Sunday, March 25, 2012

God Who Gardens: Sermon on John 12:20-33

There is so much here, in today’s passage from John’s gospel. It is long. It is extraordinarily complex. It makes me want to create a chart, or draw a diagram to help me to understand. There is so much here, far too much for us to fully unpack in a few minutes on a Sunday morning. Another preacher wrote this week, “John's gospel is so full of nuance and inter-textual references that it is difficult to digest 13 verses at once. This text needs a table filled with friends and a pot of coffee.”[i]

So here we are. And you are my table filled with friends; we can grab the coffee later.

Let’s start here: “We wish to see Jesus.”

And how.

I want to share a very brief litany with you. I want to ask you to hold these names in prayer while we sit around this table together. These are some of the names that were in the news this week: Sean Bell.[ii] Lydia Parker.[iii] Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his sons Gabriel (age 4) and Arieh (age 5).[iv] Bei Bei Shuai.[v] Archbishop Oscar Romero.[vi] Shaima Alawadi.[vii] Trayvon Martin.[viii]

Each name tells the story of someone whose life has been afflicted, or traumatized, or brutally ended. Each person—man, woman, adult, child—has somehow been lost—to violence, to hatred, to “the system,” to an unjust law or the immoral and fear-filled use of force. Each one might well have been moved to say—from the jail cell, in the dying breath, in the midst of the uncontrollable spasms, “God, you who are my Heavenly Parent, save me from this hour.”

We wish to see Jesus.

When the world as we know it becomes harsh and uncompromising, dark and intimidating, downright terrifying, each of us has the impulse to search, to hope, to long for some sign, some wisdom, some thing, some one to help us make sense of it all. We want to understand. We want to transcend.

We wish to see Jesus.

That is the hope expressed this morning by a group of outsiders—the Greeks, who have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They are not Jews, but they are known as God-fearers, so they are given tolerance. They are offered a cautious acceptance. They can come and hang out on the fringes of the festival, because they are foreigners, they are “not us.”

And, in the aftermath of Palm Sunday (this happens sometimes—we get the story all out of order), they come to some of Jesus’ disciples and say, “We wish to see Jesus.” We are not told why. We might wonder. What have they heard about Jesus? What things have they been told? What are they hoping for, what are they longing for?

And one thing leads to another (and one person leads to another) and they finally see Jesus, and—oh, here we are with talkative Jesus again. And what he says is so startling to us. Imagine you went to see your congressman, and when you had finally been escorted into his office, he said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But imagine now that you had not grown up in Endicott or in the United States, but in some country where, for instance, women did not have equal rights to men. Or people of color did not have equal rights to those of primarily European descent. And this was the very first time you had access to the possibility of a better life, a fairer world, a voice in it all. And you heard those same words: All are created equal. Imagine how that might feel.

Jesus says this to the outsiders, and to his disciples, and to us:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” [John 12:23].

This is a pivotal moment in John’s gospel. This is the moment when Jesus finishes one kind of work, and begins another. Until this moment, Jesus has been teaching and giving signs—what we might call miracles—signs pointing to who he is and what he is about. His greatest and last sign was the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead. And now, he has finished with those signs, and begins to walk the path towards the cross. Which he calls, somewhat perversely, “glory.” When Jesus says that he will be glorified, he means that he will be crucified.

We wish to see Jesus, the Greeks say. We wish to see Jesus, Bei Bei Shuai and the parents of Trayvon Martin say. And Jesus’ response is this: you wish to see me? I am the one who will die.

And Jesus continues with a metaphor that reminds us that God is a gardener: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” [John 12:24].  God, it seems, is all about the fruit, just as everyone who ever put on his or her gardening gloves and pulled out weeds on an unseasonably warm March day. We want those beautiful cosmos, those friendly sunflowers, those succulent tomatoes, those aromatic herbs. And so we are willing to put in a little time, or a lot of time. A little elbow grease, or some major twisting and pulling of muscles.  We pay it forward, the effort, so that in the end, we will have those glorious fruits of our labors, of our gardening.

God is like that. Only, it’s not mildly pulled muscles God is willing to pay forward, it is all of God’s power and might. This is the cost, this is the planting that comes along with incarnation. You wish to see Jesus, who is the reality of God in our midst? You wish to see God, who makes the stranger welcome, even the one in the hoodie? Here is God: the one who is so committed to humanity, so head-over-divine-heels in love with us that it translates into a willingness to be fully human: to live, to suffer, and to die. Because we live and suffer and die.  You wish to see Jesus? Jesus is the one who is, without reserve, of the earth, just like we are. A poet wrote,

To be of the Earth is to know
the restlessness of being a seed
the darkness of being planted
the struggle toward the light
the pain of growth into the light
the joy of bursting and bearing fruit
the love of being food for someone
the scattering of your seeds
the decay of the seasons
the mystery of death
and the miracle of birth[ix]

Jesus continues: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” [John 12:25].

When I read that sentence this week my first impulse was to say, Houston, we have a problem. Because—I love my life. I love my family. I love my loving relationships. I love my work. I have not a single complaint about any of it.

But the problem with all that is that it is very much focused on self. The key is “in this world,” and I am not an island but a member of a larger body, the body of Christ, and our body is in pain. Shaima Alawadi. Sean Bell. Lydia Parker. Oscar Romero. Our body is rotting in prison, and being denied its rights, and bleeding and dying; and while that is true… I cannot truly say that I love my life in this world, because I do not love our life in this world. I am not cut off from the pain of the rest of the body.

We wish to see Jesus. Not “I.” “We.” And Jesus’ words are sobering: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also…” [John 12:26a].

At the end of our passage, we hear the voice of God promising to glorify Jesus again, only it sounds like thunder or angels. And we see Jesus being lifted up and drawing all people to himself, only it looks like a brutally beaten man dying on a cross. It’s a most ingenious paradox. How does God come to earth? As a fragile, fearless human being, who stands up to the authorities until they hang him from a tree. How is God-made-flesh glorified? But submitting the Divine self to the deepest degradations of human experience. What wondrous love is this, O my soul? This is love that is all in, no holding back, with us, in every conceivable way to the bitter end. God is in the young man gunned down because he thought he’d go out for a snack. God is in the California woman beaten to death because her native country was Iraq. God is in the archbishop who accepted that he would die a martyr because of his insistence that the poor had rights and dignity, and who died as he held the bread of life in his hands.

But God is a gardener. And so God intends for there to be fruit, from all of these plantings. And the fruits are already budding. Already, in the cities and in the countryside, in the parks and in the mountains, God’s people are longing, and yearning, and now working for a better life, for a fairer world—not just for themselves, but for those who can no longer participate in that work. We bear the fruits of this work when we become a voice for the voiceless poor. We bear the fruits of God’s labors when we give a party whose sole purpose is to open our pockets and wallets on behalf of disaster victims and building stronger communities and feeding the hungry. We bear the fruits of God’s labors when we live out Jesus’ ethic of uncompromising welcome.

We wish to see Jesus. And when we are willing to give over our lives to bringing forth the fruits God has planted, we can look around at one another and at God’s renewed world and do just that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] D. Mark Davis, “Losing one’s psyche; Hearing a voice; Getting a sign,” at Left Behind and Loving It: Living As if God’s Steadfast Love Really Does Endure  Forever (, March 20, 2012.
[ii] An unarmed man who was shot 50 times by New York City police officers as he left his bachelor party.
[iii] One of several dozen young women afflicted with a neurological syndrome in Le Roy, NY.
[iv] Three of those killed at a Jewish school in France on March 19, 2012.
[v] A woman who was severely depressed upon learning that the father of the child she was carrying (she was eight months pregnant) was married to another woman. She attempted suicide but survived; her baby did not. She has been in jail for one year, charged with murder.
[vi] Assassinated in El Salvador 32-years ago yesterday, while saying Mass.
[vii] A 32-year-old Iraqi immigrant who died Saturday March 24 from injuries sustained during a beating in her home in El Cajon, San Diego County. Alawadi had been on life support ever since her 17-year-old daughter had discovered her unconscious body Wednesday. The stranger who beat her left a note, “Go back to your country.”
[viii] An unarmed 17-year-old teenager who was pursued and shot to death when he went out for a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
[ix] John Soos; with thanks to my friend Yvonne Lucia.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

God Who Loves Us: Sermon on John 3:1-21

Bronze Serpent, Mount Nebo, Jordan

It’s happened to me a couple of times in my life. One of the clearest memories I have is this one: sitting in a Chinese restaurant in New York City with three other seminarians, all of us freshly-hatched first years, though wildly different in background and experience. I was a 39-year-old mother of two with fifteen years of experience as a Christian Educator. M.was a 25-year-old just back from two years spent living and working in South America. C. was 21, three months post graduation from Texas Women’s University. And K. was a 38-year-old corporate bank executive from Long Island. We were very different people.

And yet: over Kung Pao chicken and vegetable dumplings, something amazing happened. Something holy happened. There was a deep core in each of us that recognized something kindred in the others, something that would help each of us to grow, and to know more truly who we were.

This has happened to me a couple of times in my life. Can you remember a time when it happened in yours? Sometimes this kind of revelation is part of falling in love, but not always. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes it as the meeting of “solitudes [who] protect, and border and salute each other.”[i] I think an encounter of this kind is happening in this morning’s reading from the gospel of John.

For many weeks now we've been in the gospel of Mark, but today we’re with the Jesus of John’s gospel, and we can tell right away that things are different. For one thing, Jesus is suddenly very talkative. Have you noticed how, in Mark's gospel, Jesus is mostly the strong, silent type? And the healing, compassionate type, of course. But Mark's Jesus is more a doer than a talker. Oh he's not an absolutely silent Jesus. But compared to the Jesus of John, it's almost as if he's auditioning for a part in "The Artist." Just to give you an idea of their relative talkativeness: in the past three weeks, in our readings from Mark, Jesus has spoken an average of ninety-three words per scripture passage. In today's passage from John Jesus speaks a whopping three hundred and seventy-three words—more than four times as many. And today, we really notice it: Jesus practically talks Nicodemus' ear off. And it all starts when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.

Which brings me to another unique feature of John's gospel. John is very, very interested in light and darkness, day and night, sunshine and shadow. It's a central theme, it comes up again and again. The gospel begins with a powerful contrast between darkness and light: Jesus is described as “the light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it” [John 1:5] John is very clear on this point: Jesus is identified with light, and those who oppose him are in darkness. Which makes the fact that Nicodemus comes under cover of night a great big neon sign for us, a sign warning us, "Watch out."

Of course, there are other motives than sinister ones for paying a call under cover of darkness. For one thing, Jesus has just recently made himself a persona non grata with the religious authorities by causing quite a commotion in the Temple, throwing out those selling animals for sacrifice as well as the moneychangers. Jesus has also made a seemingly outrageous statement about the Temple being destroyed, which has really set people on edge. So Nicodemus, himself a Pharisee, one of those religious authorities, is perhaps understandably hesitant—anxious, even—about being seen with this very controversial figure, Jesus.

So, it may even be to Nicodemus' credit that he comes at all, by day or by night, to see this Jesus. His opening words to Jesus are cautious, tentative: “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.” What do you hear in those words of Nicodemus? Nicodemus, slipping in to see Jesus at night. Parker Palmer says, when we are not being authentically who we are, when our soul is not permitted to freely speak its truth, “The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness,” and “The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.”[ii] Nicodemus is a man groping in the darkness. He speaks the words of a soul desperately yearning towards the light.

Whatever has happened to Nicodemus… whatever his predispositions and prejudices regarding Jesus… whatever responsibilities associated with his role as a religious leader lie heavily on his shoulders… whatever danger he may be in by virtue of this undercover visit to this renegade Jesus… there is nevertheless a deep core in him that recognizes something in Jesus. And that something is calling to something in him. Call it, soul calling to soul? Call it, the recognition of a soul friend?

From ancient times the Celtic people nurtured the practice of growing spiritually through deep relationships, what they called soul friends. Brigid of Kildare, after observing the troubling behavior of a young monk, told him, “Go forth and [do] nothing until you have found a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head; is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor washing. That is the person without a soul friend.”[iii] A soul friend is one with whom we are able to speak truthfully, from the deepest core of our inner being; and who is able, likewise, to respond from the deepest core of their inner being. To be a soul friend “is to provide a place of sanctuary to another where, through our acceptance, love, and hospitality, he or she can grow in wisdom, and both of us in depth.”[iv] It is that meeting of solitudes who protect, border and salute each other.

One of the risks of soul friendship, of course, is that the truth our soul friend will see will call upon them to speak words that challenge us, such as the words Brigid spoke to the young monk. Or, the words Jesus speaks to Nicodemus.

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks Nicodemus. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” [John 3:10, 14-15]. Here Jesus is reminding Nicodemus of an old, old story that both of them know very well, because it is a story from one of the most important experiences of their common ancestors: the story of God’s people wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It’s a story about the people’s discontent and dissatisfaction despite God’s provision of food and water for them in the desert. It is the story of God’s frustration with the people—I guess you could call releasing poisonous snakes an expression of frustration. But it is also, paradoxically, a story of God’s immediate provision of a cure for the snakebite, a kind of totem for them to gaze upon. It is a story, bizarrely, of God’s love.

John Cassian was one of the desert fathers who practiced a life of solitude and prayer in wild places in the fourth century. He also spoke of soul friends. He wrote of how essential it is to reveal the inner workings of the soul to another, telling how this practice “pulls into the light from your most shadowed heart” the “most loathsome serpent” hiding within. In confiding in that trusted person, that soul friend, Cassian wrote, a cure could be found for those “snake bites” we inflict on ourselves when we are not authentically who God is calling us to be.

Here’s the irony: we are in our deepest being already who and what God is calling us to be. The cranky people of Israel were already God’s chosen beloveds. Nicodemus is already yearning towards Jesus’ light. “For God so loved the world,” says our talkative Jesus, that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in that light may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not come in Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it by God’s loving intervention [John 3:16-17]. Jesus tells Nicodemus the hard truth he is already longing for: he can choose to come out of the shadows he is hiding in. He can let that light that is in him already, the light that drew him out into the dark night, draw him still closer to the light of the world, shining in the darkness right there in front of him.

This passage ends without another word from Nicodemus. It leaves us wondering: Does he ever come out into the light? We encounter him just two more times in John’s gospel. On the first of these occasions, Jesus is teaching in the Temple, again the provocateur, telling the people, “Anyone who is thirsty, let them come to me,” claiming his identity as the Living Water. And half the people who hear him think this is great, and the other half want him thrown in the slammer. Into this very public controversy, in the full light of day, walks Nicodemus. And now he claims both the responsibility of his role as religious leader AND the truth of the light from Jesus he has begun to let into and out of his heart. He asks a simple, honest, open question: Don’t we usually listen to what people have to say, before condemning them? And in asking that simple, honest, open question, the crowd disperses, and Jesus is able, for the time being, to continue his ministry. Nicodemus has stepped into the light—or, perhaps, he has blown the cobwebs off the wick of his own newly kindled inner lamp.

It can happen to each of us: we can find a soul friend, one who provides us a place of sanctuary, a place of hospitality and love in which each of us can grow in wisdom, and in depth. A soul friend invites us out of the shadows into the light, even at the same time she or he sees and kindles and encourages our own small flame to burn brighter. God provides these friends to us, serum for the snakebite of day to day living in what can be a wilderness, a wild, wild, west of a world. God provides, this God who loves us so. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] From Letters to a Young Poet, as quoted in Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 62.
[ii] Palmer, 16.
[iii] As quoted in Edward Sellner, The Celtic Soul Friend: A Trust Guide for Today (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2002), 22.
[iv] Sellner, 14.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

God Who Suffers With Us, Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

5th Century Casket Panel, “Condemnation of Christ and the Denial of Peter”

This week’s gospel passage contains the seeds of what has been easily one of the most familiar and also the least understood concepts in the history of Christianity. (How’s that for a sweeping statement?) The idea of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus remains so troubling, so controversial, that people of good faith still are arguing about what, precisely, it means (or, perhaps in more “Christian” terms, having extremely animated dialogues about it). For Christians, scripture is the rule of faith, our witness without equal to the mind of God. For me, the rule within that rule remains the words of Jesus himself. Combine that with the fact that we are reading, this morning, the very earliest gospel account, the one committed to papyrus or parchment before all others, and we have words before us we can’t in good conscience ignore or explain away. But we also have words that challenge us, to the core of our being.

Let me tell you a few little stories to try to illustrate this point:

An elementary school teacher is living firsthand the reality of the sandwich generation: she has a middle-schooler and a teenager still at home, and an aging mother whose health is deteriorating, necessitating her moving into her daughter’s home. And, of course, she works the more-than full-time job of educating young minds. She sighs, “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”

A man watches his life partner die a gruesome death from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. A good friend who attends the same church tells him: “AIDS was Jerry’s cross to bear, and yours.”

A woman pushes her 4-year-old son on a swing at the playground; the child is severely disfigured as a result of a birth defect. A couple who are looking on from a distance murmur, “Why would God give that cross to such a young child?”

Many of us learned from an early age that anything that is difficult for us to deal with in our lives constitutes a “cross to bear.” We were told that enduring everything from mild discomfort to terrible suffering could be our opportunity to do as Jesus tells us, to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him. This understanding has even, at times, led ministers and priests, otherwise well-meaning folks of the cloth, to encourage victims of abuse to stay with their abusers, since it would, of course, be Jesus’ will that they endure their suffering patiently.

I hope that today we can walk away from that particular interpretation of this passage. That’s because I believe it’s wrong. Period. No qualifiers. And our first hint that this is wrong can be found in previous chapters of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus heals, in this order, a man with an unclean spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law, every single person in Capernaum who was sick or possessed with demons, and a leper. And that’s just chapter 1. In other words, if it is Jesus’ will that people suffer for his sake from things that can be otherwise relieved or cured, he has an odd way of showing it. The witness of scripture strongly suggests the opposite: that Jesus wants to alleviate suffering, an understanding of the “Good News” most of us can get behind. So what does Jesus mean when he says, “
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? How do we reconcile those words with Jesus’ actions on behalf of healing and giving comfort to the suffering?

When Jesus talks about our taking up our crosses to follow him, he is not telling us to endure the suffering that is out of our control. He is most certainly not telling us to put ourselves in situations (or to remain in circumstances) in which our safety was at risk, all because that is his will. When Jesus spoke of the cross, he had a specific understanding of it, and those who followed him understood what he was saying.

When Jesus speaks of a cross, he is referring to a specific instrument of torture and death that was used by the Roman Empire for purposes of intimidating and controlling those whose lands they occupied. The Romans nailed one particular kind of criminal to the crosses that lined their well-built roads: insurrectionists, those who sought to overthrow Rome, to loosen its grip on their homelands or people.

As Jesus begins speaking to his disciples about the cross, he is telling them how he understands his role as Messiah: he is preaching a gospel of good news to the poor, release to the captives, restoration of sight to the blind and the ability to walk to the lame, the open table of welcome to all, young, old, saints and sinners. And he understands that this is a dangerous gospel. This message has the power to confront and challenge Rome in all its oppressive, militaristic might. Therefore, Jesus knows, he understands in the deepest part of his heart, that the gospel he is preaching will lead inexorably to the cross. If he continues to preach that gospel, the cross cannot be avoided. Rome will look upon him as an insurrectionist, and there is only one path for an insurrectionist to walk, the path to crucifixion.

But Jesus is willing to walk that path. That is not to say he desires it. But he is willing to walk it, he chooses it, because he understands that, in the end, Rome will not prevail, but God will. Because Jesus shows us a God who, rather than subjecting us to suffering, is willing to suffer right alongside us. And Jesus understands that it may well take his death to truly expose the ugliness of Rome to the world, and to bring life and hope and relief to everyone Rome has oppressed. Jesus is willing to take up his cross in order to lift the burden of suffering from others.

That is what a cross is for Jesus’ followers. A cross is an instrument or situation of suffering, voluntarily taken on, so that the burden of suffering might be lifted from someone else. Our cross is our free choice to lift the burden of suffering from another person.

But notice: it is our free choice. No one assigns us a cross and forces it onto our shoulders. Our physical suffering (which may be profound), our mental anguish (which may be nearly intolerable), our burdens and responsibilities do not, in themselves, constitute our cross to bear. Our cross is something we choose to take on because we see that the end result is that someone else will suffer less.[i]

This is what the cross is for Jesus: a witness to the love of God that does not flinch in the face of suffering if, in turn, others’ suffering will be lessened. If taking on some kind of suffering would relieve the pain of that disfigured child or that man with AIDS or that ailing grandmother, or the pain of those who love them—believe me, Jesus would take it on, and would encourage you and me to do the same. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and to take up a cross—to lift another’s suffering—and to follow him. We have the ability to choose do that, or to not do it. We have assurance that, as Jesus received comfort and assistance, we will too. We have the hope that, even in suffering, we will have moments of joy and peace. We have the promise that Jesus himself—the one who sought in all circumstances, in every way to lift the suffering of humanity—we have the promise that he will walk the path with us.  We have the awe-inducing knowledge that the God we serve chooses to suffer alongside us, never leaving us alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Flora Wuellner, Enter By the Gate: Jesus’ 7 Guidelines for Making Hard Choices.