Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Easter Fools" - Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 20:1-18

In case you somehow didn’t know, today is Easter Sunday.  It’s the high, holy day of the Christian year, the day that we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the ultimate victory of life over death, of love and joy over pain and despair.  If it happens to be the day that we have biscuits and gravy and grits for breakfast and get Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies, well, all the better.  It is Easter Sunday.  But it is also – April Fools’ Day. 

Easter and April Fools’ are generally in pretty close proximity, but rarely do they fall on the same day.  The date of Easter depends on cycles of the moon and falls somewhere within a six week period each year, while April 1 falls on a Sunday only once every seven years, on average.  The last time Easter fell on April Fools’ Day was in 1956.  For a lot of us, this has not happened in our lifetime.  It will happen next in 2029, and then again in 2040 - but after that, not again in this century. 

The two days could not be more different.  It is unclear exactly where April Fools’ Day came from, but many believe it started with the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in the 1582.  Under the old calendar, the New Year was celebrated on March 25, but festivals marking the New Year were put off until April 1 if March 25 fell during Holy Week.  The year that the calendar changed, there were a lot of people who did not realize the year now began in the cold of January, and they went ahead and celebrated the New Year on April 1 - and so they were called “April Fools.”  It is unknown whether this is actually the way that April Fools came about, but it has come to be a day for “fooling” people – a day for hoaxes.

One of the best media-generated April fools’ jokes dates from many years ago.  It was a news report that aired on BBC.  It opened with a line about Spring coming early that year, prompting the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland to come early, too.

Against a video backdrop of happy women harvesting spaghetti from trees, claims about the cultivation of spaghetti were made in a serious and straightfaced manner. Spaghetti’s uniform length was explained as the result of years of painstaking cultivation. The ravenous spaghetti weevil, which had wreaked havoc with harvests of years past, had been conquered, said the report.

Afterwards, the BBC switchboard lit up with calls about the piece.  Many people asked where they could go to watch the harvesting operation in person.  Others wondered whether spaghetti would grow well in Britain, and could they buy spaghetti trees for themselves?

Well, we all know about April Fools, a day for jokes, a day for trying to get people to fall for unlikely stories.  April Fools, of course, is not a religious holiday, and has no connection at all to Easter.  Easter is not about preposterous claims – it is a day in which the disciples were given the news that Jesus, who had been crucified, was actually alive… a day that we celebrate the news that death is not final…. 

Wait a minute...  It may be that there is more of a connection between Easter and April Fools than we may have thought.  And since I may be retired, or as Jere likes to say, rewired the next time Easter and April Fools' Day coincide, if I am ever going to look into this, today is the day.

On Easter, Jesus fooled the power of empire.  As we have read and considered and experienced through our journey through the gospel of John since the beginning of this year, Jesus was a threat to the religious leaders.  He threatened their place, their role, their authority by saying that God’s favor and power and blessing was available to everyone, even to outsiders, even to sinners, even to foreigners, even to Samaritans.  This did not go over well.  He said that the law was made for our sake, not the other way around, and that to choose a legalistic application of the law over human life and flourishing was to do violence to the spirit and intent of the law.  He said that the law was basically summarized in “Love God and love your neighbor.” 

Jesus hung out with the wrong kind of crowd.  He broke social taboos.  He criticized the financial operation of the temple.  He had harsh words for those who were self-righteous and hypocritical.  At the same time, he was all about grace and forgiveness but as the power brokers saw it, he was far too lenient on sin.

Jesus was a threat to the way things were done, a threat to the prevailing order, a threat to the powers that be.  He scared them because they feared that he would excite the crowds and bring on the wrath of Rome.  This man of love and grace and forgiveness and integrity and honesty was such a threat that they wanted him gone.

Now for the Romans, Jesus was a minor problem.  For Pilate, the Roman governor, he was more of an irritant, and in the end, even if he didn’t see much harm in Jesus, he was willing to have him put to death in order to keep the peace.  In the eyes of Rome, Jesus died to eliminate the risk of future rebellion.  It was the way that empires always deal with those who pose a challenge, who threaten their power.  And so Jesus was arrested and beaten and mocked and hung on a cross.  Problem solved.

But the joke was on them.  Jesus could not be contained by the tomb.  The problem was that Jesus just would not stay dead.

Rome continued with this solution to its Jesus problem, its Christian problem, its minority religion problem that refused to bow to Caesar problem.  In that day and time, to say “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous statement, because the empire demanded that subjects say “Caesar is Lord.”  Christians suffered persecution and worse.  Many were martyred.  Caesar thought he was in charge of the world and that Jesus would be forgotten.  But the joke was on him.  Today, Caesar is a salad – and millions of people confess not that Caesar is Lord, but that Jesus is Lord, and are gathering this morning to sing “Alleluia!” 

That’s not all.  On Easter, Jesus fooled Mary and the other disciples.  Mary came to the place of Jesus’ burial to mourn, just as many of us have gone to the graves of loved ones to mourn.  When we go to the cemetery, the last thing in the world we would expect to see is a grave opened up.  The last thing in the world Mary expected was to find the stone rolled away.

And so she ran to tell the others.  Peter and John returned with her, running ahead.  They found that the tomb was empty, all right.  We read that the other disciple, who was John, saw and believed, but apparently what he believed was Mary’s report that the stone had been removed.  They did not buy that rising from the dead stuff.  Peter and John went back home.

But Mary remained.  When she looked in the tomb, there were two angels standing there.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they said.  “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she said.  Then she turned around, and there was Jesus.  But she didn’t recognize him.  She thought he was the gardener.  “Sir, if you have carried him away, just tell me where you have taken him.”  But then Jesus spoke her name.  And she knew.

The best news, the greatest news that we hear can evoke both laughter and tears.  Relief and joy and shock and surprise and disbelief and a flood of happiness, all at once.  A loved one pulls through a terrible illness.  A child we have worried ourselves sick about turns out to be safe.  Even at a memorial service, we mourn for a loved one and at the same time celebrate a life that has blessed us.  Tears and laughter. 

We have all experienced this.  In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary named its Word of the Year.  Some of the runner-ups were dark web, on fleek, ad blocker, and Brexit.  The winner was not a word at all, but a picture.  It was the tears of joy emoji, a symbol of a whole mix of emotions that end in joy.

I picture it that way for Mary.  Tears of joy, laughing and crying at the same time. 

Mary ran to tell the others.  She announced to them, “I have seen the Lord!”  But their response is underwhelming.  They do not seem to put stock in Mary’s news.  It was literally too good to be true.  As Luke puts it, “It seemed to them an idle tale.”  Something like a bad and completely inappropriate April Fools’ hoax.

But the joke was on them.  Later Jesus appeared to the disciples, and they believed.  Jesus was alive!  And there was no doubt laughter.  Jesus could laugh with Mary, laugh with the other women, laugh that she had thought Jesus to be the gardener.  He could laugh with the disciples when he showed them the holes in his hand and side.  Laughter and tears together.  What started with weeping ended with alleluia. 

Easter is a celebration that the greatest joke is on death itself.  There is a reason that Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated in the spring.  There is even a certain logic to the way the date of Easter is determined each year.  Easter is the only holiday based on cycles of the moon.  It comes on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox.  That sounds pretty complicated, but it makes sense if you think about it: Easter coincides with the greening of the earth.  Christ is risen and the whole world comes to life.  The grass is turning green.  Birds are singing.  Woodpeckers are hard at work.  Robins are coming back.  Crocuses are popping up and daffodils will soon be blooming.  Folks are getting their lawn mowers ready, or at least thinking about it.  

At Easter we think about bunnies and chicks and lilies, living, growing things.  These are all signs of new life.  But there is a big difference.  These things are natural.  They are expected.  Easter is not at all natural, not at all expected.  Imagine a police officer banging on your door in the middle of the night.  “Sir, I have some good news.  Your son who was buried last week is alive.”  We just don’t get news like that.

Barbara Brown Taylor said, “When a human being goes into the ground, that is that… You say good-bye.  You pay your respects and you go on with your life as best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them….”

Easter is a celebration that death does not have the last word. Frederick Buechner put it this way; “Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.”  The joke is on death, because in the end, God’s love proves stronger even than death.  

This is Good News.  This is Great News.  This is news that calls for Alleluia!  Because death is not just something that confronts us at the end of life.  Far from it.  Death confronts us every day.

Pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection.  It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small.”

Sometimes we dig a grave for ourselves.  And sometimes, life seems to do it for us.  We all need Easter because we all long for life.  I’m not only talking about the hope of a future on the other side of physical death, though that is certainly part of it.  But the fact is, brokenness is all around us.  Death is a part of our lives right now.

We all know about disappointment.  We all know about heartache.  We all know about things going badly wrong.  We look at our world and see violence, greed, poverty, disease, terrorism, abuse, just egregious inequality, and a whole lot of fear.  Outright cruelty seems to be part and parcel of our national conversation. Within our circle of friends and family there will likely be broken relationships, unemployment, problems with drugs and alcohol, serious illness.  We may be facing divorce or financial crises or legal troubles or just plain sad stories.  There are plenty of cases we would think to be hopeless, beyond fixing, beyond repair. 

We all know about Good Friday.  We live Good Friday all the time.  It is a Good Friday kind of world.  And I think we are really here today because we have all had it with Good Fridays.  We know hurt and pain and suffering all too well, and we are ready – we are desperate - for Good News.

The Good News of Easter, the message of resurrection, is that even when we don’t expect it, even when we don’t believe it to be possible, God brings new life.  It is surprising.  It is amazing.  It elicits those alleluias.

Now, living with the assurance of Easter – living with the faith that God can take our hurt and pain and disappointment and bring blessing, faith that God can somehow take our feeble efforts and bring forth something wonderful, faith that out of all the deaths of this life God can bring new life – can appear foolish.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians speaks of the foolishness of the cross, and later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we are Fools for Christ.  You might say that followers of Jesus are Easter Fools.  

Easter means that in the end, the joke is on death.  Beyond all of the deaths we experience, there is the new life that God gives.  Beyond all the deaths of this life and even beyond, there is resurrection.

That is the Good News, the Great News of Easter.  Alleluia!  Amen.

(Children will have noisemakers to use whenever they hear the word “alleluia.”)

"Palms, Passion, and Power" - Palm Sunday, March 24, 2018

Text: John 19:1-16a

Palm Sunday is one of the weirder Sundays of the year.  I mean, it is fun, to be sure.  We don’t get to have a parade in church just every week.  Waving the palm branches is pretty cool, and there is a kind of pageantry and drama that is missing on a lot of your “average” Sundays.  Of course, some years we gather outside in the warm spring sunshine for our Palm Procession and other years we have 6 inches of snow, like today, so you just never know how it will go.

So you’ve got the logistics of it, which can be both odd and challenging, but that is not what stands out to me the most about this day.  As far as worship goes, Palm Sunday is a day in which we can encounter a kind of emotional or spiritual whiplash.

Today is designated both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  Jesus enters Jerusalem to cheers and adulation, but by the end of the service, he is heading to the executioner. 

Most of us like the parade part.  We like the anticipated triumph of Palm Sunday.  It is kind of a rehearsal for the really big celebration of Easter.  And of course we take some joy in knowing that the dark days of Lent are almost over.  The temptation, of course, is to go straight from the excitement of Palm Sunday right to the joy of Easter.  It is the same temptation we always face: to ignore or reduce or bypass the pain of life.  But somehow, on this Sunday, we try to hold up both the anticipation of victory and the reality of loss side by side, and it isn’t easy. 

We have been in John’s gospel since Christmas.  Nearly half of John, 10 of 21 chapters, report on the last week of Jesus’ life, the week we have come to call Holy Week.  We have been looking at events from that week for several Sundays now.  But today, we have started out with a kind of flashback, back to the beginning of the week, back to what is called the Triumphal Entry.

It was the beginning of Passover week, and the crowds heard that Jesus was on his way, approaching the city.  So people ran to greet him carrying palm branches, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It is interesting that here we are, on a day that has been long known as Palm Sunday, but John is the only gospel to report that people actually brought palms.  Matthew and Mark and Luke report that the crowd laid their cloaks or garments on the ground, and Matthew and Mark also say that the crowd laid leafy branches on the road.  But you know, Cloak Sunday or Garment on the Road Sunday or Leafy Branch Sunday just doesn’t cut it, it just doesn’t have the cachet of Palm Sunday.

There is a reason that the people brought palm branches.  This was not insignificant.  A palm was a symbol of victory.  To wave a palm was to make a statement.  It was kind of like waving a flag.  This was the way that one welcomed a king, welcomed a hero, welcomed a conquering general.  It was a way to announce Jesus’ coming triumph.

And it was also, in a sense, a form of protest.  It was political speech.  You might think of it as a parade, but you could just as well think of it as a protest, a demonstration.  Instead of signs and banners, the crowd carried palms.  The message wasn’t lost on anybody.  Jesus had come to town, but others were also coming into town. Roman soldiers entered on horses, armed in a display of power.  A conquering ruler would enter on a white stallion.  Jesus?  He sat on a donkey.  This was a different kind of king.  But the crowds welcomed him with symbols of triumph and really, a statement of defiance and resistance. 

Was it triumph?  Was it victory?  The crowd thought so.  They thought they understood.  But they had no idea.  The crowd actions said that Jesus was entering the city in triumph, as a king.  They were sort of right.  But they were deeply wrong.

We pick up the story several days later.  In last week’s scripture, Pilate has a conversation with Jesus that leads to him asking that question, “What is truth?”  Pilate announces to the crowd that he finds no reason to charge Jesus.  There was a tradition of releasing a prisoner at the time of Passover, and when Pilate offers to release Jesus, the crowd shouts, “We want Barabbas!” 

In our reading for today, we find that Pilate is still not eager to see Jesus killed.  Which is notable, because as we mentioned last week, in a world of brutal rulers, Pilate was known to be especially brutal.  He was the kind of guy who could have a handful of people killed before his morning coffee break and not give it a second thought.  But he sees no reason to have Jesus put to death.

So Jesus is flogged and mocked and brought out before the crowd with a crown of thorns and purple robe.  Again, Pilate announces that he finds no case against Jesus.  But the crowd shouts “crucify him!” and says that Jesus should die because he claims to be the Son of God.

Pilate takes notice of this.  “Son of God” was one of the titles of Caesar.  The crowd is making the point that Jesus is a threat to Rome, that he is directly challenging Caesar, and that as Caesar’s representative Pilate must act.  If Pilate does not have Jesus crucified, the crowd is saying, then Pilate himself is no friend of Caesar.  So Pilate has Jesus come back for another conversation.  “Why do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asks.  “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  But Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” 

Pilate and Jesus have this conversation about power.  In a sense, this entire episode, the whole of Holy Week and for that matter, the whole of the gospel is about power.  For Rome, for Pilate, power really meant the ability to kill people.  Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence.  Throughout its vast empire, from Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.  Just as Jesus had come into Jerusalem on a donkey, Roman soldiers had entered Jerusalem mounted on horses, Roman standards held high.  It was a show of the military power and might of Rome, which was not to be challenged.

Jesus represented an entirely different kind of power, and Pilate doesn’t know what to make of it.  It scares him, it threatens him, just as it threatened the Jewish religious leaders.

Pilate represented coercive power – power over.  Power to threaten, power to harm, power to abuse.  Power used in the service of one’s own self.  In the temptation in the desert, Satan had tempted Jesus to use his power for his own purposes.  But Jesus rejected that kind of power and that use of power.

Jesus did not use power over, but power alongside others, power for the sake of others.  His was a power to heal, a power to build up.  He uses the power of story, or parable, to teach and inspire and convict and transform.  He uses social power, relational power to welcome outcasts and touch people on the margins.  And so he breaks bread with tax collectors and sinners and people of questionable reputations.  He uses the power of forgiveness and the power of acceptance to change lives.  

And there was a great power in knowing who he was and what he was about.  Pilate, the one who would seem to have all the power here, is the one who unsure, the one who is on the defensive.  Pilate is backed by the power of Rome, but Jesus embodies the power of God.

Now, we can give power a bad name.  Aspiring to power sounds un-Christian.  But I think that is because when we think of power, we think of Pilate’s kind of power, coercive kind of power, rather than Jesus’ kind of power, relational power.  Our church is a part of AMOS, a community organizing group.  To make changes in the community, you have to have power.  Power is not a bad thing in and of itself.  So AMOS focuses on building power through relationships with one another, with people in our community, and of bringing that power to bear in ways that build up the community.  Power is the way we get things done.

The fact is, we all have power, maybe more than we realize.  There are bumper stickers out there that say, “I’m a teacher - what’s your superpower?”  or “I’m a nurse – what’s your superpower?”

Maybe it’s a question worth asking.  “What’s your superpower?”  We all have power.  We all have influence, we all have capability to bring change, to make things happen to accomplish important things.

As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, community members, neighbors, employees, supervisors, voters, teachers, students, church members—every one of us has some measure of power.  How do we claim that power, and how do we choose to use that power?

What is your superpower?  And, how are you using your power?

Often as not, the power we have is relational power – power we gain by virtue of relationships with others and especially power that comes from God.  Remember Jesus’ words to Pilate?  “You would have no power if it were not given from above.”

If you know me well at all, you won’t be surprised that I feel a need to comment on the NCAA basketball tournament this morning.  In fact, it would be just plain wrong for me not to.

I went to school at Evansville, and back in the day, one of our biggest rivals was Loyola.  Years later, both schools are now in the same conference again, the Missouri Valley, and both because of that connection and because of the fact Loyola had not made the tournament since 1985, I was rooting for them.

And I’ll be darned if the Loyola Ramblers don’t go out and win three games in a row in the final seconds, all against higher ranked opponents, before crushing K-State yesterday.  (And as we Cyclone fans know, beating Kansas State is always a good thing.) :-)  Amazingly, the big media star from Loyola is not their star player Clayton Custer, who transferred to Loyola from Iowa State, and not their coach Porter Moser, who has toiled for years and finally reached success.  The big story is Sister Jean.

If you have watched the games, you know who I’m talking about.  Sister Jean is a 98-year old nun who has been the team chaplain for the Loyola men’s basketball team for 25 years.  98 years old, and everybody wants to interview her.  She has a graciousness and honesty and humility and obvious love for these young men that is powerful.  And it has touched people.  Charles Barkley wants to hang out with her at the Final Four in San Antonio.  They have Sister Jean bobbleheads.  Who would have thought that a 98-year old nun would be the darling of the NCAA Tournament?

She’s not physically powerful.  It is not a coercive power.  It is not power for her own sake.  But hers is a powerful story.

The Apostle Paul had a weakness, something he described as a “thorn in the flesh,” and prayed for it to be taken away.  But the answer was, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”  Power in weakness is a completely different kind of power than the power Pilate was talking about.  But it is real.

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  It appeared that the powers of this world had won.  But there was power found in weakness.  There was power in the cross.

Tony Campolo told about a week he spent as junior high camp counselor.  (I have to say here that I spent a week myself as a junior high camp counselor.  I did that once.)

At this particular camp, there was a boy named Billy who suffered from cerebral palsy.  Other kids were very cruel.  They picked on him.  As Billy walked across the camp the other kids would imitate him and make fun of him.  Tony was irate.

His anger at the kids reached a fever pitch on Thursday morning.  It was Billy’s cabin’s turn to give devotions.  Tony wondered what would happen, because they had chosen Billy to be their speaker.  Tony knew they just wanted to get Billy in front of everybody so they could make fun of him.  Billy made his way to the front and you could hear the giggles rolling through the crowd.  It seemed to take forever for Billy to give his devotion, all of seven words.  This is what he said:


When Billy finished, there was dead silence.  Tony looked over his shoulder and saw junior high boys bawling all over the place.  A revival broke out in that camp after Billy’s short testimony. 

Tony Campolo says that as he travels all over the world, he has met missionaries and preachers who say, “Remember me?  My life was changed at that junior high camp.”  The counselors had tried everything they could think of to get the kids interested in Jesus.  They even brought in baseball players who told the kids their batting averages had gone up since they started praying.

But God chose not to use the superstars.  God chose Billy.  And Billy’s honest and sincere faith was powerful.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Jesus was turned over to be crucified.  The week that began with a parade of such high hopes ended with a march toward death.  The powers of this world had apparently won.  But there was another power.  You will have to come back next week to hear the rest of the story.

“What Is Truth?” - March 18, 2018

Text: John 18:28-40

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School spoke out in the midst of their grief and pain.  They were very eloquent in demanding change to make our schools and communities safer.  The response of these students was very powerful.  But within an hour or so, the story was out over the internet that these were not real students but “crisis actors” paid by anti-gun lobbyists.

It was particularly offensive to attack and try to discredit high school students in the midst of loss, but that has almost become par for the course.  We live in a time of wild conspiracy theories, alternative facts, and fake news.  And a lot of folks are only too eager to believe it. 

The way that news spreads via social networking makes it possible for false stuff to get out there in a very short amount of time.  And indeed, a recent study showed that lies travel much faster via Twitter than true stories.  A paper released a couple of weeks ago by scholars at the MIT Media Lab analyzed 126,000 rumors that were spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017.  They looked at claims that were evaluated by major fact-checking organizations and found that false rumors traveled “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information,” and especially politics.

It wasn’t that those who were spreading the lies had more followers on Twitter – in fact, the opposite was true.  But it does seem to be the case that the novelty of made-up news is just too good not to pass on.  And we all tend to be taken in by things that we want to be true.

We can all participate in this phenomenon to some extent.  It is easy to live in an echo chamber, only listening to views that match our own opinions and preconceived ideas.  And we are all likely to shade the truth, at least a little, to favor our own position.

Not only do we have those out there purveying lies, there is also a growing hostility to the media and to those seeking to do investigative reporting – attempting to uncover and report on the facts.  It can be difficult to even agree on what the facts are.  It is not an easy time for the truth.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal had an article titled “Truth Isn’t the Problem – We Are.”    The author noted that while the term “post-truth” has been around for decades, its use skyrocketed in 2016 and is now pretty much an everyday term.  Among other things, truth has become a matter of tribal identity, and that believing the opposite of what so-called experts claim can be a pledge of allegiance to one’s political or opinion group.  So to disagree with 97% of climate scientists that human actions have an impact on climate change, or to insist the genetically modified crops are unsafe, despite an exhaustive study by the National Academy of Sciences concluding there is no such evidence, is at the heart of it not so much an assertion of what is true but a claim of group identity.  But man, it really messes with the truth.

All of this is to say that the question of what is truth is about as contemporary an issue as we can find.  And so our scripture for today seems to be, as they say, ripped from the headlines.

Jesus has been arrested.  Peter has denied him three times.  After appearing before the Jewish High Priest, Jesus has been taken to the Roman governor Pilate.  And what does Pilate ask?  “What is truth?” 

Before we look more closely at that question, let’s go back to set the stage for this conversation. 

After the meal on Thursday night, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested.  He was taken to the priest Annas and then Annas’ father, the high priest Caiaphas.  The Jewish authorities were given a certain amount of freedom in regards to legal matters, but they could not mete out capital punishment.  And it was the conviction of the powers that be that for the good of the nation, Jesus must die.  Only Rome could pronounce that sentence, so Jesus was taken to the Roman governor Pilate.

Now, Pilate did not live in Jerusalem.  His full-time residence was in Caesarea Maritima, along the coast.  What was he doing in Jerusalem?  Well, it was Passover.  A celebration of the Israelites gaining freedom from a foreign power.  This would understandably make the Roman authorities a bit nervous.  So to keep the peace and in a display of power, Roman soldiers were present in numbers during Passover, and Pilate the governor was in town as well.   

From what we know of Pilate, he was a brutal and repressive official.  Writing in the first century, Philo said that Pilate “had vindictiveness and a furious temper.”  He went on to describe Pilate’s “corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending and gratuitous inhumanity.”

Bottom line: Pilate is not a nice guy.  He is sometimes portrayed as a weak and indecisive ruler, but that certainly was not the case.  Pilate was actually governor on two different occasions.  In repressing a potential revolt in Samaria, Pilate was so heavy-handed and brutal, he had so many people killed, that he was recalled to Rome for a time, but later returned to serve again as governor.

Now, don’t think of governor here as we have governors today.  Pilate was essentially a mini-king, answering to nobody but the emperor.  He didn’t have to get the legislature to go along with the budget.  If he wanted someone condemned to death, he could make it happen – he wasn’t constricted by the judicial system. 

The Jewish leaders and temple police, along with Roman soldiers, bring Jesus to Pilate.  What takes place is very interesting.  If they were to enter Pilate’s headquarters in Jerusalem, this would make them ritually unclean for Passover.  So Pilate agrees to come outside to talk to them.  After a brief conversation, after hearing their accusations and concerns, Pilate goes back into his headquarters with Jesus in tow, while Jesus’ accusers remain outside.

So you have the most powerful person in that part of the world, a notably brutal ruler, speaking with an accused, marginal religious leader from an insignificant part of an insignificant country.  This is what you call a definite power imbalance.

And yet, Jesus seems to be the one in control of the situation.  He comes across as cool, calm and collected.  Pilate asks if he is a king, and Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Pilate responds by saying, “Oh, so you are a king.”  And Jesus says, “Those are your words, not mine.  I came into this world to testify to the truth.”  And Pilate asks that question, “What is truth?”

You may have noticed that Jesus does not reply.  There is no answer.  There is only silence.  Pilate’s words hang in the air.

I don’t think Pilate is asking about scientific truth or fact-checking.  He is asking a bigger, deeper question. 

Pilate has only known expediency.  Doing what is safe, what makes sense, what will protect his position and power.  Jesus represents something entirely different.  In the face of an existential threat, with his life literally on the line, here is someone who is true – true to himself, true to his calling, true to his God.

What is truth?  What is the truth about us, and about God, and about life? 

In a sense, Pilate did not ask the right question.  The question is not “What is truth?”, but “Who is truth?” A few chapters before, Jesus had said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Truth, capital T truth, involves relationship.  It involves community.  It involves not just a set of beliefs, not just a group of facts, but it involves our actions, our living.

If you ride a bicycle, eventually your tires can get a little wobbly, a little out of balance.  A tire may rub on the brake pad at a certain place with each revolution of the wheel.  Maybe you have hit a few too many curbs or potholes, or maybe over time things have just gotten a bit out of kilter.  So what you have to do is to true the wheels.  You adjust the tension on the spokes in order to get the wheel to where it is true.

A bicycle wheel is a good metaphor for our lives.  Are our lives true?  Or have we become out of balance, not really our true selves?

I think of those leaders who brought Jesus before Pilate.  It is an absurd scene.  They do not want to make themselves ritually unclean, and so they do not enter Pilate’s residence.  Now, condemning an innocent man to death, perjury, conspiracy to commit murder – these don’t seem to be big issues, but entering a Gentile’s home right before Passover would be a real problem.  Things were definitely out of kilter here.  It seems to me that they were not being true to the faith that they professed.  And we can be the same way as we worry about small matters and ignore the larger claims of love and justice.  Living a true life means living a whole life, a life of integrity.

Some of us are reading a devotional book by Walter Brueggemann during Lent.  In the last week’s readings, Brueggemann said a couple of things that resonated for me in relation to this question of truth.

He writes,

Ours is a time like the flood, like the exile, when the certitudes abandon us, the old reliabilities have become unsure, and “things fall apart.” The falling part is happening for conservatives, and it is happening for liberals.  It is happening all around us and to all of us.  In such a context of enormous fearfulness, our propensity is to enormous destruction.  We grow more strident, more fearful, more anxious, more greedy for our own way, more despairing, and, consequently, more brutal.  That propensity to destructiveness is all around us.  On many days we succumb to its power; we succumb to the need to look only after ourselves and our kind, only selfishly, only ideologically, only “realistically.”  (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 54)
That was the position of those who brought Jesus to Pilate.  They were being “realistic,” they told themselves, and were willing to sacrifice this man for what they considered to be the good of the nation.

Brueggemann writes that we have bought into a story of scarcity – that there is only so much to go around, only so many resources, only so much power, only so much capacity for joy and fulfillment and contentment, and that we better do what we can to take care of ourselves and our own.  This narrative of scarcity says that it is a win-lose world, and we need to do whatever it takes to insure that we are on the winning side.  We have bought into the anxiety and fearfulness of our time.  But then he writes:

The story we tell about scarcity is a fantasy. It is not a true story. It is a story invented by those who have too much to justify getting more.  It is a story accepted by those who have nothing in order to explain why they have nothing. That story is not true, because the world belongs to God and God is the creator of the abundant life.  (p. 51)

In Oklahoma last Sunday, we went to the Bacone College Baptist Church, which meets in the chapel at the college.  It was a very small group, as the students were on spring break.  We met a young couple named Eric and Yuree.  They had met at school there and got married.  Eric is from Wisconsin and Yuree came to the U.S. as a refugee from Burma – her ethnicity is Karen.  Her younger brothers live with them.  Eric has graduated and is the Assistant Pastor at the church; Yuree is still a student and she is a Christian Ministry intern at the college chapel.  They hope to go as missionaries to work in refugee camps in Thailand. 

Until coming to the U.S. a few years ago, Yuree and her family had lived in the refugee camps.  The camps have been there for 50 years – there are people who have lived their entire lives in those camps because of a fearful and brutal government in their own country.

That narrative of scarcity that fears the other, that tries to take advantage of and subjugate and abuse the other, has been around a long, long, time.  We can get sucked into that story.  But it is not a true story.

Pilate went back out and addressed those who brought Jesus before him.  “I find no case against him,” he said.  But the crowd would have none of it.  When he offers to release Jesus, the crowd says, “We want Barabbas.” 

What is truth?  Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Truth is found in a life of integrity, a whole life, a life of care and compassion and generosity that rejects the false story of scarcity and fear and lives in the truth of God’s abundance.  Amen.  

Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Jesus, Mister Rogers, and You” - March 4, 2018

Text: John 13:1-17

Jesus can be so weird.  So odd.  I don’t mean goofy weird or creepy weird or inscrutably, unexplainably strange.  What I mean is that Jesus is just so very different from what we would expect.  Different from what society would expect of a respectable and successful person.

Consider this: Jesus is famous.  He is a household name.  He has a huge franchise.  Countless millions want to invoke his name and claim to be his follower.  Now the Church – the institution – may be falling out of favor, but not Jesus.  Jesus is popular.  Jesus is a big success.

How do successful people generally act?  How do they behave?  What are their goals and aspirations and visions?  What is their attitude toward life?

Generally, the instinct is to build empires.  To amass wealth.  To lead companies, to build bank accounts, to expand spheres of influence, to exert control.  Folks usually want to cash in on their popularity and make the most of their opportunities.  They take advantage of the symbols of status by driving a luxury vehicle, living in a mansion, flying first class, vacationing in exotic locations and doing it all in style.  They don’t have to do dirty or difficult or menial work – they can hire people to do it for them.

Most of us, of course, never manage most of these things but we aspire.  In our own way, we can aspire to bigger, better, more powerful, more impressive.  And then there is Jesus.

In our scripture for today, Jesus is with his disciples, sharing the meal on Thursday of Passover week.  We have been making our way through the gospel of John, and for the next few weeks we will look at scenes from the last week of Jesus’ life.  Amazingly, 10 of the 21 chapters in John focus on this one week.  The gospel takes place over three years, and if John gave as much attention to every week of those 3 years as he did to this one week, then the gospel of John would contain 1560 chapters (I did the math.)  Admittedly, a lot of important things happen in that week, but this is just to say how much John zeroes in on what we have come to call Holy Week.  And if we wait until Holy Week to look at the events of Holy Week, we’re going to miss a lot.  So here we are.

Jesus is with his disciples, it is just before Passover, and what does he do?  He washes their feet.  It’s not the image we would expect.  This is far from the way we expect a leader, a person of power, a respected person to act.  To imagine washing somebody’s feet, you might think that it actually is kind of creepy.  The fact is, this was not uncommon in that culture.

To provide for foot washing was a common act of hospitality.  Travelers walked hot and dusty roads, and the host often offered water to guests so that they could wash their feet.  But the foot washing was generally done by the guests themselves – you washed your own feet.   It was self-service.  Or there might be a servant who would wash the feet of guests.  But here, Jesus combined the roles of host and servant.  He wrapped himself with a towel – taking on the uniform of a servant.  And then Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet. 

This odd combination of roles is what Peter objects to.  Hosts do not wash the feet of guests.  Rabbis do not wash the feet of disciples.  Leaders do not act as servant to followers.  Jesus’ actions offended Peter’s sensibility.  And if we are honest, this offends our sensibility.  Because we aspire to be a success, we aspire to at least a certain level of social standing, and that does not mean taking the role of a servant.

The conversation that takes place between Peter and Jesus highlights the striking nature of the hospitality that Jesus provides for his disciples.  This really is a surprising action.

Some of you may have come from traditions that practice foot-washing.  Many Mennonite and Brethren groups practice foot-washing as an ordinance or regular practice, and Christians from a lot of different traditions may from time to time practice foot-washing during Holy Week in remembrance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Martin Copenhaver, who was the president at Andover-Newton Seminary, told about the conversation a parishioner had in a small store near the church.  She saw a man who looked vaguely familiar and asked, “Didn’t I wash your feet last Thursday?”  The man responded, “I think so, but it was rather dark, so I can’t be sure.”

She went on:  “I had never done anything like that before.  That’s why I was so nervous.”  He said, “Well, it was a first for me, also.”

Then they both became aware that the shopkeeper behind the counter looked both shocked and confused by what she was hearing.  Seeing this reaction, the parishioner rushed to reassure the shopkeeper:  “It’s not like it sounds.  We are both part of Village Church.  We do that kind of thing there.”  The explanation did not help.  The shopkeeper laughed nervously and then abruptly changed the subject.

Well, it is shocking, really, but then, we are following One who consistently shocked others by doing outrageous things - like washing his disciples’ feet, a lowly servant’s task.

It has been customary through the centuries for the Pope to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples by washing the feet of twelve priests at the Vatican each Holy Thursday.  Over time, it wasn’t so shocking anymore, but more like a beloved ritual.  But then came Pope Francis, who washes the feet of priests, yes, but also women and Muslims and people with disabilities and prisoners.  There are those who have been aghast at what they consider outrageous and inappropriate behavior, but it seems to me that Pope Francis understands what it is about – that with Jesus, leadership means servanthood.

Most of you are probably familiar with Mister Rogers.  Fred Rogers had a PBS television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for 31 years.  Some of you know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He was commissioned to do ministry with children through his television program.

In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there were make-believe characters like King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchild, and there were also “real” characters like Mr. and Mrs. McFeely and Handyman Negri.  A Story Corps interview aired on Natinal Public Radio with one of the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.   Fred Rogers met François Clemmons in 1968 after hearing him sing at the church they both attended, near Pittsburgh.  He was so impressed with his voice that he asked him to join the show. 

At the time, François was a graduate student trying to get his singing career going.  He was reluctant to accept Fred’s offer.  But after realizing he would get paid to appear on the show—enabling him to afford his rent—François accepted.  He was the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series.

Part of his reluctance was that he was going to play the role of Officer Clemmons.  He had personally had negative experiences with police, and had experienced firsthand the violence that civil rights protesters had suffered at the hands of law enforcement.  So he really wasn’t sure about this. 

But fairly early on, a scene from the show convinced him that he could help make a positive impact on society.  In one episode, he had been walking the beat all day, and Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to sit down and rest.  Mister Rogers had his feet in a plastic wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and rest his feet in the pool.  So he does, and then when he gets out of the pool, Mister Rogers takes a towel and helps dry off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  Fred Rogers knew exactly what he was doing - it was a picture of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

This was 1969.  There was a thing about mixing races in pools.  Martin Luther King had recently been assassinated.  But here on this children’s program, there were black and white feet together in the pool, and Mister Rogers drying off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  After that episode, Mister Rogers was on the receiving end of outrage and hate mail. 

In the Story Corps interview, Francois continued:

I’ll never forget one day I was watching him film a session.  And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, hangs up his sweater and he says, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are?”  I was looking at him when he was saying that, and he walks over to where I was standing.  And I said, “Fred were you talking to me?”  And he said, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years.  But you heard me today.”  It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being.  That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.
Imagine that Jesus is not just washing the disciples’ feet.  Imagine that he is washing your feet.  Imagine that Jesus is looking right at you and saying to you, “I like you just the way you are.”

The call to follow Jesus is not a call to glitz and glamor.  It is not a call to fame and fortune.  It is not a call to popularity.  It is not a call to success, as the world defines success.  It is a call to service.  It is a call to love all of God’s children.  It is a call to probably get into some trouble, to probably offend some people somewhere along the line, because we are following One who got into trouble.

At the heart of Christian discipleship is service.  Next Saturday, we have a group who will be going on a mission trip to Oklahoma.  We will have fun, we will hopefully have some good food, we will enjoy being together, at least I expect that we will.  It’s not really a big sacrifice.  But it is about service.  We will be there to do what needs to be done.  Cleaning up the yard, hauling off debris, cleaning out storage areas, painting, doing fairly menial tasks – it’s not glamorous, but when we are serving we are asking, “What needs to be done?” and doing it.

Serving is doing what needs to be done for the sake of others.  And I see this over and over again.  In our church, I see folks who give of their time and effort, often in ways that go mostly unseen, to do what needs to be done.  I know that many of you serve in our community, serve in your neighborhood, make a real difference in the lives of friends and neighbors and family members and students and co-workers because you have hearts of service.

The thing about service is that it is something all of us can do.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.” 

The call to follow Jesus is a call to serve.  But there is also a flip-side to that.  For some of us, service comes fairly easily.  We enjoy serving others.  But if we have a need – whoa, that’s a different story.  We don’t want anyone doing for us.  We don’t need help.  We can take care of ourselves.  We are self-sufficient.

The fact is, we are all self-sufficient – until we’re not.  When we are unwilling to be on the receiving end, we are denying someone else the opportunity to serve.  And what we are really doing is keeping at arm’s length the possibility of relationship.

Peter was offended by the thought of Jesus washing his feet.  But once Jesus set him straight, Peter said, well, then not just my feet but my head and my hands too!  And Jesus said, the point is not the cleansing power of water.  It is the power of relationship.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to service.  But it is also a call to be willing to accept service from others.  We are all called to serve one another, and to serve all of God’s children.

We will receive communion this morning.  At times, we all come forward for communion, at times we may do it differently, but most often, we pass the plates of bread and trays of juice through the congregation.  A deacon may serve you, especially if you are on the end of a pew, but you may be the one to serve the person next to you.  The pastor and worship leader serve the deacons, but then a deacon also serves us.  You might think it is all just the choreography of the way we do communion, but behind it is this idea of all of us serving one another as we serve Jesus.  Amen.

“The Door” - February 25, 2018

Text: John 10:1-18

“The most important part of a church is the front door.”  This was the assessment of a distinguished church architect.

Not what we expect to hear someone say, is it?  If you had to name the most important part of the church building, what would you say?

Some would say that it is the nursery.  For new parents, the nursery is extremely important – the quality of the nursery can make or break whether they will come back to the church.

Or some might say the baptistry.  We’re a Baptist church, after all.

Or the Fellowship Hall.  It is used for meals, for receptions, for showers, for meetings, for all kinds of events.  Important stuff happens in the Fellowship Hall.

A person could make an argument for several different areas of the building as being the most important.  The bathrooms would get some votes and certainly the HVAC system –air conditioning is nice and the boiler, for all the pain it can be, is critical.

But if we were playing Family Feud and surveyed 100 parishioners, I have no doubt that the number one response would be the sanctuary.  This is where we worship, and worship is our reason for being.  This is where we gather week after week.

But this architect says no, the most important part of the building is the front door.  He said that because the front door is the first thing newcomers encounter about the church.  (Of course, with our parking lot, the back door is the first thing a lot of newcomers see, but we get the point.)

We are involved in a capital improvement campaign, and while functionality and basic maintenance has a lot to do with it, we are addressing some of those obvious ways that people first interact with our facilities.  We are re-doing the parking lot, and it needs it.  We are replacing carpeting that has a lot of mileage on it, not to mention too many coffee spills.  And we are replacing the back doors, which after many years are rusting, with rusted frames.

The doors say something about our church.  When the weather is decent, the front doors are often left open on a Sunday morning as a way of saying to those on the outside, “Come on in, you are welcome here.” 

When we put in new flooring several years ago, the fire doors to the stairwells had to be made a bit shorter.  I remember Jack and Delmar and Bob working hard to cut and grind down thick metal doors.  It wasn’t easy but it had to be done.

A door needs to fit – not only fit the size of the opening, which some of us amateur carpenters can have trouble with, but a door also needs to be fitting to the life that goes on inside. 

We have all been in that situation where you knock at an unfamiliar door and are not sure what you will find.  The story is told of the pastor who went out to visit a church member.  It was obvious that someone was home, but nobody came to the door, even though the pastor knocked several times.  Finally, the preacher took out his card, wrote “Revelation 3:20” on the back of it, and stuck it in the door.

Revelation 3:20 says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you, and you with me.”

The next Sunday, that card turned up in the collection plate.  Below the preacher’s message was written the following notation:  “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” - Genesis 3:10

In today’s scripture, Jesus describes himself as “the door.”  While the other gospels are much more subtle about it, in John, Jesus makes many statements of this sort about himself.  In John we have Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the true vine.”  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  In this passage, he goes on to say “I am the Good Shepherd,” but before he gets there, he says “I am the door.”  All of these images ask us to reflect on who Jesus is and how we think about Jesus.

As you came in this morning, you were asked to vote among various images of Jesus.  Which of these do you find most appealing?  Which do you like best?    We did this in the college class last Sunday and there was a suggestion that we have the whole church join in, so we did. 

There were a lot of responses, but the top vote-getters were teacher, friend, shepherd, and savior.  Shepherd is a familiar image in scripture – you’ve got Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," as well as numerous New Testament passages.  And then there are many shepherd-type hymns.  But let’s face it: most of us are unfamiliar with sheep and with shepherding today, to say nothing of ancient Palestine.  Without these familiar scriptures and hymns, it is not necessarily an image that we would gravitate to.

And then there is “door.”  Door did not get a single vote.  It’s one of the ways that the Bible speaks of Jesus – here as a gate or a door, depending on your translation – but we don’t go around thinking, “Jesus is my door.”  We just don’t.   

While an architect might point out the importance of a door, we all know that we do not come to the church for the door – even for new ones.  A door is a means of getting to where you are going - not an end in itself.  What does it mean to say that Jesus is the door?  And why does Jesus speak of himself in that way?

You might think that Jesus is mixing metaphors too much.  Is he the door, or is he the shepherd?  What does it all mean?  If the disciples were a bit puzzled, we may be really puzzled.

Well, we are so far away from what it meant to be a shepherd in the time of Jesus that it may appear that something was lost in translation, but that’s not the case.  Often, the shepherd functionally was the door, or the gate, to the sheepfold.  There would be an enclosure for the sheep, but the enclosure did not always have an actual door.  The shepherd would sit, or lie down, at the opening.  To enter or exit, you had to get by the shepherd.  The shepherd knew who or what was coming and going and could serve as the protector of the sheep.

While in the fold, the shepherd would protect the sheep.  But they couldn’t stay in the fold indefinitely.  There wasn’t enough grass, there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough space to roam.  The sheep could not live their lives in the fold.

We might think of Jesus as our door, our entrance, our way to God.  And that may be a helpful way to think about Jesus as the door.  But there is more.  The song “Hotel California” says, “You can enter any time you like, but you can never leave,” but most doors work both ways.  The traffic moves in both directions.  To say that Jesus is the door could also be a way of saying that Jesus is our way out into the world.

The shepherd protects the sheep in the fold, and then leads them out of the fold.  The text says that the shepherd brings them out and the sheep follow, but that is actually a pretty understated translation.  It’s really more like, “the shepherd propels them out” or “drives them out.”  The shepherd is not passive about bringing the sheep out of the fold.

Remember Psalm 23?  “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he leads me in the paths of righteousness.”  None of that involves being in the fold.  The shepherd is with us out in the world.

Now as we read this passage, a few questions come up.  It speaks of Jesus as the shepherd and others as bandits or thieves.  Who is he talking about?

We might take a moment to remember the previous passage, which we looked at last week.  In that story, Jesus heals a blind man but the Pharisees do not believe it.  Instead of celebrating that his man had been healed, they accuse him of being a fraud and a sinner, and they accuse Jesus of breaking Sabbath law by working and healing on the Sabbath.

In part, Jesus’ words – this figure of speech, as John puts it – is aimed at the Pharisee who had far greater concern for their own standing and power than they had for people in need.  They cared about themselves and not the sheep.  But not the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd wants the best for the sheep – the best for us.  Jesus came to give us abundant life, meaningful life, life overflowing. 

Jesus also speaks of those who are not completely committed as far as caring for the sheep.  Hired hands are not willing to confront danger or sacrifice their own security and well-being for the sake of the sheep, at least not in the same way as the shepherd, because the sheep belong to the shepherd.

We know this to be true – we have all seen it.  Barbara Brown Taylor (in Bread of Angels, p. 80-81) told a story that illustrates the point very well.  Her husband Ed had been out duck hunting all day on the river with his friend Tommy.  They had a good day and it came time to pack up and head home.  They pulled the front of the boat up on the bank and made a couple of trips carrying equipment and guns and decoys back to the car.

On their second trip back to the boat, however, it was gone.  They saw it floating gently down the river.  So they ran along the riverbank, trying to catch up to it, getting scratched up by the underbrush, but the closer they got to the boat, the closer the boat moved toward the main current of the river.

It became obvious that somebody was going to have to jump in and swim to the boat.  And guess who did?  “It wasn’t my boat,” Ed said, but he did help by cheering Tommy on.

A good shepherd is one who has a bottom-line bond with the sheep.  The text speaks about being the owner, but you can own something without having legal title.  We can talk about owning up to something, or owning our feelings.  And we can have a depth of responsibility to another such that it is an abiding commitment.

Now this can get tricky, because we know that responsibility for another can become over-responsibility.  We may be counseled against getting too involved in other people’s problems.  For one, it’s none of our business, and then there is the whole issue of boundaries.  When we are too invested in solving other people’s problems, too willing to rescue others, it can hurt both.  It can keep the other person from taking responsibility for their own life and while we might enjoy being the hero, it can be a heavy burden.  In the long run we are not doing ourself or the other any favors.

This can all be true, but the fact is we all need someone in our lives who will absolutely be there for us.  Somebody who, when the boat is floating down the river, won’t hesitate to jump right in and go after it.  That is not co-dependence or over-identification with another; this is self-giving love.  That is the love that the shepherd has for us and the love that the shepherd teaches us. 

Now, there is another question that may arise from this story.  Well, maybe several more, but one more for this morning.  Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  Where did that come from?

To go back to the door image: to say that Jesus is the door is to say that Jesus is the way, the path.  This is similar to his saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

If Jesus is the way, then he is our model.  To enter through the door is to follow Jesus’ way.  And what is Jesus’ way?  His is a way of love, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of humility, of grace.  To say “we are the only real Christians” or “we are the only faithful people” seems to me to do violence to Jesus’ way.

When Jesus says that he has other flocks not in this fold means at the minimum that we don’t have all the truth and we are not the only faithful community.  It is important to know that by the time John wrote his gospel, there were a number of Christian communities who were not necessarily all alike.  It’s enough for us to do our best to follow Jesus’ without judging the way others follow.  Jesus is our door to God, and we don’t need to use this door to keep others out.

This morning, we might think about our church doors in a slightly different way.  We are gathered in through these doors so that we might connect with the love and grace and strength and care of the shepherd.  The doors are to be open doors – ready to welcome other sheep.

But the doors work both ways, and after gathering, we are sent out by the shepherd to follow the shepherd – into the neighborhood, into our schools, into our jobs, into our homes, into the world.  And what are we called to do?  Wesley Frensdorf, an Episcopal bishop in Nevada, said that he dreamed of a church in which “all sheep share in the shepherding.”  That’s our calling: to care for and love and protect and guide and teach one another.

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, just the last in a long line of mass shootings, has brought about a lot of conversation - some much-needed national conversation as well as a lot of individual converstions.  Marissa Schimmoeller is a 9th and 10th grade English teacher in Ohio.  She dreaded going to school the day after the Florida shooting.  And sure enough, a student in her class asked, “Mrs. Schimmoeller, what will we do if a shooter comes in your room?”

She launched into her pre-planned speech, but then she had to say the hardest part.  “I want you to know that I care deeply about each and every one of you.  I will do all I can to protect you, but being in a wheelchair, I cannot protect you the same way that an able-bodied teacher can.  If there is a chance for you to escape, I want you to go.  Do not worry about me.  Your safety is my number one priority.”

Imagine having to say that to your class.  Her words slowly sank in.  But then, slowly, another student raised her hand.  “Mrs. Schimmoeller, we have already talked about it.  If anything happens, we are going to carry you.”

Those students understood.  WHen we are following the Good Shepherd, all sheep share in the shepherding.  Amen.

Thanks to William Willimon’s meditation on this text in Pulpit Resource, April-June 2005, p.13ff.

“I Once Was Blind but Now I See” - February 11, 2018

Text: John 9:1-34

Jesus and the disciples are traveling when they notice a blind man.  This was apparently someone known in the community and known to the disciples, because they are aware that he has been blind from birth.  Upon seeing this 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?

That seems like a bizarre and completely inappropriate question, but we might want to pause before criticizing too much.  We can play the same game.  In our own way, we maintain the suffering-sin connection that they had in Jesus’ day. 

In all of the health care debate over the past year, there was the assertion made that sick people should have to pay more for insurance because they have not kept their bodies healthy – they  have not lived healthy lifestyles and basically just have themselves to blame.  Certainly, lifestyle affects our health, but I thought of my friend Caleb, 7 years old with Type I diabetes.  Was it his fault that his health care costs are higher? 

There is still this notion that people bring misfortune upon themselves and can even be to blame for illness.  And then we can still 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. 

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 a man named 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 about the drinking did not get Farrell off.  Under a parental responsibility law in his community, 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?”  It’s not really so much different from our day.  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, says Jesus, is neither.  Jesus says that “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.  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 for healing 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.

And then we have Ash Wednesday.  A number of you were here on Wednesday night when we had ashes mixed with a little oil placed on our forehead in the sign of a cross.  It was a sign of our mortality and humanity and our commitment to follow Jesus. 

But Jesus takes this quite a bit further.  Oil is one thing, Ash Wednesday is one thing. To have someone spit in the mud and then rub it on our eyes – that is something else entirely.

It sounds really weird, but it was believed in that day that there was healing power in saliva, especially from a righteous person – so this was not completely unprecedented.  Jesus 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.

This was serious, so they brought him to the Pharisees, the religious authorities.  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.

We have seen plenty of cases where someone misrepresents their background.  College coaches have been fired for making up degrees.  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 maybe a prophet.

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 don’t know about that, but one thing I do 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.”

Last week we looked at the Samaritan woman at they well, and her testimony was similar.  She didn’t argue with people, she simply told about her experience and then said, “Come and see this man Jesus.”  What does this man do?  He just tells his story.

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 all might mean.  “I don’t know if he is a sinner,” he says.  “All I know is, I once was blind but now I see.”

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.

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.

“God So Loved the World” - February 4, 2018

Text: John 3:14-21

Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  The New England Patriots always seem to be in the Super Bowl, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of it, but I think the story here is the Philadelphia Eagles.  They were pretty mediocre, with losing records the last couple of seasons, but last year their rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, showed promise.  I had actually seen him play in college.  I went with Wallace Sanders to see Iowa State play North Dakota State.  North Dakota State is in a lower division than ISU, but they are always great.  They had a bunch of fans here in Ames and with quarterback Carson Wentz, they beat the Cyclones.  So I drafted him for my fantasy football team this year. 

Wentz had a spectacular season and helped me to finish first in my fantasy league, but he tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the season.  It looked like the Eagles’ playoff aspirations were over, but with their backup journeyman quarterback, Nick Foles, they managed to make it to the Super Bowl.

(Person in congregation holds up John 3:16 sign)  OK, OK, I’ll get to John 3:16.

It seems that every year at the Super Bowl, some guy hold up a sign that says “John 3:16.”  I guess the person holding the sign up expects that everybody will know it.  Although presumably, the intended audience is people who need to know Jesus, people who may be completely unfamiliar with the Bible.  Some probably would not know John 3:16 from John Deere or John F. Kennedy, but whatever. 

Now it is true that John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the Bible.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him (I memorized it in King James) shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

When we read the context surrounding this verse, there is some weird stuff going on, particularly in verse 14.  “… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” 

Most of us have not memorized that verse.  It refers to a strange and obscure story in Numbers about a time when after the Israelites escaped out of Egypt, the people started complaining about all of the hardships, and about then there was an outbreak of poisonous snakes.  It was the conviction of the people that God had sent these snakes because of their complaining, so they asked Moses to pray for them.  God told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole.  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone was bit by a snake, they were to look at this snake on a stick and they would be healed.
The comparison drawn is that just as those who looked at the snake lifted up would find healing, those who look to Jesus on the cross will likewise find healing.

Many of us are familiar with John 3:16.  We often relate to this verse in terms of how – it tells us how we are to come to faith, how we are to come to eternal life - by believing in Jesus.  This morning, I would like for us to think about this most familiar of verses in terms of the why question.  Why does God send Jesus?  Why does God provide salvation?    The answer to the why question is, “God so loved the world.”

We need to hear these words more than ever.  Some of us were privileged to attend the NAACP banquet this week.  Aiddy Phomvisay was the guest speaker.  As part of his presentation, he told his own family’s story, of coming here as a child in 1979 as part of Gov. Ray’s outreach to refugees from Southeast Asia.  He told about some of the bigotry and prejudice his family faced.  And he said that as they stepped off the plane at the Des Moines airport, nobody would have guessed that these little kids would grow up to be an attorney, an architect, a humanitarian, an educator and principal.  That family’s story has been repeated time and again, and unless you are a Native American, at some point that was the story of all of our families. 

But for some reason, we can have a hard time remembering that God loves the world – all of it.  In our fear we can easily retreat into the idea that God loves us, and while God might love others, it is probably not as much as God loves us.  There is a long history of signing God up to cheer for one’s own side.  It’s funny, but in wars, everybody seems to think that God is on their side.  And that includes wars of words.

It is the conviction of our faith that God created the world, indeed, God created us and everything in this world.  Even those snakes – whether you put the snake on a stick or not, God created it.  God created the continents and the oceans, the mountains, the forests, all the plant life – corn and soybeans as well as daffodils and honeysuckle.  God created the birds and the fish and deer and chipmunks and you and me.

God created this world, and God loves this world.  Not just parts of it, all of it.  God so loved the world.  Why did God take on human flesh?  Why was Jesus born and walk this earth and heal and teach and love?  God so loved the world.  Why did Jesus die on the cross?  Because God so loved the world.

Peter Arnett was a CNN television commentator and reporter.  He told about being in a small town on the West Bank, when a bomb exploded.  Bloodied people were everywhere. A man came running up to him, holding a little girl in his arms.  He pleaded with Peter to take her to a hospital--as a member of the press he would be able to get through the security cordon.  So Peter, the man and the girl jumped into his car and rushed to the hospital.  The whole time the man was pleading with him to hurry, to go faster, heartbroken at the thought the little girl might die.

Sadly the little girl’s injuries were too great and she died on the operating table. When the doctor came out to give them the news the man collapsed in tears.  Peter Arnett was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what to say.  I can’t imagine what you must be going through.  I’ve never lost a child.”

It was then that the man said, “Oh, that girl was not my daughter.  I’m an Israeli settler.  She was a Palestinian.  But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or a son.  There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (story told by Tony Campolo).

That man understood that God loves the whole world. 

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, now an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Med School.  Coles has done a lot of research on children under stress.  Back in 1960, he was put in charge of a psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi.  One day, while in New Orleans, he passed by a school where there were a bunch of demonstrators.  He discovered that these people were protesting that an African-American child named Ruby Bridges was allowed to go to the school.  She was escorted each day to and from school by federal marshals to ensure her safety because the local police would not protect her from the crowds who yelled and screamed and threatened this six year old girl.

There was more.  The school had been totally boycotted by the white population.  Ruby was the only African-American student.  So as the school year began, here was a six-year-old black child going to a school all by herself.   This is part of our American history.

Coles was interested in doing a study of the social stress Ruby was facing.  With the help of Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist that he knew in New York, Coles eventually was able to make contact with Ruby’s family.  Twice a week, he would go to visit, sometimes with his wife.  He would ask Ruby how she was doing, and she always said, “I’m doing fine.”  He talked to her mother and found that Ruby was sleeping well, her appetite was good, she had fun playing with her friends, she was learning to read and enjoyed that, she didn’t seem to be anxious or upset.  This went on for months.  Coles thought at first that everyone was in denial, that this was their coping mechanism, but it went on.  A few months later, Ruby’s teacher told him that she couldn’t understand how the child could be so happy and cheerful after facing the mobs, 50-75 people, twice a day, every day she went to school.

Ruby lived in poverty.  Her parents were illiterate – they couldn’t even write their own names.  They worked long hours at menial jobs for little pay.  They were going through tremendous strain.  And yet, Ruby seemed better adjusted than the children of well-to-do parents facing significantly less stress that Coles saw in Boston all the time.  He couldn’t figure it put.

Then one day, the teacher told Coles that she had seen Ruby talking to the people on the street.  He followed up when he visited Ruby’s home that night.  “Ruby, your teacher told me she saw you talking to people on the street.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking to them,” she said.  “I was just saying a prayer for them.”

“Ruby, you pray for the people there?” “Oh, yes.”  “Why do you do that?”  “Because they need praying for.” 

Ruby’s mother came into the room--she had overheard the conversation.  “We tell Ruby that it’s important that she pray for the people.”  She said that Ruby prayed for them all every night.  Ruby had been told in Sunday School to pray for the people.  Coles discovered that the pastor at their Baptist church also prayed for these people.  Publicly.  Every Sunday.

Ruby told him that the minister said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble and that Jesus said about the people who were causing trouble, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

She was six years old.  Six years old.  And better than most of us, she understood that God loves the whole world.

We could all learn a lot from Ruby Bridges.  Instead of demonizing those who are different, instead of thinking of other nations as enemies to be feared and defeated, what if we thought of them as part of this world that God loves?

Now, back to that John 3:16 sign.  I’ll be watching the Super Bowl today, and I won’t be surprised if while one of the teams is kicking an extra point, somebody in the end zone holds up that John 3:16 sign.  (They are playing in Minnesota, so an usher will probably be nice and let him take that sign into the stadium.)  Now, as far as I can tell this is done as a form of evangelism, but as said before, I think the guy with the sign makes a miscalculation: you have to already be familiar with the Bible for it to mean anything. 

So maybe the sign isn’t the best idea, but it has got me to wondering if there are other places where such a sign, maybe a sign that says, “God loves the whole world,” ought to be held up.  Like that snake held up on a stick, maybe we need to be holding up the idea that God loves the world.

As our Congress deliberates, and our State legislature and City council meets, maybe we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we watch news shows, with talking heads arguing back and forth, maybe someone needs to hold up a sign behind the commentators, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make decisions that impact the environment – our land and water and air, our climate – as we make decisions that affect future generations, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we think about children out there who may not be our own children, we need to be reminded that yes, they are our children – and we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make purchases and deposit checks and make decisions about what to do with our money, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign for us, “God Loves the Whole World.”

Taking John 3:16 seriously – taking the message of Jesus seriously – moves us from Me to We.  It moves us from concern for ourselves and those just like us to concern for others, concern for those who may be very different from us.

I think of the early Baptists, a persecuted minority who struggled for the right to worship as their conscience dictated.  Because of that history, because of that experience, they argued passionately for the rights of all people, even people they did not personally agree with.  Those days are in our distant past, and I’m afraid we have lost some of that conviction.  We need to be reminded that God loves the whole world.

It’s not just a sign to hold up at the Super Bowl.  We need to put a sign on our desks, and post it on our refrigerators, and have it dangling from our rear view mirrors, and most of all just get it into our heads: God loves the whole world.

You.  Me.  Friends.  Enemies.  Neighbors.  Strangers.  Old.  Young.  Men.  Women.  Gay.  Straight.  Republican.  Democrat.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim.  American.  Haitian.  Iraqi.  All of us.  No exceptions.

God so loved the world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.