Ash Wednesday: One of Those People

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-8, 16-21

There are people – we all know them – who only give for the recognition they get.

Names on academic buildings, thank you cards or social media acclaim – the recognition they seek may be big or small.  Of course, they would never sound the trumpet themselves.  But they’re watching to make sure someone else does.  And if no one does, someone is going to hear about it.  Or maybe they’ll find a subtle way to talk about it on Facebook, not in a way where it seems like they’re outwardly fishing for compliments about what a good person they are, but in a way where they manage to mention their good deed in the context of something else – a joke or a wry observation, maybe.  And then if people want to comment on the good deed itself, so be it.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then one day I was donating to someone’s GoFundMe cause and I had a little internal debate with myself – do I make this donation anonymously, or not?  Because, you know, I don’t want my name to be out there just announcing to all the world that I needed the credit.  But also, you know, I wanted the credit.  I wanted this person in need to know that I had done something to help meet it.  At the very least, I didn’t want them to think I hadn’t done anything.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who was only generous for how it would make people think of them.  But then one day I went out of my way to help a neighbor move.  And, you know, it’s not like I expected a card or anything, but surely they could have been a little more thankful than they were.  Didn’t they even appreciate what I had done?

 

There are people – if you’re part of a church, you’ve probably known them – who like to put on a show when they pray.  If you’re the type of person who knows a lot of pastors, you probably especially know these people.  It can never just be simple, right?  There always has to be some attempt at poetry involved, some sort of backstory to each petition, as if God had to be filled in.  I’ve always wondered who those prayers are really for: are they talking to God, or are they talking to the people with their heads bowed?

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then it became my job to pray out loud, sometimes, and I found myself hunting for just the right turns of phrase to make my prayer sound good.  Sometimes I would write the prayers out beforehand, and I would do my best to make them poetic and powerful.  When I worked at a big church and didn’t preach every Sunday, those prayers were my chance to get my word in, the things I would have said if I’d had the opportunity.  Sometimes, though, I would pray extemporaneously, and I would find myself trying to take the pulse of the crowd as I did, finding the parts that seemed to resonate and laying them on thick.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, someone who used prayer as a performance, but then I thought back to how even well before I was a pastor, I thought that I could sway God with just the right words, that if I sounded pious and holy enough, maybe my prayer would carry extra weight.

 

There are people – I don’t know if you know any of them – who fast just so they can tell you about how they’re fasting.  I say I don’t know if you know them because I think fasting has largely gone out of style in our culture, in a religious sense at least.  You probably know people who are eager to tell you about their latest diet, or their juice cleanse, but to be fair, Jesus isn’t talking about them.  He’s talking about people who do their religious duties not because those duties are part of a life devoted to God, but because people will see and hear and know that they are holy.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.

But then a couple years ago I decided to bring fasting back, into my life at least, and of course I had lots of good reasons for doing it.  I wanted to have some small experience of the hunger people know here in our community and around the world.  I wanted let God teach me that life isn’t all about abundance, at least not in the ways we think; that it’s OK to not have everything I want.  I wanted to give myself a chance to discover what, deep down, I was really hungry for.  And if I ended up losing a few pounds in the process, I wasn’t going to complain or anything, but that certainly wasn’t my goal.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, who just did it all for the show, but then I was surprised to hear myself slip the fact that I was fasting into conversation.  Oh, I can’t have lunch with you that day, I’m fasting, you see.  Wow, I’m pretty hungry!  Why, you ask?  I’m fasting today

 

There are people – I’m sure you’ve probably met them – who wear the ashes we wear today with a kind of pride.  I went to church.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people.  But the truth was I liked the distinction, even as I maybe felt a little bit self-conscious about it.  I liked the knowing looks from other ash-wearers and side glances from people I passed on the street and even the comments from well-meaning strangers who told me I had a little something on my forehead.  I liked the fact that this smudge marked me somehow as holy, and that was why I always tried to go to the early service, so I could wear those ashes all day, not just at night when no one would know.

I used to think I wasn’t one of those people, until I realized that that was exactly what those ashes meant: that I was.  And that I am.

I realized, at some point, that those ashes weren’t for anyone else.  They were for me.  Each time I reached up to push my hair out of my eyes and had to stop myself; each time I got a sideways glance from a stranger, I would remember that I was marked: not as holy, but as a sinner.  A hypocrite.  A broken, mortal, finite being.  The kind of person who still believes a little bit that God is tallying up all my points in heaven, and hopes that other people will take note – without my having to say too much.

“Don’t be one of those people,” Jesus says, but I am one of those people.  I think we all are.

I used to think that ashes made me holy.  Now I realize it’s not the ash but the promise of what’s beyond them: not the best life that I can live but the life that only comes through dying to myself; not my own spiritual accomplishment but the grace I can only find in my own failings.

They are death and life and sin and grace and resurrection, offered even and especially to all of “those people.”

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I Am: The True Vine

Scripture: John 15:1-11

We’re going to begin today by learning a song.  It may even be a song you learned as a kid in Sunday School.  It has motions (you can stay seated, just try not to hit each other) and it goes like this:

He’s a peach of a Savior; he’s the apple of my eye
He is pruning back the branches when the branches get too high
He is bearing fruit in season and his love will never die
And that’s why I’m bananas for the Lord.

Glory, glory, we’re the branches
Glory, glory we’re the branches
Glory, glory we’re the branches
And that’s why I’m bananas for the Lord.

I did not actually learn this song in Sunday School.  I learned it on a mission trip to Bournemouth, England, that I took in college with my campus ministry.  When we sang, “Glory, glory, we’re the branches,” all the British people in the room looked at us in utter confusion and said, “Branches? What are branches?”  And we looked back at them, also in utter confusion, and said, “You know…branches?  Like on a tree?” And they said, “Oh, the BRAHNCHES!” and we said, “Yes, the brahnches!” and then we all sang “Glory, glory, we’re the brahnches!”

Branches or brahnches, the lyrics of this song are admittedly a little bit random.  But they are based loosely on today’s Scripture passage, which includes Jesus’ final “I am” saying in the Gospel of John.  We’ve been working our way through these sayings for the past six weeks, asking the question of who Jesus is and letting him answer for himself through his words in John’s Gospel: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life, and more.  And we’ve been asking what knowing Jesus in each of these ways means for us and our lives today.

Last week, where we left off with Jesus and his disciples: it’s their last night together in Jerusalem before Jesus is arrested and killed.  They’ve eaten, Jesus has washed their feet, and then Jesus launches into what we call his Farewell Discourse.   This speech, which is kind of Jesus’ last will and testament, spans more than four chapters of John, and it’s where we find Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to love one another; it’s where he tells them that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and it’s where he promises them that he is sending the Holy Spirit to be with them.

It’s also where we find this passage from John 15, where Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit, and every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

I’m pretty sure that almost every pastor who has ever preached on this passage has some great story about gardening to tell.  I don’t.  I’m not really what you might call a “yardwork” kind of person.  Maybe some of you who are into gardening or landscaping can help us out here: Why is it important to prune plants or vines?  (To help them grow optimally.)  How do you do that pruning?  (You remove dead branches and cut other branches back.) And what happens if you don’t? (The dead parts sap life and energy from the good parts, and the plant won’t grow like it’s supposed to.)  So, we’ve got the basics down here, right?

But I do find that I still have some questions as I read through this part of John 15.  I usually do have some questions, when I read John.  Maybe you do too.  So I thought we could walk through this passage together and see what Jesus has to say about vines and branches and fruit and what it all says about him and about us.

Jesus starts out, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit, and every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

He starts off by talking about pruning.  We’ve already talked about why pruning is necessary, though here I’m a little surprised at first to hear that Jesus himself is a vine that needs pruning.  It makes more sense in verse 5 when Jesus says that his disciples are those branches.  It’s we that are expected to bear fruit for him; we need help bearing the kind of fruit that God the vinegrower wants from us.

To be honest, I don’t really love the thought of getting pruned.

I mean, first, we have this image of dead branches getting torn off and thrown into the fire.  Let’s not be too literal about this: it is part of a metaphor, after all, but still, it doesn’t sound great.  But it’s not just the dead branches – even the good branches have to get pruned, because let’s face it, no branch is a perfect branch all on its own.  All of us, even those of us who are bearing fruit, have parts that could stand to be cut away to allow that good fruit to grow and flourish.  Pruning is not punishment; it’s part of health and the abundant life Jesus wants for us.

And so, perhaps, this is an invitation to think about what God the vinegrower might need to prune in us: maybe our selfishness, or complacency, or self-righteousness – in order that we might bear more and better fruit.  How do you think God does that pruning in our lives?  (Perhaps confession, other people who point things out to us and challenge us to grow, times when we’re confronted with hard truths.)  These things can be rough, which is why we use an image like branches being thrown into a fire.  They’re also grace, because they help make us who God needs us to be.

You know I’ve been talking a lot about General Conference lately, and it’s finally here: delegates are meeting in St. Louis as we speak to determine the future of the United Methodist Church. This is honestly a pretty painful time in our denominational life.  It’s painful for our LGBTQ members whose lives and relationships and families are literally up for a vote this week; it’s painful for those of us on all sides with strongly held opinions that we claim in some way represent God’s truth and will; it’s painful for all of us who don’t know what the future holds for our churches or what decisions we may have to make.  I’m also hopeful that this pain is the pain of pruning: that what is happening now is God working through us to cut back and tear away those parts of us as a denomination that are preventing us from bearing good fruit.  I’m not talking about individual people here, as if to imply that anyone who disagrees with my own particular stance should be thrown into the metaphorical fire.  I’m talking about God pruning back the attitudes, the assumptions, the biases, the resentment, and the distractions that have prevented us for so long from focusing on our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world.

Pruning can happen on the individual level, and also on the institutional one.  But it has to happen for us to be fully who God wants us to be.

Jesus continues: “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”  Again, I’m not a gardener, but I know enough to know that if a branch isn’t connected a vine, it’s not going to do much.  Branches need the nutrients from the vine, their source of life, if they’re going to bear fruit.  “Those who abide in me and I in them,” says Jesus, “bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

I want to come back to this word, abide.  But right now this piece about “apart from me you can do nothing” stops me in my tracks.

Sometimes I think I get caught in the trap of trying to bear my own fruit, apart from Jesus.  Like many of you, I think, I’m culturally programmed to want to define my own worth in terms of what I can achieve and produce.  I need to get worship planned and a sermon done, Sunday after Sunday.  It’s my job to make sure we’re moving forward as a church in ways the district would approve of, and that if more people aren’t coming to worship, at least not fewer people are.  For others of you it might be billable hours or reports or quotas, and my guess is that most of us feel the weight of this responsibility – our accomplishments are our own, as are our failures.

Maybe we’re all trying too hard to produce something that’s not actually the fruit God is calling us to bear.

So – what is?  What kind of fruit is Jesus talking about here?

The theme Jesus comes back to time and again throughout his Farewell Discourse is love.  Back in chapter 13 he commands his disciples to love one another.  “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another; by this people will know that you are my disciples.”  In chapter 14 he tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  “As the Father has loved me, so I love you,” he says to them here in chapter 15, after he talks about being the vine and the branches.  “Abide in my love.  If you abide in my love, you will keep my commandments.”  His commandments, if we go again back to chapter 13, are also to love.

Again, this is true for myself in my own life – I can preach a sermon and bring people into the church and go to protests for holy causes – but if I don’t have love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, I have nothing.  And it’s also true in our church, and in our denomination – we can fight about the Bible and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and who’s in and who’s out, but in the end, I believe the fruit that God is calling us to bear is love – for each other, gay and straight, progressive and conservative – and for the world.

But let’s come back to how it is we bear this fruit, because it’s partially about allowing ourselves to be pruned – but it’s also about abiding.

“Abide” isn’t a word we tend to use a lot these days – probably only in churchy contexts like this one.  Other translations might use the word “remain” instead.  Still, what does it mean, “abide”?  Clearly we aren’t literally connected to Jesus and sucking the nutrients out of him, so how do we maintain the kind of connection he’s talking about?

I’m not sure there’s one right answer to that question.  It’s probably one we have to all answer for ourselves.  Jesus says “abide in my love.”  What is it that makes you feel connected to the love of God?  For one person it might be singing hymns, for another praying for the needs of others and the world, for another person spending time in nature, for another person serving a meal in a homeless shelter.  I’m not necessarily encouraging you to pick and choose among these, but I think it is important to know where we can go to feel that connection most strongly – so that you can abide that way.  After all, if you don’t, you begin to wither.  And when you wither, you don’t bear fruit.

Love is the nutrient we get from Jesus the vine – the same love he himself shares with the vinegrower.  Love is the source of life for the branches, and love, likewise, is the fruit God hopes to see us bear.

For the church (the UMC) my prayer is this: that the vinegrower is and will be at work, as we remember first and foremost to stay connected to the vine, and that the fruit we bear will be good.

And in my life, and each of your lives, too, my prayer is this: that we will continue to go back to that place where we are most connected to the love of God in Jesus; that we won’t try to save the world on our own; that we will let God prune back the parts of us that need to be pruned, as painful as that may be – and that the fruit we bear will be good.

Jesus is our true vine, the source of the love we are called to share with the world.  May the fruit that we bear be the fruit of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Am: The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Scripture: John 14:1-14

Maybe you’ve heard this story before: a fugitive from the law escapes to the wilderness to start a new life.  He settles down in a desert community; marries; has a family; puts his past and identity behind him.  One day he is just going about his daily business, tending the family sheep on the side of a nearby mountain, when all of a sudden he sees it: fire.  A bush is engulfed in flames, but it’s not burning up.

He stops for a closer look.

And that’s when God speaks.  “Moses!” God says.  “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.  I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Moses hides his face.

“I’ve seen my people suffering in Egypt,” God says, “and I have plans to liberate them. And my plans include you.”

Moses objects.  “What am I going to say to them?” he asks.  “If I just go and say ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh really? What’s this God’s name?’ And then what am I supposed to say?”

God says, “I AM WHO I AM.  Tell them I AM sent you.”

Thousands of years later, that same God took on flesh and bones and walked on earth, and when people asked who this man was, he once again said to them, “I AM.”

Sometimes he left it at that, but sometimes he added something to the end: an image, to help people understand.  “I am the bread of life,” he said, or “I am the good shepherd,” or “I am the light of the world.”  With these images Jesus revealed something of himself to us, always in little glimpses at a time, never allowing us to define him too precisely, just as the God of the burning bush refused to do.  This year in this season between Epiphany and Lent, we’re focusing on these “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, asking what they tell us about who Jesus is and what that means for us.

So far some of our sayings have been comforting (Jesus is the bread who satisfies our hunger); some have been confusing (Jesus is both the Good Shepherd AND the gate for the sheep?); and today we come to one that may be difficult in a different way – not so much the image itself, but what to make of it in our contemporary world.

The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples, reclining around a table.  It’s their last night together in Jerusalem.  They’ve eaten together, and Jesus has washed their feet and instructed them to do the same for each other.  Jesus has predicted Judas’s betrayal, he’s told the others he is going away and that they can’t follow him, at least not right now, and he’s given them a new commandment to be lived out in his absence: Love one another.  This is the beginning of what we call Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John.

It’s from there that Jesus launches into this next part of his speech.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he says, which takes on new meaning as we realize just how troubling this whole situation must actually have been.  “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.”  Trust me, Jesus tells them, even now.  “In my Father’s house,” he says, “are many rooms.  I’m going to prepare a place for you there, and I’ll be back to take you with me, so that where I am, you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas isn’t just going to let that one slide.  There’s nothing more annoying than being told you know something that you don’t actually know, especially when you might already be panicking a little about what’s about to happen.  “Lord,” he says, “we don’t even know where you’re going; how are we supposed to know the way?”

Jesus responds, “I am the way – and the truth, and the life.”  You know the way, he implies, because you know me.  The journey is the destination.

In the words of pastor and writer Rob Fuquay, “If the Gospel stopped at those words, it would be one thing, but it continues: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ That’s where the trouble begins.”[1]

For some, Fuquay writes, these words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” have become a weapon against people of other religions, used to condemn them to hell for not believing in Jesus.  On the other side of the spectrum, this verse has driven away from Christianity people who reject its seemingly exclusivist claim.  It is hard to know what to make of this verse in our contemporary time and place.  After all, we live in a diverse, multicultural world, full of people from all different places who believe all different things – and these are not just people we know of.  They’re our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, even our family members, and we know that they are good people, and we respect them.  And maybe partially because of this, we live in a culture that tends to reject the idea that truth is just one defined thing, and so to claim that there is just one way to God ends up sounding pretty fundamentalist, at least in some circles.

It’s not just lukewarm, marginal Christians who would prefer to avoid this verse altogether.  Today’s passage from John 14 is the suggested Gospel reading for a funeral in our United Methodist Book of Worship.  Just for fun, this week, I looked back to see how much was included.  Turns out it skips straight from the house with many rooms and Jesus telling the disciples they know they way all the way to verse 18: “I will not leave you orphaned.”  Whoever selected those verses must know that funerals are for being comforted, and that part in the middle there gets a little uncomfortable.

I have to admit I see their point.  I grew up going to school with people who were Jewish and Muslim and Hindu.  They were my friends, and I didn’t see anything unnatural about the fact that we had different customs and celebrated different holidays.  My sophomore year in high school I took a Comparative Religion class, where I learned more about some of the things those other religions taught, and I discovered I really liked some of them.  Same for the classes I took college, in the Religious Studies department at William & Mary – for example, did you know that the concept of jihad really means not holy war, but a Muslim’s religious duty to struggle for justice?  I learned that in a class I took on Islam, and it resonated with me. In my first appointment as a pastor, I used to walk down the street on Thursday mornings to participate in Torah study at the nearby synagogue, led by Rabbi David, where I learned to love the Jewish way of challenging and arguing with God.  And when I got here to Arlington Temple I met Mehmet and Angela, a local imam and his wife, who invited us to iftar dinners during Ramadan at their mosque and took up collections for our Fellowship Hall food basket.  And I made friends here in DC who aren’t interested in church at all but who engage politically for causes they think are good and just and generally try to make the world a better place.

I don’t believe, as some would say, that all of our religions or belief systems are ultimately the same.  I think we believe some different things and that those differences matter.  But I do believe that every one of these faiths I’ve encountered has something beautiful to offer in seeking a relationship with God.  And that makes it hard for me to believe that all these people in my life from all these different traditions don’t have some access, some knowledge of God – or that even my nonreligious friends haven’t tapped into something bigger than themselves – much less that any of them would spend eternity in hell simply for not believing the same things I do.

There are ways, over the years, that people have tried to soften this verse up a little bit, this part about “no one coming to the Father except through me,” to make it friendlier.  Maybe, some people have proposed, people of other religions or no religion can follow Jesus, in a sense, without even calling it that, or knowing that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe when these people show love and generosity and forgiveness and justice in their lives, Jesus is in fact in some way there.[2]  The 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner called people like this “anonymous Christians.”  They’re Christians who don’t even know it.

To some of you this might sound like cheating, but to me there’s something attractive about this idea that the love of Jesus is wider than anything we name it.  The problem that I don’t think I’d want to be called an anonymous Muslim or an anonymous Hindu.  I’m not those things.  I respect them, but I’m not them. It could be considered patronizing to try to define someone else for them.

But even with that in mind, when I go back to John 14 and read it again, doing my best to set aside my assumptions and defenses and cultural baggage, I do read it a little differently than I did at first.

When I go back to it, this isn’t really a passage about who goes to heaven or hell.  For one thing, Jesus never says anything about hell.  He does say that his Father’s house has many rooms and that he is going to prepare a way for his disciples, which we may take as an image of heaven.  But the focus of this passage, as New Testament scholar Gail O’Day points out, isn’t really on going to a place.  It’s about relationship.[3]  When I read the passage again it strikes me how much of it is focused on knowing.  Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas objects, “How can we know the way?” and Jesus says, “I am the way.”  Then, after saying that no one comes to the Father except through him, he continues: “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  And even when Philip pushes him – “Lord, show us the Father” – Jesus responds, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these verses, Jesus isn’t talking to his disciples about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell.  This is his last night with them and he is leaving them with words of comfort and assurance for when he is gone.

Jesus isn’t talking to his disciples about Hindus or Muslims or spiritual-but-not-religious types.  He’s talking to them, giving them a reason to trust that even now, everything will be OK.  He’s telling them they know the way forward, even when they think they don’t. He’s telling them that even if they don’t know where he’s going or what’s about to happen, they know God because they know God through him.

Jesus, for the disciples then and for disciples now, is the one through whom we know God and have access to God – the same God who showed up at the burning bush that day, the God who led God’s people out of slavery, the God who spoke through prophets and stuck with God’s people through exile and worked in history to bring them home again, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now of us.  This God, I AM, may defy both description and definition, but in Jesus, we get the full picture of who God is.

As I learned more about other religions in high school and college, there were times when I asked myself why I was Christian when some of the teachings of other faiths rang so true to me.  In the end, there’s a reason I stayed, and it’s not just out of habit.  I stayed because I still believe that Jesus embodies the love and mercy and radical welcome of God in a way that no one else ever has.  I believe he opens the door into eternal, abundant life for me in a way that no one else ever could. And I believe, then, that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we have something unique to share with the world.

This is my story, and in the end, for me, no other story will do.  I hope other people will keep telling me theirs, because I really do think their stories are beautiful, and that I can learn something from them.  And I’ll trust their stories to God and let God sort them all out – the God I know in Jesus.

And if you ever feel lost, like your hearts are troubled and you don’t know the way, remember this: you might not know what lies ahead, but if you know Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, you’re a lot less lost than you think.

 

[1] Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus, p. 87

[2] Cf. Fuquay, p. 93-94; Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, p. 154-155

[3] Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 740.

 

I Am: The Resurrection and the Life

Scripture: John 11:1-46

Last week a friend of mine was on vacation in Norway.  She’s turning 40 later this year and she told me this was a bucket list trip for her – she’d always wanted to see the Northern Lights.  Which got me thinking about bucket lists.  If you’re not familiar with the term, a bucket list is a list of things you want to do before you die – before, as we say, you kick the bucket.  (Hopefully my friend who’s turning 40 has a little more time, of course, but you can’t leave them all to the end.)

So tell me – what’s on your bucket list?

After my friend told me about her trip, I started thinking again about what’s on my bucket list.  I’d like to go to Antarctica one way – to have made it to all seven continents in my lifetime.  I’ve always wanted to get a Ph.D., and I’d really like to live abroad for some period of time.  Honestly, some of those things at this point might be more fantasy than goal – it got me thinking that maybe I need to start putting some smaller-scale (and more affordable) items on the list.

In any case, the idea behind having a bucket list is that life should be lived differently in light of the reality that we will one day die.  Recognizing that our time on earth is limited inspires us to do the things we’ve always hoped to do someday, because we know we’re not going to have forever to do them.  Life is given new meaning, life becomes richer and fuller, in the long shadow of death.

In today’s Scripture passage, though, it’s different: instead of life being given new meaning in the face of death, life is given new meaning in the face of life.

As always, let’s go back to the beginning.  We’re spending this season between Epiphany and Lent this year with Jesus’ “I am” sayings– the seven images he uses in the Gospel of John to reveal some aspect of his identity – and asking what they tell us about Jesus and what that means for us.  We’ve heard Jesus tell us so far that he is the light of the world, the good shepherd, the gate for the sheep, and the bread of life.

Today the scene shifts to Jesus and his disciples, hanging out somewhere that is not Jerusalem or the surrounding region of Judea, where the religious establishment has already tried to have him stoned for heresy.  The story begins with a message from Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha, who live in Judea, in a town just outside Jerusalem called Bethany.  You may know Martha and Mary already from a scene in the Gospel of Luke, where Martha serves Jesus dinner and complains that her sister isn’t helping while Mary listens to Jesus teach – but this is the first time we’ve met them in John, and the first mention of their brother Lazarus, who Jesus apparently also loves.  Lazarus, the message says, is very sick.

Maybe you’ve gotten a call like that sometime in your life.  The message Jesus gets doesn’t include a demand or a request, but the expectation is there – when you get that call, circumstances allowing, you go.  And yet Jesus doesn’t go.  He says something instead about all of this being for God’s glory, and he waits.  As many times as I’ve read this story, I have to admit that the seeming callousness of that still gets to me.  Taking your time to prove some sort of point, however lofty that point may be, just does not seem like the most pastoral response to me.  But he’s Jesus, and I am not.

Two days later he decides it’s time to go, though his disciples object because, after all, last time he was in Jerusalem they did try to stone him; and by the time they get to Judea, Lazarus has already been dead for four days.  I’ve read in some places that according to popular Jewish belief at the time, a person’s spirit hovered over their body for three days when they died.[1]  In any case, the point here is that there’s no mistaking it, Lazarus is good and dead.  The mourners have gathered at Mary and Martha’s house; they’ve brought their casseroles; the haze that often seems to appear when someone dies has begun to lift and the reality of death has begun to set in.  There is – so we think – no going back.

Jesus hasn’t even gotten to the house when Martha runs out to intercept him and, without so much as saying shalom, says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  There’s no mistaking the accusation in her voice, and again, I’m sure a lot of us have been there, blaming others in our grief, blaming ourselves: if only.  Of course, in this case, she’s right.  But then Martha adds, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”  I find this depiction of Martha really poignant, both lashing out in her grief and straining to say the right thing, to hold onto the faith she knows she is supposed to have.

Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha says, “Yes, I know he will rise again on the last day.”  Some Jews at that time, not all, did believe in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time, and Martha seems to cling to that, or at least make this statement of faith that she knows is the right thing to say, but again, you can almost hear what she doesn’t dare to say: But that’s the last day, what about now, I need hope nowAnd, again, maybe you’ve been there, where all the things people say to comfort you in a time of grief just aren’t really that comforting at all.

Jesus knows this.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says to Martha – his fifth “I am” saying in John’s Gospel. “Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  These words are still part of our funeral liturgy.  What exactly Jesus means by them is not yet clear, but he asks Martha whether she believes them, and she says she does.  Whether she really does in that moment or not, she seems to know the conversation is over.

Martha goes back to get Mary and, when Mary comes, those gathered mourners come with her.  She levels the same accusation at Jesus that her sister did: “If you had come sooner, this wouldn’t have happened.”  When Jesus sees her crying and all the mourners crying, John tells us he was “greatly disturbed in spirit.”  The Greek actually makes it clear that he is angry, though at what, nobody can agree on: is it the apparent lack of faith he sees?  The presence of the mourners encroaching on this scene?  Or could it be at death itself and the pain that it lends to the human experience?  John tells us next that, after Jesus asks to be led to the place where Lazarus is buried, he begins to weep.  Again, we might ask, why?  Is the reality of his friend’s death hitting him – even being in control of what comes next?  Is he struck by the raw grief of Lazarus’s sisters?

Jesus approaches the tomb and says, “Roll away the stone.” They do.  Jesus gives thanks to God and then calls into the emptiness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus does – still wrapped in grave clothes.

What does this scene remind you of?

We’re in chapter 11 here, but in chapter 12, Jesus will enter Jerusalem for the last time, riding on a donkey and greeted by crowds waving palm branches, and head toward his own death.  This story of the raising of Lazarus is a clear foreshadowing of things to come, right down to the iconic stone rolled away from the tomb.  But there are differences, too: while Lazarus was raised by Jesus, Jesus was raised by and through his own divine power; Jesus’ grave clothes were found in the tomb, neatly folded, while Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb like a bewildered mummy.

I’ve heard it said that the raising of Lazarus should be called a resuscitation, not a resurrection.  This is not the resurrection that Martha spoke of that was to take place at the end of time.  This is a guy who was raised from the dead to, presumably, one day die again.  Lazarus will still start to stoop a little as he gets old and get arthritis in his hands and begin to forget things more and more; this is not the transformed, resurrected, eternal body that Jesus promises us by his own example.

So I’ve sometimes struggled a little with what this story is supposed to mean, this resurrection before the resurrection that isn’t really resurrection at all.

But maybe that’s the point – that when Jesus tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life,” he means both life and resurrection, now and later.  Martha believed that her brother would rise on the last day.  But she needed hope now.  She needed life now.  And that’s what Jesus offered, both to Lazarus and to her.

A few weeks ago Jesus told us that he was the Good Shepherd and, he said, “I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  At the time I defined “abundant life” as life lived fully in the love and grace of God.  But let’s flesh that out a little bit.  What do you think of when you hear the phrase “abundant life”?  What does it look like to have abundant life right here and right now?

Here’s what I think it looks like:

I think it looks like forgiving someone who’s hurt you, whether or not your relationship with that person stays the same.  I think it looks like keeping the Sabbath when your job expects you to work 80 hours a week and be on call for the rest of them.  I think it looks like actually daring to know and believe that you are lovable and loved as you are.  I think it looks like leaving water for migrants in the desert even knowing you might get arrested for it.  I think it looks like refusing to demonize people you disagree with, even while you stand up for what you believe is right.  These are the kind of things that you can’t just check off a bucket list.  These are the kind of things that require you to die to something old in order to find life in something new.

Death, the power of death that Jesus defeats both in the raising of Lazarus and finally in his own resurrection, isn’t just about physical death.  It’s about everything – the fear, the pressure, the complacency, the self-doubt, the self-righteousness – that separate us from abundant life.  As one of my commentaries put it, “Jesus defeats the power of death because in him the world meets the power of love incarnate.” And therefore, the same writer says, the church’s job is “to claim that God’s life-giving power in Jesus is the power that determines the believer’s existence, not the power of death.”[2]

We talked about our bucket lists, about how we might live our lives differently when we live them in the face of death.  But how would you live your life differently if you lived it less in light of your own eventual death – and more in light of the life that Jesus offers, both after you die and right now?

And believe me, I’m not knocking traveling or skydiving or anything else that might add fun and adventure or a sense of accomplishment into our lives.  I still want to do some of them!  But in the end, it isn’t those bucket list items that really make for abundant life.

But let’s bring this back to the question we’re asking in this season of the church year, which is not just what we’re supposed to do but who Jesus is.   As the writer Rob Fuquay put it, “Jesus didn’t say ‘I can give you resurrection and life.’…Instead he said, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ He is New Life.  We find it in him.  We experience it in the God we can know.”[3]

As for Lazarus, I suppose he died again one day.  But I also bet that the rest of his life was never the same – and neither was Martha’s, or Mary’s.  Because they knew, now, that something in this world was stronger than death – they knew the Someone who is Resurrection and Life itself – and so they lived, not in the grip of fear and hopelessness, but in the power of love that wins.  They lived like even death itself led to life again.

At least, that’s how I hope the rest of the story went.  It’s what I hope for them, and for you, and for me.

 

 

[1] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 687.

[2] O’Day, p. 694-695.

[3] Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus, p. 115

I Am: The Bread of Life

Scripture: John 6:24-40

I heard a story recently about a bakery.  It’s not just any bakery.  It’s a bakery in the town of Mariinka, Ukraine, right on the frontline of the war that’s has been going on there for almost five years now.  The town was taken over by Russia at the beginning of the war, then taken back by Ukraine.   Still just 1.5 km away lies the border with an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.  Since 2014, half of Mariinka’s population has left.  For those who have remained, the sounds of shells and shooting in the street have become commonplace.

There aren’t many businesses left in Mariinka anymore.  But there is this bakery, which was opened by a man named Oleg Tkachenko after the war had already begun.  Tkachenko had been helping make food deliveries to various frontline towns and noticed that the bread he carried was always stale by the time he got to Mariinka.  His bakery was the first business to open in the town since the beginning of the war.

In the podcast I listened to about this unusual place, customers talk about what it means to be able to buy bread.  A teacher buys jam-filled buns for her class of 3-4 year-olds, who go to school in a building with a bomb shelter.  They all look forward to Monday, when they always get their buns.  A woman who has been separated from her children and grandchildren by the frontline says she buys either white bread or rye.  She likes white, her husband likes rye.  “But I don’t really care,” she says, “as long as there is bread.”

The mayor of Mariinka talks about what a difference the bakery has made to this town.  “The smell of bread, when you’re walking down the street,” he says, “is very important, as important as the air we breathe….Bread is our staple food, and you pick up a loaf which is warm and fluffy, not delivered from far away, but that’s fresh from the local bakery, it makes you feel better.”

As for Oleg Tkachenko, he says that he understands that his purpose in this world is to serve people.  That’s why he does this.[1]

For some of us, I know, bread is maybe not the cultural staple that it once was.  Some of us can’t have gluten.  Some of us are trying to cut back on carbs.  Some of us may also come from places where bread has never been a staple at all.  But listening to the story of this bakery in a war-ravaged Ukrainian town, where bread has come to mean not just food but life, it’s not surprising to me that one of the ways Jesus identifies himself in the Bible is as bread.

In case you’ve missed the beginning of this sermon series, we’re spending the season between Epiphany and Lent this year asking the question of who Jesus is and letting Jesus answer for himself, through his seven “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John.  In the past few weeks Jesus has told us that he is the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, and the gate for the sheep, and today he is the bread of life.  These images help us to glimpse different aspects of who Jesus is without allowing us to define him too precisely.  But as always, before we get to today’s image, let me set the scene for you.

Today’s passage takes us back to John chapter 6, to a story that is familiar to many of us: the feeding of the five thousand.  I told you before that John doesn’t often tell the same stories as our other three “synoptic” Gospels do.  The feeding of the five thousand is an exception.  It appears in all four gospels, which maybe gives us some idea of how important early Christians thought it was.  In any case, as the story goes: Jesus finds himself surrounded by a crowd of people; they’re hungry; the only food available is a couple loaves of bread and a few small fish; Jesus gives thanks and distributes the food among the crowd and, miraculously, it is enough.  In fact, it’s more than enough; it’s abundant, with baskets of bread left over.  As John tells it, when the crowd sees what has just happened, they try to make Jesus their king.  But Jesus manages to escape.

Later that evening, the disciples get in a boat and head across the lake to the town of Capernaum.  Mid-journey, Jesus catches up with them, walking on the water.  When the crowds back on the other side of the lake realize that Jesus and his disciples are all gone, they get in boats to come to find him.  When they do, over in Capernaum, they say, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

John always likes to tell a story and use it as a launching point for Jesus to reveal something about himself.  And that’s what happens now – this seemingly innocent question launches a dialogue in which Jesus gives us his first “I am” saying in the Gospel.

Jesus tells the crowds, somewhat accusingly, that they’re only looking for him because they got fed. It doesn’t seem like such a bad reason, really.  As the famous saying about U.S. politics goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.”  We tend to follow those who we believe can meet our most pressing needs, and yet doing so means potentially ignoring any larger implications at play – in this case, what the miracle actually means about who Jesus is.

“Don’t worry so much about the kind of food that doesn’t last,” Jesus says to them. “Work instead for the kind of food that does, food that the Son of Man will give you.”

The crowds say, OK, what do we need to do to work for this food? And Jesus says, “Believe in the one God sent.”

They say, “Well, then give us a sign so that we can believe.  You know, like our ancestors had manna in the desert.”  Do you remember this story?  After the Israelites had escaped from slavery in Egypt, while they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land, God fed them with a mysterious flaky bread that fell from heaven called manna (Hebrew for “what is it?”)  If only Jesus could do a sign like that, they say, then they’ll be able to believe.  How quickly they forget, right?

Jesus tells them, “You’re still missing the point.  The true bread from heaven, the bread I’m talking about here, isn’t manna.  It’s the one who comes down and gives life to the world.”

They say, “Well, then we want that bread.  Give us that bread always.”  They’re still stuck on their physical needs, on their hunger.  They want this good bread, the kind that will satisfy them like Jesus seems to promise.  Because after all, I suppose, there’s not much worse than really being hungry.  As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said when he was accused of preaching a “social Gospel,” a message more focused on justice than spirituality: “I don’t preach a social Gospel, I preach the Gospel, period…The good news to a hungry person is bread.”

It strikes me that Jesus is concerned with real, literal hunger here.  He doesn’t ignore that need.  After all, he’s just fed the crowd of five thousand with real, literal bread.  When they get hungry, he doesn’t tell them that people can’t live on bread alone.  He feeds them.  I think Jesus understands that if our basic needs aren’t met, we’re never going to be able to focus on anything more.

But Jesus also seems to want the crowds, these crowds who are SO focused on what their bodies crave, to know that there’s something more than that.  That bread they want, the kind from an oven or a bakery, is never truly going to fill them.

“Give us this bread all the time!” the crowds cry.  I imagine them looking at Jesus expectantly here, as he just waits for it to click.  Finally he realizes he’s going to have to spell it our for them: “Me.  It’s me.  I am the bread of life.  Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry again.”

I don’t know, Jesus.  I consider myself a follower of yours and yet every morning by 11 am or so I’m starving.  But of course, I’m being literal again, just like the crowds.  And so I find myself asking: What is it that I’m really hungry for?  What is this hunger that Jesus promises to fill?

I suppose I can think of a lot of things I’m hungry for, or that we in general might be hungry for, beyond just actual bread.  We might be hungry for love, for acceptance, for connection.  We – or at least some people we can think of – might be hungry for power (maybe we make that sound better sometimes by calling it ambition.)  Maybe we even hunger for justice, or for peace – which makes me think back to the bakery in Mariinka, where what people really hungered for, beyond just food, was a sense of normalcy and life that continued in the midst of war and fear.  What, if you really let yourself feel it, is the deep hunger of your soul?

I’m not going to promise that Jesus is going to fulfill all those particular hungers we might feel, because not all of those hungers are good things – though some of them are, and some of them I think are just human things.  But sometimes our hunger can be misdirected.

But what if I said that there was a hunger underlying all of those things?  That our truest, deepest hunger, as people created by God and in God’s image, is for the one who created us and is home to us?

There’s a quote I’ve always liked from St. Augustine, who says “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”[2]  In the same way, I think, we’re going to keep being hungry for whatever it is we think we’re hungry for – maybe feeling full sometimes, for a while, but always hungry again – until our hunger is satisfied by the one who promises that to believe in him, to come to him, to join ourselves with him, means to never be hungry again.

I’ve never liked easy answers or promises and I’m afraid that maybe this sounds like one.  Truthfully, in the end, I don’t know how possible it really is in this lifetime to never be hungry again.  I know from experience that my own faith is imperfect, that I might find that rest and fullness in Jesus one day and feel empty again the next.  That’s why we have to keep coming back – coming back to worship, coming back to the faith community that forms and sustains us, coming back to the communion table – and being fed again and again.  That’s why Jesus provides ways for us to do that.  Coming to Jesus is never just a one-time deal, and no simple statement of faith will satisfy your hunger for the rest of your life.

But I do believe that we can get glimpses in this life of what it’s like to rest satisfied in the presence of God, and that this also is the ultimate destiny of God’s people – because the one through whom we encounter God is himself the bread of life.

With each revelation of Jesus we’ve encountered so far, we’ve heard that the people were divided, and it’s no different this time.  When Jesus says these things, his opponents grumble among themselves – just like their ancestors did in the wilderness.  And when Jesus says that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” even some of his followers turn away, saying it’s too difficult a teaching to accept.  But when Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave, too, Peter answers simply: “Lord, where would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

There are so many things we might be hungry for and yes, maybe sometimes it feels easier to look for quick fixes than to really put our faith and trust in Jesus and follow him.

But maybe you’ve experienced it just enough to know: that rest and fullness that can only be found in him – in the one who created us, loves us, forgives us, sustains us, and welcomes us home.

Knowing that, where else would we go?

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09l1wmw; https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/bakery-mariinka

[2] Confessions, Book I

I Am: The Shepherd and the Gate

Scripture: John 10:1-21

If you’ve been here over the past couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the colors up front here changing a lot, both what we use on the altar and on my stole here.  I’m wearing green now – can anyone tell me what it was before that?  (It was white for Christmas and Epiphany.) How about before that? (Purple for Advent.)  I know the colors might be easy to overlook, so sometimes I just like to see if you all are paying attention.

I’m wearing green now for the season in the church year we call Ordinary Time, which is not because it’s boring but because we’re counting the weeks between one season and the next.  There are actually two stretches of Ordinary Time in the church year, and this is the first, which takes us from Epiphany – the visit of the wise men which we celebrated on January 6 – to Lent, which begins in March this year. This time is a chance to continue the theme of revelation that begins with Epiphany.  It’s a time for us to get to know and understand just a little better who this baby in a manger – by now a grown man in the midst of his earthly ministry – really is.

That’s why, during this time between Epiphany and Lent this year, we’re asking the question of who Jesus is, and letting him answer for himself.  Specifically, we’re looking at the Gospel of John, which features seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in which he uses different images – like light, bread, vine – to describe to people who he is.  Last week, we heard Jesus tell us that he is the light of the world.  He allows us to see the world as it is and ourselves as we are, and we are presented with a choice: to follow in that light or not.

Last week I told you about how this image of light and darkness arose out of a conflict in the Temple during the festival of Sukkoth, in John 7-8.  Some people hear Jesus teaching and believe him.  Others, notably the religious leadership, are pushed further into their unbelief.  The episode in the Temple ends with Jesus almost getting stoned for heresy, but he manages to escape.

The conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, however, is just ramping up.

As Jesus walks along, we read at the beginning of chapter 9, he comes across a blind man, and restores his sight.  It happens to be the Sabbath. Naturally all of this causes a bit of a stir, and the onlookers drag the man to the Pharisees, some of the religious elites, for a judgment on this thing that has just happened. The Pharisees interrogate the man, his parents, and then the man again until they finally just get mad and send him away.

Jesus reappears on the scene with the man and some Pharisees with some thoughts on the subject of what really, in the end, makes a person blind.  Then he launches into a new monologue, in which we encounter his next two “I am” sayings.

He deals in the imagery of sheep, imagery which would have been familiar to those he spoke to, though it is probably somewhat less familiar to us.  “Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out….the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Those of you who have been in our Sunday Bible study as we read through the Gospel of John together know that one of things I find most frustrating about John, and especially about the way Jesus tends to talk in it, is that he can be really hard to follow.  I find myself really wanting Jesus to get to the point.  So maybe you can help me out with what’s going on in this image:

– Who are the thieves and bandits?  (Since he’s saying this in the context of ongoing conflict with the Pharisees, it seems likely that it’s them – that they are somehow trying to lead the sheep astray.)  We might ask also: what’s the sheepfold, and what does it mean to enter it the wrong way?

– “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep,” Jesus says – who’s the shepherd?  Jesus himself?  Seems likely, right?  Does that make us, or his followers in the story, the sheep?

– “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him.”  Who’s this gatekeeper?

– How about the strangers, the ones the sheep won’t follow because they don’t recognize their voice? Are they the same people as the thieves and bandits?

John tells us that the people did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them.

Sometimes, though, we might actually trip ourselves up by trying to assign parts to every piece of the story.  Maybe what Jesus is trying to tell us here doesn’t depend on us being able to decode this image.  Maybe there’s a bigger picture here; maybe he’s still setting the scene for what he has to say next.  So let’s listen to it again, and instead of trying to line up all the parts, tell me what you hear in it, what impressions you get.

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

What do you see and hear in this scene?

I get an impression of tenderness between the shepherd and the sheep.  There’s a kind of trust and intimacy there.  The shepherd knows the sheep by name and they know the shepherd’s voice.  There’s also danger there – from the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold.  And yet even in the presence of danger, there is assurance: the sheep won’t go with the wrong person; there’s no mistaking the bandit for the shepherd.

From here, Jesus begins to explain what he means, and this is where our next “I am” saying comes in: “I am the gate for the sheep,” he says.

OK, I did not see that one coming.  I could have sworn that Jesus was the shepherd.

How does this image change for you if Jesus is the gate?  What does a gate do?  A gate is the right way in to something.  Jesus says, “Everyone who enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture….I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Jesus, the gate, is the way in to abundant life, which I might describe as life lived fully in the love and grace of God.  Jesus is the way in to the pasture where the sheep are fed, and safe, and known.

It’s also interesting to me that Jesus talks about the sheep both going out and coming in.  I’m initially inclined to think of a gate as restrictive, controlling movement, keeping in those who supposed to be in and out those who are supposed to be out.  But here the gate is freedom rather than restriction.

Jesus goes on: “I am the good shepherd,” he says.  Wait a minute – I thought Jesus was the gate.  Now he’s the shepherd, too?  Well, why not.  Again, we can’t be too rigid in our metaphor here.

Well, what does it mean, then, for Jesus to be not just the shepherd in our image – but a good shepherd?

As Jesus says here, The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He’s not a mere hired hand who takes care of the sheep until it gets scary and dangerous and then runs away and leaves the sheep to their own devices.  That hired hand may have a job to do, but he doesn’t love the sheep.  And he might be able to tell the sheep apart, but he doesn’t know them, not by name, not by whatever ovine characteristics make them unique creations of God.  The good shepherd loves the sheep and will protect them, fight for them, lay down his life for them.

A few years ago I preached on this passage and what stood out to me, then, was this idea of the sheep recognizing the shepherd’s voice.  It stood out to me because Jesus seems to take that as a given, that the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and not go with the wrong person.  This seems less obvious to me, as a person who sometimes has trouble recognizing just what is the voice is the voice of Jesus in my life and what is the voice of society, culture, even my own self-doubt or self-justification.  Sometimes, I think, we sheep need to help each other recognize the shepherd’s voice, so when we follow, it’s together – no sheep left behind.

This time, though, what stood out to me was this idea of not just knowing but being known.  After all, this passage is supposed to tell us something about who Jesus is.  The shepherd calls his own sheep by name.  The shepherd knows his own.  The shepherd lays down his life for the ones he knows.

Once, at the church I previously served, we were going around the table in a staff meeting – it must have been around Thanksgiving – naming what we were thankful for.  I only remember one thing someone around the table said that day: “I’m thankful for a spouse who knows me completely, and who still loves me.”

On the one hand there is something beautiful and comforting about this idea of being fully known by another person – whether it’s a partner, a family member, or a best friend.  There’s something about this idea that someone could know everything about me: my history, my heart, my best qualities, my worst ones – those extremes that people don’t always get to see – and that I could be loved for all of it, for the totality of who I am and who God created me to be, and not just for who I try to present myself as on a day-to-day basis.

There’s comfort and maybe even abundant life in that, but on the other hand, there’s fear, too: my spouse still loves me, my colleague said.  As in, there’s the danger that they might not have.  There’s a vulnerability in being known, the possibility of rejection.  Because maybe if someone really knew us they’d realize we aren’t what they think.   Maybe if someone knew how we can be sometimes they wouldn’t want to stick around.  And so we’d rather not be known too well, maybe even by the people who know us best.

Some of us probably even live with a certain wariness of being known in a digital world of eroding privacy.  We may keep our friendly distance from our neighbors but the powers that be on the internet, somehow, know everything about us: our shopping preferences, what we’re searching for, what conversations we’re having when we forget that Alexa is there listening.  And there’s a distrust – well-founded, I’m sure – of what these entities are going to do with this information, and how it might be used for us or against us.  So again, how much do we really want to be known?

When it comes to Jesus, though, we’re not talking about the kind of knowing where information is going to be used to manipulate us.  This isn’t Santa, knows-if-you’ve-been-bad-or-good kind of knowing; it’s not knowing the way Google knows us, or the way we fear the NSA might know us.  It’s not even knowing the way other people might know us, for better or worse.

Jesus, the good shepherd, knows his sheep completely.  There’s no risk, because he already does.  He knows them, each one, in all their beautiful sheepiness and all their smelly, annoying, sometimes not-so-bright sheepiness.  And he loves them.  He loves you.

And this goes back to how Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the gate – because, in this weird mixed metaphor, the one who determines who goes in and out, who has access to the abundant life of that pasture – is also the one who calls us by name, who lays down his life for us.  He knows us completely, and he – still – invites us in.

Jesus adds, at the end of this monologue, that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”  And while scholars may debate about who exactly he means – is it Gentiles?  Other Jews? – what I hear in this is an invitation to extend that same love and welcome that we’ve received to others.  In the end, we can’t know those other sheep like Jesus knows them. And in the end, we are neither gate nor gatekeeper, controlling who comes in and out.  We’re simply part of one beloved flock.

You’d think if any message could be unifying, this one would be, right?  But again, we read, the people were divided.  Some said Jesus was possessed, or out of his mind. But others heard the voice of their shepherd, and followed, because they knew they were known completely, and loved completely.

The God who gave you life knows your beauty and your brokenness and loves you enough to lay down his life for you.  When we live like we know that – that is abundant life.

I Am: The Light of the World

Scripture: John 8:12-30

Who is Jesus?

This is a question that all of us here, in one way or another, are probably trying to answer for ourselves.  Some of us may think we already know.  He is Lord, Savior, Teacher, Son of God.  Of course, even if we can agree on certain titles, we might still disagree on what exactly they mean, and how much those differences matter.

This is also the question that each of the Gospel writers are trying to answer, and they all do so a little differently.  To Matthew Jesus is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, to Luke the liberator of the poor and oppressed, to Mark the slayer of demons.  Of course, even those descriptions are grossly oversimplified.  It says something, I think, that instead of trying to answer the question directly, each of our Gospel writers chooses to tell us a story, to present Jesus as they understand him and let us make up our own mind.

The Gospel of John is sometimes called the Fourth Gospel, not just because it comes fourth in the New Testament lineup, but also as a way to distinguish it from the other three.  Because for all that Matthew, Mark, and Luke present us with their different perspectives on Jesus, they actually have a lot in common in terms of the stories they tell and how they tell them.  They’re in fact so similar that we call them synoptic Gospels – syn, same; optic, seeing:  they see the same thing.  John tends to tell us different stories about Jesus, and he tells them in a different style too.  Compare John and Mark and you’ll see that John has a very poetic, almost ethereal quality that sometimes makes it hard to follow compared to Mark’s simplicity and earthiness.

John also attempts to answer the question of who Jesus is in a way that the others don’t, and that is – he lets Jesus tell us himself.

Repeatedly, throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am” and then gives us an image of who he is: Bread.  Light.  Shepherd.  Door.  Vine.  Life.  Resurrection.

No one of these seven images, or “I am” sayings, can give us a complete picture of who Jesus is.  Neither can all seven of them together sum Jesus up and give us a complete picture.  But I happen to like this idea that we can maybe understand Jesus a little better one image, one glimpse at a time.  That we can never truly have a handle on exactly who Jesus is, but that we can know him from different perspectives and keep getting to know him over the course of our lives.  That is, after all, what it means to be in relationship with someone.  So over the next six weeks we’re going to be looking at each of these “I am” images that Jesus gives us and asking ourselves again, who is Jesus? And what does getting to know him through that particular image mean for us?

Before we get to this week’s image, I have to set the scene for you.

Chapter 7 of John opens in conflict.  Jesus has already kind of gotten into it with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and he’s decided to lay low for a while, focusing his ministry in the northern region of Galilee.  When it comes time for the festival of Sukkoth, which was both a harvest celebration and remembrance of the years the Israelites spent in the wilderness, Jesus tells his brothers he’s not going to go.  But then he does go, in secret.

When he gets to Jerusalem there’s already murmuring among the crowd gathered at the Temple for the festival.  People are whispering about him: is he a good man?  A phony?  In the middle of the festival, Jesus gets up to speak.

This is the beginning of a back-and-forth between Jesus, the leaders, and the people that will dominate chapters 7 and 8.  Jesus accuses the leadership of trying to kill him.  They say he’s possessed.  The crowd says he can’t be the Messiah because they know where he comes from.  He says you may know where I’m from but you clearly don’t know the one who sent me.  The leaders try to arrest him, Jesus says he won’t be around for much longer.  At times he waxes poetic: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.

What is the result of all this back-and-forth?  Some people believe.  Some are pushed even farther into their unbelief.

Does this sound familiar?  To me it sounds almost like the political and cultural division we’re steeped in today – where any new information we get, any news report or study released, seems to mostly result in those who hear it doubling down on the opinions they already held, pro and con.  Of course, there are those who refuse to pick sides altogether – like Nicodemus (remember him?) who enters the scene at the end of chapter 7 to argue weakly that at least Jesus should be given a fair trial.  Refusing to pick a side does not necessarily make someone a good guy, in John’s book.

It’s after all of this that Jesus announces to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.”  It’s almost apropos of nothing, except that light was an important part of the Sukkoth celebration, where people would parade with torches in remembrance of those years in the wilderness when God went before the Israelites in a pillar of fire by night.  “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

This light/dark imagery is not new in John.  His Gospel opens with a passage we often read at Christmas: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being with him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  This poem, which is John’s version of a nativity story, goes on to tell us that “the true light was coming into the world…yet the world did not know him.”

From the beginning of the Gospel, we have this picture of light, darkness, and perhaps the conflict between the two. And, in fact, this imagery isn’t new to John: we sometimes also hear the prophet Isaiah proclaiming around Christmastime that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

I’ve become increasingly aware in the past couple of years, especially as I’ve heard and read things that some of my friends and colleagues of color have to say on the subject, that this light and dark language can be problematic.  I want to acknowledge that.  When we always use dark to symbolize evil and despair and ignorance, and when we always use light to symbolize goodness and hope and knowledge, that can end up having some not-so-good implications for how we understand things such as race.  I’m sure most of us would never intentionally equate the darkness of evil and despair with darker skin tones but – well, it’s been done, and it’s imagery that can shape how we think in the background even when we’re not aware of it.  It does us good to hear a different perspective, such as this one from the black feminist theologian Wilda Gafney: “We are afraid of the dark but God is not. Darkness is a creative space to God. Out of darkness God created everything that is, including light. I like to think that light and dark are not in conflict, but in balance.”[1]

This is a valuable and necessary perspective.  But it also seems to me that in John in particular there is a conflict, and I want to be able to think about what this image meant to him and those he wrote for, and how it can help us know Jesus better today.  Let’s keep in mind the fact that the olive-skinned authors of the Bible, when they write in the poetry of light and darkness, aren’t talking about colors or shades.  They’re talking about illumination, the light of sun and stars and lamps and fire.  And what is the basic function of light?  It helps us see.  We can see what’s around us, we can see the way ahead of us, we can see things – at least to some degree – as they really are.  There is something physically powerful in this kind of imagery, too.  It’s something we might even be feeling in our bodies these days as the days begin to grow just a little bit longer.  There is a time for every season in the rhythm of God’s creation – but it tends to be easier to wake up when it’s light outside in the morning, and in this way light is a source of life, though of course the darkness with the rest and growth it provides is necessary for life as well.  But when in the prologue John writes that “the life was the light for all people,” we can understand the connection.

So what, then, does it mean for Jesus to be light of the world?

It means he’s the one who lets us see the world as it really is and ourselves as we really are.  It means that he’s the one who allows us to perceive both the beauty and the brokenness in all of it.  It means he’s the one who makes the way in front of us clear, so that we know which way we’re supposed to go, where we’re supposed to put our feet next, even if the final destination isn’t always clear.

If Jesus is the light of the world, that also means that we have a choice – the choice presented to us from the very beginning of John’s Gospel.  We can choose darkness, or we can choose light.  Which one will it be? And if the imagery is problematic, we can change it.  Will it be hot or cold?  Yankees or Red Sox?  The important thing is that there is a choice, and it’s ours, and only one of our options is the one that leads to life.

And even for those of us who have been going to church for a very long time, that choice is not always an easy one to make.  You all have chosen to be here this morning, and that’s a good start.  You didn’t have to.  You had plenty of other options.  And yet sometimes we do the things we think we’re supposed to out of duty or habit – without ever really having made a choice.

On the other hand maybe some of you remember the exact day and place and time you made that choice, to call Jesus Lord, but I’ll caution you too, because this is not a choice we have to make just once in our lives.  The choice to follow Jesus is one we get to make every day, as we decide whether to forgive or get revenge, who to stand up for, how much we can give away, how far to go out of our way to help someone, whether we decide to learn someone’s story before judging them, whether we put up our defenses or let people in.  It’s a choice we make every day to love and to be a neighbor.  And it’s not always an easy choice, even when the way is clear before us.

There’s another Gospel where Jesus says something similar, but a little different.  In Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowds – not I am the light of the world – but “You are the light of the world.”

I somehow think these two lines, in these two different Gospels, are meant to be read together.  We are the light of the world.  We show the world life as it is meant to be, life lived in love.  But we can only do that when we know where our own light comes from.  We can only be the light of the world when we choose the light of the world.

I bet if I asked you to name someone who was an example of shining the light of Christ in the world – at least if I asked you to name someone famous – one of the first answers we might hear is Martin Luther King, Jr.  And, in fact, while he worked and spoke and marched and went to jail fighting for his dream of a world where all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, he always pointed beyond himself, to the fact that this was not just his dream.  He did that as he quoted from the prophet Amos in that very speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”[2]  He did that in the last speech he made before his death: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…but I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.”[3]

It’s easy to forget at this point in history that Martin Luther King Jr. was a controversial figure in his day.  That was not the image of him I learned in elementary school.  But he had some things to say that not only made white people uncomfortable, or overtly hostile, then, but should still make (us) white people uncomfortable today.  He had plenty to say about white moderates, those who professed to agree with his goals but just wished he would wait for a more opportune time to try to achieve them. He had some words for the white church and its failure to stand up for justice. [4]  He had some strong words about capitalism and the connection between economic and racial inequality.[5]  When it comes to the ongoing struggle for racial equality, those of us who are white especially still have a choice to make – probably, again, a lot of daily choices to make.  It’s not enough to simply be glad that bathrooms and swimming pools were desegregated 50 years ago.

As you heard in today’s Scripture reading, the religious leadership at the Temple that day during the festival of Sukkoth are not persuaded to suddenly leave their old lives behind and choose Jesus.  Yet there are those in the crowd who do hear him and believe.  The choice is there, in front of them.

And in front of us.

I hope this week you make the choice to stand on the side of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.  I hope you make the choice to forgive instead of seek revenge.  I hope you make the choice to give away a little more than before and go a little farther out of your way to help, to set judgment aside in favor of love, to tear down the walls that separate us from each other, little by little.  I hope you choose Jesus.  I’m trying to choose him too.

The Light of the World is life for all people, and nothing – nothing – can overcome it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]              https://www.wilgafney.com/2015/12/27/embracing-the-light-the-darkness-in-the-age-of-black-lives-matter/

[2]              https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf

[3]              https://www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/ive-been-to-the-mountaintop-by-dr-martin-luther-king-jr

[4]              https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[5]              https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-1