Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lent 3A

Last week, Jesus encountered Nicodemus. This week, he meets the woman at the well. And the two encounters couldn’t be more different.

Nicodemus is a man. She’s a woman. Nicodemus arrives at midnight. Jesus meet the woman at noon. Nicodemus is a highly educated, a greatly respected moral and religious leader.

The woman is an outcast, forced to retrieve her water from the well under the hot sun, instead of during the cool morning breeze, with the rest of the women.

He’s received honours throughout his life. She’s been rejected by most people who knew her.

I’m more like Nicodemus than I am like the woman at the well. I think most of us here are as well. We may have our fair share of rejection in our lives, but we managed to get through it with the help of friends, family, and fellow church members.

While the woman at the well has been the victim of her circumstance, she was also a survivor. She lived in a culture that placed woman in the same category as livestock. She observed a religion on the fringes of her world.

She was a member of a race that was met with hostility by the surrounding peoples. Her family was held together by the flimsiest of strings. She bounced from one bed to another, just to secure food and shelter for another night for herself and her children.

We know his name. We don’t know hers.

Like I said, I have no idea who this woman is. I can’t imagine what her life is like.

Despite the pain I’ve experienced in my years, I can’t measure it against her suffering. I can’t put myself in her dusty sandals. I don’t see my face in hers. She’s a stranger to me.

I’m guessing it’s the same is most for most of you. It was certainly the same for Jesus. Jesus was more like Nicodemus than he was the woman.

Even though he was a poor, wandering, homeless, preacher, he still had the respect of his friends (for the moment), crowds gathered to hear him speak. He saw the gratitude in peoples’ eyes as they were healed. His life was pretty good.

And Jesus could have easily walked past the woman at the well. He’d seen hundreds like her. He could have walked past her as he walked past the thousands of beggars in back alleys who didn’t come to hear him preach, or the lepers who stayed at a safe distance so not get to into trouble by being so close to others.

But something must have caught Jesus’ attention that day. It was probably his parched throat, since they’d be walking for hours. He was thirsty. She had water.

In what must have sounded like a reverse pick-up line, Jesus asked her for a drink. And she probably thought that this strange man wanted more than a cup of water from her. And just as Jesus received water for his dry mouth, she received water for her dried up soul.

It turns out that Jesus knew everything about her. The men. The rejection. The pain. His knowledge came from God but it probably wasn’t hard for him to guess what her life was like. Her story wasn’t unique.

Of course she bounced from bed to bed, she had no other option. She traded her body for a flimsy security. Of course, she had to get water from the well at the hottest time of the day, the respectable women would push her away if she showed up at a more convenient time.

She was just trying to get through her life and provide for her children the best way she knew how.

She was strong. But she felt weak. She was resilient. But she felt like she would collapse from exhaustion at any moment. She was tough. But she longed to just let herself fall down and rest.

And here was this Jewish preacher, who, by definition, should be her enemy. This man who preached the ancient faith and worshipped in the REAL temple. This man who exuded life and strength. This man, who by all accounts should hate her, looked at her with a love she’d never seen in a long time - if ever.

He told her all about her life. And he didn’t forgive her of her sins. At least not in words. He didn’t have to. He drank from her cup. He accepted her gift of water.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t know what to say. They just watched this scene unfold with their mouths hanging open, until one of them had to put a stop to it.

“Don’t you know who this woman is? Why are you talking to her?”

That’s when she took off. She didn’t want to be reminded of her past, because, all of a sudden, she could see a different future for herself - God’s future for her life.

This Samaritan woman who bounced from bed to bed, who worshipped in a sham temple, who was hated by everyone, became the first gentile evangelist, spreading the good news to those beyond Israel’s borders, making true John’s announcement that “God so love the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

And, on that day, God’s saving work spilled into the world, from a broken woman, simply trying to survive.

“Come and see!” she says, “He can’t be the Messiah, can he?”

Not exactly the proud proclamation of the disciples. But a proclamation nonetheless. People probably never looked at her the same way ever again.

I don’t know why that is, but that’s the way God works. God has a way of using our brokenness for God’s purposes. God has a way using our weakness to show God’s strength. God has a way of using our pain to reveal God’s glory.

God seems to be attracted to pain and weakness. That could be because that’s where God’s greatest work is done.

I’ve noticed that’s true in my life and ministry. When I meet people as “Pastor Kevin” or “Rev. Powell” I encounter a shield where people protect themselves, afraid of what I may say about their lives.

But when I drop the titles and formalities, when I take off my collar and minister to people as one who’s gone through his own personal issues; the death of a parent, a divorce, and depression, then people drop their guards, and I can minister as one human being to another, trusting that God will bring healing in the midst of common pain. In fact, it’s in that shared experience, that the healing work begins. For both of us.

So, the woman at the well was the perfect first evangelist. She couldn’t look down her nose at anyone. She was no one’s judge. All she had to do was point to Jesus and say, “Come and see the man who told me everything about me...and made me a new person, and gave me a new future.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lent 2A

“Ask me what I know,” he told me, “don’t ask me what I believe.”

This was from a well-known bible scholar, who, in a moment personal honesty, confessed that what he knew intellectually after a lifetime of dissecting ancient texts, was different than what he believed personally.

It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the Christian faith to be false, or that what he learned from studying the bible all those years turned out to be a fabrication or delusion. He had no malicious intent.

“Ask me what I know. Don’t ask me what I believe....Because,” he said, “I don’t know what I believe. I’m still searching.”

I appreciated his openness. It couldn’t have been easy for him to share his personal faith crisis with some young punk who had more answers than there were questions.

Sharing his doubts was his way of saying that a lifetime of searching doesn’t necessarily mean a lifetime of finding.

Just ask Nicodemus.

He spent his life in study and prayer. He knew the bible backwards and forwards. He read the philosophical masters. He spent years absorbing the wisdom of the centuries. He understood profound truths.

But he couldn’t quite understand Jesus. His curiosity must have consumed him because, as did his sense of personal safety, because he goes to great lengths to find out more about Jesus.

Nicodemus has to slink around at night so no one will see him, to find Jesus. He wants to learn something. He knows that Jesus has come from God, but also knows that Jesus’ divine origin is a little controversial in the halls of the learned. He just wants to get a handle on Jesus, and how Jesus can be from God.

But Jesus seems to be more interested in riddles than answers.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it.

“What am I supposed to do, climb back and in and make my way out again?”

Looks like Nicodemus is taking Jesus WAY too literally. But I encounter this all the time. When talking to a pastor A LOT of people revert back to their childhoods where they take the bible, and stuff preachers say, with childish simplicity.

For example, I was trying to explain to someone the different between Catholic and Lutheran understandings of grace, and I used an example of a broken window.

“Say you threw a ball and accidentally broke your neighbour’s window,” I said.

“What!? Is breaking a window a sin? Why would God punish me for accidentally damaging someone’s property? Why would God send me to Hell if it were an accident? Does God have more important things to do than worrying about a broken window?”


I would imagine that Jesus had the same reaction to Nicodemus. Despite all his years of school, and his skills in critical thinking, he reverted back to a time when truth was literal and black-and-white. No imagery or metaphor. Imagination not needed.

Jesus calls him on his lazy thinking, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

I think Jesus said this with a twinkle in his eye followed by a wink. I don’t think that Jesus was trying to shame Nicodemus. He was saying, “C’mon, Nick, you know better than that.”

What I like about this story is that Jesus doesn’t then spell out what he means. He gets even more metaphorical, and paints even weirder pictures. He talks about Moses and the serpent, heavenly truths and earthly facts colliding. He talks about the Son of Man - Humanity’s Child - being lifted up.

Then he sums up this whole passage, and indeed, his entire message and mission, with the familiar words:

“God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but 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.”

We don’t know whether or not Nicodemus was any closer to understanding Jesus than when he began. But my guess is that he was just as clueless when he left as when he came.

He disappeared back into the darkness, and we never hear from him again until chapter seven when he’s consulted about a fine point in the law, and again, after Jesus died, when he assisted Joseph of Aramethia in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. He’s not a major player in this story.

Who knows what he told his friends when he got home, if anything. After all, he didn’t want anyone to know he met with Jesus, so he probably just kept what he heard to himself.

Since we don’t hear very much from him, I wonder if he was a secret follower of Jesus, keeping his mouth shut and his head down, lest he be detected by the other religious leaders and get himself into some trouble.

I don’t know if Nicodemus really understood what Jesus was saying. But then again, I’m not sure that was the point. If Nicodemus came to faith it wasn’t because Jesus argued him into it. Jesus didn’t even try to reason with him or answer his questions. But it was through Jesus himself, an encounter with the God within him - that Nicodemus came to understand who Jesus was.

He may not have fully understood who Jesus was, but then again, do any of us really know? For most of us Jesus is a mystery; a puzzle to piece together, a spiritual knot to unravel, a fuzzy picture we can’t bring into focus.

But I think what is more important than KNOWING Jesus, is to be KNOWN by Jesus. And that we can be sure of.

In the waters of baptism, where we have been born again from above, we are joined to his life, his death, and his resurrection. In baptism, we are KNOWN by Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, this is a HUGE relief. It means that I’m freed from the tyranny of trying to understand what God is all about. It means that I have enough faith in Jesus to follow him. It means that, no matter how hard I try, I will never know him well enough or fully understand his role in God’s saving story. But I know that I play a part in that story.

This isn’t to say that we don’t keep exploring who God is and what God wants for us. Nicodemus certainly never put his feet up in comfort or threw up his hands in confused resignation. He still questioned. he still investigated and searched.

But he also lived his faith as part of the searching, following Jesus in his own way, playing his part in God’s saving story.

And so do YOU. You play your own part in God’s ongoing, unfolding, story. Not only by knowledge, but also by faith, by trust, by hope. And you tell God’s story with your lives. Being not just a source of knowledge about God, but a blessing to people you meet.

And, together we study and we pray. We discuss and we discern. We search and we proclaim. We live God’s story together. We follow Jesus as a family.

Perhaps, at the end, that’s all we can do. God has done the rest.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent 1A

NB: With a bit 'o help from Douglas John Hall and Maryetta Anshutz in Feasting on the Word.

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In a sermon a few months ago I asked you, “How would you recognize God’s voice if you heard it? And how would you know it was God’s?”

Today, I want to adjust the question a little, and ask, “How would you know the Devil’s voice if you heard it? What does the voice of evil sound like? How would you know evil if it was sitting across the table from you?”

On the surface, the answer may sound obvious. Just listen for the sound of the guttural voice, growling under your bed at night.

Or look for the goateed fellow in the red pajamas and pitch fork standing on your shoulder, whispering naughty suggestions in your ear.

Or the guy with horns growing out of his forehead, laughing at you while you try to follow the bible’s moral guidance.

Is that what you hear when you listen for the voice of evil?

Or maybe you’re not so fanciful. You know that there’s evil in the world and it bears no resemblance to a cartoon character. You’ve seen it. Heard it. And felt it.

Maybe for you, the voice of evil is the one justifying child poverty in our communities as a unavoidable result of economic changes.

Maybe it’s the voice of third world dictators oppressing their people as they try to hang on to power.

Maybe it’s the church leaders who covered up decades of sexual abuse.

You can say that the voice of evil is everywhere, shouting in our ears.

And that would be true. But I would say that the voice of evil doesn’t only shout, but also whispers.

The voice of evil sends us subliminal messages, until evil’s message makes its way into our lives, and before we know it, we stop recognizing it as evil.

I think that’s the evil that Jesus was fighting in the desert. After all, there wasn’t anything in the devil’s temptation list that we don’t affirm as good. Yet Jesus rejects as evil. Or at least outside of his mission and God’s plan for him.

Look at the first temptation. The devil knows he’s hungry. After all, Jesus hasn’t eaten in weeks. I’m sure he was getting the tummy rumbles.

So the devil says, “Hey, Jesus, just turn the bread into stone. You’re famished. People will understand. Plus it would be a really cool trick.”

“One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus replied. “But by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Okay, Jesus. Be that way.

The devil then takes him to the roof of the temple.

“Jesus, if you just jumped from here, the angels will swoop in and carry you to the ground. Then people will know who you are, and will listen to you and believe your message is from God.”

“The bible says, ‘Don’t test God.’”

Okay, Jesus. But this is a lost opportunity. Don’t you know about the power of self-promotion?

Then the devil shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world. “Think of it Jesus, think of all the good you could do if YOU were in charge and not these petty, selfish, ham-fisted, rulers. You could REALLY set the world straight - one YOUR OWN terms. All you have to do is bow to me just once.”

“The bible says, worship the Lord your God, and only him.”

“Okay, Jesus, leave the world to these small-minded incompetents. Let’s see how THAT works out.”

Then the devil disappeared and the angels nursed Jesus back to health.

But I’m not sure that Jesus passed the test, because I don’t think that test ever finished. The devil was just getting started.

These temptations popped up all through Jesus ministry. Jesus had to be on his guard against the forces of evil trying to end his mission, trying to pull him away from God’s purpose for him.

It may seem like the devil tempted Jesus with three different temptations, but I think there was one temptation running through each of them, and through Jesus’ entire earthly mission: the temptation to power.

The power to bend the world to feed personal desire; the spiritual power over the heavenly realms to draw attention to himself rather than to God’s message; and political power over earthly kingdoms.

The devil tried to get Jesus to abandon his mission of changing the world through love, by tempting him to change the world by force. Force is easier than love.

And since the devil failed to tempt Jesus, he turned his guns on to a more susceptible group: the church. Christians. Us. I think we’re being tempted everyday by the very things that Jesus was tempted by.

When our churches aspire to be religious corporations rather than servants to the poor and hurting, we are being tempted by the devil to abandon Jesus’ mission.

When we demand that Christians be given preferential treatment from government and culture, and seek to change the world by force or by legislation rather than by love, the devil wins a victory.

When we worry more about doctrine and dogma than about sharing and being good news to broken people in a sin-stained world, we succumb to evil’s temptation.

And, of course, we DO fail the devil’s test, just as we fail God’s test. The devil knows the standard by which we will be judged, and knows the evil that lives within us. The devil knows what buttons to push.

The devil knows that we aspire to transcend our humanity, that we have a will to dominate, that our selfish impulses often overwhelm our desires to do good.

The devil knows that we are capable of terrible evil and incredible good. The devil knows that we are muddle of mixed motivations, and the harder we try to deny the darkness within us, more darkness comes out of us.

We will be tempted. And will fail. We ARE tempted. We DO fail.

But Jesus, finally, did not.

He passed the test by dying on the cross rather than crown himself as king. He conquered his enemies by suffering a horrible defeat. He won the war by losing the battle.

Love won over force. Servanthood was victorious over power.

On the cross Jesus overcame our darkness with God’s light. A light that glows with a cleansing fire. A light that disinfects. A light that shines in our hidden places. A light that fills the whole world with God’s loving grace.

That’s why I don’t worry too much about our future. I know we’ll be tempted and I know we’ll fail. But Jesus has passed the test for us. And that’s all we need.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Today is about death. Your death. My death. There’s no sugar-coating or watering it down. We are dust and to dust we WILL return.

And you came to hear this message. Many of you were here last year as well, so it’s not as if this was a case of bait-and-switch. You knew what you were getting into when you laced up your boots, put on your coats, and negotiated the dirty streets to get here.

You arrived expecting to hear that “you are dust and to dust you will return.” And if you didn't hear that message, you might just turn around and walk out.

And it’s not as if you didn’t have other options. Especially when we’ve had the first beautiful day in months and an evening walking might have been mighty tempting

But something drew you to this place to hear this specific message, a message that you probably wouldn’t hear anywhere else: “remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

Maybe you’ve come because you have questions about life, death, and what comes after. Maybe you’ve been told a story of what a fulfilling life is supposed to be but that story doesn’t sit well in your ears. You want to know how life and death connect. You want to know that your life means something.

Maybe you’re asking: what DOES make a fulfilling, purposeful life? Does my life matter in some grand scheme?

Often we answer those questions by saying that we need to build something that will outlast us: establish a business, build a school in Peru, create a thriving church, write a book.

Or we say that it’s not our accomplishments that make life fulfilling, but the love we’ve given and received along the way; the deep human connections that tell us that we are not alone, that we are truly known, and we know others with the same closeness.

But our accomplishments are fleeting: Churches close. Schools crumble. Businesses get sold. Books sit unread. Our labor doesn’t live on much longer after we’re gone.

And, every relationship ends, whether by distance, by conflict, or by death. We will, one day, part ways with those whom we cherish the most, we’ll say goodbye to the one we love most deeply. With great love comes great loss.

So maybe you ask, what’s then, the point? If everything dies, our dreams, our accomplishments, our relationships, then why bother with any of it?

If life means nothing, then all we can do is live for the moment because any moment could be our last. If we try to create immortality through our accomplishments then we’ll find ourselves empty handed when our lights are finally turned off. If we’ll say good-bye to everyone some day, then why get close to people at all?

What, then, do we do?

Do we then fulfill every selfish desire or follow every guttural instinct for pleasure, since everything we are and know can be snatched away from us in a failed heartbeat? How do we live with the knowledge that our entire existence will dissolve into nothing?

We are dust, and to dust we will return.

I guess the question is, how do we respond to our dustiness? Do we hunker down afraid to leave the house? Do we deny our mortality and live lives of quiet mediocrity, wasting countless hours watching silly sit-coms and poisoning our bodies with junk food, as if each day will be followed by another in endless succession?

Or do we see life as a gift that is not ours’ to keep? Our lives are not our own since they could be taken from us at any moment.

We can respond in gratitude for what we’ve been given. We can respond by living a life that matters, if only for a season; a life that connects deeply with those around us; a life that is not just about consuming, but also about giving. A life not for ourselves, but a life offered to others to be shared.

Knowing - really knowing - that we are dust and to dust we will return can make us more generous, more kind, more gracious. Maybe that’s the gift of death, if death can be said to be a gift. Knowing that we are fragile and finite beings brings us together in common cause to create something new and beautiful each day.

Our dustiness can remind us that we have children, not just because we have a primal urge to procreate, but so we can learn to love all children.

We chase after our dreams, not just to leave something of ourselves behind after we’re gone, but so we can use our gifts to build on what God is doing.

We create strong relationships, not to use others for selfish gain or lustful desire, but because we’re created to connect. We long to share ourselves.

The rarity and preciousness of a finite life are magnified by a God who sees us through the eyes of eternity. A God who has defeated the power of death. A God who knows that our end is God’s beginning.

Remembering that we are dust and to dust we will return is to remind ourselves of the finitude of life AND the miracle of resurrection. We cannot separate the two.

Our relationships end. Our bodies give out. Our accomplishments are momentary.  Everything on earth dies.

But God does not. God is at work making everything new, breathing life into everything that falls and fails. Second chances rise out of failure. Forgiveness is born from conflict. Healing emerges from pain.

Our end is God’s new beginning. Our finale is God’s overture. Our final buzzer is God’s opening whistle.

This we know by faith. By trust. By hope. There’s nothing else we can do. We have no other option. We are only dust.