Monday, 29 June 2015

On the Occasion of the Ordination of Deacons and Priests- John 21

I have some memories that make me cringe. I’m sure you have these too. You are driving, or in the shower, or on a walk and suddenly this memory flashes into your mind. And you can’t help but cringe. We can have very physical responses to these memories. When I was in Junior High I had a brutal fear of girls. Not all girls, just the ones that found me attractive. I live with some awkwardness at the best of times, but that fear would turn into flat out strangeness and avoidance.   I remember going to a Much Music Dance party with my first girlfriend Lindsay. I was rocking my MC Hammer pants, and at one point, Lindsay in desperation threw herself to the ground in the hopes that I would offer her my hand to help her get up, which would result in us holding hands. I didn’t clue in and I didn’t offer her my hand to help her up. …. I think back on that moment and I cringe.
Later (Lindsay and I were no longer dating at this point if you can imagine that) there was a girl named Jodi. Her friend came up to me and told me that Jodi really liked me and that Mike was trying to get her to go out with him, but she really liked me and would rather go out with me. Her friend said, “do you want to be Jodi’s boyfriend?” Now I liked girls, and I especially liked girls who liked me. I was just terrified of them. So I said “Yes” I would love to be Jodi’s boyfriend. Her friend ran away and a few moments later I heard an excited scream echo down the hall. A few minutes later I packed up my book bag getting ready to go home. On the way out of the school I saw Jodi in the hall near the lockers talking to a friend, probably sharing the news that we are now dating. I locked eyes with her and… I walked right past her and out the school without saying a word. No doubt making her look like a liar and sending her into all kinds of confusion. When I think about that I still cringe.   
There are more serious cringe moments I could share, but I’m not going to. We know one of St. Paul’s cringe moments. In his hatred for the followers of Jesus he looked on approvingly as St. Stephen was stoned to death. No doubt that memory caused a wince- at the very least. 
We know one of St. Peter’s cringe moments too (I’m sure he had many), but the greatest sting (I think) must have been when he was standing around a charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard and when someone asked if he was one of the disciples of Jesus, he denied it three times. Matthew records Peter’s denial in strong language calling down curses and making an oath saying, “I don’t know the man!” (Matt 26:69-74). And after he hears the rooster crow he remembers Jesus’ prophesy about his denial and Matthew tells us he “went outside and wept bitterly” (Matt 26:75).  
I’m sure that moment coloured his life, even after the resurrection. Yes, Jesus is back, but does he really want anything to do with a traitor? Does Jesus really want disciples who fall asleep while he is praying and sweating blood in preparation for his arrest and torture? Does he really want disciples who abandon him when the authorities show up and arrest him? One of their own number even sold him out for 30 pieces of silver! … No doubt they felt joy that Jesus is alive, but I wonder if they felt like they missed the boat. Sure Jesus is alive, but would he have anything to do with them? Didn’t he say, “If you deny me I will deny you” (Matt 10:33). Peter blew it, and now he has to figure out what to do with his life. Maybe he should just go back to what he knows. Maybe he can start up a little fishing business. Maybe he can get Matthew to do the books. They fished all night, but they didn’t catch anything. Salt on the wound, no doubt.

Suddenly they hear a voice from the shore, “friends, haven’t you any fish?”. “No”, they answered. So he says, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some”. When they did, they couldn’t pull the nets in because they were so full (Jn 21:5-6). The Gospel of Luke (5:4-6) tells us that when Jesus first called Peter and his first disciples in was in the context of another miracle just like this one. This memory helps John clue in, “It’s the Lord!” (Jn 21:7). Then Peter (in typical Peter style) jumps into the water and swims to shore. When he gets there he finds Jesus cooking breakfast on a charcoal fire. …  I wonder if Peter had a little cringe as he sat with Jesus around that charcoal fire, maybe thinking about the fire in the high priest’s courtyard. Jesus, probably sensing Peter’s shame, turns to him and asks him, ”Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” He doesn’t call him Peter, he calls him by his original name, “Simon”, which can mean something like “shifting sands”. And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. And Jesus asks him again, and again Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. And he asks again a third time and we read that Peter felt hurt. Maybe this reminded him of his three-fold betrayal. Peter responds the third time “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:15-17). The three “I love you’s” undo the three denials and welcome him back into the fold. 
I think there might be more going on here than meets the eye. If you look into the Greek there is something strange happening, some don’t make a big deal out of it, but I think it’s strange enough to point out. No doubt many of you have heard teachings on the different words for love in Greek. Two of those words are used in this exchange between Peter and Jesus. One of those words is “Philos” (φιλῶ). Philos is the love you have for very close family and friends. It is a deep love. It’s is not necessarily an unbreakable love. We all know stories of families or friends who have had a falling out. It is a powerful love, but it is breakable. “Agape” (ἀγαπᾷς) is the other word for love used in this exchange between Peter and Jesus. Agape was used by Christians to mean a self-giving, sacrificial, and unconditional love. It is an unbreakable love. The highest of the loves. Philos and agape are both very high loves, but agape seems to have been understood as a higher love. 
When Jesus turns to Peter he asks him “do you agape me?” Do you love me with the highest love? And Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I philos you”. And Jesus asks him a second time, “Do you agape me?” And again Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I philos you”. And Jesus asks him a third time, and this is the time it makes Peter sad, Jesus asks, “Peter do you philos me?” Jesus switches from asking Peter for agape and instead asks him for philos, which was what Peter was offering all along.

What does this mean? Maybe it’s nothing, but I wonder if this shows a new humility in Peter? This is the same Peter who said even if everyone else betrays you I will die with you… but then denies him three times. Could it be that Peter realized that maybe he doesn’t have agape to give. In humility and honesty maybe he realizes that all he has to offer is philos. And in Jesus’ last question Jesus drops the bar from agape to philos so Peter can reach it. He meets Peter where he is at. … When Peter first met Jesus in his boat, when he had the first miraculous catch of fish, Peter looks to Jesus saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Lk 5:8). Jesus called him knowing he wasn’t perfect.  

Those of us who are living as ordained people, those of us who are living as baptized people, we have made vows to be more than we are. The life we promise to live is bigger than we are. We can’t do it on our own. We need Christ and his body to draw us into that new life. … Our Lord, knows he did not call perfect people. You will mess up in ministry as you try to follow Jesus and minister to his flock, his “least of these”, and his “little ones”. I have the names and faces of people I have disappointed in my mind. That memory causes me to wince in pain. And once in a while I will pass by a charcoal fire and I will cringe and pound my fist into my chest saying “Have mercy on me Lord- how can you stand to have me as one of your disciples?” ... And I will hear his voice, as I hope you hear it, “do you love me?” And with everything we can muster (whether that be philos or agape) we respond, “Yes, Lord you know that I love you”. And he will say again, “follow me”. It is a calling we have to answer every day with the rising sun. And as we follow him he will lead us into agape. The ministry Jesus calls you into is as much for Jesus to save you as it is to minister to others. It is through following his lead that we will become who we were created to be.
And he will draw us into a deeper and deeper love. He will draw us into agape. Our love will deepen as we care for his sheep (Jn 21:15, 16, 17), for his “little ones” and for his “least of these”.  In following his call to his flock we come into the fullness of who we were always created to be.   

Peter learned to give it all as he tended to the flock of Christ. He learned self-sacrificial agape love. Holding nothing back Peter would later ‘stretch out his hands, and another would dress him and carry him where he didn’t want to go’ (Jn 21:18-19). Tradition tells us that Peter was crucified under the persecutions of Emperor Nero in about 64 AD, but not feeling worthy to die in the same manner of the Lord he loved so much, he asked to be crucified upside-down.  Peter learned a love that held nothing back. In answering Jesus’ call on your life may you been drawn deeply into his self-sacrificial love. AMEN   

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Why are you so afraid? Mark 4

The Gospels are primarily about answering the question “Who is Jesus?” In the Gospel of Mark we read about Jesus casting unclean spirits out of people, he heals the sick, and in this week’s reading he stops a storm. In the next chapter Jesus is again shown to have power over demons, and he even brings a little girl back from the dead. Mark is showing us that Jesus has power over every major power that human beings face. Whatever Jesus faces he is shown to be the superior power. This leaves the disciples asking, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” This is the question the Gospels want us to keep asking as we read through them. Who is this that has power over demons? Who is this that can forgive sin? Who is this that can heal a leper? Who is this that can bring a girl back from the dead? Who is this that can raise his hand and calm a raging storm? And notice he does this without praying to God to stop the storm. He doesn’t ask God to raise the little girl from the dead. He doesn’t pray to God for the healing of the paralytic. No, Jesus speaks to the demon for it to leave. He speaks to the storm and the storm stops. He speaks to the little girl and calls her back from death. His words change reality. So who is this? Who else creates reality by speaking?

So the main question Mark wants us to ask is “who is Jesus?”. But, Jesus asks an important question back to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” Yes they are in a storm, but they are in a storm with the one who has power over sickness, and demons, and nature, and death itself. If that is who they are with, why are they so afraid? Jesus’ question echo’s the command of God and His messengers that we hear over and over in the pages of scripture- “fear not” (Gen 15:1; 21:17; 26:24; Ex 14:13; 1 Chr 22:13; Is 35:4; 40:9; 41:10; 41:13; 41:14; 43:1; 43:5; 44:2; 44:8; 51:7; 54:4; Jer 30:10; 46:27-28; Dan 10:12; Dan 10:19; Joel 2:21-22; Zeph 3:16; Hag 2:5; Zech 8:13, 15; Matt 10:31; Lk 2:10; 12:7; 12:32; Jn 12:15; Rev 1:17, etc).

Jesus might ask us a similar question. We often live in a perpetual state of fear. We are afraid people won’t like us. We are afraid we aren’t doing a good job. We are afraid we might get sick. We are afraid we might not have enough money to be secure. We are afraid for our children. The news is full of reasons we should be afraid. We might have very good reason to be afraid because the dangers might be very real and imminent. The disciples were in a real storm. IT was not a mirage. At times we are in real storms.

But, they had Jesus with them. He was sleeping, however, and so he seemed to not be in control. For us God might seem to be asleep. God might seem to not be in control, but could it be that fear is really a breakdown of faith? Faith is trust. So how might our fear be about a lack of faith?

If it is true that 1) God is with us, and 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) God loves us more than we can imagine (not mere sentimental birthday-card-once-per-year love, but real love that would overwhelm you if you knew the full extent of it), then what reason would we have to be afraid. We might see our fear in life as an expression of a lack of trust that God is with us, or a lack of trust that God is all-powerful, or a lack of trust that God loves us. If we really can come to truly believe those three things are true about God we should not be bound by fear.

Let’s look at these three aspects of God.

First, we are told that God is with us. The fancy theological word for that is ‘omnipresent’. The idea that God is always with us is found all over the Bible. When Jesus gives the great commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew he says “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20). One of Jesus’ names is found in Isaiah (7:14)- “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”. In Hebrews we read, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Heb 13:5-6; Deut 31:6). In Paul’s letter to the Romans we read not only that God is with us but that nothing can separate us from God’s presence- Nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39). In Psalms 23:4 we read the familiar words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Regardless of how we feel God to be present, or absent, if God is truly God, then God is constantly present. God’s loving eye is constantly on us. When my kids are playing in front of their grandparents they can watch them for hours without saying much at all. It is the gaze of love- not judgement, but love.

Yes the storm is bad, but He is with us in the storm.

Second, we are told that God is all-powerful. The fancy theological word for that is ‘omnipotent’. The God we worship is the creator. From nothing God created the universe- stars, galaxies, planets, and the 10,000 kinds of birds. Imagine the power of a being that could create the universe. Jesus expressed this power by showing power over sickness, evil, nature, and death. This same Jesus is described in the letter to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:15-20).

Yes, the storm is bad, but He is more powerful than the storm.

Third, we are told that God loves us more than we can imagine. The fancy theological word for that is ‘omnibenevolent’. The familiar passage from John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. In John’s first letter we are taught that “God is love” (1 John 4). When Jesus described God in the parable of the Prodigal Son he described God as a loving father who welcomes back a wayward son, full of love and forgiveness (Luke 15). The spiritual teacher Richard Rohr points out, “the people who know God well- the mystics, the hermits, those who risk everything to find God- always meet a lover, not a dictator” (everything belongs, p.131).

Yes, the storm is bad, but He loves us and ultimately wants the best for us.

If we really have faith that 1) God is with us, and 2) God is all-powerful, and 3) God loves us, then what reason would we have to fear? It doesn’t mean that we won’t have bad things happen to us. It doesn’t mean we won’t face storms. I don't always get why the storms are allowed. I do know that my children sometimes suffer and I allow it for a greater good (for example, if they need to get a needle, or if they need a time out and learn discipline). I'm not going to pretend to understand why suffering is allowed. But if we really believe in God and we face the storms of life we can trust that God is with us, that God is powerful, and that God loves us. Our temptation is to look at the storm and to throw out one of those three truths about God.

We will face storms, but the ultimate end will be safety. We will walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps 23). Like Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego we might face powerful people that want to do us harm, and we might even be thrown into the furnace (Dan 3). We will carry our own cross (Matt 16:24). But, as followers of Jesus we are told that resurrection awaits. There is never a reason to ultimately fear because God is with us, God is all-powerful, and God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. The storm will not be the last word in our lives. With our God there will always be reason for hope no matter how bleak thing look in the moment. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

Zen and Nicodemus- John 3

I want to tell you a Zen story. It’s a kind of parable. There was once a woodcutter who lived in the forest. One day as he went about cutting trees a creature named “Satori” appeared. Satori began mocking the woodcutter until he became very angry. Eventually the woodcutter went after Satori with his axe to kill him. Satori, however, had the ability to read minds and was able to read the mind of the woodcutter. When the woodcutter was thinking about attacking Satori on one side of the clearing Satori would appear on the other side mocking him. If he planned a way to trick Satori in order to trap him it would never work. This went on for some time. No matter how cleaver the woodcutter was- no matter what kind of plan the wood cutter came up with- Satori was always able to outsmart him because he would read the mind of the woodcutter. After hours and then days of trying to kill Satori the woodcutter was maddened. No matter what he did he could not kill Satori and Satori continued to mock the woodcutter day after day after day. In frustration the woodcutter threw his axe.  The head of the axe broke off, bounced off a tree, and cut the head off Satori.
        Zen stories are teachings to meditate on that have to do with enlightenment. They are often strange and don’t seem to make sense. You might know the Zen saying (or Koan) about “the sound of one hand clapping”. The stories are meant to bring us to the limit of rational thinking. The stories short circuit our usual ways of thinking to cause a kind of epiphany. There are some spiritual truths that we just can’t get to by ordinary means.
“Satori” in Japanese means “enlightenment”. The woodcutter trying to kill Satori represents the human desire to attain enlightenment. Enlightenment, however, cannot be gained by the sheer effort of planning and thinking. Enlightenment comes through a surprise- almost by accident. So the woodcutter cannot kill the creature by trying to. In the process of trying to kill the creature he actually kills it by a fluke accident.
 similar is happening in Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Sadducee, which is a member of the religious elite. They also had some political power as well. The Sadducee council is the group that declared Jesus guilty and sent him to Pontius Pilate for execution. They were intimately connected to the life of the Jerusalem temple and so were also intimately connected to the Roman Empire. The Romans were happy to allow the Sadducees to run things as long as the peace was kept. And that meant keeping things stable. Someone like Jesus disturbed that balance, so it makes sense that the Sadducees were suspicious of Jesus, just as they would be suspicious of anyone that threatened the status quo.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, it is at night. He has everything to lose by associating with Jesus. As a member of the Sadducees everything he worked for would be put at stake. Nicodemus was the cream of the crop. He was at the top of his society. He was among the most respected and powerful people in his community. He would have every reason to not associate with Jesus. Nicodemus, however, was not just interested in preserving his position. He actually believed in God and had a desire to follow God’s will. The desire to encounter God almost always comes into conflict with the status quo. Nicodemus was attracted to the light, but he was not yet ready to leave the darkness. Many of us know that feeling. We are attracted to Jesus. We are fans of Jesus. But, when it comes to crossing that threshold into giving our lives over to him and becoming fully-committed disciples- when it comes to disturbing the status quo- we hold back. We hold back and remain “fans” at a comfortable distance.  
Nicodemus keeps Jesus at a comfortable distance and tries to approach him by finding a way to fit him into his Sadducee world. He approaches him as a fellow theologian- as a fellow Rabbi. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God" (3:2). Nicodemus is giving Jesus the Sadducee stamp of approval. Jesus is like one of the prophets. Nicodemus is finding a corner for Jesus to fit into his life.
As fans of Jesus (rather than disciples) we try to find a place to insert Jesus into our lives. We make him into a kind of hobby. We keep him on the periphery- tucked into a corner on the edges of our lives. Nicodemus was trying to find a way to keep himself comfortable as a Sadducee but also include Jesus is his life.
Like a Zen master, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’s usual way of thinking- "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (3:3). It’s not really a reply to Nicodemus’ statement. He could have acknowledged Nicodemus’ observation and spoken about the miracles he is referring to, or he could have spoken about his role as a teacher from God. Instead Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”.
When I hear Jesus say this, in my mind I can see Nicodemus’ face and I experience the awkward silence as Nicodemus tries to find a way to respond. Nicodemus is stuck in his paradigm. His mind is stuck on the literal and earthly and he replies, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (3:4). Jesus rephrases his statement, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5).
The Kingdom of God isn’t just about life with God when we die. The Kingdom of God is about God being King right here right now. The Kingdom is where God’s will is being done on earth. It is about my life being ruled and guided by God my King. For Judaism, that was the goal. Jesus was getting right to the heart of things. Nicodemus was thinking about the Sadducees and what was officially recognized and verified, but that was not the way into the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t something that comes about by the approval of a committee. The kingdom comes by “being born from above” or “being born again” (the Greek can mean either), or “being born of water and spirit”. This is not about human effort. This is about God renewing and rejuvenating a person. It is about such a change in a person that it is as if they have been born into a new life. Being in the kingdom means that the center of your life has changed. It means that instead of God being a hobby in the corner at the edge of your life, that God is central. In the Kingdom, all the details of our life find their place centered on God. How we spend our money is reoriented. How we spend out spare time is reoriented. How we treat strangers and our neighbours changes. Everything changes. Even if outwardly things don’t seems to change, inwardly our motivation changes. 
But, like the woodcutter chasing after the creature (Satori), Nicodemus cannot enter or even see the Kingdom through his own effort. He cannot enter the kingdom by his association with the Sadducees, or by being merely a fan of Jesus. Entry to the kingdom comes through being born of the Spirit, which is mysterious and not able to be controlled.  Like the wind, it mysteriously comes and goes. It cannot be seen, but its effects are felt (3:8).            
While the woodcutter could not through thought and effort kill Satori, the woodcutter did have to place himself in the situation where it became possible. While entry to the kingdom of God was not in Nicodemus’ power, he could still place himself in the vicinity of Jesus. There is a certain point that what I say doesn’t matter. My words cannot result in anyone being born again, but your being here shows that you may be open to it. Maybe you have experienced this new birth, and maybe you haven’t. Maybe it was a long time ago and you need to be born again, again. Choosing to go to church won’t cause you to be born again. Choosing to stay away from church won’t cause you to be born again. It’s not in our control. The Spirit must birth you. But, we can open ourselves up to it. Going to Church can open you to it. Reading your Bible can open you to it. Praying can open you to it. Spiritual practices open you to it. The sacraments open you to it. In part, this is what Baptism does. Baptism is about re-centering our lives on Jesus. We open ourselves to the Spirit by this act. We learn where to place our trust, and if that is too much, we learn where to place our gaze- “…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:14-17). Jesus is raised up like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. If the people in the camp that were bit by the poisonous snakes looked at the bronze serpent they would not die by the poison. So we look to Jesus on the cross to save us from the poisons of the world. We can avert our gaze and resist the Spirit, but then the poisons of the world will work on us. Or, we can look and trust and open ourselves to receiving life that will never end given by an incredibly loving and mysterious God.  AMEN

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