The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)

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)”

Promise. Invitation. Mission.

Sermon for Sunday, August 9, 2015 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51

promiseinvitationmissionIt’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.

The Language of Embrace

Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-44

goingtobethanyThe 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.

*Art: Detail from “Maria, sister of Lazarus,meets Jesus who is going to their house” by Nickolai Ge, 1864.

Christ be with Me, Christ Within Me

(Sermon for Sunday, August 12, 2012 || Proper 14B || John 6:35, 41-51)

I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid. Last week, I was excited to go and see the new Batman movie. But then a self-proclaimed Joker – Batman’s chief enemy – calmly walked into a midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado and filled the theater with tear gas…and then bullets…and then dead bodies. Fear – and grief for the victims and their families – replaced excitement, and I haven’t darkened the door of a movie theater since.

This week, I was excited to come to church to celebrate communion and praise God with all of you. But then a white supremacist calmly walked into a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and filled the temple with bullets of his own…and more dead bodies. Fear – and shock and more grief – once again replaced excitement, and I would be lying if I told you that I feel completely comfortable right now exposed like I am in this pulpit. I don’t know about you, but these last two weeks, I have felt afraid.

And so, as I sat down to write this sermon, fear was on my mind. And I started wondering just why fear is so debilitating. And as I wondered about that, the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel started seeping into my consciousness. And I found that, while my fear didn’t evaporate just like that, someone had sidled up next to the fear and made the fear seem very small in comparison.

But I get ahead of myself. First, why is fear so debilitating? Well, fear has a way of unmaking us. When God created you and me, God made our default position one of loving and trusting. Think of the toddler who will go up to any stranger and say, “Hello.” Then think of the frantic mother who grabs the child by the wrist and yanks him away. Or here’s another example. While on vacation, I met my two-year-old cousin for the first time (which was a real treat, let me tell you) and within half an hour of meeting me, he was flinging himself into my arms from the top platform of the playground. God programmed us to love and trust, not to fear.

So when fear inevitably takes hold, the fear overrides our initial programming. Love and trust move down the list of conditioned responses, and we are no longer the whole people that God intended us to be. Fear motivates people do all sorts of things, the kind of things that unmake us. Some people hole up in their bedrooms never to venture into the world. Some lie to their parents about where they’ve been. Some never settle into mutual, meaningful relationships. Some cheat. Some bully. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. And some go on shooting rampages through temples containing people who look and think differently than they do.

Fear is so debilitating because fear keeps us from being the people God made us to be. Fear hollows out our identity as God’s children. Fear replaces the loving and trusting identity with one that longs to isolate and control. When our identities are tied up in fear rather than in God, we lose who we are; we lose ourselves because there is nothing sustaining or life-giving about fear.

When we feel fearful, when we feel like we are being unmade, what is really happening is that we are losing our connection to our identity as those loving and trusting children of God. And this where the words of Jesus begin seeping into my mind. This is where we make the turn and place Jesus next to the fear and notice how small the fear seems in comparison.

Jesus spends much of his time in the Gospel according to John telling people who he is. His identity is a subject that crops up every other chapter or so, and Jesus signals to us that he is talking about his identity with a special coded phrase. He says the two simple words: “I Am.” But these two simple words carry a lot of weight. By saying “I Am,” Jesus essentially quotes God’s words to Moses. At the burning bush, God gives Moses the mission to free the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moses wants some insurance to let people know he really met God, so he asks for God’s name. “I Am Who I Am,” says God. When Jesus borrows this phrase, he reveals to his listeners and to us his divine identity.

Jesus uses these “I Am” statements over a dozen times in the Gospel according to John. Two of them happen in the story that runs the length of Chapter Six, a part of which we read this morning. I’ll get to the first one in a moment, but before that, let’s talk about the one in our passage today. “I Am the bread of life,” says Jesus. With these words Jesus reveals a piece of his divine identity.

As followers of Jesus, our identities are wrapped up in his. When he discloses a piece of his identity, we discover a piece of ours. When he says, “I Am the bread of life,” he invites us to imagine what bread can tell us about God. Bread nourishes us, just as being in relationship with Jesus nourishes us. Bread in the wider sense of food sustains life, just as through Jesus (as “the Word made flesh”) all life has come into being.

But this is no normal, everyday metaphor. I might say my wife’s smile is the sun on a rainy day, but we all know her smile is not actually the sun. Jesus doesn’t idly compare himself to bread. Jesus is the “bread of life.” Normal, everyday food and drink will satisfy for a time. But eating the food of the bread of life brings us into relationship with Jesus, who is that bread. One of the Eucharistic prayers says this beautifully, praying that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and [be] made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”

In the Eucharistic meal, which we will share in a few minutes, we take Jesus in, and the Bread of Life opens our eyes to the wonderful reality that his presence surrounds us and penetrates us always. The wonderful hymn known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” describes this ever-present reality:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

When Jesus reveals that he is “the bread of life,” he invites us into the reality that his presence sustains us wherever we are and whatever has happened. This is part of his divine identity, and our identity finds a home in this sustenance.

Whenever fear debilitates us, whenever fear threatens to unmake us, Jesus Christ is there sustaining us, nourishing us so that we can continue on our way, surrounding us with his steadfast presence. We were not made to fear, but to love and trust. The more we rely on the sustaining presence of the Bread of Life, the less of a foothold will we give to fear.

I told you that I would mention Jesus’ other “I Am” statement from an earlier part of this morning’s story. The night before today’s lesson, the disciples row across the sea in their boat. But a storm comes up and threatens to swamp them. Then they see Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water. And do you know what he says to them? He says: “I Am; do not be afraid.”

Eternity happens

The following post appeared Saturday, September 19th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

‘Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” ’ (John 8:58)

You can always tell when Jesus says something truly sensational and scandalous because people respond by searching for rocks to fling at his head. The eighth chapter of the Gospel According to John contains four instances of Jesus saying, “I am,” which is one way Jesus imparts his divine identity to his listeners. Out of the four, only the final one elicits such a stony reaction, while the first three build to the climactic iteration. The escalation begins slowly when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). Next, Jesus says, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am” (8:24). Then, a few verses later, he says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am” (8:28). Each of these statements of his divine identity flies right over the heads of his opponents. But then the conversation intensifies. Jesus says they are from their father the devil. They think he may have a demon. He says no one will see death if they keep his word. They are sure he has a demon. He says Abraham rejoiced to see his day. Now they know that he’s crazy—he’s not even fifty! How can he have seen Abraham?

YHWHThen Jesus knocks their socks off with his most dangerous statement in the whole Gospel: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” This time, no one mistakes his meaning. No one asks him to clarify his words. They understand the full significance of saying, “I AM.” They know God said the same thing to Moses when Moses was brash enough to ask God for God’s name (Exodus 3). But underneath the shocking nature of Jesus’ statement is a subtler point (ultimately missed in the search for stones) about how our eternal God interacts with a finite creation.

Jesus’ “I am” statements in the Gospel According to John are revelations of God’s very being. Because of the simplicity of the sentence (just a subject and a verb), “I am” is as close as language can get to universality and eternity. Since we live in a temporal world, eternity is an impossible concept for us to wrap our heads around. Eternity is not “endless” time; nor is it the framework in which time finds a snug fit. In eternity, before and after are undefined and the only when is now. (The previous sentence makes no sense, of course.)

When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he uses our language to express the eternal nature of God. He does not say, “I was before Abraham was,” which is the grammatically correct way to articulate the thought. Instead, his  “I am” (while functioning in our world as a present tense construction) is really a representation of the eternal tense. In eternity, I AM is the only sentence that makes any sense at all. In other words, eternity happens. It didn’t start and it won’t stop because the notions of beginning and ending are thoroughly temporal. And eternity happens because God is.

We run into trouble when we expect God to exist in the same way we do. Our minutes tick by one after another. For every one of our actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. Objects fall at a rate of 9.8 m/s2. But those are our minutes, our reactions, our gravity, and they all rely on linear experience. When Jesus says, “I AM,” he reminds us that God created linear experience, and thus is not beholden to it.

When we stumble into God’s presence, we encounter eternity making utter nonsense of time. Time ceases to matter because eternity overrides the rules of linear experience. That’s why it’s so hard to say how long we feel the presence of God. We feel that presence in moments, not minutes. When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” he pushes us to relinquish our need to order events when God is concerned. God exists in eternity, which just happens.

Footnote

* If you read my last contribution to EpiscopalCafé in conjunction with this one, you might deduce two things: (1) I like to use Holy Scripture to discuss spirituality and (2) I seem partial to the Gospel According to John. These deductions are both entirely correct. As a member of the Millennial generation, I am attracted to the Fourth Gospel’s combination of mystery and revelation. If you have a group of Millennials in your church (right now, that would be your middle schoolers through your college students, give or take) who huff and sigh and roll their eyes every time you pull out the Bible, try some passages from the Gospel According to John. You might encounter fewer glazed looks and drool-flecked chins.