Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jesus the Revealer - Part 1 - God as a dirty, hands-on, loving shepherd

The scripture Stephen is going to discuss this week is (in part) John 10:1-18.

As the astute reader noticed (that's you), this is not Stephen since he doesn't speak/write in 3rd person (yet). For the next couple weeks, Stephen has asked others to share their thoughts on upcoming scriptures here on the blog. So this week, you get me, Jeremy.

At the last Bible discussion group, we discussed a group of passages from John that seem to focus on Jesus as Revealer (to use Stephen's term) of the nature of God. This was especially needed around the time the book of John was recorded as the Christian church was pulling away from the Jewish tabernacle. I won't go too far down those paths since Stephen will undoubtedly discuss them, but I thought the context would help frame our discussion here.

This passage states some pretty bold things about God and could imply quite a few others. I'm not bg on speculation, so I'll try to stick to things that are pretty clear, drawing from the discussion group and from some thoughts from Barbara Jordan (fellow church participant).

God is known and accessible. The sheep know their shepherd's voice and will follow him. Of course, so many of us are trained to be critical and skeptical that our trust - in each other, in God, and in ourselves - can be twisted this way and that. I am an excellent example of this, as I want all the data I can get about, well, darn near everything. I find it hard to trust in the dumbest situations, but yet in others (mostly having to do with people I know well) I will fight by their side for little conscious reason. I suspect that we recognize God in a thousand parts of our day, but we subcomb to our training/experience in our cultures and subcultures. If a sheep, as dumb as they are, can figure it out, maybe we can as well.

God is loving and accepting beyond our understanding. Though we can recognize God, some things are just in complete contrast to how most cultural behaviors play out. How do we, as people in Western Culture, construct who we are? Much of what I've read (such as Georg Simmel, Darendorf, Volf) note that we compare and contrast, focusing more on the differences to establish the idea that this here *thumps chest* is me and that there *points* is you. As mentioned above, this likely was a point of contention at the time of John (tabernacle vs. church) that led to more than just heated arguments. So what do we see here in this passage? There are many pens, but one shepherd. It's almost as if John acknowledges the need for difference, but that how we organize/classify ourselves and build walls ultimately doesn't matter to God. The shepherd is the gateway, the access point, the way forward and in, the path - and each pen has the same gate.

God is watchful and will fight for us. Here, I refer to the wolf part of the passage, as well as to the sacrifice of Jesus mentioned at the end of the passage. God sees our pain and feels our pain right beside us - but notice there is no mention of preventing our pain. Though the shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep, the sheep may still be hurt. But again, read closely - the sheep will not be scattered. (This seems to be implied very, very strongly in the comparision between the shepherd and the hired hand, which brings me to the final point..)

God is trusting. Though the hired hands might flee from the wolf and screw things up now and again, mostly they do good work. Though definitely subordinate to the shepherd and fallible, they are still trusted to care for the sheep. I'd bet that the learning experience as hired hand is similar to that as a sheep (if, one hopes, a bit faster for the human). The learning and trust go both ways.

There are more things to draw from this passage regarding the nature of God as revealed in Jesus - even more from our talk on Saturday. But this reaches the limit that I can possibly take in effectively (yes, I'm selfish). Feel free to comment on these topics (and others from the past).

Peace to you all, and see you on Sunday,


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Have You Ever Felt Forgiven

This week's scriptures are Matthew 28:11-20 and John 21:15-25.

For a long time I have been taken with this story of Peter's encounter with Jesus. It seems to me to be one of the most poignant of all the resurrection stories.

That Peter loved Jesus is extremely obvious. He cared enough that he became outraged and screamed at Jesus when He talked about going to Jerusalem to die. He was willing to fight when they came to arrest Jesus and, in fact, cut off the ear of one of the servants of the priests with a wild swing of a sword during the confrontation in the garden. (I have to imagine that fishermen didn't use swords too often and that Peter wasn't necessarily the most adept person when it came to military like combat). Peter's claim that 'the rest of them may forsake you, but I never will' wasn't just his pride; it was his love as well. And when his fear drove him to deny Jesus three times (as Christ had predicted) his bitter tears were those of a man who has betrayed someone he cares deeply for.

My guess is that there are few of us who don't know something of what that is like. In fact, one of the major tasks for pastors in helping grieving persons is to assist them to address the ways-large and small-in which they feel they betrayed or let down the one they have lost to death. (As an aside, another major task is helping them to look at and own their anger at the deceased...but that's another blog for another time). The point is that you and I know Peter's condition. It's our condition too. The immediate leaping into the water to swim to Jesus on the shore (the boat would have gotten him there almost as quick); and the the embarrassed, almost shy, shame filled moments there on the beach as they ate breakfast together.

Then there was the clear moment of "un-doing" as Jesus asked Peter three times, "Do you love me?" Rebuilding the bridge between them one brick at a time; offering both forgiveness and restoration.

But what strikes me most lately about this story is what Peter must have felt like. Have you ever had the experience of being really, really forgiven? Of having done something you felt was shaming and dispicable.....the kind of thing that you find painful to even remember and think about? Do you know what it's like to have the person who you hurt truly forgive you? Then you know something of what Peter felt that morning.

Such experiences of forgiveness in our lives are extra ordinarily powerful in themselves. But they also point us to the Ultimate Forgiveness that comes to us from God in Christ. In fact, if we have never experienced such moments, it is harder to imagine the possibility that God might forgive us. Such moments can be life transforming; healing wounds in our lives that are decades old and opening us to radically new and different possibilities for living our lives.

We need such moments....both from one another, and in our relationship with God. They free us from lives based in guilt and shame and fear and open us up to the possibility of lives lived in freedom and love.

We'll talk more on Sunday; and also at the Bible Study Brunch on Saturday at 10:00.
Hope to see you at both.


Monday, April 13, 2009

The God Who Eats With Us

This week's scriptures are Luke 24:36-42 and John 21:1-14.

Both of these passages emphasis that Jesus ate something. We may find that a little bit strange. But the point of this was to prove that Jesus wasn't a ghost....cause ghosts don't eat. The resurrected Jesus was a body; not a spirit.

There are a lot of directions that we could take this in. Let me share three of them with you briefly.

The first is the one that the Gospels were stressing. That is that the resurrection was a bodily resurrection. Jesus' body was raised from the dead. This is especially a focus in the Lukan passage. We talked on Sunday about how raising Jesus' body was indicative of the lack of sin in the Jewish approach to death in Jesus' day.

The second point is that Jesus didn't just have a body; he appears to have enjoyed having a body. Being a bodily creature wasn't something to avoid or be ashamed of; it was something to treasure and appreciate as part of being God's creation. I believe that both of these passages point to Jesus' embrace of being a physical creature who took pleasure in the joys of being human. You will remember that one of the charges leveled against Jesus was that he was a "drunkard and a winebibber" or to put it another way, 'he enjoyed partying too much.'

But the third and final of these is the one that I find most interesting, and perhaps most important. Jesus cooked breakfast for his disciples. He knew they were coming and he had fish on the fire and bread ready when they came to shore. He ate a meal (symbolic in Jesus' day for relationship and commitment to someone-remember the charges that Jesus "ate with tax collectors and sinners") with the people who had abandoned him; and in Peter's case, had denied him.

This meal was about Jesus' acceptance and forgiveness; about his already being there waiting with the nourishment we need before we even know we're going to run into him.

I'm reminded of the song "Halleluiah In The City" on Joan Osborne's Little Wild One album. The words are:

"I have been unfaithful
"I have been untrue
"How'd I find the road that brought me back to you"

I think of Peter when I hear that song. There on the beach eating breakfast with Jesus. Wondering how he ever got back there. I think about my own life and ask the same question. Perhaps you do too.

The answer is that Peter/Joan/you/me...we got back there because that's what Jesus wants. We don't find ourselves by that fire Jesus built on the beach; being feed and cared for; being invited to spread the Kingdom of God....because of anything we've done. We find ourselves there because Jesus, who was human, who had a body, who knows our frailties because he experienced them...because that Jesus loves us and wants us there.

Christ is Risen.
Halleluiah Indeed.

See you Sunday.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Demands of the Resurrection

This week's scriptures are Mark 16:1-12 Corinthians 15:12-26.

Two questions seem to be very important as we come to Easter. The first is "do you believe the resurrection took place?" and second "what does that mean for you?"

Mark's account is short...very short. In fact there seems to have been material added to his account to make up for just how short it is. Mark sees the resurrection as God's comment on the cross. Preaching professor Fred Craddock makes the point that, for Mark, "Easter did not eradicate, but vindicated Good Friday." In other words, Easter was God's way of saying that what Jesus was saying about what God was like, and how God felt about humankind....the very things that resulted in Jesus being crucified....was correct. Easter is God's way of saying that Jesus' claim that God cared for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the outcast was the truth about who God is.

This is one of the reasons that it is so important to Paul in the Corinthian scripture that the resurrection happened. This isn't some metaphoric expression that we use for "Jesus living on in the hearts of his followers" (though that is also true). Jesus was dead. Then God resurrected him. And it happened for a reason. He got up. He walked out of the tomb. He could be touched and felt.

Either it happened. Or it didn't. Jesus was dead...and came back to life.

We've already looked a little bit at what it means in a broad theological sense that Jesus came back to life. And we'll look at even closer on Sunday.

But the question has to become personal. What does it mean for me....for you...that God confirmed what Jesus did, what he said, who he was by bringing him back to life?

That God raised Jesus in affirmation of Jesus' message demands something of us. And what is demanded will be different for each of us. The demand will meet us at the point where Jesus' message and life most touches our own pain and struggle. Ask yourself: "where has the Gospel of Jesus most spoken to how God feels about, relates to, Then ask yourself: "what demand does that meeting make on how I live moving forward?"

God has affirmed that message and that demand in the resurrection.

It happens (as I once heard it said in a wonderful play, Christ in the Concrete City ) 'not as the plausable end of a religious story, but as God's act in the hideous situation.'

Christ is Risen. Christ is risen indeed. Christ has risen that we may rise. Death cannot hold us, no matter what form it takes. We belong to the One who's love caused Jesus to carry the cross, to die, to rise. Whatever the tomb you find yourself in; rise and follow him. Because of Jesus death cannot hold you.

"Soar we now where Christ has lead
"Following our exhalted Head
"Made like Him, like Him we rise
"Ours the cross, the grave, the skies"

See you Sunday,

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Solidarity and Atonement

This week's scripture are Isaiah 53:1-9 and Mark 15:21-39.

This is always a difficult Sunday to preach. On the one hand there is a temptation to focus totally on Psalm Sunday and to ignore the agonizing story of the crucifixion. On the other, one can wallow in the sordid descriptions of physical torture and pair these with a brand of "Atonement Theory" that, pushed to its logical conclusion, turns God into the Divine Sadist, exacting pain and retribution for the sins of humankind.

I would not deny the reality that Jesus was tortured to death in a terrible and horrible manner. That torture included not only the physical elements that so often get focused on; but the social shaming involved in being hung naked to die by the side of the road as an object lesson for what happens to those who take on the establishment (the Romans had terrorizing their subjects down to an art).

Betrayed by a friend, abandoned by his closest companions, railroaded for political expediency, tortured, shamed, abandoned. In these moments Jesus lived out God's solidarity with those who suffer the very worst that human beings do to one another. This is truly "Emmanuel...God WITH us." This all happened because of the way Jesus insisted on describing and modeling God's attitude toward God's creation; even (perhaps especially) those on the fringes, the outcast, the ones at the bottom of the pile).

Two things drive this solidarity home for me. The first is that Jesus dropped his cross. Tortured to the point that he couldn't continue dragging the cross-beam any further, the soldiers-eager to get these executions over with and go home-forced Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus' cross. The second is Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, My God...why have you forsaken me?" Jesus did not die the death of a "super hero." He knew what it was like to be so beaten down that he couldn't go any further. He knew what it was like to feel totally abandoned by the God he had given his life to obeying. And he knew death.

Please notice something. Mark 15:38 says that the curtain in the temple which seperated the people from the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom (to demonstrate that it was God's doing) when Jesus died. When Jesus Died. It wasn't at his baptism, or at the Transfiguration, or even on Easter morning. The seperation between us and God was destroyed at the point where God in Jesus had endured the very worst that can befall us.

When you "drop your cross"; Jesus knows what that's like-he's been there. When you feel that even God has betrayed and abandoned you; Jesus understands-he's been there too. There is NO PLACE, no matter how bitter, how desolate that Jesus cannot or will not join us. The Psalmist said, "though I make my bed in the depths of hell, You are there."

Solidarity. At one-ness. Atonement.

See you Sunday.