Sunday, April 29, 2007

Easter 4 - Year C

(With help from Willimon’s Pulpit resource)

People are calling it, “The Bible Wars.” Which is another way of saying that Christians are fighting again.

Of course, this is nothing new. Since Peter and Paul went slugging it out in Jerusalem, Christians have taken sides against each other, while the world stood on the sidelines either shaking its heads or egging us on. Kind of like the neighbours next door who yell so loudly at each other that your fancy china rattles in the cupboards.

Some say that the bible speaks plainly, that it says what it means and means what it says.

And yes, that’s true. For me there are some parts that, on first reading, are clear as fresh water, plain as an Amish dinner, a theological “Run, Spot, Run.”

The gospel of John isn’t one of those parts. John delights in throwing mud in clear theological water. The Jesus in his gospel seems to walk two centimeters off the ground offering philosophical insights to deep spiritual questions. He rarely tells stories and he speaks in bizarre metaphor. John is like your university roommate who switches his major from business to philosophy, adopts a European affectation and starts sporting a beret. When I am looking for a plain word from God, John gives us a $1000 word when a $10 word will do.

The disciples in today’s gospel must have found John’s Jesus exasperating. He sidesteps the disciples’ simple questions. He’s evasive, ambiguous, and maddeningly mysterious. He says things like “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Or “I am bread of life.” Or, “I am the good shepherd.”

What’s all this supposed to mean? This parade of metaphors may tickle the ears of the brie and chardonnay set down at the Book Review section of the Globe and Mail, but around here we need some plain talk. After many attempts at deciphering the Jesus code, the disciples implore him, “Tell us plainly who you are.”

But Jesus is probably equally frustrated with them. He’s been talking to them for so long, about who he is and about how God wants them to live, that he’d been popping throat lozenges like popcorn. But they’re as dull as algebra. Why don’t they just get it? How hard is this stuff anyway?

In the novel, The Brothers K author David James Duncan tells the story of the Chance family, a family of four boys, two girls, an agnostic father, and a mother of a fervent fundamentalist faith. They all have passionate, but very different ideas about God, Jesus, and the Bible. A major theme in the book is the question, “Who is Jesus?” Each child attempts to make sense of the mysteries of their parents’ struggles with religion.

As, Kincaid, one of the boys puts its:

It’s strange the way everyone has their own pet notion about Jesus, and nobody’s pet notion seems to agree with anyone else’s. Grandawma, for instance, says He’s ‘just a defunct social reformer.’ Then there’s Papa, who once said that He’s God’s Son alright, and that he survived the crucifixion just fine, but after the 2000-year-old funeral service his cockeyed followers called Christians probably made him sorry He did. Meanwhile, there’s Freddy, who’s six now, and who told me she saw Christ hiding under her bed one night…And Bet, who spent a whole day making a Christmas card for uncle Marv and Aunt Mary Jane last year, then got so proud of the card that she refused to mail it to anyone but herself…Then we looked to see what she was so proud of, and it turned out to be this whole army of crayon angels, in these gold sort of football helmets, charging into Bethlehem while in the sky above them huge red and green letters copied from Christmas carol book Bet couldn’t yet read proclaimed: Joy to the World! The Savior Reigns!”

And elsewhere in the novel one of the children says:

Personally, I’m not sure just who or what Christ is. I still pray to Him in a pinch, but I talk to myself in a pinch too – and I’m getting less and less sure there’s a difference…Mamma tried to clear up all the confusion by saying that Christ is exactly what the bible says He is. But what does the Bible say He is? On one page He’s a Word, on the next a Bridegroom, and then He’s a boy, then a scapegoat, then a thief in the night; read on and on and then he’s the Messiah, then oops. He’s a rabbi, and then a fraction – a third of the Trinity – then a fisherman, then a broken loaf of bread. I guess even God, when he’s human, has trouble deciding just what he is. (David James Duncan, The Brothers K, Bantom Books, 1966, pp.58, 61, quoted in Willimon, Pulpit Resource)

I’m cataloging the books I’m reading this year, and to my astonishment, there has been only one specifically theological book on that list: A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. And even that book isn’t hardcore, mindnumbing, theologizing. It is history, autobiography, and theology all mingled together.

For me, this is a change. Since before I stepped foot on the campus of Waterloo Seminary, I’d been smitten by theological discourse. When I was an intern, I read three volumes of theology by Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall in my spare time, each volume thicker and with smaller type than the previous. And those volumes utterly changed my life.

But recently I tried reading a new system of theology and all I could think of while flipping through it was “blah blah blah. Who cares?”
This isn’t because I woke up one afternoon and suddenly realized that theology was as useless as Paris Hilton on a debating team. But I began to wonder that, after all the pieces were put together, after the system had been polished, after all Jesus’ metaphors had been processed and anatomized, if it was actually Jesus whom I was hearing. I began to ask if Jesus was more than the words that had been strung together, more than our fancy phrases and reflective faith statements.
I realized that I was like the disciples in today’s reading, exasperated with Jesus, wondering who he was and what on earth he was talking about. Too many images were flying at me at once. It was like crossing the Deerfoot at 3:00 in the afternoon, trying not to get run down.
But I could grab on to an image here and there, images that brought me to a clearer understand of who God is. I think God relates to each of us differently. That’s why there’s not one image or picture or word that we can use to describe who Jesus is or who God is. But God has drawn me in to worship and faith in ways that make sense to me, that both comfort me and stretch open my mind to newer possibilities of who God and how God wants me to live as Jesus’ follower.
My guess is that you’re the same way. It probably wasn’t a good argument that brought you here to worship. It probably wasn’t a well reasoned proposition that drew you here among God’s people. You may not know much the bible or maybe you do. Theology may be an alien science to you or it may be a life-long passion, but you came because there was something about Jesus that brought you in.

You may be a lifelong Christian or you might be checking out to see what this Christianity thing is all about.

“My sheep know my voice,” says Jesus. Or if wasn’t the voice of the Good Shepherd, maybe it was the vine that pulled you in, or the smell of bread, or maybe you simply saw an open gate and wandered through to run in God’s green pastures.

That’s the good news behind this exasperating episode; that we don’t all have to fit in the same box. What someone finds confusing another might find exhilarating. The gate is open, the bread is broken, the vine is wrapping its way along the branches, and Jesus is still reaching out to us, searching for us; gathering us in to God’s family.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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