Sunday, November 25, 2012

Testify to the Truth

John 18:33-37
November 25, 2012/Christ the King Sunday

            When I was about 12 or 13 years old I went with my class to see the play Inherit the Wind at the Nashville Children’s Theater.  If you’re not familiar with this play it’s based on the Scopes Monkey Trial which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.  John Scopes was a science teacher and coach in Dayton, and he decided to challenge Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law that prohibited any school that was funded primarily by state tax dollars from teaching evolution as opposed to the story of creation found in the Bible.  He taught evolution.  He was arrested and was brought to trial. 
            Scopes primary legal defense was Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous attorneys in the country at the time.  William Jennings Bryan, another of the country’s most famous attorneys, represented the prosecution.  The two men were fierce political rivals and history records that their rivalry influenced the proceedings in Dayton. 
            The play was not a completely historical record of what happened in the actual trial.  My memories of the details of the play are sketchy as well.  But I do remember one particularly dramatic scene of the trial itself.  Darrow, in response to an argument for the literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, gives a passionate rebuttal, asking the question that still remains with me today, couldn’t seven days in God’s time really be seven billion years? 
            This is not a direct quote, and as I said, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the play.  But that scene has remained with me, I think, because it was one of the first moments in my life when I realized that truth and fact were not necessarily synonyms.  I was not shocked by these words.  In fact, I embraced them.  I remember running the idea of a week to God looking very different than one of my weeks over and over in my head and thinking that it made perfect sense. 
            That may sound simple enough to you, but I was seeing this play in Nashville, Tennessee. Some may consider Oklahoma to be the buckle of the Bible belt, but I tell you what, if Oklahoma is the buckle then Tennessee is the first loop.  I don’t think I had fully encountered evolution in my studies yet, but I would have been VERY familiar with the story of creation in Genesis.  So hearing these words of Darrow’s, whether they were really his or just a creation of the play’s author, opened up a new realm of thinking for me.  It was a new and different kind of truth.
            While on the surface John Scopes was on trial for breaking a law, at a much deeper level Scopes was on trial for trying to teach a different kind of truth; which is what I see taking place in the trial we read in John’s gospel.    
            Jesus is also on trial.  He’s on trial for sedition – which is inciting resistance to authority and potentially overthrowing the government.  Jesus is on trial for religious heresy.  And, quite frankly, Jesus is on trial just for making all of the religious and political leaders so angry. 
            But the charge of sedition is the most serious.  So when Pilate comes back into the headquarters and summons Jesus again, asking “Are you the King of the Jews?” he wants to know if Jesus is trying to usurp the Jewish leadership.  Because not only will this affect the power of the Jewish leadership, it will affect the power of the Roman government as well. 
            In typical fashion Jesus answers Pilate’s question with another question.  “Are you asking this question on your own, or have other people told you about me?”
            Now Pilate was not a nice man.  What we see and learn of him in these and other verses is sort of a gentled version of Pilate.  According to commentators, other historical documents paint a picture of Pilate as a bully at best.  I doubt that he appreciated being questioned by this common prisoner.  And I’m sure that Jesus’ questions get under his skin.  So his retort to Jesus’ question is, “I’m not a Jew, am I?  Your own people have handed you over.  What did you do?”
            Now Jesus begins to talk about his kingdom.  “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
            Okay, so now we’re getting somewhere.  Pilate does not get what Jesus is saying at all, but he does pick up on one word – kingdom.  He’s still trying to figure out what Jesus has done and if he’s guilty of the charges against him.  So with the word “kingdom” clutched in his fist, he asks again, “So, you are a king?” 
            Again Jesus frustrates him with his reply.  “You say that I am a king.  This is why I was born; this is why I came into the world, to testify to the truth. The ones who belong to the truth, listen to my voice.” 
            Here’s where our part of the story concludes.  But if we were to keep reading just one more sentence, we would hear the question that Pilate is probably best known for.  “What is truth?” 
            What is truth?  I suspect that Jesus and Pilate have a very different understanding of that word.  I suspect that Pilate understood truth as gritty.  Truth is not something that most people can handle.  Truth can be manipulated and exploited.  Truth is just another ploy in the political maneuvering that happens in this dog-eat-dog world.
            But the truth that Jesus refers to is another animal altogether.   
            When Jesus speaks of truth he is speaking of divine truth.  He is speaking of a truth that is not born of people, but truth that comes from God.  And Jesus isn’t just speaking about some ideal or theory, some outside of reality kind of truth.  Jesus is telling Pilate that he is the truth.  He doesn’t just represent truth.  He is the truth.  That’s why he was born, that’s why his life has led him to this critical point in front of Pilate, to witness to the truth of God which he embodies. 
            Jesus is king, but he’s not a king in the way that Pilate understands.  Jesus tries to tell Pilate this, but Pilate just doesn’t get it.  Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.  Jesus isn’t trying to commit an act of sedition.  As he told Pilate, if his kingdom were of this world, if he were trying to usurp the resident government, then his followers would be leading a revolt.  There would have been fighting in the streets to keep him out of Pilate’s hands.  But that wasn’t happening.  Jesus is before Pilate.  His only act has been to witness to the truth. 
And what is that truth?  The truth is that God’s kingdom made manifest in Jesus has come into the world.  God’s kingdom has broken through and it has broken in.  Jesus has been witnessing to the kingdom all along.  He’s taught it, preached it and demonstrated its power in every act of healing and every miracle he’s performed.  That is the truth.
            But the world has turned a deaf ear and a cold shoulder to the truth.  That’s what’s brought Jesus before Pilate.  The powers that be could not bear the truth.  To quote a line from the movie, A Few Good Men, they couldn’t handle it. 
            So Jesus is on trial.  The truth is on trial.
            Or not?
            One commentator states that even though to our eyes it is Jesus who is on trial, it’s really Pilate and the Jewish leaders and the entire world that’s on trial.  It may look like Jesus is the one receiving judgment, but just as everything else is reversed in God’s Kingdom, this is reversed as well. 
            Pilate will bear the judgment of his decision.  The leaders and the people who turned away from Jesus will bear judgment.  The ones who follow Jesus and belong to the truth know and understand the real outcome.
            One of my preaching professors in seminary used to say that the tough part of any sermon was figuring out what this means for us on Tuesday.  So what does this passage mean for us today and on Tuesday and every day?
            Are we wiping our brows and saying, “Whew!  It’s a good thing that’s not us.  We know the truth.”?  Or do we see a little bit of Pilate in ourselves? 
            I realize that speaking of truth is tricky.  Trying to testify to it, even more so, because I know that my truth is in many ways is unique to me.  My truth comes from my experiences, my decisions, my choices, my own particular journey through this life.  Your truth is based on your experiences and decisions and journey as well.  So what is truth?  What is the truth that Pilate put on trial in the form of an itinerant preacher and teacher who refused to fight back? 
            I think that truth is love.  It is as simple as that.  Yet loving, really loving is also the greatest challenge any of us undertake.  The truth of Jesus as King, the truth of the Kingdom Jesus ushered in is love.  It is embodied, incarnate, active love.  That’s why Jesus is the truth.  He is incarnate love.  But what monarch do we know of represents that kind of love?  The best monarchs, the best leaders, the best elected officials that we can point to do not completely represent that embodied love.  Certainly there were none that Pilate could point to.  Jesus was a king that Pilate could not understand or comprehend.  And if we’re honest, it is a comprehension that often confounds as well. 
            Jesus is the truth and that truth is love.
            Today is the last day in our church calendar.  Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, begins our new year.  We end with Jesus as King.  We begin waiting for a child.  At the beginning and at the end there is love.  I believe that was the truth that Jesus testified to.  That was the truth Pilate chose to overrule.  His decision was based on political expediency.  And we know the rest of the story.  However the choice before Pilate is a choice that stands ever before us?  Do we choose the kingdom of God or the kingdoms of this world?  Do we choose a life of convenience or a life of love?  As we move into this season of love and peace and hope and joy, what will we choose?  What will we choose?  Amen. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Matter of Grace

(The following is my article for the Shawnee newspaper, The News Star, this coming Saturday, November 24, 2012.  As it deals with giving thanks, I thought a preview on my blog was appropriate.  Happy Thanksgiving!) 

“O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!  Let that grace now like a fetter bind my wandering heart to Thee:  prone to wander, Lord, I feel it.  Prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”
                                    Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, 
Presbyterian (USA) Hymnal, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990

            By the time this article is printed, Thanksgiving will be two days gone and all that will remain are the leftovers.  For some of us, we will be setting our caps for Advent, others strictly Christmas.  But either way, the great race of the holiday season is now on!  Even so, I wanted to take a moment and offer up a little thanks. 

            I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving; a whole list of something’s to be honest.  But I want to speak about the one thing that I don’t give thanks for often enough, and that’s grace. 

            For me singing is as much a time of prayer as spoken prayer, and whenever I sing the above verse from the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” I am reminded again of how truly in debt to grace I really am.  I know that in church circles the word grace is bandied about frequently.  We speak it in our prayers, we sing it in our hymns, we hear it in our liturgies and sermons, but do we fully grasp the enormity of what grace, God’s grace, means?  I’m sure I don’t. 

            The concept of grace is difficult to define.  It requires language that I’m not sure we have.  Here’s what I know/believe about the grace we receive from God.  It is unearned.  It is unconditional.  And, much as we don’t like to admit it, it is unfair.  My congregation has heard at least one sermon about the latter.  Grace is unfair.  People I don’t always believe deserve it receive it.  Yet that’s what makes it grace. 

            Truth be told, I don’t deserve grace either.  But I have been on the receiving end of grace more often than I can count, perhaps even more often than I realize.  When I’ve fallen on my backside, literally and figuratively, it has been grace that has picked me up again.  When I have made mistakes that still make me cringe with shame, grace has offered me a hand of forgiveness.  I have met grace in all of its various guises – a child, an old person, a homeless man, a teller at the bank, an unexpected friend. 

            I also echo Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I say that grace is not cheap.  It may be freely given and unearned, but when we recognize its presence in our lives, I think we’re called upon to respond.  Bonehoeffer’s response was to risk and ultimately lose his life.  In the face of that sacrifice, the least I can do is to respond with thanks.

            So what am I thankful for in this season of thanksgiving?  I am thankful for my wonderful, creative children who never fail to keep me on my toes.  I am thankful for family and friends who love me in spite of myself.  I am thankful for a congregation who teaches me new definitions of grace every day.  I am thankful for a home when I know so many go without.  I am thankful for the advantages I have received in my lifetime: education, travel, encouragement.  I also know far too many people live with the lack of those essentials.  Most importantly, I am thankful for grace, which is the underpinning of all the rest.  “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.”

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Sign

Mark 13:1-8 (I Samuel 1:4-20)
November 18, 2012

            When I used to make the commute from my home south of Albany, New York to my church just north of Albany, I memorized all of the different landmarks and billboards and signs I would see along the way.  I knew the spot where I would have a chance to see wild turkeys.  I knew the moment a glimpse of the Hudson River would peek through the trees.  And I knew exactly when I would look up to my left and see the billboard from God.
            Yes, there was a billboard from God on my route from home to church.  I’ve discovered that these billboards were quite popular at that time, and according to my internet search this week they still exist in different places.  In case you’ve never seen one, the billboard is completely black with white lettering.  And the messages were clever.  One said, “That Love Thy Neighbor Thing … I Meant It.  God.”  Another read, “Don’t Make Me Come Down There. God.”  I believe the one that I took notice of everyday stated, “Use My Name in Vain One More Time and I’ll Make Rush Hour Longer.  God.” 
            I haven’t seen a God billboard in many years now, but I was thinking of them as I pondered our texts for this week, especially the Mark text which speaks of the signs of the temple’s destruction and the coming of God’s reign in to the world, and then I saw this billboard as I was driving through Oklahoma City the other day.  It was just a plain billboard with a star and some small lights, and it said, “Well, You Were Looking for a Sign.”  It was not signed by God, instead it was an ad for the billboard company.  But it got my attention.  And it seemed to fit with this whole idea of wanting a sign. 
            How often have I been struggling with some issue, some problem, some question, a difficult choice and I’ve looked to God for a sign?  More often than I can count.  How I wish that the signs I needed would come as neatly and easily as the billboards I read while I’m driving!  Unfortunately that’s not how it works, is it?  It would be so much less stressful if they did, and far easier to recognize them.  I could just read them as I drove along.  “Amy, You Know That Sign You’ve Been Looking For?  Here It Is.  God.”
            We all know that’s not how it works, but it doesn’t stop from us from seeking signs in one way or another.  The disciples wanted them as well.  In this very strange interlude in Mark’s text, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple.  A disciples points to the building and says, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings? “  Jesus responds that not one of those buildings will remain standing.  Those stones are all gonna come down.
            After these ominous words, Peter, James, John and Andrew talk to Jesus privately.  They want a sign.  When will these things happen?  When will all of this be accomplished?  Then Jesus warns them to not be lead astray by people coming in his name and claiming that they are the messiah.  The disciples will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  “Nation will rise up against nation.  There will be earthquakes.  There will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs”   
            I guess these could all be taken as definitive signs, but here’s the big question.  Which round of false messiahs and wars and famines and earthquakes?  Which round of natural disasters and human calamities will signify the end times?  Because it would seem that if these are the signs, they’ve been appearing since the beginning.  If we take these as literal signs of the end times, then it’s not too hard to look around our world and predict that the end must be coming soon.  All of these signs are there, are they not?  So if these are the signs of God’s coming, then we should be as confused as the disciples probably were.  How do we know which earthquake is a sign of the end times?  How do we know which war signals the end?  Later on in this same chapter Jesus tells them that even the Son does not know the exact date and time of the end times.  That’s up to God and God alone.  The final message that he gives them is that they must remain awake. 
            But what are the signs?  The disciples wanted to know what to look for.  They wanted a definitive sign.  They wanted a billboard.  “Disciples, duck and cover.  This is it.  God.”  They wanted a billboard.  But that’s not how it works is it?  But we keep looking for signs.  There are predictions of the end times all the time.  Apocalyptic movies have been the rage since I was a kid and they continue to be made.  Of course the big thing that many people are looking toward is the end of the Mayan calendar.  Supposedly in just a few weeks, the Mayan calendar which has been counting down for thousands of years will come to an end, and there are many people who believe this signifies the end of the world.  One of the best responses I’ve seen to this lately has been going around all of the social media sites in the last weeks.  It says, “Keep Calm.  The Mayans were just counting down to the premier of the Hobbit Movie.”  Is the Mayan calendar a sign?  Is the Hobbit movie a sign?  We want a billboard, but the truth is, signs don’t normally come to us so concisely.  And a point that was made by New Testament scholar Karoline Lewis this week is that the word apocalypse does not have the same connotations in Greek that we have placed on it in English.  Apocalypse is not about some cataclysmic final destruction.  It is, instead, about revelation.  It is about God revealed.  Think about that for a moment.  The apocalypse is about God revealed.  It is the full and final revealing of God. 
            I realize that for some that brings to mind chaos and blood running in the streets.  But I have a hard time reconciling those popular images with the God who became incarnate in a frail human being.  It’s hard to imagine that vengeful smiting God as the same God who died on the cross.  I just can’t quite do it.  I suspect that the final and full revealing of God is more about love than it is about calamity.  I think that it’s more about us finally understanding how completely and utterly God is with us, for us – With Us – than it is about God wreaking havoc.  I think when it comes right down to it, that’s the real sign we all look for.  We want to know that God is with us. 
            I think that’s what Hannah needed to know.  Her story is one of my favorites in all of scripture.  She is barren, and even though her husband Elkinah loved her dearly and did not think less of her because of it, being barren was seen as a sign of God’s absence, God’s judgment.  As our text tells us it was believed that God had closed Hannah’s womb.  Even if her rival, Penninah, would not have taunted her for her childlessness, Hannah would still have felt the sting of being barren in a culture that equated a woman’s worth with her ability to bear children. 
            It was the time of year when Elkanah and all his household went to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice.  Hannah went to the temple to pray.  She made a promise to God.  She promised that if given a son that child would be dedicated to the Lord.  In her distress, in her anguish, Hannah wept and prayed fervently but silently.  Eli, the priest, watched her lips moving and thought she  was drunk.  When he chastised her for it, she explained to him her desperation, her heartbreak.  Eli tells her to go in peace and that God would answer her prayers.  That must have been the sign she was looking for.  She feels at peace.  She goes back to her family.  She eats with her husband.  And in due time she is due. 
            I think Hannah wanted a sign. She wanted a sign that God was with her; that God heard her.  She wanted a sign that she was not alone.  I think ultimately that’s the sign we all seek.  No matter what our prayers may be.  No matter what choices we face or decisions we must make.  No matter what our concerns.  I think we want to know that we are not alone.  I think we want God’s presence revealed to us in such a way that our doubts are overridden. 
            Perhaps what we truly want revealed to us is not dates or times or specifics, what we want revealed to us is that we are loved.  We are cared for.  We aren’t completely and utterly alone.  That’s the sign we seek. 
            Whether I’ve recognized it at the time or not, I have been shown that sign more times than I count.  I’ve seen the sign in phone calls, e-mails, cards.  I’ve seen that sign in the kindness of strangers.  I’ve seen that sign in the eyes of children, my own and others.  God’s love and presence in my life has been revealed to me not through large billboards but in small gestures and heartfelt expressions.
            The writer E. L. Doctorow said about his craft, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  It seems to me that this is a life of faith as well.  We don’t need signs that give us the exact details of everything that will happen, we just need signs that help us keep going, that help us keep hoping.  We don’t need a sign of what will happen at the end, we just need a sign that reminds us that no matter what, all will be well.  God will be there in the end, and even more importantly, God is with us now.  Take that next step and trust that there will be a sign.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”