Archive for the ‘John’ Category

John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14

April 3, 2017

 

If you wanted to put across a sense of utter hopelessness, which image would you choose?  A desert valley full of skeletons where the bones had turned chalky and had been scattered across the sand?  Or a corpse, still intact, but well along in the process of decomposing?  Either image is meant to reflect a desperate inner state of being.  In today’s world it could be a sense of the sheer hopelessness of our political situation.  More personally, it could be a sense of the hopelessness of a marriage gone dry and dead, or an addiction.  God is saying through images: you think your situation is hopeless?  Look at these dry bones; look at this rotting corpse.  I brought new life to them and I can do the same for you.  Take heart!

I’ll return to that thought, but first I want to look more closely at the story as John tells it.  The story is long, and rich with loving details.  For instance, initially, Jesus held off responding to the sisters’ call for help, because he wanted to use the opportunity to increase their faith, to show them the extraordinary extent of God’s power to heal.  Also, the sisters’ compassionate friends and neighbors gathered around them to ease their grief.  Add to that Jesus’ astonishing statement of faith: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  This story percolates love and beauty.

In fact, the whole story is so full of love and beauty that we scarcely notice that John has a second story slithering through the first.  Cruel references to the Jews coil in and out through the first story.  It starts when John has the disciples say, “…the Jews were just now trying to stone you….”    Then he has Jesus say that the Jews walk at night and stumble,”because the light is not in them.”  John goes further, suggesting that Jesus and his people were not Jews.  For instance, he wrote that Jesus saw Mary weeping, “and the Jews who came with her also weeping.”  And again he refers to “the Jews who were with her in the house.”  Were Jesus and Mary not Jews?

We know that these cruel references to the Jews have born poisonous fruit down through the ages in every form of persecution.  During the first crusade in 1096 crusaders killed thousands of Jews.  Why?  One of the leaders of the crusade put it this way: he said he swore “to go on this [crusade] only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew’….”  Who can calculate the extent of the suffering borne by the Jews through the centuries as a result of what some modern writers have called these “toxic texts”?

My purpose here is not to heap blame on John.  His people, Jesus-following Jews, constituted a tiny minority within a tiny minority.  In other words, Jews made up a tiny fraction of the Roman empire; and within that tiny fraction Jesus’ followers made up a small percent.  At the time John wrote, there were no Christians; the word had not been invented; the separation between Jews and Christians had not yet occurred.  John’s Jews were trying to gain followers; but most of the Jewish people chose to follow the rabbis.  You can hear John’s frustration over this throughout his Gospel.  He’s trying to persuade his readers to take sides, and he was up against many people who thought they could follow Jesus and still worship in the synagogue.

The question is not: how could John have written such toxic things.  The larger question is: how could God have allowed this invective into the Bible?  I see an answer to that in the story of Adam and Eve.  In that story, too, details of beauty and love abound.  And yet…  there’s a snake.  How could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  It’s like asking how God could allow that invective against the Jews into the Gospel.

In the case of the Garden of Eden it seems clear that the snake is there to test Eve and Adam.  But what is the test?  Was it to test if they would obey?  Or was it to see if they were able to trust God’s goodness and love?  Think about it.  Eve wasn’t limited to two choices: eat or don’t eat the apple.  She could just as well have said to the snake, “Let me consult with God.  I’m not sure of God’s reasoning on this.”  Perhaps she didn’t do that, because she didn’t trust God not to be angry with her for asking.  Perhaps she didn’t trust God’s goodness and love, and that was the test she failed, not a test of obedience.

Let’s go back to the question: how could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  Perhaps God meant Eve and Adam to learn something about their relationship with God.  Perhaps God is not so much interested in obedience as dialogue.  After all, it’s impossible to have a mature relationship of intimacy when one party must obey the other.  A relationship of obedience puts us in an infantile relationship, a parent-child relationship.  There can be love, but there will always be a gap.  In contrast, a relationship of dialogue grows out of a deep desire for understanding, for probing into the depths of the other’s heart and mind, knowing we can always go deeper.  This is true intimacy; I believe this is what God wants with his people; and this is impossible when the relationship is one of obey-or-incur-my-wrath.

If this is so, what is the parallel to today’s episode in John’s Gospel?  What learning or insight might the the invective against the Jews give rise to?  What about this: Beware of surface readings?  Beware of literal readings.   Suppose John’s readers, starting with his own congregation, and following on from his era to ours, had not read his Gospel as the literal word of God.  Suppose they had looked at his polemics and asked, “How can this square with ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’”?  Jesus said that was the second commandment.  Or what about this from the sermon on the mount?  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Reading on the surface level makes the intimacy of dialogue impossible.

Let’s go further and put together the Adam and Eve story on the one hand, with today’s Gospel on the other hand.  Isn’t this the lesson: Beware of reading the Bible like a rule book, a book that puts you in an obey-or-be-punished relationship with God.  Beware of falling into a relationship with God that cuts you off from your own responsibility and your own wisdom.  Rather, read it as one half of a dialogue, which may go on for a long time; in fact, a lifetime.  For surely God is not so much interested in how many mistakes we make, but how much we listen and love.

Now let’s finish where we began, with the dry bones and the decaying body, and how they may stand for a truly hopeless situation.  Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you surely feel hopeless about our country’s political stagnation, even paralysis.  If we take John’s Gospel and its treatment of the Jews literally, God’s clear commandment would be: Drive out your enemies; show them for the blackguards they are; bear false witness against them; defame them.  It’s a recipe for disaster and endless suffering.

Instead, let us take John’s Gospel as pointing us toward dialogue — not only with God, but starting with God and gradually spilling over to our family, our friends, and even our enemies.  The invitation is to make the reading of Scripture into a regular practice of dialogue, what Robert Bellah called a “habit of the heart.”  That practice has the power to transform us.  It will allow God to put new flesh on dry bones, and that will be a true response to Jesus, who says, not only about Lazarus, not only about us, but about our nation, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

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Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

March 19, 2017

 

Lent could be the most looked-forward-to season of the church year.  That may sound odd, since we typically begin the service with the Ten Commandments and the confession of our sins.  Examination of conscience and confession of sins may be necessary, but hardly enjoyable, so what’s to look forward to about that?  Answer?  Freedom.

Really to appreciate Lent it helps to distinguish between guilt and shame.  According to the author Brené Brown, who has studied the subject, shame and guilt are two different experiences.  Guilt focuses on behavior, while shame focuses on the self.  Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am bad.”

Shame usually arises when we make a mistake, and yet the mistake may not break any of the Commandments.  I remember the first time I had to address a room full of clergy, and I hadn’t yet been ordained — I was so nervous I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking — in fact, they kept wanting to buckle.  I finally locked them tight, but still my voice squeaked and my hands shook.  When the ordeal was over an inner voice said, “What ever gave you the idea to seek ordination?  Now a whole room full of your would-be colleagues know you’re completely unfit.  Just walk away from here gracefully, go home, and don’t ever come out.  Learn to darn socks.”  Many of you know what I’m talking about; most of us have an inner voice that can hiss such things as, “You’re a weakling; or you’re a failure; or you’re incompetent, a fake, ugly, unloveable, a social misfit.”

Guilt is more easily dealt with.  In fact, we need never feel guilt.  Guilt arises from something we do, and always breaks one of the Commandments.  It’s important to know that, because the Ten Commandments exist, like ten shepherds, to edge us toward living in a healthy society where all members thrive, including ourselves.  So, to break a Commandment invariably hurts others and ourselves.  Of course, if I refuse to admit to my sin, then I will feel guilt.  Never to feel guilt requires that, as soon as I recognize my fault, I confess it, fully.  Done.  No more guilt.  I’ll tell you why in a moment, but let me say that if that sounds too simple, it’s because sin does entail an aftermath of grief; people have been hurt, and we cannot say: no more grief.

How can I say we need never feel guilt?  The psychologist Marshall Rosenberg talks about basic human needs.  They include food and shelter, but more importantly they include intangibles.  The list is long but not endless.  He includes the need for connection and autonomy, for honesty and meaning, for peace, play, and I would add, a sense of the sacred.  These are universal.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Think of the Ten Commandments as divining rods pointing to something beautiful and precious within us, our basic human needs — gifts implanted in us by God.  Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with guilt.  On the contrary, they exist to renew us.

For instance, take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods.  What does this point to?  Truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a joyful life on falsehood?  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  Or what about the Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”?  That points to our need for the holy or the sacred; in other words, for what gives life meaning.  If I trample the name of God, or what is holy to me, under the foot of heedless language, one of my basic needs will go unmet.

I won’t go on about all the Commandments, but briefly let me suggest this.  The Command to honor our parents points to our own need for honor and respect.  You could tease out on your own the beautiful, God-given needs the Commandments are meant to protect and promote — the need to matter; the need to nurture or be nurtured; the need for understanding, for safety or security — and very importantly, for freedom, especially inner freedom.

Now, to return to the business of Lent, when it comes to an examination of conscience, try this four-step process.  It works, not by self-condemnation, but by self-compassion.  First, name what troubles your conscience.  Let’s say I lied.  Second, ask yourself, “What beautiful human need was I trying to meet with that lie?”  It could be one or several — security?  support?  respect?  self-respect?   Third, consider: “Did the lie meet that need?”  The answer is going to be no.  But notice!  There is no guilt involved.  The need is legitimate, precious, and God-given — a need God wants to be fulfilled; but my strategy for meeting that need did not work.  Sin is another name for a bad strategy.  Fourth, in a spirit of tender compassion for myself, I look for a better strategy.

This is the way God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are fumbling to meet those precious, God-given human needs, but we become confused when it comes to devising strategies that actually fulfill those needs.  Sometimes our strategies are not just ignorant, they are tragic, or even evil.  But however misguided the strategy, the intent is, at bottom, always good.  However misguided the strategy, this is not a cause for guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

I’ve been speaking as if guilt were one thing and shame another; and they are.  But often they go together.  What can we do with shame?  We can reframe guilt as inappropriate — or at least unnecessary.  Is there any way to reframe shame?  There is.

This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.  First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps us from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote, because here’s the shocker: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I reframe the sense of shame I feel?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we deplore in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses, addictions and mistakes.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in those you despise!  Seen in this light, shame can be an immense gift — the gift of humility, of putting on our true humanity, of being one with Christ.

Let me close with this.  Suppose Moses had refused to strike the rock — he said to himself: I’ll look like a complete idiot if no water appears.  I’m not going to risk the shame.  Or suppose Jesus had refused to speak to the Samaritan woman — he said to himself: I’ll lose my disciples’ respect if they find me speaking to a woman, and worse, a social outcast.  I won’t risk the shame.  Friends, let us commit ourselves to daring to do the right thing, despite the risk of shame.  It will call for an inner freedom, and thanks to Lent, we are developing that freedom.

John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49:1-7

January 25, 2017

Every year this Sunday gives us a chance to strike the flint of the Bible against the steel of a specific historical person, Martin Luther King, Jr.  This year it sparks a fire of exceptionally good news for us.  It also throws more light onto our faith and onto our understanding of history.

Many of us remember the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, and we may even have seen the police attack the marchers as they tried to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, many more were bloodied and severely injured.  It became known as Bloody Sunday.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was not on that march.

When a new march was planned, Martin made sure to be part of it… but with a different approach.  This time 2500 marchers, both black and white, again set off and came to the Edmond Pettus Bridge.  Again they came face to face with barricades and armed troopers.  But instead of a confrontation, King just knelt and bowed his head in prayer.  The other marchers did as he did.  Then he stood and he turned back.  This seeming timidity caused some of the young African American leaders to turn against him; but that act of submission aroused support across the nation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  A huge victory.

I want to link the contrast between those two marches to a book I read recently, Power vs. Force.  Let me take a moment and describe how power and force differ.  Sometimes it can be tricky to tell which is which from observation; but in fact they are polar opposites.  Here are some examples of where the difference is obvious.

Power unifies, while force divides.  Power accepts while force tries to control.  Power forgives, while force condemns.  Power is open, force is secretive.  Force says, “My way of the highway;” power doesn’t give ultimatums.  You can add to this list from your own life experience.

Other examples show that it’s not always obvious which is which.  For instance, am I being confident or arrogant?  Am I requesting or am I demanding?  Am I being spontaneous or impulsive?  Thoughtful or pedantic?  Reliant or dependent?  Helpful or meddling?  Courageous or reckless?  Authoritative or dogmatic?  Sometimes we have to search our hearts to know.

Power has the greater strength; for in the long run force succumbs to power.  But where does power get its strength?  It arises within our hearts — I don’t mean hearts as in Valentines, but hearts as Jesus meant when he said, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” — from the core of our being.  If our hearts are centered in Jesus and sharing in his mission we will be people of power.  That is, if our mission  is to reveal what divine love looks like in created form we will be people of power.

Now let’s link the Martin Luther King story and the concepts of force vs. power to the Bible.  For an example, we might turn to today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah was writing from Babylon in the 6th century BCE, where the Israelites lived in misery as captive people.  Speaking through Isaiah to the people of Israel, God said — and I’m paraphrasing — right now you are deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers; but the time is coming when those who now have force will prostrate themselves before you, because of the power of God working through you.  Call this the Divine Paradox — the very thing Jesus meant when he said, “…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)  In other words, those who use power may appear to fail; while those who use force may appear to succeed.  Those who lacked force — the marchers, the nation held in captivity, and supremely, Jesus on the cross —  become victorious through the power of God’s love acting in them.

Turning now to the Gospel, we see yet another example of power vs. force.  It accounts for the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.  I think this difference explains a saying of Jesus’ that always puzzled me.  Referring to John, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).”

Calling John the Baptist a man of force warns us not to presume that power is good and force is bad.  John the Baptist had nothing but good intentions, but he tended to use force to bring them about.  Force is not so much bad as ineffective.  Because force always moves against something, it creates counter-forces, and it polarizes.  Force simply fizzles out.

And it isn’t as though some people use force and others use power.  Most of us use a mixture of both.  The more closely we follow Jesus, the more we will move with power.  The key to knowing when we are choosing force and when we are choosing power lies in this question.  Am I trying to control the outcome of this situation?  Or am I letting God shape the outcome?  Letting go and letting God does not, of course, get us off the hook.  We still have to play our role.

Here’s an example of playing their role and using power.   In Whitefish, Montana.  The “Daily Stormer” website posted the names and pictures of targeted Jews on its website, plus pictures of their children, their phone numbers, addresses, email and social media information — for the purpose of encouraging white supremacists to “take action” and “Hit ‘Em Up.”  They are threatening to hold a march through the center of town, carrying high-powered rifles and to bus in skinheads from the Bay Area to swell the march.  Citizens are responding with power, not force.  They are enlisting people across the country to pledge money to a special fund, tied to how many minutes the white supremacists march — so many dollars per minute. The money raised would be used for such things as community and police training on how best to handle a hate incident.  I’ve pledged.

I suspect many of us would speak up when something happens that we know to be wrong.  But two things keep us from doing that.  First, our impulse is to act with force; and something in us draws back from that.  We don’t want to make enemies, to add to the polarization, to create another ‘Bloody Sunday,’ and so we keep still.  Second, we don’t take seriously the consequences of not acting.  By not acting we say in effect: this behavior falls within the bounds of normal, of acceptable.  Once that happens, our community, our society,  takes on a toxic identity.  Who would want to move to a town where children aren’t safe in their homes?   Who wouldn’t want to move to a town where citizens look after each other?  It is absolutely vital that we act and that we act with power, not force, if we hope to preserve what we value.

I said at the beginning that these readings would spark a fire of really good news for us.  Here it is.  If like me, you’ve tried something and it didn’t work out, do we then carry a burden of failure?  It may be that it didn’t work out because we were using force.  In that case we did not fail; we created an opportunity to learn.  Or it may be that we acted with power and invoked the Divine Paradox.  That is, our efforts only appear to have failed.  In fact, through our efforts we have enabled God to work out a far grander plan that we ever imagined.

Today’s readings invite us to make constant use of a well-known mantra.  “Let go and let God.”  It’s the secret to living in joy.  It says: let go of outcomes.  If we invest in the outcome of our efforts, we cannot help but turn to force.  The mantra does not say: make no effort.  Make your very best effort to show the world what divine love looks like in created form.  Make your best effort and trust in the Divine Paradox for the outcome.

John 20:19-23

June 9, 2014

 

“The doors were locked for fear of the Jews.”  This passage from the Gospel of John makes my heart sink… and not only mine.  For going on 2,000 years this passage and others in the same vein have caused inconceivable suffering.  I didn’t always see this.  Let me tell you how my eyes were opened.

In 2001 James Carroll published Constantine’s Sword.  Filling over 750 pages, Carroll records the appalling history of Christianity’s persecution of the Jews.  I cannot remember reading a more shattering book.  It details not only 2,000 years of persecutions and pogroms, but it quotes from revered church fathers — St. Augustine, for instance — vicious diatribes against the Jews.  I finished the book, closed the covers and wept.  Christianity didn’t cause the Holocaust, but without Christianity it never could have happened.

What is the connection?  Dozens of places in the New Testament either denigrate Judaism or revile Jews.  Here, for instance, it makes Jews a group to be feared.  This has gone on for nearly 2,000 years, to devastating effect.  To this day many “good” Christians resent Jews for killing Jesus… and not only that, but blame them for many of society’s ills.

What a travesty!  Jesus taught and modeled nothing but love of our neighbor; yet many of his followers have hated their Jewish neighbors — neighbors who were and are Jesus’ own people.  Today we heard that the disciples had locked the doors to the upper room “for fear of the Jews.”  Read through the Gospel of John.  You’ll be struck by how John scarcely misses a chance to cast the Jews in a bad light.  For instance, John could have made his point by saying that the doors were locked for fear, period.  Or he could have said, “for fear of the authorities.”  After all, everyone inside the room was a Jew.  What John wrote makes no sense.

This Gospel and similar parts of the New Testament have made “the Jews” shorthand for: narrow-mindedness; rigidity; the letter of the law, but not the spirit; a dry, legalistic approach to religion — in short, the opposite of everything Jesus stood for.  The result?  For 2,000 years Jewish people and communities have suffered.

How did this come about?  The short answer is: almost from the beginning, the Gospels and the book of Acts have been read as history, possibly even as eye-witness accounts.  When Diane Sawyer interviewed Mel Gibson about “The Passion of Christ,” she asked him why he had shown the Jews’ torture of Jesus in such a violent way.  He replied, “Well, it’s history.”  She, equally ignorant, agreed.

It is not history.  Over two generations lay between Jesus’ life and the writing of John’s Gospel.  And John’s Gospel was not written in the Holy Land, but in the diaspora, somewhere in modern day Turkey.  Also, its writer depended on a number of different sources, apparently none of them being the other Gospels.  It is called the fourth Gospel, because it was written last.  So why, being so removed from the actual events, does John’s Gospel portray the Jews in such a hostile spirit and pit them against Jesus if that was not the case?

One cataclysmic event lay between Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the writing of the four Gospels.  In the year 70 AD, 30 years after Jesus’ death, Roman armies destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem.  In a stroke the whole structure and center of Judaism was wiped out; the economic system toppled; and a large part of the government of Judea ceased to function.

Until that point, Judaism, like Christianity today, had a number of different — let’s call them denominations.  And the Nazarenes, as Jesus’ followers were called, were just one among them.  Each had its adherents and its place in society, and all found their center in the Temple.  But when the Romans destroyed the Temple, they nearly destroyed the identity of the Jewish people, including Jesus’ people.  If, up until then, all Jews had met God in the Temple, where could they now go to worship?  Where go to connect with God?  To identify themselves with the one true God?

Of the many different sects of Judaism that existed before 70 AD, only two survived, the Pharisees and the Nazarenes.  The Pharisees, who were the forerunners of the Rabbis, countered the loss of the Temple by saying that the place to come into the presence of God was in the Holy Scriptures.  The Nazarenes, Jesus’ followers, said the place to come into the presence of  God was in the risen Christ.

At that time these two Jewish sects were not very different; and the Nazarenes and the followers of the Pharisees mingled freely.  So as the years went by, the problem became: how shall we distinguish our own identity over and against the other group?

The best scholarly opinion today sees this situation as the setting in which John wrote his Gospel.  To separate his flock from the larger herd, he chose to vilify the Rabbinic, or Pharisaic, school, imputing to them all the negative qualities I mentioned before.  It’s a time-honored strategy of polarization.  To our everlasting sorrow, John’s strategy went far beyond what he intended, and Jews are still paying the price down to the present day.

This raises the question: how is the Bible the Word of God, if it perverts the Second Commandment?  It says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   Let me tell you how I answer this question, and see if it works for you.  I’ll use that verse from today’s reading, “…the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.”

I always start from the bedrock belief that the Bible is a divinely inspired guide book.  Its sole purpose is to help us find our way to the greatest fullness of life — us as individuals and us as a society.  It is never history nor a book of facts; though it may contain some history, it is far more serious than that.  It’s about finding eternal life — peace, joy, freedom and love — in this very present moment.

So what guidance can we find in this detail about the doors being locked?  First, note that the disciples were afraid.  Their fear put them in a prison of their own making.  Then — the doors still locked — suddenly Jesus was among them.  Fear vanished.  We sometimes let fear lock us into an inner prison; and we may believe that Jesus is locked out.  This small detail tells us that nothing can keep Jesus from entering that cramped little cage we’ve created, and leading us by the hand out into the vast space of freedom.  Fear is never a property of anything outside of us; it rises up within us.

Second, note that the the Gospel names what they feared.  Though John labeled the focus of their fear falsely and cruelly, we do need to know what we fear, for the way to overcome fear is to face it, and stare it down to size.  Think of the way a pilot shrinks a hot air balloon down to nothing by turning the burner off.  We can do this when we know that Jesus is, so to speak, in the basket with us.

Take this one step further.  There was a time when I feared conflict.  Whether it involved me personally, or not, my brain went numb and I became tongue-tied when conflicts arose.  I knew I would not be an effective minister if that did not change.  By the grace of God and the power of prayer it did change.  Now when a conflict arises, I cannot say I welcome it; but it does remind me of the freedom I now feel and of Jesus’ very near presence.  So in short, something I kept at arm’s length due to fear, I now hold dear as a channel of gratitude.

So is the Bible the Word of God?  On this, the day of Pentecost,  we can give a resounding maybe!  It is not the Word of God if we read it only at the surface level; if we treat it as a rule book or a book of facts — as an object outside of ourselves to which we must submit our lives and our intelligence.  It is the Word of God if we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and it; to make a living dialogue possible between us and it.

I’ll close with a quick story.  There was once a great saint and she always carried on her person two pieces of paper.  In her right pocket the paper read, “Remember, you are dust.”  In her left pocket the paper read, “For you the universe was created.”  The secret, she said, was in knowing when to read which one.  In a living dialogue, the Bible will know when to chastise us, when to build us up, when to warn us, and above all, at all times, to assure us that we are wrapped in the loving arms of God.

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

April 2, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-42

It’s hard to put ourselves into the Israelites’ place. Most of us have a few cups of coffee under our belts and perhaps some juice; so it’s a stretch to imagine how it feels to be desperate with thirst — how it feels to slog over sun burned rocks and sand all day, only to find yourself, as twilight falls, at bone-dry Rephidim. And you have long since squeezed the last drop from your water bag.  No wonder the people panicked!  Moses tried to reason with them: “Look, God has never let us down.”  But Moses’s voice could scarcely be heard over the frantic din.  So Moses let God guide him, and God guided him to a large rock.  He struck the rock with his staff, and pure, potable water poured forth in abundance.

I want to return to this story in a moment, because it illustrates a serious problem with Lent.  For many people Lent is like a gift of  seven-league boots, BUT without being told how to use them.  I chose that image — magical boots that let the wearer cover seven leagues in one step — because if life is a journey toward genuine happiness, we want to move ahead, not dawdle.  So how do we use those seven-leagues boots, the season of Lent, effectively?

In Lent we start the service with the Ten Commandments to help us examine our conscience.  Speaking for myself, I generally turn tail and run when I hear, “Examine your conscience.”  Of course, with that attitude it is impossible to acknowledge my sins,  amend my life, and move forward toward genuine happiness.

What makes self-examination so painful?  Isn’t it that it gives us a sense of shame?  Of guilt?  Of failure?  But do we imagine that that is God’s will for us?  Shame, guilt and a sense of failure?  No it is not, and if we think so we have been misinformed.  It’s no wonder we shy away from a careful examination of conscience — from using those seven league boots.

Instead, let’s try not to look at the Ten commandments, as external to us, as measuring sticks, for instance, by which to judge ourselves.  Rather, let’s try to see them as part of ourselves, as divining rods so to speak, pointing to something beautiful and precious within us.  I’m speaking of our basic human needs — which are gifts God implanted in us.  Regardless of who I am, when I lived, or where, or how different my culture is, I have the same basic needs as everyone else.  They are like a subterranean water table, something that all of us human beings have in common, that unites us, one to another.

Seen this way, the Commandments have no part in torturing us with blame and shame and a sense of failure; on the contrary, they exist to renew us, strengthen us and reassure us.  Let me show you how this works, and in the end you’ll see that the Commandments lead just as surely to penitence and repentance, but without guilt and shame.

So, what are my basic needs?  Take the first commandment, about not worshiping other gods or worshiping images of god.  What does this point to?  Truth.  God is truth.  Without truth, what can we trust?  How can we build a life on falsehood?  This is like saying, don’t invest in iron pyrite, fools’ gold, invest only in pure gold.  Truth is one of our basic needs to journey toward genuine happiness.  

What about the commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”?  That points to our need for the holy or the sacred; in other words, for what gives life meaning.  When I go too long just doing the right thing, life becomes so stale I can almost feel desperate.  I need time to renew myself in God’s holy mystery, maybe just to gaze up in awe at the night sky.  If I trample the name of God, or what is holy to me, under the foot of heedless language, one of my basic needs will go unmet.

I won’t go on about all the commandments, but briefly let me suggest this.  The command to honor our parents points to our own need for honor and respect.  You could divine on your own the beautiful, God-given needs the Commandments are meant to protect and promote — the need to matter; the need to nurture or be nurtured; the need for autonomy, for understanding, for safety or security.  The list is long, but not endless; and the list of needs is not the same as the list of our wants.

Now, to return to the business of Lent, when it comes to an examination of conscience, try this four-step process.  It works, not by self-condemnation, but by self-compassion.  First, name what troubles your conscience.  Let’s say I lied.  Second, ask yourself, “What beautiful human need was I trying to meet with that lie?”  It could be one or several — security?  support?  respect?  self-respect?   Third, consider: “Did the lie meet that need?”  The answer usually is no.  But notice!  There is no blame or shame involved.  The need is legitimate, precious, and God-given — a need God wants to be fulfilled; but my strategy for meeting that need did not work.  Sin is another name for a bad strategy.  Fourth, in a spirit of tender compassion for myself, I look for a better strategy.

This is the way I believe God regards us when we sin.  God sees we are doing our best to meet those precious human needs God gave us, but we are terribly confused when it comes to devising strategies that actually fulfill those needs.  Sometimes our strategies are not just ignorant, they are tragic, or even evil.  But however misguided the strategy, the intent is, at bottom, always good.  However misguided the strategy, this is not a cause for shame or guilt.  It is a cause for grief, to be sure, for sin always does harm, and at times great harm, as we all know.

It helps me to remember this truth about sin when someone annoys me or really makes me angry.  We have a neighbor who can turn my blood to steam if I’m not careful.  But if I think to myself, “He is just trying to meet one of his precious basic needs,” then I can not only cool down, but feel genuine compassion.  You’ll find this can help you with your own problem people; but first, you must practice the compassionate examination of conscience on yourself.

The deepest human need is our need to belong.  All of us need to feel we belong, both to God and to the human family.  Jesus’ ministry was all about meeting this need to belong — reaching out to outcasts of every sort.  Think of the woman at the well.  Jesus should never have spoken to her.  First, she was a woman; second she was a Samaritan; third she was an outcast in her own society.  But Jesus had a way of looking at people and listening to them with his whole heart that said, “You totally belong.”  It changed her life.

This is our ministry here at Trinity Church also.  And this parish is well suited to meeting that need to belong.  Your warm hearts know how to welcome the stranger no less than each other.  We all come with that need to belong, some days worse than others.  Like the parched and travel-worn Israelites at Rephidim, people are desperate for the water of belonging; we cannot truly live without it; and Trinity Church is that rock, struck by God’s rod.

I want to close by asking you to take seriously this profoundly important ministry of ours.  Don’t be diffident.  Invite people to visit Trinity Church.  Reach out to them when they come.  I was deeply moved when I first came to Trinity Church and felt how warmly you welcomed and accepted me.  Today more than ever the world is a spiritual desert.  Who out there is not searching desperately for the water of true belonging?  Invite them to come to the rock and drink.

John 18:33-37

November 26, 2012

As far as the church calendar goes, we could call this New Year’s Eve, because next Sunday will be the first Sunday of the new year.  Since 1925 today has been designated “Christ the King” Sunday.  It marks the culmination of Jesus’ life journey, a kind of summing up: what did his life finally amount to?  On this day our faith replies: Jesus became the king of kings. (more…)

Proverbs 9:1-6; John 6:51-58

August 20, 2012

A psychology professor once quipped, “We all know the mind and the body are one.  The question is, which one?”  I’m recalling this remark, because it points to a perennial problem of religion: it speaks in paradoxes, as we hear in today’s readings. (more…)

John 20:19-31

April 16, 2012

Recently a friend and I visited the nesting site of dozens of herons.  They had pitched their nests in the topmost branches of trees that stood tall and dead in a broad marsh.  Every few minutes a heron would appear in the sky and then glide to its nest.  It struck me, though, that they never approached the nest directly, but always in a wide spiral.  That is how I want to approach today’s Gospel, spiraling in on it, ultimately to hatch the question, what is doubting Thomas really asking for? (more…)

John 20:19-31

May 2, 2011

Two weeks ago a few of us visited the nesting site of dozens of herons. They had pitched their nests in the topmost branches of trees that stood tall and dead in a broad marsh. Every few minutes a heron would appear in the sky and then glide to its nest. It struck me, though, that they never approached the nest directly, but always in a wide spiral. That is how I want to approach today’s Gospel, spiraling in on it, ultimately to hatch the question, what is doubting Thomas really asking for? (more…)

Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8

March 22, 2010

California, where we used to live, is prone to earthquakes. One day I was reading Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, where he described the people of Tierra del Fuego and the measures they took so that earthquakes would not trap them inside their buildings. As I sat there reading, suddenly an earthquake struck. With a shock I went from musing about earthquakes to being in the midst of one. That shift describes us in our relationship to Scripture. We read it as if it were about there-and-then, just words. Then without warning it is about here-and-now, shaking us urgently. (more…)