Sunday, March 18, 2018

Jesus turns thing's upside down - or is it right side up?

Sermon for March 18, 2018

Lent 5B – RCL

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Today’s lessons show two sides of Jesus.  In our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Hebrew’s Paul writes that “Jesus offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears”.  We hear from Paul in this passage a very human Jesus.  The one we will remember during Holy Week crying and agonizing in the garden of Gethsemane for the Father to take the cup – the coming cross – from him.  In the Gethsemane we have an image of Christ praying so hard and agonizing over the events that were about to take place – yet in the end acknowledging that what he came into the world to accomplish was about to happen.  In the letter from Hebrew’s and the other Gospel’s, especially Mark where we glimpse more of Jesus’ humanity than we do in our reading today from John.

In John there is never a question that Jesus is the very word of God.  The very creative force that has taken human form to walk with us.  To suffer with us and ultimately to be put to death to prove that God’s love will not die.  The Gospel of John gives us more of the divine side of Jesus. 

Today’s Gospel comes just after Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the one we will remember next week on Palm Sunday.  Jesus has just finished a whirl wind of ministry that included the raising of this friend Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus’ ministry has fully enraged the religious and secular powers in Jerusalem.  They are not happy with this itinerate Rabbi because he is turning their economy up-side down.  In the raising of Lazarus they see Jesus even turning death into life. 

Indeed the word about Jesus’ amazing ministry has spread beyond Israel and the Roman occupation.  Today’s reading has “some Greek’s” wanting to see Jesus.  The Greek’s represent the civilized world outside of Israel.  The word has gotten out and now the world wants to see this Jesus.  The world wants to witness the casting out of demons, the curing of the incurable, and the conquering of death.

In response we hear Jesus say that his ministry is finished.  It is time.  Time for the grain of wheat to go into the ground so that it can multiply.  It is time for Jesus to show that the Love that is God will not die.  In this passage there are no tears but instead we see a confident Jesus who is going to finalize his human ministry by turning human economy and human sensibilities upside down.

This reading from John is all about turning things upside down – or really it is about Jesus turning things right-side up.  Jesus tells us that those who love their life will lose it and those who hate their life will keep it forever.  What?  This is madness!  But listen again.  Jesus is telling us that if our priority is only on ourselves.  If we only focus on our inward beings we are in trouble.  We need to focus on spreading God’s dream of Love into our world.  And if we do that we will have eternal life. 

And how do we do that?  Jesus again turns it upside down.  Jesus says we spread God’s love not by being powerful but by serving.  Jesus tells us that power over others is not what God desires but for us to serve one another.  When we allow our preoccupation with self to stop driving our actions then we can be one of that multitude that comes from the death of the grain of wheat. 

This is so upside-down from what we hear in our secular world.  A world that carefully maintains accounts to make sure that our side has more than the other.  A world that operates out of a place of scarcity so that we have to make sure that we get what is coming to us now.  A world that sees enemies in those who we think compete for the resources we desire.  A world that demonizes the other instead of celebrating the wonderful diversity of God’s creative being.

This self-centered, power hungry economy is the one that God desires to turn around.  God so loves us that God, as Jesus, took on humanity to show us that we can be something different.  Jesus’ humanity shows us that we can serve others without losing something of value.  Jesus’ shows us that God’s economy is the inverse of our economy.

It is sad that over two-thousand years later we still struggle to understand this.  We still seek power.  Our society still demeans those we see as lower than us.  Our society still see refugees and immigrants as the problem.  Our society still sees those who are sick as weak.  We still treat gender issues as binomial and hierarchical – men and women with the woman in her place.  And sometimes our churches are no better than secular institutions.  God desires nothing more than for us to put an end to this human economy.  God desires nothing more than for us to listen and to follow God’s example in Jesus. 

Because power is so seductive it is hard to topple that power.  Again this week the young people in our midst are working to topple power.  In response to the Parkland school shooting young people all around the country are saying enough.  Enough of policies that protect the powerful.  Enough of blaming mental illness for killing people.  Enough of this nonsense that we need to have uncontrolled access to powerful weapons.  In response we are seeing some of our leaders truly looking for ways that will make schools safe.  Ways that will keep powerful military grade weapons out of the hands of those who should not have them.  Unfortunately, we also have leaders who are demonizing the young people.  We have leaders who put them down and even worse we have people who threaten the young leaders with death threats. 

Once again, a tragedy is showing us that our economy is up-side down.  Once again, the vulnerable are leading us from a place of service.  Once again, if we only will listen, we hear God calling us back.  Back to an economy that is different.  An economy that values servanthood.  An economy that sees all of God’s creation as being very good.  In John’s Gospel we hear God speaking very loudly that Jesus is glorifying God.  That Jesus servanthood is a model we should follow. 

The response to Jesus’ model will be the peak of man’s inhumanity.  The response we will hear next week and on Good Friday will be to condemn that servanthood to death.  To condemn to death the love that walked among us to show us a better way. 

We know the good news in all of this.  We know the ending.  We know that God’s Love cannot be killed.  We know in our hearts that every time we try to kill God’s love by hating our neighbor.  That every time we try to kill God’s love by demonizing the other – demonizing the immigrant.  demonizing the GLBT community.  Every time we try to kill that Love that it refuses to die.  Every time that we try to kill Love we see it sprout up in the most unlikely places in the most unlikely people. 

I invite you this next two weeks to walk with Christ.  I invite you to witness with Christ man’s reaction to God’s right-side up economy.  I invite you to dare to go with Christ to the foot of the cross – where we will witness man’s violent reaction to maintaining power at any cost.  It is only by witnessing our inhumanity can we celebrate and work to bring the promise of Easter into our lives.  A promise that God’s love never dies.  A promise that God’s creation is good.  Indeed it is very good!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Follow the Light!

Sermon for Lent 4B – 2018

March 11, 2018

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

The Gospel lesson today includes what some say is the most popular verse in the Bible.  John 3:19 – “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.” According to popular culture I should be able to hoist a poster board with the reference to this verse high above my head and sit down.  End of sermon. 

But I am not letting myself, or you all, off that easily!  I have to admit that I find it a bit amusing that one of the places that you see people with signs that say John 3:19 is at sporting events.  Events where the rivalry between fans for “their teams” appears to display anything but love towards the rival team. 

I admit that I too love the verse and believe with my whole being that God loves this world and us so much that God is willing to pursue us all the way to hell to offer us that love.  Unfortunately, we seem to also use this verse as a clobber verse – a verse used to hurt rather than to heal.  We use this verse as a gateway verse that only those who publicly profess that they love Christ are worthy of God’s love.  If we don’t publicly espouse Christ as our personal Savior then we by corollary are going to that fiery place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. However, there is more to this excerpt from the Gospel of John than the, dare I say it, trite saying of a single verse taken out of context.

Jesus continues after John 3:19 with the part that should give us pause.  After promising that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it we have a warning.  The warning is that some people prefer darkness over light.  Some people prefer judgment over forgiveness.  Some people prefer evil and hate over goodness and love.  If we look a little closely at ourselves, we may find that we recognize the saying of a popular cartoon character from the era of the Vietnam war – Pogo who said “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  It seems that there is something about human nature that leads us to dwell on the darkness to the point that we refuse to see the light.

All we have to do is read the local news.  Turn on the TV or look at social media like twitter or facebook to see the baseness of our society.  We can read quotes from people who would happily hoist a John 3:19 sign at a sporting event take to twitter to demonize the young survivors of the Parkland Massacre in Florida who are advocating for Gun control.  I read an article in the Sacramento Bee just yesterday about how the young survivors are taking to social media – particularly twitter – to continue to advocate for controls that would hopefully reduce the occurrence of school shootings.  In the article it mentioned that in response to these young adult’s advocacy they are the subject to various twitter attacks that have included death threats.  The article mentions that the twitter overseers are monitoring the feeds and blocking particularly violent attacks directed towards these young people.

How is attacking survivors of a horrible mass shooting spreading the love of God?  It is not.  Instead it is following the warning in the Gospel that we are attracted to the darkness. Some in response to an evil attack are responding with darkness instead of with light.  How do we respond when we read such stories?  Do we respond with light or do we too descend into darkness?  I admit that my initial response is to demonize those who demonize these young adults.  Which again heads me down the path of darkness instead of light.

One of the most popular movie franchises of all times took this concept and ran with it.  Can you guess which movie series?  Star Wars of course.  With its battle between the light – the goodness in us all, and the dark.  The evil Darth Vader who followed the power of darkness versus his son Luke who is struggling to follow the light – the goodness of creation.  Darth Vader represents a power that threatens to destroy the world.  It is probably no secret that we are attracted to this battle of darkness against light – of evil trying to overtake the good.  We are attracted because deep down it is a battle most of us wage on a regular basis.  The dark side can be attractive.  We can almost hear the breathy voice of Dark Vader calling us to embrace the power in the hate.  “Rik – let go of the light.  Come to the dark side and enjoy the power that you will receive.”

Jesus calls us again and again to let go of the power of hate.  To let go of judgement.  God did not send Jesus to judge and to condemn but to spread light and show us a different economy.  One that instead of judging people who act darkly looks to find the spark of light in their souls and breath air on it so that the light will ignite and consume their souls.  A light that is powerful enough to shine into the dark corners where hate and prejudice like to lurk waiting for their moment to jump out and take over our better instincts.

It is hard to find ways to respond to hate with Love.  It is easy to respond in kind to those who demonize others.  When I read editorials or social media tweets that caricature homeless people as lazy slobs who enjoying using our alleys and byways as toilets.  That complain that all homeless people want to be on the streets because they are lazy and just want to do drugs and drink themselves into oblivion.  When I hear or read such things I become angry. 

I get angry because I minister with a good number of homeless people.  People who have been on the streets for many years who really are trying to find a way to get a home off the streets.  I know some young people who have been on the streets for most of their lives – indeed they were practically born on the streets and in one case both parents are homeless and have been for over a decade.  One young man yearns to get a Job and a home.  But it is nearly impossible because having lived on the streets for most of his life he has no high school diploma.  He has no address to provide prospective employers.  So how is he supposed to get a job.  I know many homeless people who would love to get off the streets but for various reasons have trouble connecting with services or with finding a landlord who will rent to a person who has no recent housing history to provide.

Similarly, when I hear people demonize immigrants as “bad hombres” who are all criminals that come to our country to continue in a life of crime and to take Jobs away from “good Americans” my response is to get angry.  This caricature refuses to acknowledge that most of the people in this country, with the exception of the first peoples – the Native Americans – have relatives who just a few generations back came to this country as immigrants looking for a better life.  My own Great-grandmother came to this country form Ireland as an indentured servant likely to escape the brutality of the potato famine.  It seems the response is now that our families have the better life our ancestors were seeking we need to slam shut the doors to people from countries who are fleeing violence and economic disasters.  We hear people lump all people with brown skin as evil while those with white skin are ok and to be welcomed.  Racism is one of those dark forces that lurk and lure folks to the evil side.

The hard part is that when we get angry over just causes, be it for the victims of violence, for folks without shelter, or for immigrants looking for a better life, as did my ancestors, the hard part is not to respond with darkness but to respond with light.  It is far too easy for us to caricature those we disagree with as insensitive gun huggers, as insensitive elitists who want a country where the homeless are not seen, or as incurable racists.  It is too easy to take a dark road in the name of light.  And that never works.

So how do we respond to evil with lightness?  We do that when we respond with love to those who are demonized.  We do it when we look for ways to influence policy by advocating for just laws.  We do it when we vote for politicians that we hope will also spread light.  Frankly we can spread light in simple ways such as advocating for public bathrooms so that homeless folk, not to mention anyone else who is out in our city, have a sanitary place to go.  But I won’t get on that soapbox today.  I’ll save that one for another sermon!

Jesus did indeed come to the world to save and not to condemn.  But he also came to warn us against our own dark sides.  To warn us against following that dark instinct that leads us to hate instead of love.  But God promises if we just repent and follow the light.  If we feed the love rather than the hate.  If we do that we will be welcomed with open arms into God’s great dream of love.

Lent is a great time for us to examine our hearts and see if we are fanning the flames of love and following the Great Commandment to Love God and Love our neighbors.  Or are we following the breathy voice of Darth Vader and going over to the dark side – fanning the flames of hate.  And if we find areas of darkness Lent is a great time to shine the light of God’s love into those dark places.  For when we do that our dark sides will be crucified with Christ and the light and love will be raised with Christ into glory on Easter.