Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Invitation to Abundant Life: In Jesus (Part 2)

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

“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.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” John 9:39-41, 10:1-21 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This past Sunday, we heard the first of the two-part episode of Jesus’ healing the blind man in the temple on the Sabbath. On Sunday, we were witness to the first six scenes. In the opening scene, we watched as Jesus took the dust of the earth, spat in it, made mud, and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. He then sent him to wash and, when he did, the man could see for the first time in his life. In the next few scenes, we saw the effect of this healing--the Jewish leaders questioning his parents and then the blind man himself, demanding to know who had healed him. We witnessed the fear of his parents--a fear grounded in the unspoken rule that if they named Jesus as the healer they would be cast out of the synagogue and away from their entire community, losing their security and entire support system.  We heard the blind man, when confronted by the Jewish leadership, confess Jesus as the healer, proclaim his divinity, and then, as expected, be cast out of the synagogue. Once again on the edge of society. Our episode on Sunday ended with Jesus finding the man, sight restored, who confessed his faith in Jesus, the Word made flesh standing right there in front of him.

As the second and final part of the episode opens tonight, Jesus confronts the Jewish leaders--”I have come into the world to exercise judgment so that those who don’t see can see and those who see will become blind.” The Pharisees respond, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?” 

We, these 2,000 years later don’t have the benefit of hearing the inflection voices. Were they asking sincerely, perhaps questioning their own level of sight and understanding? Or was their question asked sarcastically, blind to their own ignorance and unwillingness to believe? Jesus’ response to them suggests the latter--”If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Jesus then moves into a discourse--a speech--that we commonly know as the “Good Shepherd” discourse. We’ve heard this many times before, haven’t we? “The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep...the sheep listen to his voice...I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus proclaims. “I came so that they could have life--indeed, so that they could have life abundantly,” or as the Common English Bible translates it, “so that they could live life to the fullest.” 

Have any of you ever been a shepherd? Or worked with sheep? A colleague of mine recently shared a video of Christopher Lange, a sheep farmer in Norway. The video, which was filmed by his friend Oyvind Kleiveland, was intended to test the question of whether sheep only obey their master’s voice. As it plays, we see several people attempt to call the sheep home, finishing with the shepherd, Mr. Lange, himself. Let’s watch

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day in Lent. It is the day in which we are reminded of our own mortality. Of the darkness of our existence apart from God. The blind man was also reminded of his own mortality. Of the darkness of his existence. He was living it in his daily reality, begging for sustenance, completely dependent upon others for his life. His was a dark, mortal, finite existence without God. 

Jesus broke into his darkness. And using the very dust and ashes that were the symbol of his mortality, restored his sight and with it, the ability to live life abundantly. To live life to the fullest. And, then, when he was cast out of the synagogue, Jesus sought him out again. Just as the shepherd in tonight’s video called his sheep, Jesus called the blind man by name, bringing him into intimate relationship. With Jesus, his Good Shepherd. 

On this day, our Good Shepherd calls us, too, just like the blind man. Our Shepherd calls us out of our own blindness with a voice we know. Calls us back into intimate relationship with him. Calls us into a deeper place, a place of sustenance, a place of community. A place of abundant life--where we might live life to the fullest. And, then, takes the dust of our own mortality and marks us with the cross. With his cross.

Sight. Intimate relationship. Sustenance. Community. Abundant life. These are all what God desires for us and what God promises to us as we journey through this Lenten season. May we continue to hear our shepherd’s call so that we might, along with the blind man, always proclaim, “Lord, I believe.” 

God grant it. Amen.

Preached on , February 14, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Ash Wednesday
Readings: Psalm 23; John 9:39-41, 10:1-21

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Invitation to Abundant Life: In Jesus (Part 1)

Grace and peace to you from our Savior Jesus, the Messiah, who is Christ, the Lord. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago, when we heard the story of Nicodemus, I mentioned a commentary by Lindsey Trozzo, a professor of biblical ethics and rhetoric at Baylor University. In it, she suggested thinking of the Gospel of John as a multi-act play or a TV mini-series. As each chapter unfolds, we hear and see a new interaction. Sometimes it’s between Jesus and his disciples. Sometimes it's between Jesus and the Jewish leadership. Sometimes, as in last week’s lesson, it’s between Jesus and someone we might consider an outcast. With each interaction, with each encounter, it's as though a new act or a new episode begins. Each building one upon the other. Each part of a plot line that will, I suspect, eventually reach a turning point--a climax in theatre language--a point of great tension.

Today’s lesson offers us one more act from the Gospel of John. Another episode in the mini-series. An episode in seven scenes. 

Scene 1 (Read John 9:1-7). Our first scene opens upon Jesus, a blind man, and the disciples. Jesus sees the man. Blind from birth. A man who has never had sight. Not once seen a sunrise. Not once seen a wildflower. Not once seen the face of someone he loved.

Jesus sees him, though. The disciples do, too. But their focus isn’t on him, but on his sin. “Who sinned, Jesus? Was it him? Or his parents? Who sinned that he was born blind?” It’s an assumption made by them. That anyone with or stricken by a physical ailment or disability must be suffering because of sin--whether their own or that of a previous generation. It’s an assumption we still make today, don’t we? Of others. Sometimes, of ourselves. “What did I do wrong, God, to deserve this cancer?” we might ask ourselves.

But as we learned last week, sin, in John, isn’t a moral category. In John, sin is a category of relationship. And for this man--this blind man--his disability is an opportunity for God’s work to be revealed in him. An opportunity for relationship--for relationship with God present in the Word made flesh. Right there in front of him.

So, Jesus takes the dust of the earth. And with the dust and with his saliva, Jesus makes mud and rubs it onto his eyes. He sends him to wash. He does. And then he returns. With full eyesight.

Do you notice how the man listens to Jesus’ voice and follows his direction? Do you notice how the same dust that God used to create new life in Genesis gives this man new life, too? 

Scene 2 (Read John 9:8-12). As our second scene opens, Jesus and the disciples are no longer present. The man is, though. The man who is no longer blind. And with him a variety of people, moving in and out of the scene. Notice that all of the verbs in this scene are in the present tense. They describe what had been his daily reality.  Sitting. Begging. Every day and all day, fully dependent on others for his own survival. 

His neighbors cross-examine him. They ask how he regained his sight. “The man called Jesus,” he says. Do you notice here how he knows Jesus’ name?

What’s the first thing you do when you meet someone for the very first time? You ask their name. Knowing someone’s name is the first step of entering into relationship, isn’t it? “The man called Jesus,” he says. He now knows Jesus. The man.

But the man who now sees does not yet know Jesus, the divine. Not yet, at least.

Scene 3 (Read John 9:13-17). “He is a prophet.” This man, now called “formerly blind,” is truly beginning to see. As our scene develops, we watch the relationship grow and new understanding dawning.  The blind man is now beginning to know Jesus, the divine. And to witness to him. 
It’s not clear in our text whether he has even yet actually seen Jesus. He heard his voice and followed his request. Yet, even though Jesus is not physically present in this scene, the man’s “sight”--his spiritual eyesight is growing. Especially as he begins to witness to Jesus’ presence in his life.

In contrast, the Pharisees continue in their own spiritual blindness. “On a Sabbath!” They proclaim, stuck in their religious rules. Speaking of Jesus, they ask, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” How ironic it is that they, and not the formerly blind man, are the ones who lack true sight! 

How is your eyesight lately?

Scene 4 (Read John 9:18-23). In our fourth scene, the Jewish leaders don’t believe him at first--that he was ever blind. It is his parents who confirm this. “He was born blind.” When they are asked how his sight has been restored, they point back to their son. They do this, because they are afraid--afraid that if they say that Jesus has done this--that the Messiah has done this--they will be banished from the synagogue and, with it, from their entire social, religious and communal life.  
Do you recall, when we first began reading this gospel, who John’s audience was? The gospel was written for a group of believers who, because they chose to follow Jesus, had been cast out of the synagogue. Who chose to leave their families for good. Who in faith chose to separate themselves from every aspect of their lives. To follow Jesus.

I wonder if we would make the same choice.

Scene 5 (Read John 9:24-34). This second dialogue between the blind man and the Pharisees is longer. It will be the last. They ask him the same questions, as though he will give different answers. They lack eyesight. They don’t hear him witness to them.  

In his testimony, the blind man names it. It takes hearing. And sight. He calls out their deafness and their blindness to the reality that God--that their God, the God of Moses--is the one who has done this. The one who is revealing Godself in a whole new way. If only they would look and listen.

They don’t. They cast him out of the synagogue.

Scene 5 (Read John 9:35-38). As our next scene opens, Jesus, who has been absent since the healing, hears that the man has been cast out of the synagogue. He searches for him as the Good Shepherd searches for his sheep. He finds him. And when he does, Jesus asks him, “Do you believe? Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 

“Who is this Son of Man?” the blind man asks. We’ve heard this question from the beginning of the Gospel. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “Can he be the one?” the Samaritan woman wonders.  Who is Jesus? 

“I AM.” In these words, Jesus fully reveals himself to the man, just as God revealed himself to Moses. What else is there to say, but “I believe!” 

This is what true relationship with Jesus looks like. What full recognition of Jesus is. It is an individual and gradual process that happens in dialogue with God. And, yes, sometimes even in confrontation. 

When we say, “Lord, I believe,” we are not only confessing our faith. Like the blind man, we are claiming our relationship with Jesus. We are stepping right into the arms of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. Who hears us. And sees us. And loves us. Just as we are.

I bet you thought it was over, didn’t you. That this episode had reached its climax with the blind man’s confession of faith and claim of relationship. But there is a twist in this plot.

Scene 6 (Read John 9:39-40). “I came into this world for judgment.” Jesus says. What? What happened to his words in John 3:17, “God did not send the Son in the world to condemn the world…”?

Judgment in John is not an outward condemnation. It is self-condemnation. Not believing in Jesus brings judgment upon oneself. It isn’t judgment from Jesus or from God. But self-imposed judgment. It is about how we respond to Jesus as the Word made flesh. It is that moment of judgment--that moment of crisis--for everyone who has an encounter with Jesus. A moment that demands a response.

This week, with Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. Lent is a time for us to step back a bit. To check our hearing and our seeing. To check our response to Jesus. To see how we are living as his disciples. To see how we are witnessing to him. 

“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 

“Surely we are not blind, are we?” the Pharisees asked. We ask.

How does Jesus respond to them? To us? The answer will come in our seventh and final scene. To be continued on Ash Wednesday. Be sure and tune in. Amen.

Preached February 11, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church.
Transfiguration Sunday
Readings: Psalm 27:1-4, John 9:1-40.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Invitation to Abundant Life: Thirsty?

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” John 4:1-42 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, who is Christ, the Lord. Amen.

I first experienced “it” when I was nine years old. I was a young girl, growing up on a ranch, pretty accustomed to hard work. Carrying five-gallon pails of feed and bales of hay. I was pretty strong for my age.

So, in fourth grade, after I’d already been playing piano for five years and the clarinet for one, and after I noticed a big double bass violin sitting in our music room at the public school I attended, I was kind of surprised at my music teacher’s response when I asked if I could learn how to play this big, beautifully carved instrument. “No,” he said. “Girls can’t play the double bass. Their fingers are too weak for the heavy strings.”

You see, I’d never experienced it before. That “being a girl” limited me in any way. I lived on a ranch where everyone simply had to do whatever was needed to make sure things got done. There was no difference between what I could do or what my brother could do. 

I didn’t really know at that time what “it” was. But, I knew it felt very unfair. And that it just wasn’t right. I was a strong girl and a very musical girl. After all these years, I still believe I could have learned the double bass in no time flat and with no fingering difficulties.

As I got older, “it” happened more and more. And “it” took on different forms. Sometimes, “it” was just a little slight. Something I could brush off easily. Like getting served second after a boy in the dining hall when I’d been there first. Or silly things boys would say--”Girls are weak, but guys are strong!”

At other times, “it” wasn’t so slight. Often “it” was frustrating. Like at work, when I’d put forward a new idea or raise an issue over and over again with a male superior with no response. And then see an immediate response to a male colleague who would put forward my idea or raise my issue and immediately be heard. Or the time when a deputy sheriff I worked with, said to me, “You know, you’d get more dates if you’d act more stupid.”

Sometimes “it” was frightening. Like the time in my early twenties when I went to my usual laundromat, as I did weekly, and walked in the door to see a man sitting on a washing machine exposing himself to me. I walked to the far end and, when I turned around, everything was magically normal and it was as though I’d imagined the entire experience.

Sometimes “it” was appalling. Like the time, when, as the present of my local union at the courts in Los Angeles, I sat with colleagues and listened as they told me the stories of how, when women were first hired there in the 1970’s, there was an unspoken rule for female court clerks. That, in their case, they were expected to serve the judge in every way he required. And that some of them did. Because they needed the job to support their families.

Over time, I’ve kept telling myself “it” is getting better. That there have been continuous gains in overcoming “it.” That since I started working in the 1980’s, “it” has diminished. But then another wave washes over our society. Another movement of rising up. More women sharing their stories. Vast numbers of women posting #metoo on Twitter or on Facebook . On my page alone, many. From my 16-year-old cousin, to friends in their 40’s and 50’s and from the oldest--my aunt who is 92 years old. Over and over and over again, it seems, we fight to change “it”. Over and over and over again, it seems, we fail. We cannot seem to fully eliminate “it.” We can not seem to fully erase the sexism that continues to reign in our world today.

How did we get here? How did reach a point where sexism is so deeply embedded in our society that it seems impossible to overcome?

To answer that question, we need to go back centuries. Millenia, to be exact. If we’re reading Scripture, to Genesis, chapter 3, after the fall, where God says to Eve: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Sexism comes from our own brokenness. Patriarchy has reigned in our world for thousands and thousands of years. Over and over and over again, men have created structures that have sought to keep women in their place. Or at least the place where men believed women should be. It has resulted in deeply embedded biases that continue to exist today. Biases that are often implicit, hidden, unseen. Yet, still there. In men. And in women.

Yes, I said “and in women.” Because, ladies, we have learned patriarchy well. Often we are our own worst enemies. Tearing each other apart. Just as in a conversation I heard one day in my home church in Pasadena between two women. As they were talking about our pastor--a female pastor--one of them said to the other, “Oh, it would be so refreshing to hear a man’s voice from the pulpit.”

It is is is patriarchy that for centuries has also caused the misinterpretation of the story that is our focus today. How often have we heard this story of the Samaritan woman characterized as “the woman caught in adultery!” Yet, if we read it carefully and we understand its context, both culturally and as it is placed in the Gospel of John, there is nowhere in this story that this conclusion can be reached. There is nothing in it that reflects that she is an adulteress. It is not there. Just as, in her story, there is NO condemnation from Jesus there. Either.  

So, what do we have in our story? We have a woman. First problem. If you haven’t figured it out from our Old Testament readings over these past few months, Israel was a deeply patriarchal society. Women were property. Good for bearing children. Not good if one was unable to bear children. A man could divorce a woman for the most minor of reasons simply by saying the words, “I divorce you.” She would then be homeless. And penniless. This was why producing a child--particularly, a male child--ensured her security into old age. And why being barren was terrifying.

Next, she was a Samaritan woman. Second problem. The Jewish and Samaritan people hated each other. Even though they confessed the same God, there was long-standing hostility between them that was centered around where God should be worshipped. If Jesus, as a Jew, had received a drink of water from her, he would have immediately been unclean. This is why, when he asks her for a drink, she challenges him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Next, they met at a well. Third problem. If you recall, wells were the places where you went to meet the opposite sex. To find a wife. Or a husband. And this well--well, it wasn’t just any old well. It was Jacob’s well--a place where Jacob and Rachel were engaged and, where Jacob’s son, Isaac, and Rebekkah were betrothed. Engagements happened at wells. They were places of intimacy. Intimacy experienced as sexual tension. Places where a man and a woman were not supposed to be alone together.

Next, and finally, they met at the sixth hour. At noon. Another problem. Or at least, that’s how it's been interpreted for us these past 2,000 years. That, instead of going to the well early in the morning like all of the other women did, she went in the middle of the day, when the sun was bright and it was hot. Just so she could escape the shame and mockery of the other women. This interpretation completely ignores that this was also the time of day with the light. Light, which, in John, signifies belief and faith. 

When we lay this problematic story, as the Gospel writer has, beside last week’s story of Nicodemus, and we compare and contrast them, here is what we have: An unnamed woman from a despised people at the well in broad daylight, compared to a named Jewish leader coming to Jesus in the middle of the night.

What is the author of John doing?

Do you remember our passage from last week--John 3:16? “For God so loved the world…?”

By putting these two stories side-by-side, John is showing us who exactly is included in that world that God loved. Nicodemus should have been the one who got it, rather than this unnamed woman at the well. Instead, John places her here to show us just who God has invited into abundant life--into the living water.

You see it is not only for those on the inside. But, it is, particularly, for those on the outside. For those who finally say, “I have no husband,” with all of the pain and suffering that is behind those words. That, in her case, comes from the likely reality that she has either been widowed. Or divorced. Or both.  Because she was barren. And because she is likely now suffering the humiliation of a Levirate marriage, a type of marriage prescribed in Scripture. Where her husband has died and she has been passed from brother to brother, finally reaching the youngest who can refuse to marry her, but must still take her into his home to care for her. 

When Jesus asks her to go get her husband, it all comes pouring out. All the pain and heartache. All the loneliness and shame. Everything that she has experienced comes pouring out.

What does Jesus do? Jesus hears her. He listens. And he does not condemn her.  Not once.

This is what we must do to overcome “it.” To overcome sexism. Or racism. Or class-ism. Or any other “ism” that is out there. We. Must. Listen. We must hear the stories and we must believe them. We must listen to the pain and suffering, the loneliness and shame. And we must not condemn. So often, we recite the words of John 3:16, yet we overlook those of John 3:17. “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.”

Jesus did not condemn her. And, unlike Nicodemus, this unnamed Samaritan woman became a witness to him. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony,” our story tells us. Many Samaritans. All because of her witness.

So, let us also be like her, this unnamed Samaritan woman, who shows us what is to be Jesus’ disciple. Let us be witnesses to Jesus and to a God who loved all the world so much that God gave God’s only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but will have living water. Abundant life. Here and now. And for all time. 

May God grant it. Amen.

Preached February 4, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Readings: Psalm 42:1-3, 5; John 4:1-42

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Invitation to Abundant Life: Questions?

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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

“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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” John 3:1-21 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, who is Christ, the Lord. Amen.

I like to go to the theatre. My apartment in Los Angeles was very close to Santa Monica Blvd. This boulevard, as it runs through East Hollywood, is home to a number of very small theatres. Average seating is around 25-30. They’re very intimate. They’re also very cheap. For $10-15, one can see a wide variety of plays, some very new and avant garde. Others more traditional. Every so often, I would trek to this area to see a play.

So, as I was preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I read a commentary by Lindsey Trozzo, who is a professor of biblical ethics and rhetoric at Baylor University. In her opening paragraph, she suggested thinking of the Gospel of John as a multi-act play or a TV mini-series. That caught my attention and helped me re-think not only our story today, but also what we’ve already heard so far in the Gospel.

Think about it. By the time we get to today’s story, we’ve already witnessed a poetic opening monologue from the narrator of the Gospel. “In the beginning, was the Word…”

We’ve visualized a few short scenes that portray Jesus’ first interactions with John the Baptist and with the disciples. And we’ve experienced two rather heavy-hitting scenes that establish the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and as the One to initiate a new era of God’s work in the world--to usher in a radical shift. One who will challenge the status quo. One with the authority to challenge the status quo.

Last week, at the very end of the scene of Jesus’ cleansing the temple, we heard these closing words: “When [Jesus] was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did. But Jesus didn’t trust himself to them because he knew all people. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was.” 

Blackout. End of scene. 

“Jesus didn’t trust himself to them...for he knew what human nature was.” What can we expect to hear or see in the next scene--in today’s scene--in chapter 3?

As the lights come up on the scene in John 3, we are invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus, our story tells us, is a “Pharisee...a Jewish leader…[who comes] to Jesus at night.”

These details are important. They are important because this story of Nicodemus and our story next week of the Samaritan woman at the well are intentionally placed together by the Gospel writer. These two characters are unique only to John. They could not be more different.

Nicodemus is male. He’s a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, likely a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish people, having authority not only the religious life of the Jewish people, but their everyday lives, as well. He has a name. And he comes to Jesus by night.

In contract, our next week character is female. She is a Samaritan. From the Jewish perspective, an enemy and a nobody. She is nameless. She meets Jesus at the well at noon--the brightest, lightest time of the day.

John places their stories--their scenes side-by-side. Purposefully. So, that we can see the contrast. The unique differences between them.

So, Nicodemus--this person on the inside of society with substantial power and authority--comes to Jesus in the dark. Remember that in John, darkness is synonymous with unbelief. Already, we have the idea that, if this is a nighttime conversation, the chances for a positive result will probably not be good.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, using a title of respect.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Because no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

With this dialogue that opens our scene, it seems that Nicodemus has come to seek understanding. To learn from Jesus. But, Jesus’ response is confusing. Perhaps on purpose. His responses are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. But, as has happened before, they are meant to further the conversation. To generate even more questions. To invite one in to a new way of thinking. And, in the process, to lead one to a fuller understanding of who Jesus is.

The challenge for Nicodemus is that he gets hung up in the physical aspects of Jesus’ words. When Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth--being born again from above--Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks Jesus is talking about a physical birth. A physical birth that, especially for a grown man, would be completely impossible. 

But, that’s not what Jesus is referring to here. It’s about receiving new life in the Spirit--a new life that comes in a spiritual rebirth. A new birth that takes its form as faith. A new birth that brings with it a relationship with God.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Because Nicodemus, with all of his theological knowledge and training, thinks that what he does--how he acts and lives--is what will bring him into relationship with God. Instead, the radical shift in thought that Jesus is offering to Nicodemus is a new understanding for him. That it has nothing to do with what he does. But, that it has everything to do with what God does. Nicodemus is nothing more than a passive recipient of faith from above. A passive receiver of faith from God the Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is not yet prepared to see things differently. Or not yet, anyway. Because he shows up in a couple more scenes. And, although, we are left to fill in some of the details of those scenes, it does appear that the Spirit continues to work on him. And that, by the time of Jesus’ death, he is walking out of the darkness and toward the light.

What does your scene in this play look like? What’s your part in this story? What are your questions? What would you ask Jesus? What, like Nicodemus, keeps you away from fully experiencing the light? Or what is it about the darkness that seems to keep you safe--that keeps you away from a deeper faith? That keeps you from stepping out of your status quo and into a deeper relationship with God?

Come in. Come into the story. Ask your questions. Come into a deeper understanding. Come into a new life--a life that Jesus invites each of us into. A life of abundance. A life of relationship. A life of love. Forever and ever.

Blackout. End of scene.


Preached January 28, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Psalm 139:13-18, John 3:1-21