Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

seeing God's kingdom clearly, 3.30.14

John 9:1-17

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Before we really dive into this story, let me say a word about John’s Gospel in general. The way John talks about Judaism is a stumbling block for many people and has even encouraged anti-Semitism at different points in the church’s history. John often talks about “the Jews” in his writing. What he really means is the religious leaders.

John isn’t opposed to Judaism. He wasn’t prejudiced against Jewish people. After all, Jesus and most of the early church leaders, including John himself, were Jewish. John does have a bone to pick with the leaders of the religious establishment. The religious leaders opposed Jesus from the beginning. They had Jesus arrested and executed. Religious leaders later persecuted the church. When you hear John talk about “the Jews,” substitute “Religious leaders,” and you’ll be on the right track. That keeps us from getting hung up on what sounds like anti-Semitic language.

It also helps us hear Jesus’ challenge to the leaders of his faith community as a challenge to us as well. People who are committed to the church, like us, face some of the same temptations the religious leaders in Jesus’ time faced, so we need to hear Jesus’ words today too. If we’re honest with ourselves, we fall into some of the same traps the religious leaders in this story fall into. This is a story about healing, but it’s also a story about how we get stuck in our point of view.

Let’s start by being fair to the religious leaders. They get a bad rap because they oppose Jesus, but they deserve to be heard too. The Sabbath commandment isn’t some tiny detail in religious life. It was one of the major things that set Jews apart from their pagan neighbors. Also, like the way Sunday dinner unites many families in the US today, the family rhythms of the Sabbath tied families and communities together in Jesus’ time.

Under Roman occupation everything that supported Jewish community life was crucial. Without the ability to rule themselves politically, the religious rules were more important than ever for the people of Israel. Leaders worried about all the pressures that encouraged Jews to leave their uniqueness behind to fit in with society. This day set apart for worship, family and community strengthened the Jewish community in a challenging time.

The Sabbath isn’t just a human tradition either. God commanded Israel to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. The Sabbath was a big deal. Jesus wasn’t just disrespecting the Pharisees: he seemed to be trampling on God’s law.

The religious leaders are faced with a difficult situation. On the one hand, Jesus has obviously performed a powerful miracle. He’s freed a man from blindness and from a life of begging to survive. On the other hand, he has completely disregarded God’s commandment to rest on the Sabbath. The leaders feel confused; they don’t know what to make of the situation, but they feel threatened.

I imagine these leaders worrying that this disobeyed commandment will be the first step on a slippery slope. If they allow this traveling rabbi to heal on the Sabbath, other people will start ignoring the commandment too, and little by little the religious structure that held the community together would be worn away. Jews would start acting more and more like gentiles, and God’s chosen people would stop being the unique and blessed community God called them to be.

For many Christians same sex marriage is a lot like the Sabbath commandment was for the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. For many, the Bible is clear about sexuality, and same sex relationships are not included. Like the Sabbath in the story, marriage is crucial to the structure of the family and society, so the stakes are high.

Opponents of same sex marriage worry it will weaken heterosexual marriage and thus weaken the family structure as well. They also worry that marriage equality is one more in a seemingly endless string of changes that weaken the influence of scripture on the church and the church on society.

I can see where that fear comes from. Society does feel unsettled. We see so many families torn apart by divorce. We see shocking levels of crime and violence and poverty that break down our communities, and we know families are important in the health of a community. The world feels unpredictable, and that makes us nostalgic for a past we imagine, a past that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. The church has an important perspective to offer society in terms of love and family and grace, and for many Christians, supporting marriage equality is a compromise of Christian values to fit in with society.

For the leaders in our story, even though they could see something special about Jesus’ power to heal, he didn’t fit into their understanding of how God worked. His actions didn’t fit the rules, so they had to oppose those actions. In the same way, for a lot of Christians they see that gay and lesbian couples love each other, but homosexuality doesn’t fit the rules as they know them, so they have to oppose it. There’s a conflict for many people about love that seems good in one way, but in another way doesn’t follow the rules.

Jesus turns things upside down. He doesn’t reject God’s Law, but he makes us look at law and faith and scripture very differently. In this case Jesus isn’t rejecting the Sabbath, but he is rejecting any religious observation that stands in the way of healing and justice. It’s not about observing or not observing the Sabbath; it’s about loving our neighbor. Everything is about loving our neighbor and loving God.

Supporting same sex marriage isn’t about rejecting traditional marriage; it’s about expanding marriage so it can be liberating and life-giving for more people. Marriage is a covenant of love, and love knows no boundaries. LGBT couples getting married will not weaken the family; they will broaden the range of families blessed by the church. Families today don’t all look like the Norman Rockwell painting. They are often more complicated than a father, mother, 2 kids and a dog. But every family built on love is holy and beautiful and blessed by God, no matter what the church says.

Of course, this passage isn’t about sexuality; it’s bigger than that. Jesus invites us to look beyond the easy answers in every part of our life, both together as a church and individually. I believe that adults in loving relationships should be free to marry regardless of their sex. I believe in marriage equality both for civil marriage and marriage in the church.

I also believe that you don’t have to agree with me on that or anything else, for that matter. There are many areas where faithful people disagree, and one of the great blessings of our Presbyterian system is that we seek God’s will through prayer and conversation together. We need different opinions and perspectives to hear God’s will clearly. I promise to respect and protect your right to express you opinion in a loving and respectful way regardless of whether I agree.

The real problem with the religious leaders in this passage isn’t that they took the Sabbath too seriously. It’s not that they disagreed with Jesus. The problem is that when they felt threatened they settled the problem with power. First they bullied the man who had been healed; then they kicked him out of the community. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he was raising questions that made them uncomfortable. Instead of sitting with that discomfort and reasoning together, they used their power to silence the question.

That temptation isn’t a conservative temptation; it’s a universal temptation for people in power who feel threatened. For instance, many liberal academics protested at the University of Minnesota and Rutgers University because those schools invited former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to speak. They didn’t like her viewpoint, so they tried to silence her. In communities like this one, we’re much more at risk of silencing a conservative viewpoint than a liberal one. If we truly value diversity, that should include theological diversity as well. If everyone is welcome, all voices need to be respected.

That’s a delicate balance because discussions of sexuality can feel like an attack on LGBT people very easily. This community needs to be a safe space where all people are valued. It especially needs to be a safe space for LGBT people and others who are not always heard and respected. But with grace and love, there can be space for honest discussion, even when it’s hard.

This summer our denomination will debate two overtures about same sex marriage. The realist in me expects that the discussion will be predictable and without much grace. Conservatives will make a biblical case against marriage equality. They will talk about the dangers of following secular culture too closely. At worst, they will say ugly things about LGBT sisters and brothers.

Liberals will make a case for same sex marriage. They will talk about the power of love and equality. At their worst they will equate conservative theology with bigotry. Both sides will basically dismiss the other position; both sides will leave the debate more convinced than ever that they are right and the other side is wrong. By a few votes either way we will have a narrow decision for or against same sex marriage.

I hope and pray for something better. I pray we will listen to each other. I pray we will actually discuss what the Bible says and what it means for us today. I pray we will talk about real couples and what marriage means for them. I hope we will actually seek God’s will for the church because both sides have something to offer.

Conservatives are right that the church isn’t always careful enough about following God. We are not supposed to mirror secular society; we are called to bear witness to God’s loving kingdom with our words and our actions. Liberals are right that love makes a family, and that discrimination has no place in the church. If we actually listen and learn from each other we will come out stronger and more faithful, still perhaps with a narrow vote, but with deeper love and respect for people with whom we disagree.

The truth of this passage for us goes far beyond marriage or theological discussion. The heart of this passage is that Jesus wants to open our eyes, because we’ve all got blind spots, and we all need healing. The more we are convinced that we see clearly, the more convinced we are that we are right or righteous, the more likely we are to have it all wrong.

Where do you need Jesus to clarify your vision?

Are you closing your eyes to some uncomfortable truth in your own life?

Where are you refusing to see a different point of view?

What easy answers are you still clinging to?

Jesus wants to help us see a righteous kingdom full of love and grace, but we can’t see it if we’re already sure we see it all.

Thanks be to God.

Hope for a peaceful kingdom, 3.2.14

Isaiah 11:1-9

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Revelation 22:1-7

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

6And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” 7“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

Revelation and Isaiah were written about 800 years apart, but they have a lot in common. Both are prophetic books, which means they were written by someone called by the God to challenge and encourage the people. They both interpret the events of the author’s time in the light of God’s calling. These two passages especially have a lot in common because they lift up a vision of how God will bring the world to its conclusion, and they use that vision to inspire God’s people.

The Prophet Isaiah lived more than 700 years before Jesus in the Kingdom of Judah, which was the southern half of what had been Israel. He wrote to a nation that was doing pretty well on the surface but inside was very sick. On the outside Judah appeared economically strong and religiously active.

Speaking as an insightful observer and as a spokesperson for God, Isaiah sees a very different nation. He sees the powerful oppressing the poor. He sees religious leaders acting as cheerleaders for the nation’s sin by blessing leaders who turned away from the divine call for justice. Isaiah, like other biblical prophets, saw the problems in his society clearly.

He also saw hope for the Lord’s redemption, not only of Israel, but of the whole world. Our passage for today is a vision of God’s kingdom, a kingdom of peace, justice and wholeness where love would guide all relationships and all that was wrong would be made right.

John, the author of Revelation wrote in very different times. He probably wrote between 70 and 90 AD, more than 40 years after Jesus was killed. He wrote to a Christian community that was small and surrounded by threats. Christians were a distrusted minority. Their fellow citizens thought they were unpatriotic, even a threat, because they didn’t worship the Roman gods or the emperor.

While the Roman Empire hadn’t started persecuting the church actively, the Emperor Nero twenty or thirty years earlier had tortured and killed many Christians. John expected the near future to bring more persecution because the Roman Empire claimed divine power. That ultimately put it on a collision course with the church because the church believed only Christ was Lord.

As many of you have seen, Revelation is a collection of strange images through which God and John remind the church that God truly is in charge. No matter how strong the powers of empire appear, God’s kingdom of love will triumph in the end. The passage we read today builds on the last week’s description of God’s heavenly kingdom: a new heaven and new earth with its center in a new Jerusalem that comes down from. In this holy city God will be right in the middle of human life.

A restoring river of life flows from God’s throne through the street. That river brings new life to the world. We see a strong tree of life on both sides of the river and its leaves bring healing not just to Israel, not just to the church, but for all the nations.

There are all kinds of ways Revelation has been misused. The violence of other parts of the book have sometimes fueled an “us versus them” mentality in the church. The image of a new heaven and a new earth has made some Christians careless about the earth with which we have been entrusted. But the book as a whole is a powerful reminder that God is in charge, no matter what it looks like some days.

Both passages give us a vision of hope, and we need that. We need that as individuals and as a congregation. There are times that life feels overwhelming. Whether it’s family struggles, trouble at work, political turmoil or health challenges, there are so many things we feel we can’t control. When we look at the violence in Syria and the instability in Ukraine, the world feels like a threatening place. When we worry about our bills or a loved one’s illness, it can be hard to believe that the story has a happy ending.

Laurelton has been through a lot. The last three years have been better financially, but we’re not out of the woods yet. This year’s budget is challenging. Facing the end of our time together is sad and a little scary. We worry about our future as a community of faith. Many of the people you care about are not here anymore. There are so many things that are unsure about the world we live in.

Isaiah and John’s visions remind us that in the end all will be well. We are part of a bigger story. We’re part of the God’s restoration of creation. Our loving witness in this community for justice is part of the movement that one day will make a place for everyone.

In Isaiah’s vision the lion and the calf, the wolf and the lamb all live together in harmony. Our witness to justice now is part of God’s peaceful kingdom. Community is nurtured through worship and the Saturday Cafe. Laurelton’s welcome for neighbors is part of how God’s welcoming, inclusive kingdom is built up. The teaching ministry of this church whether in Sunday school for a few children or through preaching or through casual conversation over a cup of coffee is part of how the knowledge of God spreads so it can eventually cover the world with grace.

I don’t know what the future holds for Laurelton. I don’t know what the future holds for Calvary or for the Presbyterian Church. A big part of our future will be shaped with other churches, especially through Urban Presbyterians Together. I know that the One who calls us is faithful. I know that God’s grace is eternal and that God cares for each of us deeply.

I trust these visions of a righteous kingdom. I trust that one day God will make everything new, that injustice and oppression will be defeated and all people, in fact, all creation, will have abundant, peaceful, joyful life in a restored universe of harmony. I trust that future, even though I can’t see it clearly.

Because we believe that one day God will make all things right, we are free to work for justice now without worrying about our successes and failures. We can try new ministries in our life together and in our individual lives. Ultimately, it’s not about me and it’s not about us. We are part of a bigger story with a magnificently happy ending.

No matter what happens, Laurelton is part of the amazing tapestry of divine love. When this neighborhood was first being established, Rev. Harrison was visiting new neighbors, welcoming them to something new. Changing times have taken a toll on this congregation, but each chapter has been a new chance to share God’s love. Whether through the Living Nativity, the Get out and Play ministry, Christmas baskets, Cameron or Café, this church finds new ways to remind our neighbors that God loves them. No matter what happens, that legacy of love, creativity and faithfulness will remain.

The last few years have brought some exciting hope. The Café has deepened our engagement with the community. Supper and Scripture has grown. New members have joined the church and our finances are better than they have been. UPT is working together to support congregations and reach out to the city more effectively. God is doing something exciting here

God isn’t finished yet. She’s not finished with Laurelton, not finished with you personally, and not finished with the world. The story ends with wholeness, peace, community, abundance and welcome for all creation. The story ends with creation renewed and restored, free from pollution and oppression and death. The story ends with God’s love powerfully present among us, so obvious that no one can miss it. The story ends like it begins, with creative love weaving a beautiful new world.

The chapters between now and then are not yet written. We don’t know all the twists and turns. We don’t know the victories and setbacks. We don’t know what we will learn about ourselves and our city. We do know that we are part of something bigger, something beautiful and righteous and true. We know that God has called us, that Jesus has gone before us, and that the Holy Spirit is with us, surrounding and filling us.

We know too that our efforts, our love, our welcome are precious to God. The Holy One has been part of our journey from our first steps. God feels our sorrow and our fear. She mourns with us and sympathizes with our worries. No matter what happens, we are not alone; you are not alone. Each moment of your story is part of the Creator’s loving story, a story that is more beautiful because it includes hardship and challenge. The work we have to do together is important, but the weight of creation is not on our shoulders. No matter what happens the good news of divine love will shine through our story as we follow our calling.

Thanks be to God.