Sermon Transcript 5.29.22 "Do You Want to Become His Disciples, too?"
May the words of my heart, my lips, my mind… be acceptable to you, o Lord. Open our ears, our eyes, that we might hear your word, feel your Spirit among us this day. Amen
Memorial Day. A day of remembrance - especially for those who served our nation and who lost their lives while doing so - and for many of us a day of remembrance of the great cloud of witnesses, whether military or not who went before us, who made our lives possible. Their good choices, their poor ones - the good memories the hard memories. I mentioned at the beginning that this is yet another hard week. I don't remember the last time I prepared a service or a sermon and didn't think and pray, Lord how am I going to responsibly handle the grief of that event without letting that event dominate the worship or reduce our gatherings to a recounting of the latest headlines, laments and celebrations. Every week.
How do you speak to all of that… it has been especially hard, lately. One of my touchstones… I'd call him a mentor though I've never met the man, but he's a prolific writer and spiritual guide. He is an Episcopalian bishop named the Rt. Rev. Stephen Charleston. He is Native American, a Choctaw Elder, and about the time one of my young seminary friends convinced me to get onto this new Facebook thing, somebody convinced him to get on this Facebook thing too. He didn't know what to post… he explains “I don't have a cat, so I couldn't just post cat pictures” so he started, after his morning prayer, writing whatever it was that had come to him. It became a daily thing. It's turned into books now he's printed like five or six books of the responses to his prayers. Just posts about what is on his heart and recently he wrote: “Anger and anguish it's hard to cope with the emotional overload, the sense of loss, the sense of frustration. War in the distance, tragedy close to home. How do we recover? How do we cope? I have no easy answers, but I can share one invitation to all who have a spiritual heart. Don't doubt the love that may be hidden, but is always present in every sorrow ,behind the tears, despite the anger. Love remains. Love endures. Love for the lives lost on the battlefield. Love for the innocent taken without warning. One day, even all of this will be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine, but for now, trust the power of love to do what we do not seem to be able to do for ourselves. End the madness and begin the healing.”
We remember. We remember grocery shoppers gunned down by a man who drove three hours because he didn't like the color of their skin. We remember church members gunned down at a celebration over some dispute we still haven't untangled. We remember the children and teachers of Uvalde. Remember Ukrainian men and women defending their homes and their cities. We remember every soldier ordered into combat, doing what they must. We remember. We cry out to God “how long?”
One of the things that I have said repeatedly in this last year is that one of the things I treasure about the scripture is that it doesn't try to cover over the sorrow and the sin even of its heroes. The disciples, in the new testament and the gospel… If I'm telling the story, I'm not sure I want to tell the one about denying him three times. If I'm telling the story, I try to clean it up… I try to justify it. I recognize that in myself. And yet over and over, the heroes of the Bible's shortcomings are laid bare. The Bible is not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth… there are people who approach the Bible that way but as United Methodists, as Wesleyans, we approach the Bible as something to wrestle with. Inspired. God breathed… and yet full of conflict. Full of verses and stories that push against each other. Last week, I played a clip from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. She gave a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” and she talked about her own childhood and growing up in Nigeria and then coming to the United States in college and meeting her roommate, who wanted to hear her tribal music and she listened to Mariah Carey. Who wanted to know how Chimamanda came to speak English so well while Nigeria speaks English as its official language. She had many stories about America, because of our cultural and economic power, she wasn't surprised to know how diverse we are but we tend to have one story about others. Very, very often, we'll write up things… I've been guilty of this we talk about countries in Europe but treat Africa as if it's one monolith. I talked a little bit last week and we heard it again in this reading from John about the danger of a single story of the Jews. They're the bad guys against Jesus! But Jesus is Jewish. His followers at this point are Jewish. Even the community of John's Gospel considers themselves Jewish, but they're losing the argument and so they lash out… and what was some of the Jewish authorities in the midst of dispute between different factions, becomes “the Jews.” And there is a straight line from that choice by the author of John, and subsequent Christian preaching, to the Third Reich in Germany persecuting Jews. Because we created a single story about “them.”
O If only “they” were gone… controlled… limited… eliminate…. Then everything would be right. Fear is a powerful motivator. Love is even more powerful.
We gather this morning because we profess to be Christian. We profess to be Christ-followers. We hear the one who calls himself “I am.” We hear that one voiced by the man from Galilee. Jesus. “I am the Good Shepherd. I am the living water. I am the bread of life. I am the true vine. I am the gate. Last week, we heard from John 8 and 10. We focused on all of the different metaphors: Teacher…rabbi. He's in the Temple, he's regarded - even by his opponents - as authoritative. They drag a woman before him, accused. He draws in the dirt. Doesn't seem like a very strong response… but it's a profound one. It affects those who accuse the woman. They drop the stones, they blend back into the crowd. “Where are your accusers? I don't know, lord. Then I don't condemn you either, go and sin no more.” It's about wholeness and healing and restoring the ties that bind - making whole the community whole. Just like the woman at the well, this woman's life is saved, changed and transformed by her interaction with Jesus. We don't hear any more of her story, but I have to believe that she has profoundly changed. Whatever sin she might have been guilty of, she has been profoundly changed. She has been set free. And we heard all the metaphors in John 8 and 10. Light… the Good Shepherd… the interplay between those images and the gate. “The hired hand runs away, but the Good Shepherd guards the flock, gives his life for the flock. It's the Good Shepherd that puts his body on the line to protect the flock and to call the flock forth. “I am the gate” Jesus says. And he tells the Pharisees… this continues to be a profound pondering in my own life of faith… he stands in the Temple and he tells the Pharisees “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” I can't tell you definitively what that means. Maybe he just means gentiles… but at the very least it means people different from me, for whom he is also the Good Shepherd… for whom he is also the gate. He stands in judgment, I don't.
So we come to John 9. The story that I skipped over last week between 8 and 10. It's long. It's repetitive. Who sinned? The disciples say this man or his parents. Jesus doesn't care. That's not the issue. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” That's not why this bad thing happened, but it is an opportunity, Jesus says, for the glory of God to be made manifest. And whereas he drew in the dust in the last chapter, now he spits. He makes mud. He kneads it. Why? Well because that is work - according to the purity code of the time and it's the sabbath. You're not allowed to do that – to knead – not bread, not mud. Jesus is deliberately provocative, seeking to make a point. We've already heard some of these sabbath stories. Man was not made for the sabbath, the sabbath was made for man. We need to rest, but we also need to do good. When we let our legalism or institutional rules… “the way we've always done it “get in the way of doing good, we've lost the plot. That's part of what I think Jesus is doing here. So he needs the mud, he makes it like God at creation, shaping the first humans. He puts it on the man's eyes and he tells them to go and wash it off in the pool of Siloam. Why there? The pool of Siloam is in the southern part of Jerusalem. It's in the original city of David, just down from the Temple mount. There are a number of pools around Jerusalem. Freshwater springs feeding pools, either natural or man-made, to bring water to that growing city. The pool of Siloam was probably a place of purification. Travelers would come into the city that way and it was a place that they could cleanse themselves… ritually prepare themselves… to continue on up to the Temple. The name Siloam, John says it means “sent.” It literally means “a sending forth or a gushing out” and the pool was named because it's the terminus of an underground channel that was built in the time of Hezekiah. It's referred to in 1st Kings and Isaiah. Hezekiah wanted to secure the city against siege and he needed more fresh water sources, so he tapped the spring of Gihan, which is a natural spring and, using some Canaanite tunnels and some natural caves, he dug and constructed a waterway that would fill this pool at the southern end of the city. It still functions. An upper pool and a lower pool, uncovered in 2004. One of the things sometimes we forget is that Jerusalem has been destroyed twice. By the Assyrians and the Romans. Sometimes we misname things… Especially in the Crusades, the crusaders got to Jerusalem in the 11th century and they started naming stuff… that's the tower of David… that's the pool of whatever. Forgetting that from the time the Old Testament stories of Jerusalem we're told, including Hezekiah, Jerusalem had been destroyed twice and rebuilt. Over the years, several different places were identified as the pool of Siloam. They moved down this cliff side on the southern part of Jerusalem… there is a byzantine pool that was rebuilt in the time of the Crusaders and various other sites. But in 2004 we unearthed and discovered a pool with cut rock sides, it's 225 feet long. It's directly inside the spot the southernmost gate was. It's clearly a place of ritual immersion, of cleansing. We can't even uncover all of it because of some other archaeological sites from another time that's partially on top of it, but one of the things they notice is the water gushes into it from Hezekiah's tunnel that had been partially diverted into that Byzantine pool, but now flows again into this pool. This pool of being “Sent.”
Jesus is the one who is sent. Sent to save the world.
This man is the one who has sent. Jesus’ followers are the ones who were sent, made pure and sent forth to do good. We are sent, here today.
So the man goes to the pool of “sent” and he washes and he can see! This the man… “surely this isn't the man… this is just somebody that looks like him…. these kinds of things don't happen…” He's hauled before the Pharisees and they grill him. He says “well, this is what happened… this man…he put mud on my eyes… he sent me to the pool of Siloam… I washed now I can see!”
“Where is this man?”
“I don't know.”
They continue to grill him…. “what do you say about him?”
“He is a prophet!”
You see how the man's understanding is starting to grow. This journey of faith from random encounter to a man who did this strange thing and sent him… he obeys… he begins to understand that this man has the power of God, that this man must be a prophet - the same title the woman the well gave Jesus back in chapter 4. A prophet
The Pharisees don't believe he's the same man… they call his parents.
“Well, yes this is our son… he was born blind and now he can see. We don't know anything about it.”
Why don't his parents stand up for him? They're afraid. They're afraid of being cast out of the synagogue. I talked a little last week about how that was the economic and cultural center of life. It's not just about finding a church they like… this is their whole community. To be cut off from your community, to lose the exceptions in Roman law from roman cultic practice that Jews carry. If you're cast out of the synagogue, you can't go shopping, you certainly can't participate in the civic life of the city, because you would have to violate the laws of kosher food and all sorts of other things. You have a protection as long as you're part of the identified group, but once you're not you're on your own. You’d lose everything – cast out from God. They're afraid… “Talk to him. He's of age.”
So the Pharisees haul him back in. “I've already explained this, you're not listening” the pivotal line “do you want to become his disciples too?”
Because see it involves giving up our preconceived notions about what's right. it involves being vulnerable. It involves living with people who are different from us. It involves loving … well my neighbors are annoying enough… but enemies? How can I possibly love people who do evil things? How can I love people who shoot up classrooms and grocery stores. It's too much! “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Do you want to become his disciples, too?
It's much, much easier to say “you were born entirely in sin, get out! How dare you try to lecture me, I can prove you're wrong about whatever this one thing is… therefore everything you say is wrong…
because I got to protect myself. Because love might change me and I don't want to give up that kind of power and control and self-determination. Get out!
Next is the part of the story aimed at that early community of Christians who were being cast out of the synagogue, who were losing what little privilege they might have had in a society, who were gathering around table with gentiles, the people they used to despise as unclean and now their brothers and sisters in Christ. It's confusing… but Jesus finds the man outside the synagogue. It doesn't matter if we're cast out… Jesus is with us!
That is the message –
but see too often Christians took that and twisted it and made it “us” against “the Jews.” We committed the same sing of blindness the religious authorities arguing with Jesus did. We got too full of ourselves and persecute others. We lost the point Jesus is making and we turned back to the ways of power and violence and control of the world instead of worshiping Jesus, instead of following Jesus.
Too often we use his name for whatever we were going to do anyway or we avoid responsibility for the evils our systems do. We send thoughts and prayers, or we say we do… but we don't follow it up with any meaningful action.
I have a friend who is a rabbi and he points out in most of the different streams of Judaism that survive today, to pray about something but then not act on it is sin. We can disagree on what needs to be done and how to do it, but if we're sending our thoughts and prayers, we are necessarily sending our actions. What we do shows the world what we worship and too often in our lives, too often even in the Scriptures, what we Humans worship is power and violence not God's love, not God's humility and peace.
“Surely we are not blind?”
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a mentor was… I was angry about something. I don't even remember what it was but I was angry and by golly I was right! They were wrong. I was right. My mentor said: “Write it all down. Write out that speech you want to give. That letter you want to send. All the stuff you’re right about and they are wrong about. Write it all down… but before you send it… before you speak it. Sit down and read a gospel. Pick one: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John… doesn't matter… pick one. Read the gospel and then pick up your letter again and read it honestly… and see who you sound like. Because if you sound like Jesus opponents, you're probably missing the point. If you sound like the disciples, you might be close to the point but you're probably still missing it. If you’re really being Christian, you need to sound most like Jesus.”
Our task is to be Christ-like
and to my great thanksgiving that means you can flip tables sometimes it
– and also means you can take a nap!
But make sure you sound like Jesus .Make sure you act like Jesus. It's a tall order and it's a dangerous one because as soon as we convince ourselves that we are well we're right and everybody else is wrong and we have the power of judgment and damn them to hell!
But that's not what Jesus does, is it?
He does challenge people… “surely we're not blind, are we?” “If you were blind, you'd have no sin,” Jesus said, “but because you say ‘we see’ your sin remains.” That thing you think you have all figured out… that you can impose on somebody else… you're treading very, very dangerous ground and yet Jesus models challenging that which is wrong. We're not to be passive. It's not anything goes… but we also have to withhold judgment. Judgment is God's. That's why the road is so narrow. It's a hard road to walk, but it's what Jesus does. Jesus – the way, the truth, the life.
So we remember and it's absolutely wonderful to tell the good stories. All the times that we were right, that we intervened for peace, that people sacrifice themselves for a truly noble cause. We also have to tell the truth, about times when we individually and we as a nation were wrong. Part of the economic lifeblood of this community is that beautiful national park, the Fort It was founded as the edge of the permanent Indian frontier.
The Europeans would be to the Missouri side and east, the native Americans would have the Plains… it lasted less than three years before the Fort was obsolete because the frontier had moved, and really ceased to exist. Manifest destiny was heading to California and there was no stopping it. There are a lot of stories there. There's stories about my family in the midst of that.
I'm really glad I live in Kansas… and in Fort Scott, Kansas. I give thanks for the modern amenities, for the freedom to gather like we do, and yet I'm also aware that we're on somebody else's land that. It wasn't empty when we got here. That my ancestors, our ancestors did awful, awful things. It's both/and.
The lines between us and them, good and bad, aren’t as clear as we think.
You know we think people who abandon their nation and their country are despicable traitors and they are…. Unless… if it's our side if they come to, then they're heroes. My favorite story of an ancestor … my family is German on both sides. Of course you know like many American families we’ve got somebody we can trace back to the Mayflower. In our case he was a crew member, not a puritan, but he stayed, and his family actually fled from Massachusetts for religious freedom later. We celebrate our collective story about the Mayflowers passengers coming religious freedom, but we don't often think about what happened as soon as the Puritans got control in Massachusetts… and started persecuting others. It's both/and.
but my favorite story about an ancestor is actually set in South Carolina. He was a Hessian mercenary. He was a hired gun to fight for the British against the colonist and he came and they were marching through a countryside and he spotted a pretty German girl on a farm and just like that he abandoned the British and became American… it was so easy to do then. Just blended in. They married. Later, his family moved to Kentucky. Grandsons of his fought on both sides of the civil war. They died at the same battle. I have this vision that they both stumbled and accidentally shot each other… but that's another family story, anyway… eventually that line led to Chicago and then to Kansas. That's how come I'm here… from both the good and the bad. We need to tell all of those stories - not to feel guilty about the bad, but to counter being too puffed up about the good. This picture is from four years ago in Georgia, a cross and a swastika at a Klan rally. Another part of my family's story, I've mentioned my background as Lutheran and Catholic.
The Catholics that moved from Chicago to Kansas were chased by the Ku Klux Klan. There was actually a point in Kansas history where blacks were allowed to join Klan movements to persecute Catholics, because Catholics were seen as the bigger threat to decency! Our stories are complex and yet … God loves the world.
God loves all of us. God loves all of them, too. God comes not to condemn the world, not us, not even them, but to make the world whole. If I were a lectionary preacher, if we were following the three-year cycle of readings, the lectionary passage for today also comes from John. It's John 17. Jesus prays for his followers, for the disciples and all who will follow them - for the world - that they may all be one. We're very good at not being one. We're very good at drawing lines to exclude and we do, sometimes we need to challenge, we need to confront evil. There's a reason I showed you a burning cross next to a swastika on American soil in our time - I want you to be angry about that and challenge it - but not by giving into the same temptation that says “if we only got rid of all of them” because ultimately they is us. “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” If we become what we set out to fight – then they’ve won. It’s about transformation, not just victory.
There's a wonderful poem by a man named Edwin Markham. called Outwitted.
“They drew a circle to shut me out. Heretic rebel, thing to flout…
but love and I had the wit to win .We drew a circle that took them in.”
That's what being Christ-like is about. Challenging evil, but not allowing ourselves to become so conceited that we ourselves define good. We must first challenge evil first in ourselves Remember the log and the spec, that's true. That doesn't mean we don't call out evil but it always means we're turning to ourselves to try and grow in our capacity to love God and neighbor and even enemy. To draw bigger and bigger circles because that's what God does. There are times when we need to shake the dust, when our human frailty is so broken that we need to separate to avoid doing harm to each other, but always we are called to strive towards that unity, that humility, that allows us to come together in our differences to do good - because love has already won!
I've been saying that all through Lent and Easter. We had signs that went out all over the city “discover how love has already won” because Christ has already accomplished what needs to be accomplished. Sin and death have been broken. God is patiently waiting on us humans to figure it out and participate – to see him as fully human, as prophet, as God. It’s a journey. I am not the same man I was 10, 20, 30 years ago. I am not the man I will be. I'm on a journey. You're on a journey. All of us striving to figure out how to respond to this amazing grace, to recognize that we were blind and now we see - still partially - through a mirror dimly - not completely - not yet. Every week we pray “on earth as it is in heaven” Do we want to be his disciples? Do we mean to live our lives here and now on earth as we envision we will in heaven? Really? If we pray it we need to do it. That's the challenge. That's the call of what it is to be Christian in this time and this place. To come together. The ties that bind us aren't just about everybody we agree - with if we separate every time we have a disagreement… well frankly, I couldn't stand to be in the room with myself.
Blessed be the ties that bind. Blessed be being created in the image of God - male and female Jew and Greek, slave and free, in all our difference and diversity that we might be the beloved kingdom here on earth, that Christ might come in glory.
That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Transcript lightly edited from spoken version for improved clarity.