Friday, April 6, 2018
So, last weekend was busy for all of us. I ‘got’ to preach three times—Good Friday, Sunday Sunrise and Easter Worship. Of course, I should have posted THREE sermons last week, and I do have them, but there was no time to get things posted—the church-doin’s, visiting family and all of that...well, just left me plum tuckered out (my Georgia birth comes through....) I’ll include them in the commentary that will be published next year.
This Sunday, I continue with the narrative lectionary, but I’m making these sermons a series that will take us to Pentecost. We are doing an outreach emphasis in/for our parish for the next six weeks, and the theme is, “What’s Missing?” (¿Qué falta?) What is missing from your life? So, I’ll be reading the Scriptures with this question in my mind...looking for answers in the passages we preach.
This week, as the title above indicates, I’m cutting down the passage to include just six verses—19-23 of John 20. (Nope, not doing Thomas this time around.) Let’s get going!
19-20: Jesus appears to the gathered disciples for the first time after the Resurrection. They are frightened—either of the Jewish leaders (“They got Jesus; maybe they’ll come after us next?”) or of the Romans (“They may think we stole Jesus’ body!”). Jesus suddenly appears among them. Whether he slipped in through a window or simply ‘appeared,’ John is not clear nor does he care—what matters is that Jesus is there, in the flesh. Jesus greets the disciples with words of peace. Then, he shows them his wounds...to alleviate any doubt. And the disciples? They are “overjoyed” (NIV) to see Jesus.
v.21-23: As if to drive the point home, Jesus again pours out words of peace on his disciples, but he doesn’t stop there. He reminds them that his earthly journey was part of a divine project, and he now includes the disciples in that project. Oddly (or not), Jesus then imparts the Holy Spirit by breathing on them. Then, he says something about forgiving and not forgiving, forgiven and not forgiven....
This weekend, we have an Annual Islamic Festival in a nearby town. The verdict is not yet in as to whether we’ll go or not—we’ll see how the Wifey feels after a long day of work today. Nevertheless, I have thought about Islam as we’ve considered this time to feast on Middle Eastern foods and see friends. Islam means ‘submission.’ A Muslim is ‘one who submits.’ Of course, all of this is related to Allah (God.) Submitting one’s self to God and to the will of God is a good thing. If Islam is about ‘submission,’ then Christianity is about ‘sent.’ We are a people on the go, with a mission—we are sent. Jesus here says, “As the Father is sending me, I am sending you.”
The word ‘apostle’ means ‘sent;’ to be an apostle is to be one who has been sent. This passage refers to ‘the disciples,’ and many commentators seem to think that more than just the Eleven are gathered here. If that is the case, then this ‘sent’ thing applies to more than just the Eleven; it applies to all disciples...all followers of Jesus...all Christians.
Sent for What?
And, if we’re sent, what are we sent to do? Jesus is sent by the Father—a culmination of centuries of God’s unfolding plan, a plan initiated in Genesis 12:1-4 with the call of Abraham. God begins the great redemption of the world in Abraham. Jesus, the culmination of the Abraham story, comes proclaiming the Kingdom of God—a new way of living, a new understanding of God, and a clear understanding of who we are as humans. That Kingdom-proclamation comes to a climax in the crucifixion—a self-sacrifice, a death on our behalf.
Our friend John talks about/addresses that sacrifice in one of his letters to the churches:
“...Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1b-2).
Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins. He is the one who brings forgiveness for our sins...for the whole world. So what is the overarching message of the Cross? What is the purpose of the Cross? Forgiveness. And, what is the gift of God’s Spirit (first gift of the Spirit!?) here in John 20? Forgiveness.
Now, we won’t dive into whether or not we have the power to forgive sins (Scripture seems to be clear on that—God forgives our sins...see I John 1:9) But, we do have the power to forgive those who have sinned against us. What do we pray every Sunday, “...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Of course this prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, touches on all kinds of issues and topics; yet, after providing the prayer in Matt. 6:9ff, the only element Jesus comments on is the issue of forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15)— “...if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Forgiveness is huge. Friendships are mended through forgiveness. Families are healed through forgiveness. Work relationships are fixed through forgiveness. Our relationship with God is mended through God’s forgiveness. We are sent by Jesus to be agents of forgiveness. Our tendency is to sit on our butts and plan revenge. We love to daydream about retribution. We cuddle and coddle our self-righteous anger, praying earnestly and hard for “God’s justice.” Jesus calls and sends us to forgive...to let it go (no, don’t go thinking about Frozen....)
A word about forgiveness: Forgiving in not forgetting, and it’s not excusing. Physiologically, we cannot truly forget unless we sustain brain trauma or develop a neurological disease that impacts our memory; that old sponge up there keeps it all. And, forgiveness does not ask us to excuse bad, wrong, immoral behavior—we should strive to change that behavior if it’s ours, and we should make others aware of such behavior if it’s theirs (we can’t change them).
Forgiveness is a decision not to dwell or think on an offense;
it is a decision to live as if the offense never happened.
We are sent by Jesus to be agents of forgiveness, beginning in our own lives and encouraging others in their lives. After all, if I refuse to forgive, then I haul around the weight of the offence, and it holds me back, keeps me from really living, robs me of joy...and makes Jesus sacrifice of no effect...and I cannot know God’s forgiveness. Jesus died to forgive; he was resurrected to send us out with the message of forgiveness.
This Sunday, I’m going with “what’s missing?” and this passage speaks to something missing in many lives—purpose, direction. Jesus sends us all...and with a very clear mission—we have purpose: We continue his work, God’s work of redeeming the world, and we do that first by being agents of forgiveness.
Wishing you all a great Sunday! God bless....
(Go HERE to read my intro to this series.)
Thursday, March 29, 2018
I was commenting to my wife a couple of days ago that the three hardest seasons to preach are Christmas, Easter and Pentecost—how do we find something new or fresh or engaging year after year after year. Yet, in spite of my consternations and anxieties, God always provides the approach or tact I need to take in telling the old, old story.
Like others in my Narrative Lectionary group, I struggled with which passage from John to share for our Good Friday service. I settled on 19:16-30...a continuation of where we left off a couple of weeks back. Why not continue the story?
v. 16-22 – Jesus is handed over for crucifixion. Pilate plays his part declaring Jesus “King of the Jews.”
v.23-24 – Soldiers divide Jesus clothing among themselves, cast lots for the ‘seamless’ tunic.
v.25-27 – Jesus entrusts the care of his mother, Mary, to his disciple, John.
v.28-30 – Jesus dies. He is thirsty...takes a last drink...and dies. “It is finished.”
Thoughts and Reflections—
“It is finished.” In addition to being a pastor, I am also an English instructor at our local community college. As an English teacher, I take an interest in all thing ‘grammatical.’ So, when I come to these final words of Jesus in John, I cannot help but ask, “What is ‘it’ that is finished?”
‘It’ is a pronoun—a word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns allow us to converse without constantly repeating the topic, subject, person’s name, etc. For example, without pronouns, we’d have to talk like this: Hi, James! How is James’ dog doing? Has James’ taken James’ dog for a walk lately? And, how is James’ mother? Awkward, right? So, we are very thankful for words like ‘you’ and ‘she’ and ‘it.’ The word that the pronoun stands for is its antecedent: Hey, Mike. How are you? The antecedent of ‘you’ is Mike.
It is finished. What is finished, what is ‘it’? What is the antecedent of it?
When we lived in Venezuela, our oldest daughter, Jess, turned 15, and as is common in many Latino cultures, at age 15 there is a big to-do—la Quinceañera. We had a great party and feast for Jess...something like 80 people of all ages. Things got started around 8pm. There was dancing, food, speeches, more dancing, a cake, more food, more speeches, more dancing. When my wife and I finally got home around 3:30am, you better believe we exclaimed, “It is finished!” The party was over, the task was complete, the project was done. Is that what Jesus meant? He had come, he had preached, he had inaugurated the Kingdom, he had healed, he had taught...and was it now all done? Was he declaring a project over, completed, finished?
In April of last year, Ms. Ofelia called together a volunteer VBS team and divvied up the tasks: Ms. Dina and I would tell the Bible stories; Ms. Jeanne and Ms. Roseann would lead the music; Ms. Brenda and Ms. Cynthia would plan and purchase food; Ms. Erin would head up the decorations (obviously, without faithful women, nothing would happen in our church!) We got everything going, and the people started working on their areas. On the Sunday before VBS was to begin in August, we all gathered one last time in the Methodist Community Center. Erin had decorated the place amazingly. The kitchen was stocked, the fridges full, and everything was laid out. The Bible Story Corner was set up. The music area was ready—sound-system, video monitor and all. As we looked around, we knew that all the preparations were made. All the plans had come together. Everything was ready. With a wonder sigh of relief and anticipation for the start of VBS, we could all agree, ‘It was finished.’ Is this what Jesus might have meant? Had everything been prepared and was his death the last stroke that would initiate something amazing?
Our Lenten season draws to a close. For some, this has been a time of self-denial, self-sacrifice—some 40 days of no caffeine or no sugar or no meat, or some 40 days of daily Bible reading or meditation or prayer. As it comes to an end, some will sigh and say, “It is finished.” Done. Over. Back to normal life now. For some, this has been a time of self-denial, self-sacrifice—40 days of prayer, meditation, Bible readings, or 40 days of dietary restriction. As it comes to an end, these will sigh, smile and say, “It is finished...the time of preparation is over. God, use me now to impact lives, to strengthen our congregation, to change our community, or to touch one person’s life.”
For Jesus, either his project or his preparations were done—probably both. How about for you? What does “it is finished” mean for you? Could this Good Friday and Easter weekend be the end of a chapter in your life...and the beginning of something completely new? The work of Jesus on the cross was exactly that for us—the end of the old covenant, the beginning of a new covenant; the end of guilt and self-loathing, the beginning of forgiveness and God-praise; the end of alienation from God, the beginning of a new relationship with God. So, what is this day, this season, for you?
It is finished.
As always, I wish you all the very best in your pulpits, at your podium or on your bar stool this weekend. This will be a full weekend for many of us, but let us never forget—Emmanuel, God is with us. Amen.
Friday, March 23, 2018
Our Narrative Lectionary provides this week’s passage as John 19:16b-22 with an option for 12:12-27...for those who want to preach on the Palm Sunday theme. I’ve decided to follow the more traditional route—Palm Sunday, but I’m trimming the passage a bit by focusing on John 12:12-19. Let’s see where John takes us this week...
v.12-15 – These verses are the reason for this day of celebration. Jesus enters Jerusalem amidst the shouts of the people and waving palm branches. We can focus here on the joy of the day, the people caught up in hope and expectation. We can remember the prophecies fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
v.16 – We find here one John’s ‘asides’—a bit of commentary that guides us to make connections even as Jesus’ disciples later made connections.
v.17-18 – We do get a better understanding of who this crowd is: these are folks who had seen and heard about the Lazarus affair, the resurrection of Jesus’ friend. In fact, if we read the verses just prior to this passage (v.1-12), we see that the narrative begins at Mary & Martha’s B&B. Many of the people there for supper have been hanging out with Jesus, Lazarus, and Mary & Martha—these are the same folks who now make up much of the crowd coming to Jerusalem.
v.19 – And, here we see the Pharisees’ disdain. “Look how the whole world has gone after him.”
Thoughts and Observations—
While this is about Jesus’ grand entry, I can’t help think of some folks I know—those who like to make a grand entrance. I’ve even visited a few churches in which the pastor likes to enter this way—oh, not with donkeys, palms and shouts of ‘Hosanna!’, but amid the cheers of their members. Oh, did I fail to mention that I’ve had those moments myself? Yep, riding the crest of the wave is heady stuff. But, only one person really merited this entry—the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only Jesus really deserves this kind of praise...so we may want to think twice before handing out this kind of praise in any other direction, and we may want to check ourselves if that praise is coming towards us (I’m reminded of the chorus of “The Ballad of John and Yoko”....)
My focus for this week will be vs. 17-18:
17Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.
These folks had something to shout about! They had seen or just heard about the amazing thing that had taken place back the Mary and Martha’s B&B—the resurrection of Lazarus. Here was someone who had reversed death! Here was someone who could potentially save sons and daughters, parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters...and their own selves from the finality of death. Surely this was Messiah...and if this was the work of Messiah, oh, how things would change! They had seen and experienced something that had turned their world on its head. They experienced a worldview shift—from one that posited death as final and forever to one that recognized that even death is not the end. Their experience changed their lives—they had something to shout about.
What about us? Has our Christian experience changed our lives? Is the Christian faith something that has changed our worldview? Does Jesus change the way we see the world? Has the Christian faith permeated all areas of our lives? In short, has our faith in Jesus changed us?
If not, then what is this we’re doing? Is the faith a compartmentalized, intellectual assent that provides a bit ‘fire insurance’ just in case all of “this” is true? Is our Christianity something we don on Sunday mornings with a smile and a gentle attitude...just something we do one day a week? Are we simply hanging on to something that was important to Mom or Grandma? Is the Church just one social outlet among many, perhaps one where I’ve been asked to be on or chair a committee...a place that gives me nothing more than another outlet for social connection and perhaps a bit of power or prestige? If any or all of these are the case, there is probably not much to shout about.
But, if Jesus—his life, teachings, death and resurrection—have so impacted our lives that we are now different people; if the Christian faith has turned or is turning our broken, fractured lives and families into something whole and healed; if God’s Word—the Scriptures—has provided wisdom for living, hope for living, promises for living; if the community of faith has rescued us from a life of loneliness; if the social ministries of the church have filled our lives with purpose; if this faith has permeated our lives, shaped our worldview, provided us with a deep sense of connection to God and neighbor; if Jesus—as with Lazarus and those standing around watching—has brought us back to life and has shown us that death is not the end; well, we have something to shout about. Hosanna!! Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!
When we find a sale at the local grocery store, when hear that there’s a new ethnic restaurant opening, when we hear that government is giving us a tax break (has that ever really happened? 😊 )—when we hear good news, we share it. What about the Good News? Are we sharing that as well? When Jesus has truly impacted our lives, changed our lives, it’s easier to share that Good News.
If you have not truly experienced Jesus, may today, this week, soon!, be the time that you allow this person—his life, teachings, death and resurrection—touch, fill and change every part of your life. If we have had that life-changing Jesus-experience, what are we waiting for? We have something to shout about! And, we may just find that because of our ‘shouting,’ because of our testimony, because we’re willing to tell others of the change we have found in Jesus, lives may be changed and the church may grow and our influence can impact home, business, school and community. Then, those standing on the outside may say again, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
(Closing song—“Shout to the Lord.”)
And, that’s where I think I’m going this week—a call for people to examine their lives, to examine their faith: is it a faith of ‘going through the motions,’ of is it a faith that works like leaven throughout their lives? ‘Cause if this faith has truly changed us, we do have something to shout about—whether it’s Jesus coming through the gates of Jerusalem or through the gates of our lives.
Saturday, March 17, 2018
First of all, I want to thank all who post ideas and questions to our Narrative Lectionary group on FB—you help us to think and move forward.
Last week, I—and, it seems, many others—struggled with what and how to preach the passage we dealt with. Again this week, the passage seems dryly narrative (whoever thought I’d complain about ‘narrative’?!), and I’ve had to dig a bit to get to the message. But, again, God is faithful....
As one commentator points out, this is obviously a seamless continuation of the previous passage, divided only by 13th Century editors who introduced the system of chapters and verses. So, we may want to read the entire narrative (John 18:19-John 19:16a) to keep things in context:
v.1-3: The Romans flog and mock Jesus
v.4-7: Pilate argues again with the Jewish leaders. The Jewish antagonists change their charge from political (“he claims to be a king” 18:34) to religious (claims to be ‘Son of God’ 19:7).
v.8-11: Pilate and Jesus resume their conversation, and the issue of power surfaces.
v.12-16: Pilate again argues with the Jewish leaders. They return to political arguments (v.12). Finally, seemingly reluctantly, Pilate hands Jesus over for crucifixion.
Thoughts and Observations—
Pilate is an important enough figure to be included in our creedal confessions:
“...Suffered under Pontius Pilate....”
It’s no wonder the Church has had this love/hate relationship with this man. Some in our Lectionary group have bemoaned the leniency that some have shown Pilate; others reject the vilification of the man. Above, even I have read a bit of reluctant leniency into the story—but, I’m not sure if the reluctance on Pilate’s part comes out of his sense of justice or out of being dragged into local issues he rather not have a part in (I lean towards his sense of justice, but my wife will tell you that I’m a hopeless romantic, too trusting of others and always wanting to presume the best....)
For the preaching of this passage, verses 10-11a hold the key. First, whenever Jesus speaks, I tend to focus there—Jesus is always central for me, and if Jesus says something, I better dig there if I hope to find gold.
“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above."
Power. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines the term:
1) ability to act or produce an effect...2) possession of control, authority, or influence over others...3) physical might...political control or influence.
Where does power come from? Jesus reminds us that power comes “from above.” We see the gift of power entrusted to humankind in Genesis 1:28 –
God blessed [the male and female] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
There is it—right in the middle of the verse: Rule. The Creator gives humanity power over this world. And, with the gift of freewill, we get to choose how to use that power. Pilate claims his ‘power’ here in our passage this wee...and even recognizes that he can use his power how he wishes: “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
My daughter has a coffee mug that I notice every time I visit her apartment, a mug inscribed with, “I’m and ER Nurse—what’s your superpower?” I chuckle each time but only because my daughter really is a force, a power, to be reckoned with. However, I’m also reminded when I see that mug that we all have power—we can all produce an effect, have some control or influence over someone...and we may even possess physical might.
As parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, members of the community, neighbors, employees, employers, managers, workers, voters, cooks, maids, school administrators, teachers, students, police officers, soldiers, politicians, pastors—every one of us has a place of power with respect to others. How do we choose to use that power?
As we come to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and as we live through this time of Lent, I cannot help but think of the beginning of his ministry—his baptism and journey through the wilderness/desert. At the end of those 40 days, Jesus was confronted with both the devil’s power and his own power. The devil revealed (or claimed) his power to hand over the worldly kingdoms to Jesus. The devil also recognized Jesus’ power to turn stones to bread, to escape death and make a big scene...and his power to set up the devil as a god (one to be worshiped.) But, as we have preached and taught many times, Jesus did NOT use his power to serve himself. Rather, as we follow Jesus through his ministry, he uses his power to heal the sick, give sight to the blind...he uses the power of story (parable) to reveal the kingdom. He uses his social power to welcome the outcasts (Zacchaeus), to forgive the broken. And, here before Pilate, his choice is to not use his power to effect a different outcome—he ‘uses’ his power to follow the course set for him.
What is your superpower? Where do you have power in your life...over whom? And, how are you using your power?
“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Do you realize we all have that power? We can free others or crucify them. We have the power to bully and abuse (no, bullies don’t exist only in the school yard); to abuse and maim—physically or emotionally; to rob others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity; to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams. And, we have the power to protect and serve; to heal; to build others up, to strengthen their self-esteem; to feed others' hopes and dreams.
God has given you power. How will you use your power? Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self? Or, will we use our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us. Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others? Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life, or will we—like Jesus—use our power to bring life to others?
So, this is where I think I’ll be going this week. I know there are many examples in the news about the abuse of power. Perhaps you’re in a setting where you can use those newsbits with glee (you have that power). Perhaps, like me, keeping an open relationship with your congregation ‘trumps’ the temptation to bring too much political stuff to the pulpit. In any case, wishing all of you the very best as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ this week.
Saturday, March 10, 2018
Our Evangelist gives yet another narrative from the life of Jesus, continuing the story from our previous reading/sermon passage. I must admit from the beginning, I had no idea how this might preach when I started studying this passage on Monday. In fact, I struggled with this...and even considered seeking a different passage for this Sunday. But, I stayed with it, certain that God would be faithful as always to help me find something, some nugget, to share with our congregation.
In this unfolding story in John 18, Jesus is now brought before the occupying powers—the Romans who govern Judea.
v.28-32 – The irony and pain of these verses boggles the mind. The Jewish ‘religious leaders’ take Jesus to Pilate...because their faith prohibits them from executing Jesus. How convenient! “Well, we can’t do it because it’s against our faith—let’s find someone who can!” And, they don’t even go inside the palace because they would become unclean and unable to sit for Passover—a celebration of God’s freedom for the Jews from a pagan, foreign power. (Oh, the irony....) Pilate doesn’t want to mess with this. I’m sure he thinks there are bigger fish to fry.
v.33-38a – Here we find that interesting conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Have you read it without the surrounding commentary? It’s rather odd:
Pilate: “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?”
Pilate: “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Pilate: “You are a king, then!”
Jesus: “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Pilate: “What is truth?”
Two overarching themes come out of this conversation—“kingdom” and “truth.” If those were the things important to Jesus, they better be important to us.
Kingdom: As far as the Jewish leaders and Pilate are concerned, there are two kingdoms—for the Jews, the legitimate kingdom of Judea; for the Pilate, the legitimate kingdom of Rome. That’s it. Jesus indicates there is another kingdom...the very kingdom that he has been preaching since the beginning of his ministry, a kingdom that is not from ‘here’ but “from another place.” Interestingly (or oddly), Jesus mentions this kingdom only three (3) times in the whole Gospel of John—here and in his conversation with Nick in John 3. That’s it. I may need to step outside of John for my sermon and remind our people that Jesus came proclaiming this kingdom from the beginning—Matt. 3:2, Mark 1:15, Luke 4:43. In fact, Matthew and Luke are saturated with this kingdom-talk; many of the parables recorded in those Gospels are kingdom-parables. Always, this kingdom of God, of Heaven, is different from the earthly kingdoms; it is ‘other’—invisible, with relatively up-side-down values and perspectives, etc.
Truth: The statement in our passage differs from many other self-statements of Jesus. This almost reads like the thesis I teach my English student at the college: “...the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” Nowhere else that I can recall does Jesus express his reason for being so directly, clearly and succinctly than here. Of course, Pilate questions even the idea of truth. Of course, our clever modernists and postmodernists of the last 60 years think they are the first ones to question truth. I guess the writer of Ecclesiastes got it right: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)
“Truth” appears in the Gospel of John 23 times...and in the epistles of John 19 times—42 mentions. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, a combined total of 4 times. In the writings of Paul, a combined total of 43 times. Yes, ‘truth’ is important to John. Perhaps because of his interaction with those influenced by Greek thought? Perhaps out of his own search for truth? What we do know is that he heard “truth” in Jesus a lot.
Our own culture has lost its mooring with regard to truth. We hear about ‘fake news.’ We hear people talk about ‘your truth and my truth.’ We don’t know what to believe any more, it seems. We can pick our own flavor of truth by selecting a news network that simply agrees with our own way of seeing the world. And which one is right? Which one has the truth? I have a feeling they are all missing the truth. The truth, in the end, lies in Jesus—his word, his life, his teaching.
Truth? There is another kingdom still today—something beyond the United States of America, beyond los Estados Unidos de Mexico (recall, I live on the US/Mexico border....) When we look at that other kingdom, we do see a different way of living that is crazy generous, that loves enemies, that welcomes strangers, that calls us to earn so we can share with others, that calls us to embrace ambitions of kindness, goodness instead of wealth and power, that forgives and moves on, that accepts the social outcasts as equals, that steps aside and allows the other to take first place.
Do you want to know more about this kingdom and about truth? “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Again, the message is, listen to Jesus. Do you know what he says?
v.38b-40 ~ Pilate tries; he really does. He sees the injustice of this situation, but his goal is keeping the peace, not necessarily executing justice. He lets the Jewish crowd decide. Barabbas (trans., ironically, son of the father) is freed and Jesus remains. But, that seems to have been the plan all along.
And so, we are one step closer to the cross, an instrument of death and torture that this Jesus-kingdom transforms into a symbol of life and forgiveness...but that’s another story.
Friday, March 2, 2018
Our Narrative Lectionary hopped right over some really important passages (John 14-17), but I guess time is limited—and Easter is rushing up to meet us. In any case, these Gospel readings continue to reveal the unique and crucial character of John’s witness.
V.12ff – John provides the setting, including his now-familiar asides (more asides than a Shakespeare villain!) Jesus has been arrested, and two disciples—Peter and Bro. Anonymous—follow along to see what is happening. I begin to notice that John includes small details that the other Gospels do not—a color, a feeling. Here, “it was cold, and [they] stood around a fire they had made to keep warm...Peter also was...warming himself” (v.18). We don’t get too many glimpses of the weather (except an occasional freak storm on the waters).
While many pastors—with good reason—are going to focus on Peter’s denials, something else calls to me from this passage.
19Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
20“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
This really hit me: “Surely they know what I said.”
Too often, so many who claim the name of Christ—who call themselves Christians—really don’t know what Jesus said. In fact, there is too often a confusion of popular culture, old sayings and what is found in the Bible.
I recall once driving through the small town in north Georgia where we were living and serving at that the time, and one of the churches on the main highway had on its marquee the following: “God helps those who help themselves.” Why would a church put a saying of Ben Franklin on their church sign? I’m guessing someone there didn’t know the difference between Scripture and Poor Richard’s Almanac. Besides, isn’t a huge part of the message of the Gospel that God helps the helpless?
On another occasion, as the congregation I was serving was considering renovations and how to pay for it, one of my lay leaders earnestly advised me, “Brother Jon, you know what the good books says, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’” I’m not sure if he actually thought that came from the “Good Book” or if his ‘good book’ was The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Again, the biblical message differs— “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Jesus...in Matt.5:42).
So, do we and our people know what Jesus said? Do we all have an idea of which words of Scripture are really Jesus’ words? How would our congregation stand up to the interrogation?
Of course, this brings things all the way around to Peter’s denial. His denial was upfront—“I am not [one of his disciples.]” Our denials of Christ are less obvious. We show up for worship. We serve on the committees. We may even help lead worship or prayer time. But, are we not denying Christ when we fail to learn what he said? Are we not denying the Scriptures their due power in our lives as Christians when we don’t even know what the Scriptures say? How can God’s “refreshing, wisdom-giving, joy-birthing, eye-opening, sweet, rewarding, useful, instructive, rebuking, correcting, justice-working book we call the Bible” impact, shape and form our lives, thinking and worldview if we deny it access? (see Ps.19:7-9 and II Tim.3:16-17)
Surely they know what I said. Do they? Do we? What would we say? What would we and our people say if they were called forward to testify that evening as to what Jesus said?
Listen...the cock is crowing....
Saturday, February 24, 2018
Again, John does not disappoint. Rather, God does not disappoint. I’ve come to John with suspicion and little expectation...and I find a small treasure that enriches the Church and our own Christian lives. Come...let’s see....
v.1-3: John sets the scene and begins that final journey towards the Cross. I am always surprised that Holy Week begins about half way through this Gospel. In the others (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the Passion Week comes in as the last ¼ of the book. Not with John.
In some translations, perhaps the better ones, v.3 bleeds into v.4. John’s observation or connection here seems odd to me:
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. (NIV)
John sets this up as cause/effect affair: Because Jesus knew these things about himself, he gets up to wash feet. At first, this seems odd. But, perhaps he realizes that his place of ultimate prominence infuses the act with ultimate meaning. The One who is above all is taking the form and behavior of a servant. This means much.
v.4-11: Jesus washes the disciples feet...and engages in that revealing debate with Peter. The debate reveals how stubborn Peter is...and the debate reveals the reason for the foot-washing...sort of.
v.12-17: Here Jesus really reveals what’s going on—no one is above another and no task is beneath another. The passage taken literally indicates that the disciples then and we today are to carry on the practice of washing feet.
First, this seems to be an ‘in-house’ practice. Jesus doesn’t take the basin outside and wash the feet of the passersby. Rather, he is washing his disciples’ feet...and encourages them to wash each others’ feet. Some folks will bristle at this idea: “What? We need to wash everyone’s feet!!” Well, nice thought...but we don’t see it here. This is about washing each other’s feet...caring for one another in the Church. For many, it’s easy to care for the ‘immigrant, homeless, orphan, stranger;’ are we caring for one another?
Second, washing feet means that the disciples have been in the streets, on the road. People who don’t leave the house won’t have dirty feet. Jesus expects that his disciples will be walking the roads of life, that they’ll be getting their feet dirty. Are we and our people getting their feet dirty?
Then, Jesus does this without being asked, and—as far as we know—without anyone saying, “Dang, my feet are dirty. I wish somebody would wash ‘em.” Jesus sees the need, and he acts. He sees the needs of his brothers...and he addresses the need. How many times do we wait until someone says something before we act?
And, what about us in the 21st Century? My feet aren’t really dirty. You can wash my feet, and it’ll probably tickle me more than anything. So, what does ‘foot washing’ mean and look like in our day and time? We’re more likely to get our hands dirty than our feet dirty. Thinking of getting our hands dirty, I recall studying Macbeth in high school and college, and that brilliant monologue of Lady Macbeth in which she washes her hands and mourns, “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” She is complicit in murder...and her hands are stained (not literally.) I wonder if foot washing today may include standing up for our brothers and sisters who find themselves stained, in tight spots.
Maybe you’ve heard lines like these from others:
“Hey, doesn’t Mr. Smack go to your church? I heard recently that he voted against the new re-districting plan...” “You know Susan? I saw her at a party two weeks ago and she was trashed!” “Yeah, I saw old widow Jones at the flea market—she was blessin’ someone out about the price of an old lamp....”
Time to wash feet—unasked, but needed.
“I know Mr. Smack...and I know he is in worship each Sunday—I think he’s trying to live and do better.”
“Susan struggles with some issues, but she is seeking God. I think we’re seeing changes in her life.”
“Mrs. Jones is one of our faithful ones. I guess everyone has a bad day....”
I’m not suggesting we excuse or explain away the actions or inactions of our brothers and sisters. I’m suggesting we strive to remove some of the grime that society and life may put on them, that we respond with something positive, helpful. We wash their feet and they never know.
Or, perhaps prayer is the water we now use. We pray for people who haven’t asked for it...but who are getting dirty on the road of life. In my own ministry, I collect as many cell numbers as I can of the folks in our congregation. Every now and then, I drop a text that says, “Hey...thinking of you today. You are in my prayers...that God may give you all the strength and wisdom you need for this day. See you soon!” Washing feet...unasked, unexpected.
How many times do we go by the fellowship hall, the church kitchen, a Sunday school classroom...and someone has left it a mess—big or small. When we get down off our high horse, we can grab a hand towel...and wash someone’s feet...save them from criticism...and make sure the place is ready for the next person or people coming through.
I don’t how else to ‘wash feet’ in meaningful ways in the 21st Century. Somehow, we need to find ways to strip away the grime of the daily walk of life, to bring a moment of refreshing to our brothers and sisters in Christ...without their asking, without their expecting. What are ways you have found to wash feet in our day and time?