4th Sunday in Lent – How to See

1  Samuel 16:1-13 ; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14.
John 9:1-41

Jesus taught far and wide, and by all accounts also did amazing healings.  It was a key part of what made him famous in Galilee. While he was traveling with the disciples they saw a man born blind, and asked, “Who committed the sin that caused this?” Jesus answered by saying no one’s sin caused it, but then turned the question around. To Jesus, it was an opportunity to show what God is up to. Let’s see… some spit, some mud, packed onto his eyes. But the last step was for the blind man to do: the God-Sent One sent the blind man to a pool of water named Sent.  He went, and he could see! Of course, this was life-changing news!

People saw this, and brought him to the Jewish leaders for them to see for themselves.  But they knew full well what this meant: someone else had the authority from God that they were claiming.  So they excommunicated him, threw him out of the Jewish community.  But all this guy knows is that he can see, and that could only be done by someone who had the power of God behind him.

Jesus heard about this, and was not going to abandon him in this hour of need. So he got up close and personal once again, seeking him out. And it is here that Jesus lets the formerly-blind outcast in on the same secret he revealed to the outcast woman at the well: that He is the One foretold, the One sent to rescue the people.

People can see, but have no vision. People can see, but refuse to believe it, even with evidence. The closed mind might as well be blind, for all the good seeing does it.

Lord Jesus, giver of all good things, give us eyes to see and ears to hear.  Make what we learn from our senses burn its way into us, and let the Spirit teach us you ways through it. Amen.

A challenge: When Jesus heard what the religious leaders had done to the man born blind, he went out to find him. Have you had occasion to give personal support to one who was wrongly accused?  Is there anyone now in your life that’s in that situation?

Third Sunday of Lent : I’ll Let You In On This.

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11.

John 4:5-42.

Jesus was going through Samaria.  For many if not most Jews, this was an odd side trip.  It was not strange for Galileans, since the way to Jerusalem passed through it. The road came near the town Sychar, outside of which was the land Jacob gave to Joseph, where Jacob’s Well was. Jesus came there to rest from a tiring long day’s walk. His disciples had gone to get food. The well was still in daily use, providing water to those who lived nearby. So, a woman from nearby came to draw water from the well. (This was a hard task that women had to do every day: travel to get the water, then lift to fill jugs, then carry the jugs back home.)  Jesus then asked her to get him a drink.  The request surprised her, since it was clear Jesus was a Jew and he was asking a favor from a Samaritan. A rare thing indeed, such was the hate Jews had for them.

But this was more than a request for help in quenching thirst. It was an attempt to start a conversation (Jews didn’t do that, either). Jesus drew her further in by talking about ‘living water’.  Now, to her, that phrase meant water that was moving, perhaps in a current deep at the bottom of the well.  But Jesus meant something different: water of which, once you drink it, you will never thirst again. This interested her, for it meant never having to lug the jugs again (v.15).  To show her that he wasn’t kidding, he got into her personal life. So she was amazed; how’d he know this!

This is a prophet, she thought, someone who could speak from God about what hurts her people, so she asks questions about what separates Samaritan religion from Jewish faith.  Jesus didn’t pander by saying that Samaritans were right, because they were not, and he said so.  But then he said something truly remarkable: the day was at hand when the whole matter would be a thing of the past, where what mattered was worshiping “in spirit and truth’.

She thought, this isn’t just a prophet. Only the Messiah chosen and sent from God could tell us about it. This was exactly where Jesus was leading her with his answers. So she came out with it: ‘you’re talking like the Messiah’.

That’s when Jesus makes the most astounding statement of all: “I AM“.  This tired Jewish guy by the well, the one with the nerve to discuss high matters of faith with a woman, and a Samaritan at that, the stranger who knew what her life was like — this one speaking to her was God Himself. He let her in on the greatest secret of all. No wonder she was so excited she left her water pots behind and ran back to tell everyone.

That, of course, was what the disciples saw as they came back. Hey, what would they know?

A personal view of the emergent conversation

I am more of a blog reader than a blog writer. That means I get to learn from sources of all kinds on just about everything, the criss-crossing currents of active minds. They write in blogs, book reviews, web-linked articles, and Facebook comments. While just about every faction and school of thought in Christian faith can be found on line, there are two groups that steer most of the conversation: Emergents and neo-Calvinists. I’ll go into the neo-Calvinists some other time.

The Emergents come under all sorts of names now – collectivists, communitarians, missionals, progressives, post-modernists, and so on.  They see the church as it is today, and as it was in the past, and find it wanting.  Most (not all) of them are people who were raised as US Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, who discovered that much of what they were taught really did not make any sense.

  • They were exposed to science in schools, so they questioned creationism and found it lacking, even from a Biblical point of view.
  • They saw their gay neighbors and colleagues, and found them to be the same mixed bag as straights are – they’re people, not a category hated by God and damned to hell.
  • Most of them had (gasp) sex long before marriage. While the after-effects were sometimes very bitter and made deep wounds, even then they were usually able to move on from it to start a journey to something really good – sex *in* marriage.  While the act itself wasn’t very smart, it also wasn’t the road to lifelong ruin as their pastors taught.

Most importantly, they saw that at least some of the church systems in which they were raised were designed for rigid order, engineered to be micromanaged by petty dictators whose wisdom and motives were not allowed to be questioned. The order put pastors over elders over laity, men over women, husbands over wives over children, famous people over unknown, white over black, rich over poor, Christian over outsider, one brand of Christian over other brands. That’s the sort of thing Jesus in the Gospels constantly spoke out against, so they asked, why was it being done in the name of Jesus?  When they said what they saw, they faced the fiercest of fire from people they had come to respect and even love. They got burned. No one was listening, so they left to find people who were.

While it’s impossible to define emergents, the one common link is that they are mainly people who are emerging from a strict Christian background, evolving into people with more open-hearted and thoughtful beliefs and practices than before. Plus a few fellow travelers they’ve picked up along the way. Truth be told, everyone else is evolving too, but not in the same way to the same extent. Most of us don’t emerge from what we were raised to believe; rather, we evolve within it.

Why is it so hard to write about emergents?

I have a great inner reluctance to write about emergents. Why? Because their most important spiritual task right now is asking more than it is finding, and I don’t want to preempt their asking process with premature guidance from someone who is still himself asking. Also, I must remember our difference in background. As a mainline Lutheran from the Northeast, I didn’t have to deal much with pastors who would sooner hang an African-American than have one as their leader. My childhood background included all sorts of Christians, as well as Jews, Sikhs, Sufis, Buddhists, atheists, straights, and the most flamboyant of gays. I was taught evolution and progress in school and in church, even though I could not believe they were relentlessly positive or always bore the will of God. I was constantly asking questions, and while the church did not always encourage this process, I was never thrown out of one for asking. The world at large was less kind about that than the churches I knew. Few of the pastors I knew were abusers of power; in fact, it was more common that they lacked enough power to carry out their responsibilities.

I also see from a different viewpoint what the emergents emerged from. Even though I can’t be silent about the wrongs of Fundamentalisms, I won’t go into a war against Fundamentalists.  I was raised to see people, not -isms. I know quite a few Fundamentalists who are truly driven by their love of Christ not by fear, despite what their -isms tell them. The more open Evangelicals have shown me so much about both the faith and the world that I am bound by truth to give them far more praise than anger. Some of them really do think, but think in a different pattern. Some of them are now on the fringes bordering on emergence, but are spending more time living their faith than thinking it, so their questions end up being put forward in a different way.

It’s hard to write about the road the emergents are on. Why? In part because I’ve already been down much of that road. Many of them have taken to questioning everything, even the most basic of Christian truths, practices, and resources. That’s good. But when I was on those roads years ago, it didn’t take me long to discover that many of the ‘new’ discoveries that seem so wonderful are not what they seem.  I found that I could avoid slavery of mind only when I questioned the value and method of being radical, of the ‘progressive’ myth, of scholarly methods and consensuses, of being ever-suspicious, and even of constantly pursuing one’s doubts and questions. Otherwise, the methods become a trap and an idol, and the method starts to dictate the faith rather than help give it shape.

I guess I have to be engaged in the emergent conversation (…oops, another hip cliché…).  That is where so many of the questions are, and my mind spends most of its time in the asking mode.  But I find myself having to do so as an outsider. I am changing, even evolving, but I’m not ’emerging’ from anything. I’m not someone who’s in it to engineer proofs for a point of view, nor to write refined critiques of the church as-it-is – although I have that ability. I’m here to testify and to tell stories, including ones that aren’t my own. I must keep listening, for that is how I learn. But I also must speak. I’ve been through too much not to share with you what that has taught me.

(more later…)

Good Friday: Nothing and Everything

Nothing and Everything

John 19:17-42

The soldiers at the scene of the cross were dividing up the spoils, as was their way. But this time, the pickings were slim. Some small wrappings. A pretty good seamless robe. No money.

Jesus had lost even the clothes on His back, exchanging them for some wood and some nails. He had no home of His own. His only visible means of support had been His network of friends – but now they were mostly scattered or hid. Alone. No power. No last will, nothing to probate. His short burst of fame had now run out. He’d given over the care of His mother to someone else. He had no children — no legacy, as this culture saw it. And now, He was being stripped even of life itself.

Nothing left but a corpse,

in a grave,

the stony end.

Nothing. The perfect place to start for someone whose task it is to renew everything. The end. Of the beginning.

And what of us, who live our lives in a world stuffed with stuff, putting our treasures in the retirement account of earthly life, some of us with families, some with friends, some with at least 15 minutes of fame? What of our life of blessings and curses, and dreams fulfilled and broken? Why would we want a new beginning?

Because as it stood, it all came to the same stony end. And all that’s left then is what had been there all along, hidden beneath all the stuff of life. A loving God who is with us and for us. A God who was left with nothing, who went into the tomb, but didn’t stay there. Nothing became everything. And we can share in that everything now, while we still live, whatever we might have.

Lord, You are at the end of everything. You are at each new beginning. You are in between, where we are now. You make something worthwhile out of nothing. Help us be part of the Kingdom for which You have set us apart. Amen.

Bob Longman

Maundy Thursday : What is Love, Anyway?

(also in an audio version)

Love, v. 3.0

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Whether we’re Christian or not, we’ve all been taught the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have others do to you“. Jesus said it too, in a positive restatement of something in the Jewish oral tradition. It makes life’s decisions a lot clearer by putting you in your own harm’s way. Think like that, and you won’t be so eager to do in your main rival at work or to stomp on someone to get what you want. We might pull up short if we felt in our own back the knife that we just started to twist into someone else’s. This is a good place to start: there actually is a standard for us to look to. Yet there are some things missing in the Golden Rule. There is, of course, the sado-masochist twist — someone doing unto others the torture he so craves from them. A more important problem, though, is that the Golden Rule keeps you in the center of it. No matter how many lessons you learn from doing unto others, they’re still your lessons, and it all still depends on your human capacity to love. That capacity is more like a dinner plate than a deep well. It’s too shallow when compared with the task at hand of living a different, loving kind of life.

Jesus takes us beyond the Golden Rule. The first step past it is when Jesus commends Deuteronomy 6:5’s Great Commandment about loving God, and the second like unto it, originally from Leviticus (you know, the book everyone loves to avoid), to “love your neighbor as yourself“. Jesus then looks at this not through one’s own love, but through what is meant by ‘neighbor’. Jesus calls on us to be a neighbor, moving the focus from ourselves to others, especially another who is in need.

But one more step is needed. For while this approach redirects our capacity to love, it is still our human capacity to love that is being given out. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the final step to setting this right, by giving a “new commandment“: “that you love one another, just as I have loved you“. This isn’t a plea, but a final charge to the believing few — a command (Latin mandatum, Middle English maundy). There is a new description: to love as Jesus loved. Right after He said that, He went on His way to setting a standard of love beyond our wildest imaginings : to the cross and the tomb. And there’s also a new power to love in a manner like that: He emptied that tomb, and went back to what is beyond death, sending the Holy Spirit to us in His place. What the Spirit puts into us is Christ’s love. That’s the bottomless well of boundless love. No longer do we have to dish out our own love in saucer portions, we can now drench everybody with love from beyond ourselves, so much so that it seeps into them. No longer must we be a better kind of person first; we can start loving from where we’re at, right now, because it’s not just our love, but also Christ’s. We can now dare to live the life of holy love, trusting that in the end there is no loss where that kind of love is found.

Father, you told us to love. But we are weak. We do not love as Jesus did, or anything like it. Send us your Spirit to change us and to make us love like the Crucified and Risen One, that we may carry out your mandate. Amen.

Bob Longman

A Maundy Thursday challenge: I’m not going to dump a load of guilt on you by telling you that you haven’t loved like this. You’ve heard that over and over again, you know it’s so, it’s become one of those ‘wish-you-coulds’. So, try something much simpler as a starter – think of just one person in your life, and then write down some new ways you can be more loving to that person. Then do it; you’ll learn how in the doing. After that, you can start working on doing the same thing for other people. But at least you’ll have begun.

Palm Sunday: Proceed, Without Caution

(In a downloadable mp3 form, too.)

Save Us!
Matthew 21:1-17

This was a strange procession. A guy on a donkey. (No doubt the scoffers likened him to that poor animal.) Tagging along with him were a bunch of fishermen, rural herdsmen, and even (shudder) a taxman. A crowd, mostly of just plain folks, got into it. They’d apparently heard about this Jesus of Galilee (v. 11), and had a high regard for him. Maybe this was the man who’d save them from the hands of the Roman conquerors. Maybe this was the man who’d save them from the effects of a chasm that set the keepers of the Temple system apart from the ordinary Jew. Maybe this was the man who’d save them from their own frustration and loss of hope in the God who chose them.

So they laid palm branches before him as he went in, and cried out to their (potential) hero, “Save us!”

And His first deeds took him along that course just fine, too. He goes to the Temple grounds, to the money changers and the salesmen. It was a real need within a sacrificial system to have ritually-clean animals available to those whose raw poverty or citified lifestyle let them have none of their own. But what happened is the same thing that always happens when the customer is powerless to argue: not only does the price go up, but a system is created to extract more through the exchange of currency. Jesus struck at this about as directly as he could, as part of a sort of ‘Occupy Temple’ action. His more important strike at the sacrificial system was that Jesus could deliver what the system could only promise. But no one noticed that, at least not yet.

Then, Jesus did the sort of thing He had always done: He went around the Temple area preaching and healing the sick. These people must’ve gathered there desperately in the belief that the God who lived in the Temple might heal them.  Instead, the God who lived among them healed them. And children came out, continuing to call on the heroic descendant of David, “Save us! Save us!” They all had been without hope for so long.

If they only knew just how big a task it would be to save them. Or how far God would go to make it happen. The cries of praise would give way to the call for blood, and it would be shed. But not just yet. The original Palm Sunday was time to celebrate what could be.

Father, you have indeed heard the cries of your people, and answered them in an unexpected way. Help us to bear witness to what you have done. Amen.

A challenge: think for a while about what God can heal in you and in the world immediately around you. Try focusing away from your own personal behaviors, at least this time; what else is there?

Bob Longman

Lent Midweek: Sir, We Want To See Jesus

John 12:20-36

If it dies, it bears much fruit

After the whole scene surrounding the raising of Lazarus from the dead, some Greeks arrived in Jerusalem. (They may have been in some sense religiously Jewish, since they went there to worship at the Passover festival.) Perhaps they heard about the Lazarus miracle, or heard about the large crowds. What we know is they sought to contact Jesus, eventually finding the disciple Philip. They asked him, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” Philip went to Andrew, then Philip and Andrew went to Jesus. John doesn’t actually say the Greeks got a private audience with Jesus (they might have), only that the two disciples triggered a strange reaction out of Jesus, in words presumably spoken at least to the Greeks and probably everyone else in the crowd that was following Him around.

Jesus started talking about His impending death, which must happen for the sake of all, and the victory of the purposes of God.

I doubt that this was what these Greeks were expecting to see out of Jesus. The last thing you expect when you go to meet some famous person is for him to tell you that he’s about to die and is about to accomplish great things by doing so. That would strike me as, well, kinda weird.  But Jesus was not speaking to expectations. Jesus was not here to be seen, in the sense of someone visiting a friend, or scheduling an audience with a ruler, or (to use modern terms) to have a photo-op for the gossip magazines, or even to be interviewed by the press. Jesus was here to see life by, like the light of the sun or of a lamp, so you can know what’s in front of you and around you, so you can know where to go.

Sovereign One, may our feet walk by the light of your Son, so that we may see Jesus, and see the world He reconciled to You the way He saw it. Amen.

Bob Longman