What is the Spirit Doing?

What is the Spirit Doing?

Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, year C. Audio can be found here for a few weeks.

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who trusts in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“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.”

Sermon   What is the Spirit Doing

We just lost a bright young woman in her 30’s, a mother of two, a New York Times bestselling author, blogger, speaker, and bright beacon: Rachel Held Evans.  She died of a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics.  

Her work helped many people of her generation as they struggled with faith and science, faith and diversity, faith and gender and sexuality, faith and the institutional church itself.  She was always gracious and generous with people she disagreed with.  Many of us will miss her.  

I know that she is probably not well known to most of us here — the issues of her generation are not most of our issues — most of us of an older generation.  But I wanted to begin this Pentecost sermon with Rachel because I want to briefly discuss what I believe the Spirit is doing in the world today, and she was a great example.

Millennial Values

Rachel was a millennial.  They look at many things differently.  These are strange days.  We are living in the middle of a sea change in our culture.  We can see it happening, but no one can predict where it will end.  

The one example that is so relevant to us is the huge rise in people who are called “the nones and dones.”  When asked by opinion pollsters what their religion is, they say “none”.  And as for participation in an institutional church, they are “done” with it.  

Rachel started life as an Evangelical, but as she confronted gender issues like equality of gender roles in marriage, the role of women in ministry, she grew more uncomfortable there.  

Then there were the issues of science and faith; she was learning about evolution, but she was in a church that thought the creation story in the bible should be read literally.  She became aware that some of her gay friends were not welcome in her church, which she found increasingly problematic.  

As I said, these are not our issues.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) dealt with all of these already — many of them decades ago, if not longer.  Rachel would have been a very comfortable Presbyterian, in my opinion.  In fact, her journey away from evangelicalism eventually led her to become Episcopalian — a church quite similar to Presbyterians on these topics.  I took that same journey myself, and, happily, ended up here.  

Anyway, on her journey, as she wrote about her issues and struggles with faith and the church, she helped thousands of people in her generation who were having the same struggles.  This is a movement.  Surveys report that although so many millennials are “done” with the institutional church, a great many consider themselves SBNRs — Spiritual, but not religious.  They have a deep longing for transcendence and spirituality, they just do not believe they will find it in their parents’ churches.  

The Spirit of truth — unmasking falseness

This is not bad news for me.  I believe this is, in fact, a movement of the Spirit.   Why?  Because as John’s community intuited so long ago, the Spirit is moving in a particular direction.  In their version of the Jesus-story, Jesus calls the Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” whom, he goes on to say, “will teach you everything….”  

I believe we Presbyterians have been listening hard to the Spirit and, consequently, we have been led to the truth by the Spirit’s teaching in many ways.  Many, many years ago, we heard the Spirit of truth teaching us about science, and we opened our hearts and minds to serious biblical scholarship.  Together these tools led us away from a rigid literalism to a more spacious appreciation of our ancient wisdom tradition. 

We were able to learn the truth about structural racism in the civil rights movement and we got on the right side of that issue.  We heard the truth from the Spirit of truth about women, and so we changed our constitution to require balance on our sessions and we started ordaining women for ministry.  Women will account for five of the twelve new session members after today’s installation service.  

We have heard the Spirit teaching us that although the majority of people are attracted to people of the opposite gender, and thus for so long, we have lived in a culture of, what they call, heteronormativity, nevertheless, other people are born to be attracted to the same gender.  We have learned to affirm and celebrate their love and bless their unions.  

Authenticity

Rachel Held Evans was as genuine and authentic as they come.  Authenticity is a major issue for millennials.  Characteristically, they despise pretension and hypocrisy.  They unmask power-plays and discrimination of all kinds.  This is one reason they have fled from so many institutional churches.  

But again, I think this is a positive movement of the Spirit.  And, I believe, we can be and are a church that is committed to authenticity. Our spirituality is not merely formal and institutional.  

We do not claim perfection, but when we come together in public worship we always have moments of honest confession of our shortcomings.  To be honest, I think our church is perfect for millennials, although it might take them a while to get used to our music and liturgy.  I’m encouraged by the fact that Rachel discovered the Episcopal church and fell in love with the sacraments and the liturgy.  

From Christian to Jesus Follower

There are so many good, positive and hopeful things that I believe I see the Spirit doing in these turbulent days, but I want to mention just one more.   There is a new movement of people who are uncomfortable with the label “Christian” because of all the baggage it has acquired from Constantine to the Crusades, and from the rich televangelists, to the clergy sex-abuse scandals.  

But these people want to be followers of Jesus.   Today there is an outpouring of books, seminars, conferences, festivals, music, blogs and videos by people who are calling us back to the true fountain of our faith, back to Jesus.  This, I believe, is a movement of the Spirit.  

This is exactly what should have always happened, according to our Pentecost text from the Gospel of John.  We see it clearly in the story of the dialogue between Philip and Jesus.  

“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

God is invisible and infinite; beyond our human capacity to correctly conceive.  But we can see Jesus, at least we see versions of him, through the stories recorded in our gospel texts.  Whatever God is like, God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus; at least as inclusive as Jesus, at least as forgiving like Jesus.  So to understand God, in our tradition, we go to Jesus, as John’s gospel tells us to do.  

So, in these days, we are waking up to the fact that Jesus never made his people swear allegiance to a creed.  Our liturgy of ordination and installation requires it — should it?  Jesus never built a church or told us we had to sit in rows.  Jesus never laid out a liturgy for us to follow beyond the Lord’s Supper and Baptism.  So, while we love our traditions and find all of this meaningful, we know that it is all here because of historical development over time.  

We could do things differently, and that would be okay.  We do not turn our noses up at people who worship in different styles.  When we set our sights on following Jesus, rather than the layers and layers of traction that have built up around him, we will be getting back to the true fountain of our faith.  This is happening; this is what the Spirit is doing. 

So, on this Pentecost Sunday, let us rejoice in the Spirit, our advocate, the Spirit of truth, the one who prays for us, binds us together, and leads us into an uncertain but hopeful future. 

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Oneness

Oneness

Sermon on John 17:20-26 for June 2, 2019, Easter 7C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 John 17:20-26

[Jesus said:] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

I just finished reading Austin Channing Brown’s book I’m Still Here.”  It is a wonderful and beautifully written book, but painful to read, as a white person, because she describes what it feels like to live as a black person, specifically a black woman who has to negotiate white spaces.  

My subject today is not racism, but as I was reflecting on our text for today, a passage from her book seemed poignant.  In the book, she includes a letter she wrote to her son, as he was developing in her womb.  She wants him to know that he is loved by her and her husband.  They will raise him, she writes, to know that he has respect and dignity, that he is valuable, and that he has gifts to give to the world.  

But she also knows that it will not be easy for him to grow up as a black man in America.  How old will he be, she wonders, before he is made to feel inferior?  She will not be able to protect him from that.  But she will try to instill in him a sense of his own worthwhileness at a deep level before it happens.  

Imagine growing up without those positive affirmations.  Imagine growing up being told you were bad, or unworthy (maybe some of you did grow up that way?).  

Imagine growing up thinking of yourself as a deeply flawed person, who deserves to be treated badly.  We all know that if a child was raised that way, she would need a lot of time and work to heal from the damage it would cause.  

Original What?

But here is the tragedy that we are all living with: we were all told of our unworthiness and flawed nature, right here in the church.  We were told that our original condition is sinful.  

We were told by our pastors and teachers, and even by our creeds that we are entirely tainted by original sin, so that we are separated from God.  

We were told that God, our judge, would punish us, and that we deserved it — even with hell, forever — unless we were saved by grace.  

But how you can feel a baby kicking in your womb and imagine her already sinful?  How you can look into the eyes of a newborn and see original sin? It is — or should be — unimaginable.  

That is what fourth-century theologian Pelagius taught.  He was a Celtic Welshman.  He taught that our original condition was beloved by God.  He taught that our nature is sacred.  We are wounded, of course, and in need of healing, by God’s grace.  But Christ, he said, restores us to our true depths.  

All of this is described beautifully in John Phillip Newell’s book “Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation.”

Two Competing Visions 

Pelagius’ ideas were condemned by the Roman church.  He was banned from Rome, his writings forbidden, and eventually, he was excommunicated as a heretic.  

Augustine, the winner in that theological debate, was a champion of the doctrine of original sin.  We got it from Adam’s first sin, he said, and it has literally been passed down through the father’s side during reproduction, so that all of us carry that contaminated condition.  

(Some of us may take issue with the historical and scientific assumptions required by his view, even beyond the theological issues it raises.)  

But Augustine’s theology of original sin, as it turned out, was a much more convenient doctrine for the Roman Empire to hold, as it conquered its enemies.  It is easier to kill someone whom God condemns and who deserves to go to hell, than to kill someone whom God loves and cherishes.  

Pelagius, however, continued to write and teach, and that more generous and positive Celtic Christianity grew and thrived for several centuries until the Roman mission finally arrived in their area.  

Celtic Christian communities, like the one on Iona, in present-day Scotland, had produced beautiful liturgies and prayer books that celebrated God’s good creation, including God’s good creation of humans in God’s own image.  

In the seventh century, the Roman church banned that prayer book and called the Celtic Christians heretics.  There have been waves of suppression ever since.  But Celtic Christianity has never been eliminated, and today flourishes again on Iona and in many communities around the world.  

Mystical Comments from the Upper Room

So that is how we got here today.  The original sin side won.  But that did not have to happen.  The gospel text for today, and so many other texts of scripture, tell a far different story from Augustines’s story of original sin.   Let us look at this text.

The setting is the upper room, on the night before Jesus’ arrest.  Scholars call John chapters 13—17 the Upper Room Discourse.  Unique to John’s gospel are these lengthy speeches by Jesus.  Much of this speech comes in the form of a prayer.  The writer, (we will call him John, though it may have been a team effort) pictures Jesus praying to God.  By this literary device, we come to hear John’s version of Christianity.  

John is clearly a mystic.  He believes that in prayer we have direct access to the Divine, whom he understands in mystical, but also personal ways.  In other words, we have a relationship with God.  In fact, the relationship is familial: God is pictured — in that admittedly patriarchal world — as “father.”

So John pictures Jesus in prayer, describing this relationship to his father as perfect unity: oneness.  Jesus prays:

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…”  

They call this “mutual indwelling”.  Jesus dwells in God, just as God dwells in Jesus.  But this mutual indwelling is not unique to Jesus and God.  Jesus’ prayer tells us that this mutual indwelling extends to Jesus’ followers as well:

“…may they also be in us… so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

Jesus goes even further.  The best shorthand way to describe God, or the Divine, is the word “glory.”  It means something like pure radiance.  Glory is what God has.  But Jesus says that because of mutual indwelling, it is what we all have.  He says,

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” 

Participants in the Divine Nature

In other words, we all participate in the divine nature.  If you think that sounds dangerously close to heresy, it means that you have been raised in the Augustinian tradition which ignores and even denies this.  But listen to how explicit is in 2 Peter 1:

“[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed…so that you…may become participants of the divine nature.”

Richard Rohr famously said that if your religion is not helping you to know, understand, and live in union with God, then you need to get a new religion.  

Now, so far, this all may sound simply mystical and impractical to us, but let’s let the other shoe fall.  This affects everything!

So let us go back to Austins’ baby boy who is going to grow up hearing “I love you” from his mother and father.  He is going to grow up hearing, “You are beautiful, you are valuable, you have gifts to give the world, you were made in God’s image, just the way you are, from your skin color to your genetic code.”  

That will go with him his whole life long, and give him the fortitude and resilience he will need, to handle whatever the world throws at him.  

And that is exactly the message we all need to keep hearing from God.  If you could see yourself as God sees you, you would see something glorious — something radiant and beautiful.  And you would know that you are dwelling in God, just as God is dwelling in you.  How could that not affect every moment of every day of your life?  

Essential Relatedness

And there is more.  That mutual indwelling, that oneness also connects us with each other.  We are fundamentally one with each other, just as we hear Jesus pray,

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”

So, every single relationship is a relationship of oneness, not separateness. This is not just mystically irrelevant.   If we knew that, if we lived like that, how could that not affect every aspect of our lives?  

How could we ever hold grudges or become bitter and resentful if we understood our essential unity?  How could we ever allow people to live in poverty, or without adequate housing, or without sufficient food, clean water, and health care if we understood our essential unity?  

How could we ever execute them or go to war with them, or turn them away when they come to our borders in desperation?  How could we throw away most of their lives in prisons for non-violent offenses?  

In short, how could we not be people of compassion and champions of restorative justice, if we knew that we were beloved, glorious, and one with God, and with each other?  

Richard Rohr’s ministry in Arizona is called the Center for Contemplation and Action.  He named it according to his understanding that Contemplation leads to Action.  

He explains that in contemplation, in silent meditation, we lose the ego-control that otherwise dominates our thinking, and we become awake to our belovedness and oneness with God.  When that happens, we become more compassionate and we take action to help others.  

The Two Mountains

Rohr likes to describe the two halves of life, that characterize the journey from our sense of ego-driven separateness to that non-dual sense of oneness.  Recently David Brooks has written a book called “The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life.”  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  He describes nearly the same sequence with the metaphor of climbing two mountains in life.  

The first mountain is all about establishing your identity, your career, your place in the world.  The second mountain is about the meaning of your life and what you will leave behind of lasting value.  

The first mountain is a very individualistic mountain.  The second mountain is all about your sense of connection with others.  On the first mountain, you may manage people.  On the second mountain, you want to mentor people.  Happiness may be found, in moments, on the first mountain, but lasting joy comes from climbing the second.  

Our gospel text challenges us to climb the second mountain, in which we understand the profound inter-connectedness we share with all things; people, God, the entire biosphere, and even the cosmos.  

It is God “in whom we live and move and have our being” as scripture says.  We are beloved.  And we are here to make sure everyone else can live the life of the glorious beloved community as well.  It is not a fantasy of the mystics; it is what we believe is most true: we are one.

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.  

Jesus and the Price of Peace

Jesus and the Price of Peace

Sermon for April 28, 2019, Easter 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

John 20:19-31

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.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So 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.” 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.” Then 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.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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.

Probably the hardest learning we ever have to do is unlearning.  When we have “learned” something that later we discover is untrue, or so insufficiently accurate that we need to think differently about it, it’s hard.  It’s like learning to speak a new language.  

But unlearning is necessary. It is entailed in growing up, becoming adult, “putting away childish things” as Corinthians says.  

We are going to be challenged to unlearn a couple of things by this text today.  Or maybe I should say by these texts (plural)?  There are two scenes here in which Jesus makes appearances to his gathered disciples in their locked room and their fearful condition.  

Because nothing is said about Thomas being missing in the first, and because the second is all about Thomas’ reaction, some scholars conclude that these two appearance stories were originally separate and distinct.  

But now they have been brought together.  Why?  It turns out that the author of John’s gospel has done this intentionally, to make a point — to help us unlearn things, which we will look at today.

Faith and Belief

The first thing we must unlearn is what faith or belief means.  For most of us, through no fault of our own, we have understood faith as the opposite of knowledge, and belief as accepting something as true — assenting to its veracity.  

This is what faith and belief came to mean, but not what they meant in the bible.  Faith is the noun, believe is the verb.  Originally they meant trust.  

To trust in God, to have faith originally was not to have a list of statements about God or Jesus or any other line from a creed to which you assented.  It became that, but that is a distortion that we need to unlearn.  

What does trust mean?  Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of floating on the surface of deep water.  As long as you relax, you are buoyant; if you start to struggle, you sink.  

That’s what the gospel scene of Peter walking on the water is all about.  As long as he looked at Jesus, with trust, he stayed up.  When he looked away, toward the wind and the waves, he sank.  To trust is to relax and to know that we are being upheld at every moment of our lives by God. 

If you have ever taught a child to swim, you know that the hardest part is helping them to learn to relax and trust that the water will hold them.  As long as they fight it, they keep sinking.

Doubt

So what about doubt?   Doubt is baked into the cake of faith.   According to theologian Paul Tillich, faith is something everyone has.  Not that everyone has faith in God, necessarily, but in something.   

Everyone has a sense that their lives have some kind of purpose, which is significant enough that they would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it — they would be willing to die for it.  Tillich calls this our “ultimate concern.”   

For some people, their family is their ultimate concern.  For others, it’s their career, or their social status or political power.  For some, it is their nation.  

But how do you know in advance that the thing you have identified as your ultimate concern, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the thing you would make the ultimate sacrifice of your life for, is worthy of your one precious life on earth?  How do you know?  You cannot know for sure.  

Many people die for their nation. Even for really bad nations, by our judgment today.  Think of all those who lost their lives for the Third Reich in the Second World War: had they chosen correctly?  We would say, no.  

So, because we cannot know in advance what is worthy of our ultimate concern, what is worthy of our faith, then there always must be some measure of doubt.  To have faith in anything is also to have doubt.  They exist together like two sides of a coin.  

So when Jesus is depicted in this very mystical and ethereal story, in which he appears through the walls of a locked room, and confronts Thomas about believing and not doubting, he is telling him to trust, and not stiffen up and resist, like the child who hasn’t learned to swim.  

In other words, Jesus is not asking Thomas not to doubt the lines of a creed, like the virgin birth, for example.  He is asking Thomas to trust.

But here is where the story gets profound.  Think of that metaphor of trusting as floating.  What would “fighting it” look like?  What would cause someone to stiffen up and sink?  The key is found by the way the author has joined these two originally separate stories together, so that now they become mutually interpreting.   

Peace; Forgiveness

Here is how it works.  In story one, Jesus, who has just three days earlier been tortured to death in the most excruciating way appears.  Why did that happen to him? Because the Romans captured him.  Were there no people to defend him?  No, they had abandoned him and fled.  

Consider that.  Jesus is appearing in front of his betrayers.  He has a lot to hold against them.  His hands and feet had been nailed to a cross.  Someone speared him in the side.  The wounds are still there, visible for all to see.  

Vengeance, wrath, recrimination, accusation, condemnation, could all be expected.  All would have been perfectly justified.  They were guilty, and they knew it.   But that is exactly what did not happen.  The very first words Jesus says, in both appearance stories, are,

“Peace be with you.”

In other words, “I forgive you.”  

Friends, this is one of the most radical and fundamental teachings of Jesus.  God forgives us.  We must forgive others.  Even those who, like the disciples, have run away, and let the Romans get you.  In the only prayer Jesus ever taught us to pray we say, 

“forgive us our debts (Matthew) or sins (= missing the target) Luke) as we forgive…”

What are those debts — the things people owe us, or those sins — the cases in which someone has missed the target and we were the ones caught in their line of fire?  They are the wounds we have received at their hands.  And we all have been wounded by others.  

No one gets through life without being wounded by others in a multitude of ways.  And wounds leave scars, memories, sometimes even traumas.   We will come back to this, but let us continue with the story.

So Jesus appears in the room where they are all locked up, fearful, and says, “Peace.”

Then, in that first scene, the author describes Jesus as saying a few phrases which seem unrelated and jarringly haphazard.  He says, 

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So what is going on here?  Is this a commissioning scene: “I’m sending you?”  Or is it a Pentecost scene: “receive the Spirit”?  Or is it on some kind of conferring of cosmic authority to either forgive or retain sins, as if we were able to do God’s job?    

It all makes sense if we see that it is still about what those men had done to Jesus three days earlier.  It is still about those wounds, those scars Jesus wears.  

The easiest way, I think, to understand this is to turn our attention to the little early Christian community, who would be hearing this text read in their house church on Sunday morning.  They would hear Jesus saying to them, first, “Peace: you are forgiven.  Whatever you have done, I forgive you.”

Second, he says, you should consider yourselves not only forgiven, but sent out on a mission.  

How will you have the wisdom, the energy, and the strength for the mission?  You have the Spirit in you — you know that.  Every time you have felt that tug, that lure towards goodness, towards the next right thing, that is the Spirit in you, helping you to accomplish the mission.

The Mission

What is the mission?  It is huge; it is profound; it is to stop the cycle that poisons our relationships, our communities, our nations, and our world.   It is the cycle of retribution.  It is the cycle of violence.  It is the cycle of quid pro quo.  

The fact (not the magical power, but simply the fact) is, that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you stop the cycle, the cycle stops.  

If you don’t, then it turns around again, claiming new victims with each rotation.  Forgiveness stops the cycle.  The mission we are on is the mission of stopping the cycle.  How? By forgiveness.  

It starts on the personal level in which we forgive the very people who have wounded us, the people who have put the scars we wear on our skin, our hearts, our psyches, and our memories.  

Forgiveness

So what is forgiveness?  It is not saying “It’s OK that you did that to me.”  Not at all!  Forgiveness does not trivialize evil.  Forgiveness does not pretend evil is not evil, nor deny, or minimize the damage done.  Look at Jesus — he was tortured and killed, and still had the scars to prove it.  There is nothing trivial about it.  

Rather, forgiveness means I will not seek retribution.  I will say “Peace to you.”  I will not make you suffer because you made me suffer.  I will not even wish for, or fantasize your suffering.  I will wish instead, for your redemption, for your restoration, for your healing. 

This does not mean that justice does not have to be done, when, for example, crimes have been committed.  But it means that my motivation is not revenge, but restorative justice, meaning that the world should be one in which actions do have consequences, and the guilty do not walk away to freely continue to victimize people at will.  But there is no pleasure in punishment for me.  You have been forgiven.  The cycle can stop here and now.

Thomas and Us

So now, back to Thomas.  The question to Thomas is: Can you trust that the world can be one in which you can be a cycle-stopper?  Or does that feel too risky?  

Those are questions to us as well. In other words, can we trust God enough, as Jesus did, to support us in our forgiveness mission?  Or are we going to stiffen up and demand proof in advance?  Will we float, or sink?  Thomas has to decide.  

So Jesus says, in effect: Look at the wounds and scars, Thomas; your cowardice on the night of my arrest helped put them there.  But here I am saying “Peace” instead of “punishment.”  Can you trust my way?  

That is the question this text leaves with us.  Can we deny the demands of our egos for self-justification, for getting even, for vindication, and for vengeance?  Can we be cycle-stoppers?  Can we forgive?  

Because the amazing truth here, is that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you do not, then they are not, and the cycle turns again.

But you have been forgiven.  You have heard the words, “Peace to you.”  You have been given the Spirit.  You have been sent.   This is our mission!

Scaling Up

We have been speaking so far about the personal level. Does this work on a larger scale?  Well, it has worked.  

There has been healing and reconciliation in Rwanda, even after genocide.  There has been political calm instead of a blood bath in South Africa, even after all the suffering of apartheid.  

The Jesus way of forgiveness is not a fantasy.  If there is enough of a consensus that retribution only spins the cycle around again, that the odds against getting even are the longest odds ever, that the cycle can be stopped; peace is possible.  

That is our mission; we have been sent.  We have been given the Spirit.  Let us not doubt, but trust, not struggle, but float on grace and mercy, and so experience peace.