Sunday, March 30, 2014

Seeing with the Eyes of the Blind Man

Scripture:  John 9:1-41

We can never completely understand everything we see or hear.  Our world is an extremely visual place where things come and go, flash by us in an instant never to be fully understood or fully seen.  Many things in this world are designed to provide a quick and concise message.  We have advertisements that are designed to catch our attention and neon lights that point the way to a hotel.  Whereas other messages are meant to be pondered, questioned, and asked what does this mean?  We have museums that are filled with beautiful paintings and architecture just ready for us to admire; we have deep conversations about philosophy and faith for us to ask questions.  
But in the long run, we cannot understand or see it all.  We struggle with this limited view of life and not being able to see with eyes, a clearer picture of ourselves and those around us.  During the first class of an Introduction to Philosophy class I took years ago, my professor stated that no one can completely understand where we are coming from or how we felt in any given situation.  It’s not possible.  To be able to completely understand the situation from another’s point of view, is not only impossible, but to say such would be to blind ourselves to the situation or story they were telling us.
To understand and see things in our world is very important to us as humans.  We have created new ways of seeing better, starting with glasses to Lasik surgery to recover our sight.  We have phrases that give voice to our disbelief or awe or understanding.  Our eyes are considered by some as windows into our very soul, providing each of us with glimpses of who God is in each of us.  As soon as we are born, we begin to look at the world around us and begin to learn the shapes and colors of this world.  And all of this is true, that is, as long as you can physically see.  There are individuals, such as the main character of today’s passage, who are born blind, never having the opportunity to see the world as we see it; never having a point of reference for what a tree or flower look like; never knowing what a sunset or sunrise looks like.  There is no reference, no image to see in the mind’s eye. 
            In today’s scripture, we are confronted with a scene where some understand what is happening while others are blind to that understanding and it is not until the end that we finally see things in 20/20 vision.  You see, the blind man acts differently in this pericope opposed to other stories of signs and miracles in the gospels.  When Jesus enters the picture, usually the person to be healed cries out, runs up, or reaches out for Jesus to heal them.  However, in this story, that does not happen.  Instead the man becomes the focal point of a lesson for the disciples and for us.  Who sinned Jesus; this man or his parents?  Who did something wrong?  What did this man do wrong?  Tell us now Jesus!  See, blindness in this story is not centered on the ethical; who did what and when and where and how.  Blindness in this story is a place of being; just as sight is a place of being. 
            When the disciples ask who sinned, their place of being was in utter blindness; those closest to Christ, the light of the world, did not get it.  Throughout the story, more people lose their sight, not physically, but rather their ability to believe and understand what they witnessed and it is only the blind man who comes to a deeper understanding and clearer sight about what happened and who Jesus is.  When studying for this sermon, I came across this section in Frances Taylor Gench’s “Encounters with Jesus”.  She writes: 
“Not too long ago, I encountered someone with a strong bond of connection to the man in John 9:  a seminarian of unusual gifts and graces, one of the finest candidates for ordained ministry I have known.  But he has recently figured something out about himself:  he is gay.  It was an experience of God’s grace in his life that opened his eyes—one that liberated him and allowed him to see himself as he really was—indeed, as God created him to be.  But new sight came with a cost, for what do you do when you are a candidate for ordination, facing a series of interrogations by candidacy committees and ordaining bodies before finally accepting a call?  Is it any wonder that he felt a strong bond of kinship with the man in John 9 and his ordeals?  Some will no doubt label this seminarian a sinner, even an “abomination”.  But “one thing I know”, he says:  “I once was blind, but now I see”.
            So, what should the blind man teach us today?  What is our church seeing or, more importantly, not seeing in our world today?  How are we ignoring, not listening, overlooking, or not recognizing those sitting along the roads of our life journeys?  How are we not recognizing Christ in the blind man, in our neighbor, and in ourselves? 
            We will never fully understand where we are in this story.  One day, we may be the blind man, not knowing where Jesus went or how this conversion in our lives happened.  Another day, we may feel like the Pharisees, not understanding what this might mean for the status quos in our lives.  We may feel like the parents, being able to recognize the familiar aspects of life without understanding what happened to other parts, or not sure how to respond to our own doubts and fears.  However, Christ comforts us even in these ever shifting moments of our lives.  Christ carries us through the valley of Lent and through our lives by affirming that when we think we have it all figured out, that is when we are blind, but God knows exactly what God is doing.  And those are the moments when we are seeing with the eyes of blind man; not knowing what happened, just knowing that it did.
Friends, the story of the blind man is our story.  This is a story for all who are blind and those who see; a story for the powerful and marginalized; a story for the privileged and outcast.  This is a story for all.  We are not meant to react with cynicism and disbelief.  This is a story of hope and trust and faith; one that is focused on gaining a deeper understanding of who God is.  This is a story for us all and a lesson in our own understanding of ourselves and those around us. 
We are all in positions to speak up for those marginalized people; those people who speak for themselves but are ignored for contradicting the established norm.  We are in the position to push back against those who discount the truth as being unbelievable.  We, as the church, have the ability to walk with each other on our journeys.  We are called to look around the world to see those signs that point to God and believe that God is at work in this world and that, in the words of Desmond Tutu, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”.  And really, isn’t that what our calling is?  To inspire and affirm hope for all the people of the world, even in the midst of the deepest, darkest nights. 

So my friend, this is the challenge that the story of the man born blind presents to all of us; how will we react to this sign?  How will we react to those we pass on our way home today?  How will we stand with those ignored and forgotten?  How are we to understand that we were once blind, but now we see?  Amen.    

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Doing Practical Theology

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.10 Hear the word of the Lordyou rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God,   you people of Gomorrah! 11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?  says the Lord;I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
   Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
   I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
   your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings
   from before my eyes; 

cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good; 

seek justice,
   rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
   plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword;
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Doing Practical Worship
            During my 4 years at Columbia Seminary, I worked on two degrees; one being my MDiv degree (Masters of Divinity) and another lesser known degree, called the MAPT degree.  Both degrees are professional degrees, one being ordainable and the other not.  “So…what exactly does MAPT mean” would be the common question I was asked surrounding my second degree that I received in May.  And my usual answer would be “It stands for Masters of Arts in Practical Theology.  It’s a professional degree that specializes in one particular area of ministry:  Christian Education, Worship, Pastoral Care, or Church Leadership”.  You see, it is about taking, what seminarians and ministers call “systemic theology” (the beliefs and ideas of what God’s nature is, why bad things happen to good people, etc.) and making that theology practical and meaningful in our everyday lives.  It is about combining the “thinking” and the “doing” and integrating who we are into what we do.
            We are practical, routine-driven creatures, some more than others.  Some of us work on things by using rituals and routines for our daily lives.  Most of us have our morning bathroom routines, our routine drive to and from work and usually when we want to “change things up”, we take a detour on our way home one day or we change our coffee orders at Starbucks.  Presbyterians are notorious for having our routines, both before and during worship.  We have a specific order of worship that reflects our Reformed tradition containing corporate prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, and prayer for illumination.  We have committees for everything, and heaven help the person who sits in our pew on Sunday morning.  We tend to be creatures of habit and those habitual traits have a tendency to carry over into our worshipping lives. 
Well, in today’s scripture, we find a routine-driven people in Judah stuck in their worship routine.  Day in and day out, they come to the Temple, the center of the universe for the 8th century BCE Israelites, offering sacrifices and incense; celebrating festivals and convocations in praise of God.  However, as we hear in the passage, these celebrations and offerings are not something that pleases God but rather angers God.  While their worship was routine for the Israelites in the Temple, it did not move outside of the walls of the Temple.  The people had become complacent, indefinite to the oppressed, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.  The justice and righteousness of God was not being done.  The people were not doing justice, not doing good, not representing God’s righteousness to the most vulnerable and weakest members of society.  You see, the praising and worshipping in the Temple was prescribed, it was routine, and it was comfortable.  It fit nicely into the design and agenda of their lives.  It was something that they did in order to go through the motions.  The rituals and worship of God had become not just one thing to praise God, but the ONLY thing in which to praise God.  However, instead of being a wrathful, vindictive God who longs to punish and discipline God’s children, we encounter a parent, telling God’s children what they did wrong and how to make it right.  We encounter a relational God who longs for relationship between Godself and humanity and to reflect that relationship by imitating God’s justice and righteousness for the other.
You see, our God is a God of relationship, who longs for relationship with us and for that relationship to extend to one another.  In the latter part of our passage, we can hear God’s stern voice turn soft; the finger pointing becoming less harsh; the angry face becoming gentler.  God is showing us what we are meant to do for one another:  work for justice for the most vulnerable, however doing it in such a way that God’s grace and mercy is shown to all people.  Instead of judging others with a harsh finger in their face, we are called to seek reconciliation, to “argue it out” or to “correct one another”. 
So, what does this passage mean for us today?  What does this tell us about our own worship of a relational God?  Just as the Israelites worship was well prescribed, so is ours, however there needs to be more. Every Sunday we enter our churches, our places of worship to recite prayers together, to sing hymns and praise our God with our whole hearts.  We say our “amens” and our “peace of Christ” and leave this place feeling better that we have done so. 
But there needs to be more!  Instead of the service ending at noon, that is when it begins for each of us.  Instead of only putting money in the collection plate, we should think about how to seek justice in the marketplace too.  Instead of just printing a welcome statement, we should actively welcome all marginalized, non-churched people who we would never think of as being a “church person”.  Instead of living out our lives in stale routines and comfort zones, let’s be open to something different and go to where others are and walk with them.  Instead of just talking about advocating for the oppressed, let’s live it out and stand up for them.
At First and Central, our mission statement is simple, “A church without walls that welcomes without limits”.  While studying for this sermon this morning, I came across this statement by scholar J. Clinton McCann.  It reads, “What makes worship acceptable to God is not the motions we perform in the sanctuary, but the mission we pursue in the world—in a word, justice”.  In our prayer of confession today, we call for justice to roll down like waters, washing us clean, pushing us outside of our comfort zones to reach out to others.  Imagine what would happen to our world, to our church and to us if we welcomed all people into this space as they are.  What would happen if we stood up for the person being bullied?  What would happen if we spoke out against racism, sexism, or homophobia?  What would happen if we stepped out on a limb for someone who was different from us to the chagrin of those who would profit from oppressing or marginalizing that person?  What would happen if we stepped out of our routines, our prescribed amens and hymns, our offerings and incense, to go out from this place to do the work of God’s justice, righteousness, and goodness to this world?  What would happen? 
To be the church in the world doesn’t mean that we need to be extremely vocal about our faith and it doesn’t mean we can simply go through the motions.  To be the church means that we leave this place, these four walls, and go out to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  It means to go out with the faith that our just and righteous God goes with us and trusting that, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, we are preaching the gospel to all the world and only when necessary, are we using words.
Friends, we are being called, called to live out our faith throughout this week and every week, just as Abraham was called to live it out in a foreign land where he was called a stranger.  Just like Abraham, we are called to live in this land, calling ourselves strangers and aliens, looking for our homeland, knowing that a better country is out there for us.  It is by the practicing of our faith, the practicing of justice and righteousness that our formal worship has its place.  And in doing that, we are doing something very practical.  We are doing practical worship.  And it is that worship that becomes pleasing to God.  Friends, may it be so.  Amen.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Love, Loyalty, Friendship

John 12:1-8
12Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Love, Loyalty, Friendship
            It’s called the claddaugh.  It’s an ancient Irish symbol that, according to legend, was made by an Irishman Richard Joyce while enslaved for his beloved.  While originally being made into a ring in the legend, the claddaugh has been made into a number of different things over the centuries:  door knockers, necklaces, plagues, welcome signs, and flags.  However, even when made into all of these different things, the meaning behind the claddaugh is still the same:  love, loyalty, and friendship. 
            These three things are found throughout each of our lives.  We humans are relational beings.  We were created that way by a very relational God.  Over the course of human history, we can see time and time again how our God is God of relationships.  God’s intervention on the cross is God’s ultimate way to show her relationship with us.  In the person of Christ, God reaches out for relationship with each of us. 
We humans are loyal to those we are in relationship with.  We are loyal to our friends, our family, our very selves.  Another way to say that we are loyal is that we are faithful.  We are faithful to God, to one another, and to ourselves.  In our act of faithfulness, we build on the relationships that God has blessed us with. 
We were created as loving creatures.  We love one another and God.  Love is at the very core of the gospel and should be the driving force behind all we do; knowing that the love we show to one another reflects our love for God and shows God’s love for others.
So, what does any of this have to do with the scripture passage for today?  In the passage, we have Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus sitting around a table sharing a meal.  Mary gets up and begins to anoint Jesus with fragrant perfume, filling the whole house with the pleasure smell.  Well, this smell was much more pleasant than what happened only a chapter ago.  When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the tomb had a stench according to Martha.  The smell of the pleasant perfume must have wafted in the wind throughout the whole house, similar to the stench of the grave.  Even in the shadow of the death of Lazarus, there was pleasant perfume for all to smell.  It acts as a foreshadowing of what lies ahead; that the grave is not the last say and that something joyous was getting ready to happen.
Well, getting back to the story.  While Mary was doing this, Judas speaks up, criticizing this act as one of over-indulgence and something that should be used for the poor.  Jesus responds by telling Judas to chill and then states that the poor will always be around, but that he will not always be around. 
The act that Mary performs is one of servanthood.  Washing someone’s feet during this time was not a pleasant thing to do.  There were no Nikes, Reeboks, New Balances, or other closed toe shoes.  The roads were dirt, dusty in the heat of the day and muddy when it rained.  Animals travelled up and down the roads that people walked on.  When someone would enter into a home, the job of the lowest servant was to wash the person’s feet.  To wash away the mud, the dirt, the manure and anything else that had gotten stuck to the feet while the person walked from point A to point B. 
The washing of someone else’s feet is something that Jesus will do later in the 13th chapter of John.  It is an act of humility that stems out of relationship, faithfulness, and love for and with one another.  Mary’s act shows us what it means to be in relationship with one another and it was out of this relationship with Jesus that Mary better understood than any other disciple, what Jesus was about to go through.  It was out of this relationship with Christ that Mary fell to her knees to wash and anoint Jesus’ feet.  Out of her faithfulness, Mary was compelled to serve in this particular way.  She showed her faithfulness to Christ to the very end.  And out of her love for Jesus, she prepared his body for what lies ahead.  In this act of humility, Mary’s anointing of Jesus touches on the very heart of the gospel:  loving one another, being faithful to God, and being in relationship with God and others.
However, the story does not end there.  Judas speaks up and Jesus responds in a very curious way.  What does Jesus mean when he makes this statement?  Many in the church’s history have taken Jesus’ statement as a sign that the church shouldn’t waste its resources in feeding the poor; it seems like a hopeless cause.  There has always been a tension in the church between money spent on beautiful, meaningful acts of worship and money spent on the poor and marginalized.  But there is more to this than what meets the eye.  This is not a statement to stop working for the poor, but rather is a challenge for the church to step up to the plate.  Stephen Shoemaker states, “the true church always has the poor in its midst, always treasures the life of the poor”.  As we heard Rick read a moment ago, the church is being called to “open wide” its hand toward those who are in need.  “Open wide” our hands to those who are poor and marginalized, to the injured and sick, to the outcast and stranger, to the friend and foe. 
We have an opportunity to reach out and to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless cause.  We, as Christians, are called to bring hope into the world; to be the very stuff that change is made of.  We are called to reflect our love-filled, relational, faithful God to every person we encounter.  We are called to kneel on the floor to serve one another.
What would it look like to open our hands to the poor; to kneel down and wash their feet?  To be servants to those marginalized people around us?  What would it look like for the church to welcome all those who are needy into this space and into relationship with us?  You see, the claddaugh’s design interweaves the various symbols understanding that each element is intricately connected with the others; that relationship comes out of and builds on love and faithfulness; that love is a foundation and learning tool in relationship and faithfulness; and that faithfulness is the block of trust in relationships and springs forth from love of the other.
Friends, as we continue to walk through the valley of Lent, and walk ever closer to the cross, may we never forget that we are called to humble ourselves, as Mary did, and wash and anoint one another’s feet.  That in practicing the meaning of the claddaugh, we practice the very heart of the gospel and bind ourselves to Christ in his death and resurrection.  Friends, let it be so.  Amen.

Recognizing Christ in the Ordinary

John 21:1-19
21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 16A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 17He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

Recognizing Christ in the Ordinary
            Have you seen those “What my friends think I do” pictures?  In case you haven’t, they are usually 6 pictures, each with a different title, such as “What my friends think I do”; “What my mother thinks I do”; “What society thinks I do”; “What I think I do”; “What I actually do”.  Under each title, there is always a picture of some person or scene.  For example, for a teacher, the picture for “what my friends think I do” is someone relaxing on the beach; a homeless picture for “what my mother thinks…”; protesting good education for “what society thinks…”; the parting of the Red Sea for “what I think…”; and banging my head against the desk for “what I actually do…”.  They are usually something that are fun to look at, sometimes you agree or disagree with them, and sometimes they speak a bit of truth into that particular field.  Well, in today’s scripture, I would imagine that Peter and the rest of the disciples would have one picture in every frame….fishing.
            Fishing was a common thing.  Around the Sea of Galilee, archeologists have identified about 16 different ancient harbors that, as fishermen, the disciples would have known well.  It was a familiar act; a way to maintain order, take care of themselves, perhaps even pay some bills that had accumulated during their time with Jesus.
    Well, in today’s scripture, we encounter the disciples after their experience of the death of Christ and their first two encounters with the risen Christ.  We have made progress from the first two times when Thomas gave his simple, but powerful confession that Jesus was “my Lord and my God”.  The scene today takes us to the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, or otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee.  In response to all that has happened before, during and after the crucifixion, Peter and the disciples resort to something ordinary and normal…fishing.  Jesus appears to them and has a conversation about whether or not they have caught anything and in one more sign, Jesus suggests putting their nets to the right and they catch 153 total.  This sign reveals to them that it is Jesus and Peter springs into action.  Putting on clothes, he jumps into the water, hauls in the catch of fish, and sits to have breakfast with Jesus.  Almost on aside, Jesus and Peter have a conversation that most think absolves Peter of his three-fold denial of Christ the night of Jesus’ trial and we are left with the words of Jesus saying “follow me”.  Throughout it all, Peter is enacting his discipleship, his recognition of Christ through the tasks and actions he employs.
    However, lest we forget the other disciples, it was not Peter but the “disciple whom Jesus loved” that pointed out that it was Jesus after the miraculous catch.  In doing so, the Beloved Disciple gives us another option in our recognition of Christ.  While still in the boat, 100 yards off, the Beloved Disciple sees and knows Jesus by witnessing the catch.  It is in contemplation that the Beloved Disciple turns to Peter who in turn enacts his discipleship. 
    Similar to encountering the disciples in a darkened, locked room last week, these two contrasting perspectives create a tension for us as resurrected, post-Easter people.  We are called to live in some sort of tension; tension between preparing and celebrating the birth of Christ in Advent and Christmastime; preparing for the death and resurrection of Christ in Lent and Easter; preparing and experiencing the coming of the Holy Spirit leading up to and on Pentecost.  Christians are called to live in this tension a lot; and most of the time, this tension is not something that is an easy thing to do.   We respond in doubt, apprehension, confusion, and fear; doubt that God’s promised ending will actually happen; apprehension that we may be changed by the tension; confusion when things don’t go according to our plan; and fear of not knowing what will happen if we truly live into this tension and what will happen next.
    So…what does this have to do anything with us?  Why is THIS the lectionary passage for THIS Sunday?  How many times have we gone through something that gives us a sense of no control, feelings of uncertainty, feelings of overwhelming inadequacy?  The news of a grim diagnosis; tragedy hits in the taking of life or other shocking news; a spouse or partner walks out; a child becomes the victim of bullying; you are let go from your job.  They all create feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy and can create an emotional overload for any person.  In response, we turn to the mundane, familiar, ordinary things of our lives.  We watch TV to escape the reality of an illness, we shop to fill the void that is left after someone we love is gone, we garden to fill the time our job use to use, we abuse alcohol and/or drugs to cope with the loss of a friend, loved one, spouse, or partner. 
    This is what the disciples did in response to all that they had heard and seen.  They retreated to the familiar, to the ordinary.  Fishing was safe.  It was predictable.  It was familiar.  When life got tough, the disciples retreated to something they understood.  How many times have we done the same thing. We work hard to avoid those uncomfortable, awkward, dangerous situations; those situations where we don’t feel that we can thrive; those areas where we are called but it is just too dangerous and too far out of our comfort zone.  We don’t want to leave the TV, the garden, the alcohol and/or drugs behind.  We are comfortable in our familiarity, our normalcy, our ordinary. 
    However we are called to live into the tension of both contemplation and action.  We are called to first change ourselves and our own points of view before we can change the world; to let down our nets on the right side of the boat to experience God in a new, extravagant way.  We are called to enact our discipleship like Peter and reflect on where Christ is calling us like the Beloved Disciple.  It is by holding these two in balance that we can recognize Christ.  And even when we experience hardship, heartache, and agonizing pain; when we want to retreat into the things that we can control, Christ moves us forward; gently nudging us to be a resurrected people, forgiven and loved.
    Friends, just as Jesus called to Peter to follow him, Christ is calling to us to go out into the world to work for justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God; to proclaim ourselves witnesses to this truth:  that even in the mundane, ordinary things of life, Christ is present, ready to serve and nourish us and others.  Friends, let it be so.  Amen.

Christ is Risen....Now What?

John 20:19-31
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Christ is Risen...Now What?
For those who enjoy this time of the year, there is often a little bit of a letdown after Easter.  There are no more Easter egg hunts; no more brass or processionals or fancy hats or special dresses and suits.  Things go back to being the same as any other day.  Now, for those whose busy time is Easter, there is a sense of breathing room.  There are no more special services, no more special planning meetings, no more preparations to make, no more tension between being present in the uncomfortable spaces of Maundy Thursday/Good Friday and knowing the end of the story at Easter.  Christ has now risen!  No more black cloth; no more music in a constant minor key; no more restricting the use of “hallelujah” or “alleluia”.  We have become a resurrected people.  However, now that Christ has risen…now what?  Now that we can shout “hallelujah”, why do we go back to our normal lives?  What do we, as a resurrected people, do now? 
            The question creates a tension in how we live into our post-Easter lives.  Have you noticed how many times throughout the church calendar we are called to live in some sort of tension; tension between preparing and celebrating the birth of Christ in Advent and Christmastime; preparing for the death and resurrection of Christ in Lent and Easter; preparing and experiencing the coming of the Holy Spirit leading up to and on Pentecost.  Christians are called to live in this tension a lot; and most of the time, this tension is not something that is an easy thing to do.   We respond in doubt, apprehension, confusion, and fear; doubt that God’s promised ending will actually happen; apprehension that we may be changed by the tension; confusion when things don’t go according to our plan; and fear of not knowing what will happen if we truly live into this tension and what will happen next.
            In today’s scripture, we join the disciples in this new “in-between” space; a space between the Easter resurrection and the coming of Pentecost.  It is an uneasy time for the disciples.  Christ has been crucified and the disciples have scattered.  They heard from Mary Magdalene that Christ’s body was not in the tomb, but they hadn’t seen the resurrected Christ.  There was confusion, apprehension, and a great deal of fear.  Who could blame them?  The Messiah had been killed, there may have been attempts to find the followers of this Jesus person, anyone could be against them, after all, Judas had already betrayed Jesus, there could be others that would betray them. 
            However, even in the midst of this fear, doubt, and apprehension; behind the locked doors of the room that the disciples huddled in, Christ appeared.  And it is in this encounter with Christ, in the midst of the terror that the disciples had just seen and experienced, Christ calls for peace.  In the midst of the horror of the crucifixion and the tears of mourning, Christ brings good news to his followers.  In the midst of the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Christ sends us out.  You see, our God always calls to us and sends us out in love and we almost always respond in fear. 
            How do we respond in fear as a resurrected people?  In our post-9/11 world, there has been story after story about racial profiling at airports giving rise to the idea that every person with Middle Eastern descent MUST be a terrorist.  Days after Newtown and years after Columbine, public outcry called for better regulation of guns; black trench coats were banned from schools; those kids who were all black were watched carefully to look for that sign that they would snap one day.  Day after day we live with fear and doubt.  With the unstable situation with North Korea and Iran, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the sex trafficking problem, here in Atlanta, and the ongoing economic crisis, we resurrected people, have a lot to be fearful, doubtful, and concerned about. 
            So, how are we to respond?  How do we feel the peace of Christ when we no longer can physically SEE Christ?  How can we live into our post-Easter, resurrected lives and go out to this hurting world in the midst of our fear and doubt?  Christ is risen…now what?!  Now, our work as resurrected people begins.  We are not to huddle in the dark rooms of our lives, fearful of unlocking the door and walking into the world…no.  We are called to spread the Easter news that Christ has been raised.  It is in Christ’s greeting and the giving of the Holy Spirit that Christ instructs us to go out into the world, working through our fear and uncertainty.  Christ has empowered us to go from this place to work for justice in an unjust world.  We are called, even in the midst of our fear and doubt, to proclaim Christ’s resurrection and proclaim ourselves to be witnesses to this truth: that Christ has never left us and will never leave us, even in the midst of our fear; and that as Christ sends us out, he goes with us.  Christ will come through the locked doors of our lives and into the darkened rooms of our hearts and speak peace be upon you and in your heart.  In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says this: “But this is exactly the announcement of the wounded healer: The master is coming—not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing”.  And it is here in this place, on this day, that we encounter Christ in the breaking of bread and sharing of cup.
            Friends, in the midst of our fear and doubt, in the midst of the tension of preparing and experiencing God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, Christ is present and it is around this table that Christ’s presence may be felt.  This table is a sign to us that points to Christ’s presence and peace and he bids us to come.  In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, we see Christ among us in the face of our neighbor and in the ones whom we serve.  Friends, Christ is risen…now what?  Now we listen for Christ’s voice saying “Peace be with you”.  Friends, let it be so.  Amen.     

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Responding to the Voice of the Shepherd

28 When Martha had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when Mary heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

Responding to the Voice of the Shepherd
    “Can you hear me now?”  It has become a phrase most well known for the Verizon commercial a few years ago.  For those who don’t remember, the commercial would show different scenes from the country or cities, always with the same guy in a Verizon shirt and glasses asking that phrase, “Can you hear me now?”  He would pause for a second and always respond “Good”.  It was an effort by Verizon to show that no matter where you were in the country, you are always connected and could always be heard.  To be connected to each other by hearing is important for us as humans and it is a powerful gift that God has given to us.
    During the earliest history of humankind, hearing would have been used to listen for animals that could provide food, or who were potential threats.  It helped in our natural instinct of “fight or flight” and continues to do so, even into the present day.  When we hear something out of the ordinary, our body reacts and our natural “fight or flight” instincts kick in.  Over the course of history, we have used hearing to communicate with one another, express emotion to each other through music and the arts, and pass along oral traditions from one generation to the next.  It is said that even when in a coma, our sense of hearing is still active, which is why some people talk with people who are in a coma.  Individuals who wake up from comas remember listening to the songs and stories that someone tells them. 
    However, losing this great gift is a relatively common occurrence for humans. According to the Mayo Clinic, hearing loss is something that is common, affecting about 1/3 of people in the US in the ages of 65-75 and about ½ of those who are older than 75 and it is caused by a number of different things, including earwax blockage, hereditary genes, and consistent loud noise.  However, the clinic also states that, while being irreversible, there are steps that we can do to improve our hearing.
    In today’s passage, hearing and listening are a large part of the miracle of Lazarus’ rising.  Listening is what makes Mary come to Jesus; listening to Mary’s words through her weeping invokes Jesus’ tears; listening is what makes Lazarus rise and walk out of the tomb.  The verb of listening is a very powerful action in this story.  After telling her Jesus was calling for her, Mary quickly responds.  Earlier in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus talking about how he is the good Shepherd; that the sheep (us) hear his voice and follow.  In this coming to Jesus, Mary responds to Christ’s calling, to Christ’s voice.  Going up to Jesus, she falls to his feet and through her tears, cries out to Jesus saying the same thing that her sister Martha had just said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”.  How many times have we said these words to God in the face of grief and hardships.  “Lord, if you had been here, I would not have lost my job”.  “Lord, if you had been here, my grandparent would still be alive”.  “Lord, if you had been here, my relationship would have survived”.  “Lord, if you had been here…” fill in the blank.  Mary’s verbal response is something that we all have been through.  How many times have we looked at our world, seeing its brokenness, its woundedness, its hurtfulness, and ask God where God is.  In school shootings, in suicides caused by bullying, in abuse of every kind, where is God?  We, like Mary, speak through our tears, sometimes shaking our fists at God, wondering where God is when we need God the most. 
    However, Mary’s action of falling to Jesus’ feet gives a tension to this grief-stricken scene.  Gail O’Day suggests that the combination of this response and action by Mary shows “the same combination of complaint and confidence as her sister’s”.  Sometimes we cry out like the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord”, however there is a quiet assurance that God will hear our cries and deliver us from our weeping.  It is in this assurance that we follow Christ to the tomb of Lazarus and it is in THIS assurance that we see God’s glory.  In the last seven verses, the Greek (and English) gives four imperative verbs, to TAKE away the stone, for Lazarus to COME out, to UNBIND him, and to LET Lazarus go.  These are more than just simple directives by Jesus; this is the very stuff that the miracle is made of.  However, it does not simply happen because Jesus says; there is a human agency in this.  The stone was taken away by people responding to Christ’s command.  The people are called to unbind Lazarus and let him go.  And just as a sheep hears and recognizes the voice of the Shepherd, Lazarus responds to Christ’s calling him out.  There is a call and response to this miracle that involves our response. 
    So, how are we to respond?  When someone dies, we cannot resurrect them from the grave.  The best that any one of us can do is to be a presence for the person or persons who have lost someone or something, as they mourn, grieve, and weep over their loss.  In the story of Lazarus being raised from the grave, we are confronted with the present state of our mortality, our eternal life now given to us by Christ, and our future eternal life with God.  And perhaps that is where we are called to respond.  In the midst of this Lenten season, in the shadow of the cross, there is a glimmer of hope that the writer of John gives us.  It acts as a candle in a darkened room or a brightly colored flower on a cloudy, rainy day; the color, the light, the hope for something new and something vibrant is still present. 
    In the act of calling Lazarus out of the grave, Jesus disrupts the status quo, something he did very well.  In the act of calling Lazarus out of the grave, Christ is showing the power and glory of God over and against the power of death and despair.  In the act of calling Lazarus out of the grave, Jesus calls each of us out of our graves and reminds us that even in the face of the deepest, darkest valleys, Christ is still the resurrection and the life.  What tombs have we been lying in?  What burial wrappings have bound us to death this Lenten season? 
    We are being called by Christ to go, take away the stone of our tombs, and to unbind each other.  What would the world look like if we shed our burial wrappings to live again?  What would it look for the church to work to unbind those around us and to let them go?  We have an opportunity, and Christ is calling us to come out, into this world and this community to unbind our neighbors, unbind our enemies, unbind friends; to loosen the tight binds that keep us from loving one another, supporting one another, accepting one another.  We have an opportunity to listen to God’s call of love and not to respond with fear and trembling, but rather with joy and grace.  We have an opportunity to listen for our Shepherd’s voice and to respond to that voice by coming out of the tomb of death and grief into the light of life and joy.  Friends, let it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reluctant Calling

Scripture:  John 2:1-12
“John, come here”.  It’s a phrase that I have heard a number of times.  It’s a phrase my mother will use sometimes when I’m around that is very simplistic and straight to the point.  It is only a 3 word phrase, however, I always know that when it is used, usually when I’m joking with my mother and giving her a hard time, that if I were to reluctantly come over to her, she would lovingly and jokingly flick my ear lightly.  Everyone would laugh and would move on.  It has become an inner joke with my mother and me.
            Well, in today’s scripture reading, we have another funny moment.  We are given a small look into the inner knowings of Mary.  We find ourselves at a wedding in Cana, a town in Galilee, when they run out of wine 3 days into a 7-day wedding celebration.  This news is noticed by Mary, who approaches Jesus.  The exchange between them has a sense of humor to it when you think about it.  Mary tells Jesus that the wedding hosts have run out of wine.  Jesus’ response is to state that they should have hired a better wedding planner. And I can see her giving Jesus the “mother’s eye” and then turning to the servants, tells them to do whatever he tells them to do.  It’s a “Jesus, come here” moment in the story.  There’s a moment when we all have a moment of reluctance for what lies ahead of us; a moment when we ask ourselves if the timing for our calling, our purpose in life, has come.  And sometimes we need others to give us a “nudge” to follow our calling, even if we don’t think our time has come.
And that’s what Mary does.  She stands up and tells the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions.  That seems to be the nudge that Jesus needed in order to act.  And if we use our imagination, we may be able to see Jesus looking at Mary with an “I don’t want to do this” look and Mary simply smiling back at him. 
How many times have we given someone that “I don’t want to do this” look, in the face of something that we are being nudged to do?  For the first year of seminary, students are asked about their individual call story…a lot.  These call stories range from “God called me and I went” to people talking about how it took them a few years of heel-digging before they enter seminary, and others who either had not felt the call, or refused the call to the point of ministry being a second career choice.  Whatever the story, most of them have some type of reluctance woven in them and usually have someone or something that acted as the tipping point for that person entering the ministry. 
You see, this story is more than just a story of poor planning at a wedding, a Jewish mother’s guilt trip for her son, and a providing for a crowd who were probably already too drunk to know what good wine tasted like.  No.  This story has the ability to be a call story, of sorts, for Jesus; digging in his heels, fighting with this feeling of pointing the way to God’s glory, reluctant to claim his calling and needing another to gently push him into the right direction.  This story is about the reluctance that we all feel in the face of being asked to tackle seemingly impossible things, such as hunger, poverty, HIV/AIDS, violence, war, gun control, suicides, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, the list goes on and on.  This is a story that asks us the question of why should we care about these things.  This is a story that is meant to propel us forward into our calling. 
So, what do we do with this question of why?  Martin Luther King, Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice”.  Just as Jesus did when nudged by his mother, we are nudged to provide for others; to stand up for justice in the face of injustice; to fight for the oppressed when they are oppressed; to lift up those who have been overlooked; to speak truth in the face of lies and mistrust; to work toward a world that seeks justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly with God.  What would that look like for the church to do face injustice, fight oppression, and lift up the downtrodden?  It would look like the whole world had been turned on its head.  You see, Jesus’ ministry was not just to come and bring the Good News of God’s love to all people.  It was not just to heal the sick, make lame walk, and the blind see.  Jesus’ ministry was to stir things up a bit.  It was to turn the world on its head.  When Jesus turn the water into wine in today’s passage, it symbolized a change from the old ritualistic purity laws from the Law of Moses to a more radical idea of hospitality where the vats of wine will overflow with abundance.  That’s the ministry that Christ calls us to. 
Why does it matter for the church, FOR US, to be concerned about such things?  Isn’t that what the body of Christ to do in the world; to stand up for the downtrodden and oppressed?  Friends, just as Dr. King said, the journey for justice, the journey of our call, is a long one and is riddled with obstacles, dangers, and trials.  However, we can rest assured that the God who showed extravagant abundance in turning water into wine, walks with us.  Our journey is one that never truly ends; however, it always bends toward God. 
Friends, what concern is this to you and to me?  We are called to be the body of Christ in our world.  Let us use our different gifts to comfort, heal, strengthen, build up, and rebuild others. Just as Mary acted as the gentle nudge for Christ’s calling, let us be one another’s support and occasional nudge as well, encouraging one another with God’s love as we follow God’s instruction for our lives.  And let us go from this place believing, as Jesus’ disciples did, that our journey with Christ is only beginning. Let it be so.  Amen.