Archive for the ‘Gospel of John’ Category

This is Good

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011

Scripture: Genesis 1:1-2a; Matthew 28:16-20; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Today is Trinity Sunday, a day which traditionally can include much theological hairsplitting. In the synoptic gospels, the picture that is presented of Jesus is primarily human, rather than divine. In the early church up into the 4th century, there was hot debate over the nature of Jesus and of his relationship with God and the Holy Spirit. Around the time of the Council of Nicaea, in 325 CE, you couldn’t catch a cab or stand in line anywhere and not get into a debate over the nature of Christ!

Coincidentally or not, June 19 is in fact the anniversary of the Nicene Creed that established what we call “the Trinitarian formula:” Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In 325 CE, Constantine called together the 1800 or so bishops of the church from all over the Christian world, except for Britain, and a substantial percentage of them started meeting on May 22. By June 19, they had come to an agreement that the Father and the Son are of the same substance and are co-eternal: “very God of very God,” as the creed phrased it. They gathered again in 381 and fine-tuned it into the form we know today.

This ancient statement of belief is recited every Sunday in Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and many other denominations, and is only explicitly challenged by Mormans, Jevohah’s witnesses and a few others. Most Protestant denominations have written their own creeds, or simply don’t use any, but their theology can be found in the content of the creed nonetheless.

The UCC has an interesting relationship with creeds. The Nicene Creed, among many others, is accepted as a “testament, not a test of faith.”  Yet, in addition to the ancient creeds, we also have a beautiful statement of faith which I commend to you—it’s on the UCC website.  Even the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which believes there is “no creed but Christ,” has a statement of faith which is based upon the Nicene Creed.

Of course, long before the birth of Jesus humankind struggled to give meaning to the concept of something greater than itself. Meaning was created largely through stories of the beginning of their tribe or world. The ancient Babylonians told an interesting creation story of how Tiamat, a female deity of chaos, eventually was shaped into the earth and the heavens. The Enuma Elish, as it is called, is full of intrigue, murder and violence. In preparation for revenge against the lesser gods who murdered her first husband, Apsu, she created eleven monsters that rival anything in Marvel Comics. Here are a few: the Viper, Mad Dog, the Dragon, Great-Lion, the Sphinx, Scorpion-Man, and the Centaur. Marduk, one of the lesser gods, and the patron god of Babylon, rips her body in two and makes one-half the earth; with the other he creates the skies. Other gods complain that the death will mean more work for them, so out of the blood of Tiamat’s second husband, Kingu, Marduk creates humans to do all the necessary work.

This is the story that the ancient Israelites heard while they were in captivity in Babylon. And they set out to tell an even better story, about a much more loving God. These were the years that the book of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, began to be written down. What a different picture! The only similarity is that both stories discuss the waters of chaos as a precursor to ordered creation. Instead of petty gods busy with scheming and violence, the Book of Genesis speaks of a loving God who brings light out of darkness; who creates with beauty and joy and who rests after exertion, sanctifying the seventh day as a holy day of rest which all should observe.

The Book of Genesis, with its earth-central creation story lasting only seven days may seem as odd to us today as does the Enuma Elish. We know so much more about astronomy nowadays. Did you see the news stories of the gamma ray bursts? Usually these bursts of energy disperse in minutes, but scientists observed some lasting for days back in March. Now someone has learned that they were caused by a black hole in the center of a galaxy that was eating a star! Can you imagine? And to make matters more unsettling, this isn’t taking place now, but 3.8 billion years ago. It just took that long for the light energy to get to us. 3.8 billion years!

Now that we have amazing telescopes to see distant stars and scientific studies that have tapped the secrets of the genetic code, how can the poetic view of creation in Genesis mean anything in the modern world? Unfortunately, too many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters have caused havoc in school systems by insisting that Genesis is the only permissible view of creation. They believe that God did in fact create the world in 7 days, whereas astronomers place the Big Bang at 13.7 billion years ago.

I do find the scientific concept of a Big Bang Interesting. It sounds uncannily like Genesis, when God separated the light from the darkness, and stretched the heavens out.

The Book of Genesis is still relevant today, but not for factual accuracy of how the world is created. What is important to take out of this wonderful story is first of all its theology of a loving God who delights in all creation, and the ever-present Spirit, whose wind swept over the face of the waters when the earth was still a formless void. God created living creatures, and humankind in God’s image; found them good; and blessed them all. God’s love for the earth should be plain from the New Testament, too, since God chose to be incarnated as one of us, on this very earth, in the person of Jesus. Our gratitude should be overflowing for such a generous, loving God.

How then, can we misuse creation, knowing that God finds it good, and that we are made to be like God? That is the fundamental question that Genesis raises for us in our time, not any wrangling over the length of God’s “day!” What does it mean that God put humankind “in dominion” over creation? If creation belongs to us, does that mean we are not a part of it? Historically, humanity has taken dominion to mean that we are in charge of all natural resources and living creatures, and justifiably able to do what we will with them. But what if “dominion” means stewardship; as in “being responsible for, and taking good care of creation?” That is a different picture altogether. We have not acted with responsibility, much less good care. We have allowed our use of natural resources not only to deplete them, but to poison the earth for future generations. And never mind about the future–some of our manufacturing today constitutes “environmental racism”—we have created poisoned air and earth near the most vulnerable and marginalized of our population.

What does it mean for creation that we are viewed by our society not as caretakers but “consumers?” The picture of the black hole eating a star comes to mind. A tremendous percentage of our economy is based on consumer spending; I read recently that economists are pleased that “consumers” are using credit cards again! If society defines us by our things, do they belong to us or we to them? And what does our definition as consumers mean for our generosity; our giving to church and nonprofits?

Turning to the New Testament again, Jesus’ wish for us is to be good stewards, too. Jesus didn’t preach about the earth very much, but his overarching concern was our care for the marginalized and those who need to hear a word of healing. The scripture we read today is the very end of the gospel of Matthew, when the risen Jesus makes one last appearance to his disciples, and gives them final instructions to carry on without him. Traditionally, this passage is known as the “Great Commission.” I’m sure the disciples felt that Jesus was giving them an impossible task. It seems that way to us, too! We are to go to all nations, which in the disciples’ time meant to the Gentiles; to us it means the unchurched, that large portion of society which indicates “None” when asked their religion. We are to make disciples of them, and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (This is as close as Matthew gets to a theology of the Trinity.) We are not to worry about our lack of resources, or our own inadequacies, or to engage in any theological hairsplitting. Just go, teach and baptize. A tall order indeed, and one that we will interpret differently from many of our brothers and sisters.

But essentially, it comes down to this: trusting in God’s mercy and ever-present creative drive; while being open to Jesus’ grace, healing and forgiveness; and participating in the strength, loving connection and spiritual gifts that come to us from the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we haven’t a prayer! And as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 13:13, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

On Beyond Zebra

Monday, May 30th, 2011

A Sermon for May 29, 1011
Scripture: John 14:7-21

A long time ago, when I was still a volunteer Director of Christian Education, I took training in an unusual form of adult Christian education called Lifetext. Its core belief was that “the student is the curriculum” and a growth in faith could come about simply by the leader asking simple questions that spiraled down deep, until a person’s thoughts and feelings surfaced.

Since “the student was the curriculum,” the trainer claimed that a Dr. Seuss book would work for a study text just about as well as the Bible! He proceeded to show us by teaching a class using The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental book. Surprisingly, it was a meaningful, faith-filled session!

Don’t you love Dr. Seuss? I read his books as a child and then read them to my own boys. The best things about Dr. Seuss books are his rhythmic use of language and his wonderful made up words, like “Grickle-grass” and “Truffula trees.”

The Seuss book that is apropos to today’s gospel passage is On Beyond Zebra. (Leonard Sweet was the first to link this book with this text) Conrad Cornelius O’Donald O’Dell, who is learning his alphabet, tells his friend, “So now I know everything anyone knows. From beginning to end. From the start to the close. Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

But no! Conrad’s friend never “stops with Z:”
“So, on beyond Z! It’s high time you were shown
That you really don’t know all there is to be known.”

He takes him on a guided tour of all the weird creatures that begin with the letters on beyond Z, such as Yuzz, Wumbus, and Glikk.  Here’s one I especially like: “And Nuh is the letter I use to spell Nutches, Who live in small caves, known as Nitches, for hutches.”

Although this book was written in 1955, it’s very relevant to today’s crazy pace:
“And way, way past Z is a letter called ITCH
And the ITCH is for Itch-a-pods, animals which
Race around back and forth, forth and back, through the air
On a very high sidewalk between HERE and THERE.”

The message is pretty simple, but profound: the traditional alphabet pins down boring old “reality,” but if you explore further afield there are more interesting worlds to discover, new words and beings limited only by the imagination.

You might say that Jesus was an “on beyond zebra” person. He gave his disciples new words to learn and even new identities. In an ancient culture where slavery was the norm, Jesus considered his disciples friends and not servants, devotees or even rabbinical students!

Instead of buying into Roman addictions to wealth, power and knowing the right person, Jesus favored the poor and the marginalized; and the sick and the differently-abled.

Roman faith was held in a large number of gods and goddesses who possessed human frailties, and who were angered if just the right rituals were not performed. Devotees often had to pay to be initiated, and buy special clothes. But Jesus said to his disciples, “You know what I know.” There is no need for arcane knowledge or secret rituals, or as Jesus said in today’s reading, “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father.”

Romans also worshiped the Emperor, but Jesus referred to God as his Father-Mother. In fact, early Christians were persecuted, not because they believed in Jesus or the God of Israel, but because they were considered atheists because they would not worship the Emperor.

Christianity is an “on beyond zebra” kind of faith. For instance, in Thessalonika, according to the Book of Acts, an angry mob tried to capture the Apostles Paul and Silas, calling them the people who had “turned the world upside down!” (Acts 17:6.)

Jesus lived, and taught, and died for, a religion of loving kindness which was unique in the ancient world. Unlike members of pagan Roman religious societies, who collected money for their own feasts, Christians contributed to a common fund for the support of widows and orphans. They also brought food and medicines when they visited prisoners in the mines or in jail. Tertullian, an African Christian apologist of the second century, wrote, “What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of lovingkindness. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, 2003, pp. 7-10)

“Love one another, as I have loved you. Abide in my love.” Love, not fear is the center of Christianity; love is our deepest, most fundamental core value. It is the measuring stick of all Christian behavior.

Christian love is not just an emotion—a welling up of affection like we often experience when thinking of our families or close friends. The love we share for each other in Christian community is different. Frederick Buechner reminds us that rather than merely a warm feeling, the love we share in community is an act of will; it is intentional. Sometimes we have to deliberately form that intention of the heart every day, or we can lose it. Love in community must be practiced and kept limber and flexible by the kindness with which we speak and act towards each other; otherwise it can be stretched too thin, become brittle, and even break. That is how we abide in his love like Jesus asked us to. And that intentional, practiced love will bear fruit, fruit that will last.

Love begins with God…circulating from Father-Mother to Child to Holy Spirit and back again. Never-ending. Love so abundant, so full, so abiding that it spills over into the world, in a creative flood that generates new life. Love so complete, that God would enter human life, to live and die as one of us, to show us how to be fully human and fully divine.

Love so deep, that we can rest in it, and let it permeate our very cells; love so strengthening, so challenging, that we are propelled out into the world with courage and grace to share that love with one another.

Christian love, particularly sacrificial love, is very on-beyond zebra in this splintered modern world of violence and divisiveness, just as it was in the Roman world.

The United Church of Christ is very “on beyond zebra”—we were the very first to ordain women, African Americans, and GLBTQ folks. Sojourners was created and named to be an on beyond zebra church in the city of Charlottesville, which is untraditional in some ways and hidebound in others. All people, no matter who they are and where they are on life’s journey, are welcome at Sojourners United Church of Christ. May all who come here, and all who interact with you and those who just hear about you say, “’Only look—see how they love one another.’ See how they love and care for the world like Jesus taught. See how they abide in God’s love.” Amen.

Ants in the Pants

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011
Scripture: John 20:19-31.

If you were in Fort Worth, Texas over Christmas of last year you might have seen some dueling messages on the city streets. One ad on the side of a city bus proclaims: “Millions of people are good without God.” Right behind that bus is a van bearing the message, “I still love you.—God” with another line on top saying “2.1 billion Christians are good with God.”

The bus ad was purchased by Metroplex Atheists, part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Coalition of Reason, and a coalition of local businessmen arranged for the van to follow the bus around town. Atheists in New York City came up with a similar effort, a large billboard near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel that bore the message “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason!” (James C. McKinley, Jr., The New York Times online, 12/13/10)

As a young adult, I also thought I was an atheist, not because I wanted to celebrate reason, but because I couldn’t believe that a good God would allow such suffering in the world. Now older and wiser, I realize that things aren’t that simple any more, and that God is always at work to bring good out of suffering. It was my childish “Sunday School” view of God that had to die, not my faith in a loving God.

Years ago, atheists often explored similar questions of theodicy before concluding that God must not exist. Some, of course, celebrated reason above all else. But in general, atheists of my generation and previous ones were respectful and thoughtful in their arguments and conclusions. Some of them regretted that they could not participate in a faith relationship with a divine being.

Not so today! The new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris often employ mockery, scorn and ridicule instead of thoughtful arguments. I am no expert on the new atheism, but from what I have read they seem to set up straw men only to demolish them with joy. The only religion they debate is fundamentalist Christianity.  Dawkins remarked that when he read Darwin, he found his god! It seems to me that they are just as fundamentalist as the Christians they denigrate. Instead of idolizing the Bible, they idolize reason, science and/or evolution. They do not examine the foundations of their beliefs any more than fundamentalist Christians do. (Spiritual Envy: Michael Krasny’s Agnostic Quest, Interview by Lisa Webster, December 2, 2010, www.religiondispatches.org)

Have you noticed the comments that appear after most religion-based stories or blogs in the secular media? They are often very polarized, even hateful, almost equally divided between fundamentalist Christians who say the blogger is going to hell, and atheists who say he or she shouldn’t be writing about stupid myths!

In this atmosphere totally fraught with tension, it seems almost quaint to consider the story of Doubting Thomas, but here we go….

Don’t you think Thomas has gotten a bad rap, being named “Doubting?” When he first appears in John’s gospel, Jesus has narrowly avoided being stoned, and they all escape from Judea across the Jordan river. Jesus decides to return to Judea because his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, and the disciples protest, afraid of the threat of stoning. But not Thomas! He says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)

Then, right after the last supper, in what must have been a highly emotional scene, Jesus says goodbye to his disciples and gives them their final teaching before his death. He emphasizes that he is going on ahead to prepare a place for them, and says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Only Thomas has the courage, the honesty, to break the tension and speak up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5) Only Thomas is brave enough to admit that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. We’ve all been there—in classes or conversations, not knowing what’s going on, but lacking the courage to say we do not know!

After Jesus’ death, the disciples must have been demoralized. They were hiding behind locked doors, fearful that they, too, could be arrested and crucified. Despite the empty tomb, they probably had not grasped the significance of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus appeared first, perhaps had not been believed since women were not considered trustworthy witnesses in those days.

“Peace be with you!” said Jesus as he walked through the locked doors of that room. He breathed the gift of the Spirit on the disciples and commissioned them, authorizing them to go out into the world, to forgive sins.

Poor Thomas! Why did he miss all this? Perhaps he was grieving alone, or maybe he slipped out of the house to get food. At any rate, he missed Jesus appearance. Disappointed, he replied to the disciples’ excited story, “Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands, and… put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Today we have a word for people like Thomas, and it isn’t Doubting. He’s what’s called a sensing type, a Meyers-Briggs “S,” who learns best through his senses, by seeing and touching rather than imagining or thinking. The world is full of sensing types—witness all our expressions, like “I’ll believe that when I see it!” “Show me the money!” “I’m from Missouri!

So Thomas, courageous, honest, sensing Thomas, got his wish. Jesus appeared to him and offered Thomas the ability to touch his wounds. We don’t know if he did or not, but we do know that Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” In terms of a confession of faith, Thomas is way ahead of the other disciples. They only rejoiced at the sight of Jesus; but Thomas confessed that Jesus was not only his teacher and leader, but also his God.

Why has such a courageous and thoughtful man acquired the nickname “Doubting?” Perhaps it’s like family-of-origin nicknames! You may win the Nobel Prize, but at home with your parents and siblings, you’re still the eight year old who fell out of a tree!

Perhaps it’s because he reminds us of ourselves. Everyone doubts at one time or another, but we may not feel it’s appropriate. Some may have been told at an early age that it’s wrong to question or doubt, we should just “have faith.”

How mistaken that is! Questioning God is an honorable tradition that goes back to the time of Moses. When God told Moses to go to Egypt and rescue his people from Pharaoh, Moses didn’t say, “Sure thing! Right away!” No, he argued and dithered and doubted until God had reassured him sufficiently, even going so far as to change God’s plans. The disciples were no strangers to doubt, either. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the New Testament: “This is a hard teaching, Lord, who can accept it?” Christian writers throughout the centuries have had doubts—from St. Augustine’s confusion about the Trinity, to C.S. Lewis’ faith that became a “house of cards” when his beloved wife died. Even Jesus on the cross had his doubts—according to Matthew, he said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God created us as whole persons—with spirits, yes, but with bodies that need to see and smell and touch—and minds that need to think. God doesn’t ask us to check our brains at the door when we enter worship or read the Bible. God isn’t afraid of our doubts and questions anymore than God is afraid of our anger—God can take anything that we can serve up!

You may have heard it said that doubt is the enemy of faith, but it’s not. Doubt is the servant of faith. How else can we come to faith, but to use our minds to understand? And what better way to understand, than to ask questions and wonder? Doubt is, in fact, faith seeking understanding.

Biblical scholar Frederick Buechner said it best: “If you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the paints of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

I’ve decided to rename Doubting Thomas Trusting Thomas. He trusted in himself enough to admit he didn’t understand everything he heard. He trusted Jesus enough to accompany him to Judea, at the risk of being stoned. Like Moses, Thomas trusted God’s love enough to argue and doubt. Like Thomas, we can entrust all our uncertainty to God. Such trust is not an end to doubt, but a deep peace underneath our restless questioning; a peace that draws us nearer to the risen Christ even though we have not seen or touched his wounds. I’d like to close with the words to an old hymn that reminds us to call on God, who is as near as our own hearts…

We walk by faith, and not by sight;
no gracious words we hear from him
who spoke as none e’er spoke;
but we believe him near.

We may not touch his hands and side,
nor follow where he trod;
but in his promise we rejoice;
and cry, “My Lord and God!”

Help then, O Lord, our unbelief;
and may our faith abound,
to call on you when you are near,
and seek where you are found:

that, when our life of faith is done,
in realms of clearer light
we may behold you as you are,
with full and endless sight.

Amen.