Sunday, January 15, 2012

Come and See: sermon on John 1:43-51

My preacher-friend in Portland says that when we look at today’s readings, we “find God all up in our business.” In one reading, God is waking a sleeping boy in the middle of the night to give him an important (if unpleasant) job to do. In our Psalm we hear of a God who, again, “just generally [knows] every darn thing there is to know about every single one of us.”[i] And in the passage I have just read from John’s gospel, Jesus appears to be looking right through Nathanael, who is never the same again.

This week we are hearing about the opening days of Jesus’ ministry, and here we find Jesus gathering a group of disciples around him. We throw that word around a lot, “disciples,” and I thought maybe I’d better look it up in the dictionary just to be sure I understood what it meant. (A small warning here: I went to a preaching conference this week, and nothing brings out the bible-scholar-word-nerd that I am like going to a preaching conference. By which I mean to say, we’re going to get into the words today.) The word disciple: I thought it meant, basically, “follower,” and that’s’ true, as far as it goes. But what interests me even more than definitions are etymologies—I love knowing, in effect, who are the parents of a word. “Disciple” comes from a Latin word that means “pupil,” but that word comes from two different words that mean, “to take apart.” So, a disciple is a follower, but one who has taken apart the teachings of the teacher, and found them to be sound, and is following on that basis. A disciple is someone who has done her homework.

Jesus is inviting people to follow him, to become disciples. His exchange with Philip is simple: “Follow me.” And Philip follows. Like any good follower, Philip tries to find other people to follow too—maybe he is shy about enlisting in the Jesus movement all by himself. Or, maybe, he sees in Jesus the answer to a question he knows Nathanael is asking already, a question something like, “Where is the Messiah?” Whatever his reasoning, he drafts Nathanael to come along.

Nathanael is skeptical. His skepticism has to do with what he already knows about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. I have heard similar responses when I invite people to come to Binghamton for First Fridays. Can anything good be happening in downtown Binghamton? There’s really only one good answer to a question like that. “Come and see,” says Philip.

We might wonder why on earth Nathanael should be so skeptical about Nazareth. Well, let’s just say, it’s pretty much Nowheresville, Palestine. It’s small. It’s unimportant. It is not mentioned in the bible (Philip and Nathanael’s bible, that’s the Old Testament to you and me). It’s not mentioned as center of worship, or a place from where the Messiah will come, for instance. It’s not mentioned at all, until the Christian (that is, the New) Testament. Saying someone is “from Nazareth” is not a ringing endorsement.

But Nathanael goes along with Philip, little knowing the kind of person he is about to encounter. Jesus’ opening salvo to Nathanael is playful. It’s challenging. The first thing Jesus says to Nathanael is “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is playing with words here. The word “Israel” is another name for “Jacob,” whose name means “leg-puller,” as in, “Are you pulling my leg?”[ii] Jesus is telling Nathanael, “Hey, I know where you come from, and I’m not judging you.” He is implying, of course, that he knows full well how skeptical Nathanael is, and that it’s fine, it’s cool.

Nathanael is taken aback. “Um, have we met?” he asks. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Now, this is the first we have heard of a fig tree in John’s gospel. And it is possible Jesus saw Nathanael under a literal fig tree at some point. But one thing we should take into consideration any time we read the gospel of John is that he speaks quite often in symbols and metaphors. In Jewish lore, it is believed that the tree of knowledge of good and evil from Genesis—the tree that got the first man and woman and serpent in so very much trouble—it is believed that it was a fig tree. And, for that reason, Jewish scholars engaged in studying scripture were said to be “gathering figs.”[iii] Jesus is saying to Nathanael, “I know you’re a fig gatherer. I know you’ve been doing your homework. I know you won’t just go along to get along, or follow along to be a pal. I know who you are, and what matters to you. And so I say to you what Philip said: Come and see.” And Nathanael does. Oh, he does.

God’s all up in Nathanael’s business, as evidenced by Jesus knowing, uncannily, unsettlingly, exactly who he is and what he is and what will help him to know where and how he is called. My question is this: what helps us to know who we are and what we are and where and how we are called to participate in God’s work? If we take the words of the psalm seriously, we believe that God has searched us and known us, every last darn thing there is to know about us. But how does that translate to us knowing where and what and how God wants us to be in this world?

In 1963 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference developed and enacted a campaign to show the world the unjust, inhumane treatment African American people were subjected to in the city of Birmingham, AL. But for Martin Luther King Jr., one of the chief strategists and organizers of the campaign, it was critical that those engaged in this action know who they were and what they were and where and how, specifically, God was calling them to do this work. So he developed a commitment card, to be signed by everyone who would participate. Over time, the requirements have come to be thought of as a kind of “Ten Commandments” of Christian social justice activism. Here are those ten commitments:

1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all might be free.

6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10. Follow the directions of the movement and the captains of a demonstration.

The genius of the ten commitments is this: not only would all those involved in the Birmingham campaign have clear and specific guidelines for their own actions; they would also know who they were and what they were and where and exactly how they were called to do this work of bringing justice and reconciliation. They would be steeped in the knowledge and love of Jesus, whom King believed to be the first and most excellent culture-changer. God searches us and knows us and calls us. The Birmingham campaign workers would spend their days seeking to know God, and to live out that knowledge in their work. It’s so simple, really. Disciples need disciplines, actions to help them, daily, to take apart and put back together the heart and soul of what they are about.

“Come and see,” says Philip. God searches us, and invites us to come and see for ourselves what immersion in God’s way would mean for us. “Come and see,” says Jesus. God knows us, and longs for us to know God, more intimately, more deeply, with more real consequences for our lives and actions. “Come and see,” I say. Jesus is all up in our business, gathering disciples still, plucking us from under our fig trees and behind our desks and sinks and snow-blowers to travel along with him a while. Let’s do it. Let’s go together. Come and see. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Martha Spong, pastor of North Yarmouth Congregational Church, Portland, ME, in her introduction to the “11th Hour Preacher Party” at RevGalBlogPals, January 15, 2012.

[ii] Adele Reinhartz, “The Gospel According to John,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160.

[iii] Ibid.

The Beginning of the Story: Sermon on Mark 1:1-11

This sermon was preached on January 8.

For about eight years my children and I have been huge fans of the TV series, “Friends.” Which some of you will recognize means that we caught onto it just as the series was ending, and so we have watched the whole thing in reruns, or on DVD’s. And one of the things you will notice about “Friends,” if you’re watching the DVD’s, is this: the titles of the episodes are kind of odd. (Either that or brilliantly funny.) Every title begins with the words “The One with...,” or “The One where…,” as in, “The One with the Monkey,” or, “The One where the Monkey Gets Away.” I confess, when I started watching the show, I was puzzled by the titles. Was the title guy at NBC out sick that day? Or, was he out sick all those ten years the show was on the air?

I felt the same way, once upon a time, when I came upon the beginning of the gospel of Mark. Just to remind you, the first sentence of the gospel is “The beginning of the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ.” Wow. Compare this with the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, in which we launch immediately into a provocative and action packed genealogy that makes bold claims about Jesus’ identity and heritage: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1)! Or, the beginning of Luke, in which we are treated to a philosophical sort of sales pitch as to why thisis going to be a most excellent gospel: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4).

But for my money, no other gospel can hold a candle to the opening of John’s gospel—though, come to think of it, we all held candles to it on Christmas Eve. It’s shrouded in darkness, mystery, the eternal workings of the cosmos: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

But action-packed genealogies are not what Mark is up to. Nor is he pitching his gospel, as if to get advertisers. Nor is he claiming to delve into the mind of God. Nope. Mark simply says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” And for Mark, the beginning is not the story of Jesus’ ancestors or the story of Jesus’ birth. It is not even the story of the pre-existence of Christ, the eternal Word, with God from before the beginning. The beginning of the story is Jesus’ baptism.

And what a baptism it is! For those of us whose baptisms tend to involve marble fonts and modest amounts of water poured on babies’ sweet-smelling heads, the baptism of Jesus is a real jolt to the system. It involves a baptizer dressed in camel-skin, fresh from a dinner of wild honey and bugs, dunking Jesus bodily in the muddy Jordan River. But even that is not what catches our attention. It’s the moment after Jesus comes out of the water, sputtering and drenched; the moment when the heavens are torn apart and the very voice of God rings out or booms or whispers (I hear it’s sometimes a whisper) to speak directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” And that’s the beginning, the kickoff, the great launch of Jesus’ work in the world. ‘The One where God Comes to Earth.”

Baptism is the beginning for us, too. Baptism is the beginning of our life in the community of faith we call “church.” Whether we were nestled safe in someone’s arms and baptized at this very font or were dunked in a pool or stream after we were “of age,” each one of us entered the stream of God’s story, Jesus’ story, the Spirit’s story, by virtue of our baptism. “The One where G. and A. Get to Meet Jesus.” And for several members of UPC, that stream has led them to this day, the day when they will be ordained and/ or installed deacons and ruling elders.

And lest we think being a part of God’s story is something ethereal or otherworldly, Mark disabuses us of that notion by including, in the space of a few short verses, the harsh wilderness and that muddy river water and those crunchy locusts and that sweet and wild honey and that aromatic and scratchy camel pelt; not to mention that tear (rip) in the heavens and the ringing/booming/whispering voice of God. God’s story is profoundly earthy, and those of us who step (or jump) into that stream are part of a story that takes place in real time with real people throughout God’s very real world.[i]

And now several of our fellow church members get to participate in “The One Where L., K., J., J., S. and P. Get to Show Jesus to a Hurting World.” Of course, we all get to participate in that. That’s the other title of our baptism story, our common calling as Jesus-followers. But on this day, in this moment, we come together as a community to confirm that God’s voice is still ringing/ booming/ whispering in the ears of those we have elected to be our deacons and elders. We pray and lay hands upon them to give our witness that the beginning of Jesus’ story continues in the beginning of our story. And then we gather around the table in our celebration meal, “The One Where God Promises to Stay With Us Through it All.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Elton W. Brown, Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word Year B (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 79, 80.

Dawning: A Sermon for Christmas 1/ Epiphany

I'm trying to do a little catch up here, posting sermons I had neglected to share. This sermon is on Isaiah 60:1-6.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. ~ Isaiah 60:1

The celebration of Christmas always involves lights. Every year I am just a little thrilled on Thanksgiving weekend, when the lights begin to appear in my neighborhood. Though I almost never deck out my own house in lights, I am endlessly grateful to those who do. It feels as if they have given me, personally, a gift. For several weeks in the darkest season of the year, my West Side of Binghamton neighborhood is transformed into a fairyland, enchanted, as the lights outline houses, trees, bushes, and everything is suddenly made magical.

When I was in seminary I became aware that ordinarily cynical and hard-bitten New Yorkers became as squishy about the Christmas lights as I do on the day the tree in Rockefeller Center was lit. You’d see it on their faces—from a little embarrassed smile all the way to full-blown glee. Lights in the darkness: without them, we’d hardly know it was Christmas.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

It is hard for us, here on the very first day of 2012, to appreciate what light and darkness meant to ancient people. Imagine a time when you not only couldn’t string LED lights on a tree, you couldn’t illumine anything without benefit of fire. Ordinary people—meaning, most people in the world—couldn’t afford candles until around the year 1800. That means that, when night fell, the darkness was absolute. And the fear of the darkness seems to be hard-wired into us. Darkness feels dangerous, frightening: “We easily get lost in the dark… we stumble around and can’t find our way… we do not know what might be going on: danger may lurk, spirits may roam, evil may be afoot…” Darkness and grief seem to go together as well… we speak of a dark night of the soul. Fear of night evokes that other primal fear, fear of death.[i]

It’s no wonder that light and fire came to be understood as something that came from the gods. From moment when Prometheus shared the secret of fire with humans, we have known it: there is something holy about light. From the time when the Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unvanquished Sun on December 25, we have celebrated it. And from the first verses of Genesis—in which God sings, “Let there be light”—to the last verses of Revelation—in which Jesus is described as “the bright morning star”—scripture has confirmed it. As one write expresses it, “No wonder glory—which means radiance, luminosity—is seen as a central quality of the sacred.”[ii]

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

In our reading from Isaiah this morning we hear all sorts of echoes that say to us, Christmas, Christmas! The glory of the Lord rising and being revealed—we read that and think, “Jesus!” The coming of kings to witness the brightness—we recognize the Magi, following the star to Jesus! Even the talk of camels and gold and frankincense—the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, plus their mode of conveyance! But this passage, in its original context, meant something very different, something that may deepen our own appreciation for the ways in which those Christmas echoes are very real.

This part of Isaiah is speaking to Jews who have returned home following the Babylonian exile. For nearly fifty years Jews had been kept from their homeland, following a terrible and bloody rout in which the Temple was destroyed. When Persia conquered Babylon, and the Persian king gave Jews permission to go home, there was incredible joy and anticipation. They imagined what it would be like to go home, to see the places that were only dimly remembered, but which had been built up in their hearts to epic proportions.

And so they returned, and guess what? What they found broke their hearts. The original, splendid Temple of Solomon was gone, and in its place something that felt more like a roadside shrine. Their sacred places were gone, their homes were gone, Jerusalem was still mostly a pile of rubble. The monarchy—the throne of David, once so regal and proud—was reduced to a tiny community still under the thumb of a powerful empire. And what was left of that community was divided, unable to choose a single way forward. Aspects of the past were, they learned, unrecoverable, irreplaceable. And their hearts were broken.

These are the people Isaiah is speaking to. And I think this heartbreak, this sense that the world has changed and we are somehow lost in the debris is something that characterized 2011 for many people. The economy continued to show only the most marginal improvement. Unemployment is at its lowest level in three years, but 25 million Americans are still out of work. At the national level our elected leaders seemed consistently to place personal and political gain above the common good. We ended two wars that were a source of controversy for nearly ten years, and which cost Iraq and Afghanistan hundreds of thousands of lives, and the US thousands. Those same wars added to our economic fragility. And, on a local level, we suffered another historic flood. 2011, even in broad strokes, was not an easy year, or a buoyant one. Many of us are left with a sense of displacement, a kind of exile-in-place.

And still, the words of Isaiah speak to us, just as they spoke to the ancient community of exiled and relocated Jews.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. ~Isaiah 60:1-2

For post-exile Jews, this passage was a reiteration of the same promise God had been making since he’d plucked Abraham and Sarah out of their retirement community and put them on the road: I will bless you. Which translates, roughly, to I will be with you.

Which, of course, is the story behind Christmas to begin with: God pledging, “I will be with you.” A colleague from Maine tells this story: It is a long, long time ago in human terms—perhaps two thousand years ago—and God is sitting around, being God...and feeling that queasy, end-of the millennium feeling—you know the one, where, the morning after, you wonder if the whole last millennium was wasted, where you wonder to yourself, “what do I have to show for all that time? Was it worth it? Am I proud of it? Would I do it again?”

God looks around for something to write on—some sort of cosmic papyrus and a good, sharp stylus—and sighs. It's tiresome, these endless cycles of night and day, this running the universe all alone...and just look at the state of Creation, there, with all those people killing each other, as if THEY're little godlets, pretending they have the right to snuff out the divine spark of another's created life. It pushes the edges of belief. It doesn't make any sense.

Hmmm. Maybe that's the trouble. It doesn't make SENSE. You can shape a person out of cosmic dust, breathe the spirit of life into them, watch them move and act and learn, even hear their thoughts, but there's something about the human experience that their Creator has never known: embodiment, the scraped knees and bruised hearts, the ticklish toes and loving caresses, the anxious sweat, the throat-cooling rush of a good drink, the satisfying ache of honest exhaustion that comes after hard physical work... God cannot inhabit the limited bodies, the physical senses of these remarkable, loveable, wondrous and maddening creatures.

God unfurls a scroll, takes hold of the stylus, and begins to write:


1.) Spend... more... time... with... my... family...”[iii]

What dawns on us, at this time of year, more than any other, is just that: We rise up, we shine, our houses and our sanctuaries and our faces and our hearts, because God has kept that New Year’s resolution. The light of God has dawned in Jesus, God’s promise of presence with God’s people from the beginning.

We all have gotten here this morning by following this light. We are all people of the exile; we are all Magi, we are all Simeon and Anna. We follow the light and we find Jesus there. Each time we act with compassion and forgiveness we are following the light. Every time we let kindness and caring inform our behavior we are following the light. Whenever we stand up for justice and fairness… when we pour into Tahrir Square by the thousands, or the State Capitol by the hundreds, certain that there is a better way to live together, we are following the light. When gratitude becomes our way of living, we are following the light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, will not overcome it. God’s presence, God’s light is here to stay. The home of God is here, with us. As we begin a new calendar year, your resolutions (should you choose to make any) are entirely up to you. But I will offer this prayer, courtesy of a 5th century Irish monk. Perhaps it will resonate with you as you drive through your own neighborhood, looking at those houses that are still bedecked with reminders of this beautiful season:

“Be thou a bright flame before me; Be thou a guiding star above me; Be thou a smooth path below me; Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me; Today, tonight and forever.”[iv] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 173-174.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Story by the Rev. Holly Morrison. She is a pastor in Portland, ME.

[iv] Saint Columba.