Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cosmic Stories

John 12:20-36
March 18, 2018
There’s a lot going on in the world these days. So much tugs for attention, and it’s so easy to give in to distraction. It can all be overwhelming. I can’t quite imagine what Jesus must have felt like at the point of the story we catch up with this morning: he’s in Jerusalem – John’s account of Palm Sunday immediately precedes the passage we just read so we’re slightly out of sync here on the fifth Sunday of Lent. But that’s OK.
The crowds are growing, pressing in on all sides, and then “some Greeks” show up, apparently curious about the man at the center of the storm that was blowing through the city threatening that most frightening of all human conditions: change.
They just wanted to come and see for themselves. I think a lot of folks who flocked toward Jesus wanted to see something different from the way things were. But at this late date, the texts suggest, Jesus was beyond “come and see.”
If you recall, that phrase, that invitation, was how Jesus called the first disciples in John’s gospel. Jesus simply asked them, “what are you looking for?” And then said, “come and see.”
Some Greeks were looking for something, and they approach Philip, to whom Jesus had said, back in those simpler early days, “come and see.”
Philip, apparently a good Presbyterian, decides to form a committee. He goes to Andrew, to whom also Jesus had said, “come and see.” One imagines Roberts Rules emerging from the conversation between Philip and Andrew: “I move that we take the Greeks to see Jesus.” “I offer the substitute motion that we take the idea of the Greeks to Jesus.” “Shall the substitute motion become the main motion?” “So ordered.”
So, the ones who had heard, “come and see,” basically tell the Greeks, “sit and wait.” Then they go to tell Jesus about the Greeks.
Then things get weird. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And off Jesus goes.
This convoluted tale raises several questions that resonate for us:
First: Who gets to show Jesus, and how? Second: Who gets to see Jesus? And, third: what time is it, really?
Answering that first question – who gets to show Jesus – is one of the daunting challenges regularly poorly met by the organized church. That is to say, the institutional church has struggled for millennia to determine who shall be authorized to proclaim the gospel, to, in essence, show Jesus to the world.
The largest single part of the institutional church – the Roman Catholic part – has determined for centuries now that only unmarried, celibate men can be credentialed to show Jesus to the world. The Protestant part of the church, from its earliest days, opened the way for married men to become clergy. John Calvin, for example, was married during his years in Strasbourg, and he, along with many other early Reformers railed against the imposed celibacy of the Catholic priesthood.
If you think about that for even a solid second, you’ll see clearly that a religious movement grounded in the priesthood of all believers cannot long survive a celibate priesthood.
That, of course, was far from the final struggle over who can be authorized to proclaim the gospel by the institution of the church. In the past century, the Protestant church has struggled, schismed itself to pieces, and step by excruciatingly slow step authorized first women, then GLBTQ persons to be ordained to church offices.
Of course, even this extremely abbreviated side-trip through the history of ordination ought to raise for us the broader question of what it means to show Jesus to the inquiring world. That is to say, if “some Greeks” show up in our midst asking to see Jesus, how would we show them?
Last year I got to have lunch with Bishop Gene Robinson, and I’ll always recall his simple observation: people come to us seeking an encounter with Jesus and, instead, we give them the church.
I want to spend a couple of minutes in conversation about how we show Jesus to the world, but before we get to that, I want to touch briefly on the second question I raised earlier: who gets to see Jesus? That is also to ask, “who are these Greeks”? In the text, “some Greeks” is likely the author’s shorthand way of referring to the Gentile world, to the wider world beyond Jesus’ Jewish milieu, and certainly outside of his smaller circle of followers. That would have been a typical use of “Greeks.” For our purposes, we might say “some unchurched folks” or “some nones” – that’s N-O-N-E-S “nones,” as in those who check the “none” box in surveys asking about religious affiliation – dropped by and asked to see Jesus.
How would we respond? How do we show Jesus to the world? To begin with, it’s good to keep in mind the line that we print in the bulletin every single Sunday that names the ministers of the church. I’ll give you a couple of seconds to find that line ….
So, we share a common conviction that whatever it may mean to show Jesus to the world such ministry is our shared responsibility. We also understand, as the passage from Hebrews underscores, that Jesus offers the model for us to follow as the “high priest” of this priesthood of all. So, how do we do this? How do we show Jesus to the world?
* * * * *
That’s a fine beginning of an answer to the first complicated question: who gets to show Jesus and how do we do it? As to the second question, who gets to see Jesus, it is possible that the author of John also intended that “some Greeks,” in addition to representing the wider Gentile world, also represent folks most interested in the philosophical/theological question: who is Jesus?
Jesus response – “the hour is getting late” – suggests that the more pressing question is my third one: what time is it?
One could read the entirety of the gospel of John as a meditation on that question and on the nature of time. After all, the text starts with: “In the beginning was the Word,” and it ends with what I like to think of as the library at the end of the universe: “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
In between, the author regularly includes references to time in setting the stories he does tell, and while Jesus is not in as much of a hurry in John as he seems to be in Mark – where everything happens “immediately” – he still knows the answer to that fundamental question: what time is it?
In the text this morning the answer is clear: the time for coming and seeing has past. Now it is time to come and follow.
Jesus understands the moment in terms of God’s time, Kairos time – it is a time to decide. That’s what makes this a cosmic story, a story the scale of the cosmos. Recall that in perhaps the best-known single verse in all of Christian scripture – John 3:16 – kosmos is what God so loves. The whole of creation – all of space and time, for now and for all time.
Jesus is concerned with cosmic questions because he understands the fierce urgency of now.
We tend to live our lives as if the steady tick-tock of the hours provides a comforting rhythm to the gentle flow of endless time that will always include us, until we wake up to the reality of our present time. The details of present disruptions to anything like a “gentle flow” is way too long for one Sunday morning, and even a simple list would take more time than we have.
In that context, the name given to next weekend’s action to reduce gun violence strikes me as perfectly appropriate to this moment: the March for Our Lives.
The kids providing the driving energy to respond to the massive disruption that gun violence is in America see time the same way Jesus did. It’s too late to come and see; it is time to stand up and follow.
There’s a reason they didn’t call the action next Saturday the March for Marginal Improvements to School Safety or the March for Incremental Changes to Gun Laws. They are marching for their lives.
We might want to keep that name in mind with respect to so much else that makes our time so fraught. After all, when we stand up to do justice, when we lean in to love with kindness, and when we walk humbly with our God, then we are marching for our lives.
When queer folks and allies flocked to the steps of the Supreme Court prior to marriage equality hearings, we understood that we were marching for our lives. When women organized people around the world last January, we understood that we were marching for our lives. When people of color and allies rose up to oppose white supremacists in Charlottesville last August, we understood that we were marching for our lives. When the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship joined Fossil-Free PCUSA to organize the climate justice walk from Louisville to St. Louis this June, we understood that we would be marching for our lives.
“Marching,” of course, is a metaphor, standing in for all that we do to strengthen and celebrate life in the midst of a culture of death, to create and sustain beauty in the midst of the ugliness of our time, and to build bridges of welcome to the immigrant and stranger when the powerful ones would prefer to build walls. When people come asking to see Jesus, if we want to show them Jesus, let us say, “come and follow; we are marching for our lives.” Amen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Salvation Stories

Number 21:4-9; John 3:1-17
March 11, 2018
I got a cold call a while back from a young man wanting to tell me about his call to ministry with a conservative evangelical outfit that I’ve known about since I was a teenager in what folks often call “the buckle on the Bible belt.”
I’ve gotta say I had three immediate reactions to the invitation, and none of them were charitable:
First, I thought, “I am not remotely interested in what you’re selling.”
Second, I thought, “I am still not remotely interested in what you’re selling.”
And third, I thought, “why is the Eagles’ Peaceful Easy Feeling running through my mind?”
I pondered that third one for a bit before recalling that when I was an undergrad there was a guy who used to hang out in the student center at Kent State with his guitar at a table for this same evangelical ministry and that was the only song he knew.
So I had these uncharitable thoughts, and then sent him back a note saying, “sure, I can grab a cup of coffee with you.”
I mean, I’ll meet with most anybody if it involves coffee.
But, seriously, I accepted his invitation for a couple of reasons, and coffee wasn’t even on the list!
First, he’s a millennial who wants to talk about faith, and while I am 100-percent certain that we see almost the whole of Christian faith and life and theology from vastly different perspectives, I am also 100-percent certain that the Mainline Protestant enterprise in general, and our little piece of it in specific, must learn how to be church differently, so I am open to unexpected conversation partners who might have something to teach me about parts of the culture that remain foreign to me.
Second, I am always open to hearing someone else’s experience of faith, someone else’s passions, someone else’s salvation story.
Ultimately, that’s the heart of the matter: salvation stories.
Though the common thread in our two readings today would appear to be the phrase “lifted up” and all that those words suggest about the crucifixion, at their heart, these two texts are salvation stories. Taking them as such can broaden our understanding of such stories, and expanding our understanding of salvation is one of the crucial next steps for the church.
For our overly narrow understanding of salvation place limits around much that is not ours to limit, including, first and foremost, the grace of God.
Developing a more expansive understanding of salvation comes with growing a more expansive understanding of church, and while that clearly calls forth important, significant, creative theological work, it calls forth first important, significant, and creative practical, relational work. That is to say, when we broaden our understanding of church we will also broaden our understanding of God.
I’m not going to say that it couldn’t, in principle, be the other way ‘round. That is to say, I can imagine that a broader understanding of God leads to a broader understanding of the gathered community of faith, but that’s not the way I’ve seen it happen, and it’s also not really the model that scripture describes.
The horizons of the people of Israel expanded as they wondered in the wilderness for 40 years. Their sense of themselves and of God grew in the wilderness. It wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t all nice and polite, either.
The people spoke against God; they spoke against their own leaders. They bitched and they moaned. “Why have you brought us out here to die, alone, in the wilderness? The food it terrible. And there’s never enough. And what’s with the weird snake thing anyway?”
Nevertheless, they persisted. They journeyed together, and along the way, against all odds, they built up the resilience that survival as a nation would require.
They lived into their identity as a people called out by God. They found wholeness and well-being. They discovered the meaning of shalom, and in it they found their salvation.
Salvation is a fascinating word, with roots related to health and wholeness, and a general meaning quite similar to shalom. I am fond of the way Barbara Brown Taylor writes of it:
“Salvation,” Taylor says, “is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human being in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.”
The evangelical Christians of my youth had one salvation story: you needed to profess your faith in Jesus Christ as the only son of God and that was the only way to salvation. John 3:16 – famous for showing up on posters at sporting events and billboards along roadside – sums it up: 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.Salvation” meant eternal life, and eternity only began to count after this earthly life ended. Thus the ubiquitous billboards asking, “if you die tonight do you know where you are going?”
“Uh, the funeral home? The cemetery?” Those were inadequate answers.
Early on I learned that, “what business is it of yours?” was also an inadequate response, for deep in the heart of the best of evangelical thought is the conviction that most important work for Christians in this life is summed up in the Great Commission – the words of Jesus at the end of the gospel of Matthew – “Go therefore into all the world teaching them what you have learned from me and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” 
At its best, the Great Commission captures something essential: the idea that my salvation is bound up in yours. But when “salvation” is reduced to a pledge of allegiance to Jesus then all of the worst instances of Christian nationalism – beginning with the sword of Constantine and continuing right up through the Holocaust – are logical and all but inevitable results.
We need a bigger salvation story. We need a richer understanding of salvation. I absolutely believe that my salvation is bound up in yours because I also believe that Martin Luther King was right: injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. What affects one directly, effects all of us indirectly. We are bound together in an inescapable web of mutuality.
If I reduce the story of salvation to individuals uttering the right words of faith – I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior – then I am putting a fence around the grace of God. That fence is built, alas, on one of the cornerstones of evangelical thought: reading the Bible as (and I’m quoting here) “God’s infallible written Word […] uniquely, verbally and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit […] without error (inerrant) in the original manuscripts.”
If that is your starting point you are going to end up in a tangled, incoherent mess where the prejudices and cultural assumptions you bring to the text determine how you read and what you do with that reading.
A culture grounded in patriarchy will necessarily reproduce patriarchal readings. A culture ground in white supremacy will necessarily reproduce white supremacist readings. A culture grounded in the myth of redemptive violence will necessarily reproduce readings that support militarism and systems of domination. A culture grounded in colonialism will necessarily reproduce colonialist readings.
None of us come to the text without our own baggage, but we can come recognizing that baggage and we can own our bags even if we cannot check them at the door, as it were.
My friend Abby Mohaupt, an ecofeminist theologian working on her doctorate at Princeton, is traveling in Africa this month. The other day she posted this note on Facebook:
Listening to an American white male seminary student make the argument that women and people who are LGBTQ shouldn't be ordained. the sweet guy from the philippines is doing his best to decolonize the colonizer (he's doing the Lord's work.)
That single post captured so much for me. I doubt that the colonizer recognizes that he is in any way reproducing his own captivity to a patriarchal culture. He no doubt believes that the Bible is somehow free from any context, and that his reading is equally innocent. He doesn’t even know that he’s carrying baggage, even though it’s kinda hard to imagine travelling all the way to Africa without a suitcase.
My prayer for him is simple: that he have multiple opportunities to gather at table with the sweet guy from the Philippines, and with Abby, and, if he’s super lucky, with Travis or Lee or Ron or any of the dozens of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer folks we’ve ordained here over the past quarter century.
If he’s open to it, he’s on a long journey. It might take 40 years of wandering. There will be disagreements and squabbles a plenty along the way. But if he’s faithful – if we are faithful – in the journey we will find that God still so loves the world – the whole cruel, crazy, beautiful world, and that the incarnation – the Jesus part of the story – is about building a bridge from here to eternity.
The way of Jesus is the way of relationship, of breaking bread with outcasts, sitting at table with those with whom we disagree, reaching out in love, not to convert but to connect. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” May it be so, for all of us. Amen.