Thursday, March 30, 2023

Parade Tales

 


Parade Tales

 

Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately."

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"

21:11 The crowds were saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

 

Some people just love a parade. Every community I have ever lived in has held parades for various reasons, most revolving around national holidays, such as Independence Day or Memorial Day. Each community had their own “quirky” parades, in some way, or another. In Coraopolis, a community that used to be a lot larger in the days of heavy industry, continued to hold a “big” parade on Memorial Day. It was “big” in the number of units, but made to appear even larger by letting huge gaps develop between bands, floats, and veterans groups. Warren, PA did the same thing, hosting a “huge” Independence Day parade that lasted hours, mostly by moving the parade at a snail’s pace. My observation was that these communities had a hard time letting go of their distant history of being much larger towns that held “landmark” parades. Still, people showed up in great numbers to watch. In Warren, the weirdest tradition evolved—people would put lawn chairs out on Pennsylvania Avenue to “reserve” their place, sometimes WEEKS before the parade, itself. The town council tried to pass legislation that limited how many days ahead of the parade this could be done, but people still did it. How do you ticket a lawn chair?

 

Sharon, PA had a most unusual holiday, marked by a truly big parade followed by a fair in Buhl Park (one of the most beautiful town parks I have ever seen). What was unusual about this annual even was that it was held on Labor Day, but it was dubbed BUHL DAY. The Buhl family (yes, related to the Pittsburgh Buhls) started these events many years ago as captains of business and industry, for the benefit of their workers AND the community in general. Buhl Park was a lovely premium that family funded for the residents of Sharon, as was the nation’s only FREE, nine-hole golf course, officially dubbed “Buhl Farm Park Golf Course,” but known by the locals as “Dum-Dum.” It was a short, but tricky course, which, thanks to funds left by the Buhls, was maintained by the greens-keepers of the neighboring country club. The Buhl Day parade really WAS a big parade, was quite professionally managed, and was fun to participate in. The United Methodist Churches of our cluster ministry prepared a huge float every year and members bedecked in T-shirts advertising the UMC passed out bottles of water along the parade route. 

 

Growing up in Oil City, this community had its share of parades, and as a member of the high school marching band, we always participated. The big parade breakthrough happened many years later in Oil City when an enterprising, career military adjutant retired and moved “home,” becoming the director of the Chamber of Commerce. He spearheaded an annual celebration of the city’s founding as an oil town, named Oil Heritage Week. Not only was a huge parade part of that event, but the festival itself at one point grew to be the third largest festival in Pennsylvania. My exposure to the Oil Heritage parade came during my “first” career, when I was serving as director of a small cable access non-profit organization, Venango Video, Inc. We were able to provide live television coverage of the parade for those who couldn’t attend in person (or who just didn’t want to fight the crowds). Commentary was provided by personnel from the local radio station, and occasionally, by yours truly. 

 

While this may be the longest introduction I have ever crafted for a sermon, there is method in my “madness,” so be patient for a few moments longer before we get to the Jesus Parade on Palm Sunday!

 

I have had the more rare privilege of observing a parade from just about every “angle” you can imagine. As I mentioned, I have marched in a few with a high school marching band, trying to keep playing a trumpet while marching in step with the rest of the band, and to avoid falling on my face in front of hundreds of people. It’s not for the faint of heart, believe me. Oh, and most parades fall on the hottest days of the year, with sun beating down, OR in the midst of a rainstorm. Either way, the last thing you want to be doing is wearing a dark blue, heavy wool uniform with a massive, fur-covered chapeau. In my television production days, I once manned a TV camera poised ABOVE a parade in a cable TV bucket truck. From this high perch, I could not only get a pleasing, “above it all” perspective for the TV viewers, but could also “look ahead” for several blocks to see what was coming next, information I could relay to the TV commentators. (They had a parade list, but many last-minute changes occurred in these small-town parades.) I also served as a commentator, from time to time, and we were seated beside the “judging stand,” where every band or marching unit offered their best performance, in an effort to win a trophy. 

 

Years later, while I was serving as an associate pastor at St. Paul’s UMC in the early 1990s, I was given the honor being the Honorary Grand Marshall of my hometown’s Oil Heritage parade, recognizing the 20th anniversary of Venango Video, the local television access operation I had a hand in starting. Riding in an open convertible and waving to the parade crowd was a unique perspective on the parade phenomenon, indeed. 

 

Jesus had a parade. Matthew offers his account of it in today’s scripture passage. We preachers have all given a variety of sermons around this event, often pointing out the discrepancies between the biblical accounts (one of the few events documented in all four gospels). Having made one trip to the Holy Land, I was exposed to a radically different view of the Jesus parade than what I imagined, mostly from witnessing one of our festive parades, or from remember the cartoonish pictures of it in childhood Sunday School papers. The winding, hilly stone-paved pathway down from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and up into the walled city of Jerusalem was not what I imagined. The “large crowds” gathered to witness Jesus’ donkey-borne journey would have been sitting on the walls surrounding the serpentine path, in the alleyways, and in the cemetery the path went through. We preachers have all read the commentaries that suggest that “Kings” rode horses on such a parade if they came as warriors, or on donkeys, if they came in peace. (The Book of Revelation picks up on this, placing Jesus on a horse, as he returns to earth to intervene in the Apocalypse.) In today’s account, he is on a donkey. 

 

Of course, Matthew’s account also has the riddle for the preacher about whether Jesus was mounted on TWO animals. The former tax collector so wanted Jesus to fulfill what he often mistakenly thought were “prophecies,” that he became a literalist. Reading a Hebrew Bible account that this future “King” of Israel would come riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey, Matthew writes that Jesus performed a kind of Barnum and Bailey act, riding what he saw as two animals. Of course this is ridiculous—but entertaining. 

 

Having experienced the various perspectives of parades mentioned earlier, I have to wonder what was going through Jesus’ mind during the Palm Sunday affair? I’m sure that he had witnessed many parades in his day. The casual parade viewer chooses a place (or places his lawn chair) at a desirable spot, and witnesses the parade as it passes by, one unit at a time. We all know that when the firetrucks and police cars show up, it’s over. The crowd for Jesus’ parade was obviously enthusiastic. Since throngs were screaming “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” less than a week later, we must either conclude that this was his “home crowd” that showed up for the Palm Sunday parade—those who saw him as the political savior of the turmoil going on in Israel—OR, they were as fickle as human beings can be. The crowd mentality is easy to “turn,” so the latter could be the case. Many of the same people placing palm branches and cloaks on the road before the “King,” may have been screaming his capital sentence by week’s end. 

 

As the “guest of honor” in that parade, Jesus would have been looking into the faces of those along the parade route. Been there, done that, and it is REALLY strange. As a Grand Marshall, waving to the crowd, I would often make eye-contact with people I knew, along the way. And while they were all smiling, waving back, and calling out my name to get my attention, some of them I remembered as being far less “adoring” when we were in school together. Some were actually bullies who gave me physical or mental grief (yes, I was a nerdy "academic" in high school—some things never change). A couple were girls I had dated back then, and as I sat beside my beloved in that convertible, I was elated that I waited and saved “the best for last” in marrying Dara! Believe me. I saw some of the teachers who had inspired me, and a few that didn’t, so much. It was amazing how many memories and stories those quick glances along the parade route invoked! 

 

Imagine, now, what was going on through Jesus’ mind! He not only would most certainly parallel my experience as an “in parade” guest of honor, but he had the ability, divinely, to know what was ahead, and possibly even could know which of these “admirers” would be among Friday’s condemning crowd. We know he knew a betrayer was among his inner circle, and that his disciples would hide in fear. These prescient facts would have certainly “rained on his parade.” Still, even this one day of being “hailed” by the parade crowd would have meant something. Being the Honorary Grand Marshall of the Oil Heritage Parade didn’t really signal anything “great,” but personally, it DID mean something. I still think about it. Hopefully, Jesus got some joy from his “Grand Marshall” experience, if for nothing else, through his knowing that someday, an even greater “honor” was coming some day.

 

We know full well that Jesus was “plugged in” to God’s bigger picture. Manning a TV camera in that bucket truck, high atop the moving parade, gave me a similar “bigger picture.” I imagine that God is able to view the “parade” of my life—which I must experience one day at a time—all at once, if God chooses, kind of like my bucket truck view, or even better, as one would see a parade from a helicopter. Such a person could see beginning, ending, and everything in between. This idea has led some to believe that if God can SEE such a view, then God must “foreordain” what will happen. As Wesleyan Christians, we don’t see it this way. First of all, we have no idea if God “chooses” to look at our lives or our world this way. But even if God does, it certainly doesn’t mean God has set these events in stone. Being privileged to “look ahead,” on God’s part, doesn’t mean our free will is negated. This is what attracted me to Process Theology, a view of God’s interaction with humanity that posits God as looking both “ahead” AND “behind” each actual occasion of our lives, drawing wisdom from both, and “luring” us toward a better path. The deity of Process Theology doesn’t “pre-select” our future, but instead “lovingly lures” us, weaving our experiences into our future. Now, put this in perspective of Jesus in the Palm Sunday parade. He knew what was on the horizon, but would plead with God in the Garden of Gethsemane to “let this cup pass from me.” He knew some of his admirers—even his closest associates—would turn against him, or at the very least, bow to the lure of “the crowd,” yet still he gave himself for the redemption of all. Given my experience as Grand Marshall in a tiny, earthly parade, I hope someday to ask Jesus what HE thought, as he wound his way down the path from the Mount of Olives as the parade crowd shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

 

Given the events of this past week, we have to believe better days are ahead. May our observance of Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday, if that is your focus) lead us to believe that God’s goal for humanity CONTINUES to be the full redemption and reconciliation of ALL of the people of God. 

 

This weekend, may we all “love a parade!” And may we celebrate anew the salvation of humankind through the greater events of the week to come! Amen.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Jesus: King of the Undead

 


Jesus: King of the Undead

 

John 11:1-45
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
11:2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.
11:3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, "Lord, he whom you love is ill."
11:4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, "This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it."
11:5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,
11:6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
11:7 Then after this he said to the disciples, "Let us go to Judea again."
11:8 The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?"
11:9 Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.
11:10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them."
11:11 After saying this, he told them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him."
11:12 The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right."
11:13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.
11:14 Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.
11:15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."
11:16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
11:18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,
11:19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
11:20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.
11:21 Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
11:22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."
11:23 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
11:24 Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
11:25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
11:26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
11:27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
11:28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you."
11:29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
11:30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
11:31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see."
11:35 Jesus began to weep.
11:36 So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
11:37 But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days."
11:40 Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
11:45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 

This story has always puzzled me. Why did Jesus wait so long to go to the side of three of his beloved friends, Mary, Martha, and their dying brother, Lazarus? Oh, we could say that he knew all along what he was going to do, and that the “power” of his little object lesson of raising Lazarus from the dead was “part of the lesson plan.” Or, we could say that Jesus was just so busy getting the rest of his teaching and ministry agenda in, that the time slipped by, and he didn’t really realized just how sick Lazarus was. 

            

I have even preached that Jesus’ weeping later in the story was possibly due to his grief over the “lack” of faith of Mary and Martha. Didn’t they realize that he had the power to bring Lazarus back? And if they didn’t believe this, would they be among those who would not believe that he, himself, would be raised after three days? I told some of my congregations that God is still “weeping” over our lack of faith in the power of God to overcome our adversities. AND, I have come to believe I was dead wrong.

            

Jesus cried because he was DEEPLY grieved by the death of Lazarus, and it was the demonstrative grief of Mary and Martha that brought this to the surface for him. Jesus may just have been at his most “human” in this story. SURE he could command God’s power over life and death, and SURE he could make the “dry bones” of the four-days-in-the-tomb Lazarus walk out of that grave, but LAZARUS WAS DEAD, right now, and many were deeply saddened by both his suffering that LED to his death, and the fact that he had been wrapped in the clothes of death and buried. To them, this was final. Lazarus, brother and friend, was dead, dead, dead. And Jesus wept.

            

Jesus’ prayer to his Father that resulted in the miraculous resurrection and restoration of human life (note the difference between the Lazarus “raising” and Jesus’ own resurrection—this is important) sounds almost like an apology, not just in “front of the crowd,” but to his Heavenly Father, as well. In the other miracle stories, Jesus speaks forth healing, or demonstrates it with some act like the “mud in the eye” of the man born blind, in an act of commanding authority. Here, however, he almost “pleads” with God to do something for his friend, Lazarus. On a side note, much can be done, homiletically, with the phrase, “Unbind him and let him go.” How much of our work as preachers and pastors is in “unbinding” folk and “letting them go” from that which has imprisoned them? This can be the things they have done for which they are not proud, or that have made their lives less than they had hoped. Confession and forgiveness is the prescribed healing. It may be their struggling with their sexuality, be it a heterosexual promiscuity, or struggling with another sexual identity differing from that with which they were born, or an attraction to their own gender. Folk who are “bound” by this need love, acceptance, and possibly professional counseling to help them sort this out. The “prison” may be an abusive or deeply unfulfilling marriage, or a career than, rather than feeding their energy, is sapping every ounce of their mental, spiritual, and physical strength. A change of jobs may be in order. The obvious set of “chains” may be a serious illness, or a spiritual crisis of epic proportions. Whatever the “binding agent,” the Christ who raised Lazarus is larger than any “cage,” and the healing power of Jesus, the greatest “balm” for what ails us. 

 

Earlier, I alluded to the difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus, something we will celebrate in just a couple of weeks. Lazarus was indeed dead, but God miraculously raises him from this lifeless state. Lazarus returns to life as he knew it, and while his raising was a blessing to his sisters, his friends, and certainly to his calendar, it had no eternal ramifications for anyone else. Lazarus was raised back to the life he had. When God raised up Jesus Christ, he was not just given back his “human” existence and its living, breathing sarx, which is the Greek word for “flesh.” It has been the confessional belief of the Christian church that Jesus was raised as, in Paul’s words, “the firstborn of the dead”—the “second Adam.” Jesus’ resurrection was as the final “God/Man” who defeats the power of death for all of the rest of humanity, time and forever. The Jesus who was raised by God as this unique being is the same way we will encounter Jesus in heaven as he is seated at the right hand of God. Some have said it this way: Jesus was raised in an eternal or “glorified” body that can no longer be overtaken by disease, nor can it be destroyed. I John 3:2 says, “My dear friends, we are already God's children, though what we will be hasn't yet been seen. But we do know when Christ returns, we will be like him, because we will see him as he truly is.” The “we shall be like him” part suggests that the resurrected body of Jesus is a “prototype” of how humans may be “born again” into the eternal realm of God.” Of course, we will not be raised as deity, but as “children of God.” These are all items of faith, as none of us has been beyond the pale and come back to testify, only Lazarus, and the account of his “trip” isn’t yielding its mysteries. This story, and the timeless tale of Jesus’ own resurrection, which we celebrate annually, are the only “signs” we need to validate our faith that we, too, will not see death as an eternal state. Scientifically? No answers. But the eons of the witness of faith and hope? The fodder for our modern faith, both in the here and now, and for the future, as Jesus says, “to the end of the age!”

 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" Here is the punch line for the whole Lazarus caper. The late comedian and actor, George Burns, was asked in his last years if he feared death. He said, “NO, I’m not afraid of death. I died in Schenectady. I died in Altoona,” (references to his Vaudeville act). He had a point beyond the laughter—we “die” in many ways in life. We “die” when we let circumstances get the best of us, or when we make poor choices that result us being “in the mess we’s in.” We “die” like Mary and Martha when we’re grieving the loss of someone very, very close to us. We KNOW all about death. But like George Burns, we can learn from these experiences and not FEAR it! BECAUSE Jesus is the resurrection and the life, he can breathe fresh life into our “dry bones” and make us live again and again and again. “Resurrection” is not just about our own, physical death. It’s about God’s desire to offer grace upon grace to us to bring us back from the many “deaths” we encounter along life’s journey. Teach your people to count on many and CONTINUOUS resurrections because Jesus IS the resurrection and the life!

            

So, with apologies to the “Twilight” people, thanks to Jesus Christ, WE are the real “undead,” and we have a King, who is eternal in the heavens! Amen!

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Eyes Wide Shut...

 



Eyes Wide Shut

 

John 9:1-41
9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
9:2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
9:3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.
9:4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.
9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
9:6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes,
9:7 saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?"
9:9 Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man."
9:10 But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?"
9:11 He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight."
9:12 They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
9:14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.
9:15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.
9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided.
9:17 So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."
9:18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight
9:19 and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?"
9:20 His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;
9:21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself."
9:22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.
9:23 Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."
9:24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner."
9:25 He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."
9:26 They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?"
9:27 He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?"
9:28 Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.
9:29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from."
9:30 The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.
9:31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.
9:32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.
9:33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
9:34 They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.
9:35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
9:36 He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."
9:37 Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he."
9:38 He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him.
9:39 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."
9:40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?"
9:41 Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains.

 

This is one of my favorite passages in the whole Bible, as it answers the time-honored question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is the timeless story of “a man born blind,” and everyone, from the Rag-Tag 12 to the institutional religious leaders wanted to know why. Like Job’s buddies, they thought they knew—surely it was sin, either HIS or his parents. There will always be those who want to believe that there is a cause for bad news or aberrant outcomes. Sometimes, a person is just born blind…or gets cancer…or goes through a divorce…or loves within their own gender. What is interesting is that the people who EXPERIENCE these things (and others, of course) find a way to live well within them, and even to celebrate the life they have. It seems that the “inspectors” on the outside are the ones who make an issue over them. 

 

In this story, every one of the “inspectors” inquires of the man born blind, especially after he receives a miracle of healing from Jesus. They wanted to know the healed man’s allegiances, and his theology. His answer was brilliant: “One thing I DO know, that though I was blind, now I see.” When the “Jews” (religious leaders, later identified as Pharisees) as the man their questions, he turns the tables on them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" They weren’t happy with THAT inquiry

!

The crux of the story is that this poor man had been blind since birth. As he becomes the center of the theological debate as to why, Jesus announces, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” and he heals the man with a technique that requires him to respond (“Go wash in the Pool of Siloam”) to God’s offering of grace. Where he once was blind, now he has both his sight AND a testimony! And he was willing to share his story with anyone he saw! But he was NOT interested in engaging in any theological “reflection” as to why or how it happened. As Sergeant Friday used to say on “Dragnet,” “Just the facts, mam, just the facts.” 

 

The “inspectors” in life are out to bolster their own theology and “control” anyone who has a convincing alternate view. Jesus fell prey to them, as have others. There is a reason the author of this text from John includes all of these details that the other gospels leave out. The author wants us to know the wonderful story of “The Light of the world” healing a man who couldn’t SEE the light, but also about the naysayers and “inspectors” who are so self-absorbed that they value their own views over even those of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The listener/reader is being compelled to celebrate the healing, lift up the Savior, and refrain from joining the “inspectors” corp. Under even the most stringent of questioning, the man just kept saying, “All I know is that once I was blind, but now I see.” 

 

While I never saw the actual film, as the subject matter and the cast didn’t interest me, I was intrigued by the title of the 1999 movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.” There is a lot of that going on in this passage—and in the Christian church of 2023. In the text, one man sees, while a bunch of others just CAN’T see the truth, even when that is what they think they are protecting. Today, one of the factions of the United Methodist “movement” toward disaffiliation is attempting to narrow the theological views of gospel to a level that makes them happy. They will say, and say, and say that they are just doing “what the Bible says,” but ignore what many scholars of the Bible have to say about this, including a majority from their own denomination. These disagreements point to the uncertainty of how we “apply” the Good News to many social issues. That we disagree should not be a cause for separation in a denomination that has held together well over countless similar differences in theological ruminations. But now that the disaffiliating faction has “codified” their disagreements along the lines of the broader spectrum of what has been mistakenly been labeled “evangelicalism,” it HAS become cause for separation. Is this another case of “eyes wide shut?” Are those who want to narrow the theological scope of the Gospel the “inspectors” of today’s Johannine narrative? You decide.

 

I should point out here that some will immediately jump on my use of the term “narrowing the theology” as a sign that I am being “unbiblical.” Doesn’t the Bible say the “way is narrow” that leads to eternal life? Only if you parse the Bible like a telephone book. In fact, what is “narrow” about the way that leads to eternal life is that it is GOD’S WAY, not our way! We participate in the building of the Kingdom of God, but it is not OUR kingdom. The crux of the message is, “Once I was blind, but now I see,” and the restored or granted “eyesight” is a gift from the Light of the World, not something of our own theological contrivance. The “way that leads to destruction” is opened and maintained by those with “eyes wide shut.”

 

 

If I had to choose a theme for the lections of this, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, I’d probably call it, “WHAT is God UP to?” It has been my experience that life rarely follows predictable patterns, and just when we THINK we have acquired enough knowledge or experience to BEGIN to predict—or at least offer a good guess—of what follows, circumstances usually take a turn we didn’t see coming. Is the universe really that random? Is God too “aloof” from the human world? The texts for this week might be summarized thusly:

 

*God, while not random, is not bound by our plans, nor not even by what we would see as “logical.”

 

*God HAS a plan, but neither is it rigid or without response. In fact the field of Process Theology suggests to us that God NECESSARILY responds to OUR response, bringing together our past with what we are doing at the present, to help guide us into a future that is mutually beneficial.

 

*God will expose us to some of the “whys and wherefores” of God’s actions, but chooses a “ministry of presence” with us, rather than one of painstaking explanations. We may or MAY NOT know why something is happening to us, but we CAN know that God is with us.

 

*God “illuminates” our options but leaves it up to us to choose which paths we take, and will help us mature in our ability to see where God’s light is most brightly shining, so we can take that path, instead of stumble in the darkness.

 

As you can plainly see, I continue to be greatly disturbed by the “disaffiliation” movement going on in the United Methodist Church. First of all, I resist being “pigeon-holed” by those who disagree with my firm, Christian belief that “All means ALL,” and that persons of the LGBTQ community are acceptable to God just as they are, and not only when they “acknowledge” that their “condition” is sin, and can be “healed.” Unless one stops reading competent articles from the medical, scientific and psychological communities, this “narrow” view can be a case of “eyes wide shut.” But beyond this “trigger” theological debate—and it IS a debate, not a “we’re right and you’re wrong” matter—much disinformation about the “whys” of disaffiliation are being used to persuade congregations to vote to leave the UMC. One of the churches I served voted to do so on “financial grounds,” having been told that disaffiliation would allow them to “make their own decisions” about what to do with their considerable assets, and to not be restricted by the policies of a more connectional church. (I’m guessing they will join the new Global Methodist Church, which is, itself, propagating much disinformation, namely that its required “apportionments” will be much lower, and some are even saying nonexistent. So, the new church will subsist sort of like an air fern that needs no sustaining nourishment?) Other perpetrators of the disaffiliation movement are hawking the false idea that the United Methodist Church will soon “ditch” Jesus Christ and any reliance on Scripture as the primary piece of the historic “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” To me, this all sounds very much like the “inspectors” of the story from John, who are trying SO HARD to make their theological views “fit” the story of the man born blind, or maybe even more so, make HIS story fit into THEIRS. Somebody is operating from the “eyes wide shut” view, while the Man-Formerly-Known-as-the-Man-Born Blind just keeps repeating, “All I know is that once I was BLIND, but NOW I SEE!”

 

There can certainly be serious repercussions to keeping one’s eyes shut to reality. I am finishing this sermon on Saturday this week because I spent 24 hours sick in bed with something that left me exhausted, dehydrated, and extremely nauseated. Being one of those pastors who was great at urging parishioners to seek professional medical help instead of throwing clams at the sun or drinking the latest potion reported on the Internet (isn’t everything you read on the Internet, TRUE?), in this case, I also fit the idiocy of the preacher who didn’t always practice what he preached. When my solution to my health dilemma was to ask my lovely wife to go to Giant Eagle for some Gatorade, she instead called the UPMC “Nurse on Call,” who suggested I go to the emergency room and that we call our PCP, as well. Both parties said GO TO THE E.R., as dehydration for a guy 68 who has a few other health issues can be serious (something ELSE I’m a hypocrite about—not “giving in” to being 68 instead of 30). I probably would have kept my “eyes wide shut” opinion and opted for the Gatorade, except for the concern these two calls raised on the face of Dara. So, at 5:30PM on St. Patrick’s Day, off to the ER at Passavant Cranberry we went. After a few tests to rule out anything more serious than either a viral or “food-borne” issue, they pumped me full of fluids and gave me meds to stave off the nausea. At home, I had a great night’s sleep, and while still weary from the ordeal, here I sit, finishing my weekly “retirement sermon,” none of which I have missed since retiring in July of 2021. As a ”P.S.” on this personal story, my EMT son, who works with the wildfire fighters in Alaska, has been begging his dad to take some of his health situations more seriously “at your age” and take advantage of ERs, my PCP’s advice, and an occasional call to the EMTs when my A-Fig kicks up, instead of twiddling my thumbs and hoping it “just goes away.” Given that Jesus is the EMT in this story who arrives to heal the man-born-blind, I should listen! “For Once I was blind, but now I see!” Go do thou likewise, Beloved. Amen!

 

 

  

 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Is the Lord Among Us, or Not?

 


Is the Lord Among Us, or Not?

 

Exodus 17:1-7
17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.
17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?"
17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"
17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."
17:5 The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.
17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.
17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

Here's an excellent example of why we shouldn’t take the Bible too literally, at least in its English translations—“Sin” is a territory, not a condition! And, it was a “dry” township, apparently. The irony of this passage is palpable—the people gripe to Moses that they are thirsty, and then Moses gripes to God. God tells Moses to strike the rock, and water gushes out. Later, of course, Moses will take matters into his OWN hands, strikes another rock when he is told to merely speak to it, and he loses his ticket to the promised land. This is reason #2 why we shouldn’t take the Bible so literally—God certainly did not keep Moses from the promised land because of the “pet rock” incident, but that is what we are told. The writer is adding this story as an “obedience” object lesson, one we should NOT take literally. 

 

Incidentally, I’ve heard both Christian apologists AND science-minds types give lengthy explanations as to how this was some special kind of rock that harbored quantities of water, and the act of striking it with his staff kind of “kicked the spigot” and out rushed some water. Both explanations are ridiculous. God made the rock, God made Moses, God made the staff, and God gave the command. When Moses did as God commanded, God brought forth water, which God made, also. End of story, or at least this part of it. Apologists want to give a “practical” story for how this could have happened, and persons of science are wont to provide scientific reasoning. Why? They try to do the same thing when it comes to the story of Jonah, about how he could have survived in the belly of a whale or a fish for three days, and WHAT kind of sea-going creature that would have needed to be. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE ROCK, and IT’S NOT ABOUT THE WHALE! These are merely the “conveyances” God used to meet the needs of God’s people. This is the purpose of the story. Add to that the fact that God meets their needs even when they grumble. It would appear that most of the time, their grumbling bothered the prophet more than it did God. Pastors should know that this is still true today. WE get more upset about the people’s grumbling than GOD does.

 

Still, this “grumbling” is a deeply human problem. There just seem to be some personality types that grumble. The dictionary defines “grumble” thusly: “complain about something in a bad-tempered way.” I’m sure that for some, grumbling is a kind of expression of grief. They grumble when some dream is shattered, or a vision is lost, at least for a season. They may grumble in true grief over the loss of a beloved pet, a friend, or a loved one. This type of grumbling is certainly understandable. But what of folk who grumble as a response to a minor slight? Or when the price of gas goes up two cents? Paul addressed grumbling in the early church, most of which he saw as an ungrateful response to the good that God was trying to do in their midst. In this sense, ancient Israel under Moses was more like a church. 

 

I’m a private grumbler. I don’t grumble much, publicly, as I try to practice what I have always preached: turn your troubles and challenges over to God; rejoice that God cares, and will partner with us in addressing them; and then work for a solution, in full faith that one will be forthcoming. But when I’m home alone, and I spill my coffee, make a stupid error of some sort, or just get ticked off at what I hear in the news, I grumble. I suppose it is a way to let off steam so I don’t do something worse, or maybe its just my inner dialogue getting a bit chafed? Whatever, it “feels good” to grumble to myself, drop it, move on, and fix the problem. It keeps the problem from escalating.

 

The opposite happens in community, though. When a few veteran grumblers, who seem to have almost a sixth sense about things worth grumbling about are about to happen, start to grumble, others who are less prescient soon join in. In groups, grumbling can be quite contagious, and will spiral into a real snit. Grumbling in groups can multiply small problems in number, magnitude, or both, real fast. Leaders in these groups or communities soon find that the grumbling ITSELF has become a pox on the house, and often spend hours trying to soothe the grumbling before even being able to diagnose the stimulus that set it in motion. And, of course, the original cause is way too often a minor issue, which sets the LEADER off on a grumbling streak. “I have too many other real issues to deal with without being bogged down by this!” Have you ever heard that from a leader? A pastor? Out of your own lips? I’ll bet you have. Again, grumbling is contagious, it escalates, and it obfuscates more serious issues that the community may be facing. No wonder the leaders in the Bible do not treat it too kindly! As mentioned earlier, however, God seems to show great measures of grace with it, even before that word doesn’t actually emerge until the Christ Event in the New Testament.

 

In today’s text, it’s not that the “problem” isn’t real that sets the people to grumbling. They are thirsty, and Rephidim has no easily accessible water. They grumble, and Moses loses it. He even brings God into his objection: “Why do you test the Lord?” Now, not having water to drink is a serious issue, no doubt, but so are the almost innumerable list of challenges Israel has faced before this, and God has always shown a way out. Moses, like any of us “good” pastors, like to lovingly(?) remind the people of this fact, sometimes with our teeth in full grinding mode. 

 

It is disappointing to pastors, prophets, and leaders when the people seem to so quickly forget what WE or GOD have done on their behalf, and maybe even yesterday. That disappointment can so quickly turn to anger. In this story, I’m kind of thinking that there really isn’t a danger of Moses being stoned by his own people, but he just feels so defeated by their lack of faith in him, and their grumbling, that he just thinks they might. We call that paranoia. It can ensue when we let the complaining get to us. Of course, Moses is a pretty shrewd operator, and possibly he takes this “stoning” threat to God as a way to coerce God into fixing the problem. God does what God does best, and gives Moses a plan of action, and one that is clearly designed to both restore Israel to faith, and provide a few eyewitnesses of what God does on their behalf, who will hopefully become “ambassadors” of hope the next time the people start grumbling. This would serve to take some of the pressure off Moses, would encourage the people by reminding them that God WILL act to save them, and these “elders” are eventually going to be leading the people someday, anyway, so they might as well get schooled now. Incidentally, this story foreshadows another later incident, as I mentioned earlier, when Moses is faced with the water issue again, and takes matters into his own hands, striking the rock, rather than following God’s command to “speak” to the rock. This should serve as a cautionary tale to us all that we must keep listening for God’s guidance and direction, rather than simply assuming that what God did to get us out of some fix before, will be the same way we should approach it if it reoccurs. We should remember that God is a creative God, and may have a better way the second time around, and one that has a deeper “object lesson” for us, as well. We pastors often fall prey to the “it worked before” mentality. I have never understood how any pastor could simply “can” her or his sermons and just keep repeating them from church to church. Maybe God has something novel for us to say about a lectionary text? And almost assuredly, the context or sitz im leben of this congregation is markedly different than the one we wrote this sermon for twelve years ago? Yet, we keep “striking the same old rock” and expect God to gush out fresh water. No wonder we never get to the “promised land.” I made it my practice to never repeat a sermon, but took the time to study the passage anew, listen for what God wanted me to share with THESE people in THIS time in THIS place, and constructed a new message. That’s not to say that I might not repeat a poignant illustration, or share an insight from a good commentary over again, but the sermon is an “event” for what the church is facing now, in my mind. Maybe this time, we “speak” to the rock, not haul off an wail on the poor thing.

 

Ultimately, the key the today’s lesson from this text is summarized in the line: “Is the Lord Among Us, or Not?” We know the answer, that OF COURSE God is among God’s people AND loves us even when we grumble, but most of our people are still posing this question, and are STILL of the belief that “grumbling” to God will keep you from the “promised land.” God IS, and God won’t. If we truly believe in the God of the Bible, this God will always be with us. Jesus himself said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Because God is with us, developing the discipline to not grumble in our group, and instead looking forward with great expectations as to how God will partner with us to overcome the present problem or challenge, is the preferred direction to go. Prayer and praise are superior to griping, grumbling, and complaining, they are so much healthier for the Body of Christ, and they certainly are easier on your pastor’s nerves. And pastors, remember—God IS among us, so you don’t have to keep “whapping the rock,” especially when this metaphor may be referring to whipping your congregation when they don’t “behave” the way you like. Remember, too, that God can give us a dose of God’s patience with the grumbling, too. 

 

So, “Is the Lord Among Us, or Not?” As Mr. Wesley said, “The best of all is GOD IS WITH US!” Amen!

Thursday, March 2, 2023

To Keep from Smoking, Apply a Nicodemus Patch

 


To Keep from Smoking, Apply a Nicodemus Patch

 

John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
3:2 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."
3:3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
3:4 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?"
3:5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'
3:8 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."
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
3:10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3:11 "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.
3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 "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.
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.

 

Nowadays, people wear those medical “patches” for all kinds of drug infusions. Everything from potent painkillers, to anti-nausea drugs, to birth control may be dosed out with a stick-on, prescription patch. There was a time when the only such patches you saw people wearing were giving them a steady stream of nicotine, which was designed to help them quit smoking. So, today, let’s take a look at the “Nicodemus” patch, and see what it’s good for.

 

In my March preaching commentary I wrote for one district’s local pastors, I stated that I’ve probably preached on this passage from John’s Gospel more than about any other. As stories go, this one is just too good to pass up, and besides, it has the Jesus version of our United Methodist slogan, “Open Minds, Open Doors, Open Hearts,” but Jesus said it this way: 

 

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.

 

It’s the “everyone who believes in him” that should catch our attention. “Everyone” is a huge word. There are no restrictions placed on this “open door” by Jesus. Some in the Reconciling Ministries group with which I have been involved espouse the phrase, “All means All.” Jesus says, “Everyone means Everyone.” Same thing, in my book. No matter how you parse the right side of the Bible, the universality of the Gospel is paramount. Now, I’m not saying “everyone is saved,” which some critics will muse, but I AM saying that the Bible makes clear that the Good News is for “everyone who believes.” If you question this, read the following verse:

 

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.

 

What is God’s aim? What is God’s desire? Clearly, that “the world” (everyone) might be saved through the agency of the Christ Event is the answer. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that “everyone” is saved, as the phrase “believe in him” seems to indicate an RSVP is necessary. John Wesley certainly believed this, however, unlike the “Wesley” many appropriate inaccurately, he did not believe in “altar calls” or the “sawdust trail” mode of evangelism, but believed persons could say “yes” to Jesus right where they were, and at the “altar” of their hearts. He did not prescribe a specific “sinner’s prayer,” or other rubric in order to be counted among the “everyones” of John 3:16. In fact, we are good to be reminded that one of the reasons John Wesley and the Methodists advocate for a truly “open table” for Holy Communion is that our founder believed persons might actually be saved (become believers) by the simple act of participating in the eucharist! Unfortunately, modern “evangelicals” have evolved a whole series of things that must happen for a person to be “saved,” typically including some sort of public altar call or acknowledgement of their sin, a prayer worded in a certain way with specific clauses (like the individual is signing a contract), a public “testimony” of their action, and finally “aligning yourself with a good, ‘Bible-believing’ church.” I don’t know whether this “process” for quitting “smoking” (in hell?) came from Billy Sunday or Billy Graham, but it certainly has made the revival circuit for decades. If Jesus were dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave. Wesley probably is. Why have we complicated and so restricted the “everyone” (“whosoever” in the KJV) he announced in the most famous address in the right side of the Bible (John 3:16)?

 

Jesus is announcing a rescue. I’m writing this while on a cruise ship on the Atlantic ocean, several miles off the East Coast of the U.S.A. If someone falls overboard, they initiate a rescue. I’m guessing they do not shout a series of five or six specific instructions to the poor sap in the water, and refuse to pluck him out of the salty drink unless he follows them precisely? And once they rescue the unfortunate “everyone” in the water, they rush them off to the dispensary to check their health and address any medical and physical needs. Sounds like a good metaphor for the kind of “rescuing” Jesus initiated. It also sounds like a much better model for a church, frankly. In the current “snail’s pace” schism going on in the United Methodist Church, the exiting band wants to have a church that makes clear their particular way of interpreting scripture, highlighted by a very public “stand” on the question of “homosexuality” (LGBTQ persons) and who should and should NOT enter into a covenantal relationship we dub “marriage.” To continue the metaphor, it is almost like a hospital (or ship’s dispensary) that might advertise, “We don’t serve people who fall overboard. Sorry.” Or, “We’ll rescue you, but unless you promise to never do that again, we’re going to throw you back into the waves.” 

 

I know my Global Methodist friends don’t see it this way, and that is their prerogative. But the question is, how do the “rescue-ees” see it? Personally, I pray the “remnant” United Methodist Church continues its evolution toward the rescue model and widening its “everyone” invitation, but I suppose there is no guarantee of that, either. Some will say, “Yes, but what do we ask of believers AFTER they have come to faith? Doesn’t the Bible have ‘standards’ of ‘holiness’ they are to work toward?” Maybe what we need is a definition of holiness?

 

Is “holiness” living according to the standards we adopt, based upon how we interpret the scriptures? And if my interpretation of scripture is different than yours, might not my definition of “holiness” vary as well? From my perspective, being “holy” unto the Lord is believing the Gospel, living to the best of my ability according to the teachings of the Gospel (such as those of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), and getting involved in “rescuing the perishing.” This last mission activity may run the gamut from sharing the message of the gospel, to feeding, clothing, and housing the needy, to working for social justice for all of God’s children. For me, this includes helping people understand their sexuality, living at peace with it and getting the support they may need, and being “relationally responsible” with it, so as not to intentionally harm or exploit others. Telling someone who is attracted to their same physical gender, or admonishing a teen who has discovered they are transgender, is not on my agenda, and I seriously doubt it is on God’s agenda. 

 

Christ announces this rescue mission to Nicodemus, a “leader of the Jews,” who comes to Jesus by night. Nicodemus was a true “seeker.” He really wanted to know who Jesus was, and by whose authority he was doing the things he was doing. Better than that, though, he wanted the “secret” to finding the “realm” or Kingdom of God. He approaches Jesus in the still of the night, probably so his fellow Jewish “leaders”—who were regularly trying to trick Jesus into trouble—wouldn’t see him. He really wanted to know the answer to his questions. Again, he was a true “seeker.” (We use the term “seeker” today to denote “visitors” at our churches. It's a nicer label than “visitor,” although, the churches I served usually called them “guests” or just “friends.” Not all were “seeking” something when they came, and it was up to us to offer something that might whet their appetites for things spiritual.) 

 

Jesus’ initial answer to Nicodemus was cryptic: “You must be born from above.” Actually, I take issue with the newer translations’ using “above” instead of “again” in the first exchange. The follow up question on startled Nicodemus’s part, sure makes it seem like Jesus said “You must be born again,” because the Jewish leader goes into that whole, weird “entering into his mother’s womb again” thing. If Jesus had actually said “born from above,” I imagine the “seeker” would have said, “Tell me more,” instead of bursting forth with his incredulous response. Jesus simplifies his theology by reducing the two “births” to “water” and “spirit.” This makes more sense. We are “born of the water” from our mother’s womb, but to enter the Kingdom of God, we must be “born of the Spirit.” The rescue mission of Jesus makes it EASY for us to be born of the Spirit. In fact, if you follow his life, teachings, death, and resurrection—even if you do it through the interpretive eyes of Paul or one of the other writers in the New Testament—you discover that Jesus makes it pretty hard to say “No” to the life preserver he throws to humanity over the side. People do, though, but not as many as the evangelicals think might. And then there is the whole other question of how Jesus reveals himself to people of other cultures or religions. While evangelicals make little of this conversation, it IS true that virtually every other faith has a “Jesus connection.” (Jews respect Jesus for his teaching their law and offering grace, Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet, but will return as the Messiah to save humanity, and most other “seeking” faiths will tell you what they “receive” from Jesus. Native Americans have their own Jesus stories about the sky god who came to earth to love people, and I have heard stories from the Christian mission field of faraway lands where native peoples, after hearing the story of Jesus from the missionaries, thanked them for giving them a “name” for and more stories of the grace-giving god they believed in.) For us to judge what Jesus Christ is doing to birth the world’s people from above—or again--is folly. God is bigger than that, and if you don’t believe it, your Jesus may be a bit too small.

 

So, if you are afraid of “smoking”—a fear that you will “burn in hell” instead of going heaven when you die—just apply the Nicodemus patch to an area of exposed skin. Ask the tough questions of God, and God WILL answer you! Don’t worry about some mythical “hell” below, but concentrate on being “born from above.” Believing is as simple as hearing the story and saying to yourself and to God, “I’m in favor of that!” No special, contractual prayer needed, no public testimony—not even a proof that you are attending a “Bible-believing” church, whatever THAT is! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ—put on the Nicodemus patch and let it do its thing. Become an “everyone” with the rest of us! 

 

But the benefits of the Nicodemus patch go WAY beyond just the rescue. Once rescued, what will you do with your “saved” life? Now that you have tasted the fear of drowning, what can you make of yourself, with God’s help? The Christian experience offers so much more for us “everyones” if we continue to yield to the birthing process of the Spirit. Start eating a healthy spiritual diet! A supportive, loving, grace-giving community of faith can help, and it can also offer a place to help “rescue” the world, as Jesus invited us into this mission in verse 17. 

 

So, stop treading water and grab the lifesaver. Put on your Nicodemus patch and get on with the gift of living! Amen.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...