“In the Face of Betrayal” John 13:1-35

“So, where is this Kingdom Jesus keeps talking about?”    One has to admit, this is the single most difficult sticking point for being a Christian, and has been all 2000 years down range from Jesus.

Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom that was supposedly breaking in upon this world.   He healed the sick, fed the hungry, commanded those who had two cloaks should share one if asked for it, and made it all sound like any day now the world would be changed.

And then, it didn’t.

Crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell, on the 3rd day rose again… ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father…. We profess that Jesus is all of that, but the world is still chugging along as it always has.

We still have the same political intrigue.

There is always someone vying to be on top.

There is always someone promising that they have all the answers, and then disappointing or back-tracking on promises.

There is always someone else getting caught in this scandal or the other, and the world as it chugs on its merry way seems to take peculiar delight in finding the dirty secret, the smoking gun, or the inconsistency that brings about the fall

No one is “squeaky clean.”

Where is this Kingdom of God that was promised?

It did not come with the end of the Roman Empire and the descent of the Dark Ages.

It did not come with Christendom, with the height of church power and primacy.

It did not come with Reformation or the Renaissance.

It did not come during the Industrial Revolution, or with the Space Race with the rise of Information Technology.

It did not come with the United States, or the EU, or with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Where is the Kingdom promised by Jesus, a world transformed?

Every generation looks to the innovations of this world, to the winds of change that blow through, and tries to interpret it as finally “the hour.”   This is the time when God is finally going to bring in that promised Kingdom, and the world will be a better place.

And then every generation in succession feels the bitter sting of the betrayal of their hopes, as events that seemed to hold such promise go from bad to worse, or the promise hoped for falls far short and is once again unfulfilled.

Where is this Kingdom of which you speak, Jesus?

Perhaps we miss the Kingdom because we are not listening very closely to Jesus, and what he point to tonight.

In John’s gospel we are told in no uncertain terms that Jesus knows what is coming.

He knows that this is “his hour.”

He knows that Judas will betray him.

He knows that Peter will deny him.

He knows that the disciples will all abandon him.

If ever there was a moment when Jesus could have jumped up on the table and shouted, “I know what you jerks are made of!” and listed off each offense in order, the shallowness of their commitment, and the duplicity of their actions, this would be the moment.

One of them was sneaking around and plotting behind his back for money.

Another is all bluster and bravado, but will have not one lick of commitment when the going gets tough.

The others are clueless, can’t seem to figure out a single thing on their own or see the issues even when they are right in front of them. .

You or I might have called time out, dismissed the whole bench of disciples here, and called for a “start over.”

That’s what we might have done in coming face to face with disappointment and betrayal.   It is what this world demands.

Find the guilty party, the smoking gun of ineptitude, scapegoat them, blame them for the failure and then start over with someone “more reliable.”

But that’s not what Jesus does.

Knowing all that he does, Jesus instead takes the towel, and washes the disciple’s feet, and tells them to love one another.

Knowing all that he does, Jesus breaks the bread, and shares the meal, and dips his portion into the same bowl as the betrayer.

He chooses to sit right next to him, recline with him, share this meal with him, even knowing what is about to go down.

Where is this Kingdom that Jesus has been talking about?

It appears it is right here!

It is knowing what you know, about the people around you, and despite what you know about them, still choosing to do this, to love them, serve them, be with them.

American Author and Mystic James Marion has observed that when Jesus talks about “the Kingdom of Heaven”, what he is really doing is offering a metaphor for a state of consciousness.  The “Kingdom of God,” — the “Kingdom of Heaven” is not some place to which you go.   It is not a destination, or a transformed world.

It is instead a state of mind that you come from.

It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.

“The Kingdom of God has come near”  Jesus asserts, and tells his Disciples to announce it, and to do so by behaving in a way that this world does not always understand.

When confronted with too many mouths to feed, he commands to the disciples “You give them something to eat.”

In sending them out to proclaim the Kingdom, he tells them to venture out ill prepared.  “Take no staff, no second tunic, no extra sandals, but when you enter a house say ‘Peace….”  Who leaves with no travel plans and no luggage?

This is not about the world changing to meet your needs, this is about you changing and in the process, the world changes.

This is what Jesus does in this story, on this night, in the washing of the feet of those whom he knows will betray and disappoint him.   He does it anyway, and in so doing sets the expectation that this world will not be changed by “quid pro quo” deals, but by acts of service.

“Do you know what I have done to you?”  Jesus asks.  13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 1

The Kingdom is found not in a place, but in a choice made, an action undertaken even knowing what you know!

The Kingdom of God is not so much a destination to which this world will arrive some day, as it is looking at the journey of life in this world and choosing to behave in a way that defies the expectations of this world, and in so doing brings into this world the expectations of God, and the reality of God’s Kingdom.

The world would have fired all the disciples for their betrayal and disappointment.

Jesus instead washes them, and commands them to love.

This is the expectation of the Kingdom.

We too often think of the Kingdom of God as something that Jesus will bring in some day, and when he does, this world will be changed.

But instead, in the actions of this night Jesus lays the example of how the Kingdom is brought in every day by the decisions we make as his disciples and the actions that we can choose to take every day.

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

This is how the Kingdom of God comes upon us, not from without, but it emerges from within, ….what you choose to do in the face of the world’s disappointments and betrayals.

Palm Sunday 2017

You can’t say I didn’t warn you.  Way back in my December “Servitor” article I warned you that this year would be a “politically charged and governmentally intrusive year” as we read through the Gospel of Matthew, and this is why.

Matthew will not let it be anything other than that, and we are brought face to face with it all particularly on this day, Palm Sunday.

The ministry in Galilee, which has been known far and wide, has portrayed Jesus as casting out demons, healing the sick, and confronting religious leaders and those in authority and putting them in their place.

Jesus came proclaiming a Kingdom, and it has played very well in the places where people have largely come to him.

Those in need seek him out.

Those who have heard of the miracles he can do come to receive from him.

Those who are skeptical come to ask questions, and inquire further, and who are open to his message find in him a compelling alternative to the grind of Empire that is life under Roman occupation.

But now, Jesus is not in Galilee anymore, not out in the sticks where you can get by with a lot of things so long as you don’t make too many waves or draw to much attention.

Now he is entering Jerusalem, there is no mistaking how he is coming into town, how he is received by the people, and what this entry signals.

The waving of palm branches, and laying them down before him hearkens back to the most recent memory of action taken against occupying forces.  It was during the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century B.C. that Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem having driven back the Greeks.  They cut palm branches to celebrate his military victory when the temple was cleansed and restored.   This was a story told, and a moment celebrated.

As Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that the people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

That is not just some generic greeting.

“Hosanna” is the Greek rendering of Rabbinical Hebrew “Hoshia-na”  “save, rescue.”

So this is the expectation on this day by those crowds who welcome him.   Here comes the one who is like King David of old, who will do battle here, who will “save” us from Roman occupation and the ineffectiveness of our current leaders.

This is an entry that signals a regime change.

It is the Inauguration day parade where the new leader is walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and as the crowds greet and wave at him, they also have expectations.   Promises that are to be kept.  Hopes that are to be fulfilled.

Look at Palm Sunday with those eyes, and begin to see all the expectations that come with it, and you will begin to understand how it was that expectations not met as anticipated could turn the crowds from cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify him.”

Even as eyes recognize the symbolism of the events, we have to acknowledge that there were details tucked into the story that were deviations from the norm.

Jesus rides into Jerusalem all right, but it is not on a prancing steed, or on a chariot of war as a conquering king would.

No, he comes on a beast of burden, saddled with the clothing of the poor, and it is either a young colt at that or perhaps is it a colt with a with a nursing foal accompanying.  So, in Jesus’ entry we see not a conquering warrior, but a different kind of leader.

This is a leader whose intent is to nurture.

This is a savior who earlier in the Gospel invoked the image of hen and chicks, wanting to gather Jerusalem under her wings.

This is a clue that that battle to be engaged in Jerusalem is not like one of the kings of old, where the oppressor is driven out by force.

This is not a regime change, where once it is done the people will sit back again and evaluate how the leader did, and where we can judge the effectiveness of his leadership based on whether our lives are better off in this world than they were before.

No, this is a different kind of battle, but no less political.

In this battle the limitations of earthly kingdoms are laid bare, and exposed for what they truly are.

Governments and kings, Temple authorities, Chief Priests and Councils, even disciples are all the same.

They disappoint.

They self-preserve.

They do not care.

This is Matthew’s take on the story of Jesus.  If you are looking for some structure that will save, forget it.  All have fallen short of that, and the characters in the story show us how.

For Pilate and Roman Authority … well Jesus Barabbas, Jesus of Nazareth, it’s all the same… One Jew looks like another to Pilate.   He can’t be bothered with their intrusion into his well oiled machine of state.  He washes his hands of the intrusion of Jesus.  “Do with him what you will.”

For Caiaphas and the religious leaders, ridding themselves of Jesus is a political expediency.  His presence agitates the crowds.  They plot to have him killed, and are concerned not about the action itself, but rather the appearances.  “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot.”   There is no concern for the death of a fellow Jew, only how to hold on to power and keep the status quo at any cost.

For the Disciples, well it is one of them who betrays, which is a way of saying that very few groups (or congregations for that matter) are ever destroyed from without, it is always an “inside job.”

Judas may even have had noble motives, believing that he would be forcing Jesus’ hand to bring in the Kingdom.

Or, he may have just sold out, dissatisfied with the direction things ended up going, Jesus all talk and no action.

Peter tries to assist the uprising that will bring about the regime change, mobilize the masses to riot and violence by raising the sword at the garden.  Let the bloody rebellion begin.

But Jesus forbids it, and he too has a moment of not understanding.  How will this Kingdom come if no one engages the opposition?

The disciples all disappoint in the garden, they can’t even keep awake for an hour, and when the police show up, they all scatter, seeking to preserve their own skins.

The once bold sword swinger Peter,  will become the thrice denier who skulks in shadows.

Matthew tells us this is the triumphant entry that signals the change of regimes, the Kingdom brought near now to intrude upon Empire, but when it happens, from all outward appearances, Empire comes out on top.

Pilate stays in his Palace.

Herod remains King of Judea.

Jesus ends up crucified for insurrection, and the guilty go free.

The disciples are scattered and the movement is lost.

So what are we to take away from this week?  From this story?

Well, perhaps it is this.

You are who you are when Jesus comes into your midst.

This is how it is with the encounter with Jesus.

We don’t “clean ourselves up” to come into the presence of God, but rather the point is that Jesus comes and finds us exactly where we are, and your reaction to his intrusion on your life will vary.

Jesus rides into your world with all the outward signs of signaling a regime change, but tucked under that message is this desire to nurture you into a new way of living, and that’s what we miss.

We expect action from him, not transformation in ourselves.

And so it is, that when Jesus enters into this world of Empire in which we live, we have the same kinds of reactions that unfolded in the entry into Jerusalem.

Some will be filled with expectations that Jesus should do something to save, do something to straighten out this un-justice world.  “Hosanna” – Save us!

Some will be angry that Jesus doesn’t fit the mold of what we expect a Messiah should be. His actions will seem strange.  His follow-through on events erratic.  Jesus remains unpredictable, not something we “get” all the time.

Some will be annoyed that he’s often just like any other would-be religious fanatic, they are ready to wash their hands of the whole church thing when expectations are unmet.

Some will be upset that Jesus doesn’t do what they want him to do.  Despite their initial appearance of affection for him, betrayal is always just a “kiss off” away.

This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who wants to nurture but we will have none of that.

This is who rides into Jerusalem, a King who does challenges political authority, and who he scares enough that they in the end to put a seal on the tomb and make good and sure he stays put.

You are who you are when you encounter this story, and your character is laid bare and exposed.

You are heartless politician.

You are expedient church leader.

You are a betrayer, a coward, a steadfast but powerless watcher, a questioner, a skeptic.

The triumphal entry turns tragedy, and you are exposed for who you are in the end.

But the story is not yet over, and no seal put on a tomb, even by Empire, will keep it shut.

Jesus’ time in Jerusalem becomes earth shaking, in more ways than one.

This day, the entry and the start of this week reveals us as we are when Jesus first comes riding into Empire as we have fashioned it.

But, we are not yet who this Savior will make of us after the earth-shaking events of graves opened.

That’s what Palm Sunday sets us up for, watching how it all unfolds this week, exposing us for who we are in the Empires we have fashioned or adopted.

I did warn you.

Jesus will come riding in, and Empire as you have fashioned it will fall.

It must, so that new life can be born from the grave

Resurrection People John 11:1-45

There is an undeniable streak of cynicism running through the Gospel story today.  A kind of “What’s the point?” pall that seems to hang over this whole story from beginning to end.

Jesus hears of Lazarus’ illness, and promptly decides not to act upon that news.

“How can that be?” we ask, along with many in the story.  “How could Jesus blow off his close friend, the brother of his beloved Mary and Martha in their time of great need?   What kind of friend is Jesus, if he can’t drop everything and come running when needed?”

The Disciples have a cynical outlook on the whole prospect of returning to Judea.

“Hey, weren’t they just gathering up the rocks there to stone us???” you can hear them thinking.

Despite attempts by Jesus to turn this into a “teaching moment” about light and walking in the light, Thomas at least continues in the attitude that is pretty clearly resignation.

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Martha is no ray of sunshine, recriminating Jesus when he approaches.  “Lord if you had been here….”

Mary echoes her sister’s comments, using practically the same words.  “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”

The sisters have no doubt been talking with each other and rehearsing what they would say when Jesus finally showed up… and it’s not pretty.  For all the assurances of their faith, the knowledge of him “rising on the last day,’ and the outside hope that “even now God will grant whatever you ask of him.”  The problem of Jesus’ hesitation hangs over the whole story. Their words to him are forced, as if to say, “yes we know but… it’s a little late now.”

The crowd assembled is at the same time impressed with Jesus’ coming to be with the grief-stricken family, and with his own evident grief, but they are also skeptical.  “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind had kept this man from dying?”

Even Jesus feel a bit caught up by heavy mood at first.  He is moved to tears yes, overwhelmed with emotions at the hardness of reality of this death most final, — he has been four days in the tomb which is “dead-dead” in Jewish culture.

Jesus weeps.

He inquires of where the body of his friend is lain.

He has words of hope for Martha, assurances for Mary, but he also evidently feels the need to lift up his own prayers to his Father.

He does so as a witness to the crowds, or so we are told by him.

But, I suspect there is also a matter of Jesus’ own need here.  We have grown accustomed through the Gospels of watching him find a place to pray, to find solace away from the crowds to commune with the Father.

Here however, he opens up here in plain sight and earshot out of his own need.  “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I know you always hear me….”

Giving voice to that inner knowledge appears to be important for Jesus.  It is not just so the crowds who can overhear, but the prayer is also for Jesus himself.

It this act of “prayer out loud” that lifts Jesus out of the inexorable pull and drag of this world upon him and upon everyone in the story.

Even, and perhaps especially, the Messiah, the Son of God feels the weight of the world from time to time.

And that, beloved in the Lord, is where I want to take a jog from the Gospel into our own world and experience right now, for if I hear anything these days it is about the overwhelming cynicism that has become own experience.

There is an undeniable streak of cynicism that runs through our daily lives, and we often feel quite powerless to address it, or to deal with it, or to find ways to stave it off from pulling us ever deeper into resignation.

This is where our lives touch this story of Lazarus, for if we are honest with ourselves we will recognize that our question is the same as that on the lips of Mary, Martha, the disciples and the crowd.

Where is Jesus?

The cynicism that runs through this story runs through us as well, as so many of us reel at the changes and the accusations and actions of those in power.

“Where is God?” we ask.  “How could this, whatever ‘this’ is for you, happen?”

No amount of “it’ll be all right” will do to address the fact that someone, something appears to have died.

No amount of reassurance, or calling to mind the past, or looking with hope to the future working itself out will deal with rotting corpses.

We can no more pull ourselves out of the funk of cynicism these days than the disciples, or Mary and Martha, or the crowds could that day as they gathered at the tomb of four-day-dead Lazarus.

Words alone just don’t have the power to do that, not even eloquent prayers or wishful hopes.

No, what is required is nothing short of an experience of resurrection.  Words that resonate with action, and that has to come in the form of an experience quite literally “lived” by all those involved.

A body called forth from the tomb has to come to life.

A crowd has to see that event, and watch as the bound-one staggers out.

A closer group has to have a “hands on” experience with resurrection, be instructed to touch, to “unbind him and let him go.”

Nothing short of a resurrection experienced will have any effect on the pall of cynicism.  Something has to happen that is totally unexpected or anticipated, even though longed for.   Mary, Martha, Lazarus himself and the crowds gathered that day, yes even Jesus himself, will have to witness and experience it as it unfolds to dispel the darkness that currently envelopes them.

And that, curiously enough, brings us back to our day as well, and claiming something that we have perhaps lost in the midst of all the cynical stuff around us, which is who are we!

Are we not referred to as a “Resurrection People?”

Are we not witnesses to the Resurrection, and to the power of that Resurrection, and have been now for 2000 years?

And where did we see Resurrection?

Oh, beloved, we see it every day!

We see it, but our eyes must be lifted from the fog of cynicism that would keep them from seeing it.

You witnessed Resurrection when you walked into the door today.  Did you see it?

You made a decision to not stay on your sofa, to not catch the early seating at brunch, to not pull the covers back over your head and hunker down.

You stepped inside a church, where others made that same decision, and it was a moment of resurrection.  It was you saying defiantly to a word that wonders where Jesus is, that “Jesus is here.”

Jesus lives in the decision to gather, where the Word is preached and the Sacrament is administered.

Jesus becomes flesh again in the neighbor, and in the greeting, and in the voice uplifted, and in the bread and wine broken, given, shared.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good,” we defiantly proclaim, as if prophesying to dry old bones and we watch them come together again and take on muscle and sinew in the Body of Christ as it assembles.

Time has not erased the truth that because Christ Jesus was raised from the dead we too might have a new life.

Every Day!

Resurrection resides in the stocked pantry shelves, and in the sacrifices made to feed the hungry and cloth the naked.

Resurrection lives there because we don’t do those things just because they are a good idea, or because of the need or necessary, but because we follow a Risen Savior who has shown us how to love and has commanded us to feed.

Resurrection lives in the way we treat one another, in the kind and the tenderhearted words we speak to one another in the midst of our own grief.

Resurrection lives in the truth that must be spoken to power, the reminder of Last Judgment, the call to love, and forgive, and care for the vulnerable in society.

Resurrection lives in an offering taken, and in the decision to give that the lights may remain on and the organ may be tuned and story may be told once again.

Resurrection is evident in the notes of the singer, and in the passing of the peace, and in the lesson that is prepared and in the child who is welcomed and who feels welcomed.

Resurrection is found in the work of committees, and the silent service of cups filled with wine and linen lovingly arranged just as carefully as any folded linen cloth at the empty tomb.

You will witness resurrection in this world whenever you turn your eyes upward and pray, “I know that you always hear me…”

The furious plots and plannings of the kings, princes, presidents and nations have never been able to hold back the flood of justice and righteousness when God unleashes it.

“The arc of the moral universe is long” said Martin Luther King Jr. “but it bends toward justice.”

This is what we need to see in this Gospel today.

For all the cynicism that is displayed by all those involved in the story, when Resurrection is beheld the world is changed, and many come to believe.

This is what we do, Resurrection People.   We dispel the cynicism of this world by witnessing to what we see every day.

We hear the call of Jesus that brings the dead out of their graves.

We watch as those who were formerly as dead to us make their way back to life.

We get busy with our own hands unbinding and setting free those who stagger back to life.  We give them food.  We give them hugs.  We reach out and strip away, bit by bit, the things that hold them back.

We do all that by striding into this world to do the work of a Resurrected people.

Jesus is raised, and lives in us.   Though cynicism may slow us down from time to time, we live in the assurance given to us by Jesus himself, and show to us by his resurrection, that in the end the very gates of hell cannot prevail against us.

“Flesh” Ash Wednesday 2017

Our Lenten theme for this year is a little different.   Normally the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 6, and the instruction that is given on fasting and praying as we prepare for the discipline of Lent.

This year, we’re going with a theme of Bodily Worship of the Triune God.   The theme comes from Psalm 103 which reads, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.”   Implied in that psalm is the understanding that when we come to worship, we are to engage all of ourselves, our body and soul, into the art and act of worship.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but I assure you, it is harder than it seems.

Who hasn’t come to worship and found themselves miles away in their thoughts?  The hands are folded, the knees are bowed, but the mind is racing elsewhere.

“Did I turn off the oven?”

“What should I do about this or that?”

As the Word is preached the Pastor mentions something that suddenly takes the mind to a completely different place, and while the face looks attentive, and thoughts are miles away.

It’s hard to remain in the worship moment with the whole of one’s self.

Rolf Jacobson, Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary points out that in our usual translation of Psalm 103, we miss two very important nuances.

The first has to do with the translation of the word “bless”, which in this psalm is better translated “bend the knee.”   “Kneel before the Lord, O my Soul.”   That part of the translation has us engaging bodily, dropping in reverence or submission.

But now that brings us to the second translation error, which has to do with the word for “soul” in Hebrew, which is not what we think it is.

This “soul” spoken of here is not some disembodied spirit that somehow resides in the husk of a body waiting to be set free — as the Greeks may have imagined.

No, in Hebrew the word is “Nephish” – literally the throat, esophagus, windpipe into which God “breathed” to cause life.   It is more of a metaphor for “the core of one’s being.”  It is “all of me,” it is everything that makes us what we are.

Therefore a better translation of this psalm, (if less poetic sounding) Professor Jacobson says would be “Let all of me kneel before God’s Holy Name.”    So, throughout the season of Lent we’re going to be taking a look at this matter of what it is to have all that we are kneel before God in worship, and we’re going to be doing that by focusing on the parts of the body that make us up.

The scripture readings tonight call on us to focus on the matter of flesh, it’s frailty, it’s resilience and how much God must love us to want to enter into it on our behalf.

We’re “fleshy” beings, you are I.  We are tied to this creation in fearful and wonderful ways.

The Creation Story from Genesis reminds us of how much we are tied to the things of this world.

It is out of dust of creation, the stuff of stars that we are made, as God’s hands take those elements to form and shape us.

It is God’s own breath that fills our lungs, expands the “core of our being” and gives life.

“Fleshiness” is our great gift.

It is also our great weakness.

“Fleshiness” sets us up to listen to voices other than the voice of God.   Because we are fleshy, we seek connection to other fleshy beings.  Relationship with the flesh sometimes comes into conflict with the relationship prescribed by God.

“Fleshiness sets us up to follow our appetites and desires, to partake of the tree that we know we are commanded not to eat from, but which our fleshiness longs for, just a taste, just a sample, what could it hurt?

“Fleshiness” sets the limits and boundaries of life.   It marks the difficulties we have to endure to earn a living, as “by the sweat of our face we eat our bread.”

“Fleshiness” reminds us of our mortality, how the things of this world return to the dust from whence it was formed.

Paul reminds us that whatever extraordinary powers we may think we possess and claim as our own are really things that belong to the God who breathed life into the core of us.  Like clay jars that hold the precious gift of life, we are prone to brokenness, we are finite in lifespan, and our usefulness is tied directly to our fragile and incomplete carrying of the precious gift at our core.

This is what God comes to inhabit, we are told by John.   God became “flesh” and lived among us, full of grace and truth, as a sign and symbol of how the fleshy can take on the imperishable.

But there is something else at work in this “Word becoming flesh thing.”

In becoming “Fleshy” like us, God now also has access to our “fleshy” parts.

God can come now to the ears, that we may hear the voice of Jesus.

God can come now to the mouth and open the lips, speaking in and through us as God comes out of the “core of our being” to others.

God can come now with hands to touch, to heal, to flip over tables when necessary and to lift up the fallen.

God can come with feet to journey with us, walking the pathways with which flesh must become acquainted.   Sometimes those are hard pathways of struggle and work.  Sometimes those are all too smooth pathways of temptation, the God who become flesh knows those walkways as well.   The God who has feet becomes acquainted with the way of faith and the stumbles failings along the way.

God can come now with knees, to kneel, and that is perhaps the strangest thought, that God would be kneeling with us.   We are so accustomed to being the one who is lowered, or who “takes a knee” to listen, that at first the thought of a kneeling God seems disorienting.  “What are you doing down here with me?”

But here too is the gift of fleshiness.  Here comes God to model with and for us what it means to become the servant, what the bending of the knee does for us how it opens us to find our place in a world created.

We are fleshy, and God has become fleshy with us, precisely so that nothing will be asked of us that God’ own self in frail flesh has not tried.

You are asked not because of how great, or how strong, or how powerful you are to follow the disciplines of Lent.

You are asked precisely because you are so fleshy, and in this way of all flesh, Jesus is now well acquainted.

You won’t be asked to do more than flesh can take on.

All of you, now; is invited to come to worship.

Come as you are able.

Come, for you are able.

Come, with all that you are, to the core of your being, into the presence of God who knows what it is to be fleshy, frail, and imperfect, and bids you kneel with him.

“To Save It” John 3:1-17

“I’m leaving you…”   That’s what the “post-it note” on the counter read.   In a panic, the husband stared at it.   His mind raced, his heart clenched in his chest, and his stomach dropped.

Sure, there had been the normal ups and downs of relationship but nothing that would have prepared him for this.

“I’m leaving you…”  The words burned.

He wanted to call.

He wanted to plead, to question, and try to discover what offense he had done that would lead to this.   He reached for the yellow tag of paper lifting from the countertop on its half-adhesive edge as if by touching it he might somehow confirm or deny the words that seemed to leap from its surface.

And plucking the note he then noticed that the writing continued on the back side.  Fearfully flipping it over from the “I’m leaving you” side he went on to read…“half a piece of pie in the fridge from my lunch… enjoy!”

It’s so important to read the whole note before jumping to conclusions!

It’s so important to read all the way through John chapter 3 verse 17 in our Gospel for today, because stopping at John 3:16 is like the husband not turning the note over.

People are really good about quoting and pointing out John 3:16.   It pops up on signs at ball games, and in rallies.   You probably know this verse by heart for its words are burned into the memory.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  

But something strange happens in how that verse gets used and interpreted when we stop reading the bible story there.

I think it happens because we assume that we know what is going on in this story of Nicodemus.

Jesus is arguing with this Pharisee who has come to him by night that he must be “born from above.”

Nicodemus is inquisitive.

He recognizes that Jesus is a teacher, and that he is from God, but he has questions, and in the exchange that follows, Jesus engages in the give and take of what would be recognized at the time this was written as “rabbinical teaching.” It is the technique employed by teacher and student to lead one to a different perspective.

Instead of viewing the Nicodemus story for what it is, which is this dialogue in which Jesus is teaching and Nicodemus is learning, we read it as if it were the fine print on an infomercial.

We read it as “Some conditions may apply…”

We read that God so loves the world but then we assume from the teaching that precedes it that this is about conditions and expectations.

“You must be born from above.”  Jesus says, and we are conditioned by one theological interpretation to read that as a condition, one not yet met by Nicodemus.  The condition that you must be baptized.

“No one can enter into the Kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”  We read that as a condition, and one that is beyond Nicodemus’ grasp at this point, and so we leave Nicodemus in a kind of limbo, waiting for a later date when maybe he will “get it” and comply.

Maybe someday he too will make his way out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.

Maybe, someday, Nicodemus will do what we think Jesus commands here as a condition of entering the Kingdom, and comply with the ritual.

Instead of viewing this as an exchange of learning that leads Nicodemus to a new understanding, something that he has to let “sink in” for a bit.   We assume that it is Jesus laying out conditions that must be met, and so John 3:16 begins to take on the ring of exclusivity.

Believe and you will have eternal life.

Question, like Nicodemus, and you must be left out.

That’s how we often read this, and by extension then we begin to set up our own categories of who is in and who is out.   We qualify and quantify beliefs based upon our own experience, and assume that John 3:16 supports them.

If you believe as I do, well then as John 3:16 says, and you are in.

If you believe differently that I do, well then John 3:16 would seem to indicate that you are out.

Follow Jesus as I understand one is to follow, and you are in with me.

Follow in a way that I don’t understand or agree with, and well…. John 3:16 says….

Exclusivity rears its head if you end with the verse about belief, precisely because “belief” as we use that word tends to be a subjective thing, something open to our own interpretation of what it might be.

But if you push on to John 3:17, the landscape of this bible story changes.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

The removal of the condemnation is like the husband turning over of the note!

Now the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is not about coming to a place of “right belief.”   It is rather about developing a relationship!

This is what Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to do!   He already knows that Jesus is sent by God.  No one can dispute that – given what Jesus does, the signs he performs, —  what Nicodemus can’t quite figure out is how to relate to him!

It is in developing a relationship in which the wind of the spirit can blow where it wills that Nicodemus begins to see.

It is in developing a relationship where questions can be raised, where thoughts can be clarified, and where trust can be established that Nicodemus begins to understand how he, as a teacher of Israel can begin to discern what God is up to now in his midst.

Push on to verse 17, and what is revealed is God’s intention, which is considerably less about what one believes or does, and turns out to be more about what God seems to desire.

No, not just what God “seems” to desire, but that God expressly states, namely, that it is God’s desire to save the world, and that’s why the son has been sent.

Jesus has been sent for this very kind of engagement.

Jesus is sent to open up the dialog where questions can be raised, and where insight can be given, and where through the dialog the Spirit can then begin to move where it will.

This is good news for us, for we could use a lot of “world saving” right now, and preferably some that doesn’t depend so much upon “right belief,” because quite frankly, we don’t know what to believe anymore.

In this world of fake news, the denial of accumulated data and the questioning of factual or scientific evidence, we are uncertain about who or what to believe anymore.

We are at least as disoriented in our daily life now as Nicodemus was when he came to Jesus by night.

So, now is the time to push on to verse 17.

Now is the time to hear, with crystal clarity, that salvation is not dependent upon our belief or unbelief, but rather salvation is something that is put into motion by God’s desire.  It is  God’s activity of sending his Son that brings about salvation, and it is God’s desire that this be directed toward the whole world.

Now is the time to claim that, more than ever, in a world that is fractured, and where trust is hard to come by, that it is God’s intention and desire to save this world.

In a world where political powers and ideologies press us to want to isolate, to separate ourselves, to build walls, to label who is in, and who is out, and who is other to be questioned, distrusted, avoided, rejected and deported – we need to claim and proclaim that what God is up to is opening up dialog and engaging people.

Now is the time to remind the world of verse 17, for Jesus did not come into this world to condemn it, but to save it, and it all begins with establishing relationship, not labeling or dismissing others.

God did not send his Son to hasten the end of world, but rather to unite all things in Christ.

Jesus did not come to speak enigmatically to those who came to him by night in order to confuse them.

No, Jesus came to open up a dialog where even in the midst of deep misunderstanding and questioning the Spirit can blow and new insight can be given.

This is our legacy.

This is the hope to which we are called, and what we are called to proclaim.

John 3:16, yes… absolutely!   God so loved this world that he sent the Son.

But do not end it there!  The Son is sent not to establish right belief, but rather to foster the belief in us all that God does not condemn, but instead desires to save and to begins relationship.

This world.

Those in it.

Those who come by night, and those who follow by day.

All of them, all of it, God desires to save and God does so by establishing a relationship with in which the Word is made flesh and dwells in our midst, and where the Spirit can blow.

It is so important that we read this whole note, this whole story to a world that is always tempted to fall into division.

The world is depending upon it.

God is depending on the dialogue, and upon us to engage it.  Amen.

“Tempting Times” Matthew 4:1-11

We are most certainly living in “Tempting Times.”    What kind of temptations do you see?  Experience?   We could go on and on here to list even more of the temptations that abound for us.

But I suspect that just listing out temptations is not what you came here for today.

If you wanted to get a list of temptations available to you, you could “google it” and likely things would pop up on your screen that you had no idea even existed until you saw it.

No, if you came here today for any reason it was likely to try to figure out what to do about the temptations that are all too prevalent in your daily life.

As we enter the season of Lent, we turn to the scriptures, and particularly to Jesus’ temptation thinking, or perhaps hoping that we can learn a thing or two from Jesus about how to deal with temptation and to silence the devil.

Well, if that’s what you were hoping for, I will sadly have to disappoint you.

The temptation of Jesus doesn’t really help us if you are looking for tools for dealing with temptation.

Just take a look here at the tools that Jesus employs in dealing with the tempter.

Jesus is hungry, and the temptation is to turn stones into bread.   “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  This is what Jesus says to deal with the Tempter.

            Which is all very good for Jesus to say… but he’s still hungry.

This first temptation, we know it well once we start to turn it over in our minds.   This is the temptation to take care of our own needs…. First.  The great temptation in turning stones into bread is of thinking only of yourself and of your own needs.

“If you are the Son of God….”   Embedded in Satan’s temptation right away is an appeal to and an assumption of privilege because of who you are.

It’s not that Satan questions that Jesus is the Son of God.

No, rather it is a temptation rooted in what you deserve as a matter of being who you are – namely God’s Son.

You deserve a little special treatment.

You deserve to have your needs met before you worry about anyone else.

“You deserve a break to today”… as McDonald’s will so eloquently put it some 20 centuries later.

We know this temptation well, we live it over and over again, like the grumbling of an empty stomach.

A thousand different challenges present themselves in the society around us, and as opportunities to make a difference with a gift are presented, the rumbling in the gut of our own hunger pushes back against the need of others, and our own assumptions of privilege creep in.

Give money to the government in taxes?  Hey, that is MY money!

Give money to the church?  Hey, I worked hard for that, I’ll give if what they are doing fits my interests, benefits what I think should be done?

Give money to that beggar on the street corner?  How will I know he won’t go buy a bottle?   He may have a nicer house than I have!  Who knows how much he rakes in tax free from that racket…

Oh, we are well acquainted with the first temptation, the “me first” and then I’ll see to others temptation.

Jesus recognizes it, and rejects it by quoting scripture.

But we are not Jesus.   We, more often than not, will succumb to this temptation.  Sometimes we will be pricked by that and find ourselves ashamed of it, recognizing how we have also assumed a measure of privilege mentality, but more often we will simply write this temptation off as the way things are.

“If you don’t look out for yourself, who is going to look out for you?”

So, if you think by becoming more acquainted with the bible will help give you a tool to defeat temptation, think again.   We will more often just look for the right bible verse to quote, that fits our own self-interest, and call that good.

Jesus can quote scripture to push back against temptation, but not so for us.  Why?  Because as it turns out, the devil can quote scripture too.

 “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ “

We recognize this temptation too, but it comes at us in just a little different way.

For Jesus, the temptation was one of personal safety.   “Go ahead, throw yourself down, God won’t let anything bad happen to you.”  — it is again an appeal to privilege, special status.

Which is fine for Jesus, as Son of God.   But what about us?   What can we look to for protection and personal safety?

Ah, here is how the Tempter gets at us, and it is again and appeal to the matter of privilege.

This temptation is the builder of walls and the procurer of missiles.  It is the promise of larger aircraft carriers, and the increase in defense spending even when as a Nation we spend more on defense than the next 7 world leading powers combined.

It is an appeal to the privilege of being “safe” and “untouchable” and not having to worry about what the rest of the world worries about.

The temptation to desire personal safety, and some guarantee of that, is powerful indeed!

Consider what such pursuit of personal safety has done to us.

It has made us take our shoes off and bow down to worship metal detectors since 9/11.

It has driven us to take for granted surveillance in every sector of our lives as just the price that must be paid to be assured that we are “safe.”

This temptation for personal safety has made us seek suspicion in every stranger, and has made us voluntarily sign away our privacy.

It has made it impossible to travel without the proper identification papers.

The desire for personal safety sets neighborhood against neighborhood, it produces gated communities and secure buildings and “members only” access.

It proliferates “ADT” signs in front yards instead of front porches upon which to meet one’s neighbor and watch out for one another.

The desire for personal safety sees a potential enemy in everyone who is “different” in any way, and it ironically ends up producing the very paranoia of the outsider that such “safety” is supposed to allay.

Jesus recognized that quotation of scripture by Satan was a perversion of God’s promise. He quoted scripture back to clarify scripture, invoking what we call a “canon within the canon.”  Snippets of scripture that seem to justify your narrow position, are not the final word.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  He says.

Do not take things out of the context of God’s overarching theme in scripture, and don’t try to force God into doing something that is not the intent of the relationship that has been revealed.

Maybe we’ll learn something from that third temptation, a tool to use?

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 

Nope.

This is the one that we are in fact most often tripped up by.  This is the temptation to power, and it is the great seducer of all, for it is always the case that we think power is something that we will be able to handle.

“Well, if someone made me President/leader/supervisor/senator/congressman/

–insert whatever person of authority –, I know I could do better….”

There is always some allure in pinning your hopes on a strong leader who can address the ills of the world, is there not?

We look longingly back to the leaders of old, and proclaim “if only we had a leader like…”

For Israel, it was “if only we had a King like David, a Prophet like Elijah, leader like Moses….”

For us it might be hearkening back to Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan.   We idolize the past as the golden age, recognized the times were hard but see those single great leaders as somehow uniquely gifted to see the nation through the difficult time.

Truth be told though, they were all flawed, and they all fell into the abuse of power in one way or another.

We remember the good.  We forget the opposition they faced, or the failings they fell into.

Even and especially Jesus recognizes the danger in this, and so he rejects it out of hand.  “Away with you, Satan.”

It will not by amassing personal power that the world will be saved or the Kingdom of God brought it.

No, if you want to lean about how to deal with temptation, you don’t look at what Jesus does in the wilderness.

You instead look at what he does after this encounter with all of those temptations to care for himself first, to give in to privilege, and become an authoritarian leader.

What Jesus does is gather disciples.

What Jesus does is begin to teach that if you would deal with the temptations of this world, you must focus on your relationships.

Relationship with him.

Relationship with God.

Relationship with one another in community.

Jesus us teaches us that God will deal with temptation by entrusting the dispersal of power.

Twelve will be appointed, all of whom individually will fail utterly and mightily, and each will have their own temptations against which they will have to struggle, but they will preach, proclaim the Kingdom, and found communities.

Oh, the tempter will find, or poke or prod, until he finds the weak spot in every individual, no matter how resolute or strong.

But in that distribution of power and shared responsibility for the Kingdom, there is mutual accountability that the devil can’t subvert.   The ability to trust and lean upon one anothers allows the Kingdom to break in, imperfectly, but little by little.

If Jesus could not handle the prospect of power and rejected it out of hand for something else, why do we keep going back to it?

 “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’   Jesus says.

How do you beat temptation?

You don’t.

That is the take away from the Temptation Story.   You and I, we won’t do that on our own.

We’re not Jesus, after all.

And this temptation thing, this is not a “once and done” kind of event for Jesus or for us.  Notice how often the temptations come back in the story… in the hunger of crowds, in the questions of authority, in the attempts to tie Jesus to political messianic hopes and dreams, a “King like David.”

This is what the temptation story tells us.

This is how life is.  It is a succession of these three things – care for the self, privilege thinking, and the temptation to take control on our own — coming back to us over and over again, and we are not Jesus!  We will not be able to take this tempter on – not on our own!

So instead, Jesus gives us each other.

The tool that Jesus gives to us to deal with temptation is community, which he establishes and keeps, calling it together again and again with the Spirit and the Bread and Wine. .

How do you deal with temptation?

Not on your own.

We do this together, by attending to one another as Jesus has shown us so to do.

“A Glimpse” Matthew 17:1-9

The season of Epiphany in the church is book-marked by two stories, each and every year. It begins with the story of the Baptism of Jesus.  In that story, God’s booming voice proclaims, (depending upon the Gospel either for either Jesus alone, or for all to hear) “This is my Son…”

The Season of Epiphany always ends with this story, of Jesus Transfigured on the Mountain, and the second iteration of God’s proclamation, “This is my Son…”

In between the Baptism and the Transfiguration, the ministry of Jesus begins and the stories we hear bring into sharper focus what can be expected of him, and what will be required of the one whom God claims as his own.

The Transfiguration event is quite often a head scratcher for most folks.   We’re not quite sure what to do with it.

We are as puzzled as anyone over what Moses and Elijah are meant to represent, what they may have discussed with Jesus, or what symbolic action this meeting might be meant to convey.

We join with Peter, James and John in fumbling and stumbling over what to make of it all, and just what to say or do in the moment.

Shall we “live in this moment?”

Do we build a shrine or a shelter to commemorate it?   Or a shelter to remain upon the mountain for a time and avoid what Jesus has predicted will lie ahead in choosing to go to Jerusalem, and go the way of the Cross?

It can be a quite a conundrum for us.   What do we make of this strange vision?

Perhaps, Vision is precisely the word and experience we are to take from this story; that it is a vision.  It is a moment between baptism and what will lie ahead in which we get only a glimpse of something.

If that is the case, then I would submit that the Transfiguration is not so foreign to us after all.

You know this moment.

You have had this kind of moment.

If this is a vision granted, it is not so much something for us to “figure out” or explain as it is simply a “moment to remember.”  It is a moment that will be looked back upon that provided something — a measure of hope, insight, or clarity for what was to come.

We all experience transfigurations, don’t we?

You have had a moment like this, or you will.

Transfigurations, this story tells us, are comprised of three distinct parts.

You see something that you have never seen until this moment.

You recognize something of the past in this moment that you realize will have implications for the future..

You feel a moment of fear that a word eventually addresses or dispels.

So, when is it that you have had a “Transfiguration” event happen to you?

If you are a parent or a grandparent I’ll bet it’s there tucked inside your memory, a Transfiguration of your child.

Probably several.

Maybe it was the moment when for the first time, on their own, they toddled into the bathroom and used the toilet without being prompted, coaxed, bribed or scolded.

It was a moment when you saw them as something they had never been before, and something that you longed for them to be, independent!

You recognized something of the past fading away.  The day of no more diapers becomes a real possibility!

But, in that same realization you feel also a moment of fear.

They are growing up!

“I did it!”  “I do it myself!”  Is the word that comes to address the moment.  It pulls us back to reality, and dispels a bit of the anxiety.

I think there is a transfiguration moment when a parent sees his daughter or son come down the stairs dressed up for a special event.

You see that she is not your little girl anymore.   He is not just a little boy.

You recognize in her poise, or in his pose, in their appearance a bit of her mother perhaps, or you see your own father mirrored in the way he stands, or someone else from the family memory.   At any rate their appearance is quite unlike anything you have ever seen in your child before.

There she is, transfigured before you.  She is a young woman.

There he is, tall and dapper, and you recognize that he is no longer the child of playing with legos or in the backyard but a young man.

You feel the weight and joy of that.   And then they say something that snaps you back to the moment, something so like the little child again.  A word dispels your momentary fear of them slipping away from you.

Transfiguration moments abound, they appear in the donning of the cap and gown of graduation, in the tossing of the car keys when the teenager gets their license, in the first time your child reaches for the check at the restaurant when you are out to eat.

Oh, we know this moment of Transfiguration.  It signals a change to come, and change can be delightful, and fearful, and hard all at once, because it marks also a sense of loss.

Why is it the disciples want to build booths when they see the change in Jesus?  Is it not for the same reason we fight over the check at the restaurant?

Grow up, but not quite so fast.

Can’t we stay as we are… just a little longer?

It is good that we are here, and good to see this moment, and can it last just a little longer?

But no, down the mountain we must go.  There are tasks to be accomplished, work to be done.

We cannot hold the Transfiguration moment.  It is a vision, a moment.

But, visions can be remembered, recalled, and employed again.   They can be brought back to mind, and will be, to make sense of the future as it unfolds.

The vision of that little girl becoming a woman will be recalled in future events.  In the walk down the aisle at her wedding, in the cradling of her own first child, eventually in role reversal, where the child becomes the parent, extended caregiving back to the mother or father who once cradled her.

The vision of the little boy becoming a man will be recalled in future events, as he takes on his own life, finds his own way, and eventually in the role reversal as the things his father helped show him how to do are now returned.  “Here dad, let me….”

Oh, we are well acquainted with such moments of transfiguration, when we see, recognize, feel and a word dispels our fear.

But now, we need to pull this back to the story at hand, what the Transfiguration means for faith, because while we now know that we know this experience, we still don’t know exactly what it means for us.

Maybe what it means is this.

Change is possible, and we need not fear its approach, for it comes regardless of our wishes or attempts to hold it back, and God is in the change as it unfolds.

Maybe the reason Jesus gives the disciples this vision is so that they can recall it after the horrific events of trial, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  That seems to be the direction given.  “Tell no one until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Maybe even after 3 years of following in Jesus’ footsteps, even after the resurrection, the life of bringing in the Kingdom becomes a bit of a blur, something hard to sustain.

Did Jesus really do that?  Say that?

Were we just imagining the healings?

Was the feeding a miracle, or really just a slight of hand where he got everyone to share the lunch they had tucked away?

When the days get long, and the work gets hard, and you begin to wonder if all this living as a follower of Jesus is worthwhile, as you wait for Jesus’ promised return, what is it that will sustain you?

Is it not those moments of transfiguration?  Those times when you saw, recognized, felt and heard a little glimpse of what could be?

Maybe we aren’t supposed to figure out what the Transfiguration means exactly, but rather recall it as a vision bestowed.

Peter, James and John believed this was significant.  They spoke of it after the resurrection.  It got recorded.

“We got to see a glimpse….”

And maybe, that’s all we will ever get to see at any given time, just a glimpse.

Martin Luther would often speak of how the “true church” was always hidden.  How could the Church of Rome with all its corruptions, abuses, and shortcomings be considered a church at all?    Where was Jesus in this mess of competing interests, sale of forgiveness, and building of grand structures while the poor suffered?

Well, Christ was indeed there, but Christ was not found in the grand decrees of Popes or the architecture.

No, the “true church” is revealed only in glimpses.

The true church is revealed where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacrament is rightly administered.

It is an event, not a place.

It is a moment, not an institution.

Church happens when Christ reveals in that moment what the individual is to do, to say, or to be to be Christ to the neighbor.

It is the act of Hospitality, the care for the other, the word that must be spoken.

It is the doing of what you are gifted and able to do in this world for the sake of the neighbor.

For Luther, the matter of church was a kind of “cat and mouse” game with Satan, lest the work of the Kingdom be too exposed and Satan get his hands on it.   And we know the truth of that.  More often than not in doing the “business” of the church we lose sight of in whose name we are doing what we want to do.

Maybe all we get are “glimpses” of how God is at work, how the Kingdom comes of its own accord through and sometimes in spite of our own actions.

Between Baptism and the Mountaintop, that’s where we live our lives as well.   So maybe all we are meant to hope for is such a glimpse of God at work in our action now and again.  A moment that makes us smile and say, “I see something I’ve never seen before.”

And when the vision is dim?   Well then we still have a reminder from God in a booming voice.

“This is my son… listen to him.”