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)”

Kosmos

Or the Epic Story Hidden in John 3:16

Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21

kosmosWe Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. There are generally two major categories that this mistake falls under. First, the limits of our language make describing God in any accurate way impossible. No word or combination of words that has ever been invented can do justice to the sublime combination of power, grace, and harmony that is our God. Whenever we say something true about God, we always have to add, “Yes, and…,” lest we think we summed up God’s character with what we said.

Second, we tend to remake God in our own image and likeness instead of the other way around. It’s true that the Genesis creation story says God created humankind in God’s image and likeness, but turning the mirror the other way around doesn’t work. God is not an old white-haired man floating on a cloud in the sky, despite Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is not like our own fathers or mothers, no matter how good and loving they were…or weren’t. Whatever good qualities we see in those we associate with holy living, those qualities are but a pale shadow to their perfected forms in God’s nature.

So because of the limits of our language and our self-centered inclination to see a drab facsimile of God when we look in the mirror, we Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. And nowhere is this mistake made more often than when folks interpret the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it just a few minutes ago. Do you remember what it is? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity around which I grew up. Throughout the years, many well-meaning friends asked me if I were saved and when I had asked Jesus to become my personal savior. At the time, I got quite irked whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back from a vantage point of 15 to 20 years in the future, I bless their efforts – they were concerned enough, after all, about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.

One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games as an alternative activity to the hedonism that resulted when the Patriots of Hillcrest High School won, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He then talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3, including the famous 16th verse, and in the end, prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul.

But while it was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. Thus, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.

But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to thinker bigger than my own personal salvation. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. (We haven’t had an ancient Greek lesson in a long time. I’m so excited!) The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on, this “fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharist Prayer C says. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.

The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos. Do you know what English word we get from this? Yes. “Cosmos.” Not just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big; that’s why it has the temerity to start, “In the beginning…” and continue with the founding of Creation.

To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating existence.

For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. Thus, the gift God gave included an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.

The second half the verse and the verses that come after invite our response. Will we walk in the light of this great love or in the darkness, where we can hide in self-imposed exile? Will we choose to do all that we do “in God?” Will we choose to acknowledge that we belong to Christ, that we wish to shine in the light of the perfect relationship of the Trinity? I pray the answer to each of these questions, for each of us, will, with God’s help, always be “Yes.”

I began this sermon saying that we often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. Even though I’ve tried to use as expansive language as I could since then, these words still fall pitifully short of their target. But the good news is this: no matter how small we make God, no matter how much we reduce God to our level, God is always and forever seeking to expand us, to excavate more space within us for God to fill. The kosmos exists because the love of God animates its existence. That existence includes you and me, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the love of God causes us to exist. And the gift of God – God’s only Son – causes us to love.

*Image: Detail from Nasa Daily Image, March 8, 2015 (Susan Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) et al., JPL-Caltech, NASA)

Choosing the Light

 (Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2012 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21)

I’d like to go to a Red Sox game and hold up a sign that says, “John 3:17.” Perhaps, a row-mate would ask me why my sign is wrong and I can say that the sign’s not wrong, but a different verse entirely. The verse after the most famous verse of the Bible says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Now, before we really get down to the business of this sermon, let’s talk about this “world,” a word John uses three times in this one verse. For John, the world is the creation that rebelled against God – the good works, which God made, but which fell into disrepair because of bad human choices. One of the reasons that John starts his Gospel with, “In the beginning,” is so we readers might make the link back to the story of creation in Genesis, in which God created the heavens and the earth. Three chapters into Genesis, things start to fall apart because of Adam and Eve’s dreadful choices.

Fast-forward to John’s time or even to our own, and the broken state of the world is evident – there’s no need to list all of the broken things in relationships or in society or in the environment (for we know them all too well). Much of the brokenness stems directly from bad choices made over and over again. And because these decisions are made again and again, they become part of the system, the machinery of brokenness, and we feel helpless in the face of a crumbling world. Nevertheless, God so loved this world that God chose to send God’s Son into the brokenness in order that he might show us what is broken. And in showing us, he gave us the gift and duty of helping him restore the broken world to wholeness.

But even though John expands the Son’s salvation to include the whole world (literally the “cosmos” in Greek), the restoration starts taking place in the hearts of God’s children – in us and ever other person who has every walked the earth. The brokenness began in the hearts of Adam and Eve; thus, the healing, the saving of the world takes hold at the origin of the brokenness, in the hearts of all people.

Just like Adam and Eve had the choice to obey or disobey God, each of us has a choice, which Jesus names using the imagery of darkness and light: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” he says. “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.”

We have a choice to stumble in the darkness or to walk in the light, to be part of the problem or part of the solution, to add to the brokenness or to participate in the healing. And we don’t make this choice just once. Rather this choice is part of every single decision we make. Every decision either pulls us back to the darkness or pushes us further into the light. Perhaps you can remember a choice you made that turned out to be the wrong one – failing to stand up to a friend’s bully or taking out your frustration on your spouse or deliberately not noticing the homeless veteran on the street or knowingly purchasing a product that was fabricated under unbearable conditions, or…or…or — the list is endless. I don’t know about you, but when I make a choice the pulls me towards the darkness, I feel just a little bit unmade, like a little bit of me has eroded away. If I continually choose the wrong path, if I continually embrace the darkness, I wonder — will there be anything left of me?

This question points to the condemnation that Jesus talks about. God does not condemn; rather, we condemn ourselves when we choose the darkness over the light. Indeed, each time the verb “condemn” happens in the middle of our passage, the word is passive. God takes no active part in our condemnation, but only patiently and constantly calls us back to the light. And I firmly believe this call is what keeps us from eroding away entirely, what keeps us from total annihilation (which is another way of talking about hell). God’s constant call back to the light gives us a beacon to turn to, a lighthouse, if you will, that can guide us through the darkness and keep us from breaking up on the rocks. God does not force us to choose the light, but rather invites us to steer toward the harbor of God’s radiance.

As we answer God’s call and choose the light over the darkness, we discover that we can be part of the healing of the world. In our own experiences of the darkness, in our own vulnerability, we find the common ground of brokenness that Christ found when he came to earth and when he was lifted up on the cross. When we choose the light, we choose to be partners with Christ in healing the brokenness of the world even as Christ is healing our own brokenness.

So how do we translate the imagery of walking in the light into our everyday lives? What does choosing the light look like on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, at the office or at school or at home? Everything comes back to inviting God into our decisions, about orienting toward the light in each choice so that we do not feel like we are being eroded away to nothingness.

Here’s one practical way to help make decisions. Margot and I have been participating in a Lenten devotional series done by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Boston. Each day, a brother of the order talks about a piece of their Rule of Life, and about how each of us can benefit in our walks with God by writing a Rule for ourselves. A personal Rule of Life helps you to figure out how to be the best version of yourself, the version that God created you to be. When faced with a choice, remembering your Rule can help you walk in the light.

Writing out a Rule for yourself could be a simple as praying for clarity about the five things that are most important to you, then writing them on an index card and trying to live with those priorities in mind. Or perhaps, you might feel called to write out a longer, more in-depth set of guidelines for how you relate to yourself, to others, to the world, and to God. I’ve been working on my own Rule, and I’d like to share a few short passages with you so you can see how I am, with God’s help, trying to choose the light.

“I will nurture my relationship with God through praying, listening, serving, and loving.

“I will love my family. I will be loyal, honest, caring, and present to my wife and our (future) children.

“I will live my life with an attitude of thanksgiving, always seeking to choose abundance over scarcity, trust over fear, and relationship over isolation.

“I will live my life with an attitude of invitation, always seeking to choose engagement over apathy, encouragement over criticism, and listening over selling.”

In each of these pieces of my Rule, God has given me guidance for how to choose the light over the darkness. Does this mean I will always choose the light? Of course not, but the Rule will help me see when I have failed and help me turn back to the right paths. I invite you to consider making your own Rule, so that you may more effectively choose light over darkness. Please come see Margot or me if you’d like guidance in doing this incredibly fruitful practice.

Speaking of practice, spring training is going on, which reminds me of my sign from the beginning of this sermon (like that segue?). John 3:17 – “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christ’s saving of this world began in his life, death, and resurrection, and continues in the hearts of all people. When we choose the light over the darkness, we choose to be part of the healing of this world, we choose to show the world that God is moving in our lives. In this witness, we bring God’s light into the darkness of this world. And do you know what happens when light is introduced into darkness? Darkness flees.

The Sweet Six Billion

(Sermon for March 22, 2009 || Lent 4, Year B, RCL || John 3:14-21)

Last week, the annual rite of spring commenced. Sixty-four college basketball teams began competing for the NCAA title. My apologies for bringing this up. I wrote this introduction before Dayton upset our own West Virginia Mountaineers. The field has been cut in half, and WVU is, unfortunately, in the wrong half. Soon, the field will be halved again, and there will be sufficiently few teams left for SportsCenter to analyze them as the “Sweet Sixteen”: only one quarter of the teams will have survived. Presumably, this fact makes them “sweet.” After this third round of games, the sportscasters will chatter on about the “Elite Eight.” A mere 12.5 percent of teams will advance to play in this fourth round, making them (sure enough) “elite.” Notice how the sports media doesn’t have a term for the first and second rounds of games; there’s no such thing as the “Snappy Sixty-four” or the “Thrilling Thirty-two.” The field just isn’t small enough to qualify for such exclusive epithets as “sweet” and “elite.”

In our society, we often associate success and value with exclusivity. Only a handful of doctors can perform that neonatal heart procedure. Only a few original 1977 Luke Skywalker action figures exist still in the blister packaging. Only a couple dozen baseball players have accumulated over three thousand hits in their careers. As a culture, we assign value to these exclusive objects and groups. If every baseball player had over three thousand hits, such an achievement would certainly not make one a shoe-in for Cooperstown.

fruitrollupvspuddingcupOf course, our society operates in this way because of Econ 101. From a young age, we are socialized to think in terms of supply and demand. If only one kid in the cafeteria has a strawberry fruit roll-up, the demand for that delicious snack will be high. You might have to trade a week’s worth of pudding cups for that fruit roll-up. The same market forces apply outside of elementary school. If OPEC cuts oil exports, you know what happens to the price.

Sadly, the exclusivity model, on which the doctrine of supply and demand is founded, has infiltrated the Christian religion. Too many Christian groups attempt to define themselves as the exclusive repositories of the faith, as the exclusive holders of the keys to heaven. If you don’t interpret the Bible exactly as they do, then you are excluded. If you disagree about the way worship is conducted, then you are excluded. If you don’t subscribe to the same set of social values, then you are excluded. This exclusion provides for these groups of Christians an illusory feeling of certitude, and, consequently, a “my way or the highway” approach to outsiders.*

Over time, a single severely misinterpreted verse of scripture has developed into the brand for such exclusivist, cliquish Christianity. We heard it this morning in the Gospel. Perhaps, your ears perked up because you recognized the verse from a bumper sticker or the television or the half-forgotten memory of Sunday School. Homemade signs at ballgames give the citation: John 3:16 in big, block letters. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Cliquish Christianity has so thoroughly branded John 3:16 that the verse rarely appears outside its exclusivist shrink-wrapping.  Here’s one plausible line of reasoning employed to co-opt John 3:16: Supply and demand teaches that for something to be valuable, it must be limited. Eternal life is valuable. Therefore, eternal life is limited. If eternal life is limited, we must figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t. Let’s see: “everyone who believes in him.” Okay, that’s seems clear enough. If you believe in the only Son of God, you may have eternal life.

But cliquish Christianity ignores two major problems with this logic. First, the major premise of the syllogism** (for something to be valuable, it must be limited) is altogether false. One of the wonderful things about God’s love and grace is their utter repudiation of basic economic theory. The counter-economics of the Gospel are well-documented. All the workers in the vineyard receive the same pay no matter how long they labored. The five loaves of bread feed a thousand times their number with twelve baskets to spare. God’s love abounds when it is freely offered, rather than becoming scarce like the bills in your wallet when you give your cash away. Likewise, eternal life cannot be limited. That’s what makes eternal life eternal.

Second, cliquish Christianity mistakes the minutiae of adhering to particular doctrinal positions for belief in the only Son of God. Disagreements about what constitutes the correct method of making someone wet during a baptism or what instruments are approved to be played in church have driven some Christians to deny eternal life to others. Such disagreements are akin to thinking that ketchup, rather than ground beef, makes something a hamburger.*** History and experience have shown that there are many paths to belief in Jesus Christ. The early leaders of the church recognized the need for four accounts of the Gospel to speak to the widest audience possible. In sixteenth century England, two competing groups struggled for doctrinal dominance, but Queen Elizabeth saw value in each position and accepted both into the Book of Common Prayer. As Christianity spread throughout the world, missionaries fused the message of the Gospel with local custom, creating unique expressions of the Christian religion.

But cliquish Christianity disregards both counter-economics and the substitution of particularity for belief. The misinterpretation of John 3:16 has become inviolable, an idol in blister packaging. And this packaging is necessary for cliquish Christians to use the verse as validation for their exclusivism. You see, the shrink-wrapping protects the sixteenth verse from all the ones surrounding it. But scripture has never been intended to be taken a verse at a time. Indeed, judging by the age of the Bible, verse numbers are downright innovative, having debuted in the 1550s.

So, let’s reattach verse 16 and see what happens: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In this context, we notice the object of God’s love: the “world.” God gave his only Son because God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. In just these three sentences, the “world” appears four times. God’s loving gift takes on cosmic proportions and comprehends the whole creation.

God doesn’t give the gift of the Son to an exclusive group of people but to the entire world. The Son is not the exclusive property of those who believe in him. He is not trussed up in the backroom, ready to be ransomed in exchange for compliance to doctrinal particularity.  Rather, those who believe in him are the property of the Son, in whose presence eternal life gushes up like a spring.

God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son to be lifted up on the cross and to die and to rise again and, in so doing, to lift us to the light of eternal life. If this sublime story of sacrifice and salvation were meant only for an exclusive few, then there’s no reason to believe it. But the world is the recipient of God’s loving gift, a gift so extravagant and precious that an exclusive few could never hope to unwrap it completely.

In our fallen society, we measure success and value by exclusivity. But in God’s family, we measure success by our ability to include. We measure value by our generosity and hospitality. We invite others to discover God’s loving gift just as we have discovered him. We welcome everyone to celebrate the joy of an abundant life illumined by the light of God’s Son. We do not play the role of the gatekeeper to God’s house, checking credentials and barring entrance. We do not play the role of the bouncer with the clipboard. Our role is simple and humbling. We go out into this world that God loves so much and we meet our brothers and sisters and we say,  “Look at the gift I received from God, this gift full of love and grace. Come and see. God offers the gift to you, too. Come and see. God gave the gift to the whole world. Come and see.”

Footnotes

* In recent years, to the detriment of the work of God in the world, various members of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church included, have exhibited a variation of these exclusivist tendencies.

** My focus group (read: my mother) advised me to remove this word from the spoken version of the sermon, which I did. But, this is technically the correct word for the context, so I figured I could sneak it back into the written version. A syllogism is an argument that has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Here’s an example: “People who use the word ‘syllogism’ in sermons are pretentious goobers. Adam used the word ‘syllogism’ in a sermon. Therefore, Adam is a pretentious goober.”

*** Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have written about this. Check out their Adventures in Missing the Point