The Right Peace

The Right Peace

Sermon for May 26, 2019, Easter 6C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”

More than once this past week I have been among people who have commented on how crazy things seem to be right now.  Some people have told me they try not to hear any news at all because it is all so upsetting.  But it is on in the doctor’s office waiting room, it is playing in the hair salon; it is not easy to escape.  Besides, escape cannot be the best option, in my opinion.  Not to know, means not to be able to do anything about it.  But being aware of what is going on in the world and domestically, including locally, can be upsetting — and maybe should be upsetting, to people who care about peace and justice, who take freedom and fairness, and the climate crisis seriously.

Peace is Complicated

The subject today in John’s gospel is peace.  This is good timing for people like us in times like these.  But peace is complicated. I believe there is right-peace and wrong-peace.  So it is important to see what wisdom we can find in John’s gospel to help us understand and seek, and find, the right peace.

In John’s gospel, we hear Jesus speaking, but if you have been here for the last few weeks you have heard me say something about the way most Biblical scholars understand this gospel.  Written at least six decades after Jesus walked the earth, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed through a community of faith that has been formed by the quest to follow Jesus in their context.  

This is a community that has experienced Jesus’ presence spiritually, just as we do.  They have come to find great peace by paying attention to Jesus’ teaching.  They have experienced the presence of the Spirit with them.  They call the Spirit, in this translation, the Advocate — someone who is there for you at the right time, providing exactly the help you need at that moment.  

I think many of us have experienced those same things.  Some of you have told me about moments you have had of sensing the presence of the Spirit in a time of need, and the peace that the Spirit brings.  That is the right kind of peace.  It is the sense we have, even when things are not at all what we expected or wanted, that we will get through it; it will be okay.   God is with us, by the Spirit, and all will be well.  You could call this kind of peace equanimity. 

The Peace of Avoidance

So if that is the right kind of peace, what is the wrong kind?  I think there are many wrong kinds of peace.  I already mentioned the peace you might try to get by putting your head in the sand and trying not to be engaged.  I think all of us agree that part of being a person of faith is that we sense that we have been addressed.  We sense that at a deep level, we have been called.  Our lives then are our response to that address, that call.  Following the teaching of Jesus means that we feel the call to compassion, the call to forgiveness, the call to seek justice, the call to be in relationship with a beloved community that makes a difference in the world. So, the peace of ignorance and avoidance, if it were possible, is the wrong kind of peace.

The Peace of Privilege

There is another kind of peace that is the wrong kind to seek; that is the peace of the privileged.   We, white people, are privileged.  The only people who do not understand that are white people.  Let me give you a trivial example.  In the interest of not using plastic bags, have you ever turned one down at the cash register because you were just buying one or two things and you could easily carry them without a bag?  I heard a black comedian who did a routine on how taking things out of a store without a bag was a white option, not a black option.   It was funny, as he described it — even asking the cashier not only for a bag but also to staple it, and to staple the receipt to the outside, just to be safe. But it’s really not funny at all.  They say that humor is based in pain: that routine clearly is. 

Individual Reconciliation 

It turns out that we progressively-minded, privileged people all agree that we want racial reconciliation.  That’s a good thing, right?  We want to get along and be nice.  We want peace.  But what people of color want more than reconciliation, is justice.  Making nice is not usually the top priority of people in the power-down position.  

In fact, the kind of reconciliation that we privileged white people usually seek is personal and individual.  We are proud that we have some friends who are people of color.  We are happy that we work with, and shop with, and share restaurants and entertainment with them.  We wish them no ill-will.  And we think that because individually, we are actually living the kind of reconciliation we seek, that everything should be okay.

In the meantime, to give just one example, the criminal justice system is producing mass incarceration with all of the implications for the entire black community.  And this illustrates why privileged, individual peace, is the wrong kind of peace: racism is structural and systemic, not just personal.  Only privileged white people don’t know that.  So seeking individual reconciliation, without doing the hard, long work of seeking justice on a systemic and structural level, is seeking the wrong kind of peace.  

Peace for the Fragile

When the subject of racism comes up, it is easy to ruffle the feathers of white people.  We progressively-minded people want to think of ourselves as noble, and it hurts our feelings when someone points out that we have just done something racially offensive, or that we have been willingly complicit in racist systems.  This is called white fragility.   Black people who have to interact with white people attest to how much energy they spend trying not to upset fragile white people.  

I have been reading Austin Channing Brown’s book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” which is eye-opening and disturbing.  I wish all of us would read it.  In a chapter on white fragility, she recounted an experience she had after teaching a class on race and faith.  Austin, by the way, is a black woman.  A white man, who had come in late and missed most of the content, saw a post-it note on the wall — part of an activity the class had done before he got there.  It had Travon Martin’s name on it.  He got all red-faced and started shouting at Austin all kinds of incorrect and mistaken ideas, as if he knew about black men and black neighborhoods better than she did.  So, clearly, he was a pretty fragile white person.  

But Austin said that as her white colleagues discussed the incident with her afterward, they started by being sympathetic to what she had gone through — clearly the man was out of line — but then the conversation shifted to all the things she could have said that would have helped him calm down.  White fragility puts the responsibility on the black people in the room to make sure that the fragile white people in the room do not feel uncomfortable.  The white people want peace in the room, on an individual basis, and the black people are responsible for it.  That is called seeking a privileged peace.  That is the wrong kind of peace.

Racism comes from fear.  Fear of the loss of privilege; fear of loss of control; fear of things being different than they had been for us, fear of losing our majority and all the benefits that have come from it for so long.  

But fear can be resisted, and we have been called to resistance.  In this text, we hear Jesus described as saying,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Do not let fear control you.  Do not let fear win.  There is way too much at stake here.  Resist fear.

How?  Jesus said, 

“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

So, our task is to listen.  Our task is to regularly practice the kinds of spiritual practices that tune our ears to hear the voice of the Spirit teaching us and reminding us of Jesus’ words and Jesus’ way.  Practices, like mindfulness meditation, silence, prayer, and what we are doing right now: meeting together to orient ourselves toward gratitude to God, which is what we call worship, these are practices that tune us in to the voice of the Spirit.  

The fruit of these practices is the right kind of peace.  Jesus said, 

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

That kind of peace is the kind that conquers fear.  It is the sense that though what is happening may be difficult, or worse, we will be able to handle it.  It is the peace that produces that counter-narrative in our heads, that tell us, it will be okay.  We have not been abandoned.  God is present.  The Spirit of God is in us and around us.  It will be alright.  All will be well.

So we can face structural racism, with courage, and peacefully work to dismantle it.  We can face our own fragility with courage and know that the Spirit can help us to become better versions of ourselves, as we keep listening, and learning.  

Love Does No Harm

Love Does No Harm

Sermon for May 19, 2019, Easter 5C. An audio version will be available here for several weeks.

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I heard something quite beautiful this past week, followed by something else, that made me sad.  I was listing to an interview with a person whose name you would know if I said it, but in the interest of not making this political I won’t, because, the specific politics, in this case, are beside the point.  

He was being interviewed because he had just written an article about why he cannot hate a person, also in politics, who had attacked him personally in the media.  He could have hated the person who attacked him and considered him an enemy, but he said that he remembered being struck by a powerful concept that made a lasting impression on him while reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  That concept was the call to love, even our enemies.  Dr. King quoted from Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew in that letter, calling his followers to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, pray for those that despitefully use us.  (Matt. 5:44).  That was beautiful.

By the way, that letter that Dr. King wrote from that jail was to clergy, both Christian and Jewish, who were alarmed at the civil rights protests which had become so violent, on the part of law enforcement and fragile, angry white people.  Those well-meaning white clergy were advising Dr. King to wait, saying his timing was wrong.  Dr. King replied that black people had been waiting for their God-given constitutional rights for 340 years, and that the word “wait,” so far, has always meant “never.”

Anyway, the man who wrote the article about his quest not to hate was then asked a question.  The interviewer asked, “…what does that look like on a daily basis?”   To which he replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet.”  I found that sad; in fact, tragically sad.  

In the text we have today, from the gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, 

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The fact that someone could know about the importance of love, and have the desire to implement love, but not know how is “really messed up,” as younger people might say.  I want to take just a moment to ask, “How did we get here?”

Ironies 

The ironies involved are profound.  Last week I told you a bit about the Gospel of John; how it was written six or more decades after Jesus life on earth.  I mentioned that most scholars believe that in John’s gospel, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed by a community that is trying to live as his followers in a different context.  In John we hear Jesus say all those, “I am” statements: I am the door, the vine, the light, the way, the good shepherd, and so on.   And at his conclusion, John’s gospels says that all of these have been written so that we might believe, and that in believing we will have life in his name.  

So, what we see developing is an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus that is in the process of evolving.  This took some time, but eventually (by the 4th century) the church was saying that believing the right things about Jesus was the main thing.  They made creeds and forced everyone to say them and to say that they believed them.  The first of these that was the product of a church council is called the Nicene Creed, named for the town in which the council was held.   At Nicea, the main text they referred to was the Gospel of John.  

The huge irony is that in John’s gospel we hear Jesus say so clearly that the way to be known as his follower is not a list of correct beliefs about him, but rather, love.  How could we have lost sight of this?  

And John is not the only place this point is made.  In the other gospels, Jesus said that love is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands to love God and neighbor.  Paul said that all the commandments are summed up in the love command, and then says,

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 

(Rom. 13:10)

That last line is powerful, and we are going to reflect more on it in a minute, but let us just pause to take this in.  The church has been saying for years that correct belief is the main thing.  Jesus and the New Testament say love it the main thing.  

And that’s why it was beautiful that the man who wrote that article “got it” and therefore refused to hate in return.  But maybe the fact that the reason he had no idea about how to get there practically was that the church he was raised in spent so much time telling him what to believe instead of how to love.   Let that sink in a minute.  

Spiritual Technologies 

Someone I was reading spoke of having “spiritual technologies.”  A technology is a set of procedures and processes that help you accomplish your objective.  If our goal is to fulfill Jesus’ command to love, we need spiritual technologies to get there.  So I am going to pause right here to give you two.

The first has been called the Lovingkindness meditation.  When a person you feel inclined to hate comes to mind, you simply repeat this three-phrase mantra to yourself:

May he or she be happy, may he or she be well, may he or she be filled with kindness and peace.” 

Hatred is wishing harm to another person.  Love is the opposite.  Whenever hateful, vengeful, bitter thoughts, or even irritation thoughts arise in our minds, we do not have to allow them to stay.  We can intentionally, mindfully re-direct our thoughts that the lovingkindness meditation:

May they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.” 

I know that this sounds sappy; maybe even banal.  I tell you it is hard, but I will also tell you that it is an effective spiritual technology.  

The second spiritual technology which will help you become the loving person you want to be is simply meditation itself.   A regular discipline of silent meditation, which can also be called contemplative prayer, is an essential tool, in my opinion, that increases our capacity for compassion and our mindfulness of our non-compassionate thoughts.  If you need help to start a meditation practice, let me know; I would be happy to help you get started.  Meditation is simple.  The hard part, like keeping to a healthy diet, like physical exercise, is doing it.   

Glory 

Okay, now back to the text.  Jesus speaks of being glorified.  That means being shown to be godlike.  Glory, or radiance, like the shining of a bright light, is about as specific as you can get about what God is like.  Later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying that the glory he has been given by God he, in turn, gives to his followers.  (17:22) 

At the end of yoga, the instructor normally thanks the class and says, “Namaste,” which means, “the divine in me recognizes and honors the divine in you.”  That’s right.  We all share in glory because we all have been made in God’s image, and God’s Spirit is in all things, including us.  If we all have God’s glory in us, of course, we are called to love each other.  

Getting Practical 

Let’s make this practical.  I re-read all those biblical texts about how important love is, and how love fulfills the whole biblical law because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.”  There are a million things we could bring up here, but as I reflected on the news I’ve been hearing lately, one jumps out.  It seems clear to me that we are on a path towards doing great harm.   Here are some reasons.

According to the UN report

The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world….The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.” 

We now have a former coal lobbyist directing the EPA, and, by the way, criminal prosecutions for violations of environmental standards is now at a 30 year low.  Not only that, the EPA will not continue a scientific review panel that advises the agency about safe levels of pollution in the air, as if that were no longer a concern of ours. 

We also have a department of the interior secretary who had been a lobbyist for energy and agribusiness interests.  We are now apparently seeking “energy dominance,” including clearing the way to produce and export more oil and gas, instead of doubling down on renewable energy sources.

We are rolling back regulations on undersea oil drilling, like no longer requiring blowout preventers, as if we couldn’t remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.  

All of that in spite of everything we have been living through recently — from horrible fires to massive floods and storms of unprecedented power for destruction.

People Who Will Be Harmed

And I think of my newly married son, and wonder about the world we will be handing on to his children when they start a family.  How can we say that we love them if we are so willing to harm them?

Because that is what the climate emergency is about.  Our planet will survive us no matter what we do.  Our planet existed for millions of years without us and will continue to be here, whether it can support human life or not.  But the point is that what we are doing is going to cause massive harm to our own families unless we make serious and substantial changes. 

Even major companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Ford are calling for a summit of CEO’s to address the foreseeable economic impacts of climate change, and calling on Congress to produce comprehensive climate legislation before it is too late.   Just like civil rights, waiting is no longer an option.  We may have up to 12 years to fix this; maybe less.

It’s not merely a matter of loving the planet itself — which a person who believes it was created by God might be expected to do.  It is, even more, a matter of loving our grandchildren by not harming them.   Those grandchildren share the glory of God.  What will it mean for them to live in a world of far less bio-diversity, of rising sea levels, of increased land and ocean temperatures?  

The Love Command

Today’s gospel is a call to the church to stop focusing on what we believe, and instead focus on the real point of our faith: following Jesus means implementing the love command.  The love command calls us not to cause harm.  Harm is a moral issue.  That is why the climate emergency, to us, is a moral issue.  

No amount of short term economic benefit justifies causing harm to our descendants.   No convenience that we are used to makes it right to cause harm to our grandchildren.  Harm cannot be love.

So, just as love called us in the past, and continues to call us, to champion civil rights for the glorious people of every race, just as love calls us to end discriminations of every kind, against God’s gloriously diverse people, so love calls us, not to sentimentality, but to action. 

We have heard the new commandment, so we pledge ourselves to the coming generations.  We love you.   We will not wait.  We will do all we can to see that you are not harmed.  

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Sermon for May 12, 2019, Easter 4C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats.  That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.  

When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.  We will look at the symbolism as key to the meaning, and then we will find a surprising conundrum that opens the door to our current situation and how this text speaks to us. 

Timing is Everything

In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing.  The action in this story takes place, the author tells us, during the festival of Dedication.  If you are trying to recall when, in the Hebrew Bible, you read about it, do not bother; it is not there.  

Rather, this feast commemorates a time after most of the Hebrew Bible was written.  It was a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.  He had been trying to wipe out Judaism and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the altar, he could ruin it for the Jews.  

Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted.  The violent Maccabean revolution was eventually successful.  The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated.  

So Jesus is in the temple, in the winter, on the anniversary of that Dedication.  What would that symbolic date mean?  Jesus is in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.  

I think if we wanted to grasp how this may have felt, imagine a memorial ceremony at the location of the Twin Towers on the anniversary of 9/11, at the dedication of smaller towers.

Location, location, location

The symbols continue.  John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon.  Again, a symbol.  It calls to mind several thoughts.  

First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple as described in the Hebrew Bible.  How was it different?  For one thing, it’s much smaller.  

But more importantly, the High Priest in charge was not a descendant of Aaron, as the Bible required, but was appointed by Rome, for political purposes, and therefore under the Roman thumb.  

The local King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David or even Jewish.  If you were Jewish and respected the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity, corruption, and oppression.  

But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was — oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into  North and South, from which it never recovered.  

Jesus is in Solomon’s portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.   By 70 CE it looked like the Twin Towers after 9/11.  By the time John’s gospel was written, that had happened.  

The Cryptic Messiah scene

So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people — which is what John always means when he says, “the Jews” — not everybody, but rather, the leadership — challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (meaning “the Christ”).  

By the way, Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel, is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels.  The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.  

In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.  

So, they ask Jesus, 

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 

You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity.  But instead, in this version of the story, he answers:

“I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them.  Jesus says, 

“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Good Sheep, Bad Sheep

Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol were well known.  It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous, the prophets too, used the symbol.  The people were the sheep, and the kings and leadership were the shepherds.  

Throughout most of Israel’s history, they were horrible at their job as shepherds — unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job!  Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for. 

So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders.  Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves.  But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep.  Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not.  

Jesus says, 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says, 

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Eternal life,” in John’s gospel,  means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ.  At one point in the gospel, Jesus says plainly that eternal life means knowing Jesus in a transformative way. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere, 

“The Father and I are one.”

Mystical Unity with God

If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd, to say the least.  But if you read it as John’s community symbolically describing their life-experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ was still among them spiritually, it makes great sense.  

So, let’s put these symbols back together.  Jesus is in the temple with memories of a successful violent revolution of the past, evoking the disastrous memory of Solomon, talking about the current leadership as bad sheep that don’t listen.  

John’s community is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life.  This is a community that practices non-violence.  

So they tell the story of Jesus, in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful rededication of the temple.  Violence is not justified even by its success, as if might made right.  

But the story they tell was written after another attempted revolt, 40 years after Jesus, which resulted in the complete destruction of the temple where the story takes place.  As Jesus said,

those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence?  Why are people still so in love with the sword?  Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far-flung cause?  You still hear it today.  How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance?  Or, our acceptance of so many of our children slaughtered in our schools?

It is hard to explain.  Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.  

But maybe we are in a new day.  Just a few years ago, a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “just war” theory.  They argued that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone ever wanted to fight.  They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.  

One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”  source: http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/landmark-vatican-conference-rejects-just-war-theory-asks-encyclical-nonviolence

Ego and Violence

Where does this urge to violence come from?  From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?  

Clearly, it is something we have within us.  It is natural, instinctive, and appeals to our sense of entitlement.  Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.  

And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward non-sequitur from Jesus, 

“The father and I are one.”

The Non-violent community

John’s community was a mystical community.  They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father.  There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God.  (John 17:20-23)  How can you justify violence against people with whom you are one?

It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this.  It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God and each other that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.   

And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves.  We must fight back in kind.  

Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source.  It is our ego.  Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.  So, I think this text calls us all to do some serious soul-searching.  

The Conundrum of Listening

There is one more idea to explore here which is important for us.   I mentioned at the beginning that there is a conundrum in this text.  Here it is: in this version of the Jesus story, we hear him say,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

The surface level meaning would be that our job is to listen to Jesus’ voice and commit ourselves to follow.  So what is the conundrum?  It is that the voice of Jesus we hear in John’s gospel is so different from the voice of Jesus in the three “synoptic” gospels which were written much closer to Jesus’ life on earth.  

Let me illustrate:  in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the subject of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom. In John, the subject is Jesus himself.  In John we hear all the “I am’s” — I am the door, the vine, the light of the world, the way the truth and the life, the good shepherd.   

So the conundrum is that we are being told to listen to Jesus’ voice, by a Gospel text that presents to us his voice in a very evolved form.  They have processed the teachings of Jesus through their experience of God, and have described Jesus himself as saying what they believe about him.  

In other words, they have found him to be their guiding shepherd, so in this story he “says,”

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

What does that mean for us?  This opens the door for us to keep considering what it means to be led by Jesus, asking questions that were not being asked back then, but discerning new answers.  

Jesus never spoke about plastics or recycling.  He never mentioned climate change or the use of drones and missiles.  He did not have an opinion about gun violence.  Jesus never said a word about gay people, or immigration, or even about slavery.

But he did say

Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

He even said,

love your enemies.” 

What would it look like to continue to hear that voice in our context?  

John’s gospel shows us what it is like to be a community of continued reflection on the significance and meanings of Jesus in our context.  

The only question that matters is, are we trying to listen?  Yes, this community is committed to continuing to listen.  We believe God is still speaking.  Our common commitment is to keep following.

The Abundance on the Other Side

The Abundance on the Other Side

Sermon for May 5, 2019. An Audio version can be found here for several weeks.

John 21:1-19, Season of Easter 3, Year C

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon 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.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He 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. That 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 sea. But 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.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus 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. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

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.” A 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.” He 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. Very 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.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Jesus died young.  He made a huge impression — on a relatively small number of people; all of them on the edges of the Roman Empire, most of them poor and uneducated.  But he died young.  He never wrote anything down — maybe one time, in the dust, but nothing that remains.  

We have only a few gospel accounts of his life and teachings, but these we know, are a combination of both history remembered, and history interpreted.  Interpreted means just that: the interpretation of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life. That’s not the same as a purely historical account.   Scholars argue over how much is history, and how much is interpretation.  

That combination of history remembered and history interpreted is true of all the canonical gospels, but especially of John.  In fact, John is, in the opinion of many scholars, mostly interpretation; which is why it is so weird at times.  As I mentioned last week, the earliest extant comment from the ancient world about John, calls it a “spiritual gospel.”  

The weirdness comes from the author, who is trying to help the young Christian community to grasp the meaning and significance of Jesus.  Jesus is not just a figure of the past for them; he is a living presence, just as he is for us, two thousand years later.  

But what is the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching?  What do we need to make sure we get right?   What would “getting it wrong” look like?  What difference would it make?  There has been a lot of “getting it wrong,” throughout the history of Christianity, in my opinion.

The problem started soon after Jesus’ early life was over.  As I said, Jesus made a huge impression on people.  New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg has written extensively about Jesus.  He calls him a “Spirit man,” using a term from the field of anthropology, to describe a particular kind of person.  

Spirit people are those who have powerful personal experiences of the divine.  In some cultures, they are shamans or mystics or prophets, or priests.  They are people in whom we sense the presence of the divine.  They are often healers.  

That was true of Jesus.  People were drawn to him. They felt something powerful in his presence.  They listened to his teaching.  They came to him for healing.  They even brought their children to him to be blessed.  

So, after Jesus’ short life, people came up with various theories to account for how God was so actively a part of him.  Some said God “adopted” Jesus as his son, just as God is described as adopting the anointed kings of Israel as his son, upon their ascension to the throne.  

Others said Jesus was just a man but was full of the Spirit of God.  

Some said he was not really a human at all, but was God, appearing to be human, as for example, the Greek goddess Athena did for a bit, showing up to fight on the battlefields of Troy.  

Some said Jesus had the nature of both God and a human combined in one person.   So they debated.  

Finally, in the fourth century after Jesus, they came to a consensus — under the sword of the emperor — at the council of Nicea.  One view won, the other views were persecuted as heretical.   

The debates about how Jesus was related to God began very quickly after Jesus’ short life.  In this text we see John engaging in some of those debates.  But his engagement is not at all to make a metaphysical claim for one side against the other.  His quest is to make sure we don’t lose the point of the meaning and significance of Jesus.  

This text has many ideas we could investigate, too many for the time we have, so we will have to pick and choose some to bring our attention to today.  

The Unfruitfulness Theme

So, the text begins with Peter, announcing that he is going fishing, and some of the others join him.  But, those experienced, formerly professional fishermen, catch nothing.  In other words, the disciples are unproductive.  

One of the ways this gospel is weird is that John seems to have taken this fishing story from Luke 15, in which the disciples worked all night, caught nothing, but then Jesus tells them to put their nets down on the other side.  When they do, there is a miraculous catch which is so large it threatens to sink the boats.  John turns that story into a resurrection appearance story.  Why?  

Because, the truth is that you can think you are following Jesus, but end up being totally unproductive.  There are ways of “getting it wrong” and ending up with empty nets.  We will see the ways that can happen as the story develops.   It will force us to ask the question, are we getting it right?  

The Non-Recognition Theme

The next theme, after unproductiveness, that John engages is the non-recognition of the risen Jesus theme.  In John, Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and the disciples do not recognize Jesus on the shore.  Luke does the same thing with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Why?  Because we do not find Jesus walking around in a body anymore.  So, how do we encounter Jesus?  

In Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus see Jesus as the bread is broken.  Then he disappears.  Similarly here, the disciples recognize Jesus, John tells us,  as:

“Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

Scholars of the historical Jesus suggest that some communities of Jesus-followers had a bread and fish liturgy, while others had a bread and wine liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, and this text is one of the reasons for that view.  They shared bread and fish.

The point is the same for both: when the community gathers around a common table and all share together a common meal, Jesus is present to them.  The same is true for us today.   In the breaking of the bread, we see Jesus, who was willing to be broken by the forces of the Empire on behalf of his suffering people. 

The Physical Jesus Theme

Here, we see John engaging one of those early Christian debates.  It is important that we get it, that Jesus was a real human person, not just a divine spirit pretending to be human.  Jesus could cook and eat breakfast.  He conveyed the Word to us, as John says in the prologue to his gospel, but importantly, the Word was flesh.  

Jesus was not a ghost, but a person.  He got tired and thirsty and asked for a drink from a woman at a well.  He was every bit as human as we are.  

The Love Theme

So what does it mean then, to be a follower of Jesus?  What does he want from us? How do we “get it right” so that we are not unproductive?   That brings us to the next theme: the love theme.

Here we find Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him.  Three times Peter responds that he does love him, and, he says, Jesus knows that very well.  Each time Jesus responds nearly the same, but with variation.  He says, “Then,

“Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.”  

There are many things we could unpack here, but we have time for only one, and that is the most obvious.  The way to show love to Jesus is by service, specifically service to real people.  Feeding and tending people is how to follow Jesus.

Now that should be the most obvious thing in the world, but consider for a moment how it has been missed.  In all the debates about the question, “How was Jesus related to God?”, people came to think that believing the right answer to that  question was the main point.   

So they had church councils and wrote creeds about the right answer, the right belief.  They eventually settled on the belief that Jesus had two natures, one fully human and the other fully divine.  They even invented a new word for it: the “hypostatic union.”  

Then, they reasoned that if Jesus is fully God, as well as fully human, then the way to follow him is to worship; to develop liturgies, build beautiful churches, and have a weekly pageant proclaiming our devotion to him.   

That’s fine, but that’s not what he said.  He said we show our love to him by feeding and tending real people.  Notre Dam was beautiful, before the fire, but Jesus seems to have had in mind something that looks more like the Sack Lunch program.  

The Other Side Abundance Theme

That’s the point of that weird scene we skipped over about fishing on the “right side” of the boat.  If you have ever been in a boat, you know very well that on the water, you can point in any direction you choose.  There are no lanes on a lake.  There is no single right or left side, like the banks of a river.  They have been fishing without catching anything, unproductively, so Jesus tells them to fish from the right side.

Whose right side anyway?  Well, the point is, of course, to go to the side opposite the one you have been working on, whichever that one was.  

In other words, go to the side that has been overlooked, the side that has been neglected.  There, instead of being unproductive, instead of scarcity, you will find abundance.  Instead of empty nets, you will experience fullness.  

Putting the Themes Together

Let us put these themes together.  John is saying that we will recognize the risen Jesus as we gather at a common, inclusive table and share a meal together.  

We will remember Jesus’ words and example, and remember that we show love to him by feeding and tending people in need of feeding and tending.  

And where will we find these people?  Among those who have been overlooked, on the other side.  

And when we look for the overlooked, we will not be unproductive, we will not experience the scarcity of empty nets, but we will experience abundance.  

Who are the people who have been overlooked in our day?   Who are the people on the other side?  In our culture, they are the ones we call the “other.”  The people who are not like us.  The people we felt free to enslave, to imprison en masse, to discriminate against for being non-cis-gendered or for having non-heterosexual orientations.   

The overlooked also include the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and the underpaid.  For many years, we must admit, the overlooked included half the human race, as women were excluded, underrepresented, under paid or simply ignored by the white men in power.  

This is why we are so committed here to full inclusion and to justice.  That is why we take ministries of mercy and compassion, like the Sack Lunch program and the Second Sunday Supper so seriously.  

That’s why we give to our special offerings.  We have listened to Jesus.  Do we love him?  Yes.  How?  By feeding his sheep, tending his lambs, in particular, the ones on the overlooked side of the boat.  That is where we find our abundance.  

In his short life, Jesus never gave us instructions for worship. He left us free to figure it out for ourselves.  Our traditions have evolved over the centuries.  We now have a beautiful church, beautiful music, and thoughtful liturgies.  But we do not confuse any of this with the love of Jesus we show as we feed and tend overlooked humans.