“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’”
As a liturgical church, we observe the various seasons of the Church year and we read their corresponding lectionary readings each Sunday. In Lent, we shift away from our focus on the Gospel of Mark, which has been our focus in this Year B scripture reading cycle, and we jump into the Gospel of John for Lent and much of the fast approaching Easter season. The Gospel of John does not get its own dedicated year of lectionary readings – and that’s probably a good thing. I liken John’s gospel to a fine fleur de sel salt – you know, that expensive “shi shi” salt you can buy in gourmet shops. In proper amounts, it enhances your food. Too much and your blood pressure spikes, you get bloated, and you blow a whole lot of money. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. John’s gospel is one that needs to be read in small doses as its imagery, textual iconography, ponderous literary devices and circular referencing can overwhelm you. I always felt John needed a good editor. But no matter, John was who he was and the Gospel is what it is.
In today’s reading we hear that some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” John juxtaposes sight and blindness on several occasions in his narrative and seeing becomes a metaphor for knowing – for being in relationship. In the passages just prior to where our Gospel reading starts today, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has taken place and the Pharisees have said, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” The world becomes incarnate in this group of Greeks who want to see Jesus.
But what I find troubling is that we never find out if these Greeks ever saw Jesus. We know Philip went and told Andrew and they together went to Jesus, but then Jesus "answers" them with a discourse on how the “hour has come” and how the death of one grain can bear much fruit and what it means to lose your life for the sake of gaining eternal life. Truth is, Jesus really doesn't answer Philip at all! I found myself praying with this text and standing in Philip's sandals and thinking after Jesus finishes this discourse I would have said, "Well that’s interesting Jesus, but I have some Greeks here who want to meet you."
Maybe, just maybe, we’re supposed to be disquieted about this lack of resolution, especially given that it is the outsiders, the Greeks, then Gentiles, who come seeking Jesus. The term gentile in first century Palestine denoted one who did not know God. How ironic that those who do not know God are the very ones who want to be in relationship with Jesus – the very Word incarnate. In fact, those for whom Jesus ostensibly came, the Jewish people, have a mixed reaction to Jesus. Some are coming to believe and others, especially the “professional religious types” are absolutely set against him.
I believe the desire to see Jesus, to be in relationship with him, is very present all around us and within us. Don’t each of us come here wanting to see Jesus? I believe every person who walks through those doors is seeking something and many want to see Jesus – but do they? When people come here do they see Jesus or do they see our religion?
Last week, I spoke of my commitment to radical hospitality and asked you how we might be Christ for all who walk through these doors. In our recent conversations during our Lenten series, I was reminded of how difficult our traditions can be for a newcomer. When someone new comes in, they are confronted with a confusing array of bulletins, hymnals and Prayer Books, oh my! We don’t make it easy, do we? Those of us who either grew up in this church or, for all intents and purposes might as well have, forget how daunting it can be just to figure out this worship thing on Sunday morning.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love our Anglican heritage and when done well our liturgy is utterly majestic and lifts the spirit. I’m not advocating putting giant projection screens in the front of the church for PowerPoints or ditching our liturgy for something else. But I do ask myself and I ask you, how might we reach out in welcome to help those who come here so they can see Jesus through our traditions rather than in spite of them?
I was reminded of something that happened when I was in the fourth grade attending Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Concord, California. This church was an enclave of Lake Wobegon Norwegian Lutherans in the San Francisco East Bay. My family were Danish Lutherans on my mother’s side, so we were the “outsiders” in a sense. But other than that, it was a pretty homogeneous group. In 1974, on a lovely warm sunny Sunday, the organ prelude was augmented by the sound of about 25 thundering Harleys roaring into the parking lot at Good Shepherd. It was the day the Hell’s Angels show up at our church. Yes, you heard me right ... the Hell's Angels came to church that Sunday.
It seems the Hells Angels have a pact that if a member falls off their motorcycle or has an accident they have to attend church on Sunday as penance. So, evidently, one of the locals dropped his bike and they decided to show up at Good Shepherd Lutheran in their full biker regalia – leathers, chains, bones hanging off their chains, artwork on their jackets that wasn’t exactly church appropriate. It was a rather intimidating sight to behold and it raised the anxiety level in the congregation a bit. But a couple of them slid into a pew with one of our older Norwegian ladies and she had her service book open to the first hymn. She looked at the biker who had just sat down next to her and gave him the polite “church nod” to acknowledge his presence. She then looked down at her service book, looked up at the biker again and, realizing these bikers didn’t have a clue what to do in church, she handed the opened book to him, pointed to the opening hymn and said, “We start right here.” I continued to watch her during the service coaching these bikers on how to use the service book and making sure they were on the right page! Now I don’t know whether or not these Hell’s Angels showed up because they wanted to see Jesus, but I do know this: you betcha that Norwegian lady showed ‘em Jesus. And she showed them Jesus through her traditions not in spite of them. May we go and do likewise.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
These words from God spoken to Jeremiah were words of comfort and hope to the Israelites in exile in Babylon. I’ve always loved this passage and when the going has been rough in my life’s journey, this promise is one to which I return. This passage was our focus and promise at yesterday's parish retreat as we came together to begin our conversations on how God is working at Grace Church and where we are being called to serve the Lord.
I believe it is also the promise of hope and a future for Grace Church. I have only been with you a very short time: two months as your supply clergy and just over three months as your priest-in-charge. In this time, we have seen signs of hope and a future. When I arrived at Grace, our average Sunday attendance was around 18; since Christmas, that average Sunday attendance figure has increased to 25-27. When I arrived at Grace, there was no opportunity for Bible study; today we have a group who meets every Tuesday to encounter the word of God in a fresh way. When I arrived, Sunday morning was the only service offered; now in addition to Sundays, we have a mid-week contemplative healing service which averages eight people each week and brings in people who cannot otherwise worship because of work or family commitments. When I arrived, we only had two youth; today, we have seven and the number continues to grow (admittedly Stuart and I contributed two of them!). When I arrived, we had to shuffle schedules between a regular supply organist and our own Janet Roberts to make sure we had music on Sunday mornings; today I am pleased to announce that we have a new organist starting on a trial basis beginning on Maundy Thursday. God is surely blessing us as we, in the words of 1st Peter, become “living stones built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.”
This year is certainly one of transition. In my first year here with you, I am committed to the following goals:
- Deepen the spiritual practices at Grace: It has been my experience that when congregations get clear on their need for regular, disciplined spiritual practices and commit to them, they become healthy and vital. There is a rich tradition of sacramentally centered spirituality here at Grace – from regular celebration of the Eucharist, to healing services, to regular offerings of sacramental reconciliation, to study of the Bible and other spiritual writings.
- Get to know the members of Grace: I want to know you as individuals and as part of the Grace family. To that end, I’m trying to find ways we can spend time together in fellowship – and not always here within the walls of the church. Through shared meals, conversation, and times of recreation (especially as the weather is warming up), I hope to get to know you as you also get to know me.
- Focus on radical hospitality: The Church is a unique entity in that it exists not only for those who are here on Sunday mornings, but is also exists as much (if not more) for those who are not here on Sunday mornings. Sadly, many congregations view their existence through the lens of how they can survive and newcomers often are seen as new resources to be tapped rather than honored guests of Christ who need our hospitality. When someone comes into Grace, there is a reason … and often there is a wound. The wound may be a longing for something more than what the world can give. It may be something deep: depression, death, anxiety, physical or mental illness, dislocation, loneliness. Every person who comes here comes seeking Christ. Our Benedictine monastic tradition tells us to welcome all guests as if they were Christ – for indeed, they are. Grace is already a warm, friendly place – but how can we do even more for our Lord’s sake?
- Raise up lay leadership: There is a reason our catechism reads, “Who are the ministers of the Church? The ministers of the Church are laity, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The laity is mentioned first for a reason – you are the largest order of ministry. In fact, there are places you can take Christ where I, wearing a collar, cannot. So, what is your passion? Where do you encounter the living God in ways which can bring life and light to others? How can I help you live into your baptismal covenant?
- Improve communications: I have been working to find ways to keep our members informed on what is happening at Grace. Many of you are receiving our weekly emails and pastoral updates. While I know not all of you have email, I do know we lack the staff and money to attempt anything beyond this medium of communication at this time. Given the slow delivery of mail due to the reorganization of the Postal Service, most local churches are abandoning their newsletters in favor of email communications. What I have seen, is how those of you with email make a point to call those who do not have email and share the news with them. This is a healthy sign of how Grace’s members care for each other and I appreciate how you show the love of Christ in this way.
- Increase our commitment to total stewardship: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” (1 Chronicles 29:14) This familiar passage which we hear in our worship reminds us that all that we are and all that we have is merely on loan from God from whom all things come. Stewardship is often relegated to the “sermon on the amount” each fall; however, it is more than this. Stewardship is how we manage all aspects of our lives: from the food we eat, to the clothing we wear, to the cars we drive. How do we best live in harmony with the earth and each other? This is a stewardship question.
But make no mistake – stewardship is also about money! It is about how we make decisions and prioritize what is of ultimate worth. Jesus’ teachings focused more on wealth and how we relate to it than any other single topic. It takes money to support the mission and ministry at Grace. It takes $1,736 per week or $248 per day of income to cover our current expenses and as you will see in our budget later, we have a significant shortfall.
Stuart and I are personally committed to the minimum Biblical standard of a 10% tithe as a starting point for our financial giving. We committed to tithing when I was ordained and called to The Gathering and I credit The Rev. Gene Bolin with challenging us to step up to this level of financial commitment. He had preached and practiced the tithe prior to his departure and I could not in a clear conscience preach what I did not practice. In one year, Stuart and I took the leap and moved from a 4% level of financial support to 10%. It was not without a bit of anxiety; however, this new commitment made us much more conscious of how we made choices about money and where we had been wasteful. When we ended that first year, we found we had actually given 12% of our income away to the church and other charitable causes.
Stuart and I are commitment to the tithe and Grace receives the lion’s share. I do not say to boast, for the only thing in which I can boast is in Christ and him crucified. I merely say this to be clear that when I speak of stewardship and the tithe, I am not expecting of you that which I do not expect from myself and my family. And so, I encourage each of you to prayerfully consider how you support the ministries here at Grace, not only with your time and talent, but also with your treasure by committing to a plan of proportionate giving.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” We have a bright future here at Grace. The Spirit is moving among us, filling us, and using us to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we continue forward in faith, in hope, but most of all, in Christ’s love.
John stands out as one of my favorite hospice patients. He was in his mid-60s and dying of lung cancer. When our hospice team arrived for his initial visit, he welcomed us into his home. He was personable, very friendly, and extremely intelligent. Each of our team members introduced themselves and gave a brief introduction to their role on the team. When it was my turn to discuss spiritual care and the role of the chaplain, he listened very politely and then informed me he was an atheist. I said, “Really? Me to … I’m a ……. theist. I just put a longer pause in the word.” We both laughed and I then told him that my role was not to convince or convert him – my role was to help him find meaning in these last days, weeks or months of his life. I asked him where he found meaning in his life and he said, “My family, my music collection, and science – especially cosmology and physics.” I told him I liked science too (which seemed to surprise him). I offered to have us try out a couple of visits and if he felt it wasn’t helpful, then we could quit – no harm, no foul. He agreed and we began to have visits every two weeks. They were the LONGEST pastoral visits I’ve ever had with anyone. Seriously! I would get to John’s house about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we’d talk about all kinds of things … and then look at our watches and realize 4 hours had passed.
I intentionally avoided God talk with John because I didn’t want him to see me as the stereotypical Christian out to win his soul for Jesus before he died. In the words of the baptismal covenant, I needed to respect the dignity of every human being – even if that other human being didn’t believe in God. However, in every single visit, John would find a way to interject God talk. It started out as cynical jibes about the “Santa Claus in the sky” people believe in and how he could, with his intellect, probably get me to lose my religion. I told him, “That’s what you think! You’re a little late in the game – I lost ‘religion’ back in 1975 when I became Episcopalian. It’s Christianity’s original ‘disorganized religion.’” That’s when he told me his middle daughter had converted to Christianity and was married to the son of one of our Episcopal deacons. God does have a sense of humor!
As John and I entered into a deeper trust relationship, the cynical comments slowly ebbed away. John shared with me his fears about having a bad death and how he’d never seen a good death. We began to talk about how cosmology and theology were beginning to converge, especially in string theory. And then he told me about the God he didn’t believe in – the one he learned about growing up in a stern, severe Calvinistic faith tradition.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m bashing John Calvin. He gave much good to Christianity in the Swiss Reformation – especially when it comes to God’s passion for social justice. But Calvin was not a trained theologian – he was an attorney by education. And so, it is not surprising that Calvin’s image of God is that of judge and jury rolled into one. The God that John heard about in his church was a harsh judge who saved some and damned others: a God just waiting for you to mess up so he could smite you! When he shared this with me, I said, “Wow … that’s not the God I believe in either John. Maybe I’m an atheist!”
John then asked me, “Well, if you don’t believe in that God, what God do you believe in?” I replied, “John, I believe in a God who is beyond the rules. A God who is beyond tribal religious affiliations where some are ‘chosen’ and therefore ‘saved’ and others are ‘unchosen’ and therefore ‘damned.’ A God who is way beyond the ability of my pea brain to comprehend and yet so intimately within me that this God lives between the subatomic particles of stardust that make up my body; a God who passionately loves all of creation and infuses that creation with life and light; a God whose fiery love has consumed me before I could even comprehend loving myself; a God who is more me than me. That’s the God I believe in John – a God beyond the rules.” John appeared a bit stunned by my answer because it took him a few moments to reply. He said, “I’ve never heard any clergyperson talk like that about God.” I said, “Maybe it’s about time you did.”
A few weeks later, I had my last visit with John. I didn’t know it would be, but after all he was in hospice care. During our visit, John turned the conversation towards God. He said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about our last conversation – the one where you talked about the God you believe in.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yes. I’ve been thinking a lot about it. You know … I could believe in that God.” I was stunned. He then leaned toward me with a conspiratorial grin on his face and said, “Maybe … we need to rescue God from religion.” I said, “Yes, John. We need to regularly rescue God from religion.”
That’s Jesus is doing in today’s gospel: rescuing God from religion. The Jewish system of worship had evolved from a God who was wild and free – who showed up not through elaborate rituals but in burning bushes and pillars of cloud and fire. A God worshiped in a tent of meeting or at the ford of a river – a God without boundaries. But as the people became settled, the image of this God was tamed – boxed up in an Arc of the Covenant and housed in a Temple made by human hands where only the High Priest could enter. This Temple structure also developed a system of purity laws creating spaces where only some people could enter and others were excluded. It was a system which imaged God as wholly other and separated from humanity – a God “out there.” And when we image God as completely out there and separate from ourselves, we will always image a God of judgment instead of a God of mercy and grace. It is only when we realize that God is within and through and between all things that we can image a God who through mercy and grace can achieve justice.
Jesus isn’t just turning over some tables just to stick it to the man – he’s turning over the very image of God! When Jesus references tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, John’s gospel tells us the Pharisees don’t get it. They think he’s talking about a cold, stone building. But Jesus is talking about his body and the God who lives between the subatomic particles thereof. And what is true for Jesus is also true for us. As the great mystic St. Paul said in 1st Corinthians 6: “… do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Or as 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart puts it, “God is more you than you.” And when we image God as infused in and through and between our entire being, then and only then can we know God’s love, mercy and grace and trust it will lead us into justice.
And isn’t this what our liturgy says? Our Rite 1 Eucharistic prayer states it most eloquently: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” The sacrifice is no longer a dead animal – it is living and it is us. God wants us … all of us: our selves, our souls and bodies. And God wants a “reasonable” (not perfect), “holy” (whole and at peace with God) and “living” (not dead) sacrifice to incarnate the good news of his love, mercy and grace to a hurting world.
So yes, John, I'm carrying on the work we started: to rescue God from religion. From where does God need to be rescued for you? From what false images does God need to be liberated? Are you ready to be loved completely and passionately by God? Are you ready to love the God beyond the rules?
In his book The Cost of Discipleship
, German Lutheran pastor, pacifist and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I offer you a paraphrase this morning: When Christ called you, he bid you come and die. This isn’t exactly a popular message. Many churches and preachers shy away from this stark reality – Christ called us and bids us come and die. It’s never been a comfortable message and frankly we’d all rather avoid it (myself included!). However, our gospel reading today makes us face this truth as we hear of Jesus facing another temptation.
One of the challenges of our lectionary is it can cause us to compartmentalize the life of Jesus into sometimes seemingly disjointed and discreet events. Last week we heard about Jesus’ baptism and how he was driven into the wilderness and tempted by Satan. Many Bibles even have a heading reading “The baptism and temptation of Jesus” over last week's reading. As if Jesus was baptized, then he endured 40 days of temptation and then, well, he was done with that. “Baptized – check! Temptations – check! OK, what’s next?” It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that throughout his ministry Jesus was beset by temptations. Anytime you see Jesus being opposed by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or even his own disciples, there is an underlying temptation to sell out his message to the expectation, wants and needs of others.
This is the temptation Peter puts before Jesus after hearing him speak plainly about what lay ahead of them in Jerusalem: rejection by the authorities, suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus knew that to continue in what he had been called by God to do, it meant death … and resurrection. But the disciples, perhaps most especially Peter, couldn't comprehend rising on the third day – all they heard was “suffering, rejection and death.” And for Peter, and likely the other disciples too, the idea of the Messiah, the Anointed One, being killed was not part of their cultural and religious expectations. The Messiah was to restore Israel – death didn’t fit the image. Besides, the movement was just gaining steam – look at all the crowds who are following you, Jesus. You can’t be killed – we need you here with us! The movement won’t survive without you! While Mark is silent on the actual content of Peter’s objections, we can only imagine these might have been part of his argument. But when Jesus notices the disciples and how they were watching this unfold, he resists the temptation to sell out and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus then calls the crowd to join the disciples and continues to teach about what following him means. It means taking up your cross and dying – dying to your own small, selfish, finite, egocentric limited life so that you could be resurrected to live a larger life in God. And I don’t think Jesus was just talking about the big “D” Death of our final breath which leads to the big “R” Resurrection. I think he’s talking about a lifetime cycle of dying and rising – what I think of as lowercase “d” deaths and lowercase “r” resurrections. I consider these smaller deaths and resurrections as periodic testing to prepare us for the final exam.
I am persuaded that a big part of my vocation as a priest is to teach you how to die … and it’s a lesson I’m simultaneously learning alongside you too. I lost count of how many big “D” deaths I’ve been privileged to witness in my ministry as one who ministered to nursing home residents and shut-ins at Calvary UMC or in my work as a hospice chaplain. However, I do know some deaths were better than others. Those who did the big “D” death well were ones who could lean into the trust in God they had learned through dealing with the many little “d” deaths in their lifetime. When you trust in God, you begin to learn that little “d” deaths are followed by little “r” resurrections. And when you can trust this process to work in the micro-economy of God's creation on earth, you can be more trusting that it will work in God’s macro-economy of heaven.
And what are those little “d” deaths? Well, they take many forms in our lives and we all have different ones. Essentially, anything you experience which feels like failing, falling and frustration. Perhaps it’s getting fired from your job, or failing a test or a class, or failing your children, or failing your spouse. Maybe you lied or cheated someone and your false image of being the perfect parent, spouse, friend, or worker gets shattered. Maybe it’s the death of a relationship or the loss of people you love. All of these are little “d” deaths of one sort or another and when you’re in the middle of these deaths, you can start to wonder if life will ever be normal again.
The good news of the gospel is there is something beyond death – whether that’s a little “d” one or a big “D” one. But resurrection isn’t just a minor tweak of your existing life – it is the death of your old life and the rising of a new one. When Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. Die to self, die to your illusions about yourself, die to the attachments which crowd out God and crowd out others, die to your false idols (money, job security, possessions). Taking up your cross is daring to risk the death which must come before you can be resurrected to something new, more whole, more at peace, and more accepting of your own broken self so that you can accept and embrace the brokenness of others.
When Christ calls you, he bids you come and die. What needs to die this Lent for you so that you might be raised anew in Christ?