Saturday, April 15, 2017

Unnamed Discipleship

Sermon for Good Friday
John 18:1-19:42

"Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. "

Last year I had the privilege to be in the place where all of this happened. It’s in Jerusalem, in the Old City. The Old City is not as old as the city described in the New Testament, which can be confusing to tourists. That city, in the gospels for instance was smaller even that the small Old City of Jerusalem is now. The current Old City is less than a half square mile in area, though it feels a great deal larger when you are in it.

Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane which is a walk of, I’d say, less than a half hour to the temple where the high priest Caiaphas would have been. Then another short walk to the south eastern part of the city that housed the headquarters of Pilate. Finally, it is a short walk to Golgotha where Jesus was executed by crucifixion and his tomb is not more than 200 feet from there. All told I suppose one could walk from the top of the Mount of Olives, through the Garden of Gethsemane, to the Temple, to the Roman Headquarters, and then on to the cross and tomb in a half day. I suppose lots of tourists do that every day, I know I have.
The Church that has been built on the location of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is called the church of the Holy Sepulchre. 

Soon after Jesus’ ascension Christians began to meet at the tomb and at Golgotha to pray and share the meal. This became a nuisance to the Empire so they filled in the old expired quarry that had been turned into a Jewish cemetery and where they used to crucify people, they filled it in and, to add insult to injury, erected a Temple to Venus. Years later Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena, using an ancient travelogue as a guide, excavated the old site of the tomb and place of crucifixion, and established the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century.
The Temple is no longer there of course, destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman Empire, all that remains is the western retaining wall that holds up the small mount that used to hold the Temple. 

The headquarters of the Empire are, of course, perfectly preserved.

My point I suppose on all this is to try to drive home the reality of all this. All of this happened: the crucifixion of Jesus, his death, his burial, his arrest. It is all too real, and, as we focus more on the fact of all this, I am struck by a particular aspect of the story that might be the most real. It’s not about Jesus, or Pilate, or even Peter, it’s about another disciple who is not even named in this scene.
If you look at what this disciple is doing in this story today, a great deal is revealed. First we see that after the arrest of Jesus this unnamed disciple is known to the High Priest. Being known to the High Priest means that the disciple is able to invite Peter in. Being known to the High Priest, this disciple is able to walk in the areas of power, indeed he is able to share his privilege and include others. This disciple has one foot in the cultural and societal power structures of the world and one foot in the radically dangerous, loving Kingdom of God in Jesus.
Now, once this disciple has secured Peter’s entry into the courtyard of the Temple we have Peter’s famous denials of Jesus. Much has been made of these denials, and rightly so: all of us have denied Jesus at one time or another, probably most of us do so on a regular basis. But what we don’t have in this scene is the denial of that unnamed disciple of Jesus. This unnamed disciple is not asked about Jesus, he is not interrogated.
While some of us are Peter and we deny Jesus, all of us are really this unnamed disciple walking in two worlds, one in discipleship to Jesus but also wielding significant cultural power of one kind or another. Furthermore we are this unnamed disciple because we have the privilege of not being interrogated about our allegiance to Jesus. That disciple could have spoken up and said, “I am one of his disciples,” but he didn’t. He simply let Peter get questioned. If I know people, then I would wager that this unnamed disciple even was aghast and indignant at Peter’s denials of Jesus. Yet that unnamed disciple was never questioned and thus stayed safe with an intact integrity knowing that he was pure and good and on the right side of history.
We are this unnamed disciple. We are walking in two worlds, one of power and privilege and one of knowing the expansive, boundary breaking world of Jesus. But it is not simply that we are bi-cultural. The fact of our privilege in the world allows us to be quiet in our discipleship, to avoid interrogation and, when it serves our purposes to silently deny Jesus.

As we stand here at the cross it is time to give that unnamed disciple a name be it Josh, Russ, Budd, Mary, …. That disciple needs a name. Claim your name and identity as a disciple of Jesus. Do not remain silent for when the powerful are silent then they are complicit in the injustices of the world. Come out of the shadows and boldly distinguish yourself as a disciple of the one who was obedient to God even unto death on a cross.

Monday, January 30, 2017

We Need to Talk

Sermon for Epiphany 4A
Micah 6:1-8
You know what? I’m a grown man. I’m not afraid of the dark, anymore. I can walk confidently through most days. It’s good to be a grown up. Yet, while I’m a grown up, there is one phrase that strikes fear deep into my heart.
“We need to talk.”
 Have you ever noticed that the phrase, “We need to talk,” is not an invitation to light-hearted conversation? “We need to talk,” means that we need to have a foundational, likely overdue, conversation. For example, my wife has never said, “We need to talk,” and then we chatted about a t.v. show or a weekend away. “We need to talk,” is always serious and about clearing out a block in the relationship.
Whenever I hear those words I also get a little nervous, what did I do? I imagine my wife feels a little nervous when I say the same thing. Even though I’m nervous I know that what lies on the other side of that conversation is a stronger, truer version of us as a unit. Sometimes I’ve had to sit down with some of you and talk, and some of you have emailed and called and said effectively: “Josh, we need to talk.”
How about you, what’s your experience with that phrase, “We need to talk,”? It’s almost never good when your boss has that conversation, or if you are the boss and call that conversation, it may not go well. But, if the relationship is equal then that conversation is about clarity. But then again almost no relationship is equal, or equal across all domains. But if love and respect is present then the need for talk can be healing and offer a window to strengthen the relationship.
In today’s Old Testament reading we hear from the prophet Micah. It’s an awfully famous passage, indeed I’d wager that it’s probably the only bit from Micah that any of us have heard, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s a pretty good and pithy statement of what life ought to be in response to God. In fact, I’ve even seen that some churches have this passage as a sort of mission statement. But most of us might not know that what brought about this whole statement in the first place was that God saying to the people: “We need to talk.”
So what brought about this serious talk? If you look at the passage, you will see that God says, through the mouth of the prophet Micah: Hear what the Lord says: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” This is actually a funny play on words because the word, or rather, the name Israel means “to contend with God.” It was the name given to Jacob after wrestling with the angel after which he received a crippling wound and a new name: Contending with God, Israel. So the people of God have this relationship with God but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is a contentious relationship, an in this passage God brings up a controversy that he has with the people who have been contending with him for a long time.
Not only does God have a controversy, have a problem to discuss, but God is making it public, he wants the mountains and the hills to hear what’s going on. The created order is invited to hear this controversy. God says, ““O my people, what have I done to you? In what ways have I wearied you? Answer me! We need to talk. Here the controversy is laid bare: the people of God, both them and us, have treated God as if we are weary of him.
We’ve all be here haven’t we? We grow weary of those closest to us. We get . . .  I don’t know, too comfortable, too familiar and we forget basic kindnesses and respect. We need to reset ourselves, we need to talk. That’s what’s going on here: the people of God are weary of God.
So God decides to remind them of their history with him, he recounts their emancipation from slavery under the Egyptians, about the leaders he gave them, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. God goes on to reference other wonderful acts of his presence among them.
Now, if I were counseling a couple I might ask one side of the couple to not bring up the past so strongly, that it sets the other in a defensive posture and that they should instead move forward from the present in mutuality and co-equal respect. But in this instance, the couple is not equal. God is God, and they are not. God is not our buddy, God is not our Jiminy Cricket conscience, God is God: the one who gives us life, breath, and being, from whom all our works are begun, continued, and ended. So I think we can give God a little leeway here.
It’s actually interesting how God reminds them of the history that they share because throughout a great deal of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is the people who are reminding God to remember the covenant they have made. But he reminds them and then the voice changes, now the people respond: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” They have had the talk, there is clarity: God is God and you are not. Now what? “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?” The people are wondering how to respond to the gracious gifts that God has brought. How to respond? How to pay back a never failing avalanche of graces? Let’s try, they say, “How about burnt offerings, how about 10,000 rams, how about tens of thousands of rivers of oil, how about my child?” They get it now, they’ve had the talk, they want to respond to God’s love and grace, and they are getting crazy with it. But in their craziness they realize the extremes of grace that God has gone to, so they want to match that extreme.
What comes next is, to me, like God taking the people and saying, “Shh…shh,…you know what I want? I don’t need all these gifts, here is what I want: I want you to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Can you do that? That’s all I want, I don’t need the sacrifice, I want you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me.”
It’s so simple. But difficult. I daresay that most of us would much rather get the rivers of oil and sacrifice the rams than do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.
You’ll note here a few things. Most importantly the prophet doesn’t say, “What does the Lord request?” It says, “require.” Relationship with God has certain requirements that are necessary for the deepening and strengthening of that relationship.
Next we see that God wants us to do justice. Do justice. Not dream of justice. Not wish for justice, not think about justice, but do justice. This is one area where I actually disagree with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He said that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m not so sure. There is nothing natural about justice, justice doesn’t just spring up or evolve on its own. Justice has to be done, justice has to be done by individuals in ways both small and large.
If you are not sure where to start I have two suggestions. The first is to simply, and  perhaps most difficult, be keenly aware of how you might be allowing unjustice exist in your tiny realm of influence. Once the subtle racisms and sexisms are found you can begin to undermine them, to do justice. My other suggestion for doing justice is to think big but act small. For example, there is a the Refugee Support Services group that meets at the Galilee Ministries of East Charlotte that meets close to here on central Avenue. Go, take the Refugee 101 course, it’s free and takes less than an hour. There you will learn about the long plight of a refugee who, by the way, God demands our care of consistently in the Scriptures. Then, of you want, through the Refugee Support Services you can choose to befriend a refugee family. Not to fix, not to convert, not to make like you, but to befriend, to be with.
If that’s too much involvement for you then do justice with advocacy. Did you know that North Carolina and only one other state try 16 and 17 year olds as adults in the court system. What kinds of decisions were you making at 16, were they adult decisions? Friends, we need to stop thinking about justice and do justice. If you want to know more about do justice in this area search Raise the Age NC and you can find a petition and other resources.
God wants us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him. Loving kindness is interesting. We are to be attracted to kindness, to love it. To be kind, not nice, there is a difference.
Finally, to walk humbly with our God. This gets to the core of our existence. To walk humbly with God is to know that there is a God that has graced us with everything. That God is God and that we are not. The humble bit here doesn’t get as much press in the church as the walk humbly bit, including in this sermon. But to know God, is to know that we are properly humble before God’s holiness and that there is no good in us, except through God.

All of this started because God said, “We need to talk.” And I’m glad that God did have that talk. Whenever these hard talks occur however, when love and commitment are present, which they always are with God, on the other side of these talks there is deeper love and commitment as well as a renewed understanding of what the relationship is. Our relationship with God is first and foremost a relationship, we must never be scared away by God’s holy otherness, but that God has requirements to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dreaming and a Dog Jesus

Sermon for Epiphany 3A
Matthew 4:12-23
Last night I dreamed that all but ten of you heard this sermon. The rest of you walked out in protest. Hopefully that won’t happen in real life. Dreams are funny, especially in the telling, they reveal a deep truth. So perhaps I’m a little anxious about the content of this sermon because I need to hear this one especially.
Image result for archbishop of york
 Anyway, in my dream the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and other dignitaries were there, as were a few of my seminary classmates, and since I don’t see any of them here, I think we are safe. The funny thing in the dream was that you all came back for the Creed, so you were definitely protesting the sermon, but you were committed to Trinitarian Christianity, so that’s good. That’s the thing about my dreams in particular, they are strange, but perfectly reasonable. There are no unicorns or hobbits in my dreams, everything really could happen. My wife finds this to be rather boring: my dreams are just reality, but slanted.
Come to think of it, that is what Jesus was after: a slanted reality. A reality where everything is the same, but everything is different, where somehow the lighting has changed so that we see more of reality. It’s in this slanted reality and his invitation to it that we catch up to him today in our gospel.
Jesus begins his ministry because of the arrest of John the Baptist. There is continuity in the two ministries of John and Jesus,but they are not the same: John was preaching the repentance of sins, Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven. Today we see that Jesus begins calling disciples. There is a word in these accounts of Jesus calling his followers that always interests me that word is, “immediately.” “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Immediate. There is no waiting. There is no preparation. There is no, “waiting for the right time,” or the right season of life. They follow him immediately. Following Jesus is a right-here, right-now occasion. None of us can ever be prepared for following Jesus: it’s not that kind of thing. You get prepared for following Jesus by following Jesus. I want to say to anyone who is thinking about going deeper in their spiritual lives, or committing to an outreach mission, just do it, follow Jesus immediately, come with us, we don’t know exactly what’s going on either, but Jesus is leading us into some interesting territory.
Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Now, we Christians believe that Jesus is the perfect icon, the most-full manifestation, of the God of love that the world has ever encountered.  When Jesus leads us, he leads us onto more and more profound avenues of love. That is the way of Jesus, as a spiritual and political path.
Now, don’t get antsy, I can’t have you walking out on me, I know you won’t, because the part where you leave, isn’t this part, it’s in a minute. Anyway, the way of Jesus is the way of love, as a spiritual and political path. By politics I mean any public act, yes it can be voting and advocacy but it also means how you buy, sell, work, parent, be a friend, or talk to any of your neighbors. The way of Jesus is the way of love. When we follow Jesus we are lead more and more into love.
So, my questions for you today is: how is that going? This is the part of the sermon where you walk out. Is your love for others total or have you left a few people out? Have you followed Jesus into every avenue of your life or is there one person that you have walled off from Jesus’ leading? You see we can do that, even though we follow Jesus, we can still direct him. Jesus is so non-violent that he will allow us to forbid him to go into certain areas of our lives. It’s as if we say, “Yes Jesus I will follow you but not over here, or over there, and that place over there, you can go there in a year.” Do you see what I am saying?
Where have you walled off Jesus’ way of love in your life? Is it in your family’s past? Perhaps your college roommate. Maybe you have walled off Jesus’ leading in how you make a living or in your sex life. Maybe you have refused to love the mayor, our our governor, or our president.
You see, when we remove even one person from our love, from Jesus’ guidance, we are showing that our following of Jesus into love is not complete. As one of my spiritual mothers says, “When we leave one person out of our love, or commit one act of un-kindness, we are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.[1]
“We are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.” We are admitting that since there is even one that is walled off from Jesus’ leading that we aren’t following him at all, we are in fact leading himWe are treating Jesus not as our lord but as a dog that is leashed. Yes, he walks ahead of us, but we are the ones who are leading. 
Image result for dog on a leash (All Gods must be kept on a leash)

“Oh Jesus I love that you are leading me, No! Not there! Bad Jesus, let’s not walk over there. Good Jesus, we don’t walk over there, that area, that person is undeserving of my love.”
“When we leave one person out of our love, or commit one act of un-kindness, we are revealing that our so-called love is only there because it pays.” That one person that you don’t love, it shows that the entire system, your entire well-meaning-ness is really just a cottage industry of quid-pro-quo of affection and respect based on the condition of pleasing you. Jesus wants to trample that old system and set up a new one of unconditioned love, and he has empowered you to do it too.
Now, when we found that we have not been following Jesus into certain places and relationships, we are not lost or even bad, but we have the opportunity to, just as those first disciples did, to immediately follow Jesus into all of life. Immediately, not later, not soon, not once we have a moment to deal, immediately.
Love does not mean approval by the way. We seem to have forgotten that. Love does not mean approval. We can love, we can be lead into love by Jesus, even though we might be actively opposing a given person or policy. We are called to follow the lord of love more deeply into love. We can pray for those we love, and we can actively oppose them, that is possible. But what I expect from all of you is love.
I implore you, please, please allow Jesus the Lord of Love to lead you into every corner of your lives. Let him illuminate all the darkness that you don’t let love into. If you allow him in, he will transform you. Even those you do not like and who are evil, you can love and fight even more, but you will love them.
You’re still here.
Must have just been a dream.
I’m glad. I’m glad you are here. In fact, I hope you believe me when I say, I love you.

[1] Ruth Burrows OCD, TO Believe in Jesus, 523