Saturday, March 29, 2014

Who sinned?

Seems a perfect time to post this 2011 sermon again:  John's chapter 9 is this week's Gospel, and UCONN won last night as well, advancing in the NCAA Tournament and again making Deacon Paul happy.  The plan is to have some of this sermon resurface tomorrow, but that will be left in part to the congregation, as we will begin by talking about sin.  Anyway, here's the old sermon:

(A sermon on John, Chapter 9, preached at All Saints' Littleton on 4/3/2011)
This morning we get a rare occurrence: an entire chapter of a Gospel.
(This makes for a long Gospel reading. Good thing UCONN won late last night: its likely only the afterglow of victory that’s powering the Deacon this morning...)
The action of John’s account centers on the healing of a blind man. Those in our All Saints’ Bible studies encountered this in Mark’s Gospel: complete with mud and spit. John has taken Mark’s account and has expertly expanded it for the sake of his reader’s insight.
This story hinges on it’s opening question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is my hope that this is a repugnant question to your ears: thankfully very few people still believe that someone being born blind has anything to do with sin. Unfortunately, the mentality still exists: whether its someone saying Japan or Haiti deserved the earthquakes that devastated the countries, or if it is someone’s individual struggles is seen as punishment from God. People are quick to recognize brokenness, (especially in others), and use the term “sin” to both assign blame to individuals and suggest that God is controlling the situation: that the bad thing happening is somehow just and deserved.
My understanding of sin is this: it’s “the things that we do, say, or believe that isolate us from God and each other.” That immediately rules out things like earthquakes and medical realities, although our reactions to such events can produce sin. The things that we do, say, or believe that isolate us from God and each other are particular to individuals or perhaps a group of people, and it’s worth noting that these things may or may not be “bad things” in and of itself, nor do they universally cause sin.
Here are some examples: Alcohol is commonly seen as sinful, but in truth can isolate one person and not another. Television, while not inherently bad, can numb as well. Even something good like religion itself can clearly divide us instead of bring us together. Also, it is often the failure to do, say, or believe that causes isolation in people. The point is: sin is not punishment from God, but is instead the barriers we place between us, God and the rest of humanity.
Fortunately, the overall Gospel message is really clear: no barrier that we put between us and God can isolate us forever. Grace, God’s gift of love and reconciliation, ultimately cannot be unearned or blocked by sin.
I think that’s what Jesus means this morning, when he adeptly says to his disciples “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus rejects a simple understanding of blindness as related to sin: someone did this so God did that. Instead, for Jesus, the reality of blindness provides for an opportunity to see God at work.
So Jesus does what he does, and the blind man is now able to see.
Ironically, it is now where sin enters this Gospel story. Everyone around this formerly blind man loses their sight: by which I mean their ability to see God at work. First off, his neighbors fail to recognize the man. “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” If one was to ask “who is this man”, the first, and perhaps only thing most of his neighbors would have said is “well, he is blind.”
I’m afraid there is a certain reality demonstrated here: difference from what one perceives as normal is often all we see about someone. The truth in this story is that no one really knew the blind man, except for the fact that he was blind. No one said, “Wait, this is so and so. He’s friends with George and Larry, Sarah is his sister. His birthday’s in June, and he loves sharing stories, especially during cool summer evenings.” No longer blind, his defining characteristic gone, people are not sure who they now see.
The Pharisees, as a group, fail as well to see God in this moment. They are looking for any reason to condemn Jesus, so they focus only on what might be wrong with this situation: that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. When those among them still insist that this still a sign from God, they attempt to clarify the situation, bringing in the man’s parents.
“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.
First off, a word about John’s use of “The Jews.” Everyone in this story, including Jesus, is Jewish. The words “The Jews” refers to the leadership of the synagogue, which includes the Pharisees in this story. So when John’s Gospel says “The Jews,” he is referring to those who had the power to speak and make official decisions on behalf of the synagogue. When we say today that “The Church did this”, we are speaking in the same way: the leadership acted in a particular way, not everyone who is part of the church.
Certainly it is sad to see the leaders of the synagogue abuse their power: clearly this is a major point Jesus makes during his ministry, well illustrated throughout the Gospels. But what is heartbreaking in this story is to see the parents of the blind man choose to protect themselves, instead of stand with their son. Understand that the pressure was intense, and that they were clearly fearful, not spiteful; but it is tragic that what should have been the hour of rejoicing for the formerly blind man and his family was instead a moment of new barriers.
So the story reaches it’s climax:
“For the second time (the leaders) called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that (Jesus) is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes....Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
This should have been the moment of restoration between the man and his religious community. Instead, in the midst of fear, sin does indeed happen: the barrier is thrown up, and the man is cast out.
It is important this morning that we see not only the isolation present from a time past, but how easy it is today to give into fear and throw up barriers...
As in last week’s Gospel of the woman at the well, the story ends with Jesus speaking plainly.
“Jesus heard that they had driven (the man) out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.”
This morning’s tale is one of joy, freedom, and caution: Jesus is here today to break down the barriers that exist between us, God, and each other. As they come down, things always change...and business as usual is often not possible.
The choice to be made is this: will we embrace a world where everyone matters, or will we construct new barriers to replace the old ones?
Thankfully, the Good News does not depend on our choice: regardless of any barrier we put the end...we cannot keep God, or anyone else, out.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Can I skip "God's Not Dead"?

Ryan Bell, writing from his Patheos blog "Year Without God", wrote a post called "On missing the point: God’s Not Dead" covering the low-budget Christian movie "God is Not Dead", which finished a surprising 5th at the box office this past weekend, mostly due to pre-sale:

So, Christians went to see a movie that claims, without an ounce of subtlety and nuance, that Christians are being persecuted by atheist professors in universities. The net effect: 
certain fundamentalist, culture-warrior Christians are confirmed in their persecution complex; 
the rest of the Christian world either hangs their head in embarrassment or yawns; 
the various non-theist groups are confirmed in their view that Christians are anti-intellectual and, consequently, not very smart (and bad writers and actors, as a group).

Bell also, in the post, tells why his experience in both "the camp who made this movie" and as a professor leads him to believe the movie is "fundamentally dishonest" (while self-disclosing that he gleamed this only from viewing the trailer and reading about it).

It's always difficult to review or criticize something you have not seen, heard, or read for yourself. I read both the first "Left Behind" book and went to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" just so I could speak from first-hand experience when people asked me about it, but I admit (again, from what I've seen and read) I do not want to support such a movie for reasons included by Bell. And furthermore, the reviews are simply dreadful.

So, should I go see this film in order to critique it "from experience".  Or is the experience of this trailer enough....

(A version of this post appeared in The Episcopal Cafe)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

U2charist: Nicodemus, them, and us

From the beginning of Nicodemus' life, it had been about "them and us":  outside and inside of the covenant of God.  

As he got older, the "them" got larger, and "us" got smaller.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee: a rabbi, and a leader of the people. He had come into some power under a mindset that to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. Being of that kingdom, there were strict rules of conduct for acting and interacting with other people...and failure to follow the rules moved people to "them" status:  he would have been clear on this.  What was not clear to him was whether or not this new rabbi...this Jesus...was part of "them", or "us".

Alone in his study at night, Nicodemus was supposed to be deep in study: after all, the rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. ("Late-Night Seminar," Patricia Farris, The Christian Century, 2002.) The distraction of Jesus, however, had became to big to think of anything else.

So Nicodemus went out into the night to find Jesus. Perhaps he had waited until night so that others would not see him. Perhaps he hoped for uninterrupted time with him, or perhaps it was because he simply found himself unable to wait any longer. All I can tell for sure is that this fits very nicely into John’s Gospel, for light and darkness is a repeated theme throughout his text. Hall Harris writes: “Out of the darkness of his life and religiosity, Nicodemus came to the Light of the World.”

Upon arriving, Nicodemus says to Jesus: “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.” Some people see this as the classic buttering up the person you wish to roast.  I choose to believe these to be sincere words more than flattery. Regardless of which they are, Jesus basically ignores them.

Jesus answers “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus hears this and quickly responds in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

John’s mystic Jesus shakes his head and goes deeper, to which Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

Anna Carter Florence remarks that the learned Nicodemus asks some rather stupid questions. First he mistakes Jesus’ words to believe one must literally be born again: “reentering the womb.” Then, after Jesus unleashes this incredible metaphor to illuminate mystery: “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 sputters “How can these things be?” (In Feasting On the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 73)

Jesus responds “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?!” We often hear this as a put down, but could this be something else as well? Perhaps Jesus is gently challenging his fellow rabbi to move beyond is initial reaction:  suggesting that Nicodemus is missing the opportunity to ponder the words and explore them for meaning, rather than staying on their surface. After all, the practice of rabbinical studies involves thoughtful consideration of words: taking them deep into one’s mind and heart in order to discern their rich meaning. Nicodemus is not answering in a way that reflects his legitimate role as a teacher devoted to God.

So, imagine that Nicodemus goes home after this exchange: back to his study to ponder Jesus’ words. What did he discover there?

Nicodemus would have believed, by the virtue of his ancestry to Abraham, that he was favored by God so long as he followed the rules. These rules made it clear to him who was righteous and who was a sinner. It was clear who was in and who was out. In his position of power as a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in control.

Jesus’ words challenged this. Jerry Goebel writes: "Imagine studying all your life to be among the elite and powerful only to be told that all of your theories are based upon a completely false premise.” Nicodemus is confronted with the reality that life is really not “all about me”, and that God could care less about what I know and what rules I’ve followed or broken, but instead wants to know who I’ve loved and what I’ve done for others and on behalf of God’s vision for the world.

Alice McKenzie writes that Jesus' comparison of being born from above with the action of the wind was probably a frightening one to Nicodemus because the wind is unpredictable, wafting away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen. It can be frightening to us as well.  She writes:

"Anything can happen when it comes to wind. The fog might lift from a whole church that thinks their best days are behind them. A whole church could feel the brisk, energizing breeze of hope, and purpose stronger than their pain. If we say yes to the question, "Do you want to be born again or born from above?" the belief in Christ we now recite with our lips could become the blood running through our veins.”

All this centers in belief.  Belief may be the single most misunderstood concept in Christianity.  All those years of pulling John 3:16 out of its context has confused us.  The logic of the Gospel John is NOT: If you believe in Jesus, the “Son of God”, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe. (David Ewart,

Instead, belief is the invitation into a life-long journey of exploration: a willingness to say yes to where God will take you, an openness to discover new truth, and a gentleness in our encounters with others….wherever the wind may blow.

Where is this wind blowing you?  Where is the Ruach…the very Spirit of God…attempting to blow out old worries and limitations?  What of God’s dreams for your life, once laying dormant in you, are now, suddenly, being rekindled by a bit of concentrated breath? 

Now it's time to let Bono and the band get their chance to preach:

Sing with me:  

There is no them...

There is no them...

There's only us....

There's only us...

There is no them...

There is no them...

There's only you...there's only me...

There is no them...

The spirit moves today…unexpectedly rushing in…desperately pleading for you to open your clenched fists…to let go of what your holding on to so tightly in fear of losing it…and find yourself born again…and again…and again:  a lifetime of encounters with God and this Creation and everyone in it that God promises is ultimately good.  God wants no less than that for each and every one of us. 

There is no them...only us...all of us.  That was Jesus' message to Nicodemus.

(This is, more or less, my sermon from the U2charist at Trinity Cathedral on 3/16/2014.  I wandered a bit off text, so this is my best shot at recreating it.  It is based on an earlier sermon given at All Saints' Littleton, but the ending has been significantly developed.)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Seinfeld Jonah: More than a book about Nothing

(A repost:  yet I still consider it one of my best ideas)

The story of Jonah is another of my favorite stories of the Bible. It only occurred to me recently how funny this story is.

In fact, it occurs to me that The Book of Jonah is the great sitcom of the Bible. You’re meant to laugh at Jonah and the events in his story.

The show that comes to mind is Seinfeld. I know it sounds crazy, but I really think this parallel works.

First off, Jonah is like the Seinfeld characters: morally questionable, self centered, and likable in a painful sort of way.

Picture Jonah at home in bed, when he hears God voice: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” I see the look of resistance and terror in his eyes.

I imagine him discussing it with his friend at the local diner. “God wants go to Nineveh. I can’t go to Nineveh...there’s got be a way out of this.”

His friend says, “If you could only go somewhere where God isn’t.”

“Wait a minute,” Jonah says, “maybe you got something there.” He looks deep in thought. “Where would God not want to go...TARSHISH! I’m GOING to Tarshish Jerry!”

His friend mutters, “Yeah...this is going to work...”

So Jonah books passage on a boat. He’s sleeping peacefully below, pleased with himself over his brilliance to get away from God, when a huge storm blows up. All of the sailors are praying to their gods, in a state of panic, until someone finds Jonah below and wakes him up and brings him above deck. “You,” the captain shouts, “Call on your God to come and save us!”

All eyes turn to Jonah. “Yeah. Well, I’d like to help, but you see, there’s a little problem with that plan...”

So they all stand on deck, trying to figure out what to do. They know Jonah is the problem, but aren’t sure how to handle things. Now, I can picture this next scene one of two ways:

“OVERBOARD!” he yells, “throw me overboard!” he says, like it’s a stroke of genius.

--snorts-- “Well, you could always throw me overboard.” Dead silence and glances follows. “I’m all know I’m joking, right???!!!”

So over the side goes Jonah.

Now comes one of the best lines of the Bible. “God provided for a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

Provided, huh? Jonah’s bobbing up and down in the water, thinking this is about as bad as it gets...and gets swallowed by a whale. (Perhaps that’s how it was first referred to as a fish. Jonah, like George, always gets them confused.)

So Jonah’s sitting in the belly of the whale:
First day: “Not good...this is really not good.”

Second day: (stubbornness kicks in) “I’m making this work God! You’ve not got me yet!!!

Third day...Jonah asks forgiveness, and God has the whale deposit him on dry land.

And the final comedic touch:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:1)

Nice of God to come to Jonah a second time.

So here comes Jonah into Nineveh. His clothes have deteriorated...partially digested. His skin is bleached from the enzymes of the whale's stomach. He's got some seaweed still matted in his hair. And then he cries out:


Is it any wonder that the people of Nineveh believed in the power of God??? :)

We’re supposed to see the absurdity of the story. Yet like all good comedies, within the craziness of the story there are important life lessons to discover.

Imagine that God calls you tomorrow.... Imagine God calls you not to something that seems plausible, but something that seems absurd and beyond your abilities: like to go to Jerusalem and tell the Jewish and Palestine leaders to stop their violence, repent, and create equal space for each other...despite the fact that you have no credentials or expertise in this area.

What God called Jonah to do was that unbelievable...and must have felt completely unattainable. It was even worse for Jonah, in that the city of Nineveh...the Assyrians... were the great enemy of the Hebrews. Not only would Jonah have reason to fear for his life: deep down inside he did not want the Assyrians to have the opportunity to repent and be spared.

My hunch is that if I received this type of message from God, I would convince myself that I dreamed it...or maybe I’d dismiss it as absurd...or perhaps, like Jonah, I’d run away...or simply convince myself that it just doesn’t make sense. My experiences of 36 years of life in this American culture that values individualism over all else has already convinced me that I’m not significant enough to invoke that scale of change.

Even the incredible hope and optimism of the last week isn’t enough to change the sense that we are like Jonah: unable to change the big picture...and resistant to any attempt to do so.

Now, it might be true: I might never find myself in the position to “change the world.” My deepest held values may be compassion, grace, and community...but my values seem insignificant when compared to people who have authority, power, and wealth. The alternate route is one of security...the road that says I cannot change the world, but I can make a decent living for myself and for my family.

I can tell myself that I still have a good heart, that I still have good ideals, and I could even help a few people here and there...and I’m pretty sure that the casual observer would considered my life “successful.”

But a funny thing happens on this road...just when you think your closing in on happiness; you realize that your true values remain out of reach. The deep longings we have remain unfulfilled because of so much pain and suffering of others...and the realization that we’ve ignored the very essence of our highest calling: to love one another as we love ourself.

We are thrown overboard, and end up in the belly of a whale.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

Jesus’ initial message mirrors God’s message in Jonah: it’s as “big picture” as you can get. No master plan, no perfect formula, and precious few details. But a real sense that the time is now...that God’s plan is one of compassion, grace, and community, and that we are invited to leave our fears behind in the things that we’ve been told give us “security”...and strive for a world that values justice, truth, forgiveness and love.

My brothers and sisters: this is the road that will feed our souls...and yes, we will change our world.

Ugly "Good Wife" far too usual

I've never watched an episode of The Good Wife.  However, after the recent forum I led at Trinity Cathedral (Downton Abbey and The Car-Wreck of Fiction), I found Linda Homes NPR blog post intriguing for the point of what is usual from TV shows:  illustrating quite a bit of what I talked about concerning Downton Abbey...

Spoilers galore (or, should I say, "gore-lore")* below:

*(I'm so sorry...could not help myself)

Faced with (actor Josh) Charles' decision to leave, and apparently with this entire season to prepare, producers Robert and Michelle King decided to create a legitimately interesting story between Will and Alicia for maybe the first time ever, and then to end it with an abrupt grisly death. Ha! They got you. They shocked you! Don't you feel terrible? Let's all feel terrible. They really got us. I feel terrible. Success! 

Abrupt grisly death, of course, is a groundbreaking maneuver in television drama, assuming you've never seen The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Mad Men, Dexter, The Sopranos, Big Love, The Shield, Lost, Damages, Game Of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Boardwalk Empire, Sons Of Anarchy, Homeland, House Of Cards, House ... basically, if you don't watch television, it might look like a pretty bold move.... 

Pools of blood? Dead bodies? Shootings? Grieving? Brave hugs? Bonding over shared tragedy? Learning to move on? Television deals with that the most. This is not the most daring way they could have dealt with Will leaving; it's the most obvious. It's the most like what everybody else is doing. "How about a devastating, out-of-nowhere bloodbath?" is absolutely not a bold choice. It's everybody's first choice.

I've moved things around in Homes’ article to condense and still show her point of her detailed, well written article:  why she cared about these characters, and why she didn’t need this direction for the show:

As a romance, (Will and Alicia) was actually pretty boring and doomed. As a messy, conflicted friendship full of resentments, it was riveting. You want to do something that television doesn't deal with enough, make it complicated friendships. That, television actually doesn't deal with enough. Make it unsatisfying partings that aren't cataclysmic so much as depressing. That, television doesn't deal with enough….  

One of the things I said about The Good Wife not long ago — last week, in fact — was that it had the underappreciated quality of being both dramatic and fun to watch. When I saw the previews for the rest of this season and saw people in black, grief, mourning, sad music, dark and tasteless power struggles to fill the void, I just thought ... nah. That's not fun to watch. I'm sure they'll write the heck out of it, but I don't need it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Giving up (or taking on) for Lent

What will I give up (or take on) for Lent? 

It is a common enough question Christians ask the week of Ash Wednesday: and not a bad thing to do. Will I, in the tradition of “self-denial”, give up something that I enjoy doing or (most likely) eating? Meat? Chocolate? Alcohol? Pizza (Kurt trembles)? Perhaps, going a bit further, I will use this Lenten tradition to give up something that would be in my best health interest (be it physical, mental, or physical) to cut back on, or give up completely.

Personally, I’ve never cared for the giving up of something for Lent. I’ve always tended towards embracing the other side: “doing” something for Lent. Some sort of outreach, for example. Beginning (or strengthening) an intentional spiritual practice of some form of prayer. A daily Lenten meditation. There are lots of possibilities to either “give up”, or “take on” for Lent: and I encourage you to consider such a practice.

However, Lent’s primary purpose is to prepare for Holy Week: our remembrance of the Lord’s passion and resurrection. To (re)order or lives around the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The things that we do (or don’t do) should move us towards the restoration of God’s vision for the world: peace, justice, hope, love, for the whole world.

What ever action we take, to give up or take on, should make us more aware of God’s presence and love in our own lives, and more able to share and work with our neighbors. Lent is a time to share a little more of the light that God has kindled in you.

Blessings to you this Lent.