PresbyNerds Assemble!!!

Usually, I type up my posts at the keyboard of my trusty MacBook, sitting at my desk or kitchen table. Maybe at a local coffee purveyor with decent beans and good WiFi.

Today, I am using my thumbs and my iPhone, sitting at gate 126 with 100 or so folks waiting at an almost-ungodly hour for our flight.

Not that I mind (much), given the ultimate destination of today’s adventures in air travel: Saint Louis, the site of this year’s PC(USA) General Assembly.

Presbyterians and others who will serve as commissioners, advisory delegates, staff and support – and more than a few folks who are just there to observe- are doing the same travel dance all across the country.

Why? Because this is how we church. This is how we find, in our imperfect but faithful way, the next steps for our denomination. We gather to make decisions on the issues facing the church in today’s world. So we meet in committees, we pray, we talk, we worship, we argue a bit (or a lot), we pray some more, we gather as a whole, rinse, repeat… and eventually we vote.

All of that trusting that the Holy Spirit is in our midst, our words, our thoughts and our votes. That we can, when gathered as a body, hear God’s voice in the voices of one another.

I love that. In the same way I love watching leaders do this same hard beautiful work for a congregation or the presbytery. It is holy magic.

I also love these too rare chances to just hang out with the PresbyNerds I know from seminary, conferences and online communities. We are scattered all over most of the time… but for these handful of days, we assemble and reconnect. This, too, is holy magic.

At least a couple of times this week, I will post more, here or as a guest writer elsewhere (I’ll link back!). Meanwhile, prayers for safe travel, clear thinking, a loving heart, and at least a little rest would be much appreciated!

Advertisements

Adventures in Gooberdom

Some days, I feel like I have it pretty much together.  Some days, I know that is not but a delusion.   Some days, I am pretty sure I need a minder.  Yesterday was one.

Even 3 months in, I am learning about being a contact lens wearer. Like last week, I had my first experience of thinking my right lens had fallen out, only to discover that “eyelash” that was bothering me was actually the missing lens.  It had just crawled up into the corner of my eyelid and tucked itself annoyingly away.

Yesterday, though… totally user error.  I knew it was time to switch to the next pair, so I thought I’d pop in the old ones for a quick jog then wear my specs the rest of the day.

Did my run.
Took my shower.
Came downstairs and thought…
It’s bright enough outside I’ll want my shades. I’ll just swap out the contacts.

So, I popped out the old right one, popped in the new one, and blinked as it settled into place. Then I marveled, as I always do, at the magic of being able to see clearly again.

I popped out the right one, popped in the new one, and blinked.
And couldn’t see for crap.

So I pulled it back out, rinsed it, checked to make sure it wasn’t inside out, and popped it back in.   Nope. Still blurry.

Then I thought… that feels awfully thick.  Did I??? 
So, I again pulled out the new contact, and sure enough there was the old one, still on my eyeball.

Yep.  Some days…

I Want to See

This winter, the Narrative Lectionary took us through the story of Jesus’ ministry as told by John.  There are many ways that this particular gospel can be problematic, but even still… the writing style and imagery resonates deeply with the poet in me.

This time through, I was struck by the use of vision – clear, obscured, regained, and lacking – as a metaphor for faith.  I suspect not in some small part because I was literally struggling to see for several weeks.

I turned 40 while working full time as a communications specialist and doing seminary online.  That meant I spent most of my life staring at a screen or books or paper.  And it was the year I started doing that yo-yo thing with items covered in small print to find the “sweet spot” to let me read.  It was not a huge surprise my annual eye exam that year resulted in bifocals.

I’m used to the dance now, after 12 years of adjusting prescriptions and getting new frames as insurance allows… but this year, the timing went sideways.  I ordered a new set of specs, planning to use the current pair as the backup.  And within 48 hours the old pair broke.  Irreparably. And the only option in the house was 2 prescriptions old.

I could “see” well enough to drive safely and read in small stretches.  But I had nothing for sunglasses, which made running/biking even less comfortable and safe.  With a couple weeks wait left on the glasses, I thought to myself… maybe contacts and a pair of shades? One appointment later, I was attempting to train my eyes to see with 1 near and 1 far lens.

While the new glasses were on backorder, (way more than 2 weeks- a whole other story),  I went through 2 versions of contacts and loaner glasses, always slightly blurry… never quite right.  I could see the world, but it was never quite as it should be.  As I knew it could be.

I’ve had my new glasses for a week now.  I still can’t quite get past the fact that I can see effortlessly at every distance…  And my finalized contact lenses even make it possible for me to see clearly when I am in the shower or swimming (with goggles).

I know… there are many people for whom my options are impossible. Either their vision is beyond correction or their circumstances keep options like glasses and contacts out of reach.

Like them – even if temporarily – I longed to be made whole again in this one particular way.  I just wanted to see.  I’d have been more than happy to let some wandering rabbi take a stab at healing my astigmatism.

So much, though, of what John wanted us to see in those accounts was about that deeper seeing.  The kind of seeing that happens as we open our hearts to an encounter with the God.

The kind of seeing which makes it impossible to look at the world the same way as before.

The kind of seeing that cuts right through the layers of bullshit and fakery the world encourages us to wear to the very core of the person, to the childlike heart of the person.

The kind of seeing that allows us to know and be known, by the one who knew us first and loves us best.  And the ones who love us here and now.

I can see now, and for that I give thanks.   But Lord, I still want to see.

An Invocation for a New Mayor & Commissioners

Today, I had the honor of opening with prayer the ceremony at which the newly-elected mayor and city council members were sworn in.  I can’t say that before this invitation I had given much thought to what one might pray for on such an occasion.  But as I thought about the work they have in front of them and the demands that would be placed on them… here’s what God laid on my heart.  And thus what folks heard me pray this afternoon:

Holy and gracious One, we give you thanks for a moment to pause and reflect on what is a really momentous day.

Looking back, we can see the many ways you have prepared these leaders to answer a call to this work in this city in this moment.  We give you our thanks. 

As we pause, we can begin to see how their work will intersect and weave into the work of all the men and women who have come before, and for all of their efforts and passion, we also give thanks.  

And on this day of official new beginnings, we look forward to the ways you will lead and guide commissioners Smith and Nolan, Bankson and Becker, as well mayor Nelson 

Answering a call to public service, putting your family’s name and reputation out for a vote, braving the fickleness and divisiveness of public discussion of your work…  these things are not easy.  For our leaders or their families.   

We ask then, for you to fill them with the humility, courage, faithfulness, persistence and sense of humor they will desperately need in the days, months and years to come. 

Be with the family members of our commissioners and mayor, as this work means missed mealtimes or ballgames, interrupted and delayed vacations, and errands that take forever between conversations.  

May these leaders never take themselves too seriously; may they never take the work home too consistently, and may they never take the word on the street too personally.  

Instead, give them ears to hear the stories that get to the truth of the needs of our city, and the excitement of the opportunities that the people of Apopka are exploring. 

Give them eyes to see the little things that make the biggest differences in peoples lives, and to look past the distractions that make real progress impossible. 

Give each of them minds that are sharp and eager to learn from one another, as well as the wise counsel you provide in their colleagues, staff and support teams, city employees and outside experts.  

Lord, give them hearts that are full of compassion for those whose voices have too long been silenced and whose access to power has been limited.   

We pray this day for all who work to make Apopka the kind of place you want to raise your kids, open a business, visit for a festival or maybe even retire to.  And we lift up all who live and work in the bounds of the city.

It goes without saying that aligning all the wants, needs, expectations, hopes, and dreams of those who voted to bring this group together…. is nigh unto impossible.   Mixing in the reality of time and budgets and process… it would be more than one miracle to make everyone happy.  

Rather than ask for that particular miracle, God, I offer up a simpler request…

May grace abound from above and below
May grace abound from within and without
May grace abound from this moment onward
In ways that offer healing, reconciliation, inclusion, empowerment and unity.

May our mayor and commissioners remember always that
it is in your children coming together and working to make the world and its people whole that the desires of your heart and the truth of your glory are revealed.  

May that be true of this council, of this city and all who call on your name, this day and always, Amen. 

God, Improv, and the Art of Living – Book Review

When I was offered a chance to check out a preview edition* of MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s new book, of course I said “Yes!”   And not just because I knew enough about improv to know that Yes is an important part of the process.

MaryAnn’s first book about pursuing Sabbath in the Suburbs was such a great mix of solid theology, accessible writing and truly do-able suggestions, that I knew a book exploring the intersections of improvisation and lived-theology would be worth a read.

God, Improv and the Art of Living definitely did not disappoint.

Like all of MaryAnn’s writing, this book is accessible, yet invites a deeper dive.  Chapter by chapter, she introduces the key concepts of improv.  Using stories and examples from her own study of the craft and others who inspired and challenged her, these concepts come to life.  End notes and citations offer a trove of resources for further digging and exploration.

If you’ve followed her blog, you would expect the God content to be straightforward invitations to ponder the ways that our sacred text challenges and comforts, confronts and encourages.  And to honor the reality that people of all kinds of faith backgrounds and depths of faith can find themselves struggling to say Yes to the thing God is asking of them.   Again, MaryAnn does not disappoint, in her telling of stories and choices of scripture and authentic wondering aloud.

As a person whose need to play has often been diminished (or even disapproved) in churchy circles, it was a joy to find my way of seeing and being in the world and faith communities described in hopeful and even encouraging terms.

I read the book in 3 sittings (a couple of short flights and part of a layover), which makes me think a book club might be able to do a couple of chapters at a shot, depending.

As I put the book down to ponder this review, I found myself wondering who I needed to gather to read and discuss (yay for group discussion prompts) and try some of the improv games (even more yay for even more adventurous prompts).

—–

*Disclaimer: I received a free advance copy of the book in return for a review.  No compensation for me, no promises of kind words for the author or the publisher.  

No Fooling (A sermon that really doesn’t care about April Fool’s)

Reading from Scripture: John 20:1-18

Sitting in this beautiful sanctuary,
light streaming in through stained glass,
surrounded by shining faces and gorgeous flowers…
Hearing beautiful music echoing and reverberating
and the sounds of alleluias and greetings of He is risen, indeed…

It’s hard to put ourselves back into that garden, in the darkness before the dawn. And it’s even harder to put ourselves in Mary’s sandals, so to speak. In the sorrow and fear and concern that she must have felt as she made her way to the borrowed grave in which Jesus lay.

Remember, without the help of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Jesus’ followers might not have been able to take his body, much less gather the herbs and ointments needed to prepare him for burial.

And wasn’t it just like God to provide a tomb just as it was needed? An unused tomb right there in the garden. So faithful to provide… But it’s not just that God is faithful.

For John, it’s the particular ways that God is faithful:
The one who spoke all the plants and trees into being
The one who provided everything the first humans might need in that very first perfect garden

Until it all went sideways…
But then even in the moment Adam and Eve were cast out, God was faithful to care for humankind and in every moment since, continuing to invite and teach and rescue and provide, and ultimately to redeem us – the image-bearers of that Master Gardener.

John made clear in the prologue that Jesus was there in the beginning
The Word was God and the Word was with God

The fact that Jesus is arrested, dies and is buried in a garden makes clear once more that the Word was indeed made flesh.
And bone.
Fully human.

Jesus was a man.
A man who knew the sting of betrayal.
Who knew the love of a mother and a father
He knew the kind of friendship that feels so much more like family
And the grief and pain of a loved one’s death.
He experienced the temptation of pride and power
The solace of time in quiet meditation… often in a garden.

Jesus was a man who experienced life fully.
And then knew a real and violent death.

And so, it makes sense that Mary found herself walking in the shadows through the garden
Walking through the shadows of grief
Grief that only grows deeper and more intense when she sees the stone was rolled away.
The body – his body – gone.

I mean… Who does that?
Who messes with a grave? In the middle of the night?
No one with pure and helpful motives.
No one who was a good Jew.

It was just not right.
How dare thy?
And who is going to help her?
Has no-one else noticed?

She can’t see properly
Can’t think properly.
She can’t face this alone.
So she goes back to the others…

Peter and the other disciple hurry to tomb
They see that she is right.
He isn’t there.
There seems only one explanation: He is gone, so someone must have taken his body.

The men go back to their homes, and Mary stays.
Alone again in her grief
Grieving for a teacher and friend
For all the days that he would never see,
For the meals they would never share…even the crazy ones with 100s or 1000s of people and only enough food for a few, but somehow…

She cried for the dreams that would not be…
For the people who might never know healing or hope,
Who wouldn’t experience forgiveness and true belonging the way she had

She grieved for Mary, Jesus’ mother, knowing the pain she was already feeling at his death.
Now this…

What would she say to Mary?   To Lazarus and his sisters?

Of course she was crying.
Maybe no longer an ugly cry, but the tears seemed to come from an unending supply…
like that well of living water Jesus spoke of.
They left tracks on her face and dark damp patches on her clothes and splotches on the earth

Even as she peeked down into the tomb
Even as she tried to make sense of the angels in there
Even as she found the words to answer their question..

Why was she crying? She was crying because he was gone.
And she had no idea where or why…

Ok. Deep Breath.
Come on Mary… pull yourself together.
Maybe the gardener will know…

He was, I suppose, technically the gardener.
Though Jesus had claimed to be the vine, and God the Father was the one tending the vine.
But Mary wasn’t thinking metaphorically at the moment.

She couldn’t think of anything but her Lord.
And finding him.

That question again… why are you crying???
And then “Who are you looking for?”

Surely the gardener heard her speaking to those two…
Perhaps a practical approach would help,
after all they did just kind of “borrow” the empty tomb…

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

It just took one word.
Mary.

The good shepherd knows his sheep by name
The sheep know the shepherd’s voice

Mary

One word, and right there, in the garden,
A new was dawning.
Mary’s eyes were open to a new reality,

Mary was the first to experience this new creation
This new world in which Jesus was risen.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, will not, cannot overcome it.
Now God’s resurrection power was on display!

And while death was and remains the reality of life, Jesus’ resurrection points to the reality of abundant life. Not simply eternal life or some heavenly reality beyond our death.

Resurrection was and remains nothing short of re-creation.

Mary could see Jesus.
Grief upon grief had been answered by grace upon grace

She knew herself again
She knew it was him
And she knew he was alive
She believed he was the Lord

She was elated, and she needed a hug.  

I don’t know if it’s because there wasn’t a word for it in Koine Greek, but I’m pretty sure John meant to include the fact that Mary wrapped Jesus in a great big bear hug.

Because the next thing Jesus tells Mary is that she can’t hold him for long…

because he has somewhere else to be.
And so does she…

Mary is commissioned to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God

In that one prepositional phrase to my Father and your Father… Jesus speaks the whole purpose of his life, death, resurrection, and now his ascension. The one he calls, “Father” is not his abba alone.

In his ministry, and in his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is opening the way for all of humanity to have the same relationship with God that he has.

This has been his mission and his invitation all along. for all of humankind – all of us! – to enjoy a relationship with God that is like this (fingers interwoven tightly)

Think back again to the prologue…
We are told that the Light came to the world, but the world did not know him.
And that even his own did not accept him.

But those who did receive him, who believed in his name…
To those he gave the power to become children of God.
Siblings in Christ.
Siblings with Christ.

As he returns to the presence of God, Jesus is opening his home and his family to them.
To the world.
To US.

And so Mary goes and tells.
Not in the form of some grand theological or doctrinal statement.
Not even an Easter sermon.

Mary tells them the most important truth she has ever known.
She provides for them a first person claim, a testimony, a witness to what she has experienced:

I HAVE SEEN THE LORD!

5 simple words.

Though I can only imagine she said them over and over….
Under her breath in wonder as she ran
I have seen the Lord… I have seen the Lord…

Almost breathless with excitement as she saw the first  of her brothers and sisters
I have seen the Lord!

With elation and laughter as they needed to hear her again…
I have seen the Lord!!! Yes.. the Lord.  Jesus!

I have seen the Lord!

In that simple sentence, she gives voice once again to the truth that each person’s experience and encounter with Jesus allows them to recognize who Jesus is and to express it to others.

See, Mary’s proclamation is not only a witness to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but also an interpretation of it.  She realizes that for Jesus to be raised from the dead, his claims must be true.  Which makes is an assertion about her own resurrection, her own future.

Jesus is Lord.
He is the Messiah.
He is, indeed, the King of the Jews
He is the Son of God.

Mary announces what she saw AND what she believes… simultaneously.

I have seen the Lord.

Sitting in this beautiful sanctuary,
light streaming in through stained glass
surrounded by shining faces and gorgeous flowers…
Hearing Beautiful music echoing and reverberating
and the sounds of alleluias and greetings of He is risen, indeed…

Week after week, we have the opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in community, with family- our siblings in Christ. We do so in our hymns and in our readings and prayers. And on days like today, we get to proclaim Jesus as Lord in the sharing of the bread and the cup.

Jesus is here, as we gather, to be certain. It is often in holy gatherings like this that we hear our names spoken with tenderness and love and intention.  

As we leave this place, as we go out through those doors,
we have the opportunity to bear witness to the world that that we, too, have seen the Lord…  

No, that’s not right. We have much more than an opportunity…

We have the responsibility to assure that
not one beloved Child of God goes one more day
without hearing someone call him or her by name with love and intention.

So that whatever darkness obscures their vision
So that Whatever holds them captive
So that whatever binds their hearts
Is exposed to the light of Christ we carry in our stories of encounters with the risen Lord.

It is good and right to be here, but we have someplace else to be
We must go and tell our brothers and sisters.

I have seen the Lord!

Oh gracious God, may our eyes be open, our feet be swift and our hearts be bold.
That we might go and tell and live for you.
Amen.

Who is Truth?

The cock crowed.
Peter realized that Jesus was right. And as his heart sank, he left the garden of Caiaphas’ house.  The other disciple, the one who was known by the chief priest, he apparently stayed around to witness what would happen next.

We can think of this passage as Part 1 of Jesus trial, the second portion of which will be next week’s lesson. Listen for the Word of God to you from John 18:28-40.

I have to admit, this has always been a fairly troubling passage for me.
Because of the way the people behave
And because the stakes are so high.

Sometimes, you feel like you can understand the folks that John and our other gospel writers tell us about. I mean, it’s not hard to see myself in Peter’s impetuous passion and repeated mis-steps. Or even in James and John’s competition to be the star pupil, the one Jesus would choose as his chief of staff or make his second in command.

Certainly, when we get to Thomas’ moment in the spotlight after Jesus’ resurrection, we get a chance to commiserate with someone who needs concrete evidence, and yet is still beloved by Christ.

But this section of the gospel gives us a group of leaders – spiritual leaders- who act in very non-spiritual ways. And in Pilate, we have a man known for his incredible brutality, seeming to offer a chance for mercy.

Jesus seems almost normal by comparison…

Let’s look first at the first they in our passage, the chief priests and other leaders from the temple. Their actions, particularly because of John’s depiction, have been used to vilify “the jews” for generations.  

I think that has to do with the fact that John rarely speaks of individuals, aside from Caiaphas or Nicodemus.  And any time we can create a nameless crowd of others, they become less human somehow.

You know what I mean, right?  We might name the group – or just call them “they”

Individual people, with lives and hopes and dreams, become part of a collective.  No longer distinct and three-dimensional. They become lesser beings, made generic by a label, faceless, soul-less and worth less than those people we actually know.  

Before long, children of God become caricatures whose worst features are exaggerated
Compassion goes out the window.
Only to be replaced by fear and even hated.
You know… the opposite of love.  

John is not alone in setting Jesus and his disciples up as different from the religious leaders of his day.  But John tends not to point out differences between various sects – Pharisees or Saduccees… all are just “the jews”

I suspect this had to do with his particular context. A need to teach and encourage his stream of the early church, which existed a little later and was a little different from the gatherings of Christ-followers that Matthew Mark and Luke wrote for.

John would like to set up the Jews, especially those in leadership,as the embodiment of the Law.  They represent the old way of understanding our connection to God.  A connection more concerned about rituals and identifying particular sins. This focus on the Law made it hard for these leaders to see and hear Jesus’ teaching about the relationship that God desires with humankind.

John doesn’t need to tell his audience about Pilate.
Pilate was basically the embodiment of earthly power.
Of the sort of power that oppresses others
and amasses wealth and influence for itself.

While not the emperor, Pilate is, for this region, the emperor’s proxy.
He has full authority to wage war, to tax,to build infrastructure for the empire.
Or use forced labor to build a giant palace for himself.
He has the power to create and enforce civil law.
And he can serve as judge and jury for any who break those laws.  

Pilate was not shy at all about engaging in any and all of these activities. He built a reputation for brutality that is cataloged in more than one ancient historical text.

It seems at one point, he actually went beyond what the Romans could allow. The Samaritans once reported Pilate to the legate of Syria, after he attacked them on Mount Gerizim (36 CE). He was then ordered back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression, particularly on the charge that he had executed men without proper trial.

And so in this scene, John has gathered the Law, The Empire, and Jesus.

The Law looks at Jesus and sees trouble. But the law itself sets limits on what the religious leaders can do about it.
They can call him a sinner.
They can keep him from entering the temple.
They can definitely make it clear that he is not to be welcomed in community.

But what they’d like to do… be rid of him permanently…
Nope. No good.

And no going into the Palace of a Gentile ruler as Sabbath and Passover are about to start, either. But apparently, making clear to this ruler that they’d like Jesus dead… that’s ok.
As is bearing just-this-side-of-false witness on the front lawn of said ruler’s home.

And then it is the Empire’s turn to collide with Jesus. And in this interrogation, Pilate begins to see that Jesus might be trouble. But in order for Pilate to sentence Jesus to death, he must determine that Jesus is a revolutionary.
A political dissident

This is why he asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

In response, Jesus speaks of a “kingdom” — a place where God reigns, a community of those who are of God. Rather than threatening Rome, Jesus is subtly inviting Pilate to enter this place, his place. A place that is not of this world.

This kingdom is not political or violent. And it is certainly not revolutionary, at least not in the sense that Pilate would imagine.

Jesus is Lord of a kingdom that is more like a pasture
Where he has gathered up those who hear the voice of the shepherd
Who drink of the living water
Who eat the bread of life
Who follow the way of love.

Jesus is Lord of those who would love one another and the world that God loves.

That’s how very revolutionary Jesus’ Kingdom is…
It rests on making God known in the world,
On bearing witness to the truth,
On gathering in those who hear the truth,

In other words, if Jesus is a king, it is not of a kingdom Pilate would recognize as such. Because any worldly title fails to capture the fullness of the mission of one who is truth itself.

Jesus invites Pilate to receive his testimony and be part of the truth. And Pilate’s attempt to interrogate Jesus as prisoner is just flat undone. Here we can see the whole of John’s gospel in a nutshell:

The only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth, comes into the world to make God known. Then his servant-friends, also sanctified in truth, are sent into the world to continue the mission of love.

If his kingdom were of this world, he says, his followers would be engaged in violent resistance. But he is not that sort of king, as evidenced by the sheathing of Peter’s sword and Jesus’ healing of the man he attacked.

And so Pilate asks.. “What is truth?”

Of course, an even better question for Jesus…
Who is Truth?

The short answer would be, “I am.”
I am.
I am the light…
the light that dawns even in the darkness of betrayal and arrest
The light that dawns as resurrections defeats death

I am the shepherd…
The shepherd that protects the sheep
The shepherd that lays down his life for the sheep

I am the way
I am the truth

I’d love to pretend that Jesus as the truth is an easy and uncomplicated thing to believe… and to understand. But well, Jesus is complicated.  As are we humans who try to follow God.

My pastor friend Marci pondered the reality that at the close of this passage, the crowd gathered in Pilate’s yard chooses a bandit over Jesus. That word choice- bandit- is intentional.John is bringing back, yet again, the earlier imagery of sheep, thieves and bandits.

Marci pointed out that the sheep in Pilate’s courtyard do not recognize the Shepherd’s voice. “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice”, Jesus says.

And both of us wondered, in light of this saying, what it means for a church functioning in a time when we regularly hear the words “fake news”

In a culture that always expects us to align with one “side” or another because they have the right answers and everyone else is lying or just wrong.

And here’s what I believe our challenge is as a body…here in this place and as the church universal… 

If we confess (as in proclaim) that Jesus is our truth, (and way, and life), we must come together to discern the truth. 

We need to listen for his voice, and then figure out how our lives can reflect his life and his light to one another, and more importantly, to the world.

In many ways, this listening and discerning is about seeking truth.
Seeking a deeper understanding of who God is,
and who we are when we abide in God.

Seeking truth, isn’t about finding the one right answer.
So much as a willingness to say, “I’m not sure” and remain teachable,

Understanding Jesus as Truth calls us to an openness and curiosity about what others are hearing and learning.

Jesus as Truth is not a list of “right” behaviors
—after all, Jesus kept company with all manner of people,
most of whom were considered to be about as wrong in life as they come.

Jesus as Truth is bigger than our human morality, with its binaries of right, wrong, good, bad.

Jesus as Truth calls us to hold on loosely to the idea that we have it figured out, and to hold on tightly to the knowledge that God does.

Pilate, and Caiaphas, and all of the possible outcomes to this “trial” of Jesus are a sideshow to the Truth of Jesus that is revealed in this story.
To the fullness of God being revealed in this story.

What could any of those actors in this story have done to diminish Jesus, to limit his truth, to keep him from loving his own right up to the very end?

Nothing.

There is nothing any of them could have done to stop the Truth of God’s Love for the world.

When we get distracted by controlling the truth, or fighting over the truth, or denying the truth— we forget that we aren’t the truth.

But Jesus…. Jesus IS the truth.

Thanks be to God.

Of Kings and Kingdoms

This week’s reading takes us further into Jesus’ trial and conviction. We ended last week with a frustrated Pilate, annoyed over Jesus’ non-response to his questions, and wondering “What is truth.  

You may recall that He then went to the jewish leaders and offered them an opportunity to release Jesus, given the Passover custom.  Instead they called for the release of Barabbas, the bandit.

Listen now for the Word of God from John 19:1-16a

John has been setting up this trial for a while. The scene has shifted several times between the front lawn to the Pilate’s quarters, and finally to the judge’s seat on the Stone Pavement

The key players remain the same:
Jesus, the religious leaders, and Pilate.  

And their desires remain the same:
Pilate always needs to keep Jerusalem under control, but especially during the Passover festival.  There would be no unrest on his watch, no uprisings, and therefore no over-the-top responses that might draw negative attention from Rome. If that meant appeasing these religious men, one more death on his record wouldn’t bother him.

The chief priests and their police are hoping for essentially the same outcome, a peaceful passover that doesn’t draw the attention of the Empire. Jesus and his crowds and their excitement over this person they saw as a Messiah, that was a problem. They could nip it in the bud, so to speak, and even do so with the help of the Empire. As Caiaphas said, better one man than a whole population…

What about Jesus?  What did he desire?

From his prayer in the garden, we know that he didn’t WANT to die. And that he DID desire to do exactly as God willed, to complete his mission here on earth. To bear witness to the truth of who God is, and the love and mercy God offers to all of creation, in particular to humankind.

We know that Jesus came to offer life, forgiveness, reconciliation.

But as John tells us in the very beginning of his gospel (1:10-11) Jesus was in the world,and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

The Light of the World stepped into our darkness -darkness of humanity’s own making! – and we couldn’t recognize or accept the gift.

We humans are intrigued by, often driven by, power
Who has it, how to get it, how to protect it.

We are intrigued by our location relative to the power…
We learn – sometimes through stern words, sometimes through swift action, exactly where we stand and what we are allowed to do with our power and influence.
Or lack thereof  

There are a lot of power dynamics at play in this passage.

Where Luke and Matthew recount many of Jesus’ teachings about God’s Kingdom, John does not.  This extended trial narrative is really the one time we get a heavy dose of references to Kings and Kingdoms. It starts in one of the earlier scenes, in chapter 18.  

Pilate asks Jesus directly,  “Are you the King of the Jews?”

And Jesus wants to know… does Pilate see this himself?  Or did someone bear witness to him, explaining Jesus’ identity?

Pilate’s response was to make clear that he was primarily interested in what Jesus had done to be handed over as a criminal, as apparently his crime warranted death. Remember Jesus’ answer?

“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.”

The leaders make clear that they do not want Jesus released, and so Pilate begins the torture that Jesus will endure until his death with flogging, mocking. That’s definitely Pilate, wielding his power.

But when he marches Jesus back outside to the religious leaders, Pilate’s intentions are less clear.

Does he mean to mock the Jewish people by presenting Jesus again as king (having already referred to him as their king when he offered them Barabbas)?

Or does he mean to show that such a pathetic creature as Jesus could not possibly be a threat? Thus reminding the Jewish people how insignificant a threat they appear to Rome?

It’s not clear in John’s telling.
Perhaps both.
Perhaps something altogether different.

What IS clear is the narrative irony in Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as precisely the sort of king he is.

Like the suffering servant of Isaiah 50 (to which the scourging and slapping here may allude), Jesus is the vulnerable embodiment of God’s love for a dark, broken world.  A world in which Pilate and the religious authorities and their soldiers and police become the representatives par excellence of that darkness and brokenness.

Jesus is declared king from the earliest chapters of all the Gospels, though the word used most often is Christ, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. That he will be crucified is an utter redefinition of what this means, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” as Paul would write to the Corinthians.

As Jesus told Pilate, his is a kingdom not from here.

Then, when the chief priests tell Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he seems to be taken aback. Enough, at least, to go back inside to ask Jesus “Where are you from?”

Jesus doesn’t respond.
He might have said Nazareth… or Judea
He might have recounted his genealogical origins.
But he chose to offer no answer.

Pilate was not amused, after all, no one refuses to speak to the governor.

Can’t you just see it?  Pilate, flustered and angry.
Perhaps going red in the face

If he’d had a smart phone, he might have sent out a tweet-storm

Don’t you know who I am?  Don’t you know how much power I have??

And I wonder if, in that white hot rage, Pilate got quiet.
And  reminded his prisoner in a dangerously quiet hiss

Look, King from Nowhere I don’t care who’s son you are.
I have the power to release you… whether those weak and fearful Jews outside want me to or not.
I have the power to crucify you.
I have power to decide if you live or die.

How strange it must have been for him when this ordinary man,
who was, indeed, the son of God,
the earthly embodiment of the God who is, who was and ever will be
I AM

How strange it must have been for Pilate when the man standing in front of him in a crown of thorns made clear where the power truly resided.

You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

Jesus’ is kingdom not from here.
And his is a power not of this earth.

And this trial?  It is SO not about Jesus and his crimes.
John has been setting this up – setting us up – from the very beginning.

Pilate thinks he is judge and jury, and even physically places himself on the judge’s seat.  But in John’s gospel, judgment is what individuals bring upon themselves as they respond to Jesus as a revelation of God.

Commentator Karoline Lewis says it this way…
“God does not judge or condemn, and neither does Jesus. Rather, judgment is the result of a lack of recognition of who Jesus is.” Judgment, then, is connected closely to the themes of witness and testimony in John’s telling of Jesus’ story. The trial narrative puts witness and judgement front and center  “in this critical moment for Jesus, the disciples, the Jewish leaders, Pilate and all who witness the last event of the incarnation. Everyone is on trial and in jeopardy of (NOT) recognizing who Jesus is.”

When Jesus states that the one who handed him over is guilty of the greater sin, we might jump quickly to the idea that he means Judas. Or perhaps Caiaphas, or the temple police…

But Jesus isn’t talking about the actions being taken, so much as what is going on in the heart.  

The word sin here is calling attention to what is truly at risk.
What truly matters for Jesus’ trial: Jesus is not the one on trial.  

It is those who sit in the audience.
Those who sit on the witness stands
Those who read and hear this gospel account and hear its truth.

Do they… do WE… hear and believe?
How do we respond?
When Pilate says, Here is your King how do we respond?

I can’t help but think back to the days when the people of Israel first asked God for a King. When they had determined that the prophets and judges just weren’t enough.
As if God as King were not enough…

Now, here is their King.
Their Christ.
Their Messiah

And the leaders of the Temple choose the Emperor.
As if God as King is still not enough

They handed God in the person of Jesus over to Pilate
And did you notice that in that moment, they were standing outside.
Literally, outside in the courtyard, because John wants us to see that they have not entered through the door.   

They are far away from the presence of the very God who has come to save them
From oppression
From injustice
From themselves.

God has not abandoned them,
But they do not hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow
They are blind and not willing to see the one is the very door through which they need to walk.  

And that is the very definition of the sin Jesus came to resolve.

His is the ministry of reconciliation, the end the separation between God  and the world that God loves to much

He came to reconnect our hearts to God’s so that we might know more fully, more completely the power of the love that has been implanted deeply within us from the beginning. 

The power to love deeply and fiercely is the power that can change the world.
Power like that requires vigilance…

Young Peter Parker learns very quickly as he explores his new identity as Spiderman that with great power comes great responsibility

Oh, we humans get all twisted up, to be sure.

See, if we have the power to love, we also have the power to withhold that love
To turn it into personal power,
To Manipulate others .
We have the power to set people free…
or to crucify them

We can easily see that twisted power in Pilate. But we don’t have to look that far away In time or in geography for examples.

We still have the power to free others… or to crucify them
We have the power to bully – physically or emotionally;
We withhold information or affection
We threaten to leave relationships
or stop sharing much-needed resources
We are more than capable of robbing others of their self-esteem, self-worth and integrity;

We have the power to crucify/kill people’s hopes, plans and dreams.
But we also have the power to protect and serve;
to heal; to build others up,
to strengthen their self-esteem;
to feed others’ hopes and dreams.
We have the power to heal one another’s wounds
To bind up one another’s broken hearts

God has given you that power.
God has entrusted all of us with that power.

The question is, how will we use it?
Will we bow to the pressures of the world or give in to the desires of self?
Or, might we pool our God-given power to bring life and hope and joy to the world around us?

Will we use our power to effect good in the lives of others?
Will we use our influence, wealth, voices and strength to only better our own position in life,
or will we—like Jesus—use our power to offer new and abundant life to others?

Because that right there?  That is the powerful sort of love that can most surely change the world.

Hosannas & Horrors

Readng 1: The Triumphal Entry John 12:12-27

And now we turn to our second reading.  The scene shifts dramatically.

The trial is complete.  Pilate has determined, with the approval of the leaders of the temple, that Jesus indeed must die. He has been flogged and mocked as a king in rags. He is wearing a crown of thorns. And the time has come.

Reading 2 : The Crucified Messiah John 19:16b-22

This Sunday is called Palm Sunday, for obvious reasons.  But over the past several years, many churches have begun to broaden the emphasis of this first day of Holy Week. Because fewer people attend mid-week opportunities to worship, it is possible for us to skip directly from today’s noisy, palm-waving, excitement to the joyous celebration of Resurrection Sunday.

That is one reason I have appreciated the opportunity our lectionary offered this year… to walk a little more slowly through John’s description of Jesus’ trial. And the opportunity to spend some time in both of these passages this morning, even though it feels a little like time travel

The reality is that the events of this final week of Jesus’ earthly life bring greater depth to our understanding of who Jesus is, both as the Son of God and the Son of Man.

In the mature church, all these centuries later, his suffering has become foundational to our Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ.  But in the Jewish tradition, from which his earliest followers and the earliest congregations arise, messiahs do not get crucified. And so, what they see in Jesus is not what was expected…

They are looking for a king like David.  Or at the very least, a prophet like Moses. Someone who brings about or signals an obvious, maybe even world-ending in-breaking of God’s presence on earth.

All of that sounds nothing like a criminal, definitely not one who is executed by the state. Really, it’s no wonder that the religious leaders were skeptical. Or afraid. After all, if God started moving right there in Jerusalem, in an obvious or world-ending kind of way – their skin was on the line.

But the people who had little to lose… the people whose lives were at risk all the time, who had little influence and even less power, they were waiting and watching. With eyes and hearts wide open.

The people who greeted Jesus with palms… they had heard stories.
Stories about signs and wonders.
Stories about healings.
Stories about hungry people being fed.
The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

This man was not like the other rabbis.  He didn’t seem a lot like David, but maybe that was ok.  After all, these folks were not being helped by Pilate. They needed something closer to a prophet than a king.

They were at the back gate of Jerusalem when Jesus arrived.  Pilate’s folks were at the main gate. He had apparently arranged for a parade that would open the Passover festival, but also celebrate his glory as a military leader and representative of the Empire. It was a handy excuse for a parade, and a reminder of who was in power.

Despite our reenactments of the day with children and choir members, waving their palm fronds in liturgical parades, Jesus’ entry wasn’t technically a parade.  Jesus walked in the gate and found himself surrounded by people who had heard the stories and wanted to see who he was, what he was about.  

He walked in and found himself a donkey to ride. Not a war horse, as Pilate might have chosen, but a humble, peaceful donkey.

Jesus walked in through the back gate and made a claim that both launched a movement and sealed his fate. Essentially, he marched himself straight to the cross to die.
Not out of hubris, arrogance… but obedience.  

This fully divine human might have done a billion other things, but he chose to stay on mission. He marched in there like a king… a king not of this world.

As if to say, “Yes, I am your King- your Lord.”
And in me, The Lord your God, “I am” remains with you
Remains for you.

I don’t know if his followers fully understood the scope of what Jesus was about to do. I don’t know if they comprehended what Jesus meant when he decided to march himself straight to the Cross to die. Did they truly get it when he told them that a grain of wheat needs to fall to the ground?

They may not have, certainly not right in the moment, but we should. After thousands of years, we should understand what Jesus was after, shouldn’t we?

Jesus marched for the sake of those who had their backs against the wall.

Jesus marched right into danger and death for those he spoke to, for those he spoke about about in the sermon on the mount. Those he said were worthy of honor:
the poor, those who mourn,
the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
the merciful, the pure in heart,
the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake

Jesus marched right into Jerusalem for all those who would be reviled and persecuted and for those who would be be victims of evil lies and accusations because of their association with Jesus.

With the church being birthed in an empire, it’s easy to see why early Christians would have needed to  work hard to make sense of their expectations of Jesus, even as they found their way into being a community of faith… a community built on the teachings of this humble and obedient Jesus:
The messiah-King who died on a cross.

This origin story, with its roots in utter political failure, seems like the antithesis of a traditional messiah-king.  But perhaps not…

Jesus is the promised heir of the Davidic covenant, as Matthew helps us see in the genealogy that begins his gospel telling. But to fully grasp the way Jesus comes to save, not just reign, we have to also look at the covenant put in place by God through Moses while the Hebrew people moved through the wilderness.  

The Ten Commandments and then the Torah were given as gifts to guide the people in right relationship with God and with one another. As the fulfillment of the law (the Torah), Jesus becomes the means of atonement – the means of returning humankind to right relationship.
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

He doesn’t accomplish this by using his power to come down from the cross and live as an earthly king in royal splendor.  Instead, Jesus remains on the cross to become the ultimate redeeming sacrifice, removing all that would separate us from God.
Not just in his day,
not only for a particular generation,
but for all people and for all time.  

This Jesus was the King who came to the world.
To love the world
To save the world
The whole world.

It seems crazy that the very ones he came to save would have rejected him.  Especially in hindsight… which is always 20/20, right?

But I wonder, what kept more of them, especially those who should have been expert Messiah hunters, from seeing Jesus?  Really seeing and understanding who he was?

After all, even random Greeks came asking, after simply hearing stories,  if they might see Jesus.

I was recently listening to RadioLab, which you can catch on our NPR station.  The hosts of this show use storytelling and all kinds of music and sounds to help us not-sciencey people understand some pretty complex stuff.

This particular episode was about Rainbows  (I’m going to mangle the description and details a bit, since I’m going by memory, but you can listen for yourself here.)

They were curious about how different creatures saw color, and they used rainbows to explore the question “what animal would be the champion rainbow viewer?”

It turns out that many creatures have eyes similar to ours that use cones and rods to process the light as it bounces around the objects in the world… including the droplets of water that refract the light into what we see as rainbows.

We have 3 color receptor cones… red orange yellow. But because those three colors blend, we see lots of gradients between, thus ROYGBIV.

Now- RadioLab used music to help listeners imagine the what that might sound like.  I don’t have access to a 300-person choir, but our organ can help… <full clear chord>

If you walked your dog and both looked toward a rainbow, the dog would see a diminished rainbow. None of the reds… just the blue-violet and yellows.  <diminished chord>

But some birds, like sparrows, have 2-3 times the number of cones in their eyes.  Imagine looking up to see an incredible array of reds beyond ours, purples at the other end and lots of variations in between.   <adding augmentation and depth to the chord>

Now – There is a particular species of shrimp – the mantis shrimp – that actually has 100s of cones.  Right… crazy bulgy eyes on this critter that is a really big shrimp.

You would think that would mean they could distinguish between thousands of colors… like all the colors of paint in the Sherwin Williams display… The Hallelujah Chorus of rainbows <huge glorious chord>

That Rainbow that would be crazy amazing… But that turns out NOT to be the case. They have the cone capacity to see all those colors, but not processing power… their minds cannot conceive the colors. So mantis shrimp can probably see a rainbow, but not in a way that would register it in an orderly, harmonious, full spectrum.  Just a bunch of random colors, some that excite them. Some that are frightening.

When people looked at Jesus, some of them really saw him.
They saw all the colors:
all the beauty of miracles and signs,
all the glory of God,
the fullness of this invitation to experience grace upon grace,
and they wanted to see more.

They saw it, and they wanted others to see it, too.
They bore witness to the beauty,
to the truth, to the life
to the LIGHT they saw in Jesus.

They told others, offering the same invitation they had heard

When they gathered at the back gate, they came and saw their messiah
They waved and shouted “Hosanna – Save us!”
“You are the one – Praise and honor to the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  

But then, there were others.
The ones whose hearts were not receptive,
whose minds just could not conceive what their eyes were seeing.
Some people couldn’t see God in the man
They saw the same signs and wonders, but not the invitation
They saw a threat.
They saw trouble.

Perhaps because most of us humans are so much more comfortable with black and white.
With Kings who reign as we expect.
Messiahs who don’t die.
Rules that are clear.
A God who loves and forgives (or not) based on what we deserve.

This was true when Jesus walked on this earth physically, and I daresay it is true today.

So often the story of Holy Week gets distilled down to the green of the palms and the red of Christ’s spilled blood.
In doing so, we lose sight of the fullness of the gospel.
The fullness of God in human form.
Who came to save the world and then to send us to continue the work.

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus
to turn water to wine, to feed thousands on scraps
to raise Lazarus from the dead,
to bring sight to the blind

The good news is all about the power of God in Jesus to bring us into relationship with God when we do not deserve it,
To offer grace upon grace,
To impart the Holy Spirit
To bring us into the very work he was about:
Loving the world.
The whole world.

What Pilate couldn’t see in his mocking
What the Spiritual leaders couldn’t see in their embarrassment
was the truth behind the sign on Jesus’ cross.
He WAS the King of the Jews

And his story would be told by the Jews who spoke Hebrew,
the Gentiles who spoke Greek,
and the Romans who spoke Latin.
They would go on to tell story of his life, his ministry, his death,
and in due time, the story of his rising.

And I suppose that is what John wants us to see
In the palms,
In the garden,
In the anointing,
In the denials,
In the washing of feet and the breaking of bread,
In the mockery of a trial,
And yes, even on the cross,

God was not simply present, but at work.
God was making a way for us to see ALL that the Light of the World has to offer.

May we see what the people at the back gate  saw
when they Hosanna!  All glory and honor to the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
May we see the the Messiah who would save them.
And the rest of us
In the fullness of his glory.

Oh that we would see Jesus, indeed.  

 

I Am (Not)

Our reading today jumps forward by a good bit from our stopping point last week. It is still late on Thursday evening, but a lot has happened.

I could catch us up, but I’d like to let someone else tell the story this morning.  A few of the details come from Luke’s version, but much of what you’ll hear also appears in John’s gospel from end of chapter 13 to the start of 18, which is where we’ll pick up.

Check out the first 1:45 of this video from the Skit Guys now…This is a preview version you can purchase to download.  We’ll watch more later

And so here we are.  John 18:starting at verse 12 (NRSV)

12 So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.

15 Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in.

17 The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?”
He said, “I am not.”

18 Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching.

20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”

23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”
He denied it and said, “I am not.”

26 One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?”

27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

This is not a great night for Peter.  And it doesn’t look good for Jesus, either.  

What started as an intimate dinner with friends, including Jesus remarkable show of love in washing their feet, has turned into a more public drama involving police and swords and arrests

I want to back up to some of the events in the garden that our Peter described for us… just to catch a couple of details.

He referred to Jesus praying alone… that would be the portion of John that scholars have called Jesus’ priestly prayer. It is among the most beautiful and intricate passages of John’s writing. In it, Jesus implores God to unite and empower the disciples, and not just the twelve, but the generations who would follow… all the way to us.

Jesus prayed for this unity and power, not so that his followers might fight against something… but so that we might love one another and the world, just as Jesus has done.

After he prays alone, Jesus and his disciples go to another garden, this one across the Kidron valley. They find themselves staring down Judas and the soldiers and police he has brought, along with the temple leaders.They have come armed and ready to arrest Jesus.

Jesus knew what what coming. And he walked right up to them.
And he asked, Who are you looking for?

John 18:5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus replied, “I am he.”

Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,”  they stepped back and fell to the ground.

7 Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”

I am he…

While the NRSV does a good job here of bringing an ancient Greek text into proper English, grammatically speaking… we lose something important.

In truth, when Jesus answered,  He said, “I AM.”
I am.

John has been using this construct throughout the gospel to help us hold onto the truth of Jesus’ identity.  Both his identity as a fully human Jewish man and as fully divine.

When he answers with “I am” Jesus isn’t simply affirming that he is the one who answers to the name of Jesus and comes from Nazareth.

Jesus is once again claiming his identity as the One from Heaven, God with Us.

As I shared with some of you at our first Wednesday Evening Lent gathering, I am is in fact God’s name.  If we go back to Exodus… back to the moment when Moses meets God, we see Moses encountering a bush that is burning but not being consumed.  

During this interaction, God calls Moses to his work as the liberator of the Hebrew people. Moses is skeptical, but it even as it becomes clear that he will not be declining this call, who is doing the calling is unclear.

So he says to God…   

Exodus 3:13 … “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

I am

For all generations, this is my name.

Now, when he says “I am” Jesus knows that the Pharisees and Chief Priests will hear and know exactly what he is saying.
Jesus is claiming his identity.
His true name.
For all generations.
This generation.

“I am.”  

One of the signs we skipped in this winter’s reading of John is back in chapter 6, when the storm is raging and the disciples look out to see Jesus walking on the water.

He says to them, “don’t be afraid…  Then our English translations give us, “It is I” or more colloquially “It is me”

But the Greek… you know what it says?
Yeah…
I AM

There are moments in his teaching that Jesus adds a descriptor to the end…
I am the Light of the World
I am the Gate
I am the Good Shepherd.
I am the Resurrection and the Life

Each of those teachings reveals an important aspect of God’s character, of God’s care for humankind and the world.

But some moments, Jesus isn’t teaching, he is showing.
He is being.
He is displaying the fullness of God

Look… listen… believe…

I am.
God is here.
In me.

And in this fullness, he invites us – humankind  – to be in relationship with God

Jesus invites his followers to know the power of God
But also to experience all the love, grace and hope God offers
To hear the shepherd calling our names
And to respond whole-heartedly.

This is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples
Why he broke bread with them
Why he prayed for them with such passion and compassion
And now, here he was… being the good shepherd,
ready and willing to lay down his life for his sheep

All of them.
Including Judas. Who had gone very far astray
And Peter… Oh, Peter.
Peter who among the 12 was most clearly all in.  100%
Even if he didn’t 100% understand what that 100% was supposed to look like

We see this when he cries out “Wash all of me… not just my feet”
When he falls asleep on prayer watch duty
And becomes overly zealous with the sword

In these situations and more, we can see that he’s trying awfully hard to live into this new calling.  But not quite getting there. After all, he was a fisherman, not a Bible scholar.
But he stuck with it.
Stuck with Jesus, who kept trying to teach him.

And then, in the courtyard… it happens.
Not once, not twice, but three times.
Peter denies knowing Jesus.  

He doesn’t deny Jesus identity as Lord and Messiah.
No.  Peter is denying his own identity.
Like walking away from his place at the table, he denies being a follower.

On the very night that Jesus has prayed for his followers to bear witness to his teachings and to abide – to remain – in relationship with God…
Peter has the chance to bear witness, To say “Yes, I am a follower of Jesus…”
But he says “I am not.”

It would be easy to make light, to pretend that we would stand firm, unlike wishy-washy, all-in then all-out Peter. But truly… are we so different?

It’s hard for me to think so when we consider honestly the fully human way that Peter responds to the events of this awful awful night…

That’s why I like this video so much.  Peter isn’t the punch line to a joke. He is a complicated human facing a difficult situation. Just like we do, so many days in our lives.

Let’s watch how our actor brings Peter’s denial to life (you can scroll back up to the video again.  You can stop at about 3:34 when he describes the rooster crowing)

How did this happen? Possibly the most passionate follower of Jesus
Reduced to “I am not”

Well, it’s actually quite normal for a human to choose comfort and safety.
Jesus walked straight into a situation where being true to his identity would lead to death.
Peter followed him. 

They each would face points of decision…. stay the course or preserve your life?
When I look at the choices Jesus made and compare them to Peter…
The words “God is God and I am not” come to mind.

I mean, if we look honestly into our hearts, do we have the courage to do any different? We are fully human, too.  It’s hard for me to sit in judgment over Peter.

But I do I wonder what a faith-filled Peter might have encountered.

What if Peter had said “I am” to the woman at the gate?

Yes, she might have denied him entry. Or taken him directly to the authorities… But she might have had other questions. Questions about what it might be like to follow this Jesus who seemed to honor women.

Jesus did say… Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

What if Peter had said “I am” to the slaves and police warming themselves at around the fire?

Sure, they might have sent him away or hauled him inside to the men that owned or paid them…But they might have had questions about this Jesus who talked about setting captives free

Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

What if Peter had said “I am” to the man who had seen him while he was brandishing the sword in the garden? Sure, the man might have come at him with his own weapon. But he had seen Jesus heal the man’s ear… Don’t you think he would have questions?

Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

Peter had heard Jesus teaching.  He had stories to tell, lessons to share.
What if he had chosen to bear witness to all of it?
I wonder.

It is absolutely true that God is God, and I am not…
And I don’t know what it is like to face the trials Jesus did.
Or even the fear that Peter faced in this moment.

So I am not going to stand here and pretend for one moment that I know what I would do. But here’s what I do know.

I know God.
And I know what God has done for me.
I know how my relationship with Jesus the Christ has shaped my life
I know how much the words of Jesus challenge me
To be a more generous, kind and honest human
To seek justice for people I don’t even know
To be an advocate for those whose voices are silenced.
To love all people -in word and action.

And I know all of this because of Sunday School teachers and ministers
Because of seminary professors
Because of people who don’t believe or trust what the church and churchy people have to say these days
And because of members of this congregation,
all of whom asked and continue to ask me questions that helped form my faith…
and help me to remember what I have heard and read
and challenge me to bear witness to my identity as a follower of Jesus.
Even if it means going back to read what Jesus said, again and again

I suspect you could make a similar list of people who have loved you, taught you, challenged you.

Here’s a question to consider in the coming days…
If someone were to ask if you were a follower of Jesus what would you say?

Now I’m not talking about someone asking if you know who Jesus is… whether or not you think you’re going to heaven or if you’ve been “born again”

I’m talking about someone watching you, listening to you…
watching and listening to us as a church, the Body of Christ in this age.

I’m talking about the person who knows that Jesus said…They will know you are my followers by your love.

Maybe they wouldn’t realize that it came from John’s gospel. From his teaching after he washed the disciples’ feet when he said…  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What would you say?
And if they ask us just by watching…
Are we followers of Jesus?