The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Monday, March 31, 2014

No turning back

Lent 4A
John 9:1-41

In the name of God.  Amen.

Sometimes I think these miracle stories of Jesus’ might sometimes make us feel more distant from him.  Later in John, near the end of the book it says, “Jesus did many other signs, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…”  So that, the writer says, is the point.  The stories of these signs and wonders are written and shared “so that you may come to believe”.

The problem, however, is that sometimes they can seem to drive a wedge.  Rather than making us feel closer to God, in the light of our everyday experience, they may make us feel more distant.

Not many of us can point to examples of times when we’ve seen blind people who were made to see as turning points in our faith journeys.  Not many of us know people who were raised from the dead.

I remember, as a child, one of the questions that came up from time to time when I was in Sunday School was, why aren’t there miracles anymore?  As an adult, of course, I’ve learned that there are still miracles.  Most of us can see them everyday, if we train ourselves to recognize them.  But it’s true, that miracles don’t tend to be as dramatic as the kinds of things we see in the gospels.

The other difference is, we’ve gotten pretty good at explaining and understanding our miracles.  Or at least we think we do.  We’ve probably all seen videos on YouTube of people hearing for the first time after activating cochlear implants.  Just earlier this week I saw a particularly sweet video about an engineer who had developed a hobby of modifying children’s electric ride-on toys as a cost-effective way of offering increased mobility to children with physical disabilities.  If that wasn’t “miracle” enough for you, he not only does this free of charge, but after he’s mastered each creation, he posts the plans for each project online for anyone else who might need it to download for free and to build their own.

There are most certainly still miracles.  It would be hard to deny that.

But as much as the miracle plays an important role in the story we read today, I would argue that the story of the man who was blind from birth receiving his sight isn’t so much about a miracle - the physical change, as it is a story about a conversion - the spiritual change.

That’s the point that I think most of us can relate to.  We may not have seen very many physical miracles in our time - at least not physical miracles that we couldn’t explain away through the miracles of science, medicine, and technology.  But we’ve all seen and known conversion stories, both in ourselves and in others.

One question that people love to ask me is: how did I know that I wanted to be a priest.  I think I’ve talked before about how that’s really the wrong question to ask - it’s not so much that I “wanted” to be a priest, it’s just that I am, and in some ways always was.  I only needed to figure out how to live into it.

But what people are usually asking for, when they ask that kind of question, is they want to know about my conversion experience.  They want to hear about how I saw a burning bush, or heard the voice of God, or experienced a miracle.

I have a few “stock” stories that I tell that get at the story of my sense of call.  They hit some of the highlights, and recount some of the bigger moments in my development.  But like all of us, those “highlight reels” don’t really tell the whole story.

Like your story, my story is one of nearly countless conversion experiences.  Some were and are bigger than others.  Some were explicitly about my relationships with God or the church, but many more weren’t.  Sometimes they’re stories of moments of clarity that accosted me out of nowhere, but very often their stories of dim half-understanding peeking through heavy clouds of confusion, ignorance, and self-doubt.

There is no one great moment that made me follow Jesus.  Instead, there is a lifetime of conversions.  And they didn’t end in that moment when I became a priest.  That was a big moment, to be sure, but I still need to be converted into a follower of Jesus almost every day.

In that old gospel song it says, “I have decided to follow Jesus.  No turning back.  No turning back.”

If only that were true!

It is true that there is “no turning back” from conversion experiences.  They always leave us changed, and we can’t go back to being the people we were before.  Those people are gone.  But there are always moments when we could just as easily turn away from following Jesus - sometimes more easily.  That’s why we keep needing those conversion experiences - to keep us from turning back.  To keep us turning forward.

We don’t know much about the man who was blind from birth, but who was made to see.  We can infer what his life might have been like before that conversion experience, but we can’t really know what it was like after.

If he went on to live a long life after that moment, I wonder what he must have experienced.  I wonder if he forgot what it was like before.  I expect, at some point, there must have been occasions where doubt crept back in.

I wonder, if he, as an old man, had written an autobiography, how much this story would have played into his whole story.  Did everything that he saw get interpreted through the lens of the moment he came to see?  Did he come to resent it for defining him more than he would have liked?  Did he gain new insights, or did he simply become too distracted by all the new stimuli to notice?

One thing I would bet is that if he lived long enough, meeting Jesus and being made to see wasn’t his only conversion experience.  I bet smaller conversions came in rapid-fire succession in the days that followed, as he saw the world around him with new eyes.  And I’d bet that sometimes it wasn’t easy for him to see the things he’d previously been missing.  I’d bet there were even times when he wished for his earlier blindness.

If he didn’t turn back, he probably needed to keep having conversion experiences to keep him turning forward.

In our own journey together through this year as a community, we’re a little more than halfway through Lent.  There’s less left than what we’ve already seen.

There almost certainly have been miracles among us - but probably not like the kind that we heard about today.

The question is, how have we been converted?

Have we decided to follow Jesus?  Will we turn back?

It takes a lifetime of conversions to follow Jesus.  The experience of Lent attempts to give us a framework for that.  There certainly have been and will be big, defining moments - moments when we stop being blind to some things and see the world with new eyes.  Those may be the moments we tell about - the big ones - but all of the other little conversions are the “no turning back” moments.  Those are the moments that shape our lives, a little at a time, into lives lived for Christ.

There is no turning back.  May we always be turning forward.  Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What's the story?

note...  So, I haven't been great at keeping up with my blog lately.  I apologize!  I owe you 4 or 5 theater reviews, and probably that many sermons, too!  But for now, here's this morning's.  I'll try to get caught up soon!

Icon of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, from the Church of Jacob's Well in Nablus, Palestine
Lent 3A
John 4:5-42

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus: a consummate insider; a Pharisee; a moral leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus under the cover of darkness in a time of inner tempest and turmoil: the kind of tempest borne out of having seen God and not knowing what to do - not accepting what must be done.  He came saying, basically, I see God in you, but logic tells me that I shouldn’t.  What must I do?

Jesus sends him deeper down the rabbit hole.  Deeper into his own spirit, and his own experience of the Holy Spirit.  Deeper into his own turmoil.

This week, the story turns around, somewhat.

As much as Nicodemus was the consummate insider, this woman at the well was the consummate outsider.  She was a woman.  A sinner.  A foreigner.  She didn’t seek out Jesus to trudge through the turmoil of her soul.  She wasn’t seeking Jesus at all.  She just came to the well looking for a little water.  Not a problem of the spirit, but a need of the body.  Not theological searching, but a temporal chore.  She just needed a bit of water.

Instead, she found much more.  She found a sustenance that she neither knew she needed nor that she even knew was available.  She was just looking for water, but she also found Christ.

Taken together with the story of Nicodemus, Jesus, in the story of the woman at the well, begins to paint a picture.  He’s is not just a savior for the insiders.  He didn’t just come to teach in the synagogues, or to speak only to the faithful.  Jesus was just as much a savior for the outsider: for the ones who most religious leaders of the day might have thought were beyond hope; for the ones who weren’t from the right families, or the right upbringing, or the right gender, and even for those of us who had made bad decisions.

Jesus was sent to be a Christ for us all - no matter who, no matter when, no matter where.

When I was a seminarian, still in the early stages of discerning how God might be calling me, Elizabeth, my mentor, asked me a question that really ticked me off.  (She did that from time to time…)  She asked me what biblical story motivated me to ministry.  The question made me angry, mostly because I didn’t have an answer.  She went on to tell me what her motivating story was, and to parse out the theology of how it applied to her daily life, and to give examples of times when it came in handy.

I was mad because I felt sideswiped.  Out of nowhere, I’d been accosted by this question that I had no answer to.  Moreover, I was mad because it seemed like a pretty important question.  It felt like the kind of question that I should have had an answer to.  So I felt unprepared and inadequate.

But her question did plant a seed.  What was my motivating story?

Years went by before I knew.

It wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that an answer finally dawned.  I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we’d visited the Palestinian city of Nablus.  There’s a church there that’s been built over an ancient well that tradition holds is “Jacob’s well” - the well that we read about today.  As we stood around that well, and drew water from it, and read this story, something within me began to stir.

Afterward, we had some time to spend in the church.  Some people prayed.  Some people bought things at the little souvenir counter the church had set up.  Some people just visited with other people - taking a moment of rest on a weary-making tour schedule.  I spent the half hour or so that we had there wandering around the church and absorbing the many ways that artists had captured the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well.

Near the entrance of the church I found this one contemporary icon.  In the sea of artistic interpretations, nothing about it really stood out.  It was an icon in the classic Eastern style.  But I stood there for the 15 or 20 minutes that I had left, and allowed it to draw me in.

I thought of myself standing beside that well.  I thought of the crystal, cool water it produces from deep in the earth, and that it has been producing for thousands of years, and that I had just tasted.  I thought of that woman - that outsider, that foreigner, that sinner - and I knew that she was calling me just as clearly as was God.  God was calling me through her.  God was calling me because I was her.

Of course I’m Nicodemus, too.  The Pharisee.  The religious insider consumed with inner tumult looking to Jesus for answers that seem all too elusive.  But even more, I’m the woman at the well.  The one who doesn’t quite belong, but who still finds belonging in Christ.  The one whom Christ found in the midst of her daily tasks and turned her toward something bigger.  The weary one whom Christ refreshed with living water.

Though I was angry with Elizabeth for asking me that question that I couldn’t yet answer, it’s a question we all need to be asking - both as individuals and as a congregation.  We’re called to be ministers of this gospel of Jesus Christ, but why?  What motivates us?  What story turned us around?  Which story keeps turning us around each time we encounter it?  Where in the Christian story do we see ourselves?  Where are we being called?  To where are we being driven?

We need to know, because when we encounter the tempests like we heard about from Nicodemus last week, we need these stories as a roadmap.  We need to know what motivates us, for those times when we need the motivation the most.

There are times in the life of any faithful Christian and in the life of any faithful congregation when we simply don’t know the way.  There are times when our decisions or our circumstances leave us feeling far from the path we thought we were supposed to be following.

Knowing who we are, and who we’re called to serve, and how we’re called to walk the way with Christ can lead us home when we get lost.  For me, the way home is by way of the outsider - my own “inner outsider” and the outsiders I see (and sometimes fail to see) every day.  It may be something else for you.  And it may be something else entirely for ‘us’.

It might be a really frustrating question.  I can be hard to answer.  But it’s worth asking.