Sunday, May 31, 2015

“Saved” (John 3:1-17)

“Born again.”
Those are some pretty powerful words in the lexicon of the Christian faith.  Some would even implore that they are the very foundation of what makes one a Christian . . . through God’s “grace” in Jesus humanity is “saved” from the its wickedness and sin to be “born again”.  It is the old “salvation” plan taught to Christians from the very beginning of the faith journey.  It is the common belief and understanding . . . the fundamental gateway towards redemption and one’s slot in heaven.  At least that is what is believed.  But, is that the way that it works?  Is that what makes one a person of faith?
Think about it.
Think about it as we consider the story of Nicodemus.
 Nicodemus, from what we can glean from our scripture reading this morning, is a Pharisee . . . an educated individual, educated in the scriptures of the people and God . . . an important individual, maybe even a person with a little power and prestige within the community and the Pharisees . . . someone who figures he has it all figured out.  Because of this, Jesus is a curiosity to him . . . Jesus the individual and Jesus the teacher . . . and, Nicodemus needs to know.  Nicodemus needs to know whether or not this Jesus guy is the real McCoy.
To satisfy his curiosity he goes straight to the source . . . he makes a call upon Jesus . . . but, he does so under the cloak of darkness.  After all, he is an important person and it is better to be safe than sorry.  Whatever the case, he visits Jesus and begins a discourse . . . a discourse that only seems to confuse him more than when he started.  Jesus is quite blunt with him, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand.  I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
In other words, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if he has it all figured out then it should be no problem in embracing and living what it is that Jesus has been teaching and preaching to the people.  The problem is, Nicodemus is smart in “book knowledge” . . . smart in “head knowledge”; but, he is flunking the course on the spiritual side . . . on the “heart” side.  He, and others like him, are nothing more than robotic drones who are going through the motions of faith creating a toxic and dogmatic expression of faith that is more damning than being ignorant of the faith. 
That which Jesus is speaking about is not dogmatic . . . it is not ritualistic.  No it is spiritual and freeing . . . something that you cannot box up and sell off the shelf of the church.  Jesus states: “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  It is not book learning that Jesus is talking about here . . . something you learn and mindlessly regurgitate . . . it is not ritual.  It is spiritual, and being spiritual it takes on a whole new form.
Jesus explains the Spirit—the spiritual: “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Faith is not some habit that one learns.  Faith is a relationship . . . an act of establishing a relationship of love and community.  As one commentator put it: “The focus is life.  This means relationship.  The motive is love.”  As anyone of us who has ever been in a relationship will say, relationships are about as predictable as winning the lottery.  When it comes to relationships there is nothing basic and formula-matic . . . if that was the case there would not be thousands and thousands of books out on the market about relationships—there would be one book for everyone.  That is the work of the Spirit.
Basically Jesus is telling Nicodemus . . . for all that he is worth, for all the education he had, for all the “faithfulness” to the teachings and rituals and posturing he went through . . . he was not saved.  Nope, he needed to be reborn . . . and, to be reborn he would have to let go of all that he knew and thought he understood, latch onto the Spirit, and hang on for the ride . . . to hang on because the Spirit’s ride was unpredictable and wild . . . it would be an adventure. 
And, how would Nicodemus know that he had been reborn?  By the way that he lived his life . . . in relationship to God . . . in relationship to others . . . all grounded in love.
So, we go back to those three phrases—those three words: Saved, born again, and grace. 
As Christians we bank on it . . . we rely upon it . . . that through God’s “grace” in Jesus humanity is “saved” from the its wickedness and sin to be “born again”.  We believe that we are saved as Christians.  Which makes one think, is it working?  Or, do we have it all wrong?
Apparently something is not working using this formula.  If the formula was working the state of the “church” today would not be in the shape it is in with its decline in society.  So, what is the problem?
I think, and this is my opinion and thoughts . . . but, I think that the current formula has put the impetus all on God and that Christians believe if they accept and learn the teachings of Jesus and the “church” all the bases are covered . . . that things are hunky-dory . . . and that that is all that we have to do.  All we have to do is to believe . . . believe with our heads.  But Jesus tells us that it is not the head that guides the body, but that it is the heart.  The heart is where the Spirit dwells.
Now it is true that it is through the “grace” of God that we are given the opportunity to be “saved” . . . “grace” that was exhibited through Jesus—his life, words, actions, and even his death.  It is through “grace” that God makes the opportunity available for anyone who is willing to embrace the “gift” and to follow in his footsteps . . . God provides the opportunity, but God does not force anyone to take it.  No, to receive the “gift” one has to take it . . . has to embrace it . . . has to come into relationship with it.  And, there it is again, that word—relationship.   That is where all the action takes place . . . that is where life is lived . . . that is where community is built . . . that is where the Spirit moves—in relationship.
We are not “saved” because we say we are “saved”.  We are not “saved” because we can recite the Lord’s Prayer without even thinking about it.  We are not “saved” because we attend worship every Sunday.  We are not “saved” because we know our Ten Commandments or we can rattle off scripture from memory.  We are not even “saved’ when we gather around the table to break the bread and lift the cup.  No, we are not “saved” until we have entered into a relationship with God and one another that is built on love.  Relationships are not built on words, but on action.  The Spirit guides us where God wills.
When we are “saved” we are “born again” to the Spirit.  The Spirit moves us towards doing God’s will.  God’s will is that we be in a relationship with God that is open and loving.  God’s will is that we be in relationship with others . . . all of God’s children of creation . . . in such a way that we truly become one family under God.  Such salvation is does not come through the head, but it comes through the heart.  Jesus showed us the way.
As the followers of Jesus we need to really consider whether or not we have truly been “saved”.  Are we following Jesus . . . his words . . . his life; or are we following the “church” and its ritualistic and dogmatic words that reside in the head?  The Spirit resides in the heart.  There are too many words in the “church” . . . there needs to be more action.  The Spirit needs to be set free . . . to live . . . to love . . . to do the will of God.  Amen.

Monday, May 25, 2015

“The Soul at Peace: Utterly Empty”

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”  
(Julian of Norwich)

John and I moved from New Albany, Indiana, to Kearney, Nebraska in the summer of 1985.  It seems we barely got unpacked before he had to leave for General Assembly (the national meeting of our denomination.)  He left me with a 17th month old, a Scottish terrier and her 3 puppies, and no friends save the search committee of the congregation we had been called to serve.

In those days my favorite television station was the Weather Channel.  We had a little television that sat on the counter, or bar, that separated the kitchen from the dining room.  The Weather Channel was on all day—playing softly in the background while I went about my business being a mom to John Andrew and doing laundry and preparing meals.

About the second day John was gone the Weather Channel began to talk about the possibility of a tornado outbreak.  I knew we had moved INTO tornado alley, so I listened intently as the forecaster described the soupy conditions that were forming over central Nebraska.  

John and I hadn’t formed a tornado plan—there hadn’t been enough time.  What would I do?  At the very least I was responsible for getting a toddler, a dog, and three puppies to a safe place—which I decided was the basement—the long, carpeted room without windows.  But there was more, what about my wallet, a radio, the picture book from our wedding and the one that held the pictures of John Andrew when he was born? What about my great aunt’s antique china, the crystal and silver, or the table my grandfather had made in his carpentry shop?  What’s realistic when the tornado siren blares?

And it did blare!  I had tucked all living things into bed by 9:00pm, including myself—but I was restless.  A storm was approaching.  I’d get up and look out the windows, and then go back to bed and try to sleep.  About the time I did fall asleep, midnight, or a little before, the tornado siren went off.  I grabbed John Andrew; I hooked the leash to the collar on the mother Scottie, loaded the three puppies into a laundry basket, and headed downstairs.  I secured a baby gate in the doorway so John Andrew and the puppies would stay in the long room in the basement, but I hopped the gate and returned upstairs.  The wind was howling, the hail was pelting the windows, the lightening was flashing.  I froze.  Did I really need to salvage anything else?  Who, other than John and I, were going to treasure our wedding pictures?  If John Andrew’s birth pictures disappeared, would he be damaged for life?  And my wallet, well, I could replace that as well.  But what couldn’t be replaced was me---and our young son, and the mother dog with her puppies ALL needed me to help THEM survive the night. 

So I returned to the carpeted room in the basement—and cuddled with everyone until the tornado siren retreated an hour later.  When we left the basement I felt amazingly free; light.  I truly needed so little—the pile having been whittled down to…love. 

There are lots of opportunities in a lifetime to examine one’s priorities and attachments, not just tornado season.  Are we aware of these opportunities?

January 1st , or New Year’s, is such a time…we call this opportunity New Year’s resolutions.  We ask ourselves “What do we need to let go of:  a few pounds, a home and lifestyle that’s become unmanageable, a job that’s either not challenging or riddled with chaos, even an unhappy marriage?  What do we want to start:  a family, a new career?  Where do we want to visit—home, Ireland, Australia?

Graduating from high school, perhaps college, is such a time…we need to discern work, and a place to live, perhaps marriage?

Starting a new year at school is such a time…we discern friendships, and interests such as science and math, art, English and journalism?

Moving anywhere, anytime, is such a time…we might choose to have a garage sale and let go of a few items.  We might realize that our children aren’t following us to our next location.  That’s a huge change, correct?

Over the course of a lifetime we are discerning-- more times than we care to count—what to keep and what to let go of. What I have mentioned, up to this point, are objects in our external life:  wallets and antique china, careers, close ties with family, dream vacations.

Today Jesus asks us “What about letting go of hostility?”  This is an interesting shift.  He’s talking about letting go of something that is INSIDE of us. However, just because it’s INSIDE of us doesn’t mean it’s less important or less noticeable.   It’s the opposite—it’s more important and more noticeable because choosing NOT to participate in hostility is to CHOOSE to participate in God’s grace—to participate in life as it REALLY is—GOOD—of GOD; supportive of life.  Hostility is the opposite of good, or supportive of life.  Hostility separates people; closes the mind and the heart. 
As a Kentuckian, I am aware that we are famous for the story of a feud between two families—the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s.  We actually share this honor of being the home of this famous feud with West Virginia.  As history goes, the Hatfield’s lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug River, and the McCoy’s lived on the Kentucky side.  What started the feud which lasted for decades?  A pig!  Both families laid claim to one pig and both were right and both were wrong.  Hatred and revenge became the norm for members of the two families.  If you were a Hatfield you grew up at odds with McCoys, and if you were a McCoy you grew up suspicious of a Hatfield.

This isn’t new.  I can’t think of anyone that isn’t born into some kind of “tribe” that isn’t suspicious of another “tribe.”  My father tried to pass on to me his disdain for automobiles made in foreign countries, and his preference for the Cleveland Browns, the Miami Dolphins, and the Republican Party.  What “tribes” did you inherit?  I am aware of a grandmother who refused to attend the weddings of her two grandsons, the only two, because their respective brides were Catholic.  A practicing Protestant, Catholics were “suspect”, even less than human—and so she sent gifts to the couples—but stayed home—to make a point.

The point she thought she was making to her grandsons is this, “You have chosen poorly in marriage, and I won’t be associated with poor choice.”  What do you think her grandsons heard?    What do you think God heart?  

In his invitation to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, offer the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you and let thieves get away with your goods,” Jesus is inviting us to break the cycle of hostility not simply in our own hearts but in the heart of the world. Jesus is asking us to let go of the way the world has organized its way of life together for years, which is judge one another as better than and less than, normal and perverted, right and wrong. 
We know what happens when we return the same hurtful behavior that was hurled at us, correct?  Most teachers understand that when a student is using their LOUD voice, the best way to get that student to lower their voice is for the teacher to speak in a SOFT voice.  The teacher is modeling adult conversation; a way of talking together that can achieve what is best of the student.

Have you ever yelled at someone?  Did they choose to yell back?  Could you hear what the other person was saying?  Did the two of you move the relationship to a more productive place by yelling?

How many in this room are tired of war; of the price—not simply the death toll, but also the price tag AND the lesson it teaches—we resolve our problems by planning horrible ways for people to die.

I love the line in the movie Cold Mountain, starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law and Rene Zwelger as Ruby.  The story follows the lives of men and women who have one thing in common—the Civil War.  It’s a story about loss, a lot of loss.  Ruby, referring to the Civil War, laments, “Every piece of this is man's creation. They call this war ‘a cloud over the land’ but they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say "Shoot, it's rainin'!"

Jesus teaches his disciples that they are called to live their lives out of God’s reality, which is grace, an amazing hospitality to all that is—and by living out of God’s reality—to reverse the values of the existing culture.  Jesus is literal here:  “Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.”  Do this and stand back and watch what happens.

When I read the vedict for the man who set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon—death—I thought, “Typical.  No light there.  No Christ.”  Correct?

This is discipleship, and discipleship isn’t easy.  Well, from the standpoint of how the culture has raised us it isn’t easy.  But actually, the culture has raised us with great difficulties---to care what our neighbors think of us, to develop attitudes ourselves—to create values and to Devalue—to solve our differences with violence and expensive muscle—to fear and cut ourselves off from that which we don’t understand.

I want you to try this experiment for half a day:  embrace every person and every event that happens to you in the span of three hours without judgment.  Take everything and everyone seriously, which means be present, but take none of it personally, which means without judgment.  Just because something “happened” doesn’t mean it happened to you.

Then tell me which was easier; judgment and hostility or humility and grace.  Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:29-30) 

Love, according to Jesus, is the easiest thing there is—living to build up others instead of simply the self—finding joy in the joy of others.  It’s without burden, which is another way to describe a “free” life.

In his blog, “Reflections” Father Gerry Pierse, reminds his readers that “One of the most subtle ways in which we lose our freedom is through our attitudes to others. Others may hate us but they can do our inner selves little harm. But if we hate them back we have given our freedom over to them.”

We began our journey into God’s grace two weeks ago, exploring grace as God’s love and happiness embracing us, and experience of God, and generosity, an coincidence bearing the mark of God or the mark of love, and leniency through guilty.  Last week we explored grace as 24/7 or love turned towards us without interruption, even when we are making terrible decisions.  We considered how God’s love for us is playful, even whimsical instead of fault-finding; like parents and children.  Some days are better than others and nothing moves in a straight line.

If we were to think of grace like a ladder, and we are now on the 3rd rung, what we are beginning to understand is that grace is how the universe really is—loved, affirmed, treasured, supported, embraced, empowered—and that fear, judgment, violence, attitudes, tribes, apathy—are an illusion.  The question isn’t, “Why isn’t the world a better place so we can be at peace?”  The question is, “Why aren’t we at peace (with the way things really are) so the world can be a better place?”  

The tornado siren is blaring and you have three minutes to save three things.  You cannot choose loved ones; people or pets.  They are a given.  What are the three things you’d save, which is a playful way of asking you, “What are the three things that save you?”  Are they gifts you’d carry in your hand, or are they gifts you’d carry in your heart?  And has to move out—so these three things can move in.
Prayer:  Humble Christ, give us your forgiveness, your humility, your love.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)