Monday, March 19, 2018

We Would See Jesus

Scriptures:      Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10,  John 12:20-33

The 2017 movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” describes a mother, Mildred Hayes, in her quest for justice – bordering on vengeance – in the rape and murder of her daughter.  Feeling that the local police and especially Bill Willoughby, the police chief, aren’t putting enough effort into apprehending her daughter’s killer, the mother puts up three billboards outside town – one describes the crime; the second says “And Still No Arrests?” , and the third says, “How come, Chief Willoughby?”  The billboards are intended to embarrass the police chief into doing was Mildred Hayes considers the right thing.  As the storyline plays out, the billboards turn the police and many of the townspeople against Hayes, and in the end the crime still isn’t solved, though Hayes and one of the police officers who had earlier opposed her efforts drive off together in search of someone who they think may have been involved.  The script was supposed to have been inspired by an actual case of a grieving father who in 2001 put up similar billboards to bring attention to his daughter’s unsolved murder ten years before.  And since the movie’s release, several community activist groups have targeted various corporations they oppose by putting up billboards similar to those in the movie to bring attention to their causes. 
Last week’s gospel reading and this week’s gospel reading are like bookends, between which is most of the public ministry of Jesus.  In last week’s Gospel reading from the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel, near the beginning of the book, in which Jesus referred to a story from the book of Numbers in which a bronze serpent was put on a pole to bring healing to those bitten by snakes, Jesus said that he would similarly be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him would have eternal life.  In this week’s Gospel reading, from the 12th chapter of John’s gospel, about 2/3 of the way through the gospel, Jesus makes a similar statement that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.   Between these two bookends or brackets are most of Jesus’ teachings and healings, highlights from Jesus’ public ministry which the writer of John’s gospel uses to lead his readers to understand who Jesus is.  Last week’s reading from John’s gospel provided foreshadowing of things to come; this week’s reading marks a transition from Jesus’ public ministry to the events of Holy Week.
But I’d like to back up to the beginning of this week’s reading.  We’re told that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem several days before the Passover festival.  We’re also told that, quote unquote, “some Greeks” were in town.  We’re not told much about these Greeks, except that presumably they’re not from Jerusalem.  And, if an old song from the Eagles is right, the Greeks don’t want no freaks.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.  Anyway…..These may have been Greek-speaking Jews, or more likely were Greeks who, while not Jewish, believed in the one God and admired the ethical and moral teachings of the Jewish faith, even though they did not convert to Judaism or follow the Jewish kosher regulations and or sacrifices and such.
We’re told that these Greeks identified Philip – a disciple of Jesus’ who had a Greek name – and came to him with a request:  “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew, and the two told Jesus.   And Jesus’ reaction was odd, very odd indeed.  We’d think that Jesus would have been pleased that his teachings had gotten so much attention that he was attracting Gentiles.  But seemingly, for Jesus, the arrival of these Greeks was like an alarm clock going off.  Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man” – meaning himself – “to be glorified.”  And again, to be glorified sounds like a good thing, like something he’d enjoy, no?  But then, as Jesus goes on, we learn he’s talking about something very unpleasant indeed:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  In this talk about seeds dying and losing one’s life, it’s clear that when Jesus talks of being glorified, he’s speaking of his own death.  And by the end of our Gospel reading, it’s clear that Jesus is not just talking about dying, but about being killed, about being crucified:  ‘Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”  So Jesus is using words such as “glorified” and “lifted up” with a double meaning – he will be crucified, but ultimately this will lead to his being exalted, and to God’s being glorified.   And for Jesus, the arrival of the Greeks was a signal that the hour had come for all of this to unfold.   In saying, “the hour has come,” it’s as if Jesus had said, “The time has come for me to take on the evil powers that control this world.  Let’s do this.  Game on.”
We’re never told whether the Greeks who came to Philip ever got to see Jesus before he was crucified.  Very shortly after today’s Gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus essentially shut down his public ministry and made preparations for a last supper with his followers, where for several chapters of John’s gospel he summarizes his teaching and his life’s work for his disciples.  And then Jesus and his followers went out to the garden to pray, where Jesus was arrested.  We do know that Jesus ultimately wanted everyone to see him, but in a particular way….lifted up on the cross.
A word about the cross:  We’re told that Jesus was crucified with two other criminals on Good Friday, but they were hardly the only three people whom Rome had crucified.  Crucifixion was a common method of execution for criminals considered to be a serious threat against the Roman empire.  The person crucified was forced to carry the crossbeam – which might have weighed 100 lbs – to the place of execution.  The person was usually crucified in the nude – those little loincloth coverings in sculptures and paintings are only an artistic device - and death could take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on how the person was attached to the cross and the person’s physical condition.  It was meant to be an incredibly painful, drawn-out, humiliating death.  Theologian James Cone, in his book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”,  draws a direct line from crucifixions in ancient Rome to lynchings in our own country.  As with lynchings in our country, crucifixion was meant not just to torture one individual, but to terrorize an entire community.   In effect, the alleged criminal was turned into a gruesome billboard, a gory sort of public service announcement, if you will, a warning from those in power:  If you defy us, this is what we will do to you. 
Why would Jesus want everyone to see him in that way?  Remember that Jesus connected his crucifixion to the judgment of “the ruler of this world”.  And while from a political standpoint the rulers of his world were the Roman emperor and the Jerusalem religious establishment, Jesus knew that the emperor and the religious leaders were just puppets used by the powers of evil in the world.  Essentially, Jesus’ strategy was to flip the script on the Roman empire and the Jerusalem religious leaders, and the evil powers that backed them.  What Rome and the religious establishment did with the intent to discredit Jesus, Jesus turned back on Rome and the religious establishment, in effect allowing Rome and the religious establishment to discredit themselves by executing an innocent man.  And from a perspective of Christian faith, when Rome intended to use Jesus’ crucifixion as a gory, bloodstained billboard to terrorize a population, Jesus flipped the script to use it as a way to announce the height and depth and breadth and power of God’s love for humankind.   And so Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”
“We would like to see Jesus,” was the message from a delegation of Greeks to Jesus’ disciples.  And, in essence, it’s the message from anyone who comes to visit a church for the first time, be it Emanuel Church or any of the other churches in Bridesburg or elsewhere.  They may use different words.  They may make more specific requests – to ask what time worship starts, or if there’s Sunday school, or they may ask for food or to rent the social hall, or for a baptism, or if their wedding can be held there.  But there are other places that give out food and lots of places that rent space, and weddings can be held in a judge’s chambers as well as church.  Beyond the specific request, there’s a desire for connection to the divine, a desire to be loved, a desire for a caring community.  They wish to see Jesus.
When visitors come to Emanuel, what will they see?  They’ll see a 150+ year old building containing a small congregation.  They’ll hear beautiful organ music, and some hymns…..which may or may not be familiar depending on the visitor’s religious background.  If they come on the first Sunday, they can taste the bread and wine or grape juice of communion – we offer both.  They’ll hear words of Scripture, and may even speak some words of Scripture themselves during the responsive reading of the psalm of the day.  And, yeah, they’ll hear a sermon, or if they nod off during the sermon, hopefully someone will wake them up before the final hymn, or at least before we lock up the building for the day.  In some churches, inside of the pulpit, where I stand, there’s a plaque mounted that says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  It’s a helpful reminder to the preacher to stay on topic.
But will they see Jesus?  Or when people interact with us in our lives outside the church, will they see Jesus?  That part’s up to you and me.  When people outside the church hear the word Christian, often the words that pop into their heads are “judgmental” and “hypocritical”.  Not words that are apt to attract a lot of people our way.  And yet people like the Jesus they read about in Scripture, who showed great compassion and cared about the last, the least and the lost.  They just don’t think church folks act much like him….in fact, more often, we act like the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes, who opposed Jesus, who loved God but had a funny way of showing it in their interactions with other people.  And beyond that, sometimes our own human brokenness and weakness and tiredness – compassion fatigue, you might say - gets in the way.  It’s part of the human condition.
Churches often get caught up in side issues – matters of doctrine, matters of governance – but what Jesus taught was love – love of God, love of neighbor.  Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”  In Jesus’ time as now, relationships were and are often transactional, based on what one person can get out of another.  If you can do something for me, I’ll be nice to you; if you can’t, I won’t. But that’s not the way Jesus wanted his followers to treat one another or others.  Real, unconditional love is what Jesus lived and taught, and real, unconditional love is what Jesus asks of us.
May the words of those Greeks, “We would like to see Jesus” remind us who we are, and whose we are, and why we’re here.  May we love as Jesus loved.  May all who come here seeking Jesus,  find what they’re looking for.  Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Second SIght (Sermon for Lenten Service March 14 2018)

Scriptures       Isaiah 49:8-15                       
I Corinthians 12:1-11            Mark 8:11-26

I learned that I was nearsighted when I was in maybe the 3rd or 4th grade.  I can’t remember how my parents found out – maybe it was an eye exam at a doctor’s office during a routine checkup, when the doctor or nurse asked me to read from the top of the eye chart, starting with the “E” and I said, “What ‘E’?”.  I had no idea that it was possible to see better than I was seeing, because….well, it was the only way I’d ever seen.  I didn’t know anything different.  I did know that other people could see things on the chalkboard in class that I couldn’t see, and on the playground during recess they could see balls coming at them before I could…..usually for me, balls appeared, as if out of nowhere, an inch or so from my face, just before bonking me on the head.  I figured somehow I just didn’t know where to look, and my parents said I wasn’t paying attention.  And I was pretty clueless….I remember one time my parents hiding Easter eggs and inviting me to find them, and I looked up in the air….probably the one place I wasn’t going to find an Easter egg.  Maybe I thought Easter eggs were like the balls that hit me in the head during recess.  I also remember being at summer camp, learning to shoot a B-B gun, and my aim was so bad that I ended up putting holes in the targets of those around me.  Understandably, after a few rounds of that, I heard the words, “Put the BB gun on the ground and back slowly away”.  When I finally got that first pair of glasses, it was as if a whole new world opened up for me.  For the first time I could see peoples’ faces clearly – I could see my mom’s and dad’s faces clearly for the first time maybe at age 8 or 9, their eyes and ears and noses and mouths, which up to that point just looked like shadows or blurs.  I could see the individual leaves on a tree.  But I also remember all the fittings for glasses over the years, with the doctor trying different lenses and asking, “do the letters look clearer with this lens, or that one?”  And often there isn’t enough difference that I can tell, and I just shrug my shoulders. 
The miracle story in today’s Gospel reading feels a little like one of those eye exams.  It’s an unusual miracle, one of a kind in the Gospels.  
At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is in conflict with the religious authorities – again -  and he and his disciples seem to be talking past one another.   It’s also important to know that it came immediately after Jesus had fed the 4,000 with seven loaves and a few fish….the feeding we know best, the feeding of the 5,000, was among a predominantly Jewish crowd, while the feeding of the 4,000 was in a mostly Gentile crowd.  It took a bit more to feed the crowd, and there wasn’t quite as much left over, but still, it was a great miracle.  And before Jesus fed the 4,000, he had done a number of healings. 
The religious authorities came to Jesus and asked for a sign from heaven authorizing Jesus to do these things.  Mark tells us that Jesus sighed deeply and said that no sign would be given to them.  Jesus sighed, because these religious authorities failed to see that the very miracles they were questioning were signs from God, similar to miracles done by Moses and Elijah.  The authorities wanted to see something from heaven that fit their preconceptions and assumptions, and their preconceptions and assumptions blinded them to the full meaning of what Jesus was doing right in front of their noses.
So Jesus and the disciples piled into a boat and went away from that place.  Jesus began teaching the disciples, saying, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  Now, the disciples hadn’t brought much food with them, and they had only one loaf of bread with them…..and so they took Jesus’ words at a very literal level, thinking he was criticizing them for not having made better preparations.   And Jesus became impatient with them, saying, “Why are you talking about having no bread.  Don’t you get it?”  And truly, they hadn’t the slightest idea what he was talking about – their faces must have looked like a bunch of question marks…just blank incomprehension.  And so Jesus asked them, “Don’t you remember?  When I distributed the five loaves among 5000 people, how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up?” They said, “Twelve”.  Jesus asked again, “After I distributed seven loaves to 4000 people” – which had literally just happened before they got in the boat – “how many baskets of leftovers did you pick up?” And they said “Seven”.  And Jesus asked them, “Do you still think I was talking about not having enough bread?”   Mark’s gospel says no more about the conversation, but Matthew’s gospel fills in, “Then they understood that Jesus wasn’t talking about literal yeast used in bread, but about the teachings of the Pharisees and of Herod and his supporters.”  In that culture, yeast was a sign of corruption, and so Jesus was saying that the words and actions of the Pharisees and of Herod were corrupt, and not to be trusted.  And indeed they weren’t to be trusted, because already the Pharisees and the supporters of Herod were looking for opportunities to have Jesus killed. 
Presumably they went to another point along the lake and got out of the boat – we’re told they went to Bethsaida, which is along the lake, just east of the Jordan river.  We’re told that some people brought a blind man to Jesus and asked him to heal the man.  Jesus takes the man out of the village, puts saliva on the man’s eyes and lays his hands on the man – and here’s the unique part of the miracle.  Jesus asks the man, “Can you see anything?”   When Jesus gave sight to other blind people, he didn’t ask them if they could see, but he did ask this man, “Can you see anything?”  The man responds, “I can see people, but they look like tree trunks walking around.”  (I can really relate to this, because before I got glasses, that’s about what people looked like to me, like walking tree trunks, with no facial features I could make out.)  So Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes a second time and looked at him intently, and then the man could see perfectly.  But this is the only miracle of Jesus in the Bible in which a person wasn’t fully healed immediately, and so Jesus had to lay hands on a second time.  We’re told that Jesus sent the man home, telling him, “Don’t even go back to the village.”  Don’t even go back to the friends who brought you to me…..just go straight home.  Do not pass go; do not collect $200…just go home.
What’s going on here, that Jesus had to ask if his actions of healing worked, and had to lay hands on a second time?  Was Jesus losing his healing powers?  Or was it something about the quality of faith in the man and in the villagers who brought the man to Jesus?  Earlier in the Gospel we’re told that in Jesus’ hometown, because of the peoples’ lack of faith, Jesus could do no great miracles there, except he healed a handful of sick people.   Perhaps it was something about a lack of faith or the lacking quality of what faith existed that led to the more drawn out healing process.  We do know that later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus, and that healing was fully effective the first time – and faith again played a role, as Jesus told Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.”  
So it’s possible that the quality of faith among the man and his friends played a factor – although there are other healings Jesus did, where there was no discussion of the faith of those healed.   It’s also possible – especially given what came immediately before and after the healing - that in taking the man from no vision to partial vision to clear vision, sort of like an optometrist trying out different lenses on a patient, Jesus was making a commentary – a kind of enacted parable for the benefit of his disciples– about the the lack of spiritual vision among the religious leaders and the process by which spiritual vision would develop among this disciples.
Initially the man was blind.  Others had to lead him to Jesus.  Remember that, after the feeding of the 4000 and a number of healings, the Pharisees asked for a sign from heaven.  Essentially, they were blind to what Jesus was doing, looking to heaven for a sign while missing the signs right in front of their noses, blind to the connections between Jesus’ actions and past figures from their tradition such as Moses and Elijah.  And yet these folks weren’t being led, but instead were themselves attempting to lead other people.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus called the Pharisees blind guides leading the blind, who will lead their followers into the ditch.  And so the man’s blindness before he met Jesus was similar to the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees.
The first time Jesus laid hands on the man, the man received partial vision.  He could see some things, but his view was distorted and out of focus, like my vision before I got glasses.  This was similar to the spiritual vision of the disciples.   After having spent time with Jesus and being taught by Jesus, they could see and understand some things; that is to say, they weren’t entirely spiritually blind.  On the other hand, their spiritual vision was limited and partial, focusing on the wrong things…as when Jesus had used a figure of speech to warn them about the Pharisees and Herod, and the disciples thought Jesus was chewing them out for having forgotten to pack lunch.    After this healing, just as Jesus had asked the man, “Can you see anything?” Jesus would ask the disciples some questions about their spiritual vision:  “Who do the people say that I am?  Who do you say that I am?”  Peter’s answer that Jesus was the Messiah showed that, after having hung out with Jesus for a while, he had indeed developed some spiritual vision.  But Peter’s reaction after Jesus began to tell them he was going to be killed showed the limits of Peter’s spiritual vision.  It really wouldn’t be until after the resurrection, and more so after the coming of the Holy Spirit, that the spiritual vision of the disciples was reliable enough for them to carry on after Jesus’ ascension.
Jesus’ enacted parable for his disciples is a lesson for us as well.  People come to Jesus in many ways, some by coming forward at a revival, others in a church confirmation class, or in other ways.  But while justification – being declared righteous by God through the work of Christ – may be God’s work of a moment if God so wills, sanctification – living into God’s will for us, living into the call of a disciple, learning to see as Jesus would see and not as we would see – is a lifelong process.  Lifelong.  Slow.  Gradual.  Lifelong.  And there’s no rushing it – not because God is slow, but because, spiritually speaking, we have thick heads.  It’s part of the human condition.  That goes for all of us, including pastors.   Even though we may feel close to God, our spiritual vision may still be distorted….just as my vision of my mother’s face was blurred, even when she was holding me in her arms.  The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians said that we – himself included - see as if in a cloudy mirror – through a glass, darkly, as the King James puts it – but then – after we are with God – we will see face to face. 
Why is it important to understand that developing spiritual vision is a process?  Imagine if the man Jesus healed had responded to Jesus’ question, “Can you see anything?” by telling Jesus, “Yes, I can see! Halleljuah! Thank you Jesus!” and running off.  He’d have gone through the rest of his life seeing people who looked like tree trunks, probably bumping into people and tripping over small animals and knocking objects off shelves and generally making a menace of himself.  (And it has to be said, the man must have had eyesight earlier in his life before going blind, because he knew what people looked like, what tree trunks looked like, and that they didn’t look the same.)  But had he walked off before Jesus’ second laying on of hands, he’d have missed the blessing of the full restoration of his vision.   I think there’s a tendency for new believers, after they’ve had their first taste of the new life in Christ, to think that what they’ve experienced is all there is to experience, that what they understand after that moment of conversion is all there is to understand.   And there’s a tendency for longtime believers to reach some partial degree of clarity in spiritual vision, some level of spiritual maturity, and then get stuck, and stop growing.  And often fear is the reason; fear often causes arrested spiritual development.  Many of the church’s battles over the centuries over issues of inclusion – over race, gender, sexual orientation – are the result of Christians with partial vision insisting that their limited view, limited by fear, is the only God-anointed view allowed. Which is why over and over in Scripture, God’s messengers say, “Fear not”, and why John wrote that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  
There are lots of “baby Christians” – and some of them are longtime church members who long ago stopped maturing in their faith - running around half blind like bulls in a china shop, spiritual Peter Pans stuck in childish, self-centered beliefs, wreaking havoc and breaking all kinds of pottery in the name of Jesus, damaging the lives of people around them in the name of Jesus without knowing what they’re doing, as I unknowingly caused a bit of havoc myself during that long-ago summer camp by pointing a BB gun downrange and pulling the trigger while I was half-blind and didn’t know it.  We’ve all heard someone say at one time or another, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  OK, but did you hear God correctly?  And is what you heard God’s final word on the matter?  Maybe what you heard is all that God could reveal to you at some moment in the past, but now he’s got more to show you.   The phrase sometimes used for willfully holding onto immature understandings of the faith is “invincible ignorance.”  Put another way, there’s none so blind as those who will not see.  This tendency to make our partial understanding of the moment into some absolute conviction for all ages is especially dangerous if we’re in positions of spiritual authority (like church pastors, like megachurch pastors, for instance…) ….we may indeed pass along the faith, but also pass along the limits and distortions of our own vision, insisting that everyone understand God in the same fuzzy, distorted way we do.  As Pastor John Robinson said in the 1600’s to his flock in Holland before departing for the New World, “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”  Or – and here’s a phrase used sometimes in this denomination – “God is still speaking”.
Each of us view Scripture, understand Scripture, act on Scripture, based on theologians call a “hermeneutic” – basically, the set of assumptions, a sort of spiritual lens if you will, through which we view the written text of the Bible.  The Pharisees, as we read about them in the Gospels – and the portraits of them in Scripture are not unbiased, but are often purposely written in such a way that they look bad by comparison to Jesus -  viewed Scripture through a spiritual lens that told them that purity was the most important thing to God.  And they tried very, very hard, so hard, to please God on the basis of making their lives as pure as possible. Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to view Scripture and to view God through a spiritual lens that said compassion was the most important thing to God.   So when Jesus hung out with, ate with the “wrong” people, so called, the Pharisees, seeing the situation through their lens about purity, saw Jesus as misleading the people.  Jesus, meanwhile, saw the Pharisees as majoring in the minors, as being distracted by side issues while missing the main point of God’s call for them.

The same is a danger for us.  Again, we all view the world from a place of imperfect spiritual vision.  All of us, myself included. If we come from a place of pride and arrogantly try to make every else conform to our limited vision, we will end up hurting people – and as much as the church has been a place of healing for many, it has also been a place of injury and pain for many others.  But if we come from a place of compassion, meeting people where they are, trying perhaps to point the way to a better place but not forcing our vision on them, helping them live into their own best vision, the church can be the healing station it’s meant to be.
May we be bold in proclaiming Christ in our words and actions – and yet humble in acknowledging that we do not fully know or understand the Christ we proclaim or the God we worship.  May we be humble in remembering that, like the Apostle Paul, we see God’s glory as if in a dim mirror.  May we minister to others, not from a place of arrogance, but a place of compassion.  May we be open to new light from Scripture, in our private meditations, as we fellowship with other believers.  May we live according to the light we have, and may we pray for more light so that each coming year brings greater faithfulness to the God we love.  Amen.