Sermons

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.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

If you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember that I spent a good bit of time in my sermon talking about the backdrop to the Gospel of John, the fact that it’s believed to have been composed near the end of the first century, sixty years or more after the death of Jesus. From what we can put together about that time, the Jesus movement was experiencing conflict as Jewish people who had come to believe and confess that Jesus — whose life, death and resurrection were now facts of history — was the long-awaited messiah. Their confession put them at odds with members of the synagogue community who did not share their faith, and as a result they were being kicked out of their congregation. The disruption was intense and the consequences were devastating. These first century Jews were not living in today’s religious landscape, they couldn’t just join another church with beliefs friendlier to their lived experience down the street. They were being cast out of all they’d known with no assurance that they were being called into something new.

It’s important to understand the story behind the story when reading scripture, so that we can begin to understand the incredible choices each story teller is making to give hope to fearful people, to give courage to a community doing a new thing, to give faith to an assembly gathering outside the boundaries of the known world, a new world, a new creation.

From the start, John’s gospel has been trying to tell us that the world is being made new. “In the beginning,” it says, echoing the words of Genesis, “was the Word…” the familiar proclamation of Christmas morning. After that opening prologue, the very first thing that happens in John’s gospel is an act of testimony, as the Jerusalem establishment heads out to meet John the Baptist across the Jordan where he is baptizing people. They ask him, “who are you?” (John 1:19) and it says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.”

Imagine what these words would have meant to people who were being cast out of the familiar places of community and meaning because of their own confession, their own testimony. The story begins with a baptism, and a confession that will not be denied

From there the story focuses, understandably, on Jesus — until we get to chapter nine, the long passage we just read together. It begins with another echo of Genesis, one that would require us to know and remember that the first human, formed in the garden at the beginning of time, was named Adam, a pun that functions as a moniker. In Hebrew the word for “earth” is adamah, so the first person, formed from the earth, is called Adam.

580510493_5c828c0454_oJesus comes upon a man blind from birth, someone who has never seen him. This man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t plead for Jesus to perform a miracle, he’s just living his life. Jesus’ followers notice the man, and use his blindness as an occasion to start a conversation about sin. The man is different, so they want to know what went wrong. Jesus is uninterested in their preoccupation with sin, and responds to them, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) Again we hear the beginning of this gospel,

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5);

but also, again, Genesis,

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3).

Then Jesus takes some earth, the stuff we’re made of, and rubs it in the man’s eyes, as if to recreate them, and tells him to go wash in a pool of water, to be baptized as it were, and we’re told that the name of the pool, Siloam, means “sent.”

From that point, a series of remarkable things occur. The very first being that Jesus disappears from this story and the focus shifts from Jesus to the man who has now begun to see the world in a new way, for the first time. In fact, the verses that follow mark Jesus’ longest absence from the story in this gospel. Rather than continuing with the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, the story follows a series of exchanges between the man with new sight and the temple establishment.

blindYou can imagine that the original audience, the community for whom this gospel was composed, understood immediately what was happening here. Like the man born blind, they’d never seen Jesus. Only heard of him. Maybe they were the children or grandchildren of people who’d been alive when Jesus had walked the earth, and they grew up hearing other families in the synagogue talk about their differences as if they were sins. Maybe they’d lived their whole life among the assembly, but experienced an epiphany, a conversion they never saw coming that changed everything about how they saw the world. Whatever their particular circumstances, I feel certain that these first century Jews knew that when the storytellers talked about the man born blind, they were talking about them.

The next thing that’s remarkable to watch in this story is the creation, before our eyes, of an evangelist. After spending his life being treated like the subject of other people’s speculation, he begins to find his own voice. It’s tentative, at first, he’s no John the Baptist. His testimony develops and is sharpened, like all of ours, in conversation with others.

His first words are simply to assert his existence to people who’d walked by him every day, but never really saw him. Now that he is different, now that he sees the world differently, they can barely recognize him. “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. Just as Jesus’ disciples wanted to talk about this man, not to him, this man’s neighbors were so busy talking about him they barely heard him when he gave his first testimony: “I am the man.”

“I am the man,” is shorthand for so much being said. I am the man Jesus healed. I am the man you used to walk by. I am the woman you talk about, not to. I exist. I am a subject, not an object. I am one of God’s own creations. I have sacred worth. I matter.

Maybe this is your testimony as well, the word God has given you to say as a part of your own healing, and to be part of the way that God heals others. This first testimony seems so small, but is the basis for everything else we have to say: “I am the one God has made.”

His neighbors aren’t so quick to accept what he has to say however, so they finally stop ignoring him only to begin interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” In response, the man tells the story of his liberation. At this point he doesn’t try to explain how it happened, or to assign greater meaning to what happened. He simply reports the facts, as he experienced them, from his point of view.

This is the second testimony, the powerful story each of us can tell about the power of God at work in our lives, healing us, freeing us, saving us. These testimonies don’t require us to have all the right answers, or to be ready to defend them. They are powerful because they point to reality. “I used to be blind, now I see.” “I used to be afraid to leave, now I am ready to go.” “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, now I am ten years sober.” “I used to look at my body and hate it, now I can tell that this is a body loved by God.” “I used to think there was something irredeemably wrong with me, now I know I am loved.”

“Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (John 9:11)

Now the man’s neighbors begin to repeat the kind of conversation about sin and sinners that Jesus’ own disciples had been having when they came across the blind man. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath. How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Where the man born blind wants only to say what he has experienced in his own life, what has happened to him, the authorities want to talk about him, to try and cram his experience into a set of rules and laws they can understand. Finally, not wanting to own their own questions about Jesus, they project them onto the man with new sight: “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

In response, the man is emboldened to go beyond simply describing what had happened to him, and his begins to make claims about what it means. “He is a prophet,” might just as well be, “He is one of us. He is a part of our community. He is the ethic beneath the laws. He is the teller of truths. He is the voice that will not be silent. He is the past and the future. He is a prophet.”

This courage threatens the powers that be, as well as everyone else who has found a way to get by in the world as it is. Even the man’s very own parents are not ready to stand by him as he claims the truth of his own experience. Now the man is not simply reporting the facts, he is risking his own place in the world. Up until now he could back away from his testimony, sharing the facts of what happened without owning what they mean. But no longer. In a showdown between silence in the face of those who had walked by him without seeing him, and the one who had seen him and given him sight, the newly sighted man is ready to challenge the powers that be.

This is the third testimony, the point at which our story goes beyond conviction to risky words and risky actions. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also what to become his disciples?” Now the man has found his voice, and refuses to be silenced by power, in fact he challenges it directly, proposing a new understanding of life and our place in it that contradicts what had come before:

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one will worship and obey God’s will. 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.” (John 9:30-33)

And now he’s said it, he’s moved beyond simply reporting the facts to declaring what they mean. Jesus is from God, and so is the miraculous new perspective he offers, the new sight.

After this testimony the newly sighted man is driven out of the community. Here we must pause and consider all that this means. These Jews were not the center of the Roman Empire, they were at the edge. They were an oppressed and occupied community. Their solidarity with one another was one of the primary ways they survived in a hostile culture. The man born blind was a marginalized man among marginalized people, and what little community he had he’d just lost.

Can you imagine the first audience of this gospel, Jews living decades after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection who had never seen him, but were risking everything by confessing him as Lord. Now there can be no doubt that they knew this newly sighted man represented them in the story.

It’s at this point that Jesus and the newly sighted man finally see one another face to face. Jesus hears that the man he healed has been cast out of the community, and he goes to him, pursues him and finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The man born blind doesn’t know who this is, but he knows that he is ready to believe whatever Jesus tells him. He has been transformed by his testimony, he is committed to the cause. “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:36)

“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

“Lord, I believe.” (John 9:37-38)

This is the fourth testimony. I believe. I have experienced the healing, the freedom, the liberation that comes from God. I have found my voice. I have refused to be silent. I have lost those who could not see the presence of God in my life, but what I have seen I cannot unsee. I am not nameless, I am not sightless, I am not voiceless. I am yours. I am God’s. Lord, I believe.

This story of testimony comes to us just past the midway point in the season of Lent, a season of preparation for baptism; a season, historically, when those who had denied their faith in Christ were offered a way back into the congregation; a season when each of us looks inside to see where we ourselves have capitulated to the powers of this world that try so hard to ignore us, to shame us, to silence us; a season when we look outside ourselves to see where the world groans in anticipation of a new creation.

This Sunday’s story challenges us as much as it challenged the church at the end of the first century. What do we stand to lose when we stand by the truth of our own lives? Who will stand with us, and who will not? What waits for us on the other side of our healing, our liberation?

Jesus does. Now as then, the Jesus we have heard of but never seen becomes more and more real, more and more visible, as each of us finds our voice and shares our testimony. We are God’s people, washed in the pool of sending to share our story with the world.

Giving glory to God,
Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 19, 2013: Day of Pentecost

Texts: Acts 2:1-21  +  Psalm 104:24-34,35b  +  Romans 8:14-17  +  John 14:8-17,25-27

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School's baccalaureate service.

My god-daughter, Katie Russell, gives her testimony at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s baccalaureate service.

A little over a week ago, Kerry and I were in Nashville, Tennessee to see my eldest god-daughter, Katie Russell, graduate from seminary at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  You can imagine that for a preacher and pastor like myself, there’s a special pride in watching your godchild graduate from seminary.

The night before the actual graduation, at the baccalaureate service, I got the added pleasure of hearing Katie give her testimony before her colleagues and her faculty.  She was one of a handful of students invited to do so at this closing worship service for a cohort of newly minted pastors who were preparing to be sent out into the world.

As she opened her remarks she used a phrase that was repeated over and over during the weekend.  Referring to her soon-to-be alma mater she said, “here at the School of the Prophets we learned…” School of the Prophets, I soon learned, wasn’t just a compliment being paid by a student to her teachers, or a preacherly turn of phrase, it is part of that school’s self-concept.  Just as so many schools have Latin mottos (the University of Chicago’s is Crescat scientia; vita excolatur or “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched;”  Harvard’s is more simply veritas, or “truth”), the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University names itself in its foundational documents dating back to the 1870s a Schola Prophetarum, a school of prophets.

It’s a name the school takes seriously.  Its mission statement names as one of the school’s primary goals that they will “prepare leaders who will be agents of social justice” who will be “forceful representatives of the faith and effective agents in working for a more just and human society that will help to alleviate the ills besetting individuals and groups.”  The graduation program had a full-page description of the Divinity School’s commitments that explicitly state its opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, poverty, militarism and the destruction of the environment.

Still, there was something jarring about hearing a group of people refer to themselves so boldly as the “School of the Prophets.”  Maybe its my midwestern upbringing, but it just felt like bragging.  How could they be so bold?  Who died and named them prophets?

Well, as it turns out, Jesus did.

Growing up I thought a prophet was like a fortune-teller, a kind of biblical palm reader who could see the future.  It probably wasn’t until seminary that I myself was asked to really thoroughly read the prophetic books of the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old” Testament.  The prophets of the bible sometimes spoke of future things, but just as often spoke to the present moment.  What made them prophets wasn’t that they told the future, but that they told the truth.  God’s truth.

Jesus — the one who lived, and died, and is rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit — says to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15-17,25-26)

And, indeed, Jesus is a man of his word.  Throughout these fifty days since Easter morning we have been hearing the stories of the Acts of the Apostles.  We’ve been recalling to ourselves the legacy of a church born in the moment when the Holy Spirit was poured out on those first followers of Jesus, huddled together for safety in the face of a scary world, but filled with power and purpose and sent out for the sake of restoration of God’s good creation.

God’s Holy Spirit fills the church, just as Jesus said it would, and when it does, Peter, their first preacher, remembers the words of another prophet, Joel, who said,

“In those last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…” (Acts 2:17a-b)

In that moment of the church’s birth, Peter acts as a prophet, telling God’s truth that the last days are here.  The new heaven and the new earth are breaking into the ones we have known for too long.  Salvation is for here and now.  It has already begun, and we who are flesh, we who are sons and daughters and heirs with Christ to the fortunes of God’s love are called to act, like the apostles.

Looking back at the Vanderbilt graduation, I can see that I was mistaken.  Or, I wasn’t hearing that phrase, “school of the prophets,” correctly.  My midwestern aversion to pretense was bristling against the notion that these people were calling themselves prophets, when all they were really claiming to be was a school.  Because, you see, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have all been made prophets.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to speak God’s truth to a world burdened by lies.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are all called to dream incredible dreams and given eyes to see a vision of a future reality breaking into the present moment, a vision that makes these “the last days.”

As prophets, all of us, we need schools and churches and so many other places where we can learn about the legacy of which we are inheritors.  We need Sunday School teachers and small group leaders, seminarians and people to lead the adult education hour.  We need parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents who will teach us and shape us as we grow into our prophetic callings.  We need community organizers and event planners to call us to action and to put us to use.  We need faithful servants who fill grocery bags and glean the leftover food waiting in fields both near and far.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

Icon of the prophet Amos.

This is our school of the prophets, one of many God has built in the world, made of living stones.  We are its faculty and we are its students.  As we move out of the season of Easter and into the long summer of “ordinary time,” we’ll actually be reading the stories of the Hebrew prophetsElijah and Elisha, Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.  We’ll remember how God’s people have been called to tell God’s truth to every age, as we live into our own prophetic calling to act.

This call, the call to action, is daunting to be sure, but we are kept in the promise that we will be filled with the power and the presence of the one who has made us prophets: Jesus, God’s Beloved, rising in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we commence upon this journey, some of us joining this congregation today, others saying goodbye, all of us being sent for a greater purpose, I want to offer you these words — often attributed to Oscar Romero, but believe to have been written by the Roman Catholic bishop Kenneth Untener of Detroit:

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a small fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that will one day grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing  that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects  far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense  of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it well. It may be incomplete but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Amen.

 

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