Sunday, February 25, 2018

We are not Jesus

John 13:1-17

This week I was reminded a hundred times, if not more, that I am not Jesus.
            I’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the many reasons why I love the Gospel of John is that it takes only twelve chapters to get to the Passover that is Jesus’ crucifixion, and we still have nine chapters left! The Gospel of Mark, by comparison, spends a scant three chapters on the happenings between the Passover, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. The Gospel of John includes so much detail, so many stories, and so many beautiful themes that thread through the Gospel that it can be savored for weeks on end, as we will do throughout the rest of Lent.
            The scene begins inauspiciously—just Jesus, washing the disciples’ feet. It’s a strange thing for Jesus to be doing if we think about it. Jesus is their Rabbi—their Lord and Teacher. He is in charge. The person who is in charge gets their feet washed by others; he does not do the washing. That’s the point, apparently, because when Peter complains that he would never allow Jesus to become so undignified as to wash his feet Jesus hits him with the ice cold reality: To be a follower requires that you be served, then it requires that you do the serving. It is both/and.
            We have the privilege to serve; we get to be served.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Relief of Ash Wednesday

Happy Valen-Ash Wednesday! Or is that Ashentine’s Day?
            This combination doesn’t happen very often so it feels like the kind of thing that should be talked about. Lent has these strange cultural bookends this year. Today is Valentine’s Day. Easter Sunday is April Fool’s Day. It feels like a thing that should be mentioned.
            And in case you think I’m jumping into something secular when I should be preaching on Ash Wednesday, A) hold your horses, we’ll get there, and B) Valentine’s Day has historically been a minor festival in the church.
            There are a lot of legends about this day, including the idea that part of the reason Valentine was lifted up particularly is that almost nothing is known about him, but what we do know is in one sense enough: He lived, he was killed for his faith—some sources say he was beheaded—and then he was declared a saint by the church. Today he is the patron saint of epilepsy, fainting, the plague, beekeepers, and greetings card manufacturers. That last one has been quoted so often that I’m not sure if anybody knows if it’s a joke or not anymore. How can one saint be the patron saint of so many things? Because, in fact, there are 22 saints that go by the name St. Valentine.
            This suggests two things to me: One: The history of the Christian church is vast and astonishing; that a lot of people have sacrificed a lot for the faith. And Two: We need a season to remind us of this; to proclaim that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
            This is one of my favorite days in the church year. I just love it. We just need it. We need to be honest. We are dust. And we will become dust again… just give it time.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Blind people who can see, but do not see

John 9

One of the formative books in my life is Blindness by Jose Saramago. It’s the story of a society that is stricken by a disease of white blindness. The first patients are sequestered in isolation until the time that the doctors and the guards and everybody else in the world goes blind. All that’s left is a woman, who we only know as the “doctor’s wife,” who can still see, though she keeps it from everybody but her husband. It’s a stunning book that won Saramago the Nobel prize for literature, but this isn’t a book review—it’s a sermon—so I should probably get around to the point. There are, in this book, a number of incredibly wise, pithy statements. Perhaps the most famous of these is: “If I’m sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?” But the quote that strikes me every time I read this story from John’s Gospel of Jesus healing a blind man is the one that goes like this. Saramago writes, “I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

Friday, February 9, 2018

Big Question #1: Evolution

This year in Confirmation we are talking about big questions. Each week through the winter and spring the students bring their big questions and we have conversations around the running list of really good thoughts and ideas they are wondering about. I do my best to give my answer. Sometimes I preface what I say by adding this is what I believe, or this is my best guess; other times I preface responses by saying this is what Martin Luther said or this is what the Lutheran confessions teach. These are hard questions for a reason: To presume I have some nicely-packaged answer is foolish, though still to say nothing to these questions is to let the loudest voices win the day. So, we tarry on and do our best to address what we may, understanding that this must be done humbly with an awareness that we are not God and, moreover, we don't get to tell God how things are.

With that said, I am going to be writing a long-form response to ten of the very best questions raised by our Confirmation students and posting it to my blog on a regular basis. Each time I will attempt to address first of all what the question is and secondly how, as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a human being I approach these questions. Hopefully, that sets the stage well enough. So, off we go...

Question #1: Can a Christian believe in evolution?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The story of living water (yet we care more about the woman)

John 4:1-42

If you want to make people obsess over a person give her no name. I feel like that’s how half of romantic comedies begin: The unknown woman. Add in a subtle implication that she might not be on the up and up and, well, then you have some serious intrigue. It feels like every commentary writer on the Gospel of John falls hook, line, and sinker for this age-old trope. Every one of them is obsessed with the woman at the well. Who is she? What is she doing there? If you read a more conservative commentary it tends to be overly concerned with the woman’s sinfulness, especially her sex life—she had five husbands after all, they say. If you read a more liberal commentary it tends to be overly concerned with the woman’s faithfulness in spite of the obstacles she faced in a patriarchal society. That she would even be at that well in the middle of the day was an act of defiance, they say.
            Friends, this is why Jesus had to come. Everything is not this or that. The lenses we wear color everything we see. Every bit of turf needs to be defended; even this scene from John’s Gospel. The woman must be righteous… or the woman must be sinful. If you want to know why I’m Lutheran in a nutshell, it is because Luther gave us the language to say she is without a doubt 100% both—saint and sinner—and we should be less concerned about her than we are about Jesus and what this story speaks to us as individuals, and yet we will always be more concerned about the woman because it’s easier to slice and dice her character than to actually deal with the hard ramifications of what Jesus has to say.
            Yes, there are real problems in the world. People have messed-up sex lives; patriarchal systems that denigrate women are still commonplace. However, this is about neither of those things. This story does not exist in the Gospel of John to tell us how to act or to point out the systems that oppress. Instead, Jesus is offering the thing that bridges this gulf: Living water. Jesus is offering a way out if only we stop with our own preconceived notions of what is important here, but I suspect this is too much for many of us most of the time. If the commentaries are any indication, it’s too much for the religious experts as well.
            I get nervous preaching like this because when I take shots at the way that people politicize the gospel it’s tempting to hear this as if I’m trying to be a moderate between the personal morality theology of the right and the systems theology of the left, as if I’m trying to have a little bit of both, but I want to be clear: Jesus does not cut a middle road. Instead, he takes the car head-long into the field; he takes the boat on to land; he takes the hovercraft wherever you can’t take a hovercraft. He defies teaching us about the simplicity of life on earth and centers his teachings on the work of God’s kingdom, which is diametrically opposed to the way we do business. Jesus simply does not play our games. Instead, he offers the woman living water.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Spiritual is Literal (Or Why God So Loves the World)

John 3:1-21

Holy cow. John 3. One week to talk about Nicodemus and Jesus, this banter back and forth. One week to talk about John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” One chance to talk about Moses lifting up the serpent as Christ is lifted up on a cross. Holy cow. This is the week I need to talk fast and slow—get a lot in and a lot understood—and do it while you’re smelling potluck. Talk about an impossible task.
Might as well start with Nicodemus. Here’s a guy after Jesus’ own heart. He comes to him secretly by night. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, appears three times in John’s Gospel. He shows up first in this story to set the stage for Jesus’ giant theological announcement (so people have something to put on their signs at football games); then he appears once again in the middle of John’s Gospel to remind the Sanhedrin—that is, the Jewish high court—that they are to follow due process (so we know he was a good lawyer); and then he appears finally after Jesus’ death to help prepare his body for burial. What a strange mix of appearances for this guy.
In this first appearance, Nicodemus gets off to an inauspicious start. He doesn’t seem to get it. At least he misunderstands the central most important words Jesus uses. Let’s run through the encounter one more time:
Nicodemus says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."
Jesus answers, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen (Gk. from above, again, or anew)."
Nicodemus responds, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"
Here is the essence of the misunderstanding: Jesus is speaking spiritual language that Nicodemus is taking physically. The same thing happened in last week’s reading where Jesus starts talking about the temple, how if they destroy it he will raise it in three days, and he’s really talking about himself but the temple leaders assume he’s talking about the building. In this case, Jesus is talking about being born a heavenly birth, while Nicodemus is imagining re-entering the birth canal. Again, Nicodemus says, “Jesus, how can a person be born again?” But this is simply not what Jesus was saying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The allure of isms and God's economy of joy

John 2:13-25

            This past week we talked about wealth and materialism in Confirmation class with the ninth graders. Of all the topics we cover in Confirmation it never ceases to surprise me how this is one of the hardest. Nobody—and I mean nobody—wants the things they have put into question. Nobody wants to deal with all the ways that our economy differs from God’s economy. Everybody wants to gloss over this stuff. It makes some people feel guilty or angry, and other people feel ashamed
We didn’t talk about today’s scripture reading on Wednesday, though we certainly could have. When Jesus overthrows the marketplace that has come into the temple he does so to demonstrate all the ways that God’s economy is going to be different from ours. Jesus is not going to be a capitalist, or a socialist, or a communist, or any other –ism. He is going to be about God’s economy and God’s economy only. As he famously answers the Pharisees that other time, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
In order to understand a little about God’s economy we have to understand this word, “economy,” from the Greek “oikos,” meaning “house,” and nomos, meaning “law.” God’s economy is the law of the house—God’s house. At first that sounds like it’s about the church rules, and Jesus starts there, but that’s only the beginning. As Jesus’ ministry takes him from the temple and out into the world (and beyond) God’s economy takes on a whole different meaning. It becomes a question of what matters to us and why. Then, it is about all the ways that the laws of our houses distract from the good news of the gospel.