Bible Study

Reflections on Matthew 16:21-28

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

Pink Menno hymn-sing; Pittsburgh, 2011. Photo credit: pinkmenno.org

The other day as I was clicking around online, I came across a blog written by a fellow Mennonite pastor. I liked what she had to say in her most recent entry, so clicked on the little button near the top of my screen that said “Follow this Blog.”

I follow several blogs and some Twitter accounts. There are news stories that I follow. Some of you follow specific TV shows or sports teams or the stock market.

It strikes me that we use the verb “follow” in a pretty passive way these days. Maybe it’s the passiveness of “following” in our culture that allows us to talk about “following Jesus” without batting an eye. Without making sure we have good sturdy walking shoes and an updated will. We just click the little “Follow Jesus” button at the top of the screen and plan to check in with Jesus once a week or so–probably on Sunday mornings.

If we think about it, though, we know that following Jesus is nothing like following a blog or a team. Before we are even allowed to sign on as followers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The “deny myself” button, the “take up my cross” button–these I do not click so readily.

“Follow me,” says Jesus. Not once a week. Not if I seem to be headed in the same direction you’re going anyway. Stay behind me and follow. Step by step. Every day.

Hard words for those who have already given up so much to be with Jesus. Hard words for us in our hesitations to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses.

Here’s what I’ve realized about myself when it comes to taking up my crosses–I don’t like to do it. I want to be a follower of Jesus. And I’m sometimes even willing to take definitive, dare I say self-denying–steps along the path of Christ. But when the crosses show up, I don’t want to deal with them.

I will follow Christ’s call to be a pastor, but do I really have to deal with theological controversy or talk about land easements or re-schedule that meeting again? I will follow Christ’s call to be a mother, but if I could just sleep through the night, watch a grown-up movie, have a few moments of quiet. I will take a stand for my beliefs about including sexual minorities in the church, but how long will I have to listen and be gracious . . . and be patient?

It is true that there are often consequences to following the path of Christ. And it is true that some of those consequences seem difficult to bear.

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow.

We tend to hear these words in a minor key. We see them in shadows; dark colors and jagged edges–the dark side of following Jesus. We don’t like it, but we listen. We don’t want to be like Peter–denying the reality of Jesus’ humanity and suffering.

Here’s what I wonder about Peter, though. Did he listen to everything Jesus’ said? Peter surely heard Jesus say that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. Peter heard this and he said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”

Peter’s response makes me wonder if he also heard Jesus say: “On the third day, be raised.” If Peter had heard that part, why would he have said, “God forbid it!”?

Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow. And on the third day . . .

In 1961, a group of students in Nashville, TN, decided to participate in a Freedom Ride–a racially integrated ride into places of deep segregation and racial violence. These students knew that previous freedom riders had faced bombing and beatings. And so each young person, the night before they left for the ride, signed their last will and testament.

They were willing to deny themselves and take up their crosses in order to follow the way of Jesus.

Bull Connor–a driving, violent force for racial segregation in the city of Birmingham Alabama and beyond–was heard complaining about these students. Regarding these students who were risking their very lives for the cause of justice, Bull Connor was heard to say, “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”

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The above reflection is excerpted from this sermon.

You might also be interested in this call to worship and prayer of confession.

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Reflections on Exodus 3

Moses has a thousand reasons to stay right there with the sheep, not the least of which is the fact that, as far as he knows, Pharaoh still wants him dead. But with or without a warrant hanging over our heads, speaking truth to power is hard. It’s not something most people do readily. It’s particularly not something people generally do when they are comfortable. Comfortable with their job, with their community. Comfortable with the fact that the real horrors are miles away, worlds away. None of our concern.

And so, in an attempt to get out of “going” anywhere, our hero asks, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Now, those of you who teach probably tell your students that there are no wrong questions. And if you’ve been teaching for very long, you’ve probably heard a few questions that made you re-think your position. I definitely think that questions can be wrong. And this one is. “Who am I?”

But we still ask it over and over again. Who am I that I should lead in worship? Who am I that I should help the homeless? Who am I that I should speak out for peace? Who am I that I should speak up against the enslaving powers of our day?

And, truth be told, we probably want to hear what, just maybe, our hero Moses wanted to hear: “Why, you’re Moses. You’re Joanna. You’re Fred. You’re Sally. You are beautiful and talented and–just between you and me–a lot smarter than most of the rest of them down there.”

But alas, what we want to hear and what we do hear are two different things. God says, “I will be with you.” Notice how this doesn’t answer the question. Who is Moses? God will be with him. It is the presence of God that is important. Not the limitations of the person God calls.

“I am with you,” says God. But our hero Moses seems to need a little more convincing. He says to God, “Suppose the Israelites ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ What should I tell them?”

I suppose Moses’ question is a fair one. God knows his name, after all. So God obliges, sort of. God utters the divine name: I am/shall be what/who I am/shall be.

Grueling hours have been spent in the ensuing centuries trying to figure out what this Hebrew term means. But I think Bernard Robinson’s observation is key: that God’s response to Moses “may well have puzzled early readers as much as it does present day ones.” I will give you a name, God says, but not a name by which you can control or even comprehend me.

Moses, you tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you.”

Our hero is, after all, part of the equation. He is called by God to participate in the saving work God plans to do among God’s people. And our hero will succeed. Despite his hot-headedness. Despite his reluctance. Despite any public speaking phobia or speech impediment he may have.

Moses will succeed because God–the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah–the God who is who God is and who will be who God will be–that holy, immanent, transcendent, confounding God–will be with him.

Who am I that I should free the oppressed people of our world? Who are you to confront the Pharaohs of our day?

We’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t ask “Who am I?”. We simply need to realize that the One who goes with us is the great I AM.

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The above reflection is excerpted from a sermon on Exodus 3:1-17.

You might also be interested in this benediction.

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Pharoah’s Fear and the Courage of Women

Reflection on Exodus 2:1-10

{This reflection is excerpted from a longer sermon that I preached on June 22, 2014}

{You might also be interested in this reflection I wrote for Practicing Families today–connecting the story of Moses with racial violence and oppression in our own time.}

In Sunday School, this story of the endangered baby in a basket was always presented as a story about Moses. It was part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.

But Moses, of course, is not actually the hero in this story. Moses is a helpless infant in this story, and it is the women who are the true heroes. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.

The story really begins the fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions. He insists that Shiphra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women. But they won’t do it. So Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile.

Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, gives birth to a baby boy. Somehow she manages to hide him for three months. When she can no longer hide him, Jochebed decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put her baby in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket once she had set it in the river, except that she had to.

Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. She is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water. That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.

Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.

Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!

The women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.

We still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.

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On the Trinity

There is a story about the great theologian, Augustine of Hippo. One day after he had been writing about the Trinity for awhile, he decided to take a break and go walk along the beach. He came across a boy who had a bucket.  He would fill up the bucket, run up the hill, and dump the water into the sand. He did this over and over until finally Augustine stopped the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”.  The boy said, “I am draining the sea into the sand.”  Augustine pointed out the futility of the task, and the boy replied, “Yes, but I will drain the sea before you understand the Trinity.”

Folks, I hate to tell you that if Augustine couldn’t figure it out, we’re not going to figure it out either.

The Three are one.  The One is three.  It doesn’t make any sense. It is not clear.  It is not easy.  It is not comfortable.  But relating to God as Trinity is a profound experience for me, an experience that gets me as close to the Truth of God as I dare to go.

The point of the Trinity is not to separate out and define the parts: Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Trinitarian theology merely opens up to us one way—the primary way—that Christians have worked to understand the vastness of God.

Yes.  God is the Almighty Creator who spoke the world into being.
Yes. God is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth who fully embodied the extent of divine love for the world.
Yes.  God is present with us today as Holy Spirit who guides and comforts and enlivens us.

It is important that we understand the breadth of the activity and personality of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity should keep us from narrowing our vision of who God is and what God does; and this should broaden our understanding about who God loves, and what the work of God looks like in the world.

I don’t often show off with fancy Greek words.  But some of them are worth learning.  And there is one you need to know if we are going to continue this futile task of trying to understand the Trinity. This particular Greek term was introduced by the Cappodocian monks in the fourth century. It describes the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.  The term is: perichoresis.

Creator, Christ, and Spirit relate by means of perichoresis.  Like a lot of Greek words, this one is somewhat difficult to explain.  There is no English word to use as a direct translation. It suggests the mutual indwelling of the three parts of the Holy Trinity.  The idea is that all three parts are equal and their identities are based in each other.

But perichoresis is not a static concept. It has the same root as choreography.  There is both inward and outward movement involved in the Divine Trinitarian relationship.  Theologian Molly Marshall calls it “the dance that characterizes Divine life.”

To think of the Trinity in terms of perichoresis means that relationship is at the heart of the Divine identity. Relationships are not just something that God forms with creation as God sees fit, but relationship is who God is.

And if God is relationship, that means that we, too, are drawn into the Divine choreography.  And our neighbors are drawn in.  And all those who love us.  And all those who hate us.  And the stars.  And the soil. And the squirrels that jump from tree to tree and eat from our bird feeders.

The perichoresis of the Trinity means that our God exists in and for relationship.  And we, my friends, are made in God’s image.  Made to be connected to the people and the world around us.

Ultimately, the Trinity is not a doctrine to be argued and recited.  It is not even a concept to be understood. It is a mystery into which we are invited.  A dance for all to join.


This post is excerpted from a longer sermon.

You might also be interested in:
Call to Worship for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Call to Worship adapted from Seekers’ ChurchThis Prayer of Confession

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Jesus Gives the Spirit

Cozy and Comfortable

Cozy and Comfortable

*John 14:15-27; John 20:19-23

In John 14, the Farewell Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Now in John 20 we see the disciples scared for their lives, hiding behind locked doors. In both passages, Jesus offers them peace in the midst of their fear.

And then Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

No mighty winds here. No tongues of fire. Simply this: Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is the comfort that Jesus had promised them before the crucifixion. His presence with them–around them and inside them–forever.

But this, you will notice, is not a warm and snugly kind of comfort. Just as Jesus says that he does not give peace the way the world gives peace, we see here that he also does not give comfort the way the world gives comfort.

Because, here’s the thing: if I were in a situation like that of the disciples–scared and lonely and sad–I would want a Comforter to come with a good security system and a warm blanket and some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. My idea of comfort would be to make sure those doors were locked tight and then snuggle on the couch with my cookies and a good book.

But this is not the kind of comfort Jesus offers. Jesus prefaces the giving of the Spirit by saying, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”

The Spirit is a source of comfort, yes. But not comfort for comfort’s sake; comfort as a source of empowerment. The Spirit will not keep the disciples protected inside their locked room, but will fling them out into the world. The Spirit does not give them warm cookies and a good book–it gives them a message to deliver to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it.

The Spirit is, indeed, Jesus’ continuing presence with the disciples–and it turns out that the Spirit can manage to get them in just as much trouble as the embodied Jesus did.

Perhaps you noticed something troubling about Jesus’ words: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Think about what happened when God sent Jesus. From a worldly, I’d-rather-not-die-an-excruciatingly-painful-public-death, perspective, the Father sending Jesus did not turn out so well. And, sure enough, most of the disciples will be executed by authorities when they go out into the world proclaiming the message Jesus gave them.

This is some kind of comfort–this odd, breathy presence of the absent Christ; this sending out into a hostile world.

The Spirit comforts us, yes. But that comfort’s purpose in to empower us to go; to be sent by God the way that Jesus was sent: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom to the captives, sight to the blind, release to the oppressed.

Just as Jesus breathed the Spirit onto his disciples behind those locked doors, Jesus offers the Spirit to us today. He offers it as a gift–as a way for us to know his presence even in the midst of his absence; a way for us to participate in God’s holy work of peace and love in the world. The Spirit may not be a calm and comfortable gift; but it is a comforting gift; an empowering gift; a beautiful, life-giving gift. And we are blessed if we receive it.

Amen.

This post is excerpted from a sermon. You can read the full sermon text here and listen to the podcast here.

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In Praise of Inefficiency: Thoughts on Pentecost

5791933614*Acts 2:1-21

If we back up to the first chapter of Acts, we hear Jesus’ instructions to the gathered believers: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Wait for the gift . . . in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” What is all of this waiting for the Spirit about? Surely Jesus, God incarnate, could have empowered them right then to go forth and witness.

Sometimes in the mornings as the kids are getting ready for school I will see that one of them has put a waffle in the toaster oven and they are just standing there watching the thing toast. This drives me nuts. There are clothes to put on, lunches to make, backpacks to pack. “Don’t just sit there waiting for the waffle to toast. Do something while you wait!”

But Jesus says “wait.” His followers could have been preparing speeches or sending letters. But Jesus says wait. They could have been recruiting friends and family or designing a PR campaign. But Jesus says wait. They could have made some picket signs and headed over to the temple: “No more robbers in God’s house of prayer!” But Jesus says wait. They could have been out on the city streets tending to the sick, feeding the hungry. But Jesus says wait.

And so these believers wait for the Holy Spirit. There are about 120 believers. And they gather and they wait. Obviously, they did not have a strategic plan.

But sure enough, after about ten days of waiting . . . a waiting that involved prayer and preaching and singing . . . after about ten days of waiting the Holy Spirit did indeed come upon them.

They were all gathered together in one place, and suddenly there was a loud, violent noise, and those things that seemed to be tongues of fire came down on them. This is frightening and exciting. They now have the power. The power of the Holy Spirit for which they have been waiting.

Now each of the believers is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! . . .

Well, not quite. But, when they speak, those who are listening in the gathered crowd hear them in their own native tongues. And this really is quite impressive considering all of the different places these people are from.

The power of the Spirit is there, for sure. But again, this seems a highly inefficient use of Divine power.

Because really, if the disciples had just spoken Greek, everyone could have understood them. Greek was the lingua franca. Anyone in Jerusalem–residents and visitors alike–probably spoke it.

We pray each week for God to lead us not into temptation. And it seems that efficiency at any cost is one of the greatest temptations of our era.

I heard an interview on NPR a few years back. I don’t even remember which celebrity was being interviewed. I just remember him saying that he was so obsessed with efficiency that at one point he actually timed himself to see if it was faster to put on both socks and then both shoes, or to put the sock and shoe on one foot and then the other.

In the 1990′s, Russian orphanages were terribly efficient. Each nurse could care for 15-20 children. The children, of course, spent basically all of their time alone in a crib. Any family who has adopted a child from one of these orphanages could tell you about the troubling results of this efficient system.

We see, Paul says, as in a mirror darkly. But our God has a deep and abiding wisdom. A wisdom that often seems as foolishness to the world. A wisdom that often seems absurd and terribly inefficient.

It is precisely in the inefficiency of waiting that those first 120 believers become a community. It is in that inefficiency of waiting that they train their hearts towards God, thus preparing themselves to receive those things that seemed like tongues of fire–without getting burned.

And after that inefficient–after that ridiculously absurd–display of Holy Spirit power at Pentecost, about three thousand people are baptized and added to the number of believers.

As followers of Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us not into efficiency, but into faithfulness.

Thanks be to God.

(This post is excerpted from a sermon. The full text is here.)

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Jesus before the Sanhedrin

Mark 14:53-65; 15:1

[This reflection is excerpted from a sermon. The full sermon text is posted here.]

 

In his massive two-volume work, The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown gives an overview of the scholarship on the Passion Narratives in the Gospels. It quickly becomes clear that there is a wide range of opinion regarding the historical details of this trial before the Sanhedrin–for example, scholars don’t even agree on exactly who was part of the Sanhedrin or what rules governed the body.

But beyond all the questions of historical accuracy, there is a deeper question of why. Why would the religious authorities have been so concerned about this 30-year-old rabbi from Nazareth?

As Brown notes, we cannot simply dismiss the religious leaders as evil hypocrites. There might have been a few among them who were simply power-hungry and cruel, but most of them were genuinely concerned for the greater welfare of the Jewish people; they deeply loved the Law and did not want to see it diluted by some fly-by-night miracle worker.

Jesus was a threat to the faith they loved. He hung out with sinners–and even forgave them. He healed and blessed people for no good reason–even women and children and non-Jews. He broke the Sabbath regulations. He implicitly and explicitly criticized the religious authorities. He threatened the Temple–the very heart of Jewish worship.

Jesus gave the Jewish leaders plenty of reason to be upset–even afraid. Brown, who, in addition to being a well-regarded biblical scholar was also a Catholic priest, points out that self-consciously religious people rarely appreciate it when someone comes along and tells them they need to change their minds. He writes, “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

The early Anabaptists certainly found out how offensive it could be to suggest that religious leaders had it wrong. Infant baptism was a foundational practice for Catholics and protestants in the 15th and 16th centuries. Those religious leaders most certainly did not appreciate a bunch of people telling them that the Bible actually did not condone infant baptism and that their sacrament would have to be done again for adults. This suggestion of religious error was enough to get many Anabaptists banished, and even killed.

And I will admit that I have also been thinking about Brown’s assessment in relation to modern day Anabaptism. His comments seem pertinent to the current conversations–and threats–in our denomination [Mennonite Church USA] related to Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good–a woman married to another woman–for ministry: “[Jesus] would be offensive on any religious scene if he told people that God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.”

In essence, that is what Mountain States is doing, what the Western District Conference did when they upheld my credentials, what our congregation does by being open and affirming of sexual minorities–we communicate to the broader church that, in our understanding of scripture and the way of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit, “God wants something different from what they know and have long striven to do.” We should not be surprised that people are offended. We should not be surprised that authorities call us up for hearings and trials.

Now, I do not want to foster a persecution complex; and I do not want to equate my arduous journey to Newton, Kansas, for the Leadership Commission review with Jesus’ trials and beatings and crucifixion. They are very different things.

We also must consider that it is dangerous for us–or anyone who is not Jesus–to assume that the beliefs we hold represent the heart of God merely because we hold them. When speaking and acting in opposition to others within our faith family, we may be in the role of Jesus, but it is also possible that we slip into the role of the Sanhedrin from time to time. As people of faith we are called to accountability in community, to prayerful study of scripture, to an openness to the Holy Spirit.

Still, as we walk toward the cross through these days of Lent, it is good for us to consider the whole story of Jesus’ death; to acknowledge that it is not just the secular world that opposes the way of Jesus. Resistance to Jesus can be strong within the religious community as well.

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Nicodemus and Being “Born Again”

2379445383–John 13:1-17

Rev. Dr. Alyce McKenzie, professor of preaching and worship at Perkins School of Theology, was sitting in the waiting area of her local discount tire store. She was reading a magazine when a pamphlet appeared in front of her face: “How to be born again.”

“Have you been born again?” The earnest 40-something man wanted to know.

Now, just in case you are planning a similar evangelism mission, I’ll give you a pointer. Do not ask a seminary professor if she has been born again. Unless you have time to listen to the answer.

McKenzie answered: “I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.”

It is interesting, really, that this phrase “born again” has become Christian-speak for being saved, for accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Interesting that so many people use this phrase to imply a dramatic conversion moment. Because the phrase comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who most certainly did not have a dramatic conversion moment.

To begin with, we should clear up this whole “born again” issue anyway. The Greek term used can mean “born again” or “born from above.” From the context in John, it seems pretty clear that Nicodemus takes it to mean “born again”–“surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.” Jesus appears to mean “born from above”–not re-entering your mother’s womb, but being born of water and the Spirit. So if someone approaches you in the waiting room and asks if you’ve been “born from above,” at least you’ll know they’ve studied the Greek.

But born again or born from above, either way this is not a one-time dramatic conversion for Nicodemus. To begin with, we know that he came to Jesus “at night.” Which indicates some hesitation, some sneaking around. Rev. Dr.Margaret Hess calls Nicodemus the “patron saint of the curious.” I like that.

In his first encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus is not buying anything. He is not there to be convinced, to sell all he has and follow, to pray the prayer of salvation. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to ask questions. To see this wonder-worker for himself and form his own opinions.

He comes at night because he does not want his buddies to know what he is doing. He might not even be sure he wants to do what he is doing. But he is curious. He wants to know more. And so he goes.

He says, “You know, Jesus, we’re all pretty impressed with these miracles you’ve been doing.”

At which point Jesus drags him into a bizarre conversation about being born from above, which is probably not the conversation Nicodemus was expecting to have. And suddenly the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Israel’s teacher,” becomes the student. Except he’s not even sure what it is he is supposed to be learning. The last words we hear from Nicodemus in this scene are: “How can this be?”

He is baffled and befuddled. Not what the earnest man in the tire shop had in mind when he asked Alyce McKenzie if she had been born again.

It is interesting to me that Nicodemus’ initial encounter with Jesus becomes the identifying feature of Nicodemus. In John 7, he is presented as “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier.” And in John 19 he is identified as “Nicodemus, the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night.”

Even though we don’t know what Nicodemus believes about Jesus; even though Nicodemus himself might not know what he believes about Jesus; he is, nonetheless, defined by his encounter with Jesus. That initial conversation with Jesus under the cover of night means something to Nicodemus. It changes him–somehow, slowly, it changes him.

I know that some people do have radical conversion stories. I also know that there are also a lot of us Nicodemuses. Those of us who are curious. Who want to ask questions and then need time to wonder about the answers. There are some of us who, after years of knowing Jesus, still aren’t sure exactly what we think about him. We don’t know exactly what we believe.

And yet, he has changed our lives. Slowly. Somehow. We are more and more defined by our encounters with him. More and more motivated by our love for him.

And this, too, is a path of discipleship worth walking. A story worth telling.

[This post is excerpted from a sermon. You can read the entire text here. Also, check the blog index for more worship material related to this week's Lectionary readings.]

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Thoughts on Isaiah 1:12-17

The following is an excerpt from this past Sunday’s sermon. You can read the whole sermon here.

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Our history as a Church is a history God’s people as agents of holy change and maintainers of the status quo. During the Holocaust, many Christians supported the Nazi party and others joined the Confessing Church–risking their lives by opposing Hitler.

During the Civil Rights era in the United States, the Apartheid era in South Africa, there were Christians who wanted to uphold the racial divisions in society and others who argued for change. Martin Luther King, Jr., argues in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that the church should be the headlights, not the taillights–the church should be leading the way toward racial justice, not following behind popular opinion. And that letter, of course, was written to fellow clergymen who were telling him to calm down and be patient.

And of course there are issues of justice today that the churches are not speaking about in one voice: the violence in Israel/Palestine that we discussed last week; questions of environmental care and justice; the death penalty–which is a hot topic in our own state legislature right now; rights for sexual minorities; the deep racial inequalities in our penal system, immigration . . .

Sometimes the tension between being holy change and maintaining the status quo is held by opposing religious groups–different congregations and denominations. And sometimes the tension is also held within individual communities. Because rescuing the oppressed and defending the orphan and pleading for the widow are all well and good in theory. But in practice, justice requires structural change–and we are all standing on this structure together. Those of us who are pretty comfortable are understandably not too excited about the possibility of the ground moving under us–of losing our balance and sliding into a less comfortable position.

Being nice is a lot easier than doing justice. Attending worship is a lot easier than doing justice. Following rules is a lot easier than doing justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am generally in favor of being nice and attending worship and following rules. Really. It’s just that . . . well . . . I need to use a phrase here that I have come to really hate. I just told Twila this week how much I hate it: “The Bible is clear that . . . “

I hate that phrase because the Bible is an ancient text written in various foreign cultures and languages, much of it based on oral transmission of stories over centuries, copied and translated over and over again through the ages. Not to mention the internal tensions and downright contradictions within the books of the Bible.

I hate that phrase because almost every time I hear “the Bible is clear that” it is followed by something to the effect of “homosexuality is a sin.” Honestly, I am somewhat befuddled by the number of people who think the Bible is clear on this issue. I do understand how people can have opinions that difer from mine regarding the ultimate witness of scripture related to human sexuality. But I do not understand how so many people can think the Bible is clear on this. Because it is not.

Even on things that we would think are pretty clear moral issues the Bible can send mixed signals. Like, for instance, that we should care for aging parents. Seems good and right. But then you’ve got Jacob tricking poor, blind, dying Isaac. And Jesus telling the would-be disciple who wants to stay with his ailing father to “let the dead bury their own dead.”

“Clear” is not often a term we can use when speaking of the Biblical witness.

Still, I think in this particular case I need to use the phrase. Taking into consideration the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, the proclamations of the prophets, the life and teachings of Jesus, the testimony of the early church–considering the full breadth and depth and complexity of the Biblical witness–yes, I will say it: The Bible is clear that God desires justice.

It’s not that God does not desire our offerings and songs and prayers and sermons. It’s just that all of those things are not ends unto themselves. God does not desire worship for worship’s sake.

God desires worship because it is a time set aside for us to come near to the heart of God, and we cannot truly be near to God’s heart without beginning to share the Divine desire for justice.

God desires worship because it can open our eyes and our hearts to the plight of the oppressed and vulnerable in our society.

God desires worship because it is a way for us to open ourselves to the power we need if we are to work with God for holy change in the world.

Jesus speaks of worshiping in spirit and truth. So may our worship ever be in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the truth of the Divine desire for justice.

Amen.

 

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I Love Zacchaeus

I have a family devotional reflection today over at Practicing Families. Thinking about the story of Zacchaeus took me right back to my Sunday school room, singing that great song about the “wee little man.” As a wee little woman, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the guy.

I do wonder, though, how he could afford to pay back four times the amount of money he had taken from people. He must have put his money into some crazy-high-performing stocks.

 

Categories: Bible Study | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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