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Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Does Easter Mean? (A sermon from Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18)

A florist mixed up two orders on a busy day. One was to go to a new business, the other to a funeral. The next day, the guy with the new business stormed into the shop, “What’s the big idea? The flowers that arrived for our reception said, “Rest in peace.” The florist responded, “Well, if you think that’s bad you should have seen the people at the funeral who got the flowers that said, “Good luck in your new location.”

When some people think of Easter and the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, it means little more than belief in an afterlife. I don’t think any of us here would question that the resurrection of Jesus offers hope that there is “more” after death, that physical death does not have the last word. But of course, one might believe in life after death and not believe in the resurrection of Jesus at all.

Perhaps the first place to start in reflecting on the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus is with the first disciples who claimed to be witnesses to the risen Christ. They were all Jews and in a Jewish context resurrection signified vindication.

Belief in actual resurrection was a fairly late development in the history of Judaism. The origins of this belief are obscure, but almost all scholars of Judaism agree that belief in resurrection emerged in a context of oppression and persecution.

It emerged at a time when conventional wisdom was being questioned. Conventional wisdom taught that the righteous would be blessed and the wicked judged in this life. But at some point in the spiritual evolution of Judaism that basic principle was questioned — this did not seem to be the experience of everyone. Sometimes the good die unjustly and the wicked prosper and live long lives. The book of Job, for example, is a book that challenges this conventional wisdom. So, it was out of this context – a context where conventional wisdom no longer worked and the righteous were being oppressed and killed that belief in resurrection emerged.

* * * * * * * *

In our text in Acts, mention is made in verse 41 that Jesus rose from the dead. But the reason it can be said that Jesus rose from the dead or that “he is risen” (as in other texts) is because in verse 40 we are told that “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.” Jesus didn’t raise himself; God raised him. This is God’s vindication and validation of everything Jesus stood for and died for.

We are told in the text that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” and that “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

God’s own power and energy inspired, empowered, and filled Jesus throughout his life. God’s power flowed in and through him to heal and liberate those oppressed by anti-human, death-dealing powers. The resurrection of Jesus means that this divine power at work in his earthly life is now at loose in the world, and this power is accessible and available to us, even in the most difficult and life demeaning and diminishing situations.

God’s vindication of Jesus means that God did not abandon Jesus on the cross. Even though he felt forsaken, God was with him and he was not alone. Even when darkness descends and engulfs everything as on Good Friday, even when all seems lost and when the power of death seems strongest, the Power of Life is still present and the challenge we face is learning to trust and rely on that Power.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in a recent Christian Century piece tells about reading Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter who authored a memoir called “And There Was Light.” At the age of seven he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. In those days blind people were swept to the margins of society. Lusseyran’s doctors suggested sending him to residential school for the blind in Paris but his parents refused, wanting their son to stay in the local public school where he could learn to function in the seeing world.

His mother learned Braille with him and he learned to use a Braille typewriter. The school provided a special desk to hold all his extra equipment. But the best thing his parents did for him, says Taylor, was never to pity him. They never described him as “unfortunate.” His father told him soon after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” He lived a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.” Listen to his language; it sounds mystical. “It’s source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.”

He said that he could detect its movements and shades. He wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read what I just quoted she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about that which he actually experienced. With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he could not see with his eyes, and yet somehow he could see them.

What do we see with our spiritual senses? You and I – Are we in touch with our true selves, with the light within, which is the living Christ? No matter how dark and dismal the situation may seem, the Light is still there.

Jesus, on the cross, when he cried out in the darkness, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” apparently for a time lost his sense of connection to the light, but it was still there. The light—the living presence of God—had not left him, though he apparently, at least in Mark's version of the story, lost his sense of it (Luke and John tell a different story).

The resurrection of Jesus means that the anti-human, death-dealing, life-diminishing powers cannot extinguish the light, for it eludes all attempts to capture and destroy and it bursts forth from all the tombs where it is buried and encased.

* * * * * * * *

This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. It is the light that became the living Word, the light that became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth; it is the Power of life, the power of goodness and grace, the power of love and forgiveness, the power that brings healing and liberation to those oppressed by the powers of darkness and death.

The expression “the God who raised Jesus from the dead” that occurs in several NT texts, corresponds with the Hebrew expression, “The God who brought up Israel out of Egypt.” The God who liberated the covenant people from bondage is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus the resurrection is an act of God that has universal importance – for Jesus who was raised, has been, according to our text, appointed by God as Lord and Judge of all.

The power of life that raised Jesus is accessible and available to all people, even those who have not heard of Jesus. The risen Christ, the cosmic Christ who is Lord of all can take many forms and answer to many names. Our text says that God shows no partiality, that anyone who fears God, and that does not mean to be afraid of God, but anyone who respects and honors God, and anyone who does what is right, anyone who does what is just and good and compassionate shares in the life of the risen Christ. 

And just as the apostles were “witnesses” to the risen life of the Christ in that day and time, so we have witnesses today to the power of the resurrection at loose in the world. Just talk, for example, to some of the people who have emerged from AA groups on a path to healing and wholeness. Some of them were completely engulfed in the darkness of addiction, but through their connection to a greater Power of life at work in the midst of death they found hope. These living witnesses will tell you as well that this Divine Power is best accessed through relational and communal connections – that it was in the commitment of community they experienced this healing, liberating power. And all of us here today are in some way living witnesses to this Power - are we not? 

I think one of the theological points made in the story we read from John’s Gospel is that the power and life of the risen Christ cannot be pinned down, cannot be scripted or regulated or controlled by any one group or belief system or religious tradition.

Mary does not recognize Jesus; she thinks he is the gardener. In fact, this inability to recognize Jesus is a common feature in the diverse, sometimes contradictory, appearance stories. It teaches, I think, that the life and power of the risen Lord is somewhat elusive and mysterious, though present and real. When Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him, because he has not yet ascended, the theological point the story is making, I believe, is that while the life of Jesus is still available to his followers, it is available in a different form and is experienced in new ways.

The language of ascending that the story in John utilizes (Luke uses this imagery as well) is a poetic and theological way of saying that Jesus has been taken into the very life of God, that he was raised by God to share in God’s transcendent life, and now as the cosmic Christ, as Lord and Judge of all, he mediates and communicates this very life to the world.

This life is hidden, concealed, spiritual in nature, but nonetheless real, dynamic, and powerful. Spiritual writer Brother David Steindl-Rast comments that this life is “hidden as the spring is hidden in the stream” and “we can sense the current of his hidden life as it guides all things from within, pulsating as blessing . . . through the universe and through our own innermost being.” The Pauline writer in the letter to the Colossians describes this life as “hidden with Christ in God.” It is a hidden life, but nonetheless real – pulsating with the power of love and forgiveness.

* * * * * * * *

Author and pastor Philip Gulley, in a fairly recent sermon, shared a letter he received from a reader. The reader thanked Gulley for his book, “If the Church Were Christian” and particularly his chapter titled, “Encouraging Personal Exploration Would Be More Important than Communal Uniformity.” This is what he wrote:

“As I read this chapter I was struck as the words ‘Johovah Witnesses’  appeared on the page in front of me. I was raised a Johovah’s Witness, very active as a young person, a teenager, and into my early 20’s, when I came out as a gay man. I knew what the result would be, there was not a doubt in my mind because they practice disfellowshipping as you describe in your book.

“The fear, anguish and worry about what would happen if I came out moved me to almost take my own life. Thankfully I did not. I prayed, I wept, and in that moment of darkness, had the first real spiritual experience of my life, an experience that let me know that God was okay with me exactly as I was.” (Let me interject: Here is what I find amazing about the Power of Life at loose in the world, namely, that it can break through layers of bad teaching, socialization, and tradition. Brother David Stendl-Rast says that we can know the living Christ firsthand, even if we have never heard the story of Jesus).

“I was kicked out of the church. I was disowned by my family. I was shunned by every friend, every person I had ever known. I found myself alone in the world. Truly, completely, utterly alone. I was 23 years old, young, scared and bruised.

“Amazingly I found faith again. Most people who are raised as I am never find faith again after they are shunned. Many become atheists or agnostics, totally rejecting any thoughts of God. I’m thankful I was able to re-form my faith. I had to start from scratch. I asked all the hard questions I had never been encouraged to ask, and now have a more vibrant, joyful and expansive vision of God, the world, and faith.

He concludes by saying: “I thank God for holding me in the light, and keeping me close. I thank God for my life.”

That, sisters and brothers, is the power of the resurrection, the power of love and liberation at loose in the world.

I love the story of the painting that hung in a gallery of Foust playing chess with the Devil for his soul. It appears that the Devil has Foust checkmated. The Devil is hovering over the chess board with a delightful glee, while on the face of Foust there is a look of desperation.

Some people in the gallery would inevitably gravitate toward this  painting. If they were going through a difficult time, a time of disappointment and discouragement, or if, perhaps, they were living on the brink of despair, the painting spoke to them.

One day a chess master entered the gallery and for the longest time simply stared at the painting. Then suddenly, out of the quietness of that place, came a loud shout, “It’s a lie. It’s a lie,” exclaimed the chess master, “the knight and the king still have moves left.”

This is what Easter means for us today. No matter how disappointing, how dark, how desperate the situation may seem, we still have moves left, because the Power of life is at loose in the world. And not only is the Power of Life at loose in the world “out there,” it’s loose “in here.” It resides within every community gathered in the name of Christ, that is, every community committed to the things Christ stands for. This Power resides in every human heart, in our true selves; the light dwells within, and will guide us if we will receive it.

* * * * * * * *

Our gracious God, we celebrate the power of life and love at work in our world, in our church, and in our personal lives this Easter Sunday. The death dealing, life diminishing forces at work in the domination systems of society and in the tragic events that destroy human life and tear at our humanity will not have the final word. For the power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the very power at work among us and in us to bring to completion the good work you began. Help us to tap into this healing, liberating power each day as we pray and serve and work to see your kingdom realized and your will done on earth as it is in heaven. In the name of Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Did God forsake Jesus on the cross?

When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the surprising revelation was that she spoke of long periods where the sense of the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence.

In Mark’s version of the passion narrative Jesus utters a single saying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoes the feelings of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1). It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus in his humiliating death.

Did God actually depart? Was Jesus really forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God?

In subtle ways throughout the passion story Mark’s Gospel proclaims Jesus to be God’s agent of redemption. Before the high priest, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Jesus responded, “I am” (14:62). Jesus also affirmed Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2), which, obviously, Pilate did not believe. The soldiers mocked Jesus as “King,” dressing him in the color of royalty and placing a crown of thorns on his head (15:16-18). The inscription on the cross read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26). As he hung on the cross, passersby, along with the priests and scribes, mocked him as “Messiah and “King of Israel” (15:29-32). 

Herein is the irony and paradox. The final confession made by the Roman centurion that Jesus was God's Son (15:39) affirms that in Mark's view God was indeed present in this horrific event, acting in Jesus to redeem. Though Jesus is somewhat passive, bearing all the hate and animosity of the religious and political powers, God is active, reaching out to the world in and through Jesus’ death. God is active in the passivity of Jesus, absorbing the hate and animosity.

I believe that what Jesus experienced, God experienced. I do not believe in a distant, removed Almighty—an “Unmoved Mover.” I believe in a God who is deeply moved and engaged in the life of the creation. God, I believe, is not almighty in the use of power, but in the expression (though often hidden) of his magnanimous, wasteful love.

In his novel, “Jayber Crow,” Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave—that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by violent power. If he had, says Berry, then everyone would be coerced to believe in him, and “from that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry observes that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures . . . this groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, dualistic way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding.”

Berry declares poetically what I believe the cross represents and symbolizes. God participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing our pain and loss. In the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother, comrade, and friend.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” He stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul. 

Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from God, but draw us into communion and cooperation with God who shares in the suffering of this beautiful, yet groaning and travailing world.

God did not abandon Jesus, nor does God abandon us on whatever “cross” we may be stretched out upon. In our suffering, God suffers and is for us and with us, regardless of what we may feel or not feel.

Brother David Steindl-Rast has made the point that the affirmation that Jesus was not actually abandoned by God when he cried out in agony on the cross speaks above all about God. It presupposes a view of God that says God is concerned with justice and does set things right, though not necessarily on the level of history. 

The faithfulness of Jesus is highlighted in Jesus’ cry. While Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, he did not forsake God. “My God, my God” is a cry of faith. It is an affirmation of his persistence that the God of justice and peace, judgment and grace, the God who inspires visions of a world healed and made right, is, indeed, his God.

If we believe that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isa. 40:29), then we, too, can overcome when the pain and darkness surround us and God is conspicuous by God’s absence. As with Jesus, the challenge before us is to keep trusting.

We have the benefit of knowing that the dawn of Easter morning follows the dark night of Good Friday

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Scapegoats and Lightning Rods (A Sermon on Matthew 27:27-44 for Passion Sunday or Good Friday)

The year was 2003 and the place was Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the sixth game in a 4 out of 7 series with the Florida Marlins for the National League Championship. The Cubs were leading 3 – 0, just five outs away from going to the World Series. Then it happened.

With one out, Marlin second baseman Luis Castillo fouled one into the first row of seats off of the third base line. Several spectators reached for the ball as left fielder Moises Alou made a play on it. Just as Alou was about to make the catch, the ball deflected off the hands of a Cubs fan. That fan’s name was Steve Bartman. Alou visibly displayed his displeasure.

After that failed attempt to make an out, the inning broke open in favor of the Marlins. They scored eight runs, defeating the Cubs 8 – 3.

Because there were no replay boards in Wrigley Field, no one in the crowd knew of Bartman until friends and family members who were watching the game on TV started calling them on their cell phones. Bartman had to be led away from the park under security escort. As he and his friends who were with him were led out of the stadium, fans pelted him with drinks and other debris. Bartman’s name and personal information about him appeared on Major League Baseball’s online message boards minutes after the game ended. As many as six police cars gathered outside his home to protect Bartman and his family.

The Cubs went on to lose game 7 and Bartman issued a public apology saying he was truly sorry, that it happened so fast he didn’t even see Alou trying to catch the ball. He simply reacted. Indeed, everyone around Bartman had reacted the same way, but it was Bartman’s hands that actually touched the ball. Bartman became the scapegoat for all their frustration and anger.  

Since then, Bartman has kept a low profile. He has never given an interview and declined numerous endorsement deals. ESPN did a full length documentary on the incident in 2011 and Bartman again refused to be interviewed or appear on the program. Bartman also declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. One can only imagine how his life has been impacted by this incident; perhaps he still fears physical harm.

Of course, there were a number of reasons why the Cubs lost that game and the final game to the Marlins that year. So why all this focus on Bartman? Why is it that we seek out scapegoats?

The image of a scapegoat recalls a ritual performed by ancient Israel on their holiest day of the year—Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. A goat was chosen by means of casting lots. Actually there were two goats chosen, one was killed as a sin offering to make atonement for the holy place, the other was allowed to live to make atonement for the sins of the people.

This is how the book of Leviticus describes the ritual: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness . . . The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region” (16:21-22).

This ritual functioned, I suppose, as a symbolical representation of the collective cleansing and forgiveness of the covenant people by God. Whether it was a healthy or toxic ritual for ancient Israel I cannot say. If it served as an expression of confession and repentance it may indeed have been redemptive. If, however, it was carried out as an act of projection and refusal to own one’s own culpability as so often happens today, then it was toxic.

We all know how Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews and how today gays have become scapegoats in Uganda and Russia. Think of how in our own country particular groups have been demonized and blamed: the poor are blamed for poverty, immigrants are blamed for the demographic changes happening all around us, and LGBT folks are blamed for the breakdown of the family. The scapegoat, whether an individual or a group, becomes the object of pent-up frustration and repressed anger, taking the form of subtle, malicious, verbal attacks or even outright venomous rage.

This scene from the passion story in Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as a scapegoat. It begins with the soldiers stripping, humiliating, and mocking him by stringing a robe around him, putting a reed in his right hand, and pressing a crown of thorns on his head. They spit on him and beat him and cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews.”

The scorning continues when he is lifted up on the cross. The crowd derides him as do the religious leaders—the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Even the bandits crucified with Jesus taunt and ridicule him.

The political and religious powers mock him as Israel’s King and Messiah and as God’s Son—echoing both the imperial claims of Caesar and Hebrew designations for those who function as God’s special messengers and agents.

Of course the irony in all this is that Jesus is indeed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son—God’s messenger and mediator of salvation. The early followers of Jesus, in retrospect, after being convinced that God raised, vindicated, and exalted Jesus, looked back at this horrific event and found saving significance in it.

So the question we need to ask—the question that is so important to our faith—is “How?” How is it possible that saving significance can be attached to the brutal, humiliating execution of a good man? How can this vicious, dehumanizing event be redemptive?

I think there are several ways, though today I want to mention two in connection with the ritual of scapegoating.

First, the scene Matthew pictures for us in the passion story exposes the evil of scapegoating much the same way images of African Americans being attacked and beaten in Selma Alabama exposed the evil of racism. Jesus became a scapegoat to end all scapegoating.

We are given an opportunity to see and judge. The key to change, however, is judging ourselves not others. We unjustly judge the other when we make the other a scapegoat. We justly judge ourselves when we are honest enough to see the many subtle ways we blame others and project our angst and anger on them. 

In the remake of the movie, “The Bad News Bears,” there is a scene where Coach Buttermaker sees and judges himself. In the championship game the opposing team’s coach demeans his son who is pitching. Because his son refuses to throw at a batter, the coach walks to the mound, verbally assaults him, and then pushes him down, humiliating him in front of everyone.

As Coach Buttermaker watches this scene unfold, something clicks—he sees himself and doesn’t like what he sees. It gives him pause and he decides to change. He decides that that is not who he wants to be. His moment of recognition sets him on a path of conversion. He decides to become a different human being.

This is what can happen when the absurdity and evil of scapegoating is exposed, and we are honest and courageous enough to see and judge ourselves.

A second way the crucifixion of Jesus can be liberating is when we decide to trust and emulate the costly forgiveness Jesus embodied in his death.

The late Clarence Jordan, the American Baptist who founded Koinonia Farm, asks, “Did God put our sins on the back of his son on the cross? No. He made him available and we put our sins on his back.”

He tells about getting a phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy on the other end said, “Mr. Jordan, I just wanted to let you know that within seventeen minutes there’s going to be a green pickup truck pull out of that dirt road there just below the bridge and it’s going to be loaded with dynamite. We’re going to blow your place off the face of the map. I just wanted to let you know so you would have time to get the people out of the buildings.”

Jordan tried to keep the guy on the phone by asking questions but the man who called was evidently in no mood to be conversational. He said in a huff, “Now, you have sixteen minutes,” and hung up the phone.  

With telephone in hand, his son walks in and wants to know who it was and what he wanted. Jordan tells his son that somebody wants to blow up the place. His son says, “Oh” and goes back to bed. 

Back in the bedroom, his wife asks what’s going on and he says, “Some guy called to say that he’s going to blow the place up in sixteen minutes.” She says, “Really?” and rolls over. Jordan thinks, “What am I to do? My own family doesn’t take this seriously.” So he, too, went back to bed.

Jordan writes, “I must confess the thoughts in my head were not conducive to sound slumber. I watched the clock tick off those minutes . . . and when it did headlights came up the road near that bridge and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ But we weren’t going to be out there under that light, running around in our pajamas like a bunch of scared nitwits. We were going to be in our beds. And if the world wanted to have a little blowing-up party, they could have a little blowing-up party . . .

“The pick up came and slowed down, and I thought he was coming in.  But he didn’t. We felt this taunt that they threw at Jesus’ face—“Let him save himself.” He couldn’t. He was the one that he couldn’t save.  He hadn’t come in the first place to save himself. He’d come to save mankind. He was the only one who couldn’t save himself . . . The taunt was true. For the world had to have a lightning rod to discharge its static, spiritual energy. And God made himself available in his son. And I think God needs in this world, available people who will bear the sins of the world.”

Jesus did not die because God required it. Jesus did not die in order to satisfy divine honor, or propitiate God’s justice, or appease God’s wrath, or pay off a sin debt, or bear sin’s punishment as our substitute. God did not make Jesus a scapegoat. The political, social, and religious powers came together to make Jesus a scapegoat.

And Jesus bears it all, without hate, without any wish of vengeance or desire for retaliation. He absorbs it in order to exhaust it, and thus makes a way for forgiveness and redemption. Luke’s version of the passion story especially highlights this theme when he has Jesus say from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The scornful taunt is true: Jesus could not save himself if he wanted to save others from the evils of scapegoating and the life diminishing and death-dealing consequences that come when we deny our sin and project our fears, insecurities, prejudices, and anxieties on others.

This should never be used as a tool of oppression to keep victims from protesting their victimization, but it does show us the way forward. Only such costly demonstrations of forgiveness can break the cycles of hate and violence by unmasking and exposing the powers of evil for what they are, pricking our conscience, jarring us awake, leading us to repentance.

As we eat the bread and drink the cup of Holy Communion, let us not only remember the love, courage, and moral fortitude of Jesus bearing the sins of the world—the hate, prejudice, malice, all of it, but let us also decide to follow our Lord. Let us pray that we might experience and express a greater capacity to forgive and absorb the angst and anger of others, knowing that a magnanimous love covers a multitude of sins.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Do You See?

In the story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9, the story is introduced by the statement: “As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Jesus saw a man who elicited compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, his disciples saw a man rejected and condemned by God. “Who sinned,” they ask Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples are the ones who are blind. In the course of the conversations and interrogations that follow we also learn that the man’s neighbors, parents, and the religious leaders who investigate this Sabbath healing are also blind. 

In May of 1968 two Roman Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan (brothers), and seven of their Christian friends—two missionaries, a midwife, a nurse, a worker in race relations, and two others—walked into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland at the height of the Vietnam War. As an act of nonviolent protest and witness for peace, they took some draft files out of a filing cabinet, carried them out into the street, and burned them. They were, of course, arrested and charged with a federal crime.

In October of that year, they were placed on trial in federal court in Baltimore. “Why did you do this?” said the prosecutor to Daniel Berrigan. “I did it,” he said, “because I began to see the cost of being a Christian. When I saw the napalm kill children, my senses were invaded; and I saw the power of death in the modern world.”

At this point the judge interrupted: “Father Berrigan. This testimony is irrelevant. The war is not on trial, you are.” “Your Honor,” replied Daniel Berrigan, “I can only tell you what I see, and what I see is that right now we are standing before the living God.”

One of the attorneys said, “Mr. Berrigan, are you saying your religious convictions had something to do with this?” “Yes, yes, of course,” responded Berrigan, “my religious convictions had something to do with this. If it were not for my religious convictions, this would be eviscerated of meaning; and I should be committed for insanity.”

Another defendant, Mary Marlin, a nurse, stood up and said, “I did this because I have begun to see things as they are. This is what a Christian does when you see things.”

What do you see? And what do you do, when you begin to see things as they are?

Once we see Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of a world of grace and goodness, of peace and equality, of mutual sharing and caring, we can never again settle for a selfish religion of personal prosperity and success, or for politics that cater to the powerful and wealthy, or for a Christian faith that settles for the status quo and conforms to conventional wisdom.
The more we are drawn into the light of Christ, the more we see how our false attachments and group idolatries, our biases and prejudices blind us and bind us, and how often, in our captivity to blindness, we have been complicit in injustice.

While the capacity to see is a gift—the work of the Spirit—it is always a struggle that requires courage, faith, and risk on our part.

Thomas Merton said that whenever a new monk came to the monastery they held an entrance ritual. It had nothing to do with patting the new monk on the back and saying, “Welcome, brother. We are so glad to have you.”

Instead, they would form a circle around the new monk and the Abbot would say, “What are you seeking?” And the answer was not, “I seek a happy life, or I seek a fulfilled life, or freedom from my anxieties, or even union with God.” The answer was, “I seek mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Merton writes, “All of the monks would know that this mercy was to be achieved only in a struggle. In a struggle with blindness, the blindness in the world as it is, and the blindness in us. Those who give up the struggle,” says Merton, “are those who are truly blind.”

As the story of the blind man unfolds, the religious leaders grow in their hostility, while the man healed of his blindness grows in spiritual illumination and understanding.

Jesus’ commentary on the story is significant: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Our testimony is never: “I once was blind, but now I see clearly.” No one sees clearly. We always see through a glass dimly. And it’s always a struggle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Is Authentic Worship? Why Is It Important?

One of the most significant statements on worship in our sacred writings can be found in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria in John’s Gospel. The Father seeks, says Jesus, those who worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

What does that involve?

Worship “in spirit,” I take to mean, is worship that engages the spirit, that taps into the best part of us. We are to bring a certain vitality and energy into our worship. On the one hand, this calls for a focused discipline and practice; on the other hand, this involves flexibility and fluidity—because after all, we are dealing with “living water.”

“Living water” is the image John’s Jesus utilizes in the conversation to speak of the divine-human encounter/relationship. Living water is always moving, changing, surging; it eludes manipulation. We can’t control or confine the Divine Spirit who is the initiator of the spiritual life. Living water requires living worship.   

I heard about a pastor who took his Boy Scout Troop on a tour of his church where they met for their meetings, explaining the meaning of the stain glass windows and some of the symbols. One of the scouts asked about a plaque that hung in the foyer displaying a long list of names. The pastor told him that this was a rooster of names of church members that had died in the service of the church. The boy asked what seemed to him to be the next logical question: “Was it in the early service or the late service?” Living water calls for living worship.

Worship “in truth” is worship that nurtures a true connection with the Divine—a healthy, holistic relationship with God. Truth here is not factual or propositional or creedal or doctrinal, it is relational. To worship in truth is to worship sincerely, honestly, humbly, genuinely.

We worship not because God needs to be praised; but because we need to praise God. Worship is what we need to do in order to cultivate a relationship with the Divine. Worship, I believe, is a human need, not a Divine need.

Soren Kierkegaard, the famous 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, compared the church of his day to a barnyard full of large, overweight geese that had lost their ability to fly. But once a week they would waddle over to one corner of the barnyard where the biggest goose among them would stand on a stump and proclaim the glory of being geese. Occasionally, while this goose would be sermonizing they would hear the honking of wild geese overhead, flying above them so high they could hardly be seen. In a hushed silence, the barnyard geese would pause for a moment until the honking could no longer be heard, then the sermon would resume extolling the joys of being geese.

It seems to me that worship is intended for the wild geese among us who fly high, take risks, and live out there where it is dangerous.

When we gather for worship, the assumption should be that we gather after a time of engagement and ministry, of embodying and representing Christ at home, work, and play. As we live out our discipleship to Jesus in a rough and tumble world, it is not unlikely that we come to worship wounded and broken in need of God’s healing touch, thirsty for living water, hungry for a living word to sustain us on our journey.

I don’t believe for one minute that we worship because God needs to see us bow down or hear our praises. We worship because we need to make the connection with God; because we thirst for the living water and hunger for the bread of heaven. We worship because we need divine power to live a fully human life that incarnates grace and truth, love and compassion, justice and peace.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Cotton Patch Story (based on John 9-sort of)

There was once a man who was a current member and former deacon of the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, who began to question many of the doctrines he was taught, but was afraid to tell anyone in his faith community about his questions.

During this time of doubt and uncertainty, his job was terminated. The large corporation he worked for decided that the money invested in his job could be best utilized as a pay raise and incentive for the top managers already making 10 times more than what he was earning as a service worker.

Unable to find work, he soon found himself in a men’s home existing on food stamps. Unemployment had been terminated when the Tea Party became the dominant party in government. Fortunately, they had not yet been able to do away with food stamps.

A former member of FBC, Jerusalem and former professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Jerusalem ran into him at a local jobs fair, where the former professor learned about his plight.

The former professor invited his friend to stay with him until he could get on his feet. He helped him explore some of his faith questions and found him a job as a bartender with a friend who owned a local sports pub.  

The professor had been fired from the seminary when the new president took control of the school. The professor believed that Jesus was the revelation of God, but not God himself. He believed that the Bible was a medium for the living Word of God, but not the literal Word of God. He believed that all people reflected God’s image and were children of God, not just those who believed certain doctrines his church and seminary believed. He believed in marriage equality and equal protection under the law for the LGBT community, and he stood with them in their struggle for equal rights. For these beliefs he was fired and cast out of the seminary.

Eventually word reached the FBC of Jerusalem that a former deacon and current member had been working as a bartender and was associating with a heretical professor and questioning many of the fundamentals of the faith. When the deacons met in council they decided to first ask his parents who were long time members of the church. 

When asked about his recent activities, the man’s parents kept silent, for they feared the power of the church deacons and their ability to have them shunned and disenfranchised by the church body. They said, “We don’t know, you will have to ask him.”

So they called the man in before the deacon council. Presiding as chair was the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Jerusalem. They encouraged him to find a more respectable vocation and to cut off all association with the heretical professor and affirm the certitudes of the faith. They said, “We know that this man who is causing you to question your faith is not of God. He does not believe in or speak the truth.”

The man replied, “This is most strange indeed. This one you condemn took me in and gave me a place to stay. He listened to my questions and encouraged me to seek the truth for myself. He helped me find employment and has been a compassionate friend. Does he not do the works of Jesus? How is he not of God? How is it that you do not see?

Furious at his reply, the council of deacons cast him off the church membership roll, for they had been given such power at the last church business meeting. Congratulating themselves for being true to the faith and satisfied that God’s will had been done, they saw the former member to the door and dismissed the proceedings.

The man ventured over to a local café where he ordered a cup of the house blend and retired to a near-by park where he sat on a bench, sipped his coffee, and reflected on the events of the day.

Deep in thought, he was caught up in a vision. Jesus appeared, “Fear not, my dearly beloved. I am with you always. Do not be anxious about being cast out of the church. They threw me out several years ago.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Saying Goodbye to Christian America Is a Good Thing

Pew Research on Religion and Public Life has been monitoring for some time now the gradual decline in religious (particularly Christian) commitment in the U.S. The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years. 

About one-fifth of the public overall–and a third of the adults under age 30–are religiously unaffiliated as of 2012 when this research was conducted. A full one-third of U.S. adults do not consider themselves a “religious person.”

Recently David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote an article for ABPnews/Herald titled, “Saying Goodbye to Christian America.” He observed that there was a time when Christian symbols and values dominated American life. 

Gushee wrote: “The town square said it all. With the First Baptist Church catty-corner to the courthouse, and the same people essentially running both, not to mention the schools and the Chamber of Commerce around the corner, this was a pretty cozy little world. . . . The city council opened its work with prayers by the Baptist preacher, juries were instructed with Bible quotes and politicians ran for office exuding Christian rhetoric. And the kids were led in the Lord’s prayer over at the elementary school. There was one more or less coherent moral world, and it was drenched in semi-official Christianity. All of that has been changing visibly since the 1960’s . . .”

There are some, perhaps many Christians mourning this loss of power and influence, feeling worried, fearful, and insecure. I’m not one of them. 

It seems to me that whenever Christianity becomes enmeshed in the dominant culture and social power structures of the day, it loses its distinct message and transformative impact. Jesus too easily is made to conform to the prevailing dominant social and cultural landscape.

As we observe Lent and make our way to the cross, it’s important to remember that Jesus was rejected and crucified because he confronted the religious and social culture with an alternative vision of a just world and challenged conventional wisdom and practice.

Maybe the current state of Christianity in America is good for Christianity. It seems to me that the church always exhibits more spiritual power when it functions as the yeast, rather than the dough.