Sunday, March 27, 2011

Living Water...

A word of thanks to Rev. Kathleen Lambert, who posted her sermon on her blog, and helped me consolidate my thoughts about this passage.

Honestly, there is so much to unpack and explore with this passage. I didn't even touch on the disciples' reactions, and the whole part about Jesus having food they didn't know about.

All I'm saying is that this is not the last time you'll hear from me about this passage...

Exodus 17:1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Romans 5:1-11
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

John 4:5-42
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”
So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

We met Nicodemus last week, sneaking through the dark of night to meet with Jesus. Since then, Jesus has spent some time in the Judean countryside, spending time with his disciples while they baptized people.

But now they’re headed back to Galilee, along the most direct route available. Even so, the long, dusty walk in the relentless heat has taken its toll. They near a village, just another huddle of tiny homes and shops poking up out of the dirt and sand like broken molars. There’s a well, though, encircled with rocks worn nearly smooth by the centuries, and built just high enough to create a shady spot. It is there, at last, Jesus rests. The disciples all go on onto the town to try and find some food. Jesus doesn’t pay attention to the grumbles about how hard it’ll be to find something permissible, something even edible amongst all these Samaritans.

There are people who will tell you that Jesus chose this time and this place for the specific purpose of meeting who he was going to meet and for teaching the disciples what he was going to teach them.

I have no problem at all with that kind of view.

But it seems to me that there is a simpler, more wonderful explanation. One of the hardest things for people to remember about Jesus is that, though he is and was fully God, he was fully human, with all the pain and weakness that so often marks the human condition. He lived in a place and time where nearly everyone lived on a subsistence diet, one meal a day, mostly beans, perhaps a few vegetables, bread, and some kind of meat once a week or less. Water was as scarce as food. Most people were too poor to afford the luxury of a riding animal, so they walked everywhere.

So with all of this in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine Jesus, bone-weary from walking, caked in sand and dirt, sitting into the shade and leaning up against the well’s cool stones with a sigh of relief. Slowly his back stops throbbing, his legs stop cramping, and he might have drifted off to sleep, but as the pain subsided he realized… he was thirsty!

Wells being what they are, of course, he couldn’t just turn a tap. Luckily, someone showed up just when he was thinking about going to look for something to dip water with, a woman shows up with a water vase.

He says, “Give me a drink.” It’s a simple enough sentence, and I’m betting it sounds a lot less demanding in Aramaic, but with that one sentence, Jesus takes centuries of prejudice, hatred, distrust, and naked fear and grinds them into the dust.

You see, to say the Samaritans and the Jews hated one another is a breathtaking understatement. The Samaritans were the descendants of Jewish people deemed too insignificant to deport to Babylon and of Gentile people whom the Assyrians had settled in Palestine. Over time, these Samaritans had developed different worship habits and different beliefs than the Jews. The central place of worship for the Samaritans was Mount Gerizim, and as if that alone weren’t enough to drive home the wedge between the two people, the Samaritans recognized only the first five books of the Bible, the Penteteuch, as authoritative.

So the Jews considered these Samaritans to be less than pure, less than honorable, less than human, when you get right down to it. In fact, the really good Jews who had to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee would usually add days to their journey by actually going around Samaria, because to touch the soil of that land was to be made unclean!

So for a Jewish man to be simply sitting in the shade of a Samaritan well was a shock. That this Jewish man would speak to a strange woman was another shock. That this Jewish man would speak to a strange Samaritan woman… well, I imagine the woman about dropped her jar in shock. She may have even looked around to see who Jesus was really talking to.

She asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” and Jesus answers her, not with the same words, but in the same fashion that he answered Nicodemus in our Gospel reading from last week.

You’ll remember that Nicodemus had started off on a rather pompous declaration of how all his colleagues had decided that Jesus was worthy of respect as a man of God, and Jesus interrupted him with a bold statement: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

To this Samaritan woman, Jesus answers, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

Now, just like with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at first doesn’t understand exactly what Jesus is saying. Living water, you see, is a phrase which was commonly used to describe water which was moving, constantly refreshed, like in a stream or a river, as opposed to water which accumulated and grew brackish, like in a cistern. So in the same way that Nicodemus completely missed what Jesus was saying about being born anew, born from above, the Samaritan woman thought Jesus was either joking with her, or crazy.

Unlike Nicodemus, though, it didn’t take her long to go from doubt to understanding.

Isn’t that interesting? Throughout the long, nighttime conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, we are never sure the Pharisee understood what Jesus was saying to him. He very likely left that night more full of questions, doubts, and frustrations than when he snuck out the back door to go and see Jesus in the first place. Despite his education, his standing, his riches and his authority, the spiritual truth that Jesus offered him hung in the air, unclaimed. Desptie everything in his favor, he simply did not get it.

For all the things Nicodemus had in his favor, this Samaritan woman had enough strikes against her to end a ball game. Aside from being, well, a Samaritan, she was a woman in an oppressively patriarchal society. We don’t know whether she had lost husbands through death or through divorce, but she’d been through a lot of them. She had to, though; a woman in that era and that region had no standing and no legal rights apart from a man. Couple this with the fact that she came to the well alone, and in the middle of the day, rather than in the late afternoon, when it was cooler, and when the women of the village gathered together to share the news of the day as they filled their water jugs, and we have the picture of a person who was considered an outcast even by her own.

Sure, the Woman at the Well had issues. She was uneducated, she was a Samaritan, she was an outcast. Yet in spite of all of these things working against her, this Samaritan woman got it. And because she got it, many more people in that Samaritan town were able to meet Jesus, to hear the Good News of the Gospel, and believe for themselves.

You know, it all began, though, with Jesus asking a question. A simple question. But with that question, this Jewish man, this Jesus of Nazareth, broke the rules. He broke the rules by speaking to her, but he did something more. He asked her for water, which gave her value. He spoke of her life in specific terms, but, and I want to be clear on this, without condemnation. In fact, at no point in the conversation, be it her current living arrangements or how the Samaritans rejected the Temple in Jerusalem as the proper place to worship God, did Jesus use words which rebuked or condemned her. To the contrary, Jesus removed the stigma, erased the shame, destroyed the walls of separation…

In our Epistle reading today, Paul says something earth-shattering. I know, big surprise, it’s Paul, duh, he does that stuff all the time, right? But listen to what he says in Romans, the fifth chapter and the eighth verse: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Not, “But God proves his love for us in that once we got baptized, Christ died for us.” Not, “But God proves his love for us in that once we went through confirmation and joined the church, Christ died for us.” Not, “But God proves his love for us in that once we prayed a prayer and publicly confirmed that we gave mental assent to all the right things, Christ died for us.”
No, while we were still sinners. While we were as far from God and as averse to relationship with God as it is possible to be, while we were at our darkest and most venal, that was where and when and how God loved us. Loved us to the point of death – loved us to the point of resurrection.

Do you see the power in that? It means that whoever we are, whatever labels society has pasted on us, whatever we’ve done in the past or the present to reject God, wherever we are – regardless of disparities in geography or philosophy or theology or politics or culture or ethnicity or gender, we, like that Samaritan woman, are of utmost value in the eyes and in the heart of God.

This is the Good News! This is the living water which flows in us and through us and which must be shared – shared with those we love… and shared with the Samaritans in our life.

I promise you that I could go on with this passage for the remainder of the afternoon. If I ever decide to take that fateful leap into becoming someone who does sermon series, the first one will be on this passage, because there is so much to say. But I’ll close with this:

Who are the Samaritans in your life? The people you don’t really know that well, because they are different? Perhaps they live in a way that you find repugnant. Perhaps they believe things that rub you the wrong way. Perhaps they’re just people from a worldview or culture you just haven’t had any experience with. Beginning today, why not be Jesus to them, in the way that Jesus was to the woman at the well? Speak life to them, rather than standing in silent judgment. Reach out in the love of Christ, with the same heart with which God loves you, rather than pulling away, as so many do. Proclaim the grace of God that loved you when you were and are at your worst, rather than pontificating condemnation and wagging your allegorical finger at them.

How dare we hold back living water from people – from a world – dying of thirst?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Pharisee and a Traveling Preacher Walk Into a Bar...

I stink at titling sermons, have you noticed?

Appreciation to The Center for Excellence in Preaching, as well as David Lose and Working Preacher, Kate Huey, AND Gil Bailie of the Girardian Lectionary. Though the text is not included here, I am again using "World In Prayer's weekly posting as the Prayers of the People.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

John 3:16 is, by far, the most universally well-known Bible verse of them all. You see it at football games (Tim Tebow wore the Scripture reference in his eye black during the 2009 championship game, not to mention the guy in the rainbow wig with the sign), you see it on everything from throw rugs to wristwatches to billboards, and just about everyone you meet on a daily basis can say the verse in the King James Version. Martin Luther called this verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

But we do the reading a disservice by separating this one verse, as beautiful as it is, from its deep and somewhat troubling context. Where it all began was with a late-night visit between a respected member of the religious community and a disheveled traveling preacher.

Late at night? Well, of course! You wouldn’t expect a well-known Pharisee, a Jerusalem V.I.P., to be hobnobbing with itinerant rabbis, it’s simply not done. Nicodemus is recognized, you see. People know who he is, he has wealth, influence, and a seat on the Sanhedrin, and to be knocking on the door in broad daylight, especially after this Jesus person had caused all that uproar in the Temple – knocking over the moneychangers tables, babbling about destroying the Temple and restoring it in three days!

Well, it would make sense if Nicodemus was at the head of a column of Temple guards and coming to arrest Jesus, but to simply speak with him? Preposterous!

Yet as hard as Nicodemus tried to fit in with his fellow Pharisees, as much as he tried to blend in with the other members of the Sanhedrin, he found himself up late, pacing the floor, trying to figure out what it all meant. He had to know. He had to see this Jesus fellow up-close, speak with him, and find out what made him tick.

So Nicodemus waited until all the lights were out, and made his way down the narrow, familiar streets to the house where the rabble-rouser and his motley crew were staying. The young man who answered the door raised his eyebrow when he made out who had knocked, but he ushered Nicodemus in as if this kind of thing happened every day. The Pharisee stood there as the man awoke Jesus, then returned to his own sleeping mat and almost immediately began snoring softly.

Jesus offered Nicodemus some wine in an earthen cup, and led him out to the small courtyard where they could speak without disturbing the others. Nicodemus was surprised to find that he was nervous.

Then again, if someone will overturn tables, swing a whip around, and caterwaul like an Old Testament prophet, they are, to say the least, unpredictable. But he had rehearsed his words carefully all the way over, and as Jesus settled on a rough bench, Nicodemus launched into his speech.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Do you know how many dirt-poor rabbis from Podunk towns all over Judea would kill to have a powerful member of the Jewish ruling party acknowledge that their ministry, their preaching was blessed by God? And this upstart, this Galilean nobody, had the audacity, the gall, to interrupt him!

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Actually, the Greek, anothen, could mean “born from above,” “born anew,” or “born again.” Nicodemus heard it as “born again,” and was doubly incensed. Not only had he been interrupted, but interrupted with nonsense!
But Jesus, of course, meant it differently. You must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God.

Over the course of the conversation that followed, Nicodemus went from angry, to confused, to awestricken. What had begun as a quest for information became a journey to an unknown land.

You see, for Nicodemus, what you do and how you live has everything to do with if and to what degree God loves and accepts you. One must keep the laws, keep the feasts, make the sacrifices, observe the rules, and if one is diligent enough in those observances, over time, perhaps you will earn righteousness. Maybe, just maybe, God will bestow love upon you.

You control the outcome. You decide whether you are beloved or not. Redeemed or not. Blessed or not. Righteous or not. In a sense, with this kind of power over your destiny, God becomes almost irrelevant.

But a baby doesn’t have to observe rules, or feasts, or sacrifices in order to be born. The baby has no say at all in the process of being born. The whole matter is decided, initiated, and controlled from outside. Being born, as far as the baby is concerned, just happens.

So the message Jesus gave Nicodemus, and is giving us, is that getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God. Further, to be born again is to first die. Marcus Borg writes, “‘Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.”

And if Nicodemus wasn’t dizzy from all of these implications which whirled madly around him already, Jesus went on to detail how it’s done, and why.

He reached back to Numbers 21 and reminded Nicodemus of when the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, had once again displeased God and were being punished with a rash of deadly snakebites.
God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole. When someone was bitten, they had too look up, look at the very thing which had afflicted them, in order to live.

We spoke last week about how death and sin are so intricately related. If death is to be defeated, if it is to be conquered, then we must look upon that very thing which afflicts us: we must see Jesus, nailed to a cross, dead. Dead for us. In “The Joy of Being Wrong,” James Alison writes that “God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us.”

Oh yeah, that’s the “why.” That’s where John 3:16 comes in. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The word “world” there is interesting. Usually, when John uses the word (which is “kosmos” in the Greek), he is signifying that entity which is hostile to God’s will. Some commentators suggest that the true force and scope of God’s unfathomable love can be seen by translating the verse, “For God so loved the God-hating world...!” After all, isn’t it true that God’s love is not only unfathomable but also somewhat offensive?

God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God’s love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God’s only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God's love – surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved – is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not.

And lest we think that the act of believing is a kind of mental assent to a rigid set of doctrines, a pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, some kind of self-hypnosis, or anything else that can once again place us in the driver’s seat of our own salvation, let’s return to Marcus Borg.

In his book, “The God We Never Knew,” he says, concerning the concept of belief in John, and indeed in the entire New Testament, that rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, belief is trust, is faithfulness, and, “in a very general sense…[it is] the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).”

Lent is a time of disorientation, or at least it should be, for all of us who, like Nicodemus, live like we have it all figured out. Lent is supposed to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent should remind us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious.

Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time where we, like Nicodemus, can experience a reorientation to a new perspective!

Let us pray.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent I - Patience

The list of folks I am indebted to this week is long. So many good ideas, angles, and thoughts. First off, my thanks to Paul J. Nuechterlein, Gil Bailie, and the writings of Rene Girard; also Laurel A. Dykstra and Sojourners, and Fred B. Craddock.

In case you're wondering about the commentator I mention in my sermon, both Vanity Fair and Mother Jones reported on it. The Vanity Fair article includes a video link.

Though the prayer does not appear here, I have once again adapted the World In Prayer for the Prayers of the People.

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:12-19
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned —sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This is the Word of the Lord.

You spend long enough in church, and you realize that Christians tell the same story over and over even though we know how it ends. We dread the Crucifixion even as we anticipate the resurrection. As we turn from Epi¬ph¬any to Lent we leave the joy and wonder of the incarnation, moving from revelation and recognition to the hard work of repentance.

Forgetting that we were created for joy, many of us wrongly equate repentance with renouncing pleasure. We act as if our greatest sins were watching too much TV or eating too many chocolates. By “giving them up for Lent,” we continue to participate in the culture of consumption and individualism by adopting something that is little more than a program of self-improvement.

We forget that Lent, like Christianity, is not about us.

Well, Lent is a little bit about us, because Lent reminds us of who we are, and whose we are, and what we are called to be, over against who our surroundings, the media, and our society tell us we should be.

We live in a self-centered society. It seems that, from birth, we are conditioned to view every event, every disaster, every new development through a filter of what it means to me, what do I get out of it, how will I be affected.

I saw a striking example of this on CNBC this past week. As the world was reeling from the shocking news coming out of Japan – so many hundreds killed in the strongest earthquake ever recorded, so many more hundreds drowned or washed out to sea in the tsunami which followed, and so many more rendered homeless, either from earthquake or flood damage, or from evacuation from the vicinity of two nuclear power plants – one commentator, seeing that the US stock market had not fallen, said, and I am quoting, “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.”

When I heard this, I confess that I sat there gape-mouthed. I wondered how anyone could be so callous, so tone-deaf, so disinvested in the human race to think that the stock market is more valuable than human life?

We people of faith know where it all began. It all began in the Garden.

Paul writes, in our reading today from the book of Romans, that “…sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…” Sin brings death. We all know this. It’s one of the most basic lessons of Christianity. It began in the Garden and continues today.

At least one theologian suggests something very interesting about what Paul says. There is, it seems, an ambiguous statement in the original Greek there at the end. Gil Bailie says that the phrase is actually, “because of this all have sinned;” and it could refer either to Adam’s sin in the Garden… or it could refer to death: “because of death, all have sinned.”

I feel comfortable exploring this idea, because that is how the Eastern Orthodox Church reads the passage.

And it would explain a lot, wouldn’t it? Greed and self-centeredness all stem from impatience – and death makes impatience logically coherent – it makes immediate gratification make sense. Sebastian Moore said, "Death as ultimate horizon lets sin make as much sense as sin can make." In other words, if there is only death, then our impatience and our determination to have it now, and to have as much of it as we can before death takes it all away from us, makes that attitude as logically and morally coherent as it's possible for it to be.

If there’s only death, then we can justify doing whatever it takes to get ahead, and to do it quickly – not in God’s time, or God’s way, but in our time, which is always right now. We can put commerce and profit above people. We can ignore the suffering of others if it gets in the way of the stock market. We can make it all about me, and me alone.

I think that there’s an aspect of this in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is being tempted. He's tempted in the wilderness, and these are not merely temptations to power or appetite, or what have you. These are Messianic temptations, and they’re centered around Christ’s mission on earth – the ministry.

“Jesus, you know, you don’t need to be hungry. Just say the word, and you’ll have more food than you could eat in a lifetime. No? OK. Look, if you’re gonna be the Messiah and all, you need to make a big entrance, I mean, bigger than Lady Gaga showing up at the Oscars in an egg, you know? Here’s what you do: jump off the highest part of the Temple here, a real swan dive, and when you don’t splatter on the ground, because angels show up and save you, then no one will be able to dispute who you are, right? It’ll be awesome! Oh, you don’t like that either? Well. OK, look, if you’re the Messiah, then you’ll be running things, so I can get you set up as king of the world, you know, fast-track the whole thing. I got connections, y’know? All you gotta do is follow my lead, and you’ll be king of everything in no time.”

Jesus is being offered the opportunity, as the devil presents it, to bring about the Kingdom of God, the full manifestation of Christ, right now, by doing something so dazzling that nobody could miss it. Everybody would recognize Jesus as Christ instantly! No muss, no fuss, no suffering, no cross! Of course, in each case, Jesus rejects these temptations. Think of it – Jesus forfeits the three greatest powers at his disposal, miracle, mystery, and authority. Instead, he accepts God's plan. Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. Of course, he will be opposed immediately. Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry. But he will perform miracles with bread. He will survive violent attempts to make him king by force. People will come from all around to hear what he has to say. And he will do all of these things in God’s time.

Perhaps, then, the lesson for us in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and the lesson of Lent, is patience. It all began in the Garden, and for too many people, it appears to end at the grave, and because of this, nothing but the here and now and what we can get out of it matter.

So, yes, Lent is a little about us in that it reminds us of who we are, and it reminds us that the grave is not at all where it ends. It’s too easy to forget that we Christians, we are Resurrection people. We don’t need to rush, to have it all now, to do even good things in our time rather than God’s time. We have all the time in the world.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, we have the promise that death is not our ultimate horizon; life is. That does not mean, of course, that we should not pour ourselves out to the very last drop. But it means that God is patient, and that we are patient, and that the Holy Spirit is bringing about the transformation of the world gradually, and that we needn't panic. The victory has already been accomplished at the Cross.

So this Lent, I invite you to join me in learning to practice patience, remembering that Christ is the Lord of History and the Cross is the turning point in history. The full presence of Christ in history is simply a matter of time, so give it time! Take your part in it. Don't be impatient. Don't be anxious. God is with us, Immanuel.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transfiguration and Resurrection People

I'm using much of a previous Transfiguration sermon, but I made it a point to incorporate a quote from a YouTube video of Peter Rollins. Also, I expanded the Gospel reading to include the healing of the epileptic youngster. I hope the Lectionary Elves will find it in their heart to forgive this transgression.

I have a strong feeling that the original thoughts for this sermon are not my own, but it seems I did a poor job of keeping track of the influences when I did it originally. So if some of this sounds familiar, rest assured no one has stolen ideas from me; rather vice-versa. I read the same TextWeek resources as you do, and love them dearly.

Finally, though it does not appear on the blog, I am again indebted to World in Prayer, whose prayer I modify and use in the Prayers of the People immediately following the sermon.


Was the Transfiguration for Jesus, or was it for us? And as we are transformed and transfigured through the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, is it for us, or is it for the world around us?

To say "all of the above" is not a bad answer...

Matthew 17:1-20
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the strange by-products of taking our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is that, sometimes, the text seems to be starting off in mid-thought, or leaving something important out of the story. “Six days later …” the reading starts, and we have to be wondering, “Six days later than what?”

Today’s reading takes place immediately following the familiar account of Jesus asking the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies “You are the the Christ of God ,” which signals a turning point in their understanding of Jesus. No longer merely “Rabbi,” “Teacher,” “Man from God,” “Maybe/possibly 'The One Who Is To Come,'” but the Messiah, Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus warns them to silence, then says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life... If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So eight days after these challenging, these explosive words, Jesus takes Peter and James and John to the mountaintop.

So it’s no wonder that some people wonder if this passage is factual, or if it’s some kind of holy myth that developed later and was inserted into the Gospel, or a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow got misplaced and re-located, back in the middle of Jesus’ ministry instead of right at the end. Neither of these, of course, is my opinion. I think, rather, that the event takes place at the perfect point in the narrative. Jesus has said some very hard things to the disciples. He had made some challenges that, quite literally sounded like a death sentence.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the authors of The Theological Declaration of Barmen in our Book of Confessions, wrote this elsewhere: “When Christ calls a man to come and follow, he bids him come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death which is crucifixion.

So, yes, this story shares some clear links with other passages of Scripture. For example, our Old Testament reading today, Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai when he received God’s law. Later we read that when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was shining with the radiance of God. Or there is the passage where heaven and earth overlap as Elijah is carried away into heaven.
There is, however, another Biblical account that this story can be linked with. As well as looking back all those years to Moses and Elijah, this story also points us forward… to Jesus’ death on the cross.

Unlike the accounts of Moses and Elijah, however, it is more in the contrasts than the similarities that we see the striking links between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion.

In this story of the transfiguration, Jesus’ clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble for Jesus’ clothes. Here in this story, Jesus is accompanied by two great heroes from ancient history; there, on the cross, Jesus is joined by two common criminals. Here, at the transfiguration, Jesus is witnessed by three male disciples - Peter, James and John; there, at Golgotha, three woman are named as witnesses: two Marys and Salome. This scene of transfiguration is one a scene of dazzling light, while at the crucifixion Matthew tells us that darkness came over the whole land. Here, in this scene, Jesus basks in God’s presence, there on the cross He cries out, ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’ Here on the mountain God confesses Jesus as God’s son as a voice sounds forth, ‘this is my son, the beloved!’ There it is left to a Roman centurion to blurt out, ‘truly this man was God’s son.’

So many contrasts. It’s as if the horror of the Crucifixion account were a deliberate inversion of the splendor of the Transfiguration. And if so, then what is God’s written Word trying to tell us?

At this point in the Gospel Jesus is on a journey - a journey that will take him to Jerusalem and to death and beyond, to Easter. Jesus has spoken candidly about the painful, humiliating death that awaits him, and what this transfiguration story is doing is showing us what is beyond, at the end of that journey. It gives us a preview of Jesus’ destination. The cross, the crucifixion, Golgotha, is one stop on the way, but it’s not the end of the journey. We are not left, thank God, with Christ disfigured, naked, abandoned and bloody, nailed up like a scarecrow. Beyond that is the risen Christ who can only be glimpsed here.

But of course, - and this is an important point - what we see revealed here is not just the goal of Christ’s journey, but the goal of our journey too.

Or to put it differently, what Peter, James and John are witnessing here is not just Christ’s destination, but their own destination too, and ours, yours and mine. We too will shine like the sun.

Christ came to transform us. He came to transfigure us with the light of God’s grace. And the cross is, in many ways, part of our journey just as it was part of Christ’s journey (the discussion of what it means for a 21st-century American to take up the cross is a long one, and for another day), but because of Christ the Cross is not the end of our journey.

There, on the mountaintop, Jesus is the Christ of the journey’s end, our journey’s end. The Transfiguration is Christ’s destination… and our destination.

And as much as Peter wanted to stay, and as much as you and I would want to stay on the mountaintop, down the mountain, of course, we must go. The four of them come off of the mountain and find a crowd, and a young boy who has convulsions.

Here a different image of our humanity - not the transfigured humanity that is our destination, but our disfigured humanity. Here in this fearful scene we are closer to the hill of Golgotha than we are to the mountain of transfiguration. This world is the one we are all too familiar with.

It’s a world where lives are preyed on by evil forces. It’s a world where humanity is denied. It’s a world where people’s destiny is a cruel parody of what awaits us when, with Jesus, we are risen.

And when we look around us we see life lived at the foot of the mountain rather than at the top. We see lives that, in the light of Transfiguration, were clearly never meant for us. Yes, ours is a faith forged in the suffering of the cross, but lived in the transfiguring light of the Resurrection.

We weren’t meant for this. Every time we see a homeless person begging in the streets, we know: We are Resurrection people, we were not meant for this. Every time we hear of a child dying of a preventable disease, we know: we are Resurrection people, and we were not meant for this. Every time we see our terrible capacity for inhumanity paraded before us on the television, we know: we are Resurrection people, and no, we were not meant for this. Every job lost, every home foreclosed: we were not meant for this. Every flood and earthquake and shooting and scandal: we were not meant for this.

Maybe that’s why, knowing, as he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration that the next time he’d climb a hill it would be with a cross on his back, Jesus still took time to heal the epileptic youngster. Maybe that’s what motivated Jesus to heal every other poor person he came in contact with, whose life was disfigured by disease or disability or injustice: we were not meant for this!

And what are we to do about our world? I said before that the Transfiguration was not simply an event that happened in the life of Jesus, a pushpin in the map of Christ's journey, but an indication of our own ultimate destination as well.

Taking it a step further, in the same way that the Transfiguration was an event in Christ's life, we too are transformed and transfigured by the ongoing work of Christ in the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

We can, of course, see this transformation in the lives of the Apostles. Though it didn’t happen until after Pentecost, Peter and James and John, along with the rest of The Eleven, dedicated their lives to spreading the Gospel, to healing the sick and ministering to the poor and the forgotten… telling the world this great Good News that we were not meant for this!

These eleven, who had been cowering, aimless, and silent, were transfigured into bold evangelists, powerful speakers, gifted leaders, fearless martyrs. They spoke truth to power, and cared for the lost, the forgotten, the marginalized.

We, too, have been transformed by a God who, in the words of Max Lucado, loves us just the way we are, but too much to let us stay that way. Moreover, the transformation, the transfiguration, is an ongoing process in our spiritual journey.

Celtic Christians speak of “thin places,” places in our faith journey where the separation between the divine and the human is narrowed, and where God and man make contact. And while we Christians are fond of “mountaintop experiences;” be they Charismatic encounters with the Gifts of the Spirit, spending a week at a Montreat youth retreat or a weekend on a Walk to Emmaus, I want to suggest to you this morning that God desires to transform and transfigure us more often and in more ways than we realize.

As we begin the season of Lent, some of us are planning on fasting from something – chocolate or caffeine or the Internet. That’s the traditional way to greet Lent, by taking something out of our lives.

The goal, though, is not to somehow simply experience this lack as a kind of sharing in the sufferings of Christ. As much as I enjoy coffee, I can’t compare going without caffeine to dying on a cross.

No, the point of taking something out of our lives during Lent is so that God can put something in – a spiritual discipline, a closer walk with Christ on our faith journey, extra time for prayer and study, and so on.

Whether you participate in Lent by abstaining from something or not, let me suggest that we spend the forty days leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection by paying attention to the ways in which God seeks to transform and transfigure us.

Make no mistake; God is in the business of transfiguration. For most of its early existence, Christianity was considered the religion of slaves. People who had been excluded from fellowship with the Living God, whether because of the place they were born or because of some disease or defect, were being welcomed into relationship, were being transformed and transfigured by the love of God in Jesus Christ, and were being brought to the place of response to the Good News by people like Peter and James and John, people who had denied Christ, who had hidden in fear in the dark days following the Crucifixion, who even though they had spent years living with and listening to Jesus didn't understand what it was all about, but who had themselves been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

And it still goes on today. Men and women from every walk of life – rich and poor, in boardrooms and prison cells, in high-rise apartments and mud huts, in living rooms and in homeless shelters, in cathedrals and nightclubs – are transformed by the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and are brought to that transformation by men and women just like you and me. Not well-known evangelists or powerful speakers, but “regular folks” who have experienced the transfiguring work of the Holy Spirit and are sharing it, in word and in deed, with the world around them.

Sharing it because in this wonderful vision of an alternative reality, where streets of gold replace unpaved streets and reeking alleys, where death and sickness and poverty are replaced by glory shining like the sun, in this wonderful promise of the here-and-now, as well as of resurrection and the end of the journey, there is hope. There is transformation, there is transfiguration, there is resurrection.

Peter Rollins is an author and speaker, and known in Christian circles, along with folks like Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo and Jay Bakker as part of the Emergent Church movement. With its openness to asking questions and examining doctrine and theology, the Emergent Church gets a bad rap sometimes, and the more well-known people are often accused of denying the divinity of Christ and the resurrection.

Someone once asked Peter Rollins if he denied the Resurrection, and in his thick Iris accent, he replied, “Yes, I do. Everybody who knows me knows I deny the Resurrection. Every time I do not serve my neighbor, every time I walk away from people who are poor. I deny the Resurrection every time I participate in an unjust system.

“And I affirm the Resurrection every now and again, when I stand up for those who are on their knees. I affirm the Resurrection when I cry out for those people who have had their tongues torn out, when I weep for those people who have no more tears to shed.”

So yes, let’s take this Transfiguration into the season of Lent, looking for the ways in which God will transform and transfigure us, but let’s not stop there. Christianity is, after all, community. How is God calling on you and I to live a transfigured life, living like Resurrection People, affirming the Resurrection in our community and in our world?