Sunday, March 20, 2022

Following Jesus: Making Mistakes

Today we make a huge leap in John. Five chapters from Chapter 13’s reading last week of Jesus washing his disciples feet. To chapter 18, today. In these chapters between, Jesus offers his final words to his disciples, where he literally tells them goodbye. It’s where we see Jesus at his most pastoral: as friend, mentor, teacher, lover. The relationship between Jesus and his disciples - the mutual relationship between them - has deepened over the first half of John. This first half spans three years of their life together. The second half of the gospel of John will span one week. 

Most, if not all, of these stories in the second half of John are typically read during Holy Week. But, in this fourth year of the narrative lectionary, we slow it down. Dramatically. Stretching out each of these scenes that we call the passion of Jesus. The suffering of Jesus. We dive deeply into each one of them. As we try to make meaning from them for our own lives.

Then the company of soldiers, the commander, and the guards from the Jewish leaders took Jesus into custody. They bound him and led him first to Annas. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. (Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it was better for one person to die for the people.)

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Because this other disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard. However, Peter stood outside near the gate. Then the other disciple (the one known to the high priest) came out and spoke to the woman stationed at the gate, and she brought Peter in. The servant woman stationed at the gate asked Peter, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

“I’m not,” he replied. The servants and the guards had made a fire because it was cold. They were standing around it, warming themselves. Peter joined them there, standing by the fire and warming himself.

Meanwhile, the chief priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus answered, “I’ve spoken openly to the world. I’ve always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews gather. I’ve said nothing in private. Why ask me? Ask those who heard what I told them. They know what I said.”

After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. “Is that how you would answer the high priest?” he asked.

Jesus replied, “If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him, bound, to Caiaphas the high priest.

Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing with the guards, warming himself. They asked, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?”

Peter denied it, saying, “I’m not.”

A servant of the high priest, a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off, said to him, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” Peter denied it again, and immediately a rooster crowed.

I’d like you to visualize a place for just a moment. It’s a happy place - the place where you feel most loved and accepted. A place where you are surrounded by those who are your closest friends and family, with whom you have the deepest of relationships. It’s also a beautiful place, a garden that has the loveliest of flowers and green trees. A place that seems Eden-like. Where, when the breeze blows you can hear it gently moving through the leaves of the trees. And feel it cooling your skin. Where, with your loved ones, led by a beloved mentor, you’re able to talk about the most important things of life- to learn from one another. The most stunning thing about this is that you have come to the realization that this mentor, this teacher and shepherd, is God in the flesh.

Now imagine that, one day, while you are there together, one of your group suddenly shows up with a cohort of nearly 600 soldiers, who’ve come to arrest your beloved mentor and teacher. Can you imagine the emotion in that moment? The hurt and the betrayal you feel? The anger that begins to burn inside you? Can you feel the fear in your gut, as you watch him taken away, wondering if you’re next? But, then, your mentor, who seems completely in control of this situation, steps in and convinces the soldiers that he is the one they want. “I am he,” he tells them. Not once, but three times. He convinces them to leave everyone else behind. They take him away. And all the others leave. Except for you. And one other disciple.

You’re name is Peter. That’s right. Peter. Petros. Meaning rock. You don’t know it yet, but you are the one who will become an important leader in building similar communities. These will be so different from other communities in the world, because they will be open and accepting of everyone. A place of deep love and intimacy. Just as you experienced that first time. Communities so countercultural that, in fact, you will lose your life, killed by a world that resists the transforming power of love.

But, you’re not there yet. Because you have mistakes to make. A huge mistake, really, that will make you feel ashamed. For which you will grieve deeply. But, it is a mistake for which you will be forgiven and that will change you in ways you cannot yet fully understand.

That day, friends, after the incident in the garden, Peter and and the other disciple followed Jesus to the home of Annas, then to Caiaphas. Two trials are interwoven in the story of that day. One trial is that of Jesus. But, the other is that of Peter. The disciple in last week’s story who, first, refused to have his feet washed by Jesus. But, then, quickly was “all in.” 

We see these two stories interwoven in our text today, which begins with Jesus being questioned by Annas, a former high priest. Outside, at the same time, another story is taking place. Peter is being questioned about who he is. Three times he’s asked, “Aren’t you one of his disciples?” 

But, back inside, when Jesus is asked about who he is and what his teachings are, he says, “Ask those who heard what I told them. They know what I said.” We see that statement being fulfilled outside. Where Peter, the prime apostle, is being questioned about Jesus at that moment in the courtyard. Here is his big chance. But, instead of confessing Jesus, he denies him. And, particularly, denies that he is a disciple of Jesus, thus, denying his own identity.

Who are you in this story? This story holds a mirror up to each one of us. 

Are you Jesus, willingly being arrested, knowing what is to come? That’s perhaps a little doubtful. But, if you think you are living as Jesus would, perhaps, it’s time to look more deeply inside yourself. At the hubris that exists within you. 

Are you Peter, the disciple that is “all in”? Well, most of the time. But not when it really counts. Who, when the pressure is on, denies his own discipleship of Jesus. His own identity as a follower and seeker of Jesus. Now, for some of us, that’s maybe more likely.

Or are you, perhaps, Annas or Caiaphas? Religious leaders that are so concerned about protecting established religion, established denominations, that they are in danger of denying the very essence of what worship of God is all about. I wonder who of us are guilty of this?

And there’s one more character. The unnamed disciple with connections. Who is able to accompany Jesus, but unable to - or unwilling to - stop what is happening or what will come. To change the outcome.

Perhaps there’s a bit of all of these characters in us. We try to be like Jesus, but are often more like Peter. Or the unnamed disciple. Or like Annas and Caiaphas. 

This is who we are. This is what we do. We try. But we make mistakes. Big ones at times. Denying our own identities in Christ. Unable to fully follow him. Hung up on the trappings of religion so that we lose sight of what it really means to worship God. 

The thing is God knows this. God knows that this is who we are. That we cannot do this alone. That there are deep gaps in our own ability to do this. Not that we don’t try to follow and continuously seek out Jesus. But, that there are times and places where we fail. Mistakes. Gaps. 

God fills in those gaps. And only God can fill in those gaps. Fully. This God we follow, mistakes and all. Who overflows with grace. Who is rich in love. For us. Who fills in the gaps and smooths over our mistakes. And who welcomes us back to that garden. That place of deep relationship and belonging. That place where we might have abundant life. Now. And later. Scars and all.

Thanks be to God!

Preached March 20, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian, Prospect.
Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: John 18:12-17, Psalm 17:1-7

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Following Jesus: Being Free Together

A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.”

When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”

The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?”

Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.”

He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.”

The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.

Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.”

Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.

When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”

When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?”

They replied, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.”

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”

Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” --John 11:1-44 (CEB)

That day. That day.

My sister, Mary, and I--we lived in Bethany, along with our brother, Lazarus, who lived nearby. Bethany was close to Jerusalem, only about a mile and a half away. It was small and secluded, just a few hundred people living across the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem.

It was so peaceful. Full of palm trees rustling in the breeze as  you came out of the valley. Hidden away from the bustling noise of Jerusalem. It was a beautiful place, our home. Just an hour’s walk into the city.

So, it was a perfect place for Jesus to stay, when he came to Jerusalem. He did it often. We became close. Because he was our teacher. Our rabbi. 

On one of his visits, my sister, Mary, did something a little impulsive. On that visit, Mary took our entire stash of nard--a very expensive anointing oil--a full pound that we had collected over a long time. She took the entire pound of nard and poured it all over his feet. His feet! Instead of selling it so we could give to the poor. That’s what we’d intended. Oh, she was criticized for it. Judas, especially, didn’t like it. 

But, back to the story of that day. 

Lazarus had been sick. We’d been caring for him and he, just wasn’t getting better. We decided to send for Jesus. He had left Judea, the area where we lived. The things he’d been doing here, the signs he’d been performing, the way he’d been challenging our religious leaders - well, it wasn’t safe for him here. So, he’s gone back across the Jordan. To the place where John had first baptized people and told them about Jesus.  

We knew it wasn’t safe for him, but still we sent for Jesus to come. We’d seen him heal others who were sick. Or crippled. Even blind. We were hoping - maybe selfishly - that Jesus would come and heal Lazarus. We knew it would take him 3 days to get here, but still we asked.

But, he didn’t come. And Lazarus got worse. And worse. And, then, unbelievably, he died. My brother. Dead. My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Dead. And no Jesus. He never came. To heal his friend. My brother.

We were heart-broken. I was heart-broken. But, more than that. I was angry with Jesus. He had the power - I’d seen it with others. With complete strangers, no less. Why not with one of his dearest friends and disciples? Why had he let this happen. I felt like he’d abandoned Lazarus. And us. 

And, then, four days after Lazarus had died. After, according to our tradition, his soul had already left his body. Then. Then! Jesus came.

I heard he’d entered the village and went to him. I was so angry. I said to him, “Lord, if you had been here. If you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t be dead.”

And, then, I challenged him to do something, knowing that if he asked, God would answer. I wanted him to do something. What? I wasn’t sure. But, he had to do something. Something to make up for not saving Lazarus.

Then, Jesus spoke. He said that Lazarus would rise again. I knew that. It was central to my belief, something that my ancestors had believed, that our souls were immortal. I told Jesus this. That I believed I would see him on the last day. But, I didn’t believe that I would see him again in my own lifetime. 

Then Jesus said words to me that I didn’t really understand. Not then. He said that he was the resurrection and the life. He said that, if we lived in him and we believed in him, we would never die. Then, he asked me if I believed this.

What came out of my mouth, then, was even a surprise to me. But after I had seen. After all the signs Jesus had done, there was nothing else to say, but “Yes. Yes. I believe. I believe, Lord, that you are the Christ. The Son of God. The one to come. The Messiah.” 

But, Lazarus was still dead. 

I went, then, to get my sister, Mary. Funny, how when she finally came out to greet Jesus she said the very same words I had just spoken to him. “If only you’d been here…” And she started to cry.

He looked at her. I could see how upset he was. He asked where we’d put Lazarus’ body. We showed him. It was a short distance away.

Then. Then, when we got there, I knew. I knew how much Jesus loved Lazarus. And Mary. And me. He began to weep himself. 

I had never seen him cry before. Jesus? The man who wasn’t afraid of anyone, who wasn’t afraid to challenge the hypocrisy of our religious leaders.?The man who seemed to have all of the power of the world. Here? Standing in front of me, in front of the tomb, crying?

The tomb was a cave, really. This was our custom. To bury our dead in holes cut into rocks. This was where we had buried our brother. To protect his body from grave-robbers, which were such a problem in our time, we had a very large stone rolled in place to block the entrance. It took several men to put it in place.

As Jesus was standing there, weeping…upset…he told the men to roll the stone away. I thought he was crazy. After all this time, my brother’s body would stink. I tried to convince Jesus not to do this - that the smell would be so bad. And, wasn’t it already enough that he had died, but then to smell his corpse, too?

Then, Jesus reminded me what he’d said before to me. “If you believe, you will see God’s glory.” 

The men rolled the stone away. Then, Jesus looked up into the heavens. He gave thanks to God for hearing him. And, then, in a loud voice--so loud that it seemed he wanted everyone around to hear--Jesus shouted, “Lazarus! Come out!”

It was as though time had moved backward. There. Right in front of me. My dead brother stood. Alive. Still wrapped in his grave clothes. With his feet and his hands still bound. With the linen still covering his face, Lazarus walked - WALKED - out of the tomb. Alive.  My dear sweet, kind, loving brother Lazarus. Alive. 

Then, Jesus spoke again. “Unbind him and let him go.” 

Unbind him and let him go. How powerful those words would become for us in the next week! We would watch Jesus willingly go to his death. Then, just a few days later, miraculously be raised from the dead. Just as Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

After those events, I began to understand what those words really meant. Unbind him and let him go. Unbind me and let me go. Unbind you and let you go.

Jesus wants us to be free. He knows our human struggle. The wilderness in which we live. The hardship and grief we experience. The oppressive forces and evil in the world. The limitations of who we are as human beings, falling short of transformation. Over and over and over again.

But, what if? What if it isn’t about getting out of the desert? Out of the wilderness? What if we are called to dwell in our doubts, our fears, our anxieties and brokenness so that we might stand together with others who are trapped in their own wilderness experiences? What if we make a place - a home - right there? Together. A home that exists right there - in the tension between despair and hope.

Because, that’s what we found that day. Right in the middle of heartbreak and hope. We found a home. Together. In Jesus. Who, out of death, brings life. Out of bondage, freedom. For us. And for you, too. 

Preached March 6, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville, and New Goshen Presbyterian.
Lent 1
Readings: John 11:1-44; Psalm 104:27-30

Friday, March 4, 2022

Following Jesus: An Extravagant Life

As we began the gospel of John at the beginning of the year, I mentioned - if you remember - that this gospel was written at a time when the Christian community had likely been expelled from the synagogue. Up until then, they had been likely seen as one sect within Judaism. Their expulsion is one of the reasons why we find, so often, in John, this phrase, “The Jews.” It seems to be a reference to all of the Jews, when, most likely, it is used simply to refer to the religious leaders. This language has often been used as a basis for anti-Semitism in our world. It’s why, as we work our way through John, I often offer correctives, so that the text isn’t misunderstood in this way.

John was written for this early Christian community as it was trying to differentiate itself from Judaism. It was a young community, still trying to fully comprehend who Jesus was and, also, trying to find its own identity apart from the Jewish faith. It’s why we often find Jesus portrayed in opposition to the religious leaders. The wounds were fresh for these early Christians. The only way to make sense of who they were was, once again, in opposition to the leaders of the synagogue who had expelled them.

Tonight’s lesson, on this Ash Wednesday, is actually part two of the story we heard this past Sunday - the story of Jesus healing the blind man and how this angered the Pharisees, ostensibly because he had done this good deed on the Sabbath. We read tonight, beginning with the last verse of Sunday’s lesson and continuing, then, on into chapter 10.

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,” your sin remains.

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.” --John 10:1-18 (CEB)

My dad was a shepherd, of sorts. Many of you already know this. Raising sheep was a central vocation for him. And, even though we eventually added cattle to our stock, it was sheep that produced the primary income for our family ranch.

Honestly, my dad always thought sheep were a little stupid. He would get frustrated and yell at them. Quite often. They were easily led astray. Would frequently get out of the fence. And they, just generally, made him a little crazy.

In the winter time, even though they were out to pasture, my dad would supplement their feed with alfalfa that he’d grown and put up in the summer. I remember the first time I went out with him and my brother in our pickup to feed the sheep then. It was a bumpy ride across the pasture. My dad would drive in the direction he thought the herd might be, then he’d roll down his window and call them. He had a certain way of doing it. “Come boss!” he’d yell. “Come boss!” Over and over again. It wasn’t long before we would see them headed toward our pickup to be fed. As much as my brother and I would try to mimic our dad, they never came for us the way they did for him. Because they knew his voice. 

They are like the sheep in the parable Jesus is telling the Pharisees, as he tries to explain to them who he is. These sheep that hear and follow the voice of the shepherd. 

That Jesus uses a shepherd metaphor here is no accident. This image of a shepherd is borrowed from the Hebrew scriptures, where it is used to refer to God’s chosen leaders, called to tend the flock called Israel. The Pharisees - learned in the Torah as they were - would have caught the reference. 

They might catch the reference, but they didn’t understand the metaphor. So, Jesus tries again, with another. This one about a gate. It’s all very confusing. Perhaps not only for them, but maybe also for us, too.

Finally, Jesus, as he so often does, has no other choice but to more fully explain. He is the Good Shepherd. He will lay down his life for the sheep. Willingly.

For the early Christian community for whom the gospel was written, this begins to make sense. Like the blind man, in last Sunday's story, whose pilgrimage of faith eventually resulted in his expulsion from the synagogue, so, too, their pilgrimage of faith ended up with an expulsion from their place of safety. A step for them into a religious unknown. Not a step that they took willingly, but one forced on them. Yet, even so, they respond to the call of Jesus - the Good Shepherd - to follow where he leads.

Isn’t this our pilgrimage, too? Isn’t this the path of true faith - faith that requires moving into an unknown future? We as believers in Christ can no more remain complacent in our places of safety than the sheep can remain in the fold and not respond to the call of the Good Shepherd to move to new pasture.

But, here’s the thing. It’s a dangerous world out there. Full of voices and pressures and other things that would seek to confuse us - to turn us away from the voice of our shepherd. Their aim is not for our benefit, but to destroy the flock for their own self-interest, rather than lead us along the true path.

This is why the season of Lent is so important for us. It’s a call for us to return. To come back into the fold. Because, only the Good Shepherd has our best interest at heart. Only the Good Shepherd will lead us through the darkest valley. Only the Good Shepherd will give up his life - willingly give up his life - for us.  

Why would he do this? So that we might live, our text tells us. Not just after we die, but, especially, here and now. Isn’t that the image we hear in Psalm 23? “You set a table for me right in front of my enemies. You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over. 

Can you hear the voice of the Shepherd calling you to this amazing and extravagant life?

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we’ve been in the wilderness over these past few years. It feels as though so much in our world is broken. It feels as though we are so broken. We are broken. We don’t need Ash Wednesday to remind us of our own mortality. We are living it daily.

But, sometimes, doesn’t it take being immersed in the wilderness to begin to see the beauty in it? To notice the wildflowers? The life that finds its way through? 

Tonight, in the wilderness and amidst the dust of our mortality, the Good Shepherd invites us in as we are. Our brokenness, our joy, our gifts and our doubts - all belong to him. He promises to protect us. To guide us. And to love us. Extravagantly. Willingly.

May you hear his voice. May this shepherd's love fill you up and spill over. And may it expand you to overflow with God’s goodness and faithful love. All the days of your life. Amen.

Preached March 2, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville
Ash Wednesday
Readings: John 10:1-18; Psalm 23