Wednesday, March 22, 2017

John 11 Grace Unbound

There once was young man in the prime of his life. My goodness, he was something. All you had to do was ask him and he would tell just exactly how something, something he was.

Mind you, not everything in this young man’s life was roses. He didn’t think so anyway. All you had to do was ask him and he would tell you just exactly how hard his life was. You see, he had a brother who was kind of a tool. All he did was work all day and then come home, eat, and go to bed. The next day, his brother would be up at dawn, work all day, come home and eat, and go to bed. The next day, well, you get the picture. It was hell living with his brother. Seriously, a living hell of uber-responsibility and boredom.

And then of course, there was the young man’s father. Everyone thought the old man was a prince, a king, a king of kings even. He was honest, loving, generous, and really, really healthy. Disaster, thought the young man. The old guy is too good to get himself killed by accident and too healthy to die anytime soon. I’m stuck here, the glorious, gorgeous, madly in love with himself young man thought. Stuck here in Nowhere Town with the brother from hell and the utterly divinely wonderful father who won’t get out of my way. What is an up and coming prime specimen of man like myself supposed to do?

And so the young man determined his plan to take charge of his life, to make himself into the man he always knew that he was destined to be. He would ditch the tool, snitch the old man’s money, the money that ought to be his, that would be his one day anyway, and he would run like the dickens toward the lights of the city and the life he knew should be his. And in that moment, the young man began to die.

Life was pretty fabulous in Somewhere Town. The up and coming young man had everything he could want, everything his father’s generosity, his father’s money, could buy. He had the cool leather jacket, the Ray-Ban shades, the cherry red Lamborghini. He had a different girl every night. He had the best tables at the best restaurants and the best wine to drink while he waited—not very long because of course he was really really cool and up and coming—for the very best of the best food.

Life was really really good—until one morning, the up and coming young man stuck his debit card in the ATM and was rewarded with the blue screen of death flashing: Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds. Well, how could that be? He had tons of money. He tried again…Insufficient funds…Insufficient funds. Well, OK. Fine. I’ll just use my credit cards. Denied. Denied. Denied. The fancy hotel kicked him out. The car was repossessed. The girls politely declined. And the maĆ®tre d sneered. And he died just a little more.

He was hungry. Very, very hungry. So hungry that the slop he gave the pigs looked – well, a little tasty. Every the banana peels and the orange rinds and the leftover heels of the bread looked a little more appetizing. Until one morning, as he munched on a potato skin spread with lovely coffee grounds, he came to himself. Even my father’s slaves have better food to eat than this. Perhaps if I just apologize, perhaps if I throw myself on my father’s mercy, perhaps if I promise never, ever to be such a dumb apple ever, ever again, perhaps my father will let me sleep in the barn and eat a little of the leftovers from the table. I am as good as dead. I will go home before I die. And so, the very down on his luck, nearly dead, and oh so dirty young man crawled and hobbled his way toward home.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch….the older brother fumed. As if his life of incessant work, work, work hadn’t been bad enough, now, when he finally gets done working and comes home, just looking for a little peace and quiet, he has to deal with the sounds of his father’s weeping, the sight of his father’s grief. For crying out loud, that no good son of his father was gone. Why could nobody else see what a good thing that was? Why were all the neighbors standing around the yard, weeping and wailing, sitting in the parlor, eating them out of house and home? What was his father thinking to mourn so long and so hard for someone who had treated the both of them so badly?

My son is dead, his father cried. My son, whom I love is dead. And, as the older brother stormed from the house in anger, he did not know, he could not see, just how dead he was, too.

And then one night, as the father stood at the gate deeply disturbed in his soul and weeping for love of his sons, he saw far off in the distance his beloved younger boy. The father, filled with compassion, ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him, shouting as he went, “Celebrate! Kill the fatted calf! This son of mine was lost and is found; he was dead and now he is alive! And so the neighbors and friends and servants—and even the animals in the yard—jumped for joy, praising God and giving thanks.

But the elder son stood in the dark. My son, beloved son, come out of the dark, the father called. Why should I, the son shouted back. I’d hate to interrupt all the fun—who needs me at a party for that son of yours? I need you, the father called. I love you. I cannot bear to lose you. Come—out of the dark.

That’s the invitation. That’s the gift that is waiting for each one of us. That’s the call that God desires above all else to place upon our lives and our deaths. Come out of the dark. Live. Let go of all that binds you, all that holds you in the grip of deathliness. Let go and let God give you the gift of life. That is the invitation that drew the younger son home. That is the invitation that called Lazarus from the grave. That is the invitation we hear through the darkness that so often surrounds us.  I love you. You are mine. Come—out of the dark.

We want to take this story of Lazarus and consign it to the ash heap of history or worse yet, to myth, to airy tale. That was then, we say, when people were less sophisticated and wise than we are, when modern medicine hadn’t made the difference between death and deep unconsciousness or coma so clear. This is now when we all know better. We want to say that dead is dead and therefore, if Lazarus even existed, he couldn’t possibly have been actually dead, or, in the words of that great philosopher Monty Python, a definitely deceased ex-human being. We want to claim either a rational explanation for Lazarus’ amazing comeback—or else that the incident didn’t happen at all—but was merely a metaphor for the rejuvenating effect of Jesus’ charismatic personality on the people who followed him.

Of course, that’s what we want to do. Because if we were to allow God this type of power, the power to roll back the stone, to call us forth from the grave, to command sin and death to unbind us and let us go, if we were to admit that the miracle of life rests in the hands of our holy God, then all of our excuses for remaining in the grave would be seen for just that, excuses to stay dead when we could be enjoying life abundant and giving thanks to God. If we were to admit this kind of power to our God, then standing outside in the dark and refusing to come in to God’s marvelous light would be shown for the stubborn sinful stupidity that it is.

This is what I believe. This is what I have seen over and over again in the lives of God’s living saints, in your lives and in mine. This is what I know to be true. God has the power to stand before the open grave of our lives and command the demons of sin and brokenness and death to unbind us and let us go. God can do this—because God has done it. The younger son was restored to life. Lazarus came forth from the grave. Jesus the only Son of God rose from death into new and eternal life. God can do this. God can do this for you and for me and for all the saints who have gone before and for the saints who are yet to walk the earth. God can throw open the gates of hell. God can call forth the living from the dead. God can defeat the power that death continues to hold over us. God can because God has.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the stone has been rolled away from the grave. The lost have been found. The dead have been restored to life. The party is on and we are all invited. Come out of the dark and rejoice.

Friday, March 17, 2017

John 8:1-11 That Woman

Go your way and from now on do not sin again.

There are days when I am delighted that this story of the woman caught in adultery is written in brackets in my bible (NRSV). On those days, I find it comforting that the authenticity of this story is suspect enough that translators have separated it from the rest of the text. Because on those days I don't much like this story.

I hate the premise of the story, the fact that this woman was caught in the "very act" of committing adultery. I have visions of a bunch of peeping Toms sneaking around outside her window waiting for the clothes to come off. Yuck. The fact that Jesus gives this nonsense a minute of his time is beyond distasteful. 

Then, there's the small matter that unless this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery all by herself, there's someone missing here. I want to know where the woman's partner is and I keep waiting for Jesus to want to know that, too.

And then, of course, there's the whole mercy thing. I hate that this might be what unconditional grace looks like, because there are days when what Jesus does here feels pretty darned conditional to me. "I do not judge you...but don't do it again." Which, some days, sounds like a not terribly subtle threat—you better watch out, you better not sin, 'cause mercy may not come this way again any time soon.

There are days when I am delighted that this story of the woman caught in adultery is cordoned off with brackets in my bible. Because it is, and because its authenticity is therefore questionable, I can disregard this piece of John’s good news as no good news at all, and I can ignore the claim it makes on my life. If it's not really a Jesus story, then it doesn't really me...right?

I attended a Baptist seminary. Conversion stories, personal salvation narratives, were big there, the coin of the realm. Being a Presbyterian, I didn't have one. Presbys tend to answer the "When were you saved?" question, with "2000 years ago on Calvary." Yes, it's a snotty answer, but, hey, any port in a storm, right?

This time the question that came was a little different. Not so much when, but why. Why were you saved? Having the whole "2000 years ago on Calvary" thing ready to go, the question threw me for a loop. "Why?" I asked, playing for time. "Ummmm, because...Jesus...loves me, this I know???"

Well, yes. Jesus does love us. Enough to save our sorry selves from the mess we sinners make of our lives, over and over again. And that is grace. 

But my seminary questioner was right, too. Mercy, grace, salvation ought to make a difference. Paul says that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. To be given mercy, to receive grace, to be saved, is a second chance to be a new creation.....or a third, or a fourth, or a be different, to live free, to go and sin no more. 

Grace upon grace, mercy upon mercy, never-ending, new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. It changes you, if you'll let it.

 Go your way, and from now on do not sin.

Mercy, grace, a second chance. Here's hoping that, someplace down the line, the woman's partner had the sense to take the same deal.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

What Mary did... John 2:1-11

One of the hardest things a parent ever does is to leave her child in someone else’s care for the very first time. For some, it’s handing a three page list of instructions to the babysitter (who may well be a grandma or grandpa, who raised 12 children of their own – but still!) and walking out the door. For some, it’s checking the diaper bag for the fortieth time as the baby goes to daycare. For some, it’s waving at the hind end of the school bus as it pulls away from the curb.  For me, it was the first day of nursery school.

You see, there’s this little dance that happens. Moms and dads with brave smiles frozen on their faces arrive with little ones held firmly, and I do mean firmly, by the hand. As they enter the building, there is much encouraging chatter – “You’ll have a great time – you’ll see.” “Your teacher is so nice, you’ll love her and she will love you.” “Daddy will be right back, I promise.” It’s a little hard to tell who is trying to convince whom that everything will be all right.

Finally the moment comes and the teachers with firm but pleasant smiles begin to move the parents to the exits. One last hug and the door to the classroom swings shut. But do the parents leave? Well, some do, the ones with six more children, all older. But most just stand around in the hallway or outside on the grass, chatting, pretending to themselves that they could leave, and will, when they've finished catching up with old friends. They are the ones who listen to each other with only one ear, the other tuned in to a frequency that only they can hear, the sound of their child’s voice. And then, there are the ones like me who had no shame at all and simply sneaked back to the window to take one more little peek just to make sure.  

Eventually, even I got in my car and drove home. At some point, you have to put it in the hands of the Lord and walk away. 

But that kind of trust comes very hard for us in this culture in this time and place. In agriculture economies, those who live off the soil know from their earliest days that there is a great deal over which they have no control. You can toil from dawn to dusk – but hailstorms and clouds of locust, drought and dust, frost and famine still come, crops still fail, and sometimes nothing can stop that. In the technologically advanced West, however, we have been brought up on the cultural myth that our destinies are within our power to control. Deeply ingrained in our collective psyche is the belief that there is no problem that humankind faces that does not have a solution; we may not have the solution in our hands yet, but make no mistake, the solution is out there waiting for some Louis Pasteur, some Thomas Edison, some Alfred Nobel, some Bill Gates to discover it. In fact, sociologists tell us that one of the great difficulties of Western life post-9/11 is facing up to the sudden realization that there may in fact be threats to our security and way of life that we cannot, in all times and places, control. As one New York City security chief has so famously said, “We are always in the process of defending ourselves against the last threat.”

We have a lot to learn from the mother of Jesus, Mary. Present in the home where a wedding celebration is being held, she realizes the wine is all gone. She turns to her son, Jesus, who is also there, along with his disciples, and says, quite simply, “They have no wine.” Jesus wiffle/waffles around a bit, distancing himself from the problem, the place, the time, even his mother’s implied demand, but his mother never flinches. She knows her son, she knows where he came from, she knows what the God who gave him to her can do, and she believes.
So many of us, western Protestants, in particular, have problems with the mother of Jesus.  Too passive, we say. Too classically female, always just standing around taking what’s handed out to her, waiting to be filled up by the Holy Spirit like a car at the gas station. We like Peter or Paul much better – the men of action, rushing here and there, baptizing, building, preaching, making things happen. 

But we have much to learn from this woman, Mary, who does not wait for the actions of others but intentionally and with purpose rests her life and the life of the son whom she loves in the hands of God. Far from being passive, hers is, next to Jesus’ own, perhaps the most active faith in view in the New Testament. We have much to learn from Mary about who God is and what God can do.

The question is:  Can you and I live as she does? Can we lay down our need to control, our need to follow an agenda that we set, our need to provide for ourselves in all things, and say to the Lord, “Let it be with me according to your will?” Do we have the energy, the perseverance in prayer, the openness of spirit to trust not only that our Shepherd will supply our need in the big things of life, but that even when the wine runs out, the Word made flesh can and will provide? Can we live as Mary did, as visible signs of God’s glory in the world, pointing always to the One who came into the world that we might receive grace upon grace upon grace upon grace?

It doesn’t seem like much of a problem, does it, that Mary hands over to her son? The wine ran out – big deal. Go to the liquor store; plan better next time. Even Jesus doesn’t seem entirely sure up front that a lack of wine for the wedding feast meets the criterion for the in-breaking of God’s grace to the natural ordering of the universe.

But no God-in-a-little-box for Mary. Mary is sure. Whatever the need, Mary is sure that the God of abundance will provide. She knows this God intimately for she has experienced God’s abundant grace in her own life and has seen God with her own eyes active and present in Jesus. For Mary, God has made a baby where there was no baby; God has made a way where there was no way. Mary knows that Jesus is God’s son as much as her own and that with God all things, even the impossible, are possible. And so she turns to the servants and speaks profoundly out of her own experience, “Do whatever he tells you.”

And suddenly, where once there were only six stone water jars, now there was wine, the best wine, more wine, much, much more wine than was needed, wine flowing like water, blessing the disciples, the guests, the bridegroom, even the snooty wine steward, with the intoxicating taste of God’s amazing grace, precious wine poured out eternally as a gift and a sign pointing straight to the heart of God. Once where there were only empty lifeless stone jars, now there was abundant life – grace upon grace upon grace upon grace.

The question is: Can we do what Mary does? 

Can we live this way? Can we stop thinking that God’s amazing grace is either the result of our own hard work or some kind of a hocus-pocus hit-the-lottery kind of trick? Can we lay down what we think we know of the way the universe is ordered and believe against all evidence to the contrary that God is in the business of doing the impossible, turning water into wine every day, quietly, miraculously, astonishingly supplying the need of a hungry, thirsty, broken world?

Can we live the faith of Mary? Can you and I live as she does? Can we lay down our need to control, our need to follow an agenda that we set, our need to provide for ourselves in all things, and say to the Lord, “Let it be with me according to your will?” Do we have the energy, the perseverance in prayer, the openness of spirit to trust not only that our Shepherd will supply our need in the big things of life – but that even when the wine runs out, the Word made flesh can and will provide? Can we live as Mary did, as signs of God’s glory in the world, pointing always to the One who came into the world that we might receive grace upon grace upon grace upon grace?

It’s time and past time to stop worrying that we’re running short of wine. It’s time and past time to stop putting God into a little box that has no room for the miraculous, time to stop proclaiming that this and only this is what God can and will do. It’s time that we took a look at the stone water jars of our lives and trust the God of abundance to fill them up and refill them and fill them again. Grace upon grace upon grace upon grace. Jesus did this, the first of his signs in Cana in Galilee and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 

The question is:  Do we?

Friday, March 3, 2017

In the beginning...Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. John 1:1-3

I’ve been running this passage around in my mind since Ash Wednesday when I joined friends in reading my way through the Gospel according to John. I hear John singing the glories of the creative power of Word, the Word that spoke all things into being, the Word made flesh, the Word that has come to live among us, the Word present at the creation, present in Christ Jesus, present in the church, and present, according to the promise, in me.

And I wonder. What are my words? What words have shaped me and formed me, spoken me into being?

We are proud of you. Good words, words my parents spoke into the awful adolescent years. I love you. Will you marry me? Words that changed my life and gave me a partner to share it. Mommy. Only surpassed in the pantheon of fabulous words by Gamma. Sweet words treasured in the night when sleep is hard to come by.

You’ve passed. From the Driver’s License exam to the ordination exam, words that bring a sigh of relief as much as a sense of a job well done. Will you be a faithful teaching elder….Tears ran down my face, and my father’s face, too. Pretty sure it had to do with the whole “proud of you” word. Will you be our pastor? Now there is a precious word I sometimes wondered if I would ever hear. 

There were hard words, too. You’re not invited. Wow, even now, that word cuts to the bone. She’s fought the good fight. There’s nothing more that we can do. I’m sorry, so very, very sorry. The destroyer of worlds, a word spoken into silence at a million bedsides. We lost Peter—I lost my baby—I lost my job—I lost my wife. The phone rings—a word is spoken and nothing is ever the same. 

And, for me, the Word that redeems, comforts, creates, builds, saves my life again and again: This word: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… And this: Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And most of all, this: Do not fear, for I am with you; I have called you by name and you are mine. The Word that was in the beginning with God; the Word that is God. The creative Word through whom and in whom and with whom and by whom all things are made. 

I’ve been thinking about the Word, the words, that make me who I am. What are some of yours?