I Am. I Am Not.

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.”

Listen for Truth

Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Christ the King Year B || John 18:33-37

listenfortruthI find it ironic that the framers of our lectionary chose the Gospel lesson I just read as the one for today. Today is the feast we call “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” And yet, for the entire length of his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? “So you are a king?” You say I am a king. But if Jesus is king of anything, if Jesus claims to reign over anything in this passage, his kingdom would not include land or crops or livestock or resources. His reign would be over “the truth.” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

A truth kingdom. I like the sound of that. Would that we lived in one of those. But for anyone who’s ever heard a joke about politicians, you know the punch line always involves untruthfulness of some sort. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t out and out lie most of the time, but they are masters of prevarication, obfuscation, and equivocation, that’s for sure. We’re used to this behavior from our political leaders; so used to it, in fact, that when a politician stumbles into a genuine moment, we’re amazed and we start asking if it were staged.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus seems to be engaging in just such an impressive display of political obfuscation. Perhaps he’s trying to meet Pilate where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth, but we’re so used to prevarication that even the truth sounds false. If that’s the case, I’d like to try something this morning. I’d like to try to rehabilitate the truth simply by speaking Jesus’ truth to you. Truth has a special ring to it, and I hope you hear its crystal clarity this morning. There will be no prevarication or obfuscation. But there will be mystery; after all, the truth is too big for us to understand completely. Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.

Are you hungry for more? Not for more stuff, more possessions, more things to clutter your house. Not for prosperity at the sake of others’ poverty. Not for more empty calories, the white starch of idolatry and self-deceit. There are so many idols out there scheming to fill you up, but you’ll only be left craving. There’s so much fear to gorge on, but fear will just leave you hollow. Are you hungry for more? For more meaning? For deeper connection? For sustenance that truly sustains? Then listen to Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

But I still have dry times, Lord. I believe, but I still feel empty more often than I’d like. How can I trust your words when I feel like this?

I know how you feel, says Jesus. I felt desolate in the garden of Gethsemane. I felt abandoned on the cross. I know it can be so hard to hear my invitation when you feel lost in the desert. But I’ve been lost there, too. I’m lost there with you right now, so that you may be found. Listen again to my invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The desert I can handle, Lord. At least it’s bright there. But sometimes I look out at the world and all I see is darkness. There’s so much darkness, and I’m afraid there’s a shadow growing over my soul, too.

One time, says Jesus, I was looking out over the city of Jerusalem, and the tears just started flowing. Another time, my beloved friend died, and all I could do was weep. I know what it means to be a light shining in the darkness: a flickering flame that might snuff out at any moment. But have you ever seen a ray of darkness? There’s no such thing. Have you ever seen the darkness of a hallway flood into a bright room when the door opens? No. The light wins every time. The light will always win. As for the shadow growing over your soul, make sure it listens to my words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

The light of life, Lord? How could I ever be worthy of such a prize? I spend too much time in darkness to deserve the light of life.

Nonsense, says Jesus. Do you think anyone has ever been worthy of the gifts God gives them? Do you remember that story I told about the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it? He came home penniless and ashamed, and what did his father do? His father ran out to him! His father could not wait another second to rekindle their relationship even though the son didn’t deserve it. Don’t be paralyzed by unworthiness. My love makes you worthy of my love. So listen to my truth, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But it can’t be all about me, Lord, can it? You helped so many people in your life, but up to now I’ve just been concerned with myself? There’s got to be more.

Oh, there is more, says Jesus. So much more. When you realize I am with you, you’ll also realize I’m with everyone else. And with that realization will come the desire to serve others as you serve me, especially those who are poor and lost, those who are my special project. You’ll find joy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. You’ll find joy in welcoming the stranger. You’ll find joy in clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Do you want to know the truth? Listen to this: “Just as you [served] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [served] me” (Matthew 25:40).

Okay, Lord, so I live my life serving others, being a light in the darkness, and finding refreshment in your arms. But I’m still going to die someday. And I’m afraid.

I understand, says Jesus. I was, too. I even prayed to be spared, to let the cup pass from me. I can’t promise you a life free of pain. I can’t promise you a death free of pain, either. But I can promise to be with you in the pain of life and death. If you love others as I love you, then pain is inevitable. But so is joy. In the end, there is nothing but love and joy. Or should I say the new beginning? Listen to my truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. 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?” (John 11:25-26)

Yes, Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.

A truer prayer has never been uttered, says Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So listen for my word in your life. Listen for my truth. Live my truth: For “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

The New Version of Me

A Good Friday Meditation; John 19:31-42


2015goodfriImagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus appears at the end of the Passion Gospel reading, as well as two other places in the Gospel according to John, both of which are referenced in what follows.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came to my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for the old version of me to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? When will the light return?

Updated from a piece I wrote for Good Friday, 2009.
Art: Detail from The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt, 1634

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 3)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the last of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Three

I shut the door behind me, and the noise of the crowd dies away. What do they expect me to do? They didn’t even offer an accusation, and they want this man dead. If they just wanted him dead, someone could have knifed him in the back. No, they don’t just want him dead. They want a spectacle. So they come to me. They think they can manipulate me into complying with the whims of their high priests. We’ll see about that.

I open the door again and motion for Jesus to be brought to me. He enters the chamber and immediately fills it with his presence. I feel the same way I do when my commander comes for an inspection. “Are you the king of the Jews?” I ask, and an ounce of wonder escapes my lips with the words.

He replies with his own question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

I feel suddenly put on trial. I take a step back; indignation replaces wonder in my voice: “I am not a Jew, am I?”

He is really from a different kingdom, he says. His followers would be fighting if he were from here, he says. The nation I am governor of has no bearing on him, he says.

“So you are a king?” I am perplexed, but at the same time I am conscious that my office does not allow for vexation brought about by a local celebrity.

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

His words hold such power. They linger in the air, catching the morning light that is streaming in the window. I want to believe what he is saying, but a lifetime of orders and spears and pavement and paperwork and…holds me back.

He stands in front of me, hands clasped as if in silent prayer. I look into his eyes and they reflect the words, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I slump down, back to my desk, knees bent. “What is truth?” I say. It is a plea more than a question. I bow my head, upset that I let my emotions show in front of this Jew. My vision begins to mist as tears build in the corners of my eyes.

Get a hold of yourself. You are the governor. You are in charge, not this delusional freak. I sling my head back and whack it on the desk. My head clears. The tears are gone. I look up and see a hand reaching down. My eyes narrow. I do not need your pity, I think. Knocking his arm away, I pull myself up and stalk out of the room, without a further glance back at those eyes or those hands.

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 2)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the middle of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take Two

I slam the door open so hard that it crashes into the mantle, sending a vase toppling. I catch the vase in midair with both hands and look at my warped features in the curved, glazed surface. Red splotches have broken out on my cheeks and neck. I grit my teeth, spin, and fling the vase at the far wall. It shatters, satisfyingly.

My personal guard comes bolting into the room, sword drawn, at the sound of the crash. He stops and stands dumbly when he sees that I am alone. “Bring me the prisoner,” I say, chest heaving.

I stand with my back to the door. I lean with my knuckles on the desk, hands clenched in fists. I hear the door open slowly. Without turning, I say, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answers insolently, questioning me when I am the one asking the questions.

“I am not a Jew, am I?” I say, half mocking, half enraged. I always have trouble with locals this time of year, but this is as bad as I’ve seen it. I feel justified in my rage and it feels good. When will they learn that we are in control? “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

I hear a sound and whip around to find Jesus bending over the broken vase. He is holding a flower. This is too perfect, I think, as my ire grows stronger. This dove thinks he can play with the lion. He has no idea who he is dealing with. I stride over to him, snatch the flower, and snap its head off. I can play with him and those meddlesome priests at the same time: I can expend my anger in sport.

Then he babbles something incoherent about his kingdom. “So you are a king,” I shout, throwing my hands in the air.

“You say that I am a king,” he says, quietly. His calmness threatens to diffuse my anger. I won’t let him. He continues, as I pace around him, stepping on the broken vase and flowers with each pass. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

He finishes. I grab him by the shoulder and spin him around, grasping his garment in my left hand and pulling him close. We are nose to nose. His expression is one of mild surprise. There is no fear, not even concern in his eyes. Why isn’t he afraid of me? Why is he so calm?

“What is truth?” I don’t shout it. I don’t scream in his face. It comes out as a bellow, almost a growl. I push him away and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind me.

What is truth? — Pilate in three takes (take 1)

As mentioned in the footnote of the last Bible study (“Don’t just read it”), the following post is the first of three that explores different interpretations of Pilate’s question “What is truth.” Using the ancient Jewish practice of Midrash (in which scholars took the stories of scripture and expanded them to reach new insight and new interpretive depth), I have attempted to get into Pilate’s mind on that fateful day before the Passover. Think of these posts as “takes”  — a film director asking an actor for different emotions over the course of shooting a scene. These different angles help us interpret Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18:33-38. After reading all three takes, decide which you think is persuasive. If none is, write your own!

Take One

I beckon for Jesus to follow me inside, and then I ask him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He won’t give a straight answer, but I can tell he believes what he says. There is no hint of fever or delusion, just honesty. But I have learned from long experience in the politics of the Empire that there is a difference between honesty and truth. “So you are a king?” I press.

He looks at me for a moment, considering his response. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

I lean back on my desk and cross my arms. This man really, honestly believes what he is saying. There is no trace of deception in his face. He is playing the game and playing it well; his answers are both vague and cryptic, but neither seditious nor treasonous. I try to keep my face from betraying my internal skepticism, but I am sure my right eyebrow rises.

“What is truth?” I say. I say it flatly, so that there is barely a question mark at the end of the phrase. I can’t help but add a bit of sneer to my raised eyebrow. What a ludicrous proposition. He thinks he is on a mission to testify—to die—for the truth?

The truth? I don’t even think there is such a thing as truth, let alone a singular, definite truth. There are too many lies masquerading as truths out there. There is a chain of command in this Empire and that means there is a chain of lies, as well. I can lie to everyone beneath me, and they have to believe what I say is truth. And I am sure my superiors lie to me, but what am I to do? Consider it truth: that’s all I can do. Yes, there are too many lies out there masquerading as truths to think I can nail down any one single Truth.

My skepticism leaks out of my raised eyebrow and my sneering mouth. He knows I couldn’t care less for his truth. I just need to make sure I still have a job tomorrow. Truth. Lies. These things don’t matter. Keeping my position and my head: those are my concerns.

Still, nothing he has said makes him guilty. I stand up straight, look Jesus in the eye for a long moment, and then sweep past him on my way to talk to the locals again.

Don’t just read it (Bible study #7)

If you take the vast sweep of Christian history into account, far fewer people have read the Bible than have heard it read. When the New Testament was still just a collection of letters and a few strange things called “Gospel” (say from about 50 to 325 CE), specially trained performers recited entire letters and books from memory during worship. In the middle ages, the majority of people never heard scripture read in a language they could understand and probably wouldn’t have recognized a book if it fell on them from a scriptorium window. Even as the Reformation gained steam and the printing press made vernacular versions of the Bible available, most people heard scripture, but never read it. The “family Bible” didn’t become fashionable until the 18th century, and even today churchgoers hear more scripture than they read (no matter the ubiquity of the Bible online and on store shelves).newsies

What’s this have to do with biblical interpretation? I’m glad you asked. The texts that make up the Bible were always meant to be read aloud. Acts 8 makes this quite clear: Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch and knows he’s reading the prophet Isaiah because he is reading out loud. To himself. Follow the eunuch’s example (no, not that example). Read your passage out loud. I know you are reading a translation, but the beauty and rhetorical power of the biblical text do not necessarily suffer in an English treatment. When you read aloud, you will notice oratorical patterns and cadences that the Biblical writers employed to make recitation easier and listening more captivating.

Try this one on for size: say the following two verses in your mind and then say them out loud. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).

Notice the oratorical power in the repetitive cadence. This is called a “step argument”: each phrase builds on the previous one until the sentence climaxes on the word “glorified.” Paul obviously wrote this sentence to be spoken rather than read. So there’s no point in studying these verses as “written.”

Besides appreciating the oratorical flair of Biblical writers, reading aloud gives you the opportunity to engage the drama of the Bible. A good chunk of the text is narrative and a good chunk of the narrative is dialogue. Now, we have no audiovisual documentation of the conversations recorded in the narrative, so it falls to us to interpret how the dialogue sounds.

Let’s take Pilate’s response to Jesus as an example: “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38). How does Pilate say, “What is truth?” Is he angry? Is he skeptical? Is he desperate? Each of these readings offers a different insight into the mind of the Roman governor. If you take reading aloud seriously, the dialogue will force you to make interpretive choices of tone, emotion, and motive. I’m not going to lie. Practicing a text for performance is an awesome way to enter into an interpretive mindset.*

A trained musician may be able to “hear the music” when she looks at a score, but most of us cannot comprehend music’s beauty and power without hearing it played. Similarly, the Biblical text soars when it is read aloud. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. When we read the Bible aloud, we access that creative voice within ourselves and use the breath and the bodies that God created.

So, read the Bible, yes. But don’t just read it. Speak it. And don’t just speak the Bible. Proclaim it.

Footnotes

* The next few posts on this blog will expand this discussion of exploring dialogue in the Bible by presenting a three part Midrash on Pilate’s statement “What is truth?” Stay tuned.

** I want to thank the writer of the first comment on this post. Reading scripture aloud during worship is the main way people are exposed to scripture. Knowing that, we’ve got to make sure our lectors are trained and know what they are reading ahead of time. Too often, (for various reasons) priests are running around five minutes before services looking for people to read. Reading scripture aloud is too important for that to be the norm.