Sermon: Sunday, April 6, 2014: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14  +  Psalm 130  +  Romans 8:6-11  +  John 11:1-45

I don’t know if you’re fans of Oprah or not, in my house we pretty much are.  There’s all sorts of things you can poke fun at, her singsongy way of introducing a guest (“It’s John Tra-vol-ta!), or her exuberance at distributing product placements (“a car for you, a car for you, a car for you!); but in the end we get the sense that for all her wealth and celebrity, she’s still interested in having a conversation with us — with ordinary people, who may attend a taping but will likely never be the featured guest on one of her shows.

Winfrey-Bush_1757814cWhen she interviews celebrities, she asks them the kind of questions we might ask: Why did you choose this? How did you become successful? To whom are you grateful? But there’s one question she’s taken to asking, and to answering herself, that I kind of love.  She says she got it from the late, great film critic Gene Siskel, who used to ask the people he interviewed, “what do you know for sure?”

It’s a powerful question, “what do you know for sure?” Oprah offers answers like, “love yourself and then learn to extend that love to others in every encounter” and “every day brings a chance to start over.” These are good answers, solidly theological answers, really. She also says something that is at the heart of the stories we’ve been reading as the season of Lent presses on toward Jesus’ death and resurrection, something the early church might have taught those who used the season of Lent to prepare for their baptisms. She says, “what you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe.”

Listening again to these Lenten stories from the gospel of John, it’s become apparent that belief is a central concern for Jesus.  In his encounter with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to him under the cover of night looking for answers, Jesus said

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)

Then, at the well in Samaria, where Jesus spoke to the woman who’d been passed from man to man, belief comes up again.  After addressing her as a subject, a person with inherent sacred worth, and engaging her in a conversation about what really gives us life, that woman goes and gives her testimony to everyone in her community and John’s gospel says,

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. (John 4:39-41)

Then, near the waters of Siloam, Jesus meets a man born blind who had grown accustomed to living his life unseen. The healing he receives from Jesus provokes a controversy among his neighbors that ultimately leads to a bold confession of faith by a man who has moved from the margins to the middle. After standing up to the religious authorities he is cast out of his community, and that is where he finds Jesus, who asks him,

“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 to you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped him. (John 9:35-38)

Which brings us, today, to the most dramatic confession of all, made by a family that Jesus loved in the face of death. If you’ve grown up in the church, you likely know this story by heart — not all the words, but the general outline. If I asked you to recall it from memory you’d likely remember that Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were close friends to Jesus. That when Lazarus died, they sent for him. That Martha was angry, but still faithful. That Mary fell at his feet. That Jesus wept.

Once again, the question of belief is front and center. In fact, it seems to be the point of the entire tale. When Jesus is confronted by Martha he says,

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26)

Martha answers faithfully, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27), but when I read her response, I hear the voice of someone who’s already heard all the pat answers, the voice of the confirmand who’s memorized the creeds but wants answers that matter, that make a difference here and now. Both Mary and Martha say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are stating something as a fact that is actually an expression of faith and doubt in the same moment. They are saying, “I believe that in you there is life, but what does that mean in the face of death?”

It is the question floating behind this entire gospel. It was the question asked by those first century Jews for whom this gospel was written, who were being cast out of their communities, a kind of social death. It’s also the question that many of you have, that I have as well. I know that God in Christ Jesus brings life and healing to we who are alive, but what about my grandmother in her hospital bed, my father as he loses his mind, my sister fighting breast cancer? And what about my friend, who has died and will never be coming back?

“What do you believe?” is not a question that can be answered with creeds and other recitations, though those are useful for teaching the outline of the story that brings us to faith. “What do you believe?” is the equivalent of “what do you know for sure?” It’s a question that requires a story, your story.

Who were you before you met Jesus? Were you, like Nicodemus, so full of answers that you couldn’t take in the most important truth? Were you, like the woman at the well, so judged by others and yourself that you couldn’t remember that in God’s judgement you are always precious. Were you, like the man born blind, so used to being overlooked that you’d started to wonder if you were actually a person at all? Or were you, like Lazarus, dead to yourself, to your family, to the world. Not just a little lost, but four days dead. Beyond recovery, beyond hope, beyond life.

Who were you before you met Jesus, and who were you afterwards?

Who were you after all your truths and certainties were shattered to make room for more a more life-giving law? Who were you after you came to know yourself as forgiven and free? Who were you after you began to see yourself the way God sees you, with love? Who were you when the graveyard of misery, of failure, of addiction, of depression, of death lost its grip on you and your bones found the strength to hold you up once again. And breath returned to your lungs. And you could tell that you were alive, and not dead?

Once that had happened, what did you know for sure? What did you believe?

I know that not all of you have experienced the new life that comes when God pulls you out of the graveyard and breathes new life into dry bones. That’s alright. Maybe that’s why you made yourself come to church this morning, to find out if there was any hope for a person four days gone, or more. If it’s you I’m talking about, please hold on. New life is coming, it’s on the way. It gets better. I promise.

But many of you have already experienced the kind of resurrection life that Lazarus experienced when Jesus called him out of his grave, and I’m here this morning to tell you that with your new life comes a new calling. God needs you to tell the story of your own rebirth. Over and over that has been the pattern in scripture: God gives a sign and a story. Why? Because a story lives on, in our memories, on our lips, over coffee, on the phone, late at night, posted online, in a letter or face-to-face.

A story can save a life. Maybe your story. Maybe your life.

Jesus said to the sisters, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice,

“Lazarus, come out!”

Bring your stories out, O people of God. Unbind them, and let them go free, out into the world, where people are keeping vigil at their own graves, wondering if there is any life left to be had.

Don’t you know that in your baptisms, you have already died and been reborn? You already live on the other side of the grave. Your resurrection is not waiting for you, it has already come. Here and now, but not yet, not completely. So, find your voice, share your story, offer your testimony, tell me what you know for sure, what you believe.

Tell everyone.



Sermon: Sunday, March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 12:1-4a  +  Psalm 121  +  Romans 4:1-5,13-17  +  John 3:1-17

We finished our second session in a six-week series in Adult Education titled “Making Sense of the Cross” this morning, focusing today on how each of the four gospels presents the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection a little differently (or a lot) because of the particular confession of faith each author was trying to make in response to the needs of very different communities.

For example the gospel of Matthew, from which we’ve been reading since the beginning of Advent, was very likely written to a community of believers who were mostly Jewish in their background and therefore more familiar with the sacred texts of Hebrew scripture which we often call the Old Testament. We see evidence of this in the number of times that the author offers an explanation for powerful events from Jesus’ life by saying something like, “this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Matt. 26:56).

This morning we move from Matthew’s gospel to the gospel of John, from which we’ll be reading through the rest of the Sundays in Lent until Palm Sunday.  The gospel of John was written about twenty years later than Matthew to a different community facing very different circumstances.  Like Matthew’s gospel, John is believed to have been written to a community of Jewish believers, but ones who had experienced significant conflict with the rest of the Jewish community, perhaps having been removed from the synagogue for their conviction that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.

You can often hear in both gospels subtle or outright hostility toward people labeled “the Jews,” though we should understand in both cases that the author and the intended audience were also Jews, at least by birth, and would have been treated as such by the rest of the Roman-occupied world.  The anger and conflict we hear behind the words of both gospels are less like the violent forms of anti-Semitism that led to pogroms across Europe and eventually the horrors of the Second World War (though passages from these scriptures were used to fuel those campaigns), and more like the kinds of conflicts that tear churches apart — conflict between family members who know each other only too well.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus’ body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.

So this morning we are introduced to a character with a name, Nicodemus, who is identified as “a leader of the Jews,” and you can almost hear the casting notes to the director of this drama: “pick someone to play this part who is a little too full of himself, make sure to dress him in fine robes and give him a prop — maybe glasses — to indicate his education. It will make his ignorance all the funnier.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night, confessing that Jesus’ acts of power of signs of God’s presence and trying to understand what this means.  Jesus responds to his honest curiosity with a cryptic statement, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).

If any of you come from one of the many “born again” traditions of Christianity, then this is probably a familiar passage of scripture.  Over the centuries it has been used to justify the practice of adult baptism as a response to Nicodemus’ question, “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4)  Our response as Lutherans to our sisters and brothers who ask, “have you been born again?” has never been very satisfying to them, since we understand the process somewhat differently.  We say, along with Martin Luther, “yes, I’m born again every morning as I rise to wash my face and remember that I was baptized.”  Our practice, and the theology that arises from it, is rooted less in Nicodemus’ question and more in Jesus’ answer: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).

This conflict between Christians over who to baptize, how to baptize, and what age to baptize has, over the centuries, gotten quite heated.  In this modern day of laissez-faire religion and spirituality, in which individual choice and preference are valued above all else, it can be hard to understand that in previous times and, in some places, to this day there is deep disagreement over the meaning and practice of baptism — so deep that some Christians refuse to recognize each other as such if their baptism was not performed in the ways each considers acceptable.  This, ironically, is exactly the kind of intra-religious conflict that we overhear going on in Matthew and John’s gospels when they speak disparagingly of “the Jews.”  It is more like the way you might hear some Christians talking about others as “bible-bangers” or “fundamentalists.”

But what is even more ironic is that this kind of intra-religious conflict reveals a tendency in us all to lose sight of what Jesus is actually trying to communicate, which is that God is not in the business of taking sides in our self-righteousness projects. Rather, in Christ Jesus, God is showing us God’s love for the whole world, those we agree with and those we disagree with, our friends and our enemies, the “good” and the “evil.” All of us. Everyone.

This is the point Paul is making in his letter to the Romans.

If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void (Rom. 4:14).

In other words, when we turn our faith in God into a set of rules and practices about God that must be followed in order to get to God, then we have taken faith — which we might also call loving-trust or loving-reliance — out of the picture altogether and have turned grace into a scorecard.

This is what Jesus tells Nicodemus, who is still trying to figure how to be born from above. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).  No one gets themselves into heaven. Faith is not a competition sport. Or a New Year’s resolution. Or a fitness routine. Or a self-help book. Or a retreat. Faith is not something that practice perfects. “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”

Paul puts it this way,

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:5).

We might put it like this:  God is not looking for evidence that you get it right, or even that you get it at all.  Remember that fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?  The food that left us thinking we knew the difference between good and evil?  The one God told us to stay away from?  Yeah, we’re back to that.  We get caught in the trap of thinking we know who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s evil.  We get stuck in our fights between the good Christians and the bad ones. We start labeling one another “the fundamentalists,” “the conservatives,” “the old guard,” “the establishment,” just like Matthew and John called their sisters and brothers, “the Jews.”

Paul suggests that even the act of sorting out who has the right set of beliefs can itself become a kind of works righteousness. “Abraham believed God,” — not Abraham believed in God, but “Abraham believed God.”  It makes all the difference.  It is the difference between “Abraham held the right set of thoughts and ideas” and “Abraham trusted that God is faithful” — “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

And all this talk of Abraham begins with a story that calls each of our allegiances to religion, nation, politics and land into question. God says to Abram (whose name has yet to be changed), “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1).

The church, the nations that have emerged in the shadow of the church, and we ourselves have often been more interested in the second part of that story, the idea that we belong to a great nation — be that religious or secular — and that we exist as a blessing for others, a slippery slope that too often has led to all kinds of colonial disasters.  But what about the first part of that story, the deep faith that enabled Abraham to leave everyone and everything he knew behind: his country, his family, his good name.  Stripped down, almost as naked as Adam and Eve in the garden, left with only his trust that God was for him and would not forsake him.

Are we ready to take that trip? Honestly, I doubt it.  Like Nicodemus, we see the power of God at work in Jesus, but we trust in our own abilities, our own beliefs, to get us closer to God. Thankfully, God is taking a trip as well, crossing every barrier that divides heaven and earth to be with us, to be for us. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).



Sermon: Sunday, March 9, 2014: First Sunday in Lent

Texts:  Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7  +  Psalm 32  +  Romans 5:12-19  +  Matthew 4:1-11

Serpents in the garden and devils in the wilderness.  No matter which year or which gospel, the first Sunday in Lent always feeds us stories of temptation and confrontation between Jesus and that figure who has been named “the devil,” about whom there is much confusion — which, I assume, suits the devil quite well.

The devil is a staple figure in more conservative expressions of our Christian faith, in ways that often embarrass or anger more progressive Christians.  We’ve seen the devil’s name used to cover up a multitude of human sins, as anyone who looks different, prays different, lives different, or loves different gets lumped in with the devil. Satan, to too many, is just another name we use for anyone or anything unfamiliar or agitating. In the classic case of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction, we who deplore this kind of scapegoating distance ourselves from anything that reminds us of it, making “the devil” a laughable stereotype of backward religion and denying our own daily struggles with temptation.

4424c060ada007cc036f1210.LC.S. Lewis, the Christian author and apologist remembered perhaps best for his Chronicles of Narnia, described this dynamic well in his satirical novel The Screwtape Letters.  First published during World War II in 1942, The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of letters from an elder devil, Screwtape, to his younger nephew, Wormwood.  They are both bureaucrats in Satan’s service, and Screwtape is advising his nephew in the devilish arts, how to win souls away from God.

In his preface to the book, Lewis states,

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”

Lewis calls the phenomenon I have observed in too many conservative Christian communities, whose “excessive and unhealthy interest” with the devil gives Satan too much power and credit, a kind of magical thinking and hails these sorts of people as “magicians” whose distraction with the devil borders on devotion.

But Lewis has a name for people like me, and maybe communities like ours, as well. People and parties committed to objective reality, cold hard facts, and psycho-social explanations for every variety of human experience he calls “materialists” — not in the sense of “materialism,” the word we use for an unhealthy love of consumer goods, but in the sense of a slavish devotion to what can be seen and known and studied and mastered: the material world. Our condescension toward anything we do not believe or understand makes us susceptible to all kinds of attacks that we never see coming, even while we are in their grip.

About a third of the way into the book, Screwtape addresses this issue in one of his letters to his nephew.

I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in [God] … If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”

It is with all these misgivings and misunderstandings about the devil that we approach the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Jesus in the wilderness, on the First Sunday in Lent.

In the garden we get the story of a serpent and a tree, or a wyrm in the woods, and the perversion of knowledge into shame. The stories from Genesis are so rich with symbolism and inexhaustible meaning that we’ll be returning to them for most of this coming summer. There are many ways to make sense of this story, and one of them is that in the garden God marks the boundaries that distinguish between humanity and God.

adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden-giclee-print-c12267346“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17).  Fruit, or food, is equated with knowledge — both being necessary for life.  God affirms humanity’s need to be sustained, not only by food but also by intellectual engagement with the world. We are meaning-making creatures, who long to understand our experience.  Perhaps alone among God’s creatures, we reflect upon the meaning of our own existence. And that, God does not prohibit. But God issues a strong warning about our desire to claim mastery over what is good and what is evil. Those categories of thought lead almost inevitably to forms of judgment that are reserved to God alone, and once humanity sets out to know and to name good and evil all kinds of insidious harm occurs. We see this illustrated in the story as the woman and man eat the forbidden fruit and know themselves in a new way, in their nakedness, which they immediately move to cover.

This isn’t the only way to interpret this story, but if we do read in this way we are led to reflect not only on the origins of human suffering, but on our own individual and communal suffering as well. In what ways does our strong desire to be able to label people and circumstances “good” or “evil” lead us into relationships that leave us vulnerable to shame, and anger, and violence? Can you think of a time when you followed the voice inside your head, or your gut, or your heart that seemed so sure it knew the truth about another person’s life — only to discover that you were tragically wrong? If so, then you know what it’s like to be tempted by wormwood, the serpent in the garden, an all-too-real experience that makes the question of the “reality” of the devil practically irrelevant.

Following his baptism, the event at which Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend and rest on him and heard God’s voice name him as God’s own Beloved, Jesus is led out into the wilderness where he was also tempted by the devil.  This time, instead of fruit from a tree, the devil acknowledges Jesus’ hunger, the result of his fasting. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3-4)  Food and knowledge are once equated with each other, but unlike the man and woman in the garden, Jesus does not take the bait to rely on his own knowledge, but on the wisdom of God.

Can you remember a time in your life when poverty, or isolation, or deprivation took you to a place where you were ready to give up on all that you know to be true? When you were ready to trade in your trust that God will provide with a lower faith in the reliability of the world’s wisdom, in which there is only so much bread to go around and you should feel entitled to get yours before it’s all gone?  If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Next Jesus is taken to the holy city and set on top of the temple, where the devil goads him to demonstrate his divinity by throwing himself from the heights and forcing God to rush in and save him from his own death.  Here the devil betrays a woeful lack of knowledge about how and where God chooses to work in the world. Rather than choosing a handful of people to love, and sparing them from death and suffering, God chooses to to love all of creation and to join us in the fullness of our experience, including and especially death.

Have you ever found yourself at the crossroads of a difficult decision, trying to talk yourself out of a necessary task by reassuring yourself that God would never want you to suffer so much?  If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Christ's_temptation_(Monreale)Finally, Jesus is taken up to a very high mountain and shown all the nations of the world.  Satan, that liar, makes a ridiculous offer, that Jesus will be given the world if only he will bend the knee and worship him.  This is the very baldest of lies, because we know that the devil is offering something that is not his in the first place. But, it’s not so ridiculous a scenario, as the world is always trying to convince us that realists, pragmatists, materialists even, need to be prepared to deal with the cold hard fact that the world is a tough place, with no room for the ethics of love, forgiveness, justice and compassion that God in Christ Jesus is offering.

Have you ever found yourself in a position of authority, where you had the responsibility of making significant decisions that would affect the lives of many others, perhaps your entire family, or your workplace, or the neighborhood, or the world?  Have you heard within yourself the inner struggle between the voice that calls you to do what is right, and the voice that calls you to do what is expected? If so, then you’ve met the devil.

Jesus, unsurprisingly, sidesteps all of the devil’s lures and sends him scuttling off.  We are not always as sure in our responses. Perhaps that is why we fear talk of the devil to some degree, because we suspect we’ve lost a match or two to his wiles.

C.S. Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters to his good friend J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If you’ve read those books, then you know that evil is personified in horrible and almost majestic terms.  In his epigraph to The Screwtape Letters Lewis shares two quotes that seem to suggest a more modest approach to dealing with the devil.  He first quotes Luther, who said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Then Luther’s opponent, Thomas More, who also said, “The devil … the prowde spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”

That, I think, is the very best way to deal with the devil.  Not to dwell obsessively on him like the magicians, or to deny him like the materialists, but ultimately to put him in his place, like the apostle Paul who declared with full confidence to the Romans,

“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19)

In other words, the biggest lie of all is that it is somehow we who are locked in combat with the devil and all the powers of death, when in reality it is God who has already decided the outcome of that conflict. God is for us, and for all the world, and against that unshakeable fact all the devil’s lures and lies are powerless. So we will jeer and flout and mock the devil, who has already lost the war.