Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Leave Your Nets" - January 26, 2014

Matthew 4:12-23

                The gospels have two separate traditions about the calling of the disciples Peter and Andrew.  One of them we looked at last week.  The other version combines it with the calling of James and John, as we’ve heard this morning.  That story is one of the dramatic scenes that Matthew is so fond of repeating.

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” [Matthew 4:18-22]
Can you imagine what it would take to make you drop everything, right then and there, and go? 

            John Allen, a U.C.C. pastor in Wellesley, Massachusetts points out that it might not have taken much to get them to do that.  When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, that meant he came preaching that the Roman Emperor was not the be-all and end-all.  Fishermen were heavily taxed and had to pay for the privilege of fishing whether or not they caught anything.  The proceeds went to support the soldiers who occupied their country.  He points out how the historian Josephus records that in the year 37, Galilean peasants who were in the same position simply stopped farming as a general strike to protest Roman offenses against the Temple in Jerusalem.

“Jesus is inviting Simon and Andrew to take a profound economic risk and he is calling them away from the business of feeding empire and toward the work of healing, teaching, and loving ordinary people.  The young men’s eagerness to follow Jesus is striking: they walk away briskly from the life they had known, even abandoning family.  This is a response to Jesus’ charisma to be sure, but it also bears witness to a smoldering sense of dissatisfaction in the brothers, a sense that they were ready to leave behind the tasks of a dominated people and seek new freedom with this leader.”[1]
            The call of Jesus always means turning away from something, but it always means turning toward something else that turns out, in the long run, to be better.  It means leaving behind a life ruled by frustration or fear or greed or power games – all the things that the Bible calls “works of the flesh” – and toward a life of freedom that reaches for justice.

            When I think about people in our own day who have experienced that kind of call, a man who comes to mind is Millard Fuller, who founded “Habitat for Humanity”.  This is from the obituary page of the New York Times for February 3, 2009.  It’s long, but bear with me, and listen for the same theme, of how Jesus calls people away from one way of life and into another.

“Millard Dean Fuller was born on Jan. 3, 1935, in Lanett, Ala., then a small cotton-mill town. His mother died when he was 3, and his father remarried. Millard’s business career began at 6 when his father gave him a pig. He fattened it up and sold it for $11. Soon he was buying and selling more pigs, then rabbits and chickens as well. He dabbled in selling worms and minnows to fishermen. …
Mr. Fuller went to Auburn University, running unsuccessfully for student body president, and in 1956 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He graduated from Auburn with a degree in economics in 1957 and entered the University of Alabama School of Law.
He and Morris S. Dees Jr., another law student, decided to go into business together while in the law school. They set a goal: get rich.
They built a successful direct-mail operation, published student directories and set up a service to send cakes to students on their birthdays. They also bought dilapidated real estate and refurbished it themselves. They graduated and went into law practice together after Mr. Fuller briefly served in the Army as a lieutenant.
As law partners, they continued to make money. Selling 65,000 locally produced tractor cushions to the Future Farmers of America made $75,000. Producing cookbooks for the Future Homemakers of America did even better, and they became one of the nation’s largest cookbook publishers. By 1964, they were millionaires. …
Mr. Fuller’s life changed completely after his wife, the former Linda Caldwell, whom he had married in 1959, threatened to leave him. She was frustrated that her busy husband was almost never around…
There was much soul-searching. Finally, the two agreed to start their life anew on Christian principles. Eschewing material things was the first step. Gone were the speedboat, the lakeside cabin, the fancy cars.
The Fullers went to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Georgia, where they planned their future with Clarence Jordan, a Bible scholar and leader there. In 1968, they began building houses for poor people nearby, then went to Zaire in 1973 to start a project that ultimately built 114 houses.
In 1976, a group met in a converted chicken barn at Koinonia Farm and started Habitat for Humanity International. Participants agreed the organization would work through local chapters. They decided to accept government money only for infrastructure improvements like streets and sidewalks.
Handwritten notes from the meeting stated the group’s grand ambition: to build housing for a million low-income people. That goal was reached in August 2005, when home number 200,000 was built.”
            That just blows me away.  All of that happened because the Fullers realized that they needed to save their marriage, and that what had endangered it was a kind of endless drive toward acquisition and outward success that our society both applauds and nourishes.  When its consequences began to show themselves, Jesus called out to them, and called them out of that into something better – and look what it has done for other people’s lives, as well.

            There’s never any way to know who will hear that call next, or how it will reach them, or what they may be doing at the time.  There’s no way to tell where it might take them.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]
All I can say about that is to keep your ears open, because the call will come to you at some point and in some fashion.  Be ready then to put down whatever you’re doing at the time, and be ready to enjoy the journey.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

"There He Goes" - January 19, 2014

John 1:29-42

There’s an odd little linguistic tic in this passage from John [1:38-42].  Like the rest of the New Testament, it was written in Greek, which was the common language of the eastern Mediterranean in that day.  But it contains these scraps of Aramaic, which was the dialect that Jesus and the disciples probably would have spoken at home or with one another.  Andrew calls Jesus, “Rabbi,” and John adds, “(which translated means Teacher)”.   He tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah,” and John comments, “(which is translated Anointed)”.  Simon goes to meet him and is greeted, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas,” and John adds, “(which is translated Peter).”  At this point maybe I should explain that the Greek “Petros” is a translation of the Aramaic “Cephas”, which means “Rock”.  “Peter” is really a nickname whose equivalent in our terms would be “Rocky”. 

Now, notice: here we are, not much more than a minute or two into the sermon, and I’m explaining in English how John explained Aramaic to Greek speakers and eyes are beginning to glaze over already.  Am I just talking about the Bible instead of passing on the message that the gospel writer set down? 

Not really, because this passage is all about the way that people tell each other about Jesus.  John encountered Jesus and told two of his followers.  They met Jesus for themselves, and then one went and got his brother.  The brother went and met Jesus there in Galilee, and eventually became one of the major spreaders of the good news as far away as Rome, where he died as a witness to his faith.

All too often, we think we cannot share our own faith the way that they did.  Whatever barriers there are between us and someone else, we think that will inevitably mean that they will never understand us, or what Jesus means in our lives.  What John did, what the disciples did, really was just to say, “There he goes.  See for yourself.”  When that happens, it isn’t on us anymore, because Jesus takes over for himself.

We concentrate way too much on the differences that make it hard for us to understand one another.  That’s not to say they aren’t real.  I’ve already mentioned language.  What about politics?  What about age?  What about economic status?  What about culture?  (One time when I was in England visiting friends, I tried to explain why nobody I know in the United States would ever name their son Nigel.  You just could not send a kid to school with a name like that and expect him to grow up without a deep resentment toward you.  They didn’t get it, and there was no way to make it clear except to say that we are odd.)  If you cannot explain something like that fully, how can you expect to speak fully of what it means to have a Savior?  So we don’t try.

What if, however, we concentrated on the things that we have in common simply because of who we are as human beings?  Take a Maori tribesman from New Zealand and a Sherpa from Nepal and anyone you want to pick from Chester or Montgomery County.  When it comes to the deepest aspects of life, they each have to face the same challenges.  They each have to earn a living, and want to do it in a way that is satisfying.  They will each care about their family.  They each will know what a broken heart feels like, and each will enjoy a good laugh.  None of them will be without fears or hopes.  Surely those similarities are richer than differences like tattoos or mullets.  Those deep, human needs, are the ones that are met by Jesus.

John the Baptist called him “the Lamb of God”.  That title alone, easily intelligible by the first hearers yet so strange to our ears, says a lot in itself.  The lamb was then, as now, a symbol of innocence and gentleness and purity.  A teacher might say of two students, “This one’s a terror, but that one’s a lamb.”  That innocence, however, puts a lamb into danger.  Jesus was the absolute example of the innocent and spotless person, sent out into the middle of a cruel and hungry world, and he knew what he was in for.  He warned his disciples when he gave them their mission,

“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” [Luke 10:3]
Lambs sometimes get eaten up.  The world has never been able to tolerate those whose simple statements of right and wrong call into question the compromises that most of us make every day.  Such people are an embarrassment, and if they speak too loudly or are heard too clearly, they can count on being silenced one way or another.  Who does not understand that?

In another sense, too, he was “the Lamb of God”.  The people of Israel had for centuries followed the rituals of the Law that provided for the sacrifice of a lamb as a sign of the re-establishment of proper relations between people and God.  It wasn’t so much, as has sometimes been described, that God’s anger was put off with a gift.  God cannot be bribed.  It was more a recognition that God asks our best of us, which involves the purity and gentleness a lamb shows, and the sacrifice of the animal enacted the giving of life itself back to God.  Jesus, the Lamb living in the midst of us wolves, was at the same time offering himself freely to God in a way that represented us all.  There is no one who cannot understand the love that steps in for another, that takes the fall for somebody else, that steps in front of the moving bus to push a child out of the way, that gives its last piece of bread to someone else who is hungry, too.  Anyone, anywhere can understand that.

It isn’t for us to do anything but bear witness to that self-giving love as we have known it, and to do it in the most direct and simple ways that we can.  Kathleen Norris speaks of the need for that direct approach in her book Amazing Grace where she says,

“When I began attending church again after twenty years away, I felt bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church.  Words such as ‘Christ,’ ‘heresy,’ ‘repentance,’ and ‘salvation’ seemed dauntingly abstract to me, even threatening.”[1]
She goes on to talk about what she calls “rebuilding” her “religious vocabulary”.  So far, so good.  But then one day she was on a book tour, giving a reading from the book where she said this, and afterward a woman came up to her.

“‘I don’t mean to be offensive,’ she said, ‘but I just don’t understand how you can get so much comfort from a religion whose language does so much harm.’”
Norris continues,

“I had spent too many years outside the Christian religion to be offended by her comment.  I know very well that faith can seem strange, and even impenetrable, to those who do not share it.  I understood all too well where that question was coming from.  But how to respond, there and then, to this woman’s evident bafflement, and even anguish?  I took a deep breath, and blessed clarity came.  …Look, I said to her, as a rush of words came to me.  As far as I’m concerned, this religion has saved my life, my husband’s life, and our marriage.  So it’s not comfort that I’m talking about here but salvation.”[2]
            “Look!” said John the Baptist long ago.  “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” [John 1:36]  “Look,” said Kathleen Norris to the woman whom she met on her book tour.  “Come and see,” [John 1:39] Jesus invited long ago.  “Come and see,” he invites today.

            Hey!  Look!  There he goes!

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 2.
[2] Ibid., 4.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"This Is Him" - January 12. 2014

Matthew 3:13-17
 “This Is Him”
 January 12, 2014

            I can remember, one day in early summer quite a few years ago (I was about the age then that One Direction is now, if that gives you some idea), getting onto the El at 69th Street and looking up at the ads that lined the top of the train car and seeing one that has stuck with me.  It said, “This is my Son: listen to Him! – the Bible.”  The reason is has stayed with me is that, even then, I thought how that ad made no sense at all.  First off, I had to assume it referred to Jesus but it never mentioned him, so that was a problem.  Second, it bugged me that it just said, “The Bible,” without giving a specific reference.  Maybe that wouldn’t bother everybody, but I was an English major and we like our citations to be in order.  What really got to me, though, was the advertisement’s assumption that someone who was not a Christian would somehow be affected because a piece of cardboard on a subway said that the Bible said to listen to Jesus.  Furthermore, it didn’t say anything that he said.  How was this supposed to change anyone’s life in any way?

            Or, to flip it around, what one verse or message that could be posted on an ad like that would really get the message out?  Bumper stickers: you’ve seen them.

                        “Try Jesus.  If you don’t like him, the devil will take you back.”
                        “Jesus Saves.”
                        “Jesus Is Lord.”
                        “Jesus Is Lord Whether You Believe It Or Not.”
                        “Jesus Makes Me Smile.”
                        “I’ve Read the Final Chapter.  God Wins.”
                        “No Jesus, No Peace.  Know Jesus, Know Peace.”
                        “Blessed Is the Nation Whose God Is the Lord.”

I don’t get the feeling that any of them, especially the snarky ones, would really make someone re-evaluate the way that they see the world.  The best that they do – which is not itself a bad thing – is to encourage someone who already has some faith.

            Since I mentioned “One Direction” earlier, let me quote one of their songs that says,

                        “Words will be just words
                        Till you bring them to life.”

That was what Jesus was doing when he submitted to be baptized by John.  He was bringing words to life.  It would have been entirely appropriate if he had gone out to where John was holding his revival meeting and sinners of all sorts were confessing their faults publicly and publicly turning away from them, and had just stood by and watched.  He had nothing to repent of.  John knew that, and was uncomfortable with the notion of Jesus taking part in what was going on.  As Matthew tells it,

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”  [Matthew 3:13-14]
Jesus was never over and above people, though.  He always stood right there with them, even when he was confronting their sins.  He took some criticism for that, and it hurt him.  He expressed exasperation with the upright people who got upset about it.  Matthew, again, records his remark that

“John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” [Matthew 11:18-19]
But that was in the future when he went to see John at the Jordan.  He told John to go ahead.

“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” [Matthew 3:15]
What was going on there was that he was sharing the lives of the people who most needed him.  His public ministry, which he was just starting, would involve both speaking the Word of God to the people and bringing his words to life.  So at the very start, God gave his approval.

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” [Matthew 3:18-19]
That approval meant a lot because it would not just be spoken criticism he would face, but active opposition, and eventually outright persecution and death.  Even that death would embody that solidarity with sinners. 

            Luke [23:39-43] tells how when Jesus was crucified, two bandits were crucified along with him.  
One of them taunted Jesus and mocked him, but the other saw in the dying Lord an innocent man who was close to God and could draw others close as well.

“‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’  He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” [Luke 23:42]
It is in the way that he led his life that Jesus’ authority rested.  It is in the way that he died, and the way that he rose again.

            What the Spirit does now is offer that inner sense that, yes, this is the One whom God sent, but offers that sense to all people.  Assurance doesn’t come from the words of an advertisement or a bumpersticker.  It comes from the grace that the Body of Christ (which is all of us together) offers when we stand, as he did, wet with the waters of baptism, not in judgment of people, but in caring and compassion for them.  It comes from the Spirit of God working in and through us, and nudging others so that they see and hear and know for themselves.

            As Will Willimon has written,

“It may take some people longer to get it into their heads than others.  But whenever one wakes up to his or her identity in Christ, it always comes as a gift – given by God who is the story and by God’s people who have told us that story, so that it could become our story.  We never cease being dependent upon the baptizers.
The ‘I Found It’ bumper stickers that appeared a couple of years ago were dead wrong.  According to the Bible, nobody finds God.  We may be looking for God, but we usually look in all the wrong places.  Most of the time we are looking for ways to avoid God!  But the gospel story is that God – in God’s infinite love and mercy – found us!  ‘I Got Found’ would be a more biblical way of speaking about our salvation.”[i]
That’s the message of Jesus.  He’s God’s Son.  Listen to him.

[i] Will Willimon, Remember Who You Are, Baptism: A Model for Christian Life (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1980), 39.

Friday, January 3, 2014

“In the Flesh” - January 5, 2014

John 1:1-18

            In the ancient world, the Greeks were big on thinking of God as beyond all involvement in this world of ours.  By that, I mean the educated class and the philosophers.  Regular people had their stories of Zeus and Athena and so forth, and they pictured them as having emotions like ours.  For instance, one version of the background to the Trojan War says that it began with three goddesses arguing over who was most beautiful.  The deep thinkers looked down on such tales and said there was no way true divinity would get mixed up in all of that sort of thing.  In fact, there were those who said that God was so far beyond the concerns of this world that they weren’t sure that the world’s creator was God.  (Other philosophical problems issue from that, but we won’t go there for now.)

            One philosopher, with both Jewish and Greek roots, lived in Egypt and went by the name Philo of Alexandria.  He suggested – trying to reconcile his philosophical education to the notion that his Jewish relatives held that the world was created when God spoke, saying

“Let there be light!”

 – that there was something called “Logos”, which in Greek combines aspects of many of our words, including “word” or “reason” or “purpose” or “meaning”.  Philo called this “Logos” the creator: not exactly God, but God’s purposeful word.  Admittedly, it was somewhat confusing what he meant, even then.

            Along comes this Christian writer we call John, not long after that.  He begins to write about Jesus and to try to explain that he was more than just one of those prophetic figures who had listened to and articulated God’s will for humanity.  John spoke of Jesus as being the one who embodied it fully.  So he used some of this philosophical language.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” [John 1:1-3]

The philosophers and theologians could understand and work with that language.  They could argue or agree, but they knew what was meant by “the Word”.

            They could deal with it.  Some of them even went along with the idea that the Word could be majestic and powerful, standing out against the wicked world.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John 1:3-5]

 Then came the point where John said,

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” [John 1:14]

That was taking it too far.  If the Word was God, the Word could not be human, flesh and blood.  That was too limited, too touched by the conditions of life as we know it, by things like suffering and sorrow and pain and even death and decay.  In 1985, Human League sang,

“I'm only human
Of flesh and blood I'm made

Born to make mistakes…”

The philosophers would have said, “Yes!  That’s it!  That’s the problem!”  But – here we go – John would also have said, “Yes!  That’s it!”, only adding, “That’s the solution!”

Have you ever tasted the tea from one of those coffee machines in hospital waiting rooms, the kind of tea that looks right and smells right and is definitely hot enough (maybe too hot) but somehow just tastes mostly like tea?  Have you ever eaten potato chips made entirely without salt?  Have you used only powdered milk for any length of time?  "Almost" doesn't get it right.

Would you want treatment from doctors and nurses who have never been sick?  Would you take batting advice from someone whose claim to fame is her shelf full of bowling trophies?  Would you want Denzell Washington or Harrison Ford representing you in court just because they’ve been cast as lawyers in the movies?  You want medical professionals whose compassion arises from knowing what it’s like to ache.  You want your coach to have played your sport.  You want your attorney to have gone to law school and to know the legal system.

            When John says, “the Word became flesh,” he says that God really cares about the world, about human beings, with such deep and genuine love that there is no way to step back from total involvement in all that we go through.  If God really cares, then what is called for is not some halfway or distant oversight, and certainly not assigning the job to an underling.  God cares so much that

“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  [John 1:14]

If that means taking on human suffering and pain and even human death, so be it.  The Word will be embodied, not just spoken.  The Word will not just be about God or about humanity.  The Word will be God and be human, both at the same time.

            Over centuries, we Christians tried to express in formal statements how that divine and that human side of the Word whom we name Jesus are related.  We constantly try to put the unspeakable mystery into speech.  We say,

“We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father,
through whom all things were made.”[1]
We say,
“We believe in God:
    who has created and is creating,
    who has come in Jesus,
       the Word made flesh,
       to reconcile and make new,
    who works in us and others
       by the Spirit.”[2]

We have put it in many, many ways over the centuries, but have held onto John’s assertion that God loves us not in abstract ways but as particular, flesh-and-blood people; and has made himself available to us not just in the abstract but as the first-century, male, Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking, Jewish carpenter named Jesus. 

Some people want to talk about God philosophically, and you can play that game if you want to.  However, the moment you want to get beyond talking about God and start getting to know God, you have to deal with God in-the-flesh, somebody who had family and friends and enemies; who told amazing stories; who went to weddings and who cried when one of his friends died; someone who got so angry when he saw religious corruption that he flipped some tables over; someone who trembled in fear when he thought of his own death – but went to it anyway out of love, all out of love, for us. 

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  [John 1:18]

So this John guy, after this incredibly high-octane introduction, goes on to tell some stories about what Jesus said and did, and when he came to the end of his book, said,

“there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  [John 21:25]

[1] from The Nicene Creed
[2] from “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada”