Believing Thomas- April 23, 2017
Rev. Courtney Stamey
A few months back, when I just started my position at FBC Greensboro, I went to a preaching conference at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas TX. WBC is kind of the foremost Baptist Church when it comes to residencies like mine, and they want to support other programs through the pastoral residency network. What this means is that the network paid for my trip to Texas. I had never been on a business trip before, and I love Tex-Mex so I was pretty excited. Not to mention I wanted to learn some preaching methods and get creative about proclamation with peers I had never met. But there was something unusual about this preaching conference...the keynote speaker was not a preacher, but a poet. Needless to say, my tex-mex taco high was brought back down to earth. I know a little about preaching, but I know NOTHING and understand even less about poetry. But the trip was paid for so I was going, despite my doubts. Turns out the poet’s name was Christian Wiman, Yale Professor and seasoned cancer and faith wrestler. His latest book, “My Bright Abyss” is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” is a testimony to the wrestling he has done and continues to do. The book opens with the poem entitled “My Bright Abyss” it goes something like this:
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
And there it ends, well kind of, the last line is punctuated with a colon, expectantly waiting a second stanza. Describing all the things he believed in, all the things drawing him into the deepest parts of the bright abyss, drawing him down into nothing more and nothing less than “My God.” In the first paragraph of the book Wiman writes this…”For several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way-to will my way-into its ending...I have wanted some image to open for me, to both solidify my wavering faith and ramify beyond it, to say more that I can say…
Perhaps this is where we enter into our text today with that poem.
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this:
We find ourselves perched on that last line, scraping desperately for any image that characterizes our belief.
And as we look for that image it is easy to compare ourselves to Thomas. His doubt comes in the dawn of that Easter Monday. Thomas, missed the glitz of the Sunrise service, the empty tomb and the flowered cross. An instrument of death, turned into a sign of new life. He could not imagine generations later, crosses adorning steeples, and altars, jewelry and car bumper stickers. How could he, it was still Good Friday for Thomas. He could not imagine a resurrected Christ as he saw him beaten, bloodied, and bruised. The man he left it all behind for spat on, speared, pierced, and hung on the tool of the Roman Government for criminals. What he thought was the hope of the world died that day and was rotting in a grave. There was no belief, only unbelief. And Utter disbelief.
I think before we move there, it may be helpful to acknowledge our baggage with this text. Like my doubts of the poet at the preaching conference we may associate Thomas with doubt. In my research I learned that this passage is not really about doubt or skepticism, but it about traversing the chasm between belief and unbelief. Between faith and unfaith. In the version that I read from today, when Jesus confronts Thomas he says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” A literal translation of the verse would read, “Do not be unbelieving but believing” or as the King James puts it, “Be not faithless but believing.” The word pair here, apistos, unbelieving and pistos believing is the only time that these two adjectives are used in contrast in John’s gospel. Like Thomas, we must move from unbelief to belief, when we come into contact with the risen Lord. It feels like doubt is something different. Doubt is an integral part of our faith, it means that we have faith and we are wrestling within it.
So, when we hear of Thomas’ request, there is nothing to criticize. He is merely requesting what Jesus offered the other disciples. It is not the glowing gowns of the mount of transfiguration. Instead he wants to know that the horror of the crucifixion was real. He wants to know that the pain he saw was not glossed over as the images replay in his mind every night before bed. This is brave, this is courageous. It reminds me of the person with PTSD who realizes that in order to live their life they must speak about the horror they saw.
Just a few chapters before, in John 11, the disciples have received news from Mary and Martha that Lazarus is sick. The other disciples say that they should not go, for fear of the Jewish Authorities. But Thomas, not hiding away in this current scripture and not hiding in John 11 says this, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas is the one who would lay down his life for his friend, he was willing to do it for Lazarus. But he has now realized that Jesus has done it for him. So, if Jesus has resurrected, Thomas needs to see it, not because he is cowardly or afraid or doubtful, but because to experience Jesus is to believe. And to experience another, wounds and all, is the bravest thing we can request.
So, eight days later, the next Sunday. (Like this Sunday) Thomas gets his request. And this is what is beautiful. It is when Thomas sees Jesus with his wounds that he confesses, “My Lord and my God.” It is only when Thomas sees the remnants of Jesus’s humanity, that he can confess his divinity. Thomas is the first one in the gospel to confess Jesus in this way, “My Lord and my God!” His confession brings the gospel full circle. John 1 tells us, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the Word was God.” Thomas’ confession makes the final connection, that the Word, Jesus, whom we have been living with is in fact divine.
The Gospel of John is also unique in that the scene of resurrection is the same as the commissioning of the disciples. When we believe, we are sent out with the Holy Spirit, representatives of Christ, who can speak like him, and say those powerful words that your sins are forgiven.
But will people believe us without our wounds? Would Thomas have believed and made such a powerful confession had Jesus come with a shiny new makeover? I’m going to say no. As scandalous as it was for Jesus to come lowly, riding a donkey instead of a steed, it is even more scandalous that he is resurrected with his wounds. Jesus shows us that being a new creation does not mean forgetting what happened to us, but leaning into the pain and testifying to it.
What it means is that as followers of Christ, sent out with the power of the Holy Spirit, that we too must show our wounds to testify to the risen Lord.
As of late I have been reading a lot of Henry Nouwen. As you may know Henry Nouwen was a respected priest and professor who later in his life decided to move into a L’arche community called Daybreak in Toronto. L’arche communities are intentional communities where folks with disabilities and folks without disabilities live together. Peacehaven Community Farm, where I split my time, and work as a chaplain is also based on the L’arche model. All that to say, I have a lot to learn from father Nouwen who teaches me that the greatest wound is isolation.
In ministerial circles Father Nouwen is well known for a model of pastoral care called “The wounded healer” and it comes from the Talmudic story that follows
Rabbi Yoshua Ben Levi came upon Elijah the prophet and he asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come? Elijah replied,
“Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered in wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, ‘Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
Nouwen says that in this way, ministers are to act as wounded healers, modeling the messiah, tending to their own wounds and the wounds of others. This model recognizes that our wounds are a shared experience of the Christian community. Wounds are not meant to be compared to another or aired out for one's own glorification or even shown when too raw. But when we see each other as wounded we become more grounded in the human experience. When we move toward the pain, instead of trying to avoid it, minimize it or disavow it we are able to find community and in so find healing in the deepest wound of all, isolation.
In a later book, “Life of the Beloved,” Nouwen writes to his secular friend about how he sees the great commonality available to humanity is recognizing themselves as the beloved of God. In one chapter, he talks to his friend about brokenness,
He writes, “My own experience with anguish has been that facing it and living it through is the way to healing. But I cannot do that on my own. I need someone to keep me standing in it, to assure me that there is peace beyond the anguish, life beyond death, and love beyond fear. But I know now, at least, that attempting to avoid, repress, or escape the pain is like cutting off a limb that could be healed with proper attention.”
Our brokenness reveals something about who we are. It reveals our uniqueness as no two people suffer alike. That is why it is a privilege when someone shares their pain with another.
Nouwen also says, “Instinctively we know that the joy of life comes from the ways in which we live together and the pain of life comes from the ways that we fail to do that well.
When we show our wounds we are demonstrating that we are willing to fight the battle against isolation. And we demonstrate That entering into the Kingdom of God is not something that we do alone. Without showing our wounds we risk the danger of being cacti in a desert rather than trees in a forest. Storing up water for ourselves, prickly to the touch unable to provide shade for anyone, let alone ourselves. Perhaps the greatest danger is that without showing our wounds, who will believe?
If Thomas shows us anything, it is through Jesus’ willingness to show his wounds that he believes. Thomas doesn't need to poke and prod anymore, he just needs to witness the humility of our savior, caring for his sheep. This passage isn't really about Thomas or the disciples but it is about Jesus always willing to meet the needs of his sheep. And as followers of Jesus we are sent out to care for the sheep, and to show our wounds as Christ did.
What I do not want to propose is redemptive suffering, meaning that redemption or salvation occurs when God causes us to suffer. Nor am I saying that one should remain in an abusive relationship so that God may bring some good in it, or that the broken relationships from addiction are a result of a masochist God. Rather, when we have experienced suffering of any kind, when the wounds have healed, will you be willing to show it? Will you be willing to move towards another, in the fullness of your human self, so that God may be witnessed?
It's not that we are wounded to be saved but that we are willing to show the humility of Jesus. We are willing to be fully human instead of hiding ourselves, no matter where the nails and spears have pierced or where the whips have landed.
In Catholicism, One of the greatest gifts that a saint is said to receive is the stigmata. If you look at an illustration of St. Francis for example, you will notice that he has the marks of the crucifixion on his body. He was never on a cross, and yet his hands and feet and side are scarred like Jesus. The thought being that when one receives the stigmata they can experience the suffering of Christ for the conversion of sinners. So that when an individual looks upon the marks of Jesus on the saint, people will come to belief.
Friends, each of us has experienced suffering, we do not need literal marks to reveal that. But how can you, and I, share our wounds with another. How can we, like Jesus, humble ourselves and share our story to meet the needs of belief for another. To help them move from unbelief to belief, from unfaith to faith? It is not in shining ourselves up, or pretended that we have it all together, but in the real ness of our lived humanity.
At the end of Christian Wiman’s book he concludes with the same poem that he began with, through his journey from unbelief to belief, he ends as he started, kind of like Thomas and the gospel of John
My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.
As you may notice, it is exactly the same, with one nearly imperceptible change. It ends with a period instead of a colon. It ends in a period.
Wiman no longer searches for the perfect image to characterize belief. He recognizes that the beauty of the poem is that it ends there. Insufferably infinite.
And this could mean a lot of things, but what if it means this, that instead of speaking about our belief it is time to show it. What if the period marks the point where we point to our own humanity as evidence of our risen Lord?
It is time to follow Jesus’ example show our nail scarred hands, the piercing of our feet, and expose the gape in our sides. It is time to recognize that God is revealed in Christ’s wounds, his humanity, as his followers our wounds are our strength, our wounds are cause for belief. We just have to be willing, as Jesus was to show them.
Matthew 28:1-10 April 16, 2017
In many ways I still carry around the summer of 1991. It was a memorable time for me. Some of my experiences back then left their mark, but today one experience in particular comes to mind; the death of my grandfather, Walter “Tee-Pot” Frye. Now truth be told, and this is not easy to admit, I had not been the grandson I wanted to be in the months leading up to his death. The thing is, I didn’t know how to handle standing by as cancer reduced this larger than life hero of mine to a mere mortal. So I stayed away. Maybe other teenagers would do the same as I did, but I wish I had done things differently.
I did end up spending time with Pop, but only after he died and looking back, I believe my desire to be with him is part of the reason I spent so much time with him as he laid in the casket at the Funeral Home. When everyone left the visitation, I stayed. That next morning, I arrived at the Funeral Home before the first employee and patiently waited for the doors to open. As soon as they did, I went directly to the room where Pop laid. I opened the casket (I know, some of you might be thinking how weird, but it was what I needed and it is time I will always cherish) I pulled up a chair and continued right where I had left off the night before. At that point I just wanted to be with him… near him.
I apologized for not being there more often during those last months… He let me know he understood and that it was OK.
I told him over and over and over how much I loved him… He let me know he knew that all along, and that He loved me too.
I told him how much I would miss him… He let me know he would always be around.
I found as much peace and quiet as I could so that I could empty my sorrows to this man I so deeply loved. It was all I could do. No one directed me to do it. No one suggested that I do it. I just did it, and those around me provided the space I needed.
When I read Matthew’s Gospel text for today, I think Mary Magdalene and the other Mary wanted to do something similar when they went to the tomb. You see, Matthew tells us that their reason for being there was simply to look at the tomb. Isn’t this similar to others who simply want to sit alongside a loved one they have just lost. It is as though Matthew wants us to see the heartfelt human side of these women, instead of the side formed by adhering to rules and rituals and customs, like how to properly bury the dead. And while there is nothing wrong with adhering to rules, rituals and customs, Matthew doesn’t focus on them. Instead, he tells us about two women who came to see the tomb. Two women, mourning the loss of one they loved. Two women who simply wanted to be near him. No indication that they brought spices like we find in Mark’s and Luke’s account. What we have with Matthew’s account is two women, mourning a loss by doing what any of us would do… take advantage of any peaceful, quiet moment we can find just to be near our loved one and stay there as long as we can. Maybe they needed some peace and quiet so that they could pour out their sorrow.
Peace and quiet is not exactly what they got when they arrived at the tomb though, is it? Do you remember what happened when they arrived? [Read Matt. 28:2-4]
“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
Stunned Guards; and
Messages that the one they are looking for cannot be found here.
In this way, Matthew’s account of Jesus’ graveside scene is clearly the most dramatic of the Gospels, and for this reason some scholars have suggested Matthew added some details to make things a bit more spectacular, but New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “For Matthew, standing within a long Jewish tradition in which angels tended to appear at great moments within God’s purposes, this wasn’t a problem.” (NT for Everyone Commentary). We at FBCJ know a little of what N.T. Wright is saying, for we have heard a good bit about Angels appearing since the start of 2017 and like I’ve said before, there seems to be something to this idea of God communicating through Angels or messengers… and this story is no exception.
And while Angels of God always seem to begin their conversations by saying “Don’t be afraid,” how could these women not be afraid? Only days before they
entertained grand visions of the Kingdom of God with Jesus Christ as Lord. Life, when he was with them, had been good in so many ways. Now, though, their life had become anything but those grand visions.
Jesus had been crucified!
The earth upon which they were standing firm shook!
An angel of the Lord appeared and was talking directly to them and told them that the man crucified, the man who three days earlier had died, was actually alive!
How could they not be afraid?
It does appear that all of their fear didn’t evaporate because the text goes on to tell us that they quickly left the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples. As they were running, though, they run into Jesus, who, like the Angel before him, says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” Maybe because Jesus said it this time “Do Not be afraid” had its desired effect. Or maybe it was the fact that this man, once dead was now alive and saying it, but no matter what, Jesus saying “Do not be afraid” worked as this is the last anyone speaks of fear in the Gospel.
When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is making a clear statement that “the end” is not what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary originally thought. For them, the earthquake and the resurrection are clear signs that the end was upon them so surely, they wondered about the end. What kind of end would it be? For them… For those who deserted Jesus. What about the one who denied Jesus or those who were powerless to do anything but look on at the horrific crucifixion? Isn’t it safe to assume they wondered if Jesus’ blood shed would be a judgment against them? Doesn’t this make their fear more understandable?
The Good News though, is that just like countless other times, Jesus finds Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. He finds them, not the other way around. They were told they would find him in Galilee, but Jesus found them on the path they were actually traveling. And while Jesus finding them on the way is part of the Good News, there is more… this time fear lost its grip, and freedom took its place.
As more and more followers of “The Way” (those earliest followers of Jesus were not called Christians, they were known as followers of The Way) came to recognize the risen Christ, they experienced boldness and freedom of speech like never before. The best way I know to describe such boldness and freedom is by saying their security came from the inside out. They were not afraid of people who scoffed at their claims. They were not afraid of authorities who ordered them to stop speaking of Jesus. They were free from what the neighbors thought about them and free from what the established power structure could do to them.
What might that kind of freedom mean for you? How might it change the way you listen? How it might it change the way you pass a stranger? Would Freedom like that change anything about you?
The Freedom those early followers of Jesus experienced in his resurrection changed everything about their lives, especially in the ways they dealt with those trying to harm them. You see after Christ’s resurrection those first disciples were often in harm’s way. They were oftentimes threatened, but the threat no longer owned them. Another’s power over them was no longer all that they knew about themselves. In Christ’s resurrection, they discovered that even after all their mistakes… even after all their cowardly and foolish ways… even after all their fear led to statements of un-belief, Jesus came back to them. Jesus found them and when he did he let them know they no longer had to be afraid, and they believed him.
We see this just a few weeks after the resurrection, on the Day of Pentecost, when Peter and the others were warned by the authorities to stop preaching about Jesus. These same disciples, who had denied him and hidden away for their own self-preservation, now boldly proclaimed the resurrection…even in the face of deadly threats by the religious and governmental authorities.
In his resurrection, Jesus let them know that God is no enemy.
In his resurrection, Jesus became the clearest example of true Love, which is never about self and always about the other.
In his resurrection, Jesus showed everyone that this true Love is God’s very essence!
Like Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who came to the tomb looking for Jesus without actually finding him, the resurrected Christ found them and from that moment on, they, and all who followed Jesus, were never the same. They were bold and they were free because if Jesus was alive they believed anything was possible. Can’t you just feel the hope in someone who comes to believe that anything is possible?
Having an experience that leaves you with such hope must be life changing and maybe some of you have had similar life changing moments. While some may have experienced good moments, say a wedding or the birth of a child or grandchild, others may have been not so good, like a serious illness or the death of someone you loved deeply. No matter good or bad, such moments leave us changed and cause us to ask different questions, and quite possibly rearrange priorities.
The thing is, even though our world and its reality is far different from the first century world, people are still people. Life changing moments are still life changing moments and odds are the change brought into your life was not to decide to fill every waking hour with more and more activity. I suspect the change was more like making sure what you did really counted for something worthwhile, meaningful and lasting.
That is what Easter does for us. It energizes us! The Bible tells us that the women left the tomb filled with a mixture of fear and joy, and that they “ran” to tell the others. I’ll bet they ran! They could not be held back. They had “Good News” and could not wait to tell the others.
My Mom has told me a story numerous times about something that happened shortly before my Pop passed away. Cancer had eaten away and left him unable to do anything but lay on the hospital bed Hospice setup in his home. He wasn’t eating or drinking and was unable to speak. But before this time I believe he and my Mom had discussed death, and Pop had even shared some of his fears with her. A few years ago, while my own Dad could still communicate with me, he shared similar fears with me, and I pray I experience something similar to what my Mom experienced with her Dad.
As Pop laid in that hospital bed, a mere skeleton of himself, surrounded by my Mema, my Mom and my Aunt Dayl, he sat up. While sitting up he looked at each of them individually, but looking at them was only part of the story. It was the look of unspeakable joy that consumed him that my Mom remembers. He smiled from ear to ear as he spent those last moments looking at his wife and two of his daughters. As my Mom said, whatever he was seeing made him joyful and let us know that he was joyful about that next step. I would have loved being there to see with my own eyes, but the truth of the matter is I find great comfort in knowing it happened. Much like I find great comfort, great joy, in knowing that Christ’s resurrection happened. There is unbelievable freedom in this knowing. It is a freedom that calls me to respond with boldness. It is a freedom to believe in blessings and to believe that all of us are worthy of those blessings.
So as we leave here today, on this glorious Easter day may we truly experience this freedom. May it change us in the most positive, loving way possible and may we find everlasting joy as we follow The Way of the Risen Christ!
John 11: 1-45
Death has been on my mind this past week. Maybe it was the two funerals I attended. The first celebrating the well-lived life of Mrs. Eva Kochuba, the mother of our own Jewell Miller, and the best banana pudding maker, so I am told. The second celebrating another well lived life, that of Mr. Charles W. Patterson, III, known by most as Charlie, who told Chris Paul (the former Wake Forest Basketball All-American and current NBA All-Star, that he Charlie was the original CP3. Or maybe it is the realization that there is a good chance I will only step foot in my Mema & Pop’s house one more time as my Mom and her sisters signed a contract to sell their home, which just happens to be their childhood home.
Then as I drove to work one morning listening to a morning radio show, the following question was asked, “if you could know when you were going to die, would you want to know?” It is an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe not the death part, but what about seeing into the future. Would any of you like to have that ability? I suspect some of you said yes rather quickly… a gut reaction as they say, but when you really stop to think about this idea, this concept, would you really want to see into your future?
The very idea intrigues most of us. It has even served as the plot for numerous movies and TV shows over time. I think of movies like the Back to the Future series, and TV shows like the series Heroes. I’m certain you can add to my list.
As for this TV series Heroes, I had not even heard of it until just a couple of years ago when Jacob received seasons one through three as a Christmas gift. Although he didn’t stay interested through much of the series, Amy and I really got into it. For those who have not heard of this show, the basic plot is that ordinary people discover they have superhuman powers, and most of them try to work together to prevent catastrophic future events.
One “Hero” caught my attention early on. We were first introduced to him in his native country of Japan where he was an office worker for a large corporation. We would later find out that his father owned the large corporation and he was the intended heir apparent, even though others seemed to only see him as a young affable childlike figure. This young man, aptly named Hiro Nakamura, possessed the ability of time-space manipulation. In other words, he could teleport himself wherever and into whatever past, or future era he desired. For instance, while traveling on a train in Japan he saw an advertisement for a vacation in New York and in an instant, he was teleported to NYC. While in NYC he witnessed a huge explosion, but before the blast reached him, he used his power and returned to the same train he was on when he first saw the advertisement.
Bound by his internal calling to do good, Hiro decides he must save the world by preventing that explosion. Believing this to be his true calling Hiro does everything he can to prevent it. At times, he jumps into the future to learn as much as he can about why the explosion happened, only to jump back into the past to try and change the future. All his efforts take a toll on Hiro and his health. It is as though each harmful event he witnesses opens another door into the world of IFS. If I jump into the past, then I can make sure bad things don’t happen… If I jump into the future and learn all I can, then I can jump back into the past and make sure the bad things don’t happen… If this, then that. You get the point.
A major problem with the “if-then” mindset is that it makes no room for the present. No room to experience all that is in front of you. It does not allow you to take it all in, both the good and the not so good. The “IFS” bind us to the past or the future, never letting us live in the present. Yet I know saying “IF” always seems so easy, doesn’t it?
As all of us know, if-then logic, in all its forms, dominates human society so we should not be surprised to find it in many stories in our Bible. Take today’s Gospel story, first Martha greets Jesus by saying, (v.21) “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then comes Mary, who like her sister greets Jesus with the same words. Mary (v. 32) says “Lord, IF you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This might suggest that even before Jesus’ arrival the sisters had discussed his absence and what it would have meant IF Jesus had showed up earlier. The thing is, after receiving this type of greeting for a second time, our text says Jesus was disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, but a more accurate translation is that Jesus was frustrated or maybe even angered.
So what was frustrating Jesus? Why was he angry and at whom? The fact of the matter is none of us knows for sure but the commentaries say Jesus was angry because everyone was crying. These same commentaries conclude the tears meant no one had faith in him. The problem with that idea is the very next moment where we find Jesus weeping.
What if Jesus wept for the whole world while simultaneously weeping tears for his beloved friends Martha and Mary in their grief?
What if Jesus wept tears over the loss of his friend Lazarus? Tears for the frailty of life and the randomness with which it ends.
What if Jesus wept because no one seemed to understand what he was saying… No one seemed to understand what his very life was all about. How could they believe him, believe in his life and his Good News if they could not understand why he lived in the first place?
What if Jesus wept over the enormity of his own life and mission?
What if Jesus wept because of what he had been given to do and how alone he was?
We are forever talking about how compassionate Jesus was, so isn’t it, at least, possible Jesus wept tears because of that very compassion? I don’t know about you, but Jesus weeping out of compassion for God’s Beloved, resonates with me. It is how I like to imagine Jesus, and you want to know something, it fits perfectly with the way Jesus is described throughout all the Gospels. From my viewpoint, this is the Gospel in Action because I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus weeps when we weep.
Here’s the thing, I don’t believe this out of ignorance. I believe it because this is always how Jesus is presented. He weeps because he so deeply cares. He weeps because those before him want to greet him by saying “If you had been here…” and what he wants them to know is that his very presence changes their “IFS”
to God’s “WHEN.” It is not IF he shows up, it is WHEN.
Never should we start a conversation with Jesus by saying “IF you get here.” We should instead say “WHEN you get here” because just like last week, Jesus ALWAYS goes looking. Martha and Mary are bound by their past ideas of what Jesus could, or would, have done “IF” only he had arrived earlier. Yet Jesus is showing them that their “IFS” are better understood as God’s “WHENS.”
When it comes to faith it never really is about “IFS.” That would put everything on us, and that is just not how God, or God incarnate works. In this story, where Jesus receives the message from Martha and Mary about Lazarus’ sickness and proceeds to wait two days before traveling two more days, we are offered a chance to see that life is never about “IF” God shows up. True life is focused on “WHEN” God shows up, and “WHEN” we recognize God’s presence. Don’t get me wrong here, recognizing “WHEN” God shows up is no easy task. Not for us today, and clearly not for those who lived long ago.
God always shows up. Isn’t that what the un-named Samaritan woman at the well would say?
Isn’t that what the man born blind would say?
Isn’t that what Lazarus and Martha and Mary would say?
This does not mean though that death does not still happen because the fact of the matter is we all die. No matter how strongly we pray for healing and long life… no matter how glad we are when those prayers are answered… the fact remains that we all must die and facing that fact may be the most difficult of tasks. Like Martha and Mary, we plead to some power to protect us from it. Like Jesus, we weep because of the overwhelming nature of our sadness and anger at it. We simply don’t know how to make sense of it. Yet we long to make sense of it all as though knowing why, when, and how we die… knowing where death fits in the divine economy of things, would somehow make our sadness and anger go away. IF only I had more information… IF only I knew what the future holds… IF only you were with me… Lord, IF only you were here!
It is not explanations we want, at least not for themselves; it is the security and sense of control those explanations might give us. Tell us why, God, and maybe we can offer a convincing argument why not. Tell us why, and maybe we can be so outraged by the answer that we decide to reject it and manufacture answers of our own. Tell us anything we can handle, tinker with, control, but do not ask us just to believe-believe what? That everything will be all right. How, exactly? Just all right. Will I still be me? It will be all right. Please, God, give us something we can work with, something we can hold on to. Do not ask us to step out into the air without a net.
It is the ancient, ancient cry of the human heart: Why me, why this, why now? Don’t you care that we perish? Give us something to hold on to! My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?
They are strong words, strong questions to ask the ruler of the universe, but they are the truth of how we feel when we cannot make sense of what happens to us, when we are not given a reason. We feel abandoned, forsaken, but because the patriarchs and prophets and even Jesus himself has joined us in these words and feelings, they are not something we must hide. To have faith in God, to have faith that we are in good hands, to have faith that whether or not we understand it, the universe makes sense- that is the hardest choice any of us must ever make. To decide it is all true is to step out into the air without a net, because we have no proof, no evidence, nothing but the adamant witness of our own hearts that it is so. We simply give up the illusion that we are in control of our lives and step out. Which is why, perhaps, it is called a leap of faith.
At Charlie Patterson’s funeral this past Friday, the entire family wore lapel pins that contained the word EGBAR. EGBAR was one of Charlie’s favorite sayings so he created these pins and would pass them out to people he met. I’m not sure when he started doing it or even why, but I wonder if Charlie instinctively knew how much people worry. Worry about the past and the future. Worry about making the right career choices, the right life choices.
I do know this, Charlie was wise. He had accomplished and experienced a lot during his life. Knowing this makes me think people saw Charlie as someone who had been there before… someone who could be believed when they said EVERYTHING’s GONNA BE ALL RIGHT!
Even in his death Charlie’s message was still reverberating, EGBAR, “EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE ALL RIGHT!” Maybe Charlie learned this message from Jesus because this is exactly what he was trying so hard to teach. And while Lazarus’ death and resurrection can be seen as foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection, in both instances Jesus was teaching that EVERYTHING’S GONNA BE ALL RIGHT.
Maybe we can’t know for sure and maybe that is OK. I for one find great hope in EGBAR. I find I need to hear those words constantly. [EGBAR]
They reassure me;
They let me know that I do not need to be like Hiro Nakamura and jump in and out of the future and the past in attempting to figure out the present;
They reassure me that God hears my IFS, but desperately wants me to know that the truth of the matter is not IF, it is WHEN.
The Gospel in Action turns our IFS into God’s WHEN because it is never IF God shows up. It is WHEN God shows up. This is the best reassurance of all and it is why people of faith can claim boldly EGBAR!
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings
On a Friday night in the fall of October 2009, I found myself driving home from one of our mountain cities. I had been away from home all week because after 4+ years one of my civil cases had reached the trial stage. The trial ended late Friday and all I wanted to do was get home.
The trial had not ended the way I or my clients desired and I felt hopeless. So I drove in complete silence heading toward Greensboro. As I drove, my anger seemed to grow over the injustice I had just been exposed to. Most people tend to think that those involved in court cases are only focused on one of two things, winning or losing. Those who focus only on winning or losing seem to forget about the losses quickly and revel in the victories for longer periods of time. Maybe this is one reason so many people continue to participate in such a system, and truth be told, there are days I wished I could think like that. Maybe that would have made life a little easier, but I’ll never really know because caring only about winning or losing is not who I am.
Rarely, if ever, was my focus directed toward winning or losing a case, not because I didn’t want to win because trust me, I did. My focus was then, and continues to be today, on the bigger picture of life and justice, and on this particular night, I silently promised myself that I would never voluntarily step foot in a courtroom again.
The thing is, each step of my journey into law offered me glimpses into the way people so easily disregard others and how easy it seems for some to believe it is within their right to determine what is true and what is false both in their life and the lives of others. I noticed something when this happened and I didn’t like it. I noticed that one person’s lived story vanished and was replaced by the story someone else projected onto them. It was as though their real lived story was a figment of their imagination, while the story projected onto them became the known story.
Each and every time I saw this happen, or even experienced it myself, I boiled inside because I believe there is something rather cruel about someone having their true lived story reduced to lies and fantasies, while the more dominant or louder person’s projected fictitious story is substituted in its place. I never liked it. Not when I experienced it, but especially not when someone of a smaller stature in life, or minimal financial means, was subjected to it. This made me especially mad like I was that October night in 2009.
You see, I had spent over 4 years of my life telling my clients to believe in the system. Over and over I said things like once people, independent from your facts heard their story, they would believe them. And my clients decided to trust my words, and trust me. Each and every time someone called my clients liars or fakes they held tight to my words that we would find that group of independent people.
No part of the journey was easy, especially not for my clients and their families who they lost everything. There were times when it seemed their decision to finally step forward and tell their true lived story only brought more shame and ridicule and rejection. Yet they continued on… even as friendships were destroyed, homes lost and businesses closed, they kept moving forward on this journey. Then sadly, tragically that Friday in October of 2009 my clients and their families heard for the last time that no one believed their story. When that independent group of people (the jury) came back with their decision in favor of the large wealthy corporate defendants, devastation doesn’t even describe the feeling. Those wealthy corporate defendants who loudly and forcefully called my clients liars, without ever offering a separate version of events… who loudly and forcefully claimed everything my clients and their families said (under oath mind you) was fake. They were believed.
Maybe you can tell that I still haven’t fully processed all of this and you want to know something, I am OK with my inability to process things like this quickly. The fact remains that no one has the right to tell me that I should not be bothered by knowing how easily one can dictate what is believed about someone else. I still feel mad when I recount this event, but then, as though fitting together perfectly, I am face to face with this particular scripture which compels me to dig a bit deeper into my own understanding.
This entire chapter of John’s Gospel revolves around Jesus and the Blind Man because in everyone else’s mind they are the only “sinners” in it. The man’s sin, if you recall from earlier this year, was being born blind which in his day was a sure sign of God’s judgment. Jesus’ sin, in the eyes of others, was healing the man on the Sabbath. The interesting thing is, this chapter’s conclusion is a complete reversal from its beginning. You see, the chapter began with the disciples assuming because someone was born blind either he or his parents must have been guilty of sin. Jesus, however, opposed that view, healed the man and then warded off the challenge from those who objected to him doing it on the sabbath. Now the chapter reaches its conclusion with the Pharisees, Jesus’ accusers, claiming to see everything clearly, claiming only they can decide what others should believe, when in fact they can’t. Jesus’ comment on their belief though is quite telling, for he lets them know that while blindness itself is no indication of sin, claiming to see, claiming to decide someone else’s truth, when you can’t is. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “[A]ccording to John, these are the people to watch out for, because they think they can see. Furthermore, they think they can see better than other people, and they are not shy about telling you that you are not really seeing what you think you see, or that what you are seeing is wrong.”
Why people choose to impose themselves on others in this way is somewhat of a mystery to me because it strips everyone involved of the truth found in the lived experience. We see this in the story of the man born blind and if we started today’s reading a little earlier in the chapter we would find that once he could see his own relatives weren’t even sure who he was. Others who had seen him only as a blind man begging decided he was a different man altogether. Even his own parents, when summoned to the synagogue, couldn’t bring themselves to fully believe in their son’s story. Not to mention the Pharisees who put him on trial and ultimately decided to throw him out of the synagogue. How can it be that none of them said, “Alleluia,” or “Thank God!” How in the world could this have happened to this man and none of them asked him what it was like to see for the first time, or whether the light hurt his eyes?
Shouldn’t this have been a moment of joy and celebration for this man and his family and friends? Wouldn’t you like to hear about the party being thrown in his honor? I know I would. Instead, what we have here is a man put on trial by those in power, told his account of his own lived experience is false, and then thrown out… Discarded.
The hardline Pharisees stuck to their principles at the expense of the evidence right in front of them. They clung so tightly to those principles that justice and awe and wonder didn’t even rise to the level of afterthought. Their system was one of division and exclusion. Their system could not allow an outsider to have a lived experience if they couldn’t understand the experience. Their system didn’t need to care for or respect the lived story of anyone they determined was a sinner. Theirs was a system of injustice.
Not only were the Pharisees wrong, they had also constructed a system within which they could never see that they were wrong. It is one thing to be genuinely mistaken, and to be open to new evidence, new arguments, new insights. It is another to create a closed world, like a sealed room, into which no light, no breeze, can enter. For the latter, they not only do the wrong thing, they adjust their vision of the moral universe so that they can label evil as good and good as evil, as though they get to decide this for everyone. Sadly, and without even realizing, once that has happened, those people have effectively struck a deal that may deprive them of joy, of mystery, of expansion. They have turned away from the beautiful and diverse ways of God and locked themselves into a way of thinking and living which systematically excludes God. This is one way of reducing God into a human construct, and make no mistake, when this is done it is not God.
The Pharisees believed they were right, and just like most of us changing beliefs is hard. The thing is, Jesus didn’t appear to have a problem with that and as Barbara Brown Taylor says “… according to the story of the man born blind, there is something worse than wrong belief, and that is wrong disbelief. What if something is God and I don’t believe that it is? That is the question the Pharisees forgot to ask.” You see, they were so blinded by their ability to make decisions, for themselves and for everyone else, they couldn’t see God at work. And Jesus called them on it.
The man on the other hand could now see and as a result he threw caution to the wind. So what if they threw him out of the synagogue? So what if the authorities, real and self-appointed, declared him to be born in sin? He had to follow where the truth leads, even if those who were supposed to know the truth were suppressing it. He had to follow even though it resulted in his being thrown out. The Good News is there is more to the story.
Remember, Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and went searching for him. He didn’t go searching for Jesus. In fact, he couldn’t have gone searching for Jesus because the only time he had been in his presence was when he was blind. He didn’t have any idea what Jesus looked like. I don’t know about you, but for me there is a certain beauty in knowing that Jesus went looking for him. When all others had rejected him. When all others decided his story was false, Jesus searched for him, and when he found him the man knew that he had finally found someone who would allow him to live his truth.
I find great hope in knowing that Jesus goes looking.
When harm is done to those less fortunate. Jesus goes looking.
When people, claiming they can see better than others, decide to reject someone’s lived story because they can’t understand it. Jesus goes looking.
When you summon the courage to speak your truth, like my clients did years ago and had their lives destroyed because of it. Jesus goes looking.
Knowing this helps me understand how much relationships built on love and togetherness should matter to followers of Christ. And you want to know something, if we are serious about following Christ, then maybe we should go looking too. Whether we go or not is on us. The decision is all ours.
So as we leave here today may we decide never to reject someone else just because their lived story is different than ours…
May we decide to open ourselves up to new evidence, new arguments, new insights, instead of creating a closed world where light cannot enter…
May we decide to follow where truth leads, even when those who are supposed to know the truth suppress it… And
May we decide to truly follow Jesus as he continues to go looking. The decision is all ours.
As most of you know, in 2010 with the help of others, I started a feeding ministry called ARISE at Grace. I have numerous stories to tell about ARISE, and over time I might tell them all, but for today, I want to share what things were like on that very first day. After setting everything up, we had about 5 minutes before we were to open the doors and my dear friend and former Pastor Morris Brown asked everyone to gather together. So we circled up and held hands and Morris shared with us his vision for this new ministry, and I pray daily that I never forget. Morris said, my biggest hope is that whoever walks through those doors knows that we see them, knows that their life is valuable and knows that they matter. If those things can be accomplished through this ministry, then I believe transformation is possible. Morris offered a prayer and then we opened the doors and greeted 8 people we had not previously seen in our everyday lives.
With the words of Morris’ vision on my mind I began to greet these new “friends” hoping that I was letting them know I “saw” them. Then a tall black man walked directly up to me and clinched his fist and stuck it out in my direction, and this is what happened:
Me: [Being the son of Tommy Frank Knight I responded with an open hand to shake his hand.]
Man: [Shaking head side to side sticks his clinched fist out to me again].
Me: [This time I responded appropriately and gave him a fist bump.]
Man: “I’M DUKE.”
Me: “WELL HELLO MR. DUKE.”
Man: “I DIDN’T SAY MR. DUKE. I SAID DUKE!”
Me: “YES SIR, I’M SORRY DUKE. IT IS NICE TO MEET YOU.”
Duke: “WHY DID YOU MOVE YOUR OFFICE?”
Me: “IM SORRY, WHAT WAS THAT?”
Duke: “WHY DID YOU MOVE YOUR OFFICE? YOU’RE A LAWYER, AREN’T YOU?”
Me: “THAT’S RIGHT.”
Duke: “AND KEN, JR. IS YOUR PARTNER.”
Me: “YES THAT’S RIGHT.”
Duke: “AND YOU USED TO HAVE AN OFFICE AT THE CORNER OF WEST MARKET & COMMERCE.”
Me: “YES THAT IS RIGHT, BUT I MOVED OUT OF THAT OFFICE ABOUT 3 OR 4 YEARS AGO.”
Duke: “YEAH I KNOW. I USED TO SEE YOU COMING AND GOING EVERYDAY, BUT I HAVEN’T SEEN YOU IN AWHILE AND I WAS JUST WONDERING.”
I was stunned, to say the least. How had I not seen this man? My law office was in that location for 5 years, but I never saw him. Where was he during this time that he could see me “coming and going” without me ever seeing him?
I understood exactly what Morris was saying when he shared his vision about the value of letting people know they are seen. Heck at that time I was teaching a series centered around taking steps outside of our self-created bubbles, and here I was in real time, coming face to face with someone who had seen me enough to recognize me after 3-4 years’ time had passed and I had never seen him.
I’ve shared this story many times and each time I share it, some ask if I was scared when Duke began telling me about myself and where my office was located, and each time I tell them no. Duke was a gift to me that day… In that single exchange, Duke let me know how badly I needed to slow down and see the world and the people around me. That encounter was the start to a friendship between Duke and me. A friendship unlike any other I was used to… a friendship that helped open my eyes.
Have you ever wondered what life would be like if no one saw you? Now I’m not talking about in some weird “invisible” or “ghost” like way. No, I’m talking about a real lived life where every day you “feel” invisible to the world around you. A real lived life where your invisibility serves as a constant reminder of being rejected by those around you… Rejected by society.
Well, if you are anything like me, being seen has not been difficult. In fact, the thought of not being seen really has never entered my mind, and this is the reason my heart breaks for all of those who feel that no one ever sees them. My heart breaks for those who believe they don’t matter and that their life has no value. My heart breaks for those who find themselves saying, if I wasn’t here no one would realize.
My heart breaks for the Samaritan Woman walking to the well that day. A woman rejected by others, walking alone, a long distance from home in the hottest part of the day, doing a task women of her day did with others. Not to mention a task she could have done closer to home. And while we can’t know all that we want to know about her and her story, when placed in the appropriate historical context, we know a lot.
You see, even though the text doesn’t tell us how each of her 5 marriages ended, when placed in its proper context we are certain none of her marriages ended because of her choice. This is why it is so important for us to recognize that it is our nature to read stories through our way of understanding how the world works, and while this can be appropriate sometimes, the stories of our Bible might change when read like this.
If we read through 21st century eyes, some might reach negative conclusions about a woman, 5 times married and currently living with someone else. These negative thoughts seem to vanish though when we recognize that women of her day were seen only as property; not human beings. During this period of time women could not decide much of anything about their own life… Not to marry and definitely not to unmarry. If we think she made the decision to be married and un-married 5 times, then friends I have no doubt we miss Jesus’ point entirely. Jesus chose her to lead a spiritual revolution and this is why I believe we miss everything this story has to offer unless we understand what it meant to be a woman in that day.
It was not easy to say the least. Just listen to the way Philip Yancey describes those days: “In those days, at every synagogue service Jewish men prayed, ‘Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hast not made me a woman.’ Women sat in a separate section, were not counted in quorums… In social life, few women would talk to men outside of their families, and a woman was to touch no man but her spouse.”
And then we have Jesus come along and freely associate with women, even teaching some as his disciples. Jesus’ understanding of the power of womanhood was absolutely counter-cultural. His approach to women, his invitation for friendship went against everything people thought they knew about how to live with each other. Doesn’t this story of the woman at the well tell us as much?
Just think about it, Jesus went out of his way to travel to places to share the good news. Traveling through Samaria was not the preferred route for Jews going from Galilee to Jerusalem. Traveling through Samaria was potentially dangerous as sometimes the Samaritans would attack pilgrims going from Galilee to Jerusalem, and so many would go a different way, down the Jordan valley to Jericho and then up the hill from there to Jerusalem. In fact, that is what Jesus and his followers did on their last journey together, but not this time. And while some might say Jesus knew he would encounter this woman at the well, I’m not so sure about that. What I do believe is that Jesus knew full well he would have an encounter with someone rejected by everyone else. I do believe Jesus knew by choosing to travel through Samaria he would encounter someone who might not initially want to talk with him.
This is simply another example of Jesus’ openness. He always seemed open to new encounters. He always seemed open to friendship with those disregarded by society. Jesus always seemed to see them and value them.
The thing is, those whom Jesus encountered had to be open to new possibilities too. And while last week it was Nicodemus, this week it is an un-named Samaritan women at the well. I imagine she could have been closed off to Jesus when seeing him at the well, but she wasn’t. Jesus was extending her an invitation to a type of relationship she had not previously known, and her openness to it changed her life. You see, this is a story about Kingdom Making and Boundary Breaking.
During those first few months of ARISE, Duke and I began spending a little more time together. I would pick him up some days and we would go eat lunch at Libby Hill on Summit Avenue in Greensboro, and I really enjoyed our budding friendship. I learned a lot about Duke and he learned a lot about me. We both seemed very open to learning from each other.
Then one Tuesday morning Duke walks in for breakfast at ARISE and walks straight up to me and points at me and very loudly says, “I OUGHT TO HATE YOU! IN FACT I OUGHT TO HATE ALL WHITE PEOPLE!”
Now you can only imagine how the other volunteers reacted to what was happening, but suffice it to say they all scattered.
So I stood there with Duke yelling at me and trying to calm him down because I really wanted to figure out what I had done. Duke then said: “AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I GOT REALLY MAD AT GOD LAST NIGHT! I WAS YELLING AT GOD AND I WAS REALLY MAD!”
So I asked Duke why he was so mad at God, and his response to my question floored me. Duke said, “YOU KNOW SOMETHING I WAS REALLY MAD AT GOD BECAUSE I CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHY GOD CHOSE YOU TO BE MY FRIEND!”
You have no idea how overwhelmed I was in that moment, because I understood exactly what Duke was saying. I knew Duke had every reason to be mad. He grew up in segregated Mississippi. He was friends with Emmett Till, the teenage African-American boy lynched in Mississippi after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman.
Duke was college educated but never given a chance by the white business owners in the south, so he became a cab driver. Duke had every reason to be mad. From vicious racism to oppressive societal rules that had done great damage to him and others like him. Those same rules that played a part in his sleeping on the sidewalk under the stairs at the church across from my old office. Duke had every reason to be mad.
Yet on that morning as every other volunteer scattered at the booming sound of his voice, I stayed and I listened. I listened to my new friend tell me that I was his friend too. Despite all the reasons he had, all of the reasons society had given him to hate me.
I listened to my friend tell me how hard it has been for him to be open to the ways God was working in his life, and I understood.
When all was said and done, Duke put his arm around me and said, “NOW THAT’S ALL I HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THAT,” and I knew he was right. The funny thing is, as I reflect on that day, I have come to realize that Duke and I had both gone out of our way to share good news with each other. And both of us were starting to open ourselves up to what God was doing with us, and lives were being transformed.
Now, in just a moment, we will break bread together, and in doing so we are accepting Jesus’ invitation to come to the Table. This time though may we come to the table with a deeper understanding of what it means to go out of our way to travel into places to share the good news for this is exactly what Jesus did when he chose to travel through Samaria. This is where he encountered the woman at the well and it changed her life as well as the lives of those she told. Going out of our way like that is Kingdom Making and Boundary Breaking.
This is what Jesus taught, both in his words and his actions. This is central to Gospel living. This is the way lives are transformed.
Dear God, Let it Be!
I have this friend, we will call him Mike. Well Mike lives a pretty good life by anyone’s standards. Big house, beautiful wife & kids. Member of the Country Club… You get the picture.
Well Mike and I became friends a while ago and over time our conversations took on a faith dimension. Mike and his family are members of a big church in their town and faith has always been important to him. We would share our ideas, we would even share our questions, about God & Jesus. No matter what we would always get to the place where Mike would say,
“You know something, I’m not sure how hard I try to listen to God and what God really wants for me… You want to know why? I really love my life just the way it is and I don’t know what I would do if I really listened to God and discovered that I need to change my life. I don’t know how I would handle that, so most of the time I’m not sure I even try to listen.
I’ve always appreciated Mike’s honesty because I believe many of us feel the same way. The truth is Nicodemus was not that much different than we are. He was someone of deep faith, but he still longed for answers… a formula… a plan so that he might somehow be right with God. We all long to be right with God, don’t we?
Now before we delve too deep into this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus, I believe it is important that we know something of the way the Gospel writer John liked to write. For instance, John liked to use words with multiple meanings and we are offered a chance to see that in his use of the name Nicodemus. You see, the name Nicodemus is a combination of nike which means “victory” and demos which means “people.” So, while the literal translation of Nicodemus is “victor over the people” or “conqueror of the people,” some have suggested “victory of the people” or “victorious among his people,” is an equally good translation. This is important, I believe because it shows us today that not only is Nicodemus a member of the ruling class, his name is a symbol of domination.
Now the text tells us he was a Pharisee and leader within the Jewish faith community. Being a Pharisee meant that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest legislative and judicial body. From all accounts, there is no denying that he was a good man who really did try to live by THE LAW. We might even say that his was a life lived “by the book.”
Yet in today’s text, it seems clear that living “by the book” has left Nicodemus hungry. Nicodemus has come to understand that something in his life was missing. Everything in his life to this point had been invested in keeping the law. Yet here he was seeking the advice of Jesus as though he was starting to realize there was something more to life itself. It seems the law had become an empty shell. Not that the Law was not important, because it was then and is now, but as important as the law was, Nicodemus realized that it was a human construct designed to control people. It was an artificial and outward way of living that had nothing to do with one’s heart.
Now, the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, tells us something… He most likely hoped no one would see him or hear him, because after all he was a Pharisee. Clearly something he had encountered was resonating with his own experience of life and he wanted to know more. There is a beauty in this happening and as Richard Rohr says, “… that’s the great moment in all divine revelation, when beautiful ideas drop in from head to heart, from the level of dogma to experience. When it’s not something we merely believe, but in a real sense something that we know.”
He had seen and heard in Jesus a way of living unlike anything he had ever seen or heard before… and you know something, he was drawn to it. For him there was a mystery in this Jesus. Nicodemus said, “I know you are from God.” He even asked questions, and Jesus responded by telling him he needed to be born again. Jesus’ words about being “born from above”, that is, of the Spirit, or “born again” puzzled his soul. Over and again he asked Jesus “How can this be?”
Now on this mystery of being born again, it is important to know that Jesus’ words are more sharply focused than we sometimes imagine. As N.T. Wright says, “[T]he Judaism that Nicodemus and Jesus both knew had a good deal to do with being born into the right family. What mattered was being a child of Abraham. Of course, other things mattered too, but this was basic. Now, Jesus is saying, God is starting a new family in which this ordinary birth isn’t enough. You need to be born all over again, born ‘from above’, meaning the initiative remains with God.
Nicodemus’ problem was that there was no room for mystery in his understanding of faith. As is often the case, this problem may have been caused by him projecting his own cultural context (which always serves to limit the way we understand how the world works) onto God. Nicodemus wanted someone with all the answers… just like a lot of people of faith do today. When we want all the answers we leave no room for mystery, and in my opinion no room for God.
Now, in an effort to explain the mysterious nature of the Spirit, Jesus, in verse 8, said the “wind blows where it chooses.” Jesus told Nicodemus, you hear the Wind (you hear the Spirit), but that does not mean you know where it comes from or where it goes. That part remains a mystery like it has been since the very beginning. This is so important to grasp because Jesus is not only teaching Nicodemus, I believe he is teaching us that the Wind, the Spirit, has always and forever blown where it chooses. That part is a mystery, just as it should be, and we are not charged with understanding it. We can simply let go and live into it.
It seems Nicodemus struggled to break free from all the rules he had been taught. All the rules which had defined his very existence to that point. It certainly appears he could not receive the Spirit God intended because he was bound up in legalism, and it was choking him.
The good news is that later in the story Nicodemus actually came to Jesus’ defense and then helped with his burial. For me, this is evidence that Nicodemus finally let go and surrendered to Jesus’ teachings about being born again. In this way, Nicodemus stopped resisting the Spirit and allowed the Spirit to Blow in and through him.
This was a courageous act for Nicodemus, after all he was a respected and senior teacher of the Jews. Even though we can’t be sure Nicodemus knew why he was coming to Jesus for advice, I believe it is safe for us to say Nicodemus came because he was hungry for something more in his own life. Instead of falling back on a hard and fast set of rules this was the starting point for Nicodemus’ journey toward more. The thing is, relying on hard and fast rules, being bound up in legalism, always keeps people from being who and what God created and called them to be. Unfortunately, in my opinion, there are a lot of churches that actually promote the thinking that plagued and burdened Nicodemus.
Fundamentalism…in its many manifestations…is concerned with believing the right things. It keeps us stuck in the head and prevents us from dropping into the heart. Throughout history the idea has been that “right belief” will lead to right behavior, and it is exactly this belief that Jesus was addressing.
Without a changed heart, any and all change is artificial.
Without a changed heart, we do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Without a changed heart the artificial hides the real.
The bottom line for Nicodemus is that Jesus called for him to be radically changed… to be born anew which initially confused Nicodemus, but at least he asked some follow up questions. The thing is, we must not see his confusion, and his need for clarification as anything other than OK. Confusion is not some sign of weakness or inferiority as long as it doesn’t prevent you from seeking. On the other hand, when confusion stops you from seeking, when confusion causes you to fall back on the rules you already know, then divine revelation is practically impossible.
The fact remains that Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he was going to have to approach life itself from a whole new place and perspective. Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he could no longer approach life from the place where he was or where he has always been, and this was hard to hear.
If we are honest, we do not easily hear someone, or something, telling us we can no longer approach life as we have before. Most of us really do not like living into a “new normal” and some of us hate it with a passion. Each one of us knows the struggle of this journey. It is why we seek answers… from preachers who say they have them… from authors who say they have written them… from churches that have it all figured out. It is why we seek after more… trying to fill the empty spaces of our lives.
I have a pretty good sense of why this text is part of the Lectionary during this time. There is no better time than Lent for us to be talking about our need to re-examine our lives, especially our spiritual lives. Lent is about PAUSING & asking WHERE AM I DOING GOOD & MOST IMPORTANTLY WHERE DO I NEED TO START TO DO BETTER.
I believe these are such important questions. They are important for me, for my friend Mike and for you.
So as we leave here today,
May we Pause;
May we stop resisting the Spirit because the Spirit Blows Where it chooses, not where we choose;
May we ask where we are doing good;
May we ask where we can start doing better; and
Then may we take seriously what we hear for we may just find ourselves being born again.
In Jesus’ name…Amen.
Years ago we began a little tradition in our family for Birthday Celebrations. This tradition is rather simple, but for me its beauty is found in its simplicity. The one celebrating the birthday chooses the menu for a home cooked meal for just the 5 of us, and the birthday boy or girl gets to eat from a “SPECIAL PLATE.” While Joshua, Jacob and Emma Grace have their own personalized “Special Plate” (courtesy of their YaYa & Papa Smith), Amy & I have a Red “YOU ARE SPECIAL TODAY” plate. Maybe some of you have similar plates and traditions.
Now, I may not remember every detail of every birthday celebration, but I do remember October of 2008. After dinner, we sat together while I opened my family's gifts to me. The last gift I opened that night was from Amy and came in the form of a card. As I read the card I began to cry which without any warning turned to weeping. Not knowing what to make of my reaction, Amy asked if she had done something wrong, and through a cracked voice I told her “oh no, this is the most loving, thoughtful greatest gift I have ever received.”
Now, before I tell you what the gift was, it is important that we all realize the subjectivity of our lives. You see, I have since discovered (truth be told, I probably knew before) that what I describe as the most loving, thoughtful, greatest gift I have ever received, most people I know describe with opposite adjectives. Even my own Amy would never want this gift.
So, what was the gift? Well for a few years at this point Amy had heard me talk about doing a “SILENT RETREAT”, and while it seemed to me that she dismissed this idea, she had apparently been taking mental notes. Then she had taken the time to research silent retreats in North Carolina and remarkably landed on a website for “A Quiet Place” which turns out to be a “retreat” (I use that word lightly) situated in the Mountains of North Carolina just beyond Spruce Pine, NC. A Quiet Place consists of an old farm house and two 1 room cabins. A stream leading to a 50’ waterfall runs through the property. Neither cabin has running water, but none of that seems to matter when you are there.
The property is owned by Cecilia and Michael who met me as I arrived. Michael led me to my cabin and on our way, he asked “are you going to enter into the SACRED SILENCE?” When I responded that I was, he quickly asked if I had brought anything to read. I said as a matter of fact in addition to my stay at A Quiet Place, Amy gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card that I had used earlier that morning to purchase a couple of books to read during my stay. Upon hearing this, he suggested that I not read if I really wanted to enter into the SACRED SILENCE. This caught me off-guard a little, but believing him to be the expert, I did as he suggested and replaced reading with journaling without really understanding why he suggested this, but boy did I soon find out.
For the next 2 days, I hiked, wrote in my journal, hiked, wrote in my journal, and hiked and wrote in my journal some more. As I wrote I found myself often crying, which maybe does not come as a shock to some of you. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my tears came from both anger and fear, all of which I directed toward God. Then as I sat on a hilltop around 4:00 PM that second day, God showed up and proceeded to talk to me for the next hour. It was such an incredible experience that I remember it like it happened just a few minutes ago. During that entire time, I never uttered a word, and to anyone who might have been witnessing my time with God, they would tell you they didn’t see or hear God. As though they would know, I have no doubt about this experience. God, in the form of a Ground Hog, spent close to an hour letting me know that I didn’t have to be scared. I didn’t have to fear life or where my life was headed.
You see, God demonstrated what my life had looked like for so long. 1 step forward then immediate retreat to shelter. Then 2 steps forward and retreat, 3 steps forward, retreat… and on and on and on. With each step God took forward, I heard assurances that God is with me each and every step I take in my own journey. God said, “You are not alone. You are my beloved child and I will never leave you. You are valuable beyond measure and I love you my son.”
Now some of you might think it funny that God came to me as a Groundhog, and I get that. Some of you may be thinking what have we done calling this guy as our Senior Pastor, (Hopefully that’s not the case). The funny thing is I am OK with these reactions to this part of my story, as the truthfulness of my lived experience seems to overcome others disbelief.
Something else can easily happen with other peoples’ stories: they can captivate our imagination to the point that we want to know more and more about what really happened… and then our desire to better understand could even cause of us to make additions to the story.
Take today’s scripture and the story of the Magi. Their story has so captured our imagination that over time poets have written about it, artists have painted about it and musicians have sung about it. When you consider how little we actually know about their story, this is quite remarkable. As my father-in-law, Dr. Mike Queen has said, “[O]f all the stories around the life of Jesus, it is this one about a visitation by so-called ‘wise men’ that is often the most misunderstood.”
The thing is, when you combine imaginative captivation with a lack of knowledge, the end result always seems to be a story that sounds wonderful. A story without wholes or gaps. A complete story as some might say. This is exactly what has happened to the Magi’s story for even though we might sing “We Three Kings,” the reality is they were not kings and according to Matthew there were not 3. Add that we really don’t know who they were; where their journey to Bethlehem began; how long the journey took, how old Jesus was when they arrived, or much of anything about this famous star, and we might find ourselves questioning everything.
Luckily even when we reach this point, throwing it all out as false is not the only option. There is another way for those who PAY ATTENTION when interacting with biblical stories. I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has to say when we find ourselves in this place with the stories of our Bible. She says, “[I]t is not that the facts don’t matter. It is just that they don’t matter as much as the stories do, and stories can be true whether they happen or not. You do not have to do archaeology to find out if they are genuine, or spend years in the library combing ancient texts. There is another way… You just listen to the story. You let it come to life inside of you, and then you decide on the basis of your own tears or laughter whether the story is true… it is always a good idea to watch other people who have listened to the story – just PAY ATTENTION to how the story affects them over time. Does it make them more or less human? Does it open them up or shut them down? Does it increase their capacity for joy?”
All of these questions point in the direction of the heart, you see, while pointing away from the head. These questions point to feeling and away from thinking, which for some seems harder and harder to do. The thing is, reason and analysis don’t help us much with this story because this IS a story of the heart. This is a story of those who listened to the promptings of God and responded. This is a story of those who PAID ATTENTION to the things happening around them and most importantly opened themselves up so they could PAY ATTENTION to God’s call to journey, and to God’s leading during the journey itself. It seems none of their story had anything to do with whether or not others believed in its truth because theirs was a journey toward hope.
When I am able to let their story work on me in this way I find that I no longer need to know each detail because it is enough for me to know that something called deep into their souls and caused them to launch this journey in the first place. I know what that feels like, and while my experience involved God speaking to me through a Groundhog while I sat on the top of a hill listening, theirs was different. Amazingly, both ended with us accepting God’s invitation to journey. And just like the Magi needed to PAY ATTENTION, I did too.
The thing is PAYING ATTENTION can oftentimes feel so hard, but I believe it is a must. The fast pace of our lives can make PAYING ATTENTION to anything difficult, and cause us to say that God is silent. We should never allow our inability to PAY ATTENTION to cause us to believe God is silent.
Even in my life, I had to journey away from home and voluntarily enter into the SACRED SILENCE before I could PAY ATTENTION to God. But you know something, by doing this I can stand before any and every crowd and say that I know God still speaks to people today. Not all of us can journey away like I did, but I do believe all of us can PAY BETTER ATTENTION.
The handful of days I spent in the SACRED SILENCE remain the most loving, thoughtful greatest gift I have ever received. It was there that God and I spent about an hour together and I PAID ATTENTION. It was there that God assured me I didn’t have to be scared; I didn’t have to fear life or where my life was headed. It was on that hilltop where God said so clearly, Jason I am with you each and every step you take on your journey. Jason I want you to always remember that you are my beloved child and I will never leave you. You are valuable beyond measure and I love you my son.
My prayer today is that we all PAY ATTENTION to the promptings of God in our lives.
May we always know we are not alone.
May we come to realize fear does not have to dictate our actions and our lives.
May all of us remember that we are God’s beloved children and God will never leave us.
And may we live our lives feeling and believing it is true when God says, you are valuable beyond measure and I love you my child.
In Jesus’ name…Amen.
In 1987 the State of California held its very first High School State Championship for boys cross country running. While holding a State Championship in a sporting event is not remarkable in and of itself, the fact that a group of novice runners from the tiny farm town of McFarland came out on top is. And I am not the only one to think this, as this remarkable story served as the inspiration for the major motion picture known as “McFarland USA” that came out in February of 2015.
The story (of “McFarland, USA”) began when Coach Jim White took an unlikely group of McFarland High School students and turned them into a champion cross-country running team, and ultimately building a cross-country dynasty. Year after year, Coach White’s kids won titles, 9 in 15 years to be exact, but the titles are only part of the story, and to the real-life people depicted in the movie the titles paled in comparison to the life-long relationships created by Coach White believing in them and them believing in Coach White.
McFarland, for those who are unfamiliar with the town, is an agricultural community located in the central valley of California. Like the town, McFarland High School is predominantly Latino, children of “pickers” or farm-workers paid low wages for doing grueling back-breaking work in the fields. Even some of the students work in the fields before and after school each. It has been said that McFarland “is a farming town where its kids are invisible. They come from the fields and they go back to the fields.”
All of that seemed to change when Coach White saw something others hadn’t even though it was right in front of them to whole time… These boys could run and they were fast. And you know something, 30 years later all of those involved in the beginning and even those who have benefited since say thank you.
If we are honest with ourselves, each one of us owes a debt of gratitude to many other people. I certainly do. But it seems we have decided that uttering the words “thank you” to another soul is to admit that we are or were dependent upon them. And with the value we place on independence in our society, dependence is often seen as a form of weakness. The reality is none of us would be who we are or where we are without the help and support of others. Whether its parents, grandparents, teachers or coaches, none of us does it alone.
For those who see themselves as self-sufficient, it is all an illusion.
Our text for today finds Jesus on his way to Jerusalem from Galilee. As he came to the border of Samaria, he saw a group of lepers off at a distance. The Law, set out in Leviticus, required those labeled as lepers to keep a safe distance from others for fear that the disease would spread. Their knowledge of the Law is believed to be the reason the 10 kept their distance when they called out for Jesus to have mercy on them. He responded to their request by saying “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
Now you may be saying, what kind of response was that and if that is the case then it seems important to know that according to the Law, only the priests could declare a person clean or unclean. This meant the priests had incredible social power for they decided if someone was to be removed from society, from their family, from their life and they decided if someone was to be re-united with their family, with society. So it seems safe for us to say that Jesus’ response would make complete sense to those 10 lepers.
So they went, but then, as they were on their journey to the priests, something happened: they were made clean. How they knew this, we are not exactly sure, but as I was just recently reminded, there are many things we simply don’t know when it comes to the details of this story. For instance, some of us may think that as these 10 turned to take their 1st step in going to show themselves to the priests, they saw that they were made clean. The funny thing about that though is the text only says “as they went” without any referenced to time. The text also tells us only 1 of them actually saw that he was healed, but it doesn’t tell us at what point on his journey he saw.
And knowing that they traveled on foot, and they were a good distance from Jerusalem makes me wonder how much of the journey to the priests was complete. Now this doesn’t mean that the stories aren’t true. What it does mean is that we can very easily insert our ideas into the story when our ideas are not part of the text.
But we do know that the one who saw returned to Jesus, bowed down and praised God.
Now maybe we find ourselves wondering about the other 9 because it appears Jesus wondered about them. Remember, he did ask, “Did I not heal 10 men? Where are the other 9? Does only this foreigner return to give glory to God?”
The thing is, even though we might sense a bit of exasperation in Jesus’ questions, I’m not so sure this gospel story requires the other 9 to be bad or corrupt people. Could it be that they were more obedient to Jesus’ instructions? Didn’t they keep going to the priest as Jesus told them and as the law asked of them. Surely there is nothing wrong with doing what Jesus asks of you. Could it be that only 1 of them has Eyes to See?
But, then I wonder if Jesus was making a different point altogether. Maybe Jesus was teaching that healing requires more than physical recovery and pronouncement by people with authority. Maybe true healing requires gratitude. The kind of gratitude shown in saying thank you and acknowledging the gifts you have received, especially gifts from God. Maybe this is why Jesus said to this foreigner, “your faith has made you well.” And as much as I want to talk about Jesus praising someone while calling him a foreigner, that is a sermon for a different day.
In terms of Faith, though, I love the way Father Richard Rohr talks about this kind of faith. “He compares it to falling in love. We fall into faith. We don’t achieve it or earn it or gain it through something we do, we simply fall into it. We let go. We let gratitude fill us and we find that our lives become expressions of praise. Without that kind of falling, if we’re still grasping on to our own attempts to be healed or made whole, we are missing out on that life-giving offer of God’s to make us well.” In this way, falling into faith opens our eyes to God’s reality.
Only one came back to express gratitude. Only one and Jesus told him that his faith had made him well.
If you are like me, though, you may still find yourself wondering about the other 9. The text tells us that they were made clean too, but you know something, it is so unfair for me to pass judgment on the other 9, especially when I feel like I know them so well. Even in my own life there are a lot of people who have needed to hear my “thank yous” across the years, and I hope I have done a good job of telling them. Truth be told though, I know there are some I could have done a better job with. You see it is entirely possible to “feel” gratitude in your heart, and leave it at that. Sometimes, though, we need to “say” it so that those for whom we are thankful actually know it.
Failing to express gratitude may be seen as bad manners; but it feeds into the illusion of self-sufficiency. If we never have to give thanks, we never have to acknowledge our dependence upon others. Now I dare say that any one of us would declare that we are dependent upon no one; but are there people in your life who need to hear…but have never heard…your gratitude…your sincere “thank you?”
The words themselves… “thank you”… may sound trite or simple, but they are profound. The very act of worship is nothing less than a grand “thank you” to God. That is what our hymns do. That is what our prayers say. That is what our very presence in this place shouts! We are not self-sufficient. We need God and we need each other. And although the movie doesn’t show how much Coach White and his boys believed in and depended on God, it you dig a little bit you will find that it played a significant role. For those with eyes to see, their story illustrates just how much we need both.
If we are honest, each one of us owes a debt of gratitude to many other people, but to utter the words “thank you” to another is to admit that we are or were dependent upon them… And you know something we are. None of us would be who we are or where we are without the help and support of others, whether its parents, grandparents, teachers or coaches, or God.
Sometimes we need to thank God. Sometimes we need to thank others. Sometimes we need to thank both. But we must never take either for granted or succumb to the illusion that we do it alone.
And as we go, may we be blessed with eyes to see and then may we say thank you.
In Jesus’ name…Amen.
Each week as I begin studying the scripture for my sermon, I immediately wonder what Dr. Tupper might say about it. Then I turn to my lecture notes from Dr. Tupper’s Systematic Theology, the one file folder from my seminary classes that I’ve kept out of storage, to gain deeper insight, a different perspective on the scripture. Systematic Theology was Dr. Tupper’s class for more than 40 years. First at Southern Seminary and then at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. I didn’t know it, until the end of my 1st year, but I was one of the students in the last Systematic Theology Course he taught, and while I take great pride in that, I am also a bit sad for those seminarians coming after me who did not have the chance to witness his beauty.
Special does not begin to describe who Dr. E. Frank Tupper is to me. Without a shadow of a doubt, I know I am a better person for having the privilege to call Dr. Tupper my professor and my friend. I think back to my 1st month in seminary sitting in his class at 9:30 AM and marveling at the depth of his knowledge, but there was something else I noticed in him that I had only experienced in 2 other professors I had encountered. Now remember, by this time I had experienced quite a few professors: 4 years of undergrad, 3 years of law school and now seminary. Not to mentioned, I had 8 years of experience as an Adjunct Professor prior to entering seminary.
Dr. Tupper was special and I knew it from the very first class. He scared some and in fact, a minister friend of mine who studied at Southern Seminary couldn’t believe I had chosen to take Dr. Tupper’s class because he made it a point to schedule his classes so he could avoid the high expectations and rigorous requirements. I don’t know if Dr. Tupper had lightened up over the years, but what others might have called rigorous or demanding I saw a bit differently, I saw it as an expression of love, and I made it a point to let Dr. Tupper know that.
The first time we met 1 on 1 happened because I accepted his invitation for a “Get Acquainted Interview.” To some, this offer would not appear attractive, but I leapt at the opportunity to meet 1 on 1. So one afternoon we sat together in his office allowing our 10-15 minute interview to last more than an hour.
Our time together was meaningful in the very same way friends recall meeting each other for the 1st time. He genuinely wanted to know all about me. Tell me about your family, he started. How old are your children, what are they passionate about?... How about your wife, how is she handling this?... I’m sure this must be tough… Make sure you do everything you can to let them know you love them. You need them more than you can even realize and they need you too.
And then I began asking similar questions of him, which initially caught him off-guard. This is my opportunity to get to know more about you, he said, but then as quickly as he said that he realized I genuinely wanted to discover these same things about him. I do believe we both knew that our 1 on 1 time was not Professor Student or Teacher Pupil time, rather it was 2 members of God’s creation, previously unknown to each other, embracing the small amount of time to get to know more about the other and more about God.
We opened up to each other and shared as much as we could in the time we had. Then toward the end, I asked him if I could share some things I had observed about him in the handful of lectures I had witnessed. I wanted him to know how special I found his passion for passing along his knowledge. I wanted to share some of the characteristics that seemed to permeate through him and bless us students.
He was reluctant, probably because we had only been around each other for less than 10 hours at this point, but he finally said I could. I proceeded to tell him that I pictured him late at night in his home (he lived alone) pacing back and forth for hours trying to figure out if earlier in the day he had lectured in a way that gave us students the best possible chance of learning. Not for test taking or paper writing purposes, but genuinely learning. I said that I bet he sees each student’s face while pacing and wonders if he could have shared his knowledge in some better way. I told him that each time he stood before us in the classroom I could feel how deeply he cared. I ended by telling him I was honored to be his student, and that I knew, even after just a few weeks, that his impact on my life would last until my last days and I hoped my ministry would serve to honor the parts of himself that he so freely gave to me.
When I finished, Dr. Tupper had tears streaming down his face and with a broken voice he asked how I knew all of that about him. I told him I wasn’t exactly sure, and we both seemed to be ok with that.
As I stood to leave, he thanked me and I thanked him and we hugged. Then he said, you know they tell me I should not meet with students like this anymore. Would you believe they even created some type of rules to discourage it. They think that we should just lecture, research, write and publish. That way my time with students would be limited to classroom lectures. You know something though, spending this time with you today has been more rewarding than any lecture I have given these past few weeks and I cannot thank you enough. And as I turned to exit his office I said, even more proof of how deeply you care about relationships and value a person’s humanity.
I share this with you for a couple of reasons. First, Dr. Tupper fell earlier this week, broke his neck and is currently in a Louisville, Kentucky hospital being fed through a tube. Needless to say, he has been on my mind. But there is another reason, Dr. Tupper never allowed the rules created to separate people determine his actions toward others. He was in a position of power, renowned in his field of study, encouraged not to waste time with those students of the lower class, and yet everyday he lived as though he had been called by God, through Jesus the Christ, to befriend them. He lived every day seeking authentic relationships with the very people he had been told not to waste his valuable time on. Dr. Tupper knew life was lived by resisting the rules meant to separate people, no matter if those rules were handed down by those with authority, or simply a product of the culture. He taught me that Gospel living happened by choosing to travel paths that lead to connections with others, not neglecting others.
Gospel living never neglects others, and yet this is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were doing. They justified their neglect of others because they chose to interpret the law in a way that erected barriers between them and the others. And Jesus called them on it because their interpretation of the law perpetuated the neglect of people they deemed less than them.
Now tithing to God they could do, but even in their tithing they weren’t really offering much of themselves because mint, dill and cumin were the smallest of herbs. To understand Jesus’ message as anything less than offering yourself to others in need, anything less than making room for anyone and everyone choosing to come to the table, is to miss the point altogether. Clearly the scribes and Pharisees understood tithing and while there was nothing wrong with that, tithing the smallest of their spices didn’t require interaction with, or relationship with other people, and Jesus was teaching them as much. Pursuing Justice, Mercy and Faith always require this, but they are oftentimes impossible to measure.
Seeking justice for all persons. Granting mercy to those who have hurt us. Living in faith so others might see. All of that is tough…and virtually impossible to measure. Partly because none of them is ever fully achieved.
I can give a tithe and know it and feel good about it. I can come to worship and mark that off the to do list and feel good about it. I can even read the Bible and feel good about it, but on that very issue Francis Chan warns “… if we are not careful, a dangerous habit could form: we could learn to read the bible and do nothing in response… study to the neglect of action becomes easier and easier with each occurrence… and we should be terrified if we have mastered the art of becoming convicted and doing nothing in response.”
I don’t know about you, but I believe this is why Jesus was so frustrated, even angry at the scribes and Pharisees. Can’t you hear it, “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…” You have mastered reading the law, yet you fail to seek Justice, Mercy and Faith and because of that you neglect others in need. You read, yet you are not changed.
Tithing one’s possessions is a good thing, and it is actually achievable. Pursuing justice may be something we do till the day we die and we may never see it. It always involves other people and it is messy and costly and hard. We may never arrive at our goal…because injustice and condemnation and pride will fight all our attempts.
I wonder if the fact that it is hard work is the reason we fall back to doing what we can control. We fall back on that which we can accomplish and measure and get credit for! Getting credit oftentimes seems to be the goal, doesn’t it? If you are like me, though, you may ask yourself from time to time whose credit you seek, or why credit is a goal in the first place.
Many of us have gone on mission trips to serve those less fortunate than ourselves. Those trips have been “mountain top” experiences as Amy likes to say. We all come back from those places “changed” in some way, but the reason we are changed is never the work we do or the route we take or the food we eat or the places we stay. The change is always because and always will be because of the people we meet. We are amazed at how they live and still have smiles on their faces. We are blown away by their faith in and dependence upon God. They teach us what faith and dependence actually look like and while we are there we seem to get it.
Dr. Chuck Poole calls this a “theology of extremity.” He tells the story of a day when he became “undone” over some change taking place in his church of which he did not approve. He fretted and worried and wrung his hands over the matter. Later that day, he encountered a family who had no money to buy food for their children for the rest of the month. He compared his anguish over a change in the liturgy of his church with the anguish of parents unable to feed their children. He did not like what he saw.
He concluded that as much as God cared about the worship liturgy of his church, God cared more about God’s children living in “extreme” poverty, hunger, deprivation, injustice…or whatever. This led to his “theology of extremity.” While I cannot be certain this was the cause, it was not long before Dr. Poole resigned from the prestigious church he served to launch a ministry dedicated to the homeless and hungry and marginalized souls of Jackson, Mississippi.
What I think happened to Dr. Poole, and also to those of us who journey on mission trips, is that our priorities get rearranged. Things we once thought “important” lose importance fairly quickly. I saw it this past summer with Joshua when he returned from his summer mission trip to Philadelphia. My son, 15 at the time, was so moved by the children he was serving. These children have never experienced the material wealth he has, or a place of privilege like Joshua, yet these children taught him a most valuable lesson. They showed him the rewards of a life that seeks friendship. I recall him telling me & his Mom that we couldn’t possibly understand because these children “had nothing” but their happiness was infectious. Luckily Amy & I knew exactly what Joshua was talking about because when we were teenagers we experienced the same thing. Hopefully some of you have too. Hopefully you know what it is like to head off to serve those less fortunate only to return home knowing full well that it was you who had been served by them.
So perhaps what we need is a new way to measure our lives…a way that refuses to make mountains out of molehills… a way that has nothing to do with most of the stuff over which we lose sleep. Perhaps we need to learn from people like Dr. Tupper who teach us about taking time to get to know the people who cross our paths, no matter what the rule makers or rules themselves say we should do. And as harsh as it may sound, maybe we need to hear Jesus calling us hypocrites.
Could it be that all this time we have read the Bible and done nothing in response? If this is the case in your life, it may actually be time for you to start asking what your life might look like if you opened yourself up so the Bible actually worked on you. These stories we read, these stories that some of us know by heart, what if we took seriously what these stories said? What if we read them in such a way that we began responding to their call. Maybe we would begin to experience the very transformation we all claim to want. Maybe, just maybe we would stop neglecting others and actually pursue Justice, Mercy and Faith.
No matter what anyone says, this is the transformed life Jesus modeled. This is the transformed life to which God is calling all of us. It is my prayer that we begin reading the Bible and actually responding in ways that seek Justice, Mercy and Faith. May we stop making mountains out of molehills and may we be convicted to always offer something of ourselves to others in need.
Dear God, please let it be.
Recently I read an article claiming that today’s culture could be referred to as expert quitters. This claim had me thinking quite a bit about my own life. Like discovering that my Dad came by every job I had as a teenager (without me knowing) and talking to my boss to make sure I was working hard and not goofing off. Or the time when I was 14 and my Dad got me a summer job at a factory in Burlington and when I got home after my 1st day I told him I was not going back to which he replied, “Boy yes you are.” It’s probably not hard for you to figure out who was right.
I know these lessons are at least part of the reason I really don’t like to see people quit, or give up. I’m not sure any of us thinks of ourselves as quitters. Yet when I think of the numerous instances where something becomes hard, or someone’s feelings get hurt causing them to “get their ball and go home,” I can’t help but wonder if this author is right. People try a job, but they find the work difficult and demanding, so they walk away. Some start diets and discover they are expected to exercise their body and their common sense, so they quit. Others begin a fitness program and maintain the schedule for a few weeks; when they realize that fitness is a lifetime goal, they quit.
There are even stories of people attending church, and when something the preacher says displeases them, they quit. When they discover that the Christian Faith requires effort, they quit. It could be said that instead of working to make things better, quitting becomes the preferred choice.
Is there a chance that this author is correct in his assessment of today’s culture? If he is, I would like to know why quitting has become such a preferable option. Especially when you consider that we are most easily drawn to stories of those who persevere. Those who choose not to give up, not to quit, especially when all the cards are stacked against them. We pull for those people, over and against the quitter. This, I believe, is the reason speeches like Coach Jim Valvano’s 1993 ESPY speech “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up” resonate so deeply and stay with us the rest of our lives. While him saying “Don’t Give Up, Don’t Ever Give Up, was a powerful moment, there are other inspirational moments in that speech. One happened early on when Coach Valvano said, “I always have to think about what’s important in life… Things like, Where you started, where you are and where you’re going to be.” Maybe Coach Valvano knew the Exodus story by heart because it seems those three things, where you started, where you are and where you are going mirror Moses’ story.
Where You Started
So where did Moses start? Well in the early years of his life Moses had it pretty good…raised in Egypt in the house of Pharoah…given responsibility and a place of privilege. That place of privilege unraveled for him when he killed a man for beating a Hebrew slave. As a fugitive, Moses became a man on the run. He ended up way east of Egypt in a land called Midian. Ironically things worked out pretty good for him there, too. He married the daughter of Jethro and then went to work for his father-in-law tending his herd of sheep. It was a rather ordinary life, but it was a safe life.
Where You Are
Then we have the second of Coach Valvano’s three things: WHERE YOU ARE, which seems to fit today’s scripture rather nicely. In this scripture we find one of the great moments in the Biblical narrative and it happened on an otherwise normal day when Moses was tending sheep for Jethro. Somewhere on the side of Mt. Horeb, Moses saw a bush that was aflame but not consumed. It was on fire, but it didn’t burn up. As he moved closer to inspect this phenomenon, the voice of God spoke to him and told him to take off his shoes since he was standing on holy ground.
God reminded him of the people of Israel who had been left behind in Egypt as slaves, and then told Moses to go back to Egypt and deliver them out of bondage. Moses didn’t much care for God’s idea. After all, he was a wanted man…a fugitive…and going back to Egypt had no appeal. On top of that, Moses reminded God of all the reasons why he should not lead- his poor speech…his lack of authority…and on and on. God acknowledged all of that, explained what he [God] would do and then simply said, ‘I will be with you.’ This promise of God should never be viewed as simple though, because this has been the promise of God from the start, and no matter how many times God’s people fall down or complain or screw up, God remains with them. You see, this Exodus story is really a story of God’s faithfulness. A faithfulness that did not begin nor end with Moses on Mt. Horeb. God’s faithfulness, despite what God’s people do in response, is recorded for us in the great stories of the faith, like this story of the Call of Moses. All of Scripture bears witness to this faithfulness.
Where You Want To Be
This conversation between Moses and God brings us to Coach Valvano’s third step: WHERE YOU WANT TO BE. Of the three steps, this is the hardest. It requires effort, it looks to the future without any sort of timetable for achievement. Take Moses and the Hebrew people for instance, answering God’s call was also the start of a 40 year journey of twists and turns and even dead ends. You remember the story of the plagues on the Egyptians…the Red Sea crossing… the Golden Calf…the wandering years in the desert…the daily manna…and finally the move into the Promised Land.
It all began when Moses heard his name…and sensed that God was calling him to something very different than what he had planned for himself. As Eugene Peterson says, answering this call requires “a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts.” Deciding that you want to be where God is leading always precedes your arrival at that destination, and make no mistake, the path between answering the call and arriving is never fully known until the destination has actually been reached.
This new unknown place can be terrifying, exhilarating, even paralyzing. It is even possible to feel all three of these at the same time, or countless other emotions. The thing is, I believe each and every day you have a choice; you can either choose life or you can choose death. Where Moses wanted to choose death for himself, [speech problems, no authority, etc.], God chose life for him [I will protect you, I will be with you always].
Now we should not for one minute think this was an easy choice for Moses. The text tells us as much. Moses’ questioning of God, questioning of himself should not go unnoticed. This was an extremely hard choice for Moses. We see this in the five objections he raises in response to God’s call:
1. “Who am I?”
2. “Who are you?”
3. “What if they do not believe me?”
4. “I stutter.”
5. “Why not send someone else?”
Yet throughout this encounter God continues answering Moses respectfully and lovingly, offering a promise of personal Presence and an ever-sustaining glimpse into who God is – nameless, formless, liberator, sustainer. It was this promise to be with him that made all the rest possible. Moses believed and trusted that God would indeed do what God promised…to lead him daily… and to be with him no matter what. Moses knew he was being called to journey and he trusted God to remain with him every step.
Is this not what we are all called to do? Moses had no aspirations beyond Midian…no dreams of anything different than where he was and what he was doing. He was satisfied with the status quo. We all get that way from time to time…don’t we? For some reason, God always and forever seems to be calling his people, including us, to change whenever change is needed. God seems to always be calling his people, including us, to new places and new ways of choosing life.
In his article, Expeditions into What is Possible, Lawrence Peers asked those who lead churches: “How often do we prefer the familiar and the safe? How much do we prefer to remain with what is, with no inclination to move toward what is possible? How often as leaders of faith communities do we stay on the edge of our own Red Sea waiting for some miracle to occur before we even budge? We need practical directions as we embark on our own expeditions into what is possible, not just for the congregations we lead but also for ourselves as leaders. In fact, for us to effect deep change—that is, change that is not just…on the surface but change that is…transformative —we need to re-author our leadership. In so doing, we are not merely agents of change but, like Moses, we are changed.” (Congregations, Summer 2010, p.29)
Leading change is not just doing something different. Anyone can do something different. Everyone gets enamored by novelty. Moses did not just lead his people out of Egypt. He led them to a new understanding of who they were and of what was possible. I think this is the work of pastors… helping people to see what is possible…with God’s help. And make no mistake, leading is hard work…and it is intensely personal. Some may even choose not to lead, but for dreamers like myself, running away from helping people see what is possible was never a real option. The thing is, I tried to deny it. Tried to run away from it, but similar to God being patient with Moses’ questions, God was ever so patient with me and the path I took to get here. I know without a shadow of a doubt that God calls us to journey toward a fulfilled life, and our pursuit of this could be called a long obedience in the same direction.
As I close today, it seems only fitting to do in the words of Coach Jim Valvano:
“How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. You have to be willing to work for it.
I urge all of you, all of you, to enjoy your life, the precious moments you have. To spend each day with some laughter and some thought, to get your emotions going. To be enthusiastic every day… to keep your dreams alive in spite of problems whatever you have. You have the ability to be able to work hard for your dreams to come true, to become a reality.”
You see, its speeches like those... It’s stories of people who answer God’s call to journey… It’s stories of people who make the decision to choose life, not death that resonate till the end of time.
Quitting is not the answer, nor should it be a defining characteristic of our culture.
God is with us, calling us to journey, calling us to choose life.