“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Whose fault is it? Cause and effect. That’s an assumption we live by. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Newton taught us. So, we look at the effect and the look for the cause, the person responsible.
I had a seminary professor who took this very seriously. Another classmate, who had known him before coming to seminary, told me that this professor, meeting the parents of a disabled child, told them that if they would tell him their life’s stories, he would tell them their sin that had resulted in having a handicapped child. I knew, more directly, the story of one of the female seminarians. In a required consultation he told her that if she would tell him her story, he could tell her where her experience was wrong, i.e. sinful, leading her to think that seminary was an appropriate choice. Our society tends to blame the poor for being poor, the sick for being sick. Their weakness must be a sign of their sin, of their unworthiness to have a better life. It’s simple cause and effect.
"Who sinned, this man or his parents?" It’s kind of interesting that they asked the question. In many ways it dismisses the man. There is no indication that they had any concern for him. He was a case study. If fault belongs to the man or even to his parents, the disciples didn’t see any need to be responsible for his suffering. The simple blame game means that we can excuse ourselves from “seeing” the person or the people who are struggling. “The poor don’t want health insurance” one legislator declared recently. You can hear his assumption that they deserve to be poor.
Jesus doesn’t play the blame game. Instead, he looked at the person, at the blind man, and saw him. He saw his need. It didn’t matter how the man got where he was. Jesus offered him what he needed, healing.
It is a fascinating healing story. It’s very earthy. “[Jesus] spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” Laying on of hands – and praying – we might be able to understand. That’s pretty sanitary. But, making mud out of dirt and saliva and putting that mud on someone’s eyes? Even those who go to spas to have mud wraps have their eyes left alone! This is messy! Even sort of gross! We expect God to clean up the world’ messiness – not create it or step into it! We like the neat answers, the easy answers, the logical ones that we can quickly understand –and use as our framework for negotiating messy, chaotic, life.
It may be that Jesus’ way of healing is in itself a message: we cannot quickly determine cause and effect. Our simplistic categories lead too often to easy dismissals of others. There was a great cartoon on Facebook a few weeks ago that explored what it means to be privileged in our society. The cartoon followed the story of two children, born into very different circumstances. One was a white child of parents with resources. The other was a child of color born to loving parents who struggled, daily, to make a life for their child. The child of privilege received regular medical care and good schooling. The child of poverty did not always get proper medical care. Schools weren’t good. And, ultimately, that child had to drop out of school in order to care for a sick parent. The child of privilege, a white male, had doors opened for him, over and over again. The child of color, female, experienced discrimination in many ways. She was constantly dismissed, with doors shut or slammed in her face. Such children are caught in the world’s messiness – through no fault of their own, and often through no fault of their parents. There was a letter to the editor this week in which someone said that the problem with education today is that parents aren’t doing their jobs. The writer reflects our tendency to attach blame – parents or teachers. I know it’s hard for teachers today. But do we also ask how hard it is for parents without privilege? Maybe those children don’t see parents because they’re working multiple jobs to put food on the table. There’s little money for extras, for those things that can enhance a child’s life and his or her ability and opportunities to learn. Blaming excuses us from seeing those who are hurting. Jesus didn’t blame. He saw the person and offered healing.
It would be tempting to limit our hearing of this story to the actual healing, the physical healing. But, the story goes so much further. The messiness doesn’t end when the man received his sight. In fact, we might say that the messiness was just beginning. First, the people who had known him, or known of him, had a hard time accepting the change in him. Some couldn’t even recognize him outside of the role of beggar. So they took him to the Pharisees.
Instead of rejoicing that this man had been healed, the Pharisees engaged in theological debate. “This man is not from God for he does not observe the Sabbath!” “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And, we’re told, they were divided! It became a mess. And into that mess they dragged the man’s parents. “Is this your son who you say was born blind? How then, does he now see?” Instead being able to celebrate the change in their son, they had to tiptoe around the wrath of the Pharisees and distance themselves from their own child. “Ask him. He is of age. He will speak for himself.”
As the story unfolds, the man who was physically healed demonstrates a continuation of his healing as he begins to understand more fully who it was who had healed him. And not only did he understand, he shared, declared that understanding. “Here is an astonishing thing. You don’t know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to a sinner, but he does listen to one who worships him and does his will….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus’ gift of healing set everything right, cleaned up the mess of having a beggar on the streets. Instead, Jesus’ healing seems to deepen the mess, catching others in the muck. It’s hard to trace a simple cause and effect in this. Instead, we have a cascading chain reaction. It does little good to look back and blame someone –which the Pharisees tried to do. Instead, Jesus’ physical healing of the man invites all those who encountered it to consider God’s work being done in their midst.
Our president commented a few weeks ago, “Who knew health care was (or is) so complicated?” Well, we could debate whether or not people knew, but he was acknowledging a truth about healthcare and so many other human systems. It’s complicated. You tweak one part – and create a chain reaction that moves out and oftentimes causes unintended consequences. We’ve been bombarded with sound bites that reduce the mess to simple cause and effect – and we sideline and dismiss people in the process. One of the most horrible examples I’ve come across is the story of the congressman in Oklahoma who has declared that rape and incest are God’s will. God is in charge of all things, therefore, the women who have experienced such horrors must accept that the horror was God’s intent and God’s will. Perhaps he sees it as punishment for some unknown sin.
We’ve taken Newton’s law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and reduced it to the simplistic. Modern physics tells us of the butterfly effect – a butterfly moving in Africa can have an effect on our weather here. On a smaller scale, we might think of a stone dropping in water – and the ripples that emanate. Those ripples will encounter obstacles and, perhaps, other ripples. Soon, it is almost impossible to trace the pattern back to the beginning. It’s complicated.
It may be that our desire to be able to lay the blame is a desire to be in control, to have mastery over this world. If we can simplify cause and effect, we can blame the victims and excuse ourselves from responsibility. The Pharisees were uncomfortable with a man who came in and worked outside of their assumptions – even when that work bore good fruit. The parents lived in fear of the mess their son’s healing had caused. They did not see any way they could risk being cast out of the synagogue, cast out of the fabric of their society.
Jesus made mud – both of the dirt which he put on the man’s eyes and of the safe constructs of the society which had marginalized the blind man and which was more interested in keeping him marginalized than in his wholeness.
One of the things I love about the first creation story in Genesis is that it does not speak of God creating out of nothingness – or neatness – but out of the chaos. So, the chaos of the world and the messiness of the world are not signs of God’s absence. Instead, the chaos is a place where God is at work – bringing the healing that we need – not only physical healing, but the healing of our systems and perceptions, even the healing of our faith. It’s so easy to get side-tracked by questions for which there are no answers, certainly no easy answers. And as we struggle and debate and fight and argue we miss God’s call to see those who need good news, not blame. God’s work doesn’t ask us to find the easy and quick answers that might excuse us and that might deepen the wounds and the isolation of the vulnerable. Instead, we’re to trust that God is at work in the midst of the chaos and the messiness – and join God there.
Jesus was in Samaria. It was an interesting destination for a devout Jew. Jesus was heading back to Galilee. He could have gone a different way, a way that didn’t take him through this enemy territory. The hatred, the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans was long standing. There was little respect. The Jews thought the Samaritans had abandoned the true faith – and so, mistreated them. The Samaritans, therefore, hated the Jews. But, the gospel writer said that he had to go to Samaria, meaning that God sent him there.
So this story begins with the story of an outsider—Jesus! He left his own people and culture. Do we think of God as an outsider? Or do we carefully box God into our perceptions of where God is and where God should be? Do we think of God being present and active with those we might call our enemies? But God, through Jesus, ventured into a place where he, Jesus, would be feared and hated.
Then, Jesus, this outsider met another outsider. As he sat by Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman came to draw water. This woman was an outsider in her own community. How do we know that? She came to draw water in the middle of the day – in the heat of the day! Now, drawing water was women’s work. But, the women would have gone early in the morning – or in the evening, when it was cool. They would have gone together – it was a communal activity. This woman came alone. It tells us something. She was not welcome to join the other women. So, she came alone – in the heat of the day.
Did she see him as she approached? Was she fearful? She, after all, would quickly be recognized as a woman of little or no worth. She was Samaritan –and she was coming in the middle of the day. Did she wonder if she should turn around and go home, coming back when no one was there? Perhaps, in that climate, she was desperate for water. Perhaps the choice didn’t seem good, no matter what. Go to the well where an enemy sat, or go without water.
Jesus would have known that she was an outsider, that she had no status. So his request that she give him water is even more astounding. In Jesus we see God who meets us when we feel that we are unworthy of God’s notice or of God’s love. We see God who is present when we think that we have wandered far from God’s ways, far from God’s grace. “Where can I go from your spirit?” the psalmist asked. “Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” This Samaritan woman, who by every religious standard, was unworthy, found a welcome in Jesus who sat by the well – in her country.
This follows the story of Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, the leader of the Jews who came by night so that his visit would go unnoticed. This story has parallels except that it takes place in the harsh revealing light of day. Yet, Jesus treats this outsider, this woman, in much the same way he treated Nicodemus. He invited her to consider what God was offering – even to the Samaritans! “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” At first, she is bound by her earthly realities. Nicodemus couldn’t understand how one could be born anew. The woman hears living water and thinks of running water – a higher quality water than what she could draw from the well. When Jesus says his living water would mean no more thirst, she sees the possibility of never having to draw water again. She would be spared the heat of the day. Perhaps it would mean she could live out her days away from harsh judgment of her community.
Jesus told her to call her husband. And she answered honestly: “I have no husband.” Her history reaffirms her marginal status. She had had five husbands and, as Jesus pointed out, the “one she had now was not her husband.” The historical response of the church has been to dismiss her even further. She was “living in sin.” Perhaps that is unfair. Maybe it was the world’s unfairness which had driven her to the margins. A woman didn’t choose to be married. The five husbands could have been brothers who married their siblings’ widows – an expectation. Yet, if all the brothers had died – or if a brother chose not to fulfill his duties—she would have been left with few options. Jesus did not judge. He stated the truth – and continued to converse with her.
She asked questions. She explored faith. She struggled to understand. And, he patiently listened. He considered what she said. And, amazingly, he revealed to her who he was. “I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Now, unlike Nicodemus, the leader of the Jews, this Samaritan woman took that proclamation and shared it with those who despised her. She is the first evangelist (good news bearer) in John’s gospel. Now she didn’t proclaim a detailed theological understanding of who Jesus was. She shared her experience. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
I was at an event on Friday with Ray Jones from the Presbyterian Mission Agency who is working in the area of helping congregations be vital, that is healthy, thriving, worshipping communities. He talked about how the church often loses its sense of being sent into the world. Evangelism isn’t standing on a street corner or twisting people’s arms or telling people what they need to believe or reciting some theological system or viewpoint. Evangelism is developing relationships and talking and listening and telling, in the midst of that, what we have known of God’s presence in our own lives. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” This proclamation was bold – bold because of the messenger. An outsider found her voice and told her own story – revealing God’s presence.
While she was gone, the disciples returned to Jesus. They couldn’t believe that he was talking with a woman –a woman—and not only a woman but a Samaritan woman who was obviously not held in esteem even by her own people. Yet Jesus told them to look around – and see that the fields were ripe for harvesting. God’s concern spread beyond the borders. God’s concern and God’s attention focused even on their enemies.
It is a story filled with outsiders. Jesus was an outsider, both in his own country, but even more in Samaria. Most of the disciples were outsiders in their own culture. The woman is even more of an outsider. The Samaritans who hear the good news and believe were outsiders. Their example of belief and believing was remembered and told.
Ray Jones reminded us that too often the church loses its outward focus. Churches, when they are started, are filled with people who reach out and invite others to “come and see” what’s happening. Churches grow. But, eventually, the church gets caught up in its own life and its willingness and ability to reach out falters. Oftentimes in today’s world we fall into the “build it and they will come” approach – and forget the example of the Christ who “had nowhere to lay his head,” the Christ who travelled, who crossed boundaries, who was a willing outsider who connected with other outsiders. I am reminded of one of the prominent pastors of the day, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor. Yet she is hardly typical. She is known as the tattooed pastor. Her background is not traditional. She had been a stand up comic – and an alcoholic. She is the first to tell you that she would not have reached out to God. But God reached out to her. In response, her ministry continues to cross boundaries from the safe zones of traditional Christianity to the edges of our own society where people are struggling to survive. Her ministry is with and for those the established church keeps at arms length – the outsiders. She is, in many ways, the Samaritan woman who found in God not a remote, judgmental deity, but a compassionate spirit who spoke the truth to her while loving her. From her and the Samaritan woman we might learn that the very voices we might readily dismiss may bring us closer to God’s grace and glory.
And from Bolz-Weber and the Samaritan woman we see God who meets us where we are – not with disdainful judgment, but with compassionate truth and the invitation to be made whole. We meet God who comes to broken and the lost and the marginalized and the forgotten and the disdained and the hopeless and the voiceless – and each of us and all of us. We meet the God who says, “Fear not. You are seen; you are known; you are loved.” And we meet the God who says, “Go. Tell your story. Invite others to see me and to experience my love for them.”
Fear not, outsiders! Fear not outsiders! With God there is no “outside.” We are always welcome in God’s presence. There is no sin, no secret that has the power to separate us from God’s deep, abiding love. And those we see as strangers, as outsiders, or as threateningly different can and do bear the good news to us.
Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17
Ana Carter Florence wrote that John 3 is like the ballet world’s Nutcracker. It’s a “pulpit classic that comes with the territory.” We know why. It has that familiar verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.” We see John 3:16 as bumper stickers or signs held up at sporting events. Of course, that is a message for insiders. Who outside the faithful would know what John 3:16 means? An evangelism tool it is not! It’s insider lingo – that may, ultimately, put off the outsider.
And, of course, John 3:16 follows that passage that speaks of “being born again.” That phrase has become an internal weapon. A seminary friend spoke about being challenged by someone else in the school. “Have you been born again?” he asked her – with anger. I suspect his anger was rooted in the fact that she was studying for the ministry – a fact he was sure demonstrated the truth that she had, in fact, not been born again. So we have all of that baggage to consider as we wrestle with what this passage might mean for us today.
Then, at first hearing or reading, it may seem that this gospel story has little to say on the subject of fear. But fear is present. It’s present in the way this passage is often used today – as a weapon, as a means of judging others, leaving them to wonder if they have standing in God’s presence. Fear is also present in the story. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, came to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. That tells us something. Nicodemus was afraid. George Stroup says that we can be sure it was no easy thing for Nicodemus to search out Jesus. In fact, it might have been dangerous for him to do so. He was a leader in the community. And the Jewish establishment, of which he was part, saw Jesus “first as a nuisance and later as a political threat”.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night so that he would not be seen by those who had more power than he had -- or even by his peers. He, too, was afraid of judgment – the judgment of others. Stroup says that Nicodemus had to be careful. In that he is like many who followed him who sensed that they needed to practice their faith with caution.
Deborah Kapp says that whenever we enter a mainline church today we find Nicodemus – in each other. She notes that being a mainline Protestant is “not trendy.” We might be careful about proclaiming faith when the loudest voices around us – speaking in the name of Christianity – promote, proclaim, and promulgate a message that is so contrary to what we might understand to be the essence of the gospel. Voices stridently proclaim dismissive judgment; we hear God’s words of forgiveness, mercy and transformation. Voices stridently proclaim an authoritarian God who demands obedience; we hear stories of God’s invitation to live according to God’s good intent. Voices stridently proclaim that only certain people are allowed within God’s circle; we read the Biblical witness that tells us of outsiders being the means of God’s grace and of God’s command to welcome the stranger. Voices stridently proclaim that God helps those who help themselves and, therefore, society is not responsible for those who are struggling; we hear of God’s command to care for the vulnerable. Society hears the word Christian and thinks of those strident voices. They think judgment, dismissal, blind obedience, narrowness and fear. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be identified with that understanding of Christianity. So, it’s easier to practice our faith privately – without risking being associated with a message that many disparage.
Kapp said if we look around our churches, we see Nicodemus. John Calvin, during the reformation, went further. Stroup wrote that Calvin called those who sympathized with the reform movement, but didn’t want to be known for that sympathy, Nicodemites. Stroup went on to suggest that being Nicodemites can lead to grave consequences. In Nazi Germany the church accommodated itself to the prevailing racism and anti-Semitism of the day. Can we not see that in our own day? The strident voices are almost indistinguishable from the biases of the culture around them. It’s too easy to forget that no human society lives up to the values of God’s realm – and that we are to be the transforming leaven in the midst –proclaiming the values of God’s realm. It’s too easy to speak of faith as something private and personal – something that supports and strengthens us for everyday living. Another minister spoke, years ago, about changing his preaching style. “My congregation just wants to know how to live as good people,” he said. “So that’s my new focus. How are you a good husband? Or a good wife? How do you spend your money? How do you budget?” His focus was on a personal faith – a common emphasis in our society evident in the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the personal aspects of faith. But, it may not be an adequate faith. Such an approach “compartmentalizes” faith, according to Kapp. Faith is kept in a sphere that has little public impact.
Nicodemus was afraid. He was afraid of the predominant voices. Perhaps he was afraid of stepping outside the treasured traditions that had given shape to his entire life. So he came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In Jesus he had seen something. He had seen the signs. The word “sign” is important in John’s gospel. It points to the active presence of God.
The traditional reading or hearing of this story speaks of Jesus' impatience as Nicodemus struggles to comprehend what Jesus means when he speaks of being born anew. After years of telling this story, I hear it differently. I hear Jesus affirming Nicodemus and inviting him to expand his vision, deepen his understanding.
“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God,” Nicodemus said. Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus has seen the signs of God’s presence. What if Jesus, instead of critiquing Nicodemus, is affirming his ability to see. The signs were evidence of the kingdom being present. Perhaps Jesus was saying to Nicodemus that he had already been born anew, proved by his ability to see the signs and know that God was present.
One of the problems of the focus on being “born again” is that it implies that this is something we have to do for ourselves (as individuals) in order to be made right with God. Instead, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that being born anew or born from above is God’s work and God’s gift. And, I think he is saying this is a gift that has already been given to you! God has already done what is necessary. Now all Nicodemus has to do is accept that reality.
Yet, he can’t – at least not yet. He accepts the world’s realities as the only possible narrative. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The world has its grip on Nicodemus. He is bound by his limited vision and his fear that whatever Jesus brings – even the realm of God—it is not enough for him to move from the darkness into the light. He can’t go public with his private perception that Jesus is, himself, a sign of God’s presence. Kapp says that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that his faith is incomplete – perhaps too compartmentalized. And Jesus is giving him – not a command – but an invitation to allow God to work in his life, more fully. She writes: “Jesus invites Nicodemus, as he invites each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers. Jesus knows that neither Nicodemus nor contemporary believers can do this on their own. It is God who will give birth in water and Spirit. Rebirth is God’s gift to give, God’s work to accomplish, and it is God who labors to bring us new life.”
“God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” I’d almost rather use that verse, John 3:17, than John 3:16 – because it moves us from the personal and private to a broader vision. It moves us from thinking about my relationship to God or your relationship to God to our relationship to God and to God’s intent for the whole of human society. To move from darkness to light is to move from private to public. Stroup suggests that believing in Jesus is more than what happens in our minds. It is “what one does with one’s heart and one’s life.” Verse 21 from this chapter says, “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.” Stroup says that “believing and doing are inseparable.”
“Do not be afraid, Nicodemus.” We’re not told that Jesus said that, but I think it’s implied. “Do not be afraid. God has re-birthed you! You are born of water and spirit, so God is with you! See the kingdom – and proclaim your recognition with words and deeds. Let God lead you.”
Kapp wonders if the church today – the mainline church – is an institutionalized version of Nicodemus—“people and institutions with compartmentalized faiths that flourish behind the scenes, out of sight, away from the fray, essentially in private.” We strive to keep the faith but do so without confronting and speaking to the distortions that injure and oppress others. So, we need to hear Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus to move into the light – and align ourselves with the God who comes not to condemn, but to save, not to destroy, but to transform. Our voices are needed. Our deeds can and should bear witness to the God who loved and loves the world – and all its people.
My seminary friend, when asked if she had been born again, replied, “Each and every day I am being born anew. It’s not a once and for all thing.” I think she understood it as the new life offered by God through Christ – something to which we aspire in our living, in our deeds and in our words. We are invited to be born anew into the values and the ways of God’s realm.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
“We’re going to run out – of fossil fuels, of arable land, of unpolluted waters, of clean air, of raw materials.” We hear that warning over and over again. We’re accustomed to thinking of this world as a place with limited resources that can easily be used up. So, we have to grasp what we can—quickly, before someone else gets it. How much of human history could be told as attempts to gain control over particular resources? Certainly, today’s battles are not only about ideology, but also about gaining and controlling the world’s “limited” resources. There are disagreements about fishing territories. Wars are fought over oil or other limited energy resources. We see the rain forest shrinking, and the ice caps shrinking – and know that we are losing something vital.
There's not enough. That’s the message we hear. So, some can have and others can’t. We have wealthy nations and poor nations. We have wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. We have those who have grasped power that gives them control over our resources – and those who have no control. We have the well fed – and the hungry.
Then, stretching the idea of scarcity a little, we might think of what we think we might lack – compared to others – in terms of talents or abilities. Are we not judged? Do we not judge, others and ourselves? We’re not enough! Or they’re not enough! Something is lacking. Something is missing. Someone else has more ability!
Today’s gospel lesson is the traditional lesson for the first Sunday in Lent. Each year in the three year lectionary cycle we hear it through the voice of a different gospel writer. This year we have Matthew’s telling. Jesus, after his baptism, was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. I’ve always thought of this wilderness time as one of facing the temptations that Jesus would confront throughout his life – temptations that would be less obvious amidst the work that he was doing.
The devil tempted him with bread, with proof of God’s protection and with power. Beneath those three specific temptations may be the message that Jesus needed something more in order to fulfill what God had asked him to do. He needed to take care of himself by claiming the resources that the devil offered him – and him alone. Command these stones to become bread. (You can’t do God’s work if you are hungry!) Throw yourself down so that the angels will prove to you that you can do this, that you matter to God. (You can’t do this without proof that God is with you.) Finally, Jesus is tempted with power. (You can’t do this without worldly power!)
The devil’s message was that Jesus needed more in order to do God’s work. He needed bread (sustenance), he needed proof that God was with him and that this endeavor would therefore be successful and he needed the power to make his mission succeed. This message voices that deep seated fear that God has not provided everything we need – that something is missing – or that many things are missing.
I had a hard time choosing a title for this sermon. I thought about Fear of Inadequacy. It could be that the devil is telling Jesus that he will need things in order to be adequate. It may be that the human sense of inadequacy is a consequence of seeing the world as a place of scarcity. Gifts and talents are bestowed on a few --- so the rest of us are inadequate. Some people have the resources that they need in order to thrive.
Jesus responded to the devil’s temptations to see what might be missing with an affirmation that God was and would be present with him, providing what he needed to do God’s work. If he began to focus on what the devil said was missing, he would turn his eyes from God and look at himself. He would move from trust to fear.
This morning’s story from Genesis, chosen because it, too, speaks of temptation, is one that I have always found difficult. “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,” God had commanded the man. It seems that the command has led to faith traditions that were and are uncomfortable with questioning, with pushing for knowledge – and particularly to faith traditions that have rejected science.
Now, we are told that they lived in paradise. They had abundance all around them. They could eat of any tree, except the one. They were caretakers of this garden in all its glory. But, the serpent told them it was not enough. Actually, the serpent must have tapped into what they were already feeling – that Eden wasn’t enough. They needed more. And, the only thing more that was readily available was the one fruit God had declared off limits.
I read somewhere that perhaps God intended this “sin.” It was a sign that Adam and Eve were growing up – moving from childhood to adulthood, where they would have to make decisions. Rabbi Kula writes that this thrusts them into the sacred messiness that is human existence. He suggests that the world truly begins when they leave the garden. “Now freedom and yearning will define humanity for the rest of eternity.” Kula’s exploration and explanation of this story is freeing. It suggests we shouldn’t hear it as an automatic condemnation of the human desire to push and explore this world. He looks at the Hebrew Scriptures and says, “For every moment of courage, for every time of great healing, there is a moment of weakness, of hurt or disappointment…This is exactly what makes the Bible holy. It invites us to find ever-expanding meaning in both the messy and the neat; the triumphs and disappointments; the weaving and the unraveling. It’s up to us to see the holiness in all this drama; to bring it to life with our own reading and our own living.”
Kula says that the Biblical writers were trying to wake us up, to see that we learn more from “disarray, from upset, than from placidity and safety.” Adam and Eve begin to learn about being human when they are exiled from the garden, from that place of secure boundaries. Traditionally, we hear this as punishment. They were exiled. They left that perfect place. On the other hand, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He left, willingly, the garden that was his family, his friends and the traditions that had nurtured him. He left that garden in order to explore what it meant to be called God’s Son, the Beloved.
How tempting it is to declare that we cannot fully be who God calls us to be unless – unless we are in a place without scarcity, unless we are completely safe, convinced of God’s protection. Now, I hesitate to speak of safety in one way. We know that there are those in our own society who are perpetually not safe. I read a white woman’s story about her black brothers. She talked about the very different society they inhabit, about having to write a letter explaining why her black brother had her white son in his car – just in case he got pulled over. The issue of safety for transgender people is before us these days. I think of my friend Jay who was kicked out of the women’s room as he began his transition. He laughed about it, but it meant that he couldn’t use either restroom. His birth certificate said he was female. He looked male (well, like a teenage boy). We would have to think about the safety needed by those in abusive relationships. Sometimes, those who are at risk can do little to challenge what threatens them.
But their safety is not only their concern. It is ours. And, oftentimes, when we enjoy relative safety, we forget that God calls us into that messiness of life, and maybe out of our own safe gardens, to work on behalf of those who are perpetually unsafe.
Do we have the resources to make a difference? Will we be fed with what we need? Will we be safe? Do we have the power? Those questions always arise. I hear congregations and individuals speak about what they would do if only they had…financial resources, the assurance that doing something would benefit them, or that they had any ability to make a difference. As individual Christians it’s easy to see what we don’t have…compared to someone else. Churches sometimes speak of their willingness to fund or do mission – after and when they have enough resources to take care of themselves. Probably one of the saddest aspects of the modern church (modern American Church) is that it has become consumer oriented and, thereby, competitive with other churches. We feed ourselves first – instead of trusting God to provide what we need. We feed ourselves with programs and buildings and worship styles that are designed to attract others. We make our churches safe gardens – and forget that the wilderness is where God calls us to be.
The story of the garden tells us that God gives abundantly. Jesus trusted that abundance even in the wilderness. He trusted that the abundance of God would sustain him, support him, and guide him in his ministry. Our sin is seeing a lack where God is giving abundance. Our sin is hoarding and grasping God’s abundance for ourselves or some, while letting others go without.
One of my favorite stories was on a Celestial Seasonings Tea Box, years ago. Someone was given a glimpse of heaven and hell. At first glance they looked the same. A group of people was sitting around a large pot of stew. One group, the group in hell, was wailing. They could smell the stew, but they couldn’t eat it. Their spoons had such long handles, it was impossible to lift the bowl of the spoon to one’s mouth. In heaven, they were laughing and joy-filled. The spoons were the same – but, in heaven they were feeding each other.
In hell, they saw scarcity where there was abundance. In heaven they saw abundance and shared it freely.
I had decided to do a sermon series on fear, starting today. It happened that a blog post by John Pavlovitz published this week also looked at fear. He began, “It must be awful to go through life terrified; to believe that your are perpetually in danger, to always be threatened by encroaching predators lurking in the shadows and around the corners and beneath the bed. What a drag it has to be to walk through every day looking over your shoulder, certain that attack is inevitable and you are soon to be overtaken. And yet, this is the experience of far too many Christians in this country; people who have been a people weaned since birth on a faith of fear.” He goes on to name some of those fears: fear of hell, fear of immigrants, fear of refugees, fear of transgender people lurking in bathrooms, fear of atheists…. The list is long! It has produced what he calls a “monstrous, Frankensteined faith that has turned on them…[faith] has been reduced to a sanctified burglar alarm, forever forecasting doom, forever inciting panic, forever triggering outrage.”
He goes on to declare that the most common command in the Bible is “Do not fear!” Yes. It is a common refrain. It is also common to speak of faith as “The fear of the Lord.”
How do we reconcile the “fear nots” command with the “fear the Lord” command?
Today’s gospel lesson tells us that Peter, James and John had an experience we cannot begin to imagine. Peter’s first response was to offer to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It’s an odd response. Anna Carter Florence says that he’s like an emergency responder – keeping his cool and acting in response to the unimaginable. She wonders, “Is it nerves that prompt Peter to rush in with wrongheaded blueprints? Is it impatience? Is it plain old ignorance? Yes, yes, and yes. All three ring true to me. But the real issue, I think, has to do with our human response to divine encounter.”
Our human response to divine encounter… Moments later, when the cloud overshadowed them and the voice spoke, Peter, James and John “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” And, when the cloud was gone, Jesus told them to get up and “not be afraid.”
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes that the concept of fear is “related to a wide range of emotions, extending from simple apprehensiveness to utter terror or dread, caused by the suspicion of an impending peril.” It goes on to say that “the fear of God” suggests “an emotional experience of a complex nature which is connected with the perception or the awareness of the holy and which produces the concomitant reactions of repulsion, attraction, fascination, awe, reverence, love, trust, faith, worship and adoration.”
I had chosen fear as the theme of a sermon series because of those fears that Pavlovitz had identified – those fears that are used in manipulative ways and those fears that inhibit our ability to live into our identity and call to be the Body of Christ in our world today. What I quickly discovered was that one can’t simply declare “do not be afraid” and be faithful to the Biblical tradition – and the idea that faith is, in some ways, “the fear of the Lord.”
The transfiguration in Matthew and the related story from Exodus are good starting places for considering the place of the fear of God in our lives.
Our Biblical translations tend to translate multiple words as “fear.” So, when we look for a message, we might miss the nuances that would have been evident in the original texts. For example, a particular Hebrew word that meant fear was sometimes translated into the early Greek texts as fear (phobia), but more often, and perhaps more appropriately as reverence, respect and piety.
“Reverence, respect and piety” might help us understand the “fear” in the gospel lesson this morning. The Bible Dictionary says that the Old Testament refers to fear in “the context of divine revelation.” There is a mystery in the Divine Holiness – something that cannot be contained or explained. When human beings encounter this mystery, they cannot help but be overcome with awe, with reverence and with piety that brings them to their knees or fully to the ground. Yet, this fear is not a fully negative fear! It’s not negative! It often leads to joy! The fear of the Lord is not of destruction – but of the power of God and God’s love and care revealed. It is awe and respect for God who is beyond all human and worldly constraints.
Years ago, I heard a minister challenge the Presbyterians who had gathered for a meeting. She challenged us because we were, in her estimation, pretty self-satisfied in our worship of God. “We ought to have callouses on our knees!” she thundered. “Why do we never kneel?”
Well, awe can shatter us. It shakes us up. It challenges our assumptions and rattles our constructs of faith. We might be able to let the hymns touch us emotionally. Yet, it’s easy to get a little suspicious about faith or worship that seems to be little more than a feel good emoji. So, our heritage is carefully thought out, reasoned out explorations of what God has done and what that might mean for us in our faith today. The Presbyterian tradition has long valued and demanded a rational approach to faith – one that is based on depth of scholarship. So, clergy have advanced degrees. They are expected to know Greek and Hebrew (or at least to have studied it), biblical content, theological and worship traditions and the reasons they exist. It is a worthy approach to leadership and to the life of faith. It keeps us from a faith that is constantly in search of an emotional high. It keeps us from faith that is self-centered.
But, maybe it is, too often, missing awe! “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” Peter said. “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Instead of awe, Peter looked for a way of managing, of controlling, of containing the encounter with Moses and Elijah. He was rational. He, to use Carter Florence’s words, kept his cool. Do we not try to do the same? We explain God to ourselves and others. We expect that God will continue to act in ways that we can understand and predict. God is “safe” because we know what to expect. We have built the dwellings and expect God to occupy them happily.
I was thinking about “awe” in relationship to the earthquake beneath the Christian Church these days. Maybe we have inhabited our carefully constructed dwelling places for too long. We have been comfortable with a world and a faith that meets our expectations – whatever those are! Our response to the crumbling of what we have known is fear – anxiety. We don’t know what the future holds. We see old ways, familiar ways failing, at best, totally disappearing, at worst.
Perhaps our response should be fear – but not anxious fear. Our response should be the “drive us to our knees” response of awe! God is at work. God is bringing something new to this world – a new way for the Body of Christ to be present. If we are merely anxious because we are more comfortable in our old “dwellings,” we are in danger of missing the “awe” inspiring work of God in our midst.
I looked at the titles of some of the books on my shelves – books having to do with church life these days. Culture Shift, Moving Off the Map; From Nomads to Pilgrims; Changing the Conversation; Transforming Congregational Culture; Transforming Congregations for the Future; Unbinding Your Church; those are a few of the titles. They acknowledge the earthquake beneath us. And, perhaps, in some ways they acknowledge our fears.
But, no dwelling place – tradition, theological construct, worship style, denominational division – no dwelling place can contain God. We need to let the fear of God – of God’s otherness, of God’s transcendence, of God’s holiness, draw us in and remind us of our limitedness, of our earthli-ness, of our humanity. We are not God – thanks be to God! Furthermore, God has not left us on our own, to live within the careful dwellings that divide us from one another and limit our vision. This is the God of majesty – the God who is immortal, invisible –and yet, who sees us, knows us, and loves us. This is the God who is present in this beloved creation, calling it always toward the new creation that more fully resembles God’s good intent.
The fear of God confronts, challenges and conquers our worldly fears. It challenges our worldly fears. It reminds us that the world doesn’t have the last word. “Get up and do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Peter, James, and John. Pavlovitz concluded, “I wonder how those who profess faith in Jesus, yet preach a gospel of terror would respond to such a [statement]? (Get up and do not be afraid!) I wonder how their hearts might be renovated if their religion became a source of security rather than fuel for generating fear. I wonder how differently they might respond to the real pain and despair around them. I keep waiting for the people of God to act as if they believe that God is God. Fear is a powerful drug. It’s a fantastic political tactic. It’s a wonderful manipulator. It’s en effective motivator. But it’s a really lousy religion. May more Christians in America come to believe that the sky is not falling, because they know the One who holds up the sky.”
“I keep waiting for the people of God to act as if they believe that God is God.” That is the fear of God! We tremble, not because we are anxious, but because the magnitude of God’s glorious love overwhelms us.
Christmas Eve Service
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