Friday, March 28, 2014

“The Landscape of Lent: Mud” - March 30, 2014

Text: John 9:1-34

Jesus and the disciples are traveling when they notice a blind man – apparently someone known in the community and to the disciples, because they know that he has been blind from birth.  Upon seeing the man, the disciples ask Jesus what seems to be a strange question.  Who sinned?

What kind of question is that?  You see a blind person and the question is, “Who sinned?”  Well, in that day the question actually made sense.  It was commonly accepted that those who suffer do so because of sin.  That was not really in question.  The question was, whose sin?  Since the man was blind from birth, was his blindness because of his parents’ sin, or was he some sort of pre-natal sinner who right from the start was a flawed person?

While these may seem like strange questions, we might want to pause before criticizing too much, because we are prone to playing the same game.  In our own way, we maintain the suffering-sin connection that they had in Jesus’ day.  Just mention that someone has a disease like AIDS and some folks will feel that the disease was probably deserved because of sinful behavior.  With diabetes or lung cancer or heart disease, there is a certain amount of sentiment that not only did behavior and lifestyle cause the disease, but that because of that, the suffering is in a sense at least partly deserved.  We are not as different as you might think from the folks in Jesus’ day.

And then we wrestle with how responsible parents are for the behavior of children.  Some argue that it is up to the parents to raise their children properly and instill the right values, so if children act up, it is at least partly the parents’ fault and they should be held responsible.  And indeed in some places, there are laws that hold parents responsible for crimes committed by their children.

Others argue that while parents obviously have a lot to do with the way their children turn out, as a parent you can do all the right things and a child can still have problems and get into trouble.  In our 21st century way, we are still having this same conversation they had in the first century.

A few years ago Jerry Farrell had a teenaged son who threw a beer party.  Since he was underaged, the boy and his friends broke the law.  But the police didn’t arrest just the teens.  They went after Jerry too.  He was arrested, fingerprinted, and charged.

Farrell was shocked.  “I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he complained.  “I didn’t even know [my son] had friends over.”

Lack of knowledge of the drinking didn’t get Farrell off.  Under a parental responsibility law in Arlington Heights, Illinois, whether or not a parent knows his or her child broke a law doesn’t matter.  The parent is held accountable.

A man is born blind.  “Who sinned?” Jesus is asked.  “Who is at fault here?”  Again, this is an awful lot like the 21st century.  Whenever anything goes even slightly wrong, the big question is, “Who is at fault?”

But Jesus says that to ask questions such as these is to get sidetracked.  “Who sinned?” is the wrong question.   Whether this man was blind because of his sin or his parents’ was the wrong question.  The answer to who sinned is, neither.  Jesus says, "He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  What mattered was that here was a child of God, and Jesus could help him to see.  So often we focus on incidental matters and ignore what matters most.  Jesus is not into blame, he is into possibility.  Jesus is not about heaping on guilt, he is about healing. 

And so instead of speculating or theologizing about why this man was born blind or who was responsible for the condition he was in, Jesus acted.  He healed him.

And I loved the way he did it.  I have to say that this story of Jesus spitting on the ground, making some mud, and rubbing it on the guy’s eyes, is just an awesome story.

Some Christian traditions use a tangible, physical act in prayer by anointing a person with oil when praying for their healing – you can find encouragement to do that in James chapter 5.  I have attended healing services, even Baptist healing services, in which those who would like prayer for healing have oil anointed on their forehead and someone prays with them.  It’s not that common in our tradition, but it’s not unheard of.

Well, it would be just as Biblical to spit in the dirt and then rub it on the person with an injury or illness, and we would have the added bonus that his is something that Jesus himself did.  Instead of holy oil or holy water, we could have Holy Mud, but for whatever reason I have never heard of anybody doing that. 

It sounds really weird, but it may help to understand what Jesus did in the context of the day.  It was believed that there was healing power in saliva, especially from a righteous person.  So Jesus used one of the accepted methods of the day to build expectation and as a symbol of the healing that was to happen.  He told the man to wash in the pool of Siloam.  And the man came back able to see.

It was an amazing story.  A man blind from birth is healed.  John saw this as a sign of Jesus’ messiahship.  We would expect people to rejoice.  We would expect celebration.  But that’s not what happened.  His neighbors couldn’t believe it was the same person.  “Yeah, he looks like Joe and he talks like Joe, but it can’t be him, because Joe is blind.”  For his part, the man kept insisting that it was really him--he had been healed.  They asked how it had happened, and he said, “Well, this man Jesus made mud and put it on my eyes and told me to go wash.”  They asked where Jesus was, and he told them that he didn’t know.

Well, this was serious, so they brought him to the Pharisees, the religious authorities.  And they were not only doubtful, they were upset because this had all taken place on the Sabbath.  As it turns out, Jesus had broken the Sabbath law.  Twice, at least.  First, he had worked on the Sabbath by making mud.  And then, he had healed on the Sabbath.  On the Sabbath, medical attention could only be given in case a life was in danger.

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man cannot be of God because he breaks the Sabbath.”  Others said, “How could a sinner perform such signs?” 

There were questions about Jesus’ background and qualifications, and the Pharisees thought it best to do a little digging, a little investigating.  You know, people are not always who they say they are.  This was clearly the case with Jesus, they thought.

Maybe you heard the story this past week about college basketball coach Steve Masiello.  Only 36 years old, the former Louisville assistant had done a good job at Manhattan and had agreed to go to South Florida as their new coach for around $1 million a year.  (It’s good work if you can find it.)  But when South Florida did a routine background check, it turned out that while Masiello lists a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky on his resume, he had never actually graduated.  Now he has lost out on the new job and may well lose his old job.

The Pharisees look at Jesus’ resume and assume that something funny is going on.  They asked the man who was purportedly healed.  “Who is this Jesus?” they ask.  “What do you say?”  He told them that he thought Jesus was a prophet.

A prophet, he said.  Well, this was obviously going nowhere so they called in the man’s parents.  They gave an honest answer.  They said, yes, he is our son, yes, he has been blind from birth, but no, we don’t know how he now sees or who did this.  They were careful not to say anything about Jesus because apparently they could be drummed out of the synagogue if they spoke too highly of him.  So they said, “Our son is a big boy, he’s a grownup, he’s of age, why don’t you ask him?”

So once again they called in the man who had been blind.  Speaking of Jesus, they said, “We know this man is a sinner.”  He said, “I do not know if he is a sinner—but one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I can see.”

“I once was blind, but now I see.”  I love that response.  He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t try to assign motivation or cause or get into some big explanation of the mechanics of how it all happened.  He doesn’t agree or disagree with the Pharisees; he doesn’t take sides.  He simply shares his own experience - which is a great model for how we are to bear witness to our faith.  “I once was blind, but now I see.”  When we share with others about our faith, this is really the way to do it – not by making big, sweeping, theological claims but simply sharing our own experience.

The man born blind does not try to explain how it had taken place or what it might mean.  “I don’t know if he is a sinner,” he says.  “Al I know is, I once was blind but now I see.”

But this is not the kind of answer the Pharisees were looking for.  How did it happen?  What did Jesus do?

And then comes maybe the best part of the story.  The man who had been blind said, “I’ve already told you, but you won’t listen.  Why do you keep asking?  Do you want to be his disciples too?”

That did not  go over well with the Pharisees.  But he went on, and this beggar, this man who had been blind, winds up teaching the Pharisees.  He said, “Here is an astonishing thing--you don’t know where he comes from, but just look at what he does.  God does not listen to sinners, but to those who obey God’s will.  Apart from God, this man could do nothing.”

That was it.  “You were born entirely in your sins,” the Pharisees said – they were not averse to name calling – “and now you are trying to teach us.  Get out of here!”  This man had been healed, but instead of celebrating with him, the Pharisees grilled him and then ran him off.

This story is about blindness and sight, but it is not so much about physical sight.  Seeing is really a metaphor for understanding.  As we read the story, it is clear that the one who was blind can see clearly--not only with physical eyes, but he can see spiritually.  He has understanding.  He describes Jesus as a man first, then as a prophet, and then he is called a disciple.  Meanwhile the Pharisees, who have everything figured out, turn out to be the ones who are really blind – they are without understanding.  God is clearly at work, and they cannot even recognize it.

The renowned artist Paul Gustav Doré once lost his passport while traveling in Europe.  When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to one of the border guards.  He hoped he would be recognized and allowed to pass.  The guard said sorry, people try this all the time.

Doré insisted he was who he claimed to be.  The guard said, all right, we'll give you a test, and if you pass it we will allow you to go through.  Doré was given a pencil and paper and asked to sketch people standing nearby.  He did it so quickly and skillfully that the guard was convinced.  His work proved who he was.

Jesus’ work in healing the man who was blind and that man’s testimony should have allowed the Pharisees to see that he was from God.  But they simply would not or could not see. They were the ones who were really blind.

The story is about this man and the Pharisees, but it is about more than that.  It is really about us.  It is really an invitation to examine our own lives and to ask if we have blind spots.  Are we really paying attention, are we really open to the work of God?

Timothy Haut, a pastor in Connecticut, wrote a beautiful poem about really seeing:

Once I saw a bird
But I did not see
A soaring, feathered song
Rose-breasted and alive,
Rejoicing at the dawn.
Once I saw a tree,
But I did not see
A billion green cells
Devouring the golden sunlight
As they quiver in leafy splendor,
Reaching toward heaven’s brightness.
Once I saw a face pass by,
But I did not see
A holy child, brave, unfettered,
The eyes seeking loveliness and love,
The sweet lips that have kissed away hurt--
The lips that speak my name--
The lines of weariness, etched by sorrow,
Wrinkling when you smile.
I did not see you,
Nor any of this world’s wonders,
Until you touched my eyes,
Opened my senseless heart.
I was blind but now I see.
This morning, most of us could stand to have our spiritual eyes opened a little wider.  To keep with the metaphor, maybe we need to have the mud washed away.  We might choose to look for the good, look for the beautiful, look for God at work around us.  We might choose to look for the possibilities and potential and gifts that are in others – and in ourselves.  We might be open to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. 

We might choose not to get caught up in pursuing those things that are not truly essential, but to focus on what really matters.  The man was asked a lot of questions, confronted with a lot of speculation.  For his part, he knew what was important.  “All I know is this: I once was blind, but now I see.”  Amen.

Friday, March 14, 2014

“The Landscape of Lent: Wind” - March 16, 2014 (Lent 2)

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17

Where were you born?  I was born at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, Indiana.  I grew up in Evansville and went to school there.  My parents still live in that same house I grew up in.  I still have friends and family in town. 

Does the place where we are born matter?  Does it make a significant difference in the person that we are?  A lot of people would say yes.  The fact that they were born in Iowa – or Texas – or California – makes a lot of difference.  The fact that they were born in Ghana or China or Laos is important to understanding who they are.

This may be true.  But what if you were born in Mississippi but spent all of your formative years in Maine?  Or what if your parents were in the military and you lived in 12 different states growing up?  Where you were born may not matter so much.  I grew up in Indiana, but it has been 30 years since I lived there.  Even if you know where a person is from, that doesn’t mean you have them all figured out.

Whatever it importance today, where you were born was of far greater importance in ancient societies.  Most people would never leave their country of birth; many never traveled more than 20 miles from the place they were born.  A person’s home and network of family and friends provided support and belonging and identity and a means of earning a living.  Travel beyond one’s homeland was difficult and dangerous. 

When children left home, they generally didn’t go very far, and the eldest son usually didn’t leave at all.  He would stay and care for aging parents and for any younger unmarried siblings. 

Our text from Genesis tells of God calling Abram to leave behind the place he was born, to leave his extended family and his father’s house to go to a land that God would show him.  By the time this call comes, his father has died, one brother has died, and his other brother was married.  Presumably his mother preceded his father in death.  As the oldest son, his responsibilities to parents and siblings had been met, and along with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother, he answers God’s call.

The place that he was born was important.  But it was not the only thing that was important.  The pull of his homeland and family ties were strong.  But so was God’s call.

Abram is told by God that his name will be great, he will be father of a great people, and that he will be a blessing.  Interestingly, he is not promised material success.  Indeed, at first it is all but guaranteed that life will be a lot more difficult and that he will be much less prosperous.  Abram and Sarai left behind their known language, their reputation and good name.  They left behind their knowledge of a place and how to survive in it.  They left behind trading partners and knowledge of how to secure the goods they needed.

These sorts of things one did not just pick up overnight.  This was an exceedingly difficult move, and Abram and Sarai did not even have a road map.  They weren’t exactly sure where they were going.  And they had hardly arrived when there came a famine and they were forced to go and live in Egypt for a time.  With a strong support network and enough grain stored up in their new land, they might have been able to withstand the famine, but they were newcomers, outsiders.

Leaving behind his country and his family made this a very difficult move.  But it also insured that he and Sarai would be fully invested in this new place that God would lead them.

Years ago, Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis would have a weekend travel special.  On Friday, you could get their special for some insanely low price – for maybe $299 you would get two round-trip air tickets and two nights lodging at a good hotel.  (That really does sound like a long time ago, doesn’t it?)  The catch was, you didn’t know where you would be going.  That was half the fun of it; it was an adventure.  You might end up in Spokane or San Diego or Memphis or Miami; you just didn’t know.  You didn’t know where you were headed; you just agreed to go.

With Northwest, however, you had a guarantee of a nice place to stay and you knew what the cost was.  You might not want to move to San Antonio, but it could be a fun place for a weekend.  You could even enjoy Cleveland if it was just for a weekend and you knew that you would be back home in a couple of days.

It wasn’t like that for Abram and Sarai.  They didn’t know where they would live, they were pretty sure they would never be back, and they did not know the cost.  They were placing their lives, their future, in God’s hands.

Where we are from, where we were born, can be important.  But it’s not the most important thing.  It’s interesting that Jesus is one of those people who were not born in their hometown.  What do we know him as?  Jesus of… Nazareth.  Not Bethlehem, where he was born, but Jesus of Nazareth.  His upbringing in Nazareth and his culture as a Galilean were important, but these were not the most important things.  Jesus talked about how a spiritual birth is far more important than one’s physical birth.

Nicodemus had come to Jesus late at night, in the cover of darkness.  He comes with a kind of hesitant curiosity.  Not unlike some of us, perhaps.  Not unlike a lot of people who maybe have an interest in Jesus but don’t want it publicized, who are maybe open to spiritual things but don’t really want their friends or co-workers to know too much about it.

Nicodemus was an important person, a member of the Pharisees, indeed a leader among the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were a tight bunch.  Pedigree mattered.  They knew who each other’s ancestors were.  Where you were from was important.

Approaching Jesus that night, Nicodemus does not initially ask a question.  Instead, he speaks favorably of Jesus.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who comes from God.”  Not all Pharisees felt this way, of course, and maybe this is part of the reason Nicodemus came at night.  It might have made it easier both for him and for Jesus.  Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ interest and curiosity by saying, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

We have heard these words before.  We generally hear the phrase as, “You must be born again.”  Jesus’ words can be translated that way, or as “You must be born anew.”  But, literally, the word means “from above.”  You must be born from above.  Of course, this necessitates that we’re going to have to be born again.

What Jesus is saying is that our identity does not come from where we were born or to whom we were born or where we grew up or where we are from.  It does not come from our social group or the organizations of which we are members or the school we attend.  Our spiritual birth, our relationship with God, surpasses all of these other matters in importance.

Now of course, when we hear talk about being born again, all sorts of things may come to mind.  I remember Jimmy Carter describing himself as a “born again Christian,” which was big news at the time.  When you hear “born again,” you may think of revival meetings and altar calls with 17 verses of “Just As I Am,” or uber-evangelistic folks who will ask, “Are you born again?”  Between the enthusiastic religion and the certain kind of mindset it brings to mind, we may tend to think that being ”born again” is not really for us.  I may have described myself as “born again” at one point in my life, and in a certain sense I still claim that, but because of the way the term is understood, it is not a label I am eager to wear.

But it’s really too bad that the phrase “born again” has taken on such meaning, because what Jesus is talking about is crucial.  He is talking about understanding our identity in a completely new and different way.  What matters is not so much that we were born in Iowa or Indiana or Puerto Rico.  Our identities are shaped by something greater than who our ancestors were or the place where we live.

We may be citizens of Iowa and citizens of the United States.  But more important, we are citizens of God’s realm.  We may be a part of a particular family, with parents and siblings and extended relatives, but more important than that, we are a part of God’s family.

This conversion from a narrow self-understanding to a dependence on God and primary identity as God’s child is what it means to be born again.  Putting our ultimate trust in Jesus rather than in those other important relationships in life is what he is talking about.  Those who want to talk about born-again Christians vs. other kinds of Christians are missing the point: to be a Christian is to be born again, born from above. 

To be honest, most of us who are relatively comfortable in life really don’t care for talk about being born again, because it speaks of change.  Why change something deep inside ourselves when our present lives and situations are just fine?

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh argue that it is no accident that Jesus spoke here of birth.  Birth status was the all-important factor in determining a person’s honor rating in ancient society.  The honor derived from one’s status at birth was a given and usually stayed with a person for life.   Birth meant everything.  To be born again, however unthinkable that might be, would change one’s status in a fundamental way.  To be born from above, born of God’s spirit, meant a complete change in one’s status.  This was a whole new level of honor status, to be born from above. 

In a sense, being born again is what happened to Abram and Sarai.  In this new land where God would take them, their family history would not count for much.  The fact that he was Terah’s boy wouldn’t get him very far in Canaan.  God had called them to a whole new life.  He was still Terah’s son, but life had changed dramatically.  What mattered most now was his relationship with God, the God who had called him and led him.

Just as Abraham was invited on a journey, so was Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was invited by Jesus into a journey of the spirit.  It was clearly a new journey that could change his life.

Jesus says that God is about transformation, about changing lives, not about maintaining the status quo.  God is in the business not of permanence for the sake of permanence, but of change for our sake – because as we read when we continue in our passage from John, God loves us, God loves the whole world, and God’s intention is not condemnation but salvation.

We are all invited on a journey with God.  We don’t always know exactly where it will lead.  It’s like the wind: God’s Spirit blows where it will, and it’s not something we can really figure out.  We can’t control the Spirit or pin it down.  But it leads to life.  It may lead us to an entirely new place, like Abram and Sarai; or it may lead us right to where we started, but in a new way, with a new understanding, a new spirit, like Nicodemus.

I received an email this week, the kind of email I get every week, if not nearly every day.  You may get the same sort of thing.  It was an invitation to an absolutely life-changing seminar on leadership.  “In just two days you will master the practical management know-how - and the confidence - to plan, organize, coach, motivate, delegate and communicate in order to be an effective leader,” the email said.  This training would be an absolute game-changer for a person’s career and set a company on the road to vastly increased productivity and profitability.  Just sign on with this expert and you will learn the secret to success.

Now, compare this with Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Jesus does not speak of techniques or sure-fire strategy; he talks about wind and birth - two experiences that are absolute gifts, not savvy achievements.  Jesus speaks of this new birth as being like wind whistling in the treetops.  We can hear the wind, and see its results, but it is not something that we control. 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus looking for spiritual advice, for some spiritual how-to, and Jesus tells him it’s a gift, it’s like the wind, it’s like being born all over again.  It’s all grace.

Commenting on this passage, the writer Tom Ehrich said, “I used to think that being “born of the Spirit” was an exotic thing, accompanied by extravagant manifestations.  Speaking in tongues, perhaps, or feeling absolute certainty.  Now I see that Spirit-wind is part of life.  It is with us always.  Sometimes more powerfully than others, but like a wind across the prairie, always present, always bringing change and challenge.

In John chapter 19, Nicodemus appears again.  After Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate if he might bury Jesus’ body.  Pilate agrees, and then we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial and lay him in the tomb.  At first he had come by night, but now in the light of day Nicodemus identifies with Jesus. 

Our identity does not come by virtue of our birth, but by virtue of our relationship with Christ.  What we are called to is a whole new way of living, a life of grace and freedom and wonder.  It is like living in a whole new place.  It is like being born again.  And as we continue to follow, we are born again and again and again.  Jesus continues to call us, continues to challenge us, continues to change us.

Where were you born?  Where are you from?  Those are important questions.  But maybe more important are these questions: Where are you going?  And with whom are you traveling?  Amen.

“The Landscape of Lent: Wilderness” - March 9, 2014 (Lent 1)

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

Today is the first day of Lent, a season of forty days of preparation for Easter, a time that roughly corresponds to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  And we begin this season with that very scripture, which we read this morning from Matthew.  Jesus is in the wilderness.

What is wilderness, anyway?  Is wilderness exciting or scary, welcome or threatening?  Is it a place to get away, or a place to avoid?  I guess it all depends. 

For some reason, I think of my Aunt Opal.  She and Uncle Charles lived in Seattle, and after he retired from Boeing they decided to move back to the Midwest.  They didn’t think they would do so well in the rural area in Southern Illinois where they were from, so they moved to Evansville, about an hour and a half from their old stomping grounds.  My dad and two other brothers and their families lived there and it was a more happening and cosmopolitan place than Dahlgren, Illinois.  But it didn’t work.  Aunt Opal had trouble buying carrots wholesale for her carrot juice, and we didn’t have six lane freeways, just traffic lights everywhere.  It was kind of like the wilderness to her, and so after about six weeks they put the house they had just bought back on the market, loaded up a truck and moved back to Seattle.

OK, the idea of wilderness runs maybe a little deeper than that, but there is some sense that wilderness is in the eye of the beholder and that wilderness is what we make of it.  For most of us, wilderness is more deserted and more desolate than a medium-sized city.

Some of us like the idea of heading out into the wilderness, enjoying nature, enjoying peace and quiet and stillness.  Even if the landscape is harsh, the notion of solitude in the wilderness can be very appealing.  But for others, wilderness means danger.  And the danger is not only physical danger; wilderness can mean life without distractions, and some of us want to be distracted.  For some, quiet and solitude are the last things they want. 

The metaphor of wilderness and the idea of a journey through the wilderness fit very well with the season of Lent, because this is a time of introspection.  It is a time of reflection, a time to think about choices that we have made and choices that we need to make, a time to think about who we are and where we are heading.  It’s a time for spiritual discernment.

There are a few details in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation that deserve our attention.  First, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  That can seem a bit disconcerting.  Does God bring about temptation?  Does God want us to be tempted? 

As far as I can tell, we don’t really need any “help” to be tempted.  We come by it pretty naturally.  The word translated as “tempted” can also mean “tested,” and in fact that is perhaps a better translation.  We might think of this as a time of preparation for Jesus – a time of making choices about who he was and what shape his ministry would take.  It’s not that God dangled temptations in front of Jesus, but the Spirit led Jesus to a time of reflection and decision-making that was essential to his ministry.  Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a time of making decisions about who he was and what kind of ministry he would have, and for this kind of work, maybe something like wilderness is necessary. 
Secondly, Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days and 40 nights.  If the number 40 sounds familiar in Biblical terms, well, it should.  This parallels other uses of the number 40 in scripture: 40 days and nights of rain while Noah and his family are in the ark, Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, Moses’ 40 days on Mt. Sinai.  In all these cases, God is at work in a powerful way.  Forty days is the Bible’s way of saying a significant amount of time.  This wasn’t just a momentary blip on the screen.

We all experience times of testing, times of wilderness.  Times when we feel alone.  Times when things seem up in the air, when there are any number of ways that things might go, and we have to make choices about how we will live our lives.  This wilderness time often takes a lot longer than 40 days.  It takes time.

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness because he needed to make some basic choices about his life and ministry, and that doesn’t just happen overnight.  It takes time for us as well.  In fact, it is more of an on-going process.

And then, as he was in the wilderness for those 40 days, and when he was famished – when he was most vulnerable – Jesus was tempted by the devil.  This is such a familiar story that it can lose its sharp edge on us.  Jesus was really tempted. 

Hebrews 2:18 says “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”  The testing, the temptation, was real.

And it is certainly real for us.  I don’t have to tell you that.  But so often, the real temptations for us don’t seem like temptation at all.  Temptation can be very subtle and it is always attractive.  It has to be appealing; otherwise it wouldn’t be a real temptation.

Nathan Horwitt, an expert on mushrooms, has said that the mushroom Amanita phallides is the deadliest of all mushrooms.  The common name for this species is the “death cap.”  No antidote exists, and the death rate for those who eat is has been estimated from 50-90%.  Even after the victims have recovered from abdominal pain and vomiting and are home from the hospital, they can die two or three days later of kidney or liver failure.

But poisonous as it is, the Amanita is also one of the most beautiful.  With its soft cream colored cap, it looks delicious.  And it is extremely tasty.  People say that it’s the most delicious mushroom they’ve ever eaten.  They say that with their dying breath.

A killer mushroom presents itself in a very attractive way.  And that is the way temptation is for us.  Jesus really was tempted -- he could have given in.  He really was tested – he could have failed.  He could have chosen another course. 

The story is told of a man who got angry because this little church had rented an empty store beneath his apartment, and they were holding the noisiest revival services you ever heard.  He complained to the landlord.  He complained to the police.  But nothing could be done.

Finally, he decided he was going to get even. He went down to a store that rented costumes and he rented a Devil’s suit.  He went home and put it on.  He climbed down the stairs and waited for just the right moment.  And as it happened, a storm came up, and thunder rolled and lightning struck, and the power went out.  At that moment he burst into that little church, yelling and screaming!

People were terrified.  Everyone bailed out of that church, except one lady.  And this man stepped up to her, pitchfork gleaming, and he said, “How come you’re not running away like all the rest?”  And she said, “Mr. Satan, I want you to know, I've been on your side all along.”

When we hear of the devil, we may think of a guy in a red suit with a pitchfork, but temptation is much more subtle than that.  Temptation can come in the form of what appear to be perfectly reasonable and understandable and even responsible choices.  The temptations Jesus faced were not appeals to his weakness, but appeals to his strength - appeals to what is good.  Food when hungry – isn’t that good?  Power over nations - think of the good that could come.  Revealing to others the special nature of his relationship with God - why not?  Wouldn’t that lead people into the kingdom?

The temptation is to convince ourselves that we are doing the right thing, the timely thing when deep down, we are really just serving our own interests.  Essentially, what happens here is that right at the outset of his ministry, Jesus gets some big questions out on the table.  Questions about power and control and purpose and ambition and trust and submission to God.  Jesus stands up to temptation, stands up to the devil.

Matthew makes one more comment about Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  In the midst of the temptations and dangers that are present, “suddenly the angels came and waited on him.”  Jesus is alone, in the wilderness for six weeks, tempted by the devil, in real danger, and yet God was there.  God sustained him.

John Boll told of a young man who works with the youth of his church.  But that was not always his goal or ambition.  He had been frittering away his life, looking out only for himself.  But a few years ago he accepted an invitation to join a group of people going to the mountains in Virginia to make a “vision quest.”  After a couple days of training in survival tactics and the discipline of spiritual exercise, the participants were sent out to spend four days by themselves in the wilderness.  The young man shared some of the events of those days with a group at his church.

First, he said, there was the extraordinary quiet and a lack of the usual distractions; no TV, computers, video games, phones; none of the devices that have become so much a part of our lives.  He began to hear sounds he might ordinarily have missed: the breeze, songs of distant birds, his footsteps, insects, even his own breathing.

He also began to hear his inner voice.  He found that being in the wilderness was a chance to do some serious thinking for the first time in years.  A couple things he saw in nature got him thinking.  One day he came across a dead horse in a field and a few moments later he saw a fragile new born doe.

These contrasting sights stirred questions in him about his basic life assumptions.  He realized, when he reflected on the sight of the horse, that he had been investing his life in passing realities.  The doe reminded him how fragile life is, especially young life.  He decided during those four days to turn his life around and dedicate himself to ministering to youth.  He would quit his job and accept a lower paying position to be a youth minister in his parish.

He was asked if he had found being alone in the wilderness dangerous.  “No,” he said, “All the while I felt as if the wilderness were sustaining me.”  Maybe that’s what it was like for the angels to minister to Jesus in the desert.  Through the wilderness time, he was sustained.

Jesus emerges from the wilderness experience ready to begin his ministry.  What had taken place there prepared him for what lie ahead.  He went to Galilee and proclaimed the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Jesus was energized by the wilderness experience.  He had gone through the time of testing and come out stronger.  He was focused on his calling and ready for his public ministry.

Steven Covey tells a true story about a man who experienced a time in his life when everything seemed flat, boring, dull.1  He went to his physician, who found nothing wrong with him physically.  The doctor then suggested that he take a day for some spiritual renewal.  He was to go to a place that had been special to him as a child.  He could take food, but nothing else.  The doctor then handed him four prescriptions--one to be read at 9 am, one to be read at noon, one at 3 pm, and the final one at 6 pm.  The patient agreed and the next day, drove himself to the beach.

At 9 am he opened the first prescription, which read simply “Listen carefully.”  For three hours, do nothing but listen?  Our friend was annoyed, but decided to obey.  At first he heard the wind, the birds, the surf--predictable beach sounds.  But then he found himself listening to his inner voice, reminding him of some of the lessons the beach had taught him as a child--patience, respect, the interdependence of the different parts of nature.  Soon, he was feeling more peaceful than he had in a long time.

At noon, he opened the second prescription, and it said, “Try reaching back.”  His mind began to wander, and he discovered himself being overwhelmed by all the moments of joy and blessing, the wonderful gifts he has received in the past.

At three, he opened the third prescription.  This one was harder.  It read, “Examine your motives.”  Defensively, this man listed all the motivating factors of his life--success, recognition, security--and found satisfactory explanations for them all.  But finally it occurred to him, in a shattering moment, that those motives were not enough--that the lack of a deeper motive probably accounted for the staleness and boredom of his life.  “In a flash of certainty,” he wrote, “I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right.  It makes no difference if you are a scientist, a housewife, a mail carrier, or an attorney.  It is only when you are serving others that you do the job well and feel good.”

At 6 pm he read the final prescription.  It said, “Write your worries on the sand.”  He took a shell, scratched a few words, and then walked away--never turning back.  He knew, with a great sense of relief, that the tide would come in, and his anxieties would be washed away.”

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing, a time of reflecting, a time of preparation.  He listened to his inner voice, he reached back for the blessings of his past, he examined his motives.  He rejected the easy way, he rejected the allure of personal power and ambition.  He put the really tough questions on the table.  And then, when he understood clearly who God had called him to be, he went back into the world, ready to serve.

This morning, God invites us on a journey.  May we allow God’s spirit to sustain us as we examine our lives, as we reflect on our calling, as we leave behind sinful ways and anxious minds.  And then may we boldly go forth into the world to share the Good News.  This is the promise and the possibility of this season.  And if it starts with ashes and repentance, maybe it ends with something like resurrection.  Amen. 

1) in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pp. 292-294.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

“Stuff You Really Don’t Have to Believe: ‘The Church Should Stick to Saving Souls and Keep Its Nose Out of Social Issues’” - March 2, 2014

Texts: Amos 5:21-24, Luke 4:16-19

I have enjoyed this series of sermons on “Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe.”  There are a lot of assumptions people have about Christian faith, a lot of beliefs that Christians have about Christian faith, that are not only wrong but harmful.  We could probably go on and on with this series, but we’ll stop today with an idea that I have heard in various forms, which basically boils down to “Churches should stick to saving souls and keep their noses out of social issues.”

It has to do with the role of the church in the world and whether Christian faith is only about personal salvation and personal morality, or whether faith has broader and more public claims.

We lived in a small community in Illinois before moving to Ames.  Arthur was a small town with more energy and civic pride than a lot of small towns, and it was because of the Amish who had settled in the area.  The Amish made the area a tourist destination of sorts, and there were a lot of small Amish businesses in the surrounding rural area, bakeries and candy makers and upholstery shops and quilt shops and what-not, as well as excellent furniture makers and cabinet makers.  There were also what were called Salvage Stores, Amish grocery stores that stocked a lot of past date and discontinued items.  Between the various businesses and the novelty of seeing horse buggies on the road, there were a lot of visitors to the area and the economy was doing very well for a community of its size.

What was interesting was the level of involvement of the Amish in the wider community.  They would participate in community matters, but only to a certain point.  Many of the children actually attended public schools – the private Amish schools were expensive – but they were only with the English students through sixth grade.  Amish students had their own seventh and eighth grade classes devoted to practical skills, because that was as far as they went in school.  Amish students did not go to high school; they went to work, much to the dismay of townspeople who thought that if we only had some of those Amish kids on the line, our football team would be unstoppable.

The Amish did not vote.  They did not run for office.  They did not participate in civic or political life.  Culturally, they were in another world.  No electricity, no automobiles, no tractors, no telephones.  Well, they did have telephones – there would be phone booths out in the countryside, and maybe six families would share a phone booth.  Someone with a business would tell clients or customers to call between 6 and 7 am, because that is when he would be at the phone.  But they had no phones in their homes.

The Amish way of life is based on the idea of being separate – of separating themselves from the evil of the world around them.  It is a Biblical idea.  In 2 Corinthians chapter 6 we read, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.  For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?  Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? … Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them.”  “Be ye separate.”  It’s Biblical. 

There are those in, for lack of a better world, more mainstream Christian churches who have a similar approach to involvement in the wider society.  For them, Christian faith is about my personal relationship with Jesus.  If we start giving too much attention to social ills, to things like hunger and poverty and the environment and drug addiction, well, that’s a slippery slope and the next thing you know we’ve left Jesus behind.  The next thing you know, we are more worried about a person’s earthly state than their eternal state.  No, we need to just focus on spiritual things.  And when it comes to behavior, our concern is not so much social concerns but matters of personal morality – things like not drinking or smoking or cursing and being sexually pure.

As a seminary student I served as a summer youth minister at a church in my hometown.  The pastor was on vacation and I was preaching.  It was Peace Sunday, a day on the denominational calendar, and in the evening service I preached on peace.  Art Christmas, the pastor who is long since retired, told me after he got back, kind of chuckling, that one of the members told him, “David had a pretty political sermon.”  Well, I had not advocated that the church disinvest from South Africa or protest nuclear proliferation – not that these wouldn’t be worthy of the church’s consideration.  But to focus on a topic like peace and talk about more than just personal peace in our hearts seemed beyond the boundaries of what this person thought was appropriate.

Now to be fair, those who see faith strictly in personal terms are not against combatting hunger or working for world peace.  They just don’t see that as the church’s role.  We just need to help people find Jesus – and when enough people do, then things in society will turn around.

I have talked before about Will Campbell, a self-described bootleg Baptist preacher who got in trouble in the 1960’s for working for racial equality in the South.  Will served in World War II on a medic unit on a Pacific island.  Once, in the middle of the night, a sergeant woke up Will.  He was needed to assist a surgeon with an operation on a severely injured island boy.  A crusty colonel form Atlanta performed the operation.  Sadly, the boy did not survive.

After the operation, the colonel asked the sergeant what had happened to the boy.  The sergeant told him that he had dropped the ashtray of a wealthy French planter and that the man had beaten the child mercilessly.  The colonel looked at the boy, still on the operating table, and said, “That’s a helluva price to pay for dropping a g**d*** ashtray. 

After they delivered the body to the family, the sergeant asked Will if he would go with him to the chapel to pray.  Seeing a little boy beaten to death for dropping an ashtray would motivate most anybody to pray, so Will readily went with him.  But he was shocked by the sergeant’s prayer.  The sergeant prayed and prayed, but never prayed for the boy who had been lost, or his family, or for justice for the man responsible for his death.  Instead, the sergeant prayed for the surgeon who had taken the Lord’s name in vain.  He seemed profoundly distressed about the colonels’ sin.

Campbell was flabbergasted that this man was more concerned with the colonel’s cursing than he was the tragic death of this boy or the gross injustice of the planter.  This incident affected Campbell deeply and stuck with him throughout his life.  It was a reminder that when we focus too narrowly on personal piety and ignore the larger issues of compassion and justice, we can miss the point of religious faith.    

Now, I do not in any way want to disparage those who emphasize personal religion.  And indeed, our Baptist tradition has always emphasized personal faith.  We each must make choices for ourselves about following Christ, and we celebrate whenever someone chooses to commit their life to Christ.  We want people to lead lives of faithfulness and integrity.  And there is some truth to the idea that when individual lives are changed, then the world will be changed.

But there is no way you can read the scriptures and not be struck by how much God is concerned about justice.  There is no way you can read the Bible and come away with the idea that faith only pertains to the personal and individual sphere.  And while there is this strand of separatist religion in the Bible, it is more about the survival of the community in the midst of a hostile culture than it is about ignoring social need.

What about Jesus?  When he gives his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the book of the prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  And Jesus tells his listeners that these words had come to pass right in front of their eyes.  He was taking this as his personal mission statement.

To me, the dichotomy between personal faith and social concern is a false one.  We have to have both.  It really can’t be either/or, because if our faith is in Jesus, then following Jesus will lead us to a concern for the world around us.  We will be concerned about personal salvation and personal behavior and responsibility.  And we will also be concerned for the social dimensions of faith.  Scripture teaches us that God passionately cares about poverty, the environment, peace, healthcare, immigration, our justice system, fair wages, hunger.  It’s both/and.
Ken Chafin was my preaching professor in seminary.  A great guy, he was from Texas – I mean, he was from Texas and he was still a great guy.  He had worked for the Billy Graham organization at one time and had taught evangelism at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, so he had the conservative, evangelistic bona fides.  But Ken was a thinker and a community-builder and because he was too open, too inclusive, too ecumenical, he was on the outs with the fundamentalist group that had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention.  And he wound up being a guy who went on Phil Donahue and network news program to debate or give an alternative viewpoint to people like Jerry Falwell.

Anyway, Ken was one of the most encouraging professors I ever had and made me feel like I was a better preacher than I actually was.  (I know, I know: you’re probably thinking that I never got over that…)

Ken had an interesting take on evangelism.  He told us about a church in Houston, a Methodist church that was growing by leaps and bounds.  He asked the church’s pastor about that.  Ken said, “You don’t seem ‘evangelistic’ – you don’t preach evangelistic sermons or have altar calls or use the latest church growth programs.  But you seem to be the fastest growing church in town.  What are you doing?”

And the pastor told him, “When you speak to the pain people are feeling and when you address the hurts and problems people see around then, it is the most evangelistic thing you can do.  When people see that you care about them and care about the world around them, they are drawn in.”  His point was that a concern for the needs of people, a concern for social justice, could actually be very evangelistic.  People want to be part of a church that is making a difference, caring about its community, caring about the world.

Christian faith is deeply personal, but it is not only personal.  Faith is also deeply communal – our faith is a shared faith - and authentic faith reaches out in love to all of the world, addressing wrongs, working for justice, building bonds of peace.  A deep personal faith will lead us to involvement in God’s world, while social concern expressed in the wider society can make people more open to the gospel, to the message of personal salvation.  The two go hand in hand.

This idea that the Church should only worry about personal salvation and not worry about social justice is wrong for two reasons.  First, it is wrong about what salvation means.  A lot of people think that kind of talk means a ticket to heaven and escape from eternal punishment.  But that’s an incomplete, a weak and simplistic understanding of salvation.  When the Bible speaks of salvation, it speaks of wholeness and healing and reconciliation, of being in right relationship, of shalom – of peace – with God and with others.  We are not just saved from something, we are saved for something – to be a part of God’s work in this world.  Salvation includes the life to come, but it is most definitely here and now.

So if we want to focus on salvation, well, salvation has social implications.  Salvation assumes concern for mercy and justice in God’s world.

And then, I challenge anybody to find the phrase “personal salvation” in the scriptures.  You won’t find anything about Jesus being a “personal savior” either.  Yes, faith is personal, and yes, we have to choose faith freely, for ourselves.  But we are part of a community.  We are connected to one another.  And we have been called together to serve God in this world.  Our concern is not only for those within these four walls, it is for the world out there.

The prophet Amos spoke to a people who were caught up in religious ritual but apparently unconcerned about matters of justice, blind to social need.  God says through Amos, “I hate your religious festivals, I will not accept your offerings, I cannot stand your songs and your music.  You are just going through the motions.  You’re just playing church.  But let justice roll like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Personal faith, if it is real faith, if it is faith in Christ, can’t help but lead us to concern for our world.  Amen.