Maundy Thursday

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This is embarrassing and awkward. A servant

should be doing this. But even more, Jesus is their teacher and their Lord. Peter

argues with his doing it, but Jesus tells him he must do this so that the disciples

can be close to him.

 

That’s bad enough, but then, Jesus takes bread and blesses and breaks it and

tells them that this is his Body, and that they are to eat it as a remembrance of

him. And then, worst of all, Jesus takes a cup of wine and tells the disciples that

this is his Blood. He asks them to drink it. To really understand how horrifying

this had to be for the disciples, you need to understand that in Jewish law, there

was an absolute prohibition against drinking the blood of any animal. Part of the

act of koshering is to drain all the blood out of an animal so that it is gone when

the meat is eaten. To imagine drinking any blood, let alone the blood of a human

being, was a horrifying, disgusting thought.

 

It reminds me of my mother’s objections to Maundy Thursday. She used to

say, that with all the washing of feet and eating supper and so on, it just wasn’t

spiritual enough for her. What she didn’t understand was that these moments

are the most deeply spiritual of the whole Christian year. First of all, they are

intimate. Mothers wash their children’s feet, lovers may wash one another’s feet.

To wash another person’s feet takes humility and a good deal of love. And to eat

with another person is a personal thing, but to actually feed another person with

one’s own body and blood is a symbol of a profound love, an intimacy that we can

hardly grasp. But that feeding is real, and we will see it in the next two days as

Jesus pours himself out for us in love, as he literally gives his body and blood for

our salvation.

 

And these moments are spiritual because they ARE lived out. I know that a lot

of people say that they are spiritual but not religious. That can mean a variety of

things, but my experience is that often, what people mean by that is that they

like to think about spiritual things and have warm, lovely spiritual feelings, but

that they don’t want to have to live that out with real people, people who are

sometimes difficult or stupid or who hold objectionable opinions. They want

spirituality without any real obligation or accountability. They don’t want to

have to make their spirituality real in the real world. It might mean doing things

for other people that are embarrassing or difficult. It might involve washing

someone’s feet. But, of course, there is no real spirituality unless it is lived out.

That is part of what Jesus is saying. Unless we serve one another, unless we are

willing to pour ourselves out in love for one another, we are not really part of

Christ. The love of Christ is self-sacrificial love and it is always seen in real, physical

ways.

 

If we have any doubt about that, we only have to look at the Cross. Jesus gives his

life for us – not in some sweet, spiritual way, but in physical suffering and death.

The love of God is seen in blood and sweat and tears. It is ugly and frightening.

But it is real. We can never pretend that it is not.

 

We know that the story will not end here, that Easter lies just beyond the tomb.

But the disciples had no idea of that. I find it hard to imagine how the disciples

lived through those next couple of days. To have someone that you loved with all

your heart and on whom you had put all your hope, humiliated and tortured and

killed, must have been a loss almost beyond comprehension. I always find myself

praying for them and for any who suffer that kind of hopeless loss.

 

But the disciples saw what we have seen, that Jesus loved them so much that he

was willing to pour himself out, to empty himself, to give up everything, including

his life, for them. That is what is most spiritual about these days – it is love, love in

thought and word and, most especially deed. It is love that lays itself on the line.

It is love that gladly suffers for the good of another.

 

And in the end, we will know that this love is the strongest force in the universe,

that even death cannot overcome it. But for right now, let us live with the

disciples and with Jesus and know the true spirituality of these days. Let us

remember all those who live with fear and hopelessness, who have lost what they

loved most in the world, and let us pray for the grace to learn how to love, even in

the smallest way, as Jesus did, with our hearts and our minds and our hands and

our feet.

 

Amen.

PALM SUNDAY (A)

APRIL 13, 2014
The Rev. Anne Wrider

 

And so we begin the most holy, the most solemn of weeks in the Christian year. Every event from the day of Jesus’ birth – all the teaching, the healings, the miracles – everything leads up to this week. This is where the story has its end and its beginning. And over all of it hangs the shadow of the Cross.

 

This is not a time for intellectual analysis or discussion. We are part of this story. Each of us is in the crowd whose rage is fanned into flame by our leaders, whose resentments and hidden hatreds are poured out on this man. The Cross shows us the evil that human beings can do. And this is not the evil of long ago and far away. This is the evil that lives in our hearts, in our families, in our world. And, apart from Jesus, there is no one in this story who does not carry a part of the burden of guilt.

 

The disciples, who cannot bother to stay awake to pray with their teacher, run away and leave Jesus alone. Even Peter, who vowed that he would stand with Jesus, pretends he doesn’t know him. The chief priests and elders, frightened at the prospect of losing their power, plot to kill Jesus. The crowd allows itself to be manipulated into the bloodthirsty mob. Pilate lives in cynicism and fear, so is perfectly happy to let this innocent man die. And finally, even the criminals hanging on either side of him turn against him, against this man who had always cared for those that society called outcast.

 

This is the experience of absolute desolation. Even God seems to have forsaken Jesus. Hanging on the Cross, Jesus gathers up into himself every hurt, every loss, every betrayal that human beings give or receive. We cannot hide from this or pretend that it is anything less than it is. The Cross tells the truth about who we are and what we are capable of. And the truth is terrifying and hideous. But unless we face the Cross, unless we face the evil that casts its shadow over this week, we cannot begin to understand why the Resurrection is the moment when the universe is transformed. And, more importantly, if we do not face the evil of our own hearts and minds, we cannot understand the gift that we are offered on Easter.

That evil is cleverly disguised. We call it “the price of doing business,” or “just the way the world is,” or “what everyone knows is really true.” We justify our greed and our hatreds and call them “making a living,” and “strengthening our community.” But the Cross strips away the euphemisms and demands that we see our sinfulness for what it is.

 

And if we face into that sinfulness, we may have some faint sense of the desolation that Jesus felt. It is hard to do this. It calls for what the 12-step programs call a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” Most of us resist doing this most of the time, not surprisingly.

 

I have been asked from time to time if Jesus knew when he hung on the Cross that he would rise from the dead. There is no way of knowing, of course, but I imagine that he didn’t. Jesus’ gift of himself was done, NOT because there was anything in it for him, but because he loved us. He was willing to suffer the most awful, lonely and painful death because he knew that in some way, we needed it. And indeed we did.

 

We will meet here a week from today, and there will be flowers and wonderful music and Alleluia’s sung and shouted. We do know that Jesus rose from the dead. We know that the Cross tells the truth about us, but that there is more to the story. We know that no matter how dark the ugly corners of our hearts may be, God’s love is strong enough to shine into them and make them holy.

 

But in the meantime, I invite you to look at the shadow of the Cross. I invite you to spend some time asking yourself which person in this story is you. Allow yourself to be part of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Dare to feel the sorrow and loss of this week. And then, I invite you to stand at the empty tomb next Sunday and to know that no matter what sin or loss or bitterness or evil exists, the love of God is stronger than all of it, stronger, even than death. And that is what salvation is all about.

 

Amen

4 Lent A

Today’s lessons are all about seeing – about people who should be able to see

and cannot and people who see more clearly than those around them.

 

First, we have the story of Samuel choosing David to be king of Israel. Samuel is

sent by God to Jesse the Bethlehemite, with the promise that one of Jesse’s sons

will be king. Now we all know what a king looks like. He’s tall and handsome,

with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. So Jesse lines up his sons, but one by one,

Samuel says no to each of them. God has told him that he will recognize the one

who is to be king, and even though these young men are all good-looking enough,

none of them seems right. Finally, Samuel asks if there isn’t another son, and

Jesses says that, well, yes, there is the youngest, out tending the sheep. And even

though this boy seems too young, and certainly doesn’t look like a king, this son

is David, who will become a great King of Israel, and, of course, the ancestor of

Jesus. Samuel can see deeper than the surface, and with the eyes of his heart, he

recognizes the one God wants as king.

 

The story from the Gospel is about seeing and not seeing as well. At first it starts

out like a straight healing story, but as the story unfolds we realize that the only

person in the whole story who can really see is the blind man. The people who

have walked by him as he begs on the street have never really looked at him,

never really seen him, so that when his sight is restored, they don’t know who

he is. All they ever saw was his blindness and his begging. The parents of the

blind man see him, but they are unable or unwilling to tell people how his sight

was restored. And, of course, the Pharisees are the blindest of all. All they see

are the rules which give them their power and keep them in power. They cannot

see what Jesus has done because it would threaten that power. They have seen

God acting right in front of their noses, and they cannot see it. But the blind man

knows from the beginning that God has acted to heal him. He is the one who has

the courage to face down the Pharisees and, when Jesus tells him that he is the

promised one, the blind man immediately believes him. The blind man sees with

the eyes of love and faith, and he sees more than anyone around him.

 

Things haven’t changed. We all tend to see what we expect to see. It’s called

a “cognitive bias,” and there are dozens of them – belief and behavioral

biases, social biases, biases of memory. It’s why, when police take stories from

eyewitnesses at the scene of a crime, they get such differing reports. We see

through a curtain of expectation and bias. Learning to see what is in front of

us without that curtain of bias changing the picture is very difficult. But what

the story of the choosing of David and the story of the blind man tell us is what

Antione de St. Exupery said in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one

can see clearly. What is most true is invisible to the eye.”

 

The challenge of faith is to learn to see with the heart. And when I say that, I want

to be clear that I am not talking about sentimentality. Romantic biases are just as

deceptive as any other. To see with the heart is, above all, to see truthfully. We

need to see situations for what they are. It may mean naming injustice or hatred

instead of walking by without seeing those who suffer from them. We need to

see people for who they are, both good and bad. We need to see ourselves for

who we are as well. Telling the truth may mean admitting our own limitations or

ignorance.

 

And seeing with the heart also means seeing with the eyes of compassion. And

make no mistake – compassion takes courage. How much safer it is to walk past

the person begging on the street without really seeing them or, if we do look at

them, how much more comfortable to judge them as lazy or stupid. To look with

the eyes of compassion means taking them seriously – as a human being just like

us – and imagining what we might feel if we were in their situation.

 

Learning to see with the heart – learning to see with truth and compassion has

consequences, and not just for the people and situations we are seeing. It also

has consequences for us. The biases through which we see the world shape our

behavior and the behavior of others toward us as well. One of my favorite stories

about that is this:

 

A man was moving to a new town, and at the edge of town, he saw an old woman

sitting on her porch, so he decided to stop and ask her a question. “What kind of

town is this?” he asked, “What are the people like? Is it a good place to live? Will I

be happy living here?”

The woman paused and then asked him, “What kind of town did you come from?

What were people like there?”

 

The man replied, “Oh, it was an awful place. People were mean and unsocial and I

never made any friends there.”

 

The old woman said, “Well, then, I think you don’t want to move here. You’ll find

that this town is just like the one you left.” So the man thanked her and drove off.

 

A few days later, the old woman was sitting on her porch, and another car pulled

up, and another man got out. He asked her the same kinds of questions, “What is

this town like? Are the people nice? Would I be happy living here?” And again, the

old woman asked the same questions about where he had come from. This man

answered, “Oh, I was very happy in my last town. People were kind and friendly,

and I loved it.”

 

“Well,” said the old woman, “I think you will find this town much the same. You

will find friends here and I think you will be happy.”

 

We shape our lives by what we choose to see and what we don’t. To see with the

heart opens us to love and intimacy, and when we are open to those things, we

have a very different experience of the world. We will see possibilities for hope

and healing and new life that we would never have imagined. And we will find

ourselves making choices that we would not have believed possible. Because

while seeing in this way takes courage, it also gives us courage – and not just

courage, but creativity and imagination. We will see things that we never thought

of before. We will dare things we never dared before.

 

So may God give us new eyes so that we may see from the heart, and, for the first

time, see clearly.

 

Amen

Anne Wrider Sermon March 16, 2014

2 LENT (A)
MARCH 16, 2014
The Rev. Anne Wrider

When I first moved to Cincinnati, in 2000, someone who did not realize I was a newcomer asked me where I went to school. Not knowing what that question meant in this town, I naively told them where I got my undergraduate degree. The person gave me a strange look, and, of course, I quickly learned that in Cincinnati, that question refers to which high school one attended. This is a town with old names, old traditions, long-lasting memories. It’s pretty odd to someone coming here from somewhere like Chicago, as I did. But now, fourteen years later, I recognize a lot of the Cincinnati names, I know the neighborhoods, I even know where a lot of the high schools actually are!

 

But for all of our rootedness in tradition and name and neighborhood, we have nothing on the people of Abram’s time and place. For the people of that ancient time, family and land were all there were. If you wanted to know who you were, all you needed to know was your tribe and the place you lived. So imagine how bizarre it would have seemed to Abram to leave that. No one did that. And to leave country and kindred would be terribly dangerous. To venture out alone, or even with your immediate family exposed you to terrible risk. Family took care of family. If there were no family around, you could be in terrible trouble quickly. But God’s command is clear. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…”

 

I imagine that Nicodemus felt equally disoriented when Jesus started to talk to him about being born again. We hear Jesus with 21st century ears. We know about being born again, or think we do! At least the concept is one we’ve heard before. But imagine never having heard that phrase before. And Nicodemus, who is probably not a poetic soul, has no clue what Jesus is talking about. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the community, but he is attracted to Jesus. He wants to know more, and so he sneaks out to see Jesus at night. But what Jesus says is clearly not what Nicodemus was expecting. God’s call to Nicodemus, like the call to Abram, means leaving behind everything that is known and familiar and going to a new, strange world. “You must be born from above.” What can that mean?

Unlike Abram, we don’t really know if Nicodemus took up Jesus’ challenge and invitation. John says that Nicodemus came to anoint Jesus’ body after he was crucified, so perhaps he did.

 

But the question that presents itself is “Why?” Why would people leave the safety and comfort of home and family or, as for Nicodemus, the safety and comfort of old beliefs, to answer God’s call? I think the answer lies in the promise that comes with the challenge.  God says to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Jesus says to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

The blessing of the whole world, the salvation of the whole world – these are God’s promises. One of the worst things we human beings have done with those promises is to try to make them private property. God’s promises are never just for us. When people talk about God’s promise to Israel as if it were just to Israel, they have missed the point. And when Christians take the first half of Jesus’ phrase and forget the second half, they have distorted what he said and what he meant. God’s love is for every creature, every person. There is no limit.

 

But if we are really going to know God’s love and the promise he holds for us, we are going to have to give up safety and comfort. That’s not something we want to hear. We want to come to church to feel safe and warm. We want music that doesn’t challenge us and we want to hear words that make us feel good. And sometimes, that’s okay. But that’s not all there is. Sometimes God has a challenge for us, a call to leave what is comfortable in order to help save the world. And the way we find that out is to ask. We have to spend time praying to know what God’s will for us is.

 

This season of Lent is the time to listen for God’s call. The call to you or me may be shocking or disorienting. God may have a challenge for you or for me that is alarming or frightening. If that is true for you, if you have been praying to know God’s will and find the ideas that are coming into your head disturbing, hooray! It means that you are listening. God’s call may be hard to hear, but what is important to remember is that it always carries promise, and that promise is the hope of the world. God calls us to great things, but God also always gives us what we need to do those things.

 

We think of God’s call as something that happened long ago and far away. But let me tell you a story that comes from our own time.

 

It was late Friday night, January 27, 1956.  In Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., sat alone in the kitchen of his home.  For the last month, he had been the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.  It was not going well.  He had led mass meetings of the people involved in the boycott, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with the bus company and with the white leaders of the community.  He had even been put in jail for driving people who were supporting the boycott to and from their jobs.

 

As he sat in his kitchen on that Friday night, the phone rang.  When he picked it up, a voice on the other end said, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” Later, King described what happened next, (Bearing the Cross, p. 58)

 

I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born…She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile.  And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute.

And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak. Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta, a hundred and seventy-five miles away.  You can’t even call on Mama now.  You’ve got to call on that something, on that person that your Daddy used to tell you about, that power that can make a way out of no way.

And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said,”Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

 

Then it happened:

 

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world”…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.

 

We know what happened after that night.  Martin Luther King, Jr. went on to be a witness and a prophet, a person who by his life and teaching showed the world what it means to follow Christ. He became a man of almost superhuman courage, able to love and able to inspire others to love, even in the face of the most vicious hatred. No matter how much evil he met, Martin Luther King responded in love and overcame evil with that love. On that January night in Montgomery, his fear was taken away and God made him strong.

 

We may not be called to be a great saint and prophet like Martin Luther King, Jr., but each of us called to dare to leave our comfort and safety and to journey to where God calls us. And each of us is called, in whatever small way, to make the world a better place.

 

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And, because we belong to Jesus, through us.

 

Amen.

6TH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

There is a common belief among some Christians that the biggest difference between the Old Testament and the New, between the Law and Prophets and Jesus, is that Jesus throws out all the old, legalistic Law, and brings in love. I often hear people talk about “the God of the Old Testament,” as a vindictive, angry deity, and that Jesus represents the “God of Love.” Let me say this as clearly as I can. NOT TRUE!

 

The readings for the last two weeks certainly make that clear. The reading from Deuteronomy that we read this morning is a clear demonstration of that. In this passage, Moses is giving his “farewell address.” He has seen the Promised Land, but he will not live to go into it with his people. He has given them the Law, but what he says now sounds very different. He talks about what life for the people of Israel can be, and his dream for his people – a dream of blessing and happiness and prosperity. And what he tells them is that the whole point of keeping the law is not so that they can tick items off a checklist, but so that they can have the fullness of life that God promises for them. The Law is not an end in itself, but a way of life that will bring them closer to God.

 

And it would be really hard to read the Gospel readings from Matthew that we have read the last two weeks and then say that Jesus was about getting rid of the Law. Last week, we heard him say, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And this week, he doubles down on that by taking what people normally interpret as the Law and telling them that they aren’t taking it seriously enough. Just the first of these sayings is enough to bring us up short. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder’; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. “ That sure doesn’t sound like the sweet, easy-going Jesus we would like. We want Jesus to say something like, “Well, of course you were angry. Don’t worry about it, we all have these feelings. Just go get a massage or take a run. You’ll feel better.”

So it sounds as though Jesus is being more legalistic than the worst legalist. In fact, in last week’s reading, he said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Remember, the scribes and the Pharisees were the masters of righteousness. They knew every law and were experts on how they were to be kept. And Jesus wants his followers to be even more righteous? That seems very strange.

 

Well, let me suggest that in fact, Moses and Jesus are talking about exactly the same thing. Let’s look at what Jesus says about anger. Anger is about much more than murdering people. The judgments we make about other people, the grudges we carry, the easy dismissal of others – all those things poison us, poison our relationships and, ultimately, poison the society in which we live. We end up with a world in which people are treated as less than human, where there is economic injustice, racial hatred and war, all stemming from our willingness to nurture anger in our own hearts. So Moses is telling the people of Israel that keeping the Law will bring about a world of blessing and life, a world where those terrible things do not happen. And Jesus is telling us that the heart of the Law is in our own hearts.

 

It isn’t enough to follow the rules. Rules can change, depending on the time in history and the culture. What both Moses and Jesus are calling us to is the law of love. Love isn’t some sentimental emotion, but a law that governs our thoughts and actions. And love isn’t easy. It means looking at our own hearts and telling the truth about what we find there. It means making choices that we don’t necessarily want to make, but that we make for the good of others and for the good of the world. It can be hard work. But it is also the hope for the survival of the world.

 

The temptation is always to substitute the rules for the Law. We substitute looking good for being good. We substitute conventional goodness for self-giving love. And often, we can get away with that. But what Jesus is calling us to is to make the deeper choice, to hear the heart of the Law and to let that Law transform us from the inside out. And as each of us is transformed, so is the world.

 

We make a false division if we hold Law and Grace in opposition to one another. Grace is the gift of courage and insight that helps us go deeper than the rules into the heart of the Law which never changes. Last week’s reading from Matthew started with Jesus telling us that we are salt and light for the world. Learning to live the law of Love helps us be that salt and light.

 

Hear the word of God to us this morning:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”

 

Amen.

Feast of the Presentation

At some point early in human history, we made a big mistake. We decided that the physical world and the spiritual world were different. We started talking about body and soul, about spirit and flesh, as if they were different. And then, to make matters worse, we decided that one was better than the other. Some people decided that only the physical mattered, that if it couldn’t be counted or weighed or measured, it wasn’t real. At the other end of the spectrum, some people decided that the physical world was the lesser one, that what really mattered were ideas and thoughts and feelings and all the intangibles of life.

 

What we have ended up with is people arguing over a difference that isn’t real. Take, for example, the idea that there is a divide between religion and science; that somehow, we have to settle for either one alone. To believe that depends upon seeing a separation between the tangible and intangible worlds that just isn’t there. Religion and science both depend upon physical and spiritual understandings. In modern medicine, for example, we now realize that stress, an emotional state, plays a vital role in things like heart disease, a physical condition. And we have come to understand that brain chemistry plays a huge role in emotional conditions. The two cannot be separated. Religion and science are asking different questions, but the questions that each one asks are questions that need to be answered.

 

So why am I bringing this up? What does this have to do with Christianity? I think it’s one of the most important questions we need to think about when we talk about Jesus coming into the world. The story that we heard today, of Simeon and Anna, is a story of people who recognize the union of flesh and spirit. In Jesus, they recognize the holy in a human baby. It’s a pretty amazing story. The temple is crowded with people. There are people there for all kinds of reasons, so this young couple would hardly stand out. Because Jesus was a firstborn son, the Jewish tradition was that the parents would bring him to the Temple to dedicate him to God. But remember, couples come to the Temple with babies every day. Mary and Joseph don’t have some kind of spotlight shining on them, and we can assume that Jesus looks pretty much like any other baby boy. But these two old people immediately know who he is and that he isn’t just like any other baby.

 

My guess is that Simeon and Anna, who have been praying most of their lives, have a finely tuned sense of the divine. It’s like a musician who has been playing an instrument so long that she hears a wrong note in the middle of an orchestra and can tell you which instrument is off and by how much. Or perhaps their sensitivity is like a craftsman who can tell when a piece of work is just exactly right. Whatever it is, Simeon and Anna instantly recognize that this child is the one that God has promised. They understand that the physical and the spiritual are all bound up with each other, that this human baby is also somehow the Son of God. Flesh and spirit are one.

 

Jesus is the proof that spiritual and physical are just two facets of one thing. Jesus is fully human. He is also fully divine. We get all hung up on that, but we only get hung up on it if we make a separation between those two things. What we believe is that God became human in Jesus – not a pretend human and not a pretend God. We claim that Jesus was God and human – fully both.

 

But the next question is the really important one. If Jesus was fully God and fully human, what does that mean for us? What does it say about us? Are we JUST humans, physical, limited? Or, if God became human in Jesus, is it possible that God can become human in us? And if that is possible, what could it mean?

 

Let me suggest two things that it must mean if Jesus was really God made flesh. The first is that we cannot divide the human from the spiritual. People sometimes talk about their religion as if it were a private, interior experience. People say that they come to church because it makes them feel good. But if we follow Jesus, our religion cannot stay in our minds or hearts. It has to be expressed in our lives. Faith isn’t about how you feel, it’s about what you do. If we say that we love God, but treat other people badly, we have missed the point altogether. If we say that Jesus is the Lord of this world but then do nothing to make this world a better place, we have failed to live out our faith.

 

The second thing is that we must take the spiritual and the physical equally seriously. We must take all the sciences seriously, remembering that what we learn from them tells us something about the spiritual world as well. And we must also take the spiritual seriously. For many of us, this is the harder thing. Learning to pray, learning to meditate, even learning to talk about God or spiritual things makes us very uncomfortable. But God is both divine and human – in Jesus and in us.

 

And when we understand this, then we have the possibility of seeing the divine in the human. Because God is hiding in all kinds of unexpected places and people. There is grace in even the most unhappy circumstances. We expect to find God in happy, holy times and places. And God is surely there, but God is also in those places where people struggle and hurt and fail. And, perhaps most surprising of all, God is in those unremarkable times when life is just one thing after another. I remember an amazing conversation that I had one day with and older woman, a woman who had been open to God for many years. She said, “When I was young, I would encounter God and it would be a big surprise. But as the years have gone on, I’ve gotten used to God being present with me in every moment. When I’m cooking dinner or doing the laundry, I feel the love of God in my hands and under my feet. My prayer isn’t so much talking to God, but like a good friend, God is just there, and we don’t have to say anything.” For that woman, flesh and spirit had become one.

 

As the Gospel of John says, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus has come to show us how to heal the split between flesh and spirit, between the human and the divine. We are fully human, but our souls are as much a part of ourselves as our bodies.

 

So let us learn to feel the Spirit of God in our very human hearts, and let us learn to live that Spirit with our hands and feet in this world that needs God’s Spirit so badly.

 

Amen.

2 Epiphany 2014

I was trying to imagine this week what it would be like to live in a world that had never heard of Jesus. It’s almost impossible. That one life changed this world in so many ways, and so many of our most basic values and perspectives come from 2000 years of Jesus’ influence. Forgiveness, redemption, self-sacrificing love – all of our understanding of these things comes from our experience of Jesus. Other religions have these concepts, of course, but as Christians, we understand them in unique ways.

 

But the world that we hear about in today’s Gospel, the world of Andrew and Simon, had never heard of Jesus. The idea that the Son of God would come to be a human being, to live a human life, didn’t exist. The possibility that the Messiah would be an ordinary person, walking around the countryside with other ordinary people, would not have occurred to those first followers. The idea that God would suffer and die and be raised from the dead would have made no sense to them.

 

So when they first heard about him from John the Baptist or heard him speak for the first time, they could not have really understood what they were hearing. And yet, they went to him. Without knowing what they were experiencing or what it might mean for them or for the world, they went to Jesus. Something drove them away from everything they knew and understood into a life that they could not possibly predict or control.

 

People do this, sometimes. They suddenly throw away the life that they know for something completely new and different. They let go of security and predictability and take off on some adventure that may or may not turn out well. The rest of us watch them and try to figure out what in the world is going on with them. It looks crazy to us. What is going on with them?

 

I think it has to do with longing. All of us long for something. We long for love or security or success. We long for wealth or fame or reputation. Sometimes our longings can be satisfied. And that’s wonderful. But I think that the majority of us carry longings in our hearts that go deeper than what the world can offer us. We long for truth or for beauty or for the love of God. The problem is that often, those longings go unnamed. 21st century America is not a place where it is common for people to have what we would call “romantic ideals.” We are a practical people, given to business plans and long-range planning.  And goodness knows, there’s nothing wrong with that. We do very well, by and large, by setting achievable goals.

 

But what happens to those deep longings? What happens to the dream of truth or divine love? Sometimes, we just bury them. We decide that they are part of childhood or naiveté and we ignore them. We settle for life as it is and are often happy enough. But every once in a while, the longing comes out. We hear someone speak or we read a book, and all of a sudden, that buried desire comes bursting out. And that’s when people drop their careers and their safe lives and go off to pursue a dream.

 

I think that’s what happened with Andrew and Simon and the other disciples. They lived in a world that valued security and planning as much as ours does, perhaps even more, since life was so much more precarious a thing in that time and place. But there was a longing in their hearts, a longing for a life that was richer and deeper than anything they knew. They longed to hear about love – not sweetheart love but real love – the kind that suffers and dies for the life of another. They longed to hear about truth that could not be compromised, truth that was stronger than any lie in the universe.

 

And somehow, when they heard Jesus speak, they knew that he was their longing fulfilled. I’ve been re-watching the TV series “West Wing” over the last few months and am reminded of an episode early in the first season when Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn discover Jeb Bartlett. Josh is a political operative for a politician he doesn’t respect and Sam is working for a cutthroat law firm, doing a good job for them, but hating himself in the process. Sam says to Josh, “Is your guy the real deal?” and Josh says no. Sam then says, “If you find the real deal, come and get me.” A few weeks later, Josh hears Jeb Bartlett speak. The next scene is Josh standing outside a conference room in which Sam is doing some sleazy deal. He beckons Sam and, when Sam comes out, he says, “I found the real deal.” Sam simply grabs his jacket and leaves with Josh. I think the scene with Andrew and Simon must have looked a lot like that.

 

Jesus is the real deal. Jesus is worth dropping everything to follow. The disciples knew that instinctively. Without knowing who Jesus was, they knew that he was the answer to the deepest questions of their hearts. They didn’t know what would happen next or how their lives would be changed. They didn’t know that they would experience the most joy and the most sorrow they had ever known. And still, they went to him.

 

In two thousand years, that hasn’t changed. Jesus calls to the deepest longings of our hearts. We hardly dare dream of love like that. We don’t dare imagine a vision that could rule our lives so profoundly. But the love is there, and the vision is still being held out to us. And, most importantly, Jesus is still calling to us. We don’t know what will happen to us if we follow. It may take extraordinary courage to follow Jesus. But what we know in our deepest hearts is that answering that call, no matter what happens, will be the most important thing we ever do.

 

I pray for all of us the courage to listen to the deepest longings of our hearts, to hear Jesus answering those longings, and the grace to follow wherever he leads us.

 

Amen.