A Sermon on John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

– John 12:20-33

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. I think anyone who was a kid during Jordan’s career had this fascination with him that we just couldn’t shake. I even watched the AA minor league team of the Chicago White Sox, the Birmingham Barons. And for those of you who remember Jordan’s baseball days, they weren’t pretty. But I watched because I had a complete fascination with him.

That all ended a few years ago when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. On a night that was meant for celebration and a fond sense of nostalgia, Jordan got up to give a speech that was as egomaniacal as ever. It became very clear that he was using that platform to settle scores. He called out his on-court rivals and taunted them with petty grievances and wise cracks. This is clearly a man who had not forgotten ANY of the transgressions that people had done to him over the years.

In our text from Jeremiah today, Michael Jordan is like Israel. Now, follow me for a bit on this one. In our passage from Jeremiah today, Israel seems to hang on to old transgressions. They neither forgive, nor forget. But then God comes to establish a new covenant with them. And in this new covenant, God not only forgives, but he “remembers their sin no more”.

In essence, God does what his people cannot do. God forgets. In response to their failures and shortcomings, God refuses to recognize them. In response to their infidelity and waywardness, God calls them faithful. In response to their sin and brokenness and very real and despicable wretchedness, God’s memory has to be pushed and prodded to find any recollection. God memory is wiped clean.

But there’s a part of this that’s so hard. We cherish our memories so much that when even the slightest slip of our brain fails to recall something, it can make us mad. How many times have you had something – maybe a name or a memory – right on the tip of your tongue that it’s driven you to near madness to recall it. The problem is that our memories carry so much of our identity. We fear that if we lose our memory, we’ll lose our identities as well. And it’s here that the words of Jesus in the gospel of John come to us.

In our verses from John, the Greeks confront Jesus. They come out of nowhere and want to see Jesus. Almost nothing is said about them or why they ask Philip or why there is this whole run around rather than going straight to Jesus. It’s important to note here that by “Greeks”, the designation here is for foreigners. Gentile is the biblical term, but Greeks go along with it – basically what it means is non-Jewish foreigners. John emphasizes the always-expanding reach of the gospel. People are beginning to come from literally the ends of the earth to see Jesus.

The Greeks are the outsiders in this story. Jesus knows that when they come to see Jesus that the message really has reached the ends of the earth. This new covenant talked about in Jeremiah and found in the person of Jesus is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Much like how just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus talking of the temple of his body, Jeremiah dislocates the presence of God as well. God is now outside of the stone temples, and is in the community, moving, breathing, and living among us.

This is meant to break down the walls that we build up between insider and outsider. We build these walls as a way of remembering past transgressions. When we hang on to those things that God has forgotten long ago. This is where the insider-outsider thing becomes so dangerous. We build walls to keep people out. Most often it’s a power play. The insiders have the power and do everything they can to stay the insiders so they can keep the power.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this insider-outsider thing with this past week with the Trayvon Martin story that’s been gaining national prominence. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year old African American boy visiting his dad in a gated community in suburban Orlando. He was on the way back from a 7-11 with an iced tea and a pack of Skittles in hand when a volunteer neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman started following him – assuming he was an outsider. The next few details are a little hazy. But what we do know is that Zimmerman kept pursuing the boy. Some witnesses heard a struggle, Zimmerman fired the 9mm handgun he was carrying and the 17-year old boy was dead before the authorities even got there. Because he claimed self-defense, and Florida has some interesting laws, Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested or charged with the murder. But no matter what winds up happening, the fact remains that a boy is dead because he was perceived by an insider to be an outsider. And because guns are more powerful than Skittles.

As I’ve been getting this sermon ready this week, and reading all about this tragedy, I’m caught by the fact that the Greeks in our gospel come to Philip. Then Philip goes to Andrew. And then they go to Jesus. It’s as if these disciples are unsure if they should let the Greeks get to Jesus. The disciples are contemplating restricting access to these outsiders. But then when they bring it to Jesus, he realizes it’s time to change course. “The hour has come,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified…. And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” All people: insider and outsider. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Young and old. Democrat and Republican. Rich and poor. Are we getting this? This is a sign of the new covenant that is written on our hearts, that all people are drawn to God.

I think about this insider-outsider question all the time with confirmation and working with youth. A lot of times our focus is on teaching them the information of the faith so they, too, can be an insider. But one of the things I’m constantly finding is that the questions that teenagers these days are asking are a lot more about why the outsiders are outside. About why the walls exist at all. We’re communicating on two different levels. We’re trying to keep them in the classroom telling them the salient information about being an insider, while they’re constantly looking out the window wondering why the outsiders can’t be let in. I often wonder if we’re equipping them to be able to feel God’s presence over the clamor of all the demands placed on them – school, sports, jobs, money, and family?  Can they hold their own in the struggle between a rigid, unflinching, religious fundamentalism and allure of an apathetic, untended faith?  Are we, as a community, equipping them with the ability to discern how to live a life of faith in a 4G world?

We’ve been having these conversations. We know that unless we pass on the faith to following generations, it’s going to whither and die. It means opening up our community to see and experience Jesus again, as the One who makes all things new, as the One who creates something out of nothing. As the One who takes disobedience and unfaithfulness and creates a new covenant of forgetfulness and forgiveness.

It means moving in new ways as a community. We’ve started to take some of these steps in things like the BeTween group that Louise has started. And re-thinking some of the ways we do worship with the Saturday evening service. Some new ways of outreach in the ways that Leonard is helping us. We’ve taken the beginning steps in addressing some of these issues.

But we need people who genuinely care for our children and our children’s children. We need people who are willing to share their stories of faith. We need people who are not just willing to pass along the information of the faith – the X’s and O’s of what it means to believe, but to tell stories of their encounters with the living God. And I know this may take stepping out of our comfort zone. It may take a little disruption from the status quo of our lives. But this is how God works. God brings the Greeks – the outsiders, the foreigners, the people who didn’t know Jesus – to Israel to let Jesus know that his time was coming near.

I firmly believe that God brings us together into one body, one community, regardless of age so that we can tell the stories that are important to us, the stories that give us life so that we may be living examples of God’s abundant life on this Earth. In his journey to the cross, Jesus invites us into a disruption of our tightly sealed, self-contained, seed-like identity into a God-given identity, that blossoms and blooms in communion with one another. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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Music Monday: Concert Bucket List Edition

So last Thursday, Megan and I trekked all the way over to the West Valley of Phoenix to see Radiohead in concert. It was, in short, awesome.  This is a band that has been at the top of my “have to see in concert” bucket list for a good, long while. It was worth it.

But now that I’ve seen them, it leaves a pretty big vacancy at the top of the concert bucket list. So today’s Music Monday is about some contenders to replace them. AND… I want to hear your bucket list! Who are the musicians/bands you want to see in the concert the very most, but haven’t yet? Here’s my 5:

1. U2

2. The Killers

3. Mumford & Sons

4. The Flaming Lips

5. Ray LaMontagne 

So what’s on your list? Who are the bands you want to see in concert? Let me know in the comment section.

Cheers,
Eric

A Sermon on John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

How many of you really enjoy bragging about yourself?  I mean, when was the last time you went on and on about your many, numerous awards or degrees? How many times have you just said, “Wow, that’s very nice — but here’s how great I am!”? Yeah, me neither. For those of us who grew up in the Midwest, we’re accustomed to a certain level of courtesy. Call it the Minnesota Nice factor.[1]

In our Gospel text today, however, we come across a picture of Jesus that does not easily fit into that world of niceties.  Instead, John paints a picture of Jesus going mad. He storms into the Temple and conjures up a whip out of cords. He drives out all the people, sheep, doves… every living creature is driven from the Temple court. He overturns tables and pours money out all over the floor. Jesus is acting insane!  I’ve heard it called “righteous indignation” before, but in the moment, when Jesus was flipping tables and driving a whip of cords in the ground to scare the animals out of the courts, I would imagine it looked an awful lot like anger. But it’s the conversation that follows between Jesus and the Jews that really sticks out to me.

After Jesus overturns the tables and kicks all the livestock out of the Temple, the Jews ask him “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In other words, “What gives you the right to come and disrupt this temple?” And Jesus answers in a way that, I’m sure, was quite perplexing to these men. He says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” This is where people start to get offended.  This is like shouting “Bomb!” in the line at airport security. The temple in Jerusalem was thought to be one of the holiest places in the world. It was thought that God actually lived within the walls of the temple. So when a hotshot who is fresh off his first miracle in the wedding at Cana comes and talks about destroying the temple – destroying the very dwelling place of God – there’s going to be at least a little bit of resistance.

The Jews here aren’t the half-wits they are sometimes portrayed to be. These are some very serious actions that Jesus is proposing here. They’d be asking a question like If Jesus really does destroy the temple, then where will we find God? How will we make God known? These people are scared of losing the very thing they’re giving their lives to. But lucky for us, the writer of John gives us the inside scoop that Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.

As usual, Jesus is talking about something far deeper than the building they are standing in. The new temple is not made from bricks and mortar, but from body and blood. Jesus tries to get them (and us) to break out of our conception that the church, synagogue, or temple is the only place we can experience God. Jesus is talking about a God on the loose. God is no longer constrained to just dwelling in this one particular space, but now God is everywhere. This is echoed in other gospels at the crucifixion as the curtain of the temple is torn in two. But John puts it all the way at the beginning. John knows the end of the story and wants to clue us in early. But we still fall prey to the same thoughts that the Jews of this time did, don’t we?

A lot of times, we still hold fast to the idea that God is contained inside the church building. If I were to ask you where is God for you? Or where do you feel God’s presence the most? I’m sure pretty early in the conversation we would talk about church, as in these four walls of this building, in these pews with us people in white robes up front talking to you about God. That’s the natural answer. We feel closest to God when we gather as a community in times of worship and fellowship. The good news of today’s Gospel text is that God is so much bigger than that.

One of the most memorable moments in the 2000 Summer Olympics was when Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, swam in the 100-meter free style qualifying round. The 22-year-old African had only learned to swim the previous January. He’d only practiced in a 20-meter pool without lane markers, and had never raced more than 50 meters. By special invitation of the International Olympic Committee, under a special program that permits smaller, developing countries to participate even though their athletes don’t meet customary standards. He had been entered in the 100-meter men’s free-style. When the other two swimmers in his heat were disqualified because of false starts, Moussambani was forced to swim alone. As he raced, he was, to quote the Associated Press article about the race, “charmingly inept.” He rarely put his head under the water’s surface and flailed wildly to stay afloat. With ten meters left to the wall, he virtually came to a stop.

Even though his time was over a full minute slower than his nearest competitor , the capacity crowd at the Olympic Aquatic Center stood to their feet and cheered the swimmer on. After what seemed like forever, he reached the wall and hung on for dear life. When he had caught his breath and regained his composure, Moussambani said over the loud speaker, “I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd. It was their cheering that kept me going.”

This is what the new temple looks like in our world. If we are the body of Christ in this world, and the dwelling place of God is Christ’s body, then that means that every time we encounter another person as a member of the body of Christ, we are encountering God. We are encountering the temple that Jesus re-built in three days. This new temple has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, but with body and blood.

This is what the body of Christ looks like in our world today. The body of Christ – where John tells us God is living – is made apparent when we choose to build up, rather than tear down.  When we choose to heal and mend, rather than let anger or cynicism get the best of us. So now we go out into the world that God calls us to, trusting that our work is not in vain, and living in the promise that the new temple has nothing to do with bricks and mortar, but only with body and blood. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

[1] Thanks to my friend, Culynn, for this idea for a way to get into the text. Very creative.

When Bad Tornadoes Happen to Good Christians

A good way to start this might be to say that tornadoes have terrified me for a long time. I was at a sleepover in middle school when everyone else was getting ready to watch the movie “Twister”. My heart started to race. I knew that if I watched that movie, I would have terrible nightmares. I fought hard for a 50th time through “3 Ninjas”, but no such luck. I didn’t even want to watch a movie about tornadoes because I always feared being caught up in one.

Tornadoes don’t scare me in the same way they did when I was younger. But, as we’ve seen these last few days, they’re still happening and they’re still destroying. The recent storms in through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky have put huge numbers of people in the midst of the storm.

One way to respond to this, is to blame the people who have just been savaged by these storms and claim that it was some sort of divinely-guided weather judgment. John Piper takes this route. Yesterday, he wrote:

If a tornado twists at 175 miles an hour and stays on the ground like a massive lawnmower for 50 miles, God gave the command…. God’s will for America under his mighty hand, is that every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every person of every religion or non-religion, turn from sin and come to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus rules the wind. The tornadoes were his.

I have a number of problems with this. But I think this viewpoint is a symptom of a much larger problem. When we view God as a being who controls every tiny action that happens in the world, then this is where we end up. God sent these tornadoes down because these specific people were so sinful that they needed to be taught a lesson. So God killed 39 people and destroyed countless towns, homes, and lives.

This is one of the most damaging and destructive views I have ever heard.

Weather happens. Anyone who has taken 8th grade Earth science knows that. The weather doesn’t change because Jews or Muslims exist in the world. (Lest we forget that the title of God’s people was bestowed on Jews in the first place.)

This is the type of Christianity that actively detracts from our 21st century world. There is no need for me to tell you why we shouldn’t embrace a 4th century worldview. The world isn’t flat. The Earth is not the center of the universe. And God doesn’t make the weather.

To suggest this is not only embarrassing to religious people around the world, but it’s pointing a finger at the tens of thousands of people who have just had their lives destroyed and then saying that they deserved it. It’s tragic, hurtful, and actively detracts from the kingdom of God.

God pulls life out of death. But She doesn’t kill someone to do so.

Cheers,
Eric

(Yeah. I did the passive-aggressive refer-to-God-as-a-she thing. I’m still a little offended by Piper’s comments from 2 weeks ago. Lord, have mercy.)

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