Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Seeing is Believing


Spring is nearly one week old, but we’re not convinced are we? Temperatures are still hovering in the winter range and although we’ve appeared to dodge a “nor’easter,” today’s forecast calls for light snow. Yet, somehow the world around us knows what we don’t see, or perhaps refuse to see. There is more light as daylight lengthens; the lawn, despite the cold, shows some signs of green in response to the light. The birds have once again begun to sing; they know the light, and ignore the cold. Yet I, layered in warm clothing, watch out my window as the woodpecker drills holes in my Atlas cedar, and mines the rising sap. He knows what the light reveals. And what about the crocus struggling under remnants of not-yet-melted snow, making its presence felt in response to the light. It knows despite its icy blanket. Yet I question and wonder, can it really be spring?

In our Gospel (John 9:1-41), John presents Jesus as the light in the darkness, calling forth life. And as witnessed by the world outside my window, all life springs from the light as it lengthens in the world. In this ambivalent month: warm one day, cold another, the light warms the soil and calls the seeds to come to life. March knows instinctively what we find hard to believe.

We can deny the season but we cannot deny the light’s return. Seeing is believing…right? In our Gospel, Jesus restores a blind man’s sight. Yet, the Pharisees are unwilling to accept what they see, ask a barrage of questions: can he really see; is this the same man; ask his parents if he was born blind; how did Jesus open his eyes. What more can the man say; he was blind, Jesus gave him sight and now he can see. Still not wanting to believe what they have seen and heard, the Pharisees drive the man away…out of their sight.

Perhaps the unwillingness to believe in the obvious may seem an exaggeration by John to make a point, but is it? Sometimes, despite what we see and hear, we find it difficult to let go of what we think we know. The inability to let go and put our egos aside is part of our human condition. It can be argued that believing and understanding are the Provence of the intellect, while knowing is an intuitive part of our being. We know air, we don’t believe in it. So, what does it take for his light to penetrate and our hearts to open and to just let go without question? Isn’t it curious how all of nature knows the light and responds without question, and we can’t let go of winter and open our eyes to the light?

And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the promise of life, it's the joy in your heart

And the river bank talks of the waters of March
It's the end of all strain, it's the joy in your heart


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How is it that you ask a drink of me a woman of Samaria?

Last week we were introduced to Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night. This week in John 4:5-42 we encounter the Samaritan woman who Jesus meets at noon at the well. The contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman is striking: Nicodemus is a Pharisee, an insider, an acknowledged Jewish leader. He is a man, he has a name, but he comes to Jesus by night. The character to whom we are introduced in this week's text is a Samaritan, a religious and political outsider. She is a woman; is not given a name, but she meets Jesus in full daylight. As if their encounters were not strange enough, the contrast between Nicodemus’ and the Samaritan woman’s conversations with Jesus were even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious convention, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious experiences and engages Jesus in an in-depth dialogue. As such she has no trouble reminding Jesus of what separates them -- he a Jew and she a Samaritan -- and of what connects them -- their ancestor Jacob, at whose well they meet.  While Nicodemus cannot understand that Jesus is sent by God, Jesus tells the woman at the well who he is as he reveals to her his “name,” I am he… How is it that this woman who meets Jesus briefly, dares to “wonder out loud” if he is the Messiah, while the apostles, still not quite convinced, continue to safely address him as teacher, “rabbi?”

The striking disparity between Nicodemus and the woman at the well underscores Jesus’ love for what society characterizes as the outsiders. The Samaritan woman at the well immediately recognizes the societal barriers and boundaries that keep her in her place but yet she is willing to challenge Jesus' authority over their ancestors of the faith. She is not certain that Jesus is the Christ but she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.”

The woman at the well shows us that faith is about an ongoing dialogue; about growth and change. It is not about having all the answers. If we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our faith just the way it is and are comfortable with our tried and true convictions, we may miss the opportunity to grow and be transformed and will lack the confidence to be able to ask others to "come and see."

Another issue, perhaps for another discussion and another time, has to do with organized religions’ pronouncements on women and sexuality. At no time does Jesus condemn or judge her as society and organized religions have. Where did these rules come from? Shouldn’t we finally rise above phony moralism and misplaced misogyny that has characterized so much of Judeo-Christian theology? This is really a story about the transforming power of love and not about a story about a woman who like us is no less human. After all, Jesus received the Cup from this “scandalous” woman, and she shares it with us in her joy at being loved.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Wind Blows Where it Chooses...

... and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. 
–Jesus, speaking to Nicodemus John 3:1-17

I’m not sure we give Nicodemus enough credit. So much is made of his meeting Jesus in the dark of night, hidden from the crowds and his own people. Yet, everything about his demeanor suggests that he was not afraid to be seen with Jesus. Even more, his willingness to engage Jesus with questions shows that he held him in high regard and was sincerely interested in learning more about Jesus and his teachings.  

Nicodemus presses Jesus and even respectfully debates him:   “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he asks.  “Can one enter a second time in the mother’s womb and be born?” Now, here again, while Nicodemus is smart enough to realize that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, he wants to know what Jesus means. Are we not all products of the lives we have lived?  Are we not shaped by our repeated experiences, are we not formed by our educations and our works? Can all of this be swept aside by the “blowing of the wind?”  Can we become un-formed, in order to be re-formed by the Spirit of God? All of these are reasonable questions that we might ask if we were Nicodemus.

Jesus says we must be born of the Spirit who will bear us, when we are born again into the realm of God.  So it’s reasonable to assume that there is some pain involved in our transformation. How much of the old do we take with us when we are born again? And, if we are born of the Spirit, don’t we get the sense that we do not escort ourselves into God’s realm on our own? It’s reasonable to assume that we are unable to “bear” ourselves in rebirth. We cannot do it on our own.  There must be another force at work, another force entirely. Only the Spirit can usher us from this world of fixed realities to God’s realm of new possibilities.

 Of course Nicodemus is right: we cannot ever go back and enter our mother’s wombs a second time.  Our mothers cannot be prevailed upon to bear us twice—although my mother often said she wished she could; I might get it right the second time! So how do we begin our “gestation” and re-birthing process? If we bear some of the responsibility of our renewal, what part do we play?

Perhaps John Wesley’s answer in his sermon on the subject says it all: It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is "created anew in Christ Jesus"; when it is "renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness"; when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the "mind which was in Christ Jesus." This is the nature of the new birth: "So is every one that is born of the Spirit." (http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/45/)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Hidden Persuaders

In 1957 Vance Packard wrote what was to become a definitive treatise on the evolution of modern advertising entitled The Hidden Persuaders. It was the early years of television and highly trained ad men were using applied psychology and sociology to tap into the consumer’s purchasing behavior as more and more goods were coming to market. While at one time advertisements focused on a product’s benefits; today, however, less is said about the quality of a product as more is implied about how a particular product can change a lifestyle and lead to greater happiness. On the face of it, such advertising sounds ludicrous -- how can owning a particular product enhance our sense of self-worth? Yet the book suggests that we are so starved for a sense of meaning and purpose that we make many of our purchasing decisions based on the hope that the story the ad men tell us is true and that we will be happier, fulfilled and feel better about ourselves if we simply buy their product being promoted. Now, it's not that the goods that are being sold are bad, but rather that too much is expected from them. In the final analysis a car is just a car and a pair of running shoes are just shoes. These things are not likely to change our lives.

Which brings us to our gospel reading Matthew 4:1-11. Perhaps the primary message here is that Jesus shows us the key to finding our true identity and the ability to resist temptation is possible when we are in a “right” relationship with God. Attachments and possessions are all external temptations and distractions that can get in the way. At birth, God confers upon us our essential identity as his beloved children and, unlike Adam and Eve, we hope to avoid  succumbing to the various external pressures that seek to define our worth with fleeting earthly possessions.
Yet, as with Jesus, it's important to recognize that temptation is not a onetime thing. While Jesus rejects the tempter in the desert, he does have other moments of doubt, particularly in the garden at Gethsemane and on the cross. As with Jesus, our life as Christians does not eliminate feelings of doubt, or desire, or a sense of feeling incomplete. These are all a part of our human condition. Yet, as heirs of Adam and Eve, and like Peter, we will inevitably fall short and need to be picked up time and again, knowing that in and through the crucified and risen Jesus we have the promise of forgiveness and new life.