February 23, 2008

Crossing Boundaries

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 4:19 pm

“[Jesus] left Judea and started back to Galilee, but he had to go through Samaria.”  John 4:3-4

I grew up in a rural area that became a city suburb because of “White Flight.”  When a few African-American families began moving into East St. Louis, subdivisions started sprouting up all around us as white folks didn’t trust their new city neighbors and fled to the countryside.  I was too young to realize what was happening, but I started to figure things out when I was invited to attend a ballgame with a friend.  His family took us to see the Cardinals in downtown St. Louis.  My family always traveled straight through East St. Louis to go to St. Louis, but my friend’s family drove us more than an hour out of our way in order to avoid East St. Louis.  They were convinced East St. Louis was too dangerous a place, and they told me that they would never go through there.

By a similar logic, most of the citizens of Judea and Galilee traveled back and forth via routes that avoided Samaria.  Samaritans, so the story went, were not to be trusted, and so there were major traffic routes that went around Samaria.  But the gospel tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria.  Lest we think that Jesus was in a big hurry, and couldn’t afford to waste time traveling around it, our story tells us that he was invited to spend time there, so he stayed two days.  While there, he spoke with a Samaritan woman who was fetching water at Jacob’s well.  She was utterly surprised to be acknowledged by a Jew, and even more astonished that she was addressed by a man.  Further, he encouraged her theological reflections, something usually reserved for men.

It appears that Jesus has to cross all the boundaries that we’ve created to keep people apart.  We tend to create boundaries based on race and ethnicity, on gender or family make-up, on religious practices or generational traditions, on levels of income or education, on levels of physical or mental abilities….  But Jesus doesn’t let any of those limits keep him from embracing people with hope nor from offering them “living water.”

The point is NOT that Samaritans/foreigners/outsiders can become like us, so we should be inviting them into our circle.  The point is that outsiders ARE already like us - in need of love and acceptance and challenge, in need of being treated like whole children of God.  Jesus calls us to build community with all sorts of people.

February 16, 2008

Not All Black-and-White

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 1:01 pm

“[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  John 3:2

I am currently teaching a philosophy class.  Two students were discussing religion and science this week.  One asked the other if it’s possible to be a Christian and to believe in evolution.  The second student replied that no “serious” Christians do.

In that student’s mind then, I guess I am not a serious Christian.  I don’t believe that evolution holds all the answers.  But for the purposes of science, I believe it’s the best theory we have at this time, like Newtonian physics was the most accurate theory before Einstein and relativity and quantum mechanics.  Some want scientists to teach “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to evolution and the Big Bang.  Intelligent Design probably carries some truth about God’s involvement in the formation of the universe, but I don’t see how it’s science at all.

Those of us who are religious are often prone to black-and-white thinking.  Either you follow the commandments or your don’t.  Either you’re a saint or a sinner.  Either you’re a serious believer or you’re not.

Since Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple, the opinions had begun to form.  Much of the religious establishment was saying he was a sinner.  Many of the more common folks were viewing him as a saint.  Nicodemus, a member of the establishment, came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, to try to decide for himself.  But their conversation wouldn’t permit Nicodemus to make any black-or-white decision.  Jesus talked about being “born again” or “born from above”; he talked about being “born of the Spirit” and about that Spirit behaving like a wind that “blows where it chooses; he talked about believing in both “earthly things” and “heavenly things.”  He seemed to be inviting Nicodemus to see the world in a variety of shades of gray. 

Some modern religious people think of being “born again” in black-and-white terms, defining who’s in and who’s out of the faith.  But that doesn’t seem to be the way Jesus was using the term.  He wasn’t telling Nicodemus he was out of favor with God because he wasn’t born again.  He was simply inviting him to break open the categories by which people are judged.

There is no mention of how Nicodemus responded immediately.  But after the crucifixion, we know that Nicodemus was one of the two men who tended to Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb.  Perhaps he wasn’t a “serious” member of the religious establishment.  Or perhaps instead of judging so harshly against the religious establishment of his day, we moderns should learn to see that religious establishment wasn’t as black-and-white opposed to Jesus as we tend to imagine.

February 10, 2008

Temptation

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 6:13 pm

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Matthew 4:1

The first Sunday in the season of Lent always focuses on the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  In countless sermons I have read (and in sermons I have preached!), the parallel is drawn between his temptations and our own. 

Jesus was fasting, but he was tempted to end his fast by turning stones into bread.  When we fast (from food, or from TV, or from Web-surfing, or from whatever is hindering our relationship with God), we are tempted to find ways to get around our fast.  But Jesus reminds the Tempter that humans “cannot live on bread alone.”  The object of our fast does not give us life.  God does.

Jesus was tempted to test God by jumping from the top of the temple, expecting angels to rescue him.  When we are frustrated, we can be tempted to expect God to provide supernatural help in a variety of ways.  The gambler, for example might say, “If you really are God, you will help me win back all I have lost.”  The person struggling with illness may expect a miracle healing to show God’s presence.  Jesus reminds the Tempter that God isn’t to be put to such tests.

Jesus was tempted to bring the whole world together under his control.  We are often tempted to seek unity by expecting others to speak our language, to observe our traditions, and to do things our way.  We restrict diversity.  Jesus reminds the Tempter that worshiping our customs gets in the way of worshiping the only One who is really worthy of our worship.

This way of looking at the temptations is all fine and good, except that by paralleling us with Jesus, we are set up to fail.  We are not Jesus, so we cannot succeed at being like him.

But Jesus’ temptations are really all about him determining how to manifest his power while preserving our freedom.  He will not rule by making us dependent upon him for food.  He will not rule by keeping us entertained with miracles.  He will not rule by forcing conformity among us.  Since he does not succumb to those temptations, we are freed from enslavement to any who would dangle food, or miracles, or uniformity in front of us as if it were a reward for our obedience.  We are freed from trying to earn our place in anyone’s realm.  Because Christ has resisted his temptations, he is able to freely give us a place we cannot earn in his realm.

February 1, 2008

An Awesome Vision

Filed under: Faith Matters — Pastor Tim @ 11:39 am

“And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun….”  Matthew 17:2

Three of the disciples were given the gift of this powerful vision shortly before Jesus began intentionally turning on the path that would lead to the cross.  They didn’t know what to do with the vision of Christ as pure Light, speaking to the long-deceased Moses and Elijah.  Peter offered to make tents (or booths or dwellings, depending upon translation), apparently to protect and preserve this awesome encounter.  But the thing about such experiences is that we can’t capture them.  They are fleeting moments, giving but a glimpse of the divine reality behind and within the human reality that we meet everyday. 

It is said that more people than we know have had some sort of unexplainable, unbelievable experience of divine presence in their lives.  But we tend not to know what to do with these encounters any more than Peter did.  We may cling to some symbol of the event, or to some person who was involved.  We may return again and again to the spot of the event, in the hopes that whatever it was will happen again.  But we probably don’t talk much about it because, first of all, it is still unbelievable to we who experienced it, much less to those who didn’t; and second of all, it might sound as if we think we are special for having experienced something that others haven’t.

My personal holy encounter occured on the night my grandfather died in a tragic farming accident.  While my parents were at his hospital bedside, and while I was laying at home in my bed trying to sleep, I felt suddenly wrapped in a sense of warmth.  It communicated to me this simple message: “Everything will be OK.”  It still hurt when Grandpa died, and it hurt to see my parents struggling with their grief.  But that brief encounter has stayed with me, and in some sense, sustained me.

We may not know what to do with our divine encounters, but in the story of the Transfiguration, the disciples were told what they were to do with their lives:  ”Listen to [Jesus]!”  May our ears be opened to hear the voice of God in Christ, inviting us to loving encounters with one another.