Son of Abraham: Sermon by Laura, 11.6.16 Pentecost 25C

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

What a convergence of significant dates we have in these early weeks of November! In our congregation, as we’ve already mentioned, today is “Stewardship Commitment Sunday.” But I’m guessing other significant dates have captured more of your attention, anticipation, and anxiety. Cubs fans continue to celebrate Nov. 2nd’s historic win. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11. And…what’s that you say? There’s an election in two days? How could we forget!

We’ll come back to that. But the date that was most significant for me this past week was Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints. I now count my Dad, Ron Elly, among the members of the church triumphant. In honor of All Saints, I’d like to read you the words which, to me, are the heart of Dad’s testimony as a Christ-follower. Dad had scrawled these words, in all caps for emphasis, with blue ballpoint pen on a swatch of wide-ruled paper; stuck with tape to his bathroom mirror. He saw them every time he saw his own reflection: “I am a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”

Those words reflect the good news of the gospel, as we consider the familiar story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, short on stature if not on wealth. Zacchaeus is so eager to see Jesus that he scurries ahead of the crowds to climb a tree to for a better view. Stopping below that tree, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, inviting himself to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is joyful to host Jesus, but onlookers grumble. Why would great rabbi like Jesus want to associate with a man like Zacchaeus—a tax collector who must be a “sinner?”

After all, tax collectors weren’t known for integrity. Business men who had bid on and won the privilege of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, they regularly took an extra cut for themselves. A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, with other tax collectors working under him, had even more opportunity for “cooking the books, commodities speculation, side deals, graft, and extortion to defraud”[i] others. Fellow Jews viewed him as profiting from their distress, and collaboration with the Gentile occupiers made him a sinner, an outsider to the “official family of faith.”[ii]

But what does Jesus see in the man up in the tree? Does he see a sinner in need of repentance?

That’s the traditional interpretation of this story.

But there are a couple of ways the original Greek text can be understood. Most English versions translate Zacchaeus’ speech in future tense, so that he says,  “I will give half my money to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” It sounds like Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ personal attention that he repents the spot. But these verbs can also be read in what’s called the “customary present tense:” “I give to the poor…I pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is revealing that he is already, customarily, practicing righteous stewardship, despite what others assume about him.

I like this second reading. It turns the tables on my assumptions, as Jesus so often does. As one author notes, “maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”[iii]

Such a reading is consistent with Luke’s other stories.  There are unlikely heroes all over the place: a faithful Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a healed Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus, and a tax collector praised in contrast to a Pharisee. Each of these stories overturns the expectations of religious insiders.

There’s also the “rich young ruler,” righteous in all the expected ways,  who walks away from Jesus, unable to bring himself to do as Jesus directs, to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow in Jesus’ way. At the end of that story, the disciples ask, “Who, then, can be saved?”

“This guy!” Zacchaeus’ story seems to respond. Here’s another rich man, about whom Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” But what does Jesus mean with that word “salvation”?

In one sense, it points to the very person of Jesus Christ, literally coming to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house. Childlike in his eager-tree-climbing—and remember, Jesus says we receive the kingdom like a little child—Zacchaeus receives Jesus with great joy. Named and accepted as a true son of Abraham, Zacchaeus is brought from outsider status back into the true family of faith. Jesus has sought, found, and saved Zacchaeus.

But the word “salvation” applies in a second way. Affirming Zacchaeus’ generosity, Jesus is recognizing that salvation had already arrived at Zacchaeus’ house,   because Zacchaeus had already committed himself to economic practices which tangibly bless other people.

“Salvation” is a big word.  It is more than a penitent sinner’s return to morality, more than a warm feeling of acceptance, more, even, than an “inward and spiritual grace leading to heavenly rest,” as one scholar puts it. Salvation also includes the outward actions we take to make a “practical and observable” difference in others’ lives.[iv]

All of this points us toward the challenge of discernment. Are we able to see and recognize the true sons and daughters of Abraham, bearing fruits of generosity, compassion, and graciousness wherever and whenever they may be found—or do we assume some people, “those people,” cannot possibly have any blessing to offer? Which of our prejudices obscures our vision from seeing God’s powerful Spirit at work, blessing the earth, through neighbors all around us?

What an important question in election season! And what a brutal season it has been! I’ve read that therapists are reporting record numbers of patients with over-the-top anxiety in the recent weeks of Election 2016. I get it—this election has drawn out an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and dehumanizing rhetoric. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy…There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes…to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories…”

So I truly appreciated a meme on my Facebook feed this week. It was a picture of the two major presidential candidates, along with these words: “These people were both made in the image of God. Yes, both.” I appreciated that reminder, not because it helps me which one to vote for, but because it reconnects me with our basic Christian conviction, that every human being has value, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done or left undone, simply because God chose to create them. And God longs for God’s image, concealed beneath layers of damage and dust, to be revealed in each of us. God longs for God’s beloved children to recognize themselves—and each other.

All of us here have been sought, found, and saved by Christ. We are recipients of a salvation that way beyond a ticket to heaven after death. Christ transforms us from recipients to participants and agents of salvation, and sent into the world on God’s mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit of mercy and forgiveness, courageous compassion, and daring love. As my Dad reminded himself every day, we are children of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use us to change the world.

But if this is true of each of us, it is also true for every other child of God, it is also true for every other human person created in God’s image, for whom Jesus gave himself so generously so that image might be restored in fullness.

In the days ahead, our invitation, is to ask the Holy Spirit to give us clear vision, that we might see past our assumptions and prejudices. We trust in a God who immeasurably greater than our culture’s politics. Holding fast to that faith, it is our special task to create spacious sanctuaries of listening acceptance, where neighbors and strangers are welcomed without fear.

Therefore, prepare yourself, church. Use your eyes and ears first, to see and to hear, and only then, use your mouths to proclaim all the ways that God is active.  Practice careful discernment.

Look at each person you encounter, in person or on the news, with the gaze of the Holy Spirit, and recognize saints, hidden and in plain sight, doing gracious acts in small and every day ways. There are always people bearing the fruits of salvation in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Practice curiosity, not prejudice.

And on Stewardship Sunday, this Sunday after All Saints, let us commit ourselves to practicing generosity. Not just generosity in our economic practices, not just generosity in sharing our resources with others. But with a generosity of spirit, the kind of generosity God shows us, let us open our hearts to God’s children everywhere.

Let us be courageous in our relationships willing to be changed as we listen to people who are different from us. Let us be available to experience God’s love from unexpected sources. Let us be willing to “pay forward” all the little acts of kindness that actually keep this world alive, the daily acts of sharing made by those who are now among the “great cloud of witnesses,” who made, in one way or another, our life together in this place possible. Thanks be to God for their generous lives, and, in death, for the completion of  their joyous reunion in the family of God.

Alleluia! Amen.

[i] Christopher R. Hutson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 165.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Commentary” on Luke 19:1-10 in in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 166.

[iii] http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20131028JJ.shtml

[iv] Murchison, as above, 168

Saintly Job Description: Sermon by Keith, 11.1.15

Scriptures: Mark 12:28-3

A lot of people had been arguing with Jesus this day in the temple.  This house of worship, where God was to be glorified, had become a hostile environment where different groups with differing religious and political agendas would quarrel about who was right. Our reading this morning is preceded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and these different segments of ancient Jewish leadership.  Group after group, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, shuffle on and off the stage with questions to trap or antagonize Jesus.  “Where do you get your authority?” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” “Is it right to pay taxes to the Romans?” “In the resurrection, who will get to marry the women who had been married to the each of the seven brothers successively?”   Each of these questions are meant to either trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble with the local authorities or attempt to find out what side of the religious/political fence he is on.  And in each and every case, Jesus offers a variety of responses to the questions that leads the one asking to be rendered silent and amazed.

But then another man enters the scene.  Mark just calls him a scribe who has been listening to all the heated conversations.  We don’t know much about him.  As a scribe, he would have known the Jewish law, the Torah, inside and out and probably would have been asked his interpretation of the law in a dispute.  He likes what he has been hearing Jesus say in his discussions with the others who have come before him.  He is drawn to Jesus in many ways because of his personal position and Mark casts this scribe as one sincerely interested in engaging Jesus in further discussion not to trap and determine political allegiances, but for the sake of piety, for the sake of deepening one’s understanding of what it meant to be a follower of the God worship at the temple.

This scribe enters the conversation by posing his own question to Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  And Jesus answers it in two parts, but they are two parts that are so entwined that they can’t be pulled apart.  We will discover that the answer isn’t complete without those two parts.

The first portion of the response Jesus gives is rooted in the law in what is known as the Shema, a prayer that has been said by pious Jews throughout history, “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  The point is to love God completely and comprehensively, with all of one’s being.  And that love of God through our whole being begins with worship.  NT Wright puts it this way that since we are created in the image of God, “we will find our fullest meaning, our true selves, the more we learn to love and worship the one we are designed to reflect.  No half measures; heart, mind, soul and strength—that is, every aspect of human life—is to be poured out gladly in worship of the one true God.  Whatever we do, we are to do for him” (Mark for Everyone).

The reason this is the first and greatest commandment is not that God wants us to ponder how and if we are loving God with our entire being, or feel guilty that we may not be loving God enough, but it is there to help us respond to the love of God that is poured out upon us.  God is love, and the book of 1 John tells us that we love because God first loved us.  We don’t love God to try and get on his good side or get favors; we love God in response to the deep love he has given us.  We respond back in praise and gratitude to that deep love in everything that we say, think, and do.

In many ways, what Jesus answered up to this point could be considered a complete answer.  What’s the greatest commandment?  Love God!  And I have always wondered if the scribe expected Jesus to stop there, but Jesus doesn’t.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When he sums it up, Jesus is using a mix of singular and plural words, “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”

But here is why they are one and the same.  Loving God fully means living in ways that God’s kingdom is experienced and shared in concrete ways.  As we grow in God’s gift of grace and love, we grow in our capacity to love and serve as God commands and we do so both within and outside the walls of the church.  Love turns prayer and worship into concrete actions in the world because, above all, it is love made real that reveals the kingdom of God.  I think this is why the scribe, in responding to Jesus, says that this is much more important than all the offerings and sacrifices done in the temple worship.  It is the love of God that leads to loving the other.  If the focus only becomes worship and how to live a holy life before God, that worship is worthless, that life becomes self-centered.

But also notice what Jesus doesn’t say as he talks about the love of neighbor.  He doesn’t say, “Love others instead of yourself” nor does he say “When you have figured out how to love yourself then go love your neighbor.”

I don’t usually listen to radio preachers mostly because when I listen to one, I want to hear the entire sermon.  The couple minute drive from home to the church doesn’t cut it, so it is usually only on road trips that I tune into the sermons on the airways.  On one trip, the pastor was preaching on this particular text, but his main thrust was that the church needed to provide classes to help people love themselves.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that it is easier to come worship and praise God when I’m feeling good about myself and it seems much more doable to reach out to my neighbor when I’m not worried about the chaos that is happening in my own life, but that misses the point of this text.  Most people, on a daily basis, get up in the morning and dress them selves, feed themselves, make sure the kids or parents (depending on the life situation) are taken care of.  We love ourselves and our close clan naturally, instinctively in these ways.  This is the love of neighbor Jesus is calling us to, a love that sees our neighbor as part of the family that is enveloped not only in God’s love, but also our love.

But if this radio preacher would have said the church needs to have a class on teaching people to receive love, my response might have been different.  In this culture that pushes self-sufficiency and individualism, it can be hard to admit we need to receive love from God and each other.  Time after time, when I’ve met with people in need, going through hardship such as illness or loss, when it comes time to pray, they say, “But don’t pray for me, there are bigger problems in the world.”  Yeah, there might be bigger problems in the world, but this response says, “I can take care of it myself.” Or it says, “I’m not worthy of receiving love.”  This closes the door on love that can be shared, I believe, even the power of God’s love.  Take a risk and say “pray for me!”

We don’t know what went through the scribe’s mind as he left this encounter with Jesus.  The text said no one dared to ask him any questions.  I know I would have had questions.  Here Jesus has simplified the life of faith:  Love God and love neighbor.  But simple doesn’t mean easy.  One could get paralyzed by the enormity of what it means.  Do I run off to Africa and operate an orphanage?  Do I start knocking door-to-door down my street handing out pamphlets about knowing Jesus?  Do I sing a little louder in worship on Sunday?  As a pastor, do I hand everyone an application to go to seminary as they leave today?

No, I don’t think that’s how it works, even though if you are feeling called to go to Africa to run an orphanage, Amen!  But how do we, in our busyness of our lives, live into this commandment?

It boils back down to love.  God’s love for you and God’s love for the larger world cannot be separated.  Your day-to-day life, which God has given you and lavishly poured his love into, is the place where you can glorify God and love your neighbor as yourself.  It doesn’t mean working harder, it means opening yourself to the Holy Spirit so you can recognize the needs of those around you as you live out your life.  Margot Starbuck in her book, Small Things with Great Love, points out that in the story of the Good Samaritan, we don’t know why the Samaritan was on the road to Jericho.  For all we know he was on his way to coffee at the Jericho Mall to discuss a possible business merger.  He was just on his way somewhere—Walmart? A dentist appointment?  Starbucks?—when he recognized someone in need and pulled over his donkey to check it out.  The regular stuff of our lives–the commute to work, the workout at the gym or gym class, the church fellowship night dinners, home improvement projects, errands, play dates—these are the places in which we express and experience God’s love for a world in need.

Friends, today is All Saints’ Day.  And being a saint isn’t about knowing the right answers.  The scribe knew the right answer, but Jesus says that only brought him near to the kingdom of God.  A saint is someone who lives the answer, who participates with God in God’s reign by living joyfully in the love of God and sharing it with everyone they meet along the way.  It doesn’t mean adding a bunch of stuff or tasks to your life, but it may be inconvenient and uncomfortable at times.  But it’s about taking one step at a time, each and everyday, with Jesus into his kingdom.  Amen.

Divine Friendship: Sermon by Keith, 5.10.15, Easter 6B

Scriptures: 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

(Congregational conversation around the question, “what is a friend?”)

When I asked that question, did a dictionary type definition pop to mind, with bullet point characteristics of what a friend is? Or did a real-life person come to your mind? (Let people answer). My guess is that this friend came to your mind and then how you answered my question about what a friend is, you pulled out characteristics that you have really experienced in the relationship with that friend to define what a friend is. Is that correct?

And that is what Jesus is talking about here in this portion of the farewell discourse, this long speech he gives right before he heads to his crucifixion. He’s talking about a relational friendship, not something metaphorical, but real and tangible with a person, with him. And as he talks about this divine friendship, we look at and to him for what it means to have a friend in Jesus and what friendship can look like in the community of faith.

Jesus’ criteria for living into this divine friendship is three-fold. Jesus’ friends are those who love one another. Now, we have been reading a lot from the Gospel of John and John’s first letter about love over the past couple of weeks. And the love Jesus is talking about is that self-sacrificial love that puts the other person first just for the sake of love. No agendas, no getting something out of putting the other ahead. Just love.

It is what Jesus’ whole ministry is about,  and we even find his understanding of love in his words today. He says, “I no longer call you servant, but friend.” That word that usually gets translated “servant” is actually the Greek word for “slave.” Think about the hierarchy between a master and a slave. Now what does it look like between two friends? Jesus has lowered himself and at the same time elevated the status of his disciples by calling them friend. That’s one of the ways we love one another, not by elevating ourselves in the community, but by lifting each other up, celebrating each others’ gifts and mourning with each other when our hearts are broken. In building our friendship with Christ, we love and build our friendship with one another.

The next part of friendship, as Jesus reveals it, is that everything is revealed. Jesus does not leave us in the dark. This is one of those parts of scripture that that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around.   Jesus holds nothing back from his disciples when he states clearly, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Everything. No secrets to dig out of what Jesus said. No special knowledge for a select few best disciples. Everything is and has been revealed in Jesus. In order for us to live in a loving relationship with God, Jesus has spilled the beans that we need to love one another. No secret handshakes or special rituals. Revealed love.

And that is what friends do with each other, they hold nothing back. It’s easy to share the good stuff in our lives, and it does take time to build trust and share those things that lay hidden in the back of the closet. But I think that Jesus is calling us to reveal those things to one another so that they are exposed to the light and love of God so healing and transformation can take place. Friends hold nothing back from God or each other. Everything is out in the open.

The last part of this divine friendship is understanding that being Jesus’ friend means that he chose us to be his friends. There was nothing we did or could do to be his friend. It was his initiative to lower himself so that we could be lifted up and be friends with the divine. Look around: God in Christ has chosen everyone here to be a friend. Indeed, he chose us long before we chose him.

And that is the second part of this choosing. It isn’t one way. We also have to chose to respond to God’s friendship. Friendship is a two-way street. I really like how Friedrick Beuchner talks about it. Friendship isn’t “something God does. It is something Abraham and God or Moses and God do together. Not even God can be a friend all by himself…” In speaking of the friendship of God and Abraham, Beuchner adds, “There is no agenda. They are simply being together, the two of them, and being themselves.” We respond to Christ’s invitation to be his friend by spending time with him and each other. That is how we build and maintain any friendship.

Friends, we are called to a personal relationship, a friendship, of love and loyalty to the one who has loved us more than we can begin to imagine. He is the one who calls us friend. And to prove his love for us, he shared everything and gave up everything for us. He lived, died, and was raised from the grave for us. And in that friendship with him, he calls us to a simple, profound, and difficult command: Love one another. Amen.

Deep and Wide: Sermon by Laura, 5.3.15 Easter 5B

Scriptures: 1 John 4:7-21, Acts 8:26-40

“There is a room in the Department of Mysteries, that is kept locked at all times. It contains a force that is at once more wonderful and more terrible than death, than human intelligence, than forces of nature. It is also, perhaps, the most mysterious of the many subjects for study that reside there….”[i] Those words, spoken by Professor Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, describe the force which saves Harry from his enemy Voldermort, the same force 1 John describes in today’s scripture: Love.

Love: We rarely think about love as a “force” in our culture, where we throw the word around with abandon. We say we “love” almost anything and everything for which we have generally affirmative feelings.

And Christians do love to say “God is love.” But do we know what we are saying? Do we say it too easily, with glib sentimentality, from our relative places of privilege? Step back and think how shocking and foolish this idea, so familiar to us, actually sounds from the context of the common experience of the vast majority of human beings.[ii] Earthquake victims in Nepal and Baltimore rioters might justifiably question this claim. In light of the suffering so many people face, is it an “escapist fantasy”[iii] to claim “God is love”?

But 1 John is not describing a generally warm feeling. He’s making a radical, counter-cultural confession[iv] with major implications for how we live our lives; he’s bearing witness to the powerful force revealed and experienced in Jesus Christ. It is not the force of a shooting gun or a striking fist, but the force in the children’s song: “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”

Jesus was sent to unite humanity with a loving God, so that we can see and know in him that God is with us and for us. God desires to embrace and include us in the refreshing reality of peace, joy, hope and love which is God’s very being, an abundant flow of grace not even death can hold back.

God’s love is a force which can and does change the world. We see it in the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian man on the wilderness road. The story in Acts begins with Philip, who was chosen one of the seven deacons who oversaw equitable food distribution between Hebrew and Greek-speaking widows. After the Jerusalem Christians are scattered by persecution, Philip shows up preaching and baptizing in Samaria. Here is a man who is willing and able to relate to others with hospitality and respect across cultural and language differences.

The man he meets on the wilderness road represents another realm of otherness—it’s not his race, religion or language. This Ethiopian, returning from his Jerusalem pilgrimage, is either Jewish—there were Ethiopian Jews—or a God-fearer, a Gentile who worshiped the Jewish God and followed Jewish teaching. He is wealthy, educated, able to read the Greek scriptures, and riding in a chariot. He is a powerful insider in places such things matter. But another aspect of his identity overrides them all with respect to his faith: he is a eunuch, a castrated male, a sexual minority excluded and barred from entering the temple.

We can learn a lot from these two men, whose actions reveal attitudes, habits, and practices sourced in the love 1 John describes. Philip’s humility and obedience, his responsiveness to the Spirit, is revealed in his willingness to run up alongside this stranger’s chariot, and to listen before he speaks. These are loving patterns of behavior.

The text from Isaiah refers to “one who is shorn;”[v] an experience with which the eunuch can identify. We don’t know what Philip says, but having spent time in the scriptures, he likely knows that Isaiah later prophesies hope which meets this man’s pain, that when the Messiah comes, eunuchs “who hold fast my covenant,” will have full inclusion among God’s people.[vi]

Philip shares the good news, that in Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. Those who have been shorn have in Jesus Christ a God who knows their suffering, and they are now fully welcomed as children of God’s house. Philip speaks and embodies Christ’s compassionate welcome to this man.

The Ethiopian also eunuch reveals patterns of God’s love in his actions. In devoted love for God, he’s journeyed to Jerusalem, even knowing he is barred from the Temple; and he continues to study the scriptures, even though some sacred texts name people like him aberrant and unworthy of inclusion. He receives Philip with hospitality and humility, acknowledging his own need for guidance. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For a modern parallel, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C., inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study. The inclusion in this story runs both ways.”[vii]

The eunuch is receptive to the surprising Spirit, and when water appears near that desert road, he eagerly receives baptism. Can you imagine the tears of joy on his face, when this long-excluded man finally receives God’s affirmation of his identity as God’s child, wholly welcome and wholly loved?

He went on his way rejoicing; and the history of the ancient Ethiopian church perhaps evidences that he, who loved God, not only received God’s love but shared it boldly back home.

Friends, we are called—commanded!—to love one another as we have been loved. Indeed, 1 John says that we lie if we say “I love God” but act in hateful ways. God’s love is witnessed and perfected in our love for others. To proclaim “God is love” is a commitment to be formed in attitudes, habits, and practices which show forth God’s love to others.

This is a radical claim on us, because these attitudes, habits, and practices do not come naturally. We are conditioned to fear those who are different from us, which, truly, is every other human being. Every single person is ultimately a unique, fathomless mystery, a bearer of the image of our fathomless God.

And we are conditioned to see the raised fist as so much more powerful than the overflowing fountain. Violent force seems to promise immediate means to control our destiny.

But in drought-stricken times, the life-giving power provided by an overflowing fountain cannot be underestimated. That is the force of God’s love in Jesus Christ, the life-source in which we plant our roots, which brings forth life-giving fruit.

Which brings up an important point: you do not gain loving patterns, habits, and actions by forcing them upon yourselves or others. You become loving, first, by receiving. Some of us try to skip over that part, compelled by the go-go/do-do drive of our culture, which values productivity over receptivity.

To receive love, you must stop and take time to be with God and others, which can feel incredibly vulnerable. You will adapt to dwelling in vulnerability, deciding to arise with trust in a good God and to drop the fearful defenses which numb and block you from receiving the source of love and life. Trusting in God for your strength, you will learn that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

Friends, polarization, marginalization, and discrimination are all-too-common statements on our collective reality. We can change that.

We will not do it perfectly. We will make mistakes. Loving is awkward and messy at times. But sourced in God’s perfect love, we can boldly let it flow through us, accepting and welcoming others with Christ’s hospitality, so that the powerful force of God’s love overflows in us, deep and wide, replenishing the world. Alleluia! Amen.

[i] J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

[ii] Stephen Carlsen, http://day1.org/3817-a_message_so_good_as_to_border_on_folly

[iii] Carlsen, as above.

[iv] Carlsen, as above.

[v] Karen Baker-Fletcher in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 456.

[vi] Isaiah 56:4-5

[vii] Barbara Brown Taylor, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008, 457.

Lifted Up: Sermon by Laura, 3.15.15 Lent 4B

Before I read today’s gospel text, I invite you to find a pew Bible and  read along.  I’m reading from the Common English Bible, which is slightly different from the NRSV. I invite you to notice the differences between what you see with your eyes and what your ears hear.

Scripture readings: Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21(CEB); John 3:14-21 (NRSV)

So, what did you notice? (I especially wanted people to notice the difference between the word “judged” vs. “condemned.”) Good work. Our seminary professors constantly reminded us, every translation of Scripture is also an interpretation. One way to get a fresh view is by comparing translations. John 3:16 may be the most famous Christian verse in our era. This verse is so familiar and our reaction to it so ingrained, that we must be very intentional in listening to it, or we simply fall back on our “default” interpretations.

What do I mean by “default interpretation?” “Default settings” on computers, when you first get them, are preselected functions programmed to occur automatically until you specify you want the computer to do something different. All of us have default patterns of thought and behavior learned very early on in our lives. Some of our defaults continue to be helpful. Some of them were appropriate at certain points in our development, but need to be set aside as we grew. And some defaults, if we learned them in abusive environments, impair our capacity for healthy relationships as they continue to function in our lives.

John 3:16 is a touchstone of “default” Christianity for many people, triggering deeply ingrained impulses of faith. Maybe these words reconnect you with a wonderful awareness of God’s powerful love and the assurance of eternal life; maybe they put you right back into early family or Sunday school experiences where you felt welcomed and loved. If that is your experience, praise God. What a gift!

But others have less than positive associations of this text, because at some point, it was interpreted to you as a threat rather than a promise: “Believe in Jesus, or perish in hell forever.” For too many people, this text has become a stumbling block, when the “default” message speaks exclusion and condemnation, exactly the opposite of what it’s actually saying.

So what do these verses actually say about God, who God is, and what God is doing? Let’s look closely at the verbs directly tied to God. What are they? (loved, gave, did not send).

God loved the world—the cosmos, in the Greek—and God gave the Son, whom he did not send to condemn or judge but to save. Did you hear that? The Son was not sent to condemn or judge.

While there is certainly judgment in these verses, look again: is the noun God actually tied to the verbs “condemn” or “judge” in these verses? No. The text never actually states that God is the one condemning or judging. Judgment in John’s gospel is not the specific act of an agent, either God or us, pronouncing judgment or punishment upon someone else. Rather, it represents the crisis of decision which Jesus provokes in our lives, whether or not we will choose to receive and enter the relationship Jesus offers us.[i]

In this text, God does nothing more or less than love us and provide for us salvation and eternal life. But now we’ve come upon some more words with lots of default associations. “Salvation” and “eternal life” are often understood in terms of an afterlife, what happens after we die. Being “saved” means we go to heaven and live with Jesus forever.

This interpretation has been comforting for many. I’m not suggesting we discard it, but there are additional possibilities to hold alongside it. Even more than “life insurance,” these words offer “life assurance,” pointing us to a quality of life in the present moment. To be “saved” is also to be healed of our anxiety and fear of death and failure, and to be freed from compulsions and addictions that we may live authentically human lives and truly love God and all the others God has created. To have “eternal life” is to live your own, present, daily life securely aware that you are inextricably connected to a purpose, presence, and power far greater than your basic existence. Your life, right here and now, participates in the divine life of God.

And to “believe” in Jesus means far more than nodding agreement to theological or scriptural propositions.[ii] It means that embracing a worldview shaped by intimate communion with God in Christ, a new lens through which we see ourselves and others, by which we are reoriented, in all our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors from life-diminishing to life-giving activity, through which we learn to live honestly and vulnerably, with nothing to hide.[iii]

The good news of John’s gospel is that in sheer love for us—and for the whole cosmos–God makes it possible for us to experience, right here and now, a new, life-giving reality, sourced in God’s purpose, presence, and power, an identity with meaning, a community of belonging, and great hope for the future.

So, what are we to do in the moment of decision? How do we come to “believe” in Jesus, to receive and be reoriented in the life he has to offer? By looking at Jesus, who has been “lifted up.”

Speaking of defaults, and given strong snake phobias, maybe it’s not surprising that you never see anyone holding up a banner with “John 3:14” between the goalposts at football games.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.” I can’t help but wonder what the author of John is doing in pointing us to this weird story from the Book of Numbers.

The snake Moses lifted up was a bronze sculpture hung on a pole. The Israelites, freed from slavery but exhausted in desert wanderings, had entered a worldview of distrust in God. Though God had provided daily manna and quail, they complained that God was really out to get them. But when the poisonous snakes show up and people start dying, the people recognize their disbelief and turn back, asking Moses to intercede so that God will take the snakes away.

So Moses prays, and God responds. But interestingly, God doesn’t do what they want. The poisonous snakes remain in their midst. Instead God tells Moses to make a snake icon and put it where everyone can see it. Those who get bitten survive and find healing simply by turning their gaze upon the bronze serpent. The comparison point between this strange healing symbol and Jesus is that both are “lifted up” so that people can look upon them. In both cases, God provides a means by which the mere act of looking allows the possibility of healing and a new life.

But what do we see when we look at Jesus “lifted up?” In John’s gospel, Jesus is understood to be “lifted up” in a process of crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. So, first, we gaze upon him “lifted up” on the cross, and that is not easy at all. The cross is not just any “pole,” but an instrument of torture and death. One thing we see is brutal inhumanity, cruelty, and injustice playing out in the death of an innocent man.

To look at the cross is to gaze upon the terrible outcome of our distrust and betrayal of God and others. To look at the cross is to see our collective shame and fear destroying a human being in the image of God. We see the judgment, that people love darkness rather than light.

But that is not the only thing we see on the cross. We also see the truly Human One, the man who represents humanity at our best, who demonstrates what it means to truly love, willingly giving himself to the consequences of humanity’s faithlessness. We see the fully divine Son in whom God’s life and love is poured out freely and completely in grace not only for us but also with us. We see the God who goes with us into the darkest shadows, the most shameful and vulnerable places of our lives, so that even when we are utterly bereft and betrayed, we will never be alone.

My friends, we are halfway through the journey of Lent, a season in which we are invited to look closely at all our default worldviews and notice—without self-condemnation—any binders or barriers which keep us from following Christ in love of God, others, and ourselves. Jesus is “lifted up” to offer us a window, through which we may receive a new and healing awareness, seeing not only that which separates us from God, but more importantly, how God has come to offer us elevation.

“Elevation” is a term social scientists use to describe the warm and expansive emotion human beings experience in witnessing acts of goodness. Elevation motivates those who experience it to open up, connect with, and assist other people.[iv] Elevation is what it means for us to be lifted up to participate in God’s eternal life as we gaze deeply upon our crucified and risen Savior.

I want to leave you with these words from Julian of Norwich, a mystic of the 14th century, who calls us to receive the elevation of Christ, lifted up:

“The love of God most High for our soul

is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge.

No created being can fully know

the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness,

of the love that our Maker has for us.

By his Grace and help therefore let us in spirit

stand in awe and gaze, eternally marveling

at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love

that God, Who is all goodness, has for us.[v]

Amen and Amen.

[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3550

[ii] http://scarletletterbible.com/banner

[iii] http://scarletletterbible.com/banner

[iv] Definition from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevation_%28emotion%29

[v] quoted from Revelations of Divine Love at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20150309JJ.shtml