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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Who Are You?

John 10:22-30

Who are you? ask the Jews at the Temple, gathered around Jesus. He has described himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. He has told a healed blind man that he, Jesus, is the Son of Man – a term used to describe God’s messenger before the coming of the Kingdom. He said, before Abraham was, I am – language that refers to the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3. But Jesus has not said the magic words the Jews want to hear. He’s not drawn them a picture. Who are you? they ask.

That’s what we all want, don’t we? We want someone who will speak plainly, who will lay it out for us in no uncertain terms. Just tell us what to believe, tell us what to do, tell us whom to follow, and then everything will be clear. And, all around us, there are characters who rise to that occasion, promising us a rigidly-enforced no-spin zone. Apparently, it doesn’t make any difference what they’re saying, so long as they say it with absolute certitude and unquestionable authority. No waffling, no doubt, here’s the truth. Take it or leave it.

How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly, the people declare. The problem with talking plainly about the things of God, writes Gary Jones, is that the things of God are anything but plain. . . We can speak with unequivocal certainty about things our minds can grasp, but God is not one of those things. God grasps us; we do not grasp God.[1]

I have told you, Jesus responds, but you don’t believe it. Every now and then I get in a discussion with someone who is absolutely convinced that if I would just understand what they’re saying, I’ll agree with them. If I don’t believe them, it’s only because I don’t understand them. Their argument is so brilliant, so clear, so irrefutable, that the only reason anyone, myself included, doesn’t agree with them is because we haven’t grasped the infallible genius of their position. That’s pretty much the argument of a whole spate of recent books trying to counter the arguments of modern atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Both the new atheists and the defenders of God argue from pretty much the same perspective – from a scientific, rationalist viewpoint. Belief in God rests, both sides claim, on whether it passes the test of empirical or philosophical truth. One side claims belief fails those tests. The other side, I believe, skews the data and the argument to claim belief in God is rational and scientifically supportable. Frankly, I’m more on the side of the atheists: I think they’re right when they say that believing in God is not valid scientifically or rationally. Hang on for the next sentence: Where I disagree with them is their claim – and the similar claim by Christian rationalist and scientific apologists – that scientific and philosophical truths are the only, or even the highest forms of truth. I love the line in the movie A Clear and Present Danger when Harrison Ford’s character is asked to name one thing in the world that’s certain, and he answers, My daughter’s love. There are greater things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy – or in your science. There is philosophical truth, there is scientific truth, and then there are eternal verities that answer to neither of the other two, love being the foremost.

I have told you who I am, and you do not believe Jesus says. Where? Where did you tell us, plainly, who you were? Say the magic words, give us the secret sign, show us the secret handshake that says you are the Messiah, and then we will believe.

This is far from the only time Jesus is asked to show who he is. It happens in the desert: turn stones into bread; throw yourself off the temple. It happens at the cross: save yourself, come down from the cross, and we will believe in you.

I have told you, and you do not believe, says Jesus. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

St. Anselm was an 11th Century theologian who was made Archbishop of Canterbury by William II. Anselm struggled to understand who God was through his formidable powers of reason and intellect. The more Anselm tried to begin from a starting point of reason to prove the existence of God, the more frustrated he became. Finally, Anselm realized he had the wrong starting point – there was something inside him that was drawing him to belief – a deeply rooted yearning for something greater than which nothing could exist. Reason and science were not the starting point for faith, Anselm realized – faith begins with faith: Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.[2]

Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, understand the works that he does, and know who he is because they follow him. As Anselm said, first they believe, and then they understand. The people asking Jesus to tell them plainly who he is will never understand, because they want proof before they believe. All the evidence is there before them – the blind now see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have hope, the dead are raised. They can’t see because they won’t surrender themselves to faith.

The ongoing mistake I believe we make as Jesus’ followers is to spend our energies talking about God instead of experiencing, and helping others experience, God. Yes, we need to know what’s in our Bibles, but not because knowing what’s in our Bibles is the goal. We learn the story of God’s encounter with human beings so we can recognize it happening all around us. The early church grew not because people were convinced intellectually of the rational and scientific truths of Christian theology: it grew like wildfire because people were experiencing personally the presence of a living Lord, and were living out a new life that was foolishness to the wise.[3] Churches in our day that grow in number and power suffer from the same disease: a living encounter with a living God.

In a parable entitled “The Explorer,” Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello tells of a person who leaves his home village to explore the Amazon jungle. He comes home to his village with tales of a place of incredible beauty. Unable to put into words the sights and wonders he has experienced, he tells the villagers they simply must go to the Amazon to see it for themselves. To help them, the explorer draws a detailed map, showing where all the waterfalls, plants, animals, and other wonders can be found. The villagers copy the map so everyone can have one for themselves; they frame it for their walls, study and discuss the map without ceasing, and become experts on the Amazon, knowing every curve of the river, every plant and animal, every cataract. But none of them ever goes.[4]

Who are you? Tell us plainly, so we can believe. The evidence is all around us. We’ve studied it to death. We advance all the arguments for its veracity. We’re all experts on the irrefutably rational and scientific truth of who Jesus is.

The question is . . . do any of us follow?

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2. (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2009) p. 444

[2] Hollister, C. Warren. Medieval Europe: A Short History. (John Wiley & Sons: New York, 1982): 302.

[3] Feasting on the Word, (op cit.), p. 448

[4] Ibid., p. 448

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Jesus: Fishfinder

John 21:1-19

What do you do the morning after, the week after, the month after: the morning after the game, the week after the celebration, the month after the life change? The hard reality is that we can’t live on the mountain tops. We can’t sustain ecstasy. What do we do? We do what we know. We go back to work. We go back to what is routine. We go back to the familiar, to give our lives coherence and meaning.

After the resurrection, Jesus appears among and disappears from the disciples. John isn’t clear about the chronology – we don’t know how long after Easter Sunday this story by the Sea of Galilee takes place. Evidently, Jesus had disappeared for a while, and the disciples, not knowing what else to do, went back home, and back to work. That’s what you do when you don’t know what to do – you do what you know. They needed to eat, and they needed to do something. They were men, after all. So, seven of them, according to John, went back to fishing.

They fished all night, and caught nothing. In the wee hours of the morning, they noticed a man standing on the beach who called out to them, “Children, you haven’t caught anything, have you?” One of my parishioners on the Eastern Shore was a dedicated fisherman and storyteller named Grayson Rogers. Grayson taught me not to ask, “Did you catch anything?” When I did that, he was highly insulted. The proper question is, “How was the fishing?” That way, the angler can answer, “Well, we didn’t keep anything.”

“You haven’t caught anything, have you?” You can just imagine the tone of the answer: “No.” “Well, throw your nets to starboard, and you’ll catch a mess of fish.” Great. Just what we need: some turkey telling us how to fish.

Think about this for a moment. What would you have to do to throw your nets to the other side of the boat? You’d have to turn around. The Greek word for turning around is metanoia, which is usually translated repent.

When the fishermen turn around and throw their nets to the other side they catch – John is very specific – one hundred fifty-three large fish. The large fish of the Sea of Galilee is the musht, which weighs about three pounds. That’s 450 pounds of fish. Immediately, Peter realizes the turkey on the beach is Jesus. Peter throws on his clothes, jumps overboard, and swims to Jesus. The other disciples, no doubt delighted that Peter has abandoned them, row the boat the hundred yards to shore, dragging the net full of fish behind them.

Fish on the other side of the boat. Turn around. How does Jesus know where the fish are?

When Jesus had called the fishermen, he had said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The memory of that moment propels Peter’s recognition of Jesus on the lakeshore. This is the master of the wind and the sea. This is the creator of fish and of people. Jesus knows where the fish are, and, more importantly, he knows where people’s hearts are. Jesus knows where the human heart lives, where it hides, where it breaks, and where it hopes. Follow me, Jesus says to the fishermen, and I will show you how to touch the heart of God’s broken people.

At the climactic moment of Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella is confronted by his brother-in-law, Mark, who is trying to save Ray’s farm by selling it to the bank. Ray and his family can stay on the farm and work it, but they cannot own or control it. In the midst of the argument, Ray’s daughter, Karen, says they don’t have to sell the farm, because they can charge people to come watch the imaginary games played by the ghosts of baseball players.

It’ll be just like when they were little kids, a long time ago. And they’ll watch the game and remember what it was like.

Writer Terence Mann agrees with her:

They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray.

Twenty-one years later, thousands of people still come every year to Dyersville, Iowa, to play ball, watch the game, and walk through the corn where the movie was filmed.

The poet and the child know the deepest hopes of the human heart. And Jesus, child of God and poet of Creation, knows the heart best of all. Jesus knows how our hearts are broken by grief and despair. He knows all our shattered hopes and lost loves. He knows how desperately we want to know we are loved, and desperately want to give ourselves away in love. He knows how scared we are down deep beneath our brave facades. He knows how unsure we are under all our proud knowing. And, beneath all our wisdom and maturity, like Terence Mann he knows it is money we have and peace we lack.

Turn around, Jesus says. Stop doing what you are doing because it is comfortable and familiar and safe. Turn around. Throw the net of your time and attention and energy and resources to the other side of the boat. Listen to the voice that floats across the waters like the Spirit moving across the face of the deep: turn around. There is a greater catch waiting for you, one so great you cannot begin to pull it in. Turn around.

When Peter realizes this is the same risen Lord who called him to a new life years before, he jumps out of the boat. Peter leaves his companions, he leaves the vessel of his livelihood, and he swims to Jesus. It is not the first time Peter has left a boat to get to Jesus. This time, he will not go back.

Every now and then – an Easter Sunday, a Christmas Eve, a Walk to Emmaus, a mission trip, youth retreat, special movie or song or book – we experience the mountaintop. But then most of us go back to what we know best, casting our nets with the same hand on the same side of the same boat. If you’ve been throwing your net day after day, month after month, year after year, and, in the words of Grayson Rogers, not keeping anything, maybe you need to turn around. Maybe you need to cast your net on the other side of the boat. Maybe you need to leave the boat and swim hard for Jesus, and follow him to a new fishery.

Jesus knows where the fish are, and he knows where our hearts are. Turn around.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Believing Without Seeing

John 20:19-31

I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for poor old “Doubting Thomas,” who gets his moniker – I believe undeservedly so – from this morning’s gospel lesson. Thomas wasn’t in the room on Easter afternoon when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. It’s hard to blame him for not believing their crazy stories that they had seen the risen Christ: Thomas had betrayed him as had the rest; Thomas had probably witnessed the crucifixion from a distance, like the rest; Thomas may have visited the tomb or even helped prepare the body for burial. He had probably seen with his own eyes, perhaps touched with his own hands, Jesus’ corpse. He had followed the Galilean carpenter for three years, believing he was God’s anointed. Now, he’s not about to trust another hare-brained affirmation of faith without proof positive. He was from Missouri: it needed to be proved. Thomas probably didn’t invent the phrase seeing is believing, but he certainly subscribed to it.

Thomas not only wants to see a living body, he wants to see a crucified body. Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side (where the centurion’s spear had pierced Jesus), I will not believe. No body double will do for Thomas. If the crucified and dead Jesus is not resurrected, there is no resurrection.

And so we say two thousand years later. In a few minutes we will affirm our faith with the words of the Apostles’ Creed: . . . crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again . . . Over those two thousand years there have been scores of theologians who argued that Christian faith did not require both a fully dead Jesus or a fully resurrected one. Perhaps, argued some, he only seemed to die. If he were truly divine, then he couldn’t really die. Or, it was only the human part of him that died. On the other hand, postulated other theologians, perhaps Jesus really did die, but his resurrection was a new understanding of his importance in the minds of his disciples. They came to understand that Jesus’ essential message would live on in eternity, because no one can ever kill love. They were using coded language when they talked about him rising from the dead: what really rose was his message and teachings, which live on in us.

No, Thomas was right: Jesus had said he was going to be killed and then would rise on the third day. If he didn’t die, Jesus was a liar. And if the dead Jesus didn’t rise, then he’s still a liar, and there’s nothing different about Jesus than any dead hero.

A week later, in the same room, with Thomas present, the resurrected Jesus suddenly appears. He turns to Thomas and invites him to touch the wounds in his hands and side. Thomas, stunned, cries out, My Lord and my God! Jesus answers Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

Do you understand whom Jesus is talking about in that last sentence? He’s talking about you and me. Jesus is extending the blessing of faith to you and to me, to Christians for the last two thousand years and for the next. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. We’ve not seen the risen Jesus. We’ve not touched his wounds. Oh, yes, I have preached sermons for years and still believe that you and I are the risen Body of Christ, and that when I hold the hand of a dying saint or a crying child or a resident of the Gulf Coast whose home has been destroyed, I touch the wounds of the crucified Christ. It’s great sermon material, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about. You and I don’t get to see the dead Jesus suddenly appear in our dining room. We don’t get to touch him and see he’s real. You and I don’t get to test out whether he is a hallucination or not. But, says Jesus, we are just as blessed, if not more, than the eleven in Jerusalem a week after Easter.

It’s always tempting to believe that things were ever so much better back at the beginning – if we could just go back to those halcyon days and see what people were really thinking and believing and doing, then we could copy them and get it right. Most religious reformations are attempts to go back to the beginnings: St. Francis of Assisi was trying to get back to the simplicity of Jesus; Martin Luther was trying to get back to the purity of St. Paul’s theology; the Puritans and Anabaptists tried to remake the church after the order of the first century; the liturgical movement of the 1970’s recovered second and third-century liturgies, like the prayer from Melito of Sardis in our bulletin this morning. Crosby, Stills and Nash sang it at Woodstock: We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. The Tea Party movement and original-intent Constitutionalists want to go back to the origins of the country and recover what the framers intended. There is a whole musical movement intent on playing baroque and classical music only on baroque and classical instruments. There is even a group of people dedicated to preserving early video games on original video consoles and computers, so classics like Asteroids and Frogger will not be lost to the world. Yes, if we could just get back to the beginnings, life would be ever so much better, wouldn’t it?

Except that in the beginning, the Bible says, it all went wrong. In the beginning, in the Garden, human beings were just as selfish and murderous and unfaithful as we are now. For thousands of years Jews wanted another King like David – the same king who had his chief general killed so David could have his wife, the same king who couldn’t control his own household, and whose son was such a tyrant that civil war erupted upon his death. Oh, if we could just have our own nation, then we could live in peace – and disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the process, including Palestinian Christians. We Christians are just as foolish: if we could just get back to the first century church, which was so dysfunctional that Paul had to write letter after letter to try, unsuccessfully, to correct the rampant problems within. The first century churches that are condemned by the angel in Revelation. The first century church that had ongoing arguments about who was welcome, about finances, about clergy credentials, about personal morality. Friends, if we want to go back there, congratulations: we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams!

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe, says Jesus to Thomas and to us. The first century had no faith advantage on us: Jesus continues to pour out exactly the same love, the same Spirit of truth, the same opportunities for discipleship and blessing on us as were available in the apostolic age. We have access to the same miracles and the same persecutions as did the apostles. A saint in the twenty-first century is not inferior to an apostle; a sinner of the twenty-first century is no better than the villains of the Bible.

How do we know this – other than that Jesus said so? Look at the hands, feet, and side of the resurrected Jesus in the gospels, most especially this lesson. What do you notice? Even in the resurrection, Jesus is still wounded. Bill Mallard, who will be preaching here in June for Senior Adult Sunday, says that the wounds of the resurrected Jesus mean that for all eternity, Jesus is carrying the wounds of the world. Jesus didn’t just suffer for the people around him in 33 AD: Jesus suffers and intercedes and prays and comforts and heals and is present with you and with me every bit as much as he was for the people of the first century. Jesus will continue to bleed until the last sinner is redeemed, until the gates of hell are shut and its fires extinguished. Jesus will continue to bleed until the last cancer is cured, the last automobile death avoided, the last sword pounded into a plow, the last enemies made friends, the last tear of sorrow converted into a tear of joy. Jesus weeps for our sin no less than for Judas; he rejoices no less for our joys than for Lazarus. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe.

Of course, you know what that means: if we are no less blessed than were the apostles, then we are no less called than they. If Jesus told them to take up their crosses, die to themselves, and follow him, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them to forgive each other and love their enemies, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them not to worry about storing up treasure on earth, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them that if they followed him, they would be persecuted, it is no less true for us. If Jesus told them not to judge others, then is no less true for us.

The blessing and the discipline are inseparable. We, who have not seen, are just as blessed. But we are no less called. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe. We will receive the blessing, as did the apostles, to the extent we follow.