Saturday, July 20, 2013

Slavery and Freedom

I don’t have a lot of time today.  A very tight schedule, to say the least.  And then next week gets even worse.  Here is an alert that there won’t be a Bible Study next week.  So, don’t sit by your email inbox all day next Saturday waiting for these pearls of wisdom - or momentary humorous diversion - to appear. Because they won’t.

Not that you would do that anyway.  You are busy too.  You have your lists and your obligations.  You have your journeys to make and your routes to follow.  I know that.  It is the world we live in.  We carry our calendars in our pockets, even getting them to ping our appointments to us if we are technologically savvy enough to set it up.  We rush from one to the other sometimes wondering how they all stitch together to make up the tapestry of our lives.  Wondering what the design is, and who the artist is in the end.  Us?  Our careers?  God?  Chance?  The helter-skelter result of life in the 21st Century?

I’m about to leave this undone while I go off to watch Maddie in her last Dance Showcase here in Fort Wayne.  Then I will come back and work some more, while working in packing for a week at Anderson University as chaplain to Choir School.  As well as the usual preparation for Sunday morning.  Hoping that this piece will seem coherent enough to be readable.  But not making any promises.

I was just given my time check.  Gotta go.  Be back later.  Stay tuned.  Tell you what, why do you read the scripture text for this while I run downtown for a bit?  I’ll be back.  ...

John 8:31-47   Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;  32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."  33 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?"  34 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.  35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.  36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.  37 I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.  38 I declare what I have seen in the Father's presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father."  39 They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing what Abraham did,  40 but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.  41 You are indeed doing what your father does." They said to him, "We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself."  42 Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.  43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word.  44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.  45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.  46 Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?  47 Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God." 

Back now.  Amazing.  Simply amazing.  Sometimes all I know is the girl who can’t walk for long without causing some sort of damage to herself.  Or the teenager who gets up around noon and then spends most of the day saying she needs a nap. Or food.  Or both.  And then I go watch something like this and see a woman I barely know, waltzing around the floor like that is her true home.  She flowed, she spun, she wove those graceful arms like she was directing the orchestra of creation itself.  It was amazing.  

I saw something deeper, something more real in that place than I had before.  Jesus says the truth will set you free.  Truth?  That’s the word we usually stumble over.  Truth?  What is that?  We’re a couple thousand years after Pilate, but we are still asking the question (I know, different passage - come hear Pastor Chris’ take on it next week): What is Truth?  Which is not really a question about definition, but about existence.  The question is really is there such a thing as Truth anymore?  If, indeed, there ever was.  

But interestingly, that isn’t the word the first hearers stumbled on.  They don’t even mention it.  Just let it slide by.  No, they trip over free.  What do you mean, Jesus, “set us free”?  We’re free!  We are born free.  We live free.  We are free as free can be, free as birds, free as a summer breeze.  We’re free, don’t you go implying anything about the state of our freeness.  Our freedom.  Freeishness.  So there.  Nyah.

Methinks they dost protest too much.  Though I don’t think they actually said “nyah.”  Sounded like it though.  They argued credentials and pedigree.  “We are children of Abraham!”  They debated theology.  “We are children of God!” Then they argued “ad hominem” for those high school debate scholars in the group.  They attacked the messenger when they couldn’t argue with the message. The forty-eighth verse begins the name calling.  I cut it off to preserve what little of their shaky dignity that I could.

Jesus takes them.  A little harshly it seems to some.  Scholars have complained that these verses are what has given rise to much of the Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries.  And perhaps they are right.  At least for those who don’t read closely.  If you look at the first verse of the reading, you’ll see these aren’t Jews representing the Hebrew faith, these are followers of Jesus who got the wrong end of the stick.  This is an in-house argument, not one designed to cast out a whole faith or race of people who are different than us.  This is an exercise in truth.

Freedom is not an end in itself.  That’s part of the message here, and one supremely relevant to our world today.  Like those early believers, we wrestle with freedom.  Or rather we elevate it to an ideal.  It is all about freedom we say, spreading freedom, inflicting freedom on the world around us.  Sorry, inflicting wasn’t the word I should have used there.  Though it sometimes feels like that.  But maybe if we saw truth as our greatest export, rather than freedom, our approach might be different.  

True freedom, says Jesus, comes from knowing the truth.  Which, since he will shortly reveal that he is the Truth (Jn 14:6), means knowing him.  Studying the word, which is also the Word, the living Word, the incarnate Word.  The Word that was standing right in front of them.  To know Him is to know freedom.  To see what really is, to see beyond the surface, beyond our preconceived ideas, beyond the blind spots and bad habits, beyond the limitations we inflict on ourselves and others, beyond our prejudices.  To see Truth.  And then to live Truth.

That is what freedom is, the ability, the courage, the strength to live Truth, to live as whole persons, sinners redeemed by the grace of God.  To see us as we really are, dancers and stumblers both.  Graceful and grace-filled, beloved by the One who came to live for us, claimed by the One who came to die for us, gathered up by the One who rose to glory as first fruits for our own ascension, when we will take our turn on the floor, spinning and flowing and conducting the orchestra of creation, as the cloud of witnesses applauds with pounding hearts for us.

I wanted to gather her up in my arms when she stepped off the floor, to let her know how proud I was of her, how thankful I was that she let me see her true self.  I wanted to embrace that truth so that she would know I saw it, and I know it, and am set free by it.  But since she told me she doesn’t like to be hugged anymore, I had to content myself with a fingertip touch to her shoulder and eyes full of joy and tears.  Her sunlight bright smile even as she fought to catch her breath from the dance told me that she knew.  She knew of my love for her and my pride in her, she knew.  I hope.

You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.  Amen.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Nobody at the Well

“Who are you talking to?” “Nobody.”  “Nobody?  Really?” Actually, she doesn't usually say “nobody” when I am asking her who she is texting.  She usually says “People.”  Which is code for “you don’t need to know, dad.”  And she is right, I probably don’t need to know.  Maybe I’m just nosy.  Maybe I’m all up in her grill, as they don’t really say anymore.  Or maybe like dads universal I worry about those nobodies.

Don’t talk to strangers.  That’s the mantra of our age.  And it is understandable.  Even a cursory reading of the newspaper would tell you that being away, paying attention, staying away from the unknown and the uncertain is a prudent way to live in our world today.

Yet, I wonder if we’ve gone overboard in our attempts to stay safe.  I wonder if we’ve tarred everyone who is not like us as a potential threat instead of an opportunity to grow and expand our understanding a little bit more. I wonder if we’ve exaggerated the danger in order to keep our kids safe and now we live suspicious of the unnamed nobodies we pass by on a regular basis, no longer seeing them as people but as danger, as stranger, even as enemy. 

Maybe that is safer, but it also seems like we have lost something significant here, an opportunity for relationship, for community.  If Jesus had followed our rules of approaching strangers there are many wonderful encounters that we would never have in the gospels.  Like the one from which our passage comes this week.

I purposely pulled out just a few verses from this long story so that we can focus on our theme.  But the context of the encounter is crucial to understanding this text.  Take a look at these verses and then reconstruct the whole story.

John 4:23-26  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."  25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."  26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."   
The woman at the well.  That is the usual title of this passage.  But we might also call it the nobody at the well.  But this nobody is not really a threat, for most folks she wouldn’t even register.  They would overlook her as they passed by.  As we passed by.  Let’s be honest, we wouldn’t take notice of her either.  And that is the way she preferred it.  That’s why she came to well in the middle of the day, hoping to avoid being seen, hoping to avoid the sneers and the gossip and the barbed looks.

This isn’t the time to analyze this woman and what her true situation might have been, that would take more time that we want to give here.  Suffice it to say, she was by choice a nobody.  By choice and by circumstance.  Pushed to the margins of a society that can be cruel at least as often as it is welcoming.  She was a nobody who wanted to get her task accomplished and be on her way, when her whole life was turned upside down.

Encountering Jesus upsets our agendas.  And it might explain why she (and we) tries to keep him at arms length in the conversation.  Jesus is persistent, thank God, but it takes a while to break through the walls that she has created to protect herself.  One of the ploys that she uses to distract him is to ask a question about worship. But Jesus uses that a means to get to the heart of what it is that he is trying to talk about with her.

Just when he gets to the crux of her social stigma, she diverts him by asking what appears to be a philosophical question about the geography of worship.  “My ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say we have to worship in Jerusalem.”  Not even a question, really.  More like an accusation.  You deny the tradition of my people. You think that you have all the answers and that we are just dumb hicks from the hills.  You think you are better than us because you make all the rules and leave us out of the discussion.  

Jesus takes this complaint hidden in a conversation starter and gently responds by teaching her about worship.  He reminds her in his response that worship is not about us, but about God.  Her statement/question is about our location.  Where should we be to worship?  His response is first that the object of worship is God (“true worshipers will worship the Father...”) She never talked about what is being worshiped.  Jesus says that you cannot talk about worship without talking about the One being worshiped.

Having invoked the God we worship, Jesus then is ready to talk about geography.  He doesn’t talk about it in the same way that the woman does, however.  For her it is about the location of the body.  For Jesus it is about the location of the soul.  Or the self.  Or the mind.  It gets a little blurry, I must confess.  Partly because Jesus would argue that the location of your body is also important.  But not in terms of zip code.  Instead Jesus wants to know whether our bodies are in the presence of God, or just occupying a pew.

Worship in spirit and truth.  Another Johanine duality.  (Sorry, gotta use that seminary jargon once in a while.)   A little bible study exercise - read the Gospel of John, and the letters of John and see how many times there are concepts paired together.  Light and dark, flesh and spirit, grace and truth, spirit and truth.  Sometimes these dualities are opposites, sometimes they are complementary.  

Last week we heard the prologue to John’s Gospel tell us that Christ meets us in truth, but that truth comes wrapped in grace, thankfully.  So, if Christ meets us in truth, then in order to worship we must meet Christ in truth.  To worship in truth is to bring the whole self into the act of worship.  We don’t come half-heartedly, we don’t come with the distractions of mind and body, we don’t come wishing that we were somewhere else.  We don’t come with the minutes measured out, ready to complain if the time we save for something else is used up in an act of worship. We don’t come with hearts segmented into devotions not all of which are open to God and to this moment of worship.  We worship in truth, as whole persons.

Whole persons who sometimes feel like nobodies.  Sometimes we don’t keep back something in order to spite God.  Sometimes we are less than forthcoming in our worship because we don’t think we are worthy to worship.  Sometimes we hold back because we don’t think God would really care if we were present or not, we don’t have anything to offer, or can be of any use or value to the kingdom.  It is all for someone else, it sometimes seems to us.  Which is no doubt the thought of the woman at the well that day that Jesus came for a drink.  I’m not worthy.

That’s why the spirit.  Spirit and truth.  Spirit is about connection.  About relationship.  God is Spirit, Jesus said, that’s why we must worship in spirit.  In relationship.  It is not what we have to offer, it is that God seeks us to worship God.  “The Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Jesus said.  

It doesn’t matter that you feel like a nobody.  It doesn’t matter that everyone else treats you like a nobody.  God seeks you to worship.  To be in relationship.  You, the nobody at the well.  The nobody in your office, or on your street.  God is looking for you.  Isn’t afraid of you, of reaching out to grab hold of you, to connect with you in real and significant ways.  God wants to meet you where you live, where your hopes and dreams reside, and where your strengths and weaknesses - your successes and failures dog your heels.  That’s the you that God wants to bring into worship.  That’s the you God wants to fill, the thirst God wants to quench when we gather week by week to sing praise and encounter the word made flesh.

“Who you talking to?’  “Nobody.”  In the throne room of heaven you’ll never a conversation like that.  If asked God would always tell of the somebody who worships in spirit and in truth.  And that somebody is you.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

From His Fulness

Did you hear the sigh of relief that echoed through at least two counties, and at least four states?  The journey that began when my father fell at his church in Paris Tennessee on March 10th of this year, and then took a turn when mom fell in my house here in Fort Wayne Indiana has now turned into the cul-de-sac at Heritage Pointe, a United Methodist Community in Warren, Indiana, just less than thirty miles south of us.  Maybe not a cul-de-sac as much as a lay-by.  Is that an American term?  I've been reading a book about England that David Carter loaned me and I’m having language problems again.  

A lay-by, a rest stop, a way station.  On the one hand, I understand that.  We aren't done.  First of all my brother and I have to go to Tennessee to get some furniture for the assisted living apartment that they will hopefully move into after a period of assessment and recuperation from Dad’s surgery (after he fell a second time and they found blood on his brain (both new blood and old blood) and his doctors decided he needed to have that drained).  I know there will be settling in and changes to come.  We aren't done with this journey of care-giving, I understand that.  But forgive me for thinking that we've reached a goal, climbed a summit of sorts, topped a hill to give us a new perspective, a new horizon to strive toward.

Because there was a moment when I was sure it wasn’t going to happen.  Sure?  No, that doesn’t sound right.  The moment was anything but sure.  It was a moment of uncertainty, a moment of despair and doubt and fear.  Things weren’t coming together the way I thought they should and deadlines were approaching and solutions weren’t forthcoming and I was afraid I had messed up.  No, that’s not it exactly.  I had that sinking feeling in the core of my being that every single decision I had made in my life was the wrong one, that because of me others would suffer and no one would come out of this morass complete or content or even resigned to what was now to be.  And there was no one to blame but me.  I had been named power of attorney, I was the one they all turned to, I was the one making the decisions - with advice from every corner to be sure, sometimes conflicting, sometimes unreasonable, sometimes impossible, but advice was given, and I no longer knew how to hold it all together.

I broke down this week, staggered by the weight of responsibility and uncertainty, of circumstance and institutional lack of communication.  And oddly enough, the straw that pushed me over was my mom.  I was sitting in her room while she told me about an incident that had happened earlier that day, interwoven with the jumbled plot of the movie she had been watching on television, and she seemed to not be sure which was more real or what they had to do with each other.  But then, as I sat there listening with the weight of responsibility pressing down on me, feeling nothing less than a total failure in this new role that had been so rudely thrust upon me, she suddenly stopped her story and looked at me.  And what an incredible look of pride and love she said, “Thank you for taking such good care of me.”

John 1:14-18   And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'")  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. 

Our Follower series began last month with the first of three phases of following.  Guided by Jesus saying “I Am the Way and the Truth and the Life,” we started with the Way.  For the past month we’ve been asking ourselves if we were on the Way, if we were people of the Way, if following was a way of life.  Leonard Sweet calls this “missional living.”  Once you choose to follow Jesus you have chosen more than a path to walk, you have chosen a way to live.  Our question has been are we following Jesus’ way?

But now we shift to phase two of followership: the truth.  When Jesus says “I Am the Truth” we are inclined to think he was talking about being right.  About truth verses falsehood, right verses wrong.  To follow Jesus is to be right.  But in fact, Sweet tells us, this Truth is not a proposition, not an idea, it is a person.  When we choose to follow Jesus as the truth, we are claiming a relationship.  But not just a relationship, but a relationship that defines and shapes all our relationships.  

When we live by the truth we live in right relationship.  We live, to use a biblical term, righteously.  Righteousness has to do with being faithful, being obedient to the covenants, to the relationships we make.  It means giving yourself away in those relationships.  Losing yourself to those you love.

Which is what we saw in Jesus.  I know it seems like a lot to get from a few profoundly theological verses in the prologue of the Gospel of John, but it is in there.  At least, it is in there to be unfolded.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” John writes.  I liked the old word, “dwelt” among us.  It carried a significance, a depth to it.  A permanence in a way.  But in fact the word carries a vulnerability with it.  In Greek the word translates as “set up a tent” among us.  

A tent?  When I was a kid a tent was security from the out of doors terrors of a dark night.  But when I got a little older, I realized that the flimsy canvas wouldn’t slow down a hungry bear out to make a meal of me.  There is an exposure, a vulnerability to this idea.  Jesus came a set up a tent.  Not a unassailable mountaintop aerie, not a walled and moated castle, not a fortress defended, but a tent.  It is almost as if he is begging us to be in relationship with him, inviting us at every turn to find our way to him and to allow his grace to fill us.

But to do that we have to be as vulnerable as he makes himself.  We have to be open and inviting, we have to be willing, we have to be broken.  That’s that bad news that is also the good news of this faith thing we proclaim.  We have to be broken to receive it.  We have to know that it is not our power that makes us good, it is his grace.  We have to know that it is not our abilities that make us whole, it is his grace.  

While that may be difficult to swallow, it also means that is it not our failures that define us, but his grace.  It is not our inabilities and our inadequacies that determine our value, but his grace.  It is not our emptiness that marks us but his fullness.  “From His fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  Grace for every need, grace for every moment, grace to lift us up every time we fall.  

It is only when we ware empty that we can be filled by his grace.  I broke into pieces when my mom thanked me for giving her such good care, because I knew I hadn’t, I wasn’t giving her good care, it wasn’t working, I didn’t have answers, I didn’t know what was going to be next, I was backed into a corner and ready to give up in despair.  Yet, she thanked me.  Because she loved me and she knew - somehow she knew - that I loved her and wanted nothing less than the fullness of Christ for her, in safety and care, in help and guidance, in loving hands and hearts that would minister to her in her need, just as she ministered to me and so many others in her life.

The pieces that seemed so scattered and lost earlier in the week, fell into place at last and now they are both in a place than can provide for them at this stage of their lives.  Was it a miracle?  Well, no, it was people working together around detours and obstacles to get to where we needed to be.  Which, come to think about it is nothing short of miraculous.  

No one has ever seen God, true, except that I did, in my mother who refused to let impossible circumstances stand in the way of loving.  You’ve seen it too in those who give love to you even when you don’t deserve it.  You’ve seen it too, when you choose to follow the One who is the truth.