Sunday, April 25, 2010

Plain Speaking (John 10:22-30)

The scripture reading for this sermon may be found here.

We value plain speaking, and for good reason. Clear communication helps reduce misunderstandings and get ideas across. We may disagree with what is said, but we know what we disagree with and we know where the other person stands. Pastors value it because, despite what a large number of our parishioners seem to think, we did not take mind-reading courses in seminary.

So maybe we have a little bit of sympathy at first with the religious leaders who come to Jesus with a simple request to tell them plainly that he is (or is not) the Messiah. And had we seen this group in an earlier chapter, we might understand their problem, but the truth is that they are asking Jesus a question that he has already answered. According to John, he says to them, "I have told you, and you do not believe." That's the verbal part of his answer. John doesn't say what the non-verbal part of the answer is, but I see it as a kind of "Wish I had a V-8" gesture on Jesus's part where he smacks his forehead with his hand and shakes his head.

Now, possibly these questioners are sincere. They may think that Jesus has given them some good indicators about who he is. But he hasn't closed the deal with the straight talk statement they can rally around: "I, Jesus of Nazareth, am the Messiah." So they're sincere. Stupid, but sincere. Jesus has spoken of his connection with God and he has done amazing things. If he's not the Messiah, he'll do till the Messiah gets here.

Of course, these folks may have no sincerity at all. They want to pin Jesus down to saying he is or he isn't the Messiah so they can use it against him. Everyone knows what the Messiah is supposed to do: Restore the kingdom of Israel like in the glory days of David and Solomon. Well, this guy says he's the Messiah, his opponents say, but when I woke up this morning, Jerusalem was still full of Romans and I didn't see any "For Sale" signs in front of Pilate's palace.

Jesus does give them a plain answer, even though it's not the one they ask for. "Tell us whether you're the Messiah or not." "I already did," he says. What he's done and what he's taught tell them everything they need to know to understand whether or not he's the Messiah. They don't lack information. They lack intention.

The people who accept Jesus as Messiah at this point work with many of the same understandings as the people who reject him. They also believed that the Messiah's main work was the restoration of the political kingdom of Israel. But somehow they got past that. Perhaps their picture of the Messiah was off? Maybe Jesus had a better understanding and over time, they'd see where they'd made a wrong turn? Either way, they followed Jesus because they had decided he was the one to follow, no matter what questions the evidence or their own preconceptions might lead them to have.

And this, I believe, is where we are. Jesus has told us, just like he'd told the people who followed him, what we need to know in order to accept him as our Messiah, our savior. We're even a little ahead, because we've seen both Good Friday and Easter Sunday while they'd seen neither. If we wish for some kind of irrefutable sign, we're asking for something he really can't give us, because he's shown us all the signs we need.

The religious leaders' question turned on them. Instead of getting the answer they wanted, they got a question back: "I've already told you. Why don't you believe?"

Do we believe, or do we hold back and claim we want more evidence? I think sometimes I hold back more than I'd like. Following Jesus demands changes in our lives and sometimes I don't want to make those changes, so I'll ask for proof and use its absence to justify my disobedience. If I believe, then I probably need to step out and follow what Jesus asks of me, trusting that doing so is following God's plan and what I ought to be doing.

Jesus tells his questioners that since they don't "belong to his sheep," or they aren't his followers, they don't believe. And sometimes Christians have used that idea to suggest that Jesus already picked his team and everybody else is out of luck. I choose to see that a little differently.

If I believe, then I am becoming his follower, maybe even in spite of myself and my doubts. Not because of anything I've done or any value I bring. But because no matter when I start believing, he is and always has been my Messiah.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-20)

I have, on occasion, encountered people with bad breath. But even so, I have never thought of that breath as actually murderous, which must mean that Luke is talking about something different here when he describes Saul.

He has transformed from the bystander who watched Stephen's execution to someone who actively fights this new "way" and its followers. Remember, Saul is a devout Jew who obeys all the commandments. To him, these people who try to suggest that God has some kind of "son" or that this teacher of theirs is somehow like God is the worst kind of blasphemy. The first thing he says in the morning and the last thing he says every night is the shema, the Hebrew prayer from Deuteronomy that says "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One."

To him, these people are attacking his God, and prison is the least they deserve for it. So he gets some warrants and heads out to Damascus to round some of them up who've fled Jerusalem. Along the way, he has a little problem (I know people who like to suggest that he was riding a ass, or donkey, and that the voice from the Heavens literally knocked him off his...donkey. No way to prove that, but there are definite parallels with hearing a call to ministry).

In his vision, Saul learns that instead of defending God as he thought he was doing, he was actually attacking him! He was not God's friend but his enemy. Now blind, he enters Damascus in a much different way than he had thought he would. For three days, he fasts.

Put yourself inside his head. What will happen to him now? Will the followers of this new way find him and take their revenge? Is his blindness permanent, God's punishment for his opposition to the divine plan? How would it feel to be someone who learns that the God you thought you were serving turns out to be the God you were attacking? Alone in a strange city, lost, sightless and unsure of the future he thought he had mapped out.

Across the city lives a disciple named Ananias. God appears to him in a vision and tells him to go to this man Saul and heal him. Ananias demurs, quite sensibly from our point of view. Saul has been a great threat to the followers of the Way and now, made sightless, his threat is neutralized. Wouldn't it be safer to leave him that way? No, God says. I have plans for him. Do what I ask.

So Ananias does. He finds the house where Saul is and goes to him. Now put yourself in his head. Before you is a man who has threatened people of your faith. Because of them, some had to flee their homes. Some are in prison and have lost everything. Some may even have died. And this guy, who is responsible for it, is right in front of you, now sightless and his threat removed.

Do you have second thoughts about what God told you to do? Do you maybe think you'll do what God asks, but after you pop the guy one on the snoot for all your pals whose lives he's messed up? Sure, Lord, I'll lay hands on him all right...

Whatever Ananias thinks, he does lay his hands on Saul, but in healing and welcome rather than vengeance and violence. The first words from his mouth are "Brother Saul." I believe that Ananias' actions gave Saul his sight, but it was those words that truly healed him. To be welcomed by one of the ones who you'd have had marching back to Jerusalem in chains, to be called "brother" by him? I think that worked the miracle of healing on the guilt-wracked, crushed spirit of Saul.

And I say that knowing that when I give myself a performance review on this issue, I am not happy with the results. I'm too often someone who wants to win the fight between me and someone who thinks differently, rather than someone who wants to win the soul. We Christians have that awesome responsibility when we discuss the gospel with someone. We live in faith that we have been accepted by God when we didn't deserve it, and that the events we marked just two weeks ago -- the resurrection of the Lord -- bears out our faith and assures us we are right.

If we have the right answer on a quiz we're right on some issue of policy or fact, then obviously the point of discussing that with someone is to demonstrate our correct thinking. Teachers don't take votes on how to solve quadratic equations.

But this right answer involves much more than simple accuracy. It involves a relationship with God that God gave us despite how little we deserved it and which God offers to everyone else on the same conditions. If Ananias had his debate with Saul about the correctness of Saul's theology, he would have won. If he had pointed how how many ways Saul got things wrong and how wrong he got them, he would have won. But Ananias did not do those things. He offered the healing that God directed him to offer, and he welcomed Saul as a brother in Christ.

And to paraphrase Paul -- Harvey, that is -- you already know the rest of that story.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Not Any More" (Isaiah 65:17-25)

One set of movies that will get my family parked in front of the television is the old Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers.

Sellers plays Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the French Sûreté, or national police. He is a bumbling idiot, and the slapstick stunts of the movies made us kids laugh while our parents chuckled over the more adult-level humor of some of the situations and dialogue. In a climactic scene in one of the movies, Clouseau has gathered all of the suspects in the "mer-der," as he calls it, in a room in the house while he spins his theory of the crime, just like in an Agatha Christie book.

At some point, he manages to get his hand stuck in the gauntlet of a suit of armor. He can't get it off, so he continues to lay out how the "mer-der" was committed with it still on his hand. As he builds to his accusation, he forgets it's there, and in making his point, he slaps his hand down on a piano. But it's the hand in the heavy metal gauntlet, which means he destroys the piano. All of the others are stunned.

"My God, man," the house's owner says. "That's a priceless Steinway!"

Clouseau looks at the ruined piano briefly, then turns to the owner. "Not any merre," he says.

That phrase comes to my mind when I consider this passage from Isaiah in light of the events of Easter. We call this one of the "peaceable kingdom" passages of Isaiah, which describe what life will be like when God restores creation to the state for which he intended it. Lions will lie down with lambs, carnivores will turn vegetarian, bacon will be good for you, and so on. I may have made that last one up.

Isaiah's speaking to a people exiled from their homeland, who have seen a lot of war, violence and destruction in their lives. The vision he has of the coming day of the Lord brings about a land without violence and the dislocation of the exile. People will enjoy the results of their own work, and they will live long, happy lives. Just as he had earlier warned of the consequences of ignoring God's direction, he now speaks of the reality of God's steadfast love for his chosen people and for all creation. The people's ignorance brought about their destruction, but God's love will bring about their restoration.

How does this connect to Easter? What does it say for us, who call ourselves "Easter people?" After all, we celebrate a risen Lord and we say that the event which changed everything has already happened! But realistically, we can look at the world and we know that there's plenty of wrong still going on. People still get sick, and they may suffer for some time before being cured or passing away. People still take advantage of each other, and many times they get away with it. People are sad, even to the place where they consider living any longer a worthless act. Misery remains in this world, Easter people or no.

And even Jesus, when he came into this world, managed to change only a very small number of things. Yes, he healed people, and yes he taught them how to live in ways that would help them and benefit the weakest among them. Yes, he offered a new way of looking at people that focused on love of God and of others instead of love of only self. Among the people who followed him, there probably were some changed lives for the better.

But it was such a short time and he reached so few people in his little corner of the Roman Empire. Pilate had no idea who he was and it's a sure bet Cæsar never heard of him. Plus, whatever he managed, there was one thing he couldn't conquer: Death. No matter how much else he might have accomplished, he could be and was stilled by the force at the disposal of those who opposed him.

And we, Easter people, face the same reality. Even if we follow to the letter every teaching of Jesus and even if we were to somehow convince all people to do the same, we would still have to deal with the reality of death. Of the end of life and of the separation it brings.

We can push death back some. Modern medicine gives us the possibility of a length of days reached by only a tiny few in earlier times. We could give up french fries and live longer -- of course, who'd want to, but we could do it. But we can't eliminate it. Death comes to us all.

If you want to put faces on the forces of oppression, and sickness, and misery and sadness and hate and anger and all of the things Jesus came here to oppose, you might imagine them gathered round on that Saturday, mocking the people who gave their lives over to following the Galilean preacher.

"Yeah, you guys did real good. Healed people and taught them to love one another and help each other out. Pushed us way back, away from your lives so that you might even forget we were around. For awhile, anyway.

"Because we were just hanging back, playing with you. We had the big gun waiting, old death himself. Couldn't push him away, could you? Kick oppression to the curb, show sorrow the door, give anger and hate their walking papers, sure. But you still dance with Mr. D. And that takes care of all your good work. Death's on our side, and death has the final say."

And then Easter morning dawns and says, "Not any more."