Sunday, March 30, 2014

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Sermon on John 18:1-27

Scripture can be found here...

Maybe it’s the fact that this passage shows us one of Simon Peter’s less than stellar moments. Maybe it’s the fact that, in two weeks, we will be here, in this space, experiencing the Word through a beautiful cantata that focuses on Peter’s experience of and relationship with Jesus. Or maybe it’s because one of the scholars I depend on for sermon preparation challenged me with these words: “There’s not a lot of good news in the gospel this week.”

My response to that is, unless there is good news to be found here, we all go home, back to worship with Pastor Sheets and the church of the Sunday paper and brunch. There has to be good news.

I am convinced the story of Simon Peter has good news to share with us. So today, rather than focusing exclusively on the contents of chapter 18, I say, let’s pull back the camera and look at the big picture. Therefore we will take a tour: Simon Peter, everywhere we find him in the gospel of John.

The first thing we learn about Simon Peter comes from Jesus himself, in the very first chapter. Jesus starts to attract the attention of John, the baptizer, who tells his followers, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” [1:34]. One of those followers goes and finds his brother, Simon, and says, “We have found the Messiah,” and then he takes Simon to see Jesus [1:41-42].

Frederick Buechner writes about the encounter.

The first time Jesus laid eyes on him, he took one good look and said, "So you're Simon, the son of John" (John 1:42), and then said that from then on he'd call him Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter, which is Greek for rock.

A rock isn't the prettiest thing in creation or the fanciest or the smartest, and if it gets rolling in the wrong direction, watch out, but there's no nonsense about a rock, and once it settles down, it's pretty much there to stay. There's not a lot you can do to change a rock or crack it or get under its skin, and, barring earthquakes, you can depend on it about as much as you can depend on anything. So Jesus called him the Rock, and it stuck with him the rest of his life.

Rock. Strong. Dependable. Something you can build on. That’s the beginning, the foundation, so to speak, of the relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter.

The next time we encounter Simon Peter it is in the midst of a controversy following one of Jesus’ most spectacular signs, the one that is recounted six times in four gospels. I am referring to Jesus’ feeding of 5000 people.

The day following the miracle, Jesus is trying to explain the meaning of it to his followers. “I am the bread of life,” he says [6:35]. And then, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; or my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”[6:54-55]. This statement was challenged and questioned by those who were following him. They were disturbed. They were repulsed. What could he possibly mean? Finally, a number of those who had been following him turned back. They couldn’t abide by his words; they made no sense to them.

Jesus looked around at those who remained. The twelve. “Do you also wish to go away?” [6:67]

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” [6:68-69].

Peter. The Rock. Strong. Dependable.

The next time we meet Simon Peter it is the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet. Though we talked about this a couple of weeks ago, it bears repeating: Peter is appalled that Jesus is reversing the customary roles. The teacher is serving the students. The master is serving the servants. He wants none of it, but Jesus is insistent. Jesus will teach by example: I do this to show my love for you, he says. Love one another as I have loved you.

On Wednesday we spoke of what happens next. Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, is identified as the one who will betray Jesus, and he hurries to leave. Jesus turns to the eleven now remaining, and says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me… [but] Where I am going, you cannot come.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.”  Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

Peter. The Rock. Strong. Dependable.

Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” [13:36-38].

Until this moment in the story Peter has shown himself to be humble, and loyal, and, yes, dependable. He has made a statement of faith: Lord, you alone have the words to everlasting life. We have seen. We believe. You are the Holy One of God.

And, to be clear, it’s not as if life has been a bed of roses for Jesus and his followers. Throughout this gospel Jesus has encountered opposition, and suspicion, and eventually, downright hostility. The words uttered above—that statement of faith—come on the heels of the chilling report that, now that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead, his own life is being threatened. The statements of loyalty and dedication are made in the context of danger.

The danger shows up tonight, in this passage.

In the passage read by Chris, we witness the arrest—so much of it so familiar. The garden. The soldiers and the police. Judas.

And look, here comes Simon Peter, and he’s drawing a sword, and in the first and last act of violence of a follower of Jesus, he manages to cut the ear off a slave who belonged to Caiaphas, the Temple High Priest. The slave’s name is Malchus.

Peter, the Rock. Strong… and, here, for once, impulsive. Violent.

Jesus, however, is not interested in violence, not right now, and the words he uses to address Peter and the others are firm. Put away your sword. Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me? Jesus believes this to be his destiny, foreordained by God.

What follows is a passage I think of as “two interrogations.” The narrative skips back and forth between scenes involving Jesus and those involving Simon Peter.

First, we are with Jesus (18:12-14).  He is arrested (by a combination of Roman police as well as “Jewish” police–probably the Temple police). He is taken to Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas. Caiaphas, we are told, made a statement immediately after the raising of Lazarus, that “it is better” for one man to die than for the whole nation to “be destroyed” (11:49-52).

Then we are with Simon Peter (18:15-18). He and the unnamed disciple follow after Jesus. The other disciple’s connections with the high priest enable him to follow Jesus into the courtyard. Peter remains outside the gate until the other disciple persuades the woman who guards the gate to allow him in. The woman asks Peter if he is a disciple of Jesus’. The rock—strong, dependable, Peter—replies, “I am not.” It’s a shocking moment. He takes his place alongside some slaves and police who are warming themselves around a fire.

Then we are back to Jesus (18:19-24). He is interrogated by Annas, whose exact words and questions we never hear directly; only that he questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus defends himself by pointing to the openness with which he has taught. He urges the high priest to question those who have heard him in temple and synagogue. Then, more violence: Jesus’ answer provokes one of the temple police to strike him across the face. This is another shocking moment. The story has taken a dark and frightening turn. But still, Jesus remains resolute in his own defense. He has spoken the truth.

Our passage ends with Simon Peter (18:25-27). He is asked, again, by one of those warming their hands around the fire, whether he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Again he replies “I am not.” Finally, the high priest’s slave—is it Malchus? Does he have a bandage on one side of his head?—he tells Peter: he saw him in the garden with Jesus. Simon Peter denies it, and at that moment, the cock crows, in fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction.

Oh, Simon Peter. The rock, caught in a very hard place.

Maybe it’s because we know the end of the story: Peter, the rock, triumphant and foundational as a builder of the church. Maybe it’s because we got to see Peter in action hero mode, just for a minute, before things fell apart. Maybe it’s because I love a challenge. But I tell you, there is good news here.

There is good news in Jesus’s steadfast defense of his open and honest teaching about God. There is good news in Jesus’ own words about Simon Peter: You are Peter, the rock. There is good news in Jesus’ looking at Peter with eyes of love—and, yes, forgiveness—in advance, even before Peter has denied knowing Jesus. Jesus forgives in advance! There is  good news in this: we are not defined by our worst moments, except, perhaps, by ourselves. Oh, and, sadly, all too often, by one another. We do love to do that, don’t we? It drives our celebrity culture, our politics—search and destroy, find the thing we can harp on for four years or eight or a hundred. But I digress.

Here’s the really good news. God does not define us by our worst moments. God doesn’t even define us by our best moments. God defines us by God’s best moments. Jesus shows us a God who creates us, and looks at us in love, and calls us by name. Jesus shows us a God who, having loved his own who were in this world, loves us from the beginning and to the end. Jesus shows us a God who gives us things like strength and dependability—and creativity, and humility, every sort of thing—and then takes joy and pleasure in her creation. Jesus shows us a God who places no limit on the love shown to us—a love that is not stopped by soldiers, or stammering denials of who we are called to be, or even by a cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Love One Another": Meditation on John 13:31-18

Scripture can be found here...

Love one another, love one another, as I have loved you.
And care for each other, care for each other, as I have cared for you.
And bear one another’s burdens.
And share each other’s joys.
Love one another, love one another.
And bring each other home. [i]

It’s one of the first church songs I remember singing as a child. It’s the very first one I learned to play on guitar. (Once I could play A minor, I was home free!) I always thought it was pretty central to what we were supposed to be doing as Christians, even before I knew the exact chapter and verse, the source, the context.

We are circling back from where we were in our Sunday reading…tonight’s passage takes us back to the evening of the Last Supper, though in John’s gospel we never quite make it to the dinner table. We skip right over it to the foot-washing.

Here’s the chronology.

Jesus washes the feet of his closest friends and companions. Peter protests, but Jesus insists—if we want to be with him, we must let Jesus wash us clean.

And so Jesus washes their feet, all the disciples we have heard named in this gospel. Simon Peter is there. Andrew is there. Nathanael and Philip are there. Thomas is there. And also, that disciple who is never named, but who, we are told, “Jesus loved.” He—or she—is there, too.

Judas is there.

Then—a few verses before our passage begins—Jesus quotes a psalm, Psalm 41: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.”

Finally, Jesus—“troubled in spirit”—blurts out, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” 

So, naturally, Simon Peter gives a little nudge the disciple whom Jesus loved, who is leaning against Jesus. ‘Ask him,’ he seems to be saying. So, the beloved disciple asks: “Lord, who is it?”

Here’s what happens next:

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do”… So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night. [John 13:26-27, 30]

And then, our passage begins.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

It’s a funny word, “glory.” It’s slippery. It seems to toggle back and forth between something that we can see and something that we can feel. Glory is honor, it is distinction. It is also brilliance, beauty, magnificence.

But the root meaning of the word is “appearance.”

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been made to appear, and God has been made to appear in him.

This is Jesus’ reaction to his betrayer leaving the room to summon the soldiers. Now, now, you will be able to see God. You will see God in me, and you will see me in God.

And where I am going you cannot come…

So love one another.

It would be reasonable for us Christians to assume that the glory comes later. It would be understandable for us to believe that the glory of God shines forth in Jesus being raised from the dead, to think, that is where we see the brilliance, the honor, the magnificence, the glory that is God!

But no. That’s not the message the gospel of John has to impart to us.

We see the glory of God in the one who washes the feet of his betrayer, and breaks bread with him.

We see the glory of God in the one who is willing to die to show his love and faithfulness.

We see the glory of God in the one who is lifted high—not on the shoulders of followers, or on a golden throne, but on a wooden cross.

So, Jesus says, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Love one another by tending gently to one another, despite your divisions.

Love one another by breaking bread together, reaching across all kinds of boundaries.

Love one another, because that is how God is glorified.

So let me ask you to do this: think of a time in this past week when you chose love.

Love over indifference.

Love over convenience.

Love over spite.

I am betting everything that you did, in fact, show love within the past week. I’m betting you showed it today. Maybe within the last hour. And I invite you to give thanks for the opportunity to love, for the blessing of being able to be a blessing.

Now, think of a time when you found it difficult to love.

You were just too tired.

You were still feeling hurt.

You were deeply disappointed.

And I’m willing to bet that each of us did miss an opportunity, at least once, to show love, to do the loving thing, to get beyond ourselves and into the place where we can live out this commandment. Because, we’re human, and that is the way of humans.

And so I invite you to pray about that. Rest in the dependable, and always-there love of God, and ask help to do better.

Love one another by tending gently to one another.

Love one another by breaking bread together, reaching across all kinds of boundaries.

Love one another, because that is how God is glorified.

Love one another, love one another.
And bring each other home.[ii]

[i] Anyone who knows the composer of this song, I’d be grateful to know it.
[ii] Reflection on how loving we were this past week from David Lose, “On loving and not loving,”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Family Tree: Sermon for a Baptism on John 15:1-17

Scripture can be found here...

We have been led to believe—by things like the movies, for example—that we ought to be prepared to give our most important messages to those we love when we ourselves are close to leaving this world. But in truth, the last words people utter can just as easily be indecipherable as profound, or as easily be defiant as filled with blessing. On his deathbed Walt Disney whispered, “Kurt Russell,” and no one, including Kurt Russell, has any idea what he was talking about. When Joan Crawford’s maid began to pray, the actress snapped, “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello, said, “That was the best ice cream soda I’ve ever tasted!” But sometimes, gems can come from the mouths of the dying, words worth hanging onto. Thomas Edison said, “It is very beautiful over there.” And George Harrison of the Beatles, said, “Love one another.”

What would you say your loved ones, to sum up all the wisdom you had gleaned from your years of living? You who love JM, and have traveled to be here as we recognize her as the newest member of this family of faith, what would you tell her, if you could give her all the deepest wisdom you have learned?

In our scripture passage this morning, Jesus is doing this very thing. The gospel of John shows us a moment from his last hours, when Jesus is with his nearest and dearest, the ones he calls “his own.” And in that moment he gives them his final words, his most important knowledge, his rules for living and loving and being a part of the beloved community he has created.

Jesus tells them, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”

Immediately we have an image of something green and growing, and which, when the fruit ripens, will make something even more wonderful and delightful. And we also have an image of someone tenderly caring for the vine: making sure it is planted in just the right soil, and given the proper amount of water, and the optimal amount of sun. Someone who prunes the branches to make sure they are healthy and strong and produce the best fruit.

“I am the vine,” says Jesus, “and you are the branches.”

Jesus is talking about the family tree of the family of God.

Each of us is a product of our family. We are the product of, not only the people who gave us birth, or raised us, but of generation upon generation of people we never knew, but whose influence lives on in us. Think of the things you know you picked up from your parents—the way you pronounce words, the inflection in your voice, your tendency to get extra loud—or extra quiet—when you are mad. Then realize that your parents picked those things up from their parents, and those parents picked things up form their parents, and so on, and so on, down the generations.

The traits of our families abide in us. For some of us those are things like blond hair or brown eyes or long legs. For others they are things like a quick wit around the dinner table, or a heavy foot on the gas pedal, or the particular way they say “Good night.” The people who brought us into the world, the people who nurtured us, the people who loved us and stayed up with us when we were sick and made sure we had our hats and gloves when we left the house… these things stay with us. They become as truly a part of who we are as our fingerprints and our DNA. The people who love us into being leave a mark on us.

It is the same with the beloved community, the family of faith. “I am the vine,” Jesus says, “and you are the branches.” And that means that what Jesus has, what and who he is, he gives to us, passes along to us, and it becomes a part of us.

Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Every baby that comes into this world does so after abiding for a period of time—ideally, about nine months—in an environment that is intended to give her everything she needs to grow and thrive. To abide in Jesus is to have beautiful evidence nurturing environment of the true vine… something wonderful, beautiful, and life-giving. Elsewhere in scripture, this fruit is described as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Our culture tells us that love is a feeling—it is the jolt in your heart when you look at someone and realize, “She’s the one.” Or the melting feeling you get when that baby is placed in your arms. Or the joyful recognition when you see your brother or parent or best, best friend after a long time, the sense of homecoming with certain people. But it is equally important for us to understand that, when Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you,” it is imperative that we look beyond the notion of love as a feeling. The love Jesus is referring to here, is a decision. It is an action. “Love one another” here means, “Be kind to one another. Help one another. When someone is hungry, him them food. When someone is thirsty, give her a drink. When they are strangers, welcome them; when they are naked, clothe them. When they are lonely or sick, care for them. When they are sick, visit them.” The entire laundry list outlined by Jesus elsewhere in the gospels, plus one essential ingredient found only here, in John’s gospel. “There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are many ways to lay down one’s life. You lay down your life when you go without sleep to stay up with a sick child. You lay down your life when you choose forgiveness over bitterness and hate. You lay down your life when you go, not half way, but all the way in self-giving. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.” Our faith tells us that, even though, yes T and K chose to bring all three of their beautiful daughters to this place to receive the sacrament of baptism, the deeper truth is that this is all part of a beautiful design put in place by God long ago. God chose JM to enter into the beloved community, just as surely as Jesus called out to Simon and said, “I will call you Peter.” God chose all three of your children to be grafted onto the vine that is Jesus’ life, just as God chose them for the A and B families, and committed you all to one another’s care.

The words from today’s gospel are among Jesus’ final words of wisdom for those he loves and calls his own. He calls on each of us to love and protect and care for those who are our own. What words of wisdom do you have for one another? What is the deepest and most heartfelt truth you long to share with one another? The one we call “the vine,” the one who encourages us to “abide” in and with him, tells us to love one another. We all start there, with the gift of love from the God whose name is love. Thanks be to God.

Anointed: Wednesday Evening Medititation on John 12:1-8

Scripture can be found here...

You have to understand: every day there was a party.

Every day, beginning with the day her brother had done what no one does.  Every day, beginning with the day he had stumbled, bound in strips of cloth, out of a tomb. No. He had not been the pall-bearer. He had been the dead man at that funeral.

Now that Lazarus was alive again, every day there was a party.

The house was ever swarming with guests. Relatives. Friends. The oldest living uncle, carried by his equally ancient friends from a town miles away. All, there to celebrate. To break bread. To drink wine, which flowed as if from a miraculous, bottomless source. The house was filled with their laughter, with their songs, with the aromas of the foods that were brought in and prepared. It was like a wedding! Lazarus was alive again.

Now, many, it is true, came for other reasons. There were the hired mourners, somewhat put out that their paying gig had come to an abrupt and premature end. They came to make certain the family of Lazarus the dead man was not trying, simply, to get out of an expensive contract. And then there were the religious authorities, who had a certain gift of entering a room and draining it of all life, noise, and joy. They looked Lazarus over as if he were a horse for sale. One of them made him open his mouth to show his teeth. After they left, he’d shown them for hours, grinning, laughing, singing, and eating.

Every day there was a party. And finally, on the seventh day of celebrating, Jesus joined them.  

She had been waiting for him to come. She had known it was only a matter of time. Of course he would stop by on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover. And when he did, she, Mary, would have a gift for him.

The tenor of a party when Jesus was there was unlike the other parties. That’s because those who didn’t know him came into his presence with a kind of shyness, or wariness. He was known—he had preached in the temple and on the streets, he had performed astonishing signs and miracles. He was known as a personage of importance, perhaps a prophet, a religious leader in his own slightly off-center right. The parties would thus begin on a more somber note.

That is, until Jesus spoke. Then, something would happen to those around him… they would understand, almost immediately, that with him they were in the presence of someone utterly unlike anyone they had ever encountered. They would know instinctively, intuitively, that in him, they were in the presence of pure love.

That is what Mary wanted to convey to him. Pure love. Pure gratitude. She wanted to say, “I see you, I understand who you are and what you bring.” And so that night, at the end of the meal, as her sister Martha poured wine from a jug into cups that were nearly empty, and as her brother Lazarus leaned against Jesus, listening intently, his newborn eyes shining, Mary slipped from the room. She went to the place she and her sister slept, and took from a high shelf a jar of alabaster, holding a foolishly large quantity of oil of spikenard, the most expensive, most fragrant, most luxurious ointment she could buy. She had spent a small fortune on it. She did not care. She would have spent a thousand great fortunes on it if she could.

She carried the jar into the great room, filled with their guests, satisfied and smiling from the delicious feast and the sweet company. Her siblings both looked up at the same moment, and if they were surprised, neither of them betrayed it. For her part, Mary only had eyes for Jesus. He too was looking at her, but with another expression on his face, one she only understood later.

She knelt in front of him. She took his feet in her hands and broke open the jar, pouring the ointment on his feet. It was lavish. It was wasteful. It was irrational. But it was love.

Immediately the fragrance rose—like the incense in the evening psalm, like the prayers of the pilgrims rise up to heaven. The fragrance rose and danced around the room, and every one inhaled it and sighed at its beauty, and every eye was on Jesus, watching his reaction. He looked down at Mary.

She took a long time. She rubbed the ointment into his feet, feet that had crossed the Holy Land so many times on his journeys. Nazareth to Bethany, to Jerusalem. And back to Bethany, and then to Galilee. Countless miles his feet had walked. He had the feet of a worker, a farmer, strong and calloused, tendons showing through his brown skin. She massaged the fragrant nard into this feet as tenderly, and as lovingly, as if he were a baby. Then she lowered her head, and unpinned the great length of her thick black hair, and it cascaded down onto his feet. She began to wipe his feet with her hair.

No one knew why, but Martha was weeping. Lazarus too. Jesus’ eyes sparkled in the lamplight, but no tears brimmed over. The mood of the room was thoughtful, and perhaps somewhat confused.

Mary was not confused. Mary knew what she was doing. Mary knew the meaning of her actions. It was love. Pure love. Pure gratitude. And, she understood later, only a few short days later, it was the beginning of a wrenching goodbye.