Each week, the Sunday sermon by Rev. David Haley, pastor of Skokie Central Church, will be posted. As the archive of sermons is completed, we will link to the archive from the blog as well.
Central United Methodist Church
Is Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping?
Pastor David L. Haley
John 20: 1 – 18
April 16th, 2017
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. She ran at once to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, breathlessly panting, “They took the Master from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”
Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck and neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Simon Peter arrived after him, entered the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths but separate, neatly folded by itself. Then the other disciple, the one who had gotten there first, went into the tomb, took one look at the evidence, and believed. No one yet knew from the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. The disciples then went back home.
But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”
“They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him.
Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”
She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”
Jesus said, “Mary.”
Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” meaning “Teacher!”
Jesus said, “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene went, telling the news to the disciples: “I saw the Master!” And she told them everything he said to her.” John 20: 1 – 18, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Easter greetings to everyone; thanks to each of you for celebrating Easter with us today. Last year on Easter Sunday, between the six congregations that meet in our building, we had around 500 people who worshiped at Central that weekend. This Easter, we are glad you are one of them.
On Easter, sometimes we are concerned whether we will have sufficient seating for all who attend. So – in preparation – we sent our ushers out for training at United, and should we need more seats, four of you will be selected to be forcibly removed from your seats and dragged down the aisle. So when the ushers come around, make sure they have offering plates in their hand. Otherwise it will be an Easter you will never forget.
The title I have chosen for this year’s Easter sermon is, “Is Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping?” from an early American folk hymn in the Sacred Harp tradition. I choose this title because in the Easter story that we read today – from John’s Gospel – Mary Magdalene is the star of the show. In fact, though the Easter morning accounts vary, Mary is the one consistent person in all four Gospels. In John’s Gospel, initially she is the only one, and later in the story stands there again, weeping alone.
In passing, may I point out how restrained the resurrection accounts are? Over the past weeks, as we have read from John’s Gospel, we have learned that John rarely suffers a shortage of words. The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, with the Woman at the Well, the healing of the Man Born Blind, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, all take 40 verses or more. John’s account of the Last Supper – only a few verses in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – takes four chapters. But when it comes to the big finish, when we are ready for the trumpets and Hallelujah choruses, instead, the story is told in whispers, confusion, even inconsistency. As Frederick Buechner once observed: “It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are telling.” (“The Secret in the Dark,” Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog)
So we lean in to hear the story begin with Mary, literally in darkness, defeat, and despair. It was over: Jesus’ life, their relationships with him, the kingdom they hoped he would bring. As Fred Craddock once described it: “Jesus is dead and buried. They’ve cleaned out his closet; they’ve given away what few things he had. They have washed and returned the dishes to those who brought food. They’ve written the thank-you notes. The dog has been returned from the vet. The guests are gone. Four loads of laundry have been done. And now comes the routine, the blessed, joyous routine, of life as it was.” (Fred B. Craddock, “And They Said Nothing to Anyone,” The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 139).
At some time in our lives, we have all been there. Maybe it was after a political campaign that did not go the way we hoped, after the end of a job or a marriage, or – worst of all – after the death of someone of we loved dearly. We are up at night because we cannot sleep, it feels like morning will never come, and we are anxious not only for ourselves but our children and grandchildren and the state of the world. Is there anybody here like Mary weeping? We have all been there. But there is a job left to do, so like Mary we pick ourselves up off the floor and head to Jesus’ tomb.
When we get there, what we find is startling: the stone – the very big stone – is rolled away. Not bothering to enter, Mary runs to alert the men, Simon Peter and the unnamed Disciple Whom Jesus Loved, who run back to see for themselves.
Speaking of the men, where were they? Up to now they have been the stars of the show, but now – when it comes to the hard part, they are nowhere to be found, and it is the women like Mary who do the heavy lifting. Maybe they were sunk in guilt or depression or fear; or maybe they were like men still are today when we are in over our heads: we don’t talk about it, we don’t cry about it, and we certainly don’t ask for help. Typically, the one thing they were good at is running; who but men could turn the resurrection of Jesus into a footrace? (Race you to the tomb; first one there wins!) Even after they got there and went in and saw the abandoned grave clothes, though one believed instantly, we don’t see either of them running to tell anybody about anything. Once again, Mary is left alone at the tomb alone, weeping.
When Mary finally looks into the tomb, the grave clothes have turned into angels. They weren’t very good angels, they must have been like Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because instead of saying “Why you seek the living among the dead; he is not here he is risen,” like the angels in the other Gospels, all these angels say is “Woman, WHY are you crying?” More than one of us men – not to mention angels – have gotten into trouble with THAT question. Undeterred, even by these second class angels, Mary says: “They took my master, and I don’t know where they put him.” Is there anybody here like Mary weeping?
Like Mary, there is so much about this story we don’t understand. No one saw Jesus rise from the dead; what happened in that tomb was between Jesus and God. No one knows for sure what happened to Jesus’ body, after all he was resurrected, not resuscitated. Barbara Brown Taylor compares the empty tomb of Jesus to those cicada shells you find on tree: each one has a slit down its back, where the living creature inside had escaped. She adds: “If you had asked them, I’ll bet none of them could tell you where they left their old clothes.” Is it any wonder that throughout history, Easter has been the occasion of our greatest doubt but also of our most profound faith.
Which is why what happens next is the strangest but most important part of the story. As Mary stands there weeping, she turns and sees Jesus, but she doesn’t recognize him, because she thinks it is the gardener. Was it because her eyes were filled with tears, or was it because Jesus had gotten himself some new clothes? (Somewhere in this story there is a naked gardener). Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, Mary said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”
Jesus said, “Mary.” And Mary said, “Rabbi!”, only two words, yet expressing all the emotions involved. I have always loved how the great Scots preacher Peter Marshall put it in his sermon, “The Grave in the Garden:” “Christ had spoken her name, and all of heaven was in it. She uttered only one word, and all of earth was in it.” Says Marshall, “If we believe this, it is one of the loveliest stories in literature. It is a story over which, without shame, men might weep. It is a story which we cannot read without feeling a lump in our throats.” Is there anybody here like Mary weeping?
We get it; it was the voice that did it. There are deep connections in the voices of those we love. My father died five years ago; and about two years ago I was looking for some family connections on the internet and came across an audio archive that a local university professor had put together, to make a people’s history, which he did by interviewing ordinary people, of whom my father was one. When I clicked “play,” and heard my father’s voice again – for the first time since he died – like Mary, I wept. So we understand how Mary’s moment of recognition came through Jesus’ voice, surprisingly unchanged by the transformation he had gone through.
Part of the message of this story is that not everyone takes the same path to Easter faith, there is no “one way” to get there. In this story alone, there are three disciples: one sees the grave clothes neatly folded and believes. Another sees the same thing and there’s no indication he believes anything. Another is surprised into believing by the sound of her name. John leaves room for all of us: for those who see and believe, those who see and remain uncertain, those of us who must hear OUR name called BEFORE we can believe. Whatever the path, whether sudden or slow, faith removes the distance between the first Easter and today.
For Mary, Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. For us, Easter begins when we hear the Gardener call our name, and we know who he is. That’s where the miracle happened and continues to happen – not in an empty tomb long ago and far away – but in our encounter with the living Lord, when He calls our name, in all the ways he does that. Can you hear him, calling your name? (Barbara Brown Taylor, Escape From the Tomb, The Christian Century, April 1, 1998, page 339).
Last week the writer Ann Lamott was here in Chicago to promote her new book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. She says she has been traveling around the country for nearly two weeks, and without exception, her audiences have been filled with lovely bright people who feel doomed. On her birthday (April 10), Garrison Keillor profiled her on his “Writer’s Almanac.”
Anne Lamott was born in San Francisco in 1954, to parents who were ardent supporters of social justice and civil rights, but also atheists. But Lamott says: “I always secretly believed that there was a God — I always secretly prayed. I always found these religious kids.”
She was a good student and a talented tennis player, but she had a lot of anxiety. “I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon […] I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting.”
She dropped out of college after two years and decided to become a writer, like her father. She sold some magazine articles and wrote her first novels, but even though she was productive and successful, she was drinking a lot. It got so bad that every morning, she would have to call her friends to find out what had happened the night before, because she couldn’t remember.
One day, when she was really hung over, she heard some old spirituals coming out of a little Presbyterian church in Marin City, California, so she went inside to listen to the music. She went back the next week, and the next, but she never stayed for the sermon. Gradually, she says, she began to feel the presence of Jesus around her. “It would be like a little stray cat. You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, ‘No,’ because you can’t let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, you have a little cat, and I didn’t want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: ‘Oh, whatever. You can come in.’” Through her books, in her distinctive way, Anne continues to witness like Mary long ago: “I have seen the Lord.”
Once we hear his voice, there is no going back to the way things used to be: “Don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I ascend to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’” The human Jesus who once lived in one time and place is now the Risen Jesus, accessible in every time and place. Because he lived, died, and arose, everything is different: death is different, and life is different. Though we may not have eyes to see it any more than Mary did Jesus, God’s New Creation has begun. It began in a garden, and began again in yet another garden, until all creation returns to the garden God intended from the very beginning.
Anybody Here Like Mary Weeping? You bet. But at Easter, though we may come with question marks, we exchange them for exclamation points. Though we may come like Mary weeping, thanks to the promise of this day, we leave like Mary rejoicing: “I have seen the Lord.” Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
This Day and Every Day
Pastor David L. Haley
April 9th, 2017
Pastor’s Haley’s sermon below is preparatory to the reading of the Passion of Jesus according to Matthew, Matthew 26:14 – 27:66
After weeks of journeying toward Jerusalem with Jesus; today, on Palm Sunday, we arrive there. Would it be fair to say that as we head down the Mt. of Olives and see the city gleaming white and gold before us, we feel almost as much emotion as Jesus felt, to see Jerusalem again?
It has now been four years since I was there; I still remember it like yesterday. The holy city, spiritual home to three of the world’s great religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a city like no other. Almost every day in the Old City there is a religious procession of one kind or another. When we were there we wound up in several; one we thought was a wedding turned out to be a bar mitzvah instead.
As you might expect, because of the religious and cultural tensions within Jerusalem, security is tight. I often felt under-dressed by not carrying a weapon. Not only are there the three religions as well as the religious factions within each religion, there are the authorities, whose job it is to keep the peace. As it has always been through the centuries, Jerusalem is a tinderbox; you never know when or where violence may erupt.
Now, take everything I just said and go back 1,987 years, when it was worse. Occupied by Rome, the “authorities” of the time, Jerusalem was the spiritual home of Judaism, the site of the Herod’s Temple, God’s presence on earth. Yet resentment seethed in the streets, that Jews should be ruled by this pagan occupation. Regularly, rebellions broke out, and some so-called messiah or another other would wind up being crucified, using broken human bodies as examples not to even THINK about rebellion.
This was even more true during Passover, when the population of some 40,000 people (smaller than Skokie) swelled five times. Security was tighter than usual; the Roman governor Pontius Pilate wanted no bad news reaching the Emperor Tiberius of things getting out of hand. While callous to Jewish sensitivities in the past, causing repeated near-insurrections, in the new political environment since the death of his sponsor Sejanus, Pilate adopted a policy of appeasement.
For example, the Jewish historian Josephus notes that while Pilate’s predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. The next day, when they were discovered by the citizens of Jerusalem, they appealed to Pilate to remove them. After five days of demonstrations, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which the demonstrators dared by baring their necks, rather than submit to desecration of the Mosaic law. Pilate relented and removed the images. Just as he would appease them to order the crucifixion of Jesus.
Given all this, it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine what you might see in ancient Jerusalem. Imagine the sound of warhorses as Pilate and his guard enters the city. Led by the Roman standard, see and hear chariots and warhorses, armored Roman soldiers carrying their swords and shields. Most of the time Pilate stayed at the fortress of Caesarea, on the coast; but at Passover, when the city was crowded with pilgrims, he stayed at Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem, for closer monitoring of the pilgrims.
Now imagine a Roman sentinel, looking out from Jerusalem over the Kidron Valley, seeing a religious procession forming as they descend the Mount of Olives. Instead of a Roman standard, they carry palm branches. Instead of soldiers in armor, it looks like Galileans peasants, and women, and children. Instead of a warhorse, their leader is . . . riding a donkey? How humiliating is that?
As this procession enters Jerusalem, people ask what they did not have to ask about Pilate’s procession: “What’s going on here? Who is this?” To which people in the procession answer, “This is the prophet Jesus, the one from Nazareth in Galilee.” “You’ve heard of him?”
Who was this? Jesus, a man of humble beginnings, with friends in low places: fishermen, tax collectors, sinners. A ragged rabbi who preached loving God and loving your neighbor, even your enemies. Even though he considered himself the Messiah, he didn’t like to talk about it, and even instructed his disciples to tell no one. He rode a donkey and not a warhorse into Jerusalem, because he didn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, which were the only ideas about the Messiah they had. At heart Jesus was a country boy, an itinerant preacher on a rural circuit, visiting the bright lights (well, not that bright) of the big city – the holy city – of Jerusalem. Who will have the greater impact? Jesus upon the city, or the city upon Jesus? We know the answer, don’t we?
Was Jesus naïve about what would happen? According to the Gospels, all the way there he had been telling his disciples that he would be killed there. Jesus was, at heart, an apocalyptic prophet who believed he was the Messiah – through not the way everyone expected – and that by his actions he would bring about God’s intervention, throwing out the Romans and ushering in the Kingdom of God, restoring all things to how God had intended from the beginning. As the famous historian and theologian Albert Schweitzer stated it: “Jesus lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him” (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, p. 370-71). But as we shall see next Sunday – Easter Sunday – the wheel does indeed, began to turn in the other direction.
Two processions, two kingdoms: Rome, and the ways of Rome as represented by Pilate; God, and the ways of God as represented by Jesus; they are on a collision course. One is an imperial kingdom, that rules by power and violence and death; the other a peaceable Kingdom, that rules by peace and love and life. Which will win?
We may think we know the answer to this, but in truth, the verdict is still out. It is choice we must make every day, an allegiance we must choose, between empire and imperial ways, or the Kingdom of God and kingdom ways. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
May what follows in this story we hear today and what happens in this week – Holy Week – give us the courage to choose God and the ways of God, this day and every day. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Lazarus Who Laughed
Pastor David L. Haley
John 11: 1 – 44
The 5th Sunday in Lent
April 2nd, 2017
“A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.”
When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”
Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days. After the two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”
They said, “Rabbi, you can’t do that. The Jews are out to kill you, and you’re going back?”
Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in daylight doesn’t stumble because there’s plenty of light from the sun. Walking at night, he might very well stumble because he can’t see where he’s going.”
He said these things, and then announced, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I’m going to wake him up.”
The disciples said, “Master, if he’s gone to sleep, he’ll get a good rest and wake up feeling fine.” Jesus was talking about death, while his disciples thought he was talking about taking a nap.
Then Jesus became explicit: “Lazarus died. And I am glad for your sakes that I wasn’t there. You’re about to be given new grounds for believing. Now let’s go to him.”
That’s when Thomas, the one called the Twin, said to his companions, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”
When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house.
Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.”
Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.”
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.”
After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”
The moment she heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”
“Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept.
The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”
Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.”
Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”
The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!”
Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”
They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.”
Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face.
Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
That was a turnaround for many of the Jews who were with Mary. They saw what Jesus did, and believed in him. But some went back to the Pharisees and told on Jesus. The high priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Jewish ruling body. “What do we do now?” they asked. “This man keeps on doing things, creating God-signs. If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have.” – John 11: 1 – 45, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
On a recent Monday morning, I looked at my calendar and thought I had an easier week. Shortly after that thought, I received an email notifying me that a retired firefighter had died, could I do his service on Thursday? Sadly, I had just met him at a breakfast the previous Tuesday – I can see him sitting there smiling – 6 days before he collapsed and died. Even for those of us who deal with death regularly, the fragility of life can be shocking.
That evening, I sat in the living room with his stunned and grieving wife, children and grandchildren. A few days later, facing the same family and their friends, I held the service. At such times, whether as clergy or friends, we do our best to provide comfort and hope, though we know it will not be enough to assuage their loss, and the grief that follows, especially after the funeral is over and the mourners are gone.
Because we know such scenes – because we have experienced death and loss and grief – the scene in today’s Gospel may be foreign but it also familiar to us. Someone (Lazarus) has died; those who loved him (Martha and Mary) grieve, and friends gather to comfort them.
This scene marks the fifth conversation of Jesus we have heard over these Sundays of Lent, with the tempter in the wilderness, the rabbi Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and last week, the healing of the Man Born Blind. However, none of these conversations grab us as much as this one, the story of Jesus and Martha and Mary. It is the final sign in John’s Book of Signs: as Jesus offered the woman at the well the Water of life; as at the healing of the man born blind Jesus was the Light of the World; here at the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.
Even though we love this story, it raises questions that still puzzle us. The first and most obvious is: “After receiving word that his friend Lazarus was sick, likely to death – Why did Jesus delay?” The reason John gives is that by doing so, it gives greater occasion to show God’s glory. Having said that, I don’t think you would take it kindly if you call me when someone dies and I say, “I’ll be there in four days; let’s let this ripen a bit.”
Therefore, we sympathize with Martha when she gives Jesus a piece of her mind: “Master, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Or, as we might translate: “Don’t rush right over, Mr. Compassionate, because you’re TOO LATE!” Or as the eloquent King James Version puts it, “Already yet he stinketh.” (Will Willimon, He Waited Two More Days?”, A Sermon for Every Sunday, April 2, 2017)
On the other hand, for our sake, we should be thankful things worked out as they did, that Martha and Mary and Jesus had this conversation, because now when Jesus shows up too late for us, at least we have something to hold on to: “I am” – said Jesus – “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.”
As Fred Craddock put it: “The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or otherwise. Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.” (Fred B. Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299.)
What Jesus is saying is significant, but we often miss it, or misinterpret it, as Martha did. What Jesus is saying is, the life of the world to come, the resurrection life, a full and abundant life, does not – cannot – wait until we die to begin, it begins the moment we put our trust in God, who alone transcends death.
I have always loved the words of the late Henri Nouwen. In his book “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, he says this:
“When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge — a knowledge more of the heart than the mind — that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us. (Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, p. 17)
Another question raised by the story is, “Why is Jesus so full of emotion?” When Jesus sees Martha and those with her sobbing, the text says, variously, “a deep anger welled up within him”, or “he was deeply moved and troubled.” (NIV). Then, on the way to the tomb, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” (11:35).
Anger, deeply moved and troubled, weeping – what is this? Perhaps Jesus hated the ruin and sorrow that death brings to life, which he saw in his friend’s Martha and Mary’s faces, in their tears, in the stench of his friend Lazarus. Perhaps he sees in the death of Lazarus his own death, soon to occur. Indeed, this is one of the great ironies of this story: Jesus knew that by calling Lazarus out of the tomb, he soon would enter it. No wonder he is deeply moved; we would be too, in the face of a gathering storm?
Perhaps the tears and emotion Jesus displays in this story speak so powerfully because they show us, Jesus, Word of God incarnate, crying our tears, knowing our fear, experiencing our dying and death. The same Jesus who said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Finally, what are we to make of the raising of Lazarus? Though the story takes 45 verses, the raising of Lazarus takes only two. As Jesus strides toward the tomb, even Martha and Mary are pulling on his sleeve, reminding him that Lazarus has been dead four days. Nevertheless, at Jesus direction, they roll away the stone, there is a moment of dramatic silence as Jesus prays, and then yells: “Lazarus, come out.” The text says: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” “Unbind him,” says Jesus, “and let him go.”
How does a man dead four days come back to life, the original “Walking Dead?”? How could he walk, with hands and feet bound tight? And – he’d better keep his grave clothes handy, for Lazarus was only resuscitated not resurrected, raised only to die again: there is no Lazarus still out there walking around.
Though the story doesn’t say what happened, my favorite version is the one written by the playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1928, entitled “Lazarus Laughed.”
As the curtain goes up, Lazarus stumbles out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After his grave clothes are taken off he begins to laugh. The first thing he does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then he embraces his Martha and Mary and the other people gathered there.
He has a clear look in his eye; it’s as if he’s seeing the world for the first time. He reaches down and pats the earth affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbors as if he had never seen them before, overwhelmed by the incredible brightness of everything. The first words he utters are, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace life all over again.
Lazarus makes his way back to his house and eventually somebody gets the courage to ask the question everybody’s dying to ask: “Lazarus, what is it like to die? Lazarus begins to laugh even more and says:
“There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life. The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. Our great agenda is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are put here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.”
Soon, Lazarus’ house becomes known as the “House of Laughter.” Night after night, there is the sound of singing and dancing.
Soon, the spirit of Lazarus who has come back from the dead with the message that there is nothing to fear, begins to spread through the whole village. People began to live more humanely and generously with each other. There is less conflict than before. A joy settles over the whole community because someone has come back saying there is finally nothing to fear.
But not everyone is pleased. The Roman authorities sense that one who lost his fear of death is a threat to their control. How do you intimidate someone no longer afraid of death? They move on Lazarus, and tell him to knock off the laughing. All he does is laugh all the more. “The truth is,” he says, “there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life.”
They arrest him, taking him all the way to Rome. The play ends with Lazarus standing face to face with the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’ll have you put to death.” And Lazarus laughs. And says to the emperor: “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.” (Eugene O’Neil, Lazarus Laughed)
“I am, right now,” says Jesus, “the Resurrection and Life. Those who trust me, even though they die, yet shall they live. And those who live, trusting me, shall not die. Do you believe this?”
Central United Methodist Church
All I Know is This
Pastor David L. Haley
John 9: 1–41
The 4th Sunday in Lent
March 26th, 2017
“Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”
He said this and then spit in the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man’s eyes, and said, “Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam” (Siloam means “Sent”). The man went and washed — and saw.
Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying, “Why, isn’t this the man we knew, who sat here and begged?”
Others said, “It’s him all right!”
But others objected, “It’s not the same man at all. It just looks like him.”
He said, “It’s me, the very one.”
They said, “How did your eyes get opened?”
“A man named Jesus made a paste and rubbed it on my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ I did what he said. When I washed, I saw.”
“So where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
They marched the man to the Pharisees. This day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. The Pharisees grilled him again on how he had come to see. He said, “He put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see.”
Some of the Pharisees said, “Obviously, this man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the Sabbath.”
Others countered, “How can a bad man do miraculous, God-revealing things like this?” There was a split in their ranks.
They came back at the blind man, “You’re the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see — haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind — and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.”
He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.”
They said, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
“I’ve told you over and over and you haven’t listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?”
With that they jumped all over him. “You might be a disciple of that man, but we’re disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.”
The man replied, “This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It’s well known that God isn’t at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything.”
They said, “You’re nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us!” Then they threw him out in the street.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
“Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him.
Jesus then said, “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.”
Some Pharisees overheard him and said, “Does that mean you’re calling us blind?”
Jesus said, “If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you’re accountable for every fault and failure.” – John 9: 1 – 41, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson.
After much consideration of this story, after preaching it for many years, I’ve concluded this: I’m not sure I like this story. Because the central question it asks – “Who is blind and who sees?” – raises the possibility that we might be the ones who are blind and do not see. From the outset, we may want to ask the question the Pharisees ask at the end: “Does this mean you are calling us blind?”
It is the 4th of such conversations with Jesus, the first with the Tempter in the wilderness, the 2nd with Nicodemus in John 3, and last week with the Woman at the Well in John 4. Evidently, the people who assembled the lectionary wanted to emulate spring, because as you may have noted, like the days, the Gospel reading keeps getting longer and longer. If this keeps up, by mid-summer we’ll be here all day.
To be sure, the story of Jesus healing the man born blind is a great story, one of the best in the New Testament. Scenes are smoothly connected; characters unfold before our eyes; questions are answered in a timely fashion; and above all, the dialogue, ironic at almost every point, unveils the satire of the blind man who comes to see, only to see people who appear to be blind. The story is an enacted parable of Jesus as the Light of the World; who, while enlightening some, proves blinding to others. (Anna Carter Florence, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 117)
“Who is blind and who sees,” is the opening premise of the story. Walking down a road, Jesus sees “a man born blind.” Did anybody else see this man, like Jesus saw him? Was he someone everyone knew, someone they expected to be there, always in that spot, like street people soliciting at expressway ramps?
As we walk through life, it is easy to rush through our days with blinders on and not to see the people on our path. I’m not only talking about street people or beggars; I’m talking about people we pass every day: at work or in school or in hospitals or nursing homes, sometimes even people in our own families. If we could see people as Jesus saw people, perhaps we would have more healing stories to tell.
One of the interesting details of the story is that the actual healing only takes two verses. But it takes 33 verses to deal with the controversy that followed. As President Trump recently remarked, “Who knew healthcare was so complicated?”
As for what happened, it’s hard to say whether it is comedy, tragedy, or satire; sometimes it seems more like a Monty Python skit than Gospel. As we heard, it involves lots of traipsing around by the Pharisees to interview family and friends and finally the blind man himself, who in some ways knows nothing but in other ways knows a lot: “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.” The Pharisees learn what many of us have also learned: you can argue with an argument; you can’t argue with an experience.
United Methodist Will Willimon says he once had a man in one of his congregations who struggled with various forms of addiction. By struggle, he means that bounced back and forth between alcohol, pills, drugs, and other kinds of addiction. Family and friends tried to intervene, various treatments programs were applied, all failed. Then one spring night the man said, “It was as clear as day, Jesus appeared to me and he touched me. In an instant I was delivered of this demon that stalked me for so long.”
Some in the congregation snickered behind his back, “Wonder if he was sober when he saw Jesus?” Or even more cynically, “Isn’t it a shame Jesus couldn’t have shown up 10 years ago when he still had a wife!”
Says Willimon, “When I was asked to rule on the validity of this man’s miraculous healing, all I could say – as the informed spiritual authority – was, “Well, who knows, he says he’s healed, he said Jesus did it, who are we to doubt?”
When asked to explain himself, as to why Jesus cured him and not the other addicted persons in the congregation, the man replied, “Hey – all I know is I was a drunk. I was going down for the third time, I was unable to help myself, and then Jesus cured me. That’s all I know.” But he remained sober and free for his remaining years. Sometimes, like this man, like the blind man in the Gospel, when asked about our faith or our experience or even our healing, we don’t need arguments or explanations or proofs; all we need to say is, “All I know is this; I once was blind, but now I see.” (Will Willimon, “Let’s Let the Experts Handle This,” A Sermon for Every Sunday, March 20, 2017.)
But here’s the rub: “Do we see?” There are two sides in this story: there is one who was blind who now sees, but there are others who can see that appear blind, in that they can’t see the truth right in front of them.
One of the reasons I don’t like this story is because it comes down hard on people like me, religious professionals, congregational leaders. We’ve got a blind man healed here, by somebody nobody sent from the backwaters of Galilee; what do you think, we’re going to throw a party? No, we’re going to need an interview and documentation. Staff Parish needs to meet to make sure no ethical boundaries were crossed. Trustees needs to meet to make sure there are no liabilities, no mess to clean up after somebody got healed on our property. I expect there will be a new line item in the statistical reports: “People healed this year, with the following boxes: “Blind” “Deaf” “Mute” “Lame” “Other.” Nope, no cynicism here! All I know is we too sometimes overlook the obvious, the good things God does without us, sometimes despite us.
But the point of the story is that it’s not just “religious professionals” who are blind to what’s before us, it can be any of us. All of us have known, or know, people who are blind to something obvious to others. Blind to something affecting our health, like smoking or overeating or an addiction. Blind to the waywardness of a child, or a relationship that is codependent or even abusive. Blind to something hurting not only us, but those around us. I remember watching Cheers, many years ago, and remember Norm famously saying: “I sit on this bar stool night after night wondering where my marriage went wrong.”
If anything, in a society where we now talk about “alternate facts” and “fake news,” where we can have two sets of realities construed from one set of facts, the disparity of who is blind and who sees has become alarming. The New Yorker Magazine parodied this recently in a cartoon: “That was the Democratic weather report; stay tuned for the Republican weather report.” How have we gotten to this place?
The uncomfortable reality is – like the Pharisees in the story – our ability to see the truth is constrained and often captive to our personal narratives, our cultural and political loyalties, our financial and professional interests. Years ago (2004) the author and historian Thomas Franks wrote a book (later made in to a TV series) called, “What’s The Matter with Kansas?” examining how people can be made to vote against their own best interests, by convincing them they are doing the right thing, defending conservative cultural values. That has brought not only Kansas, which is in dire financial shape, but our nation, to where we are today, with dysfunctional governments that cannot govern, especially in the interests of the people they serve.
So you see why we might not like this story; while it may be a comforting story, about how Jesus the Light of the World can help us to see; it is also a challenging story, warning us that we might be the ones who are blind.
As our final song in the service today, we’re going to sing one of our favorites, Amazing Grace, in one of its modern incarnations. Is there any better reference to the story of the man born blind than the line in Amazing Grace? “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now, I see.” But it is also an example of how, even once we can see, we can remain blind.
Amazing Grace was written was John Newton, an 18th century English sailor and Anglican cleric. He was born July 24, 1725, the son of a shipmaster. His mother died before his 7th birthday, and at age 11 he went to sea with his father, sailing six voyages before his father retired in 1742.
The following year, he was pressed into the Royal Navy. He attempted to desert and was punished in front of the crew of 350: stripped to the waist and tied to the grating, he received a flogging of eight-dozen lashes and was reduced to the rank of a seaman. Following that disgrace and humiliation, he contemplated murdering the captain and then committing suicide by throwing himself overboard. Later, he transferred to a slave ship bound for Sierra Leone, West Africa. The ship carried goods to Africa and traded them for slaves to be shipped to England and other countries. There, he was left as the servant to a cruel slave trader.
Eventually he was rescued, and sailed back to England. Off the coast of Donegal, Ireland, the ship encountered a severe storm and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and called out to God as the ship filled with water. After he called out, the cargo stopped up the hole, and the ship drifted to safety. The date was May 10, 1748, an anniversary he marked for the rest of his life, as the beginning of his conversion. From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking, but he continued to work in the slave trade.
Newton obtained a position as first mate aboard another slave ship bound for the West Indies, by way of West Africa. There, while sick with a fever, he professed his full belief in Christ, asked God to take control of his destiny, and later said this experience was his true conversion and the turning point in his spiritual life. But still, he did not renounce the slave trade. After his return to England in 1750, he made three further voyages as the captain of slave-trading ships. He finally gave up seafaring and active slave-trading activities in 1754, after suffering a severe stroke, but continued to invest in the slave trade.
Eventually, after 7 years, he was accepted to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and was appointed to Olney, in Buckinghamshire. In 1767 William Cowper, the poet, moved to Olney, worshipped in the church, and collaborated with Newton on a volume of hymns. It included, among others, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and one called, “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” which later came to be known by its opening phrase, Amazing Grace.
It wasn’t until 1788, 34 years after he had retired from the slave trade, that Newton broke his long silence on the subject with the publication of a forceful pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade”, in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships during the Middle Passage, and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton became an ally of William Wilberforce, leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade, and blind and near death, lived to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.
All I know is this: I want to see. To see people, to see the things God is doing, to see the truth right in front of my face. May Jesus, the light of God, shining in the world, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
To Be Loved is to Be Known;
To Be Known is to be Loved
Pastor David L. Haley
John 4: 5 – 42
March 19th, 2017
“To get to Galilee from Judea, Jesus had to pass through Samaria. He came into Sychar, a Samaritan village that bordered the field Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon.
A woman, a Samaritan, came to draw water. Jesus said, “Would you give me a drink of water?” (His disciples had gone to the village to buy food for lunch.)
The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)
Jesus answered, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
The woman said, “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”
Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
The woman said, “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”
He said, “Go call your husband and then come back.”
“I have no husband,” she said.
“That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”
“Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”
“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”
“I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked. They couldn’t believe he was talking with that kind of a woman. No one said what they were all thinking, but their faces showed it.
The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.
In the meantime, the disciples pressed him, “Rabbi, eat. Aren’t you going to eat?”
He told them, “I have food to eat you know nothing about.”
The disciples were puzzled. “Who could have brought him food?”
Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!
“The Harvester isn’t waiting. He’s taking his pay, gathering in this grain that’s ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That’s the truth of the saying, ‘This one sows, that one harvests.’ I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.”
Many of the Samaritans from that village committed themselves to him because of the woman’s witness: “He knew all about the things I did. He knows me inside and out!” They asked him to stay on, so Jesus stayed two days. A lot more people entrusted their lives to him when they heard what he had to say. They said to the woman, “We’re no longer taking this on your say-so. We’ve heard it for ourselves and know it for sure. He’s the Savior of the world!” – John 4: 29, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Following the Gospel, Pastor Haley played this video, a modern interpretation of the Woman at the Well: [video]
If there is one skill I would like to improve in my life, it is the art of conversation. Why? Because not only is a good conversation a pleasure, it can also be transformative. At its best, conversation can be a means of experiencing the love of God which can be expressed this way: “To be known is to be loved; to be loved is to be known.”
All of us can remember pivotal conversations in our lives. We remember conversations with strangers, with strangers who became friends, with friends who became intimates, even spouses. How many remember their first conversation with the person who was to become their husband or wife? A parishioner years ago told me the first time he saw his future wife, she was dancing at a USO ball with a potato on her head. Hey – if it works, go with it.
Lately, the art of conversation has become not only rare, but difficult. We are spoiled by our devices and communication through social media. Every now and then you see a picture of an entire family sitting at a meal, with everyone staring at their phones, which is why some wise families ban them at the table.
To be skilled at conversation, means to pay attention, to ask questions, and most importantly, to listen. Good conversation take time, which does not happen when we are all in a hurry to get on to the next place and the next person, missing the opportunities we have to have a substantive conversation with the people right in front of us.
Initiating conversations can be tricky, especially for women, for whom conversations can quickly go down the wrong road. Most if not all women could tell stories of conversations begun with an innocent word or look, which head toward harassment. Those of you from Kansas have likely discovered when you walk the streets of Chicago that you are not in Kansas anymore, because Chicagoans rarely make eye contact or greet each other on the street. There is a reason for that: most of us – especially women – have had “learning experiences.” All the more reason genuine conversations are so important.
All these factors are at play in the conversation before us today, the conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well. It is the 3rd conversation we have listened in on this Lent. The first was between Jesus and the Tempter in the desert, and the second was last week, between Jesus and a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus. Of this conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the Well, teacher of preachers, Anna Carter Florence, says this: “If I were asked to pick one story that shows us the most about who Jesus is, it would be this one.“ (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 93).
In order have a short sermon on a long reading, this conversation between Jesus and the Woman at the Well is important – a model of conversation for us – for three reasons:
First of all, because it was a barrier breaking conversation. Why was the woman at the well so shocked that Jesus asked her for water? Because this was a triple taboo conversation that should never have happened. First, Jesus was a man, she was a woman. According to the custom of the time, men did not speak to their wives in public, much less a strange woman. Second, Jesus was a Jew, she was a Samaritan: there was a long and bitter rivalry between Jews and Samaritans; as Eugene Peterson put it, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.” Third, Jesus was a religious leader, a holy man; the fact that the woman came alone at mid-day (a different time than most women) raises possible scandalous implications. And yet, barrier breaker that he was, Jesus initiated a conversation.
It is almost appropriate, but if there was ever a time to initiate barrier breaking conversations in our society it is now. The cultural and political disparities of the last election made clear that we all need to talk: Christians and Jews and Muslims, nativists and immigrants, blacks and whites, blue state people and red state people, young and old, people from Illinois and Kansas. By talking to each other, we can hear each other’s story, and, come to appreciate and maybe even understand why people think the way they do. At its best we gain empathy and love for each other, even those who may be our cultural and polital opponents. Wait, I’m starting to sound like Jesus!
The second reason Jesus’ conversation with the Woman at the Well is important is because that it was substantive, about important things; we do not have to hear chit-chat, about weather, how the Jerusalem Wildcats are doing, about cute cat videos on Facebook. Jesus and the woman talk about what is before them: water, necessary for life, with Jesus making an inviting wordplay on the “Water of Life,” also necessary for life, a full and abundant life, that is. Everyone wants to find meaning, to make a difference, to feel that we are known and loved, not only by people, but also by God. “You have made us for yourself,” said St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Everybody knows you can go into any bar and start a fight over politics or religion; in fact, nowadays, it doesn’t have to be a bar, you can do it anywhere, even in church. But it is my experience that when you take a respectful, listening tone to people’s experience in life with God and spiritual things and what’s happening in their lives, people want to talk.
In the conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well, her whole life spilled out, like water from a bucket, that she had had five husbands. We can’t see Jesus’ face or hear his voice, so we don’t know how or why he says this. Contrary to the traditional interpretation, there is nothing in the story which says this woman is disreputable or has done anything wrong, nor does Jesus condemn her or forgive her.
If she was a five-time loser, maybe it’s because she was widowed or abandoned or divorced, which, for a woman in the ancient world – amounted to the same thing. When this passage was studied with a group of women in AIDS-stricken Southern Africa, they pitied the woman and concluded perhaps she must have been an AIDS carrier — killing her husbands while she remained unaffected. In order words, it may well be that the woman’s story is tragic, rather than scandalous. Could it be that the reason Jesus raised the issue is to say, “I know what you know, and that is no barrier either.” “To be known is to be loved; to be loved is to be known.”
How many people are there — both outside the church and inside the church — who live lives full of shame, imposed either by self or others? They don’t feel like they measure up, and they certainly don’t want to come to church to make it worse, because they feel that if people really knew, they would throw me out. It’s a sad commentary on Church today, that the list of those alienated from church grows longer: gay people, poor people, people with addictions or mental illness, even young people; all those who feel that the church will judge them, and not love and accept them. Which – too often – the church and Christians have indeed done.
Hear the Good News: the message of Jesus is that “I know what you know, and that is not a barrier. The Good News of the Gospel is this: The God revealed in Jesus the Christ intimately know us and accepts us as we are, offering even to us, to drink from the Water of Life.
The third reason this conversation of Jesus with the Woman at the Well is important is that not only was it substantial, but transformative, even life-changing, not only for the woman, but all those to whom she witnesses, including us.
As the conversation progressed, knowing herself to be in the present of a prophet, she asks about race and religion and the things that divided them; things that she had always wanted to ask, but no one would answer. So when Jesus dignified her with an answer, that true worship of God is not defined geographically or racially or even methodically, but by spirit and truth, she drops one last comment: “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes, we’ll get the whole story.” As her life had been revealed to him, he now reveals his life to her: “I am he.”
As preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor puts it:
“It is the first time Jesus has said that to another living soul. It is a moment of full disclosure, in which the triple outsider and the Messiah of God stand face to face with no pretense about who they are. Both stand fully lit at high noon for one bright moment in time, while all the rules, taboos and history that separate them fall forgotten to the ground.”
And she goes on to add:
“The Messiah is the one who shows you who you are by showing you who he is — who crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules, drops all disguises — speaking to you like someone you have known all your life, bubbling up in your life like a well that needs no dipper, so that you go back to face people you thought you could never face again, speaking to them as boldly as he spoke to you. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Face to Face With God,” The Christian Century, February 28, 1996)
How many people are out there there like this woman at the well? Waiting for someone to start a conversation that will break down the barriers that divide – whether of religion or race or culture or class or stereotype – waiting for someone who will treat them with dignity and respect, listen to their questions, accept them, and love them, as Jesus loved the Woman at the Well. Who knows what might come of it?
I know I am “Spirit-led” in sermons when life colludes to illustrate them; and this week that was the case. At a recent SkokieCares meeting, I sat at a table with several people, including the Skokie Fire Chief, the Village Manager, a trustee, the owner of the Holiday Inn and others, but also a young mother who attended out of her own interest and concern, especially her concern for her children. After the meeting, she was standing alone, so I went to talk to her, if only briefly. I was surprised and impressed this week, when I got this note. (I am omitting personal information).
“Dear Pastor Haley, my name is _______, and we met at the Skokie Cares meeting last week.
I just wanted to let you know that your kindness and thoughtfulness have left a lingering impression on me, and I feel like I missed an opportunity to ask better questions in order to learn more about you and how you envision working for a more caring and connected community that reaches out across cultural and religious lines.
Thank you for speaking with me, and I hope to speak with you again soon. Sincerely, _______”
May the Spirit move us to talk to people – diverse and different people – in order that by the grace of God, our lives, their lives, and who knows how many others, might be touched and transformed by a simple yet compassionate conversation, like this one of Jesus, with the Woman at the Well. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Hidden No Longer
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 1 –17
The 2nd Sunday in Lent
March 12th, 2017
“There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — to God’s kingdom.”
“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” – John 3: 1 – 17, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Clandestine meetings, they are called; meetings that occur in secret, because something is illicit and those involved want no one to know. Usually such meetings occur in a private place, under cover of darkness, off the record. One thinks of meeting between lovers who shouldn’t be, drug deals, cloak-and-dagger spy exchanges, and conversations that never happened.
As everyone knows, clandestine meetings are a standard feature of politics, especially in the news of late. Leaks by those who prefer to remain anonymous, meetings which should not have taken place but did, either denied or “not remembered” when questioned about. As everyone knows, multiple investigations have been launched regarding clandestine meetings between members of the Trump Administration and the Russians; who knew what and when did they know it? In the light of the fact that the Russians hacked the recent Presidential election, it remains to be seen where such allegations will lead. Personally, I am thankful for a free press, who – when there is a lot of smoke, searches for the underlying fire. The Washington Post recently adapted as its motto, “Democracy dies in darkness.” As indeed it does, often through clandestine meetings.
However, in this day and time is it even possible to have clandestine meetings? Now, when we are not only tracked but spied upon by our devices (including our phones), when almost everything we do and everywhere we go leaves an electronic trail, when ubiquitous security cameras record everything we do in public and some in private, is there such a thing as a clandestine meeting? It may take digging, but sooner or later the truth comes out. As Jesus once said, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3) More than we ever thought possible, we should keep Jesus’ words in mind.
In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to talk with Jesus in what might well be one of the most famous clandestine meetings in history, certainly in the Bible.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, hovering on the margins and in the shadows. He was – after all – a Pharisee, a part of the Jewish establish- ment, for whom Jesus was at first a nuisance, but then a political problem and a threat. No doubt it was difficult, perhaps even dangerous, for Nicodemus to follow Jesus publicly, in the bright light of the day; so he visits Jesus at night, being cautious, exercising discretion. He is not the first nor the last of Jesus’ disciples who followed Jesus from afar, as well as those disciples who must be careful about when, where, and how they practice their discipleship.
There are still many countries of the world where the political or religious climate necessitates this; in fact, so do some work environments in our own country. Say too much about questionable ethical or business practices, stand up as a whistle- blower – even if it is the “right” thing to do – and see what happens. I don’t know if you have read about sexual assault in the military; did you know an estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the military in 2012, the most recent year statistics are available? Of those, only 1 in 7 victims reported their attacks, and just 1 in 10 of those cases went to trial. Many – if not most – of the victims were further victimized by going public or pressing charges.
Throughout my ministry I have preached the story of Nicodemus many times, just as I am sure that you have heard it many times. Most often, we hurry to the “good parts,” the parts about being born again and of course John 3:16, where we all stand up and take our hats off, put our hands over our hearts and recite with solemnity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Too often we have made Nicodemus into a fall guy, who asks the dumb questions we have wondered about but would never ask out loud. The kind of questions we ask only in clandestine meetings, which are – after all – the kinds of meetings we prefer if we ever need to visit a counselor, an AA meeting, an AIDS clinic, or even a pastor. “I don’t want anybody to see me coming or going.”
After preaching and hearing this story all these years, I have not only continued to learn from it but now have a new perspective on it: now whenever I hear it I chuckle, because it is such a funny story. Not only is Nicodemus not the bad guy or the clueless foil, Nicodemus is so like us, struggling to understand, which the trickster Jesus never makes easy.
Part of the problem with a text telling a story is that we do not get the non-verbal communication part of the story, which expresses 93% of communication. Don’t you prefer – when possible – to talk to people in person, especially when it’s about important things? As they talk, was Nicodemus or Jesus solemn and intense, or smiling and winking? Did Jesus tap Nicodemus’ arm with an amused grin, when he said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?” Was Nicodemus nodding in agreement, or constantly throwing up his hands and shrugging his shoulders? Were there long silences – during which Jesus heard the wind blow – or did they talk over each other? When they parted, did they part with a handshake, an embrace, or by “agreeing to disagree?” John doesn’t say.
But even not knowing this, what’s funny about this story?
First of all, as I was saying before, about whether it’s possible to have clandestine meetings. Think about it: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night so as not to be seen or heard, and here we are still talking about it on a Sunday morning two millennia later, on the other side of the planet. So much for clandestine meetings, any time, any place. Sorry, Nicodemus, for your privacy concerns; you might just as well have videotaped and broadcast it on the 10 o’clock news. “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
Secondly, what’s funny are the “word plays” Jesus used; no wonder Nicodemus was confused, people have been confused ever since. Partly, because they are ambiguous: The word we usually read as “born again,“ (Greek “anothen”) can actually be translated in three different ways: “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” Most commonly, it means “from above,” literally, “from top to bottom,” and is the same word used in Matthew 27:51, when, at Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple split “from top to bottom.” So, what Jesus said to Nicodemus was, “Nicodemus, you’ve got to be born from above, from top to bottom.”
Don’t you find it ironic that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of being born again is our best-known understanding? With the result that, this passage has been used in some pretty awful ways. All of us have likely been asked by some well-meaning Christian: “Are you born again?”, meaning, “Are you saved, like I am saved?” Which is perceived by many as, “Are you crazy, like I am crazy?”
As Jesus used it, it was less a command than an invitation. Nicodemus is gestating, like a child in the womb, in the dark of night. He must be born again, anew, from above, from top-to-bottom, and let God work in his life, until God shines in his life, in the light of day.
How can this be? How does one do this? One doesn’t, God does. Don’t you find it interesting that Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ question of “How can this be?” by citing two of the most mysterious, uncontrollable forces in life: birth and wind? If it were a matter of technique or method — Jesus couldn’t have brought up worse examples.
There are those who want the spiritual life to be like logic, like math. Everything must be right and wrong, black and white, with no shades in between. Give me a formula, a method, four spiritual laws, ten steps, help me understand: how can this be? I’ve known people like that; haven’t you?
There are others — as Jesus seems here — for whom the spiritual life is less like math and more like music. It flows, there are melodies and harmonies, crescendos and pauses. It’s like birth, or wind, both powerful and uncontrollable, and we are swept away. You’ve got to let go, and let it flow. What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus is this: “It’s a gift, Nicodemus, don’t overthink it; just receive it!”
From this point on, who says what gets murky; in John’s Gospel, conversations give way to speeches. From here on, red-letter Bibles, highlighting the words of Jesus, get confused: Is this Jesus talking or John? Does it matter?
Regardless of who is speaking, what comes next is the funniest thing of all – in that it is likely the most loved, but also THE MOST misunderstood verse in the Bible: John 3:16. The German Reformer Martin Luther called it, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” We see it on a sign held up by a guy in a rainbow-colored wig sitting between the uprights at a football game. Maybe it is our favorite Biblical verse: “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.” (New Revised Standard Version)
I like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message, which puts the emphasis in the right place: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
Which to some, is even more mind-boggling than what Jesus told Nicodemus. Because based upon this verse, what we have been told, and what most people think the Gospel is, is this: “There is a God, but God is angry with us because of our sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all, such that though we know it not, we are all heading for eternal torment in hell. Instead, God decided to vent his anger on someone else, someone completely innocent, his one and only son. With the result that, God’s wrath is quenched, and if we but believe this story we will no longer go to hell but to heaven someday.
Does that sound like a loving God to you? Most thoughtful people who hear it don’t think so either. According to a proper reading of John 3:16, the real truth of the story – as Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright puts it – is this: “the God of creation is a God of love: utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love.” What John’s Gospel says is this: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son;” Not, “God so hated the world that he killed his Only Son.” God has done all the heavy lifting, all we need to do is trust. It is less about heaven someday, than participating in God’s “full and lasting life” now, as Eugene Peterson more correctly renders it.” Being a Christian is less about going to heaven when we die, than it is participating in the revolution of love unleashed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Nicodemus, through misunderstanding, we distort the whole picture. (N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Whey the Gospel is Good News and What Makes It Good, 2015, p. 68-69)
How is this remotely funny, you might ask? I once heard a mythical story about two people who disagreed with each other their whole lives. When one of them died, he got to heaven, where he found out he was wrong. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Too many people are getting it wrong, which is so outrageous it’s funny.
Thankfully, for Nicodemus and for us, the wind continues to blow. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus was one of those who lovingly cared for Jesus body by anointing it with costly spices before placing it in the tomb, which he did in the bright light of day, not caring who knew or saw.
For us, the wind also continues to blow. Through his not-so-clandestine meeting, Nicodemus reminds us that even the best educated and most authoritative among us are still searching, our faith still seeking understanding, even as we still ponder the questions and answers Jesus gave to Nicodemus so long ago. Even when we fall on our face, better to laugh at our efforts, and get up and try again. We can only hope, no one sees.
Central United Methodist Church
What We Learn in the Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 4: 1 –11
The 1st Sunday in Lent
March 5th, 2017
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”
– Matthew 4: 1 – 11, The New Revised Standard Version
One of the more thought-provoking movies of last year was Rodrigo Garcia’s Last Days in the Desert, an imaginative film about Jesus’ last days in the wilderness. It takes awhile to get used to Jesus as played by a Scotsman, Ewan McGregor, but it works.
After a month of solitary wandering, Yeshua is tired, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and lonely, weary of not hearing his Father’s voice. He implores, “Father, where are you?” and “Father, speak to me!” yelling with frustration into the wind. The only voice that answers is the devil, his evil twin, a mirror image of himself. This devil taunts Yeshua, trying to plant doubts about whether his father really loves him, and whether his father even loves anyone other than himself. But Yeshua steadfastly refuses to give in to all temptations. In time, he happens upon a family in the wilderness who recognize him as a holy man, offering him shelter and hospitality. In return, he offers them help with some carpentry.
While Yeshua, as played by Ewan McGregor, is the center of the movie, a strong supporting role is played by the desert itself. The bleached-out grandeur and ripples of sand that form the Anza-Borrego Desert southeast of Los Angeles (standing in for Israel’s Negev) demonstrate how the desert can be at the same time, both beautiful and threatening. To get a sense of the movie and the story, take a look: [Last Days in the Desert trailer]
For most Christians, the story is both familiar and unfamiliar. Familiar, because each year as we begin our Lenten journey toward Easter, we begin with Jesus in the wilderness. Three of the four gospels tell how, after his baptism by John, Jesus goes into the Judean Desert to fast and pray for forty days. During this time, Satan – the Accuser – tempts and tests Jesus, and each time he resists. By the time Jesus leaves the wilderness, he is ready – in every way – to begin his public ministry.
In other ways, however, the wilderness is unfamiliar to us, and I found Last Days in the Desert helpful in its real images of wilderness, which most of us have a hard time appreciating, having never experienced it ourselves. We tend to think of these scenes in cartoon images, but actual wilderness is real and imposing. Perhaps, at some time or another, maybe on the moonscape of a mountain top or the edge of the Grand Canyon, we have stood on the edge of the wilderness, and while it was beautiful, it was also daunting. Not only is there no entertainment, no iPhone or internet, no YouTube or Facebook, there are no amenities: no comfort, no water, the blazing sun in the day and chilling cold at night. All wilderness – and especially desert – is a hostile environment; make a mistake, and you die there, even without devils to tempt you. I like what Jesus’ host says to him in the movie, when Jesus asks him why he lives there: “The desert is ruthless; it strips you of your vanities, your illusions, gives you the opportunity to see yourself for who you really are. Isn’t that why you’re here, because your God speaks louder here?”
On the other hand, I believe that even if we have never been in the actual wilderness, most of us know what the wilderness experience is. It might be in a living room or a hospital room or a living room. It might be in the form of a pink slip and a final paycheck. It might be in the form of a divorce, a struggling child, or an illness, physical or mental, like depression or schizophrenia. It might be the space around the slow or sudden death of someone we love, and the long grief which follows. The wilderness experience might even involve the loss of faith. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Wildernesses come in so many shapes and sizes that the only way you can really tell you are in one is to look around for what you normally count on to save your life and come up empty.”
As a pastor, I have had the opportunity, sometimes to stand on the edge of the wilderness and observe – sometimes to experience wilderness with other people. Let me share just one, from this week. In my previous congregation there was a woman who suffered from severe mental illness; I think it was schizophrenia. Sadly, at times it got so bad that for their own safety, her parents had to lock her out of the house. (Can you imagine that?) Sometimes, she slept on the porch; mostly, she was homeless. Not only did she sleep in the homeless shelter at our church, she attended our church. Sometimes, she would leave a door propped open, so she could get in to sleep at night. Sometimes, she came to worship; I will never forget the prayers she shared – like announcements – for friends on the street. Last Thursday night, she slept in the homeless shelter, on Friday she was taken to the hospital, on Saturday, at the age of 61, she died. Life on the streets – especially when you are mentally ill – is hard. When I heard of her death I wept, wishing I had been kinder to her. Not that I was ever mean to her; in fact, I think our whole congregation was kind to her, I just wish we could have done more for her. The wilderness that some people experience in their lives is more than I think I could handle. All of us know families like this – sometimes our own – who wander in a wilderness, not of their own choosing.
Apart from the deprivations of the desert, with this experience also comes temptation, the testing of our character that is part of the wilderness experience. As we have liked learned from experience, it is when we are weak – when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired – that we are most vulnerable. In the movie, the taunt of the devil at such at time was to call into question the Father’s love: “Does he really love you?” At such times, we might begin to wonder.
In the Gospel, Jesus is tempted by the devil to turn stones to bread, to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, testing his father’s rescue; to reign over earthly kingdoms, “if only you will bend down and worship me.” In every instance, Jesus chose deprivation over gratification, vulnerability over rescue, and obscurity over honor.
Because Jesus chooses God’s way, what happens in the desert will not stay in the desert: in time he will feed thousands in the wilderness, and teach them to pray for their daily bread. He will not stand upon the temple and bask in adulation, but hang upon a cross and endure the taunts of others. Turning down the offer of power over kingdoms, instead he would offer to all kingdoms the Kingdom of Heaven. Through acts of power, maybe Jesus saved a few hundred or a few thousand in Galilee, but through his willingness to bear his cross, he saved the world. (Debbie Roberts, Journey with Jesus, March 9, 2014)
When our time of testing comes, we won’t necessarily face the same tests Jesus faced, our tests will be different. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “When it’s our turn, none of us is going to get the Son of God test. We’re going to get the regular old Adam and Eve test, which means that the devil won’t need much more than an all-you-can-eat buffet and a tax refund to turn our heads.”
In her commentary on this text in Feasting on the Word, Maryetta Anschutz puts it this way:
“Temptation comes in moments when we look at others and feel insecure for not having enough. Temptation comes in judgments we make about strangers or friends who make choices we do not understand. Temptation rules us, making us able to look away from those in need and to live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, and disease. Temptation rages in moments when we allow our temper to define our lives or when addiction to wealth, power, influence over others, vanity, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are. Temptation wins when we engage in the justification of little lies, small sins: a racist joke, a questionable business practice for the greater good, a criticism of a spouse or partner when he or she is not around. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we lose sight of life itself. These are the faceless moments of evil that, while mundane, lurk in the recesses of our lives and our souls.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, p. 48)
It seems to me that temptations such as these are rampant in our society today. We – as the Church of Jesus Christ, and as Christians – must choose: will we accommodate and surrender to these temptations, or will we uphold the vows we took at our baptism: “To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, to reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin; to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
In the end, Last Days in the Desert ends the way we know it will, with Jesus hanging on a cross, once again experiencing wilderness, utilizing what he had learned in the wilderness to get him through, maintaining his love and trust in God to the end.
This is why we are given Lent; this is why we are given these forty days and forty nights, this is why we begin in the wilderness. This time is given as a gift to us in order that we might enter into ancient practices such as solitude and prayer and study and worship and generosity and learning to trust even when it is almost impossible to do so. Because on that day when we enter a wilderness not of our own choosing, we will need everything we have learned in the wilderness to get us through, as Jesus did. (Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word, “And Suddenly Angels Came, February 28, 2017)
May God be with us throughout these forty days of Lent and especially when we are in the wilderness, until an Easter of unending joy, we may attain at last. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
We Don’t Need a Mountain to Know
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 17: 1 – 9
Transfiguration of the Lord
February 26th, 2017
Six days later, three of them saw Jesus’ glory. Jesus took Peter and the brothers, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. Sunlight poured from his face. His clothes were filled with light. Then they realized that Moses and Elijah were also there in deep conversation with him.
Peter broke in, “Master, this is a great moment! What would you think if I built three memorials here on the mountain — one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah?”
While he was going on like this, babbling, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and sounding from deep in the cloud a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.”
When the disciples heard it, they fell flat on their faces, scared to death. But Jesus came over and touched them. “Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.
Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t breathe a word of what you’ve seen. After the Son of Man is raised from the dead, you are free to talk.”
– Matthew 17: 1 – 9, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
Do you ever wonder what we are missing by living here in the flat Midwest, not near mountains of any kind? How many have ever lived near mountains? Do you miss them?
Last week as I was driving, I looked down at my emergency brake and thought about this. You know what an emergency brake is, right? Over the last 20 years, I have owned 2 cars, and I figure I have used the emergency brake maybe twice. Here in the Midwest, there are hardly any hills where we need to use it; most of the time, if we left our car in neutral it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. All our emergency brakes are likely rusted and useless.
What else we miss other than using our emergency brakes is not having hills and mountains as places of pilgrimage and retreat. All the places I have visited in the world near mountains – whether the Smoky Mountains, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas – are places of adventure, retreat, and pilgrimage. Yes, it takes effort to ascend them – whether by walking, car, or bus – but once you reach the top, the view is commanding, sometimes breath-taking. It gives us a different perspective not only on the world but upon our lives. It makes us feel like we are looking out not only over where we have come from, but where we are going. No wonder we like such high places, towering over the fatlands of our lives.
Might this be why Jesus took three disciples with him up Mt. Tabor? Mt. Tabor, 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, rises dramatically out of the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Jesus and his disciples were concluding a busy time of ministry throughout Galilee, and not without controversy. Just before this, Jesus revealed what the next chapter was going to be, how it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised. Understandably, his disciples found this unthinkable, with Peter grabbing Jesus and protesting, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!” So maybe it was time for a break, a new perspective, a pivot point, to prepare for what lay ahead. Up Mt. Tabor Jesus went, with three disciples, Peter, James, and John.
This story of what happened on the mountain, known as the Transfiguration of Jesus, also serves as a pivot point for us in the church year. The Transfiguration story links to three seasons: it concludes the season of light and revelation we call Epiphany; it precedes the descent down the mountain and the road to Jerusalem we call Lent, and it anticipates the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, that we call Easter.
But the story of what happened on the mountain is also one of the most confusing stories in the Gospels. As Peter, James, and John were praying, Jesus was transfigured before them. He was joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and the prophets. No one knew what to say except Peter, who always had something to say. So, as Peter began to babble about tents and memorials and possibly a tourism ministry, there came a voice from heaven, saying the same thing they had heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, marked by my love, focus of my delight. Listen to him.” It was enough to shut them up and make them fall on their faces in fear. Until there was no more vision or voice, but sunshine and silence, a tap on the shoulder and the voice of Jesus, like that of a parent waking a child, saying: “Get up; do not be afraid.”
If – thousands of years later – we still find this story confusing, it has endured because we also find it comforting. Because while we may not understand what happened on the mountain or what it meant, at least we learn how Jesus would have us react to events that challenge our comprehension and paralyze us with fear.
For most of us, the life and times we live in right now are such times. Most day’s headlines are confusing and sometimes outrageous, full of divisive rhetoric, increased anxiety, and the prospect of an unclear future. This past week there has been much alarming news: increased ICE deportation raids tearing families apart; two Indian engineers shot in Olathe, Kansas, one killed, by a drunken Navy veteran who thought they were from the Middle East, shouting, “Get out of my country.” There are also increasing reports of mosques burned, and Jewish synagogues and cemeteries desecrated. But there was also encouraging news: In St. Louis, Muslims have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for that vandalized Jewish cemetery.
All of us have moments in our lives, where – like Jesus disciples – we are overwhelmed by what we have seen and heard. There are days we would just as soon stay in bed and cover our eyes and ears. There are times where it takes everything in us to find the strength and courage to get up and face our anxieties and fears, some of which are different for each of us, some of which are common to all of us:
- Our fear of inadequacy, of failing, whether our families, our friends, ourselves.
- Our fear of shame, of saying and doing the wrong thing, of not measuring up to what we believe is expected of us, of feeling unworthy of love, whether by God or others.
- Our fear of the other, especially those who might think – rightly or wrongly – seek to hurt or to harm us such as through acts of terrorism.
- Our fear of dissolution, especially the inevitable changes of aging and illness and death.
Given these fears among many others, we could not do better than to heed the three words of instruction, command, and promise in this story. Those three words are: “Listen to him.” “Be raised up.” “Do not be afraid.”
First, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Amidst all the voices crying out today, too many are filled with resentment and hate. Amid such voices, surely those of us who call ourselves Christians need more than ever to come to church and listen to Jesus. Judging by all those under the big tent of American Christianity, while different Christians hear different things, can we agree that the best way to understand God and God’s will for humanity is to look to Jesus and listen to him? When we do this, we do not hear Jesus say the kinds of things we are hearing today. As the old saying goes, “Who would Jesus bomb, or deport, or deprive of medical care?” After all, as the saying goes, “Jesus was a brown-skinned socialist of Middle Eastern descent who provided free bread and medical care to all.”
Second, Jesus’ command: “Get up.” Except it’s not just “get up;” the word Matthew uses is the same word used of the Resurrected Jesus: “Raised!” In other words, what Jesus is saying is “Be raised up!”
How do we do it, how do we get ourselves out of bed every morning and face a new day, day in and day out, in the face of the anxieties and challenges we face?
I had a professor once, who shared with us how he was having trouble getting up in the morning. He said he resolved to get up, open the window, take a deep breath of invigorating air, and begin with the day. So, he said the first day he got up, pulled himself to the window, threw it open and felt the cold air, and jumped back into bed and covered his head with the blankets. There are some days, that is the way we feel, and not just from open windows and cold air.
How do we do it? Purely by grace. Just when we think we can’t do it, Jesus taps us on the shoulder and reassures us, not only asking us but giving us the courage and strength to get up and carry on, despite our fears. Day by day, God’s Spirit breathes God’s power and grace into us; this is how we ourselves are transformed and transfigured, from frightened, anxious, helpless people into strong, confident, capable disciples able to get up and do what needs to be done; not only to bemoan the state of the world, but to do something about it.
Finally, there is this: “Do not be afraid.” In many ways, these words are a summary of the Gospel, recurring over and again. They were announced at Jesus’ birth to terrified shepherds. They are announced here on the mountain and upon a restless sea to terrified disciples. They were announced to the women who discovered an empty tomb on that first Easter morning: “Do not be afraid!”
To hear these words and to assimilate them into our hearts is needed, now as much as ever, when fear is not only a part of our lives, but used to manipulate us to do things we would never otherwise do. So when Jesus says, “Get up, and do not be afraid,” he was saying that not only to them but to all would-be followers, that part of faith is finding the courage to get up and keep moving forward, even at those times when we are confused, uncertain, or fearful. God does not want us to be afraid, but to move forward with courage and confidence.
Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear. These words spoken about and by Jesus were not an excuse to hide out on the mountain, but to head back down into the valley. They were not an excuse to reside in spiritual fantasy, but to head back into the earthly reality. What lay ahead was the journey to Jerusalem, where – despite his glory – Jesus would be arrested, tried, condemned, and crucified, for then as now the world has no place for the message he preaches. Not until his surprising resurrection at Easter will we understand that in vindication of his life, his message, and his ministry, God will raise him up.
In the end, it turns out that we don’t need a mountain to know, that whether on mountains high or in valleys deep, whether in dazzling light or darkest night, whether during mountaintop experiences or when paralyzed with fear, God is with us, saying:
“Listen to him.”
“Be raised up!”
“Do not fear!”
For this sermon I would like to acknowledge two helpful commentaries, that of Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser, “Shine!”, at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship Ministries, www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/shine-preaching-notes; and Dr. David Lose’s usual helpful weekly lectionary commentary, “Transfiguration – A: “Timely Words,” posted February 22, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/
Central United Methodist Church
Choosing Life, Part 2
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 33 – 48
February 19, 2017
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
– Matthew 5: 33 – 48, The New Revised Standard Version
One of the Great Americans who died last year was Harper Lee, who wrote the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, now an essential part of a good education.
To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book turned into a great movie and there are many great scenes, but there is one scene that is particularly hard to sit through, and that is this one, where Bob Ewell, Atticus Finch’s accuser (and the likely perpetrator of the crime), spits in Atticus’ face. [Video]
In such a situation, what should we do, what would you do? Most of us know what we would do: we would teach Bob Ewell a lesson, about how not to call people names or spit in people’s faces. But in so doing, we would likely perpetuate the cycle of violence, possibly inviting worse consequences.
How many of us would even have the moral strength to do what Atticus did: at first, like us, to move toward Ewell, but then restrain himself and walk away, a bigger man than ever. Atticus did the right thing, which would have longer lasting and greater consequences.
It is just such moral strength that Jesus asks of us today, in what is surely the most challenging section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the famous six antitheses: “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” regarding six representative issues: anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday, we considered anger, adultery, and divorce; today we consider oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Last Sunday we looked upon practicing these virtues as a way of “choosing life,” not only for ourselves but for others; likewise, not to do so diminishes life, not only for ourselves but for others.
The phrases in this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are so familiar and beautiful that sometimes we forget how demanding they are: “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” How lovely, yet how impossible!
I imagine Jesus’ initial hearers saying: “But we live under a brutal occupation by the Romans. You expect us to take it, to do whatever they say, without standing up or fighting back?”
In our time, I think of African-Americans suffering racial discrimination, Japanese Americans and Holocaust survivors with tattooed numbers from internment, Hispanic Americans being detained, victims of abuse, women who make less than men doing the same job; LGQBT people sometimes denied even basic rights. In short, all who suffer at the hands of oppressors. Surely, to them, Jesus’ call to forgive and to reconcile and even pray for their oppressors, rings hollow, and sounds like resignation to evil.
Let’s face it, especially right now in our society, it is easier to be mean, to bully, to hold grudges, to ignore those in need. After all, if we give to everybody who begs, we will have nothing left for ourselves. If we turn the other cheek, we will get slapped again. If we are sued, we will hire the best lawyer we can afford to fight back. If we love our enemies, we will be persecuted or killed. If we are nice, we’ll be weak, pushovers, doormats. Are we to take Jesus seriously? Taken at face value, I don’t think Jesus’ teachings would get him elected dogcatcher right now.
Through the centuries, preachers have reassured Christians, “Don’t worry, these phrases are figures of speech.” They are “ideal rules of the kingdom not practical in the real world;” an ethic for somebody other than us. And congregations have collectively sighed: “Thank God; I was afraid Jesus actually meant for us to practice them!”
But doesn’t he? With what we know about Jesus, does he sound like he is pretending? If anything, Jesus is doubling down on previous ethical teaching. As I said last week regarding anger, adultery, and divorce, it is not enough to meet the minimum daily requirements. It is not enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” The last time I looked, I was still married; check! In each case, Jesus BEGINS with the legal standard, but extends and transcends it’s meaning. What God asks of us is not “rule keeping,” but genuine moral and spiritual transformation.
Today Jesus elaborates on three additional issues: the swearing of oaths, non-retaliation, and loving not just our neighbors, but even our enemies.
Jesus is not talking about swearing, at which we may or may not be proficient, but the swearing of oaths, like when we place our hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, “so help us God.” Jesus is saying that, on the contrary, if we are simple and clear and truthful in all our speech, as God desires us to be, then it would not be necessary to swear oaths by all that is holy that we promise to tell the truth, THIS TIME. It sounds simple, but if you haven’t noticed, truth is an endangered species these days.
It’s the same with retaliation, striking back, walking the extra mile, blessing and not cursing. If we humble ourselves, no one can humiliate us. If we give away our coat, no one can take it from us. If we choose to walk that extra mile, no one can force us. When we are in control of ourselves, no one can have power over us. It is a moral power, the likes of which the world has rarely tried; but when it has, it has produced results such as the world has rarely seen.
Mohandas Gandhi thought so highly of the Sermon on the Mount that it influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British in India. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement demonstrated how powerful nonviolence and non-retaliation can be in affecting social change. The images of those who marched in Birmingham and Montgomery, who faced snarling dogs and fire hoses, who rode buses through the south, who integrated lunch counters – even as they were physically and verbally abused without responding in kind – are profiles in courage as certain as any soldier who ever served in combat.
But Jesus continues: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This is hard, especially when our eyes are filled with tears and our hearts are filled with anger. Don’t you find that we stumble over it, every Sunday in our prayers? When we struggle to pray, not just for our theoretical enemies, but for our real enemies, not only the people who make us angry, but those who would seek to hurt us? This is hard.
Why should we do it? For three reasons. First, though not mentioned in the text, there is the issue of what holding hate does to us. As Dr. King once put it in a sermon on loving your enemies:
“Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life and your existence. It is like eroding acid that eats away the best and the objective center of your life. So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.” (Loving Your Enemies, November 17, 1957)
Secondly, when we pray for someone, they become less our enemy and more someone for whom we might have empathy, even compassion, someone who we might be able to love.
But the most important reason – named in the text – is this: Because – says Jesus – this is who God is, and this is what God does. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
As beautiful and as challenging as it is, the Sermon on the Mount is a portrait of the heart of God: God who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak go another mile, lend, love the enemy — because that is how God loves. If we want to follow this God, fleshed out in Jesus, we are adopted into a life in which – before we know what we are doing – we find ourselves loving this way. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, Jason Byassee, p. 382)
Did Jesus live this way? Yes, he did. Said the ancient Christian teacher, Hilary of Poitier: “The Lord who accompanies us on our journey offers his own cheek to slaps and his shoulders to whips, to the increase of his glory.”
Can we do it, especially in this time of polarization and vilification, can we dig down deep, summon the better angels of our nature, practice non-violence, and respond to antagonists with love? Can we turn the other cheek, not respond in kind, forgo revenge, give more than required, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, greet the stranger, love the enemy, and pray for our persecutors? Could we even do what Atticus Finch did? What would happen if we do?
Nobody can say what might happen as powerfully as Dr. King did. In a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” as far back as November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:
“So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”
Can we do it? With God’s help – and only with God’s help – I believe we can. As a follower of Jesus, I’m going to be working on it and I know you will too. Amen.
Central United Methodist Church
Choose Life, Part 1
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 5: 21 – 32
February 12, 2017
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.
“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.
“Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.
“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.
“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.” – Matthew 5: 21 – 32, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
The overall theme for this Sunday and next Sunday is announced not by the Gospel, but by the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy: “Choose life!”
“Choose life” was not a bumper sticker on Moses’ car, but his final plea to the children of Israel. He reminded them that despite all they had been through, they still had a choice: to choose life by following God and God’s commandments, or to turn their backs on God, forsaking God’s command- ments. Which will it be?
But suppose when Moses said this, some seeker or smart aleck had raised his hand and said, “Rabbi Moses – exactly how do we choose life by following the commandments?” Do you mean just the ten commandments, or all 613 commandments; the 248 positive commandments, one for every bone in the body, or the 365 negative commandments, one for every day in the year? And, Rabbi Moses – a follow up question – how would you have us follow them: literally or figuratively? One might imagine Moses would have had security remove him, or ask for a localized lightning strike from his friend, God.
Ah, there’s the rub. If we “choose life,” which rules do we follow, and how do we interpret them, literally or figuratively? Do we dress like orthodox Jews, or like the Amish, or – as most of us – do we keep our faith hidden, and practice the rules in our behavior and in our heart?
In today’s reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is the question: How do we interpret and follow God’s commandments? And – perhaps even more importantly – what is the point of following them at all?
This Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus talks about six representative issues – anger, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies. Each time Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Even though Jesus’ antithesis – as they are called – fill less than a page, entire books have been written about them, so there is no way I can address them fully in the short time we have. Let’s split them into two groups of 3 each. Today, let’s do anger, adultery, and divorce. (That sounds bad, especially in church!)
As you might gather from Jesus’ statement, there was no shortage of interpretation about how to interpret the law in his time. Not only were there the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes, even among the Pharisees (the movement to whom Jesus was closest), there were differing interpretations, such as the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammei, about such things as – for example – how difficult or how easy it should be to divorce your wife. I might note it was not the first or the last time, when MEN wanted to make the rules that pertain to WOMEN.
Might I add that while we may look with amused curiosity upon the differing schools of interpretation in 1st century Judaism, it is worse today. To begin with, in a text based society – our text being the Constitution of the United States – how it is interpreted is critical, which is why the appointment of judges is so important.
In regard to religious interpretation, not only do we have more religious options (Christianity and Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and of course, NONE) we have extremely diverse interpretation just within Christianity. Not only are we Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant, there are over 200+ varieties of Protestants, and far more non-denominational churches. And among each of those of those there is the spectrum of progressive, evangelical, and conservative. Throw in the volatile mix of cultural and political loyalties in the Age of Trump, and today we have Christians denouncing and defriending each other: “My way is the way of life; your way is the way of death.” Now – more than ever – we must learn how not only to respectfully disagree but charitably disagree, without vilifying each other.
Because – in the face of differing interpretations and corresponding animosity – Jesus steps forward to say:
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.”
“You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices — they also corrupt.
“Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’? Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.”*
As Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary points out, the irony is that this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demonstrates the difficulties of the interpretation of Scripture. Jesus shows us that the complexity of making sense of faith is part of faith, but – even more significantly – he also models the hard work of interpreting Scripture for new times, new places, and new circumstances. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”
At root, what Jesus is teaching in these six antitheses, is about “choosing life.” Jesus is saying that life is diminished, not only when life is taken, but when anger and judgment and insult reign. Jesus is saying that life is diminished, when women are objectified and dehumanized, seen as existing only for the fulfillment of male sexual desire or to carry on the family name. Jesus is saying that life is diminished when women are discarded, solely judged upon their capacity to satisfy privileged and patriarchal needs, or their capacity to bear children. While it was worse in Jesus’ time, while it was bad up almost until modern times, if you haven’t noticed, there are still a lot of these attitudes out there, right up into the highest chambers of our land. (Karoline Lewis, “Choose Life,” Dear Working Preacher, February 5, 2017)
So – as difficult as these ideals Jesus taught may be – when we practice them, we choose life. Jesus is trying to tell us that God is not interested in us keeping the law for the law’s sake, God wants us to keep the law for our sake. Think of it as the fence – not keeping us out of, but keeping us in – the good life.
As difficult as they may be – when we practice them, we choose life, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors. Rolf Jacobson, another professor at Luther Seminary, once said of Joel Osteen’s best-selling book, Your Best Life Now, that it would be a lot closer to the biblical vision of life if it had been titled instead, Your Neighbor’s Best Life Now. At its best, the Law – at its best, and especially as taught by Jesus – reveal the parental heart of a God who desires the health and happiness of ALL God’s children.
David Lose shares a story which he says captures this for him. He says his friend, Frank, who was about eight years old at the time, started an argument with his sister. Before long, arguing turned to pushing and shoving, and, soon, Frank had his sister pinned to the ground with his fist raised in the air. At that moment, his mother came into the room and told him to stop. In response, Frank reared up as only an eight-year-old can and declared, fist still raised in the air, “She’s my sister. I can do anything I want to her.” At this point, Frank’s mom swooped across the room, towered over him, and said, “She’s my daughter – no you can’t!”
This is the ethic Jesus is teaching: God’s gift of life is for ALL God’s children. “No, you can’t hoard everything. No, you can’t discriminate and exclude. No, you can’t violate and exploit. No, you can’t murder and kill. Because she is my daughter, and he is my son.” (David Lose, “Epiphany 6A: Love and the Law,” In the Meantime, February 6, 2017)
The last time I checked, the Ten Commandments were still in effect. However, according to Jesus, it is never enough to say: “No murder today; check! No adultery; check!” Still married; check!” What God designs of us is not just that we fulfill the minimum daily requirements, but that we internalize them in our heart and practice them in our lives, so that everywhere we go and in everything we do, we respect, honor, and love all God’s children: Christian and non-Christian, black and white, male and female, young and old. When we do this, we choose life. Amen.
*Jesus statement about divorce addressed the cultural situation of his time, where men could easily divorce their wives for trivial reasons, leading to a woman’s disgrace and impoverishment. Even then, the prohibition was evolving, with an allowance for divorce (sexual promiscuity) added to Matthew over Mark’s Gospel, the earliest written. Finally, Jesus’ extreme statement about divorce should be read in the context of the extremity of all the antithesis; what we often view as the moral failure of divorce, is no less than the moral failure of anger, retaliation, or loving your enemy. All these are impossibly high standards, and forgivable.
- 24 Hours That Changed the World Series – 2010
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- Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse – John Chapter 6
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