Thursday, January 23, 2020

Look! Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1:29-42
January 19, 2020

One of my favorite cartoons is Peanuts; both when I was a kid and as an adult.  It was a favorite then, and it is a favorite now. This week one of the many classic strips that Charles Schultz created has been rolling around in my mind. The strip begins with Charlie Brown, Linus and one of the secondary characters, a little girl with very curly hair – maybe it was Frieda – standing together. The little girl with the curly hair is jumping rope, and as she jumps, she commands Charlie Brown to look at her… actually, she commands him to “lookit.”
            “Lookit, Charlie Brown!”
            She continues to pester Charlie Brown to lookit her.
            “Lookit, Charlie Brown! Lookit me jumping rope.”
            While she is busy jumping and demanding Charlie Brown to “lookit,” the second cell of the cartoon shows Charlie and Linus standing together. It’s clear that Linus is trying to tell Charlie something. But the little girl keeps yelling,
            “Lookit! Lookit! Lookit!”
            Finally, Charlie Brown in exasperation responds. She wants him to “lookit, lookit, lookit,” and he says,
            “I’m lookiting!”
            The strip ends with Linus standing by himself saying,
            I used to say, “lookit,” when I was a kid. Maybe I still say it now and don’t even realize it. I would get really excited about something, and just like the curly haired girl from Peanuts, I would want my mom and my dad to, “lookit! Lookit! Lookit!”
            If John the Baptizer had said, “Lookit!” instead of just “Look!” I would have understood. He must have felt excitement, overwhelming awe, and even sheer joy when he saw Jesus walk by.
“Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
“Lookit! Here is Jesus, the Lamb of God, the One who is God in the flesh. Lookit!”
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, John’s gospel does not use the word lookit to convey the baptizer’s excitement and thrill at seeing Jesus, but John’s gospel always manages to surprise me in its distinct differences from the synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels all record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. But John’s gospel does not give us a depiction of that event. Instead we read the baptizer’s testimony that it happened, and we read his testimony to Jesus and to his identity.
            If we were to read this chapter in full, we’d see that it takes place over a few days. Our part of the passage starts on the second day. John sees Jesus coming toward him and declares,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
The day before John was questioned by religious leaders who wanted to know who he, John, was. They wanted to know the full scope of John’s identity. But John tells them about not about himself but another one. John tells them that he is not the Messiah, but there is one who is the Messiah, the One, they’ve been waiting for. 
            Knowing a little more about what happens on the first day explains more fully John’s remarks on this second day. John says,
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” 
Then he continues saying, this is the one I was telling you about yesterday. He may be coming after me, but he ranks far ahead of me. I didn’t know him, but this is why I’ve been baptizing. He is the reason. When I baptized him, I saw the Spirit descend on him and remain there. The one who told me to baptize told me that this is how I would recognize the Messiah. This is the Son of God.
            We move to the third day. This day John is standing with two of his disciples. Jesus walks by, and as he does, John proclaims,
“Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
When John’s two disciples hear this, they leave John to follow Jesus. That was their answer to John’s, “Look.”
            This is the heart of this passage. Jesus sees them following him, and he asks them,
“What are you looking for?”
They call him “Rabbi,” “Teacher.” And for a moment and a meeting like this, they ask him what seems to be an unexpected and strange question.
“Where are you staying?”
Jesus responds not by giving them directions or details about the cozy AirB&B he’s found. He just says,
“Come and see.”
From that point on, he leads them. They are looking and he wants to show them what they are really looking for.   
            What we need to understand about John’s gospel is that it is a gospel of layers. To read it only at surface level misses the mark, because it is like an onion. You peel one layer back and there are more layers. John’s gospel is a gospel of layers of meaning. When John’s disciples ask Jesus “where are you staying?” they’re not just asking him about his place of residence. They want to know about his relationship with God. It’s almost as if they’re saying to Jesus,
“John told us to look at you. John told us to look, because here is the Lamb of God, so we want to know for ourselves. If you are indeed the Lamb of God, the rabbi, the teacher we’ve been looking for, then what is your relationship to God? Are you in intimate relationship with him? Are you abiding with God? Are you staying with God? We are looking at you, so Teacher, where are you staying?”
            This is John’s version of the call of the disciples. We will read Matthew’s version next week. In the other gospels, Jesus goes to his earliest disciples and calls them away from their work, their previous lives, even their families. He gives them a hint as to what they will do as disciples. But in this narrative, the first disciples hear John’s testimony and follow. When Jesus asks them about this, their response is to ask a question about his relationship to God. Jesus doesn’t give them definitive answers. He just invites them to come and see.
            Come and see. Discipleship is something that you will have to experience for yourself. You will have to follow me to witness and know my relationship with the Father. You will have to follow me to experience who I am and what I have come to do. If you want to be a disciple, you will have to follow me and experience it for yourselves. If you want to be a disciple, you must come and see.
            So that’s what these new disciples did. John’s witness has done what it was meant to do.  His exclamation to, “Look!” has pointed them in the new direction God is taking. They leave John and follow Jesus. They go and see. Then they go and tell others to look! At the end of the passage we have before us today, Andrew tells his brother Simon,
“We have found the Messiah.”
            And if we were to keep reading till the end of the chapter, we would also learn that Philip and Nathanael join Jesus as well. They heed the Look! They answer the call to come and see. They follow him so that they can witness and experience for themselves who this man is, this Lamb of God.
            Look! There is the Lamb of God. There he is. And when we look, he invites us to come and see; see what this means for you. See for yourselves what discipleship is. His invitation to come and see invites people to experience him and understand him in the way they need the most.
            Today and tomorrow, many of us will observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  Today as I picture Jesus extending his hand to the disciples with the invitation to come and see, I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. The power of that speech comes not only from his substantive message and his call for justice, but for the picture he paints with his words. Look! There is the America we want, the America we need. Look! Can you see it? Come and see.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

            Come and see.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

            Come and see.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

            Come and see.
The picture that Dr. King painted with his words was not just of a better America; it was a small glimpse of what the Kingdom of God might be. People of every kind coming to the table together, working together, welcoming one another, abiding with one another. When Jesus invited the disciples to “come and see,” it wasn’t just to sample discipleship. It wasn’t an invitation to a Meet and Greet with God. Jesus invited the disciples to come and see for themselves the incarnate love of God. Come and see the Lamb of God, come to save them. Come and see that with the coming of Jesus, comes God’s kingdom. As Jesus invited them, so he invites us. Let us experience for ourselves God’s love and true power.  Let us experience for ourselves the glorious and new thing God is doing right here in our midst. Come and see the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Look! Here is the Lamb of God. Come and see.
Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A Wide Love -- The Baptism of the Lord

Acts 10:34-43
January 12, 2020

            I was taught that there are some things you should do, and some things you should not do. Things you should do include being kind to others, being thoughtful, being respectful to adults, making sure that if you take a piece of gum for yourself, you better have enough gum to share with others.
            Things I was taught not to do were being unkind, being mean, calling people names and never, ever wear white after Labor Day; especially do not wear white shoes after Labor Day. That is one thing you never do. Labor Day marks the end to summer, and white is too summery. So no white.
            I know that there are increasing push backs on this rule. Non-seasonal white wearers try to talk about winter white and cream and eggshell as being acceptable white options for the colder months, but I was taught that there are some things you should not do. Wearing white after Labor Day was a big one.
            But one year, a few weeks after Labor Day had passed, Mother Nature clearly had not gotten the memo that summer was over. Because it was hot. I went out to the patio to try and read and enjoy the remaining days of warmth while I could. I must have fallen asleep because I dreamed – or maybe had a vision – of a large beach towel descending from the heavens. On it were every kind of white shoe imaginable. There were sandals and flats and pump – oh my! They were beautiful. And a loud, booming voice said,
            “Take. Wear.”
            Stop! Stop! Stop! I have to stop this right now. Before we go any further, I need to declare emphatically that I am not mocking scripture. If you know the larger context of the passage before us in Acts, then you know I am parodying the story of Peter’s vision. But if you aren’t sure, then here is the larger and necessary to understand context around the verses we have before us.
            At the beginning of this chapter, we read about a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a Roman centurion. In other words, he was not only a Roman, a definite gentile, non-Jewish person; he also worked in the occupying army. He was part and parcel of the military force that kept the Jewish people under the oppressive thumb of Rome. But Cornelius and all his family were described as devout. Cornelius was generous to those in need and prayed often.
            Cornelius had a vision from an angel of the Lord who told him to send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter. Cornelius did what the angel in his vision told him to do. He sent people to Joppa to get this man named Peter.
            Cut to Peter, who was staying in Joppa. Peter went up to the roof of where he was staying to pray. He was hungry, and while he was waiting for supper, he also had a vision. He saw heaven open, and from that opening a large sheet being held by its four corners was being let down to him. On the sheet were animals and birds and reptiles of every kind. Then Peter heard a voice, and the voice told him,
            “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
            But Peter refused. He told the Lord that he would not because he had never eaten anything that was considered unclean or impure.
            The Lord replied,
            “Do not call anything unclean that the Lord has made clean.”
            This happened three times, and then the sheet was taken back up into heaven. Peter understandably was trying to figure out what this vision meant, when he heard the news that men had arrived from a Roman centurion named Cornelius. They told Peter that Cornelius, a righteous and devout man, had a vision and was told by an angel of the Lord to send for Peter and bring Peter to Cornelius. Peter went, and when he arrived at Cornelius’ house and met the large gathering of family and friends that Cornelius had invited to come, Peter realized what his vision was all about. He told the people gathered there that as a Jew he was forbidden to associate with Gentile people. But God showed him in a vision that he must not call unclean what God has made clean.
            And this brings us to our part of the passage this morning. I said it before and I meant it, I was not trying to mock the scripture or Peter’s vision. I parodied it, because I realized that Peter’s reluctance to take any of the animals shown to him, kill and eat, was not just about dietary laws. The dietary laws were deeply ingrained in Peter and every other observant’ Jews’ psyche, and they were taken seriously. But this understanding that certain foods were unclean also led to a view that the people, the others, who ate those foods were also unclean. Peter was wrestling with a deep and abiding prejudice not just about unclean food, but about the people who he associated with unclean foods.
            I empathize with Peter and this struggle. I empathize with him so much I decided that I needed to think about my own prejudices. I needed to identify them, and then I thought I could share one with you. I could use that prejudice as my opening illustration. What I discovered is that I have so many, I just couldn’t bring myself to share a serious one. I was taught that white after Labor Day was a fashion faux pas, but I don’t care about that. If you wear white after Labor Day, I won’t judge. If you don’t, that’s okay too. You be you. But there are prejudices in me that I must struggle with on my own, not in this pulpit; hence my silly parody about white after Labor Day.  
            But that’s the thing about prejudice; it drives our behavior. It drove Peter’s reluctance and his refusal to heed God’s command in his vision. Any one of us could probably offer a basic definition of prejudice. It is dislike or distrust of another person based on difference – whether that difference is in appearance, lifestyle, circumstance, etc.
            It seems to me that prejudice, in any shape or form in which it comes, pushes us to narrow ourselves, our lives. If I have a prejudice against a certain group of people, I avoid them. That narrows my life. That narrows my world and my worldview. What am I missing out on because I won’t gather with people I’m prejudiced against? What am I refusing to allow into my life because of it? What friendship, what love, what joy? Prejudice narrows. Prejudice narrows us. And I think it narrows not only how we see the world, but how we see God. Prejudice not only narrows us; it narrows our relationship to the One who made us.
            But God refuses to be narrowed. God refuses to be limited or kept in a box of our own making. What God offers us is a wide, wide love. When Peter refused to break the dietary laws and customs of his tradition, his religion, he was narrowing. But when God told Peter not to call unclean anything that God had made clean, God was offering a wide love.
            That is what Peter finally understands. That is what Peter is articulating in his sermon to this gathering of Gentiles. I get it now. I finally get it. God shows no partiality. God’s love is a welcoming, all encompassing, all embracing, wide, wide love. Anyone in any nation who loves God, who fears God, who does what is right is a recipient of and a participant in this wide love.
            Isn’t that what happens in our baptisms? Isn’t that what we are baptized into? We are baptized into a congregation and into the church universal, yes, but what that represents is God’s wide love. We are baptized into God’s wide love. This wide love is what God wants to give to us. This wide love is what we were created for, and even more, it is the “why” of our creation.
            That’s what Peter finally understands. That’s what Peter finally gets. And when he does, his world, his life, his heart widens to meet that wide love.
            That’s what I want. I want to be a part of God’s wide love. I want to know it and I want to do my best to give it as well. I don’t want to be narrowed by my prejudices, by my dislikes and my distrust of others who are different from me. I want my heart to be as wide as the wide, wide love of God. May God’s grace and steadfastness make it so, for me and for us all.
            Let all of God’s beloved children say, “Alleluia!”

Friday, January 3, 2020

So Much Missing You

All I saw at first
was the top of his head.
But something about that pate
made me think,
“There he is!

But what would you
be doing
in a Kroger
in Tennessee?

 Of course
he wasn’t you.
As soon as my head
caught up
to my heart,
I knew he wasn’t you.
I know you’re gone.

I know you died.
I know that
wherever you are
you are not here.

You aren’t at the supermarket
or the pharmacy
or at Target,
or Starbucks,
or in a crowd
Christmas shopping
at the mall.

But my heart is
slow to learn,
accepting truth

One glance at a
 stranger’s head
and my unwilling heart
tricks my brain
into hoping
against all hope

that your dying  
was just a mistake,
a terrible
cosmic error,

and that is you
shopping at Kroger.
Maybe you’ll look up
from your list,
see me
and smile,
then this hole

in my heart,
caused by so much
missing you,
will heal.