Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2023 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42
(Part Two of Sermon Series on John 3:16 – Part One)
Last week we talked about God loving the kosmos – every nook and cranny of creation – into being. We focused on the first six words of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world.” The next few words tell us what God does because God loves the world. And that’s what we’re going to focus on today.
For God so loved the world that God gave…
Let’s just pause there for a minute. Let’s pause on that verb “gave” and appreciate the truth that Jesus shares about God. God loved creation so much that God gave. God’s love propels God’s gift-giving. This giving expects nothing in return. This giving is free, not earned or purchased. This giving is an outpouring of God’s love, which is the only thing God’s love ever does. God’s love pours out; it spills from a wellspring that never runs dry; it gushes up like living water, bringing new life to creation.
This sermon is about the danger of fundamentalism, but it’s going to take me a few minutes to get there. I need to start like this: something’s going on in the Church in Corinth. We don’t know exactly what because we only have Paul’s side of the story. But we know that within a few years of its founding, fractures have appeared between the church’s members. Later in the letter, Paul references a few issues that divide the people: issues around what to eat, issues around who is most important in the church, and issues around which spiritual gifts are the best. Paul addresses all of these before culminating in his great poem about love – you know, “Love is patient, love is kind,” etc.
But here at the beginning of the letter, Paul talks about another type of division that goes beyond the ideological. Paul has heard that the members of the Church in Corinth are assigning themselves to camps based on certain individuals. There’s Paul. There’s Apollos, who was another church planter in Paul’s orbit. There’s Cephas – that’s Simon Peter. And there’s Christ.
Okay, I’m going to get in the weeds here for a minute. Fair warning. I promise it’s important.
God created us to be beings of love and trust. We all start out that way, at least, but pretty soon the world teaches us a lesson I wish we all had the opportunity to unlearn. The world teaches us to fear, to be afraid of so many parts of life. This makes sense, because the world contains a lot of frightening things. When I was a kid we did not have active shooter drills in school like my children do now. Then the massacre at Columbine happened my sophomore year of high school, and school shootings have been a terrifying element of American society ever since. This fear is ever-present in my mind when I drop my kids off at school, hovering right below the resurgent pandemic.
Fear has a way of debilitating us, of shrinking us down and holding us hostage. Thinking about fear this week, I also had in my mind Jesus’ words from the Gospel lesson I just read. Those words started seeping into my consciousness. And I noticed that Jesus had sidled up right next to my fears and made them seem very small in comparison.
Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2020 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42
The Samaritan woman leaves her water jar behind, rushes back to the city, and says to anyone who will listen, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” That’s a pretty astounding statement given the conversation she has just had with Jesus by the well. Many biblical scholars chalk it up to her excitement – the exaggeration is forgivable because of the encounter she just had with the Messiah. Others say that, given her station, she needs to exaggerate in order to be taken seriously. I think both of those ideas miss the point of the story entirely because they start from the premise that the woman is not being a reliable witness, is not simply telling the truth.
Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 || Easter 5B || John 15:1-18
My family moved around a lot when I was a kid. Before the age of twelve I had lived in eight different houses in five states. When we arrived in Alabama right after Christmas in 1994, my parents promised my sister and me that we wouldn’t move again until I finished high school seven years on. I smiled and nodded, but the whole time I was thinking, “Yeah, right. I’ll believe that when I see it.”
I simply had no frame of reference for remaining in one place more than three years, which was my previous best. I wasn’t great at making friends because my experience told me I would be leaving them soon, so what was the point. I had to adapt to numerous new cultures and speaking patterns. Notably, when I moved to Alabama I had to amend every statement with the words “sir” or “ma’am.” If I had said either in my prior home of Rhode Island, adults would have thought I was sassing them. It was very confusing.Continue reading “God’s Abiding Presence”→
Sermon for Friday, March 30, 2018 || Good Friday || Passion According to John
Way back in Chapter Four of the Gospel According to John, we hear Jesus use a particular phrase for the first time. The phrase is special for it links Jesus’ identity to the divine identity of God. This one little phrase is just two words long, with only three letters among them. The phrase is “I Am.” In Chapter Four, Jesus says these special words to the Samaritan woman at the well. They’ve had a long talk about living water and where to worship, and their conversation ends with Jesus revealing to her his divine identity, saying, “I Am.”
These two little words reveal his divine identity because of their link to a famous passage in the book of Exodus, in which Moses meets God in the burning bush. God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. To gain some credibility, Moses asks to know God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. Jesus echoes this name many, many times in the Gospel of John, beginning first with the Samaritan woman.Continue reading “I Am. I Am Not.”→
Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42
Recently, a few dozen parishioners of St. Mark’s blessed us all with their meditations on Bible passages found in the Lent issue of The Lion’s Tale magazine. Their work got me thinking about biblical interpretation in general and that fact that such an adventure is not reserved for clergy alone. Anyone can be an interpreter of the Bible, though I am aware that most people do not feel equipped to do so. So today, I’m going to give you a crash course on interpreting the Bible, as at least a place to start: Ten Handy Guidelines for Interpretation (or HGIs for short) that we will derive from the Gospel story I just read. There’s a bookmark in your program that lists the Handy Guidelines, and I invite you to stick it in your Bible when you get home. You ready? Here we go.Continue reading “The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51
It’s great to be back with you after three weeks away. I spent much of my vacation traveling to Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Tennessee. I visited a friend going through an agonizing medical issue and reconnected with an old friend from college. I got to shoot a bow and arrow, which I haven’t done since I earned the archery merit badge about twenty years ago. And I got to hang out with the now one-year-old twins and their mother a lot. It was a good vacation. But I’m glad to be back with you ready to preach a sermon about six of my favorite words in the Gospel. Those six words are: “I am the bread of life.” Embedded in these words are three things that so often dance beneath the surface of what Jesus says: a promise, an invitation, and a mission.
But before we get to these three things, we need to mention one of the idiosyncrasies of the Gospel according to John. In John, Jesus desires to tell everyone exactly who he is. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he is more circumspect about his identity: he keeps it secret for the most part, preferring instead to let others draw their own conclusions when they witness his actions and hear his words. But John’s Jesus keeps no secrets; instead, he presents truth wrapped in deep mystery and captivating imagery. The enigmatic quality of some of Jesus’ statements can make it seem like he’s keeping secrets, but the difference between secret and mystery is that secrets want to stay hidden and mysteries want to be revealed.
John lets us know of this desire for revelation right from the start with these poetic lines: “The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known” (1:14, 18 CEB). With these two beautiful verses of poetry, John presents Jesus’ task. Jesus Christ – God the only Son, the Word made flesh – came to make God known to us by making his home among us. By revealing his own identity, Jesus reveals God’s identity, and when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.
Jesus signals when he is disclosing this divine revelation with a pair of code words: “I Am.” He says these words a couple dozen times in the Gospel according to John, and each time they hearken back to God’s encounter with Moses at the burning bush. When Moses asks God for God’s name, God responds, “I Am Who I Am.” Jesus borrows these words in his conversation with the crowd the day after the feeding of the five thousand. Their minds are still on yesterday’s bread, so he runs with that image. “I am the bread of life,” he says. These words are so much greater than mere metaphor; they reveal a piece of Jesus’ divine identity. And remember: when we encounter this revelation, we discover who we are, too.
To make this discovery, let’s return to the three things dancing beneath the surface of Jesus words: “I am the bread of life.” There’s a promise, an invitation, and a mission all squeezed in those six words. First, the promise.
Jesus links his identity as the bread of life to his people’s communal memory of the flight from Egypt many hundreds of years prior. Reading Exodus Chapter 16, you might notice how the people begin complaining to Moses about their hunger as soon as the threat of the Egyptians has vanished. If the situation weren’t so dire, it would be comical: the moment the threat is gone, they realize their stomachs are rumbling. And then the histrionics start: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt…You’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death” (16:3 CEB). Of course, God has other plans and begins providing for them immediately with manna that appears like dew six mornings a week. Each day they collect enough to sustain them for that day, and they receive a warning not to store up the manna for tomorrow because it will spoil. They had to trust the manna would appear the next day, too. And you know what? It did.* That’s the promise Jesus makes when he names himself the “bread of life.” He promises to be the daily source of nourishment for his people, as the manna was during the wandering in the desert.
We receive this daily nourishment when we respond to Jesus’ invitation. As he talks to the crowd, Jesus tries to move them away from focusing on their physical craving for the barley loaves they received the day before and toward a deeper craving – the desire for relationship. When we take in the “bread of life,” Jesus becomes a part of us, as close to us as we are to ourselves. He invites us into the intimacy of this relationship, a relationship built on daily trust that we stand in his sustaining presence whether or not we have the eyes and heart to notice it. Think of the manna clinging to the grass like dew. How easy would it have been to trample right over it, too caught up in our hunger to notice our nourishment all around us? When he says, “I am the bread of life,” Jesus invites us to stop, to notice, and to take him in.
Because we’re not too good at that stopping and noticing, the church ritualized this taking him in. We call it Holy Communion, and when we come to the altar rail in a few minutes, we’ll find that Jesus’ promise and invitation have blossomed into our mission. We kneel together as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. We are knit one to another and all to God through Christ who dwells in us as we dwell in him. We rediscover that we are stronger together than we are alone. The “bread of life” provides us nourishment in order that together we may become nourishment to a hungry world. In the book of Genesis, God blesses Abraham to be a blessing – not so that he can be rich and famous and secure – but so that he will be a blessing. In the same way, our relationship with Christ, our reliance on his sustaining presence, is not for ourselves alone. We are blessed to be blessings, as well. We are nourished to be nourishment.
When we encounter Jesus’ revelation of his identity, we discover who we are, too. Our identity is wrapped up in the promise, invitation, and mission Jesus reveals when he says, “I am the bread of life.” By naming himself the “bread of life,” Jesus promises to sustain us like the manna in the desert. By eating of his bread, we accept the invitation to be in relationship with him. By sharing it together, we participate in the deeper reality of being members of the Body of Christ. We remember we’re not in this alone. We remember that God calls us to serve and to be served. We remember that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. That is where our true identity finds its home. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus promises. “Come to me. Be fed so you might feed others. Be blessed to be a blessing.”
* Well, there was one day a week (the day before the Sabbath) in which they collected two days worth so they didn’t have to work on the Sabbath. But explaining that in the sermon would have wrecked my flow.
Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-44
The prayers have all been prayed. The farewells to the deceased have all been said. The dirt has been cast on the shining, glossy coffin. The low murmur of voices mingles with the whisper of the wind through the long, cemetery grass. The new widow rises from the velvet-covered folding chair, the triangle of the blue field and white stars of the American flag peeking out from under her arm. A line of black-clad people forms, and they begin to file past her. You watch her receive with grace each well-meant, but well-worn sentiment. You join the line, and soon it’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come.
I’m sure each of us has been in this position. Some of us have also been on the other side of it. Sometimes words tumble out before we have a chance to catch them, to measure them, to reflect on how they will be heard. Other times, we have no words, and we trust that the fervent squeeze of the hand or an embrace will communicate what we want to say. Most times, the language of embrace is more potent and effective than the language of words.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus and Martha converse near the grave of her brother Lazarus. They’ve both lost someone: Martha, a brother; Jesus, a friend. Indeed, the Gospel doesn’t describe too many individuals specifically as ones Jesus loved, but Lazarus is among the honored few.
Martha speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We could interpret Martha’s first words as an accusation or as a statement of faith. More than likely, they are (as is so often the case) a combination of the two. Since her sister Mary echoes these same words a few verses later, we can assume Martha and Mary had spoken them to each other in the four days since Lazarus died. “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus would still be alive,” they might have whispered to each other. And then I imagine, “Why didn’t he come?” And then, “I heard he’s on his way,” followed shortly by, “What took him so long!”
In any case, Martha says these words to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Such a statement had probably reached the status of well-worn platitude in that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ statement in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But here’s where Jesus changes the rules of the standard funereal conversation. He stretches out his hand, places it on Martha’s cheek, gently raises her head so their eyes meet. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he says. And for those few words his voice rings like a well-struck bell, and the truth of them resounds deep within Martha’s soul. I AM the resurrection and the life.
You may recall last week, we discussed how frequently Jesus employs this sentence structure in the Gospel According to John. When he states I AM, he reaches back to the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush. Moses asks God for God’s name, and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus echoes these words in the Gospel, he reveals a piece of his own divine identity.
“I AM the resurrection.” By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death occurs. But death is not final. Yes, life ends. But new life – life in some superlative form – emerges because of the power of the promise of Christ’s resurrection. I do not know what this new life looks. I cannot describe it to you. But because Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection,” I believe he will be there, continuing to call us into full and complete relationship with him. Only then, in the power of the resurrection, we will truly be able to reciprocate and join him in that full and complete relationship.
Martha understands the truth of the promise of this relationship. Notice how she answers Jesus’ next question. He asks: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Here Martha replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in the world.” By saying she believes in him, Martha affirms her relationship with Jesus. And Jesus, unwilling to let such a relationship ever end, offers her the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
So the promise of resurrection, which Jesus builds into his very identity, is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And that sounds like a pretty good definition of heaven. In their conversation near the grave of Lazarus, Martha and Jesus reaffirm their desire to be together. Their words are a verbal embrace that points to the eternal embrace promised by the power of the resurrection.
And so we return to the windswept cemetery, to the widow holding the crisply folded American flag, to the receiving line filing past. It’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come. And you remember Jesus’ conversation with Martha. You remember Jesus’ promise to remain in life-giving relationships with all who desire them. You remember his resurrection proclaims this triumphant promise.
And you realize that Christ is already calling you into such a life-giving relationship. You don’t have to wait for your own death for such a relationship to begin. You can practice it everyday in your interactions with other people as you speak words of life and grace and blessing to them, as you discover the presence of Christ in them, as you seek to deepen your relationships with them.
You open your mouth to speak to the widow, but no words come. And so you resort to the language of embrace to communicate this desire to demonstrate how important your relationship with the widow is to you. You put your arms around her, and now your mouth is by her ear. Now something prompts you to speak. “I love you,” you whisper. That’s all you need say, if you say anything at all.