “Faithful Civics,” and we will be doing so in a sermon series that begins this morning and will end just before the November 4th general election here in Washington. I will begin this morning, Janet will offer her thoughts next Sunday, October 26th, and I will conclude on November 2nd. Of course, we fully expect that all of you will plan to be in attendance each of these Sundays so that you don’t miss a word of our interconnected reflections on God’s Word and our government. (Seahawks games notwithstanding, of course!)
This series has been inspired by three seemingly disconnected elements that I will argue are in fact closely related. The first is the upcoming national and state election, a source of a great deal of anticipation for some, and anxiety for others. If I achieve my object, by the beginning next month you will know how to vote come the 4th, or if you vote by mail, you’ll know by then whether or not you voted in accordance with God’s Will. <wink>
The second event is Reformation Sunday next week, when we focus on the historical origins of our Protestant faith. Reformation Sunday’s focus this year is the 500th anniversary of the birthday of John Knox, the man who established in Scotland the often quirky, frequently contentious, and painfully democratic body we know today as the Presbyterian Church. In full disclosure, I need to tell that I did my senior thesis in college on the political ideology of John Knox, so you might quite a bit more detail attending these next few Sundays than you would in other congregations observing Reformation Sunday. As I said, take notes; there will be questions later.
Finally, and most important, is the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew which the lectionary assigns to this particular morning of the Church calendar. It is the familiar story of Jesus addressing the Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians, who are supposedly plotting to trap him with a thorny political question of his day. Jesus’ response says something about the way Christians might address the political questions of our day. So let’s delve into these three elements and see what we can discern about our faith and our politics.
As always, we begin with Scripture. The story from Matthew sets up a rather extraordinary set of circumstances. First, we have Pharisees who desire to “entrap” Jesus. The Greek verb “pagideuswsin” which New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “entrap” is an interesting choice of words. The word can be used in the conspiratorial sense, meaning to “ensnare” or to force someone into saying something to which they can later be held to account — indicted or punished — and it is this intention most Christians read into this passage about the Pharisees. At its worst, the New Testament’s apparent distaste for the Pharisees is responsible for much of Christian-based anti-Semitism in the modern world.
Another significance of that troublesome verb, however, comes within the context of how Jewish rabbis approach their scholarship. There is a long and revered tradition by which rabbis engage one another in disputations as a way of developing theological understandings of the world and God’s Will for it. These formalized debates in Jesus’ time form an important part of Jewish doctrine and practices today, and both the Mishnah and the larger Talmudic traditions trace their origins to just about the time of Jesus of Nazareth and the centuries that followed. So when the Pharisees approached Jesus about paying taxes to the Roman emperor, rather than conspiratorially trying to undermine him, they may have been trying to engage him in a larger rabbinical debate on the appropriate relationship of religion and the state.
Support for this idea comes from the fact that the Pharisees didn’t approach Jesus alone. They brought with them the Herodians, and the Herodians and the Pharisees were not exactly the best of friends. In fact, they were polar opposites on the political spectrum. The Herodians were aligned with the ruling family of greater Palestine. Herod Antipas, the ruler of the region of Galilee and the northern portion of Palestine had originally sided with the Pharisees, but after assuming power, he switched his political allegiances and sided with the more conservative and aristocratic Sadducees. The shift in party identity meant that the Pharisees were out of favor with the Herodian ruling powers and their Sadducee cohorts, who themselves were in league with the Roman occupation authorities of Palestine. Many of the Pharisees who opposed the Herodians found themselves in considerable danger and often were at risk of execution for treason. The fact both the Pharisees and Herodians were able to come together at all is a miracle, and the fact that they apparently agreed to approach Jesus, an itinerant Nazarene carpenter, with a weighty theological question is doubly astounding. Imagine Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner approaching Bob Vila from “This Old House” to settle a dispute between them, and you’ll get the picture.
Nevertheless, both sides knew what they were doing. They noted that Jesus was a fair, impartial man, as well as learned in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was not aligned with either party, and for these reasons, they both felt comfortable trying to get his take on the thorny issue of the day. He could play a role in helping to adjudicate their disagreement, and both sides were apparently willing to let him do so.
The question was posed: was it a legitimate exercise of faithful Jewish practice to pay taxes to the Roman emperor? Did not the payment of taxes to an imperial demigod undermine the legitimacy of belief in the one, true God? One side said yes, the other no. Who was right? Jesus did not let them down. In fact, he did provide them with an answer using a treasured tool in the jurisprudential toolkit that every judge and lawyer has from time immemorial learned to love and appreciate: he avoided addressing the question on its merits by deciding it on jurisdictional grounds.
In essence when Jesus pointed out the emperor’s face on the coin, he was arguing that the secular civic realities did not necessarily impact spiritual divine realities. The emperor was owed allegiance and deference with the former sphere and God was owed allegiance and deference in the latter. When it came to paying taxes, the civic act did not impugn religious scruple. Payment of taxes was simply not a religious question, and to suggest otherwise was to misunderstand the nature of God and divine reality.
Jesus provided the warring Jewish factions with a way out of their struggle to the death. So amazed were they at his resolution, that they left him alone, another reason why I don’t believe that they were out to force him in making a slip-up. If they had malicious intent, they would not have given up on challenging Jesus so quickly. Whatever the Gospel writers’ issues were with the Pharisees, to my mind Jesus shared relatively little animosity with them.
We can extrapolate from this story support for the concept of separation between the church and state, but the nature of church/state separation and just how separate the institutions ought to be deserves some examination of its own. To do that, I’d like to switch gears here and turn our attention to John Knox and some history of Reformation-era Scotland.
If there were any place in Europe where one would have expected the Protestant Reformation to have taken root and produce a denomination with world-wide impact, Scotland in the 16th Century would have been somewhere on the bottom of list. While most of continental Europe was in the thrall of the Renaissance, experiencing an explosion of scholarly endeavor, scientific inquiry and artistic creativity, Scotland remained a feudal backwater. Forever at war with its southern neighbor, the Scottish monarchy had allied itself with France in a generations-long alliance against the English. Roman Catholicism seemed solidly entrenched, given the royal support it had been given by the very Catholic Mary of Guise, the Queen Regent of Scotland.
Despite royal patronage from the Catholic House of Guise, the Scots were no strangers to Protestantism, thanks largely to one of their most celebrated native sons, John Knox. Born 500 years ago this year, John Knox was a rural Scottish priest and notary who had converted to Protestantism. He was fiery preacher and esteemed chaplain to many Scottish nobles and military officials who likewise had converted. During Mary of Guise’s regency in Scotland, Knox was captured and imprisoned for two years aboard French galleys where he endured unspeakable punishment and where he nearly died. Despite his poor treatment, he managed to survive with the fervor for his newfound faith intact.
One example of his Scottish orneriness can be seen in one notable story from the time of his confinement. Many of the Protestant prisoners aboard the French galleys were often forced to bow and venerate images of the Virgin Mary as a way of belittling their religious scruples. Knox refused to do, for which he was lashed and tortured. Afterward, when he was again asked to venerate the Virgin Mary’s image, he took the picture and flung it overboard into the sea, mockingly proclaiming, “Let our Lady now save herself! She is light enough; let her learn to swim!”
After he was released, Knox took refuge in England where he continued his preaching and served in the court of the young Protestant King Edward VI as a chaplain. All was going well until young Edward died, and he was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, who ascended to the throne as Mary I. Among the Protestant community, however, Mary was known by a different name, “Bloody Mary” for the intensity of her resolve to eradicate both Protestants and Protestantism on English soil. Thousands of Protestants fled Mary’s wrath, and settled in Protestant enclaves on the European continent. For his part, Knox took up residence in Geneva, and it was there that Knox received the better part of his education as a Reformed theologian under the direct tutelage of John Calvin.
We will leave the details of what Knox learned from Calvin for my sermon two weeks from now, but one troublesome detail of Knox’s studies of Geneva needs to be dealt with now. As I noted before, Knox had been jailed and tortured under Mary of Guise’s rule in Scotland, Mary I was slaughtering Protestants in England, and Mary of Guise’s daughter, also named Mary — who would be the future Mary Queen of Scots — was being readied to take over assume power along the same lines.
Three very Catholic Marys were wreaking havoc with Knox’s ministry in the British Isles, and jumping to an overly broad conclusion, Knox began to question whether God had ever intended there to be female monarchs. In attacking the practice of women reigning over nations, Knox published a polemic in the summer of 1558 and entitled it, “The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.” John Calvin was aghast that a student of his had written so ill-considered and seditious a treatise, particularly when a copies of it landed in England and one fell into the hands of the very Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, just as Mary I died and Elizabeth ascended to the throne of England to become Queen Elizabeth I. To put it mildly, Queen Elizabeth was not amused, and what happened next would shape not only John Knox’s ministry for rest of his life, but the entire structure of Protestantism in English-speaking world.
Stay tuned. Questions are forthcoming….
1 The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
2 The LORD is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
3 Let them praise your great and awesome name.
Holy is he!
4 Mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
5 Extol the LORD our God;
worship at his footstool.
Holy is he!
6 Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called on his name.
They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
7 He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud;
they kept his decrees,
and the statutes that he gave them.
8 O LORD our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
9 Extol the LORD our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the LORD our God is holy.
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?“ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Have you ever had one of “those” days? Days when things just don’t seem to be going right, and just when you think you have gotten past the worst of it, you get knocked sideways with some other mishap. And it’s all your fault.
In my recent relocation from Los Angeles to Bellevue, I had to endure a series of challenges in getting settled into my new apartment here. The person from whom I sublet the space had not submitted my name for approval with the building management by the time I had arrived. That issue finally got resolved, and then there a whole series of problems with keys to the unit. At first, I was short one set of keys; then, once I got an additional set, both the original and the new sets of keys stopped working. Both sets of keys and my apartment front door lock had to be replaced.
Meanwhile, Pam in the church office had provided me with a master key for the church and my office. There’s nothing that communicates that you have arrived more than receiving a master key. A master key is a treasure of inestimable value to those that hold them. But I digress. That same day, the apartment called me to say that they had replaced my apartment front door lock, and that the new apartment keys were ready to be picked up. Later that day, I picked up the new keys and handed over the old keys to the front desk to be destroyed. I tested the new keys, and they worked like a charm on the new lock on my apartment. All was well — or so I thought. Another one of “those” days was in store for me.
That day came a week ago Saturday. I arrived at the church with some heavy boxes and found the doors locked. I took out my master key and discovered to my dismay that it did not work. Had it not been for Phil Hunter who was inside setting up the sound for last week’s services and let me in, I would have been unable to get inside. I then tried the master key on the church office and pastor’s office doors, to no avail. I concluded that I had been given the wrong key, and that I would take it up with Pam the next day. (You know where this is going, don’t you?)
So, the next day when I confront… er, advised Pam that she might have given me the wrong key, she gently insisted that she had in fact given me the right one. In fact, she explained she had tested the key in the church door locks before giving it to me. When I showed her the key she had given me, she seemed confused, and noted that it was not a master key for the church she had given me. She and I looked at the key more closely, and it was then I noticed that it bore a surprising resemblance to my new apartment key. It was then I realized that what I had done: I had mistakenly given up the church master key instead of my old apartment key to be destroyed. One of “those” days was now turning into one of “those” weeks, and it was all my fault. And even worse, I had doubted Pam, our Office Manager, who was only seeking to help me. Shame on me!
Similarly, the ancient Israelites doubted God. After all that God had done for them — calling forth Moses to be their leader out of the desert of Midian, inflicting the Egyptians with all manner of plagues, summoning the Angel of Death, parting the Red Sea, and destroying Pharaoh’s mighty army – the God who had done all of this and so much more was now the subject of their collective doubt. God was only trying to help the Chosen People. An effigy of a pagan calf cast in gold was their ungracious response. Shame on them!
Actually, we’re probably being too hard on the Israelites. After all, let’s look at the evidence. They had been rescued from slavery, but they had no clear understanding about the prospects of their ongoing survival. They had been brought into the wilderness, and they camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there they waited. And waited. And waited. Moses had been gone for a very long time, coming up with new legislation to organize the ragtag bunch of God’s ostensibly “chosen.” They had in fact left behind in Egypt everything they knew and held dear, including the objects of their adoration. While they were vaguely familiar with the one God, Yahweh, from their history, they knew the Egyptian pantheon much better. Isis, Horus, Osiris, Ra, and a host of other familiar deities commanded their loyalties in a time of uncertainty and fear.
They made a classic error of communities in transition: they sought to make decisions about their core identity in a time of panic. Rather than waiting for Moses to finish his slow trek back down the mountain, they let their fear and anxiety take control. They insisted to Aaron that something old and familiar be restored to them from their days under the Pharaoh. In their frantic haste, they reached out to Hathor. Hathor was a female deity in Egypt, and she was associated with music, dance and fertility. To put it bluntly, Hathor was a party-hearty girl. She was often portrayed in the form of a cow.
Maybe Aaron, whom Moses left in charge of things while he was talking to God on the mountain, suggested that the Israelites have a celebration honoring Hathor because he knew that it would be a great way to channel the stress of people feeling lost and abandoned. In the midst of great anxiety, why not throw a party? Music and dancing are great ways to focus collective energy – we’ve experienced a taste of it ourselves this morning – and the cult of Hathor was tailor made to get the people’s minds off their dire straits.
We learn from this incident the first lesson of the morning, that decisions made in an atmosphere of panic and anxiety rarely, if ever, are good ones. Aaron’s mistake was in hastily trying to address what he thought the people needed instead of what God wanted. What seemed like a tailor-made solution to Aaron was absolute anathema to God. The bacchanal honoring Hathor violated the very first commandment: the Chosen People had placed another god before Yahweh, the one and only, true God. God in fact was so angry that God once again threatened to destroy the whole lot of them and start the Creation experiment all over. But for Moses’s intercession and reminder that destroying the Chosen People would be bad for public relations, the whole community would have been annihilated.
Jesus’ parable of marriage feast from Matthew offers us an important and related lesson. Just like the ungrateful Israelites of Exodus, the wedding invitees in the parable go out of their way to offend their host and King. This time, however, there is no one to intercede for them. They are hunted down, slaughtered, and even their cities are burned to the ground. This was what God was threatening to do to the Israelites when Moses stepped in. The King then reformulates the wedding banquet plans from scratch. He decides to open the doors and let everybody in. Everyone is welcome and accorded full privileges at the feast, but one of the attendees shows up not wearing the appropriate wedding garments. For this social faux pas, he is cast out into “the outer darkness where there [is] weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Now, it’s at this point in the story that most commentators note that there actually two different parables here. The first one focuses on the mistreatment of the King and his servants, and second one on the under-dressed wedding guest. There are parallel Jewish rabbinical traditions that tell very similar stories as completely separate tales of social infractions, but here in Matthew they are combined into one continuous narrative. Indeed, it may strike some as unfair that an unanticipated invitation to someone’s wedding would result in someone’s complete rejection and social stigmatization. But, I think there is an important and humbling lesson to be ascertained from this passage. The under-dressed wedding attendee may have not been anticipating an invitation, but he received one nevertheless. Because everyone was invited, he did not prepare himself appropriately because he too devalued and discounted the King’s invitation. He was no less culpable than the initial set of invitees who mocked the King to their ultimate peril.
So here’s the humbling lesson: the unmerited grace of God nevertheless merits with some degree of careful preparation. We are part of God’s Chosen People, true, and we may not have a golden calf in our midst. But that does not mean we automatically get a free pass. Discerning the Will of God goes beyond accepting the open invitation; we need to equip ourselves to be at the place where God wants us to be and in manner befitting that place. Fashion matters. Cloaking ourselves with at least a modicum of righteousness is called for if we are to remain true to our calling as God’s Chosen. We need to be sure we ready, and proceed cautiously and carefully, before we can rightfully take our place at the wedding feast, lest we stand out for our lack of proper spiritual attire.
The final lesson I need to make clear this morning is one gleaned from both scripture passages. We know from the Exodus narrative that the Israelites were not destroyed after all, and that Moses was successful in intervening on their behalf with an angry God. Not only that, Aaron, the nervous leader who suggested that everyone contribute gold for the offering to Hathor, was not thrown forever into the darkness. Aaron actually became a great and faithful leader when the Israelites reached the land of Canaan, and he succeeded Moses with all manner of blessings and favor from Yahweh.
Likewise, in Matthew, no one approaches the promise of God’s plenty oblivious to the manner in which that richness is conferred, but no one can ever truly claim to be an expert on salvation. The troubling combination of two very different parables in today’s New Testament passage yields some wildly divergent interpretations. Fallible human beings cannot possibly be expected to perceive Matthew’s actual intent. We can only posit some ideas on faith in faith. One can never be the perfect wedding guest, but – and here’s the lesson — perfection is not required. The entirety of the Gospel assures us of that.
As human beings molded in God’s image, we only dimly reflect the nature of God. It will never be easy for us to discern God’s will. The best we can hope for is to proceed to consider what we should be doing in a calm and considered fashion. We may we do everything we need to discern and to prepare, and then, just when we get everything into alignment and set to go, we may find our best laid plans to be entirely confounded. That’s okay. There is a difference between a well-intentioned heart and a lazy one. Our blunders cast light on our frailties, and our errors keep us humble, often just at the point when we facetiously believe we’ve “got a good thing going.” When we are handed the master keys to God’s house, and we are expected to turn in the old keys that do not provide access, on one of “those” fateful days we just may wind up destroying the wrong set. So long as we do not offend the [O]ne who is in charge, we will always get another master set. Thus is true of the Newport church office, as it is in heaven.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
I know what you’re thinking.
“In heaven’s name,” you’re saying. “He’s just arrived here, and he’s already giving us musical theater references!” How stereotypical. Not only that, the song “Getting to Know You” is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King and I.” How very old school!
Anna Leonowens, the protagonist of the “The King and I,” was a real historical figure, a headstrong and feisty widow — a feminist, and an abolitionist — whom the King of Siam invited to his country, now modern-day Thailand. As the musical relates, Anna was engaged to tutor the members of the royal court and assist them in their transition from native Thai traditions to Western-style, more modern social practices and world views. So, let’s be clear: Anna was an interim leader.
The song “Getting to Know You” is sung in the first Act, as Anna begins her lessons with the noble young charges. It’s a song that celebrates the joy that comes with learning things by establishing relationships with new people. In “The King and I,” Anna wins the hearts of the Siamese royal court — and ultimately, the King himself — with her charm, tact and presence of mind.
Introductions are never very easy, especially when you’re the one introducing yourself to a brand new group of people. For communities about to embark on a time of transition, contradictory emotions are often at play. People grieve the closing of a chapter in their collective history, seeking solace in clinging to the comfort of the frequent and familiar ways of doing things. On the other hand, anxious curiosity about the future and the things to come can lead to a willingness to experiment and access hidden creativity in the community. A new order is established, new leadership steps up, and the people move into a new place, figuratively speaking (though sometimes literally).
Make no mistake, both of today’s Scripture readings are leadership introductions to people about to embark on extraordinary new chapters in their lives. Those of us of the Cecil B. DeMille era are quite familiar with the passage from Exodus, the Ten Commandments. Believe it or not, the Commandments are really an introduction of sorts, because before this time, God had only spoken to individuals of God’s own choosing. Whether it was Adam, Noah, Abraham, or Jacob, the God of the ancient Israel kept some very limited, mostly patriarchal company for direct conversation, and these divine conversations revealed a God who was quite accustomed to giving orders, speaking constantly in the imperative case:
• “Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil;”
• “Build an ark, and load it with animals, two of every kind;”
• “Take your family and leave home; you’re moving to a new land;” or
• “Go back home, and take your wives and your things.”
This God, this Yahweh of ancient Israel, dictated the time, place and structure of the lives of the faithful. There was little time for thought or challenge or opposition. No, it was simply, “Go, do this,” or “Don’t do that.”
God’s dialogues with the patriarchs reached their apex with the Ten Commandments. Here, for the first time and using Moses as a heavenly press secretary, God has a message for all of the faithful to hear – and abide. It’s all for the best, really. “Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t mess around, don’t lie, obey your parents, and don’t even think of wanting what your neighbor has. O yeah, and worship only me, and take a day off once a week.” These really are quite simple rules, clear, concise, and designed to keep things decent and orderly.
As a matter of introduction, however, they lack something. There’s none of the casual subtlety of social communication. God here simply states the obvious: “I rescued you from slavery, so here is what I want you do.” And it doesn’t stop at just Ten Commandments. There are entire books enumerating dress codes, dietary restrictions, vice laws, and criminal sanctions spelled out with all manner of detail. The people of Israel haven’t just escaped slavery; they’ve been co-opted into a new divine and social order, no questions asked.
Then, as if to really get their attention, God accompanies the pronouncement of the new rules with a major sound and light show, expressly designed to put the fear of the Lord into the hearts of the gathered multitude. The whole spectacle is a bit much for the poor souls gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. They are overwhelmed, and quite frankly terrified of this God who has “rescued” them and brought them to this place, so much so that they ask Moses not to let God speak to them directly. They want Moses to mediate; dealing with God is just too awesome and fearful a prospect to consider. Given the fact that the people had left everything they knew back in Egypt, the prospect of taking on the responsibility for their future under the ever-vigilant eye of a persnickety God just may have been more than they could bear.
As introductions go, the events on the plains of Sinai may not be the best model for engaging a new people in a journey of self-discovery for a new future together. That the ancient Israelites were a tad reluctant to wholeheartedly embracing Yahweh is not surprising given all they had just been through. Outcomes were dictated rather than discerned, and that just may be biggest problem of the whole enterprise. The people needed a vision for their future life together under this all-powerful God. All they got were rules.
Paul knew the weakness inherent in approaching new people with rules. He had taken great and loving pains to establish the church at Philippi, and they returned the favor by supporting Paul in his time of trial. In this morning’s passage from Philippians, Paul opened himself up to his old friends, and he reminded of them of his background as a Pharisee. Paul was raised in the fearsome faith of the Sinai plain. He had followed all the rules to the letter, and he even prosecuted those who did not, but he had experienced a chance so shattering, so radical, that he came to regard everything he thought he knew and understood as meaningless. What he knew now was Christ, and Christ had offered him a world that was not governed by hard and fast adherence to rules but by intimacy of relationship. He summed up his feelings, stating, “I want to know Christ and the power the resurrection and the sharing of suffering by becoming like him in his death.”
While the Christians of Philippi may have known something of Paul’s background – he had founded their church, after all – his letter to them exposed them to a very personal aspect of his being. He had earned and lost everything his world had valued, and he found instead a new way of living in following the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. Paul’s journey of self-discovery would inspire the Philippian congregation to conduct a similar self-examination of who they were as a people of faith, and they in turn would lead others into the faith by their example. Getting to know Paul was a step in the journey of getting to know themselves in Christ, and the Philippians were able to meet every challenge that other purported Christians and pagan society would throw at them. Paul’s vision did not offer them a promised land flowing with milk and honey, but a life with all manner of challenges and sufferings that resulted in the resurrection from the dead and new life with Christ.
For a community discerning its future, these were powerful, hope-filled words because not only was Paul introducing something new about himself, he was also introducing to them to something new about God. Rodgers and Hammerstein just may have captured this same sentiment in their song when they wrote,
“Haven’t you noticed
Suddenly I’m bright and breezy?
Because of all the beautiful and new
Things I’m learning about you
Day by day.”
So what of our own community of Newport Presbyterian Church? During the first part of my time with you we will be engaging in the process of getting to know one another, to be sure, but transitional times also call for self-examination as well as introductions. Getting to know ourselves and our future life together as a church will be just as important as getting to know one another. Interim time – our time of traversing the wilderness — will involve asking a series of questions. What shapes our understanding of our place in the larger community of Bellevue and in the life our Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. denomination? What patterns and practices do we love and treasure? What inspires us? What terrifies us? What needs adjustment? What needs to be let go? What does God have in store for us? What does God want us to do? What new habits – new rules, if you will — are needed in order to follow God’s plan for us? Just how much difference can we stomach? What are our prospects for continued life together as a church family? What will be our legacy if we no longer existed?
My role as interim leader will be to continue asking these questions, and I will be doing so without trying to provide you with answers. You will discern the answers. By way of example, if a couple were to approach me and seek to be married, I would want to be assured that they have undertaken the necessary communication about key decisions to remain in life together. If in discussions with them, I learned that they had not discussed who would be the primary caregiver of their future children, or whether or not they would even have children, then I would raise that as an issue for them to try to determine. It would not be for me to dictate their choice; whatever choice must be left to them and the dynamics of their unique relationship to decide. My role is only in assuring that they have dealt with the major issues at hand so that they may have the best possible chance of securing a happy future together as a married couple.
Similarly, my role here will be to raise and remind us of the core questions of congregational identity. Change, if there is to be any, will be arrived at only after engaging in careful, deliberate and prayerful discernment. My very first observation about this church leads me to the conclusion that you are whole lot more like the loving congregation at Philippi than the fear-filled people of Sinai, so there will be no need for laying down the law or for inflicting you with awe-inspiring displays of light and sound, at least not my part. (We will see what the SALAD Bowl has in store for us!) I will offer you queries to challenge your thinking, and only limited references to Broadway musicals.
No matter what the future yields for us, at least one thing will not change, and that is situated front and center, right here before us. It is Jesus’ table of welcome and fellowship, grace and hospitality. We gather this morning with millions of other Christians throughout the globe to lift up before the faithful the presence of Christ in our midst. At this table, Christ becomes known to us in breaking of the bread and pouring of wine, and in so doing we become known as Christ’s own people. This communion feast is immutable and everlasting, just as the love of God for us endures for all time.
So it is fitting we begin our transitional time together this way, sharing in the spiritual sustenance that Christ has provided for generations before and for generations to come, and for whole of the earthly throng that proclaims the name of Jesus. No matter what may be in store for us in the time to come, this table forever anchors our worship and our identity as Christians. Let us now become known to God and to one another in this worldwide celebration of life in Christ.
EXODUS 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
13You shall not murder.
14You shall not commit adultery.
15You shall not steal.
16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
As I begin this last sermon I need to state right from the start this is not going to be a typical sermon. It is more a hodge-podge of remembrances, thank yous and a few random thoughts. How does one sum up 32 years of ministry in a last sermon? You can’t so this will have to do.
First a word about the scriptures chosen. They are not part of the lectionary for this Sunday. They are some of my favorite biblical texts: one from each area of the Bible the lectionary normally provides. Amos is all about justice. Amos is a pull-no-punches kind of writer. I have always wanted to live up to Amos’ prophetic teachings. Many a pastor has fantasized about speaking so boldly. His calling the wives of the rich and spoiled “cows” elsewhere in his book, has always made me smile. So, I needed to include Amos as my First Testament passage.
The Psalm is the one Sandy and I used at our wedding. We decided to independetly search through the Psalter and pick a Psalm we wanted read at our marriage ceremony. We would argue our case for the one we chose and then decide. When we came together we had both picked the same Psalm, Psalm 146. It has been part of my life since then.
The Romans passage has been a guide for me almost all my adult years. I have hardly lived into Paul’s exhortations, but adopting his advice is not a bad way to measure one’s life.
Matthew’s passage about where our treasure is, there will our heart be, has convicted me to always check my priorities by looking at my check book. And, when Jesus goes on to urge us not to be anxious, I listen. Anyone who has really known me knows I have struggled with anxiety most of my life. I know I have not lived into this scripture, but it is ever before me helping me focus on what is truly important. I hope to carry all of these scriptures with me into retirement.
Looking back over my 32 years of pastoral ministry, and especially my last 10 years here at Newport, I have so many memories. I have been cleaning out my files to make room for the new pastor. When I got to my memorial files, I went through the bulletins for each one of the services I have led here at Newport. I was close to tears as I remembered so many fine people who are no longer with us.
I remember, as well, all the work on our building that has been accomplished here at Newport. It seems I have “lucked into” being the pastor at each of the four churches I have served when a big building project was needed. The biggest were at Summit Ave and here. I am so grateful for the leadership of so many folks in those projects who knew more than me about building permits and architectural drawings. Especially here at Newport I want to thank Dennis Chivers, Wally Alder and Jerry Roe. I could name so many more on the various building committees and those who helped at work projects, raising money, or communicating with the congregations. I mention those three because they were either the architect or the church representative to the contractor that kept the project on schedule and within budget. They all saved Newport a bunch of money.
I remember all the baptisms and weddings I have been a part of here in this community. Certainly baptizing Frances Horner, the beloved retired pastor attending Newport with his wife Mary, was a very poignant moment. He had never been baptized as far as he remembered. Splashing water on him when we were worshipping in the Great Hall made that space sacred for me. It was one of the most memorable baptisms I had ever been a part of.
Weddings can be meaningful, if not stressful. When I know those getting married, it is especially meaningful. Two, however, stand out. Being one of the officiants, along with Heidi and Gary, that brought David Meekhof and Carol Kelly together was one of them. It took three of us, but they are still married! And I ended my wedding responsibilities officiating at the marriage ceremony of another mature couple, Wally Alder and Helen Nash. It was a great way to go out.
I have many warm memories of the committees I have worked with over the years here at Newport. I could name each committee and those who served on them, but that would make for a tedious sermon! It also would not capture my sweetest moments or the impact serving with many of you had on me. I will say I am very proud of the stand our Mission and Peacemaking Committee took against torture, for gun control and background checks, doing the work to help the hungry and the homeless, and finally supporting me on marriage equality. This church is not afraid to take controversial stands on non-partisan issues of justice and compassion.
That is consistent with the Jesus we encounter in the Bible. The story of Jesus’ ministry among us is full of political implications. I am not talking about partisan politics. I am talking about standing up for justice in the economic realm, for speaking out against the Empire of Rome and its cruelty, speaking out against all those religious leaders who collaberated with Rome to keep the poor in line while they lined their own pockets. Jesus was crucified as a political prisoner. A Church of Jesus Christ should never shy away from political stands. While some say religion and politics should not be mixed, the Bible simply won’t support that. It is part of being a follower of Jesus.
Adult education is one of my loves. The Tuesday morning lectionary class was a real highlight. The attendance at that class was the best of any church I have served. The short story class, with help from Al Smallman, has been a delight. I love entering into discussions about our faith indirectly through literature and even through movies.
Certainly all those who worked on the Worship Committee, the Personnel Committee, the Membership Committee, the Property Committee, and the Stewardship and Finance Committee have done an outstanding jobs in making Newport practice what it preaches. So, too, the Deacons and the Stephen Ministers have done their part in extending the hospitality and compassion of this church to members and friends alike. Thank you.
Moving beyond Newport’s committees, I remember all the interfaith connections I have made while being here. The joint sermon Jawad Khaki and I preached was ground breaking for this church and me personally. The image of a Muslim and a Christian sharing the pulpit in a Christian Church is so very hopeful. We are all children of God trying to make sense of this crazy life, trying to find our way to the Holy. I have deeply enjoyed working with Fostering Interfaith Relationships on the Eastside with Marian Stewart and others.
I want to say a word of thanks to the great staff I have worked with. I mentioned them in the last newsletter, but I want to say publically I have felt like I won the jackpot with this staff. Sue, Judy, Pam, Jay, Ron, Karen, Rhonda, Lori, Nate, Jennifer, Kristin, Josh, Jason, Kevin, Susan and Noriko all were outstanding staff sharing this ministry with me.
I want to give a special thanks to my two colleagues in ministry here, Heidi and Janet. I simply lucked out being able to share pastoral duties with them. They are both outstanding pastors, preachers, and organizers. They covered my weaknesses and helped me from going over the edge in my humor. I can’t thank Janet enough for helping me get through Sandy’s death. Actually, that goes for this whole church. You all supported me in ways I will never forget. And then when I did something I thought I would never do and married again, you celebrated my love for Jackie in such great style. We have both felt surrounded by your love.
I have also had some great pastoral friends that have meant the world to me: those in the book group I attend, Dave Brown, and Doug McClure, and others from this Presbytery: Will, Karen, Sandy, Mark, Jane, Sheri and others. Pastors cannot survive without friends to bounce ideas off of and complain to when we feel irritated! Finding fellow progressive pastors that share many theological perspectives helped keep me sane and in the ministry.
I thought I would end this sermon sharing what I believe and hold dear at this time in my life, at least in terms of Christianity. This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of where I am as I end this stage of my faith journey and enter another one.
Trying to make sense of that Holy Mystery we call God has been a lifelong task. I have given up many notions about God that seem too anthropomorphic. At times it seems like many in the larger Church are not talking about the same thing when we use the word God. I almost wish we could take a break from God-talk. Maybe then we could start fresh, with less assumptions.
What I can say at this point is that the clearest understanding of God I have is that God is love. I experience God most clearly in loving relationships, in being loved and forgiven by those closest to me as they incarnate God’s presence. The only other idea I can affirm at this time is that God is the depth dimension of life that undergirds all that is. Tillich put it this way, “God is the ground of being.” It is that ground that makes life meaningful and not just absurd or some cruel joke.
I much prefer to talk about Jesus. For me, calling myself a Christian is desiring to follow Jesus. That means following his example of speaking out against the distortions of any empire. Jesus spoke out against Rome’s imperial dominance. Sometimes it is necessary for Christians to speak out against our own beloved country when it acts like an empire in its greed, violence, use of torture and armed drones, pre-emptive war policy, and it claims about its exceptionalism.
I want to follow Jesus when he calls us to love our enemies, live simply, and be generous with what we have been given. I believe a follower of Jesus will promote non-violence. That means the onus is on those Christians who support war as an acceptable foreign policy. They must explain how that can possibly be a Christian response when we compare that to the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels.
For me, at this stage in my life, community trumps institutions, including the institutional church. The goal is to create a community of compassion, and not prop up an institution. I have come to see compassion and justice as being far more important than a set of beliefs. It is how we act and treat others that makes this world a better place, not what we affirm as a set of dogma or doctrine.
I’ll have to say I have become more and more uncomfortable with some of the ordination questions we ask those who are being ordained as elders, deacons and ministers of Word and Sacrament. They sound so out of tune with the life I value. They don’t capture the kind of faith I would hope for leaders in the Church.
I have played around with this and here is what I wish I was asked when I was ordained:
1. Will you make decisions based on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus and not what props up an institution or supports any particular constituency in the Church?
2. Will you grow in your trust of and commitment to Jesus’ way even if it makes you uncomfortable and requires some sacrifice?
3. Will you lead the people with intelligence, creativity, love and a sense of humor?
4. Will you laugh at yourself and thus remain humble as you serve in positions of leadership?
5. Will you be dilligent in studying the scriptures with the help of the best scholarship?
6. Will you be careful not to use the Bible as a rule book for our time forgetting we live in a very different culture than when it was written? And will you remember we know scientific things about human sexuality and how the world began they could not possibly have known?
I realize the traditional questions have been with us for a long time and probably should be retained. But, at this stage in my Christian journey, some of those questions have lost their power. They don’t capture what I look to for guidance as I have tried to serve the Church. I suspect I am not alone in that.
I’ll end this by saying once again “Thank you.” Thank you all for the love and support you have given me. Thank you to those who have come from Summit Ave. Presbyterian, and out of town as well. I loved being your pastor. I have served some very fine churches in my 32 years of ministry. It is great to end this part of my life being one of Newport’s pastors. It is ending on such a high note. I wish you all a deep sense of God’s Spirit surrounding and leading you in the years ahead.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The Gospel of the Lord.
A couple of weeks ago when I was back in the Richmond area tending to my mother, I was driving on my way to the rehab facility where she was staying at the time. I glanced at a road sign as I drove by just to check my location, and couldn’t believe what I saw. There on the street corner, the two, green criss-crossed street signs indicated that I was at the intersection of Charter Colony Parkway … Sovereign Grace Road. What? My first thought was, wow – look at what you can do in Virginia that you certainly cannot do in Washington. My second thought was, wait - I must have read that incorrectly. So, on my return trip, I checked again. Seeing that it was indeed “Sovereign Grace Road,” I pulled over, climbed up on the embankment, pulled out my phone and took a picture of it – sometimes you just have to have proof that a thing is real! As it turned out, Sovereign Grace was a private avenue that led back along a road – this was not just a driveway – to what turned out to be a large Community Church.
I like the image of traveling on the road of grace – it’s a wonderful reminder that the gift of God’s grace is ours; grace that is like space or room that God gives us to fall down, or fall away from God’s purposes and desires, and to still be forgiven, received and made new again and again; Grace is free; there’s nothing we can do to earn it because it’s freely given to us by a great and loving God. But, free grace is not to say that we are free from seeking actively to live a Christ-like life, and that can be a challenge on many levels throughout the changing circumstances of our lives.
Now, sometimes understanding what God asks of us, can be difficult, as what someone called today’s “bugger of a passage” points out. One commentator tells the story of his mother-in-law, Connie, whom he says, “needs no lectionary commentary to know she does not like this passage.” In this passage she says, “Jesus goes too far. The Jesus that she knows comes to bring peace, not a sword. How, she wonders, did this ever get into the Bible?” Agreed? It is definitely a challenging passage. Jesus says: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” Hard words to swallow!
One of the legacies that Jim will leave with me as he retires, are his comments when these difficult lectionary passages come up, that boy he’s glad he’s not the one preaching today. I will miss that about you, Jim! And indeed I did try to avoid confronting this one, but, the challenge hooked me and here we are. Time to face the music as they say.
To start, I would say to Connie, “you are not alone. I am there with you, as I suspect many of us here would be also. In fact, many scholars share varying understandings of this text. Marcus Borg speaks of the role of family ties and connections, very important in Jesus’ day, as being the safe, protected, havens of our lives. But, Borg says, Jesus taught another way. Jesus challenges us to step out of our comfort zones to follow him. Fred Craddock says that in this passage Jesus “gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew – the claim of family love – as an alternative not to the worst but to the best in society.” That raises the call to an even higher level, doesn’t it? Still other scholars warn against putting the family on too high of a pedestal and say this is a warning that the gospel may very well divide rather than unite a home. (Charles Cousar). Clearly this is no easy passage.
Well, difficult though it may be, I love the way that life and scripture intersect in meaningful ways and with wonderful timing. I am not what some would call a “General Assembly Junkie,” but as GA met this last week in Detroit, I was keeping a close ear to some of the proceedings – first of all because Newport had two close connections to this year’s meeting: Holly Hallman was there advocating for the overture on earth care that originated right here from Newport, through Seattle Presbytery to GA. And it passed! And, Anna Bintinger was selected to serve as Seattle Presbytery’s Young Adult Advisory Delegate, and she was there, posting wonderful blogs about her ongoing experience there. I was also eager to see some of the live streaming debates and votes on same-sex issues – near and dear to the heart of Newport - as well as to see how the vote on divestment came out. Let me tell you, if ever there were issues where family would be divided against family and where Jesus’ call would seem to bring a sword rather than peace, these would certainly fit the bill. All within the one body of the church; of the General Assembly; there were clear expressions of both hope and pain surrounding these last two issues. The tallies on these votes were as follows: The assembly voted 371 – 238 to allow pastors who feel so called, to conduct wedding ceremonies for same sex couples in states where it is legal. This is now in effect. The assemble voted 429 – 175 to approve a change to our Presbyterian constitution – the Book of Order – to change wording regarding marriage to say it is “between two people,” rather than “between a man and a woman.” This motion is now sent to every presbytery and must pass by a majority of them in order for the change to be made official in the Book of Order. The vote on divestment was extremely close: By a vote of 310-303, the Assembly approved an overture calling for divestment from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, companies some allege are engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in the region. (A similar overture failed 333-331 at the 220th Assembly in 2012). The highly debated overture also affirms the PC(USA)’s commitment to interfaith and ecumenical dialogue and relationships in the region, and a preamble was added on the floor to reinforce that, saying, “The PC(USA) has a long-standing commitment to peace in Israel and Palestine. We recognize the complexity of the issues, the decades-long struggle, the pain suffered and inflicted by policies and practices of both the Israeli government and Palestinian entities. We further acknowledge and confess our own complicity in both the historic and current suffering of Israeli and Palestinian yearning for justice and reconciliation.”
If we read today’s Gospel message in light of these controversial issues and those of the world, perhaps two things may stand out for you as they do for me. Life is difficult and controversial and for every decision made to one person’s delight, another person is likely to feel crushing, heartfelt defeat, all based on one’s understanding of faithfulness. But Jesus calls us to seek, seek and seek some more the ways of both justice and reconciliation. Sometimes that may mean disrupting the peace. The second message that is so endearingly highlighted in this text is the absolute care God has for us, expressed in the image of the hairs on our heads being counted.
Let me turn now to Barbara Brown Taylor, who has a great take on this scripture and its claim on us. “I am a daughter,” she writes, “a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me. I am Barbara. I am Christian. I am a child of God – that is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it. We are God’s child first. That is no role. That is the essence of who we most truly are.” But claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well. As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes, Taylor says that “Jesus’ demands remains the same. We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise: that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before. The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pablum.” Or as Thomas Long put it: “Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers.” This passage, he claims, means much more than simply, “Love God a lot.”
Yes, this is a difficult passage to wrap one’s head and heart around. But I do invite you to wrestle with it. Perhaps you might say, as my daughter says when faced with a difficult task: “Challenge accepted!” And remember, God, indeed, calls us but also travels alongside us in a world that is filled with tension and anxiety. At the same time that God brings peace to our living, God also disrupts that peace, turns things upside down, for the sake of the Gospel. May we, in our mission and ministry, sense God’s disturbing presence as we also know God’s constant love along this road of grace that we travel.
Pentecost has become an ever more important Christian celebration for me the older I have become. As I have said many times, Christmas and Easter have been co-opted by the culture and Hallmark into commercial holidays. Sure, they are still important days in the Christian year, but some days it is hard to tell if they are religious holidays or secular holidays.
Pentecost, on the other hand, is still our celebration. The Christian Pentecost is ours alone. Hallmark has yet to put out a Pentecost card, thank God. It is the day we celebrate the Spirit of God. Some have called it the birthday of the Church. It was on that day in Luke’s version in Acts, when the disciples were given power to boldly speak of their trust in Jesus. John’s version is a bit more subdued. It also takes place on the evening of the resurrection, not weeks later as in Acts. It is John’s version of Pentecost that will occupy our ponderings this year.
Diana Butler Bass, in her amazing book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and The Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” focuses on the Spirit. She says the old way of doing church is not working. This is especially true for those under 40, many of whom are not in church.
She quotes Harvey Cox who has written about the history of the church. He divides history into three ages. First there was the Age of Faith (0-400 C.E.) where a way of life based on faith, or trust in Jesus was the emphasis. Christians tried to follow Jesus’ example and continue the work he began while he lived among us.
Then there came the Age of Belief (400-1900 C.E.). Butler writes, “Between 300 and 400, however, this dynamic sense of living in Jesus was displaced by an increasing emphasis on creeds and beliefs, leading Professor Cox to claim that this tendency increased until nascent beliefs ‘thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.’”
Finally starting around 1900 C.E., and building steam as the century progressed, came the Age of the Spirit. Here the emphasis was on an experience of Jesus. She writes, “The Age of the Spirit is nondogmatic, noninstitutional, and nonhierarchical Christianity, based on a person’s connection to the ‘volatile expression’ of God’s Spirit through mystery, wonder and awe.”
She says that Cox was a bit skeptical of this age where people liked to say they were spiritual but not religious. But Cox came to this conclusion: “What I think it really means is that people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding.” I love that phrase-”institutional and doctrinal scaffolding!”
All of this is to say we are living in interesting times in Church history. It is an unsettled time where we are still trying to figure out what this all means. I must say I am drawn to the Spirit of God more and more these days, much more than I am drawn to traditional talk about God the Father. I realize when we focus on the Spirit, however, we are in danger of being swept away with an emotional and non-rationalistic way of doing church.
Bass quotes one of her Facebook correspondents in commenting on the danger of focusing on the Spirit. “Why is it that the choice among churches always seems to be the choice between intelligence on ice and ignorance on fire?” She says, and I agree, a focus on our experience of the Spirit and a thoughtful approach to things of our faith do not have to be mutually exclusive.
So, what does focusing on the Spirit of God mean for us? First, our walk of faith is not about believing the right things so we might earn a ticket into heaven. I have said that many times before, but it bears repeating. I have spent so much of my early Christian walk thinking what I believe is absolutely crucial. God will certainly reward me for believing in Jesus as the one who died for my sins. Jesus is the only access a human being can have to a relationship with God. That kind of thinking feels less and less compelling to me. It even seems ridiculous and narrow-minded.
Life is much more about finding the abundant life Jesus talked about. It is a life that spills over into acts of compassion and a burning desire for justice and promoting the common good. I don’t think when I do such acts I am earning my way into heaven. This is not replacing right beliefs with right action so I can please a judgmental God. Acting that way is just the natural response of living fully and freely following the example of Jesus.
Theologian Dwight Friesen captures this when he affirms that “Jesus had no interest in orthodoxy, but rather offered his followers ‘a full and flourishing human life.’” To focus on the Spirit is to become more human, fully human, the kind of human being Jesus modeled.
To focus on the Spirit is also to learn the virtue of forgiveness. It is interesting in John’s Pentecost the one thing he mentions after the disciples are empowered by the Spirit is their call to forgive. Certainly that virtue is one of the hardest to cultivate. It requires such humility and compassion.
Let’s look at our passage for a moment. There are certainly weird details. If we take them literally they are troublesome, at best. His derogatory mention of “the Jews” has fostered anti-semitism throughout history. And the fact that the risen Christ still bears the scars of crucifixion is not a hopeful image for us when we look forward to our experience of resurrection. Will we arise to new life bearing the scars of this life? What if we are cremated? Will we enter the next life as a pile of ashes? I am being facetious, of course, but it shows how we need to be careful taking some of this passage literally.
In spite of all that John is making some powerful affirmations. Jesus models forgiveness to the disciples. This is their first encounter with the risen Christ, the one they betrayed and abandoned. He does not come in anger, but in peace. They must have been relieved. They could begin to let go of their guilt over their shoddy behavior.
Then Christ breathes the Spirit into them. He charges them to forgive. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of the verse 23. The NRSV makes it seem like the disciples could retain the sins of others. I am not even sure what that means. Peterson puts it this way, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” When we hold on to our anger at those who have hurt us, the problem is ours. What are we going to do with that anger when we can’t forgive?
Scholars tell us that forgiveness is pretty abstract until it is fleshed out in human interaction. Sure we affirm God forgives us, but it is hard to experience that abstractly. It remains a nice theological idea. But when someone forgives us we know it on a gut level. It is real. Christ is saying the Church that is touched by the Spirit is to be a community of forgiveness. That is a very noble calling.
The other image of Pentecost in John’s version concerns the locked doors the disciples were hiding behind because of their fear. Jesus comes into that locked room and breathes the Spirit into them. John is saying that just as God breathed life into humanity at the creation, so now Jesus breathes new life into the Church at Pentecost. Pentecost, for John, is just as significant as the creation at the beginning of time. That is quite a claim.
I won’t go into this in detail, but seeing the disciples behind locked doors because of their fear leads me to wonder what locked doors have I hid behind because of my fear? What locked doors are you hiding behind? Dare we let God’s Spirit set us free from fear?
Pentecost celebrates the freedom from fear that God’s Spirit enables. Fear does not need to run our life and our decisions. We don’t need to be controlled by fear of failure, fear of the future, fear of change, or fear of going to hell because we don’t believe the right things. Pentecost is the day we can celebrate the freedom of the Spirit to live “a full and flourishing life.” Happy Pentecost.
This text in Acts is Luke’s way of showing how the early church dealt with the intellectual culture of that day. We see Paul debating with the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens. One scholar compared Athens to a modern college town. It had about 5,000 citizens. It was a place where the intellectually curious could hang out and debate.
Looking carefully at Paul’s approach to these philosophers I found myself liking some of his evangelistic strategy and finding other parts of it troubling. First the troubling parts. He seemed to think he has the truth and the rest of the people who did not agree with him were ignorant. That is a bit arrogant for my taste.
In addition, he ends this little sermon talking about judgment. It is as if he is saying if they don’t accept his way of connecting with God they will be judged. Time is running out. God will only tolerate their ignorance so long. We have seen some Christian missionaries in our day emulating that approach. It has given Christians a bad name among some of the other enduring religions of the world.
On the other hand, I found myself admiring some of Paul’s approach. He tried to find points of contact between the Athenian culture and Christianity. He pointed to their altar “to an unknown god” and said he could tell them who that God was. He was saying that even though he disagreed with some of their worship practices, he found a point of connection in their worship with his own understanding of God.
He affirmed that we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God. While we don’t see Adam and Eve in a literal way as Paul seemed to, it is important to see that we all are children of God. We cannot write off people of other religions as irrelevant or worthless. They are family.
Paul even quotes some of their philosophers: Epimenides and Aratus. I am so grateful for that line from Greek philosophy that talks about God as that Spirit in which “we live and move and have our being.” Marcus Borg, one of my mentors, has picked up on that phrase. He says it affirms that God is present among us and not some being in heaven apart from us. It has become part of my own way of understanding God’s immanence.
This brings me to the subject of God. How do you picture God? I have been working on that picture my whole ministry. What conclusions have I come to at this point in my life? Some in this congregation have asked me to skip the lectionary in my last few sermons and just talk about what I believe. Share personally. While I would never make that a regular practice in my ministry, I do see some merit for that kind of sharing toward the end of my 32 years of pastoral ministry.
So, I am going to be vulnerable and share with you my search for God. I do this with a bit of trepidation in that I don’t want to sound like my way of making sense of God is the only, or right way. I would hate it if my words would cause others to stumble. I would never want to knock the pins out from under someone when a more traditional way of understanding God has worked for them. Certainly if one is going through a tough time, it is hard to start to question central religious beliefs. So take what I am about to say with a grain of salt. If it helpful, great. If not, just chalk it up to the ramblings of a quirky pastor approaching retirement.
With all those disclaimers out of the way, I am going to be as honest as I can. When Paul talks about searching for God, even groping for God as one would grope for something solid to hold on to in the dark, it caused me to think about my own search for God. There have been times it felt like groping in the dark. I started to ponder how my understanding of God has developed to this point after 32 years of preaching, praying, and pastoral care. I realize, as well, that some of what I have experienced these past few years, in particular, have impacted my understanding of God. Certainly when a death shakes one’s world some rethinking is in order.
So, here it goes. The older I get, the longer I am in ministry, the more I have moved away from a traditional understanding of God. God is more a mystery to me than when I started my spiritual journey. Trying to find words to describe how I understand God is difficult. I can say more about what I don’t believe than I can say what I do believe.
I know I have grown tired of talk about God as if we know exactly what God thinks or desires. I hear other preachers say things like, “God desires we do such and such,” or “God hates it when we think this or that,” or “God will certainly punish us if we do…” Such talk makes it sound like we know God and what God wants. That feels presumptuous to me. It also makes God out to be person-like being who wants and desires certain things or outcomes as any of us do. This understanding of God sees God as smarter than us, more powerful than us, but a being that acts and thinks like us only on a grander scale.
I understand why some think that way. The best metaphors to describe God are human metaphors. It would be insulting to just use inanimate objects as the only metaphors for God. Sure God is a rock, but God is more than that. To talk about God in personal terms is one of the best ways we can affirm God’s prominence in our lives. The trouble is we have let this personal talk slip, at times, into almost a literal way of describing God. It ceases to be a metaphor and becomes literally descriptive of God’s presence. It is there where I am uncomfortable.
I am uncomfortable with talk of God’s will or God intervening into our world as if God has a plan for our lives, or God miraculously intervenes to make things right, save this person, or heal that person. Such a notion makes God feel so capricious. Why would God heal someone of a cold so they could go on vacation, for example, but let that poor child die of cancer ? I know that is a bit of a parody of some prayers I have heard, but it gets at my discomfort.
To say we are not God and thus we should not presume to know God’s reasons for healing some and not others, does not cut it with me anymore. I am not saying God needs to fit into my intellectual boxes or I reject that notion of God. A God who miraculously intervenes in some cases but not in others just makes God a being I find hard to trust.
I have given up believing that God intervenes in our world like a scientist manipulating his or her experiment. I have given up believing God has a plan for my life that I better try to discern or I will displease God. But when I give up notions of God being a person-like being, then God talk becomes a bit more difficult. How does one have a relationship with God if God is not person-like? How does one pray to God if God does not intervene in miraculous ways? What is the purpose of prayer?
I will admit those are questions I have wrestled with over and over again. To give up my child-like notions about God has made it easy to wonder if God is only wishful thinking, something we cling to because we can’t bear to face our lives without those traditional notions of God. Doesn’t rejecting an interventionist God make God irrelevant or so distant that a relationship is impossible? Does it make it easier to doubt God’s existence?
I will admit doubt has been a constant companion in my spiritual journey. God’s presence has felt very hidden, allusive and hard to connect to when I have had to deal with various crises in my life. That was especially true when Sandy died. I could not pray. This whole enterprise we call life felt absurd some days.
By now some of you may be wondering: this is a pastor saying these things? Some may be comforted that they are not alone in their doubts. If I just stopped here it would be a bit unsettling to any congregation. So I have more to say.
In my best moments I have come to sense, trust, and give my life to that Spirit that surrounds me, is in me, and fills the whole creation. I call that Spirit God. Another name for that Spirit is love. I John said it so well, “For God is love.” When I have experienced love from others in my family, my friends, and in the church community I have felt connected to something larger than those relationships. I have felt myself caught up in a mystery that pulls on my heart and brings out my best instincts.
This spirit calls me to seek the truth without fear, expand my love to even those I don’t like, and to work for the common good. Do I feel that Spirit at all times? Absolutely not. Sometimes it just feels like I am groping, as Paul put it, in the dark. But I have had enough glimpses or experiences with that Spirit of love to not give up when I don’t feel it.
When I pray to that Spirit, I give myself and others to that presence that is already surrounding all of us. I don’t expect a miraculous intervention. I do know, however, when we are open to the Spirit of love things become possible that we never dreamed were possible before. We feel connected to one another. We let down our defenses. We lay aside our fears, our anxiety and healing has a chance. Even if there is no cure, we can experience healing.
Ultimately we are all searching for God, for meaning, for healing. Pascal has said there is an “infinite abyss within the soul reserved for God alone.” Augustine, in praying to God, said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And, thanks to Lyn Lambert for finding this other quote from Augustine, “To fall in love with God is the greatest of all romances. To seek Him (God) is the greatest of all adventures. To find Him (God) is the greatest human achievement.”
This search for God is a noble and universal quest. Certainly the Bible, the compilation of human groping for God, some of which is helpful and some not so much, is a resource for our quest. Jesus, the human face of God as witnessed to in the gospels, has helped me in that search. And, it is communities like Newport that allow us to ponder freely, embrace what some would call heretical notions, and accept any who come in a non-judgmental way, that are wonderful companions on this search for God.
I am not done yet in that search. I am curious where I will end up when I don’t have the responsibility of being a pastor. I trust that Holy One who has alluded my intellectual grasp, but touched my heart through so many experiences and people. I urge you to keep at this seach for God even when doubts cling so close. Amen
New Testament scholars point out that the book of Acts has two sermons in the early part of the book. Those two generated a very different response from their audience. In Acts 2 Peter preaches and 3,000 people were converted by that sermon! In Acts 7 Stephen preaches and his hearers lynch him. Most pastors today find the results of their preaching somewhere in between those two extremes. I know my preaching has probably not led to many conversions. I am grateful that I have yet to be stoned by any congregation!
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. It is important to note that the words martyr and witness come from the same root word. Those Christians who couragously spoke truth to power at the cost of their lives ended up being powerful witnesses to this new religion. Stephen’s witness most likely had a powerful affect on his hearers. We will get to that in a moment.
First, let’s look at what Luke was doing in this account of Stephen’s stoning. One can’t help but notice the parallels Luke was painting between Jesus’ crucifixion and Stephen’s death at the hands of the mob. Both Jesus and Stephen spoke bluntly to their detractors. Jesus called some of the religious leaders “a brood of vipers.” Stephen called them a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears.” Both men did not endear themselves to their listeners.
Jesus was accused of wanting to destroy their beloved temple. Stephen made it clear that God does not dwell in houses made by humans. If you want to get in trouble with a group of religious folks, just disrespect their sacred buildings.
Jesus was killed outside the city of Jerusalem. So, too, Stephen was dragged out of the city to be stoned. And then there was the words both men spoke as they were being killed. Jesus asks God to forgive those who crucified him. Stephen does exactly the same thing. Jesus said, “Into your hands I commend my Spirit.” Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.”
It is obvious Luke, the writer of Acts as well as the Gospel of Luke, was trying to show how Stephen’s actions mirror those of Jesus. In our day we have heard some promote WWJD (What would Jesus do). Stephen lived out that goal in his death. Sadly, it was the good religious folks who did not try to do what Jesus did. I suspect that is true for many good religious folks today. We seldom take risks for our faith. And while we don’t end up killing those who challenge the status quo, we do hate change!
Beyond seeing the similarities between Jesus’ and Stephen’s death, what are we to make of this sad, yet powerful story in Acts? The obvious lesson is that it is dangerous to follow Jesus’ example and speak truth to power. I don’t think any of us are in danger of getting stoned because of speaking prophetic words. I do suspect we would feel some strong disapproval if we spoke out on controversial issues.
What might get you in trouble today? Opposing our government’s propensity to solve international conflict by going to war? Pushing gun control? Urging Congress to pass higher taxes to help sustain programs that support the most vulnerable among us? Standing with the Women in Black on the streets of Bellevue? To take this scripture seriously we need to be open to getting into trouble by standing up for issues our faith calls us to support.
Another thing we learn from this passage is how hard it is for anyone to change their point of view. Stephen was painting a very different picture of Israel’s history in his sermon. He ended it showing how Jesus was not a criminal but the one in whom God approved. Those who heard him were furious. They ground their teeth. The could not stand to hear him, so they covered their ears. Both those details sound almost comical. The crowd comes off as toddlers pulling a tantrum. The only trouble is, they had more power than toddlers. They let their feelings turn to violence and murder.
We can’t help but ask ourselves what new way of looking at one of our cherished perspectives would make us that defensive? How do we handle paradigm shifts? In what ways do we respond to change with anger or an inability to hear or even want to hear those who challenge us? Some of us had a very hard time giving up old theological assumptions like: Jesus is the only way to God; or traditional understandings of the Atonement; or all the issues surrounding accepting those of a different sexual orientation. We did not get murderous in our defensiveness, but some in our world have!
The issue most touching to me concerns planting seeds. This is the first time we encounter Saul in the Book of Acts. He witnessed this stoning. Acts made it clear he was pleased. The Message says it well. “Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.” He went on to be one of the biggest persecutors of the early Church. But, on the road to Damascus, he experienced something that changed him.
My guess would be that Stephen planted a seed in Saul’s heart when he forgave those who were killing him. Gentleness and forgiveness in the face of anger and violence can be powerful. Who knows how this might have affected Saul. It might have been the beginning of his eventual conversion later on. A seed was planted. It may not have born fruit for months, but it was there growing inside.
Someone in our lectionary class wondered if this seed fell into the hearts of some of the ones who actually threw stones at Stephen. The Bible does not tell us about any others who were changed by Stephen’s words of forgiveness. I suspect others had a seed sown in their hearts because of Stephen’s gracious handling of that horrible lynching.
We have no idea what seeds we plant by our actions today when we imitate Jesus’ example. Our job is not to create fruit. Our job is to just plant seeds and let God’s Spirit go to work on the hearts of those we encounter.
I know I have shared this true story before, but I am going to share it again. It concerns something that happened while I was a pastor in Bremerton. One of my buddies was the local Episcopal priest. He and I were often used by the funeral home in Bremerton to do services for the unchurched. We were not like other pastors who preached at folks and saw the funeral as a time to scare people into getting right with God before they died.
One day my friend Steve was asked to do a service for a man who had died. When he got to the funeral home he was met by this man’s daughter. She was the only person there. The casket was in a little room with no one else present. Steve said the daughter said her father was an SOB and she could care less about him. While she just felt an obligation to have a service for him, she did not want to be present. So, could Steve just go into the room and say a prayer over her father and be done with it.
Steve said it was so very sad and weird. He went into the room and stood next to the casket. Before he could begin three men came into the room. He looked carefully and the one in the middle of the three was a young man who looked like he was drugged or drunk. He was hand-cuffed to the other two. As it turned out, he was just let out of Walla Walla prison to attend his father’s funeral. The other two men were correction officers.
Steve said a few words about the grace of God and how God can forgive us and loves us even when we feel unloveable, or have done horrible things. He said a prayer and stopped. The young son seemed to be completely out of it. He just sat there with his head down. He did not seem to be hearing anything Steve said.
About a year later Steve was at his church leading his youth group. Suddenly a clean-cut young man came into the room and walked up to Steve. He said Steve might not remember him, but a year ago he came in hand-cuffs to his father’s funeral. What Steve said touched his heart. He committed himself to living a different life when he got out of prison. He had just been released the day before and travelled across the state to thank Steve.
Planting seeds. We just never know. Being a follower of Jesus only requires us to plant seeds and let God’s Spirit do the rest. May we accept this challenge. Amen
This will be my 25th Easter sermon covering 32 years of ministry in four churches. This will be my 9th one at Newport. I did not preach on Easter when I was an associate pastor in my first call and I missed one Easter sermon three years ago when Janet graciously preached for me in my absence.
There is not much I can say today that I haven’t said before. I guess that is true for most pastors facing these big Sundays in the Christian year. Words are certainly inadequate to capture something like what happened on that first Easter years ago.
In the past I have talked about how all the gospels have differed in their telling of the event. The details just don’t match up. Sometimes the risen Christ appears very much like he was before he died. He seems to have a body like the rest of us. At other times he is unrecognizable or is ghost-like with the ability to walk through locked doors.
Some of the accounts are quite brief, leaving the story unfinished, like Mark. As you remember his original ending stops with the women running away and saying nothing to anyone. Matthew’s version is quite spectacular with an earthquake and guards falling like dead men.
All of this has convinced many of us to say that the resurrection is not something forensic science could investigate. There is no way for us to prove or disprove what really happened. No, the resurrection remains a mystery that invites us to live into rather than explain it. To claim it is a mystery is not a copout. Aren’t the most important things in our lives more a mystery than something we can explain? How does one explain why we love someone? We can list attributes of our loved one, but that is rather sterile and uninspiring.
So, too, the resurrection is real, but beyond our control to fully understand. We don’t need to worry about what really happened on that first Easter. Instead, it is much more fruitful to wonder, ponder, and celebrate the aftermath of that earth-shaking event.
Given all that, I am going to switch gears on this last Easter sermon of my career. I am going to risk getting personal. In a moment I’d like to share with you how I experience resurrection in this 64th year of my life. In doing this I invite you all to do your own pondering about how you experience resurrection. Easter is not just a day to remember what happened long ago. It is also a day to open our eyes and hearts to how we continue to experience God’s resurrecting power today. Then the resurrection becomes true in a deeper, more life-shaping way than limiting it to something we can prove or disprove.
First, let me say resurrection hope, for me, is not so much about a guarantee of heaven or glad reunions with loved ones who have preceeded me in death. In saying that, I’m not denying heaven. It is natural to wish for those reunions. Longing for a life lived fully in God’s presence can offer hope when life is hard. My focus, however, has been much more on the this-worldy implications of the resurrection.
Resurrection hope is much more about life defeating death in the present. By death I mean that power I encounter in the world that takes away from my ability to live fully. That deathly power causes people to distort life and get lost in greed, violence, and prejudice.
One commentator put it this way in talking about the resurrection. “God’s life-giving power is greater than our human propensity toward hostile destruction.” We know about hostile destruction. We have seen people so prejudiced against others of another religion, race or sexual orientation that it has led to hate crimes or terrorist acts. We have seen that in Seattle, in Boston, and lately in Kansas City. We have seen dictators murder and torture their own people to stay in power. We have seen horrible things done in the name of religion whether that religion be Muslim or Christian.
Matthew captures this in his story of that first Easter. The religious and secular authorities of that day thought they could control and silence Jesus. The guards, in this account, represent those powers. Matthew says those deathly powers were defeated that first Easter. He paints a graphic picture when he says the guards were like dead men. And the one they thought they had defeated, the one that was supposed to be dead, could not be contained in a tomb. The irony of that is staggering.
If you were to read further you would see how the powers of death, sadly represented by the religious authorities, devised a plan to deceive the people. They claimed the disciples came and stole the body from the tomb. If the powers of death can’t win by superior force, then they will rely on deceit and misinformation. We see that today. It did not work then and it won’t ultimately work today.
For me, death defeats life when I give in to fear. When I trust God’s resurrection power in my life, fear does not control my decisions. Notice how “Do not be afraid” is said twice in our passage. It is said by the angel and then by the risen Christ.
If we had to pick one phrase that captures the good news of the resurrection we could not do much better than “Do not be afraid.” When I have faced my fears throughout my life and made decisions based on trust in life, trust in God’s presence, then God’s resurrection power has become real. I love the old benediction that goes: “May you fear God so much that you fear nothing else at all.” By fearing God that benediction is talking about being in awe of something greater than our own little life. Awe of God is a great antidote to fear.
When I look back on my own life’s journey I can remember so many times when I had to come to terms with my fears and choose not to be controlled by them. I remember when I applied to be a conscientious objector during the Viet-Nam War. I feared others might think I was being unpatriotic or afraid to fight by not serving. It was a big step for me to follow my conscience in that decision and not my fears.
Recently, I remember the decision to support the marriage equality referendum and even participate in a television ad. I wondered if that might get me in trouble with this Presbytery or disappoint some present or previous church members who were on the opposite side of that issue. And then when I acted on my belief that all couples who love one another ought to have the right to be married, I feared I might lose my ordination status. But in facing those fears and not letting them control my decisions I experienced freedom and a joy that could not be taken away from me. I believe that freedom is a hallmark of resurrection life.
Finally, when my first wife, Sandy, died, I feared opening myself by loving another woman. I did not want to be that vulnerable again. I am so glad I was able to face that fear and risk vulnerability in my marriage to Jackie. A new life has blossomed when before I thought that part of my life had died. Resurrection again.
Is the resurrection more than these examples? Of course. But in those times in my life when I did not give into fear, I caught a glimpse of the implications of the resurrection. Those glimpses mean more to me than any proof of what literally happened that first Easter.
I want to be clear to say I shared all of this not to put up my life as an example of one who has overcome fear. As you all know, it is a constant battle to face our fears and not let them control our decisions. I fail at that goal as much as anyone. But when I have let fear die, and not my hopes, new life has been the result. Resurrection became a concrete experience even in this broken and fragile life.
Was that first Easter resurrection real? Absolutely. Do we fully grasp what happened? Not at all. If we have doubts about the resurrection does God condemn us? Finish chapter 28 in Matthew and you will see that even those first disciples who were with the risen Christ doubted. 28:17 says, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” I am so grateful for Matthew writing that.
Note as well, that the Great Commission was given to all of them, even the doubters. It’s ok to wonder or doubt. Accepting the resurrection as something that changes one’s life is a process. If we hang in there with this mystery, and find a community that affirms life and opposes any manifestation of deathly power, the resurrection can be experienced, however partially. May that be your experience this day. Happy Easter. Amen
Ezek. 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45
Our scripture text in John does not seem like a Lenten passage. Here we are at the fifth Sunday in Lent. You would think the recommended scriptures would be ever darker as we made our way through this season leading up to the crucifixion. But, here near the climax of Lent, we are given a mini-resurrection story. Actually it is not a resurrection, but a resuscitation. Lazarus will die again. Still, it is an amazing story full of hope.
I’ve had to preach on this text many, many times in my thirty-two years of pastoring. Each time I have to decide how to read it. If we treat it as a literal, historical event there are all kinds of questions we might ask. For starters, if this astounding miracle really happened why did the other gospels ignore it? Surely it would have made their list of important events in Jesus’ life. The only one to do so was John, the gospel written years after the other three were written; the one most removed from the historical Jesus The Jesus we encounter in John feels more like the risen Christ than a human being walking the earth.
Then there are the other, less significant, questions to consider. If Lazarus was only resuscitated, it would mean he would die again. How fair is that making a person die twice just to make a point? Did that mean his sisters had to pay for two funerals? Why isn’t there any rejoicing when Lazarus is restored to life? There does not seem to be any joy expressed by Mary, Martha or any of those present.
Finally, there is that odd prayer Jesus makes at the tomb. It seems to be for the sake of those who would hear it, and not a real prayer. (God, I am only saying this so others will hear it, not because I need to pray!) Very strange. I could go on and on.
A better focus is to ask what was John trying to communicate to his early church community in telling this story? While we cannot get to the bottom of whether this literally happened or not, we can begin to hear the deeper message imbedded in this amazing account.
Three things jump out at me as I enter into the text and try to hear God’s Word to me. The first has to do with Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. . .” What does that mean? Is Jesus saying the resurrection is more about being in the presence of a person than it is an event? That is not to say the resurrection is not an event. Something happened on that first Easter. We will talk about that in a couple of weeks. But the resurrection is more than an event. It is also about being in Jesus’ life-giving presence as we enter the kingdom about which he preached.
In God’s kingdom, or commonwealth, death does not have the final word. In God’s commonwealth hope lurks beneath seemingly hopeless situations. When tragedies happen, life is finally not completely hopeless.
Some of you may have read the story in the Parade magazine a couple of weeks ago about that young man who lost both legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. In that moment the life he had envisioned for the future died. He would never be the same. But he was able to craft a new life out of the ashes of the old. Hope conquered what at first seemed hopeless. That is a modern day, secular example of new life springing out of the death of a former life.
People whose loved one has died, or have gone through the little death we call divorce, can feel hopeless at first. Life will never be the same. The future we had looked forward to sharing with another died along with the death or absence of our loved one.
Yet, death does not need to have the final word. This, in no way, is to lessen the grief of those who have experienced a death. It would be offensive to tell them to not feel what they are feeling because good things will happen in the future. It is to say that even in the depths of hopelessness, there is hope for new life.
Both our scripture passages are trying to get that message across. Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is about as hopeless a situation as you can imagine. Those bones don’t have an ounce of meat on them. They are bone dry, completely dead. But Ezekiel saw a vision of those bones slowly becoming living beings.
Lazarus in the grave four days is also a story of hopelessness. You can’t get more dead than when the body starts to decay and stink. But John’s gospel says that even in the face of death we can hope and experience new life. We call this new life resurrected life. One commentator says this story helps us see that we can experience eternal life right now while we live on the earth. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. When he is present, eternal life is the order of the day.
Fred Craddock puts it a little differently. He says, “Apart from trust in God the world is a cemetary. ” It is trusting God in seemingly hopeless situations that death does not define life. In another place, speaking about our text in John, he says, “It is precisely in this stinking world of death and decay that the power of the resurrection has been let loose.”
Things happen beyond our control. God does not protect us from tragedy or accidents, at least the God I know. But, when life stinks, as it does from time to time, we are not left without hope. Sometimes the community needs to carry that hope for us when we can barely put one foot in front of the other. But, in Christ, hopelessness need not be the final word.
The next phrase that grabs my attention are the words of Jesus when Lazarus emerges from the tomb. He comes out looking like a mummy all wrapped in grave cloths. Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Death, even while we live, can cling to us like those strips of cloth that bound Lazarus. Herb O’Driscoll says this text leads us to ask, “What are the things that bind us and limit us and prevent us from truly living and growing?” “What is the nature of the tomb we are in?”
When we grow in our faith and trust in God, those things that have their death grip on us can be stripped away so we can breathe again and truly live. What are those things that have a death grip on you? Anxiety? Fear? Anger? Cynicism? You are not alone. I know I have felt all of them and continue to deal with some of them as I walk through my life. We will only know freedom from them as we grow in our trust in God.
We can also experience freedom from all that binds us when someone we trust helps us unwrap those death cloths. O’Driscoll asks us to ponder who are the people that unbind us and help us live freely?
It is important to pick a community, to pick close friends who can help us be free from all that constricts us from experiencing life in all its fullness.
Certainly our relationship with God in Christ can help us. It has been true in my life that I don’t fully experience that freedom unless God’s presence is incarnated in people. I have been a lucky man in that two women have played that role in my life. How about you?
Finally, the last thing about this passage,and a similar one in chapter nine when Jesus heals the man born blind, is a warning. When the man born blind accepts Jesus as his healer he is excommunicated from the Temple. In that culture, to be excommunicated was as good as a kiss of death. He was utterly alone as his community shunned him.
So, too, in the raising of Lazarus, we learn in the next chapter that the religious authorities not only seek to kill Jesus, they also want to kill Lazarus. He is dangerous because people are drawn to Jesus when they see how Jesus brought him new life.
John’s gospel is saying that when we experience new life, resurrected life, as a result of being in the presence of the one who is the resurrection and the life, we will challenge all that smacks of death and oppression in our world. That is not always safe. We may displease others.
When people of faith stand up for sensible gun laws, when they urge their representatives to not gut programs that help the poor, when they question our country going to war to solve international tensions, when they push for more humane and just immigration laws, they may not always be popular with some of their friends. We dare not back off of taking stands for peace and justice for fear of offending others. Standing up for those values is part of being touched by the one who is the resurrection and the life. It is giving witness to the commonwealth of God that affirms eternal life as a present reality as well as a future one.
Was John giving us an historical, literal accounting when he told the story of Lazarus coming out of the tomb? I don’t think we can say yes or no with certainty. Does his story make sense in our world even if it did not literally happen? Absolutely. May we trust the one who is the resurrection and the life so that hopelessness does not have the last word. Amen