Category: Lent

Made for Good Works

John 3:14-21gandhi
Ephesians 2:1-10

Paul is writing to the little group of religious refugees in Ephesus.

He says, once — all of you — including all of us here at Saint Michael’s — were existing in the course of the world, following the ‘aeon’ or spirit of the air, the gestalt, or the common way of doing things. And the common way of doing things is disobedient to God. It’s full of trespasses and sins. We harm each other even though we don’t mean to just because we’re in the world. The systems we live in have racism, sexism, and ableism, agism, and all kinds of isms built into them. Without meaning to, we participate. Our clothes are made overseas in sweat shops. Our food is often gathered in by hands paid 10 cents a basket – almost slaves. Our electricity comes from the lives of men and women and kids who suffer from coal pollution.

Just by being – we are harming others.

And even if we die, we still harm others – because now we’re embalmed with chemicals, and our relatives burn fossil fuels to come to our funerals, and those fuels pollute the air, and water, and ground and…

You get the idea.

Living or dying, the “normal” way of the world is to harm others… even if we don’t mean to and don’t want to.

So we become the children of wrath, anger, and frustration. If we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, why put the extra effort into fair trade and local food instead of the cheapest food? Why bring your own bags to the store when they’ll happily give you plastic? Why conserve electricity. Or not litter.

The world, as it is, encourages us to follow our impulses, our short-lived desires, and have faith only in that which we can touch and sense with our bodies.

Paul says all of this made us dead.

Dead.

Not physically – but inside.

Dead.

Dreading to get up in the morning.

Dead. Depressed and seeking escape.

Dead. Not feeling generous, or merciful, or loving.

Dead. Just existing. Not living. Not thriving.

But, says Paul, God — rich in mercy — rich in love — reached out to us. We didn’t change. We didn’t do anything to merit this. God just in God’s love, and mercy, and grace chose to reach out and touch the world – touch us – full of sin and trespasses and stuck in these systems that force us to just keep sinning against one another – God reaches into this world, and picks us up one by one, and places us in a new world.

A world not ruled by the way things are.

A world instead ruled by the Messiah.

This new world lays atop of the world with the way things are, and we exist in both simultaneously. The new world, reigned by God, is a world of justice, and mercy, and peace. A world where it is possible to live in unified diversity. A world of light, and love, and understanding.

It is the world that one day will be the normal world, the way things usually are. But that heaven on earth is not yet here.

Instead, we get little glimpses of it, and invited to live into it now.

We’re the people with just a foretaste, a little snack, before the big meal.

And since we’re the snackers, it’s our job to get the house ready for the big meal. We know what is to come, and we’re to live that new world into fruition. Live like that new world is already here. Because the more we live like that, the closer by is the realm of God.

Paul says we — who stand with one foot mired in the way things are, and one foot in the realm of God — we’re created for this very work. Created at the very beginning to do good works.

I don’t know if Paul means when we are reborn in Christ, or when God first creates us, but I am confident Paul is saying we Christians have a mission, a purpose – and that is to live our lives in the realm of God.

Living in the realm of God is doing good, doing right, to ourselves and to others.

Now – works and deeds never save us from sin. No one can be perfect. Don’t think church and heaven and God are for the perfect. Paul is not saying earn your way into heaven. Remember? He said God already moved, already opened the door, and is welcoming us into the new creation.

Rather, Paul is saying when we live in that new creation, we cannot help but do goodness to one another. It is what we’re created to do. So keep encouraging it!

Truly, Church and heaven and God are for the sinsick, the people who are sick and tired of the way things are, and want change. The people who want sin to be no more.

We are saved from sin and harm and evil being the norm by God – who came, and showed the world that God is stronger than the sin and harm and evil we inflict on each other, or even God’s own son.

The Easter story is: God won. Jesus is resurrected. Sin, harm, evil, death are defeated.

This is what John and Paul are writing about.

We read today part of Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus in John. Nicodemus, you may recall, is the man who comes to Jesus in the middle of the night to ask questions. And in the book of John, Jesus says — remember Moses lifting up, exalting, the serpent? The serpent was a symbol of death. Yet, through it, came life. So, too, do I have to be lifted up – exalted – through a sign of death.

God defeated the serpent at the serpents’ own game. Defeated death through death. And defeats the way of the world, the way of sin, by entering the world and changing the way of the world to one of love.

Remember – “God so loved the world…” God so LOVES the world… that God’s love is transforming the “normal” from sin to love.

And we’re the people asked to participate.

That’s the condemnation, writes Paul. Judgment doesn’t come from Jesus, or the cross, or even God.

We are our own judges and judgment.

If we love light, and goodness, and Truth, if we want to work for harmony, and peace, and love; then we are already living into the new realm, the new reign, of God.

But if we love darkness, being evil, and lies, if we want to work for self-security, profit, and out of fear, then we don’t like God’s message. And we are choosing to live in the world ruled by the way things are right now.

That is our own judgment. We choose to live into the new world, or we choose to try to keep things the way they are.

John writes like it is super easy to pick one or the other.

But, I find it is SO hard.

Change is scary.

I like being secure and I’d like to be rich.

Sometimes, I don’t want to understand what goes into making my shoes because if I understand, and still choose this brand, then I am implicated. I am guilty. I am now choosing to participate in the sin of harming those workers in India and China.

Sometimes, I prefer the darkness. The not understanding. The not knowing.

Knowing, the light, is too painful. I’d rather my deeds not be exposed.

You’ve heard it said before that ignorance is bliss.

Yes, it is.

The judgement is whether we’ll give up that ignorance, and bliss, and choose the narrow path – full of heart-ache, and full of great reward – but not easy in the least.

Being Christian is hard work. It is heart work: the hardest kind. And changing the world is not easy.

I cannot help but wonder how my own little deeds have any effect on the world. What a penny? A jar of peanut butter? A smile? What are these tokens of kindness compared to the massive amount of harm occurring?

I am a single drop of water in a dry desert.

So Paul writes us encouragement.

Every dollar is made out of pennies.
Every forest is made out of trees.
Every house is made out of nails.
Every Christian is made out of single prayers.

In the body of Christ, no eye can say an ear isn’t needed, and no face say no “part we cover up” isn’t needed. Everything, every little bit, together, makes a difference.

And it all comes down to the little daily things we do.

Comes down to the very atoms of our bodies.

The atoms of the world. And universe.

Changing the world begins wherever you are.

For wherever you are, you are called to live into the realm of God and show it, and its victory, over the realm of the way things currently are.

Today we took an offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing. This helps organizations large and small all across our world.

Consider Sarah. She is a young mother, and was faced with an incredible challenge: her nine-month-old daughter couldn’t consume solid foods — or any food, for that matter — and as a result, the little baby wasn’t growing. Starving.

Willing to try anything, Sarah would feed her daughter new foods in the hope that her daughter’s body would finally accept some type of nourishment. Time and time again her hopes were dashed.

Enter Bread for the World, and the One Great Hour of Sharing, and WIC on Wheels of Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Enter the physical, and spiritual, and mental, and social powers of the World That Will Be. The world of generosity, inclusion, and love.

The mobile clinic brings services for young families directly to communities and offers services such as healthy foods, nutrition education and healthcare referrals.

The mobile clinic has been a godsend for Sarah and her daughter. It was there that Sarah was given a voucher for a literally lifesaving formula for her daughter.

Sarah’s daughter has gained strength, and her sensitive stomach has become more agreeable to some foods with the help of the mobile clinic’s nutritionist.

How was this child saved? Through a mother’s prayers, through the pennies we pay in taxes, through the money we donate to the UCC, through the people who volunteer and promote Bread for the World, through all of us who are living into God’s realm now that says no one – not even a young mother, who lacks transportation, with a sickly child, should suffer physically, socially with stigma or mentally with fear.

Pennies and prayers.

Or consider Ramona of the Dominican Republic. Ramona is a widow with three children who feared she would become destitute – and on the streets.
But things started to turn around when Ramona received and raised her first piglet. She gave four of that sow’s initial offspring to neighbors and sold eight, using the proceeds to invest in more animals. She’s sold over 50 pigs to date and made more than $4,000. Ramona’s business has thrived with help from her children and the day laborers she hires from among her neighbors. She now has nearly 100 animals and a brighter future.

Likewise, Juliana, mother of three, saw everything improve thanks to that one small gift. She has made $620 so far from selling piglets after giving six to neighbors. She’s thrilled that the money helped her send her two sons to school and pay for their school supplies, uniforms, backpacks, shoes and transportation.

Best of all, Juliana’s pig business has brought her back to her community. She used to be a domestic worker in the nation’s capital, Santo Domingo, and made the commute home only on weekends. Now, she earns enough to stay home, raise and sell pigs, and run a small grocery store she and her husband opened in their home.

The pig project is part of the Foods Resource Bank’s Dominican Republic Bateyes project. These programs are supported by One Great Hour of Sharing and encourage love of neighbor. Today, families are “paying it forward,” enabling more and more of their neighbors to make life-changing improvements to their circumstances as well.

The program works and is modeled after Heifer International.

Pigs. Pennies. Prayers.

Now consider, when you are an immigrant and disaster strikes, where do you turn for help?
Listen to one survivor’s words of the California fires last year: “The fire busted open the window in the house and woke us up. We left wearing our pajamas, not even wearing shoes. We spent two nights in a parking lot because the shelter was full. We finally came home and we had no food. [A man from the UCC church] brought food to our house so we could eat.

 

Another survivor said, “Gas stations were selling water for two times the usual price. We left our home with nothing. [The UCC] made sure we had food, water, information, whatever we needed.”
A third survivor added, “The people I worked for evacuated so I lost my job. [There are] seven people [in my family] and we’ve moved four times.”
Because these are immigrants, they were unable to receive support from FEMA or other relief organizations. But we are living into the world that could be, not the world that is.
So – we are called to help everyone.
The UCC of California became a safe place to find assistance, food, water, gift cards, holiday food baskets, connection to recovery resources and social support. They became the advocates of the most vulnerable.
Several women “were being asked to clean up fire damage at the hotel where they were employed and were not supplied with any masks or special gear. When they resisted, their manager berated them and threatened them with the loss of their jobs.”
With the help of the church, these women kept their jobs AND were given the proper gear to not breathe in the toxic ash.
Months after the fires, there are still scores of people who need assistance. Out of work since flames sent them fleeing their homes, many are dealing with unpaid bills and food insecurity.
So the church is still helping. Still sending people out, creating a supportive environment where everyone recovers from the fires together as a community.

People. Pigs. Pennies. Prayer.

The world changes with little deeds, and with how we live our life.
I leave you with two guiding quotes:
First, Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”
Second, Mother Theresa, “Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

Who is the person nearest you?
Live your life as your message- the message of Christ.

Amen.

_________

 

Benediction

 

Sponsor a child . . . Plant a tree . . . Rebuild a home . . . Visit a prisoner . . . Be a mentor . . . Teach . . . Serve a meal . . . Bring water to the desert . . . Pray . . . Donate . . . the opportunities are endless. And they’re all right here. What part of our world is waiting for you to make a difference?

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I Dare You

what-would-jesus-do-flipping-over-tables1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Two weeks ago I met with Liberty Union High school Superintendent Todd Osborn. He spoke to our Senior Citizens and myself about LU. With him were some of our seniors. They spoke about how many programs are at LU – active and social programs, like sports. Quiet and reflective programs, like chess club.

They were there to reassure us. One of them said,  “Nothing like what’s happening at other schools will ever happen here. If there’s a gun threat, our whole community would turn out with their own guns to take out that shooter.”

This week, two students threatened to shoot up the school. They were interviewed, and arrested.

Wake up – wake up! What is happening at other schools, in other communities, is happening right here too – with our own seniors. Our own kids. Our own babies.

“That shooter” is OUR shooter.

“That shooter” is OUR child.

“That shooter” who we were so confident the whole community would rally against, is not some outsider. It not some stranger. Is not some demon dropped into our laps.

That shooter is somebody’s kid. Somebody’s brother or sister. Somebody’s classmate. That kid is our grandchild, our nephew. Our niece. Our FFA member.

“Nothing like that is ever going to happen here” is not true.

We just had a brush with gun violence in our own school.

What are we going to do about it?

You’ve heard the story about a frog sitting in a pot of water. It will sit there, letting the water creep warmer and warmer, until suddenly it realizes the water is TOO warm. But by then, it is too late for the frog to leap out.

Gun violence in our country is warming water. The water has gotten warm enough that its threats are being felt in our own tiny community. How warm will we let it go before we do something?

Before we leap out?

You hear — it is mental health. That is why kids shoot up their schools. If this were the case, wouldn’t all counties have the incredible number of school shootings we have? We’re up to one every few weeks. Think of that!

It is not just mental health.

Why children are shooting up schools is complex. It cannot be simplified to just this or that. It is a combination of isolation, as Superintendent Osborn spoke about. It is a combination of bullying – which is made worse with access to instant social media. It is a combination of youth: death and mortality is a hard concept to just about everyone under age 30. It is a combination of our fractured society where people are numbers and not individual souls. It is more. It is complicated. It is nothing that can be resolved just with medication and saying anyone with depression is a potential violent threat.  struggle with depression.

No, the desire to harm your fellows is complex. Multifaceted.

However, solid evidence shows – although the desires are complex… the ability to actually follow through depends on a large part on access to guns – especially guns designed to kill multiple people in a short time.

The DESIRES are hard to control, predict, and work with. The desires are countered by the programs our teacher and staff and family and friends are implementing. We caught and acted on the voiced desires this time. We did rally together. We did listen. We are a community. The desires to harm are countered by our desire to stand together, to love, to truly listen to one another.

Desires ARE being addressed.

But access is not.

And this is a two-sided coin where we are only polishing one side.

I spoken with kids who have considered shooting up their schools. Their desire came from complex issues at home, at school, at life. Desires are complex. I don’t want to demonize any of our kids. They’re normal kids. Golly – I remember wanting to burn my own school some days thinking it’d get me out of a test. That desire is there. And when we’re young, desires are often very, very poorly thought out.

But the ability to follow through on that desire? The access to military style weapons?

I don’t know about our LU case, but in the case of those I’ve spoke with, the lack of easy access to guns stopped the horror. All the hoops and procedures needed to buy the guns they’d need, and the ammo, was too much. It would take time. It would take money. It would take someone to drive them. These teens’ impulsive desire faded as they aged, as family and friends and teachers and students built relationships with them. As they passed out of high school and out of the insanity that is called the hormones of being a teen.

Desires are complex.

And we’re addressing them.

But not access; and not our relationship with guns.

I’ve spoken with you all before about guns. You know I don’t think guns are evil, but are a tool. Like fire. Fire is neither good or bad. It is useful, and harmful, depending on who uses it and if they’re trained to use it and how they use it. You know I don’t think guns should be outright banned. We use them, especially in rural life.

The issue is we then, and now, are so reluctant to change our relationship with guns. Then, I said we’d offer thoughts and prayers… be outraged… but nothing would happen. I showed how already the world was moving on – publishing news on those murdered at the Jason Aldeen concert on the same page as advertisements for guns.

The children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leading a charge to change this. To change businesses when the law is too stalemated to change. To change how we relate with guns – to not host gun blessings in churches and to not worship guns.

We live by Jesus the Christ – not the Second Amendment.

We live by the Prince of Peace – not the idol called MY GUN.

So I dare you.

I dare you to cleanse our temple.

Jesus strode into the temple in Jerusalem and saw business as usual. Everything needed to run the temple was occurring – people were buying sacrifices, changing their foreign money for local money – doing normal life preparing for Passover.

We’re here. Doing normal life, preparing for Easter – which occurs in Passover. We’re doing everything we need for the traditions of our religion. We’re planning Easter eggs hunts and family dinners.

And Jesus strides in and is infuriated.

Infuriated – not because we’re celebrating. Jesus celebrates the Passover.

Infuriated – because dedication to God had been replaced by idolatry. The Temple and its festivals were not God. As Jesus said, there will be a time when you worship God neither here nor there – for we worship God wherever we are. God is not contained by a building. Jesus wanted them to know the Temple would be destroyed, but our access to God would not be.

Has our dedication to God been replaced by idolatry? How can we celebrate new life, cute bunnies and chicks, and spring colors while ignoring the snuffing of life, the little cold hands who used to cradle bunnies and chicks, and the spring flowers laid on fresh graves?

Jesus dared people to over throw their system, their government, even their own church, to get back to following God and God’s way.

Jesus dares us to do the same. To demand change. To enact change. To be change – even if we get the ire of our systems, our government, or our own churches.

Whatever is stopping you from following God is an idol. It replaces God.

Whenever an object is more important to you than the love of others – that object is an idol.

Whenever a human law is more important to you than God’s law to love God and love your neighbor – that human law is an idol.

We have a stumbling block. Something foolish. Something stupid. Something that makes no sense. It’s called a crucified savior.

A savior who loved others so much, he was willing to lay aside his angels, his sword, his gun, and die for others without a weapon or even a spoken defense.

A savior who loved God so much, he was willing to wholly submit to God’s message of inclusive, love, and radical earth-changing shift in priorities.

A savior who taught us that if we destroy our systems, our temple, our laws, our devotion to guns… even if we’ve spent our whole lives defending these things… That savior will resurrect us. That savior will forgive us. That savior will guide us. That savior will lead us. That savior will, and does now, and always will, love us.

Saint Michael’s, we almost had a Sandy Hook. A Rancho Tehama Elementary. An Umpqua College. A Virginia Tech.

We don’t because people listened to their youth and responded. Let us keep listening. Keep responding. Keep working together.

I dare you to repent, to turn back to God, to release idolatry, and to cleanse the sin of gun-worship in the USA.

I dare you to write to your politicians.

I dare you to speak with your family and friends.

I dare you to speak with your feet at rallies.

I dare you to speak with your money, and where you choose to shop.

I dare you to speak with your youths. Listen to them. Ask them about how they feel. Ask them for their guidance. For “out of the mouth of babes,” no?

I dare you to pray.

I dare you to act.

I dare you to love.

Love as Jesus loved.

What would Jesus do?

Tossing over tables, chasing people with whips, making a scene, and being political are within the realms of possibility.

So too is being crucified, scorned, mocked, arrested and beaten.

So too is living into the Reign of God now, and being resurrected, and given new, ever refreshing, ever fulfilling life.

What would Jesus do?

I dare you to do it.

Amen.

Bickering Siblings

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16hijab
Romans 4:13-25

Let me read to you something. It may sound a little familiar. It may sound a bit strange.

(Surah 45-67): The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”

She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”

He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

And [God] will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.

[The] messenger [,Jesus, said] to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers. And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”

When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he asked, “Who are my allies towards God?”

The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”

They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners.

God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.”

This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder.

The likeness of Jesus in God’s sight is that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him, “Be,” and he was.

The truth is from your Lord, so do not be of those who doubt.

And if anyone disputes with you about him, after the knowledge that has come to you, say, “Come, let us call our children and your children, and our women and your women, and ourselves and yourselves, and let us invoke God’s curse on the liars.”

This is the narrative of truth: there is no god but God. God is the Mighty, the Wise.

But if they turn away—God knows the corrupt.

Say, “O People of the Book, come to terms common between us and you: that we worship none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and that none of us takes others as lords besides God.” And if they turn away, say, “Bear witness that we have submitted.”

O People of the Book! Why do you argue about Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Will you not reason?

Here you are—you argue about things you know, but why do you argue about things you do not know? God knows, and you do not know.

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was a Monotheist, a Muslim. And he was not of the Polytheists.


These are the translated words of the Quran. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Like our own Gospel, the Quran says Jesus healed the blind and the leprous, and brought the dead back to life. Like Gospels we have dropped over the centuries, the Quran says Jesus made a bird out of clay and had it fly. Like our own Gospels today, the Quran says that Jesus was taken up into heaven and is with God.

Like the Jewish Torah, and the Christian Old Testament, the Quran says we are made by God out of dust. Says there are no gods but God, alone. This is called monotheism. Mono-one. Theism. God. One God. We are monotheists. Not polytheists. Not many-gods.

When the Quran says “O People of the Book,” it is speaking to us. To all the children of Abraham. Not his physical children – but the children our own Paul writes about to Romans: Abraham’s spiritual children.

Just like Paul, the Quran points out that Abraham followed and believed God long, long before there were the faiths of Judaism or Christianity or Islam; therefore, long before there was a Quran or Bible or Torah.

But he submitted. To submit is to be muslim. Muslim means a person who has submitted to God. In English it means a particular faith. But it has two meanings in Arabic – the faith, but also what it literally means – to submit.

Much like we are all democrats because we are all part of a democracy. Democrat, however, has two meanings: one – a person is part of a democracy. The second, a person is part of a particular political party in the United States of America.

Abraham couldn’t be Muslim-the-Faith because the Quran and The Prophet Mohammad had not come to be. But he could be Muslim-the-person-who-submits-to-God. Because, as all three faiths of the Book read, Abraham did submit.

You’re a democrat-the-government-citizen because you’re an United States citizen. I don’t know which party line you vote with, if any, and that is none of my business.

So why do we feud so much? Why do today’s Jews and Christians and Muslims bicker although we are all faith siblings? All brothers and sisters through the faith of Abraham, and all brothers and sisters literally because we all know, and affirm, God, God alone, creates all of us?

Because most of us don’t care about nirvana.

Here me out – I challenge any of you here to get into an argument with me about how to achieve enlightenment, and how to step out of samsara and into nirvana. Whatever position you take – Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayāna or Zen – I’ll take a different one and we can debate.

No one?

The truth is, here in Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, we don’t care much about Buddha or Bodhisattvas.

But we care an awful lot about what someone says about Jesus and God.

We’re not invested into koans and tantras and the holy books of Budhism.

But we’ve staked our whole lives and afterlives on the Bible, and our prayers, and traditions, and rites.

We argue with our siblings because they are the most like us. We argue with our siblings because we share the most interests, investments, and the most is at stake.

We argue with Jews and Muslims and especially other Christians because these groups are most like us. What they say, and how they say it differently, we greatly care about.

This is as true today as it was in the past when the words were set in the Surahs of the Quran translation I read; it is as true as when Jesus walked and said a prophet is never accepted in his home town. It is as true today as when the ancient Israelites and Samaritans – both ancient Jews to anyone else but themselves – argued. As true as when Sarah tossed out Ishmael and his mother because she didn’t want them around herself and her son… as true as when Cain slew Abel.

We fight – we hate – the people who are most like us because in those few, few ways we are different SO MUCH is invested, risked, and at stake.

Paul, writing to the Romans, was trying so hard for the Roman Christians and Roman Jews to see each other as family. You’re not enemies! You’re siblings! Of the same faith of Abraham. The mono-theists, the One God, faith. He goes over laws – laws like the law to have circumcision, or to keep Kosher, or to keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath, and says – if laws are making you lose faith, give them up!

We are alive in faith, faith gives us life. Faith – submitting to God, and trusting God will do as God promises – even if it looks impossible – keeping this hope against all hope – KEEP FAITH! Laws are good. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Laws and Prophets, not abolish them… but, in today’s language, if the Kings James Version is too difficult to read, get a different version of the Scripture. If Sunday Morning is too early for you to praise God, find another service time. Another church. Maybe not a church – praise in your house or car or with your friends over coffee. KEEP THE FAITH! The how and where and rules – the traditions – are good, but FAITH is what is essential.

What about our heads? All three books – The Torah, the Bible, the Quran – mention we ought to be covering our heads. No one here is wearing a hat. Why not?

Because, somewhere, our ancestors debated this. Our ancestors changed. They decided the FAITH was more important. The FAITH, the following, the trust, of God – than whether or not they covered their heads.

But other ancestors have chosen to keep following that law out of faith, out of submission, to God. And I’m not just talking about Muslima women who wear hijab; or Jewish men who wear yamakas, there are plenty of Christian churches and denominations where scarves still cover heads.

If Paul were writing to us, I think he’d write – don’t argue over whether or not to cover your heads. Argue – are you being faithful to the one and only God? Are you loving your neighbor? Are you loving God?

When we say things like “Don’t shop there, they jew you.” Or call someone a “towel-head,” we are not loving our neighbors. We are hating them.

When we refuse to speak with our siblings, out of fear, our of ignorance, out of hate – we are not being faithful to God who calls us to be the allies, the disciples, the-ones-who-submit to God who calls us to live our faith and preach to all nations.

When we believe that God of the Old Testament, YHWH, El-Shaddai, and the Lord, the God of the New Testament and Allah, are different gods… we forget our faith. We forget Abraham. We forget mono-theism. We forget there is but one god, and that is whom all of the faith children of Abraham are following.

One God. Understood differently. My perspective on my mom and dad is different than my brother’s perspective. But they are still the same mom and dad.

One God. Related to differently. I like doing crafts with my mom. My brother likes fishing with my mom. Still the same mom.

One God. We’re not the same religion. There are profound theological insights and beliefs that differ among us. I am not my brother. He is not me.

But we have the same parents.

And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have one God. We are all siblings. Bickering siblings, different siblings, but siblings.

Since I razzed on Buddhism a little, I want to end with a Zen Buddist passage… a nun who one day approached a great patriarch to ask if he had any insight into the Nirvana sutra she had been reading.

“I am illiterate,” the man replied, “but perhaps if you could read the words to me I could understand the truth that lies behind them.”

Incredulous, the nun responded, “If you do not know even the characters as they are written in the text, then how can you expect to know the truth to which they point?”

Patiently the patriarch offered his answer, which has become a spiritual maxim for the ages: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

We don’t worship the Bible. Jews don’t worship the Torah. Muslims don’t worship the Quran.

We all worship the Truth, which is God. The Truth – who is larger, brighter, truer, and beyond what our words, traditions, or experiences can capture.

We all worship God.

And we are all siblings.

Amen.

A Rainbow of Hope

169c6430c0941b6d00f7885d2bb1d7f0--noah-ark-art-partyGenesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22

Noah’s story is a strange one. I usually hear it in one of two ways. The first way is the cute animal ark story. In this, a zoo of animals ride a boat with little smiling Noah under a rainbow. You see it on nursery walls and stitched on baby blankets. Aww – giraffes and lions and zebras! It’s the story we sung for our children’s chat today.

The other way I hear Noah’s tale is as an awful story about God’s wrath and how terrible the Old Testament is. In this version, one day, God lost God’s temper, and so in a fit of rage, drowned every man, woman, child and even all the animals. Then God felt bad, and so like any successful abuser, lured God’s victims back with gifts and apologies until God lost God’s anger again in a generation or two.

Both of these versions of the Noah story the Bible doesn’t contain. The one handed to us to much more nuanced, and can’t be summarized neatly into either a story of wrath or of cuteness.

The story begins with how the world has gotten worse and worse. Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and were banned from the perfect garden. Then their son Cain murdered his brother Abel. And Cain’s son murdered another man. And chaos and violence and rape spread across the face of the earth as humans did.

Genesis 6:5 “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” Humans had become evil, all the time. The following verse reads, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”

It doesn’t read that God was wrathful and angry. Not that God wanted to punish humanity. But rather, God regretted. God was sorry. God’s heart was heavy and troubled. God was sad. Not angry.

Genesis 6:13-14a – “So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark.” God sought out the man who still honored God, who was not 100% evil, and before the evil could overcome him and his family, God told this guy God’s plan to save the world from absolute evil. God will make a new creation… but will save humanity, imperfect as it is, and give it a fresh slate to try again.

Genesis 6:17b-19: “Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.” Everything will die, and the evil will be washed away. But the seed of life that is still good – Noah’s family, these animals – will be released back into the world to cover it with goodness instead of evil. And a covenant — a promise — will be made. God says God will make the covenant, but does not tell Noah at this time what it will be.

So Noah builds the ark. And God God’s self seals him and the animals and Noah’s family into the ark (Genesis 7:16b). And we’re told that for 40 days it rained; and for 150 days the world was flooded. And still longer it took until the waters were down enough that Noah was able to leave the ark. Remember he send out a dove, and it comes back without anything. Noah knows there is no where to land, nothing growing. Later the dove is sent out and it comes with an olive branch – a sign today of peace! – and lastly the dove is released and it doesn’t come back. It has gone on to live in the recreated world.

And God tells Noah to leave the ark then, Genesis 8:17 “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.” Does that sound familiar? In the Creation stories, God tells the world to do the same: be fruitful and multiply. Here, in this new creation, God tells them the same.

Then Noah makes an altar, and thanks God. God smells the cooking meat on the altar and says, “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”

In other words – God knows we’re sinful. From childhood we start lying, harming ourselves and harming each other. God knows this – but accepts it. God will not destroy the world because of the sin of humanity. Whenever God intervenes again, it will be in a different way. God will recreate and redeem us from evil — the evils of our own hearts even — in a different way.

God tells Noah that we may eat all plants and all animals now – but that God will demand an accounting of our lives. And will demand an accounting of our animals’ lives. How have we treated one another? How have we been stewards of the earth and siblings to each other?

Noah’s ark story ends with God’s rainbow and God saying, Genesis 9:12-16 “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

I’ve heard it said before that the rain bow is like a bow — what you use with an arrow. And when a bow is hung up, like a rain bow, it is a sign of peace. God’s bow – God’s violence – is hung up. A new way of dealing with evil on earth will have to be used, now.

I’ve also heard of rainbows being like a bridge, connecting heaven and earth. It symbolizes how we affect one another. What happens in heaven changes things on earth, and what happens on earth changes things in heaven. God promises to keep that in mind, and to be with us working together.

In our communion, we ask God to make God’s church — which is all of us — a rainbow of hope in an uncertain world. When there are clouds, and doubts, and flooding rains… we are the rainbow that says this will not last forever. There is still hope. Even in the most violent, most awful, most terrifying situations… what is will not always be. We can keep hope.

We know humanity needed saved again. And again and again. And God intercedes in and finds new ways to address the evil.

Consider Moses. Just like Noah, water is used to save Moses from evil, but the water doesn’t cover the earth. But just like Noah, Moses is saved by an ark. (That’s the word used for his little basket!) And like Noah, Moses is given a new covenant… this one not sealed with a rainbow but written on stone tablets and seal with blood of an animal and put in — here’s that word again! — an ark. This ark is to carry the tablets and be the movable house for God.

And consider Jesus. Like Noah, and like Moses, water plays a major part in Jesus’ life. The water of baptism. The water turned into wine. The water Jesus stills and walks upon. There is no ark in Jesus’ story, and Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as an ark… but he is, in a way. He is protecting, carrying, humanity from evil and into the newest creation of God. Jesus does tell us the newest covenant is sealed not with stones or animals or rainbows – but with Jesus’ own blood: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

When God saves us from evil the next time around, we are saved through the covenant in Jesus, and sealed with the water of baptism and Holy Spirit.

The first letter of Peter writes to the struggling persecuted church to remember their baptisms. It’s not a bath for dirt. It does not make you stop sinning. It is an appeal to God to remember our covenant, and an appeal to us to remember our covenant. We are one people, many persons, but one people – belonging to one God. And it is together we’re all going to make it. Even those people who died in Noah’s days, says Peter, after disobeying God all their lives, even they – although dead – are offered to repent, apologize, and return to God through Christ.

In other words, says Peter, there’s hope. Even for the dead, there is hope of new life, new creation, new reconciliation and relationship with each other and with God. This is the covenant of Christ. A covenant of hope.

You don’t hope for things you have. You hope for what you don’t have. You don’t hope for sun on a day that is sunny. You hope for sun on rainy days. Rainbows of hope are visible only with storm clouds. Christ’s resurrection hope is only possible if Christ has died, and if we, too, physically die.

The hope is that the story of Noah doesn’t end with an ark. It continues. It ends with a rainbow, a promise, a new covenant.

The hope of Christ is that the tomb is empty. This symbol – a cross – is not just a reminder of our mortality, and of Christ’s death – but it is an EMPTY cross. Nobody hangs here. This is a cross of hope. There is more. The story continues. There is a resurrection.

And we need this hope, now. Our country is deeply divided. We’re told by our Federal Agents that this division, which has always been there, was exacerbated by another country.

The evil inclinations of our hearts were always there. The inclinations to distrust one another, to fear one another, to HATE one another. Those inclinations were incited, and we fell for it with glee. With glee, people passed on hate messages. With glee, we heard only the news we wanted to hear. With glee, we believed only what we wanted to believe. And with glee, we turned our own neighbors, our own brothers and sisters, into our enemies.

Lent is a time of making amends. A time of reflecting on our own sins, and building bridges – rainbows of hope – connecting ourselves to each other.

Lent is a time to reflect – what messages are we sharing? Are we seeking common ground and seeking the common good, or are we focusing on our differences, and focusing on just assisting ourselves?

Lent is a time to pray for forgiveness. A time to remember who we have issue with, and seek them out, to offer the olive branch of peace.

Jesus told us that a house divided soon falls in on itself.

Rebuild your house.

Rebuild your burned bridges.

The storm is happening, but we can be the rainbow of hope in this uncertain world.

Amen.

Hope Against All Hope

Ezekiel 37:1-14sunrise-bali-1
John 11:1-45

Ezekiel’s prophecies don’t just spring to life without context. God gives them to Ezekiel to speak about the very real world Ezekiel knows.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family of money, and power. He got an education, and worked as a priest advising the royalty of the Kingdom of Judah. Picture for a moment that Mexico and Canada get into a war… where are they going to fight? In the US. This happens to Judah, and the country begins to take sides with either Egypt or Babylon as the two nations both fight for land in the middle east. Babylon wins, and takes the nobles of Judah back to Babylon as captives. Sorta like if Canada wins this imaginary war, they take our president, his family, and our representatives and senators back to Canada. The idea is that without these leaders, we’re less likely to rise up and fight again.

Ezekiel is one of those people taken captive because he’s an important prophet. He and his wife begin to live with the other captives of Jerusalem in Babylon. There, he has prophecies that more woe is coming to the Kingdom of Judah. Sure enough, the old king’s uncle takes charge of the country, and rebels against Babylon with an alliance with Egypt. In our fake war, the president’s uncle goes to Mexico, gets support, and decides to lead a war against Canada.

Babylon’s had enough of these Judeans and Egyptians. King Nebuchadnezzar returns to the country. Clay tablets found in modern day Israel recount how the people in Jerusalem saw the signal fires of their neighboring towns disappearing one… by… one… as the Babylonian army destroyed everything and everyone in its path on the way to the king in Jerusalem. When they get there, they utterly destroys the Judean capital city. Archeological evidence shows that virtually the entire city was burned to rubble, including its walls. The Bible recounts how the king’s family was murdered before his eyes, and then the king was blinded before he was marched to Babylon. The Temple of Solomon – in all its glory and beauty – was ransacked. All the religious items, the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred scripture – all of it taken, sold, burned, or destroyed. Everyone in the city was scattered – some ran into the country, many died, and the rest were taken forcibly back to Babylon. About 1 in 4 of all the nation’s people were forced into exile.

Today, that would be like 80 million Americans kidnapped and sent abroad. 80 million people sent to a place with a different language, different religion, and different way of living. 80 million prisoners.

The people left in Judah are largely the rural peasants, the uneducated, the foreigners, and they later become known as the Samaritans, for they don’t keep burned and destroyed Jerusalem as their capital.

Ezekiel has seen visions of all of this, and has tried again and again to warn his people. He’s in exile, not able to return home. He’s seen his country defeated, and all his family and friends murdered. He’s seen the Holy Temple of God ruined, and his sacred books and items desecrated. His wife dies, and he can’t even mourn.

This is the context his bones vision rests in. He has literally seen the bones of his countrymen. He has literally seen his city, and his country, defeated. Ezekiel sits in exile with his home, his land, his people utterly, utterly destroyed. When God gives Ezekiel this vision of valley of bones… Ezekiel and the Israelites are dry. Out of hope. Out of joy. Tired. Exhausted. The ones who are still walking are zombies, husks – there is no life left in them.

God asks Ezekiel, can these bones live?

Ezekiel answers with exhaustion, “O Lord God – you know.”

You know – these bones are weary and dead. You know – these people are hopeless. You know – we don’t even have tears left to cry. We’re dry.

And God says: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord: you shall live. I shall put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

And as Ezekiel tells the dry bones that God will put them back together, and gives them flesh, and muscle, and tendons, and skin – the bones wiggles and clatter and rattle and organize themselves back into people.

Then God tells Ezekiel to call to the four winds — call everywhere – and let God’s breath bring life. From all corners, God breathes, and the people stand up – healthy – no longer slain. No longer dry. No longer breathless.

God tells Ezekiel, “These bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are cut off completely.’ But I say, I am going to open your graves and bring you up. I will bring you home. I will put my spirit in you, and you will live. You shall know that I have spoken and I will act.”

There, when all hope is lost, when the country is destroyed and the people scattered, when so many have died and even more are living hopelessly – with one foot in the grave and just waiting for death to claim them – when the breath, the Spirit of God, is snuffed… God says, I have spoken and I will act. I am speaking and I have acted. I give you hope. I give you life. I will bring you home.

The words of God are literal for Ezekiel – God literally helps the Israelites eventually return home, rebuild Jerusalem, and the Second Temple. But God’s words are also metaphorical – the hope and life given to the dead bones is the hope and life given to the people living in exile. Do not fear. I am God. Do not be hopeless. I am God. I am acting. I am giving new life. I bring hope against all hope.

Lazarus’ situation seems hopeless, too. Jesus was ran out of Bethany with the people there wanting to stone him to death. And now, back in Bethany, Lazarus is very, very ill. Mary and Martha have sent word to Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has fallen asleep – and the disciples are relieved. Oh good! Then Lazarus will be fine. There’s no need for us to go back to Bethany, which is right in the shadow of Jerusalem, and get stoned to death. But Jesus tells them plainly – no, Lazarus is dead and we are going back to Bethany. You hear Thomas say, “Well, guys, let’s go to Bethany too – might as well all die together.” They don’t have any hope that this situation is going to turn out well. They’re going to join Lazarus in the grave.

When Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany, they learn that Lazarus has been dead for four days. In ancient Jewish understanding, the soul finished leaving the body after three days. This makes sense medically – someone could enter a coma and appear dead, and wake up in a day or two… but if someone has appeared dead for three days… and rot has begun to set in… you know, they’re not in a coma. They’re not going to wake up. This person is very, very dead. Since it has been four days, Lazarus is beyond hope. Everyone knows – he is dead.

Martha goes out and meets Jesus. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died! But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask of God.” Listen to that angry accusation! Jesus – I sent you word – you knew Lazarus needed you ahead of time – yet you didn’t come. Where were you when Lazarus needed you? Now he is dead. I know you could have asked God to cure Lazarus and God would have answered your prayer.

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha’s heard this phrase over and over. Many Jews at this time believed there would be a final day when the dead would be resurrected and stand before God. I think Martha must sigh and say, “I know.” I know we’ll all meet again. I know there’s an afterlife – but Jesus – you could have done something now! I sent for you! I called for you! And you came too late!

Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Do you believe that a person’s body dies, but they live on? Do you believe that in Jesus, there is abundant life – even for those who are beyond hope? Even for bones that are weary, and dry, and souls that thirst, and are weighed with sin? Do you believe that we suffer death and deaths, but through it all, resurrection – new life – is always possible?

Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” And she shares the news with her sister, Mary.

Mary comes to Jesus with the same accusation as Martha- but she comes in tears and falls at Jesus’ feet, “Lord – if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”

I’ve said both of these prayers of the sisters. I’ve cried out in anger – God, I told you when the prognoses didn’t look good – I gave you heads up – why didn’t you act?! If you’d intervened, my loved one would still be here! I’ve also fallen to my knees in prayer and sobbed, God, where were you?

… Mary is crying. Lazarus’ family and friends are crying. And Jesus begins to cry too, and asks where Lazarus’ body lays.

Around Jesus, people mutter, “Look at him cry! Look at how much he loved Lazarus.” Others say, “He opened the eyes of that blind man, he can cure and heal people. If he’d come quicker, couldn’t he have saved Lazarus? He’s crying out of guilt.” Why do we think Jesus is crying? Maybe he knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus, and that deed – the seventh and final sign in the book of John – would lead to Jesus’ death. Maybe Jesus is crying because he knows this sets into motion his return into Jerusalem, and his passion, and the scattering of the disciples. Maybe Jesus is crying because he loves Mary, and sees how much she is hurting. We’re told he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. But why? We don’t know.

In his agitated state, and full of tears, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb. Show me him.

Martha reminds Jesus that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He stinks. He’s beyond curing. He isn’t in a coma – there is no soul left in his body. Jesus… Lazarus is beyond hope. Do you really want your last memories of him to be his rotting body? The tomb is closed. The story is done. The hope is gone.

Jesus replies, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” And he begins to pray over the reopened tomb – and calls out to Lazarus – “LAZARUS – COME OUT!” “Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.” (Karoline Lewis)
The very dead man comes out of the grave still bound by the grave clothes. And these rags of death are unbound, and he is set free. Lazarus is alive!

Yet this very miracle, at the end of this chapter, is what leads in the book of John many to plan Jesus’ death. This final sign – that hope cannot be extinguished – is what leads to the cross.

And yet, we know, that even the cross cannot extinguish God’s ever renewing life and hope. Even should God Incarnate be crucified, nothing is ever so dead, so hopeless, to be beyond God’s saving grace – beyond God’s love.

Ezekiel stands in a landscape full of death – yet the hope for renewed life remains. Jesus stands at the tomb of his dear friend, in the shadow of the death – the shadow of the cross – Jesus knows the death and dryness of our own lives – literally stands with us in a garden of grief with gut wrenching tears – and yet, hope against all hope remains.

Amen.

One Thing I Do Know

muddyhandsJohn 9:1-41
Ephesians 5:8-14

Why do bad things happen? It’s something we ask, again and again. And the people of the Bible ask it again and again. And just like we come to different conclusions, so, too, do our mothers and fathers in the faith. The most common conclusion back then, and today, is that a person gets what they deserve. This makes us feel good, and speaks to our sense of right and wrong and justice. Bad people get punished. Good people get rewarded.

It goes like this: why is a man in jail? Because he has bad morals and is guilty of a crime. Why is a woman poor? Because she spends too much money and doesn’t work hard enough. How do you be successful? By following the rules.

This is an easy answer to why bad things happen, and it is usually the first answer we concluded. So-and-so had something bad happen because they caused it to happen to themselves. The Bible goes further and some authors conclude that even things like blindness, sickness, and death are caused by moral failings – caused by a person sinning. Some interpretations of Genesis? Adam and Eve ‘earn’ death because of their sin. Plenty die in the Bible because they ‘ired’ God. Today, AIDS is often called the ‘gay disease’ and called a punishment for homosexuality. People with opiate or painkiller addictions are often accused of being thieves, druggies, addicts – others say their whole identity is their addiction.

This reasoning gets tricky when we see bad things happen to good people; or good things happening to immoral people. This threatens our notion of right and wrong, of justice. See, Job was righteous – yet terrible things happen to him. Jesus is literally SINLESS and yet horrific things occur to him. We know people who would give the shirt off their backs to help another, and yet they can’t seem to catch a break. And we know of cases, like my own daughter, where a child dies before they even take a breath. Who, then, is to blame? Surely you can’t say the baby sinned. Surely you can’t say Jesus sinned.

Over the centuries, some came up with the idea of Original Sin – the idea we are all born sinful. So even brand new babies carry sin – and that is why bad things still happen. In our scripture today, some of Jesus’ disciples assert the stance that parents’ sins are passed on to their innocent children. These aren’t outdated conclusions. Both Original Sin and parents’ sins are active conclusions nowadays on why bad things happen.

It’s why so many want their children baptized super young – to wash away that Original Sin.

It’s why we always ask, “Was her mommy a druggie?” or “What did the parents do wrong?” when we hear of young babies dying, or miscarriages, or stillbirths. Someone, somewhere, sinned. Someone, somewhere, is to blame.

If we don’t have someone to blame, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of justice, is thrown out the window. We don’t like to see innocents suffering, but it makes more sense to us if we can reason their suffering is because of their parents, or grandparents, or Adam and Eve… or any sin somewhere. It lets us still say that what people get, they deserve.

Today – Jesus’ disciples ask: did this born blind man sin, or did his parents? Who do we blame for him being blind?

Jesus replies: neither. The blame doesn’t lie on the man nor his family.

Why is he blind, then? The NRSV adds the words to the scripture, “he was born blind.” The original reads, “So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of He who sent me.” Our translation into English with its added words say the man was born blind SO THAT Jesus could show God’s work. Our translation adds in blame, and places the blame on God.

The Greek original doesn’t do this. Jesus doesn’t add blame. Doesn’t say blame the man, nor his parents, nor God. Jesus skips the blame and says if we want to see God, we must help this guy. No judgment. No placing morality on the blindness. Just saying – bad crud happens. Help each other out, and you will see God in the helping.

So Jesus does as he preaches.

And you see the result – the blind man comes to testify Christ while the whole town goes about finding someone to blame. Someone must be to blame for the blindness! Some blame Jesus – who worked on the Sabbath. Some blame the man, for secretly harboring sin. They call in his parents to try to blame them for doing something that caused their son to be born blind. In the end – they toss the man out of the town. That is easier than admitting…

… sometimes… terrible things happen… and no one is to blame.

God’s will? Maybe. Primordial chaos left over from God placing order and making creation? Maybe. Result of Original Sin, or just sins? Maybe. Just meaningless? Maybe.

Jesus doesn’t offer the answer. He says don’t worry about placing the blame, instead, do something to help the situation. Don’t fret about if the person who is addicted has an ‘addictive personality.’ Be their friend and support now. Don’t fret about if parents didn’t eat right while the baby was in utero – comfort them now. Don’t fret about if a beggar has a job, or is getting food stamps, or deserves a hand out, or what they’re going to use that cash for… just help them out, now.

Jesus isn’t amoral. He isn’t advocating let everyone do as they please and let there be no consequences. He isn’t saying sin isn’t real. Jesus picks up John’s message telling us to repent and turn to God. However – Jesus is way more concerned that we live our lives helping one another than blaming one another.

Look at how much of this chapter is people blaming each other rather than helping the blind man and his family!

Look at their final action – tossing the formerly blind man out of the town – rather than rejoicing he now has sight!

Jesus isn’t answering our theodicy questions; he isn’t telling us why bad things happen. Instead, he’s giving us a way to respond to the bad we see — respond with love. Not judgment.

As the formerly blind man said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” No need to decide is someone is a sinner. Just be able to see them—help them, know them, love them.

Rest on Grace

John 3:1-17jesus_nicodemus_2
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Paul’s writings are thick, complex, and wrote in a style of rhetoric, argument, that we don’t use much anymore. So let’s break him down into little bits today. First, let’s replace Abraham in our scripture with George Washington. Think: What then are we to say was gained by George Washington, our ancestor according to the flesh? Or rather, why do some people brag George Washington is their great-great-grandpappy? Does that make them more American than those not related to George Washington? In other words, it’s great to have grandpappies who did great stuff… but God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… just like your American Citizen status doesn’t rely on being related to George Washington.

Next, Paul argues Abraham didn’t work for God, and God didn’t pay Abraham his due. This wasn’t an employee and store owner relationship. Instead, God -granted- -reckoned- -gifted- Abraham righteousness in return for Abraham’s trust. Paul even calls Abraham ungodly. God gifts grace to people who haven’t even turned their lives around towards living faithful lives. Faithful lives doesn’t win you God’s grace. God gives it freely. So, God doesn’t care who your grandpappy is… and God doesn’t require living a sinless life to receive God’s love.

If we’re going to use our American analogy, it would be that your citizenship to America doesn’t depend on being related to George Washington… and, it doesn’t depend on you speaking English, dressing in jeans and a tshirt, and being Christian. You can be American and speak Spanish, or wear a hijab, or pray at a Synagoge.

Why is this important to Paul? Because he’s writing to ancient Jews who had always been taught that their literal ancestor – Abraham – is what made them Jewish, and made them God’s people. These new converts to The Way of Jesus (seen as form of Judaism at the time) are NOT biologically related to Abraham. How can they, too, be God’s children?

Sorta like… many say that to be an American citizen, you have to have been born here. Raised here. OR act, look, speak and pray like you were raised here. But what about people born abroad to American parents, but due to the military, are raised in a foreign country and speak a foreign language and hold dual citizenship? Are they Americans? People who immigrate here – are they Americans? What about the Amish – are they Americans? We’ve got a lot of people who don’t wear tshirts, jeans, and speak Midwestern English. So what is the criteria for being an American?

Paul’s churches are asking – what is the criteria for being Christian?

He argues if being a child of God means being a literal descendant of Abraham… we have no reason to follow God. None. Born Jewish? Bam! You hit the jackpot. Automatic inclusion. Born Greek? Chinese? Sorry. You’re not loved, and even if you convert, you still are excluded. This way of thinking doesn’t promote faith. It doesn’t even promote living a good life style. It just promotes keeping a strict genealogy record so you can prove you’re related to Abraham, and so got your golden genetic ticket to God.

Instead, Paul argues that Abraham existed before there was really a Jewish people or Jewish faith. There wasn’t even a Torah, a Bible, at the time. So… being Jewish or following the Torah doesn’t include or exclude people from God’s children. Abraham was loved before the Torah and before Judaism. Instead, God’s children, Abraham’s heirs, are all of those who follow his faith. All of those people who trust God. And all those people – regardless of their biological ancestor, or their depth of knowledge of religion, or how little or how often they sin — none of this makes or breaks your relationship with God. Instead – you’re a child of God – just as you are, who you are – because God loves you.

What do you call this? It’s called grace. Unmerited favor. God loves you because God loves you. There’s nothing you can do to gain more love or to lose that love. To be Christian is to accept that love as reality with faith. With the belief in things unseen, not wholly proven, but chosen to be accepted. Paul writes, “God gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Biologically, you’re likely not related to Abraham… but you are his descendant through things that don’t exist. Living faith flows from him to you. You are Abraham’s heir. You are God’s child, too.

In our American analogy, you’re likely not related to George Washington, but you are his political heir. The spirit of democracy, freedom to speak, freedom to worship in your own way, freedom to influence your government is known to you. You’re an American child too, regardless of where you were born or what language you speak or how you worship.

Spiritual heirs are what Jesus and Nicodemus are talking about.

Nicodemus is walking a faith like our own, and like many of those whom Paul wrote to. In John’s gospel, light and dark, day and night, mean a lot more than just how much illumination there is. It also means whether or not someone is understanding Jesus, or if they’re misunderstanding Jesus. So Nicodemus comes literally at night and figuratively in misunderstanding. He thinks he knows who Jesus is: a great rabbi from God. Jesus tells him, “Bingo… and more. But to see more, one has to be born again or born from above.” The word used here in scripture means both — both again and from above.

Nicodemus is in the dark. He misunderstands and takes the literal translation — born again. He gets caught up in the literal – and starts picturing himself trying to get into a womb to be born again. SO not possible.

For our American analogy, it would be like saying Americans are those who are born American. But what about all the immigrants? Even if they get their greencards and are full citizens, are they still not Americans? They can’t be literally born again here. People don’t have two births.

Jesus explains – spiritual birth. The Spirit of God moves here and there, people here and there are reborn with it.

In our analogy, some people are spiritually born as Americans and come here with that spirit, that love, of liberty from wherever they were biologically born.

You just can’t predict who is going to faithfully vote and faithfully attend church based on their birth certificates. There are people born in America who never vote and there are people born with Christian parents who never attend church. Just as there are people born in Middle Eastern countries who move here and never miss voting, and there are people who have atheist parents who never miss time to pray.

Biological birth is not the same as spiritual birth.

Nicodemus, like many of us, still can’t get his head around it. He wants a clear checklist of what it means to follow Jesus. Sorta like we want a clear checklist of what it means to be American. But Jesus won’t give it to him. Grace isn’t earned. Grace — God’s love — is just given. Faith isn’t something to testify and be good for all time. Faith is lived. It is a verb.

Nicodemus asks for more help. He’s a scholar, he knows his religion, he’s affluent and educated and clearly devoted to understanding and practiving his faith. Jesus replies look – you disbelieve me about these earthly things. You know I’m doing miracles, but you still question. I told you God’s love is for more than Abraham’s biological children, but you didn’t believe. How am I to explain heavenly things to you? God loves you. God is saving the world through God’s son. God is giving new life — full life — life to the depressed, the lonley, the outcast, the foresaken, the poor, the ignored, the hopeless. God is welcoming in the “huddled masses” and “wretches refuse” and “temptest tossed.” God isn’t condemning them, isn’t condemning the world, but opening the door of welcome wide to all.

Have you ever pictured yourself back in ancient Israel? Like, say you woke up one day and you’re back there — 2030 years ago — and you actually meet Jesus in the flesh. I’ve always thought I’d instantly recognize him. I’d not be like Nicodemus and be sneaking in the dark. I wouldn’t be the religious leaders and spit on Jesus. I would know my Lord and drop everything to follow him.

Professor Karoline Lewis posed these questions that made me pause: “Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than [Nicodemus?] this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?”

Nicodemus has more than two thousand years of Judism education under his belt. He’s literally speaking with Jesus in the flesh before him. He’s risking his reputation, his job, maybe even his life to speak with Jesus. Do we have more faith than that? And yet – here he is, misunderstanding because he is carrying so many expectations of who Jesus is and what God is doing.

… I might be carrying those too and stuck to my misconceptions more than God’s reality.

Jesus’ words are that whoever does good to the most wretched has done good to him. Whoever has spat on others has spat on him. Where did I see you Lord?

I don’t need to time travel back to ancient Israel to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus is attempting to get his kids to school around Immigration Customs Enforcement agents. Jesus is sitting in a 103 tent watching her son slowly starve to death and praying the money comes through to get him help and out of this refugee camp. Jesus is the last survivor of a capsized boat in the Mediterranean.

In reality, I am Nicodemus. I get stuck in the literal. I get stuck thinking I’d recognize Jesus in the flesh 2000 years ago when I don’t even recognize him in the flesh today.

I try to follow Jesus. I try to understand, but I often look at the world with literal eyes and ignore the spiritual. Nicodemus shows up twice more in our gospel. He defends Jesus before his peers… and he helps bury Jesus. Nicodemus walks a faith life that goes into periods of darkness and light. Periods when he is attuned to the way God views the world, and Nicodemus does much good. And periods when he is confounded by God, and Nicodemus flounders, messes up.

That is why Paul’s argument and Jesus’ argument is so important to us during Lent: being a child of God, being loved by God, is God’s gift to us. We don’t earn it. We don’t lose it. We choose to respond to it.

We do wrongs individually, and collectively. We hurt others intentionally and unintentially. We miss seeing Jesus in others. We choose not to see Jesus in others. But God still loves us… even as we hurt God. Even as we take God’s child and shame him, torture him, murder him… God still loves us. Today, we still take God’s children of all backgrounds and shame them, torture them, murder them often by just ignoring them. But God still loves us.

And from that love, offers forgiveness. Offers us to begin again. Offers us a new life where we live more Christ-like and extend not condemnation, but salvation, to others. Out of God’s love for the whole world — not just Americans, not just Christians, not just Abrahamic faiths, but the WHOLE WORLD, Out of God’s love for the WHOLE WORLD, Jesus is given. Forgiveness is offered. We are given a new chance at peace, embracing each other, and living in harmony.

Amen.