Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sir, we would see Jesus

Some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  Philip goes to Jesus, and Jesus responds by launching into a lesson about seeds and fruit. I must say, this is one of those times when I feel that I can truly relate to Jesus.  I’d love to say this is the “highly distractible” Jesus, but it’s not. 

Jesus is not too distracted to respond.  Instead he receives the request like a call to action.  The fact that these God-fearing Greeks have come to call means that his time has come.  I still find it odd that he never seems to answer them, but that probably has more to do with the storyteller than the people in the story.

And in this teachable moment the author of John’s gospel proclaims the truth of the message of Jesus – it’s not about you.  It’s certainly not about me, either.  By “it” I mean the essential purpose of life and all of its complexity.  Life and all of its beauty and terror is not essentially about what we cherish but truly it is about what we are willing to let go of.

Life in these United States seems so often to be about what we can acquire.  Yet Jesus is calling for another form of security.  It reminds me in some way of a bumper sticker I once saw that simply said, “Your Stuff Owns You.”  Jesus is not simply as saying, “Where your treasure is your heart will also be.”  Instead, he is describing the way our actions have consequences that are both immediate and eternal.

This was written during a time in which there was wide scale debate amongst people of faith about the afterlife, God’s blessing in this life, and whether or not God was active and present.  Jesus is telling those who will listen that they must follow him if they want to get out alive.  Somehow, that message still seems to ring true.  Somehow, there is still wide scale debate amongst people of faith over the event of Jesus and what it means to us.

Somehow we are still thinking about and trying to figure out what the Jesus event revealed to us about God and what it requires of us.  You might think that we would have all of this figured out by now.  You might think that it is all as obvious as Easter Egg hunts and going to get Easter outfits so the family can look just so for the special day.  Not that these are bad things to do – we’ll be doing it here – but it does raise a question, “What aspects of our faith have become cultural, and what do we need to let go of in order to live?”

There are some obvious places of debate and tension in the larger denomination that we are a part of – particularly with the issue of same gender marriage.  I think it is worth saying that there is a variety of perspectives even in this congregation, and my hope is that we can take the opportunity to have conversations rather than simply taking positions.  I will admit that this is an issue that it is hard to allow equal footing for both sides, but I trust that we can work toward a more faithful response than simply beating one another up over it.  Diversity of opinion is actually one of our greatest strengths when it is coupled with faith and confession, and a desire to be ever more faithful to God.

That said, I have to confess that I missed out on a conversation the other day while on the way to a soccer game.  There was a group on the opposite corner from our building with signs that said, “Honk for traditional marriage!”  First, I found it interesting that there was only one tremulous honk while several cars waited for the light to change.  I thought about honking, because I do (obviously) support traditional marriage.  I am, however, thankful that there are faithful Christians who happen to be gay and who have desired the blessing of God through the church and are now able to do so.  I believe that the church is strong enough and God’s love is big enough for us to be in disagreement about social issues and still demonstrate the Kingdom of God that is both present and yet to come.

In fact, although many in the church believe that same gender marriage is an issue of social justice, there are also those who believe that the last 30 years of debate over homosexuality have kept us from wrestling with deeper issues of inequality in our nation. Of course, some will say that this is too political, and maybe it is.

Maybe we need to think about it all in simpler terms – as was suggested by David Lewis, Pastor of Sixth Ave Baptist Church in Troy New York.  He recently posted this thought online.  “I truly believe developing and maintaining a mission from the [mindset of the] gospels will make a big impact on our present culture.  How did Jesus do it and how did he instruct his disciples?  Centuries of church history have buried that simple missional pattern under piles of dogma and is radical to cling to the cross and follow Jesus, but that is what we're called to [do]!”

And how did Jesus do it?  Paul said that he was a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Melchi-who?  Melchizedek was a King.  He was also a Priest.  What’s odd is that he lived in a time when Kings claimed authority because they claimed divinity – or at least acted like they had authority over life and death.  Before there ever was a covenant with Abraham there was a belief in God.  It wasn’t limited to one people or description.  Melchizedek was a “righteous king” that’s what his name meant – and he brokered a deal between Abram and the King of Sodom after Abram led a raiding party to rescue his cousin Lot.

And they sat at a table and broke bread and drank wine, and Abram gave up treasures but kept the people he loved.  So it is with Jesus, who has the authority to make things right where we have gone wrong.  And the authority of Jesus does not come from his desire to be a God, but from his willingness to demonstrate the love of God.  And the love of God is what forms new words on our lips that we did not even think we could say.

The love of God through Christ Jesus is what writes the law of God on our hearts so that we no longer even have to say, “Know the Lord!” but instead we can demonstrate justice and righteousness and mercy.

That feels really good to say, and mostly it feels good because I believe it to be true.  But there is something more to it than that.  We say these words, and we forget that they require something of us.  We say justice, and we think about penalty.  We say righteousness, and we think about correctness.  We say mercy, and we think about getting away without getting the penalty for being incorrect.

But it’s not that simple.  Biblical justice certainly includes retribution, but it is truly more concerned with creating equality and ending the abuse of power.  Biblical righteousness is certainly about making things right, but it is more concerned with creating the conditions for right behavior to continue.  And mercy is what happens when the powerful and the powerless can find a way forward without blame and remorse.

At the end of the day, we are still left with the fact that there are Greeks and God-fearers still waiting at the door and asking to see Jesus.  Sometimes I think we can spend our energy keeping them away without even realizing that we have.

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. found themselves in a tricky place like I am describing, because they are an urban church and their grounds were becoming overwhelmed by the local homeless population.  They discussed several solutions.  They knew that the current pattern could not continue.  With heavy hearts they picked a day by which all belongings had to be removed (there were piles) and hired a security guard to maintain the vigil.  But that’s not all they did.  They also established a group that met with those who had been camped out and began to find resources for them.  Their Pastor, Linda Kaufman, tells the story this way:

“Every Tuesday at 7 a.m., a small group of us met with our homeless neighbors for breakfast and discussion.  We talked about what it would take to find permanent housing and kept track of commitments.  Six weeks in, when it was time for everyone to be moved to someplace else, we decided that we would continue the community we had formed beyond the March 1 deadline.  At our meeting the first week of March, some miracles occurred:

Dominique came for the first time and told us he had a job if he could get a bike helmet.  (Bob, a parishioner, left the meeting, went to his nearby home and arrived back moments later with a bike helmet.)
Ivy told us she had had an interview for a job at Starbucks.
Stephen said he was going to interview later that morning for a restaurant job.
Several folks needed help with transportation, so after the meeting Kris, a very committed and active parishioner, put more money on their church-provided transit cards.

After six weeks of support, no one is living on the porches anymore.  It wasn’t easy, and we did have challenges.  I am convinced that those individuals who were sleeping on the church porches are better off now than they were in January, before we started.

There is a way to keep safe, clean grounds while helping our homeless neighbors — and it’s both easier and harder than installing sprinkler systems or putting up fences.  It requires the investment of time and resources to build relationships, listen and help.  The community we formed still gathers at 7 a.m. each Tuesday.

I recently saw Dominique, with his bike helmet.  He told me he got the job.  Later that day I heard that Ivy got a full-time gig.  Herbert and Sonia have a place to live.  The miracles keep rolling in.”

I don’t know exactly what God has in mind for us.  We may encourage a community of cyclists to form around prayer and scripture.  We might start a dinner worship group.  We might even start an intentional dialogue between people who hate each other.  What I know is that the question is unanswered.  Although I guess it’s not a question.  There are those who are waiting with hope, with loss, with a need for justice, righteousness, and mercy.  And they are saying, “We would really like to see Jesus!”

My hope and expectation is that – while we let go of the life we love in order to demonstrate the love that gives us life – we will see Jesus, too.  And when we do we will see that we have received eternity, here and now even as we will have it there and then.  And to God be the glory for that.  Amen!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

As a child – I must confess – I grew up in relative paradise.  We lived on a five acre plot in Northeast Georgia surrounded by twenty undeveloped acres that were owned by someone who lived in New Hampshire – which might as well have been another planet as far as I knew.  I spent many a night outdoors camping and playing.  I was never afraid of the dark.  I can remember sneaking out at night and having no fear other than the possibility of getting caught. 

Many years later I found myself in a cave with a church youth group.  Our guide had us turn off all lights to experience total darkness.  I remember being astonished that my hand touched my face without expectation from any visual cue.  We were told to consider this to be like the formless void of creation, the abyss of nothingness, the womb of the earth, or perhaps the presence of God even in the absence of being (and then we waited on the next group so we could spook ‘em).

A year later, I was walking alone on a path between two cabin groups in the pitch-black countryside of Northern Virginia after turning off my flashlight.  I anticipated recapturing the feeling of childhood bliss only to find myself suddenly and terribly aware that most of the things that walk out in the open at night are predators.  There is nothing quite like realizing that you have placed yourself lower on the food chain than you ought to be to inspire an appreciation for a flash light and another soul to walk beside!

I tell you these things because I believe there is a lot of darkness and fear in the world today. Certainly, there is much to be afraid of, but the currency of terror seems to be more productive than the currency of hope.  By that I mean that individuals and organizations are making more money, developing more support, and creating institutional change by capitalizing on fear.  And somehow, it seems that those who follow Jesus are painted in the same light.  We are presented as either part of the problem – or part of the solution, depending on who you talk to – because we are simply unyielding in our views, and there is no middle ground between moral positions and social distress.

Sometimes, when I see the distress in our world, the prescriptive and overly simplistic application of faith, and the disconnect between the church and the culture we live in, it makes me wonder what happened to the significance of the Reformed tradition of faith?  “Sola fide, sola gratia, et sola scriptura” are the watchwords of our tradition.  Faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone – is that not what the letter to the Ephesians is all about?

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

For those of us who have grown up (and grown old) in the church, these are very comforting words.  No matter what we have done, or what has been done to us, God has given us the ability to believe that salvation has come through Jesus.  Our faith is not about what we might do for God, but about what God has done for us.  All that we do is in response to God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness!

And yet, when we walk out into the darkness of this present world, it seems that grace and mercy do not garner the same kind of response as they once might have.  Where our response might once have been selflessness, it seems to have become more about feeling justified.  It seems that we have replaced the common good with the expectation that a rising tide lifts all vessels.  All the while we hear the drum beat of the disappearing middle class and the increasing gap between the incomes of CEOs and the average employee while our thirst for luxury items continues to increase.  We hear of cultural hold-outs for racism and the blame game between individuals and institutions, and I, for one, begin to feel a bit numb. 

Then I hear the words of Paul speaking to the experience of the Ephesians, and I want it – I need it – to be my experience.  You were dead.  Let these words hit the church like a crash cart to a heart in cardiac arrest.  You were dead through your trespasses and sins!  You were slaves to your own passions, to things that seemed to benefit you, through living as though you were self-determined instead of God-formed.

And that is where life enters in – the understanding that we are God-formed.  We are not God-formed because we are Presbyterian.  We are God-formed because God formed us, and by the grace of God the church is in the business of helping us see this.  We come, in the words of Fred Craddock, “from God and we go to God.”  But what does that mean for us in the middle?

It means that we find ourselves needing a flashlight for the path and another soul to travel with. It means that even when the culture shifts and all seems to be in darkness, God is yet bringing light through a belief in the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus.  And it means that when we move into the light, we bring not only our hopes, but also our fears.

I believe that is why God asked Moses to make the bronze snake for the people to look upon.  They had already confessed.  They admitted that they had rejected God’s providence, and so it seems to me that the bronze snake was as much an acknowledgement of their sin as it was a recognition of God’s mercy.  It wasn’t a magic trick. It was a statement about what they were being saved from, and just as they were being saved from the snakes, they were also being saved from themselves.

And so Jesus uses this same story to recognize how he will become a symbol of our salvation – not just from the sin and evil of others, but from the sin and evil we carry in our hearts.  As we move forward as a congregation, we’re going to have to move with transparency, with penitence, and with confession. That may sound a little confronting to you.  I mean, it’s not as though we have snakes in our midst. We are actually a pretty diverse group.  Sure, we’re not as racially diverse as we could be, but for our size we have a good mix of incomes and political and social orientations.  This is true.

So, I don’t think our confessions need to be about what we are doing wrong or about how inclusive or particularly exclusive we are.  I think our confessions will need to be about the things we are doing, or not doing, that are more based in our desire to determine who we are versus our desire to be a people who are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

I do not have an accusation to hand out or a prescriptive plan to tease out a specific response to God’s calling for us.  But I do have faith that, just as we must all constantly ask ourselves, we must constantly ask one another what the good works are that God has prepared for us to do.  When I do that, I generally find that God has given me more than enough options.

That may sound like hard work – and it probably will be – but it might be just a matter of looking around.  Jared Ebert and Kevin Shultz discovered that one day.  They are both public maintenance employees in Fon DuLac Wisconsin.  One day they noticed an older gentleman trudging through the snow to get to a park bench in an area that was never cleared.  The bench was dedicated to his wife of 55 years, who had passed away.  Bud came every day to give her a “Daisy a Day.”  The next day he came and found the path had been cleared.  Jarred and Kevin continue to clear the path on their own time, without pay, because it is just the right thing to do.  In the news report on this story the commentator ends by saying, “Sometimes, to make a difference in this world, you need a good idea.  Sometimes all you need is to recognize the good around you and clear the way for it.”

The thing is, God is in the business of clearing the way for us, and the most profound way that we can receive the gift of God’s grace is directly through our deepest fears.  God has done this time and time again, and through the person and work of Jesus we see that God is in the business of bending toward us, even as we turn away in fear and doubt and selfish ambition.

You know, that actually takes me back to that time that I was in the woods walking in the dark between cabins.  My deepest fear was that I would be found out for being alone in the world.  I wasn’t afraid of being found alone in the woods, but alone even when I was with people.  That’s part of the reason I turned off my light – to experience the loneliness I was feeling.  Then my flashlight wouldn’t come back on, and I was scared.  And God met me there.  God met me there in the person and work of two counselors who just happened to find me and bring me into the light of community.  I can’t remember their names. 

But there and then, they showed me that it is better to be formed and re-formed by God and to bring my hopes and fears into the light of God’s love.  So, don’t be afraid of the dark.  Don’t be afraid of anything, but let us the love of God continue to form and re-form us into a people who demonstrate the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that we have received.  We can do that.  We can be that.  And to God be the glory.  Now and always.  Amen.