Monday, March 27, 2017

Now I See

John 9:1-41
Lent 4 March 26, 2017

We have a lot of characters here:
We have Jesus, the disciples, the neighbors, the Pharisees,
The identified patient in this story.
Their disregard of the man,
To bring the saint and the sinner together into one body.

the man’s parents and of course, the man born blind.

We have healings in the other Gospels, even the healing of
blind man in a similar way, with mud and spit,
but here again, we have John’s gospel commenting on those healings,
and looking deeper, John’s story is asking
“what would the people around the healed say about this healing”
“How would everyone react” and
“what does this tell us about God and Jesus?”

Man Born BlindBrian Jekel
The man in the story 
is blind in the literal sense,
but it seems like everyone else in the story are the ones who can’t see.

When the disciples come across 
the man born blind,
They don’t say, “Can we do anything to help this man.”
They don’t talk to the man himself who is sitting right there.
They ask, “What caused this man to be blind? Was it has sin or his parents?”
They assume  that if someone is born in such an unfortunate circumstance,
it has to be evidence of God’s displeasure with them.
They ignore the man and use him as a theological object lesson,
they can’t see the man, they don’t talk to him, they talk about him.

Now this blind man has certainly been
around this town his whole life
It’s the same town his parents live in.
People didn’t move around like they do today.
And his parents say he is of age, so probably 15 – 20 years or so.
But they don’t seem to know his name.

And after he’s able to see,
the neighbors who have passed him every day
for the last couple of decades, hardly seem to recognize him.
Remember, towns were small, neighborhoods were small
It’s not like there were bunches of people to keep track of.

And yet, these neighbors can’t really say for sure
they call him, “the man who used to beg.”
They don’t believe it’s him, even though he says, “It’s me”.

They probably don’t know him because
they never actually met him before.
they probably walked over him, ignored him, cursed
at him for being in the way,  or having the nerve to ask for money,
at him when they were having a bad day,
it probably made them feel better to tell him he was a sinner.
But they never actually saw him. They were blind to him.
And they still can’t see him now.

And there’s the Pharisees,
The religious people.
 Jesus has just healed a man – an amazing miracle –
no one should argue that.
But they can’t see the amazing miracle.
They can’t see it because it was Jesus who did it,
and they think Jesus is a bad guy because he’s not following their program,
He healed on the Sabbath and they count that as bad.
So they ignore the man who was healed, and they curse the one who healed,
and just argue amongst themselves.
The man tells them exactly what happened,
but they are so preoccupied with their own beliefs,
that they can’t see a miracle of God when it happens in front of them.

Then there are the man’s parents
they don’t seem very parental at all.
They don’t seem too happy that their son
has just been given his sight back.
And they keep distancing themselves from him
it says because they were afraid.
They were so afraid, that they can’t see
their own flesh and blood, and his joy
because all they can see are the problems he is causing them.
The man is the one who was called blind,
but the other people in this story are the ones who
were really blind.
They are each so convinced, so set in their ways,
that they could not see what was there in front of them.
They were blinded by their apathy, their religious convictions,
their preconceived notions, their fear, their prejudice.

The only person who can really see in this story
is the man who was born blind.
He sees the Pharisees for their self-righteousness.
He can see that Jesus healed him,
And he sees that anyone who could restore his sight
must be sent from God.

Jesus doesn’t just heal a person in this story,
In this story, Jesus shows us that
the people who think they can see might very well be blind,
and the ones called blind might actually see.

This is the way it is with us.
So often, we are sure and confident in what we know
that it’s hard to see, it’s hard for things to get through.
It’s hard to see something new. it’s hard to put aside our experience
and our preconceived notions and prejudices and see new things.

In my previous church,
we did some mission work in Honduras.
Other people had been there many times, and I went there twice.

When everyone first goes there, it’s jarring to American eyes.
All you can see is poverty, how messy it is, dirty,
there’s lots of garbage on the side of the road,
there’s smoke in the air from burning garbage,
Most of the children we knew weren’t able to go to school after
Middle school because they couldn’t afford the uniforms
and transportation.
The school in the village where we worked would close
for weeks at a time without much reason.
The children were running around the village, mostly without shoes.
The situation is similar in El Salvador for those who have gone.
And most everyone’s first reaction when we got there
was that everything needs to change.
How do we make it more like the US?
They need to adopt our systems, our way of life.
We need to help these people.
We almost wanted to take all these kids home with us to the US
so they can live a “better” life.
So they can learn our better ways, and be like us.

And no doubt, the poverty in Central America can be crushing,
and lots of people do opt to come here to get out from under it.

But after a few days in Honduras, the Americans started
to notice some things:
The children were always outside.
They always had unlimited friends around them.
They had no video games or computers or TV’s
so they were always playing something creative and inventive
They were generous and kind with one another.
The teenagers were engaged with the little children,
helping them and teaching them
When we did sit down and teach the children,
they were enthusiastic and eager to learn.

And the adults in the village didn’t just know their neighbors,
they depended on each other,
they shared everything  food, clothing, free time.
They had real community and didn’t even have to try to have it.
After a while we were seeing that their lives had blessings
that Americans often longed for.

Our eyes had been opened to see the reality
of their situation and more importantly about our own.
At first, we them as unfortunate,
and saw ourselves as the blessed ones,
with our clean, wealthy, upwardly mobile society
But then we saw that there were other blessings that
were not that obvious it’s not all about what you can see.
That man who was born blind  was not cursed by God.
His blindness was an obstacle, but it wasn’t the main problem.
Like so many people with disabilities, it’s the community’s
reaction that was the main problem for him.
their underestimation of his intelligence
their unwillingness to help him get along.
It wasn’t his blindness.
Even after he gets his sight, he’s driven out of the community.

God is not here to bring blessings and curses on people.
God is here to open our eyes to one another.
Jesus is not here to divide people.
Jesus is here to bring people together.
And sometimes that means opening our eyes to our own
shortcomings, and failures, and blindness.

Jesus means to bring the blessed and the unblessed together.
He is here to bring everyone into the circle together.
To bring the light to the darkness,
and to help each of us to really see each other as Children of God.

That is the real healing that Jesus brings to all of us.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Living Water

John 4:5-42
3rd Lent
March 19, 2017

We know from other cultures who still
go to wells to gather water,
that gathering water is something that is usually done
by women and girls, and 2
that getting water was is a communal activity.
Most of the women come to the well at the same time
and they use that time to talk and share
information around the task.

And we also know that most people who do this,
do it in the morning so they wouldn't have
to carry a heavy load in the heat.
And they would want to use the fresh water for the day’s work.

But this woman came out alone to the well,
And she came at noon in the heat of the sun,
when no one else would be there.
All we know is that she is alone at  a time
when most people didn’t spend much time alone.
Maybe she was avoiding the other women.
Maybe they had made it clear that she was not welcome
into their circle of friends.
Woman a the Well
Guarav Suri
Maybe they had made judgments about her life and her situation.

Even today, in our permissive culture,
we still make our own assumptions 
about this woman at the well.
Jesus points out that this woman 
has had five husbands.
He doesn’t tell her to repent 
or to change her ways, 
or that she should be ashamed 
of her situation.
But lots of preachers today feel obligated 
to place their assumptions onto this woman.

Some say she was a hopeless romantic,
maybe she was loose, or a seductress.
Maybe she can’t hold a relationship together long term.
One modern, Christian preacher actually called her a
“a worldly, sensually-minded,
unspiritual harlot from Samaria”
That’s some projecting there.
That probably holds more information about the preacher
than about this woman at the well.

The truth is, there is no evidence for any of those things.
From what she or Jesus says, or what we know about
marriage and women during Jesus time.
Women didn’t have many choices when it came to marriage,
and marriage choices had little 
to do with romance, or sex, or love.
It actually probably wasn’t her choice at all.

The most likely reason might have been that her husbands
had died and she bore no heirs to carry on the man’s lineage.
In that case, she would have been passed on to her
husband’s brother, and another brother,
until she had a child, then it would be called 
the child of the first husband. 
It was called a Levirate Marriage,
it was practiced in many patriarchic societies
and it is outlined for Jews and Samaritans
in the book of Deuteronomy.

This most likely isn’t a story about an impetuous woman
who can’t control herself. It’s more likely a story about a woman
who has been shuffled around by the system,
has been shunned by her community and left alone.
And she’s a woman and she’s a Samaritan
There are many levels of judgment
and prejudice that this woman wears.
But  Jesus still comes to talk to her.
Now, Sometimes we find that the gospel of John
seems to comment on things that were said in the other gospels. 
In each of the three gospels, in Matthew, Mark & Luke,
the Saducees ask Jesus a question to trick him.  They say:
"Teacher, Moses said, 'If a man dies childless, 
his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.'
25  Now there were seven brothers among us; 
the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother.
26  The second did the same, so also the third,
down to the seventh.
27  Last of all, the woman herself died.
28  In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be?
For all of them had married her." 
This is obviously outlining a Levirate marriage

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the Sadducees
basically, that their question is ridiculous
that God is the God of the living, not the dead.

But John’s gospel is not interested in this theological minutia
at all. John’s gospel is interested in the anonymous woman
that the Sadducees are asking about.

When faced with a woman who is married five times,
passed around passed around from man to man,
The Sadducees would have asked
- Who’s possession is she?

But Jesus shows us that the right question is posed to her:
Woman, aren’t you thirsty?
Don’t you want something that lasts forever.
Love that won’t die or leave you alone
or give up on you or go away after a little while?
At this point in your difficult life don’t you need
God’s love, acceptance and grace?
Don’t you want living water?
That’s the question that Jesus would ask about a woman
who was shuffled off from husband to husband.
Jesus would find the woman and talk to her,
and engage her in her own theological conversation.

We live in a world that can be cold and unforgiving.
That can be sterile and hurtful we live our lives in systems 
in this world that doesn't care who you are,
where people are a checked box, a string of numbers,
a statistic, a vote, a dollar amount, a credit rating,
And if you don’t fit neatly into one of those categories,
you can be left behind to suffer alone.

And Christians have sometimes been the worst offenders
We have tried to cram people into our cold theological
judgments and rules. 
We’ve done it with gays and lesbians, people of color, 
with women, with divorced people,
unwed mothers, people with mental illness, 
the poor and homeless, 
We find someone we don’t know
anything about and call them
 “a worldly-minded sensual harlot”

But we can’t forget the power that
we claim to witness to: God’s love is stronger than anything.
God’s love has the power to overcome any obstacle that is
put in front of it, even if the church puts it there.
We can’t forget that God’s love
is the spring of water that gushes up to eternal life,
The water that we can drink and never be thirsty again.

Christ is the living water,
and in him we are given the power over and over again,
to die to our old selves and rise again.
To die to our past, whatever was done by us -- or to us,
and rise to a new life a new reality.

But it’s not like those life experiences are just washed away.
They are transformed.
What the world counts as an insurmountable obstacle,
God counts as a benefit, God uses it to reach others.

Jesus offered the Samaritan woman
the living water of God’s love.
And afterwards, this woman leaves her water jug
goes to the center of the village that has brushed her aside
and tells them that she has met the Messiah.
And she is believed.

She dies to her old identity:
the woman with five husbands.
And now she has a new identity:
“The Woman With Five Husbands!”
The woman with a fascinating past and
a first-hand story of God to share.

She goes into the streets and tells everyone,
“Look this is the one. He told me everything about myself!
He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”
She is the first evangelist. The first preacher.

And just as Jesus came into this woman’s life
and transformed her, so it is with us.

The body of Christ -- the love of God incarnate -
comes up to us at our well. Where we stand alone.
Across all of our obstacles and burdens.
Through whatever we’ve done or had done to us
and reminds us, that that is not what defines us.
What defines us is God’s love.

The living water--God’s love—has the power to transform us.
In it, we can take our past and to those things
that once held us back, and use them
as a testament to God’s love and grace.

And now our past is an asset, a strength a witness.
This is how we die to ourselves and rise with Christ.

This is how God gives us new life.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rainbow Man

John 3: 13-17
Lent 2
March 12, 2017

“For God so loved the world
that he sent his only son
so that everyone who believes
in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s a wonderful message to remember.
This is one of the few lines from the bible
that people might be able to cite
the chapter and verse of: John 3:16.
A lot of people know what you’re talking
about just by saying that.

I believe that for many of us, that credit is not due
to our Pastors or Sunday School teachers,
that credit is due to Rainbow Man.
You remember Rainbow Man?
Rainbow Man, Rollen Stewart

If you’re not old enough to remember,
Rainbow man was at almost every sporting
 event in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
He would wear a rainbow wig and
wear a shirt or hold up a sign that
Just said “John 3:16” on it.

He has found himself in the lexicon
of American pop culture parodied on the
Simpsons and Saturday Night Live and others.

Rainbow Man’s real name was Rollen Stewart
Even though he didn’t like sports,
he found that he could get on TV at sporting events
and thought that would be a good way to
get the message of Jesus out to the public.
His first major appearance was at the 1977 NBA Finals;
and by the time of the 1979 All-Star Game,
he had been at so many major games, that
broadcasters were actively trying to avoid showing him.
He appeared behind NFL goal posts, behind home plate,
near Olympic medal stands, and behind the final putt
at major golf tournaments,  
he would strategically position himself for key shots of plays or athletes,
by carrying a portable television with him to games.

Rainbow man made me look up John 3:16
when I was a teenager
in our dusty not well used family bible.
I had seen him on the news and I didn’t know
what John 3:16 said.
And I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

It’s a beautiful message,
“God so loved the world.”
it is the Gospel in a nutshell as Luther called it.
The good news for everyone.

What a great message for Rainbow Man to
share over and over again on TV.
The story of God’s faithfulness,
God’s ever present love for this world.

And if the Rainbow Man story ended there,
it would be a great testimony, but it doesn’t end there.

After the  1986 at the World Series, Rainbow Man’s
wife left him, she said, because he tried to choke her
 because she held up one of the John 3:16 cards wrong
at a World Series Game.

Then in the later 80’s, Rainbow man was angry with what he thought
was the spreading of a false gospel message,
So, he began a string of stink bomb attacks.
His targets included Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral,
the Orange County Register and the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Finally, in 1992, his popularity was waning and he was not seen on TV as much and
he was angry about the country’s
rejection of the message of Jesus that he brought,
so Rainbow Man tried to get his name back in the news .
Posing as a contractor, he brought two
day-laborers into a vacant hotel room
and attempted to hold them at gunpoint.
He surprised a cleaning lady and
he drew the gun on her and she locked herself in the bathroom.
Eventually a SWAT team was called in and there was a standoff.
During the standoff, he threatened to shoot at airplanes
taking off from the nearby Los Angeles Airport,
and he covered the hotel room windows with "John 3:16" placards.
Everyone eventually got out alive, but now
Rainbow Man is serving three consecutive
life sentences in prison on kidnapping charges.

Later, in 2008, still in prison, he said he doesn’t regret it.
It was a crime that he was called by God to do
to prevent greater harm:
The harm of America rejecting Jesus.

Why am I telling you this story?
It’s true and interesting, that’s for sure.But I also want to tell you this story because
it shows that a person can vehemently believe
in the doctrine and follow Jesus and still not understand.

You don’t need a pastor to tell you that something
is wrong with Rollen Stewart’s interpretation of the message of Jesus.
he got the words right, but the point was completely wrong.

And this has been the problem with the church’s interpretation of Christianity for almost the full 2000 years of its existence.
The church has believed that it’s most important job is conversion.
Believe in things and doctrine about Jesus and call yourself Christian.
The most important part about Christianity is having more Christians.

The more subtle question of Christianity has been,
“are you on our side or not?”
Are you now one of us, or are you still one of them?
Christianity has become a religion of “them and us”.
Which is the opposite of what Jesus intended.

Being “born again” has become only about
Confessing Jesus Christ as your lord and savior
and going to the right church, subscribing
to the right doctrine, and then going out
to convert other people.

“Love your neighbor, and love your enemy”
has turned into little cartoon pamphlets that tell you
how you’re going to burn with the devil,
and billboards with threats of Hell on them.

There’s not too far to go for Rainbow Man to go
to be convinced that he had to set off stink bombs
and kidnap a couple of people and shoot down planes
to achieve the goals of Christianity.
As he saw it, he was saving people’s souls.

I was watching a documentary about
a family tracing it’s heritage as slave traders in
Rhode Island. They went to Ghana to see
where the trade originated.
The trade was begun and run by Christian Missionaries.
There was a five room dungeon where they kept
thousands of captured people that they were
preparing to ship to the West.

And on top of the dungeon was a church,
and the first thing they did to these soon to be slaves,
before they put them in the dungeon
was to baptize them and give them Christian names.
They convinced themselves that they were doing these
African people a favor by making them Christian,
slavery was just a by-product of the gift of saving their souls by force
You don’t need a pastor to tell you what’s wrong with that either.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to really understand,
that he must be born again, of the water and the Spirit.
Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend.
He was trying to understand Jesus
in a systematic way, a logical way.

But to be born again is not just a confession,
not just a thing you say or do, it’s not just a set of facts.
To be born again is to truly understand God’s love
and have it work through you and in your life.
To be changed by it. To be born again is to
let God’s love transform us.
And that doesn’t leave room for threats or coercion, or even exclusion.
God’s love doesn’t leave room for “Them and Us”.

Jesus objective was not to make more
converts to his religion.
Jesus objective was not to make
more of us so that we can overpower them.
 If that was the objective, then kidnapping people
would be a perfectly fine method.

Jesus objective was to reconcile the world,
to bring “them and us” together
so that we can all be us.
God so loved the world.
The whole world.

The Spirit goes where the Spirit wants to go
The wind goes where it will.
and works through whoever the spirit wants to work through.
Christians and non Christians,
believers and non believers.
It’s not contained by our religion, or our doctrine, or rules
or our specifications.

And to be “born again” is to know just that,
and to be united with God’s unfailing love for this world

To be “born again” is to have every
part of our lives changed by God’s love.
I believe we are all still on that journey
with Nicodemus, waiting to be born again,
and to fully live into that love that Jesus revealed.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son,
so that we would not perish, but have eternal life.”
God loves all, and there is room in that love for everyone,
no matter where we’ve been or we’ve done.

There’s even room in that love for Rainbow Man
and for every other soul who has lost their way,
and broken the law, and sinned and hurt other people.
There is room in that love
 for every single one of us together.